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Wool, Hugh Howey

wool-by-hugh-howeyWool, Hugh Howey
(2013, Century, £9.99, 576 pp)

In the world of twenty-first century publishing, the story of the book is often more interesting than the story in the book. And so it is with best-selling science fiction novel, Wool. Originally self-published as a novelette on Amazon’s Kindle, its popularity prompted Howey to write further stories in the same setting. These were then fixed up into a novel. Which promptly sold in huge numbers. Howey earned enough money to quit his job. Publishers came knocking at his door and he sold the film rights to Ridley Scott. Hugh Howey has become the latest poster boy for self-publishing success.

Given all this, it seems churlish to complain that Wool doesn’t deserve the praise lavished upon it. Its quality is immaterial; it is a success. That is the narrative of Wool.

The narrative in the book, however, is not so happy. There is an underground silo of 144 storeys in a world that is toxic and uninhabitable. The silo’s only contact with outside is via screens, the view on which degrades over time as dirt gathers on the external lenses. At intervals, people are sent outside as punishment–and the chief crime deserving this sentence appears to be… wanting to go outside. Clad in protective gear which gives these “cleaners” around half an hour of life, they leave the silo and clean the lenses. Then they walk off into the ruined city, but fall and die before leaving sight of the lenses. Why do they always clean the lenses? Why not simply walk off and see how far they get before their suit degrades? It is this first section which formed the original novella, and the puzzle at its heart makes no sense as motivation for cleaning the lenses. It also requires the “cleaners” to be wilfully stupid and ignore what they know…

The remainder of Wool’s 576 pages build on this opening section. Since the last “cleaner” was the sheriff, a new one is required. The deputy recommends Juliette, a mechanic from the lowest levels of the silo. The mayor seconds the choice. Bernard, the head of IT, disagrees, and also seems to think he actually runs the silo. Which, it transpires, he does. Nevertheless, Juliette is made sheriff, but her appointment has set the mayor at odds with IT and Bernard soon gets his way. Juliette is arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to “cleaning”. Her friends in Mechanical, however, secretly ensure she is a given a suit which will last more than thirty minutes. Juliette has also figured out the suit’s secret – this is the premise of the opening novella – and this allows her to find her way to… another silo.

The setting of Wool is science-fictional, the opening section is written in a science fiction mode; but once Juliette, who is not only a naturally-gifted mechanic and highly intelligent but also beautiful, is introduced, Wool turns into a small town soap opera. Unfortunately, this only emphasises the fact the novel’s setting does not stand up to scrutiny. The silo has a single metal spiral staircase to link its 144 levels, but such a design is impractical. The metal of the staircase would also collapse under its own weight. IT manages a server farm, but the servers do nothing. They don’t run the systems of the silo, because there are no such systems. The silos are sealed environments and possess hydroponic gardens, a mine and a well, but they could not be self-sufficient for the many generations the story implies. Wool also gives little indication of their size or population. They are deep – 144 levels must make the lowest level 450 to 500 metres below ground – but the area covered by each level is never mentioned.

Howey’s prose is readable, if very baggy, and his frequent flights of fancy fail more often than they succeed. His plotting, however, is driven by escalating jeopardy, but it is inconsistently applied, often implausible, and poorly paced. One character discovers something and is killed; another learns something different, and is arrested and sentenced to “cleaning”. Howey keeps his cast under constant pressure, and yet his writing is leisurely paced. His characterisation is typical of commercial fiction: Juliette is super-competent, and Bernard is a pantomime villain. He is, for example, the only fat person in the entire silo.

There’s an interesting story somewhere in Wool – now the first of a trilogy, to be followed next year by Shift, and then by Dust – but Howey’s writing is neither brisk, economic nor subtle enough to tell it, and his technique of applying constant jeopardy to his central cast annoys more often than it propels the reader forward.

Still, it is useless to complain. Wool is a self-publishing success story. The narrative of the book has already been written, and it says that Wool is good.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #246, May-June 2013.


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The Last Man Standing, Davide Longo

The-last-man-standingThe Last Man Standing, Davide Longo
MacLehose Press, 2012, 352 pp, £12.99

It seems close to certain that civilisation as we know it will not last for much longer. If Climate Change does not bring about a catastrophe, then the failures of nation-states, economies, or the entire capitalist system itself is sure to do so. And yet, despite ten thousand years of civilisation, the only post-catastrophe stories we can tell depict brutal worlds in which violent selfishness is the only mode of survival. Have we learnt nothing since we left the Rift Valley? Everything we have created since then has been the result of co-operation, and yet we cannot imagine using co-operation during a period when it’s most needed.

Of course, this is chiefly because popular entertainment as it now stands, driven by US market forces, is morally bankrupt, and because any such future fictions are in part based on American conceptions of a world without American society. When society goes, the American Dream is over and, we are supposed to believe, the American Dream is such a noble achievement that only animalistic behaviour can exist in the vacuum it leaves behind.

This is all rot, of course. Many US authors may subscribe to such a distorted view of human nature and society, but it’s disappointing when other nationalities follow suit. Davide Longo is Italian and The Last Man Standing was originally published in Italy in 2010; and it is an Italy after some unexplained catastrophe that it depicts.

The protagonist of The Last Man Standing, Leonardo, was a famous writer but took himself into self-imposed exile after a sex scandal. A female student had seduced him and then revealed all. Though it was clearly a set-up, he said nothing. This is because he is pathologically passive. For the first one hundred pages, he does nothing but witness some of the effects of the collapse of Italy: the village where he lives turns in on itself; outsiders are treated with suspicion and then violence.

Perhaps this is not entirely without reason. The villagers wish to keep what meagre supplies they have for themselves. Leonardo is not so cautious. Returning from a walk, he sees two men and a woman raid his house for food and clothing. Once they have left – he does nothing, he is too passive to confront them – he discovers they have defecated on his furniture. Is this what the fall of civilisation means? Shit on the sofa?

Leonardo’s ex-wife turns up with their daughter and her stepson in tow, she tells him she needs him to look after them until she returns from Switzerland with papers. She never returns. So Leonardo, daughter Lucia, ten-year-old Alberto and mute companion Sebastiano set out for the border hundreds of kilometres away.

En route, they meet with suspicion, violence, rape, murder and torture from a variety of people. Even when they find what appears to be a safe – if expensive – haven, it’s clear the safety is a careful illusion. Eventually, they are captured by a caravan of young people, ruled by an antichrist-like figure. Richard is so thinly characterised, he seems to inhabit a different book. He appears to exist only to put Leonardo through a baptism of fire, strengthening him sufficiently to win a contest of wills with Richard by cutting off his own hand. If Longo is trying to make a point here, it is wilfully opaque.

There’s nothing new in The Last Man Standing – indeed, the publishers have made a point of noting it, relying on the quality of Longo’s prose to sell the book. In recent years, the post-catastrophe world has become a somewhat crowded place in literary fiction, and the time has long since passed when stories set in it might say anything insightful. That Longo’s prose is generally good cannot save The Last Man Standing from being banal.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #242, September-October 2012.


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The Age of Zeus, James Lovegrove

50zeusThe Age of Zeus
(2010, Solaris, 678pp, £7.99 pbk)

If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then it follows that any sufficiently advanced technology is equally indistinguishable from divine powers. Zelazny used such a premise in his Lord Of Light back in 1968, and won a Hugo Award for it. James Lovegrove’s Pantheon trilogy, of which The Age of Zeus is the second book, is based on a similar conceit, but it’s unlikely to win any awards. That’s not because The Age of Zeus is a bad book. It’s written by someone who knows their craft, and can spin an entertaining yarn. But that’s all The Age of Zeus feels like: a yarn.

The Greek pantheon has returned, and rules once again from its ancestral home on Mount Olympus. It was not an easy or painless transfer of power, and even now, a decade after their coup, Zeus et al continue to commit random acts of divine violence. But Regis Landesman, arms manufacturer, has had enough, and so secretly puts together a team of a dozen soldiers, armed and armoured with cutting-edge technology, to do battle with the gods. Of course, he calls them the Titans. Sam Akehurst, an ex-detective sergeant from the Metropolitan Police, is Tethys, the leader of the Titans. Like the others, she has personal reasons for hating the Olympians. As, so it seems, does Landesman. Given that he takes the Titan call-sign Cronus, it shouldn’t be hard to guess what that reason is.

Some might say a novel should have no greater ambition than to entertain. I disagree. No artform should be merely bread and circuses. It needs to engage with the real world. Good fiction has something to say, whether or not you concur with what is being said. The Age of Zeus is not short of words, and many of them do indeed reflect on the real world. The Greek gods seized power in a violent coup, but a decade later they are the acknowledged rulers of the Earth. Which makes the Titans terrorists – but is “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” a strong enough skeleton for a story? The four-centimetre-thick spine of The Age of Zeus suggests it is. This is a fat book. It is also fast-paced. It opens with a combat scene – a prologue, which is actually a flash-forward to chapter 35 – clearly intended to yank the reader into the story. In fact, there are a lot of combat scenes. The Age of Zeus is a resolutely modern sf novel: its prose lingers lovingly on its military hardware and technology, each character has a carefully-plotted back-story, much of the dialogue displays a ready wit, and the story is structured as a series of obstacles to be overcome before the grand finale.

But, for all The Age of Zeus‘s techno-porn, there’s a god-sized hole at the heart of the novel, and it’s caused by Lovegrove’s authorial sleight of hand. He explains his Titans’ technology with some well-documented sfnal devices, but the Olympians’ powers are the result of… Well, all you can see is a blur as the author waves his hands in front of your face. As a result, the final big reveal is robbed of much of its divine power.

Despite having almost seven hundred pages, The Age of Zeus is not a heavy read. Its heroine is engaging – even if her competence as a Titan is a little implausible – and she’s ably supported by a cast of secondary characters who play their parts well. Lovegrove has fun with his premise, and he’s not afraid to get in a few digs at the real world. The Age of Zeus is indeed an entertaining novel. It’s a book for a dull journey or to read on a beach. I suspect that was its intent.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #228, May-June 2010.


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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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Empress of Eternity, LE Modesitt, Jr

Empress of Eternity, LE Modesitt, Jr
(2010 Tor, $25.99, 352pp)

LE Modesitt, Jr is a bulwark of genre fiction in the US. He stands, legs apart, one hand against the wall of fantasy, the other hand pressed against science fiction. Like the man, his novels, which are often the size of small buildings, straddle both genres. It’s an appropriate conceit, since Modesitt’s latest, Empress of Eternity, has an architectural feature at its core. The Canal straddles an unnamed continent on a world the blurb calls “Earth” but the story itself does not. This Canal is made of some indestructible material. No one knows what it’s for, who built it, or why. Three narratives describe the events surrounding three groups of people from three different eras, each of which is researching the mysterious Canal. According to the blurb, these narratives are set hundreds of thousands of years apart, but there is no indication of this in the text as each uses a different calendar.

Lord Maertyn is a scientist and minor ministerial functionary in the Unity of Caelaarn. He and his wife Maarlyna, who is recovering from a near-fatal illness, are researching the Canal. But there is a power struggle occurring back in the capital, and Maertyn becomes embroiled in it when his minister asks him to fill in for an absent assistant minister. Faelyna and Eltyn are also researching the Canal, but they are doing so for the Ruche. However, a coup among the rulers of the Ruche – the Fifty becomes the Twenty – is followed by a brutal campaign of brainwashing. Faelyna and Eltyn resist. Duhlye and Helkyria are researching the Canal for the Vaniran Hegemony. But the Vanir are under attack by the Aesyr, also of the Hegemony, but racially different and possessing their own armed forces. The Aesyr have a weapon, the Hammer, which they threaten to use unless the Vanirans reveal what secrets they have discovered in their research on the Canal.

These three stories seem to follow the same plot, before they abruptly, and solely due to authorial handwaving, become linked. Maarlyna transforms into the title character; the Aesyr provide a direct threat to the universe of the book… But the Ruche narrative is entirely superfluous. It neither impacts the resolution, nor assists in explaining it. In fact, very little of any of the three worlds is explained – the reader, for example, has to guess the relationship between the Vanir and Aesyr. It makes for a frustrating read. Further, characters lecture each other on assorted subjects, none of which sound remotely plausible. The description of the Hammer’s workings are the worst kind of technobabble; as indeed are the workings of the Canal. Which is, in fact, a “bridge” through time and apparently “anchored” at “discrete event-points”. Modesitt’s explanation badly confuses a philosophy of time with physics. He also presents events or situations to illustrate points… only to have a character then explain what has just been illustrated. The prose, too, is peculiar, and padded out with stylistic ticks which render sentences clumsy: “he smoothed his hair, short as it was”, “he carried but a bag”… That “as it was” is appended unnecessarily to sentences throughout the story; that inserted “but” appears on almost every page. Not to mention the Ruche characters’ “bio-orbs” and “calcjections”…

Empress of Eternity is a novel light on sense. This may well be because somewhere within its 352 pages a short story has been forcibly fed a pottage of words in an effort to bulk it up to novel-length. This is a novel remarkable for the number of scenes which neither advance the plot nor explain the world. The end result is some sort of van Vogtian tosh put in service of a plot which has neither beginning nor middle, but crashes to an unsatisfactory end. Van Vogt’s 800-word cliff-hangers, however, made his novels pacey reads. The same cannot be said of Empress of Eternity.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #231 November-December 2010.


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Lexicon Urthus, Michael Andre-Druissi

Lexicon Urthus, second edition, Michael Andre-Druissi
(2008, Sirius Fiction, $19.95, 419pp)

Lexicon Urthus – a compendium and dictionary of words and concepts from Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun – The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, The Urth of the New Sun, and ancillary and additional short fiction and essays. Lexicon Urthus contains definitions/explanations, a note on origin, and often a commentary, on all the unfamiliar words and terms, the characters and places, in the five books, from ABACINATION to ZOETIC.

History: A “lexicon” is “the vocabulary used by or known to an individual” (Wiktionary); “Urthus” is a bogus Latin genitive form derived from “Urth” – which is actually a Norse word, and the name of the eldest of the Norns (see Skuld and Verthandi), and not a corruption of “Earth”.

Commentary: the reputation of The Book of the New Sun rests in part on the word-games – the obscure and obscuring vocabulary – used by Wolfe in telling his story. Hidden beneath and within these unfamiliar terms are additional elements of the story. They also add to the flavour of Wolfe’s world-building. Using invented or unfamiliar terms is not a unique achievement, but Wolfe does not provide a glossary – unlike, say, Frank Herbert in Dune. Lexicon Urthus in part fills that role – it is subtitled “A dictionary for the Urth Cycle” – but it is also much more. Words are not simply glossed, but characters’ names are also explained – their origins and any connection between a historical person bearing that name and the character in the book, and a further commentary on each term. There is also a synopsis of all five books, and several maps of varying usefulness.

Some of the terms glossed are not so obscure:

dhow – a native vessel used on the Arabian Sea, generally with a single mast, and of 150 to 200 tons burden; a kind of lateen-rigged trading boat (I chap. 12, 114).

Others certainly are:

Murene – the name of the village on the shore of Lake Diuturna (III, chap. 32, 258).

History: (variant of “muraena”) in early use applied vaguely as the name of a kind of eel mentioned by ancient writers.

Lexicon Urthus‘s usefulness is specific. As is its appeal. It is for those interested in learning more about, and understanding more of, The Book of the New Sun. It is not an analysis of the story – as is, say, Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth – but it is a tool to aid in solving the Urth Cycle’s riddles. Its scholarship is impressive – as, one must assume, was Wolfe’s when he wrote The Book of the New Sun. This second edition corrects many of the errors and omissions discovered in the first edition and subsequently published in Errata & Corrigenda chapbooks.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #219 December 2008.


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Sylvow, Douglas Thompson

Sylvow, Douglas Thompson
(2010, Eibonvale Press, £6.99, 304pp)

Back in the day, fix-up novels were relatively common in science fiction. Authors would cobble together a bunch of stories, sellotape a framing narrative in place, and pass off the finished product as a novel. In most such books, the joins were sadly obvious. If there’s a term for the reverse – a novel which comprises standalone excerpts that have been published as short stories – I’m not aware of it. Nonetheless, it’s a fair description of Douglas Thompson’s second novel, Sylvow. Eight of the book’s seventeen chapters have previously seen print: in Ambit Magazine, Dream Catcher, and the British Fantasy Society’s New Horizons and Dark Horizons. While those chapters read perfectly well as short stories, they are also very much of the novel.

Sylvow is a story in many parts about a small group of people who all live in the invented city of Sylvow. However, the city, and the lives of its inhabitants, are slowly being invaded by Nature run rampant. Leo disappeared into the deep woods which ring Sylvow years before, and sends irregular letters commenting on, among other things, Nature’s campaign of conquest. His estranged wife Vivienne takes up with Anton, who had a nervous breakdown but was cured by Franco, and now works as a forest ranger. Franco’s wife Claudia is a vet, and she sees at first hand how the animal and insect kingdoms are responding to Nature’s war on humanity and civilisation. Franco meanwhile is having an affair with Veronika, a young Goth patient.

According to the background notes at the rear of the book, the city of Sylvow is a fusion of Glasgow, Osnabrück and Novogrudek. Certainly it seems at times to have a Middle European air, and the novel’s cast all possess names more common in continental Europe than in the British Isles: Franco, Veronika, Claudia, Vittorio, Nikolaus… Yet there are references to very British institutions and cultural artefacts. It gives Sylvow a somewhat unsettled feel – further exacerbated by Thompson’s prose style, which at times reads Ballardian and at others like the work of an East European fantasist. There are a variety of voices in Sylvow, but not all feel entirely suitable. Yet this too seems in keeping with the story Sylvow tells. Its narrative is episodic, and nominally linear, but not everything in the novel makes sense, or is capable of being understood.

Thompson aims high, but does not always hit his target. He is better when focussing on the surreal than he is at the quotidian. When read as a novel of disconnect, of humanity’s failed attempts to understand, or come to an accommodation with, Nature and her needs, Sylvow works very well indeed. Many of the passages set in the forest showcase some lovely writing indeed. As a novel of the relationships between people, Sylvow is perhaps less successful. The easy familiarity between family members, and between friends, often feels forced, as if Thompson were trying for the mannered tone of Mittel-Europa fiction but instead found himself writing the banal dialogue of a transatlantic mainstream novel. Nonetheless, despite the uneven read, despite its occasionally patchy nature, Sylvow is an intriguing blend of genres. With this novel, and his debut Ultrameta, Thompson has certainly shown he is a name to watch. Once he manages to write mainstream with the same facility he writes surrealism and genre, he’s sure to produce something special.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #233, March-April 2011.

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