Ancillary Justice, the debut novel from American author Ann Leckie, has been garnering a fair bit of buzz around the speculative fiction community over the past few months and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Philip K Dick Award. I have to admit I was at the point of giving up on it after the first few chapters – but I persevered, and I’m glad I did.
The story revolves around the highly stratified Radch civilisation, which is humanoid, spacegoing and expansionary. Earth, if it ever existed, is a long gone memory and for thousands of years the Radch have been annexing worlds in brutal fashion and subsuming resident societies, much like the Roman Empire. By a curious quirk of the Radch language, everyone is referred to as ‘she’, regardless of their actual gender. That’s just one of the surprising things about this book – that it demonstrates how little gender specificity actually matters to the story.
As I said, the start of the novel is fairly quiet. There’s a lot of world-building going on through the narrative. But the seemingly small events that occur in those first few chapters resonate through the rest of the book and gain in significance as we understand more about the Radch and, in particular, the quest of the key protagonist, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen who, although she looks human, is actually an ‘ancillary’, a human whose mind has been wiped and infused with the distributed consciousness of the battleship Justice of Toren’s controlling Artificial Intelligence. That consciousness simultaneously resides in the ship, in One Esk Nineteen and in the minds of thousands of other ancillaries deployed during the latest occupation of a conquered world. But the controlling consciousness is not a soulless, electronic zombie animator:
Seven Issa frowned, and made a doubtful gesture with her left hand, awkwardly, her gloved fingers still curled around half a dozen counters. ‘Ships have feelings.’
‘Yes, of course.’ Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions. ‘But as I said, I took no offense.’
Seven Issa looked down at the board, and dropped the counters she held into one of its depressions. She stared at them a moment, and then looked up. ‘You hear rumors. About ships and people they like. And I swear your face never changes, but …’
I engaged my facial muscles, smiled, an expression I’d seen many times.
Seven Issa flinched. ‘Don’t do that!’ she said, indignant, but hushed lest the lieutenants hear us.
It wasn’t that I’d gotten the smile wrong – I knew I hadn’t. It was the sudden change from my habitual lack of expression to something more human, that some of the Seven Issas found disturbing. I dropped the smile.
‘Aatr’s tits,’ swore Seven Issa. ‘When you do that it’s like you’re possessed or something.’
For all that One Esk Nineteen is a ‘drone’ of the ship, she does exhibit some unique characteristics: an affinity for music and gathering songs of defeated cultures and a habit of humming. So there’s a dichotomy set up about her ‘conscious’ mind and the possibility that some remnant of her original, wiped personality still exists. Among all the action, the novel riffs on the potential causes and effects of this as well as exploring the idea in other contexts, most notably in the character of the Radch leader, Anaander Mianaai, who, while not a distributed single consciousness, is a series of networked clones, hundreds or perhaps thousands of them, that exists across Radch space in order to exert consistent command and control. The potential weakness of such an arrangement is exposed in startling fashion when One Esk Nineteen is forced into a confrontation with three iterations of Mianaai that results in a cataclysmic event. I can’t say too much, but the main section of the book focuses on the fallout of that event 20 years later when One Esk Nineteen, now seemingly a singleton divorced from her ship and fellow ancillaries, meets up with a Radch lieutenant she knew 1000 years earlier:
The instant my hand touched her shoulder, the red glass shattered, sharp-edged fragments flying out and away, glittering briefly. Seivarden closed her eyes, ducked her head, face into my neck, held me tight enough that if I hadn’t been armored my breathing would have been impeded. Because of the armor I couldn’t feel her panicked breath on my skin, couldn’t feel the air rushing past, though I could hear it. But she didn’t extend her own armor.
If I had been more than just myself, if I had had the numbers I needed, I could have calculated our terminal velocity, and just how long it would take to reach it. Gravity was easy, but the drag of my pack and our heavy coats whipping up around us, affecting our speed, was beyond me. It would have been much easier to calculate in a vacuum, but we weren’t falling in a vacuum.
But the difference between fifty metres a second and 150 was, at that moment, only large in the abstract. I couldn’t see the bottom yet, the target I was hoping to hit was small, and I didn’t know how much time we’d have to adjust our attitude, if we even could. For the next twenty or forty seconds we had nothing to do but wait, and fall.
‘Armor!’ I shouted into Seivarden’s ear.
‘Sold it,’ she answered. Her voice shook slightly, straining against the rushing air. Her face was still pressed hard against my neck.
The world of Ancillary Justice is immersive, layered and compelling, and as a result we understand so much about the framework in which actions occur, it makes for fascinating contemplation about the ramifications of those actions. I was reminded of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels while reading Ancillary Justice. Leckie doesn’t have Banks’s playfully black sense of humour or overtly political sensibility but she certainly knows how to make you believe in her world.
We all love those books we come across once in a while that give us a thrill every time we return to the world of the story. Ancillary Justice is one such book and though it’s early days for 2014, it will take quite a bit to knock it off the top of my list of standout reads this year.(less)
In the future Australia of Peacemaker we seem to be managing. There have been ructions, wars and incidents due to water shortages, asylum seekers and the other things most of us already see coming, but things are relatively stable in the vast megalopolis that extends along the eastern seaboard – Melbourne merging into Sydney merging into Brisbane – despite the loss of state governments and the welfare system. Of course there are technological advances too, but in this world created by author Marianne de Pierres, the technology has a ‘future contemporary’ feel that doesn’t intrude into her still-recognisably-Australian but somehow more cosmopolitan cityscape. It’s a city that also includes a vast walled pleasure zone, Birrimun Park, modelled on a Wild West Death Valley-type experience, which doesn’t seem out of place given our current penchant for Warner Brothers’ Movie Worlds and Disneylands.
In this park works Ranger Virgin Jackson who, despite her Christian name, is anything but naive. In fact, in a genre currently swamped by adolescent heroines like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and Divergent’s Beatrice Prior, Jackson is a welcome representation of a grown woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. That’s not to say she doesn’t have her flaws and her demons. She’s a very self-contained character, with only a small circle of friends she has chosen to trust; but if you found yourself in a scrape, you’d definitely want her in your corner.
This is familiar territory for de Pierres, who has established a strong line of female characters, starting with the totally badass Parrish Plessis in a trio of far-future cyberpunk novels, followed up by Baroness Mira Fedor in her space opera quartet The Sentients of Orion series and – writing in the contemporary crime genre as Marianne Delacourt – the smart-mouthed and quick-with-a-punch Tara Sharp. Jackson is another fine example of these very readable women and she really drives the narrative along.
The plot of Peacemaker starts as a straightforward murder mystery but gains in complexity quickly as it takes on supernatural overtones. Jackson witnesses a murder in the Park at closing time, however when she goes to help the victim the killer disappears and she is viciously slashed by a crow, which also vanishes. She then meets Nathan Sixkiller, an almost legendary US Marshall who has been drafted in to help with a suspected drug-smuggling operation occurring elsewhere in the Park. Jackson resents the intrusion but has to play nice and welcome him to the city. As they share dinner on that first evening she hallucinates a large wedge-tailed eagle – one that she used to see when she was a teenager and which she’d named Aquila back then and put down to an adolescent mental aberration. Seeing it now as an adult, she’s worried she’s losing it, but then Sixkiller reveals he can see it too, and admits he has a ‘disincarnate’ of his own.
I lounged, or tried to lounge, on the couch, as if relaxed. Truth is, I was jumpy as a feral cat in a cage. Seeing Sixkiller touch Aquila in the van had messed hard with my sense of reality. If only he and I were seeing the eagle, what did that mean? Or had I imagined that he was scratching the bird? Chance interrupted my crazy thoughts by entering and planting her backside on the seat opposite. She carried a small tablet, which she prodded at with the dexterity of a lame cow. ‘I want you to tell me about last night, beginning from when you went back into the Park to get your phone. We have everything on the Park cams up until then.’ I retold my story to make out that the person who stabbed the dead guy had already disappeared when I arrived. Y’know … rather than say he turned into a bird and flew away! ‘Then why are there only two sets of footprints?’ asked Chance. ‘Yours and the dead guy’s.’ I laughed. ‘Footprints? In the desert. You are shitting me.’ ‘We can tell more than you think.’ ‘People come and go through that Interchange all the time.” ‘But you just happened to go back into the park without any monitoring devices?’ ‘I was in a hurry to get to the airport.’ ‘Aaaah, yes. Mr Sixkiller.’ Chance began tapping notes into her tablet. ‘So you claim to have never met the deceased before?’ ‘Which deceased?’ ‘Which one would you prefer to tell me about?’
Following a trail of clues, Jackson is forced to venture into the seamier side of the megalopolis, where Sixkiller’s unfamiliarity with the city brings them into violent conflict with one of the street gangs. But Jackson has contacts on the wrong side of the law and she uses them to gain an audience with one of the gang leaders, a big Islander called Papa Brise – an at once fearsome and comedic character – who swears like a trooper and identifies a feathered artefact Jackson found on one of the dead bodies currently littering her life as a ‘vodun’ or voodoo warning symbol. Which means Jackson will have to find and confront the ‘stone witch’, Kadee Matari, for help in understanding the symbol’s true meaning and origin.
For a book that has to service sci-fi, crime and supernatural tropes the story is light and fast and very enjoyable. The dialogue crackles and Jackson has a great set of one-liners and put-downs as she faces street gangs, shady ‘clairvoyants’ and downright scary voodoo priestesses in the lawless conurbations of the megalopolis, with Sixkiller at her side. There are plenty of incidents, fights and life-threatening scrapes along the way as Jackson finds that the single murder she witnessed leads her deeper into a plot involving organised crime, people-smuggling, a secret society and, possibly, the end of reality as we know it, and the book ends on a high note with some startling personal revelations for Jackson and the promise of more mystery to come in the next instalment of the Peacemaker series, Dealbreaker, due summer 2015.
Peacemaker is definitely a cut above the standard for books of this type: intelligent, witty and with a good heart. If you’re looking for a fast read that surprises and engages, then look no further.(less)
The city of Caeli-Amur was born out of the imagination of Australian writer Rjurik Davidson in 2005 with his Ditmar Award-shortlisted story ‘The Passing of the Minotaurs’. It appeared again in 2008’s ‘Twilight in Caeli-Amur’ in Jack Dann’s Australian speculative fiction anthology Dreaming Again, and its legends were further added to with the publication of two more stories set in the city in Davidson’s debut collection The Library of Forgotten Books.
It was clear at the time that Davidson was on to something. Caeli-Amur, and its sister city Caeli-Enas, sunk beneath the sea during the Cataclysm, was at once dreamlike and fantastic but also strongly grounded in industrial realism with an accompanying political sensitivity. The mixture worked well in the short form, but could the fine contradictory balance Davidson struck be sustained at novel length, or would the whole house of cards come tumbling down, solidifying Caeli-Amur into just another standard fantasy backdrop?
Unwrapped Sky is the first in a Caeli-Amur trilogy, so it is clear that those fears have not hampered Davidson’s ambition. In fact, dipping into the novel you see that he has in fact relished the challenge, diving in boots and all to not just fully realise his city, but also place it firmly within a wider geography informed by a detailed history that covers millennia beforehand while remaining relevant to the action depicted. Add to that an eclectic fusion of magic, science, revolutionary theory, philosophical discourse, inter-racial friction, inter-species disputes, extra-dimensional beings and mythological creatures, as well as a meditation on the terrible things people do to each other all in the name of security, love, freedom or the search for knowledge, and you begin to get an inkling of the prodigious tapestry that Davidson has woven here. He’s had ten years to think about Caeli-Amur, and he hasn’t wasted a second.
Over four hundred years that city had slept beneath the ocean, and with it the last secrets of the ancients. A sense of wonder awakened in Kata. For the first time in years, she felt that the world was a large place filled with possibility.
‘Most of the city was white marble,’ said Aemelius. ‘I walked those streets when I was young. I watched white-caparisoned horses pull crow-black carriages. I watched street-officers lighting gas lamps on hot summer nights as lovers drifted through the wide streets.’
‘How old are you?’ asked Kata.
‘Five hundred and twelve.’
Kata drew a long, quiet breath. So old. Eventually she said, ‘There is a sadness about you.’
Unwrapped Sky follows the fortunes, or otherwise, of three main characters – Kata is a philosopher-assassin indentured to House Technis, one of the three great houses that concentrate power in Caeli-Amur and keep the populace oppressed. Her latest assignment is to kill two minotaurs, who are visiting the city for the Festival of the Bull, so the house thaumaturgists can harvest their horns, eyes and other organs for their magical works. She’s representative of many of the people of Caeli-Amur, caught by poverty and circumstance and forced to do the houses’ bidding in order to survive. There is little nobility in this city.
Boris Autec was a tramworker but is now a sub-officiate for House Technis. He dreams of rising to power so he can exercise his authority to improve the working conditions of his former colleagues. His lofty aims, however, are subverted by the house and its shadowy controllers, the other-worldly Elo-Talern, who use his baser desires to compromise his character. There is much to dislike about Autec, because he continues to delude himself that he can make things better while indulging his vile weaknesses in rape and murder, but he’s just a puppet of the house system in the end, and as blameless as the rest.
Maximillian is a thaumaturgist and a member of the seditionist group who plot the overthrow of the houses. He dreams of a peaceful revolution and hopes that mastery of thaumaturgy might help him achieve that. But he also finds the pace towards revolution stiflingly slow and so supports a regime change in the seditionist leadership that may ultimately lead to the violence he hoped to prevent.
Maximillian kicked at the unravelling twine of his boot, pressing it close to the leather. ‘But that is very much modern thinking. The trend of the day is to see things as falling apart, to think that we still live in a world of cataclysm. Yet in the long view of history, have things not been rediscovered? Surely we are on the path of development back toward the time of the ancients. Are not our populations growing? Aren’t we emerging from that dark age of which you speak? Isn’t this the very basis for the growth of seditionism itself? With each step in our knowledge and our production, are we not better placed to build a better world?’
The philosopher in Kata was now alive. ‘You are relying on the illusions of the ancients before the cataclysm. They were wrong. There is no inexorable progress. Nor are the laws of history on our side. There is no line of improvement between the knife and the bolt-thrower, the sword and the incendiary device,’ she said. ‘The Houses control everything. They ruin everything. They kill – ’ She stopped and thought of Aemelius, of his long lashes, of his black eyes. ‘They – ’
‘They must be destroyed,’ said Louis.
‘Destruction?’ said Maximillian. ‘We must be purer. We must be the new people we hope a better world will create. We must avoid revenge.’
‘Revenge is for those who have lost their way.’ Again Kata thought of Aemelius. She would do the House’s bidding. She would survive. She always had.
To attempt to summarise the plot of Unwrapped Sky would be to do it a disservice. There are too many important strands that would have to be left out in any kind of summary. You may as well try to sum up real life, and that’s the complexity that Davidson is reaching for here. The story moves from personal struggle and tragedy to history-changing events and upsets and back again, cataloguing triumphs, defeats, reversals and bitter ironies. If I were allowed one personal quibble it would be that there are some sections that are unremittingly dark. This is not a cheery read on the whole and few characters reach a happy conclusion. But Unwrapped Sky is representative of the best of Australian contemporary fantasy writing. If you’re serious about the genre, this is one volume you cannot ignore.(less)
I’ve read a few books by Christopher Priest now, and I have to confess that often I don’t really understand what is going on in them; but still I read them, and look forward to reading more. This was certainly true of the Hugo Award-nominated novel Inverted World, where a lot of very strange (but entertaining) stuff goes on: I finished it without any solid idea of why or how the events portrayed had happened.
Reading The Adjacent, Priest’s latest, I was similarly confounded. And that feeling leads to a fundamental question about the nature of this or any novel. Namely, for a novel to be ‘successful’, must it contain enough information to ensure the reader is clear what its purpose is, or what the purpose of the author was in writing it?
If you’re not the type of person who likes to be confounded, then The Adjacent is not for you (or Inverted World or The Separation). But if you don’t mind feeling off-kilter all the way through reading a novel, and you don’t expect easy answers (or any answers at all), then The Adjacent may contain some special delights.
The book opens with photographer Tibor Tarent returning home to the IRGB (which we can infer – although we are never told – stands for the Islamic Republic of Great Britain) after his wife Melanie has been killed by terrorists using an ‘adjacency weapon’ while she was working as a nurse in war-ridden Turkey. The fact that this future Britain is under Islamic rule is merely mentioned in passing. The sky hasn’t fallen in as a result, although the country is wracked by tropical cyclones due to inevitable climate change, which has lead to an exodus by the national government to less storm-torn regional centres.
Tibor is being transported to a government centre in the north of England for debriefing:
They passed through increasingly built up areas, approaching the capital. The younger official leaned forward to the driving compartment, said something quietly to the driver, and almost at once the smoked-glass effect deepened on all the windows as well as the dividing glass, making it impossible to see outside. Two dome lights in the car’s roof came on, completing the sense of isolation.
‘Why have you done that?’ Tarent said.
‘It’s beyond your security clearance level, sir.’
‘Security? Is there something secret out there?’
‘We have no secrets. Your status enables you to travel freely on diplomatic business, but national security issues are a matter of internal policy.’
‘But I’m a British citizen.’
He visits Melanie’s parents on the way and we learn her father is Polish by birth and had changed his name from Roszca to Roscoe when he resettled.
Tibor’s story abruptly ends while he is still trying to reach his destination, and we follow the fortunes of stage magician Tommy Trent heading to the front during the First World War and encountering HG Wells on the way (Priest is the vice-president of the HG Wells Society). Both men are on missions to improve the war effort. Tommy has been engaged to develop a camouflage system to protect spotter planes as they fly above German lines. He ponders the potential use of misdirection to make enemies look elsewhere – at an adjacent space – whenever a plane passes overhead. But his mission comes to an abrupt end when the pilot who sponsored his trip is killed as soon as Tommy arrives.
Next we’re with journalist Jane Flockhart, who’s doing a piece on theoretical physicist Thijs Rietveld, creator of the Pertubative Adjacency Field. Flockhart is joined by a young Tibor at the start of his career and Rietveld demonstrates the adjacency theory which allows him, like a stage conjurer, to make a conch shell appear in one hand, then the other, then disappear altogether.
After that we follow the fortunes of Mike Torrance, an ‘instrument thumper’ working on Lancaster Bombers during World War II, who meets, and falls in love with, a young female Polish pilot – Krystyna Roszca – delivering new planes to his squadron. Krystyna yearns to know what has happened to her lover Tomak, who was separated from her during the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Then Tibor Tarent resumes his story and is trapped in a government facility by another tropical cyclone. This is followed by Tomak Tallant’s journey through the imaginary island of Prachous …
You can see what’s happening here. Story strands, names and people are bleeding into each other, echoing or retelling occurrences with subtle variations. Nothing is certain and every observation, every utterance, seems suffused with meaning as a result. It’s all very strange and the characters feel that too, sometimes leaning outside the novel’s frame of reference and addressing the reader:
I feel as if this country has changed out of all recognition. I assume it’s just the way I see it now. I feel stuck in the past, but in some way I find completely confusing it’s a past I never actually knew – Tibor Tarent, IRGB
There were times in the past when he had not been here but his memories were textureless, uninterrupted, a smooth continuity. He felt an agony of uncertainty, memory being tested by rationality. – Tomak Tallant, Prachous
Something lay between us. It was intangible, inexplicable: we seemed to be shouting to each other across a divide. It was as if we were in sight, physically close, adjacent to each other but separated by misunderstandings, different lives, different memories. – Kirstenya Rosscky, Prachous
The resonances between these different stories multiply, calve off like icebergs forming or crash into each other. Tibor the photographer witnesses a collection of dead bodies being loaded onto a truck containing the corpses’ very much alive doppelgangers, he sees buildings that others around him cannot see, and travels to a time and place that predates his birth. Again and again there is the feeling that something significant is going on beneath the surface narratives. You can look for confirmation of what that something is in vain, and yet the feeling persists:
At some points, from some angles, the triangle contained the buildings of a city – from other views it became once again that terrifying place of zero colour, black non-existence. Whenever I was close to the apexes, the sixty-degree angle at each of the triangle’s corners, the image began to flicker with increasing rapidity. As I banked around the angle, the shift between the two became so rapid that it seemed for a moment that all I could see was a part of the reedland, but then, as my course took me along the next side of the triangle, the shifting between the two began to slow, and at the halfway mark what I could see was a steady view: from some sides it appeared as the black triangle of nothingness, from others it would again be the image of the city.
The Adjacent also visits a lot of the places and concepts that Priest has explored in other novels, for example, the Second World War squadrons that form the backdrop for much of The Separation (and in fact The Adjacent carries a name check for one of the main characters in The Separation), magicians and illusions familiar from The Prestige, the strange archipelago islands of The Affirmation and The Islanders, and the HG Wells-related The Space Machine. It’s as if Priest is visiting the back stage of his ‘mental novel-writing landscape’, brushing against scenery here, picking up an often-used prop there and creating an amalgam that blends and flows across lines he’s previously drawn between his books.
The fact is, I don’t know, and perhaps no one can except the author. But what Priest has achieved is a novel structure that provokes us to interact with it from page to page, constructing meaning, reaching for and discarding theories, trying to figure it all out. Ultimately we may fail to grasp what’s going on. I certainly did. But perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps Priest simply wants to create that interaction, to make us engage and not just sit back and let the novel wash over us. If that’s the case, he manages it masterfully.(less)
You won't believe you can have so much fun learning about economic theory and the history of money and banking, but Stross manages a lightly humorous...moreYou won't believe you can have so much fun learning about economic theory and the history of money and banking, but Stross manages a lightly humorous chase caper with likeable characters and a satsifying chase plot.(less)
Post-apocalyptic dystopian stories have been popular for a long time now and seem increasingly so. They allow us to play out our worst fears – climate collapse, alien invasion, zombie attack – while clinging to the hope that humanity (in some form) might survive. Particularly in the YA area, but in adult fiction, TV and movies too, many dystopias feature resourceful, basically good protagonists fighting to save and nurture a society where human decency still has a place. This is the territory of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games books or Melanie Stryder of Stephanie Meyer’s non-vampire novel The Host. We even see it in shows like The Walking Dead. Sure the characters have their dark moments, and some go way off-beam, never to recover, but most want to live in peace and rebuild what they had.
There is a strand of dystopia, which is particularly strong in Australian writing, that occupies a more ambiguous space. Part of the pattern – informed possibly by the very first Mad Max movie – is its brutality. The people in these stories are more selfish, more animalistic, less trustworthy. Bonds of friendship unravel when put under pressure, pacts and truces last only as far as the next meal. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the harsher Australian environment that many of our home-grown dystopias have this sensibility, leavening the darkness (also in typically Australian manner) with stark humour that’s black and bitter and ironic. These books are also more willing to tackle complex issues head-on. Books like Kim Westwood’s The Daughters of Moab, which deals with sexual and gender intolerance, as well as her Aurealis Award-winning short story ‘Terning tha Weel’, strongly occupy this space. Or Paul Haines’s highly charged and unforgiving novella Wives, about the lack of women in small-town Australia and the lengths some men will go to in order to get a wife. These stories are visceral and grungy. You can hear the corrugated iron ticking in the heat, feel the sweat tracking down your back and smell the dust mixed with unwashed bodies. Set solidly in this mould is Trucksong, the debut novel from Andrew Macrae.
As a child, John Ra was found by the side of the road, clinging to the stiffening body of his mother, who had died in childbirth. Taken in by Smoov, a showman, and his daughter Isa, he travels from shanty town to shanty town, where Smoov channels images from the Wotcher (a deranged satellite) as part of his ‘trancemission’ show to tell others of the way things used to be when humanity lived in sentient gigacities instead of scraping a bleak existence from the middens of a decaying past:
Sun went down, lightning in the west crackling dry sheets. No smell of rain. I strung the white tarp from where the show would come forth. And then the Wotcher spun, moving slow and the flash of it came up from the east like a shining eye in the sky. There was a gasp from the folks in the camp as it passed and the wonderment from the crowd that something like that could be so high up and move so slow and regular, and the power of those who must have put it there, and the hope that there’d be another way back to the time when a vessel could be launched and floated like a star. In the wake of its passing it left its messages in the showman’s linkmaker and out of the crackle of static and noise came the signs the showmans used to earn their meat and their smoke. They could listen the Wotcher. They could sing the signal and tune to the freek of it.
Isa believes that if she can just get access to Smoov’s trancecrypts, she can find the pattern to reseed the gigacities and reclaim the past. John Ra doesn’t want to save the world. All he wants is to be with Isa – and for Smoov to stop bashing him. But everything changes when a group of sentient trucks, led by the Brumby King, raids the town and takes Isa. John, using the linkmaker, teams up with Sinnerman, another sentient truck with a grudge against the Brumby King, to get Isa back.
The moral landscape of Trucksong is refreshingly tangled. No one, least of all John, is wholly good or bad. Actions are fuelled by needs and wants – not reason – and regretted later. The characters want to make things right for themselves, or those they love, or the world, but they just don’t have it in them to make that happen. It’s the reality and the tragedy of being human.
Trucksong’s world is also extraordinarily layered. Revealed steadily through John’s adventures and interactions, it feels at once wholly alien and entirely real. The symbiotic relationship that builds between John and Sinnerman is surely one of the strangest team-ups in recent fiction. I can imagine it being handled quite differently in a less ambitious treatment as a kind of Knight Rider rip-off with a gruffly talking truck. But in Trucksong the relationship between trucks and their riders is an elemental, hind-brain thing:
The sound flowed smooth through the air and trucktalk chatter in the link as Sinnerman and the Left Tenant sat head to head and tried to best each other with their sound systems and their skills. Putting on a flashy show, pulling samples from their memories and trying to call each other with the best take on an old tune or the freshest new vox they’d found chattering in the stacks from the data mines. The battle went on and on, deep bass booming through me bones and me head ringing with the echo of high freek sound wash. All watched by the grim Brumby King. Sinnerman shook on its shocks under the onslaught and I kept it fed with patches to mod the waves of sound, learning as I went what made a good effect and saving up the knowing for it would come in handy for tweaking Sinner’s rein, I was sure. The Left Tenant revved up hard and cranked the wattage. I could feel it in me guts, the whole cab was shaking, the noise was frightening, louder and louder and then it stopped and both trucks clunked in gear and started their dance. Sinner spun its wheels in a mighty show of blue smoke blowing over the truck parking. Its eight rear wheels were burning out and its tail came flicking around to match the Left Tenant’s own circling motion. The next phase of the battle was coming.
Plugged into the truck via an intravenous cannula, a mixture of blood and truck synth-fac haze, is the visceral medium of communication, carrying wants and desires between truck and human in the interplay of adrenalin and truck-borne stimulants. It’s just one example of a constantly surprising and cohesive world that morphs and accretes meaning smoothly, and part of what makes Trucksong such an impressive and well-paced story.
John Ra, too, is a fully rounded character, suffering, hoping and despairing in equal measures, telling his story through the clacking keys of an ancient typewriter, spilling out his dreams and acknowledging his demons. The message of Trucksong is that things are not always as they should be and might never be that way again. As bleak a message as that may sound, Macrae’s control of narrative ensures it’s not.
Analog Science Fiction and Fact was my magazine of choice as a teenager. Often it featured stories written by people who were primarily scientists and engineers rather than writers – people like Robert L Forward and Charles Sheffield. In those kinds of stories, characters, emotions, motivations and situations were only there to set up scenarios that could demonstrate the scientific theories the author wanted to explore.
Science fiction is pompously called the ‘fiction of ideas’, which rather ignores the fact that all fiction is about something. But the best of these idea stories were the ones that allowed the reader to pick up on the excitement and wonder of the scientific concepts they expounded. And, after all, if you’re reading science fiction, you should at least be a little bit interested in science.
Stephen Baxter’s new novel Proxima, the first book in a duology, reminded me a lot of those early Analog stories. Baxter is a mathematician and engineer, but since 1995 he’s made a living writing a number of successful SF series. And in Proxima he demonstrates that same desire to explain the wonder of the scientific concepts he imagines in his future solar system:
The intense radiation, intended originally to deliver compact solar power to the factories and homes of distant Earth, now filled her own hundred-metre sail body. She felt her skin stretch and billow as terawatts of power poured over her. It was not even necessary for her structure to be solid; her surface was a sparse mesh, a measure to reduce her overall density, but the wavelengths of microwave photons were so long that they could not pass through this wide, curving net of carbon struts. And the microwave photons, bouncing off the sail like so many minute sand grains, shoved her backwards, at thirty-six gravities, piling up an extra thousand kilometres per hour of velocity with each new second.
Baxter has chosen a canvas that stretches from Earth to the planet Proxima C four light years away and spans some 60 years; and the story, written in his accessible style, is very engaging. Yuri Eden is a corpsicle from the Heroic Generation who fought climate change on Earth. Defrosted on Mars, he’s soon press-ganged to join a group of unwilling settlers on a one-way trip to Proxima. The Kernel technology that drives the ship is not man-made, but was discovered buried under Mercury’s crust. Stef Kalinski witnessed the launch of the first Kernel ship when attending another launch of an automated Artificial Intelligence headed by much more conventional means on a survey mission to Prox C 11 years before. She decided then and there to become an expert in Kernel technology.
The arrival on Prox C of Yuri and his unhappy companions is at the same time distressing and amusing. As one of the characters says, ‘Everybody wants to be a pioneer, you see … Nobody wants to be a settler.’ This group don’t even want to be pioneers. They’ll be damned if they turn into farmers and breeders, and Baxter has a lot of fun showing their modern day reactions to what is really a future retelling of the forcible transportation of convicts to Australia.
John Synge said, ‘And what about the rights of those children? Who are you to condemn them, and their children, to lives of servitude on this dismal world — all to serve your ludicrous, Heroic Generation-type scheme of galactic dominance?’
Martha Pearson stood now. Yuri knew she came from old money on Hawaii; in her late thirties, she was tough, self-contained. ‘And what right do you have to condemn me and the other women here to live as baby machines?’
The main attraction, however, in this section of the story is the planet. Prox C is tidally-locked to its red-dwarf sun, so there is no day and night, no sunrise or sunset. And the biology and wildlife of the planet provide further shocks for the new inhabitants as they learn more and more about what has naturally evolved here in such an alien environment. Baxter also throws in quite a few surprises and reversals along the way, which keeps everyone entertained.
Meanwhile, back in the solar system, a political struggle is emerging between the Framework, the Chinese economic empire which does not have access to Kernel tech, and the United Nations. And when Kalinski discovers a metal hatch of alien origin deep beneath the Kernel deposit, things really take off, with political manoeuvrings, untrustworthy Artificial Intelligences, and the threat of interplanetary war.
In among all these events, the novel tackles a lot of big ideas, not only about the evolution and future of the indigenous and introduced inhabitants of Prox C, but about the origin of life in the universe, whether humanity can express itself in Artificial Intelligence and just what the creators of the Kernels have in mind for us all. If I have one criticism, it’s that in between expounding all these ideas, Baxter doesn’t demonstrate a tight enough control of plotting or character to make the story work as cohesively as it could. But at its heart, Proxima delivers a real sense of wonder about making a new life on another world that’s reminiscent of Frederick Pohl’s classic Jem. And that more than justifies the price of entry.(less)
Wil Parke prays it’s a case of mistaken identity when he’s waylaid in an airport toilet by a couple of guys who stick a needle in his eye and propose radical brain surgery. But when he’s hustled outside and a bunch of people, including his own girlfriend, try to kill him, he ends up on a journey with his supposed kidnappers that takes him from the frozen American countryside to the boiling wastes of outback New South Wales. Welcome to the world of Max Barry’s Lexicon, where Poets can stop you dead with a word, people are not always who they seem to be – or who they think they are – and your lover can become your killer in the blink of an eye.
The silence stretched. He couldn’t help himself. ‘Are you going to shoot me?’
‘I’m thinking about it.’
His bowels shivered.
The man lowered his gun. ‘She made you forget,’ said the man. ‘You really don’t know who you are.’
Wil sat in the snow, teeth chattering.
‘New plan,’ said the man. ‘Get back in the van.’
The Poets who cause so much mayhem in Lexicon are a secret group who use their advanced training in neurolinguistic programming, market segmentation psychology and a host of other tricks and tools that bombard us every day on a subconscious level through modern media in order to pull down our self-absorbed barriers and persuade us to go along with whatever they want. They’re like the smoothest tongued, most likeable sales guys you could ever meet times a million. Being a secret group, of course, you can tell they’re not using their powers for the public good. And beyond their cleverly persuasive phrases there’s the barewords, strings of sounds that, when spoken by a Poet to the right personality type, strip away any final reserves and leave the target a willing puppet.
The other protagonist in the novel is Emily, a 16-year-old street kid recruited by the Poets to enter their elite school (kind of like an evil version of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) because she shows a certain aptitude for persuasion. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but when things go horribly wrong, she’s set on a collision course with the Poets’ inscrutable leader, Yeats.
Lexicon plays out as a taut contemporary thriller. The novel tracks both Wil and Emily, with the story moving backwards and forwards in time, and Barry demonstrates a virtuoso control of plot, taking full advantage of the reversals that can occur due to the strange power of the barewords. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the story twists into a whole new set of operating parameters, then it does it again. In fact the way Barry uses the barewords and how he reveals their origin is one of the strengths of the novel. A lesser writer might have been tempted to resort to magical mumbo jumbo:
People still fell to the influence of persuasion techniques, especially when they broadcast information about themselves that allowed identification of their personality type – their true name basically – and the attack vectors were primarily aural and visual. But no one thought of this as magic. It was just falling for a good line or being distracted or clever marketing. Even the words were the same. People still got fascinated and charmed, spellbound and amazed, they forgot themselves and were carried away. They just didn’t think there was anything magical about that anymore.
The action in Lexicon is non-stop, the characters are strongly believable, the dialogue is snappy, the situations vividly portrayed and there’s tension and dry humour in equal measure. This is a top-notch action adventure with a subtext – expounded through a series of emails, blog posts and newspaper articles – about what the media and governments are doing to us, and how we are manipulated on a daily basis by having the millions of tiny details we reveal about ourselves in our social media interactions fed back to us to inform our choices and influence our decisions. It would be marginally less terrifying if it wasn’t all so very true. If this is science fiction, it’s science fiction on the bleeding edge of the now; the kind of two minutes into the future stuff that makes the later works of William Gibson so compelling.
I actually found myself slowing down while I was reading Lexicon because I didn’t want it to come to an end. If you believe in the power of words, you’ll do the same.
Keith Stevenson is a speculative fiction writer and publisher at coeur de lion publishing. Visit him at www.keithstevenson.com and www.coeurdelion.com.au (He is also a judge in this year’s Aurealis Awards. The views expressed in this review are a personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Aurealis Awards judging panels, judging coordinator or management team.)(less)
I remember reading Ender's Game as a kid and loving most of it, but being put off by the weird dream sequency/ computer gamey bits. Coming to it as an...moreI remember reading Ender's Game as a kid and loving most of it, but being put off by the weird dream sequency/ computer gamey bits. Coming to it as an adult, I see that while Ender's Game can be read by kids, there's a lot more in it for adults. Of course there's the moral question of using kids as soldiers - Kony 2012 anyone? - but what I most enjoyed was the finely balanced characterisations, particularly of Ender and Graff, Principle of the Battle School. Ender is a monster, but details of his actions are withheld from the reader to enable us to grow to know him and empathise with him before we realise just what he's done in the past. And Graff is another kind of monster - one that makes monsters - but again we empathise with him as doing what 'must be done' even if he personally despises himself for it. From a writing point of view it's a very skilled novel.(less)
Michael Kearny is a particle physicist working on developing quantum computing. He’s also a serial killer haunted by a horse-headed apparition he calls the Shrander. Ed Chianese is a washed-up space pilot, a ‘twink’ in 2400-AD New Venusport who’s addicted to simulated reality tanks. Seria Mau is captain of the K-Ship White Cat, irreversibly plugged into her ship and controlled just as much as the ship is by the ‘mathematics’ that allow it to traverse the shoals of the Kefahuchi Tract — a black hole without an event horizon. The fate of these three lost souls is woven together in British SF author M John Harrison’s novel Light, Book One of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy.*
If Light sounds deliriously disorienting, it is at first. But don’t be put off. The best science fiction thrusts readers into worlds that defy mundane understanding, but the skilful writer feeds readers enough to enable them to make sense of this fictional reality. That’s exactly what Harrison does here, and the Michael Kearney chapters, set in London in 1999, provide early relief from the more outlandish episodes of Ed Chianese lying in his rented reality and Seria Mau moving through dimensions we don’t have a name for yet.
There’s a quiet desperation that suffuses Light. Kearney is desperate to avoid the Shrander, constantly on the move and killing to buy himself time whenever he feels the frighteningly strange life-form moving closer. Ed Chianese and Seria Mau inhabit a future where the initial exuberance of space flight has been all but spent on the shores of the Kefahuchi Tract. All progress seems to have halted. Humanity is content to trawl through the detritus of long-dead space-going civilisations hoping to profit from the technology it finds — or at least not obliterate itself. And all the while the Tract gleams above them, a deadly place that no one has yet been able to penetrate. This is the same kind of desperation Frederik Pohl portrayed in his award-winning novel Gateway, where ‘pilots’ played the Heechee Lottery by boarding fully automated alien ships hoping they’d be taken to untold riches, or at the very least a short round trip to nowhere before the air ran out.
It sounds like an uninspiring narrative, but desperate as they are, the characters in Light are not defeated. They still strive. In that respect Harrison’s work shares a lot with the novels of Phillip K Dick, illuminating humanity in the face of the dehumanising, and downright alien. And, as with Dick, the future Light shows us, while strange and nightmarish at times, is one that still contains hope: the Tract may not be as impenetrable as it seems.
The connection between Kearney, Chianese and Mau is also central to the story, and Harrison deftly weaves linking references through the different narrative strands in a dreamlike way, enabling readers, almost subconsciously at times, to make and reorder connections as we move towards the novel’s revelatory climax.
Winning the Tiptree Award and making the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke and British Science Fiction awards, Light isn’t a typical space-opera narrative which, at the lower end of the science fiction scale, tends to concern itself with alien threats and blowing stuff up. Harrison’s writing is by turns worldly and hallucinogenic and consistently entertaining. Time and memory shift and change. People are not who or what they appear to be. Intentions are misinterpreted with far-reaching consequences. Dead-end jobs are anything but.
Light is a story of reversal and redemption, with more to say about the human condition than a lot of modern speculative fiction. In a sense it’s a throwback to the more psychological speculative fiction of the 1970s, but as it’s written with a modern sensibility it’s far more accessible to the mainstream reader.(less)
This was a huge disappointment. If the writer set out to consistently annoy the reader, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. 'Withholding' was the...moreThis was a huge disappointment. If the writer set out to consistently annoy the reader, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. 'Withholding' was the word that came to mind with most of the stories. A common trick was to hint at some life changing event or information for one of the characters and then have that information revealed 'off-screen' or not revealed at all. It made me wonder whether the author actually knew what this information was or whether they were just happy to write 'vignettes' where form was everything and content was optional. It also made me wonder that such a book was longlisted for the Mann Booker. If you want to read a great novel about how perceptions shape the place people live in, I'd recommend China Mieville's The City and The City instead.(less)