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.

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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.

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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.

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