Tag Archives: interzone

Reading Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald


Another Interzone review, this time from late 2015. I’m still sad I didn’t like this novel more.

mcdonald_lunaThe publicity surrounding Luna would have us read it as a gritty species of space opera: The Godfather on the Moon. Ian McDonald is already known for taking others’ ideas and pushing them in new directions, as if to see just how far they can be made to go. In that case, why not take stories from other genres and do the same? The question is what, if anything, does this sidelong hommage bring to the main story? Do we accept it as a literary shorthand to get us beyond the corporate wars of something like Ben Bova’s Grand Tour novels and into a new, more intricately corrupt world. McDonald is quite clear that the battle for the Moon and its resources will be ugly, and a million miles from the utopian cooperation beloved of a certain kind of sf novel. Or should we simply regard it as an opportunity to experience gang wars in space? And if this latter, is there really any point?

McDonald’s Moon is run, inevitably, by five clans, the Five Dragons, under the impotently watchful eye of the Eagle of the Moon (a nod perhaps to the original explorers of the Moon). The peace between them is uneasy, maintained by an elaborate series of dynastic and, unsurprisingly, mostly loveless marriages. Business is all, and everything, including friends and family, is liable to be sacrificed to that. Of the five families, Corta Hélio, headed by the formidable eighty-year-old Adriana Corto, is the brash young kid on the block. Corta’s ambition lifted her out of poverty in Brazil, and brought her to the Moon, where she spotted a business chance and turned it to her advantage. AKA, Mackenzie Metals, VTO and Taiyang have only grudgingly admitted Corta Hélio to their ranks, and only because it is so powerful they can’t afford not to. Lunar high society, reluctantly tight-knit as it is, seems also to be riddled with secret groups, hoping to leverage things to their own advantage. And around them the beautiful people, for whom money is no object, meet and party, while out of sight the workers get on with making more money for them, while paying for the Four Elementals that keep them going: air, water, carbon and data.

McDonald employs the montage technique that has served him well in the past – one thinks inevitably of Desolation Road – but while we may jump from Adriana, contemplating her death and seeking solace in the religious beliefs of her past, to Lucasinho, youngest male scion of the clan, on the run from his repressive father, to Marina Calzaghe, saviour of Rafael Corta after an attempt on his life, to Ariel, the brittle lawyer, only daughter of the clan, none of this seems to move the novel forward significantly. The more interesting parts of the narrative dwell in the glimpses of those elements of family life that are avoided in polite conversation, and which are of course precisely those places the reader wants to go.

We are also directed to admire the staggering diversity of nationalities and beliefs which intermingle and form lunar society, not to mention the ever-so-slightly too casual presentation of same-sex relationships, as well as bisexual and gender-neutral characters, but the fact of their being so very front and centre in the novel suggests discomfort rather than casual acceptance of them as the norm. In truth, it’s difficult to find a reason to care about the Corta children and their business, perhaps because rich people being rich, and worrying about remaining rich, just aren’t that interesting. Adriana’s autobiography, her final confession to Irma Loa, a Sister of the Lords of Now, is the meatiest, and maybe most traditional part of the story, but it’s not enough on its own to sustain the novel. We might wonder about Lucasinho’s charming but incomprehensible interest in baking cakes, or be drawn, as Marina is, to the discovery of the perpetual run taking place in the tunnels of João de Deus, as much a spiritual as a physical exercise. We certainly crave to know more about Wagner, the moonwolf, the Corta outsider. All these are elements of the Ian McDonald whose work I love for its verve and daring, but they remain underexplored, somehow constrained by the form and setting that he’s chosen for this novel. Adam Roberts noted that Luna has much in common with the soap opera Dallas, and this is true, but I think also of The Great Gatsby, and of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clear up the mess they had made’. They have much in common with most of the Corta family.

Gene Mapper by Taiyo Fujii

This review first appeared in Interzone 260 in 2015. I didn’t like the book very much, unfortunately.

Gene Mapper – Taiyo Fujii, trans. Jim Hubbert.

Haikasoru, 297pp

Translation is not a cheap business. Which makes me curious as to why Haikasoru thought it worth translating Gene Mapper for the English-language market when, to me at least, it doesn’t really seem to be that good. The answer may lie somewhere in the novel’s slightly confusing genesis: Fujii originally published a version of Gene Mapper as an e-book and it sold 10,000 copies. At this point Hayakawa Publishing, well-known as a publisher of science fiction in Japan, apparently contacted Fujii and asked for what one newspaper has described as ‘a full-length novel’, suggesting that the original version was probably rather shorter. Subsequently, Orbital Cloud, Fujii’s second novel, not yet available in English, won the 2014 Japan SF Grand Prize.

Here, I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. So far as I am aware, I have read no Japanese science fiction in translation, so I have no idea if Gene Mapper is typical of Japanese sf or whether the problems I have with it arise simply from Fujii’s being an inexperienced writer. I incline to the latter, and Fujii himself freely admits that he later signed up with a traditional publisher to benefit from editorial advice, so this review is conducted on that basis.

Mamoru Hayashida, the narrator of this story, is a gene mapper: that is, he is a designer programming the DNA of rice crops. The story is set in 2036 and crops are being ‘distilled’ from scratch in order to combat world hunger. My first difficulty arises here – it is remarkably difficult to get a sense of what it is Hayashida actually does. Whether this is because it is incredibly complicated or because Hayashida can’t properly explain it isn’t clear. Which is curious because, if there is one thing that Hayashida likes doing, it is explaining. His narrative is one long explanation of everything he sees, does, and uses (especially when it comes to software and augmented reality) to the point where the novel seems more like a speculative description of the future with a few shreds of  plot gathered around it for modesty’s sake than it does a full-blown novel. It does, though, make the failure to explain what Hayashida does seem far more obvious than it otherwise might have been.

Which suggests to me that Fujii himself is much more interested in showing how Hayashida and his colleagues use augmented reality than he is in telling the story. And indeed, in that newspaper interview, Fujii observes that ‘a world with augmented reality is a better place to live’, in which case it  would make sense to show how AR might work for someone living in the future.

But this is my second problem: Fujii’s fascination with the trappings of the future threaten to overwhelm the actual plot, what there is of it. It flickers fitfully, like the light from the jellyfish genes that will become significant as things progress. It is a simple enough story. Even in 2036 environmental activists are eager to put a stop to artificially produced crops, though in this instance they appear to have adopted bizarre measures to do so. It is up to Hayashida to figure out what is happening before his company’s credibility is destroyed. This involves Hayashida travelling in person to the site, along with his colleague, the mysterious Takashi Kurokawa, headhunting a number of hacker types to help with research, and then, right on cue, being handed most of the answers on a virtual plate. We have, so to speak, been here before, many times.

Nonetheless, there is a certain attractive quality to Fujii’s main characters. Dialogue is not among Fujii’s core skills as a writer but every now and then something sparks on the page. Hayashida’s relationship with Kurokawa, his putative mentor, is oddly charming, while his growing relationship with Shue Thep, the researcher overseeing the rice-growing project, is expressed in conversations that actually feel convincing, not least when she’s complaining about a lack of equipment. The villains of the piece, however, look and sound like stock villains throughout. We realise quickly that Hayashida and his friends are unlikely to come to any notable harm as they try to solve the mystery at hand.

Given that Fujii’s primary interest lies in the way humans interface with technology, I hope he will in future address those issues more directly in his work and give his readers something richer to deal with, rather than simply bolting a flimsy plot onto lavish descriptions using AR in the workplace. That Fujii recognises the need for editorial advice and guidance seems to me to be a positive thing. Nonetheless, it is a shame that our first encounter with his writing must be with something that still seems strangely unfinished.

Archive: Reading The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor,

This review originally appeared in Interzone 259 (July-August 2015).

The Book of Phoenix
Nnedi Okorafor, Hodder & Stoughton, 232pp

The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death. As the title suggests, it is the story of Phoenix, ‘mixed, grown and finally birthed’ in Tower 7 on Manhattan, two years old but an accelerated organism with the body of a forty-year-old woman. She is able to read a substantial book in a couple of minutes, plants grow unusually fast when in her presence, and her body’s temperature has begun to soar. Later, she will discover other unusual abilities. Phoenix, as she finally comes to realise, is an experiment, in a building filled with other genetic experiments, many of which have gone horribly wrong. Her ultimate purpose will be to become a weapon. And yet, to begin with, not realising that anything is out of the ordinary, Phoenix is happy enough with her life. Things change after the death of her only friend, Saeed, when she realises that her home is in fact a prison, and determines to escape from Tower 7.

Her account of her experiences we hear from Phoenix herself, but in a roundabout way. Indeed, for all that the novel is ostensibly about Phoenix, the reader is well advised to also pay attention to that Book in the story’s title, for this is also a novel about storytelling. Phoenix’s own story is embedded within another narrative, set further in the future, in which an old man, Sunuteel, caught in a storm in the desert, discovers a cache of old computers. The computers were hidden by the Okeke, of whom Sunuteel is a descendant, at a time when things began to go wrong on earth: ‘just before Ani [the earth goddess] turned her attention back to the earth’. The Book of Phoenix downloads itself onto Sunuteel’s ‘portable’, and he listens to it while he sits out the storm, a storm which seems itself to be something to do with the spirit of Phoenix.

It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see this cave as some sort of repository for latter-day Dead Sea Scrolls, the computers hidden in haste and then left, their stories untold; the very title, The Book of Phoenix, suggests a flavour of the biblical, while much of Who Fears Death hinges on interpretations of the mysterious Great Book. As for Sunuteel, he is a recorder and a reciter, a man who speaks many dialects of Okeke, as well as a number of other languages. This in turn suggests that it is no accident that he has been brought to this cave at this time. We are also dealing with a character who proudly carries a copy of Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ on his portable, although Barthes’ perception that ‘the author enters into his own death, writing begins’ will be vigorously challenged during the novel. The point being made is that once written, a story lives. It can be rewritten, yes, but the story itself also persists. And persistence and endurance are very much at the heart of this novel.

Alongside Phoenix’s own persistence in understanding how she came into being, disentangling her true story from the lies told to her by the managers of Tower 7 and its sister towers in other US cities, we are also led to understand that Phoenix’s own story has shaped the world that Sunuteel now lives in. However changed they might be, stories about her have lasted. Sunuteel is better qualified than anyone else to see the truth of this, however terrifying this may be to him, in a future shaped by Phoenix’s actions.

The intricate storytelling forms that frame The Book of Phoenix, as well as the recognition of the need that everyone’s stories should be heard, may seem strange to those who prefer their genre neat, but frankly, that is their problem, not the author’s. Quite apart from drawing on traditional storytelling forms, and peopling her world with characters who are emphatically not white, Okorafor delivers a searing (almost literally so in places) commentary on big pharma, experimentation on human beings, the theft and misuse of genetic material, globalisation, companies that function way beyond the law, and all of this from the point of view of the people who are routinely on the receiving end, the people who struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of the appalling violence regularly inflicted on them. This makes for hard reading at times but it’s rewarding work.

Archive: Reading Tamaruq by E.J. Swift

It’s been a while since I posted any of my Interzone reviews, so it’s time to catch up. This review originally appeared in Interzone 258 (May-June 2015).

E.J. Swift, Del Rey, 432pp

E.J Swift’s Osiris (2012) portrayed a society whose rulers apparently gloried in their own insularity, while concealing a truly shocking secret. This inward-turning was reflected in the novel’s intricately wrought prose, which seemed to physically resist the reader’s attempts to engage, as well as in the claustrophobic imagery Swift used. The divide between the haves – the ruling elite of Osiris – and the have-nots, the refugees who had arrived there in the wake of one ecological catastrophe too many – was enacted in the division of the city into quarters, but manifest too in the relationship between Adelaide Rechnov, daughter of an elite family, and Vikram Bai, an activist from the other side of the city.

Cataveiro (2014) ejected us into the outside world, with its dizzyingly open spaces, more freedom than the average Osirian could ever imagine. Again, the writing reflected this in images that seemed almost to burn the eyes, they were so bright. And yet, as the reader quickly came to realise, the world beyond Osiris had precisely the same set of problems, only writ much larger, its protagonists more anonymous, hiding behind intermediaries. Because Osiris was, of course, always a microcosm of that outside world.

Cataveiro explored this from several perspectives. Vikram, only survivor of an Osirian expedition to Patagonia, found himself on the run from the Patagonian authorities, eager to make political capital out of his arrival, and befriended by Taeo Ybanez, hoping to use Vikram as a way to facilitate his own return to Antarctica. Through their eyes the reader saw life as it was experienced by most of Patagonia’s inhabitants – brutal and repressive. And yet, knowing there was a world beyond the immediate provided perhaps a little more room for hope, even though there was often little to choose between life in the western quarter of Osiris and in the slums of Cataveiro.

Ramona Callejas, self-taught pilot and cartographer, had all the space in the world, but was obliged to protect her freedom to fly by making maps for the authorities. Yet her intense scrutiny of the landscape was also directed towards protecting those communities she encountered on her journeys, and trying to protect her people as best she could. Eventually, she discovered that people were being kidnapped and taken north, including her own mother. This prompted her to follow the people traffickers, hoping to rescue her mother and find out what was happening.

Having shifted from the microscopic focus of Osiris to the wide-angle lens of Cataveiro, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tamaruq, the final volume of the Osiris Project, takes a different narrative approach again. Necessary, too, given that there are now so many different perspectives in play, so many ‘voices’ clamouring to be heard. Vikram is even more interesting to the authorities now that he has survived, inexplicably, redfleur, the Ebola-like disease ravaging the world. Ramona has found her way onto a cargo ship where the abductees are being held. And, Adelaide Rechnov has survived near-drowning and intense psychological distress, only to find herself in the hands of the would-be revolutionaries. More unexpectedly, she has finally realised that she can indeed find common cause with them.

This time the novel is a-flutter with pieces of information, from sources of all kinds. Alongside the narratives of Ramona, Vikram and Adelaide, there are extracts from correspondence and radio messages, as well as lengthy extracts from the journal kept by a researcher into redfleur, working at Tamaruq, a research station in the Alaskan desert. This last is discovered by Ramona when she breaches the station’s security, finds out what is actually going on there, and uncovers a link to Osiris. It’s tempting to suppose we’re seeing the story from the point of view of the enigmatic Alaskan, whose presence formed the core of Cataveiro and, it seems likely, will perform a similar function in this novel. If the others are hesitantly recovering knowledge, the Alaskan, cybernetically enhanced, and an inveterate gatherer of information, already seems to know the answer to what is going on, and is now merely seeking confirmation. By ensuring that the various protagonists at last find their ways back to Osiris, she is in a position to orchestrate the final confrontation between the various world powers, the city’s rulers and the downtrodden inhabitants of the western quarter. This is a particularly shocking moment of uncertainty in a novel which has perhaps set us up to hope that there might finally be a happy ending. Which is not to say that there isn’t, but it is not necessarily what one might expect.

If the plot seems messy, this is not because of a lack of control in Swift’s writing. Instead, we are witnessing the messiness of real life turned into fiction. The problem, if there is one, is people, who decline to perform as narrative genre expectation demands they should. Instead human concerns drive the storytelling. This has been emphasised throughout the series, as p people react against being treated as mere gaming pieces. If Adelaide could not see actual human beings until it was almost too late, Ramona, by contrast, has been acutely aware of every individual she has met in her travels, and of the personal consequences of decisions taken elsewhere. Vikram, self-contained as he is, has survived by caring about people en masse , but in the end, he also realises that it must be about the individual.

Striking too is the way in which the reader can never see the entire story at once. At the beginning of Osiris Adelaide assumed her brother Axel had been murdered or kidnapped, abandoning her search for an explanation only when something more compelling came along. And here too we are left with fragments of story, things that are not neatly tied off. This might be indicative of the narrative overflowing the trilogy, but Swift seems to be suggesting instead that some stories must inevitably be overwhelmed by others. This is how we survive, in spite of everything.

Reading The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman

This review first appeared in Interzone 257 (Mar-Apr 2015).

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius PhoenixSussman - Phoenix
Paul Sussman, Transworld, 412pp

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix was the first novel that Paul Sussman wrote, but it remained unpublished during his lifetime. Sussman died of a ruptured aneurysm in 2012, at the comparatively young age of 45, having published a successful series of archaeological mysteries featuring Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor police. According to his wife, Alicky, Sussman talked occasionally of returning to The Final Testimony and completing it, but never did. That it has finally seen publication is due to the efforts of Sussman’s agent, Laura Susijn, and Alicky Sussman herself.

Which places me as a reviewer in something of a quandary. Social custom encourages us not to speak ill of the dead, and there is no escaping the fact that this novel’s publication has a flavour of the memorial about it. To criticise it might be regarded as being in poor taste. Yet I find it suggestive too that Sussman didn’t finish the novel, as if he knew it was better left uncompleted, particularly once he hit his stride with the Inspector Khalifa stories.

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix is, according to its eponymous narrator, a suicide note: it is an unusual suicide note because Phoenix is neatly inscribing it on the walls of the remote Scottish castle where he has been living quietly for the last fifteen years. Phoenix, coming up on his hundredth birthday, has realised that he is tired of living, and has determined to end his life, using a mysterious poison pill that he has carried with him since he was a small child. The Pill (Phoenix insists on that capital letter) was given to Phoenix by his beloved playmate, Emily, who stole it from her father’s pharmacy. It and the Photo, a picture of his mother, who died giving birth to him, are the only things he has kept with him throughout his long and curious life.

Phoenix is writing a suicide note not to explain why he now wishes to die but primarily to describe the ten murders he believes he has committed, one for each decade of his life. In doing so, he employs an intricate narrative style. Rather than starting at the beginning, he steps back a decade at a time, describing the circumstances leading to each death, each account overlapping with the chapter before, the decade after. Sussman handles it confidently enough, but rather as with the grandiose notion of writing an account on the castle walls, one can’t help feeling that Sussman does it because he can, not because it adds anything significant to the narrative.

As if this were not enough, it quickly becomes clear that there is something unusual about Phoenix. He leads an oddly charmed life. He consistently avoids accusations of murder, and whenever things start to become really difficult Emily appears, strangely unchanged, to steer him into the next phase of his life. And then, what about the fact that he seems not to age? We might suspect Phoenix of being an unreliable narrator, and it is something he seems to encourage, but it is clear that something else is going on.

Initially, I thought this novel might be related in some way to Thomas Berger’s Little, Big Man, or Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, and that its protagonist would offer a similarly picaresque and chronologically elastic satirical commentary of his country’s history, but apart from a few easy pops at the aristocracy this doesn’t seem to have been Sussman’s intention. As the novel unfolds, it looks as if he might be trying out other types of literary fantasy. Indeed, the main problem with this novel is that it is undermined by its own inventiveness. Sussman is so clearly excited by the possibilities that fiction offers that he can’t make up his mind which way to go. Even a disciplined narrative structure can’t deal with the fact that at least three different stories are vying for attention, and two of them have no real idea where they want to go.

The question remains as to what this novel might have become had Sussman returned to it. The more fantastical elements are intriguing, but weakly written, as if Sussman himself liked them but didn’t quite know what to do with them. His accounts of the murders he committed are much more enthusiastically written. They’re shocking yet rather funny, and Sussman handles the gruesome details extremely well.

In the end, we might shed a passing tear for a fantastic novel that never was, but I can’t help thinking Sussman knew that his vivid, direct prose and excellent grasp of narrative structure were better suited to detective stories. The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix is an interesting footnote to his career but he’ll be better remembered for other things.

Reading The Fourth Gwenevere by John James

The Fourth Gwenevere
John James, Jo Fletcher Books, 280pp

In the late 1960s John James published three extraordinary historical fantasies set in the Roman and Dark Ages: Votan and its sequel Not for All the Gold in Ireland follow the travels of Photinus the Greek merchant in Britain and Northern Europe, making clever use of the Norse myths, the Mabinogion and the great Irish epics. Men Went To Cattraeth draws on Y Gododdin, an epic tale of doomed warriors. In the mid-seventies came The Bridge of Sand, in which the satirist Juvenal leads Roman soldiers in an attempt to conquer Ireland. All four novels were characterised by the sheer rude vigour of their telling, their narrators springing from the page to buttonhole the reader. James’s characters were lovable rogues but also men of honour, who did what was needful, no matter the odds. No one told a story quite like John James.

And now, belatedly, we have one last novel. The Fourth Gwenevere was left incomplete at James’s death in 1993, and it is thanks to the diligence of a fan, Penny Billington, that James’s children located the computer files. According to the Matthewses, who then took on the task of editing the novel, more than two-thirds of it already existed and from what was there they felt able to provide the rest. Who wrote what precisely is not stated, which is frustrating because, try as I might, I cannot see this last novel as the seamless whole the editors and publisher obviously intend it to be. However, neither can I tell whether the shift in register from his earlier novels comes about simply because James is here an older writer, or because the previous novels underwent a polishing process that is inevitably absent this time around, or because the presence of the Matthewses as writers is a little more intrusive than one might hope for.

The main story is narrated by Morvran, ‘the ugliest of the Three Ugly Kings of Britain, an admitted bard, King of Gwent and Prefect of Caerwent, ruler of all men from Ross to Avan’. Morvran, as is typical of James’s narrators, presents himself as a simple man beset by idiots, but it is obvious that he is clear-sighted and the person everyone else looks to when complex matters need to be dealt with. On this occasion, the unity of Britain is at stake for Arthur, the Grand Duke, has been assassinated, the many kings of Britain are squabbling over the succession and Gwenevere, vital to this process, has seemingly been abducted. It falls to Morvran to find her and bring her home.

This is familiar territory and none the worse for that. Morvran drags his reluctant band of men out of England and into Gaul, threatening dire punishments for those who disobey him but unwilling to sacrifice them to what has become his personal gesa. And it is obvious that his men would follow him to the ends of the earth, grousing as they went. We see too the making of Arthur’s legend, somewhat at variance with the truth as witnessed by Morvran, but a remaking that even he recognises as necessary in order to preserve the kingdom.

The journey is for the most part worth the taking, even if there are places where the humour seems more strained than I recall, or the plot a little thinner than I’d like. The more liminal moments too can seem a little lacklustre though the description of the countryside ravaged by the White Plague, the cities standing empty, is spine-chilling. And there are one or two elements in this story which are so unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in James’s work that I do wonder about their provenance.

And unusually for James, there is also a second narrative thread, with parts of the story told from the point of view of the Fourth Gwenevere herself, in sections interpolated between the main chapters. According to the editors some of these were in the material they received from the family but their presence in the text seems awkward, as though they have strayed in from elsewhere. One can only surmise that James was, commendably, attempting to redress the necessary absence of the Fourth Gwenevere within the main story. Yet one can’t help wondering if the novel remained unfinished because James struggled to reconcile these two narrative elements. I wonder too about the novel’s Prologue, again somewhat out of character with his other work.

Given that this novel comes as a late bonus, it seems churlish to criticise, but I would be lying if I said that this is vintage James, or as the editors claim, his best novel yet. It falls a little short of that but enough persists of what made James’s earlier novels so wonderful to make The Fourth Gwenevere also worth the reading.

Reading California by Edan Lepucki

Another of my Interzone reviews, this from 2014.

Edan Lepucki, Little, Brown, 388pp

The publicity material for Edan Lepucki’s California suggests that if you love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road you will also love this novel, which is akin to saying that if one likes Veuve Clicquot, this can of own-brand cola is very similar. While McCarthy’s novel is a powerful and disturbing meditation on the will to survive when all seems lost, California is by contrast a trivial account of a couple trying to survive in a cabin in the forests of Northern California after the infrastructure of Los Angeles, California, the USA, finally collapses under the weight of one earthquake, one bad winter, one plague too many.

Frida, the focal character for the first part of the narrative, is maddeningly vague about the nature of the catastrophe. We know it took some time to happen, long enough for melted-down gold to become a viable currency (and we also know it took a year for Cal and Frida to save up to buy enough fuel to leave LA) but the truth is that Frida neither knows nor particularly cares. What started out as a romantic adventure has become tedious, possibly because Frida apparently sits at home all day while Cal sets traps and tends their vegetable plots. While Cal digs, Frida mourns the loss of capitalist goodies, represented by her cache of artefacts, including a Device that no longer functions (we infer this is some sort of tablet computer), a ripped shower cap and, bizarrely, a pristine turkey baster. She remembers with particularly deep affection the little pink clamshell case in which her contraceptive pills were kept, though perhaps everything we need to know about Frida is encapsulated in her naming her current existence the afterlife. While Cal is present in the moment, Frida is in hell.

While Frida, clearly not pioneer material, just wants to retreat to the 1950s and be looked after by her husband, Cal, the product of a small private college which taught Thoreauvian survival skills and values, has come to realise that self-reliance only works at the community level, but doesn’t really want to admit it as he rather likes the solitude. When Frida discovers she is pregnant, and becomes afraid that they won’t be able to deal with raising a child on their own, the couple finally look for other groups nearby and the nature of the story is such that they don’t have to look too hard (this is Calfornia, after all). Except, and this is one of the big revelations of the novel, the community doesn’t want children.

Much of the second half of the novel is devoted to unravelling the mystery of how this edict came into being, where the existing children went, and also the greater mystery of how the community continues to survive. Well, that, and for Frida, marvelling over the delights of more clothes, better shower facilities and the miraculous appearance of cooking ingredients (it suddenly turns out that she used to work as a commercial baker). For Cal, satisfaction comes in being finally able to put his horticultural skills to use now he has the right equipment and earning the respect of the community.

As a traditional science-fiction novel, California is incredibly unsatisfactory. The multiple natural disasters provide the flimiest accounting for the retreat to gated communities or to the land, depending on your previous economic circumstances – even in post-apocalyptic California, it’s all about the right neighbourhood – yet ask how any of this works and no sensible answer emerges. And if one chooses to read California as meta-sf, there are too many gaps in the background that cannot be easily explained away. It is difficult too to engage with the foreground narrative of a young and rather ordinary couple, making a rather poor fist of surviving in the wilderness while they try to face up to their own basic incompatibility, with an afterthought of a mystery tacked on.

One could choose to read the novel as a satire on the attitudes of genuine back-to-the-landers. Frida dreams about coffeeshop lattes, and is obsessed with ‘stuff’, while Cal, though he learned to set traps at college, can’t seem able to use his theoretical knowledge to avoid hunger. Yet I don’t think Lepucki intends this novel to be anything other than a perfectly straightforward attempt to imagine the struggles of a young couple in post-apocalyptic America.

And even that might have been interesting, had Lepucki gone into greater detail. Alas, her characters are psychologically two-dimensional, staying firmly on the page, voicing the thoughts their author has on their behalf. The only reason they haven’t already starved and been eaten by scavengers is authorial fiat, which keeps the novel moving long after it ought to have quietly crept into a hole and died

Reading Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

An Interzone review from last year.

Blood Kin
Steve Rasnic Tem, Solaris Books, 267pp

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel (2012) was a remarkable novel. Set in a mysterious hotel with an unusual and often elusive clientele, it dealt with Richard’s attempt to begin a new life with his daughter, Serena, after his wife’s death. Tem’s delicate handling of Richard’s emotional rawness set against the downright weidnessness of the Deadfall Hotel prompted me to nominate it as one of my books of that year. Unsurprisingly, I came to Blood Kin with high hopes. Maybe too high, for while Blood Kin is a perfectly respectable horror novel with strong gothic overtones it seems to lack Deadfall Hotel’s edge. And yet, it’s not easy to determine precisely where it is that Blood Kin does stumble.

The narrative concerns another broken man, Michael Gibson, former drug addict and alcoholic, who has returned to the small town of Morrison, Virginia, to take care of his ailing grandmother, Sadie. Michael knows very little of his family’s history, and Sadie has a story she needs to tell him very urgently, for she knows she is dying, and it is vital that she passes on her story. Sadie also has certain powers – the ability to experience what people feeling, and the ability to pass these feelings to others through her storytelling – as a result of which Michael doesn’t so much hear the story as experience it in terrifying detail, something he finds very difficult to cope with. The story is long, and its telling slow, because of its emotional intensity for both Sadie and Michael.

And this is where I begin to have problems with the narrative. In part the story concerns an iron-bound crate, buried in a ditch somewhere out in the fields which are now swamped with kudzu, the rampant creeper which has become symbolic of the southern states of the USA. The reader quickly comes to see that it is associated with the presence of that mysterious crate whose presence so frightens everyone. However, the story’s telling seems to me to be very slow, constantly deferring the things Michael really needs to know. Within the story, Sadie is determined that Michael should learn everything in precisely the right order, so that he understands fully what is to happen. The reader, though, might begin to feel that Tem is dragging it out just a little too much.

Sadie’s story is that of a hardscrabble life in a remote part of Virginia. Most of the local inhabitants are related to one another to some degree or another; the Gibson family’s various strands seem to intertwine as tightly as the kudzu vines. The Gibsons are Melungeons, descendants of poor whites, escaped slaves and Native Americans who have intermarried over the centuries. Their ancestry is uncertain, they are often looked down on by the white inhabitants, and not unnaturally they tend to keep themselves to themselves. This much is historically true, even down to Gibson being a genuine Melungeon name, but Tem’s purpose in raising the matter seems unclear. It may be that he is suggesting that Sadie’s powers are a result of her being a Melungeon or else he is employing the stereotype of the small, remote community, with a completely different perception of what is socially acceptable, prey to unusual beliefs. The fact that Sadie’s uncle is a snake-handling fire-and-brimstone preacher of the old school, possessed of a deeply warped personal theology, really doesn’t help. Indeed, I don’t think it is any coincidence that Sadie’s cousin, Mickey-Gene, likes to read William Faulkner for there are strong overtones of both As I Lay Dying and Light in August about Blood Kin. Sadie and Mickey-Gene have both recognised very early the need for deception in order to survive the Preacher’s tyrannical rule unscathed but as children, their power to act against him is very limited.

What does save this novel from slipping into Faulkneresque parody is the novel’s contemporary strand. Here, Michael quietly comes to terms with the destiny that has been placed upon him by his family, caring for his grandmother reluctantly but with extraordinary tenderness. He is, perhaps, the classic fictional sacrifice, with addiction, alcoholism and a failed life behind him, but as he learns his family history there is a sense that Michael becomes grounded as a result of knowledge gained. It is not a family one can take much pride in but Michael can see the good in it as well as the bad and does what he can to atone for the past in his own low-key way. In many respects, the best parts of this novel are the most understated; the closer it moves towards the grand guignol the less persuasive it becomes.

Reading Astra by Naomi Foyle

A review from Interzone last year.

Astra: Book One of The Gaia Chronicles

Naomi Foyle, Jo Fletcher Books, 379pp

We tell one another stories to amuse and entertain ourselves, but we tell them also to commemorate, to educate, and, in the most extreme cases, to support an ideology. Astra, the novel’s eponymous protagonist, lives in a community that lays great emphasis on storytelling. The founding myths of Is-land are told over and over in elaborate community ceremonies by people who are only one or two generations removed from those pioneers. It reinforces their sense of who they are and where they’ve come from, but the stories also seem to act as blinkers.

Is-land itself is a small state located somewhere east of present-day Europe, which was created in the wake of a global economic and environmental collapse by refugees from ecological and neo-pagan communities in what was once the UK. While the details of this collapse are necessarily sketchy – when the novel opens Astra is a child, and as the story is told entirely from her point of view, the reader is entirely reliant on her childish apprehension of these stories – it is clear that the community has worked hard to protect its existence and maintain its philosophy. The communities of Is-land see themselves as working to heal the earth, in Is-land at least; their borders are sealed, to keep out those who would abuse the earth, and they refer to those beyond the Boundary as Non-landers. Is-landers live communally, grow their own food, make their own textiles, build low-impact houses, compost, recycle. Some communities have a relaxed attitude to the human body, eschew clothes and go ‘skyclad’. Yet even through Astra’s unquestioning gaze the reader already notes oddities. Where do the raw materials come from for the Tablettes which are such a feature of every child’s life? Why must the children serve a mandatory term with IMBOD, policing Is-land’s boundaries? Why is so great an emphasis laid on research involving genetic manipulation? For that matter, why does IMBOD seem to take such an interest in every aspect of the children’s lives?

The novel’s crisis is precipitated by two events, the first of which is Astra’s Shelter-mother, Hokma, persuading her to evade the Security shot, the preliminary to beginning training with IMBOD. Hokma’s concern is that this ‘shot’ suppresses children’s creativity and imagination, making them more open to IMBOD training and easier to manage. The other event is the arrival of Lil, who has grown up without the benefit of community education, raised by a Non-lander father who has taught her a very different version of history. Lil, unlike Astra, does not see Is-land as a paradise and constantly challenges Astra’s vision of the place.

For the outsider it is quite clear where this story is going, but the narrative is taken at Astra’s pace which means that we follow her rather too slowly through adolescence, preoccupied with such events as the Blood and Seed Ceremony, sporadically wondering why what she is told doesn’t match Lil’s stories, gradually realising that she has not been told the whole truth. Always, there is the background concern as to when, not whether, she will be discovered. This is fine so long as we are interested in Astra herself but despite her secret Astra is mostly an ordinary child, who takes everything pretty much at face value, and that is what the reader is given. Added to that, her world is not only familiar to her but is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of utopian or dystopian fiction. Much of what is actually going must go unremarked on by Astra because she simply doesn’t have access to it. As adult readers we might note that the general community seems either to be kept in ignorance or to deliberately maintain such a stance but without an adult viewpoint we cannot know, not until the end of the novel, and even then there are only hints. Too often it seems that Astra is a vehicle for Foyle to show us round the world she has created, and the action will only properly start in the second volume of the series.

Foyle has commented in articles that she is especially interested in the domestic in sf but while I’m sympathetic to the notion, domestic is not the same as ordinary. An author has to work very hard to make the ordinary seem compelling and I do not think that Foyle fully achieves this. Is-land’s stories about itself succeed so well that its inhabitants cannot see past them; for the reader, heavily reliant on one of those characters for information, the story behind the story remains mostly inaccessible, as a result of which the novel itself can never fully come to life.

Reading The Man With Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

First published in Interzone in 2013

The Man With The Compound Eyes

Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Taiwanese by Darryl Sterk, Harvill Secker, 302pp

The compound eye is not one eye but many gathered together, between them providing a wide-angle view of the world. Insects and spiders have compound eyes; they’re vital tools to ensure survival. The compound eye also offers a useful way to think about the structure of Wu Ming-Yi’s novel (his fourth, but the first to be translated into English). It is a wide-angle view of a world in which the sight of the two main characters, Alice Shih and Atel’i, has become so narrowly focused they can think only of one thing.

In Alice’s case, this is death. Since the loss of her husband in a climbing accident and the mysterious disappearance of their young son, she has lived alone, in a house on the seashore, which is now threatened by rising sea levels. Lately, she has reached the decision to take her own life, something she sees as an entirely rational act. In Atel’i’s case, the one thing on his mind is survival. A teenage boy from a remote island with few natural resources, Atel’i is following the traditional practice for a second son, leaving the island in a canoe of his own making, paddling away to his fate. Given the island’s remoteness, this is mostly likely death – the custom disguises a demand for suicide in order to maintain the island’s population at a rate that can be sustained.

Except that on his voyage Atel’i encounters something unexpected, a gigantic trash vortex off the coast of Taiwan. This vast island of rubbish offers Atel’i an opportunity for survival, but he struggles to make sense of this new world in which he finds himself. The vortex is due to make landfall on the beach where Alice’s house is situated. Thus, when Atel’i is thrown ashore badly injured, it is inevitably Alice who finds him, conceals him and, in her own brusque fashion, nurses him back to health. That’s one strand of the narrative, and one that a European reader, conditioned to look for certain kinds of story, can easily extract from the novel.

But to return to the wide-angled view, other elements of the novel are less easily apprehended. The slow but constant turning of the vortex, bringing objects together in unexpected relationships, mirrors the kaleidoscopic nature of the story. The reader learns about the perilous economy of Wayo-Wayo, Atel’i’s home, about the lives of the Taiwanese people who live close to Alice’s house, and in particular about her friendship with Hafay, the owner of the local café. Hafay’s life story starkly presents the dilemma of indigenous people forced off the land and into the towns to make a living, and the ways in which they are forced to earn their way. Their mutual friend, Dahu, seeks to resolve that tension by returning to his childhood home to help Anu with the Forest Church. Dahu, like Alice’s dead husband something of a naturalist, explores the local forest and through his eye the reader experiences something of the extraordinary diversity of life there, a diversity that frequently steps beyond the realms of the scientifically measurable.

The presence of the compound eye, and indeed of its owner, indicates that there are many different ways to address the business of story-telling, and elements that might seem to be mutually exclusive to a Euro-American audience are more easily accommodated within one novel elsewhere. For anyone seeking a traditional genre narrative, or indeed a story that fits snugly within a Euro-American perception of weirdness, this novel may seem not entirely satisfactory, baffling even. But the point is that it emerges from a Taiwanese tradition of storytelling, one which many readers, myself included, have no familiarity with, so we have to take it on its own terms. We might choose to position it somewhere between the work of David Mitchell and Haruki Murukami, and for reasons which become clearer as the story unfolds, to some of Christopher Priest’s work, to get a sense of it as a story, but it remains its own thing, a novel of the near-future in which genre boundaries no longer have any meaning. Ecological and sociological concerns rub alongside the fantastic in ways that might seem more familiar from real life than from fiction, and this seems to me to be one of the novel’s greatest virtues, that it eschews our expectations of it. Having said that, the novel’s use of language seems somewhat odd in places, but whether this arises from the translation or from the writer’s original intentions isn’t at all clear. However, it doesn’t impede one’s enjoyment in any way. The twists and turns of The Man with the Compound Eyes provide compelling reading. It is safe to say you will read nothing else quite like it.