Posts Tagged ‘strange horizons’
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!
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.
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.
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.”
Abigail Nussbaum, reviews editor for Strange Horizons, has just launched a new feature at the magazine providing in-depth critial reviews of recent short stories:
In what I hope will become a permanent feature here at Strange Horizons, we will be dedicating one review every other month to an in-depth, essay-length review of short fiction. These reviews will function much like our book reviews. They could be of stories we loved, or of stories we hated. Most of all, they will be of stories we find interesting and worth talking about at length. For our inaugural installment, I looked at stories published in the last three months of 2012, and have chosen to discuss Charlie Jane Anders’s “Intestate,” from Tor.com. A critical conversation won’t emerge out of one column in one magazine, but I hope that this new feature will help to encourage that conversation—among other things, I’d like this feature to become its own short story book club, with readers invited to read the story and start their own discussion in the comments to the review
If you are interested in reading and thinking about short fiction, I’d recommend checking out the discussion. Nussbaum kindly mentions my short story club for last year’s BSFA Award for Short Fiction. I am planning to run the club again this year once the booklet containing the stories has been sent out to the members of the BSFA. To tide you over, Niall Alexander, the Speculative Scotsman, has already been reviewed the shortlist for Tor.com:
- Part 1: Tim Maughan and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
- Part 2: Ian Sales and China Meiville
- Part 3: Chris Butler and Aliette de Bodard
Speaking of award, the Kitschies were announced last night. The Golden Tentacle for best debut novel went to Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord. I think this was the right choice, a really consensus had built up around the book, but it was also a strong shortlist with the much praised Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (which I’ve just started reading) and The City’s Son by tom Pollock (which has the Kitschies written through it like a stick of rock, even if I wasn’t that impressed). The Inky Tentacle for best cover went to Dave Shelton’s illustration of his own book, A Boy And A Bear In A Boat. I think this was the wrong choice but then I would say that.
The Red Tentacle for best novel went to Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. It’s a tricky one. When the shortlist was first announced, it was my immediate choice – it has the same spirit that I associate with the Kitschies. But the criteria for the award are “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” and, as I mention in my review, Angelmaker mets the last two but fails at the first. So it was very pleasing to see Harkaway today posting his thoughts on the concept of progressive speculative fiction. Given the subject, there obviously isn’t a nice simple pull quote but this should give a taster:
With both Angelmaker and its predecessor The Gone-Away World, I wrote about ideas in the borderlands of (unapplied?) science and philosophy as if they were Newtonian and tangible: the intrusion into the human realm of cognitive things. (It’s a great way of creating apocalypses, and I think it’s also on some level a truth: perfect ideas don’t sit well on our messy organic societies – hence the inevitable unintended damage to one vulnerable group or another whenever the tax laws change.) In Angelmaker, in particular, I started out trying to explore an idea my friend Tom Coates threw at me years ago: that superheroes are inherently conservative, seeking to maintain the status quo, while the villains always have an agenda for change.
I was looking out on a sea of white people. Of familiar, talented, friendly and wonderful people, yes, editors and publishers, agents and writers. Who were, predominantly, British (obviously) and some Americans. And outside, the receptionist – the one black woman at the event. Of course, the debut novel award went to Karen Lord – a black woman from Barbados – but she couldn’t be there. And the shortlist included one translated novel, too. The Kitschies try very hard to be a more inclusive award, and it’s hard, with so few international authors published in the UK. But it bothers me, because how can I accept an award for promoting, or trying to promote, diversity, when it is not present in the body of the judges? And it is not present in British genre publishing, and was so glaringly missing from the audience last night?
Tidhar points out that greater diversity can be found in short fiction which brings us back round again to the importance of fully engaging with this part of the field.
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.
Last year I didn’t contribute to the Strange Horizons review of the year and I wasn’t planning to this year either. But then I woke up at four in the morning with a burning need to praise M John Harrison. So I did. Looking at the choices of the other reviewers, I’m a bit surprised to see that only two people have picked Railsea. Is China Miéville losing his allure? Not with me, he isn’t. Less surprisingly, no one at all mentioned Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. This was the last book I read in 2012, one of the best and a strong contender for the Clarke Award, I reckon. I will be nominating all three for the BSFA Award (if you are a member, please get your nominations in too – they close on 11 January). And here are three novels that aren’t eligible for any awards but are bloody great:
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?
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.
My review of Artemis by Philip Palmer is up now at Strange Horizons.
“No one writes SF quite like Palmer,” boasts a bit of puffery on the back cover of Artemis. But that is a double-edged sword, surely? No one writes SF quite like M. John Harrison but then no one writes SF quite like Andy Remic either. As it happens, I agree with Eric Brown’s assessment in the Guardian that no one writes SF quite like Palmer. I just can’t work out whether that is a good thing.
What are we to make of Palmer, eh? I am the latest in a string of Strange Horizons reviewers to fruitlessly butt my head against his work. Elsewhere the not obviously insane Lavie Tidhar has passionately defended him. So, in addition to examining Artemis, my review attempts to corral and dissect some of these responses.
As an aside, Artemis is the second novel I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons this year that was eligible for Arthur C Clarke Award but wasn’t submitted. Out of a sense of completeness and curiosity, I’m going to work my way through some more of these (there are quite a few). However, rest assured that you haven’t missed anything yet.