Tag Archives: lavie tidhar

Reading Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright

Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright (Adventure Rocketship!, 2013)

Let’s All Go to the Science Fiction Disco, the first volume in a new anthology series, Adventure Rocketship!, is ‘devoted to the intersection between SF, music and the counterculture.’ With a remit that broad, it is not surprising that it lacks a clear focus. Are we talking about science fiction involving music or about music using sf themes? The answer is apparently ‘both’, though in practice we’re dealing with the relationship between rock, pop and sf in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. And though the table of contents suggests a historical survey one has little sense that the pieces were specifically commissioned with this in mind, which would account for the bittiness of coverage, particularly between 1980–2000.

Contemporary classical and experimental electronic music are mentioned only because of Delia Derbyshire, inevitably included here for her realisation of Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme rather than for her other groundbreaking work as a composer and musician. Her presence also underlines the paucity of women subjects or contributors, though N.K. Jemisin offers a storming piece on her identification with the work of Janelle Monáe. There is only one significant female protagonist in the fiction, in Tim Maughan’s excellent ‘Flight Path Estate’, and only one story written by a woman, Liz Williams. Odd when you consider that punk provided opportunities for women musicians to get their music heard as never before.

Most of the best articles concern the 1970s, with David Quantick’s well-observed piece on Bill Nelson and BeBop Deluxe, Minister Faust’s thoughtful discussion of the relationship between George Clinton’s Mothership and the Nation of Islam’s Mother Plane, and Mark Sinker on the electrifying weirdness of Boney M. Going back to the ’60s, Sam Jordison’s encounter in early 2013 with Mick Farren (who constantly assured Jordison that ‘I’m not dying’) stands now as an epitaph. But too many of the articles feel like unformed anecdote, or stop just as they start to get interesting. Christopher Kirkley’s piece on mp3 markets in Mauretania is a prime example of the latter.

The fiction is also a very mixed bag. Apart from Maughan’s story, Lavie Tidhar’s ‘Between the Notes’ stands out, not only for acknowledging the existence of music pre-1960 but for its account of a time-travelling serial killer specialising in musicians confronted with a moment of great personal uncertainty. The poignancy of Martin Millar’s brief encounter between Hendrix, Joplin and other ’60s musician resists accusations of sf cliché but other stories demonstrate how difficult it can be to achieve a satisfying balance in mixing sf and music while avoiding banality.

Nor does Science Fiction Disco achieve an entirely satisfying balance between fiction and non-fiction, not while the magazine style – short articles, half a dozen short stories, ‘20 Mind-bending Ways to Start Your SF Album Collection’ (no, really) – seems ill-at-ease with the book format. Adventure Rocketship! clearly has potential but could look less like a grab bag and more as though it has a clear editorial direction with each issue.

Reading The Immersion Book of SF, ed. Carmelo Rafala

Another review from Vector, in 2010. <hr>

The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala
(Immersion Press, 2010)

Immersion Press, according to its website, specialises in “limited-edition, single-author collections and short novels”. As The Immersion Book of SF is neither, one should perhaps regard it as a calling card, introducing the Press’s authors and laying out its wares. It is a mixed bag.
The majority of these stories feel as though they belong in the Eighties rather than in the 21st century. Chris Butler’s ‘Have Guitar, Will Travel’ is a prime example, with its faux-Gibsonian plot about the consequences of a rock star becoming infected with virus software. Although competently written, the story is unsurprising. Al Robertson’s ‘Golden’ is similarly predictable, its disillusioned salesman receiving tantalising hints of a world where humans have continued into space, its ‘surprise revelation’ heavily signalled. Both stories also suffer from a sense that the sf elements are window dressing for studies of emotional upheavals rather than integral to the story.
This feeling permeates the collection. Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Father’s Last Ride’, dealing with a daughter’s coming to terms with her father’s life as an “aurora rider” might as easily use a non-sf setting and occupation and achieve the same cathartic ending Jason Erik Lundberg’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Son’ is, like the de Bodard, a nicely observed mood piece and there were hints that it is moving beyond a merely evocative account of an mostly absent father with a taste for tall tales but it doesn’t fully realise its own premise.
‘Dolls’ by Colin P Davies and ‘Grave Robbers’ by Anne Stringer are very disappointing. Davies’s story, about child pageants taken to competitive absurdity, swirls aimlessly before ending in a desultory fashion. Stringer’s story is the weakest in the collection (although Eric James Stone’s ‘Bird-Dropping and Sunday’, a leaden fairy tale, runs it a close second). The idea of grave robbers uncovering alien artefacts is not new and Stringer does little to refresh it. Gareth Owens’s ‘Mango Dictionary and the Dragon Queen of Contract Evolution’ has the most ingenious title but, as with so many of these stories, there is no sense of anything beyond the conclusion and it feels more like a writing exercise than a fully-fledged story.
Gord Sellar’s ‘The Broken Pathway’ has flaws but he works hard to create a world beyond the story and sets up an intriguing clash of cultures, expressed through geomancy and cartography. Finally, Lavie Tidhar and Tanith Lee show how it should be done. Tidhar’s ‘Lode Stars’ skilfully packs a fully-realised space opera into twenty pages of story which is full of telling detail and wrong-foots the reader throughout. Lee’s ‘Tan’ is tiny and has an improbable premise involving dead aliens and a sun tan but works because of an unforgettable final image.
But these three stories are not enough to sustain the rest of the collection. The retro feel – even down to the cover picture with its pouting female astronaut, hair floating softly, breast-shaped bulges built into her spacesuit – seems neither intentional nor ironic and as such suggests that the Immersion Press view of science fiction will be traditional rather than innovative. This might not be a bad thing in itself but let it at least be good traditional storytelling rather than, as in so many instances here, something lack-lustre and unappealing.

Reading Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond, and We See A Different Frontier

Another review from Vector, this time from last year.

We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad (Futurefire.net Publishing, 2013)

Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall (Rosarium Publishing, 2013)

As I’m writing this review, the shortlists of two awards have just been announced. One, for the three David Gemmell Legend Awards, featured seventeen white men. The other, for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, included women and writers of colour on its shortlist of five. Which shortlist then is the more representative of contemporary SF and fantasy publishing? The answer is, of course, the Campbell Award. Yet given the nominating process for the Gemmells is much, much broader in its intake than that of the Campbell, one has to ask just how it happens that so many readers of speculative fiction either do not seem to be aware that it is also being written by women and by writers of colour or, worse, simply don’t want to acknowledge that fact. This is 2014, for heaven’s sake.

This is a question that Bill Campbell, co-editor of Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, has frequently asked himself. As he puts it,  ‘mainstream, American corporate culture ‘whitewashes’ all culture – past, present, and future – giving people the false impression that America has been, is, and always will be the “White Man’s Country”.’ This is reflected in much of the science fiction emerging from the USA in the last half century or so. I pause here, briefly, so that someone may observe – as someone inevitably will – that the protagonist of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a person of colour. Or that Samuel Delany is a writer of colour. Star Trek! Octavia Butler! While not denying that all these facts are true, an argument that relies on such a small number of data points to prove that US science fiction is not a purely white male enclave is a poor one, especially when it is the same two writers of colour who are continually offered as proof of the genre’s diversity. We can surely do better than this.

What is all too easy to miss is that fantasy and science fiction is being produced by writers of colour but that it remains, for whatever reason, not as immediately visible as the work produced by Anglo-American writers. In part this might be that such stories are not published in mainstream genre venues (several of the stories in Mothership are reprinted from ‘literary’ journals) or simply because these stories are scattered through a wide variety of small-press publications and anthologies, lost in the welter of fiction being published. It takes projects such as these or small press magazines such as Crossed Genres, which has a specific brief to recognise diversity in what it publishes, to draw the attention of the wider reading public to what’s actually out there. Likewise, it has not always been easy for writers of colour to publish collections of their work, though the burgeoning independent publishing scene is mercifully changing this.

Mothership, edited by Campbell and Edward Austin Hall, and We See A Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, are part of an informal movement that directly opposes the idea that science fiction is, or should be, exclusively a white male Anglo-American activity. Charles Tan and Lavie Tidhar have been pushing this idea strongly for some years through the award-winning World SF blog, now alas in abeyance, and it has also been heavily promoted through social media. These two anthologies, both crowdfunded, take different but complementary approaches to demonstrating the genuine diversity of contemporary SF with Mothership offering us a dazzling variety of authors and stories, while We See Things Differently is more philosophical and structured in its approach.

In Mothership, Campbell and Austin have brought together a staggering range of authors, a good half of whom are new names to me (I thought myself reasonably well-read but clearly I’m not). If a preponderance of the authors are resident in the US, this only serves to show how ridiculous is the assumption that SF must be by and about Anglo American men. And if a good percentage of the stories are reprints this serves only to remind us that the genre has been rather more diverse for rather longer than most of us realise. Campbell and Austin also work with a commendably broad definition of genre, what Austin calls an  ‘open-arms, fantasticated-tales-by-and/or-for-and/or-about-people-of-color approach ‘. In practice, this means that a story such as NK Jemisin’s ‘Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows’, a neat take on the effects of the tiny universes we build for ourselves online (all the while in dialogue with EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’) can sit alongside Charles R Saunders’s ‘Amma’, about the fate of a woman who can transform herself into a gazelle, told by a griot in the marketplace, while Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac’s ‘Dances With Ghosts’ is, unsurprisingly, a ghost story, one which wittily reframes themes familiar from Native American novels such as Momaday’s A House Made of Dawn.

These stories challenge the reader’s expectations and assumptions in other ways. It is all too easy for ‘white people’ to look to indigenous writers and writers of colour and either expect to be educated about another culture or to assume that because you read fiction written by someone who identifies with a particular cultural group, this means you have gained knowledge of that group. Throughout Mothership there are stories that subvert such assumptions; indeed, the collection’s opening story, ‘I Left My Heart In Skaftafell’ by Victor LaValle, should stop such nonsense in its tracks. LaValle’s African-American narrator is on holiday in Iceland and notes the reactions to his skin colour from others on the trip but his story isn’t about that; it’s about the narrator’s sustained encounter with a troll. Lauren Beukes’s ‘Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs’ is rich with references to animé; it tells us about Beukes herself, not what it means to be a white South African. SP Somtow’s ‘The Pavilion Of Frozen Women’ is a story about a serial killer, with hints that the killer might have been driven to it because of the pressure of being part of an indigenous minority (and the narrator is herself Native American) but it is primarily about the events leading up to the deaths rather than the issues behind them.

There are so many different kinds of story in Mothership, and stories of such high quality, it is actually very difficult to single out particular favourites. Other than the stories already mentioned, I was particularly taken with Tobias Buckell’s ’Four Eyes’. This deals mostly with a young Jamaican man, Manny, finally acknowledging that his destiny is to become a ‘four eyes’ or obeah man. What really intrigued me is the way in which his teacher, Jimiti, easily accepts that La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is his spirit guide, although ‘she ain’t even the right mythology for me to see. And she had ask me, “what the right mythology, Jimiti? You a two hundred-year-old blend of cultural mess”’.

Other outstanding stories include Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Waking the God of the Mountain’, which deals with issues of territorial sovereignty and deep, powerful ties to the land, as well as Rabih Alameddine’s delicate, tender ‘The Half Wall’. But there are so many good things in this anthology. If you want to get some idea of just how diverse SF can really be, Mothership is a great place to start.

We See A Different Frontier takes a slightly different angle, as its subtitle makes clear: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology. Aliette de Bodard’s preface takes up this theme:  ‘When we read science fiction stories where colonists leave their home and hearth, and make contact with funny-looking aliens, we are uncomfortably reminded of the days when English or French or Dutch colonists came to foreign shores … and gradually took over everything under the pretence of “civilizing” barbarians. ‘ The voices we hear in WSADF, then, are those of  ‘the invaded; of the colonized; of the erased and the oppressed; of those whom others would make into aliens and blithely ignore or conquer or enlighten ‘. In other words, these are the voices which supposedly don’t exist, the voices of the Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous subalterns. Yet these subalterns are only too eager to speak.

Shweta Narayan’s exquisitely allusive ‘The Arrangement Of Their Parts’ leads off the collection. The story’s setting appears to be the Mughal empire in the time of Aurangzeb, its sixth emperor, described in this story as a usurper. One of the sons of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, Aurangzeb engaged in a series of wars to overthrow his brothers and gain the throne. This, though, is simply background to a story in which the Englishman, Sir James, encounters what appears to be some sort of automaton. To judge from his workshop, this is not such he has encountered; the others he has dismantled. The Artificer Devi, however, has something else in mind. it is possible to read this story simply as a cyberpunk interpretation of the presence of the British in India, but it seems to me that there is also another more slippery layer of allegory in play, given the significance of the peacock in Indian culture. Sofia Samatar’s ‘I Stole The D.C.’s Eyeglass’ takes us into not dissimilar territory. We see from the point of view of the colonised what it is to be under the rule of an Englishman but also how supposedly lost indigenous technology is brought into play, not only to escape colonial rule but also, and perhaps more important, to escape the mindset inculcated by colonial rule. In Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Them Ships’ the unnamed narrator, a slum dweller, finds herself enslaved by aliens, along with wealthier members of her own country. Chief among them is Leonardo, who  ‘acts like we are totally partners … but he would’ve never even looked at me if we’d bumped into each other on the street ‘. For the unnamed narrator, life under alien rule is not necessarily that bad – there is better food, better conditions; for Leonardo it is intolerable and he compares her to La Malinche, the indigenous woman who acted as Cortes’s translator. The story serves to remind us that under colonial or postcolonial rule, there is no one experience common to all.

As Ekaterina Sedia notes in the collection’s afterword, the main theme of all these stories is the  ‘push-pull of the contradictory demands of assimilation versus appropriation ‘. We see it manifested in so many different ways through the stories, from the suppression and reclamation of a language in NA Ratanayake’s ‘Remembering Turinam’ to Sunny Moraine’s ‘A Heap of Broken Images’ which addresses such issues as guilt tourism and its effect on the culture that has to deal with it. More than one story touches on the presence of anthropologists and their relationships to the cultures they study, including Dinesh Rao’s ‘A Bridge of Words’ which suggests that in the proper circumstances this can be productive rather than appropriative (underlining, of course, that this is rarely so). And, intriguingly, JY Yang’s ‘Old Domes’ considers the fate of old buildings, swallowed up by so-called regeneration. Jing-Li is a cullmaster of buildings, trained to extinguish the spirits of buildings, spirits made out of the history accumulated in their very fabric. Afterwards, the buildings are reused. In this case, though, the spirit of Singapore’s old Supreme Court is reluctant to go. Again, one might read this as an allegorical story, interrogating the assumption that modernisation is good, and that eliminating the old is a necessity in order to achieve that modernisation, but the story is rather more subtle than that, looking at different responses to history and how it affects a relatively new state.

If Mothership is a joyful celebration of diversity in science fiction and fantasy, WSADF is a more focused, more directly political consideration of the effects of colonisation on writers and how that is expressed in their fiction. A number of authors have work included in both anthologies but again in WSADF there are several writers whose names are new to me. In reading Mothership and WSADF together, I feel rather as I did when I encountered Alberto Manguel’s 1983 anthology, Black Water, which first opened my eyes to the variety available in fantastic literature if one did but look hard enough. Reading both these books should prompt SF readers to take a long hard look at the world around them and then ask themselves why they are not reading more by such amazing authors. Because the point is that more diverse genre fiction is out there. It may not be on the shelves in one’s local bookshop but we live in an age when it is easily available online and there is no excuse for not reading it.

Lee Battersby – The Corpse-Rat King

And one more review from Interzone in 2012.

The Corpse-Rat King

Lee Battersby, Angry Robot, 416pp, pb

In September 2012, Lavie Tidhar identified an apparent new trend in fantastic writing, which he dubbed ‘slacker fantasy’, distinguished by the narrative’s ‘reluctance of agency’, that is, its lack of conflict, and by sympathetic but passive characters. His exemplar was David Tallerman’s Giant Thief (Angry Robot), in which Easie Damasco spent most of his time trying to disengage himself from whatever action was going on. In his review Tidhar nailed precisely what it was that had irritated me about the novel: I also dislike contemporary slacker fiction but hadn’t made the connection.

Lee Battersby’s The Corpse-Rat King seems to stray into similar territory. It is true that Marius dos Hellespont has rather grander aspirations than Damasco, and indeed comes from a wealthier background. It is true also that Hellespont is much more knowledgeable and competent than Damasco, though disinclined to put his skills to earning a more conventional living. However, while the reader might see Hellespont as being down on his luck – and it is difficult to imagine sinking much lower than prowling battlefields, looting from corpses – he would doubtless explain that he was taking advantage of a good business opportunity. Whatever else happens, Hellespont knows how to tell a good story, as well given that the novel relies on the reader being more interested in the story than in the plot.

Except that the plot itself is potentially fascinating. Hellespont has just robbed the late king of Scorby when he suddenly finds himself down among the dead, who have mistaken him for the king and wish him to rule over them. When the error is realised, the dead insist that Hellespont find them a new king. He determines that his replacement should be Tanspar, the late king, not least because this will necessitate his returning to Scorby to find and crown the body, and in doing this, Hellespont has some notion of being able to escape. However, the dead, as they point out, can reach him anywhere, and send Gerd, Hellespont’s dead apprentice to accompany him. Furthermore, Hellespont has been mysteriously transformed into something that looks dead but isn’t quite, though one begins to suspect this is a condition conferred for later authorial convenience, given the way that it rarely seems to trouble Hellespont.

One might suppose that Hellespont would be off like a shot, to crown the new King of the Dead as soon as possible. Instead, having shed Gerd, Hellespont meanders homeward in a picaresque fashion, stopping off here and there to undergo set-piece adventures, in which the reader learns more and more about the real Marius dos Hellespont and the omniscient narrator opines about this and that in a way that is at times slightly too reminiscent of an overly well-lunched elderly buffer down the pub. They’re very good set-piece adventures but more than once I found myself checking the pagination, wondering how long it would be before the story began to focus on the important stuff without Hellespont having to be spurred into action by another appearance of the dead. It’s well over halfway through the novel before Hellespont seems to remember he has a job to get on with, after which the narrative kicks into impressively high gear.

And that, perhaps, is the real problem with this novel. A good half of it is scene-setting, throat-clearing, procrastinatory narrative. There is little doubt that one way or another Hellespont will achieve his aim, simply because he is that kind of character, and this is not the kind of novel that challenges one’s expectation of ‘that kind of character’. One could perhaps see the picaresque element as providing a tour round Hellespont’s interior life, explicating his motives, showing how he became the person he is today, and crucially suggesting that he does bad things for good reasons, so making him morally acceptable. One could, but quite apart from the fact that one suspects Hellespont would as a matter of course have several layers of cover story, it would over-dignify the fact that the author, for whatever reason, simply isn’t getting down to telling the story itself.

Which is a pity as the plot is ultimately much more compelling than the character. We are clearly intended to love Hellespont but often, while he was larking about above ground, I wondered how the dead felt, waiting for him to bring them their king, knowing that he was procrastinating. We are invited to sympathise with Hellespont’s predicament yet he has brought it on himself, while the dead, like all his other victims, are being cheated. Which is funny if you like that slacker vibe. If you don’t, you’re left with an affable but baggy novel which could be so much more if it would just shape up.

Archive – Osama – Lavie Tidhar

Another blast from the archive, my review of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama originally appeared in Interzone in 2011.

Lavie Tidhar, PS Publishing, 276pp, hb

After the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, literary commentators speculated about the form of the first 9/11 novel. Speculation turned to disappointment when the novels did begin to emerge. Perhaps they had anticipated panoramic novels that witnessed the heroism and tragedy of those terrible hours, promoting the grand narrative of national survival, validating America’s moral victory through military action. However, the consequences of 9/11, and the other terrorist attacks of the last few years, in London, Europe, across the Middle East, Africa, are less easily marked as they ripple out through the lives of everyone involved however peripherally, uncommented on but always present.

How does a writer address this? For that matter, how does a writer address the existence of someone like Osama Bin Laden, a figure so abstract one suspects he exists only to act as a scapegoat for society? How else but as a fictional character in a pulp fiction. Which brings us to Lavie Tidhar’s remarkable new novel, Osama. At first glance it seems to be a provocatively titled private eye novel, focusing on Joe, who has been asked by a beautiful young woman to find Mike Longshott, the undoubtedly pseudonymous author of the very popular Osama Bin Laden – Vigilante series which everyone seems to be reading. As is the way of detective novels, a new case brings danger and Joe finds himself targeted by mysterious assassins. His only clue to the whereabouts of Mike Longshott is that his publisher is based in Paris. Joe sets out on an odyssey to find Longshott, a journey which will take him to Paris, London and New York.

While the story may start as a genre detective novel nothing is quite what it seems. Our expectations are constantly challenged in tiny ways. For example, unconventionally, Joe works as a private investigator in Laos rather than LA His new client has given Joe no reason why he must find Longshott but the task seems to be peculiarly meant for him. The presence of the Osama bin Laden books is sufficient indication that Osama is set in an alternative universe but it’s not so much detail as mood that alerts the reader. If this novel were a film, it would be in black and white, reflecting Joe’s own sense of the past gathering around him.

If life is simple on a day-to-day level, reality is still constantly reshaping itself in ways that don’t always quite make sense to Joe or to the reader. Characters waver in and out of view, literally. Events lack even a fictional logic. Something is always indefinably ‘off’. It is therefore possible to read this novel as a narrative about the nature of literature, about the way genres speak to another, how borders are never quite as stable as people like to imagine they are. I interpreted the novel that way the first time I read it, seeing Tidhar happily confounding the reader’s expectations.

But this novel is as elusive as it is allusive (and it is filled with references to pulps, children’s books, film); a second reading brings a different, richer and much darker understanding of what’s going on, with clues to the nature of the mysterious ‘refugees’ who are constantly referred to, who seem to press around Joe as he continues his journey. The journey itself now seems strangely drawn out, with no proper end in sight.

Given the genre conventions in play, you may already be anticipating the denouement of this novel; you will be correct, but you will also be wrong. While Tidhar has transformed terrorist attacks into narrative intrusions into Joe’s world in order to write about them without glorifying them, the deeper question that needs to be grappled with is just what kind of world is Joe living in? Or rather, given that Osama is clearly a metafiction, who is constructing Joe’s world and from what? This is a question each reader answers for his or herself, in part because we also re-construct Joe’s world, based on what we know. This prompts us to think about how we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world; that is what lies at the heart of this novel. Layers of fiction mount up as Tidhar works his way deep into the emotional debris of Joe’s life. As a result, Osama is incredibly complex and intensely moving. It is already on my best of the year list.