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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

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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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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London Kills Me

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My review of The City’s Son by Tom Pollock is up now at Strange Horizons.

So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City’s Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she’d like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity.

Niall Harrison recommended the novel to me which should have been a warning sign since our tastes so rarely converge. It is a novel with intelligence and flair but it needed either flawless execution or far more ambition. I can see why it made the Golden Tentacle shortlist for the Kitschies though. (I should also reinterate that it is a debut novel so perhaps my standards are unrealistically high – I certainly feel like taking a break from reviewing them.)

I end my review with a bit of wishful thinking about where the series might go next. Well, it turns out Pollock was thinking along similar lines:

For an ordinary girl from a nice British Pakistani family, Pen’s been through a lot in the last few months. She was kidnapped by a barbed wire demon, rode at the head of an army of scaffolding wolves and fought in a war against a demolition god, all in the name of her best friend. Now back at school, she wears the scars of that war on her face, and the only person who knows what that’s like is her mirror-sister Parva: a doppleganger who only exists in London-Under-Glass, the city of London’s reflections. Parva’s her own person, but she shares all of Pen’s memories and she understands.

When Parva goes missing, Pen ventures into London-Under-Glass to find her. It’s a strange city, where it rains brick and concrete as well as water, where beauty is currency and a well-turned eyebrow is worth killing for, a city dominated by the dangerous politics of the Mirrorstocracy. At its heart though, this story’s about something very simple, the search of a scarred, scared, brave girl for the soul in all the worlds that’s closest to her own.

I probably won’t read The Glass Republic – I’m increasingly thinking that new genre writers should just get their first trilogy out of their system and move on – but I imagine I will be returning to Pollock in the not too distant future.

Written by Martin

25 January 2013 at 10:16

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Where Is The New New Wave?

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My review of Osiris by EJ Swift is up now at Strange Horizons.

There is a problem beyond this, though, a problem with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction. What one might call Resource SF could make a vital contribution to literature but the commitment only ever seems to be political rather than artistic. The only novel I can think of that attempts both is Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone (2011). The concerns are similar to Swift’s—the remorseless march of the Gini coefficient bears its inevitable fruit—but it seeks to be not just a science fiction novel but a novel in its own right. No one else seems to be trying.

I wrote this review not long after Paul Kincaid published a review of several year’s best collections in the LA Review of Books. I imagine it shows. Problems with the state of the genre were on Kincaid’s mind too and his diagnosis was as follows:

The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.

Jonathan McCalmont makes the moral and political failing of this crisis of confidence explicit in a follow up article which glories in the typically restrained title ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’:

This conceptual blockage was most evident in the immediate aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis when the housing bubble burst and banks across the world began to collapse. Exposed as nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme, global capitalism lurched and stumbled but never quite fell… Having failed to identify this culture-wide conceptual blockage as any kind of failure or flaw, science fiction never bothered to rout around it.

And yet this is not my problem; Resource SF does not turn its back. In fact, Kincaid expands on his review in a long interview with Nerds Of A Feather where here he draws the distinction between three different forms of crisis facing SF: a crisis of ideas, of identity and of confidence. It is the former – an entirely aesthetic crisis – that I believe Swift succumbs to. On this point, Kincaid says:

Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form… What they do may be good or bad (and in science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of the form.

Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form. What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware of in previous best of the year volumes I’ve read, was that practically everything belonged in the second camp.

Kincaid adds that “I don’t think this perception holds when it comes to the novel” but I’m not at all sure of that. If you pick up a science fiction novel I think there is a pretty good chance that it will read exactly like most other science fiction novels. There are exceptions – Kincaid lists M John Harrison and Christopher Priest in his interview; I mention Adam Roberts in my review – but it is, by and large, homogeneous in a way that literary fiction (regardless of quality) is not.

Helpfully Roberts has given his perspective from someone on the other side of the fence. Well, both sides, really. But what it all made me think was, can you imagine any contemporary Nebula-winner writing Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders?

Written by Martin

9 October 2012 at 10:51

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The Puppies And The Bees

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My review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is up at Strange Horizons.

I thought The Gone-Away World was fantastically exciting and fantastically flawed. Angelmaker does something similar and, although it is less flawed, it is also less exciting. I want a bit more from Harkaway.

So, has the reader been sold a pup? Yes but, as I said, lots of people like puppies. I ended my review of The Gone-Away World — since it wasn’t clear from the preceding criticism — with the summation: “By the way, I liked it a lot and I’m looking forward to his next novel.” I’m tempted to say something similar now (yes, this is one of those irritating more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reviews). I will continue to buy and read Harkaway’s work because there are sentences, paragraphs and pages of knock your socks off brilliance here. But there are many more paragraphs of prose porridge and, when it is plain that he is such an obviously gifted writer, that makes me feel cheated.

Written by Martin

16 May 2012 at 11:26

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