A very nice story from Mr G, in which he manages to inject humour into a Cthulhu tale without making it too twee. Very light hearted, but with just aA very nice story from Mr G, in which he manages to inject humour into a Cthulhu tale without making it too twee. Very light hearted, but with just a soupcon of overwhelming existential dread, helped on both counts by the many Mythos references, both overt and more subtle....more
Neil Gaiman really is a magician. The worlds he constructs within his tales are so vivid and magical, and also relatable; he will slip in a sentence tNeil Gaiman really is a magician. The worlds he constructs within his tales are so vivid and magical, and also relatable; he will slip in a sentence that adds a whole new layer to the reader's understanding of the events without taking them out of the story. He, somehow, manages to combine the mythic and the personal.
This brief story showcases those skills admirably, as a young (unpublished) writer talks with his young charge about the type of bedtime story the latter would like to be told - a scary story, scary enough to be interesting but not to keep him awake - that turns into the boy telling him about a monster that he has, of course, made up......more
Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is remarkable. From the start it is a uniquely creepy experience or existential horror, written in a way thatJeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is remarkable. From the start it is a uniquely creepy experience or existential horror, written in a way that unsettles - and occasionally terrifies - the reader, drawing us in to this exploration of a region which has, somehow, been separated from the rest of the world by forces unknown, and possibly unknowable. However, if you ask what it is about, I would squirm like an aesthete; that is much harder to pin down - and this is, in truth, part of the mythic power of the books. Th story might be about memory and growth, about the places we start from and where we end up, the choices we make along the way; about environmentalism and the pointless, unwinnable and self-destructive war humanity is waging against nature; about the ultimate unknowableness of the cold, uncaring universe. About the human need to to fight against the inevitability of annihilation and ever present authority and to come to an acceptance of what is.
In the first novel the 12th expedition into Area X have no names, having been reduced to their roles of Biologist, Psychologist, Linguist, etc, in what seems to be a (futile) effort to rob them of their identities to 'protect' them from the effects of this strange land, although it turns out to be not the least help as the initial strangeness eats away at them and this quickly ramps up to a horror that is bizarre and unimaginable while being somehow deeply personal. Annihilation defies understanding and is all the more terrifying for it.
The following volumes expand both the background and subsequent events and also ground the goings on; whilst in the first book we had no idea when or where this took place, we now see this is some version of the US and, outside of Area X, the characters have names and lives and histories. While we lose an uncertainty and universality in this, this allows VanderMeer to build real character and expand the scope of the mystery of what IS Area X.
I have only given Acceptance 4 out of 5, although the trilogy as a whole is definitely a 5. I think that the whole should, perhaps, be read as a single book to allow the connections throughout the story to work, for each part to build upon the other, although I doubt that any firm conclusion is possible, which is part of the strength of these books. They will stay with you and unsettle you long after you turn the last page....more
A lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrongA lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrong term, considering) as the wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. An Oxford don and his visitor discuss a pair of works of art that always seem to end up together and may be connected to some deaths.
Atmospheric, and somewhat bringing to mind a Tales of the Unexpected vibe....more
This is a difficult book to rate. As my earlier updates suggest, I started of very much liking it (although 'liking' may not be the right word, givenThis is a difficult book to rate. As my earlier updates suggest, I started of very much liking it (although 'liking' may not be the right word, given the thoroughly unsettling nature of the stories). The opening story was utterly superb, and the quality continued through the next couple of sections - the book is broken into short collections of themed stories, the tales in each related to a greater or lesser extent - but, toward the end, I was beginning to find a sameness to the writing rather wearing.
The early sections are superb. Derangements is thoroughly surreal and creepy, with The Town Manager in particular having a circular element that reminded me an especially good, odd Twilight Zone. The tales in Defamations deal with a corporate horror, a weirdly Kafka-esque world where yu are utterly controlled by your employment which seeks only productivity and drains all other motivation from life. It made me think of Robert Chambers but in a pointedly modern, industrial setting.
It was the Teatro Grottesco stories themselves, forming the final section, that for me spoiled the collection. A sense that had been building from some of the previous stories that the narrative voices - always first person - were too similar too each other, all of a somewhat pompous, overly-wordy circumlocution that made me think of 19th century literature, did become a problem. ~The stories themselves I found less interesting, the ordinary people of the earlier stories replaced by bohemian artistic types further making the stories feel more dated and less relevant. The stories seemed rather pointless - in the way that some weaker Lovecraftian horror is, where rather than the feeling of hopelessness there is a sense of "huh?" - although the denouement of the final story did reverse this with a growing crescendo of dread and a final burst - or perhaps seep would be a better word - of existential terror....more
A very mixed bag, this issue contains some excellent horror fiction and the others, while not duds, were of the sort of horror/weird fiction3.5 stars
A very mixed bag, this issue contains some excellent horror fiction and the others, while not duds, were of the sort of horror/weird fiction that didn't engage me.
Scarecrow, Alyssa Wong
A truly creepy and scary tale of transformation, loss and guilt. Weird, but weird with a point and not just for the sake of it.
Goat Eyes, David D. Levine
An excellent modern-day vampire tale - no romance or sparkles, but a truly engaging tale of violence and its residue, along with the harmful effects of fear and hatred and stereotyping
December Skin, Kristi DeMeester
An affecting tale, again of transformation and violence, and of fraternal love
The Bury Line, Stephen Hargadon
The second story I've read from Hargadon (the first being a couple of issues previously), he writes about ordinary, modern life with an odd, dark, almost Tales of the Unexpected twist. The Bury Line is about the slow death of wage-slavery and a faster alternative.
Be Light, Be Pure, Be Close To Heaven, Sara Saab
A good, affecting story about a religion that makes strange, personal sacrifices. I think it's saying something about the mutilating effect of religion.
What Happened to Marly and Lanna, Noah Wareness
Patrimony, Matthew Cheney
Both of these tales fell short, for me. They each had a mix of weirdness and ambiguity and symbolism that didn't hang together. WHtMaL is laden with symbolism, a story of childhood illness (possibly?) with a nod toward Stephen King's Pet Sematary and an unsettling ambiguity. Patrimony is a downright nasty little tale of post-apocalyptic rape and a Furey-like revenge. The closing paragraph, I think, tries to go for menace and ambiguity but just comes off as lazy....more
I've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it haI've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it has taken me so long to get around to it. To follow are reviews of the highlights, although all the stories were excellent.
From the first story, 'Tower of Babylon', I knew I was in for a rare treat. This is simply superb science fiction - told from the point of view of the science and technology of the time. It imagines an impossibly tall tower built of kiln-fired bricks (as sun-dried bricks would, of course, not be strong enough) to reach up to the vault of heaven and thence cut through it to reach Yahweh. Chiang describes the denudation of the land around Babylon as it has been stripped of timber and the chasm around the river from which clay has been mined for bricks, and the wooden platforms high up the spiraling ramp on which vegetables are grown by those who live part way up the tower - necessary as the trek is of several months duration to climb the immense height. He describes passing the orbit of the moon and seeing its pocked face hurtle by, and the immense heat as the orbit of the sun is passed, and the precautions taken against releasing a second deluge by inadvertently broaching one of the great reservoirs that the vault is surmised to contain.
From the view of the science and cosmology of the time, all this is reasonable and logical. Indeed, it treats the technology very much like SF from the early 20th century did (and probably still does) positing the most extremely favourable outcomes beyond the limits of what is actually achievable, in order to tell a good story and reflect back upon the ideas of the society. Just wonderful.
'Understand' is the tale of a man who, following the repair of brain damage by a new drug, realises that his intellect is growing at an exponential rate. Very reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, of course, a very well written classic SF story that deals both with how he deals with the changes but also touches upon the fact that his way is not the only approach.
'Story of Your Life' was probably my favourite. A linguist is called in to help communicate with aliens who have dropped communication devices around the world. Chiang addresses some of the classic SF ideas of alien contact - will we be able to use maths or physics as a common language? will our perceptions simply be too alien to each other to allow meaningful conversation? - and intersperses this with personal memories of the narrator. At first this seems to be purely character building for it's own sake, to give background and context and depth to the character, but about halfway through you realise that the difference in outlooks between the two species, human and extraterrestrial - and therefore how their languages are constructed - which is the thing that is confounding communication, can be bridged, and in doing so this alters the communicators. The story becomes an exploration of how language shapes our perceptions, but also upon humanity and time and loss. It left me in tears.
'72 Letters' is similar to 'Babylon' in that it takes a set of pre-enlightenment 'scientific' ideas and runs with them. In Victorian Britain, progress is based on manipulation of Kaballistic language and the constructs they can be used to animate. Again, a wonderful meshing of ideas with a superb internal consistency, used to propel a gripping tale. I would quite like to see this expanded further.
'Hell Is The Absence of God' posits a world that has proof the Judeo-Christian god exists because his angels regularly make appearances - events which can enact miraculous cures but whose violence usually also results in death and destruction - and because there is evidence of Heaven and Hell - the latter being much like mortal existence except the Hellbound are eternal removed from god, but occasionally visible in their existence. What makes the story brilliant is that it takes a set of rules - god exists, heaven can be reached through unconditional acceptance and love of him, his plan is ineffable - and shows a world that is, in effect, no less confusing and random than the godless world that we inhabit. Chiang intertwines the tales of several people in various levels of acceptance (the word 'belief' hardly seems appropriate) - including a man whose wife is killed during an angelic visitation and a woman who is is born deformed but begins to lose her faith after being healed - that show the human condition does not easily resolve to simplistic answers, no matter how much we may want it to.
The closing story, 'Liking What You See: A Documentary' is as clever as any of the other stories, but explores more deeply, perhaps, than 'Division By Zero' or 'The Evolution of Human Science'. Taking the form of clips and talking heads in a documentary, it explores the impact of a nascent medical technology that, when implemented, blinds the subject to the physical attractiveness of other people. Part of the focus is students at a school where children have had this done from infancy and much of the rest conflict between opposing sides of a culture war, one of which sees this as part of the ongoing movement toward equality and the other as warranted interference, along with non-aligned voices from elsewhere on the spectrum of opinion, and beyond. As well as exploring the "halo effect" (the tendency when you see someone who is attractive to assign to them other favourable characteristics such as intelligence, strength and moral rectitude - and if you don't think you do this, trust me, you do - Chiang also looks at how commercial advertising interests react as well as the more subtle and less concrete ways in which appearance - others and our own - matter to us. What in lesser hands could be an interesting but glib story of a single idea becomes a wonderful thoughtful gem which, like almost all the stories in this collection, will stay with me for a long time to come....more
While I flew through this book and, therefore, obviously enjoyed it, its flaws prevent me from giving it a high rating. Perhaps surprisingly,2.5 stars
While I flew through this book and, therefore, obviously enjoyed it, its flaws prevent me from giving it a high rating. Perhaps surprisingly, given the pedigree of some of the authors involved, chief amongst these flaws are some passages of startlingly bad writing. I mean, sentences or paragraphs that I would re-read thinking I must have misread them the first time around they were so badly constructed. I really should have kept notes as there were several. I remember one being something like “They outnumbered our numbers.” Wow, really?
Many of these read like editing problems - or, rather, a lack of editing. Any half-decent editor should surely have picked up these clumsy sentences. I’m not sure how the seven named authors worked together but I suspect that is the major issue, more care being taken in constructing the storyline and making sure the styles matched as closely as possible than actually ensuring the writing works. Perhaps all the glaring faults can be attributed to one of the authors and the others felt unable to cut him out. There was also some glaringly anachronistic language. I know that, unless it were written in Latin, Old French and Mongolian it can hardly be accurate, but some sentences and words just jumped out at me as inappropriate. For instance, there is the constant use of the word “ass” in its modern American meaning, sometimes in quite rapid succession. Again, this is just bad writing; grab a thesaurus and use alternatives: backside, posterior, rump. Actually, I am beginning to suspect that this and the terrible writing may be able to be laid at the door of the same member of the authoriat.
The book actually reads as though it is the write-up of a Roleplaying campaign - albeit rather a dull one - and the descriptions at the back of the dramatis personae, complete with ink line sketches, further reinforces this. (Spotting whether authors are roleplayers is actually something of a hobby of mine; you can often spot the tell-tale signs).
The characters are engaging enough, although not especially well drawn - and some of the shield-brethren have the air of cardboard cut-outs with a single defining characteristic to distinguish them. Again, something that made me think of extras in an RPG.
Not unexpectedly from a book from Neal Stephenson (although I have no way of knowing whether he wrote these particular sections) there is the occasional, sometimes heavy-handed, infodump, but I still felt that the world was under-explained, the setting unclear perhaps because the authors could picture it but failed to get that across to the reader. I couldn’t tell whether this was straight historical fiction, or history with a slant. At times I found myself wishing it was written by Mary Gentle and then, not only would we get her superb writing, but the wonderfully fleshed out reality of the historical setting would be shot through with fantastical anomalies that both enhanced it and made the reader examine it more closely.
All this said, the first volume of this series was an enjoyable read and I will probably continue with the series. The setting seemed to solidify somewhat toward the close, perhaps due to the style becoming more uniform or maybe simply because of to the gradual build up of detail, and I am intrigued to see how the arc of the two stories will intersect. As well as, perhaps, to find out whether the events are broadly historical or introduce elements that would never be found in the most detailed history of that time. ...more
Valente's writing grabbed me from the first page, and swept me away in just the way that September - the 12 year old heroine of this book - is swept aValente's writing grabbed me from the first page, and swept me away in just the way that September - the 12 year old heroine of this book - is swept away to Fairyland. It is a sublime fairytale, breathless with invention and Oz-like technicolor - indeed, not just sight but every sense is sated as September pursues adventures through the strange world and stranger inhabitants. And this is key; our heroine is not dragged, she is not Chosen (this is made explicit toward the end) SHE has chosen this adventure and continues to be the motive force. At each juncture - while she may be following advice or guidance or orders - she chooses her path and, more than once, she has the opportunity to turn aside and go home but perseveres because of her commitment to the friends she has made.
With nods to Lewis Carroll (and many other magical tales), this is wonderfully told and constructed story which, as should all fairy stories is layered and relevant, a point to the story (more than one, in fact) that is lesson without being a lecture, a moral without being moralising. And, being a true fairy story, there is of course some fear and darkness, some pain and some blood.
I couldn't help thinking that, were this to be filmed, it would have to be directed by Dave McKean, or possibly Henry Selick, the directory behind Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I think my first read of Catherynne Valente has made me a fan. ...more