My review of Wolves by Simon Ings (2014) as been posted on SFFWorld.
Wolves is a novel set in the near future that deftly explores the disjunct between
My review of Wolves by Simon Ings (2014) as been posted on SFFWorld.
Wolves is a novel set in the near future that deftly explores the disjunct between perception and reality. Failures in perception pierce the Simon Ings’ narrative like shards of glass. It is through the prism of these shards that we glimpse a near future world start to wash away under the waves. The science fiction landscape is flooded (an apt metaphor when talking about this book) with media that uses the concept of virtuality to navigate similar themes. Likewise, there is a rich tradition of British fiction examining the concept of a cosy catastrophe. Few do so with Ings’ level of literary craftsmanship, speculative acumen, and sophistication in thinking about the relationship between technology and society...
Last month I read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, but I will not be reviewing for SFFWorld because my colleague Mark Yon already wrote a thougLast month I read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, but I will not be reviewing for SFFWorld because my colleague Mark Yon already wrote a thoughtful and insightful review. I thought about writing a review and posting it on my blog, but I have other reviews I need to catch up on and I don’t want to fall further behind. You can read Mark’s review here....more
My review of The Peripheral by William Gibson (2014) has been posted at SFFWorld .
The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest book, is the noir prophet o
My review of The Peripheral by William Gibson (2014) has been posted at SFFWorld .
The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest book, is the noir prophet of cyberpunk’s version of a time travel novel. However, it is a distinctly Gibsonian concept of time travel presented in this book, used as way to explore how the past and the present, the present and the future, are in constant conversation. An H.G. Wells epigraph at the beginning of the novel warns “of the sickness and confusion that comes with time travelling.” The sickness and confusion that is Gibson’s concern does not just impact at the individual level, but at the level of whole societies.
The density of the novel’s first one-hundred pages will come as no surprise to those familiar with the author’s oeuvre. The book is told in staccato chapters, interchanging between two limited third-person perspectives inhabiting two different timeframes. The writing congeals around strings of neologisms and techno-jargon, and Gibson spurns exposition of any kind. Though the novel adheres closely to plot devices familiar to the mystery-thriller genre, narrative takes a backseat in the novel to texture and atmosphere, with writing that evokes a fully developed social reality. And, with The Peripheral, Gibson is not content with evoking just one such future society – he, instead, offers readers a vision of multiple futures.
My review ofCladeby James Bradley(2015) has been posted atSFFWorld.
There is a good reason that bees feature prominently on the cover ofCladeby James B
My review of Clade by James Bradley (2015) has been posted at SFFWorld.
There is a good reason that bees feature prominently on the cover of Clade by James Bradley, the Australian author’s latest impressive foray into literary science fiction.
Firstly, it is easy to explain the structure of the book as a honeycomb, each chapter a self-contained cell forming part of the whole mosaic. The book follows the lives of several characters that share a familial connection – members of the same clade – from approximately present day to many decades into the future. The book does not feature a traditional linear narrative, but is told by multiple voices, a new point of view character introduced in almost every chapter; each chapter shifting the timeframe forward by several years, to tell a story that occurs over a lifetime, both epic and fleeting.
My review ofWhen We Wakeby Karen Healey(2013) has been posted atSFFWorld.
When We Wakeby Karen Healey is a young adult science fiction novel first pub
My review of When We Wake by Karen Healey (2013) has been posted at SFFWorld.
When We Wake by Karen Healey is a young adult science fiction novel first published in Australia in 2013 and was, at the time, the author’s third book. I first heard of When We Wake when Sean Williams recommended it on Episode 203 of the Coode Street Podcast as an Australian science fiction book people should seek out and read. Karen Healey is actually a New Zealand writer, but Williams was right to recommend this as an Australian book. Healey has spent sometime living in Australia (though she has now returned to her home country), and it’s true that When We Wakereads like a distinctly Australian novel.
My review of The Mechanical (Book One of The Alchemy Wars) by Ian Tregillis (2015) has been postedat SFFWorld.
The Mechanicalby Ian Tregillis is the
My review of The Mechanical (Book One of The Alchemy Wars) by Ian Tregillis (2015) has been posted at SFFWorld.
The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis is the first book in the author’s new trilogy The Alchemy Wars. It is a book that belies easy genre classification, spanning fantasy, alternative history, and steampunk subgenres. The author’s fifth novel overall, following on the heels of the well-received Milkweed Triptych and the stand-alone Something More Than Night, it is being published by Orbit in early March as one of the most eagerly anticipated science fiction and fantasy book releases of 2015. I am pleased to report that the book, in my opinion, will not fail to satisfy expectations.
My review ofFlex by Ferrett Steinmetz(2015) has beenpostedat SFFWorld.
Flexby Ferrett Steinmetz is an urban fantasy with a number of unique elements
My review of Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz (2015) has been posted at SFFWorld.
Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz is an urban fantasy with a number of unique elements that should make it flare brightly in a crowded subgenre. While this is his first novel, since attending Clarion Writer’s Workshop in 2008 Steinmetz has published a number of short stories in various periodicals and online venues, and in 2011 he was nominated for a Nebula Award for his novelette “Sauerkraut Station”. Flex, therefore, comes with the weight of expectation, and while the book is marred by many of the flaws common to debuts, it also shows enough raw talent and energy to attract readers to a bright new author who should continue to improve as his career matures.
My review of Touchby Claire North(2015) has been postedat SFFWorld.
Touchby Claire North is a contemporary fantasy thriller and the British author’s
My review of Touch by Claire North (2015) has been posted at SFFWorld.
Touch by Claire North is a contemporary fantasy thriller and the British author’s second novel writing under this pseudonym. Under her real name, Catherine Webb has published eight young adult novels, the first of which was written when she was fourteen years old. As Kate Griffin, she has published a further six urban fantasy novels, including the highly praised Matthew Swift series. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, her first novel written as North, was published last year to both great commercial success and critical acclaim. I hope this unique and engrossing new novel brings her even more readers and praise.
The Just City by Jo Walton is a typically unique novel by an author who has become one of the major names in genre writing, combining science fiction with elements from Classical Greek literature and mythology. Walton is a Welsh-Canadian writer who has worked across both science fiction and fantasy genres, garnering multiple awards. Her 2011 novel Among Others was widely praised and won both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award. The Just City, her eleventh and latest novel published earlier this year, tells a cerebral and metaphysical tale that might stand as too idiosyncratic within the science fiction genre to find wide appreciation amongst fans, but continues to confirm Walton’s reputation as one of the most interesting and eclectic writers in the field.
In 2013, Paul McAuley completed The Quiet War sequence, one of the major hard science fiction series of the last decade. Something Coming Through, set in the same milieu as a recent slew of short stories, marks not only a new series of novels, but also a clear change in tone and direction. Whereas The Quiet War books were brooding space operas about massive conflicts across time and space set in the mid- to long-term future, Something Coming Through is a lighter, near-future thriller set just after first contact with aliens, which blends SF and police procedural elements with lashings of satire and pastiche...
The review of The Whispering Swarm(Book One of The Sanctuary of the White Friars) by Michael Moorcock has been posted to SFFWorld.
I consider Michael Moorcock one of the yawning chasms in my genre reading. I have read smatterings of Elric, smidgeons of Hawkmoon, a bit of Jerry Cornelius, and Mother London. It is possible that, were I a devotee to the man recognised to be one of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction, I might have got more out of his latest novel, The Whispering Swarm, a blend of fantasy and autobiography, and the first in a projected trilogy. Though there are certainly tasty moments, I think readers with only a casual interest in the author will find this particularly feast akin to chewing rock...
The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord is the sequel to the Barbadian writer’s 2013 science fiction novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds. This is Lord’s third novel overall, in what has been, thus far, a relatively short career, yet one that has already seen much praise directed towards the writer, including a Crawford Award and a Mythopoeic Award for her first novel, Redemption in Indigo. The Galaxy Game, presents a slight hiccup in her trajectory, as it expands the focus of its predecessor, but fails to retain the intimacy and emotional resonance that made that novel such a success...
I thought long and hard about whether I should make a comparison between Australian author Rjurik Davidson's debut novel, Unwrapped Sky, and the Bas-LI thought long and hard about whether I should make a comparison between Australian author Rjurik Davidson's debut novel, Unwrapped Sky, and the Bas-Lag novels of China Mièville. It seems a reductive approach to reviewing this book, which is certainly the product of a fertile and ambitious imagination of all of its own. However, undeniably the many pleasures of Unwrapped Sky are reminiscent of those earlier Bas-Lag books. The lavishly constructed city setting patched together from a variety of technological and mythological elements; the wilful subversion of the tropes of epic fantasy; and the book’s conversation with the politics of revolution; all this makes the comparison hard to resist.
New Weird seems to be last season's fashion in the world of speculative fiction (perhaps supplanted by Grimdark as the in vogue thing (and I suspect an interesting essay could be written on the relationship between the two “movements”)). However, Unwrapped Sky is a debut novel that spent almost a decade in gestation, with roots in a time period when the term was perhaps more relevant to the conversation in the field. The novel is set in the same fantastical milieu as several of Davidson’s earlier short stories (collected in The Library of Forgotten Things put out by PS Publishing in 2010). The first of these stories dates back to 2005, and that piece, titled ‘The Passing of the Minotaurs’, forms a large part of the opening chapters of this 2014 novel.
Those who have had the pleasure of reading the preceding short stories will be familiar the city of Caeli-Amur, where the entire plot of this novel takes place. Like New Crobuzon, this setting is intentionally anachronistic, with classical references butting up against elements from the post-industrial revolution era.
The city is described as nestled on a coastline against white cliffs in a way that immediately brings to mind the cities of ancient Greece. This reference point is further re-enforced by the inclusion of creatures from Greek mythology, such as minotaurs and sirens, though Davidson also throws in creatures born purely from his own imagination, like the fish-men known as Xsanthians. The descriptions of many of the public buildings in Caeli-Amur also evoke the Colosseum and well-known features of ancient Rome.
These elements coexist with factories and production plants that have been transposed from the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century. Much of the city’s steam powered technology seems to be from this later period. Though, there is a noticeable absence of gunpowder (presumably there is no analogue for China in this world), meaning that fighting is mainly carried out with blades, bludgeons and bolt-throwers.
Just as the setting is a juxtaposition of old and more modern reference points, Davidson’s prose is often an exercise in contrast. Consider, for example, the dreamlike opening paragraph of the book:
“For the first time in tens years the minotaurs came to the city of Caeli-Amur from the winding roads that led though the foothills to the north. There were three hundred or more of them. From the city they appeared as tiny figure – refugees perhaps. But as they approached, the size of their massive bodies, the magnificence of their horned bull heads, the shape of their serrated short-swords, became apparent. The minotaurs had come for the Festival of the Bull. When the week was over, they would descend from the white cliffs on which the city perched and board ships that carry them out over the Sunken City and home to their island of Aya.” (page 15)
Such surreal and fantastical imagery is often quickly defiled by descriptions of horror and violence. It’s not long into the book that one of the minotaurs described so gracefully (almost sacredly) above is seduced back to the apartment of a human woman for sex, only to be slaughtered and sliced up for some degenerate commercial use. The subversion of magical creatures from legend by integrating them into a grim and dirty world is another another comparison point with Mièville. The graphic descriptions of violence imbue the narrative with a relentless tension. Underneath the sweet smell of the book’s dreamlike passages, there is always the waft of decay and ruin.
Decay and ruin also literally reside beneath the streets and buildings of Caeli-Amur, as the city has been built over the top of a past underground civilisation – a technologically advanced utopia powered by thaumaturgy. Again like Mièville’s own integration of magic in the Bas-Lag setting, Davidson’s conception of thaumaturgy is as a system of magic that operates in accordance with rules that are presented with a scientific degree of rigour, conjured using mathematical principles and interacting with quantum particles.
In Davidson’s world, once the various disciplines of thaumaturgy – Illusion, Alchemy, Transformation, etc. – were unified, however, a battle between the gods Aedilies and Aya in the distant past led to an event known as the Cataclysm. The Catalcysm destroyed the original city of Caeli-Amur, and sunk its sister city of Caeli-Enas beneath the waters off the nearby coast, leaving the original inhabitants of Caeli-Amur, the Elo-Talern, to lurk in the underground ruins of the city, existing like Lovecraftian eldritch horrors.
[caption id="attachment_2664" align="alignleft" width="275"] Art by Allen Williams[/caption]
After the Cataclysm the various disciplines of thaumaturgy were splintered so that they could no longer be practiced under a unified theory. The use of any thaumaturgy is now dangerous and results in a leakage from the source of this power, known as the Other Side, which physically mutates the user:
“That was the price of power: nothing spent, nothing received, though sometimes, for no reason, the sickness was worse than at others. He knew this was only the beginning. He had seen the House’s skilled workers – engineers, tramworkers, mechanics – with strange growths on their faces and bodies, who died young or ran mad in the streets. For those who stood unprotected, unable to control the powers, it was worst.” (page 66)
Unwrapped Sky is a book about power – those who seek it, those who use it, and those who struggle against it. The warping effect of thaumaturgy (again, recalling a fascination with body horror shared with Mièville) is symbolic of the corruptive nature of these various levels of interactions with power in the book.
Unwrapped Sky follows three major characters – a philosopher-assassin Kata, a seditionist and thaumaturgist Maximilian, and House Technis bureaucrat Boris Autec – and as the book progresses each of them is forced to compromise in ways that are literally dehumanising, in the pursuit of their own goals and agendas. At one point an ‘alien’ character in the novel observes:
"'It may not seem like it, but I value your humanity. The way you are so torn, trying always to do the right thing!'" (page 112)
There are ‘good’ characters and ‘evil’ characters in Unwrapped Sky, people we can root for and people we can hiss at, but often the line between the two is blurred. Davidson writes characters that are both understandable and flawed.
These three major characters in the book come into conflict in a plot involving a seditionist group’s attempt to overthrow the exploitative regime of the three major trading Houses that rule Caeli-Amur. Davidson’s original short stories in this milieu focused on the bureaucracy of the three major trading Houses controlling commerce in the city of Caeli-Amur, as well as the philosopher-assassins that serve the Houses in their ongoing conflict. With the introduction of a group of seditionists to the mix, Davidson, like Mièville before him in books such as The Iron Council, crafts a narrative designed as a critique of revolution and an interrogation of the possibilities of self-determination within such pervasive power structures.
Unwrapped Sky’s epigraph is from Soviet Russian revolutionary Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Past One O’clock” and the book itself takes it’s title from an inversion of a phrase used in this poem, “Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars”. Mayakovsky, originally as Bolshevik sympathiser, later grew disillusioned as the Revolution's ideals were smashed “against the daily grind”, eventually taking his own life at the age of 36. This disillusionment with the notion of revolution is mirrored in the story arc of more than one character during the course of Unwrapped Sky.
There is a schism within the seditionists themselves, with various factions struggling to assert dominance, each with different methodologies for contesting the rule of the Houses. This deliberately evokes the divisions between groups such as the Jacobins and the Girodnists of the French Revolution, or the Bolsheviks and the Mencheviks of the Russian Revolution. Unwrapped Sky presents revolutions inspired by worthy ideals as becoming sordid and violent things, corrupted by self-interest and compromise. Unwrapped Sky is ultimately about three people who are struggling to act with self determination within the confines of oppressive power structures within an authoritarian society.
If this all sounds like characters often perform the role of ciphers for the ideas Davidson wants to explore, rather than fully developed characters with agency, then that would be an accurate criticism. At many times during the novel, characters will make declaratory speeches that read like extract from a philosophical text, rather than natural dialogue. This often has an estranging affect on the reader, making it difficult to feel fully involved in the tribulations of the characters or immersed in the plot.
“The workers wandered to and fro like cogs in a machine – each with his little role to play in a greater logic. Just like her, she thought.” (page 89)
Ironically, this short extract seems symbolic of a particular issue I had with the novel. While Davidson’s characters have agency and influence there own arcs within the story, the major character’s themselves seem have little influence on the broader plot movements.
Putting these reservations aside, I found Unwrapped Sky to be very worthy of my time and it is encouraging for me to see a fellow Australian produce work of a quality that compares favourably to other contemporary fantasy novels. I would recommend Unwrapped Sky to Grimdark epic fantasy readers looking for something with some different flavours, or those readers who have been pining for a new Bas-Lag novel. Unwrapped Sky will be followed by a sequel called The Stars Askew later this year, which I will definitely be picking up with great interest.
Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson Published by Pan Macmillan, April 2014 430 pages ISBN: 9781447252375 Review by Luke Brown, May 2015...more
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is the writer's second science fiction novel for adults, after a slew of young adult novels, and his first since tThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is the writer's second science fiction novel for adults, after a slew of young adult novels, and his first since the Hugo and Nebula Award winning debut The Windup Girl in 2009. It is a book I've been looking forward to for some time and one which does not disappoint, though it does defy expectations. The books shares the same muscular and visceral prose style, and concerns with climate change and exploitation of both physical and human recourses, as Bacigalupi's earlier work. However, rather than core science fiction, The Water Knife is a near-future thriller with mainstream crossover appeal.
At an undetermined point in the near future, due to the ravages of climate change, the Southwestern United States has become afflicted with rising heat and extreme water shortages. Water companies in Nevada, California and Arizona wage an armed conflict over the depleted Colorado River, which serves as a lifeline for the region. In the major cities, the privileged elite live in arcologies with self-generating water recycling systems, while the rest of the population ekes out a squalid existence, struggling to survive oppressive heat and dwindling water supplies. The city of Phoenix is in particularly dire circumstances. Squeezed in the power struggle between the more dominant cities in California and Nevada, and flooded by refugees fleeing south from Texas, the city is like a pile of tinder ready to burn.
The titular water knife is a type of secret agent, hired by the various powerful water companies to 'cut' wherever they need to secure water supplies. A water knife named Angel Valasquez, is the first major character readers meet, in chapters that alternate between three third person perspectives. Angel works for a powerful Las Vega water baroness named Catherine Case. A hard man with a history of gang crime, Angel has been Case's number one henchman for many years, since she yanked him from prison. Early into the novel, Case sends Angel to Phoenix to investigate the murder of one of her operatives in the city, a man named Vosovich. The last anybody heard from Vosovich, he claimed to have discovered "a game changer" in relation to local water rights. Now, his handler, a man named Julio Thompson, is spooked and wants out of Phoenix, and Case sends Angel to find out what's going on.
The next major character we meet is a local of Phoenix, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist named Lucy Monroe, who makes a dangerous living reporting on the water wars. Lucy, with a sister in Vancouver, and has already fled Phoenix once, only to return, pulled by a desire to document the disintegration of her home city, drawn like a moth to the flame. Soon after her return, Lucy drives out during a dust storm to cover a story about man who was just found tortured and murdered in front of the Hilton. She is shocked to discover the man is Jamie, a friend of hers, who works as a water lawyer. Jamie too has recently returned to Phoenix, telling Lucy that he had a major plan to become rich.
The third major character is Maria Villarosa, a young Texas refugee and orphan, who is trying to get enough money together to keep fleeing north. At the beginning of the novel, Maria manages to secure a large supply of cheap water which she sells at her friend Toomie's pupusa stand to thirsty arcology construction workers. However, when a gang of drug dealers shows up to claim almost all Maria's profits as tax, she is forced into escort work in order to pay her debts. Her friend Sarah hooks Maria up with a regular client, a Californian water agent named Mike. However, when Maria witnesses Mike and Sara's murder, she soon becomes embroiled in the same mystery as Angel and Lucy.
InThe Water Knife, Bacigalupi puts his near future dystopia to two complimentary purposes. Firstly, it provides with the ornaments to tell very lean and taut thriller. Bacigalupi's prose has the power and efficiency of a V8 engine. He evokes a fully realised future society without sacrificing narrative pace or tension. Except for the near future adornments of the setting,The Water Knife would have as much, if not more, in common with books sitting on the thriller or mystery genre shelves at the bookstore as it would with books sitting of the science fiction genre shelves. Secondly, it allows Bacigalupi to offer a warning about the probable consequences about the effects of climate change if governments continue to fail to address the issue. At an early point in the novel Jamie comments to Lucy that the subject of climate change isn't a matter of belief, but an objective matter of fact proven by scientific data, and that it was a tragic point in history when society collectively decided that this scientific data was subjective and something that could be disbelieved. Likewise, Bacigalupi's fiction is often about power relationships and the victims of exploitation, and with The Water Knife he skilfully portrays a variety of disproportionate power relationships, particularly between the rich and the poor.
Those science fiction readers coming to the book for the rush of cutting-edge technological extrapolations and heady explorations of hard scientific concepts may be disappointed by the fact that The Water Knife operates at the level of a highly functional thriller. In fact, at times the narrative follows the conventions of the thriller genre a little too slavishly. The plot twists involving betrayals and reversals are telegraphed. What may surprise readers is that the ending of the novel is very abrupt and never reaches the crescendo that would be expected from the epic narrative of near civil war that precedes it. It's much more a case of a whimper, rather than a bang in terms of pyrotechnics, though undoubtedly the resolution of the narrative has the feel of a tragedy, and, for me, the end of the book had a powerful and lingering emotional resonance. Despite its cosy affections for the traditional motifs of the thriller genre, The Water Knife is rarely comfortable reading, often brutal and confronting. The book flirts with some problematic elements, such as the sexual objectification of women, though in my opinion it does so in a way that feels organic to the story, creates appropriate empathy for the victims, and is balanced by an array of important and powerful female characters.
What Bacigalupi achieves in The Water Knife is a violent and intelligent book fuelled by an angry and polemical argument, that makes compulsive, if slightly predictable, reading. There is a savage beauty to the novel, which makes it one of the best books of 2015 I have read so far. I would not recommend the book to anybody suffering through a long stretch of summer heat, unless they had a cool drink clinking with ice at his or her side. I would recommend The Water Knife to those who would enjoy a near future science fiction thriller, expertly crafted, and imbued with a fiery social conscience. It certainly has me thirsty for more of this Bacigalpui's work in my near future.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi Orbit, May 2015 364 pages ISBN: 9780385352871 Review copy received from publisher Review by Luke Brown, April 2015...more