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Books Read

Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley

The Shore by Sara Taylor

Currently Reading 

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

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This week saw the announcement of the Hugo Award and Clarke Award nominees – one rinsing the taste of shit left by the other.

As with 2015, Vox Day successfully took a massive crap all over the Hugo Awards, smearing his poo-stained fingers over 64 of the 81 nominees.  If you have no idea who or what a Vox Day is then GIYF because I honestly can’t be bothered explaining it.  The point is that depending on what side of the cultural wars you sit on, this year’s Hugo’s is either a compromised list of nominees peddled by a racist, anti-semite douche-bag or it’s another nail in the Social Justice Warrior coffin.  Whatever your thoughts here are the nominees for best novel:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

Observations

  1. The good news is that Vox Day’s impact aside the Best Novel category isn’t so bad.
  2. I’ve read three of the five novels on the ballot. This includes the exceptional The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, the very good Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie and the OK-but-found-one-of-the-central-characters-fucking-annoying Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
  3. I won’t be reading the Jim Butcher. The Dresden novel that was nominated last year cured me of all things Butcher.
  4. I also won’t be reading Seveneves, not because it appeared on Vox Day’s “this is not a slate” but because it’s close to 300,000 words and just at the moment I don’t have 10 days to spare.

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The nominees for the Clarke Award are as follows:

Observations

  1. I’ve read two of the nominated novels. People clearly liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet more than I did because while I can applaud the book for its treatment of diversity in terms of sexuality and gender and race the actual prose was clunk-tastic in its overuse of exposition.  Still this is the book’s second nomination.  Last year it garnered a Kitschie.
  2. I liked Europe of Midnight a shitload more. A genuine sequel to Europe in Autumn but also so very different in tone and approach.
  3. And I’m genuinely interested in reading the other four contenders. I’ve heard that this set of nominees lacks ambition, that it’s drawing from the genre ghetto rather than looking further afield.  While not specific to this set of nominees, Nina Allan discusses the current state of the Clarke Award in this fantastic post.   I am sympathetic to the argument that the Clarke should look further afield, but I’m personally not going to prejudge this set of books.
  4. Having said that I am sad that neither Ian McDonald’s Luna or Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself made the list. Especially the Robert’s which is a superb, astonishing, ambitious book.

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About four hours ago I babbled on about Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley for an upcoming episode of the Coode Street Roundtable.  The episode should be dropping any moment now.

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The Shore is a début novel from Sara Taylor but you wouldn’t know it because the writing is so assured in tone and structure.  The book is set on a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia and covers a three hundred year period that focuses on two lines of descendants stemming from Medora – half white, half Native American who was born on the islands in the mid 19th Century.  The novel bounces around in time, between the mid 1990s, to the late 1800s, to the early 20th Century, to a point 120 years from now.  As a result, there’s a strong mosaic flavour to the structure as we are introduced to a number of Medora’s descendants.

The opening chapter sets the tone of the novel, and it’s anything but twee or bucolic.  13-year-old Chloë – Medora’s great, great, great grand-daughter – is forced to protect her younger sister Chloe from their drug abusing and violent father after their mother disappeared to parts unknown.  It’s a gut wrenching piece of writing, with an ending that’s both powerful and upsetting and yet with a great deal of sensitivity.  And it’s only the beginning.  Starting with Medora’s awful treatment at the hand of her father and first husband, this is a book that takes a frank look at the pain men inflict on women.  And while some of the women in this book are able to stand strong against the sexual abuse and violence – Chloe and Medora are cases in point – this isn’t always the case and it’s all the more tragic as a result.

The book also explores a family’s connection to the land – especially with regard to the environment and a respect for the natural order.  The speculative element is that Medora’s second husband (or at least that side of the family) have the ability to manipulate weather.  Bring rain, deflect hurricanes, control storms.  But they use that power carefully, with great respect, and as a consequence gain insight into what’s coming for humanity.  And it ain’t good.  In the 2030s a sexual disease emerges that kills off most of the planet and leads to mutations for a number of the babies that are born afterwards.  The Lumsden’s – the side of Medora’s descendants that have power over weather – plan for the plague, and occupy a small island not connected to the mainland.  The upshot is that 100 years after the plague hits, the descendants live a relative peaceful, simple life.  In fact the last story of the collection is in complete contrast to the opening, not just because it’s set in 22nd Century, but because it’s about hope and love, rather than violence and pain.

The novel’s one minor stutter is the introduction of the plague.  While I understand that out of control plagues are simply reflective of the author’s concern for the environment and our general mistreatment of the natural world, as a plot device it’s lazy.  It’s not to say that a plague won’t come around and wipe us out, but that it’s now being used as science fiction short hand to get around the need for a more nuanced and thought out future.  However, considering everyone does it, and given the chapter that deals with the plague would make for a magnificent piece of horror short fiction, I can forgive Taylor this stumble.

Confronting and powerful and sensitive and assured – the way Taylor’s handle so many voices is wow-tastic  – The Shore is a truly fantastic novel.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Did you know that this was John Sladek’s first novel?  (That would be the same John Sladek who wrote The Roderick books).  According to this very good biography of Disch, Sladek and Disch had similar senses of humour and became close buddies.  So much so that they travelled through Europe together.  In 1965, while sailing to Casablanca, they both wrote The House That Fear Built, which was published under the pen name Cassandra Knye (a favourite pseudonym of Disch’s) in 1966.

Now, The House That Fear Built isn’t a novel that you’re going find during your weekly stroll through the local bookshop.  The book was re-published, but that was in 1969… and since then it’s slowly faded out of existence, with only the most ardent Sladek and Disch fans tracking it down and purchasing it.  Fortunately, and due to the marvels of the interweb, it took me all of seven minutes to find a copy on abe.com and buy it.  (Cost me about $12 as well, with postage).

However, as great as the interweb is, it is lacking in reviews of the book.  In fact I couldn’t actually find one – other than a couple of people mentioning, after Disch had died, that the book was written by him (and Sladek).  But the lack of reviews should be no surprise.  Putting aside the fact that the book has been out of print for fourty years, the book isn’t science fiction.  Or fantasy.  Or crime.  Or Western.  It’s Gothic Romance.  And prior to this, the only Gothic Romance I’d ever read (and not finished) was Wuthering Heights.  (And no I haven’t read Dracula either… I know, I know, where’s the cred?).  Gothic Romance, according to Wikipedia, hit its peak around the turn of the last century (around the 1890s) and since then had been dying out.  In fact the genre was going through its last gasps when this book was published.

I know I’ve rambled without saying much about the actual book.  That’s because it’s a bit rubbish.  Disch – as we will come to see – was a fan of Victoriana, and so I suppose it would have tickled his fancy to have a crack at producing some Gothic romance.  I have no idea if Sladek was a fan, but hey they were sailing to Casablanca together and other than get drunk… why not write a novel about a forbidding Gothic castle in Mexico.

Yep, a forbidding Gothic castle in Mexico.  Built by Nazis.  Called Ixta Parque.  And in the shadow of Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatapetl.  In among all the Mexicans and Nazi’s there’s Nan Richmond, an innocent girl from Disch’s hometown of Minnesota, whose fallen in love with Hans.  Hans is half Mexican, half German and it’s his grandma (whom they go to visit) who owns and lives in Ixta Parque.  The grandma is a tough German woman with very strict ideals who takes an instant dislike to Nan.  She’s also hiding a secret and forbids Nan to visit the lower levels of the castle where someone or something is lurking.

I know, I know, it sounds awesome.  Not the case the though.  The writing style is very… um… melodramatic.  That said, the descriptions of life in the town of Amecameca are vibrant and lively, which should be no surprise as Disch had spent quite some time there before writing the book.  But other than that there’s not really much more to say about the novel.  It’s very po-faced.  Very clichéd.  And after the halfway mark becomes a bit of a slog to finish.  It’s very hard to find any of Disch in the book, other than some gorgeous descriptions of the setting itself and the odd joke (Jorge Luis Borges is referred to as famous Matador).  I doubt there’s much of Sladek in here either, but I haven’t read the Roderick books, so I can’t be sure.

In the end, it’s a curio.  A novel knocked out in between the cocktails and the sightseeing in Casablanca.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Books Read

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Currently Reading 

Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley

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This year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction was awarded to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s début novel The Sympathizer which I look forward to reading at some point in the coming months.

For genre fans Nguyen’s win was of less significance when compared to the news that Kelly Link’s collection, Get in Trouble: Stories, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  If my Facebook page was any indication, Kelly’s appearance on the Pulitzer honor role was recognition (finally) by the literary élite that genre fiction deserves to be taken seriously.  Personally I think it’s evidence of Kelly Link’s brilliance as a writer of fiction – genre or otherwise – than a first step toward genre / literary reconciliation.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be proud of what Kelly has achieved by writing unashamed genre fiction.  But I also think that a writer of Kelly’s talents are rare and that she will prove to be the exception rather than the beginning of a trend.

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Your enjoyment of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is going to entirely depend on whether her brand of satire resonates with your sense of humor.  I’ll say straight out that while I enjoyed the writing, there’s some deliciously good prose on display here, I found nothing remotely funny or insightful in Atwood’s satiric take on America’s twin obsession with capitalism and sex.

The opening of the novel is promising.  We’re introduced to married couple Charmaine and Stan, two victims of a horrendous financial collapse – imagine if the 2008 crisis just got worse – that’s seen them unemployed and living out of their car.  Stan is miserable and cynical and prone to bouts of anger.  Charmaine, inspite of everything, has a cheery disposition and a belief – inspired by her dead Grandma Win who always had sage advice for every situation – that things will improve.  So when they both see an ad for a gated community called Consilience, offering the poor and dispossessed a chance for stable employment and a house of their own, Stan can’t help but wonder what the catch is while Charmaine sees it as the answer to their current predicament and a fix for their marriage.  In a sense they’re both right, living in Consilience is an escape from the gloom and doom of the outside world and it does fix their marriage – sort of – and as they will both discover to their horror there is most definitely a catch.  And it’s a biggie.

The satire – if that’s’ what it is – truly kicks in when Charmaine and Stan enter Consilience.  It’s also the point where the novel, tonally and in terms of plot and character begins to falter.  Consilience was built around a prison and the contract that every residents agrees to on arrival is that each month they will alternate between working in the prison – as  a prisoner – and living as a civilian in the peaceful and idyllic community that makes up the rest of Consilience.  This is the Positron Project, the notion that people will give up their liberty for six months every year for the guarantee of safety and security.  It’s an interesting thought experiment, though sadly it’s not really the point of the novel.  It’s just a façade.  What funds Consilience is the sale of body parts and the manufacture of sex bots.  Charmaine is instrumental in the former – unbeknownst to Stan she’s extremely good at putting people to sleep – and Stan ends up dealing with the latter – as a reluctant hero, Stan’s attempt to escape Consilience and tell the truth of what happens there involves him seeing how the sexbots are built.

And throughout all this what becomes clear is that everyone in the novel is obsessed with fucking.  Whether it’s Charmaine enjoying the rough stuff with a mysterious stranger behind Stan’s back or Stan fantasting about a woman named Jasmine after he found a secret note from her under the fridge or Ed, the CEO of the Positron Project, who has the hots for Charmaine to the point that he has a robot copy made of her or Veronica, a once barmaid / prostitute who has had her neurons fiddled with and has now imprinted on a teddy bear that she constantly wants to fuck, sexual desire and the associated power dynamic seeps through every page.  The problem is that it’s handled in such a farcical and silly way that I stopped believing in Stan and Charmaine (or any character for that matter) as real people but rather the punchline to a very long and not particularly funny joke.  There was a point where I wondered whether all the sexual antics was Atwood’s way of commenting on the male gaze – Stan in particular spends most of his time lusting after women he can’t have – but that all went by the wayside when the action moves to Las Vegas, becomes a caper novel and features a multitude of Elvis and Marilyn impersonators and Atwood’s parody of the Blue Man Group.  The last nail in the coffin is when Charmaine goes through the same surgery as Veronica – she of the teddy bear fetish – and imprints on Stan, only to discover that she never actually had the operation and that her love for Stan must be true and pure after all.  At this point any sense of subtlety, commentary, critique, whatever has, to quote the great man, truly left the building.

I’m certain there will be people who will find this novel as both a wicked takedown of American culture – and possibly a glimpse of what the US would be like under a Trump Presidency – and hilarious to boot.  This year’s Kitschie judges certainly thought so, awarding The Heart Goes Last the Red tentacle for best novel.  But for me the broad comedy, the sexual shenanigans and the caricatures masquerading as people fell flat.  Sometimes, you’re just not in on the joke.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Books Read

Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Currently Reading 

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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The nominees for two major awards were announced this week.  The first was the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction:

  • Cynthia Bond: Ruby
  • Anne Enright: The Green Road
  • Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies
  • Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen
  • Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love
  • Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

Brief Observations

  1. I’ve read both the Yanagihara and the Enright.
  2. The Yanagihara has stuck with me months after finishing it (not literally, the book isn’t stapled to my clothing or anything) and yet I still wouldn’t describe it as a good book. I’m not upset though to see it nominated.  Even at it’s most frustrating, it’s always interesting.
  3. The Enright is fantastic novel. It’s about a Christmas family reunion and explores the deep marks and impressions that parents and upbringing leave on children.  Highly recommended.
  4. I’m looking forward to reading the McKenzie which I’ve heard many good things about. The McInerney has also piqued my interest.

The second set of nominees announced this week were the finalists for the Man Booker International Award:

  • A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker), José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola), Daniel Hahn (UK)
  • The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), Elena Ferrante (Italy), Ann Goldstein (USA)
  • The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith (UK)
  • A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), Ekin Oklap (Turkey)
  • A Whole Life (Picador), Robert Seethaler (Austria), Charlotte Collins (UK)
  • The Four Books (Chatto & Windus), Yan Lianke (China), Carlos Rojas (USA)

Brief Observations

  1. As I might have mentioned in a previous post, this is the first year that the Man Booker have treated translated works in the same way they treat novels written in English.  It’s a fantastic decision and will hopefully provide greater exposure to translated works.
  1. I don’t have much to say about the nominees because of ignorance on my part, but I was aware of the Han Kang and had it lined up to read. It’s also hard to avoid Elena Ferrante who has already made a significant impact in the English speaking market.  I won’t be reading The Story of the Lost Child, but rather the first book in the Neapolitan series – My Brilliant Friend.

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We trap ourselves in habit.  And when I say “ourselves” I mean me.  Unless a novel is outright unreadable, so awful that the prose is one step above gibberish, I’ll keep churning through the book until I’ve turned the last page.  Intellectually I know the pressure to finish every novel I start is an obligation I’ve placed on myself.  But the habit is now baked into my DNA and feels impossible to break.

This compulsion to persevere with a work well after the novelty has worn off is the reason I finished Lawrence Schoen’s novel Barsk: The Elephant Graveyard.  It’s by no means an awful book.  The prose is serviceable and effort has clearly been spent on creating a detailed and somewhat layered empire of planets administered by sentient (or uplifted) animals.  There’s also potential in the novel’s big idea – nefshons, a particle attached to all living things that captures a person’s memories, attributes and identity.  An individual (or talking animal) with access to the right drug and some innate talent can gather together these nefshons and turn them into constructs of the people they were linked to.  It especially comes in handy if the person is dead, because nefshons just like energy can’t be totally destroyed (though they do fade over time).

Unfortunately the novel’s spark of invention is submerged in scads and scads of exposition.  Whether it’s characters explaining the plot to each other or whether it’s Schoen spelling out how nefshons work for what feels like the hundredth time, narrative progression and character development is stifled until it becomes impossible to give a shit about the oppressed talking elephants and an ambiguous prophecy that might lead to their salvation.  It’s not that all exposition is bad, or that authors should avoid it at all costs.  I’m one of those guys who loves it when Stephen King drifts into a tangent about a feature of Castle Rock that has fuck all to do with the overall plot.  But when the prose struggles to rise beyond that meat and potatoes style that Analog has made famous over the last 50 years, than exposition, especially the type that describes character motivation and then repeats that motivation in dialogue, is an antidote to entertainment.  I blame myself of course.  I should have been strong enough to break the pattern and realise that while Barsk isn’t a disaster of a novel, it’s simply not worth my time.

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What made N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season such a great read is how Jemisin beautifully marries together both world building and plot.  Not only is their depth to the environment she depicts but the story that goes with it is surprising and wonderfully structured.  With Updraft Fran Wilde gets one of these things right and the other less so.

Updraft is set on an unnamed world where the populace live in towers made from bone that rise high above the clouds.  Unsurprisingly there’s really only two ways to travel, either via bridges strung between a selection of the towers or by strapping on a pair of wings and flying.  Kirit, a denizen of tower Densira, is desperately looking forward to passing her wingtest so she can work side by side with her famous mother and trade goods between the towers and other bone cities that make up this world.  And that’s how it might have worked out if Kirit’s unique ability to control the dreaded, vicious sky mouths with just her voice hadn’t drawn the attention of the ruling élite – the Singers who live in The Spire and who administer the city with a heavy – one might say totalitarian – hand.

As that description might suggest the highlight of Updraft is the world building.  Wilde beautifully captures the splendour, exhilaration and fear that comes from flying unprotected, prey to the ever-changing wind and the lurking threat of the sky mouths.  More importantly though, she considers how a society that has no access to dirt, to fertile land, might survive.  And it’s this idea of scarcity that proves to be a constant presence throughout the novel, not only in the way it gives the world depth but also how it motivates Kirit as she uncovers some disturbing truths behind the Singers and The Spire.

However, as original and breathtaking as the world is, the actual story – the emergence of Kirit’s vocal talent, her reluctance to join the Singers, her training at the Spire, her eventual attempt to overthrow a corrupt regime – is a series of plot beats we’ve seen a thousands time before.  The first third of the novel is frustratingly devoted to Kirit doing everything in her limited power to avoid being sent to The Spire.  This is inspite of the fact that it will be clear to the reader 10 pages in that no matter what she does, the Spire is exactly where she’s headed.  The middle of the novel deals with Kirit’s training as a Singer.  As we’ve come to expect when an individual with a unique, but raw, ability is sent elsewhere to hone their power, Kirit’s tutelage involves the usual amount of borderline abuse, bullying and jealousy.  Finally, in the tradition of so many other young adult dystopian novels, Kirit almost single-handedly overthrows the current regime.  OK, she does have help but there’s something predictable and ordinary in how quickly she becomes the rallying cry for a revolution.

As much as I liked the unique world on display in Updraft, the by the numbers plot has soured me from picking up the sequel.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Disch Republish #3: Echo Round His Bones

What we have, with Echo Round His Bones, is a Cold War thriller where the US have invented a matter transmitter and the USSR haven’t.  Most of the US cities are protected by domes; though it’s clear these domes are more psychological than protective, if the nukes started to rain down the domes would crack.  And the US has its arsenal of atom bombs on Mars, ready to launch if required.  The world is constantly on the edge with both sides threatening to press the button.  And this is where our square-jawed hero, Captain Nathan Hansard, comes into play.  He and his unit have been commanded to matter transmit over to Mars and hand over secret orders.  It just so happens that these orders command the base on Mars to fire their nukes at Russia in six weeks time.

But that’s not Nathan Hansard’s major problem.  You see, the matter transmitter has this quirk of duplicating people – creating echoes of them – once it’s operated.  And so now we have a Nathan Hansard on Mars unaware that there’s a Nathan Hansard on Earth, out of sync with the Real World.  It’s a bit like that episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation when Ensign Ro and Riker are out of phase with the Enterprise and can slip through objects while at the same time remaining invisible to everyone.  Like Ro and Riker, Hansard finds himself facing dangers of all sorts including the job of stopping a nuclear war.

The novel is so packed with story that the characters take second stage and as a result this feels very different to Disch’s earlier work.  In a sense, this is one big thought experiment where Disch seems to be more interested in working through the physics, the mechanics of how someone might exist out of phase with reality, than bothering to develop character or motivations beyond the desire to save the world.  However, like a nervous tic, those aspects of Disch that made The Genocides and The Puppies of Terra such interesting books are present albeit briefly.  There’s a debate about religion and the nature of the soul.  There’s talk about redemption and the crimes humanity has committed in the past.  And there’s commentary on the posturing of the two major Cold War powers.  So while with Echo Round His Bones is, deservedly, a mostly forgettable novel that possibly tries too hard to pander to critics like Budrys, in among the exposition and square-jawed heroism there’s a darker thread about the pressing and real threat of nuclear holocaust.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Books Read

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

Currently Reading 

Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

 

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Not much to comment on this week other than the fact that I forgot to mention that the James Tiptree Award winners for 2015 were announced.  The jury chose the following two works:

  • The New Mother (short story) by Eugene Fischer published in the April / May edition of Asimov’s; and
  • Lizard Radio (novel) by Pat Schmatz.

Because time is so very limited I’m unlikely to read Lizard Radio, but you never know.

And a day or so ago Dragon Con launched its own genre awards.  To reflect the size of the con there’s about fifty billion categories ranging from best Apocalyptic fiction (my personal favourite) to Best episode in a continuing science fiction or fantasy series, TV or internet (take a deep breath).  I don’t begrudge any organisation, individual or entity organising and administering their own awards.  More power to them.  Personally though, I think I’ll give this one a miss.

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I liked both The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – the first book in “The Inheritance” trilogy – and The Killing Moon – the first book in the “Dreamblood” duology – but not enough to buy subsequent volumes in either series.  I assumed I’d have a similar reaction to The Fifth Season – the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy – that is, I would enjoy it but not feel compelled to pick up the sequel.

But you know what they say about assumptions and anal orifices…

I LOVED The Fifth Season, from its bold first sentence – “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?” – steeped in foreknowledge and cataclysm, to the very last paragraph where plot threads are deliciously left hanging.

The thing is if you’ve read this blog or have heard me ramble on The Writer and the Critic you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of series books.  I find it annoying that the genre I’ve adored since I was old enough to ask my Mum to purchase a shiny copy of Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden by Terrance Dicks, has always been chocker-block with trilogies and endless multi-book series.  If there’s one thing that’s drawn me to literary work over the last five years it’s that those guys are still snobby enough to cherish the standalone novel.  And yet here I am telling you that for the first time in years* I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in a series.  (Which is called The Obelisk Gate, and which will be published in August – so four months away – and which I will be reading immediately).

So why all the excitement and hype?  Well, if you haven’t read The Fifth Season I want you to stop now and read the book because the only way to discuss the novel is to spoil it.  I know, I know, a good book should be able to survive spoilers… spoiler paranoia has destroyed criticism… etc.  But seriously, part of what’s remarkable about this novel is how unexpected it is in terms of its plot and its structure.  So off you go –

— and you’re back and because you’ve just read the novel I’m not going to précis the plot but rather just get straight to the bits I loved.

1) The Structure:  It’s rare to come across a mainstream genre novel that tries to do something innovative with tone and structure.  Jemisin not only provides distinctly different voices for her three female characters – Damaya, Syenite and Essun – but each strand is set at a different point in time.  There’s also this lovely mix of third person present tense, second person and a first person narrator who stands above proceedings, foreshadowing where necessary.  And it works.  In fact, it’s so damn successful that it never occurred to me that this was a story about the same woman told at three different points in her life.

2) The Plotting: The highlight here is how Jemisin handles the reveal that Damaya, Syenite and Essun are the same person.  When the link is made between Damaya and Syenite it’s a major moment at the end of a chapter and about halfway through the novel.  Damaya has just experienced something dark and disturbing at the heart of the Fulcrum (the place where orogenes go to receive training) and when she chooses the name Syenite, she’s marking a transition from child to adult.  But the link between Essun, Damaya and Syenite is revealed in an off-hand manner at the beginning of a chapter toward the end of the novel.  It’s as if Jemisin is saying to the reader, “come on guys, you must have figured this out by now” and it’s also an indication that this is less about the “twist” and more about Essun’s willingness – at this point of the novel – to accept her past, to no longer hide from it.  And somehow this revelation, even if you’ve already put two and two together, is far more powerful because it’s so understated.

3) The World Building:  I’m sure this isn’t the first time that someone has written about a world that suffers from major tectonic stress. What’s brilliant though is that Jemisin doesn’t ram her world building down your throat.  Like the plotting, she tells you what you need to know and let’s you figure out the rest for yourself.  And because you’ve had to do some of the work, Jemisin’s world feels all the more layered and textured and believable.

4) The Theme: It’s made clear a number of times in the book that orogenes, with their ability to control and manipulate rock are both saviors – in that they can deflect and smooth out earthquakes and tremors – and villains in that they can destroy whole cities with very little effort.  So when an orogene is born in a small village the townspeople either kill the child or, if the child is lucky, send it away to the capital where it can be trained for the betterment of society.  But even then an orogenes is never truly free, always shadowed by a Guardian – a modified human who can cancel out the orogenes power and kill them if necessary.  Jemisin therefore questions whether some sort of oppression or “regulation” or constraint of liberty is essential if the people in question threaten civil society.  And her response, which is loud and clear once you come to the end of the novel, is that there’s no such thing as a bit of oppression or a smidgen of slavery.  Whatever the original justification the end result always ends in suffering – or in the case of The Fifth Season the end of the world.  The point I’m trying to make is that Jemisin’s discussion on oppression is as layered and complex as the world she’s created.

This is a great novel and, hopefully, the beginning of a major series in the field.

* Ok, Ok, I’m also eagerly anticipating the third book in Dave Hutchinson’s Europe series.

 (3)

I also read Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett which was nominated for a Kitschie and which I will hopefully be reviewing elsewhere.  I liked it, I think it has some interesting things to say about identity, power and privilege.  The central conceit is a  30 something unemployed Nigerian man waking up one morning Franz Kafka style to discover he’s white.  But there’s an element of the novel – specifically where the author intrudes into the narrative – that didn’t work for me at all.

Anyway, I’ll inform you all if and when the review is published.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Disch Republish #2: The Puppies of Terra

The Puppies of Terra has a bit of a convoluted publishing history.  It was originally a short story called White Fang Goes Dingo that Disch wrote in 1962 but didn’t get published until 1965 in If Magazine.  A year later he expanded the book under the title Mankind Under the Leash.  And then, when it was reprinted in the 70s, the title was changed to the one he preferred The Puppies of Terra.

There isn’t a huge amount of literary criticism about The Puppies of Terra on the interwebs.  But I get the impression that even to Disch this wasn’t considered one of his more serious works.  It’s definitely not as grim as The Genocides, though I believe Algis still hated it as much as Disch’s first book.  And it definitely lacks the strong themes and characterisation of his first novel.  And yet, I found plenty to like about the Puppies of Terra.

The plot is sort of SF-basic in that it’s about a bunch of God-like energy beings who take over the Earth in 1970.  These beings use their crazy, transcendental powers to enslave humanity.  But not for any particularly evil purpose.  As the title suggests, the Masters see humanity as no more than pets.  And their form of enslavement is a type of telepathic contact (except it isn’t exactly telepathic, as White Dingo, the main character, indicates).  This link is called the Leash and is the equivalent of being perpetually on Xanax or the best anti-depressant in the whole UNIVERSE!!!!

The thing that’s clever about the first half of the book is that White Dingo and his brother and his extended family enjoy being under the Leash.  And not as mindless drooling servants.  In fact, if anything the Masters give humanity the opportunity to express themselves through art and culture and creativity.  The early parts of the novel where White Dingo describes his life under the Masters, is really quite breath-taking in its imagination.  And so it’s quite abrupt (and annoying for me as the reader) when the plot finally kicks into gear about halfway through.  It’s not a huge spoiler to say that the Masters are forced to let go of the Leash.  And suddenly these people who never wanted for anything are forced to live the hard life.  At the same time they come across the Dingos, humans who refused to be enslaved by the Masters and haven’t experienced the bliss of the Leash.

At this point the books loses some of its vitality as its lurches from farce to action to opera (OK that bits great and funny) and then to a thrilling last-minute escape.  Yeah, it’s all a bit fun and very enjoyable to read, but you can’t help but feel that some of the interesting themes such as whether slavery might be a positive influence or whether it’s still just another form of cultural imperialism, is left a little by the wayside.  And the ending, which is very clever and has a number of nice twists, is so quick and so sudden that you’re sure you’ve missed out on 20 or so pages.  I suppose the fact that the book was an Ace Double meant that things needed to be tied up very quickly.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing (especially with the over-padded endings of today’s books), but it does make the end of the novel ultimately unsatisfying.

What Puppies of Terra shows is that Disch is less comfortable when dealing with actual plot.  He’s not entirely sure how to handle the mechanics of story-telling.  It’s not that he does a terrible job, it’s just that it’s not his thing.  Having said that The Puppies of Terra does highlight Disch’s wicked sense of humour and for that alone it’s worth a read.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Books Read

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Currently Reading Just Finished

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

(1)

Because the deadline for Hugo nominations will have come and gone by the time this post goes live, I thought I’d share my five nominees for best novel:

  • The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
  • Clade by James Bradley
  • Lament for the Afterlife by Lisa Hannett
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin

Prior to Thursday, Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie was on my ballot.  But I’ve just finished N. K. Jemisin’s superb The Fifth Season  and felt compelled to replace the Leckie with it.  The Fifth Season, in my view, is Jemisin’s best novel – I was blown away by the world building, the unexpected turns in the plot and how Jemisin deals with issues of prejudice, oppression and slavery.  But I’ll cover this in more detail next week when I review the novel.

If I had to pick a favourite, it would be the Adam Roberts, but seriously it’s a toss up.

(2)

Once again an award shortlist (the Nebulas) has introduced me for the first time to the work of an established author.  In this instance it’s Naomi Novik who is mostly known for her eight-book (soon to be nine) Temeraire series.  Uprooted, though, is a standalone novel that tells a self-contained story which immediately predisposed me to like the book.  Just like Katherine Addison’s wonderful The Goblin Emperor it’s refreshing when a writer doesn’t feel the need to tell a multi-volume story just because they spent all this effort creating a secondary world. (I’m sure someone will burst this bubble by informing me that Novik is planning a sequel).

Novik sets her novel in a distinctly Eastern European secondary world. Agnieszka, our first person protagonist, lives in a small village that’s protected by a wizard who resides in a tower overlooking all the towns in the valley.  Every ten years our wizard, with the menacing title “The Dragon”, comes down from his tower to choose the prettiest girl amongst the townspeople. No-one knows precisely what The Dragon does with the girl, but when she’s released ten years later she comes back changed.  Not physically, but the girl no longer wants to live in the valley.  With the current ten year-period nearly up, the townspeople are convinced that Agnieszka’s best friend Kasia will be chosen because of her great beauty and grace.  So it comes as a complete surprise to everyone (except possibly the reader) when The Dragon ends up choosing Agnieszka instead.  Agnieszka  soon discovers that she has an ability that, for The Dragon, far outweighs Kasia’s beauty – she can wield magic.

At least for the first half of the novel Novik’s story follows a familiar path.  Like Harry Potter and so many other magic novices before her, there’s something special about the way Agnieszka wields magic.  While she’s hopeless performing spells based on the guidelines laid down by The Dragon, when she adapts those rules to something that’s more natural and organic, her power blossoms. So it’s no surprise when she starts to perform spells that even the great Dragon has struggled to accomplish. However, there are two elements that set this book apart from the well-worn, and frankly boring, average person turns out to be the most powerful magic user in the world narrative (AKA The Special Snowflake syndrome). The first element is that halfway through the novel Agnieszka, for plot related reasons, ends up heading to the capital city of Polnya but without The Dragon in tow.  This major transition in the novel is jarring, but in a good way. It not only broadens the scope of the book but magnifies the growing threat of The Wood – which, as it happens, is the second unexpected element of Uprooted.

The Wood, in terms of idea and execution, is the highlight of the novel.  Bordering the valley where Agnieszka lives it’s this low level threat that’s existed for centuries.  People who enter The Wood either never come back or emerge many months later frothing at the mouth, corrupted by whatever lurks between the thick, imposing foliage.  The Wood is also sentient – to a degree – and the threat posed by Agnieszka’s magical emergence compels it to expand its frontiers endangering the villagers and ultimately the kingdom.  What’s unexpected is how violent and nasty The Wood is.  While the cover of the novel suggests a splendid journey of self discovery and magic, there’s a strong body horror element once The Wood gets into gear. For those who are squeamish I warn you that Novik does not pull punches, there are graphic moments in this novel that would make a die-hard splatterpunk smile. But blood and guts aside, it’s The Wood’s manipulation of people – both good and bad – that impressed me the most, the way The Wood subtlety and then overtly weaves its way throughout the Kingdom.

For all that’s good about the novel, the relationships between The Dragon and Agnieszka comes close to undermining it all. I’ve skimmed the web and noted that readers both love The Dragon – and were disappointed when he had a diminished presence in the second half of the book – and his burgeoning relationship with Agnieszka. Good luck to them, each to their own.  Personally I found the whole thing to be… tasteless isn’t the right word… wrong headed.  From the get go The Dragon treats Agnieszka like dirt.  And while she quickly works out that his rudeness and name calling is all bluster, the constant verbal abuse is fucking annoying.  What makes it all the worse is that Agnieszka is such a wonderful, independent and empowered character.  I kept expecting her to tell The Dragon to fuck himself, to take his attitude and shove it up his wizardry arse.  Yet his vile attitude seems to turn her on.  While I know it’s not Novik’s intent, Agnieszka attraction to The Dragon reminds me of all those dudebros sites that endorse a “treat them mean to keep them keen” attitude.

What saves the book is that The Dragon does fade into the background, that we get a let up from his bullshit, that we see Agnieszka kick-arse and take names without his help and ultimately use her version of magic to save the day.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Disch Republish #1: The Genocides

If you filed off some of the dates in The Genocides – such as the fact that the Plants started appearing in 1972 and that the cities had fallen by 1979 – you wouldn’t know that this novel had been written over five decades ago.

The Genocides details the invasion of Earth by Plants.  Millions of these trees start growing across the world, sucking up nutrients, killing off the wildlife and basically turning Earth into a feeding ground.  Within seven years, the cities are nothing more than ash and cinder and humanity is on the run, desperate to survive against a force that keeps on sprouting and sprouting and sprouting.  The story takes place in Northern Minnesota where a small community, led by the bible thumping Mr Anderson, is trying to survive the coming end of days.  I’m not gonna tell you what happens next.  Because you’re all going to be smart and read it instead.

I don’t go for post-apocalyptic novels generally.  I haven’t read Ballard’s Hothouse or The Death of Grass by John Christopher, or for that matter the Day of the Triffids.  As a whole, these books about small packs of human trying to survive and stave off the inevitable don’t really float my boat.  And yet The Genocides did.  As much as this book follows a number of the conventions set by post-apocalyptic novels, there’s something about the sheer, unflinching grimness of the book that kept me reading.  There’s a truth to the way the characters are depicted, especially in how they react to what’s going on.  And their descent, both literal (read the novel) and figuratively, makes for disturbing reading.

It’s no surprise then that Algys Budrys gave the book a good kicking when it came out in 1965.  From the little I’ve read, Budrys saw the novel as a poor copy of the Ballardian model (which came to be known by others as the New Wave), and called the The Genocides both nihilistic (which it isn’t, it’s just not very optiistc) and derivative (which it is, to a degree, but only  in the sense that it’s playing in the same sandpit as Ballard).  (As a side note, Disch never took well to this review or Budrys as a person as indicated by this LJ post commenting on Budrys’ death).  Personally, I think Budrys was wrong.  The Genocides, with its matter of fact writing style, is before it’s time rather than derivative of someone else’s work.  It’s a remarkable novel that tells a very human story about survival, faith and of barbarism.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Two Winners

The winners for both the Philip K. Dick and the British Science Fiction Awards have been announced.

In the case of the PKD the award went to Ramez Naam for his book Apex.  Marguerite Reed took home a special citation (I suppose second place) for her novel Archangel.

I really didn’t like Nexus, the first book in Naam’s series, of which Apex is book three.  As a result I didn’t bother reading Apex and while it might be a stunning end to the series, personally I’d rather have seen Archangel win the PKD award.  What has become apparent is that my tastes and those of the PKD judges have diverged to the point I’m not sure I’ll be reading the nominees next year.

In regard to the BSFA, the winner for best novel was Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings.  Given how much I’ve enjoyed her short fiction I really feel like a traitor for not enjoying this novel.  Of the nominees I would have given the chocolates to Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight.

Still my tastes and subjectivity aside congratulations to all the winners.

 

 

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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