An odd book, this seems to have grown out of a jokey discussion between Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about the potential Kosherness of fictional beasts. ThAn odd book, this seems to have grown out of a jokey discussion between Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about the potential Kosherness of fictional beasts. The problem is, it doesn't seem to have grown very much; each entry is a page or a little more and there isn't enough in the description of the animal to server as a bestiary nor enough in the few lines of discussion that follow the either flesh out the ideas, give much in the way of Jewish dietary philosophy or even provide much humour.
A very light book, Forster's review of her life through the houses she has lived in - starting with being born in a council house in Cumbria - is evocA very light book, Forster's review of her life through the houses she has lived in - starting with being born in a council house in Cumbria - is evocative but short on substance, although this may, in part, be to do with the abridgment for the radio. It felt more like a a lengthened piece from a Sunday supplement than a book in its own right, with details of where the author has lived and how it affected her life, with personal details (the relative poverty of her childhood, scholarship to Oxford, marriage, success and cancer), although Forster is a far better writer than the hacks who would write it as a lifestyle piece. Strangely - and, again, perhaps this is an effect of abridgment - after her childhood, other people seem barely there in her life; her husband Hunter Davies is there, and her children get passing mention, but they are shadows on the walls of the properties, flitting by in the odd phrase....more
I had the urge to learn more about Carthage and its enmity with rome and, as a couple of people had recommended Adrian Goldsworthy to me, thought thisI had the urge to learn more about Carthage and its enmity with rome and, as a couple of people had recommended Adrian Goldsworthy to me, thought this would be a good place to start. I have to say that I was disappointed.
Goldsworthy says in the preface that he is a military historian, and it is largely this focus that failed for me; the author focuses on the battles themselves and, within them, on the minutiae of tactics and technologies that made the opposing sides feel like miniatures on a gameboard. I got no real sense of the generals involved - although he does mention them and their supposed attributes this is not done in a way that brings them to life at all. I read thoroughly through the introduction and the first section about the combatants, and then on into the chapters on the First Punic War, hoping that this was leading to more analysis and depth, but soon I found that my eyes were glazing and I was skim-reading, forcing myself to remain interested.
It is not that the history of a conflict cannot be written interestingly, giving a thorough idea of the way the battles themselves were fought whilst bringing to life the cultures, and even the characters, involved - take, for instance, Persian Fire, about the attempted invasion of the Greek peninsula by mighty Persia, including the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon. And, perhaps, this is the main difference; I didn’t think Goldsworthy a very good writer. Aside from being peppered with dry academicisms (“In this chapter we shall see…”) the writing itself is often clumsy (the word “began” used three times in two consecutive sentences) and, I’m afraid, just not engaging. The big disappointment, though, is that I was left feeling I learnt little about the cultures fighting this conflict which would set one up to be amongst the greatest powers the world has ever seen and utterly destroy the other. ...more
One of those SF books I've been long aware of but have never got around to, Dreamsnake is the tale of a woman called Snake, a healer who travels a blaOne of those SF books I've been long aware of but have never got around to, Dreamsnake is the tale of a woman called Snake, a healer who travels a blasted, post-apocalyptic landscape offering her services where they are needed, partly via means of genetically engineered serpents which can synthesise cures to ailments and then inject them by biting the patients. When the rarest of her three snakes is killed she sets out to redeem herself for what she sees as an irreplaceable loss that she has caused.
The world is well rendered, the apocalypse there as a fact, some indefinable time in the (distant?) past, complete with areas of deadly radiation and strange (alien?) plants and humanity scattered into tribes with their own traditions and cultures that warily trade with each other via wandering caravans. It feels small, this world, with travel only possible on foot or horseback and, while there is a definite sense of danger, most of the world seems to have settled into a relatively safe equilibrium. One where the young woman snake feels that she can travel alone in safety, protected only by the regard people have for her profession. While we do realise that Snake is somewhat naive, this is certainly not The Road, or even A Canticle for Leibowitz. The people we see generally cope well, in small communities, with their agrarian or small-town lives. I'm sure this could be criticised as overly optimistic, although we have no idea how long humanity has had to settle into this after the devastation, and we do see an example later on of those who have coped less well.
What McIntyre does very well is her characters, which are drawn vividly with economy and grace (a good description of her writing overall, in fact, which is sometimes quite beautiful) and the lack of explication - she mentions several times 'forever trees', only stating toward the end when the characters are looking for firewood that there were marks where someone had foolishly tried to hack into their iron-hard trunks; the way that people are trained to control their fertility; the apocalypse itself - all mentioned in the manner of things that people know and take for granted.
Just as I was starting this book I happened to hear an interview with William Gibson (on the Inquiring Minds podcast) where he mentioned that when he tried to get back into reading SF he found much of it disappointing, with the exception of the branch of feminist SF in the 1970s - Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ - and I think that I would place Dreamsnake in there, although perhaps it stands out as less obviously so than some other works. ...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
When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I de When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I decided to give it a shot and am very, very glad I did.
Andy Weir’s novel is a rollercoaster ride of an adventure story, the pacing utterly breathtaking from the beginning when the crew of the third manned Mars mission are forced to abandon astronaut Mark Watney during a rushed evacuation, leaving him for dead. The trials Watney faces to survive - initially without any contact from Earth or his crewmates, and assuming they think he is dead - make this utterly gripping but what really carries the book is that, in Mark Watney, Weir has written simply one of the the most engaging characters I have ever read. And he has to be, as 90% of the book is carried by his personal log. Watney is inventive, witty, profane and profoundly human - possibly more upbeat than is realistic for someone abandoned 225 million kilometres from home, but the book is all about striving and surviving against impossible odds, so we can forgive it that.
Weir writes well enough to genuinely make us fear for Watney’s survival as each subsequent mishap occurs, despite that fact we intellectually know he couldn't be cruel enough to write this and have his hero fail (could he?), and the other characters are all drawn excellently within their roles. While (perhaps) I cried out on occasion when some other disaster befell our stranded protagonist, these were certainly not overdone and the solutions by which he progresses always brilliantly inventive yet never stretched credulity by being superhuman, or even by being something on smart, motivated bloke (one of the sort of calibre you’d think would be required to be a Mars explorer) could come up with. I cheered for Mark Watney, and smiled and shook with fear and, regularly, laughed out loud.
All in all, if you haven’t read The Martian yet you really should. ...more
Definitely one of the best time travel stories I have ever read, The Anubis Gates mixes SF, magic, literary history, Egyptian mythology and herme4.5/5
Definitely one of the best time travel stories I have ever read, The Anubis Gates mixes SF, magic, literary history, Egyptian mythology and hermetic magic into a tale that is superbly plotted and rollickingly told.
Brendan Doyle, a literature professor and expert on the obscure 19th century poet William Ashbless is recruited by reclusive millionaire J. Cochran Darrow for a secret project, which turns out to be a jaunt back to 1810 to see Samuel Taylor Coleridge give a lecture, where Doyle finds himself stranded and involved in plots from all sides.
This is my first read of Tim Powers, and he writes character and action well and his plotting, as I said before, is top-notch - I'd love to see a timeline of the events laid out, in fact. The interactions between those who travel through time and the events that have already happened - either historical or within the story - mesh perfectly without ever seeming forced. The reader does sometimes see these coming, but not in a way that detracts from the enjoyment of reading.
One oddity is that there are points when you feel that this was a much longer book that has had chunks excised - mostly the jumps are unremarkable, but occasionally there is the feeling that the reader could have done with seeing what happened in the gap, such as when Doyle refers to his embarrassing interview in Fleet Street which happened, as it were, off camera.
Minor niggles aside, this is justifiably a part of the Fantasy Masterworks series....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
I was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication inI was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication introduced me to some fine writers, many of whom went on to great things (or were already well-established and I had simply not come across them before).
I stumbled upon it again recently, pleased to find that the magazine is still going - now published by TTA press, having replaced their periodical The Third Alternative, rather than John Clute and David Pringle - and decided, on a whim, to take out a subscription. I’m glad I did.
Although in a smaller, glossier format than it used to be, much is as it was those years ago; a wide range of book reviews, Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn film coverage and the great David Langford’s Ansible Link, a round-up of SF news, gossip and too many obituaries. And, of course, the stories.
I had heard of none of the writers in issue 252 before now, but will definitely be seeking several of them out in the future. The opening main feature, The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson is classic Interzone fodder; a weird, bleak post-apocalypse set story about loss and holding on to hope, little more than a vignette but enough to interest me, along with the interview with Williamson, to interest me in his new novel, The Moon King.
The Mortuaries by Katherine E. K. Duckett is likewise bleak, in a US where despite overpopulation due to the rising sea levels and dwindling resources, the dead are preserved and displayed a la Gunther von Hagens. Deliberate references to Make Room! Make Room! its movie, Soylent Green.
Val Nolan’s Diving Into The Wreck is similarly about preserving the past at the expense of looking toward the future, this time about the search for the lunar module that still sits somewhere in the dusty regolith.
Sleepers by the superbly named Bonnie-Jo Stufflebeam is odd and melancholy (definitely a theme here), the narrator keeping watch over her dying father while strange half-seen creatures run through the night and fascinate and terrify everybody.
The two stand out stories are the barely (if at all) SF A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey about a family dealing with loss and the funny and indescribable Two Truths and a Lie from Oliver Buckram where a relationship that may or may not be with an alien is plotted out over instants taken from a year, each described with the titular two truths and a lie.
As this is the first taste of my return to Interzone I'm not sure whether the downbeat, somber tone struck by the majority of the stories is typical, although I do remember that was often the case before - leavened by glints of hope and humour, to be sure, but Interzone always seemed to revel in its rather bleak reputation. Regardless, I am enjoying again an Interzone reader and am looking forward to the invention and quirkiness and independence that its semi-prozine status always allowed it to cultivate. And I'm sure I shall, once again, discover many great writers herein....more