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Some Other Eden

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My review of Astra by Naomi Foyle is up now at Strange Horizons. I make a big deal of it not being A Door Into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski’s radical ecofeminist, pacifist utopia from 1986:

Since reading Slonczewski’s novel, I’ve been yearning for a modern version—something unabashedly aspirational—and, at first, Astra by Naomi Foyle promised to be that book. It is tantalizingly close, but Foyle had other plans and deliberately subverts her story which, for me, makes it less subversive. Nor is it literary fiction of the type a front cover quote from the Poetry Book Society and funding logo from Arts Council England might suggest. Yet it is still an unusual and appealing novel and does perhaps point towards the emergence of a new breed of core genre British publishing.

I conclude by saying:

Since 2013, however, we have seen the launch of Jo Fletcher Books (publishing Foyle, Karen Lord, and Stephanie Saulter) and Del Rey UK (Kameron Hurley and E. J. Swift). These build on the pioneering work of Angry Robot (Madeline Ashby and Lauren Buekes) to create a cohort of medium-sized, risk-taking commercial publishers who have put the larger houses to shame. Here’s to more fascinatingly flawed mainstream science fiction novels that dare to be different.

This is perhaps slightly ironic given Quercus (of which Jo Fletcher Books is part) were acquired by Hodder today. But I’ve noticed that more and more my individual reviews are in conversation with each other, as if flailing towards a Grand Unified Theory of SF Publishing, so it might be worth reading the context of some of my other recent reviews. On which note, Astra is actually my 49th review for Strange Horizons. Bloody hell.

Written by Martin

25 March 2014 at 16:13

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The Collapse Of Complex Societies

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My review of Wolves by Simon Ings is up now at Strange Horizons. It is a conflicted review for a conflicted novel but it is ultimately a positive review for an exciting novel:

Wolves, then, is best understood not as a triumphant return but as a fascinating work of transition. Ings is taking bold, vigorous steps forward but this is treacherous terrain and it is no surprise that he slips backwards from time to time. Sometimes though, he is just too cavalier. I’ve mentioned several authors as reference points throughout this review, each with a strong personality; the point is not to hold Ings to another’s standards but to set out the company he is confidently keeping. These are some of the most important figures in SF and Ings is moving into this territory, he just needs to fully commit. If he currently seems stranded half way to Harrison, I don’t think it will be for long.

I try to avoid anything about a book before I write my review but once I’d emerged from my shell, I discoverd three interesting pieces that touch on issues I raise. Firstly, a lovely tribute to Iain Banks from Ings. I see a lot of both Banks and M John Harrison in Wolves so was particularly struck by his opening anecdote:

I first met Iain Banks at Lumb Bank, a writing centre near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. The area has since become the hairdressing and financial services capital of the western world, but back then you could still find the odd lock-in. Banksie (always and forever Banksie: the other one is a parvenu) was teaching a course in writing science fiction. Mike Harrison was his guest reader, a prickly bugger who’d just finished a story called Small Heirlooms, for my money one of the great short stories of his or anyone’s career. I didn’t get how Banks and Harrison were such mates — the one bristling with psychic armour, the other ebullient, friendly, and without any apparent side to him at all.

Secondly, Toby Litt’s rave review in the Guardian. Having played the game of supposed influence myself, I probably shouldn’t throw stones whilst standing in a greenhouse but I think the connection Litt sees to JG Ballard is a bit of a red herring. I loved his suggestion that Ings was an “SF Thomas Hardy” though:

And here is where the Ballard comparisons stop short – because what is strongest in Wolves, and what gives the novel its greatest power to dominate the mind, is something it has in common with Graham Swift’s Waterland, Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands or Nicola Barker’s Wide Open. That is, an action that comes out of those scraggy edgelands where earth and water mix, where the shore is never certain.

This chimes with a wider point I make in my review:

Unnamed and unnameable; in contrast to Ings’s two globe-trotting previous novels, Wolves is ageographic. It takes place on some other island, an unnamed place linked only to Earth itself by the odd reference to things like “the Turkish quarter” and by the ghost of the British landscape. The combination of the tongue-tip familiar and the estrangingly alien is all part of the highly effective destabilising strategy Ings is deploying.

Thirdly, there are Ings’s comments on the genesis of the novel: “The deepest truth is that for over a year Wolves sat in my drawer, unsellable, malign, predicting, chapter by chapter, the worst year of my life.” This is extraordinarily candid stuff. It is also a perfect example of what a reviewer doesn’t want to read whilst they are working! Reading it after my review was complete answers some questions but poses others. So there is much more to say about Wolves – on influence and landscape and biography – and I am hoping to be able to write more about it myself later in the month. But for now, one more link: Jonathan Gibbs on Jeffrey Alan Love’s wonderful cover.

Written by Martin

10 February 2014 at 13:41

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Elementary

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My review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton is up now at Strange Horizons.

Perhaps Drakenfeld is meant to be a dullard; perhaps, along with the hackneyed prose that abounds, this what the audience for Samson and all those other authors with gold embossed names crave. I just can’t see how a protagonist this uninteresting is going to sustain a series of detective novels though.

The backstory is that about four years ago, I started hearing interesting things about a writer called Mark Newton. He’d already published a short novel for a small press but his full debut, Nights Of Villjamur, was coming out shortly for PanMacmillan so I asked him for a copy so I could review it for Strange Horizons. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was very good. Firstly, the book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be whilst simultaneously trying to be too many different things. (If you will allow me some speculation, I think that Newton’s split career as bookseller, publisher and author played a role here and that some triangulation and second-guessing occurred that was ultimately unhelpful to writing the novel.) Secondly – and at a fundamental level – it wasn’t very well written.

Now, you may assume that nothing gives me more pleasure than to write a negative review of a debut novel in a field I love by a person I am well disposed to. Certainly, that was the assumption of several of the people who left comments underneath my review. It didn’t and I resolved to make sure I read Newton again in the future, although I thought it would probably be best to skip the rest of Legends Of The Red Sun series. So when his new book came through the post, it went straight to the top of the pile. As the quote above suggests, I wasn’t able to write the review I had hoped to write this time either.

Drakenfeld has definitely solved one of the problems I identified: Newton has a very clear idea of the story he wants to tell and is equally focused in delivering it. This clarity is a welcome change to the mess of Villjamur but seems to come hand-in-hand with a suggestion that the ambition he signaled but didn’t deliver on early in his career has now been completely abandoned (the triangulation has succeeded, if you will). The bigger problem, however, is that the novel still isn’t very well written.

As it happens, a couple of weeks after I wrote my review, I bumped into Newton in a pub basement in Brighton. We had a chat and he predictably was a lovely bloke. So why am I publishing something that damns his work and threatens his livelihood? Surely, if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? The answer is that the author and the work are two separate things and the only way to be a book reviewer is to successfully compartmentalise them. I can like Newton as a person and dislike his work and there needn’t – shouldn’t – be any connection between the two. Much online book blogging has been rendered pointless by the failure to grasp this distinction.

Of course, human nature is messier than that; intellect and emotion can’t be so easily divided. Creating art is a hugely personal endeavour and what is being criticised is the product of blood, sweat and tears so it is natural to feel wounded. On the other side of the fence, the whole reason I am writing this is because of a residual sense of sheepish hypocrisy. But the concept of manners simply doesn’t apply here and it is dangerous to import it from social situations. It goes without saying that I think negative reviews have value (to inform and entertain potential readers and to contribute to a wider discourse). It should also go without saying that criticising a professional writer’s published art is entirely different to telling someone that their shoes are ugly or the dinner they’ve just cooked you tasted of ass. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and negative reviews are often seen as direct attacks on the author – and, increasingly, their fans – unless they are couched in the politest and most equivocal terms.

My review is not polite and it is not equivocal; it baldly states that Drakenfeld is a bad book and it does so in pretty scathing fashion. This tone is not thoughtless rudeness, it is an integral part of writing a review that has value beyond merely telling a prospective customer whether they should spend their money on it. It is a public, performative piece of criticism to partner a public, performative piece of art.

Anyway, the next round is on me, Mark.

Written by Martin

8 January 2014 at 10:06

Semi-Resolute

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This year, I want to read more and I want to write more, both here and elsewhere. Pretty much the same resolution I failed to keep last year. Being a parent takes up a lot of time but, more than that, it eats your mental reserves and when I have free time these days I usually want to play something mindless on my phone or go for a walk. The upshot is that I’ve not read a book in months and I want to get back in the saddle. I’m not going to set myself any targets or be too ambitious – even one book a month would be an improvement – but I do want to achieve a few things:

  • Finish reading The Space Opera Renaissance and start a new short story project. These things are marathons: not massively enjoyable but good for me and a real sense of achievement.
  • Write an entry for Monsters Vs Aliens for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I’ve had a pretty productive year for them all told but this is the only entry outstanding from my section of the cinema entry.
  • Write something for Arc. Sorry, Simon!
  • Review one film, one television series and one computer game for Strange Horizons (realistically, I might settle for achieving just one of those).
  • Review four non-SF novels. When I set up this blog, I thought it would be more mixed than it has turned out to be so I’d like to push it a bit more in the direction of, say, Eve’s Alexandria or Follow The Thread.

Written by Martin

7 January 2014 at 11:54

Posted in books, films

Essential Selection

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Strange Horizons has published its year in review which features – as it does most years -a contribution from yours truly. Mostly I use it as an opportunity to praise the shortlists of last year’s Kitschies (whilst still managing to get a quick dig in) but I also just had space for The Water Sign by CS Samulski. As Kameron Hurley says in the comments, it isn’t a book without flaws but it is bloody exciting. In terms of other reviewers, I think the book that gets the most recommendations is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I enjoyed her previous fantasy work, Not The End Of The World , and, to a lesser extent Case Histories so this goes on the list.

In terms of my non-SF recommendations for the year, well, you need to have this:

kanye-west-yeezus-tracklist

Yeezus is mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime (usually within the same song), written and performed by a total arse who just happens to be a genius.

Written by Martin

6 January 2014 at 19:45

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Don’t Drink The Dark Water

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My review of Dark Waters Of Hagwood by Robin Jarvis is up now at Strange Horizons.

Dark Waters is the sequel of Thorn Ogres Of Hagwood and is a book I never thought I’d read. But, after twelve years of waiting, Dark Water has been published, only for me to find it a huge disappointment. As I said in my review: “What I’ve always loved about Jarvis is how much respect he has for his audience, but it seems absent here.”

I reviewed Thorn Ogres as well so you can compare one of my first review with my most recent. As we’ve discussed before, there is quite a difference. Much of this journey has taken place at Strange Horizons, the best place for speculative fiction criticism on the web. It is also free so, if you’ve enjoyed the work of me and the other reviewers – not to mention authors, poets, columnists and many other contributors – then you might want to consider supporting their annual fund drive. There are prizes!

Written by Martin

15 September 2013 at 16:02

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Alan Campbell – King Of Adventure

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My review of Sea Of Ghosts by Alan Campbell is up now at Strange Horizons.

The book was selected for review by Brian O’Leary as a donor reward for contributing to last year’s Strange Horizon fund drive. I volunteered as I had been a fan of Campbell’s previous work. I’m very happy with the outcome – the pull quote for the review is “Alan Campbell might well be the best writer of adventure fiction in the UK at the moment” – and I hope Brian is too.

You might notice that the review is a little shorter than normal. This is because between reading and reviewing the novel, my son was born. This is awesome but it does mean my free time is a little squeezed. My reading rate has gone down to a book a month and my writing rate has dropped even further. I am planning to finish The Space Opera Renaissance this year though, honest.

Written by Martin

28 August 2013 at 09:16

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She’s Got Issues

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A couple of years ago I reviewed The Flood by Maggie Gee. It isn’t a very good book and one of the main ways in which it isn’t very good is in its incredibly clumsy handling of issues like race and politics. Still, Gee is well regarded (she was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 1983) so when I saw a copy of The Ice People in a secondhand bookshop I thought I’d give her a second chance.

The book gets off to a unfortunate start with the way the publisher has truncated its cover quote from Jeremy Paxman: “A remarkable novel… very funny.. up there with Orwell and Huxley.” Well known jokers, both. Inside, Gee’s own words are equally unintentionally eyebrow-raising. The issues are back and they are back in abundance. Here we have narrator Saul reflecting on his childhood in the future (AKA pretty much now):

I started to hate these foreigners. There wasn’t enough to share with them. We lived in a three-bed brick twentieth-century cottage with plasterboard doors that never quite shut, and my parents worked harder than anyone.
One day when my mother had come home exhausted from an all night run to Edinburgh, I told her I hated black people. She came into the garden in her dingy pink nightgown, and begged me to stop slamming my football against the shed. I did three more kicks, then went and lay down on the prickly yellow lawn, ignoring her.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘For heaven’s sake.’
‘I don’t like black people,’ I said. ‘The screen said even more of them are trying to get in.’ To me they seemed like liars and scroungers who would keep my family poor for ever. ‘I hate black people. Why must they come here?’
She looked at me with a little frown, a puckered white thread in her sun-reddened forehead. ‘Saul – they’re not all the same, you know. You can’t go hating black people.’
‘It’s true, Mum. I saw the pictures.’
‘You don’t understand.’ She sounded peculiar. ‘Saul, listen … look … there’s something …’ She stared at the ground, her mouth working. Then something burst out like a stone at a windscreen. ‘Haven’t you noticed your father’s black?’ (p.7)

Actually, I take it back – this isn’t eyebrow-raising, it is agonising. Our narrator continues: “In the bathroom mirror I looked for the truth. My skin was golden, as it was before, but I watched it change and become light brown. Spots, I saw, and curly black hair, and features broadening with adolescence. My nostrils, flaring. Yes, and my lips. I saw Dad’s face behind my own.” (p.8) We then skip forward ten years to the 2020s and from race, we move to gender:

…the fashion was for shaving, of heads and bodies. Why was that? Hard to recall now, but it lasted for decades, that egglike baldness. Perhaps it was a kind of streamlining, an attempt to keep cool at any cost. And the style appealed to both men and women. The fashion of the time was for androgyny, so hair was suspect, for it signalled gender.
And yet, though our clothes and hair denied it, a great gap had grown up between the sexes. Segging we called it. From segregation. Almost everything we did was segged. Girls with girls, boys with boys, great droves of animals bypassing each other, eyes darting across, wild in the neon, jostling, signalling, twisting through the night, two big streams that couldn’t make a river. (p.12)

George Melly says the book can be read as “an analysis of the widening gulf between men and women.” I must have missed that. Saul’s role in the novel is to represent men in this laughable gender wars set-up. In particular, he embodies pig-headed conservative masculinity which means that he has to fall in love with Sarah, the first woman with hair that he sees:

‘Oh god,’ the woman said. I looked at her. She had long hair. Most females under fifty had short hair, unless they were under ten, that is. She was small, slim, in a loose white dress, not fashionable, a ‘pretty’ dress. What my mother would have called a pretty dress… That weird waterfall of hair. Such childish hair. Reddish-brown, shiny, glinting like conkers against their white shell, and her skin had tiny freckles like dots of honey. She looked miserable, but her eyes were very blue. She came closer. The music gathered and poured. My heart swelled absurdly. (p. 14)

Sarah is a new type of teacher for this brave new world where humanity has spontaneously given up on heterosexuality:

‘It’s a new post,’ she said, shy. ‘I’m something called a Role Support Officer.’
‘What does that mean, then?’ I asked her.
‘The government’s decided that boys and girls have to be taught to get on together. It’s partly political, I’m afraid. They’re making appointments all over the country. Because the fertility figures are down again, and they have to seem to be doing something. Elections next year, of course.’
‘How do you mean, get on together?’

‘Well – I mean – you know – ‘ She was intensely embarrassed. ‘Live together, I suppose. Try to get them living together again.’ (p.15)

I was pretty intensely embarrassed by this point too. Is Gee joking? The tone isn’t comic and there is nothing to indicate satire but this can’t be meant seriously, can it? (As with The Flood, you can tell when Gee is doing satire and it is bloody awful: the Conservative Party have become the Conserver Party, theatres have become lloydwebbers, etc, etc.) If it is a joke, it is in pretty poor taste:

‘I like the look of you. You’re – different. You’re not just English, are you? What are you? French? Spanish?’ She looked straight at me. Her curiosity was like a kiss. Then she lit up. ‘You’re beek, aren’t you. You must be, of course! Tell me I’m right.’
And she had seen the thing that I wanted her to see. Beek was short for bicolor, the French insult that black people themselves had taken over to mean ‘mixed race’, and she used it so easily.
‘Yes, I’m beek. Most people don’t notice. My father’s half-African, my mother was white.’ Had I ever said it straight out before? She made me feel I could be myself.
‘That explains why – well, you look good to me.’ She finished the sentence in an awkward rush. ‘I’m very interested in all that. It was part of my Ethnicities diploma course.’
I’d always disliked the word ‘ethnicity’ – it sounds like someone cleaning their teeth – but on her lips, it seemed tolerable. (p.16)

This would be bad enough in its own right but Gee seems not to have considered that it might be problematic to make your misogynistic avatar of everything that is primitive and base about masculinity a black man. This is how Saul acts when they are first together: “She made the food; I ate it, gratefully. She washed the clothes; I put them on. I never really noticed that she was doing more (but she could have spoken; she could have complained) until one day we had our first quarrel.” (p.24) And here he is after ten years have past: “I was slow to resume our sex life after Luke was born. I wanted to be sensitive. I spit with derision to think of it now, but I didn’t want to hurt her where she had been hurt. If you love a woman you don’t want to hurt her. And then you want to smash her, rape her, kill her. (p.42)” Gee’s ability to inhabit the male psyche is uncanny! Everything is is so baffoonishly broad that you suspect it was written in crayon. Here, for example, is Saul’s entirely realistic reaction to discovering he has a low sperm count:

I was angry, and hurt. Sarah claimed I exploded. ‘Oh, you don’t know it all, then?’ I sneered at him. I tore his form in two, then in four. ‘Do you think that’s a surprise to anyone? Science knows fuck all about making babies –’
‘He’s upset,’ said Sarah, pre-emptively. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Um – I can never remember your name. Sorry.’
‘Wang. Dr Wang –’ (I laughed, rudely) ‘we quite understand these are stressful experiences.’
Dr Wang ‘understood’ – but no one understood. I had just been told my sperm was semi-fertile. My balls were no good, that was what I heard. They were big and firm, I had trusted them, I’d secretly believed the problem was Sarah’s – (p.33)

Dr Wang? “Big and firm”? This is unreadable and, impossibly, the depiction of fertility treatment that follows is even more offensive than the rest of the novel. I very rarely put down a novel but after 50 pages I could take no more. I started by mentioning Paxman’s quote on the front cover but there is an even more troubling one on the back: “Martin Amis once said Gee was the only female author of his generation he would bother to read.” Let that be your warning.

Written by Martin

11 May 2013 at 19:28

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And Now For Something Completely Different

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The Arthur C Clarke Award was announced on Wednesday and I was at the ceremony at the Royal Society so I could join in with the massed ‘oooh!’s when Dark Eden by Chris Beckett won. Not many people were expecting his name to come out of the envelope but I’m pleased – it is a very impressive novel.

To coincide with the announcement, it has been Clarke Award week at Strange Horizons. Niall Harrison has offered his thoughts on the shortlist and Abigail Nussbaum’s two part piece has been the main event for the reviews section. As a change of pace, my review of No Return by Zachary Jernigan is the final piece up at Strange Horizons this week.

One of the criticisms of this year’s Clarke shortlist was that it took an overly rigid view of what constitutes SF in comparison to previous years. For example, in 2001 China Miéville won the award with Perdido Street Station, a secondary world fantasy. That type of speculative fiction is something many would consider orthogonal to science fiction but I think it is an issue that the award is going to have to continue to address:

Is this fantasy? Is this science fiction? It doesn’t matter. This fusion reaches its apotheosis in the epilogue, which takes us back inside the mind of Adrash and presents a wonderfully disconcerting creation story in the form of a sort of dreamtime space opera where humanity hatches from iron eggs. Steph Swainston was perhaps too far ahead of the curve when she published The Year Of Our War in 2004; now it seems all the best new writers take this hybridity for granted. Quietly, without any fuss, the New Weird has won.

Night Shade Books are one of the publishers that have provided the space for this secret revolution: Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (2011), for example, meets No Return in New Weird territory coming from the opposite direction. Obviously Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen have no idea how to run a business but their programme of debuts over recent years has been a huge boon for readers.

No Return won’t be on next year’s Clarke Award shortlist because it isn’t published in the UK. God’s War might be, however, since Del Rey UK have just published it here. I hope a British publisher picks up Jernigan because he shows a lot of promise but No Return isn’t the finished article.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first review in which I’ve used the word ‘aubergine’. To continue the food theme, it doesn’t matter how ambitious, inventive or skillful you are if what you serve up simply doesn’t work: Jernigan’s souffle has collapsed. Or, to make a comparison to the other major announcement of the week, he’s done a Larkin.

Written by Martin

3 May 2013 at 08:52

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101 Damnations

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My review of Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo is up now at Strange Horizons. It is by some margin the longest review I’ve ever written – the footnotes alone are over 1,300 words. The reason for this is that Broderick and Di Filippo say so many odd things that are worth writing about. As I say in the review, “my abiding impression of The 101 Best Novels is of being constantly blindsided; I ended the book not informed or entertained but baffled by these sentence-sized bolts from the blue.”

Written by Martin

13 March 2013 at 07:17

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