Saturday, 18 February 2017

Review: 21st Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell, Patrick Nielsen Hayden

21st Century Science Fiction is a collection of short stories curated by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and David G Hartwell. They set out to create an anthology of stories by authors who rose to prominence since the year 2000 (regardless of whether the authors had published anything before that). For each of these authors, one story is included, preceded by an introduction by the editors.

The list of authors is impressive: every one of the writers included in the anthology is respected, influential within the scifi genre, and critically acclaimed / award winning. Many are also bestselling writers.

Readers of my blog may know that I rarely review short story collections. The reason is simple: I rarely finish reading them, even if they are full of brilliant stories. They are just too easy to put down between stories and then not pick up again. However, 21st Century Science Fiction is our February read in my Scifi & Fantasy Book Club in Cardiff, which helped nudge me into reading the whole lot. Even with additional motivation, it's an unusual achievement: the last few times we read short story anthologies in the group, I failed to read all tales.

The reason I was able to complete 21st Century Science Fiction, despite its hefty size, is that the stories were of a really high standard. Even the two or three that I didn't enjoy were well crafted and well written, so I could at least appreciate the craftsmanship that went into them, even if they didn't make me want to read anything more by their authors.

As such, 21st Century Science Fiction is exactly what we were looking for in our book club: a taster introducing us to contemporary writers. A collection of trailers that will hopefully help us pick some future reads. A broad spectrum overview of the best of the genre. Oh, and in many cases, it was good fun / thrilling / exciting / thought provoking, too.

I look forward to our discussion tomorrow - I'm sure everyone found some stories they loved and some they didn't, and it'll be interesting to see what everyone thinks of the stories.

Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5
(The intros before the stories did, in my view, give away too much about the stories themselves in many cases)

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson / AND: Cardiff Booktalk

I run a book club: the Cardiff Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club. So, when I heard of a Cardiff BookTalk on a genre novel, I was very curious about it - both the book and the BookTalk - and decided to attend. This is a review in two parts: first the book, then the BookTalk.

The Haunting of Hill House is an influential classic of the horror/suspense genre. Ignorant as I was, I thought it must have been written in the 19th century. As a matter of fact, it was written and published in the 1950s - and quickly established itself as the ultimate haunted mansion story. It was rapidly turned into a movie (itself a classic of the horror genre, remade in 1999 when a movie studio wanted to revive the horror genre & re-established a classic horror brand).

So, if the basic premise sounds a little familiar, that's because it is. Whether you've seen House on Haunted Hill, or Haunted Mansion, or The Shining, or Monster House, or any of the other haunted house movies (or computer games!), chances are, it will owe some of its story-DNA to The Haunting of Hill House.

Doctor Montague is an eccentric academic with an interest in the supernatural. Once he hears about Hill House and its hauntings, he becomes obsessive about investigating it for his book. He makes arrangements with the owners to stay in the house for a summer with a few selected guests. He picks the guests by looking for people who have been involved in supernatural phenomena before. Before Google, this involves searching of newspaper archives and detective work, but eventually he has a list of people to invite, and two of his invitees do take him up on the offer.

Eleanor is a woman in her thirties whose life is undergoing changes: her mother has just died, and until her death, Eleanor had been looking after her controlling mother, secluded and isolated from the world. Theodora is a younger, extroverted independent woman who has had an argument with her flatmate and decides spontaneously to take up Dr Montague's offer primarily to take some time out and give herself and her friend some breathing space. The final guest is Luke, a nephew of the owners of the house (the Sandersons), who is imposed upon Dr Montague because the Sanderson family are worried that Luke is turning into a bit of a lazy layabout and cad, so they want him away from mischief and in a role of supposed responsibility for the summer.

The book follows Eleanor most closely (allowing itself occasional sojourns to very briefly follow another character). Eleanor is a shy, repressed woman, meek and quite needy. She's been living with her sister's family since her mother's death, and she's a bit bullied by her sister (and her husband), just as she'd been bullied by her mother before. Even taking the car - which she has half paid for - to Hill House is an act of rebellion she can only carry out in secret as her sister decides she "cannot allow" Eleanor to use the car.

En route, Eleanor submerges into her imagination a bit - daydreaming about a future, a home, but also having premonitions that this might be her "last chance" to turn around. When she arrives at Hill House, the sense of wrongness is all-pervading, not helped by the sinister groundsman and his equally sinister wife. Before long, Eleanor is frightened almost out of her mind, only brought back to a semblance of equilibrium when Theo shows up. (No other guests or hosts had arrived before them).

From then on, the story takes the form of a series of nights and days in the house, with increasingly creepy incidents each night terrorising the residents, while each morning the elation of having survived turns the night into distant memories that seem far removed from reality. Meanwhile, Eleanor fixates on Theo and Luke, seeing them as instant best friends / family / potential lovers, and flipping to and fro between subservient affection and fierce jealousy. Her social awkwardness isn't helped by the playful pattern of conversations in the group, which is half-imaginary-play, half self-mockery: Eleanor tries to take part, but is out of her depth, fretting over everything.

The house, described as insane in the book (it is very much a character in the story, with agency and a mind), soon zooms in on Eleanor and makes her the focus of its warnings and hauntings. As a meek person, Eleanor resents this. Oddly, the more the house focuses on her, the less the others think of her, as if they barely remember she exists when she doesn't do something to demand their instant attention.

The Haunting of Hill House is a novel of rare effectiveness at unsettling the reader. It's a bit old-fashioned in terms of the supernatural events, but it's psychologically all the more powerful because of the characters, their interactions, their dialogue, and the sense that people minds and memories are being subtly corrupted by the house. The story builds and builds tension, not through the hauntings, but through what happens to Eleanor's thoughts...

As perfect as a haunted house horror novel can be.

Rating: 4/5

Cardiff BookTalk

Cardiff BookTalk, which is run by Cardiff University, describes itself as "The book group with a difference". That difference being its use of expert academics to give talks at the group.

The format is described as follows:

BookTalkers listen to diverse interdisciplinary research topics which expand on themes in the very best classic and contemporary literature. Each speaker addresses the books from their own specialism, and this can lead to fascinating insights about the literary, social and cultural implications of the novels we read. The talks, given by University academics who are specialists in their field, as well as other expert speakers, will be followed by an open discussion session with the audience, and we want as many people to share their perspectives as possible. If you’re interested in discussing the big ideas behind great books, and want to discover new ways of looking at novels, then join us for our next session!

So, what is it like? Well, there were three academic giving 15-20 minute talks. The first talk was very much about The Haunting of Hill House (and the female gothic). The second talk was about how Haunting of Hill House compares with a novella that no one else had read (and which there is no reason to believe that Shirley Jackson had read). And the third talk was about the psychosocial aspects of the book and Eleanor's character in particular. (The academic didn't like Eleanor, or any of the characters, or the book as a whole, as she made clear at the start of her talk, apparently agreeing to give the talk only to find it an annoying chore to prepare for when the time came)

The talks did illuminate some things. The names of characters are riffs on other famous gothic stories. The book is not just an influential horror novel, it is also a bit of a parody of haunted house novels. (I was completely oblivious to the book being anything but earnest when I read it). The name Theodora is intentionally chosen to be ambiguous about gender, and she is called Theo throughout the book (which I had not noticed). The extent to which Eleanor is an odd-one-out in her society was another thing I had not really thought about when reading the text. I had not realised how needy Eleanor really was (and how much of a daydreamer) until the talks - largely because I probably have some character flaws in common with Eleanor! And the relevance of an early incident, in which Eleanor bumps into an old lady, flummoxed everyone - an incident I had largely forgotten. (I'd read it as an example of Eleanor basically being very meek and a bit gullible, easy to take advantage of. I did not realise that another reference later on to an old woman praying for her was the same old woman she'd bumped into). So yes, lots of things to think about, which gives real value to the talks.

However, on the whole, the event was also very frustrating. Turning up a few minutes early, the building was locked and security were unaware that there was going to be a talk. Eventually, someone unlocked the doors, only to leave everyone to wait for half an hour beyond the start time in an atrium. Hot drinks were provided, but it was bizarre - the audience just had to wait and loiter. The talks themselves were preceded by an advert for another University event, and an academic giving intros. Some of the talks were in academese, rather than plain English - but needlessly so. And I could not help but be alienated at being given a talk about a text no one had read (what does it add learn that there is another story, which neither the author of the book nor the attendees at the Booktalk had read, which also features some gothic stuff and a wallpaper? Fair enough as an essay topic, but as a talk?),  or a talk which was built on dislike for the book and a sense of having to do a chore?

Finally, while the website describes the post-talk time as a discussion, it was actually firmly presented as a Q&A. Don't you hate it when people at a Q&A are only interested in making their own points and not actually asking questions? Well, if the website tells you it'll be a discussion (so you think your points are welcome) and the host asks the audience for questions (rather than points), what are you supposed to do? People did make points and ask questions, but it definitely wasn't what I expected - and it did not feel like a group discussion at all, to have a sizeable audience in a tiered lecture theatre and three academics at the front.

In principle I very much like the idea of having expert academics at reading groups. Listening to a well-informed, relatively brief talk is great. And I love the idea of the discussion of the book being chaired or guided by an expert / academic. However, the actual event itself fell far short of my expectations. An embarrassing delay at the start, three lectures, and a brief Q&A rather than a discussion - it did not do what it said on the tin, and I had the distinct sense that it was organised by people who would struggle to organise a proverbial piss-up in a brewery.

Rating: 2/5
(Some good points in the academics' talks, let down by very poor organisation)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire is the first novel in a new space opera series by John Scalzi. I don't read a lot of space opera: I've always found disbelief hard to suspend for interstellar settings, especially for serious books. However, John Scalzi is a writer whose books are fun first of all, and then about ideas. They may have serious thoughts, but they do not take themselves seriously. That makes all the difference.

The Collapsing Empire deals with the interstellar elephant in the room in its own way: humanity hasn't discovered technology that makes faster than light travel possible. Rather, it has stumbled upon  'The Flow' - a network of naturally occurring worm holes (by another name) which happens to connect various places in space.

The novel starts with an prologue that very much sets the scene: a mutiny is under way on a space transport ship. The narrative voice is witty, the characters snappy and a bit laid back in the way they speak and face adversity (and death), and suddenly, the mutiny is interrupted when their ship finds itself evicted from the Flow in the middle of empty space, a completely unheard-of calamity...

Meanwhile, in the central Hub of mankind's empire (a giant man-made space habitat which sits at a place where many strands of The Flow happen to meet), the Emperox is about to die, and his only surviving daughter (born out of wedlock) is about to succeed to the Throne, reluctantly. Just before he dies, her father hints that trouble is on the horizon...

The Empire has a Senate and an Emperox and a Church, balancing each other for institutional power, but really, it's a family game, with inherited monopolies on products and industries for each dynasty of robber barons. It's hard not to see some of this setup as a Game-of-Thrones-in-space, but John Scalzi doesn't write his novels to be pompous, serious, or gritty, so the story never feels like a Song-of-Ice-and-Fire ripoff. In terms of tone, think Joss Whedon or Mira Grant, not GRRM.

The story orbits around an ensemble of characters, most of whom are young(ish) people, belonging to that mid-twenties - early-thirties generation, out of uni but not quite fully independent, ready to leave a mark on the world but only very slowly emerging out of the shadows of mom & dad. If the nineteenth century invented kids and the twentieth century invented the teenager, then the twenty-first invented the forever-young-adults, and this book is about people of this generation. People who don't part from their favourite teddy bear, but also have promiscuous sex. People who don't know what they want to be when they grow up, who aren't terribly interested in starting their own families. People who want to live, not just survive, and to do something exciting with their lives, even if they don't yet know what that might be.

It's an immensely readable novel. Fun, tongue in cheek, never boring. At times, it feels a bit like a giant metaphor for politicians' response to climate change, but it's not a deep novel. Space adventures with a group of fun snarky people - who wouldn't enjoy that?

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Review: Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

Luna: Wolf Moon is the second book of Ian McDonald's Luna series.I thought the first book was originally described as the start of a duology, but Wolf Moon does leave enough plot threads open to suggest that this is now intended as a long, epic series.

To recap: the moon has been colonised. It's a Wild West of sorts, a dog-eat-dog, cut-throat outpost, run by the Lunar Development Corporation and four/five family business dynasties, each of whom has effective monopolies on specific lunar industries. Transport is run by the Vorontsovs, rare earth mining is run by the Mackenzies, Food production is in the hands of the Asamoahs, energy production is in the hands of the Suns, and Helium3 harvesting was run by the Corta family. Except, the Corta family have fallen. Their empire has been destroyed and scavenged by the Mackenzies. Remaining Cortas are rare and isolated from each other. Some shelter under the protection of factions with some power, some are effectively hostages, and one is plotting his revenge...

The Luna series combines Ian McDonald's strengths with a new direction. As usual, he creates a convincing, credible future, populated with people from non-Western cultures. Luna, however, is a world much more similar to Game of Thrones than to other recent Ian McDonald novels. Dynastic families jostling for power, happy to spill blood and without any fear of repercussions? Outright battles and small wars? Betrayals, conspiracies, greed? It's hard to read Luna novels without thinking of GRRM's magnum opus. Ian McDonald differs from many GRRM derivative writers in that he is himself a stellar talent, producing an epic that is easily on a par with Song of Ice and Fire. Also, the family rivalries in Luna aren't focused on getting an iron throne / power over everything. Rather, they compete and battle for wealth, territory, income, and the occasional longstanding feud. Still, there are enough similarities for his books to have been picked up by TV companies, soon to be a major TV show...

I first heard of Luna at a convention, where Ian McDonald talked about the books, and the fundamental premise: that the moon has no law but contract law. The basis of the society he predicts is therefore not "feudal dark ages", but "hyper-capitalist, libertarian utopia". There is no government on the moon, only a corporation with a local figurehead who doesn't actually wield all that much executive power. There is a court, but it's a court of arbitration above all, since there isn't a criminal law system. Rich family dynasties have their private security forces, but there is no standing army or police force. What Luna illustrates, if you read it with all that in mind, is that there is actually no systemic difference between libertarian utopia and The Dark Ages. The only difference is the absence of the Black Death / disease and the presence of higher levels of technology. Everything else is pretty much the same: borderline slavery, warlords, feudal society etc. However, this aspect of the premise is quite subtly interwoven into the plot. It's not staring you in the face, and I think it's almost too hidden in the background of the Lunar world. Had I not heard the talk, I would probably have missed it entirely.

With a huge cast of characters, Luna: Wolf Moon was a bit bewildering at times, because I had forgotten much of the detail of Luna: New Moon. The things and characters I did remember (Adriana Corta, Marina) were much less central in Wolf Moon than the characters I had forgotten. Marina, for example, is absent for the first quarter of the book, and her story had been my favourite in the first novel because she wasn't born rich with a silver spoon in her mouth, unlike every other character. This is perhaps Luna's biggest flaw, that almost everyone is rich and powerful. Sure, there are falls from power and rises, but it's a stark contrast to Ian McDonald's other novels, where most characters are hustling a little corner for themselves from positions near the bottom of the power structures. Luna, instead, focuses on the very top. The hoi polloi are pawns and footsoldiers.

Unsurprisingly, Wolf Moon is well written, with good prose, compelling settings, authentic and believable science. However, it doesn't quite rise over the shadows cast by Song of Ice and Fire's influence. And, filled with characters too highborn to be easy to empathise with, the novel lacks some of the heart and soul and drive that Ian McDonald is capable of. It's a good book, well worth reading if you've read Luna: New Moon, but it's not the first book or series I would recommend to a reader new to Ian McDonald.

Rating: 4/5

PS: here's my review of the first book, Luna: New Moon.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Book Review: The Unheimlich Manoeuvre by Tracy Fahey

The Unheimlich Manoeuvre. What a glorious title. The sort of title that made me pick it up and a stall at one of the conventions I attended last year (probably Fantasycon-by-the-Sea) and ignore the cover design (which I didn't really like) and the price (£15 for a fairly small book). The description on the back sold me on the book. Then I went along to a reading and, even though I only absorbed about half of it (I'm not very good at taking in stories read out verbally - I need to see the text), I realised I had made a good purchase.

One surprising thing about The Unheimlich Manoeuvre is that this single-author short story collection does not actually feature a story by that name. That said, the stories contained in the collection do live up to the title. They aren't all horror stories or spooky stories. Some are very much based in a non-paranormal real world setting. They do, however, all have a richness about them. Some are deeply melancholy (alongside being uncanny). Others are frantic and frenetic (and uncanny). There are some which are claustrophobic (and uncanny). There are even stories which are not uncanny, but still somehow feel right for this collection.

Tracey Fahey has an enviable talent for creating real-seeming characters with authentic problems and dilemmas. Her stories tend to hook the reader and not let go. Even the final story in the collection, which is really more of a series of vignettes with limited plot, is relentlessly readable. (Incidentally, it was this autobiographical story which she read aloud at the reading).

The introduction describes them as traditional 'twist in the tail' stories, but I don't think that description is entirely accurate. They are traditional in that the endings are satisfying (the narrative doesn't just stop without any sense of resolution or plot movement), and one or two do have a 'twist' ending, but mostly the stories end with a climax, rather than a revelation that turns the entire story around. Most impressively, the quality of the stories ranges between "good", "great" and "exceptional". Even the weakest story (about a couple holidaying in Vienna) is good; but at her best (in a story about a young mother), Tracey Fahey's writing is world class.

My copy of the book says there was a limited print run of only 150 - so if you can get your hands on this book somehow, do. It is superb.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Review: Chasing Embers by James Bennett

Chasing Embers has a lot going for it. A beautiful cover, promising blurbs, comparisons with Ben Aaronovitch (admittedly, that particular comparison comes from the publisher's marketing team, not the blurb), and friggin dragons. (Dragons, for me, are a selling point, not a hinderance to enjoyment).

Reading the novel about Ben, a dragon spending his life hiding in human form as part of a contract between all magical creatures and mankind, the story had even more things that were massive assets. My favourite pharaoh, Hatchepsut, is important to the plot. The story takes place in New York, London, Berlin and Cairo (of which New York is the only city I haven't visited or lived in). There's (genuine) myths and lore appearing. Basically, this novel sits square in the centre of a Venn Diagram of things I love in books. Urban fantasy? Check. Myths? Check. Places I know? Check. Ancient Egypt? Check. Friggin' dragons? Check and double check.

And yet, it took me ages to finish the novel. I slugged through it, fighting an uphill battle all the way. The reason? The prose. Sorry, James Bennett, but your particular style is not pleasing to my ears / eyes / whichever organ I read with. It's not dense and complex in the way of China Mieville. It's just so, so, so full of unnecessary descriptions, metaphors, and writery stuff. Not music-to-my-ears bedtime story prose like Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Not musical rhythmic prose like Pat Rothfuss's. Not take-your-brain-on-a-psychedelic-ride prose like Ian McDonald. It's prose that draws attention to itself without having whatever pizzazz makes prose shine and sparkle and somehow transcend purpleness into greatness. At least, as far as my personal taste is concerned. And I have to honestly admit: there is subjectivity and taste involved. All I can say is that, despite subject matter, plot, and backgrounds, I kept contemplating giving up, all the way until the final battle.

I was also a bit frustrated with our hero, Ben. He gets injured a lot. Think Harry Dresden, then add self-healing capabilities, and amp up the going-through-the-wringer factor to 11. At one point, he has been eviscerated (literally) and crushed like a fly (literally) and still he reassembled himself. He spends a lot of time unconscious (conveniently having flashbacky dreams). And in the final battle, I found myself flabbergasted that Ben didn't seem to make much of a difference. Almost the entire climax plays out while Ben is a mere spectator. By the end of the book, I didn't want to read any more about Ben: I wanted a novel about his ex-girlfriend Rose instead.

I really wanted to like Chasing Embers, but it had the reek of rookie errors / a beginner writer about it. It's a novel that I can imagine being fantastic, if a ruthless editor had massaged (and occasionally bludgeoned) it into shape. In that, it reminds me of Mike Shevdon novels, which are also one ruthless editor away from greatness. In the end, I doubt I'll read any more of the novels in this series - despite the obvious research and love of subject matter that has gone into it. If your taste in prose is different, you will find much to enjoy.

Rating: 2.5/5

PS: Minor criticism: Hatchepsut's mummy has never been verifiably identified. AFAIK it does not lie in the museum in Cairo.

Brexit (again): A Letter to my Labour MP

After today's Supreme Court Ruling, I decided to write to my MP again. Below, you can find the general elements of the letter (I also included specifics about a conversation I've had with her recently, and my case).

If you have a Labour MP, please feel free to use this text to write to yours, if you agree with it....

Dear (name)

I am writing to you today because of the Supreme Court ruling on triggering Article 50. I would like to ask you to urge Jeremy Corbyn to adjust his (and Labour’s) position in light of the ruling. I would also like to ask you to vote against triggering Article 50 unless major changes to the government's Brexit plan are achieved. Here’s why:
1)      The referendum was a vote to leave the EU, but not a vote to give Theresa May a blank cheque to carry out a disastrous Brexit that will ruin British workers.
2)      The current government talks of realigning the UK economy as if this were an easy thing. Decades of poverty in the Welsh valleys prove beyond doubt that restructuring an economy is deeply traumatic and comes at the expense of generations of people’s lives and futures. Labour mustn’t let May do to all of Britain what Thatcher has done to the mining communities.
3)      Several of the Leave campaigners promised that the UK would stay in the Single Market. The Norwegian model was openly advocated before the referendum. It is therefore absolutely right that the opposition should hold the government to that promise – and withhold consent from triggering Article 50 unless the same act of Parliament instructs the government to adopt keeping the UK inside the EEA as main priority in their negotiating positions.
4)      While the (extremely narrow) majority of voters voted 'Leave', a significant majority of Labour voters voted Remain. The Labour party is not just there to represent all people – it is also there to represent the will of its own members and voters. Labour has a strong remit to oppose triggering Article 50 and cannot absolve itself of its role in a parliamentary democracy with talk of the “will of the people”. 52% is not the same as 100%. Those of us who oppose Brexit, and who oppose a ruinous one, deserve representation, too!
5)      Whatever your (or Jeremy Corbyn's) views on EU membership, the Conservatives will not put the interest of workers first when negotiating with the EU or the rest of the world. They will negotiate on behalf of bankers and bosses. A Brexit negotiated by Labour would be very different from a Brexit negotiated by the Conservatives - so why should Labour act as enabler for the Conservatives? If Jeremy Corbyn believes that the referendum gives a clear mandate for Brexit, then he should still oppose a Brexit negotiated by the Conservatives with all his might, and promise to carry out a Labour Brexit once Labour is back in power instead.
All it takes is for non-Conservative parties to band together, and a few Tory rebels, to put the brakes on Theresa May’s incompetent plans for a ruinous Brexit. Theresa May is not the High Priestess of Brexit; she does not speak for all voters, not even all voters who voted ‘Leave’. To preserve the British economy, British jobs, and the British way of life, the UK must stay inside the Single Market. It is the role of the opposition, and our representatives, to do everything possible to ensure that.
I look forward to hearing from you – and thank you, again, for the work you do.
Yours sincerely