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Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

November 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterdays-Kin-by-Nancy-Kress

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, one section of the world’s population became fixated by the possibility of nuclear armageddon. Wherever you turned, the media was full of news stories about what Russia was supposed to be doing and the countermeasures being taken by the West. In fiction, words and images bombarded us with alien invasions and other apocalyptic shenanigans as metaphors for what mutually assured destruction would achieve if either side pressed the button to signal the commencement of hostilities. So from the earliest age, I was immersed in every conceivable form of plot involving the arrival of aliens. Some were Greeks bearing gifts, others made no bones about their intention to wipe out humanity, while a very small percentage actually proved benign. Having endured sixty years plus reading years of watching this trope played out in all the media, it doesn’t exactly light my fire to see Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, 2014) arriving on my to-read pile. These aliens turn up, claim to have peaceful intentions, and then just sit there for two months not doing anything serious except exchanging a few ideas with the United Nations.

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

I mean, just how boring are these guys! There’s none of the gung-ho, shoot them from the skies aggression we’ve come to expect from either side. Of course, the politicians talk while the conspiracy theorists go nuts trying to work out why they have really come all this way. Surely it can’t just be to say, “We come in peace. Take us to your leaders.” I mean, what civilisation would spend all that cash to send such a wimpy crew to do nothing but sit there?

So our author has to do something to make all this passivity interesting. She has this family of a mother (the father was a drunk who passed on some years ago) and her three children. She’s a top research scientist in genetics, and her children are a border guard, an environmentalist, and a dropout. Notice the subtle hints. One keeps illegal aliens from coming into America from the south. One deals with invading species which disrupt the local ecology. And the other does a new type of street drug and experiences an acute form of empathy. Wow, are those going to be useful skills, or what?

Needless to say, the story quickly resolves itself into mother and dropout versus the aliens. After the first few chapters, I guessed the plot. Although the detail has some degree of originality, the core is simply a different version of duplicitous aliens. So the end result is rather sad. Perhaps in another writer’s hands, there would have been more tension, or the characters, both human and alien, would have emerged to engage our sympathies or other relevant emotions. But what we have here is purely functional storytelling. This author has had a reasonably good idea and wants to get it down on paper with the minimum fuss and bother. The result is a predictable plot and characters that failed to offer any connection. The workaholic and somewhat socially dysfunctional mother failed to connect with the dropout before the aliens arrived. After their dramatic appearance, the young man gets on rather well with the aliens. Indeed, it turns out he shares something quite important with them. But, like most dropouts, he was not particularly likeable to his fellow humans. He did rather better with the aliens, managing to get one of them pregnant. So this is a quick read to see whether your guess as to the reason for the aliens’ arrival is correct. If you fail to get the right answer, keep reading for another fifty years when all such plots will be transparent to you. Overall this is a pedestrian effort and not really worth your time and attention.

For the review of another book by Nancy Kress, see Steal Across the Sky

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

June 14, 2014 6 comments

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Press, 2014) explores the social and psychological dynamics of group therapy sessions. I remember the first I attended. We few met briefly outside the room and exchanged anxious nods. When we entered and met the convener, no-one wanted to talk. To talk in a university tutorial session is to admit lack of preparation, and no-one wanted to do that. So long as we stayed silent, we need never reveal how addicted we were to our own ignorance. But over time, we grew more confident and actually dared ask for explanations. It was a slow journey, but some of us graduated. Most swore never to repeat the experience. We would all pretend to be wise without fear of contradiction. Naturally, a few years later, I became a university lecturer and organised therapy sessions on a daily basis. During all these sessions, seeing how little the students had understood of what I had said in lecturers, I was completely fine. Particularly during the therapy sessions in the nearby pub, we lecturers could lick the wounds to our egos as we exchanged experiences on the resistance of the young to learning. We helped each other get through it.

This rather elegant novella sees a therapist bringing five people together to talk about their experiences. These are not routine PTSD clients. Yes, they have all suffered trauma of one sort or another, but the source was either horrific activity by a human or some potentially supernatural event. The conventional view of such patients is that they are wholly or partly delusional and that they must be disabused of any elements of delusion before they can move on to the cognitive part of the therapy to deal with their reaction to whatever the real events prove to be. Except, of course, the experiences of these individuals is instantly more credible. One was captured by a group of cannibals who systematically removed the limbs of their captives for their mother’s evening meals. Fortunately, he was rescued in a police raid before they had gone too far. His case was notorious. Survival made him a short-lived celebrity and a long-term reclusive figure, embittered and defensive. Another was the victim of a man who pealed back her flesh and carved messages on to her bones. Obviously, the flesh was replaced after each operation, leaving only scars. But she lives with the temptation of discovering what messages he wrote. And so on.

Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory

There’s a revolving point of view as the first session triggers enough interest for the five to begin meeting on a regular basis. Slowly, they talk about their experiences. Well, it’s hard to shut up the cannibal’s dinner who seems to want to recount every discrimination and abuse he’s suffered since the rescue. Only one seems reluctant to say anything. She’s a bit mysterious but prepared to go for a drink with another of the group after the session has ended. When a third session member follows them, he’s attacked and ends up in hospital. That changes the dynamic of the story as we begin to see what might be happening. As the opening paragraph to this review indicates, we all have some experience of group dynamics. When people come together for the first time, they tend to talk at each other. Later they may begin to talk with each other and share personal information or experiences. But the group only becomes useful when the members decide to help each other. In this case, the people invited to the group all believe they are somewhat unique and have no peers capable of helping or supporting them. As the story progresses, this view slowly changes. They come to recognise they share a common bond of some kind and, perhaps, just perhaps, if they work together, they may be able to save themselves. Except, of course, it doesn’t quite work out like it does in fiction. In this world of bitter reality, the best they can hope for is survival. Except, no-one can say how long that state may persist.

Taken as a whole, We Are All Completely Fine is a remarkably seductive piece of supernatural horror, drawing the innocent reader into the web by dealing with a familiar situation. As we learn more about each person in the group, we can begin to see eddies of emotion shift as the members slowly admit the possibility of change. This may not be a change that improves their lot in life but, for the majority, any variation from the present reality is viewed as an improvement. The result is fascinating and engrossing, and there’s one promise I can make. If you read it, you’ll be completely fine too, at least for a time.

For reviews of other novels by Daryl Gregory, see:
Afterparty
The Devil’s Alphabet
Raising Stony Mayhall
Unpossible.

Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan

April 14, 2014 4 comments

Hollow-World by Michael J Sullivan

Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan (Tachyon Press, 2014) is an interesting blend of the ideas in two classics: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Perelandra by C S Lewis. Both are books about threats to utopia: one as a form of political allegory, the other as a different version of events in the Garden of Eden. Huxley postulates a world in which material needs are provided to a genetically engineered population of controlled size. When John, the Savage, is introduced to this class-structured society, the superficialities become apparent and the book begins an argument with itself as to what might constitute an optimal form of society. Perelandra is the second book of a trilogy which, as an extended metaphor, examines the nature of Christian faith, and debates how society might develop if we lived according to spiritual rather than material values. Although this book in the trilogy is more didactic than the first, all three manage to transcend the limitations of the more cerebral approach to debate and hold interest because none of the books present answers with certainty. They are exploring the issues to see which answers might have the best fit to the questions posed.

On the face of it, Hollow World is a time travel book, yet that’s to completely misunderstand it. In Perelandra, our protagonist, Ransom, is flown to Venus in a block of ice. That has to rank as being one of the more absurd methods of space flight ever put on paper. But the ice casket does what it’s supposed to do, i.e. transport us to the metaphorical planetary context for the action. So, here, Ellis Rogers, our extraordinary mathematician, failed husband and poor father, builds a time machine in his garage which is just an excuse to move us to the “future” where a form of utopia exists. It doesn’t matter whether the machine makes any sense in terms of mathematics or physics. It’s just a literary device.

The world our protagonist finds has had to adjust to a cataclysm on the surface by moving the surviving population underground. At first, this sanctuary was ruled by capitalists who then, quite literally, had a captive market to gouge. This went well for the rich until one enterprising inventor distributed the plans for a Maker (the ultimate 3D printer). At a stroke, this liberation if not socialisation of knowledge produced what’s apparently an altruistic society in which everyone has what they need for material survival. Money has been rendered unnecessary. There’s also been a radical change in reproductive technology with gender abolished and everyone cloned to be physically the same. Medical advances have given such an extended lifespan, it might just as well be termed immortality.

Michael J Sullivan

Michael J Sullivan

In cultural terms, this has interesting repercussions, particularly when there’s a possibility of producing a hive mentality where everyone would be linked telepathically. Theoretically, this would remove the possibility of misunderstandings between individuals, make the transmission of knowledge and experience from one “generation” to the next automatic, and so on. Of course, many fear change and prefer the limited practice of individualism. Even though all the bodies may physically be the same, people are free to decorate themselves with different forms of clothing, and to apply tattoos or other forms of signifier to accentuate their differences.

Ellis Rogers is considered unique not because he’s travelled through time, but because he’s inhabiting a male body which has aged naturally and he considers himself perfectly normal. No-one else in this society could consider true physical difference a normal part of the everyday process of social interaction. Just think. A world in which there are no physical differentiations based on race, colour, gender, and so on. This is not to say there are no status discriminations based on intellectual abilities or psychological characteristics. But, as described, this society has outgrown many of the social problems that have afflicted humanity throughout the ages.

It’s always going to be difficult for an outsider to make reliable assessments of those around him but, in this case, the normal indicators are missing. For better or worse, the first person he meets is the appropriately named Pax. This person is an arbitrator who has accepted the role of social troubleshooter, helping others to adjust to long lifespans, keeping depression at bay, and resolving the inevitable disputes. Sadly Pax comes too late to offer his services to the first murder victim this society has seen for a long time. Yes, our hero finds the body. Such are the burdens protagonists have to bear when landing in future societies. Pax proves to be a catalyst for a different view of this world to emerge. Once the antagonist steps into the light, we can get into the slightly more conventional plot, but it’s nicely rooted in the probabilities of what might have survived from earlier times.

Summing up, it’s interesting to see how Michael J Sullivan has developed in the craft of writing. If you look back to the first fantasy, Theft of Swords, the style is rather elliptical and spiky, focused on delivering the narrative without worrying too much about the niceties of settings and characterisation. This book sees a much more assured craftsman at work with a nicely balanced piece of prose. The plot also moves us along and, allowing for the fact there’s an ongoing discussion about social issues and the role for God, if any, Hollow World delivers an interesting debate about social issues of contemporary relevance. It’s well worth picking up.

For review of the first books in the fantasy series, see:
The Emerald Storm
Nyphron Rising
Theft of Swords.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

December 22, 2012 2 comments

The Emperor's Soul

According to Brandon Sanderson, the author, The Emperor’s Soul (Tachyon Press, 2012) is set on the same world as Elantris which was the quite spectacularly wonderful first novel he published. In my estimation, it’s now been relegated to his second best book but, if you have not read it, you should. It’s a remarkably assured piece of fantasy writing. For our immediate purposes, there’s no need to have read Elantris to enjoy this novella. Although the seeds of the system of magic are the same, this can be read as a standalone. So what’s it about?

Let me start off with a question for you. Suppose there are two people whose command of the craft of painting is so complete, they can both replicate the styles of well-known and collectible artists. One uses this skill to copy existing masterpieces. He then steals the originals and replaces them with the copies. His motive is the satisfaction in knowing the works on display are fakes but of such high quality, no-one viewing them would ever be aware of the substitution. The other paints creatively in the style of well-known artists. He then “discovers” previously unknown masterpieces and sells them on as authentic. Needless to say, he has to forge documentation providing the paintings with due provenance. But both painters arrive at the same result, namely that their paintings hang on display with everyone accepting them as genuine. Indeed, you could argue that the more people see the paintings and accept them as genuine, the more strongly genuine the fakes become. If you like, the collective belief in their validity transcends reality and gives them a greater veneer of respectability. The more time passes, the greater the public certainty the paintings are masterpieces. Why does this matter? People collect originals for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is more than a passing respect for the artist’s vision. When you see the picture, it’s as if you are looking through the artist’s eyes, seeing the world as he or she did. There’s also the attraction of owning something with a reputation — the longer the reputation the better if you are caught on the third reason which is the investment potential. Or perhaps there’s a rather more subtle ineffable emotion, a kind of mystique surrounding the ownership of a genuine example of beauty. Whatever the reason, some people’s lives are built around collecting. For them, it would be very distressing if they were to discover they had a fake hanging on their walls. Yet, in a way, it might suit them to deny such accusations. Admitting they had been deceived would make them look less than expert. It might be better to insist the paintings were real.

Brandon Sanderson — now the standout fantasy author of this century

Brandon Sanderson — now the standout fantasy author of this century

It’s the same with people. If you want to pretend to be someone you’re not, the way you present yourself to the world has to be authentic. Mere imitation will never succeed. Everyone has to believe you are real. For example, someone like Frank Abagnale was able to persuade people he was an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and so on. The question, of course, is how you appear to be genuine. It’s all to do with the signs. You have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, adopting the right manner with other people around you accepting your right to occupy that role. The more other people reinforce your credibility, the more likely it is that newcomers will fall into line and also accept your performance as genuine. Identity and status are very much in the eye of the beholder.

So let’s meet Shai. She’s a Forger (note the capitalisation) and a thief — although being a thief is incidental to her primary trade which is using a form of magic to persuade objects and places to remember being something different. Such are her skills, she can make more or less anything appear to be a genuine example of [insert appropriate noun]. This could be changing a crudely made vase into a beautiful jug or persuading a wall it would look better with a hole through which she could escape capture. She has been captured while attempting a rather complex series of substitutions. This is fortuitous because Emperor Ashravan has been attacked by assassins and left as an empty body. The ruling council decides to use Shai to recreate the Emperor’s “soul”. The idea is simple. If she can fake an object, why can she not fake a person so that all around him would accept him as genuine. The fact this person happens to be the Emperor raises the stakes and makes it an interesting challenge. The ageing Gaotona accepts the primary role of go-between while she goes through the creative process. This is just as well because he’s the only truly honest person on the council.

What then happens is a fascinating discussion about the nature of authenticity and the extent to which it can ever be faked. This is beautiful storytelling combined with some provocative ideas about how we view the world and the extent to which we can be manipulated. Although it’s properly to be classed as a fantasy, it’s actually a fake. It’s really literature exploring notions more usually found in dry books dealing with semiotics and psychology. Not that this thematic subtext should deter you. This is pure fantasy — no, really, it is! I unreservedly recommend The Emperor’s Soul. It’s a joy to read!

For reviews of other books by Brandon Sanderson, see:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
The Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance

This is nominated for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Novella.

The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein

In order to prove to myself that I’m slowly devolving into a mental state where I’m three wildebeest short of a full herd, I sometimes engage in conversations with myself. No, I’m joking. I actually find this internal dialogue a very useful way of finding out what I’m thinking. If I just sit passively in my chair and look out of the window, this is an excuse to switch off the brain, to mindlessly watch the occasional cloud drift by or admire the ferocity of the rain. Only by interrogating myself can I discover what I think. So for The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein (Tachyon Press, 2011), the conversation went something like this.

“So what did you think?”

“I thought it was very clever, but I didn’t believe a word of it.”

“It’s a fairy story, you twit! Believability is not supposed to be high on its agenda.”

“Yes, but I always judge a book by the credibility of the characters’ responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Take the arrival of a flying saucer in my front garden as an example. After overcoming the initial surprise, my reaction would be that no self-respecting Grays would travel parsecs to harvest my organs. I’m too close to death and everything’s pretty worn out. So I would be flattered these aliens had picked me to speak on behalf of Earth and go out to offer them a cup of tea — well, instant coffee since I’m out of tea right now. In this book, I’m completely in tune with Ben. As a scam artist in the making, he has exactly the right attitude in tracking down this family and courting one of the three daughters. I also get why he would offer his innocent friend, Will Taylor, an introduction to one of the other sisters. If there’s money to be made, he sees no reason why it should not be spread around his circle of friends. But once involved, Will Taylor fails my credibility test. Oh, no, wait a minute. If this is a fairy story, he’s the Prince! Doh! A man, noble in spirit and too stupid to be anything other than brave, he’s got to be the one to wake Sleeping Beauty. Well call me cynical or any other words that come to your mind, but I don’t buy it. Not for one minute do I think Will would go to these lengths to rescue a young woman he has known for so short a time.”

“How sad. This is a book about the magic of love and you just don’t get it.”

“Well, I’m old and all out of romance. You wait until you’re in line for the next daisy up-pushing exercises prescribed by the relatives waiting on their inheritance, and see what you think about young men who recklessly defy the supernatural.”

Lisa Goldstein planning on fairy cakes for a snack

Returning to a more normal style, you may remember Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987). He volunteered himself as the leader of the “Greed is good!” brigade. Well, this is a book describing an offer the Gekkos of this world would find impossible to resist. All you have to do is. . . and you shall be rich beyond your wildest imaginings. Well, perhaps not that rich. But certainly financially comfortable although, in the darkest hours of the night, it’s possible there might be a slight pricking of your conscience. Fortunately, most of you would sleep through it. Not surprisingly, this offer has been around for hundreds of years — greed didn’t wait until the 1980s before making its presence felt. Once cave dwellers found value in material possessions, they were suckers for the something-for-nothing, once-in-a-lifetime offers a cave-to-cave double-glazing salesman could make. Except these sellers weren’t offering better windows. In a scaled-down Faustian way, all they wanted was a little of your time and there was good luck (and gold) in return.

Coming back to Will Taylor, he’s a contrivance introduced by Lisa Goldstein so she can run all the fairy story tropes through her modern sensibilities and find way of beating the snares and traps. This would be impossible without a man prepared to jump through hoops on demand. This is not to say I did not admire the cleverness of the plot and the ingenuity with which our hero manages to keep on the rescue track. I just found it all less than completely engaging. What kept me going was curiosity to see how he would win — sorry, no spoiler warning is necessary. In all fairy stories, the Prince kisses the frog and gets turned into a pumpkin (“pumpkin” is the German for “love-struck loon and proud father”). Although, after too long a session in the fairy realm, we get a kind of epilogue and, in that final breath, our Will grows more credible. As an old man, I know he’s right when he says the world always looks to have been more exciting when we were young and that, no matter what jobs we take, always hoping they will keep our interest, almost everything gets boring when we’ve seen hundreds of examples of the same thing. In a way, the same thing happens to love as the marriage matures over the decades. Even the children drift away. Getting to the end of life can be remarkably unglamorous.

So The Uncertain Places is almost a great book. The ideas are engaging, the prose elegant. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps my own cynicism and prejudices are getting in the way. Perhaps, if you enjoy romantic fiction masquerading as fantasy, you might find Prince aka Will Taylor an attractive hunk and follow his fairy story adventures with delight.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For the record, The Uncertain Places was a finalist for and won the Mythopoeic Awards – 2012.

The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch & The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

It’s always interesting to observe the growth and development of jargon — a kind of insiders’ language, a code people can use to impress strangers. Today, I’m particularly interested in the idea of a fix-up novel — one that has been created from a group of short stories. In the days of the pulps, authors would throw off as many stories as possible to keep the dollars coming in. Some never caught the imagination. Others spawned related stories or sequels. Given a growing accumulation of such stories, authors would then edit then for consistency and, more often than not, write new connecting material to create a novel. Whether apocryphally or not, the neologism is attributed to A. E. van Vogt, one of my favourite authors of the so-called Golden Age. The best example of a fix-up is The Voyage of the Space Beagle, later plagiarised in part as the film, Alien (and its sequels).

By accident, I have read two very similar books back-to-back. The first was The Bone Key by Sarah Monette which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same protagonist. The second is The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same organisation. Monette’s book is, in essence, a fix-up without the frame. In other words there is a kind of progression from one story to the next so that, if we close one eye, it can read as a form of picaresque novel, episodic in nature but focused on a single “hero” figure”.

Finch’s book is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish. For those of you interested in epistemology, what we know and how we came to know it can be of critical importance. It gives us a basis upon which to make rational decisions, to assess the credibility of evidence, and so on. Monette’s book gives us multiple and reinforcing images of the same thing. Because of the internal corroborations, we can feel the “truth” of the character even though the linearity of the telling may not be confirmed. Finch has written a number of short stories about the same organisation but there only one overlap of character (between “A World Waiting” and “The Roaring Ground”) and there is no general attempt made to edit the stories to achieve coherence or internal consistency. All we have are eleven different stories plus one non-fiction piece that just happen to be about the role of interpreters in a multilingual extraterrestrial culture. After the first two or three stories I had to stop because I was approaching them in the wrong way. Rather than reading them as stand-alones, I was trying to fit them together to create my own fix-up novel. I suppose there was a deliberate decision made to exclude the kind of background information available at http://www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch/fullhistory.htm

Trying to follow this way leads to frustration because the stories do not fit comfortably together. To that extent, we have to distinguish between this book published by Golden Gryphon which bravely keeps going with its specialisation in collections, and Reading the Bones, which is a fix-up “novel” published by Tachyon Press. This includes the complete text of the title novella, which won the Nebula for best novella of 1998, and then continues with an Interlude to bridge into a second novella “Bright River of Talk”.

But, if you enjoy short stories on their merits, there are some very good stories in this collection. The one which many will know is “Reading the Bones”, but there are some very affecting ideas, well explored as in “Stranger Than Imagination Can” which carefully exposes stereotypes and prejudices. There are, as in any collection, one or two where the ideas are a little threadbare and the execution flat. Overall, this is enjoyable so long as you are not expecting a fix-up.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

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