Wednesday 28 October 2015

Conning in 2015

In 2014, Worldcom came to London. It was the first big convention I ever attended. (I'd been to some very small events before, in Cardiff and Newport, but they were very different things.)

Before Worldcon, I'd never felt quite so at home before, anywhere, among any group of strangers, ever. I'd been quite nervous, even worrying about stuff like dress code (what if I'm the only one not in cosplay fancy dress?), and then felt enormous relief to see so many others with fashion sense that wasn't miles away from my own. (Comfortable, bit scruffy, slightly unkempt, BECAUSE WHY ON EARTH SHOULD PEOPLE WASTE BRAIN ENERGY THINKING ABOUT CLOTHES, so long as they cover what they need to cover and regulate the body's temperature / exposure to precipitation appropriately...)

So, anyhow, I quickly decided that I wanted to do this again. And again. And again...

After attending every geeky convention I could in 2015, here are my thoughts:


  • The biggest literary annual sf/f convention in the UK. 
  • The closest UK covention in size, scope and atmosphere to Worlcon, but still a lot smaller
  • I will definitely go again.


  • A convention celebrating pop culture, fandom, some literature but also TV, computer games, academia, popular science & technology and all things geek
  • The most internet-led of the conventions I attended: it seems to have been organised by and for bloggers, tweeters, tumblerers etc. 
  • Nineworlds put a lot of emphasis on diversity. There was, however, a lot more white diversity noticeable than ethnic / racial / religious / cultural diversity. (I.e. many people with disabilities, many LGB and especially many T attendees). 
  • I've read claims that some of the organisers have close links with a particularly vicious online troll / bully, so I'm not quite sure what to make of that. Perhaps inevitable for an event that is internet-centric in its origins.
I enjoyed myself, but I don't think I will go again. I'm more interested in books, so large proportions of Nineworlds were of limited or no interest to me at all. Whereas every other con would frequently have two or three things vying for my attention, Nineworlds rarely had more than one event of interest at the same time. 

Somewhat to my surprise, it was the academia track that turned out to be this con's strongest feature. It was joyful and exuberant and excited about knowledge, without any of the trappings of the Hay Festival (egos & a pervasive air of superiority complexes) or academic conferences (academic feuds / politicking). Academia is not always the best at humility and kindness, but at Nineworlds, the events and discussions felt wholesome and warm in ways that are preciously rare.


  • Small but local (well, across the bridge) and affordable. 
  • There are quite a few high profile SF/F writers based around Bristol and the West of England & Wales. 
  • Shame Cardiff doesn't have any similar book conventions. (There are horror & comic conventions in Cardiff, but not SF/F book ones, as far as I know)
  • I'll go again.


  • It's all about books and writers.
  • An instant favourite among UK conventions
  • Smaller in number of attendees than Eastercon & Nineworlds, but equal number of industry professionals
  • A convention with the occasional whiff of a trade fair: better for networking than any of the other events.
  • Top Tip: Publishers are looking for manuscripts about vampire unicorns at the moment, according to the panel where the heads of all the SF/F publishing houses were discussing the future of publishing. 
  • I suck at networking
  • I will definitely go again.

The final convention I attended in 2015, and an instant favourite. Virtually all the professionals who attended any of the other cons were at Fantasycon, too. The professional / panellist to fan ratio was staggering: enough fans and readers to avoid the place feeling empty, but so many professionals that each room contained not just a panel, but also an audience of people in the publishing business. It felt like about 30% of the people here were working in the industry. 

Also, this event had more freebies than any of the others, while having a smaller cohort of attendees. Basically, I shamelessly picked up so many books, it would probably have cost me more than the ticket price to buy them in a shop. 

This was the one convention where I wished that I was a bit more social / outgoing and less awkward. After some gruelling months in work, and feeling totally knackered with a sore throat and a slightly feverish / woozy head, I was even more antisocial than usual. 

For any writer seeking an event that's useful for networking, Fantasycon beats all the others, hands down.

The Dealer's Room was quite different from the other conventions, too. It was surprisingly horror-centric, and it featured one or two publishers I hadn't seen at other UK conventions. That said, I got the impression that the stalls did less trade than at other events. 

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

The Beauty is a short novel / long novella. It's postapocalyptic, it's horror, it's science fiction and it's unlike anything I've read. It feels almost insulting to use those genre monickers. It's simply unique.

The Beauty starts years after all the women have died. Men and boys have survived, seemingly unaffected by the bizarre fungus plague that wiped out womankind. Our narrator Nate is a youngster, living in an isolated commune. Even before the plague, they'd lived apart from mainstream society: a group of hippies / nature-worshippers who set themselves up in a nature reserve. (I read this story in Cornwall: somehow I kept imagining it set in an emptier version thereof)

Nate is the storyteller of the group. His role is to tell stories each night, keeping memories alive through the oral tradition - and helping the men and boys continue to see worth in life.

One day, he notices that there are mushrooms growing in the graveyard, where the women are buried. Soon, those who touch the mushrooms disappear. Nate goes to search for them. Then, he, too, disappears for a while, in an earthen cavern, held prisoner, visited by a strange figure whose arrival will change their society forever...

The story has four parts / acts. Each is atmospheric, rich and almost a novelette of its own. The mood shifts from melancholy to uncanny to outright horror. There is a lot that's interesting about The Beauty, not least of which is the gendered way in which the story is likely to affect people. I suspect that men will find it more unsettling than women. I certainly felt uncomfortable at times.

It's not just a story about uncanny horror, however. It's also a story about group dynamics and power. Nate is one of the younger men in the group. He's not exactly the omega male, but nowhere near the top. The inofficial leaders / alpha males occasionally instruct him which stories to tell, and so we understand who runs things. Over the course of the book, power shifts, several times. Nate's soft power, built on reimagining their past and mythifying their own history, and later on, painting possible futures with his words and getting ever more driven towards giving people a sense of purpose, helps him influence and shape things at times. Rhetoric and dreams make him a shaman-like figure, while the others occasionally grapple for leadership through control of force. He's all hearts and minds, the other candidates for leaders are all shock and awe, and occasionally, there are frictions between factions...

What this review fails to capture is just how rich and atmospheric the book is. It handles the uncanny and horror with such confidence. I'm not sure it could ever be made into a movie, but if so, Guillermo del Toro (who made Pan's Labyrinth) would have to direct.

Quite simply, The Beauty is a stunning achievement.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

I'm a fan of The Collector - a series / trilogy of urban fantasy novels about a soul collector working for hell by Chris Holm. So I'd been looking forward to his newest novel, even though it's a more mundane thriller.

The Killing Kind is a novel about contract killers. Our hero Michael Hendricks is a hitman with a gimmick: he only kills other hitmen. He contacts the intended victim and offers to take out the killer sent after them, for ten times the price on their head. Then he fulfills his side of the bargain.

Unfortunately for Hendricks, the organisations whose hitters he's been eliminating have realised what's going on, even if they are unable to identify and find him. So they hire the world's most expensive assassin to take care of whoever's been taking out their killers.

Also, an FBI agent has built up a collection of cases credited to 'the ghost' - their nickname for the mysterious killer of killers.

Mostly, The Killing Kind is a solidly written thriller. If you've watched any cat and mouse game between assassins on screen, there is little here that's new or different. (If that's a subgenre you enjoy, by the way, the movie Killer Elite is good fun). Unfortunately, fitting so neatly into a subgenre, the book lacks the originality and zest that made the Collector novels so much fun.

In the final act, things fall apart because of a massive, massive plothole. Semi-SPOILER WARNING: our hero gets a distress signal. Does he contact the police / get help to where the trouble is? No, he gets frustrated at his impotence to do anything and gets into his car for a five-hour-drive to the trouble. This makes about as much sense as unleashing a T-Rex while wearing high heels.

Without the plothole, the book would have deserved an extra half-star, but as it is, it's sadly a novel that doesn't rise above average.

Rating: 3/5

Monday 26 October 2015

The Silence by Tim Lebbon

The Silence is a creature feature horror novel by bestselling author and South Wales local Tim Lebbon. Besides the very atmospheric Thief of Broken Toys, I haven't read much of his work. (I tried Coldbrook, but zombie apocalypse is probably simply not my thing)

Ally is a teenager, living a fairly normal life in a town in Wales. She's lost her hearing in a car crash that killed her grandparents, she has an annoying little brother, and she's inseparable from her iPad, which she uses to collect information about the world she reads about on the news.

One day, she skips through TV channels to arrive at a live broadcast on the Discovery Channel that captures her attention. Explorers are abseiling into a cave system that had been isolated from the surface for millions of years. Then, shockingly, things go very very wrong, live on TV...

The monsters in The Silence - named vesps - are blind, bat-like carnivorous reptiles the size of cats. They are monstrous because they swarm, spread and procreate very very quickly. Once unleashed, they flood across the continent like the beasts in Pitch Black, drawn to every sound and killing through sheer numbers. The only way to survive is to be very, very quiet.

The novel is a solid thriller: we follow Ally's first person journal and her father's journey to return home while they hear about the spreading plague of monsters on the news. Then, we follow the family as they try to flee to somewhere quiet and isolated as the plague turns apocalyptic, approaching Britain with frightening speed.

As is often the case in horror novels, the monsters are not the only threat, not by a long short. People in despair and madness can be just as dangerous, perhaps even more so. The critters, in comparison, are a lot more predictable.

I picked The Silence because I wanted to read something scary. Is it scary? I didn't really think so. It's thrilling, yes, and entertaining, well written, interesting... but scary? Not really. I'm still looking for a novel that will terrify me as much as the scariest movie of the millennium, El Orfanato, did. (Any recommendations for genuinely scary books? Please tell me in the comments!)

There's one annoying goof / discontinuity in the book: clearly, the author had decided to kill off a character, and then decided to make the scene a bit more drawn out. Not a bad idea, except describing the horrible injuries as 'The face was a mess. (...) The red maw of X's shattered mouth opened in a silent scream' - and then, a mere few pages later, having dialogue with that character in the story makes no sense. Able to talk normally despite a shattered mouth, a face that's a mess? The copyeditor should have paid closer attention...

Rating: 4/5

Sunday 18 October 2015

Cardiff SFF Book Club: November Read

The small but lovely scifi / fantasy / speculative fiction book club I've been running in Cardiff since last winter has run out of chosen books!

For our next meeting, we'd like to read something scary. Something which will make us hide under the blanket, chill us and make us shiver, but not cause anyone to get anxiety attacks...

The only problem? None of us could think of the right book to suggest, and the three of us at the meeting today didn't come to any conclusions about what to pick. So we decided to pick our November book by vote

Here is a list of book suggestions. I put the list together. One book, I remembered us mentioning during our meeting, others got my attention in Waterstones, some listings stem from a desire to include some Welsh authors on the list, and some I added after realising that my initial list had zero female writers, so I wanted to make it a bit more balanced. 
  • To vote, please sign up for the email newsletter, join us on Facebook or on Goodreads, and I'll send you the link. 
  • Feel free to discuss the suggestions in the comments, or on Facebook, or on Goodreads. 
  • If you want to come along to the next meeting, but want to veto one of the suggestions (e.g. because it might tap into a phobia you have), send me an email, and I'll take it off the list. (Obviously I can't do that to every book!!!)
  • I haven't read these books (except for Through the Woods), so I'm presenting their covers and back-page blurbs.
  • Voting will be open until Wednesday 21st October
  • I suggest the meeting should be on Sunday 15th November, but in the email I'm sending out, I'll also ask whether Sundays are still the best day for meetings...

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

It began shortly after the party at which one of their members, Edward Wanderley, had died - or was killed. The Chowder Society, who for years had met in customary evening dress with the object of telling each other tales of every kind, now found themselves drawn towards the supernatural. It was some sort of solace for Edward's loss. They began to tell ghost stories, extraordinary ghost stories ... ghost stories that did not always stop when the teller finished speaking ... Then came the dreams, shared simultaneously by the Chowder Society members, forecasting horrors the four ageing men can scarcely bring themselves to discuss. And now they are about to learn what happens to those who believe they can bury the past - and get away with murder.

The Rats by James Herbert

It was when the bones of the first devoured victims were discovered that the true nature and power of these swarming black creatures - with their razor sharp teeth and the taste for human blood - began to be realized by a panic-stricken city. For millions of years man and rat had been natural enemies. But now for the first time - suddenly, shockingly, horribly - the balance of power had shifted . . .

'The effectiveness of the gruesome set pieces and brilliant finale are all its own' Sunday Times

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children;, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here - one of whom was his own grandfather - were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason. And somehow - impossible though it seems - they may still be alive. A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

The Silence by Tim Lebbon

In the darkness of a underground cave, blind creatures hunt by sound. Then there is light, voices, and they feed... Swarming from their prison, the creatures thrive; to whisper is to summon death. As the hordes lay waste to Europe, a girl watches to see if they will cross the sea. Deaf for years, she knows how to live in silence; now, it is her family's only chance of survival. To leave their home, to shun others. But what kind of world will be left?

Welsh Author
Tim Lebbon lives near Newport. I don't know what our chances are of inviting him along to a meeting, but I thought I'd mention this if any of the book bloggers among us are interested in interviewing him.

The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen

Machen's weird tales of the creepy and fantastic finally come to Penguin Classics. With an introduction from S.T. Joshi, editor of American Supernatural Tales, The White People and Other Weird Stories is the perfect introduction to the father of weird fiction. The title story "The White People" is an exercise in the bizarre leaving the reader disoriented and on edge. From the first page, Machen turns even fundamental truths upside-down, as his character Ambrose explains, "there have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin, who all their lives have never done an 'ill deed'" setting the stage for a tale entirely without logic.

Welsh Author / Classic
Arthur Machen was a Welsh writer. His books are classics. Some of his works are available for free via Project Gutenberg as they are out of copyright.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The best-known of Shirley Jackson's novels, and the inspiration for writers such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, The Haunting of Hill House is a chilling story of the power of fear.

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely assistant; Luke, the future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers - and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. The Haunting of Hill House is a powerful work of slow-burning psychological horror.

'An amazing writer ... If you haven't read her you have missed out on something marvellous' Neil Gaiman

'As nearly perfect a haunted-house tale as I have ever read' Stephen King

'Shirley Jackson is one of those highly idiosyncratic, inimitable writers...whose work exerts an enduring spell' Joyce Carol Oates

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

'It came from the woods. Most strange things do.'

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there...

Robert's Note
This is not a novel, but a series of illustrated short stories / graphic novellettes. It's very beautiful. but you can read it in about an hour. I've reviewed Through The Woods a few months ago.

Saturday 17 October 2015

The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor (also sold as The Traitor Baru Cormorant) is a unique novel, quite unlike anything I've ever read before. That alone earns it a lot of respect from me. It's also intelligent, thoughtful, strategic, all without ever forgetting about character complexity.

The Traitor starts when Baru Cormorant is a girl, watching sails in the distance. She is aware that her parents are troubled: Empire is at their doorstep, and they fear their civilization and culture is about to be subsumed. Baru has mixed feelings: there is something exciting about these ships, these foreign traders, and their spectacle and overwhelming power. Soon, she is recruited into their special school, destined to become one of the first of her people to absorb the Empire's culture fully. Then, a small skirmish with a neighbouring tribe turns into all-out war as the Empire 'supports' their allies with an army, and one of Baru's fathers dies. Her mother tells her foul play was at work: the Empire murdered him because he was in a family unit that was not monogamous. Some years later, the Empire's treatment of homosexuals becomes an urgent problem for Baru.

Baru Cormorant decides that the Empire is too big, too powerful to defeat by (her mother's dreams of) rebellion. She throws herself ever more deeply into her studies in order to rise to the very top and change the empire itself. The novel tells the story of her rise, her assignment, her betrayals...

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is not an epic fantasy novel in the traditional sense. No orcs, no dragons, no elves, no monsters, no magic. In fact, it is more akin to an alternative Earth, with alternative human cultures. Some names echo names on Earth: there are several cultures whose naming conventions appear to be Latin American, African, Polynesian, etc.

Baru Cormorant is not a traditional hero. She might leave her family behind, but she does not have a benevolent mentor. She has grand designs and dreams and wants to change the hostile world, but she does not do so through being a chosen one heading into battle on the back of a prophecy. You could argue that she is a chosen one, but she is chosen for her mind and her skill, called a savant. She is not chosen by her people or the good guys; she is chosen by the Empire.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Baru does not pursue a path of heroism and binary good/bad, does not fight the empire from outside in futile rebellion. Instead, she uses realpolitik, manoeuvring the politics of power in a way that Tywin Lannister would be proud of. She acts utterly ruthless, even if she suffers internally.

Baru Cormorant is a striking, memorable hero. I don't recall ever coming across a character like this - hard, strong, a stone cold operator, willing to do terrible things in the short term in service to her longer term goals. Not since watching the documentary 'The Fog of War' have I come across a personal conflict like that, and I struggle to think of any instance when such conflict occurred in books I've read. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, may be full of politics and battle and betrayal, full of power struggles, but in comparison with Baru Cormorant, no character or family comes close in complexity. Song of Ice and Fire has good guys and bad guys, well-intended roads to hell (Daenerys, John Snow) and degrees of badness (Jamie Lannister, Stannis Baratheon). Baru Cormorant is so much more complex because she does terrible things, knowing they are terrible, internalising her regret and guilt. She'd not a baddie nor a hero.

There is a whole lot more to the novel, beyond complex characters. An ultra-conservative empire, obsessed with eugenics and family values / 'social hygiene' but technologically advanced and, at least at the level of middle management, meritocratic. It's improving people's living standards, quality of life, life expectancy (unless you fall foul of their moral barometer), spreading through trade and capitalism and banking... while local cultures of diversity, minority faiths, non-nuclear families and sexually liberal attitudes get absorbed and destroyed. The book has geopolitics that do not match or even closely mimic our own, but take different aspects and play around with them. Falcrest acts like modern America  / China, with the social mores of Nazi Germany and Saudi Arabia. You can read it in a dozen different ways, but it's a chilling adversary to encounter in a novel.

Similarly, there is a lot in the book about the workings of power, the difference between the power people see and power as it really works. In fact, even though it must have written well before the #piggate affair, The Traitor's circles of power work exactly as described in 'The PM, the Pig and Musings of Power'. The parallels between novel and real events are so striking that I cannot help feeling a chill at how insightful, intelligent and authentic this novel really is.

I will admit that it lost some momentum in the second half, but it makes up for that with an utterly relentless finale. Highly recommended if you're looking for a very smart, complex and entertaining read.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 11 October 2015

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy is the second book by Jenny Lawson (a.k.a. The Bloggess), after Let's Pretend This Never Happened. If you loved the first book, you'll love this too. If you didn't, you won't love this either.

It occurs to me that I could easily copy my review of Let's Pretend (her autobiography) and paste it for Furiously Happy (her book about mental illness), as the same points apply - except that Furiously Happy is even more scattershot, lacking the sequential bits of memoir that held the first half of Let's Pretend together.

In fact, let's recycle some of my review here:

I bought the book, in the mood for something whimsical and uplifting. So, really, I should not be too disappointed. The book is largely whimsical and often funny. It turns out that I must have hoped for more.
Much of the books is basically a collection of "best of" bits from her blog, with minimal (or no) further editing or narrative at all.
Our narrator is clearly overdiagnosed. Since when is it a mental condition for women to experience occasional anxiety attacks? I'm not sure I know any who don't. The scariest part of the book is realising that doctors overdiagnose and overmedicate perfectly normal people (probably, mostly women), who then walk around convinced their newly applied label means they are ill / crazy. In fact, they're just as crazy / normal as everyone else...
It's not an unpleasant read, but unfulfilling if you're hoping for a story or a philosophy. Fun in small doses, but not really ready for a book-length dose yet.
I feel terribly mean writing this: the Bloggess seems to be a very nice person. 
In fact, Jenny Lawson comes across as a wonderful person. Reading the book, I sort of wanted to hug her and be her friend and hang out with her and joke and laugh and play with cute animals (alive or taxidermied) with her. She comes across like a very real, very decent human being, with not an ounce of phoniness, blessed with a sense of humour and whimsy and the ability to sparkle in between low phases and self-doubts. She's the blogging world's most famous Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

But this is a book, and it turns out I expect something different from a book. I expect it to hold together in some way, to be more than a collection of random funny anecdotes.

I can think of several friends who might enjoy and appreciate the book. I enjoyed it, too, but it did not stick together properly, it lacked bookiness.

That said, if you are looking for something funny and light to read, something you can dip in and out of, then you could do worse than try Jenny Lawson's books and blog. It's also likely to make a good gift.

Rating: 2/5

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti is the second of Tor's new novella project that I have read. After the superb Witches of Lychford, my expectations were high. I'd previously read Zarah the Windseeker and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, but I was hoping Binti might convert me from a vaguely curious reader to a fan.

Sadly, it didn't.

Binti starts out with our heroine sneaking away from home to start a journey away from her heritage, towards education and space. She is at the bottom of the social pecking order, standing out as different and ultra-traditional in a modern world, with strangers feeling entitled to treat her like a curious animal or a freak.

She takes her place on a starship to travel to the universe's most respected academy - and then the real meat of the story begins. It involves aliens and conflict, heritage and stolen cultural artefacts.

The problem with Binti is that the most interesting story takes place before the narrative begins. Binti's determination to start a new life is a huge thing - but it's a decision already made when the story starts. Being treated as second or third class citizen because of her primitive / traditional heritage (or rather, because of her tribe) is vaguely interesting, but an aspect of the story that is quickly overshadowed.

Once the main plot develops, Binti does not achieve any of her successes through merit. She's immune to an attack because of an artefact she has found on her home planet and smuggled aboard as a talisman. The mixture she applies to her skin turns out to make her useful to the aliens. Communication becomes possible, essentially, because of magic.

Binti might be a gifted prodigy, but none of her achievements in the story are earned because of her skill and intellect. Luck and Deus Ex Machina save the day, again and again and again.

There were a lot of interesting aspects early in the story - Binti as an outsider who is patronised benevolently (one man tells her that she's the pride of her people because she has earned a place in the academy - i.e. in his, the higher culture. He's ignorant of the fact that she has in fact permanently shamed and exiled herself by accepting the place) or dismissively and malevolently (some women touch the film of mixture on her skin and discuss its ingredients and smells in her presence, clearly considering her a primitive).

As soon as we see people as 'other' we treat them differently. In most cases, we assign them an inferior rank in our heads. Whether we distrust, resent, dismiss or look down upon them, or whether we cutesify, protect, try to save them - either way, we don't see them as equal. We expect less of them, whether intellectually, morally, socially or physically. Binti travels into a world where everyone others her, where everyone is above her in standing, and to do so, she gives up her place in a world where she was an equal to others. As such, it is terribly disappointing that she surprises the people she meets, and earns their respect, not through merit, but through luck.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 4 October 2015

Cardiff Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club: THE MARTIAN!!!

I've been distributing new flyers around Cardiff this weekend to encourage new people to join our Science Fiction & Fantasy / Speculative Fiction Book Club.

If you're visiting my blog because you found a flyer, hello!

Book Club Background

Our book club is fairly small. Meeting sizes over the past year have ranged from two to nine people - the last two meetings had three attendees, so we decided to renew our efforts to recruit our pool of book clubbers and inject some fresh blood. Hence the flyers.

We're a relaxed book club: not everyone reads every book.

The more regular attendees include myself (Robert), Nikki, ThomasSarah and Kelly. Several others have come along from time to time.

You can also find our book club on Facebook and on Goodreads.

October: The Martian

The book we're reading for the next meeting is Andy Weir's 'The Martian'.

We're also planning to see the movie in a cinema. UPDATE: We'll see the film this Saturday, 10th October, at 11:20am in Cineworld Cardiff. This should be early enough for some of us to watch the rugby afterwards.  :-)

November: Halloween Read?

For all existing members and those showing up at our next meeting: Should we read something scary for Halloween / our November meeting?

If so, any recommendations?

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora is a convincing novel about interstellar travel. Forget faster-than-light and other magic: we meet our spacefarers about twenty years before they will reach their destination, and over 150 years after their great great grandparents set off. They are twenty light years away from Earth: communication is two strands of one-way streams passing each other in the dark. There is no possibility of dialogue. Their spaceship is made up of a central spine and two cylinders of connected 'biomes' - each of which is the home to one replica of a climate region from Earth. Their mission is to populate an Earth like planet, twenty light years away.

After 160 or so years, the society on board the ship is rigidly managed by a committee. The biggest threat is human population growth, so procreation is strictly regulated (while attitudes to recreational sex are generally relaxed). Their ship has its own history, with mysteries and past upheavals casting shadows into their present and into the future.

The ship and its habitats are showing signs of wear and tear, and despite the engineers' best efforts, it looks like the ship could not go on forever. The differential evolutionary development speeds of all the different life forms aboard are having odd effects - their ship is an island in space, but even that analogy is not completely useful.

Devi is, effectively, the chief engineer, even if she insists that everyone is equal. She's extremely competent, respected throughout all parts of the ship, serious and constantly, quietly fretting over the myriad little problems that beset their ship and its habitats. Her husband Badim is a counterpoint: calm, warm, and a solid source of support to her and their daughter, Freya.

Freya is the hero of the story. We meet her as a child, taller than most adults already (she will grow into the tallest human aboard), curious and adventurous, a bit naive, and, in her mother's eyes, mentally slow. At night she sometimes sneaks out of her room to eavesdrop on her parents' conversations, and she feels the acute agony of her mother's judgement and generally distant demeanour.

Freya goes through a coming of age rite - to walk the ship, explore all the biomes of both rings and meet all the communities aboard - while the ship slows down to be able to stop when it gets to their destination. Devi keeps trying to fix the systems so everything stays in equilibrium, battling material decay, system imbalances, and the progression of time.

Meanwhile, Devi asks the ship to tell her a story: the story of their journey. The ship, run by a quantum computer, struggles with this assignment: a human narrative requires a near-human mind. Devi has been programming and instructing the ship to self-programme her entire life. She has turned a quantum computer running static software routines into a dynamic self-improving system, and now, asking it to make its own programming ever more flexible, she has started shaping the ship's software into something that it becoming a mind, a personality, a self.

Aurora is a thought through, convincing novel. Freya is the heart and soul of the story, and it is gut-wrenching to see her suffer on several occasions. The ship is the counterpoint character, a very introspective mind that constantly questions language and logic. At times, the story moves quickly and the narrative becomes a summary of developments. At others, the narrative zooms in. It's not always clear who is telling the story - at some point, it seems as if the novel has been written by the ship, while this later turns out not to be the case.

As a hard science fiction novel, it's perhaps unsurprising that it takes its ideas and its thoughts very seriously, while the characters are a little bit secondary. The population is made up of regular people, with very few being outstanding or particularly unique. Devi, yes, but everyone else is a little more flat. Freya is a person the reader gets attached to more because we see her grow up from childhood to adulthood and beyond, rather than because she is uniquely heroic.

Devi probably has a more complex internal life than she ever lets anyone see - even the reader can only infer her thoughts and emotions; she keeps her own counsel. If you are looking for a novel that is fun and light, full of adventures and iconic characters, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want to read a book that mulls interstellar travel as seriously as it can, and which comes up with a very realistic scenario, then Aurora is well worth your time. It's never boring, but, conversely, it rarely gets very exciting, either.

It's hard SF, based sufficiently on science for it to seem possible. I found it interesting and compelling: a solid accomplishment.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 3 October 2015

Dream Paris by Tony Ballantyne

Dream Paris is the second in a series of books, following on from Dream London. The book ditches most of the characters from Dream London, with only two (that I noticed) reappearing.

Dream Paris is the story of Anna, a teenage girl living in the slowly redeveloping ruins of London, which has only just re-established its reality after a takeover attempt by the Dream World.

Her parents are absent, having marched into the parks at the end of Dream London, while Anna only  narrowly escaped from the march. She's coming to terms with life on her own, looking after lost and vulnerable neighbours from time to time, and vaguely looking forward to passing her A-levels and moving on to university.

Dream London has not passed without leaving some aftereffects behind. People take an undue interest in the social lives and virtue of women. Social mores have reverted by a generation or two (in Dream London, women were either housewives, whores, or, much more rarely, femme fatales), so Anna is not entirely surprised when a social worker shows up at her door, tasked with taking her into care.

The meeting with the social worker does not go as expected: another person shows up, a representative of the government with a clear history with the Dreamworld, and he has plans for Anna. She is given a fortune, a relic from Dream London. Fortunes are absolutely deterministic: what is foretold must happen. Unfortunately, the fortunes are in short snippets and impressions: an argument with her mother, a night of passion, a death...

Anna's fortune foretells that she will meet her mother in Dream Paris. The British government has an interest in revisiting the Dream World, as the incursion into London has left Britain reeling. They send Anna on her quest, accompanied by a soldier / bodyguard.

Dream London, if you haven't read it, is a mesmerising, evocative novel. Surrealism and dream logic intermingle effortlessly with an adventure story. It's a novel that reminds the reader of Dark City, of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It's very archetypal, with patriarchical gender roles and a strong sense of location / London.

Dream Paris, by comparison, is different. This time, too, there is surreal dream logic at work. The plot successfully balances the unpredictable nature of crazy dreams with the predictable shape of a regular story. Having a good structure with plenty of thrills makes it satisfying to read.

Once again, there is also a strong sense of location. Paris is a different city, with different archetypes. Dream Paris is caught up in perpetual revolution. Eiffel Towers spring up everywhere and need to be repressed, while La Terreur and Madame Guillotine lurk just around the corner.

Dream Paris stands up to reading on its own. It is a slightly superior novel to its precursor: Dream London made the reader feel like being sucked further and further into a dream. It was a sinkhole of surrealism, a huge credit to writerly craftsmanship, but, towards the end, it was so surreal that the reading experience stopped being pleasurable and started feeling more than a little nightmarish. Dream Paris, on the other hand, is set in an established Dream City. It is not trying to take over real Paris. There is less of a sense of spiralling, exponentially growing surrealism, as this city is more or less set in its ways. People are still shaped by the Dreamworld, but citizens here have lived their entire lives in Dreamworld: they are not brutalised by a shifting reality. Dream London turned women into whores, ethnic minorities into primitives. It did this, fairly rappidly, to people who were modern Londoners to begin with. Dream Paris may be full of iconic characters, but they have grown into their roles over their lifetimes. They have more agency, are less the victims of a traumatic invasion of their psyches.

Dream Paris is full of interesting, quirky ideas. Scary clowns, porcelain dolls, sinister banks, edible duels, integer bombs, non-continuous mathematics, sexism and morality... it's a novel that positively fizzes with originality.

If you enjoyed Dream London, I think you'll love Dream Paris. If you found Dream London interesting, but not quite to your liking, you will probably enjoy Dream Paris more, And if you haven't read Dream London, I would recommend it, and recommend Dream Paris more.

Rating: 4.5/5