Monday, August 24, 2009

Hughes, The Smell of Telescopes (2008)

Rhys Hughes, The Smell of Telescopes. Eibonvale Press, 2008. Pp. 464. £22.99.

Reviewed by Sarah Ann Watts

‘I arched an eyebrow. It remained arched for the rest of the day – I was determined to anticipate any more impossibilities. Sighing, I made an appeal: “Has anyone got any bright ideas? Wan ones will suffice.”’

So speaks Giovanni Ciao, narrator of ‘The Hush of Falling Houses’ and citizen of Lladloh in just one of the twenty six interlaced stories that make up The Smell of Telescopes. It isn’t easy to read 460 pages with an arched eyebrow but it might be prudent. However I defy anyone to anticipate the trove of ‘impossibilities’ that this collection contains and that Rhys Hughes lays out so generously for our delectation and delight. Wan ideas may suffice for Giovanni but his creator is unlikely to settle for anything so mundane – these stories are all amusing, inventive and absurd.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Jessup, Open Your Eyes (2009)

Paul Jessup, Open Your Eyes. Apex Publications, 2009. Pp. 139. ISBN 9780982159606. $13.95.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

open your eyesThis is a strange little book, in so many ways. From the exquisitely executed but deeply unsettling front cover (by Daniele Cascone), through the frank, slightly surreal but unrelentingly cold and logical prose, and to the unclassifiable genre: the trappings of science fiction, a level of fantastic realism, a paranoid mystery, and a thoroughly story-driven core that relies on none of these layers—Open Your Eyes defeats the expectations on all fronts. As such, a title like this could only have been published by the small press, and a particularly daring and high quality small press like Apex Publications, whose magazine Apex Digest has focused on the darker side of science fiction for several years. If speculative fiction is united by being "weird shit", this publication shows a willingness not to eschew the weird. Author Paul Jessup, for his part, has been published widely in the small press, including some of the more prestigious titles in the genre, and has a reputation for unusual, edge-pushing work. This novella is no exception.

As the blurb and the opening pages of the novella proclaim, this is the story of Ekhi, a starship pilot who made love to a dying supernova and is now pregnant, a baby galaxy coalescing, spinning and growing inside her. Despite this, after the first two pages (and until the dumbfounding climax), Ekhi is very much a bit player in this story of posthuman space scavengers, intelligent ships and sentient viruses.

The puppetmaster is the ancient captain, Itsasu, a withered old crone who has preserved her body in a vat of nutrients and controls both the ship's AI "heart" and a small army of dolls via wires embedded in her nerves. Aching and longing in this joyless condition, watching the rest of the crew through electronic eyes, pining for her centuries-dead husband, Itsasu is unable even to masturbate, taking pleasure only from the endorphins the ship's heart pumps into her chemical soup.

Mari is the cyborg navigator, half her face replaced with silver, and caged mechanical butterflies in her brain. Perhaps the only sympathetic character in the novella, it is she who rescues and nurses Ekhi when her wrecked ship is salvaged, and she who drives almost all the social interactions on the ship. Her lover Sugoi is a stupid, violent, mean giant, one of the ship's mechanics; the joker in the pack, he risks doing more harm to the crew than any outside foe, but is ultimately too stupid to be really dangerous. The other mechanic, his brother Hodei, is a sexually frustrated and sulky teenager, physically terrorized by Sugoi and obsessed with a pornographic model from vintage magazines in his collection.

Many of the motivations in this story seem to be about sex on one level or another, and in some ways this is a little puerile, but it is at least convincing. Conversation between the characters is loaded, awkward, heavy with frustrated needs and inability to communicate. The writing is equally heavy, now thick with hormonal passion, now fluid and sensuous, describing the vacuum of space or the womb of the nutrient vat. Action scenes are swift and sudden and brutal; betrayals as unexpected and inexplicable to the reader as to the characters; hidden agendas revealed or only hinted at by furious, self-righteous, near-psychotic protagonists.

Much of the science in this science fiction book is under-explained: what are basically magical effects are given foreign-sounding names and mechanical clothes. The linguistic virus, however, while not an original concept in itself, is handled better here than the Sumerian virus in Stephenson's Snow Crash, and is genuinely horrifying rather than just faintly silly. In a far future with interstellar travel, the technology would have to be completely transformed, unrecognizable to a 21st century observer.

Although this is therefore a character-driven story rather than a "scientific opera", the characters are perhaps the weak link in this novella. Very few of them are sympathetic, and even less are terribly convincing. In most cases we only know their motivations because they tell us, and even that leaves us little wiser than before. Dialogue is sometimes awkward because of the discomfort and disconnect between the characters; sometimes it just feels awkward.

As well as the cover artwork, there are four or five low-resolution prints of line drawings (by Judi Davidson) breaking up the text in this book. Three of these images are of the posed bodies of sexy, naked women. While these three women are indeed naked at some point in the story, there are also lots of other very visual scenes, so the focus on naked women seems unimaginative, retrograde, and unfortunate in this day and age. Certainly the images feel a little superfluous as compared to the haunting cover.

There is an element of the surreal in this novella, but apart from the unborn galaxy in Ekhi's womb, most of the "weird shit" herein is soft science rather than wild fantasy and twisted symbolism. The effect is much the same either way, however, and this is where Jessup's skill with weirdness and the absurd strengthen this book. We are never allowed to forget that this is not our world, that these people are not us, their concerns are not ours. But their actions and motivations are not so random and baffling as to be altogether unsympathetic and uninteresting.

While Open Your Eyes is in some ways a flawed work, it is a daring one, and I am glad that publishers like Apex exist to take a risk with titles like this. Their editorial standards are very high—one or two textual infelicities made it into the copy, but no actual typos that I noticed. It may be that this volume's bizarre content is never going to be bestseller material, but I certainly hope that it does well enough to convince the publishers to continue to take chances with excellent but unorthodox fiction.

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