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Here is a reminder of the five nominees with links to my outrageous, provocative and always controversial reviews:

First off the judges need to be congratulated for nominating an excellent group of finalists.  With stories featuring post apocalyptic settings, mutant grasshoppers, alien first contact, creepy motels and time travel, all these novels take their inspiration from the core subgenres of science fiction.  And yet the approach is utterly new and fresh.  The mutant grasshopper story turns out to be a meditation on history; the alien first contact plot incorporates and blends elements of the superhero origin story and Nigerian mythology; the book dealing with time travel actually involves quantum tunneling between computers split many years apart; the creepy motel is part of a chain that has the power to bend reality and the apocalyptic setting acts as a form of catharsis for a writer dealing with a troubled past.

Reading these novel you realise that at novel length there are still writers willing to be playful and inventive and smart with the SF genre.

My favourite novel, though, was not Grasshopper Jungle.  I appreciate the judges sentiment that “in the end, [it was] the novel with the biggest chance to actually blow a young person’s mind.”  But when it comes to blowing minds – young adult or just adult – Lagoon tops the list for me.  As I said in my review, Okorafor’s approach to the first contact genre was utterly original with its mix of other sub genres and in its refusal to follow a linear narrative or perspective.  I like rapacious, 6 foot grasshoppers, but nothing can beat crazy sea monsters and freeways that spring to life and eat traffic.

The Race was also a marvellous novel that would get my vote before Grasshopper Jungle.  It’s probably the best written book on the shortlist and, thematically, the one with the most layers to peel away.  Allan is an astonishing new writer whose literary sensibilities elevate the genre concepts she’s playing with.

Still, if I had the choose I’d probably sway toward Lagoon.  I’ve never read anything like it before, which might be a commentary about my narrow reading habits or might just indicate that there’s something truly special about this book.

So, in this instance, while I applaud their shortlist I don’t agree with the judges final decision.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

What’s It About?

Set in Lagos, the novel is a vibrant mix of alien first contact, superheroes and Nigerian myths and legends.

Representative Paragraph

Two children meet an alien for the first time…

“Don’t you want to speak to a real live alien?” Kola asked. “Like the ones in the movies?”

Fred vigorously shook his head. “I’ve changed my mind.”

“Well, I do,” Kola said. She stood up straight and nervously grabbed a handful of her long braids. “Hello.”

Ayodele smiled, though her eyes didn’t leave her book. “Greetings, children.”

“I’m . . . Kola and that’s my little brother, Fred.” Still cowering behind the fish tank, Fred waved a feeble hello. “Are you really an alien?” Kola asked.

Ayodele closed her book and looked at Kola. “By your definition, yes.”

“Well, how come you look human?”

“Would you rather I didn’t?”

“Why not appear as yourself?”

“Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It’s your greatest flaw.”

Kola liked this answer very much because it made sense. In cartoons, even the animals who could talk also had to look human. That had always annoyed her brother. She stepped closer.  “How come you speak English?” Kola asked.

“So you will understand me.”

“Can you speak Hausa?”

“Ii,” she said, with a nod.

“Igbo?”

“E-eh,” Ayodele said, nodding again.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely!

Lagoon is right up there with Europe in Autumn as one of the best books I’ve read this year.  The novel provides a refreshing non Western, non Hollywood take on the first contact narrative.  (Okorafor notes that the novel was partly inspired by how poorly Nigerians were treated in District 9).  Lagoon is a novel that passionately embraces its subject matter showing that first contact stories can be enormous amounts of fun, have massive, cinematic set-pieces and say interesting, crunchy stuff about a people and a culture – in this case Lagos and Nigeria – without being racist and demeaning.

Commentary

On Facebook I described Lagoon as an anarchic piece of writing, unfettered by all those writerly rules that are apparently taught by MFA courses and workshops.*  The narrative jumps from third and first person, character perspective shifts abruptly in the middle of a scene, and entire chapters are told through the eyes of animals.  In addition, Lagoon blends together a range of genres including alien first contact, the superhero origin story and Nigerian myths and gods.  It’s a novel that never sits still, never takes a breath, never stops throwing ideas and wild imagery at the reader.

It should be a complete mess.

It works because Okorafor understands and has a deep appreciation of the genre(s) she’s messing with.  From the outset Okorafor critiques the speciest notion that if aliens did come to visit our planet, humans would be at the top of their greeting list.  The opening chapter is told from the perspective of a swordfish, one of the first creatures to be greeted by the aliens:

When a golden blob ascends to meet her, she doesn’t move to meet it. But she doesn’t flee either. The sweetness she smells and its gentle movements are soothing and non-threatening. When it communicates with her, asking question after question, she hesitates. It doesn’t take long for her apprehension to shift to delight. What good questions it asks. She tells it exactly what she wants.

And what would a swordfish want?  Well, when your home is constantly plundered by an invading force (that would be us) the answer is self evident:

They made her eyes like the blackest stone and she can see deep into the ocean and high into the sky. And when she wants to, she can make spikes of cartilage jut out along her spine as if she is some ancestral creature from the deepest ocean caves of old. The last thing she requests is to be three times her size and twice her weight. They make it so. Now she is no longer a great swordfish. She is a monster.

The aliens do finally turn their attention to humanity, while equally sending greetings to the other species – ranging from bats to spiders – that walk the Earth.  The message here is clear, humanity might think it’s the dominant lifeform, but in the eyes of these aliens, everything that lives and breathes and procreates is equal.  Discrimination is not a word in their vocabulary.

Of course, it’s when humans do become exposed to the aliens that the shit really hits the fan.  Given that Lagoon is a response to District 9 and Hollywood movies that place America and Western culture above the experience of everyone else on the planet, Okorafor could have portrayed Lagos and Nigeria in a positive light.  And yet the Lagos she describes is one where the Government runs on the fuel of corruption and nepotism, where husbands abuse their wives, where internet cafes have been taken over by scammers and where children suffer in poverty.

What’s important, though, is that Okorafor’s honest and raw portrayal of Nigeria and it’s people is clearly one written from a place of love.  At no point does she generalise or sound bite.  At no point does she critique or moralise.  Rather, Okorafor acknowledges the contradiction – a deep love for a place inspite of its many problems.  As Adora, one of three people who is literally swept off her feet by the aliens, reflects:

Everybody wants to leave Lagos, she thought. But nobody goes. Lagos is in the blood. We run back to Lagos the moment we step out, even though we may have vowed never to come back. Lagos is Lagos. There’s no city like it. Lagos is sweet. Even her husband Chris knew this. He’d returned from Germany as soon as he had his MBA in his hand, even though a German company had offered him a job. It was the reason why, despite the fact that she was a highly sought-after marine biologist who’d taught for some years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she’d opted to return home. Lagos was riddled with corruption but she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Okorafor also tempers the corruption, the abuse and the poverty with moments of sheer, unalloyed joy.  When the people of Lagos discover that there’s an alien and a famous rapper residing in a house in their city, rather than scream, hide or arm themselves, a number of them decide to set up food stalls nearby and party.  Moreover, the local LGBTQ group sees this as an opportunity to finally come out in the open.

The Black Nexus had to be crazy to come out in a place so public. Yet they were so brave to do so. They’d been hiding for such a long time. Not so much out of shame, but out of a need to stay safe. Now an alien had come to Lagos. It wasn’t just the Black Nexus who were unsafe or at least vulnerable now. It was everyone. In his heart, he knew that if that alien was in the house, it was time. It was time for a change.

If there is an overarching theme of the novel it’s summarised by that last line – It was time for a change.  While this is a very violent novel and while many people die, Lagoon ultimately takes a positive stance to the first contact narrative.  Not only does this new presence turn at least three people into superheroes and see the emergence of the old gods – there’s this jaw dropping cinematic moment where a congested road comes to life and eats people – this significant change in affairs also gives the Government an opportunity to reframe itself in the eyes of its people.  In a brilliant scene, the President broadcasts a message of renewal and hope throughout Lagos and beyond:

The President had never been a great orator. But today, this early evening, he was feeling his words. He was tasting them. They were humming to the rhythm of his soul. He smiled as he spoke. “For the first time since we cast off the shackles of colonialism, over a half-century ago, since we rolled through decades of corruption and internal struggle, we have reached the tipping point. And here in Lagos, we have passed it. Many of you have seen the footage on the internet or heard the news from loved ones. Last night, Lagos burned. But like a phoenix, it will rise from the ashes – a greater creature than ever before. “The occasion that has put me here before you tonight is momentous. It marks another kind of transitional shift. Now listen closely to me. This shift is cause for celebration, not panic. I will say it again: celebration, not panic. There are others amongst us here in Lagos. They intend to stay. And I am happy about it. They have new technology, they have fresh ideas that we can combine with our own. Hold tight. We will be powerful again, o! People of Lagos, especially, look at your neighbor. See his race, tribe, or his alien blood. And call him brother. We have much work to do as a family. “Now let me tell you about my own adventure. Then we will get down to business . . .

Bill Pullman’s ra-ra-ra speech in Independence Day pales in comparison.

While change is a key theme of Lagoon, Okorafor also tackles issues of race, sexual orientation and the environment.  And she does so in a style that’s vivid and exciting and alive.  I loved this book and science fiction is all the more richer and intelligent because of writers like Nnedi Okorafor.

[The book is being published for the first time in the US in the next two weeks by Saga Press.  So if you haven’t already – GO BUY A COPY!].

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* I actually have no idea what’s taught at MFA courses and workshops.  For all I know, the only thing they teach is how to self publish your book through Kindle.  Still if you read enough “how to write” manuals certain rules become evident, such as not changing character perspective in the middle of a scene.

 

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

And the best novel Locus Award winners are…

… for Best Science Fiction Novel – Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

For Best Fantasy Novel – The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

For Best Young Adult Book – Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

For Best First Novel – The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

 

The only category I’ve read in its entirety is Best Science Fiction novel, and if you read this blog you’ll know that I loved Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and was lukewarm about Ancillary Sword.  So, in this instance, I don’t agree with the winner chosen by the Locus voters.

Still, my opinions aside, congratulation to everyone who was nominated and those who took home a plaque.  A full list of the winners and nominees can be found here.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: The Way Inn by Will Wiles

What’s It About

A creepy and dark novel about reality bending motels and business conferences.

Representative Paragraph

The “conference surrogate” is probably the greatest idea ever invented in all of literature.  (Hyperbole intended!!!!)

“I meant,” I said, “why are you here at the conference? Aren’t there places you would rather be? Back at the office, getting things done? At home with your family?”

“Aha,” Tom said. “I see where you’re going.”

“Conferences and trade fairs are hugely costly,” I said. “Tickets can cost more than two hundred pounds, and on top of that you’ve got travel and hotel expenses, and up to a week of your valuable time. And for what? When businesses have to watch every penny, is that really an appropriate use of your resources?”

“They can be very useful.”

“Absolutely. But can you honestly say you enjoy them? The flights, the buses, the queues, the crowds, the bad food, the dull hotels?”

Tom didn’t answer. His expression was curious—not interested so much as appraising. I had an unsettling feeling that I had seen him before.

I continued. “What if there was a way of getting the useful parts of a conference—the vitamins, the nutritious tidbits of information that justify the whole experience—and stripping out all the bloat and the boredom?”

“Is there?”

“Yes. That’s what my company does.”

Should I Read It?

Most definitely yes.  The first half of the novel is stronger than the second half, but this is still a very good, and at times, very creepy book about a chain of motels that are far more than what they seem.  In addition, Wiles satirical approach to trade fairs – seriously the conference surrogate is a brilliant and entirely cynical idea – is both true and funny.

You should also check out Nina Allan’s excellent review of the novel on Strange Horizons.

Commentary

Science Fiction conventions aside, I’ve been to my fair share of industry conferences.  The one’s I’ve attended have generally been held in Melbourne and so I haven’t needed accommodation.  But on the rare occasion I’ve had to travel interstate, I’ve found staying in a barely adequate hotel – the public service doesn’t shell out for five-star comfort – coupled with attending a conference that could redefine our very understanding of boredom, as a less than satisfactory experience.

Which is why the first half of The Way Inn resonated with me, especially Wiles description of the conference scene as an abattoir and the attendees sheep heading for the slaughter.

Ahead of us, and already around us, were the exhibitors, in their hundreds, waiting for all those eyes and credentials and job titles to sluice past them. There is the expectant first-day sense that business must be transacted, contacts must be forged, advantages must be gleaned, trends must be identified, value must be added, the whole enterprise must be made worthwhile. Everyone is at the point where investment has ceased and the benefits must accrue. A shared hunger, now within reach of the means of fulfillment. Like religion, but better; provable, practical, purposeful, profitable.

Neil Double, our slightly douche protagonist, is aware that this almost religious euphoria, this “shared hunger” ultimately wears off.  What remains is just another dull conference where you spend your time sitting through mind numbing panels about OH&S reform and make small talk with people whose names you’ve forgotten but who you vaguely recognise from the last trade conference you attended.  It’s this overwhelming sense of ennui that Neil takes advantage of.  As a conference surrogate his job is to attend these trade fairs on your behalf, taking copious notes at each panel so you’re provided with the content minus the ratty hotel or getting drunk at another sponsored dinner.

And Neil absolutely loves his job, viewing it as what he was born to do.  Part of it comes from the “pervasive anonymity” and the ability to “float in that world [of trade conferences] unidentified working to my own agenda,” but mostly it’s the hotel experience that provides true job satisfaction.  Specifically, Neil’s love for hotels and motels stem from:

their discretion, their solicitude, their sense of insulation and isolation. The global hotel chains are the archipelago I call home. People say that they are lonely places, but for me that simply means that they are places where my needs only are important, and that my comfort is the highest achievement our technological civilization can aspire to.

It’s this very bubble of comfort and anonymity that’s about to be popped.  First off, one of the organisers of the trade fair Neil is attending tricks him into revealing what he does for a living and then calls Neil out during a panel presentation.  Following this embarrassing moment, Neil is no longer allowed to attend the conference.  So not only is he no longer anonymous, but he can’t do his job.

And second off the Way Inn starts to turn on him.  Most of this is wrapped up in Neil’s reunion with a woman who he last saw at a Way Inn motel in Qatar.  The thing is… well I’ll let Neil explain what happened:

She walked in and… Well, she wasn’t wearing anything. She just stood there, completely naked, eyes wide, like she was standing to attention. She didn’t say a word at first, but within about ten or twenty seconds everyone in that lobby was looking at her. Total silence. I have never heard anything like it. And then the staff at the front desk went crazy. They started shouting at her, running about, trying to find something to cover her up. Obviously Qatar’s an Islamic country, very conservative—I mean, there would have been a commotion anywhere.

Neil second meeting with this woman, the night before the conference, involves a strange conversation about the banal art that adorns the walls of the Way Inn.  Neil spends the first quarter of the novel hoping he’ll bump into her again, but it’s only when he’s kicked out of the conference that he finds himself caught up in the woman’s ongoing battle with the management of the Way Inn.

Dee, for that is her name, is a great character.  Neil objectifies her from the get go, describing  “her Amazonian height, and her pale skin and red hair” as “not quite match[ing] up to reality, as if she was too high-definition.”  But what I enjoyed is how Dee constantly reminds Neil that their partnership is not going to end in sex.

The look on her face was grim. “Do you remember our little talk? About fucking? About how it’s not going to happen?”

“Listen—”

“That is not where this is going. My problems”—she widened her eyes at the thought of those problems, and I wondered what they could be—“are not going to be solved by your penis. Just back off.”

I also liked how Dee is the one who know’s exactly what’s going on with the Way Inn, who understands the dangers posed by the hotel management.  It’s Neil own insecurities and weaknesses that ends up getting them both into trouble.

And what trouble would that be?  Well, through Dee we discover that the Way Inn – or the entity controlling it – has a found a way of using motels as a means to extrude and impress itself on our reality.  So each motel in the chain forms a network, a body that’s constantly growing as each new Way Inn is built.  This is a fantastic idea and at least for the first two thirds of the book Wiles makes the most of it by having Neil note small changes in geography, rooms and corridors reconfiguring, and even travelling with Dee between different nodes – moving from one Way Inn to the next.

It’s a shame, then, that Wiles feels a need to introduce a villain about halfway through the book.  Having now finished the Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer I know that the creepy and scary can be maintained without the need for a meglomaniac with an evil plan.   And yet, as noted above, Dee is battling against the hotel management, personified by Hilbert.  He reads like a character who’s walked directly out of a Stephen King novel – I’m thinking Leland Gaunt in Needful Things or even Randall Flagg from The Stand – a Faustian figure who is well spoken and erudite and yet doesn’t entirely fit into his own skin.  He’s pithy and dangerous and predictable.  As a result the last third of the novel goes from creepy hotel reconfiguring reality to a dull and predictable battle between Neil, Dee and Hilbert whose over the top villainy sucks all the scares out of the novel.

Still, while the last third might be disappointing, it didn’t entirely undermine my enjoyment of the book.  That first half in particular is both laugh out loud funny – there’s a love note to the hotel shower that had me in tears – and genuinely unsettling as the true nature of the Way Inn begins to reveal itself to Neil.  If I wasn’t spending the next who knows how long reading award shortlists then Wiles would be an author I’d be actively following.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Here is a friendly reminder of who was nominated for the Best Novel category with links to my pithy reviews:

The Nebula voters made the right choice picking Annihilation as the winner of this year’s Nebula Award for best novel.  It’s not only the best books on the shortlist, it’s one of the best novels written in the last decade.  And when you include the other two volumes in the trilogy – Authority and Acceptance – you’ve got a jaw droppingly good series that does that near impossible thing of having a strong literary sensibility while also maintaining a level of creepiness and dread.

I also loved the Addison and Liu, two novels that strike right at the core of the fantasy and science fiction genres.  The Addison, in particular plows very familiar territory, but does so with great heart and passion.  The Liu is bug fuck crazy, delivering monster set pieces in a story that mixes China’s cultural revolution with first contact and alien invasion.

I wasn’t keen on the Leckie.  Yes, the writing is lovely.  Yes, the novel says some important stuff about colonialism and power.  But Ancillary Sword is nearly bereft of a story.  The problems that are posed at the beginning of the novel are still problems at the end of the novel with no sense of headway or progression.  Like I’ve said previously, if I read the third book it’s only because it’s been hoovered up in next year’s awards cycle.

As for the Gannon and the McDevitt, well they shouldn’t be gracing anyway award ballot.  One is dreadful and the other is competent but has a view of the future that’s stuck in amber.  But I’ve said as much as I can be bothered to say about both books and I’m sure Gannon will appear on the Nebula’s next year with the third Caine Riordan novel.

Overall though this is a pretty decent shortlist, with the best book taking home the chocolates.

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* It would be interesting to know how many people only read the first book, even though all three were published in the same year.  Does same year publication of a trilogy hurt sales of the later books?

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

What’s It About

Set thousands of the year into the future, the intrepid, determined and suave Alex Benedict, with his female pilot Chase Kolpath, continue to search for artifacts lost during Earth’s first space age.  There’s also a subplot involving the rescue of a passenger ship, lost for eleven years, and caught in a space/ time warp.

Representative Paragraph

Chase justifies what her boss, Alex, does for a living:

Sometimes I’m not sure how I feel about the operation we run.  I understand that it would be nice if all these artifacts were placed where anyone could see them.  But I’ve also seen the pure joy that accompanies ownership.  I’ve watched older people, who’ve achieved pretty much everything you could ask from life, just light up when Alex delivered an artifact they’d been pursuing. Especially one touched, or used, by an historical figure. It’s not the same as being able to stand in a museum and admire something in a glass case. It has to do with owning the thing. […] There are a lot of artifacts. It seems to me there are plenty for public display, and more than enough left over for private collectors. So why not? Why do museums have to control them all? Why do I feel I have to justify what we do?

Yes, why shouldn’t the rich and the élite posses history if they want too?!

Should I Read It?

No.  Though if you’re a fan of Alex and Chase then you’ll likely read it anyway.

Commentary

Coming Home is the science fiction equivalent of a warm fireplace and a pair of cosy slippers.  The sort of novel where there’s just enough intrigue and drama to slightly increase your heart rate and keep the pages turning.  And if by chance you do come across something challenging, something that tickles and engages your synapses, then it’s likely you’re not actually reading Coming Home but have moved on to something else.  Or your checking Facebook.

I don’t have a particular beef with this sort of meat and potatoes novel.  McDevitt, unlike Charles Gannon and Kevin J Anderson, is a competent writer.  He still info-dumps far too much and his dialogue will win no prizes (well, except for a Nebula), but the novel has a genuine sense of forward momentum.  Stuff happens.  Questions are posed, mysteries are investigated and, on the odd occasion, someone even takes a potshot at the heroes.  Best of all the novel isn’t 600 pages long.

Coming Home‘s simplicity means that I had no struggle coming to terms with the setting or the characters inspite of this being the seventh Alex Benedict book.  The novel is set thousands of years into the future, where humanity is enjoying a second renaissance in terms of culture, prosperity and technology, following a dark age that buried and blotted out humanity’s previous advances.  While for most people the dark age has become a historical footnote, for Alex Benedict it’s the source of his income, spending his days searching for and discovering artefacts from the previous space age.

The passage of time has resulted in the death of the English language.  In its place we have Standard, a language that might be based on English, or might combine Earth’s many dialects or might be Elvish.  The death of English aside, the greater tragedy is that only a few pop culture references like Superman and Sherlock Holmes have survived over the ages, though it appears that some of the context has been lost:

There are also fictional characters who were once famous but who have been forgotten. Tarzan swung through jungles in a series of books that, in their time, are supposed to have outsold everything except the Bible. The search to identify him—it’s assumed he is a male—is still on.  Dracula, as far as we know, appeared in only one novel, but his name survives. He was apparently a physician. His name is associated with blood extraction. If that seems grim, it helps to recall that he practiced in an era during which invasive surgery was common.

But while humanity may no longer speak English and may be confused as to the identity of Dracula and Tarzan, it’s general attitudes don’t seem to have changed over the last three thousand years.  The family unit is alive and well.  Hetereosexuality is still the norm.  Corporations are still worried about the bottom line.  And issues regarding gender and race have been swept under the carpet.  There’s this jarring line, early in the novel, which explains that “racial variations had long since gone away in most areas of the Confederacy after thousands of years of intermarriage.”  Other than leaving you with the impression that McDevitt’s Universe is filled with white people, he’s making it clear that he’s not going to deal with any of that messy “political correct” stuff.  These are enlightened times and issues such as cultural diversity are no longer relevant.  It explains why everyone Alex and Chase meet are so utterly forgettable.

Stephen King describes McDevitt as the “logical heir” to Asimov and Clarke.  That sounds about right.  If you’re looking for old fashioned science fiction, the sort that struggles to imagine a future – even a far flung one – much different from our own, the sort that has no room for cultures other than Western secularism, than Jack McDevitt is your man.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

… Claire North for the excellent, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (link to my review).

While not my favourite book on the shortlist, it’s still a novel I greatly enjoyed and so I’m pleased to see North take home the award.

More on the Campbell when I finished reading the shortlist sometime in late August.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

The shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award was as a follows (with handy hyper-links to my not so concise reviews):

The winner, announced in May, was Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.  At the time I applauded the Clarke jury on their choice given (a) I loved the book and (b) I’d read five of the novels on the list and thought that the Mandel was easily the best of the bunch.

And then I read Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson and suddenly I wasn’t so sure anymore.  The Mandel is a fantastic novel and a worthy winner.  But Europe in Autumn – as I’ve just squeed about in a recent review – is probably the best written genre novel of 2014.  As such, I can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe, I’d have given the award to the Hutchinson.  And considering how much I’ve praised and defended and shed blood over the Mandel, it feels almost sacrilegious to choose another novel over it.

But I can’t help the way I feel.

My betrayal of Station Eleven, though, shows how fantastic the above shortlist is.  Not only does it feature two stand-out novels – Mandel / Hutchinson – but the North, Itäranta and Faber aren’t too shabby either.  The only novel that sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb is The Girl With All The Gifts.  The Carey isn’t awful, but it’s dull and predictable and could have been easily replaced by any number of excellent books, such as Nina Allan’s The Race, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and even Hermione Eyre’s strangely wonderful Viper Wine.*  But apart from the Carey this is the sort of shortlist that sparks positive dialogue and discussion about the state of SF at the moment (or at least SF published in the UK).

And it would seem the apocalypse, or at least the coming of the apocalypse, is at the top of mind.  All the novel’s featured (except for the North) touch on the decline of civilisation – whether via a plague, an economic crisis or climate change.  Even so, there’s no sense of repetition here as the coming slow apocalypse (or actual apocalypse in the case of the Mandel and to a lesser extent the Itäranta) is employed in entirely different ways.  The message, though, is that science fictions authors struggle to see a future for humanity that doesn’t involve the fracturing of the world as we know it.  Yes, it’s a little depressing, but as Station Eleven shows this sort of story can be given an optimistic spin and as Hutchinson proves, even if the world is falling apart, there’s plenty of fun to be had (even if it’s a bit grim and dark).**

Anywho, while I might disagree with the judges final decision (and only after much soul searching) they also deserve a pint for putting together a fantastic shortlist.

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* To be fair to the judges, the Eyre wasn’t one of the 107 books submitted.  But even a novel like Simon Ings’ Wolves (a book I wasn’t that fond of) would have been a better fit for this very good shortlist.

** While I don’t want to invoke the Sad Puppies in every blog post I write, in a sense this shortlist is an example of the sort of literary and depressing genre fiction that they oppose.  I have some sympathy for this position – doom and gloom science fiction can be wearying.  Except I’ve also read their alternative and frankly I’d rather read an endless stream of apocalypse fiction.

 

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

What’s It About

Imagine a near future where the European Union has been dissolved and the continent has splintered into hundred of tiny nations and polities and republics.  A Europe where three apartment buildings, ruled over by a gang, can call for nationhood.  A Europe where sovereignty and independence and geography is always in a state of flux.

Rudi was once a cook.  He’s now a courier working for Les Coureurs des Bois.  Given the environment, moving stuff around is a job that comes with a wide variety of pitfalls and dangers and requires someone who can be flexible, adaptable and very quick on their feet.  You know, like a spy.

And just when you think you know what sort of book this is, it turns out to be something completely different…

Representative Paragraph

Rudi considers a change in his career – chef to courier:

“I thought you ought to know that Max’s cousin is very grateful to you,” said the little mafioso.

“Max mentioned it,” said Rudi.

Dariusz sat back and lit a cigarette and looked around the restaurant. “How would you like,” he said, “to do that kind of thing for a living?”

“I’m a chef,” Rudi replied. “For a living.”

Dariusz inhaled on his cigarette, held the smoke in his lungs for longer than Rudi would have thought was medically advisable or physically possible, then exhaled a tenuous aromatic haze.

“How would you like to do that kind of thing as a hobby?” he asked.

“All right,” said Rudi. “So long as it’s a well-paid sort of hobby.”

Should I Read It?

Fuck yes!

Is this the best science fiction novel that was published in 2014?  Maybe.  (Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor is pretty awesome as well).  But it’s up there as the best written.  The tone is sardonic, the dialogue is slick and the plot is beautifully paced.  And best of all, Europe in Autumn is genuinely surprising.  Less twist and more a reveal – I won’t spoil it here, but you might want to avoid the commentary – that’s totally unexpected and yet on reflection makes perfect sense when you consider that this is a novel about shifting boundaries.

Read this book.

Commentary

When it comes to genre fiction, it’s the little things I appreciate.  A novel not overburdened by exposition, a novel where the dialogue sounds vaguely human, a novel where there’s a sense of pacing and momentum to the story.  You know, the basic components of a half decent piece of literature.

Dave Hutchinson gets the little things right.  More than that, Europe in Autumn is a veritable masterclass in plot, dialogue, pacing and world-building.  And as such it’s up there with novels like Annihilation and The Race as the best written science fiction novel for 2014.

First off, there’s the world building.  Hutchinson does not start the novel with a block of text explaining how his book is set in a near future Europe where economic failures and the odd plague has seen the continent fracture into hundreds of sovereign states and principalities.  No, he begins his novel in a restaurant where the head chef, Rudi, encounters a bunch of mean looking Hungarians.  It’s a tense little moment which doesn’t end in the overblown action scene you expect it to, but instead has the mean looking Hungarians praising Rudi on his food.  “Clever fuck Pole,” says one of the Hungarians.

It’s odd to read a science fiction novel where the author holds back the urge to vomit out a stream of world building and plot set-up.  Rudi’s life is about to change dramatically but it has little to do with him being a chef or the opinions of Hungarians.  And yet that scene does create a sense of tension, a sense that this time and place is not entirely safe.

There is exposition, but Hutchinson delivers it to the reader in dribs and drabs, such as —

Xian Flu had brought back quarantine checks and national borders as a means of controlling the spread of the disease; it had killed, depending on whose figures you believed, somewhere between twenty and forty million people in Europe alone.

— and —

[Darius] picked up his glass and took a sip of vodka. “I saw on the news last week that so far this year twelve new nations and sovereign states have come into being in Europe alone.”

— and —

The [European] Union had struggled into the twenty-first century and managed to survive in some style for a few more years of bitching and infighting and cronyism. Then it had spontaneously begun to throw off progressively smaller and crazier nation-states, like a sunburned holidaymaker shedding curls of skin. Nobody really understood why this had happened. What was unexpected was that the Union had continued to flake away, bit by bit, even after the Xian Flu. Officially, it still existed, but it existed in scattered bits and pieces, like Burger King franchises, mainly in England and Poland and Spain and Belgium, and it spent most of its time making loud noises in the United Nations.

And this approach to exposition remains consistent throughout the novel.  For the most part it’s employed as flavour text, data-points that add depth to the near future Europe he’s envisaged.  Even when Hutchinson decides to take the opportunity to provide more background to his characters, such as the section where we hilariously learn why Rudi became a chef, these episodes stem naturally from the story.

The dialogue also plays a significant role in carrying the plot and developing the world.  I acknowledge what constitutes good banter is a very subjective thing. In my review of Jim Butcher’s novel, Skin Game, I found Harry’s dialogue to be smug and filled with unnecessary pop culture references.  I might have blamed Joss Whedon. And yet the internet is crammed with people who eat up that sort of self-aware witty banter with a knife, a fork and their best china.

Hutchinson’s dialogue and his prose in general has a sardonic and deliberately noir-ish quality.  There’s a self awareness to what’s said, but one that’s more about the character’s internal psychology than any attempt on the part of the author to show off his post moderns chops.  Hutchinson mostly leaves the dialogue alone.  He doesn’t punctuate it with descriptions about how the character is feeling or his motivation in the scene.  For example this exchange between Rudi and Fabio – the guy who is meant to be mentoring Rudi in the art of couriering packages across borders – is not only funny, but provides insight into their relationship:

“I hate chefs,” said Fabio, stuffing himself with [food].

[Rudi:] “I know.”

“Twitchy little prima-donnas.” Fabio tapped the table with the handle of his knife. “Any half-intelligent person can follow the directions in a cookbook and produce food at least as good as this.”

“But could they do it night after night for a restaurant with seventy tables?”

Fabio sipped his wine. “It’s all in the planning, right? Any fool can do it […] This wine is really good. What is it?”

Rudi consulted the menu. “House red.”

“Really? You should talk to the staff, you know, one catering worker to another. Maybe you can score us a couple of bottles to take back with us. It’s better than that piss you serve me.”

And then there’s the plot.  I haven’t really described Europe in Autumn because it’s the mechanics that impressed me.  But I don’t want that leaving you with the idea that this is a professionally written book with zero substance.  While the novel might start inauspiciously in a restaurant, Hutchinson slowly and intentionally ups the ante.  Rudi goes from his work as a chef to becoming a courier for a shady organisation and you think the novel is going to be about that organisation and the sort of low-level espionage Rudi does for them.  Throughout all this, issues of geography and cartography bubble under the surface.  No surprises there, in a Europe that’s flaking “like a sunburned holidaymaker” the idea of making a map – even a digital one – would be viewed as a nightmare.

Late into the novel we’re told the story of Captain Charles John Whitton-Whyte, his survey of the British Isles in the 18th Century and his obsession with Stanhurst, a small village that never existed.  This slice of history, conveyed to us via an article exploring Whitton-Whyte’s cartographical obsession, has an almost fairytale quality.  Suddenly, a  novel about a chef who becomes a courier and find himself on the run from a shadowy organisation out to kill him takes on a distinctly Borges feel.  And what’s brilliant about this, is that this glimpse into another reality – a place that doesn’t exist in our world, but does exist somewhere else – works seamlessly into the novel given that this is a book that’s all about shifting boundaries.

I could say more about how smart this novel is.  I could mention how the second half of the book is essentially a bunch of linked short stories where Rudi features but is not the point of view character.  And how this sudden shift in focus widens our understanding of Hutchinson’s Europe and the shifting boundaries and realities simmering underneath, without upsetting the narrative flow of the novel.  I could also note the political implications inherent in a book where borders are frequently changing and independence is a fragile thing.  Instead, I’ll leave you with the clear statement that Autumn In Europe is a remarkable science fiction novel from a writer who deserves all the critical praise he’s been receiving.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

… Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (the full results of the Nebulas can be found here).

Having read all six novels (and when I say all six, what I really mean is 5 and quarter because nothing in the universe was going to make me finish the dreadful Trial By Fire by Charles E Gannon), I have to say I’m very happy with this outcome.  Yes, I loved The Three Body Problem and the Goblin Emperor, but Annihilation is an extraordiary novel, which I squee about at length here.

I’ve yet to read the other two books in the Area X trilogy (though I intend to this month) and while they could be both awful (I doubt this very much), that won’t change my thoughts about Annihilation.  Frankly, it’s a crime against all that is good and wonderful about genre fiction that Kevin J Anderson’s unreadable The Dark Between The Stars or Jim Butcher’s by the numbers Dresden novel appear on the Hugo ballot and this book missed out.*

I will say more about the Nebula ballot once I’ve published reviews of all six books.  But at the moment I’m very pleased with the result.  Congrats to Jeff and all the other Nebula winners.

_________________________________________________________________________

* Yes, I know it’s possible that even without the Anderson and the Butcher, Annihilation may still not have made it.  But my gut instincts tell me (loudly) that Sad and Rabid Puppies stopped VanderMeer from getting a Hugo nom.  Time will tell.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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