MonthApril 2009

Clarke Award Winner

Well, I only got through two-and-a-bit of the Clarke Award shortlist, which is far from what I intended, but life intervened. Anyway, the winner has been announced, and (gleaned from Torque Control), the 2009 Arthur C. Clarke Award goes to… Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod.

As it happens, this was one of the books I did blog about; you can read what I thought about it over here. I liked it, though I felt it had enough flaws that it didn’t really strike me as ‘award-winning’. Nevertheless, I am pleased to see it win — particularly because a small press book (in this case, one from PS Publishing) has won such a high-profile award (though I must admit, I don’t really follow awards, and this may happen more often than I think it does).

Anyway, the night belongs to Ian MacLeod, so congratulations to him and all concerned!

Låt den rätte komma in [Let the Right One In]

At long last, the much-acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In has made it to my local cinema, so I went along to see if it lives up to the praise. It’s certainly different, which is a good start; but I am having trouble deciding what to make of it, the reasons for which will, I hope, become clear. I’m even uneasy about calling it a ‘vampire film’ because, although a vampire is central to the movie, the tone and affect of Let the Right One In are so far away from those we normally associate with vampire films that it almost feels as though it doesn’t belong in the same category. For similar reasons, I wouldn’t describe this as a ‘horror movie’ — yes, there is horror, gore, even some scares; but they don’t seem to me to be the film’s main purpose. Let the Right One In feels more like a drama than anything else.

We meet twelve-year-old Oskar, a weedy kid who lives with his mother in a miserable-looking tenement block. He is fascinated by murders, keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and a dagger under his mattress, and play-acts attacking people. The reason he does all these things is because he’s being bullied at school. But it seems Oskar may have found a friend, in the shape of Eli, a girl of (apparently) his own age who has just moved in next door. She urges the boy to stand up to the bullies — which he does, striking Conny, his chief antagonist, around the head with a stick, splitting open Conny’s ear. Naturally, Conny doesn’t take this lying down, and seeks revenge of his own, recruiting his older brother to do the job.

Whilst all this is going on, Oskar is falling in love with Eli. Unfortunately for him, she’s not really a girl, but a vampire, responsible for a number of brutal killings, committed by both herself (simply grabbing hold of people and gnawing away at their necks), and her adult assistant (who gasses his victims, hoists them up, then slits their throats). As the nature of those killings may suggest, there’s a strong sense of realism about the way vampirism is handled in the film, with relatively little in the way of anything overtly supernatural (making that all the more effective when it does come — witness what happens when Eli tries to enter somewhere without first being invited in). This is also part of the larger visual style of Let the Right One In, which is very distinctive, with stark compositions and a washed-out palette. There’s also some good use of scenery, with (for example) the claustrophobic appearance of Oskar’s apartment building contrasting with the wide open landscapes of the countryside, where his father lives; which mirrors the contrasting emotions Oskar feels when he stays with each of his parents.

So, Let the Right One In has an interesting and striking approach and style; but I feel it falls down a little when it comes to telling the story. For one thing, the film focuses so tightly on Oskar and Eli and their relationship that surrounding elements can feel somewhat ; disconnected; this adds to the film’s ambience, but I did have particular trouble with the aftermath of Oskar’s hitting Conny — we know that the school rang his parents, but then Oskar’s school life seems to carry on much as it did before, which didn’t ring true for me.

Actualy, I think Oskar in general is the movie’s weak link. Lena Laendersson is thoroughly convincing as such an old, powerful being in the guise of a slight twelve-year-old girl (though apparently her voice was overdubbed, which I couldn’t tell); but Kåre Hedebrant’s performance as Oskar seems a little too ‘one note’ — I didn’t gain much sense of Oskar changing over the course of the film, when that surely should have been the movie’s key transformation.

Still, Let the Right One In is worth seeing, because it is the experience of seeing the film — its atmosphere — that really impresses (such that I’ll even let the movie off its deus ex machina ending). But it’s best to go in without any preconceptions of what it will be like. I suspect this is a film that wull reward repeated viewings, once you have a better idea of what it’s probably aiming for. Given time, of course, I’ll be able to find that out for myself.

Clarke Award: Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham (2008)

I’ve had to make a decision: what to do if I find one of the Clarke nominees unbearable. Do I carry on to the end (I have undertaken to read and blog about these books, after all) or not? I’ve decided not, as I got through 70 pages of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, and really couldn’t face the other 230. If that invalidates the whole process, so be it — but I will explain myself.

I didn’t get far enough in to gain a full understanding of the plot, but this is what I can gather. Perhaps a hundred years hence, our ‘hero,’ Jensen Interceptor, is a consumer researcher for the government (such research now being an official undertaking, as the authorities issue personalised money-off vouchers). He’s is sent to interview a man named Reg, whose answers suggest he is not toeing the line sufficiently. This leads to Jensen being recruited as a spy to investigate Reg, whom, it transpires, is involved with a group called the Martin Martinists.

That’s about where I got up to, but I gather that Martin Martin was a TV psychic from the early 21st century, who (his cultists believe) really was psychic, and whose death (again, so they believe) derailed the progress of society. There’s some stuff about Martin Martin seeming to come back from the dead, or something like that (apologies for the vagueness, but I would have to have read further to be able to be more specific).

Why, then, did I feel the need to abandon this book? Could it be because of a narrative voice like this:

What you’re about to read is all tru. The incomplete truth is tru, innit? Geddit? Ha ha ha.

I’d quote more, but it’s annoying me already. Actually, it’s not because of this, not entirely; though Jensen’s voice is certainly difficult to tolerate (and I wasn’t overly keen either on Mark Wernham’s narrative voice in the prologue, which seems to rely too heavily on long lists of details). But the whole point is that we’re supposed to find Jensen and his world repugnant.

I think the real trouble is that the author doesn’t make it worthwhile persevering. Wernham labours some of his points into the ground through repetition, and I didn’t find his satire all that great. True, some is quite subtle (such as Jensen’s concern for his score on the entrance exams for his new job, rather than for how much he learns); but I found other ideas unconvincing — for example, people in this future are born with a ‘Life Debt’, and receive payments for that instead of a monthly salary. It’s an amusing idea, but I can’t see that it would ever work in practice, and that lessens its impact for me.

I hear there may be a kernel of a good book within Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, but I’m in no hurry to find out for myself.

Quiz time!

Whoever guesses correctly will win… er, the satisfaction of knowing they got it right.

What was the only Diana Wynne Jones book I owned as a child?


I went along to Bradford for my first Eastercon (British National Science Fiction Convention) at the weekend — just for a couple of days, to see what it was like. I enjoyed myself, but not as much as I’d hoped to; I think that came down to feeling more like a ‘visitor’, so I’ve booked for the full weekend next year. This post will give some general impressions I had of the con.

First, there was a lot going on, much more than at Fantasycon or Alt-Fiction (the conventions I usually attend) — something like nine or ten different rooms in use (not all at the same time, but still), plus media programme, games room and art show. I was very impressed at the range of events on offer, which included film shows (in addition to the media room), music performances, talks on science and history, and even items that had nothing much to do with science fiction (oh, to have been there for the ‘science of chocolate’ session!).

I was surprised by the size of the venue. For all its many streams of programming, and its much larger number of delegates (I believe that Eastercon typically averages about 800-1000 attendees, compared to Fantasycon’s 200), the physical space of the convention could not have been much larger than that of Fantasycon (and I’m sure the social areas were smaller). The dealers’ room was also much smaller than I had expected. Having said all this, I don’t if it was typical of Eastercon, or whether it was just the size of that particular hotel.

As for the events I attended — I saw John Clute ‘in action’ on a panel for the first time (he was every bit as erudite as I thought he’d be). There was a talk on the Clarke Award shortlist, which I’m sure I would have got more out of if I’d read all the books. And quite an interesting panel on ‘old versus new SF’, in which the two ‘teams’ of participants recommended three books of ‘old’ or ‘new’ SF to each other. I hadn’t read any of the six books under discussion (More than Human, The Man in the High Castle, Stand on Zanzibar, Revelation Space, River of Gods, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union); but I found it striking that the ‘new’ books were all by reasonably well-established authors (respectively Alastair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, and Michael Chabon), and I wondered which ‘new’ writers the panel would have recommended. Alas, there was no time for such questions, and it’s a whole different discussion anyway.

Highlight of the two days: well, it has to be discovering one of my reviews quoted in publicity material, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Eastercon, so…

Best panel: not about SF, but a talk on urban exploring, and seeing fascinating photos of the old American Adventure theme park, and other abandoned buildings. It’s amazing what abandoned places are out there — though I’ll happily leave the exploration of them to others!

Most interesting fact: I never knew that Tiffany was a name that goes back hundreds of years. But, to paraphrase the contributor (I forget who it was), ‘Princess Tiffany’ would just not sound right in a serious fantasy novel nowadays.

Favourite coincidence: there was a depot opposite the hotel belonging to a company called ‘T H White’. I don’t think they were guarding Arthur, but you never know…

Anyway, that’s my little report on Eastercon LX, and I look forward to experiencing the full weekend next year.


After five years and 100+ pieces, I’ve reached a personal reviewing milestrone — one of my reviews has been quoted in a book from a mass-market publisher! The quote is inside the Virgin Books edition of Conrad Williams’ new novel, One, and is from my review of The Unblemished: “Williams’ threat emerges from the world like an optical illusion being revealed, then you find that society fell apart while you were looking somewhere else.” Unfortunately, this quote is not attributed to me by name (just to “SF Site” — but that can be the next milestone!

I’m particularly pleased to see this quote because I’ve often had the impression that my reviews don’t lend themselves easily to quotable soundbites (“A heart-stopping tour de force!” etc.) — and I think what the publishers have quoted bears this out. It’s not immediately apparent what it means, and the quote probably only makes full sense once you’ve read the book — yet it gets to the heart of how I think The Unblemished works.

Anyway, as you can imagine, I’m in a good mood.

BOOK REVIEW: The Accord by Keith Brooke (2009)

Everything I’ve ever read by Keith Brooke has been excellent, and The Accord is no excepton. This tale of love and revenge in a virtual ‘afterlife’ is my favourite book of the year so far. I’ve reviewed it for SF Site.

Read the review in full.

‘Understand’ by Ted Chiang (1991)

I’ve been contributing to a discussion over at Torque Control about Ted Chiang’s BSFA- and Hugo-nominated story ‘Exhalation’, which I liked, but was not as enthusiastic about as some people, including the blog’s own Niall Harrison. ‘[F]or those who are less keen on “Exhalation”: how do you feel about “Understand“?’ Niall asked in the comments. I’ve answered him over there, but thought that a  longer post here would also be useful.

Ted Chiang, if the name is unfamiliar, is a science fiction writer who has published relatively little (eleven pieces of short fiction since 1990), but has nevertheless been very highly acclaimed. ‘Exhalation’ was my first encounter with Chiang’s work; the 1991 novelette ‘Understand’ was my second — and now I really begin to see the reason for all the acclaim.

A holographic designer named Leon Greco is revived from a deep coma by treatment with ‘hormone K’, which restores damaged neurons. An unexpected side-effect of the treatment is increased intelligence, with the increase in direct proportion to the amount of brain damage originally sustained. Leon’s brain damage was more severe than anyone else treated with hormone K; and, sure enough, he finds his intelligence growing to levels unprecedented in humanity. Presently, Leon starts to see the patterns underlying everything, and becomes able to do pretty much anything he wishes, including evading the authorities who see him as a danger to [insert name of your choice]. He is master of his self and his destiny — until he detects the presence of a comparable human intelligence…

It seems to me that Chiang set himself a remarkably difficult task with this story: to enable his readers imagine the unimaginable, and then to make doing so for an extended period feel worthwhile — it wouild be quite easy for a reader to turn around and say, ‘Okay, I understand that he’s working on projects entirely beyond my comprehension, so please can you stop trying to describe them, and move on?’ There’s no need for that here: Chiang gets the balance right, giving us enough to get a flavour of how Leon uses his new-found abilities, but not so much that it becomes tedious.

We also see how Leon’s intelligence changes him — subtly at first, then increasingly less so; from quite a sympathetic character to something nigh-on un- (or in-) human, motivated by only knowledge and aesthetics. As the story progresses and Leon makes new discoveries, there’s a constant momentum driving us forward and forward, until… BANG! And Chiang manages to keep it grounded; even the final showdown between Leon and his hyper-intelligent nemesis — which is, in a sense, two gods hurling thunderbolts at each other across mountains — has a vital air of authenticity (as much as it could ever have one!).

‘Understand’ also poses interesting moral questions. If it were possible to ‘grow out’ of normal human intelligence, would one also grow out of human morality? Would that even be desirable? Leon and his nemesis adhere to two different post-human moral frameworks, neither of which seem particularly good to me. But that’s my human morality talking.

In sum, I found much to think about in ‘Understand’, and much to enjoy. And I have another nine Ted Chiang stories to go yet.

The Codex Embrace by Lawrence and Mary-Sue Pimms (2009)

This book bravely combines two of today’s most popular (and therefore best) genres of fiction: paranormal romance and historical-investiagtory-conspiracy-thriller. This is such a fabarooney idea, I have no idea why nobody thought of it before. I am glad that the publishers came up with such an original cover design, because slight variations on it are sure to appear on the many (no doubt equally fabarooney) imitators that are sure to be released over the next few years and maybe longer.

The Codex Embrace stars Larry Pimple, a dashing hunk of a man working as an ordinary junior executive in the offices of ArchaeoCorp, a giant multinational archaeology corporation (I think Mr. and Ms. Pimms have a really clever way with names). One night, there is a break in, and an ancient book is stolen from the company vaults. Larry (who is a really admirable guy because he had to overcome such misery in his childhood caused by people making fun of his name) discovers that the stolen book is the magical Codex of Hi-Falutin, which in the wrong hands could spell the end of the world! he decides to get it back. He is aided in his quest by Susie-May Pimander, a super-hot chick who is a historian, but not one of those old fuddy-duddy ones, oh no; and Professor Jack, who is a really wise old guy and really helpful in  telling Larry and Susie-May what to do next when they get stuck.

Oh yeah, and there is a great twist about halfway through that I don’t want to spoil for you, but it has something to do with ArchaeoCorp and how it might not be as benevolent as it seems. But I had better not say any more in case you figure it out.

Anyway, the really neat thing that the Pimms’ have done is that Susie-May is half vampire. She keeps this a secret by doing some really clever things, like insisting that the curtains are drawn whenever she gives lectures, and telling people that she has to work late into the night. Although sunlight is dangerous to Susie-May, she doesn’t have all the weaknesses of a full vampire. For one, she doesn’t have to drink blood to survive, which is handy for the plot because that would just be icky. But she does still have moments when she lusts after blood, and has to control herself. Another thing her half vampire nature has given her is an insatiable sex drive, and she has been so unlucky in love because no man can keep up with her.

But what is great is that Larry can! You see, actually he is half werewolf, except he was thrown out of his clan for being more like a puppy dog. Larry has real problems getting insurance because his bathroom keeps getting flooded because of all the hair he leaves jammed in the plughole. This has made him really sad, so when he meets Susie-May, he gets down on all fours and goes and digs up a bone (which turns out to belong to some previously unknown animal, that rewrites all the biology textbooks). Susie-May has to put up with some odd behaviour by Larry, such as him using his foot to scratch behind his ear, chasing the mailman, and widdling against lamp-posts (I am stunned at how the Pimms come up with their ideas!).

What is cool is the journey these characters go on, that takes them to a whole other place. (I think it is Peru, or maybe Kettering.) Larry was never a strong child, having to put up with bullies who kicked sand in his face and dangled sticks just out of his reach. But now he discovers a whole new side to himself, and that he can whup the bad guy’s ass (which is a shifty-looking seaside donkey). Susie-May, in contrast, is super-strong as well as super-hot and has always been able to handle herself in a fight. It’s not until she’s lying helpless, tied to rail tracks whilst a train with wooden stakes attached to its underside thunders towards her, and the sun is about to rise, that she realises just how much she needs a man — and that man is Larry!

Can Larry save Susie-May, and then the world? I’m not telling. But I can’t wait to read about their further adventures in the sequel!

© 2017 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: