TagInterzone

Book and story notes: Egan, Jilla, Allan

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)

A combination of very recent UK publication (the end of March) and continued acclaim (most recently the Pultizer) means that this book has appeared quite suddenly on my radar; and, when I came to read it, I knew that it had been highly regarded, but not really what it was about. Now that I’ve finished it, I think A Visit From the Goon Squad is worth reading, but can’t see that it’s so excellent as to deserve all the plaudits.

The focus of Egan’s novel is a cluster of characters centred on a music mogul named Bennie Salazar, and his assistant Sasha. I say a ‘cluster’ because each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, at a different point in time, and we’ll see particular characters only in certain chapters (sometimes centrally, sometimes tangentially). The main theme is time (the ‘goon squad’ of the title), and how its passing changes people and crushes their dreams (‘I don’t know what happened to me,’ says one character to Bennie. ‘You grew up, Alex,’ he replies, ‘just like the rest of us’). The non-linear structure is particularly effective at showing this: without the imposition of the usual chronological order, one is encouraged to consider different stages of characters’ lives at the same time, as it were.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is also written in a multiplicity of styles; and, in general, those styles work well (even at their most unusual, such as a chapter in the form of Powerpoint slides). But I finished the novel that it didn’t have that extra spark that would life it out of the ‘good’ bracket and into the ‘great’.

Link: Jennifer Egan’s website.

Shireen Jilla, Exiled (2011)

Anna Weitzman is happy with her life in New York, married to Jessie, a British diplomat. But then a series of misunderstandings and minor incidents draws into question Anna’s ability as a mother to her young son Joshua, and the boy is placed under the guardianship of Jessie’s American stepmother Nancy, a wealthy socialite. As the life Anna knew begins to unravel, she becomes convinced that Nancy is behind it all.

What Shireen Jilla does particularly well in Exiled is create the unsettling sense of life slipping out of one’s control, as Anna struggles to navigate the increasingly treacherous waters in which she finds herself without really understanding how she got there. The great contrast between the world of New York and Anna’s old life in rural Kent is vividly drawn (for example, when Josh takes head-lice into his private school, what would have been accepted as a routine occurrence back in England now requires a specialist company to come in and treat her entire apartment). One feels Anna’s disorientation as she tries to understand the social forces working against her.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the ending, which unpicks the knots of uncertainty and confusion that have been created; but I guess it’s part of the nature of the story Jilla is telling that that must happen. Whatever, Exiled is well worth a read for the journey, and a fine debut for Shireen Jilla.

Links: Quartet Books; Shireen Jilla’s website.

Nina Allan, ‘The Silver Wind’ (2011)

A new novella (published in issue 233 of Interzone) from a writer who always seems to have a refreshing take on the fantastic;‘The Silver Wind’ is no exception to that, as it takes some well-worn ideas and images and fashions them into something quite distinctive.

In a UK under the harsh rule of a nationalist dictatorship, Martin is a London estate agent who hears about Owen Andrews, a clockmaker who allegedly worked with the army on experiments involving time travel. Martin goes to see Andrews, thinking (or so he tells himself) that he might be able to find out how to avert the accidental death of his wife Miranda. But really he wants to know about Andrews, and discovers firstly that it’s not ‘time travel’ as such which is possible, but travel into different versions of reality; and secondly, that research into this phenomenon is ongoing, in a nearby military hospital. Martin goes out into the overgrown woods of Shooter’s Hill, is found by soldiers, and taken to that very hospital…

What is most striking to me about ‘The Silver Wind’ is the way that Allan roots even her most outlandish imaginings firmly in quotidian reality. The societal changes of the background are sketched in believably, and anchored by Allan’s very specific sense of place. Against this background, more preposterous concepts like time travel, and even archetypal images from fantasy and fairytale (such as the forest haunted by monsters – here occupied by escaped subjects from the hospital, who have been twisted by the experiments), become plausible because they are so firmly placed in context.

‘The Silver Wind’ is a very down-to-earth treatment of a theme that one might expect to be handled in precisely the opposite way (I haven’t really discussed the plotting, which is also strikingly low-key). One gains a sense of Allan as a writer firmly in command of her material and doing her own thing, which is a very exciting sense.

Link: Interzone.

Steve Rasnic Tem, ‘The Glare and the Glow’ (2010)

A man with a penchant for quotations  (though he can’t always remember who said them) buys some unusual light bulbs that illuminate rather more than he had bargained for. Rasnic Tem pitches the voice of his narrator just right (borderline insufferable, that is), and the tale is short — but it works.

Link
Melanie Tem’s and Steve Rasnic Tem’s website

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Chris Beckett, ‘Johnny’s New Job’ (2010)

Chris Beckett’s professional background is in social work, and (he says in his guest editorial) he was inspired to write ‘Johnny’s New Job’ by reactions to the Baby P case. In Beckett’s story, a girl’s ‘wicked stepfather’ leaves her to die down a well. This is judged to be the fault of Welfare, and a Welfare Officer is denounced in public by the Chief Accuser. A crowd of people (including the titular Johnny) is soon out for the Welfare Officer’s blood — and so events move inexorably on…

As a satire on kneejerk reactions, the flow of this story may not be too difficult to anticipate — but I suspect that’s rather the point. Beckett constructs his tale as a kind of larger-than-life fable: many characters are identified en masse or by role, rather than by name, so they come to represent more than just individuals (and even Johnny is something of an everyman), and the telling has a folk-tale quality about it. ‘Johnny’s New Job’ is swift, sharp, and very good indeed.

Links
Chris Beckett’s website
My review of The Turing Test, Beckett’s Edge Hill Prize-winning collection

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Nina Allan, ‘Flying in the Face of God’ (2010)

I’ve heard great things about Nina Allan’s fiction, but (as far as I’m aware) this is the first of her stories that I’ve read — and all those great things I’ve heard were correct.

In the world of this story, a process has been developed called the ‘Kushnev drain’ which alters human physiology to allow those who undergo it to travel through space, though they are changed fundamentaly as a result. Anita Schleif is making a film about female ‘fliers’, and in particular her friend Rachel Alvin. That’s the background, but the tale is less concerned with space travel than about the difficulties of dealing with profound personal change.

Anita is very fond of Rachel, and secretly distressed at the prospect of losing her friend, even though Rachel is fulfilling her ambition; the film is at least as much an attempt by Anita to hold on to her friend as it is a product of genuine interest in the subject. Allan also sets up some neat parallels that give the story a satisfying cohesion: Rachel’s single-minded determination to become a flier is not so different from Anita’s desire to keep Rachel in her life however she can;  and the transformation through which Rachel is going is analogous to the mental decline of Anita’s grandmother — both involve the loss of a human self as conventionally understood; so Anita is effectively seeing the two most important people in her life disappear before her eyes, albeit in very different ways.

‘Flying in the Face of God’ is a superb piece of fiction, and you can be sure that I’ll be looking out for more of Nina Allan’s stories in the future.

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Mercurio D. Rivera, ‘Dance of the Kawkawroons’ (2010)

A pair of human scientists visit a world occupied by the Kawkawroons, sentient bird-like creatures. They communicate with one through a translation device, and ask to see its nest — but what is their real motive? I found this a breezy, enjoyable story: Rivera tells the tale from both human and Kawkawroon viewpoints; the contrast of mentalities is interesting and nicely evoked — and there’s a neat twist at the end. A fun read.

Link
Mercurio Rivera’s website

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Jon Ingold, ‘The History of Poly-V’ (2010)

In Jon Ingold’s story, Poly-V is a drug that enables people to relive their memories, recalling events in much greater detail than in the conventional process of remembering. The narrator, Will Sheppard, is one of the scientists who developed the drug and tested it on themselves; his account of that development is interspersed with scenes of his memories, as experienced under the influence of Poly-V. But can Will trust what he remembers?

Ingold is especially good with voice in this piece; Will’s character comes through strongly in the matter-of-fact, slightly detached narration, and I particularly liked the way the author retains the essence of Sheppard’s voice in a scene narrated by the four-year-old Will, even as it adopts a more child-like tone.

However, I’m not sure that the story is successful at a more structural level. Its secrets are revealed in a pattern that makes the tale less disorienting than I think it aims to be, though I appreciate the way it treats the fallibility of human memory.

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Eastercon: Odyssey 2010

I’m back from my first full Eastercon, and what an experience it was. For those who don’t know, Eastercon (to borrow an idea from Gareth L. Powell) is something like a Glastonbury Festival for science fiction, only in a hotel. Probably, no two attendees experience quite the same thing, as an Eastercon can seem less like one event than an amalgamation of four or five different ones. But there are programmed items of various kinds (such as panel discussions, talks, and workshops), mixed in with plenty of socialising.

It was great to catch up with old friends (Nick, Gary, Tony, and everyone else) and meet new ones. There was quite a lot of meeting new people, including those I already knew from online, some I knew of but hadn’t interacted with personally, and others I hadn’t known in any capacity — but I am glad to have met them all. In alphabetical order: Liz Batty, Claire Brialey, Nic Clarke, Niall Harrison, John Jarrold, Gareth D. Jones, Caroline Mullan, Abigail Nussbaum, Alison Page, Paul Graham Raven. And I know there were other people there I know online whom I didn’t get a chance to meet — some other time, hopefully.

Though I’ve been to other conventions before, this was the first where I was a participant — in Niall’s panel on the conlcusion to the BSFA survey, along with Claire, John, and Caroline. Naturally, I was nervous to begin with, but in the end I rather enjoyed it, and now like the idea of doing another one. I’m not going to attempt to summarise what we discussed; Niall intends to post a transcript in the near future — I hope you’ll find it interesting.

Other events I attended included: various panels on topics such as reviewing, anthologies, the Clarke Award (whose consensus was that The City & the City should win), grammar (the most heated of all discussions to which I went), and the definition of ‘mainstream’ (which is likely to inspire a separate blog post from me); an apple-tasting workshop (from which I conclude that, indeed, apples do not all taste the same; a gig by Mitch Benn (‘this is the closest I get to a homecoming gig’), and the BSFA awards (congratulations to all the winners, but particularly to Nick Lowe, who won for his Interzone film column — great to see that being recognised). [EDIT, 9.20pm: Somehow I omitted to mention Ben Goldacre‘s excellent talk on bad science. Consider that rectified!]

One of the things that sets conventions like Eastercon apart from other kinds of literary festival is that authors (including the Guests of Honour) are as much a part of the crowd as anyone else — which means you never quite know whom you’ll encounter, or how. I had a couple of those surprising moments: looking through the Dealers’ Room, I came to the TTA Press stall, where I saw a copy of Marcher by Chris Beckett. I very much enjoyed his story collection The Turing Test last year, so I decided to buy the novel — and did a double-take when I realised that the person currently staffing the stall was Beckett himself.

But my biggest surprise of the convention came when I went to the launch of Jetse de Vries’ new anthology, Shine — and Alastair Reynolds (who was a Guest of Honour) walked up to me and said, ‘You’re David, you just reviewed Terminal World, didn’t you?’ I didn’t expect that to happen…

So, I returned from Eastercon having had a great weekend, with many more books than I intended (this has been the case with every sf/fantasy convention I’ve been to), and looking forward to next year’s. My thanks to everyone involved in Odyssey for all their hard work in staging the event.

The month in reading: February 2010

I didn’t read quite as much in February as I did in January — but I did read a couple of books that I’m pretty sure will end up on my list of favourite reads of the year. So, my pick for ‘book of February’ is a dead heat between Liz Jensen‘s masterly character study/climate-change thriller The Rapture, and Skippy Dies, Paul Murray‘s sprawling tale of growing up (with added touches of comedy and theoretical physics).

Also on my recommended list from last month are Dan Rhodes‘ macabre Little Hands Clapping, and Amy Sackville‘s otherworldly The Still Point. And I should mention ‘Again and Again and Again’, Rachel Swirsky‘s highly enjoyable story from the most recent issue of Interzone.

All good reads, there. Check them out.

Interzone 226: Stephen Gaskell, ‘Aquestria’

On the planet of Aquestria, the two resident human factions — the Loyalists and the Senastrians — are at war, though both are suffering the effects of a plague which is killing off plants and animals alike. Isiria and Kelif, two Senestrian Special Investigations officers, respond to a call and find a strange man with his tongue cut out.  Thinking he might be a Loyalist, Kelif interrogates the stranger, until his methods become so aggressive that Isiria takes matters into her own hands.

This story is… okay. There’s a nice idea at its heart, and some deft touches in Gaskell’s writing where he evokes Isiria’s unease with Kelif’s tactics. But, though it’s always readable, much of the story doesn’t really leave a lasting impression. ‘Aquestria’ is decent enough, but nothing special.

Link
Stephen Gaskell’s website

Click here for all my Interzone 226 posts.

Interzone 226: Rachel Swirsky, ‘Again and Again and Again’

Oh, but I loved this. A two-page chronicle of children rebelling against their once-rebellious parents, from the dawn of the twentieth century to the future, where technology makes the possibilities for shocking the previous generation ever more extreme, until…

Well, if I’m any more specific, I’ll spoil all the fun for you. And that’s what this story is – great fun, and (one suspects) only too true.

Link
Rachel Swirsky’s website

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