Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is an early and celebrated exemplar of the post-apocalypse novel, a now well-established subgenre of sf. First publiEarth Abides by George R. Stewart is an early and celebrated exemplar of the post-apocalypse novel, a now well-established subgenre of sf. First published in 1949 by Random House in the United States, the novel was the inaugural winner of the International Fantasy Award, a British award for excellence within the sf and fantasy field and a precursor of the Hugo Award. The book, to me, reads like the grandfather of its subgenre: grand and stately, slow moving and deliberate; something of a chore to spend time with, despite its venerable wisdom; ultimately, an understated book about the evanescence of human life, rewarding the patient.
Though I assume it was original for its time, the premise of the book will sound well-worn to a contemporary reader. However, the context for the premise of the novel is less important than the premise itself, with Stewart eager to set the protagonist up as one of the few survivors in an eerily abandoned United States as expeditiously as possible. Isherwood Williams, known as Ish, is a graduate student at Berkeley, studying the geography of an area in the mountains, somewhere in California. Whilst on a forage one morning a rattlesnake bites him, and after applying first aid, Ish returns to his cabin to convalesce in bed for several days. When Ish awakens he discovers that the rest of the human population has been almost completely wiped out by a mysterious plague. The first part of the book, ‘World Without End’, has Ish driving from the West Coast to the East Coast of America and back again, searching for survivors and observing the world following what he calls The Great Disaster.
Throughout the description of Ish’s journey, and indeed the rest of novel, Stewart splices in vignettes, describing how the world suddenly all but devoid of humanity would weather the test of time. Stewart details the ecological evolution of various animal species and plant life, the decay of human infrastructure, and the changes in the geography and environment. I say almost all but devoid of human life, because Ish does experience some strange encounters with a few other survivors, most of whom he suspiciously avoids or flees. However, he does find himself drawn to a woman named Emma, known as Em. By the end of the first part of book Ish and Em have agreed to consider themselves married, not only due to genuine affection but also because pf the practical need to contribute to the propagation the decimated human race. They establish a very small community of like like-minded survivors living on San Lupo Drive in the San Francisco Bay Area. A short interlude quickly describes the passing of the first 21 years of the life in The Tribe, as Ish and Em’s group of survivors becomes known.
The second part of the book, ‘Year 22’, recounts in episodic fashion Ish’s tribulations during that single year. Ish is becoming increasingly concerned about the degradation of human civilisation as represented in The Tribe’s unambitious willingness to scratch out a day-to-day survival, with no long-term goals in mind, such as cultural preservation, technological development or exploration of the wider world. Ish takes particular interest in one of his youngest sons, Joey, the only one of his progeny to show any interest in reading and planning for the future. After a threat to The Tribe’s water supply, Ish sends two of his oldest sons out into the wider landscape in a repaired automobile to seek out other groups of survivors and report back. This ultimately results in calamity for The Tribe and challenges Ish’s longer-term aspirations for the preservation of civilisation. The final part of the novel, ‘The Last American’, recounts Ish’s last days as an old man, pondering the ultimate fate of humankind.
Putting aside its specifically American themes and setting, Earth Abides strikes me as a novel that has more akin with the post-war British sf tradition, rather than American sf of that period. The book could be viewed as a genetic precursor to John Wyndham or J.G Ballard as opposed to part of the lineage of Richard Matheson or Stephen King. It eschews the pulp influences of the early novels of American sf, and is a much more literary affair. Earth Abides is an elegiac and subtle post-apocalyptic novel, with few melodramatic peaks or genre clichés. Once I moved from the unlikely premise, the various elements of the novel worked well for me. Stewart has thought out the ecological consequences of the collapse of human society in intricate and fascinating detail. His telling of an antihistory of the human race, in which he relates the decay of civilisation back into a stone-age primitivism, is convincing and thought provoking. The dour subject matter is nicely balances by the hopeful passages that detail the flourishing animal and plant life after the fall of humanity, imbuing the book with a sense of rebirth. Earth Abides thoughtfully examines a variety of complex thematic subjects, such as family and community structures, education, the meaning and purpose of civilization, and the nature of humankind. Furthermore, back in 1949, when the book was written, it strikes me that Earth Abides would have stood out as extremely progressive in its approach to these issues. For example, in the era of segregation, the union between Em, a black woman, and Ish, a white man, would have challenged many readers. For a book of its vintage, Stewart is to be commended for his brave depiction of a world stripped bare of social mores and explores issues such as bigamy, capital punishment, religion and custom.
I’ve intimated throughout this review that the set up for the novel is less than convincing. This is not a damming criticism, but I suspect more than few contemporary readers might stumble over this initial hurdle. Ish is spared from death due to some inexplicable immunity, perhaps related to the rattlesnake venom from his bite but never confirmed, and Stewart glosses over the disease itself and Ish’s survival with much hand waving. This contrasts awkwardly with the ecological detail painstakingly described in the rest of the novel. The speed and tidiness of the end of human civilisation in the novel defies credulity, and Stewart’s elegant prose won’t be enough to pull all contemporary readers through this. Apart from the very rare and occasional corpse, the post-apocalyptic world described by Stewart is strangely devoid of bodies, though admittedly this is explained by the fact Ish avoids any place where the dead might congregate, such as hospitals. Nevertheless, it’s a strangely sanitised version of the apocalypse. The slow pace of the novel also tested my patience at times, and putting aside the ecological vignettes, the much of narration describes Ish’s internal world, relating his thoughts and emotions. This quite often feels repetitive, as Stewart has Ish mulling over the same wicked problems or thorny issues again and again for a lot the latter half of the novel. However, I recognise that, for a novel about the slow decay of human civilisation after a decimating event, there is some irony in criticising the author for too effectively evoking the slow grind of a character’s lifetime.
The story’s dénouement is undeniably powerful and haunting, and the fact that the novel tested my patience at times probably reflects more on me as a reader, rather than the quality of Earth Abides itself. This is a novel that deserves not only to be read as a masterwork of sf, but also a classic of American of literature. I would recommend the book to any reader interested in the genetic heritage of the modern post-apocalypse novel, and any other reader, inside or outside of genre, interested in an elegiac literary meditation on the place of humankind against the persistent character of the natural world. ...more
The reliance on food metaphors in conversations about books… Ugh. Such a lazy and reductive way to describe a reading experience.
So it’s not without sThe reliance on food metaphors in conversations about books… Ugh. Such a lazy and reductive way to describe a reading experience.
So it’s not without some sense of shame that I say reading Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is the equivalent of eating a well-made burger. You don’t have to have a sophisticated palate to enjoy it, but even a true food snob will find something to appreciate if in the right mood. Be warned, there are some pickles you’ll wish weren’t included. Unless you really like pickles in your burgers. I can overlook pickles in my burgers, but I understand why others can’t overlook pickles in their burgers. And some people inexplicably like pickles.*
I read Leviathan Wakes when it was first released in 2011 and I remember enjoying it, though I never continued with the series (too many books, not enough time). I recently reread the book with two purposes in mind. Firstly, to continue with the series, known as The Expanse, which is now up to five books in length, plus a number of interstitial novellas and short stories. Secondly, the book has been adapted for television by the Syfy channel, and I wanted a refresh before the show begins in December.
I enjoyed my second reading of Leviathan Wakes just as much, if not more, than my first poke at it. I’m not surprised that The Expanse is the basis for a new Syfy television show. Leviathan Wakes is accessible space opera and a perfect entre into the subgenre of “spaceships with big guns fighting each other in space and exploding”. The plot is packed full of action and danger, and only a person with attention deficit disorder would find it slow moving.
However, there are a lot of slick and fast-paced space operas that do fail to hold my attention. This is because, quite often, books like these fall short of any kind of intellectual or emotional engagement. Leviathan Wakes is not one of these books. It’s not a dumb book, but it’s also not too smart for its own good. While peppering the text with enough scientific detail to be credible to my scientifically deaf ear, it’s not fuselage deep in hard science, and is more focused on character and plot than many other like-minded works.
One of the things that makes Leviathan Wakes standout, for me, is the setting. Leviathan Wakes tells a story that takes in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. It’s a throwback to futures imagined by the likes Bester and Clarke in the Fifties (acknowledged explicitly by Corey in this book’s sequel, Caliban’s War), but updated with modern sensibilities and contemporary science. There is enough specific detail and texture in the prose to make things feel real and lived-in, but Corey never sacrifices the momentum of the plot.
The intriguing and convincing political landscape, featuring a solar system divided into various factions, works very much in the book’s favour, giving the plot some real grist. Firstly, there’s Earth (and Luna), looking after the interests of the cradle of humanity. They have a soft alliance with Mars; a more technologically advanced and militarised society, as befitting a planet named after the Roman god of war. Lastly, there are the Belters who inhabit the moons, meteors and space stations of the Outer Planets, and who are viewed by Earth and Mars as a ragamuffin society of people almost no longer human.
The plot follows two men, one Belter and one Earther, on complimentary and intertwined personal quests.
Detective Miller, the Belter, works for a security firm providing law enforcement on Ceres Space Station. When he is given the job of tracking down the missing daughter of a wealthy and powerful magnate from Earth he slowly becomes infatuated with the object of his case.
The Earther protagonist is James Holden. Holden begins the novel as the XO of an ice hauler, known as the Canterbury, working in the Outer Planets. When the Canterbury, along with almost all its crew, are destroyed in an apparent act of terrorism, Holden assumes command of a small group of survivors and seeks to uncover who or what was behind the attack and bring them to justice.
The story is told in chapters that alternate between the two points of view. Things escalate quickly. The solar system and humanity are threatened. Ships explode. In space.
Putting aside the exploding ships in space, it’s the moral conflict between our two point of view characters that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book. At the macro level they work together to achieve the same ends, both Holden and Miller have strong, if somewhat opposing, ethical viewpoints.
While I’ve said Leviathan Wakes isn’t a dumb book, Holden at various points in the narrative does some very stupid things in the name of freedom of information. He uses pirate broadcasts to make information public because he thinks people have a right to know. This has devastating results when incorrect assumptions are drawn from this public information. Holden’s defence? He just provides the information and people are free to make their own conclusions.
Miller sees Holden as stupid and naive. He is far more elitist. For Miller, information should be given to, and used by, those who can be trusted to do the right thing with it. It’s an interesting moral argument within the narrative that adds some hidden depth to the wham-bam space opera antics.
The book is also interesting in the way it explores contrasting notions of justice. Miller’s character lends the book a hardboiled crime flavor. He wears a porkpie hat. Humphrey Bogart wore a hat. It doesn’t get much more hardboiled than that. Besides the porkpie hat, Miller also embodies the sense of frontier justice often represented in hardboiled crime fiction. Miller’s cynical attitudes towards crime and punishment contrast starkly with Holden’s more idealistic approach, and this is another source a narrative and thematic conflict in the book.
But what about the aforementioned pickles lurking under the innocent looking, lightly toasted bun?
The first pickle is the caricature, and decidedly dumb, corporate villains. These guys reveal their dastardly plans over badly protected broadcast communications. They sign their emails with “mwuhahahahahaha.” They roll around naked in vaults full of cash and drink the blood of newborns in their spare time just to prove how greedy and evil they are.
The second pickle is the book’s distinct lack of strong female characters. Sure, there are two female characters that might be viewed as significant if I squint really, really hard. But, in truth, one is relegated to that status of victim without agency and the subject of male infatuation. The other is so insanely competent at absolutely everything it feels patronising.
It’s not surprising that the makers of the television adaptation have chosen to bring forward the character Avasarala, a feisty and potty-mouthed elderly female politician, from the second book of the series to feature in the first series of The Expanse. It also looks like the role of Julie Mao, the tycoon’s missing daughter, has been expanded to give her character more agency. If my impressions are correct, these are smart moves by Syfy, directly addressing one of the problematic elements in what is an already very fun and accomplished space opera novel.
If the Syfy adaptation is only half as good as the source material, it will be enjoyable indeed. Bring on December and bring on book 2, Caliban’s War.
*Disclaimer: I actually quite like pickles in my burgers, but I had to try and make this specious food metaphor work.
Ace Books first published Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany in the United States in 1966, when the writer was 24 years old. By my count he had already publAce Books first published Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany in the United States in 1966, when the writer was 24 years old. By my count he had already published six previous novels. (Dare I bore readers of this review with the obvious declaration that is standard of any retrospective assessment of Delany’s work; that he was a true SF prodigy?) Babel-17 was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1967 and tied with Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes for the Nebula Award that same year. By reputation, the book is considered one of the highlights in an impressive oeuvre. Nevertheless, while many elements of this particular book worked well for me, I found Babel-17 didn’t quite live up fully to its reputation, largely due to some conceptual and stylistic excesses, as well as a disappointing final act.
Delany doesn’t provide much in the way of exposition in the book’s opening passages, but he does provide just enough detail to effectively evoke the future galactic society in which the book is set. The setup is relatively simple, but the plot hook is intriguing. An intergalactic realm known as the Alliance is under attack from another intergalactic realm called the Invaders. The Alliance has recently picked up a number of mysterious radio broadcasts in an apparently alien language concurrently with several sabotage attacks by the Invaders. Rydra Wong, a former code breaker and ship’s captain, turned famous poet, is enlisted by the Alliance to crack the alien language, which is known as Babel-17. In order to complete this mission she must gather a crew and travel to the site of Invader’s next attack in Alliance space.
For an sf book nearing fifty years of age, much of Babel-17 still retains a modern feel; certainly more so than many books of a similar vintage. I would argue that this is because Delany’s interest is extrapolating cultural elements into the realm of the wilfully weird, rather than any foolhardy attempt at a prediction about the future. Delany weaves various strange subcultures into his galactic future setting; for example, there are the spacefarers who work in Transport for the Alliance, for whom outlandish and surreal body modifications achieved through cosmetic surgery are common and akin to contemporary tattoos. Likewise, Delany posits a society in which the consciousness of dead people becomes technological ghosts known as discorporates, and are used to perform sensory roles on ships that no corporates can perform without going insane. Delany certainly has a knack for creating gritty societies fully inhabiting a used-future setting.
Whilst female representation is still too rare in contemporary sf novels (though arguably improved and hopefully still improving compared to the Sixties), I don’t think it’s debatable to say that in decades past worthy female characters were dismally under-represented in sf literature. This makes Wong a refreshing protagonist. What’s more, in a worthy display of diversity it’s clear she is Eastern in ethnicity (as depicted on the very first Ace Books cover, though successive editions have white-washed her) (though Delany does use the term ‘Oriental’, which dates the book somewhat). The novel is also ahead of its time in the representation of polyamorous and pansexual relationships as a normal part of society.
The unique character of Wong is a central part of the book and she is a vehicle for Delany to explore his thematic concerns. Orphaned during an embargo related to an Invader attack, Wong was infected as a small child by a neuro-sciatic plague that left her in an autistic state; she emerged after a miraculous recovery with total verbal recall, learning seven Earth languages and five extra-terrestrial tongues by the time she was twelve. Using her incredible aptitude for languages and a hidden telepathic ability (a Sixties sf cliché I could have done without) to read the unexpressed thoughts of other people, Wong has become a famous poet and a cultural hero within the Alliance. I found the admiration for a poet in this future galactic society stretched credulity a tad, but certainly convenient for the major theme of the book.
You see, Babel-17 is an sf novel about the concept of linguistic relativity; a principle that holds the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world. To me, this is a fascinating premise on which to build an sf novel, rife with possibilities to explore the way worldview is influenced by cognitive processes related to language. Delany alternates between playful thought experiments and goofy fun, sometimes pushing the concept into the preposterous. For example, it’s hard to swallow that an individual who does not know a word for ‘I’ would have no sense of self, as Delany posits. Likewise, I suffered from bad Matrix flashbacks when, by forcing her cognitive processes to operate in a super concise and economical language, Wong is able to enter what is effectively bullet time in a vibro-gun fight against a group of Invaders. Like I say, you can read these passages as charming and ludicrous fun; though I got the sense Delany intended these ideas to be taken a little more seriously than I was able to.
With a preference for tighter plotting and efficient storytelling, I was grateful that this book is slicker and more streamlined than many of today’s sf clodhoppers. However, contemporary readers should be forewarned that the book, as a work concerned with language, is deliberately overwritten in places, with imagery and metaphors that seem to have been ripped straight from some trippy, drug-fuelled poetry of the Sixties. In fact, there is a scene halfway through the book that I found symbolic of Delany’s prose style throughout the book: during an Invader attack a machine that serves food at a banquet goes haywire, continuously serving opulent and nauseating food until it is piled high and overflowing from the table. In small morsels, Delany’s rich and energetic prose style throughout the novel can be quite delicious, but, taken in large quantities, stylistically the novel leaves you with a distinct feeling of overindulgence.
Despite my reservations about some of the zany carry-ons and stylistic idiosyncrasies, the delicious mystery of the plot carried me through the novel, with its central question: what is Babel-17? Perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of the novel, however, is the resolution. The ending is marred with long tracts of clunky expository dialogue, and the solution to the mystery of the alien language relies on contrivance and coincidence. It was impossible for me to close the final page of the novel without a slight feeling of deflation.
Despite this, Babel-17 is a book that makes me interested in reading more Delany. Reading it in a contemporary context, the features that made the book so cutting-edge and groundbreaking in the Sixties are apparent, and the book has hardly dated at all in my appraisal. Some of the endearing goofiness is probably unintended and the style was occasionally a bit chewy for my liking, but if Delany had been able to stick the landing of his ingenious central conceit I would have been on the bandwagon with many others, proclaiming this a masterwork of sf. As it is, I can really only say this a good and fun book, marred by a flawed final act. ...more
Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, is his version of the generation ship science fiction novel. The book, in some ways, can also be seen asAurora, Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, is his version of the generation ship science fiction novel. The book, in some ways, can also be seen as a companion piece to his Nebula Award winning 2312. That novel postulated a possible future three hundred years from now, when humanity has spread across the solar system. This book extends that concept to tell a story about humanity's future attempts to extend itself outside the solar system. Robinson takes the concept of a generation ship, a trope used in many science fiction stories, and applies exacting and cutting-edge scientific detail to question what it will actually be like when humanity tries to travel to the distant stars. The answer isn't pretty, though the novel itself is quite stunning.
Most of the novel is set on a generation ship travelling at one tenth the speed of light for almost 200 years to a moon orbiting Planet E in the Tau Ceti system twelve light years away from Earth. The ship contains 24 ecosystems representing all the diverse climates on Earth and is packed full with as many animals and plants as it can carry (allowing for an optimal balance between weight and fuel). Each biome contains a fully functional society making up a total population of a little over 2,000 people. This is obviously a multigenerational endeavour and birth control technologies are used to ensure that the population of the ship is maintained at a constant level. Each generation keeps the ship functioning, along with the artificial intelligence inhabiting a quantum computer at the core of the ship, and teaches each subsequent generation the knowledge and skills they need to do the same. Therefore, whole generations are born and die on the ship without ever knowing Earth or their destination planet in Tau Ceti.
Readers pick up the story as the ship enters the last leg of its journey towards their destination in Tau Ceti, which is a moon the crew have named Aurora. Early in the novel readers are told "A narrative account focuses on representative individuals, which creates the problem of misrepresentation by way of the particular overshadowing the general." In this case, the story focuses on a young girl named Freya, and it’s through her narrative that readers experience the fate of the entire expedition to Tau Ceti. Freya lives in the biome known as Nova Scotia and is the daughter of two prominent individuals onboard the ship. Her father, Badim, is the person Freya spends most her time with, and he is one of the medical officers onboard. However, it's Freya's mother, Devi, an engineer, who is most respected, not only by Freya, but also almost the entirety of the ship's passengers. Devi has a close relationship with the ship's AI, and is most instrumental in keeping everything functional.
Devi has a massive weight on her shoulders, because as the ship draws nearer to Aurora the problems faced by the crew are increasingly escalating. The ecosystems in the self contained biomes begin to unbalance after two centuries of travelling and parts of the ship itself are starting to malfunction as a result of the pressures exerted during a decades long deceleration. Compared to her mother, Freya seems unexceptional, or perhaps even the victim of a process of devolution which is beginning the affect those onboard, another source of frustration and fear for Devi. However, it turns out that Freya has many qualities that endear her to the people of the ship. For example, she is unusually large and very practically minded, making her an ideal person to help out with many odd tasks in the diverse communities living within the ship. Surprisingly, by the time the ship reaches Aurora, Freya is in her prime and a leader amongst the passengers. Of course, when the ship arrives at Aurora is when the crew is truly tested.
I have sometimes seen science fiction described as a mode of writing, rather than a genre. The theory goes that science fiction more often than not must be combined with another genre. There are many prominent examples of science fiction thrillers or science fiction war stories. Aurora seems to me to be very much proof that science fiction can be a stand-alone genre. Not only is this book pure science fiction, it is also a book that is in dialogue with science fiction. It takes the now venerable notion that it will one day be possible for humans to travel and live around distant stars, and dissects it with startling logic and clarity. But there are two things that make Robinson's books read like works of art, rather than pop science. The first thing is the audacity of his imagination, which is on full, widescreen display here. I daresay there will not be another book that evokes the same magical level of sense of wonder produced in the field this year. The second thing is Robinson's deep and penetrating sense of humanity. Despite the rich scientific content, Robinson never loses sight of the human element of his story, and he contextualises the ideas he explores within deeply personal and relatable experiences.
Having just gushed about the book, I do have to acknowledge that Robinson writes books in which the strengths for some readers will be the weaknesses for others, and Aurora is no exception. Aurora is a book full of dense and long techno dumps, and though, in my opinion, Robinson has long been able to make these flow like poetry, readers bored by exacting scientific detail will struggle with Aurora. 2312 was criticised by some for having a plot that was low on the list of priorities compared to other elements of the book. While Aurora undoubtedly has more narrative pull than its predecessor, it is nevertheless a very slow moving affair, which will frustrate those looking for a driving story. The book is also, on what I regard as a somewhat superficial level, born from a deep source a pessimism, that many science fiction readers may object to. I say on a superficial level because, though the book (without giving away too many spoilers) is against the idea that humanity will ever travel to, and colonise, other star systems, it is ultimately a very hopeful novel. By the end of the book readers should have a new sense of affection for the blue planet that cradled us, and be inspired to find solid footing on the ground underneath us.
Any new science fiction book from Robinson is a major event. Like many of his novels in the past, I predict Aurora will make the shortlist for many awards in 2015, both popular and juried. In my opinion, it is a book that also deserves to win one or two too. He is a writer that is both in deep conversation with the history of the genre, and at the forefront of pioneers crafting a literature of challenging and exciting ideas into the future. With Aurora he has written a book that will make you look at blue skies and blue oceans with a renewed sense of value and possibility.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson Published by Orbit, July 2014 480 pages ISBN: 9780316098106 Review copy received from publisher Review by Luke Brown, June 2015...more
It is not surprising The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne’s debut near future SF novel, features the snake as a recurring motif. The book itself is veryIt is not surprising The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne’s debut near future SF novel, features the snake as a recurring motif. The book itself is very much like a serpent. From a distance it is beautiful and graceful, but the closer you get to it, the more unpredictable and dangerous it becomes. There is a poisonous venom running through this hissing, vicious and mesmerising creature.
Or perhaps a more apt way to describe the book might come from the protagonist herself – Meena – who likens her own journey to passing through the chambers of a Hindu temple in order to reach the shrine at the temple’s heart. The Girl in the Road is a challenging book, but rewards readers greatly if they take the time and care to pass through its many chambers to get to the rewards at the heart of the novel.
Those who require their fiction to fit within neat subgenre definitions will struggle with the book’s first chamber. This ambitious novel spans many literary subdivides.
Undoubtedly many readers will approach The Girl in the Road as SF; it is set in not one, but two near future timeframes and a speculative engineering concept forms a major plot point in the book.
At the centre of the plot of the book is the idea of the Trans-Arabian Linear Generator, colloquially known as the Trail. This is a technology that resembles a pontoon bridge, joining stations in Mumbai and Djibouti. A substance called metallic hydrogen runs through the Trail and uses the motion of the ocean’s waves to generate power for the African coastal city. At a basic level, the book tells Meena’s story as she walks across this bridge from Mumbai to Africa. This plot point could pass as a classic hard SF concept (and not surprisingly, Byrne is a MIT graduate).
The book also shares a concern about the impacts of climate change with many of the near future SF novels I have read lately (I am thinking of books like Wolvesby Simon Ings, Clade by James Bradley, and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi):
“They talked about the rising sea threatening Ndar and Kuta Sesay, the city's poet activist. It was too late to take protective measures, they said, unless UNESCO decided to save it. I thought ‘Unesco’ was their god or at least a very rich man. I wanted to know why anyone who had the power to decide would let such a beautiful city drown. I was young, Yemaya, and had no idea that this city was one of hundreds of beautiful cities all over the world, each with an eye on the rising sea.” (page 73)
From the passage quoted above, however, it is obvious that The Girl in the Road wants to take a global perspective than some other recent near future SF. The book presents a future in which global power now rests with Africa, India and China. In this way, the novel can be seen as falling within a trend in contemporary SF that values representations of diversity and uses genre to explore cultural legacies of colonialism and imperialism:
“Africa is the new India, after India become the new America, After America became the new Britain, after Britain became to new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the Punt, and so on and so forth.” (page 106)
The book, for a good part a road novel, is set in India and across almost the entire continent of Africa. Meena is a gay black woman, and the other point of view character – Mariama – is a runaway slave girl from Mauritania. With its near future non-Western setting and plethora of characters from a variety of races, cultures, genders and sexualities, the book is reminiscent of recent works by writers like Ian McDonald.
In The Dervish House McDonald went someway to introducing a flavour of magical realism to his near future SF set in the developing parts of the world; Byrne goes even further in The Girl in the Road. Myth and spirituality, both Indian and African, pervade the pages of the book; characters share names with goddesses, a ghost known as Bloody Mary haunts the Trail, and the tight first person perspective told through the voices of two unreliable narrators leaves the reader lost in the interstices between reality and delusion:
“The Trail seems unreal: a floating pontoon bridge moored just offshore from Mumbai, which spanned the whole Arabian sea, like a poem, not a physical thing. I asked Mohini what she thought it's be like to walk on it all the way to Africa. She received my enthusiasm in her gracious way but cautioned that the Trail was all blank sky and faceless sea, the perfect canvas upon which to author my own madness.” (page 16)
The characters’ psychic landscapes are projected onto the physical environment around them, creating a fabulist feel to the book, blending the SF plot points with something more akin to the works of Haruki Murakami.
The second chamber readers must pass through is the writing itself, which makes no allowances for casual or lazy readers. Ironically, at one point in the novel a character remarks, “Just tell the story and don't worry about extemporising. The facts are enough” (page 272). Though Byrne is undoubtedly a beautiful prose stylist, it is obvious that her research has been extensive, and she clots the first few pages of the book with a plethora of non-Western proper nouns and foreign terms that will be unfamiliar to many English language readers. I will freely admit to pausing and referring to Google many times until I found my rhythm in the book. However, this level of detail is skilfully applied and proves vital to immersing readers in the book’s setting, providing the proper authenticity, while avoiding the pitfalls of exoticism or cultural appropriation.
Narrative and structure intertwine to provide the next chamber for readers to pass though. As already mentioned, Byrne drops the reader into parts that alternate between the first person perspectives of two unreliable narrators. Both these characters are repressing recent incidents in their life, and acting in a kind of dissociative fugue. This lack of narrative context for the reader is intentionally and effectively estranging.
The first plot thread in the year 2068 follows Meena, who is fleeing Thrissur in South-western India for Mumbai, following an assassination attempt involving a snake in her bed, which leaves her with five fang punctures in her chest. No background is given except that a terrorist organisation named Semena Werk (Amharic for ‘the golden meaning’) might be responsible for the attempt on her life and she must now escape Kerala.
The second, alternating plot thread begins in the mid 2020s where Mariama, a young slave girl in Nouakchott, runs-away after her mother apparently disappears. Mariama stows away with a pair of truck drivers transporting oil drums to Ethiopia.
Both Meena and Mariama’s stories are set apart by both a spatial and temporal distance. Though there are hints throughout the book about the relationship between their two plotlines, things initially seem disjointed and readers may find jumping between the two points of view jarring. However, both stories come together in a ways that are both expected and ingeniously unexpected as the novel progresses.
The final chamber readers must pass through to reach the heart of the book contains the book’s challenging thematic concerns. I have already mentioned above that the plot of The Girl in the Road pivots on a new technology for producing energy. Energy is something that underpins modern society: “… energy flows directionally through the human race because the gradient’s always trying to reach equilibrium. Like layers of the ocean” (page 272). The production of energy can by harmful, exploitative and volatile. Energy is in many ways similar to book’s true primary concern:
“Mohini once said to me that we’re all children of rape, somewhere in our lineage, and how did I feel about that? We’re all the result of energy forced, not welcomed. The waves are coming whether we want them or not.” (page 142)
The book’s treatment of sex is it’s most confronting and vital characteristic. Sex, both consensual and non-consensual, is the catalyst for much that happens in the novel. Meena is a character that uses sex as a comfort and means of expression. At one point in the novel she remarks, “I told Mohini that sex was my mother substitute, but she said that was needlessly cynical, that sex was my dharma, even my art, like performance was to her” (page 141).
Likewise, Marima’s life is shaped by significant acts of sex. The word ‘saha’ haunts Mariama throughout the book; a word that means both ‘powerful’ and ‘let us be together’ or simply ‘with’. The book is about how the act of being together, the flow of energy between people, can shape who we are and dramatically alter the course of our lives.
Given the moving and insightful way that Byrne handles these thematic concerns it is no surprise to me that The Girl in the Road won this year’s Tiptree Award. It was also nominated for the Golden Tentacle Kitchies Award for best first novel. I have now mentioned several times that this is the young American writer’s first novel. This bears repeating: The Girl in the Road is Byrne’s first novel. I find this amazing. This is a debut novel that achieves more accord between ambition and execution than most books by seasoned writers. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne Published by Blackfriars Books, May 2014 336 pages ISBN: 9780349134215 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
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 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...
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...
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 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.
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.
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.