Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Collier, 2012 (2008)

Bryan Collier, 2012: A Conspiracy Tale. Matador, 2008. Pp. 243. ISBN 9781906510541. £8.99/$19.95.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

Cambridge-based IDSys have won a contract to supply the government with its new RFID implant, the human version of the company’s successful transport tracking device. For CEO Mitch Webb (is the author a fan of a certain comedy duo I wonder?) and his team this is the contract of a lifetime. But things are not as they seem and very quickly the whole project develops a nasty smell. What are the RFID implants really for? Is the major atrocity that takes place just as the RFIDs are ready for utilisation, really the work of terrorists or part of a government-sponsored conspiracy to curtail the freedoms of British citizens?

And in the background, shadowed by a mysterious organisation that consists of the world’s top industrialist, politicians and even royalty, there is yet another, unearthly layer, bent on restoring what was once their role as rulers of the earth. It is down to Mitch and his team to unravel these apocalyptic conspiracies and somehow stop the countdown to disaster, while at the same time keep themselves alive as dark forces close in.

So, an exciting plot and, I have to say, an utterly compelling read. It kept me turning those pages, and prevented me from sleeping at night and from getting out of bed on a couple of the mornings when I should have been up and painting the bathroom. The book builds inexorably and efficiently towards its climax, the characters are well-drawn and convincing and the science seems credible, even more so as the author is an electronics engineer. The cover, designed by Mark Hows, is also suitably menacing.

However, I was not so impressed with the actual writing style. Okay, this is a thriller, it is about ideas, plot and the issues raised (more about which later), so it can sustain a workmanlike style. 2012, however, was stylistically below par in places and really could have done with a ruthless edit. Not in terms of cutting, I hasten to add, because the plot is well honed and sharp and there is little overwriting. Repeated words are an example. These jar and make reading uncomfortable and should have been cleaned out at the editing stage.

The most irritating problem is a structural one. When a character is introduced the author tends to write a potted biography straight away. This is a particular problem at the beginning of the novel, because, halfway through the first paragraph, the narrative suddenly loses pace just at the time when it should grab you, throw you inside the story and tell you to read on. These are the people involved, it should shout, something big is happening, don’t worry about their backgrounds yet, there isn’t time right now, you’ve got to read this, come on, come on, hurry up. Biographies can be provided at a point when you need to catch your breath. Instead, we have this piece of loose, literary carpet over which we trip just as we start to run.

Anyway, back to the positive. The book raises some very important issues about personal freedom, globalisation and just who is in charge. Yes, there are some David Icke-ian elements to the story, which were handled quite cleverly by the way, and with a certain amount of wit, but looking beyond that, we, like the society in the novel, are faced with an increase in surveillance and with the possibility of ID cards. We, like Collier’s fictional citizens, stand on the brink of the whole 666 nightmare which dictates that without that much misunderstood number tattooed on forehead or arm, no one can trade, work or eat. In the story we have a stark choice. You want a bank account, to shop, a job? Then accept your RFID implant or you’ll get none of the above.

The frightening reality raised by this tale is the ease with which freedom can be removed and the ruthlessness with which lives can be sacrificed in the name of expedience and the so-called “good of the many”. It also gives a view into the world of conspiracies and shows us that although we may not believe in the often weird and wacky universe of the conspiracy theorist, there is often no smoke without fire. It reminds us that although disasters and atrocities my not, in real-life, be government-sponsored, political advantage can certainly be extracted from them.

2012: A Conspiracy Tale is a good read. It is compelling, good fun and thought provoking. It is also a first novel and hopefully Collier will iron out those prose ripples in the next one and give us another sharp, intelligent and thought-provoking work.

Buy this item from Amazon.com
Buy this item from Amazon.co.uk

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Butler (ed.), Taking Flight (2008)

Pete Butler (ed.), Triangulation: Taking Flight. PARSEC Ink, 2008. Pp. 126. ISBN 9780615152806. $12.00.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This is the fifth anthology published under the title Triangulation, brought out by the PARSEC Ink press. Taking Flight brings us a clutch of stories on the theme of things that fly, or that try to fly, or that ought to fly. The subjects of these stories are streamlined, jet-propelled, or space-faring; gas-filled, lighter than air, or fluffy and flighty. It is an eclectic collection with some pieces that approach the theme daringly and imaginatively, that push the boundaries of genre and taste alike. As a volume Taking Flight tends more to the light-weight and flighty end of this scale: at 124 pages of fiction, there isn't really room for many of the 20 stories herein to get going, and some are so vignette-like and perfunctory as to be almost incomprehensible. There are more than enough moving and shocking pieces, however, to reward the patient reader, and I have no hesitation in declaring this volume good value for money.

Among the stand-out pieces in this quite varied anthology is Elizabeth Barrette's 'Peacock Hour', a story that reads like a Near Eastern fairy tale about the eldest daughter in a tragic family who make flying carpets. While her father spins spells and prepares magic wool and other materials, her mother weaves rugs with a life of their own, and her seven brothers risk their lives in a series of failed flying experiments, Haylaa helps as best she can. But she is a girl, and while she can (somewhat scandalously) gather rumours and conduct research into the history of magic carpets, there is little else she is allowed to do. This sensitive story ends with a slightly incongruous combination of, on the one hand, a feminist reaction against the limiting and veiling of women, and on the other a re-affirmation of the classic (and oppressive) assumption that a woman's virginity is somehow pure and powerful and virtuous.

Perhaps the most challenging and even shocking story in this collection is 'Seeing Stars' by Shanna Germain, an intense and graphic depiction of the practice of autoerotic asphyxia. The narrator is a medical professional who offers the service of making sure that her clients do not accidentally kill themselves by strangling, hanging, or suffocating themselves while masturbating. This story manages to be sensitive, erotic, non-judgemental, and deeply disturbing at the same time. A very impressive achievement.

Jacob Edwards's 'Stone Cold' is a short but interesting take on the cliché of using parallel universe theory to pick a single, infinitesimally unlikely outcome out of the range of all possible outcomes of a particular decision, thus having apparently superhuman powers of foresight and/or good luck. If one in a million of you from all these parallel worlds is successful, what happens, this story asks, to those that are not successful? What, moreover, are the moral implications of manipulating your own luck at the expense of your clone in a parallel dimension?

Another piece with a different take is 'It Takes a Town' by Stephen V. Ramey, in which the eclectic (and often eccentric) citizens of a depressed Midwestern town unite under the guidance of a talented schoolgirl to cobble together a mission to bring back soil samples from Mars. The story comprises of twelve short chapters as they countdown to launch day, each from a different viewpoint but linked by the attempts of the local pig farmer to talk them out of this mad mission. This is ultimately a story of affirmation, of small town pluck triumphing against the odds, against opposition, and against skepticism, despite the fact that to all appearances the skepticism would appear to be well-founded. Not only is the attempt to build a rocket from a disused grain silo, a water heater, and other varied farm junk based on a design put together by a twelve year-old girl exceedingly unlikely, but (as Tom the pig farmer rightly points out) there are more pressing problems to solve here on Earth, without which we will not possibly survive long enough as a race to colonize Mars and the other planets needed to support the desperate Earth's population. This is an allegorical story about the need for hope and the value of co-operation, to be sure, and I do not wish to be obnoxiously pedantic or use this as an excuse to damn all space exploration. There are many good reasons to continue to conduct research in outer space, not least the opportunity to learn more about the Universe and our place in it, but if we abandon the health of this planet because of dreams of colonizing some other, then we really are doomed.

By far the most original and striking piece in this volume is David Seigler's 'Graveyard of the Cloud Gods', one of the most inventive stories I have read this year. The protagonists are Llaunu, gas-filled creatures who float above the clouds of their world (which is probably not our own), living a rarefied existence and despising the filth and miasma that exists in the world below. Conservative and pious, they believe that the mere sight of this sinful world will surely kill and possibly even steal the soul of a Llaunu, and that those of them who fall give up their souls to heaven before their bodies can be corrupted and decayed. Ju'utu, an open-minded and inquisitive character who is mistrusted and eventually branded a heretic by his fellows, is not satisfied by the pious teaching of the elders and decides to see beneath the clouds for himself. On the Earth below Ju'utu discovers that fallen Llaunu are worshipped as gods by the base creatures that inhabit the surface, the bodies of the dead reverently disposed of and the survivors tended and fed. As is clear from this brief summary, this story is full of religious language and imagery, and it is not kind to those who hold to the old ways or insist on their blind faith despite any evidence to the contrary, especially those who will repress or attach those who threaten their Panglossian view of their world. This piece manages to be scathing, tragic, philosophical, and optimistic in equal measure, and is a tour de force of a short story.

Among a handful of flighty and fluffy pieces in this anthology, therefore, there is a hard core of sophisticated, streamlined, and jet-propelled excellent science fiction writing. All in all another very good collection from PARSEC Ink, who are proving to be a press worth watching.

Buy this item from Amazon.com
Buy this item from Amazon.co.uk

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nemonymous 8 (2008)

D.F. Lewis (ed.), Cone Zero (Nemonymous #8). Megazanthus Press, 2008. Pp. 269. ISSN 1474-2020. £10.00.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

From its tentative beginnings at the turn of the century to its latest manifestation as the Cone Zero anthology, Nemonymous has always been an intriguing, beguiling, infuriating and constantly evolving project. There were the comparatively normal (though sideways on) early editions, then the blank-covered and untitled issue, the school exercise book facsimile and so on. I suppose such creative eccentricity is inevitable seeing as Nemonymous is the carefully nurtured literary child of the inimitable D F Lewis who is himself a purveyor of some of the most intriguing, beguiling, infuriating stories I have ever read. Evolved from journal format to book, the Nemonymous conceit is basically the same. You don’t know who wrote the story you are reading. In the early days, there was no hint, no name, just stories. This time the authors names are listed on the back cover, but you are not told which author wrote which story.

Dean Harkness’s cover reminds me of those early-seventies Panther science fiction paperbacks which usually featured a close-up, odd-angled photo of some unidentifiable (but possibly mundane) object. One of Asimov’s Foundation novels had, if I remember rightly, a clock spring on the cover.

So, what about the stories? After all, you don’t buy a book for its cover and you certainly don’t buy Nemonymous because it is full of your favourite authors (although it might be of course). Well, this is certainly the most accessible issue of the series I have read so far, in which, from physical artefact to concept to malevolent, brooding enigma, Cone Zero is explored in all its forms and guises.

There are four stories actually titled 'Cone Zero'. The first taking us into a messy flat where a horrible and alien mould grows in the toilet and the inhabitants, both friend and stranger, lounge around in joint-stupefied lethargy. There is something Pinteresque about this place, full of an unspoken menace that doesn’t quite reveal itself. The second 'Cone Zero' is one of my favourites, a fantastic tale of a man who finds himself in an underground hospital that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carry On film. Society it seems, has turned Darwinian, it is now illegal to treat illness. A marvellously imaginative yarn full of atmosphere and a strange authenticity.

'Cone Zero' number three teeters in that hinterland between dream and reality. A temple, a statue and a beautiful woman inhabit what is a mysterious and ultimately moving story. 'Cone Zero' four is another masterpiece. Set in some mythical world that seems like 19th Century Paris, it has mention of televisions and is back-dropped by an unnamed but savage war. It snows on Damian’s 30th birthday, and it is snowing blood. A search for a mysterious, visionary artist, terrible revelations and a tragic past all collide into one of the most satisfying endings I have ever read.

So what else have we got here? 'The Fathomless World' opens the show with the story of the errant and ultimately God-like Tall Man who is sentenced to wander the corridors of a mysterious building, until, one day, he finds a way out... 'Cone Zero, Sphere Zero' is set in a self-contained world where it is a crime to even conjecture that there might be anything at all outside the conical walls of the world. A persistent blasphemer finds an ally in the unlikely place. We travel down 'An Oddly Quiet Street' which has resonance and references to Rosemary’s Baby as a wife talks her husband into buying a run down property in, well, an oddly quiet street. Identity and the dream that is the Hollywood Dream are up for grabs in 'More Than You Know' when a stunt man tries to find out just who the star he doubles for actually is. This is a corker; I loved it.

Time for us to be 'Going Back For What We Left Behind', or perhaps not, because that which we’ve lost is sometimes best left that way. My advice, stay on the train if it stops at the mysterious 'Conezero' (pronounced the Italian way) station. Classic horror, this one, given a fresh lick of paint and a healthy dose of emotion. For lovers of Toy Story we have the marvellous 'Cone Zero Ultimatum' in which a herd/swarm/pack of abused household appliances escape and set off on a perilous quest for Eden. Great fun, and utterly compelling.

An ancient, flickering scrap of monochrome film reveals the haunting and poignant mystery of Angel Zero. A cleverly written and technically complex piece this is another of my favourites. A sweating, panic-drenched race for a train is not 'How To Kill An Hour', especially when it ends so bloodily. Another story that draws you in, increases the heart rate and has you shouting at the protagonist to hurry up, and all shadowed by the malevolent and never explained Cone Zero. Looking for a place to rent? Be careful when you see that 'To Let' sign, especially if the owners have left any of their own ornaments on the mantelpiece. A truly dark and sinister work to finish the collection.

Yes, I’ve missed one story out. I always do, because I like to save my absolute favourite till last. This time it is 'The Point of Oswald Masters'. Witty, very funny but making a sharp (sorry), excellently-observed point (sorry again) about art, both the physical and the imagined. Where does art begin and end? Who does it belong to? Are the emperor’s new clothes really a work of art because, untouched by human hands or craft, they are, of course, perfect?

As I said earlier, this is a particularly accessible member of the Nemonymous brood, however, that accessibility is actually something of a veneer. In each work we see the what, but not the why or the how. Who are the creators of Sphere Zero? Which world is Damien living in, this one? An alternative universe? Who is the mysterious patient in that underground hospital, is he a spy, resistance fighter? And is it really the late 1960s? Virtually every story is like a very satisfying and complete iceberg tip that reveals the result, but never gives away that which lies beneath. We should have known, because Mr Lewis has that Oswald Masters touch, just when you think he’s finally mellowed you realise that it’s smoke and mirrors, Uncle Des has held out a sweet (one of those cream-filled chocolate cones with a hazelnut on top) then deftly snatched it away just as your fingertips close about the wrapper.

Well done Des for choosing such a fantastic array of tales to create one of those rarities, a flawless anthology, and a huge congratulations to the authors for the quality, wit and inventiveness of their work. And for telling some Great Stories.

Buy Cone Zero direct from the publisher

Sunday, November 23, 2008

GUD #3 (Autumn 2008)

GUD (Greatest Uncommon Denominator) Magazine. Issue 3, Autumn 2008. Pp. 204. $10.00.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This professionally presented paperback volume is the fourth issue of GUD Magazine (the first issue was numbered zero). Greatest Uncommon Denominator is a magazine that prides itself on being eclectic, slipstream, surreal, undefinable, weird, and fantastic (in their own words, they publish "literary and genre fiction, poetry, art, and articles"). This issue, which is the size of a short paperback novel, is nothing if not eclectic. The theme is nominally "mechanical flight", but the stories and other contents range from the tragic alternative history, the challengingly speculative, and the chillingly cruel to cheap comedy and surreal collage; and from the brilliantly original to the unutterably silly or the frankly unreadable. It is great that this magazine exists and that its editors have the courage to take risks with unusual material: no reader will like everything in this issue, but there is more than enough good in here to justify the material that I was not fond of.

The first lengthy fiction piece in this volume is Darja Malcolm-Clarke's 'A Song, a Prayer, an Empty Space', which is a very classily written, twenty-page story about a disgraced bishop in an alternative reality where God can only be addressed by means of euchoi, coins imbued with prayer and then processed by a machine that translates the prayers into divine form. Bishop Adan has been exiled from his monastery in Algeria (it is never clear whether the monks in this story are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or whether "Yahvist" is a catch-all term for a single Book faith) for giving away euchoi to the poor who could not otherwise afford to pray. In addition to rising taxes, a daemon is stealing prayers before they can be euchomified, and the world around the church is starting to crumble. Although this story is well-written and the characters engaging, there was something lacking for my tastes. If there was a political overtone behind the plot, it was only that people ought to be able to speak to God without the mediation of an élite church that charges them for the privilege. The replacement of one church for another is hardly a radical conclusion, and a moral harking back to Reformation sentiments may well have gone over this reader's head. A well-written story, but one which left me a little flat by the end.

Tina Connolly's 'Facts of Bone' is a near-future story about a pair of sisters who run a business harvesting down feathers from cliffside birds' nests. Jules rides a "flycycle" which allows the freedom of the skies as she patrols the cliff face, looking out for the birds and their nests; her sister Marnie is a businesswoman, always travelling and always too busy to come home. A run-in with a poacher injures Jules, and a rare genetic disorder manifests itself in hospital, a condition that threatens to interfere with her ability to fly and do the work she loves. The conclusion to this story is an incredibly sensitive treatment of disability, of mental health affected by physical fragility, and of the psychological implications of virtuality and remote experience. An excellent story, for me one of the outstanding pieces in this issue.

Another subtle but clever story is 'Think Fast' by Michael Greenhut, an understated and original take on the multiple-realities idea. A young man with a tragic family history finds that if he thinks hard and fast enough he can send messages back in time to his younger self. These messages, which are interpreted as instincts, allow him to benefit from his future experience and avoid the worst things that can happen to him: getting into a fight, being murdered, being arrested; he can then take great risks with impunity, since he can prevent the worst from happening by sending messages back again and again until he finds the successful course of action. The protagonist is not a superhero, although he does protect the innocent and fight crime; he makes morally complex decisions, and the reader may not always agree with him. This is a thought-provoking and heart-breaking story, as the hero finds himself always unable to go back and prevent the original, ultimate tragedy.

Perhaps my favourite piece in this collection is the long story 'Night Bird Soaring' by T.L. Morganfield. In an alternative history where the divine Aztec emperor defeated Cortés in 1521, and a great Aztec empire dominates the world in the twenty-first century, Totyoalli is a talented boy chosen by the priests to be Teotl Ixiptla, to be sacrificed to the gods at the age of 29. Befriending the immortal emperor, Totyoalli builds on his talent for science to pursue a career as an astronaut, although he may not live long enough to take the voyage he dreams of. This story contains a fine mixture of rational and spiritual elements, remaining respectful to both. Totyoalli is a scientist and an atheist, but he cannot entirely turn his back on the ancient religion and expectations of his culture. It is perhaps slightly disappointing that in this alternative history, the twenty-first-century Aztec empire features almost entirely mediaeval religious and cultural setting alongside almost entirely modern technology, as if the two would not have co-evolved to create a culture unrecognisable as either. This is a minor quibble, and this remains an excellent and most worthwhile story; sensitive, provocative, and powerful. This one will stay with me.

Jason D. Wittman's 'The Train' is a nightmarish, Alice-in-Wonderland-like story set on a train full of refugees fleeing across war-torn Russia in 1942. Katya is fleeing from the besieged Stalingrad, along with so many other civilians. Her husband is an officer, fighting on the front lines. She knows that his life is in danger, and somehow the old man with the magic coin and the dwarf she meets on the train have something to do with it. This is not a terribly original story, with the protagonists caught up in giant games of chess, chasing fate down the length of the train and pursued by angels and automatons, but it is engaging and moving and well worth reading.

In 'Flower as Big as the Sky', Matt Dennison tells the story of a perhaps unusually gullible young boy and the man building a mysterious construction in the garden next door. Despite the boy's awkwardness, it is the adults in this story whose naivety, and emotional immaturity, and lack of respect for others really earn our pity and contempt. Seemingly befuddled on the surface, the boy turns out to have the best grasp of what is going on in the world around him out of everyone.

A nonfiction piece, Christian A. Dumais's 'Counting Nuns' is a study of phobia (in this case of needles) that contains a richness of language and imagery that many fictional stories lack. A perfect example of the editors taking a risk publishing an unusual piece that pays off.

Two stories that I want to finish with both deal with pathos and desperation/despair in different ways. Frank Haberle's 'The Great Big NOTHING' is the story of an alcoholic who takes some time off from his thankless life to meet up with a woman from his past and hike in the wilderness, but he is unable to overcome his fear of failure and make the most of the opportunity, so knows that nothing will change. Nick Antosca's 'Soon You Will Be Gone and Possibly Eaten' is a story of alien visitation, abduction, and departure, and studies the themes of jealousy, fear of loss, and the fragility of the most passionate and mercurial relationships; also the way we become reliant upon those we love to the extent of physical addiction. A truly heartbreaking story.

Alongside the many powerful (and a few less impressive) short stories in this issue, there are some dozens of poems and pieces of artwork, a few of which are worth highlighting. Dangerous Innocence by Joe Roger is a drawing made up almost entirely of faces, skulls, smileys, and slavering bestial maws. The central figures, asleep or dead, have biblical references tattooed on their flesh, but it is hard to read most of these and the significance is obscure. It is a shame, because this is probably a very subtle piece of art, but the small size, low resolution, and poor quality paper rather ruin the piece. In Clockwork Wings by Kiriko Moth a naked male figure with mechanical wings stands before a clock against a background of cogs and wheels. The juxtaposition of tender flesh and harsh machinery is intriguing (as is the weird metallic buttock-corset the main figure appears to be wearing).

Two poems (which I am usually reluctant to review) caught my attention. 'How to Fetch Firewood' by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau is dedicated to the women and children of Darfur, and has been published in multiple venues prior to this. It is a powerful, both moving and chilling poem about the horror and desperation of living in a war-torn and famile-wracked land with no hope and no help. Jim Pascual Agustin's 'In Every War'/'Sa Bawat Digma' is a bilingual poem published here in both English and (I presume) Filipino. Like the above-mentioned poem, this one focuses on the plight of non-combatants in wartime, in this case parents who cannot sleep for fear of what might happen to their children.

If the aim of Greatest Uncommon Denominator magazine is to be eclectic and challenging, then issue #3 has certainly succeeded on both counts. Enthusiastically recommended.

Buy or subscribe to GUD magazine

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Scientist, 'Science Fiction Special'

New Scientist, 15 November 2008. Special issue: 'The Future of Sci-fi'. Pp. 46-52. £3.15/$5.95.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

The November 15th issue of this weekly popular science magazine contains a special feature on the future of science fiction ('Is science fiction dying?'), including comments from six high-profile authors, a handful of book reviews and the results of a readers poll. All in all, this is fairly light fare from what is normally a serious and intelligent magazine: in particular the question of whether wonderful modern science has rendered science fiction obsolete, the almost exclusive focus of this article, is not the most interesting question one could ask about the genre (one might argue it's a non-question).

The lead article is by Marcus Chown, and is more of a summary of science in science fiction than it is a critical analysis of any aspect of the genre. The observation that science fiction more often "articulates our present day concerns and anxieties" than it attempts to predict the future is both a commonplace and an extremely important statement. Beyond the argument that science fiction requires a culture of change "when ... children [can] expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents", this observation is not taken very far. The remainder of the article discussed the popularity of science fiction and the idea that the genre is becoming mainstream (as is patently the case in film) or being incorporated into "non-genre" writing (as is clearly the case with literature).

To be fair, Chown has barely a full page of text to devote to this discussion, since the bulk of his four-page article is made up of pulp illustrations of bug-eyed aliens or the inserts of comments by science fiction authors.

A few interesting comments are made in the quarter-page author essays. William Gibson gives a thoughtful retrospective on the history of his relationship with science fiction, which reiterates the point that SF is not about the future, but about the hopes and fears of the world in which it was written; Gibson's comparison of SF with the writing of ancient history (in the extended version of this essay online) is extremely apposite in as much as both disciplines involve creating a culture around a small amount of data, and both are speculative and tell you as much about the present as they do about the past or the future. It is interesting (but nothing new) to note that Gibson--despite being the author of the seminal work of one of the most important new sub-genres of science fiction of the last thirty years--does not really identify himself as an author of core science fiction. His work is speculative in the way that all good literature is speculative: it takes a premise of our world (technological, futuristic, or otherwise) and follows it unflinchingly until a fascinating story unfolds (think for example of Kafka).

A sensitive comment from Ursula Le Guin sadly fails to raise many overt political points (although she does recommend the work of Geoff Ryman, China Miéville, and Michal Chabon); instead she focuses on the subtleties of genre, pointing out that the more fantastic breed of SF--space opera and the like--tends to be reactionary while social science fiction is much more ripe for good speculation. Kim Stanley Robinson reiterates the point that science fiction reflects our own time and concerns, and unsurprisingly his concerns are environmental. Robinson's essay is a warning that our immediately future can only be utopia (a new political and economic order) or dystopia (total environmental catastrophe), nothing in between.

Nick Sagan talks about the sense of wonder in science, and how the lack of engagement with truly innovative science is responsible for the nostalgia in much modern science fiction. A new space programme may not be the answer to changing the popular perception of science, but the challenges and opportunities involved in a workable renewable energy programme just might. Stephen Baxter talks a little about the history of science fiction, from the rise of modern physics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the nuclear fears of post-WW2 literature, through the cyber-revolution of the 1980s, and to the environmental fears that colour much SF in the 2000s. Perhaps the strangest choice of author in this section is Margret Atwood, who occasionally dabbles in speculative themes but normally denies any involvement with science fiction. It turns out she says very little in this (somewhat disingenuous) essay, except to demonstrate that she doesn't actually understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

I am not going to review the two-page reviews section of this special issue, and there is not very much to say about the readers' poll results except that it may be interesting to hear that the readers of a science magazine overwhelmingly picked the films Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the book Dune as their favourites in science fiction. There is something grand, something "hard", something ambitious and determined about all of these visions of the future, which perhaps appeals to the scientific mind. On the other hand, there are no surprises in these lists, and all these titles turn up regularly in "best of" polls whatever the demographic.

This reader remains slightly disappointed that New Scientist magazine was not able to come up with more weighty fare than this on the subject of science fiction. Compare the discussions that can appear in SF blogs (such as this or this) to see what people really plugged into the genre can come up with when they discuss science fiction.

Read this special issue of New Scientist online

Friday, October 31, 2008

Farr/Gardarsson, Metamorphosis (2006)

Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. Adapted for the stage (2006) and Directed by David Farr & Gisli Orn Gardarsson (2008).

Reviewed by Leoba.

Music by Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Designer Borkur Jonsson
Sound by Nick Manning
Costume Designer Brenda Murphy
Producers Rakel Gardarsdottir and Kate McGrath

Before I start this review, a caveat: I have not read the Franz Kafka novella on which this play is based, so I am unable to provide any kind of comparison between the two. Those readers familiar with the story will no doubt find differences between what they have read and what is described here. Such differences are only to be expected when a story is translated from one format to another. What I offer here is a review of the play Metamorphosis, based on Kafka's story and adapted and directed by David Farr of the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London, and Gisli Õrn Gardasson of the Vesturport Theatre, Reykjavik. Premiered in 2006, the show ran at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in September-October 2008. I attended the matinee showing on Saturday October 4 at 2:30 pm. I was very pleased by the show and disturbed by the questions it left with me—questions I don't know that I can answer.

Gregor Samsa lives with his younger sister, Greta, and their parents in a small apartment. Following the collapse of his father's business five years previous, Gregor has worked long hours as a traveling salesmen to support the family. This leaves him drained, but he is happy to work so his parents won't have to (his mother suffers from ill health), and he saves up what extra money he can—secretly—so that Greta might be able to attend the conservatory to study the violin in the future.

One morning, the family awakens to discover Gregor's shoes beside the door—he has not left for work. They discover, to their horror, that Gregor as they know him is gone from his bed, and in his place is a giant insect-like creature (Ungeziefer verwandelt in the original German). They are afraid and disgusted. Over the course of the play we see each family member dealing with the situation (and with Gregor himself) in his or her own way: Mr. Samsa's denial, Mrs. Samsa's equal parts maternal devotion and horror, and Greta's naïve belief that if she just keeps things going everything will be fine—an attitude that gradually gives way to resentment and eventually to outright hatred.

Mr. Samsa and Greta take jobs outside the home, and Mrs. Samsa brings in sewing. Once the breadwinner, Gregor becomes unnecessary, remaining hidden from the outside. He is ignored and almost forgotten until the family attempts to take in a lodger. This scene builds to an exciting and very funny climax in which the family feels forced—whether they are or not—to make some decisions that should be more difficult than they are. For the Samsas, the play ends on a positive note, relief tinged with joy, that I found rather sickening.

This show was fabulous both for the story, and for its overall quality. The acting was quite good throughout. As Mrs. Samsa, Kelly Hunter was perhaps a bit overwrought but I expect that was as much the character herself as the actor. As Mr. Samsa, Ingvar E Sigurdsson was believable as a man clinging to what pride he can find as a former business-owner now having to work for someone else. As Greta, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir was absolutely heartbreaking as a loving (and much loved) sister and it was an uneasy pleasure to watch her change over the course of the play. In what was essentially a walk-on part as Herr Fischer (the lodger), Jonathan McGuiness played a small role but made a huge impact, providing much needed—and uncomfortable—comic relief. Finally, I cannot say enough about Gisli Õrn Gardasson as Gregor (Gardarsson also co-adapted and directed the show, along with David Farr). Ironic perhaps, but he brought such humanity to the role. It was a pleasure to watch him try to figure himself out, come to terms with what he'd become and his eventual acceptance of it, even while he attempts to maintain some kind of relationship with his ever more distant family. What amazed me the most is that he was able to maintain this human connection with the audience even as the character he was playing was very obviously not human, and that the physicality required for carrying that off (on which more later) did not interfere with the emotion of his performance.

Coming into the play, the main question I had was a fairly practical one—how to present Gregor? Well, the creative group responsible for this show has come up with a marvelous approach to illustrating Gregor's otherness. The set itself is the actor's costume. It's designed in two levels: the lower level, consisting of the main room of the house where the Samsa family spends its time, and the second level, consisting of Gregor's room and a small hallway (connected to the room below via a small staircase stage right). Gregor's room has been flipped 90 degrees away from the audience, so that the floor is on the back wall, his bed directly in the middle of the wall, facing the audience. The first glimpse we get of Gregor is his head, pushed through the sheets of his bed, window glowing above (his wall, our ceiling). His bed, chair, lamp, potted plant, and later his food dishes, all are attached to the wall, and Gregor moves around through a series of handholds—creeping, crawling, at times hanging off the furniture or swinging on the drapery. The "floor" of the room (the wall parallel to the window) contains a trampoline, on which Gregor performs jumps and flips when he is feeling particularly rambunctious.

Gregor himself appears normal to the audience. He does not wear a costume; instead he is dressed for work in a white shirt and trousers (which become more and more tattered as the show progresses). His speech is intelligible to the audience, although obviously unintelligible and even painful for his family. They cover their ears and flinch when he attempts to communicate, and during one especially heated tantrum Greta does an impression of what she hears when he speaks: a series of loud, piercing squeals resembling something like a car alarm combined with an air horn. Not a pleasant sound, and not at all human.

The appearance of Gregor as fully human was the single most interesting aspect of the show, making him into an exceptionally sympathetic character. We in the audience are able to share with him as he discovers his transformation and seeks understanding and love from the family, and finally realizes that they can give him neither. Gardarsson is expressive; he has large eyes and a face that effortlessly shows emotion, and his physicality is exceptional. As he moves, climbs, crawls and dances around the set, you can sense his confusion, fright, and occasional moments of happiness. His final moments are especially moving.

I found many different questions rolling around in my head in the hours and days following the show. Some of these were the questions I imagine are the ones I was supposed to have: What would you do if you woke up one morning to discover you are not who you once were? Not just someone else, but something else—something your family cannot understand or communicate with. What could you do? What could your family do? What would your life become?

However, even as I watched the show I found myself grappling with these same questions but from a slightly different point of view. You see, I have an older brother. Growing up, his room was in the attic of the family home (in fact, he still lives with my parents, and his room is still in the attic). I saw a lot of my brother in Gregor, and I fear that I also saw myself in Greta. The relationship between siblings is not one that I think about very often but it can be both intense and maddening. I find my brother to be wonderful and incredibly annoying in roughly equal amounts, and I like to think that I would do anything for him, but watching "Metamorphosis" really made me question the limits of my devotion. And it was an uncomfortable questioning.

Indeed: what would I do if my brother turned into a creature that I could not communicate with nor understand according to any social or cultural cues? It's unlikely that he would wake up one morning as a giant insect, but he could be rendered comatose or brain-damaged in an accident, or he could develop debilitating drug abuse problems, or mental illness. Any of these could make my brother into someone else: someone I might not recognize, someone I might not want to recognize or even to know. Would I still love him? Would I forget my brother, would I grow to hate him? What would be my sisterly duty? I felt so much sympathy for Greta as she dealt with these questions and came to her own conclusions. I like to think that I would have done a better job than she (and certainly better than Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, who did not hold onto Gregor for nearly as long, or as strongly, as did Greta), but how am I to know? I only hope I never have to be tested as the Samsas were tested.

I've visited the websites for the Vesturport Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith and neither have future show dates listed, but if you do discover a local presentation of this show, don't miss it.

Vesturport Theatre
Lyric Hammersmith
Dublin Theatre Festival

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hamilton, Reality Dysfunction (1997)

Peter F Hamilton, The Reality Dysfunction. Pan Books, 1997. Pp. 1225. ISBN 0330340328. £8.99.

Reviewed by Bruce Stenning

I bought this book over a decade ago, and when I started to read it I got less than ten pages in before deciding not to carry on. I cannot remember quite what put me off, but something did. It sat unread on my bookshelf all these years, until eventually I decided to give it another chance.

At over 1200 printed pages, this is space opera at its most rambling: It is quite a chunk of text to read. The story meanders into the horror genre, at times, and then back out again. It tentatively touches on religion, politics, and the supernatural, but only in a very superficial way.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Adams (ed.), Wastelands (2008)

John Joseph Adams (ed.), Wastelands: Stories of the apocalypse. Night Shade Books, 2008. Pp. 333. ISBN 9781597801058. $15.95.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This volume, by prolific anthology editor Adams, collects 22 short stories on the rather vague theme of the end of the world (or of civilization, if there's any difference). Fall-of-civilization stories make great political parables, but there is much more post-apocalyptic fiction being published than there is good post-apocalyptic fiction, so a selection vetted by a respectable and talented editor ought to be a great idea. The lack of coherence or consistency in this volume make it a bit of a missed opportunity therefore (although there is some great stuff in here).

In a rather brief introduction that doesn't quite run to two pages, Adams talks a little about the history and some themes of post-apocalyptic stories, both in science fiction and in mainstream literature (in which it has been more prevalent than most speculative topics). Post-apocalyptic fiction has been largely a Cold War phenomenon--not surprisingly, since this coincided with the first time modern humanity was faced with both the possibility of total annihilation at its own hand, and political leaders who were patently ready to wield that hand. But disaster fiction is also fantasy-fulfillment; its protagonists are (as Adams quotes John Varley) "wandering, scrounging, defending", but above all surviving.

On the one hand, the typical post-apocalyptic story is a dystopia, a political parable of the worst of our world. Civilization has fallen, and with it all the trappings of our world: the protection of the weak, the rule of law, recourse to justice without spiraling taleonic revenge. The post-apocalyptic world is lawless and violent; people steal and rape with impunity. The worst of our bestial human natures takes over. There is suffering, famine, disease, poverty; no technology or cooperation to help overcome these ills that we have not had to deal with (at least in the West) for the last several generations. It is the worst of worlds.

But it can also be the best of worlds, and some post-apocalyptic stories contain elements of the political utopia (that "avenge themselves on this life with the phantasmagoria of another, a better life"). It is the opportunity to start over, to build a new civilization from the stones upward, to create a life and a culture learning from and avoiding the mistakes of the past. The world without cities, and banks, and politicians, and corruption, and bureaucracy. In other words, it's a libertarian's wet dream. (But idyllic cooperation can also be an anarchist parable; it all depends on your opinions about human nature.)

The stories in this volume touch on all of these issues, but also on banal themes such as the nature of heroism; of good and evil; of resilience and fortitude shown in the face of adversity; the journey to self-fulfillment that comes from the hero's suffering; the quest for lost wisdom; for the glory of the (nostalgic) past.

And so finally onto the stories. Adams introduces each offering with a half page of biography and interpretation (just occasionally bordering on the spoiler). The first story, 'The End of the Whole Mess', is billed as "a high-profile contributor ... uncommonly good ... [and] set[s] the tone for the rest of the book". In fact only the first of these three claims is true: this is in fact a rather unexciting and unoriginal story by a very famous but typically uneven novelist who is usually much more entertaining than this. I'm sure the theme of the mad genius who tragically destroys civilization with an engineered disease (done so much better by Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake) was not dazzling and new even in 1988 when this piece was first published. Thankfully this does not set the tone for the rest of the book, since many of the following stories are much better (and very few are much worse).

For this reader there were three stand-out stories in this anthology that warrant highlighting.

'Bread and Bombs' is probably the most powerful piece in the volume, a daring and controversial blend of terrorism, atrocity, prejudice, and the terrible cost of the so-called "innocence" of childhood. While not exactly a twist-in-the-tale story as such, the focus of the plot does change and so is richer on second and subsequent readings. Narrated in retrospect by one of the characters who was a child at the time of the events described, the characterizations and foreshadowings are given in childish terms, echoing both the naïvety and the cruelty of the young. When a foreign family move into a narrow-minded, nervous, and fragile community, the uncomfortable friendship between the exotic and oddly-behaved daughters and the local children brings out the best and the worst in the adults of the town. The tragedy is foreshadowed from the opening words, but is nonetheless horrific when it occurs for all that. This is a clever and deeply moving story, the kind that gets you thinking without preaching to you, and—although perhaps not strictly post-apocalyptic in the normal sense—is everything that great science fiction should be.

'Judgment Passed' is the most literally post-apocalyptic piece in the collection; a story with a religious theme but an ostensibly rationalist viewpoint. Eight astronauts return to Earth from an inter-stellar journey to find that the Biblical apocalypse has occurred and all humans on the planet have disappeared, apparently taken away by God. The protagonists find their faith (or their agnosticism, respectively) sorely tested by these events, but nothing they can do or say (or believe) seems capable of changing anything—least of all the fact that they have been left behind. This story does excellent work in analyzing the nature of belief, the limits of rationalism, and the dangers of fundamentalist faith. I was a little uncomfortable with the implication that a "noble lie" (an untruth designed to make the believer behave better) is any more acceptable in the cause of rationalism than it is in the cause of a religious faith. Certainly a story to provoke debates and soul-searching, which can only be a good thing.

'Inertia' is another piece that is not typical post-apocalyptic fare, but set in what is effectively a quarantine containment camp in which a community has grown up over generations of detention. Again, this piece is not so much high-octane science fiction as it is very thought-provoking parable, with its evocation of idyllic politics, conflict-free self-organization, and the morality of deliberately interfering with the mental (and ethical) health of humanity. It is the same incurable, disfiguring disease that has the internees locked away by a fearful and ever more barbaric general population, that allows them to live unburdened by the desperate, ambitious, and competitive instincts that are in danger of bringing down civilization as we know it in a violent cataclysm. Narrated by an old, arthritic woman, the protagonists are her innocent, idealistic granddaughter; her bitter, self-obsessed daughter; and the charming and mysterious doctor from outside who claims to have a cure for the world's ills. Another story that will get you arguing with its clever, intense, controversial, but complex politics.

There are several other good and notable stories in this volume. 'The People of Sand and Slag' is not typically post-apocalyptic so much as post-human, but the protagonists are humans living in a world so blasted and polluted that we would find it uninhabitable. Culturally as well as physically adapted, the heroes find a dog living in the slag and poison of a toxic waste site, and the companionship of this fragile and obsolete animal cause them to consider in a new light their humanity, their technology, and their intelligence. 'Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels' is another post-human story set in a devastated world centuries-abandoned by humanity, that shows how a highly specialized, rapidly adapted race would seem less than human to returning exiles exploring with a view to re-colonizing the recovering planet. Sensitive and inventive, the weirdness in this story is so extreme as to read like fantasy until the first "normal" humans appear.

A more traditional story is 'Artie's Angels', about a group of bicycle couriers carving a niche for themselves and protection for their young gang in a desperate, lawless ghetto of a dome-city on a doomed Earth. Appealing to Arthurian legend, this is nevertheless an optimistic story, showing how with resourcefulness and cooperation we can make a better world for ourselves however desperate the situation. 'Speech Sounds' is another story about people trying to get by in a post-civilized world, but the very curse that has destroyed the world—the loss of speech and language—prevents people from working together and thus rising above their animal instincts. A very intelligent and thought-provoking story.

Finally I note two pieces that begin as very typical post-apocalyptics, with shattered cities and populations mysteriously decimated, but bring something new and fresh to the genre. 'The End of the World as We Know It' follows one man, unextraordinary and unheroic, who finds himself the only survivor of an instantaneous and inexplicable extinction event. The story tries a little too hard to be a self-conscious commentary on the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole, but where it succeeds is in the simplicity of the current story—the greatest tragedy for the protagonist is the loss of what made his own life special: his home and his wife. No new adventures and fresh start can make up for this; the world has ended for him. A similarly hopeless situation arises in 'A Song Before Sunset', in which an old musician has spent several years eking out an existence hunting rats and trading with other desperate survivors while avoiding the gangs of marauding Vandals who are intent on bringing down the last remnants of old civilization. Without hope of actually improving life or developing a constructive community, the protagonist's one ambition is to play a concert piano one last time before the last of mankind's cultural institutions is burned to the ground. A sober, understated, and thoughtful piece.

There are other good stories in here, and only a handful of predictable or incomprehensible pieces. As an exercise in collecting together stories that are worth reading, Adams has done a successful job (although most of these pieces are from very mainstream publications: half of the titles were originally published in Asimov's or Fantasy & Science Fiction magazines); as far as achieving that sought-after coherence that every anthologist strives for, this was perhaps less impressive. Still a volume well worth purchasing for fans of the post apocalyptic genre.

Buy this item from Amazon.com
Buy this item from Amazon.co.uk

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Submission Guidelines

“A good critic will exercise his imagination to find value in a book before he delivers the death blow.”
For TFF Review submission guidelines for publishers, authors and reviewers, please now see our Guidelines page (or select the Guildelines tab above).