It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Machine by Jennifer Pelland

machinecover3_largeCelia Krajewski has a fatal genetic condition. Since it’s unique to her it will take some ten years before a cure is possible. Unfortunately, by that point she will have suffered irreparable brain damage. Happily, in the USA of the late twenty-first century, it’s possible to put Celia’s body into stasis until the cure is ready. And so that she does not miss out on her life during that period, her mind can be uploaded into a bioandroid body which mimics her appearance in all particulars.

This decision has unintended consequences: Celia’s wife leaves her, convinced that the bioandroid Celia is not the real Celia. There is a great deal of popular support for this position – so much so, in fact, that those in the bioandroid programme must keep their participation secret or they might be subjected to violence.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Celia begins to doubt her own humanity. She cuts herself, but beneath the skin is some sort of ceramic surface. Unwilling to accept that her identity is unchanged, Celia feels a need to explore her machine self. She visits online clubs where “bot freaks” hang out, and through one meets the Mechanic, a hacker who can give her what she wants. Through him, she meets a group of “mechanicals” who have altered their bioandroid bodies such they they no longer resemble or work like their biological originals. One in particular, called 1101, especially attracts Celia. 1101 has changed its bioandroid body to resemble an artist’s dummy. It recognises no gender, nor its previous humanity. Another, Gyne, has a body that can morph between male and female.

It is the fetishistic side of Celia’s situation which occupies much of the story of Machine. At one point, for example, she accompanies two of the mechanicals as they act as “love doll” prostitutes; and later plays the part of a love doll herself. Machine is at its best when it’s exploring this response to Celia’s machine identity. The exposition explaining the origin of the bioandroid programme is inelegant and unnecessary; and the popular reaction to bioandroids is clearly based on the US’s anti-abortion movement, but still feels a little too arbitrary to convince. In fact, the world-building throughout mostly feels a little too light to really convince. But these are minor quibbles.

There’s a disturbing prurience to the mechanicals and the changes they’ve made of, and the uses to which they put, their new bodies. Rather than explore how her new body makes her stronger, hardier, or no longer requiring food or oxygen, Celia chooses not to make herself more than human, but instead less than human. That she does so by changing her appearance to look less human, and through participation in the sex trade, seems only fitting. In Machine, Pelland has chosen an odd way to explore her theme, and though it’s skillfully done, it’s not an approach that will appeal to everyone.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012, Apex Publications, $14.95, 978-1937009137)

This review originally appeared in Vector 271, Winter 2012.


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Reading diary, #2

Most of the reading I’ve been doing over the past month or so has been dipping into research books as I wrangle Apollo Quartet 4 into shape. (Not long now. Honest.) So there’s not been that much of yer actual reading of fiction. Except for, well, the following…

The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder (1977). I read this for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

darebioDan Dare: A Biography, Daniel Tatarsky (2010). Back in the late 1970s, my parents bought me a Hamlyn anthology of Dan Dare stories one Christmas, containing ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, both of which remain my favourite Dare stories. Several years ago, I collected the full set of Hawk Publishing Dan Dare reprints (see here). So when a “biography” of Dare was published a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy. And… it’s not very good. The book tells the story of Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and how Eagle was begun. But the writing throughout is terrible, and I spotted several inaccuracies (on things not related to Eagle, to be fair). There are some nice colour plates, particularly of the mock-ups of the first issue, and a useful appendix giving plot summaries of all the Dan Dare stories published in Eagle. But there are better books about Hampson, and reading about Dan Dare is no substitute for reading the actual Dan Dare comic strips.

whatdoctororderedspread0What The Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading him in Interzone back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he has not been exactly prolific – three novels to date, and What The Doctor Ordered is only his second collection after 1990’s The Brains of Rats. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a few stories still uncollected. What The Doctor Ordered collects fourteen stories, dating from 1997 to 2012, and originally appearing in a variety of venues, such as F&SF, Asimov’s, Flurb and a handful of original anthologies, mostly horror or dark fantasy. The one thing I’d forgotten during all the years I’d not read Blumlein was how bloody good he is. His three novels are all too different to really get a handle on him as a novel writer. But his short fiction really is very, very good. Best story in here is ‘Isostasy’, although ‘The Roberts’ is also excellent. Blumlein’s fiction is unsettling in ways that I think few authors manage to be. His prose is clinical and sharp, and he paints realistic pictures… into which he drops something fantastical that nonetheless manages to fit in. And then he twists it in ways that makes it seem all the more uncomfortable. One of the best collections I’ve read in recent years.

catseyeCat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood (1988). The narrator of this novel is a middle-aged artist, Elaine, who has returned to Toronto to attend a retrospective of her career. This triggers a series of long extended flashback sequences, in which she remembers her childhood in the city, particularly her friendship with three schoolfriends, one of whom was a cruel bully; but she also remembers her college years and her early years as an artist. That bullying schoolfriend, Cordelia, haunts Elaine, even in the present – although the tables did eventually turn, and while Elaine never bullied Cordelia to the extent she was bullied herself, Elaine does recount how Cordelia unravelled over the years and eventually ended up in a sanatorium. If Cordelia’s decline is signposted throughout the novel, then I missed most of it, though her fall as an ironic mirror image of Elaine’s rise to success did seem a little too obvious. Cat’s Eye was a surprisingly easy read, and if the early chapters, detailing Elaine’s childhood, were a little grim and hard to take in places, there was plenty more in the novel to balance them. Worth reading.

Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978). Another book read for review on SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1974). The fourth book of the Raj Quartet, and the war is over in Europe, the Americans have dropped their atom bombs, but there is still Malaysia to be taken back from the Japanese. In India, demission of power from the UK is a certainty – the socialist government back home are focusing on domestic issues, and are not interested in Empire. This novel introduces Guy Perron, played by Charles Dance in the TV adaptation (and probably the character most remembered after Timothy Piggot-Smith’s Ronald Merrick), who despite his privileged background has managed to stay a sergeant throughout the war. He meets Merrick, who is now a major dealing with the Indian army deserters who joined the Germans and Japanese, and is detached to his staff. Through Merrick, he also meets Sarah Layton, whose narrative figured prominently in both The Day Of The Scorpion and The Towers Of Silence. Also prominent in the narrative is Nigel Rowan, who made a brief appearance in one of the earlier books. Rowan and Perron are old school-mates, as was Hari Kumar – whose false imprisonment as a political detenu by Merrick, who is wrongly convinced Kumar raped Daphne Manners (the events surrounding this form the core of the first book, The Jewel In The Crown). Through Rowan, Perron and the Laytons, Scott examines the route to independence and its effect on Britons living in India, weaving in and out of the plot of the preceding three books as they relate to Perron, Rowan and Sarah Layton (the TV adaptation went for a straight chronological structure, and misses a lot of the books’ arguments and subtleties). Scott is quite scathing in his critique of the Raj, and of the British who ruled India. It’s not hard to understand why these four books are considered classics, they’re certainly amongst the best post-war British literature I’ve read. I suspect I’ll be rereading them again one day.

screamingplanetAlexandro Jodorowsky’s Screaming Planet, Alexandro Jodorowsky & various artists (2013). I’m a fan of Jodorowsky’s films and bandes dessinée, but I knew nothing about this title when I bought it. Still, Jodorowsky… It proved to be a linked anthology of short pieces, written by Jodorowsk but drawn by a variety of artists, which featured in the relaunched Métal Hurlant. A sentient planet is mistreated by its natives so badly it somehow makes them build an enormous metal head, into which it decants its personality, and which is then blasted into space – this is the “screaming planet”. And as it journeys through the cosmos, it passes by other worlds and its presence affects one or more people on those worlds. The story themselves are linked only by the giant head passing in the sky. Some work better than others. This is minor Jodorowsky – although he does confess in an introduction that he is used to working at longer lengths and found writing these “short stories” challenging.


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Reading diary, #1

As I did last year, I plan to document my reading throughout 2015. Some books I may pull out and dedicate a full post to, others I will only mention in passing as I’ll have reviewed them elsewhere (chiefly on SF Mistressworks or in Interzone). Again, as in 2014, I’m going to try and alternate genders in my long fiction reading, although from the looks of it I seem to have failed a bit during these first few weeks…

Shades-of-Milk-and-Honey-by-Mary-Robinette-KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (2010). I am, I freely admit, a fan of Heyer’s novels, and while I wouldn’t call myself an Austen fan, I’ve certainly read her books. So when I first saw Kowal’s Regency fantasy, I knew that sooner or later I’d be picking up a copy. In fact, I received this book as a Christmas present. And read it during the journey back to the UK. It’s pretty much as you’d expect – old-maid-ish daughter of comfortably well-off provincial family gets all excited when eligible men turn up at the local nob’s house. The difference here is that people can practice a sort of light-based magic, “glamour”, which allows them to create illusions – and this has become a new… well, not art-form, but certainly a form of “accomplishment”. Jane is the plain older sister of beautiful Melody, whose charms are sure to land her a good match, except Jane is gifted at glamour – so cue a pair of “interesting” gentlemen who are drawn to Jane, Melody’s bitterness because she’s smart enough to realise a pretty face is not enough, the return of a childhood friend who proves to be a bounder, a young girl who Jane takes under her wing… It’s a polished piece, perhaps a little too polished – there was something that didn’t quite ring true about it all, not that it prevented me from enjoying it. Kowal handles the relationships well, and the glamour is nicely done – but the story seemed wrapped up almost as an afterthought with a throwaway happy-ever-after ending. At the moment, I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering with the rest of the series.

octopussyOctopussy & The Living Daylights, Ian Fleming (1966). The last of Fleming’s 007 books, and that means I’ve now read the lot. I can now cross them off the list. Yay. Although, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I decided I had to read them all – because it turned out they were all pretty terrible. Octopussy & The Living Daylights is, as the title might suggest, a collection – and both story titles have been used for Bond movies, although the films bear zero resemblance to the source material (as usual). In ‘Octopussy’, an ex-SOE man who was a bit naughty with some gold in Italy just after the war finished is visited at his home in Jamaica by Bond. Certain hints are dropped, but the man accidentally gets stung by a stonefish while feeding it to an octopus he has sort of adopted. In ‘The Living Daylights’, Bond has been charged with killing a sniper who they’ve learnt will make an attempt on a defector who’s making a run for it from East to West Berlin. Bond has always been brutal, but this one is more brutal than most. ‘The Property of a Lady’ sees Bond trying to flush out a Soviet spy during an auction for a Fabergé globe. The last story is a squib in which Bond flies to New York, daydreams about the day ahead… only to cock up the reason he’s been sent there. Meh.

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984). The second book of the Compact Space quintet. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (2014). I’d been sufficiently impressed by Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha to overcome any reluctance I might have at reading a secondary-world fantasy. I’d also seen a lot of positivity for this book on social media. So it would not be unfair to say my expectations were reasonably high… And yet, as I read it, I just couldn’t get that excited. Partly, it was the casual brutality – in particular, a world in which a people have been enslaved for thousands of years and their masters are now slaughtering them like cattle. Fight-scenes, even battles, are one thing, but the systematic butchery in The Mirror Empire read more like an attempt to up the ante in grimdark’s brutality arms race, and I’ve yet to be convinced such a race is even a good thing. The much-touted five-genders – a neat idea – is only mentioned half a dozen times in passing, and matriarchal societies in epic fantasy are not actually all that new… But. The world-building was mostly done well, even if it does take a while to get the hang of things; and the characters were (relatively) sympathetic, although some were more successful than others. But the plot really does take a long time to get into gear, and you’re two-thirds through the book before any kind of shape becomes apparent. As epic fantasies go, The Mirror Empire is not as innovative as has been claimed, although it’s plainly a notable, if overly dark, example of the genre. More than anything, it put me in mind of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, although they’re the better books. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with volume 2 of the Worldbreaker Saga. I will, however, give Hurley’s new sf series a go when that appears.

a-man-lies2207A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014). The Nazis were ousted by the Communists in the early 1930s, and now Hitler is scratching a living in London, under the name Wolf, as a private eye. There’s something about the conceit that doesn’t really work – whether it’s Hitler downtrodden in London, or just a Chandleresque PI in 1930s London – but Tidhar nonetheless makes it work. Though Wolf is by definition a nasty piece of work, it’s hard not to sympathise with him as he’s beaten and attacked by all and sundry, even those you’d expect to be on his side. While presented as pulp, Wolf’s narrative is really an excellent black comedy – it uses the language of the former, deliberately spoofing Chandler and Hammet in several places, but it is its shape which identifies it as black comedy. Even those characters whose sensibilities align with Wolf’s turn on him, and eventually the biggest irony of all lands him on a ship emigrating to Palestine under a Jewish name. The title of the novel, however, refers to the other narrative in the book, about a prisoner at Auschwitz, who used to write shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction. Wolf is his invention. Comparisons with Osama are inevitable as both books posit a real-world villain occupying the role of a pulp fiction hero in an invented universe. On finishing A Man Lies Dreaming, I’d have said the earlier novel was the better, but as I came to write this quick review I decided I preferred this one. A Man Lies Dreaming is an effortless read, and Wolf is an excellent fictional creation. It’s easy to overlook how cleverly done it is. Which is a shame.

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985). This was one of only two books The Women’s Press published under their YA sf imprint, Livewire. It was originally published in the US as a sf novel for adults. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (2015). Although sneakily presented as the first book of a diptych, this is actually part of an ongoing series set in the same universe. I reviewed it for Interzone.


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Reading diary, #12

The last bunch of books read in 2014… Almost. There’s one more I’m currently reading, but I’ll lead off my first reading diary post of 2015 with it. I’ll do a numbers post once the year is actually over.

rusticationRustication, Charles Palliser (2014) I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s works for years, but he doesn’t produce much. In fact, I thought he’d packed it in. But during this summer I’d spotted a new charity shop in town, near Fanoush, where I occasionally go for a falafel wrap at lunch-time. So one day after getting my wrap – they’re actually made with proper khubz, not stupid tortillas – I popped into the charity shop. And spotted Rustication. Result. The novel is set in 1863 over the Christmas holiday and takes the form of a journal, with anonymous letters inserted. Richard Shenstone has been rusticated from Cambridge after the suspicious death of a friend. His father died earlier in disgrace, and his near-destitute mother and sister are now living in a run-down house on the edge of a salt marsh near the town of Thurchester. Shortly after Richard’s arrival, someone starts sending obscene poison pen letters to the worthy women of the area and their daughters, and sneaking about at night and killing farm animals in horrible ways. Clues suggest Richard is responsible, although since it’s his journal which forms the narrative it’s clears it’s not him. Having said that, he does have an opium habit, which leads him to do a number of stupid things which make him look guilty. It all comes to a head when the local earl’s nephew and heir is murdered returning from an Assembly at which Richard had threatened him for compromising his sister’s honour. Rustication is pure Gothic, but tricked up as a literary thriller. It’s a slighter work than The Quincunx or Betrayals, but I’m still a fan.

the-man-with-the-golden-gunThe Man with the Golden Gun, Ian Fleming (1965) There’s a story that Fleming had told people he planned to become a writer once World War II ended, but one of his upper crust friends told him, “Oh Ian, don’t. You don’t have the brains for it.” And he didn’t, you know. Have the brains for it. The 007 novels, and I’ve now read them all except for Octopussy & The Living Daylights (which is on the TBR), range from bad to terrible. And The Man with the Golden Gun is toward the terrible end of the scale. Of course, the film bears no resemblance to it. (The only film which follows the plot of the novel is Thunderball, and that’s because it’s actually a novelisation of the script… and  a rights battle between Fleming and four others subsequently tied up the title for decades.) In The Man with the Golden Gun the novel, Scaramanga plies his trade in the Caribbean and has links to the Castro regime. Bond has been sent after him because he returned from You Only Live Twice brainwashed by the KGB to kill M. But now he’s had electro-shock therapy and he’s back to his normal self. M is still wary, however: hence the mission to terminate Scaramanga. Either Bond will prove his mettle, or Scaramanga will get rid of an embarrassing loose end. Bond stumbles across a clue revealing that Scaramanga is in a town in Jamaica, heads there, meets the man in a brothel, and is hired as security for an upcoming meeting Scaramanga is hosting at his half-finished luxury hotel nearby, where “investors” (ie, mobsters) will be persuaded to hand over more cash to finish the hotel. Scaramanga talks like a hoodlum from a cheap television series, Bond is his usual two-dimensional self, and Fleming can’t resist getting in his usual offensive digs at homosexuality, women and non-whites. Parts of the novel simply don’t ring true at all, as if Fleming has done little or no research; the only bits that are convincing are his descriptions of the countryside (Fleming, of course, lived in Jamaica). As with the bulk of the Bond books, you’re better off sticking with the film.

languedotdocLangue[dot]doc 1305, Gillian Polack (2014) A team of scientists have been sent back in time to the titular place and time, and they have a single historian with them – who was parachuted in at the last minute after the original two historian members of the team pulled out. Artemisia Wormwood, however, is not an expert on 14th-century Languedoc, but on mediaeval saints. Fortunately, she knows considerably more about the time and place than the scientists, who are there to refine their theory of time travel and investigate the natural environment. The team set up in a system of caves under a hill beside the village of St-Guilhelm-le-Désert and, while they keep apart from the villagers (only Wormwood speaks old French, and she does that haltingly), they make no secret of their presence. In fact, the scientists behave like a bunch of spoilt kids. They don’t seem to care about the impact they may be having on the lives of those in the village. Wormwood acts as an unofficial liaison between the two groups, via disgraced knight Guilhelm. This one is definitely a slow-burner. Not much happens during the course of the novel, it’s more a diary of incidents experienced by the time team. However, it definitely packs a sting in the tail. The prose is polished, Polack evokes her period extremely well, and the whole thing is very readable if somewhat languidly paced. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Race, Nina Allan (2014) Allan’s first novel-length piece of fiction is actually four linked novellas, and also very lightly meta-fictional. I wrote about it here.

From the Legend of Biel, Mary Staton (1975). This was the first book of the second series of Ace Specials. I read it for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

The Moon King, Neil Williamson (2014). I’m working on a longer review of this, so I’ll just mention it in passing here. I will say, however, that I enjoyed it much more than I had expected to. (I’ve known Neil for ages, so I expected it to be well-written, but had thought it wouldn’t be quite to my taste – I was wrong.) Anyway, a post on this novel should appear here soon-ish.

firstfifteenThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2014). Found this in a charity shop, had heard it mentioned here and there, understood it to be not unlike Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (which I thought good), so decided to give it a go. And yes, I did enjoy it. The prose is nice and breezy, the central premise – people who relive their lives over and over again – was handled quite cleverly, and the eponymous protagonist was sympathetic and plausible. Plot-wise, the book is less successful – although hinted at on the first page, the plot didn’t actually kick into gear until over halfway in, and even then it spent more time on the silly maguffin at the core of the book than it did the far more interesting process by which the villain removed all his enemies. I’d seen mention of North’s Touch, due out early in 2015, and thought it might be worth a go. On the strength of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, I’ll almost certainly be picking up a copy.

Casebook2The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Ackroyd (2008). Victor Frankenstein, a young man from Switzerland, joins Oxford University, where he meets Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two become friends, although their interests only just coincide – Frankenstein wants to understand how life is created, and focuses his investigations on reanimating dead bodies using “the electrical fluid”, whereas Shelley’s investigations are more metaphysical. Even after Shelley is expelled, the two remain close – Frankenstein even moves to London to be near him. In order to further experiment, Frankenstein contacts some “resurrection men” and has them deliver cadavers to his laboratory in Limehouse. Most of his experiments are failures, but when he is handed the body of Jack Keat, a few short hours after he committed suicide (he was dying of consumption), Frankenstein successfully brings him back to life… And you just know the story going to end up at the Villa Diodati. Ackroyd takes a few liberties with Shelley’s life, and Byron comes across as a dickhead, but the whole adds up to an entertaining take on the Frankenstein story and the Romantic poets. The period detail is impressively handled, Frankenstein is a sympathetic narrator, and there are a number of neat touches to the scientific thought of the day which I found amusing. A good book.

femalespeciesThe Female of the Species, Carol Joyce Oates (2006). My second Oates. This one is a collection of short stories, many of which originally appeared in genre magazines. I think I can safely say now that Oates doesn’t quite work for me. According to the blurb, in these stories “women are confronted by the evil around them and surprised by the evil they find within them”. I thought the most successful story was ‘Madison at Guignol’, in which a trophy wife polished to a lacquer-like gloss learns of a secret door at one of her favourite high-end boutiques and insists on admittance through it: Fifth Avenue meets Gothic horror. Another one I liked was ‘Hunger’, a much longer piece about a bored wife who, after a holiday affair with a younger man, is horrified when he turns up at her home. Even though she loves him – though it seems to be more of a passion – she’s not willing to jeopardise her marriage. Not all of the stories worked for me – the one about the nurse felt too much like reportage, in some of the others the prose seemed too focused on effect rather than the story. The reason for Oates’ stature is plain to see in this collection, but there are other writers I’d sooner read.

themartianandyweirThe Martian, Andy Weir (2014). This is an odd one. The book has been hugely successful, so much so Ridley Scott is apparently making a film of it. Yet most of the praise for the book I’ve seen has been outside fandom. Is this because the book was originally self-published, and did so well on Kindle it was then picked up by a major imprint? Or is it that hard science fiction has fallen out of favour with genre fandom? Actually, I think it’s neither, but rather the fact that a) The Martian is a resolutely commercial book, and in style and approach has more in common with technothrillers than it does science fiction novels, b) it is completely hollow, there’s no meaty idea for a sf reader to get their teeth into, and c) it’s actually not very good, just pages and pages of a very irritating narrator explaining how he managed to survive on Mars after accidentally being left behind. It’s basically “Home Alone on the Red Planet”, with the planet itself playing the part of the inept burglars. (Sticking Val Kilmer, or his lookalike, on the cover, probably didn’t harm its chances either.) The original self-published novel has been padded out with scenes set at NASA, as they learn the narrator, Mark Watney, is still alive and then set about putting together a rescue plan. But the characterisation is paper-thin and everyone sounds pretty much the same. Watney’s various predicaments are interesting, and some of his solutions are mildly clever – but Weir throws so much bad luck at him, it soon beggars belief. We also get little real idea of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars. A handful of mentions of the 0.4G, no mention at all of the surface radiation, but lots about the cold. Lots. It was also my understanding that at such low atmospheric pressures, gale-force winds would actually cause very little damage. The Martian could have taken place pretty much anywhere, even the Antarctic, and very little would need to change (well, the technology would have to be dialled down a little). I’m completely mystified by all the praise this book has been receiving. We might as well claim Clive Cussler’s latest sweatshop effort is one of the best sf novels of the year…


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The Race, Nina Allan

I first came across Allan’s fiction in Interzone, and while her stories always struck me as well-written, there was a vagueness to some of the details in them which never quite rung true for me. ‘Flying in the Face of God’, which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2010, is a case in point. The relationship between the two central characters is handled beautifully, but the story is also about a space programme for which one of them has been selected. And something about that space programme felt unconvincing. A recent reread of the story in the collection Microcosms did not change my mind.

Of course, many people will say I’m missing the point of the story – or rather, by focusing on that one aspect, I’m missing what the story is about. And that’s almost certainly true. But a story is more than the sum of its parts, and a failure in one of those parts can throw the whole out of balance. It’s entirely subjective, of course – I can admire a story like ‘Flying in the Face of God’, without thinking it as good as everyone else seems to. And one thing I do admire about the story is Allan’s facility at creating worlds slightly off-kilter from ours, ones just strange enough to unsettle without seeming completely unfamiliar. Which brings us to The Race, her first piece of novel-length fiction.

the_race_cover_spacewitch-150x212

The Race comprises four novellas, titled ‘Jenna’, ‘Christy’, ‘Alex’ and ‘Maree’ after their narrators. Jenna lives in Sapphire, a town on the edge of Romney Marsh, in a future that is plainly not our own. Her brother, Del, manages a dog track, where smartdogs are raced by “runners”, people with an empathic connection to the smartdogs mediated by implants. ‘Jenna’ is essentially a family history and an exploration of Jenna’s small world (we learn very little of the world outside Sapphire). Jenna becomes a maker of handmade gauntlets for the runners, and Del gets married and has a baby girl. A few years later, the girl is kidnapped, and it transpires Del was involved with drug dealers and owes them money for a missing shipment.

Christy, on the other hand, lives in our world. Her father and brother run a house clearance firm. ‘Christy’ focuses on Christy’s relationship with her brother, Derek, and his girlfriends. First Monica, and then Lin. Derek is a thug and a nasty piece of work. After he sexually assaults Christy, she leaves for London and university. She becomes a writer, and ‘Jenna’ is revealed as one of her stories. It is during one visit home that she meets Lin, who Derek tells her he will marry. But then Lin disappears, and Christy fears her brother may have murdered her.

Alex is the ex-boyfriend of Lin, and a journalist based in London. He is contacted by Christy – several years have passed since the central events of ‘Christy’ – who asks him to come and visit her in her home in Hastings. She asks him about Lin, and he describes an incident when Derek assaulted him because Lin had come to talk over her fears about Derek. Alex also reveals that Lin is alive and well, as he saw her in the street several years later but she blanked him.

The final novella is set in an alternate UK. Maree is an orphan and an empath, and she leaves her home in Scotland to cross the Atlantic to work on a secret project in Thalia (which seems to be a country in South America). This world also has smartdogs and shares some elements with that of ‘Jenna’ – in fact, it may be the same one but the narrow focus of ‘Jenna’ concealed the parts in ‘Maree’ that are invented. And the invention in the novella is… odd. Some places – London, Inverness – have the same names as real places; others do not – Lilyat (Lisbon?), Bonita (Buenos Aires?), Kontessa… And then there are the whales. Much of ‘Maree’ takes place aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic. This is considered a hazardous journey as convoys of whales sink ships when they come across them. And chief among the whales is the “baer-whale”, which is bigger than most ships. Maree discovers during the journey, from a fellow passenger who admits he is a private detective who had been hired to find her, that she is Del’s missing daughter from ‘Jenna’, and that she wasn’t kidnapped because of the drugs but because she is a natural empath. In other words, she doesn’t need an implant. This also means she is gifted at acquiring languages. The secret project she is joining is trying to translate alien messages from outer space.

The things that are good about The Race are the things that Allan is good at. The mosaic structure plays to her strengths in that it allows for a tight focus over a relatively short wordcout. However, it also reveals a weakness: the links between the novellas are not quite strong enough to hold the novel together. Take the murder which appears in ‘Christy’ and ‘Alex’. Christy is afraid her brother killed Lin, but the truth is revealed in passing by Alex. Which makes the resolution of it, and the relief Christy must feel, completely secondhand, robbing it of any emotional impact. It’s not central to either novella, of course, but it feels like one of those details which never quite rings true. Which is not to say that every detail rings false. One of Allan’s strengths as a writer is the off-focus lens she shines on the worlds of her stories, and she does this by changing some details, such as the names of places, so that everything feels slightly off-kilter, and by keeping the relationships between the characters firmly at the centre of the narrative and the plot beats somewhere to the side. This is something that is more obvious in The Race than other works because each of the novellas exists at the edges of the preceding one.

The writing throughout is, unsurprisingly, very good, and the characters are drawn extremely well – although if Jenna, Christy and Maree seem a little similar that’s an artefact of the structure, I suspect. As is the novel’s lack of, well, plot. The two science-fictional novellas wrap the real world ones, when you’d expect the reverse to be the case; but Christy’s life – since ‘Alex’ too is about that – doesn’t really provide a key to ‘Jenna’ and ‘Maree’. The mystery which exercises Christy for years does sort of map onto the disappearance of Jenna’s brother’s daughter. And Maree does end up with a completely new life, much as Alex reveals Lin to have. Even then, revealing what happened to Del’s daughter doesn’t really resolve anything, as ‘Maree’ only catapults her into a new, and unsolved, mystery. I’m also not really sure what role the dog racing plays, or why it provides the title, since it only appears in ‘Jenna’, which is Christy’s creation anyway.

The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt. If it doesn’t quite match another 2014 genre mosaic novel, Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, that’s probably because Park goes full-on metafictional, and Allan sort of nibbles at the edges and never quite commits. Or perhaps it’s just that Allan’s form of metafiction is less overt – it lives within her stories rather than providing the stories’ building-blocks. Having said all that, I won’t be surprised if The Race appears on one or two shortlists next year.


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Reading diary, #11

Books… films… books… films… I really ought to write about something else every now and again. I mean, I do – I post nice retro-future photos every so often, and I’ve even been known to mention my own writing. But it does feel this year that this blog has turned into more of a record of things I’ve read and watched rather than part of any sort of conversation. Must try harder. I might even make that a resolution for 2015…

But, for the time-being, it’s, er, books. That is: being wot I have read in the weeks since I last put up a “reading diary” post (see here). I’ve been sticking to the alternating genders thing on long fiction, and see no good reason to stop. You may notice I read two books by women in succession here, but that’s because I’d snuck in a novella by Kim Stanley Robinson after Wasp, but didn’t feel it necessary to write about it. I don’t mention every book I’ve read, after all; although it’s mostly the non-fiction on planes and stuff that I leave out of these posts.

mars_evacueesMars Evacuees, Sophia McDougall (2014). I don’t as a general rule read YA or children’s books, being neither a teenager (AKA young adult) nor a child; but I’d seen this mentioned approvingly by friends, the setting seemed like it might appeal, and that really is an attractive cover. As it is, I was expecting something a little closer to hard sf, rather than the actual story of hand-wavey aliens invading Earth and returning the planet to an ice age to better suit their needs and a young teenage girl who gets a little closer to the war than planned. There are some nice touches throughout, and McDougall’s prose is very readable, but it’s a story put together from a pair of pretty common plots – first, kids go all Lord of the Flies in a Martian base when all the grown-ups disappear; but then protagonist, Alice Dare (named for Dan?), and brainy friend trek across the surface to another base in search of adults, encounter an alien child and so learn about them – and everyone lives happily(-ish) ever after. I’d cheerfully recommend it to kids – a sf novel for children featuring female characters with agency? Of course I would – whether they’re fans of sf or not. Which is, I suppose, what it’s all about.

WaspWasp, Eric Frank Russell (1957). A SF Masterwork, and I was pretty sure I’d read this many, many, many years ago, but I couldn’t remember anything about the story. I must have picked up the main points of the plot through general osmosis, because once I started reading the book I realised it was all new to me. The story is simple enough: Earth is at war with the purple-skinned humanoid aliens of the Sirian Empire, so Earth drops an agent provocateur, skin suitably dyed (really? yes, really), into a city on a Sirian world, and his job is to disrupt industry and government to such an extent the Sirian Empire finds it hard to wage war. This involves lots of the sort of tricks that may or may not have been successful during World War II against the Germans. Unfortunately, the Sirians are implausibly stupid, their secret police are more like the Thompson Twins than the Gestapo, and except for a few pieces of sf furniture, the story could just as easily have set in, well, 1957. If you think this reads like a how-to manual for destabilising governments, as some reviewers apparently do, then I suspect you need to get out more.

daughtersofearthDaughters of Earth, edited by Justine Larbalestier (2006). This is one of the best sf anthologies I’ve read, not just because it features an excellent selection of stories, ranging from 1927 to 2002 and so providing a really good historical spread of feminist sf, but also because every story is followed by a critical essay, discussing either the story, writer, or the science fiction of the time of the story’s publication. There are some favourite pieces of short fiction in here: ‘ The Heat Death of the Universe’ by Pamela Zoline, ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side’ by James Tiptree Jr, and ‘Wives’ by Lisa Tuttle; and some favourite writers, such as Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler – and the latter’s ‘What I Didn’t See’ is, I suspect, a bona fide classic of the genre. Also note-worthy is ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones, the only Jones story ever collected, and though it may remind readers of Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’, it definitely should be better known. I’ve since tracked down more stories by Jones – she had five stories published in sf mags in 1955, but wrote fiction for the “slicks” up until 1966. Also in the anthology are Claire Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Kate Wilhelm, Pat Murphy and Octavia E Butler. A must-have for any self-respecting sf fan.

The Venus Factor, edited by Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood (1972). I reviewed this on SF Mistressworks here.

weareallWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (2013). We all got a nice warm glow when this, a novel by an actual genre writer, was shortlisted for the Booker this year… although to be fair, Fowler has never really been “genre” in any sort of categorical sense – indeed, ‘What I Didn’t See’ (er, see above) apparently caused quite a ruckus on its original publication in the (now-defunct) Sci Fiction online magazine, as many felt it wasn’t genre at all; and there are still arguments whether her first novel, Sarah Canary, is actually sf (clue: it’s in the SF Masterwork series). We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, however, is entirely mainstream and sits comfortably between the witty lit fic of The Jane Austen Book Club and the weightier genre fiction of much of Fowler’s short fiction output. I know some people have had problems with this novel, although I thought it very good, and it made me want to read more by Fowler (even though I’ve read many of her stories and several of her novels already). The novel works very much because its voice works, and the achronological structure plays to the plot’s strengths – but then Fowler is pretty much one of our most-skilled writers… and it’s good that the lit fic world has now realised that.

Devices & Desires, Susan Ertz (1972). The second entry in my informal challenge to read some books by “forgotten” women writers of postwar twentieth century. This one wasn’t as successful as the first, A Month Soon Goes by Storm Jameson. I wrote about it here.

theplagueThe Plague, Albert Camus (1947). The town of Oran was mentioned on some telly quiz the other day, they asked in what country it could be found – and I knew the answer because The Plague is set there. (It’s in Algeria.) The other notable thing about this book is that I was reading it on the tram on my return from the cinema after watching Interstellar when two drunk teenage girls sat down beside me, and one of them asked if she could read my book with me. She then proceeded to read out aloud from the page I was reading. I was only glad I hadn’t been reading something by Michel Houellebecq… The title of the novel pretty much describes its plot: bubonic plague strikes the city of Oran, the authorities close its borders, the medical establishment tries hard to prevent the spread of disease, people die. This is the third book by Camus I’ve read and it’s generally considered to be his best… but I can’t actually see the appeal. Apparently, the plague is a metaphor for the German occupation of France during WWII but, well, it’s also an epidemic, something which seems horrifying enough on its own – and, given the current ebola scare, something which serves perfectly well without any allegorical baggage which might have been more readily apparent to readers at the time of original publication. I know people who rate Camus –  one day I’ll have to get them to explain why he appeals to them to me (and, um, I shall have probably have to explain why I admire Lawrence Durrell as a writer so much…).

Dangerous Games, Marta Randall (1980). I reviewed this on SF Mistressworks here.

feverandspearYour Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear, Javier Marías (2002). I bought this several years ago for a world fiction reading challenge I’d set myself (see here), but only managed to get halfway through it before giving up. It had come highly recommended, so perhaps my expectations were too high… But even on this second read I found it all a bit of a chore. The prose is discursive to an extent that made my eyes glaze, and I like discursive prose. The narrator is a Spaniard working in the UK, who, thanks to contacts at Oxford University, secures a position as a “translator” with an enigmatic member of the British establishment whose role may or may not be officially sanctioned. He’s not really a translator, because the narrator is excellent at reading faces, and it is his interpolation of the mind-set of interviewees in which his employer is chiefly interested. There’s a good brainstorming sequence involving the Spanish Civil War, Orwell, Fleming, and the narrator’s own family history, but much as I wanted to like this novel I didn’t take to it enough to want to read the remaining two books of the trilogy. A shame.


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Devices & Desires, Susan Ertz

You won’t find any of Susan Ertz’s books in print these days – in fact, a quick search on Amazon returns only secondhand copies, the most recent of which was published in 1985. She was actively writing between 1923 and 1976, which is an impressively long career, and one of her books was adapted for the cinema, In The Cool of the Day, in 1960, starring Peter Finch and Jane Fonda. She also wrote a science fiction novel in 1935, Woman Alive, but I’m not aware of it being claimed by the genre. I’ve yet to find a full bibliography online – the one on Ertz’s entry on Wikipedia lists twenty-two books but doesn’t include the one I read, Devices & Desires, which was published in 1972.

To be honest, on the strength of Devices & Desires, I doubt I’ll be exploring Ertz’s oeuvre any further. While I had a positive experience with my first Storm Jameson (see here), I can’t say the same for my first Susan Ertz. It’s not that Devices & Desires is a bad book, or a badly-written book. But it’s set in the early 1970s – there’s even a mention of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – and feels like it’s set in the 1930s. It makes for a disconnect that completely spoils the reading experience.

d&d

The Gorlans – Professor, his mother, young nanny Stephanie, and three young boys – are travelling from the US to the UK for a well-earned holiday. They are travelling by ship – did people still do that in 1970? And they will be staying in a rented country house near Oxford. Also aboard the same liner is John Van Bolen, the young son of an American millionaire whose estranged British wife owns the house the Gorlands have rented. John is accompanied by Robinson, Van Bolen’s African-American chauffeur. The two groups become aware of each other during the voyage, and once ensconced in their holiday home the Gorlands continue to seem more of the Van Bolens. John’s mother, Rachel, is in a relationship with French expat architect Marcel, but the two cannot marry because Rachel’s husband won’t give her a divorce. Also, young John doesn’t like Marcel and refuses to be the son of divorced parents. Stephanie has fallen in love with Professor Gorland, but he doesn’t return the sentiment – in fact, he’s attracted to Rachel. And Robinson has fallen in love with Oriana, the West Indian maid of the local vicar and his wife.

Then, as usually seems the case in such stories, tragedy strikes. John and the oldest Gorlan boy plot a swimming race across the lake. Since they’ve been told not to do this, they drug Robinson, who is minding them. But the youngest Gorlan boy escapes his grandmother’s care, wanders down to the lake and falls in. And nearly drowns. But Robinson, knowing that John will be blamed for the near-death as it was John who drugged Robinson, commits suicide in order to take the blame himself.

Devices & Desires really is horribly old-fashioned. Robinson reads like a stereotypical African-American from the first half of the twentieth century. The American characters come across as somewhat less-wealthy Rockefellers, and the English characters are all terribly upper class. They talk about “fetching the car”, everyone has servants, and one character even has a small flat filled with expensive paintings in a chic area of London. You could move the entire story forward in time fifty years and the only thing that would need changing is the reference to men landing on the Moon.

Devices & Desires‘s prose is by no means bad. On the contrary, it’s a good deal better than you’ll find in most twenty-first century commercial fiction. And it’s clearly the product of an established writer with a decades-long career. But it also seems to be the product of a writer who is decades out of touch. And that, for me, completely ruined my enjoyment of the book.

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