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Alex Dally MacFarlane (ed.), Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) – Vector review

The following review appears in Vector issue 277 (Autumn 2014).

AliensAs Alex Dally MacFarlane notes in her introduction to this anthology, the concept of extra-terrestrial life raises questions which have been a perennial source of fascination for writers: “What will we encounter? Will we be able to encounter it at all?” And, of course, since alien life remains undiscovered, it becomes a blank canvas that writers can fill however they wish. In Aliens: Recent Encounters, MacFarlane has assembled thirty-two recent tales (the earliest are from 2002) which take a variety of approaches to the subject.

In ‘Sun Dogs‘, Brooke Bolander imagines Laika on her involuntary mission in space, where she meets some strange fiery dog-creatures who can give her whatever she wants, which the humans (whom Laika calls “whitecoats”) never could or would. ‘Sun Dogs’ is very much a story that stands or falls on its ability to create and sustain a convincing narrative viewpoint for Laika. Happily, it succeeds: Bolander’s third-person narration is a combination of persuasively non-human terminology and perception (“The world through the window is black and empty, marked with tiny faraway gleams that might be the eyes of unknown animals”), and detail that emphasises instinct and feeling. The ending, too, is satisfying, because in retrospect it fits right in.

The Four Generations of Chang E‘ by Zen Cho is a drily humorous tale of diaspora experience. We begin as Chang E has won a lottery to leave Earth for the moon, which has been colonised by aliens. We then follow three successive generations of her daughters (also named Chang E) as they react to, and are changed by, the world in which they find themselves: from wanting to fit in with the Moonites, through to a point where Earth is itself an alien place. There are some sharp lines, especially around attitudes to the native moon rabbits, which are discovered to be sentient (“The entire hall smelled of rabbit food. You worried other people would smell it on you.”); but the complex emotions of the ending are perhaps most powerful of all.

Interestingly inverting the idea of encounter, Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Carthago Delenda Est‘ is set four hundred years after a message was picked up from a planet in the Oort cloud, which caused any number of worlds to send delegations. The ambassadors have been cloned and reincarnated ever since, waiting for the unknown alien to show up. There’s a nicely wry tone to Valentine’s writing (on the number of delegates: “You wonder how amazing the message must be, to get them all up off their asses”), which fits in with the rather absurd nature of what she’s depicting: a whole existence created, entire lives lived, for an event that might never happen.

Though some reach into the depths of space, other stories in the anthology remain earthbound. For example, ‘Lambing Season‘ by Molly Gloss is a resolutely – almost stiflingly – down-to-earth tale of encounter. Delia spends six months of the year tending her flock of sheep on the mountain, with only her two dogs for company. This year, a strange craft falls from the sky; Delia investigates, and comes across a person who looks rather like a dog. Then she goes back to her sheep. Gloss’s prose evokes the vastness of the landscape that Delia inhabits, and the hard nature of her farming life; the focus on the quotidian rather than the extraordinary gives ‘Lambing Season’ a highly distinctive feel.

Courtney, the narrator of Elizabeth Bear’s ‘The Death of Terrestrial Radio’ grew up feeling estranged from other people, but with a yearning to talk to aliens. Eventually, they talked to us – or rather they transmitted a jumble of old Earth broadcasts back at us. Courtney is the astronomer who pinpointed the source of the ‘Echoes’, but it’s not so much a cause for celebration as for rueing the impossible distances that must be crossed in the universe. She reflects: “I can’t decide if knowing they were out there and that they reached out in friendship with a map and the sound of their voices, is worse than imagining they were never there at all.” All the vistas of space fall back into the story of a woman facing up to the possibility that her life’s work may have been for nothing.

There’s a bitter irony to the title of Nisi Shawl’s ‘Honorary Earthling‘, an irony which is only underlined by its inclusion in an alien-themed anthology. The story takes the form of monologues by various African American characters, who are all either talking to – or are themselves – a figure from urban legend, such as a phantom hitchhiker or doppelganger; these are then paired with related extracts of ‘found’ reportage. As a whole, these monologues show just how much their narrators – and others like them – still feel that they’re treated as outsiders (“Aren’t we lucky Seattle lets dogs ride the bus? I don’t think they’d understand if someone were to tell them they couldn’t”). Besides being a fine piece of work, ‘Honorary Earthling’ illustrates just how widely this anthology ranges.

Ken Liu’s ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species‘ is, as its title suggests, a tour how various alien races pass on their knowledge to each other. There’s some wonderfully evocative imagery here, as Liu imagines radically contrasting modes of existence: from mechanical creatures whose experience becomes etched into their stone brains by shifting channels of water, to beings of energy who see the vast structures of the universe as books to be read. That diversity of life is echoed in all the different kinds of stories in MacFarlane’s anthology.

Alternate worlds, Stephen King, and Vector

Issue 274 of the BSFA’s critical journal Vector arrived in the post just before Christmas. It was a very special moment for me, because this issue contains my first published piece of criticism about books: a look at how two contrasting collections of linked stories (one, Nina Allan’s The Silver Wind, speculative fiction; the other, David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, not) treat what might be termed ‘alternate worlds’. I was pleased with how the piece turned out, and hope to be able to republish it online at some point.

For now, however, I will leave you with the review that I also have in this issue of Vector, of Stephen King’s time-travel novel, 11.22.63:

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (2011)

112263There’s a portal leading to 1958 in the storeroom of Al Templeton’s diner. No matter how much time someone spends there, only two minutes will have elapsed in the present when they return. Their actions in the past may altered the present – but all will be reset if the portal is used again. Al has tried to change the course of history by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy; but cancer caught up with him before he could wait out the necessary five years. Back in 2011, he enlists teacher Jake Epping to go back and do what he couldn’t.

JFK’s murder may be the impetus of its plot, but the main focus of 11.22.63 for much of its length is Jake’s experience of the past: his realisation that he quite likes it back there, and his personal relationships, especially in Jodie, the small Texas town where he eventually settles and falls in love with a librarian named Sadie Dunhill. This strand has its moments, but in many ways it’s the least interesting aspect of King’s novel: as a character, Jake is rather anonymous – which is part of what helps him slot into 1958, but it also means there’s less emotional interest when he’s not being driven by his mission.

Nor is there much friction between past and present in the novel. Jake sees signs of the period’s prejudice and bigotry, but never has cause to truly confront or engage with them. For King’s protagonist, the 1950s and ‘60s can, unproblematically, be a time when root beer tasted better and folks were friendlier. The odd acknowledgement of social attitudes that don’t sit well with Jake’s liberal sensibilities does not carry much force in the face of this living past’s seductive nostalgia.

There are intriguing hints throughout 11.22.63’s midsection that time itself its resisting Jake’s attempts to change history; this maintains tension over whether he will actually succeed. But it’s not until novel’s end that the time travel aspect comes right to the fore – and here the book unbalances, as the tone built up over 700 pages shifts more than once over the next 30. A historical domestic drama with overtones of a thriller becomes a compressed science fiction story, and the transition is too abrupt to work.

The characterisation of Jake also causes the ending to come unstuck. Up to that point, the protagonist has seemed mostly detached; now, he acts with a strength of feeling that we haven’t really seen before – that King hasn’t really earned on the page. What’s more, the closing shifts feel like an author trying to have his cake and eat it, backtracking on a commitment to an emotional position. It’s a frustrating end to an uneven novel.

Adam Roberts, The Soddit (2003): Vector review

The latest issue of the BSFA critical journal Vector has landed, and it contains my review of The Soddit by Adam Roberts. The Soddit was the first of the parodies that Roberts has produced alongside his ‘canonical’ novels; originally published in 2003, it was reissued last year. I started out imagining that the review would be just a bit of fun; as I went along, though, I found myself thinking more about the playful side of Roberts’s work, and what it is that draws me to his writing. Interestingly, Dan Hartland writes about similar qualities in his review of the story collection Adam Robots in the same issue. It seems we’re on the same page as regards Roberts’s “wilfulness and idiosyncrasy”.

Anyway, on to The Soddit

***

Anyone who follows Adam Roberts on Twitter will know of his penchant for puns, which are always excellent, and never induce groans at all – honest, guv. (Thought I’d indulge in some irony, there.) And anyone who’s followed Roberts’s bibliography over the years will know that his sense of humour has found a home in his fiction, most obviously in the series of parodies he has written alongside his more serious SF novels. The first of these parodies, The Soddit, has recently been reissued (there was even a film to mark the occasion, or something), and I agreed to review it. What did I let myself in for?

You’ll have some idea of how The Soddit goes purely from knowing how The Hobbit goes, so I won’t rehearse the plot too much: a Soddit named Bingo Grabbings is cajoled by a group of dwarfs and the wizard Gandef to join them on an expedition to the Only Mountain, home of the dragon Smug; they are at pains to emphasise to Bingo that this quest is all about taking the dragon’s gold – honest, guv. An episodic narrative of various encounters then follows, until the group reaches its destination.

The humour of The Soddit typically starts with a pun on the name of a character from Tolkien’s work, and extends outwards from there. Some of Roberts’s ideas work better than others: for example, the shape-shifter Biorn is an inconsistent mishmash of Scandinavian stereotypes – he speaks in Abba lyrics occasionally, and likes his flat-pack furniture – that I found too broad-brush to be truly amusing. But I loved the translation of Gollum’s riddles in the dark into a philosophical contest with ‘Sollum’.

Beyond the humour, what comes through time and again in the book is a trait that Roberts shares with Tolkien (though it manifests in very different ways in the authors’ respective work): a love of language. In The Soddit, it’s not just about puns: there are passages where Roberts is clearly revelling in the possibilities of prose, the pure rhythm and flow of writing. If you like that in a work of fiction (and I do), it is a joy to read.

But The Soddit is not all about play; there are elements of a straightforward, serious novel here, and they work rather well. Instead of a Ring that makes him invisible, Bingo finds a Thing (complete with registered trademark) which makes true the opposite of whatever someone speaks through it. Cue the classic fantasy trope of ‘be careful what you wish for’, which Roberts uses very neatly. And I must admit to being surprised by the twist in the nature of the group’s quest, a twist that succeeds on its own terms even as one senses that Roberts is deliberately making the gears of narrative grind noisily. The Soddit is a showcase for Roberts’s sense of humour, yes; but his skill as a storyteller is also firmly on display.

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011)

Peter Grant is an ordinary police officer, until he finds himself interviewing a ghost about a mysterious death. Pretty soon, he’s working for DI Thomas Nightingale, the Metropolitan Police’s one-man bastion against supernatural crime, which seems to be on the rise again after several decades. So, in between learning magical secrets that haven’t been taught for fifty years or more, Peter has to contend with an entity apparently causing normally placid individuals to commit violent murders, and with a feud between rival spirits of the Thames.

Its author already a television and tie-in writer, Rivers of London is Ben Aaronovitch’s first non-franchise novel, and the first of a projected series (with two sequels to follow later in 2011). It’s a promising start, but one not without flaws: there are times when the narrative momentum loses out rather too much to the establishment of the world and characters. Aside from the occasional dry quip, Peter Grant comes across as largely anonymous, both as a narrator and character; and the secondary human characters, even the eccentric Nightingale, don’t fare much better. The descriptions of London tend to focus on bald geographical details — the names of streets and landmarks — a technique I didn’t find particularly evocative.

Beneath and between all this, however, is some interesting fantasy. When Grant encounters the river spirits, there are tantalising hints of magic lurking behind the everyday, the deep archetypes these beings represent:

I felt the force of [Father Thames’s] personality drag at me: beer and skittles it promised, the smell of horse manure and walking home from the pub by moonlight, a warm fireside and uncomplicated women.

The way that Aaronovitch reaches back into history for the book’s mystery and its solution is very satisfying (one gains a strong sense that this novel could only have been set in London); and I like the practical approach to magic — for example, if you change shape in this fictional world, it damages the tissues ofyour body — which gives it a real sense of consequence.

That last point links to a subtext which may prove a key dynamic as the series unfolds: the clash of old and new. This is represented in the characters of Nightingale (the fusty old wizard-figure who has no truck with technology) and Grant (the young mixed-race copper determined to reconcile magic with his knowledge of science). In the present volume, it’s also there in the contrasting portrayals of the river spirits,with Father Thames an Olde-Worlde fairground showman, and Mother Thames a Nigerian matriarch. Indeed, in Aaronovitch’s fictional reality, magic itself is an old phenomenon brought into the modern world; the theme of old versus new is suggested in Rivers of London more than it’s explored, but it will be interesting to see if and how it develops over time.

Aaronovitch’s series may not quite have hit the ground running with Rivers of London, but there are clear signs here that a real treat may be in store in a book or two’s time.

This review first appeared in Vector 267, Summer 2011

Elsewhere
Ben Aaronovitch’s website
Some other reviews of Rivers of London: Duncan Lawie for Strange Horizons; Ian Simpson for Bookgeeks; Sharon at Vulpes Libris.

Philip Palmer, Version 43 (2010)

Version 43 is a novel of vast, widescreen scope. It is constantly pulling back its focus to reveal a wider stage for its action. It is also full of incident and rarely pauses for breath. And yet… it seems rather less engaging than one might anticipate.

Philip Palmer’s third novel takes us to the planet Belladonna, and more specifically to Bompasso, more commonly known as Lawless City, thanks to its being run by criminal gangs. The only way to reach this world is via quantum teleportation, a process with only a 50% chance of survival; the scrambled bodies of five medics would seem to suggest that, somehow, the technology is now being used as a weapon. Sent to investigate this is our narrator, a Galactic Cop, once human, now a cyborg in his 43rd iteration; he is immensely powerful and unwavering in the pursuit of his mission – which turns out to have a much larger context than he first thought.

Alongside the main narrative, we follow the Hive-Rats, a species bent on conquest, controlled by a hive-mind of the species they have absorbed, and able to alter the flow of time (and hence to subjectively speed up their evolution in response to any obstacle). Eventually, the two story-strands intersect, giving the Cop even more to contend with.

An ever-expanding canvas like this would seem to lend itself naturally to an exciting sf adventure story but, in this case, I find that the combination of the plot’s great scope and the Cop’s detached viewpoint instead distances one from the action. It becomes difficult to care about what’s happening, partly because individual dramas get lost in the throng and partly because the Cop doesn’t care – his directive is all and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt or killed along the way; there are a few moments of introspection where the Cop starts to wonder about the ethics of what he is doing but they don’t change the overall affect of the story.

Even on a scene-by-scene basis, the action is not particularly involving. It feels like watching one video-game fight sequence after another, without the immersion; this impression is reinforced by the episodic structure of Version 43, which sees the Cop repeatedly destroyed then regenerated as a new version; as he remarks towards the end: “They could keep killing me; I would keep being reborn; it would be a long slow game of attrition.” Quite so – and that, I think, is part of the problem.

There’s a certain amount of interest generated by the sheer amount of plot, as one wonders just how Palmer is going to resolve everything. And the squabbling between the Minds of the Hive-Rats is quite entertaining. Overall, however, Version 43 is not a great read.

This review first appeared in Vector 266, Spring 2011.

M.D. Lachlan, Wolfsangel (2010)

Acting on the prophecy of the witch queen Gullveig, King Athun takes twin boys from an Anglo-Saxon village during a raid. One, he names Vali and raises as his own; the other, Feileg, is kept by Gullveig to serve as her protector and sent to be schooled in the wolf-magic of the berserkers. Over the years, the twins become pawns in the complex game of magical subterfuge that is the eternal war between Odin and Loki. To say that Wolfsangel is a Viking fantasy with werewolves would technically be accurate but it would do a disservice to author Mark Barrowcliffe, whose debut fantasy (published under the name ‘MD Lachlan’) is a much richer book than that bald description suggests.

Wolfsangel pays its dues as a fantasy adventure story: the plot is suitably eventful, with twists and turns a-plenty, and Lachlan is a deft writer of action. But, while the violence in this novel may be brutal, it is not gratuitously so; the author brings home that violence plays a key part in the world of his story and he shows how harsh and restrictive it makes life for his characters. Vali is a prince who refuses to play the role expected of him by his society – he abhors fighting and his true love, Adisla, is a farm girl (who is far more resigned to the status quo than he). Perhaps his ultimate quest in Wolfsangel is to break free of those social strictures.

But Vali (and other characters) are bound in even deeper ways than they can imagine – and this is where magic comes in. Lachlan’s treatment of magic is interesting and distinctive, depicting a mysterious force that not even its ablest users understand fully (“a puzzle not a recipe” as one character puts it). Particularly striking is the way that this magic consumes and distorts those who wield and come into contact with it: the witch queen might have power enough to make her a goddess of sorts but the price she has paid is that her body will forever remain that of a child. Similarly, the magic of the berserks grants Feileg immense physical ability but it also twists his personality into something not quite human (“I am a wolf” he repeats, as though it were a mantra). The struggle to avert the destinies laid down by magic parallels Vali’s fight against society.

The whole world of Wolfsangel is suffused with the unknown. Gods are present in both divine and mortal aspects but aren’t necessarily aware of who they are. Magic floats through the narrative, with many seemingly unsure of where its reality stops and superstition begins. Even the geography, the very extent of the world, feels only half-known to most of the characters. It lends the book a real sense of strangeness, which runs alongside and rounds out the more conventional adventure story.

Wolfsangel is the first novel in a series that will move forwards through history; I’ll be interested to see how that works but, if the rest are a good as this one, it will be a series that needs reading.

This review first appeared in Vector 264, Autumn 2010

Elsewhere

M.D. Lachlan’s website

Some other reviews of Wolfsangel: Paul Kincaid for Strange Horizons; Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle; Jonathan McCalmont at The Zone.

Surveys and wolves: Vector, Autumn 2010

The latest issue of the BSFA‘s critical journal, Vector, has been mailed out to members — and it’s the first  issue which has contributions from me. There’s a transcript of the Eastercon panel in which I took part earlier this  year, on the BSFA’s author surveys; and a review of M.D. Lachlan‘s impressive Viking fantasy Wolfsangel (well worth a look even if epic fantasy is not your usual bag). Of course, there’s plenty more to read in there besides these; if you’re at all interested in fantastic fiction as a literary form, you should check the BSFA out.

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