Thursday, November 26, 2009

2012, dir. Emmerich (2009)

2012, dir. Roland Emmerich, Columbia Pictures. Starring John Cusack, Amanda Peek, Chiwetel Ejiofor (2009).

Reviewed by The Exploding Boy

2012 is directed by Roland Emmerich, the same guy who brought us Stargate, Godzilla, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. All monumentally successful movies, bringing high-tech effects and epic storylines to the silver screen—but nothing that compares to the monstrous overkill that is 2012, a movie that has already cleaned up at the US box office. Internationally, reviews have ranged from mixed to negative.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grimwood, Exaggerated Man (2008)

Terry Grimwood, The Exaggerated Man and other stories. Exaggerated Press, 2008. Pp. 237. 9780955852206. £6.95 / $12.61.

Reviewed by Louisa Thomson

Terry Grimwood’s self-published, powerful collection of nineteen short stories (all previously published elsewhere) blazes with confidence. Guilt, retribution, sex and money are all magnified under Grimwood’s lens and evil—both ancient and new—glints in his darkness. A wallet holds the key to our soul’s secrets, a pastor’s journey to heaven becomes the gory reality of life after death and a nightmarish ruling, mired in political correctness finds Death Doctors stealing bodies from the LiveScum so the immortal dead can feast on the vulnerable living. These are dystopian predictions and cautionary tales of moral and social ineptitude where technological advancements have forgotten the innate instincts of human nature and money has become a currency of greed and fear rather than pounds, shillings and pence.

A thread of perceived weakness links Grimwood’s main cast; often unable to speak their truth before it’s too late, incapable of stepping up to their responsibilities honestly, and powerless to resist the women of their downfall. But they provide strong foils for the underlying messages even if they themselves don’t always feel sustainable as stand-alone characters. The language is taut, generally well-edited and captures a variety of colloquial accent—from New Yawk drawl (in ‘The Friends of Mike Santini’) to the extraordinary half Dickens, half Alex DeLarge diction of London’s Bull Poor in ‘Nobody Walks In London’.

‘Breathe’ is a gem of a tale, calling to mind shades of Zamyatin’s We. The relentless march of progress over nature is removing all human biological functions and prostitutes are earning their crust by breathing into artificially modified clients. Social divide is represented by the choice to be a Breather (to live the old-fashioned way, sucking oxygen into human lungs) or a FullPerson (artificially respiring)—and the choice presented to Marko Denna is blurred by love, pressure and instinct. I defy anyone to read ‘Breathe’ and not find themselves dragging in delicious gulps of lovely, polluted air with a secret pang of relief. But oh, I wanted a novel of this, not a short story! There’s so much juice to unearth, so many interesting layers to investigate.

And beauty shines out of the titular story, ‘The Exaggerated Man’ (although I don’t want to tell you about it, I want you to read it for yourself). Something in the easy flow of Grimwood’s language, the clarity of his descriptions and the strong emotional tug suggest a vision closer to the author than fiction. I kept wondering what it could have been… a dream, or maybe shades of a private truth? This and ‘The Lowestoft Monster’ are two stories that, despite the pain of their subjects, truly stir the heart. ‘The Lowestoft Monster’ infers an ambiguous evil of our own choosing, never defined beyond recollections of words and moments and thus inflated to even more terrifying proportions when you realize the narrator himself is too scared to directly verbalize the image. We’re left to draw our conclusions, thus ensuring we’ll employ our own, individual perception of horror to fill the shoes of the dreaded Uncle Sidney with his seemingly innocuous stance and words.

Sadly, a couple of the shorter pieces failed to catch my imagination with the same force of ‘Breathe’. In contrast to the depth and texture elsewhere, ‘Dirty Stop-Out’ reads as no more than a wisp of an idea based on a punchline. I was left similarly cold by ‘Freedom’.

The disparate locations in both time and place across the breadth of the collection should feel unsettling but are saved by the consistency of Grimwood’s themes. Greed, suffocation and loss provide a strong heart beat. Suffocation comes in the form of mounting debts, social pressure and the more literal inability to breathe naturally. Men are confronting the systems that control them but losing out every time to the monster wielding ultimate power. These monsters are often lurking on the breeze or far off in dark shadows. They’re hiding beneath a veneer of public respectability or perhaps in the minds of their victim.

While I never tired of the book I would suggest a careful approach. Grimwood chivvies us from Mars to London, the seaside and back like a demented sight-seeing bus behind schedule. Such pulls are occasionally jarring—mental leaping requires a flexible imagination—so these are stories to be taken as individual treats. Lose yourself in the torment of the youth-slaughtering flu in ‘Coffin Road’ or the horrific bargain on offer in ‘Atoner’, but then step away, enjoy the lingering sensation for as long as your imagination will sustain the trip, then dive back in for a totally different experience.

My enjoyment of The Exaggerated Man and Other Stories urges me to leave the review at that—enjoyment. But Terry Grimwood doesn’t write stories without a sting in the tail so I must also be tempered by my less-pleasing thoughts...

Grimwood’s boundless imagination paints future worlds with prescient, disturbing skill but the most disturbing element is his inability to see women as much more than sirens, whores or weaklings. And this lazy gender stereotyping of the SF audience is as out of date as the ‘geeky’ perception of the genre as a whole.

The representation of women within this collection reveals an embarrassingly simplistic view of the roles of the sexes. Prostitutes are girls, winos are men. Men fall for foxy young mistresses with husky voices and beer-drinking ways while their dry, sneering wives read dull novels, and keep the house too clean. Women need trinkets to make them happy and men have to provide, even if that means selling their souls in the bargain.

In ‘The Exaggerated Man’, having touched death, Atwood begins to see life in horrifying, exaggerated detail. But it’s the women he encounters that become the most grotesque: ‘She was...dirty. Scraps of make-up clung to her face, her pores leaked fluids, her flesh was ingrained with muck of all kinds. She stank of sweat, semen, of other juices and excretions.’

Then it’s Avril’s intoxicating lure that leads Paul Wilde into trouble with the tough and demonic Mike Santini. In ‘Coffin Dream’ it’s Sarah’s breakdown that drags Tony into his life-threatening debts. In ‘Breathe’, Marko Denna endures the effects of surgical reformation to appease his nagging, violent wife, Karryann. In ‘John’, Cathy can’t resist the charms of her now-dead husband despite his violent and abusive history. In fact, she’s so weak-willed, even the realization that he’s become the devil isn’t enough: ‘She felt her selfsame pussy grow warm, despite the numbing shock. Despite disappointment which bordered on despair.’

Fat women are outcasts (Melissa) or cackling clowns (Diana), wives nag their long-suffering husbands, and beauty wreaks hellish, murderous havoc when a woman’s jealousy comes to town. Bosses’ daughters can be handy tickets to promotion and, in the rare case of being a ‘very powerful Erasman lady’ this lady in question is represented by the black mass of an enormous, hideous spider living for nothing but to breed and kill.

This veiled misogyny didn’t stop me enjoying the book but I certainly felt a tinge of detachment. It’s hard to engage when you’re clearly not the chosen audience—and that’s a shame. I’m not looking for a PC whitewash—just a writer as willing to flex his muscles against stereotypes as he is against the laws of earthly physics.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Denyer, The Edge of the Country (2009)

Trevor Denyer, The Edge of the Country and Other Stories. Immediate Direction Publications, 2009. Pp. 112. £5.40/$10.15.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

The small press world owes a great deal to Trevor Denyer. Though starting off as a writer of some note back in the 1990s, he is better known these days as a magazine publisher, first with Roadworks in the latter years of the last century, then Legend and finally the much acclaimed Midnight Street. All are of the highest quality and placing a story in the pages of a Trevor Denyer magazine brings its fair share of kudos to any small press writer. Because of this, it has been easy to forget that initial chapter of Denyer’s career. As a result, his first, and long overdue, collection, The Edge of the Country, is a very welcome reminder of his talent as an author in his own right. The title of Allen Ashley’s introduction says it all: 'About Time Too'.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Harvey, Convent of the Pure (2009)

Sarah M. Harvey, The Convent of the Pure. Lexington: Apex Publishing, 2009. Pp. 138. ISBN 9780981639093. $13.95.

Reviewed by PostMorbid

Girl with big cleavage, burning stake to be fired from a crossbow, naked woman half-covered in runes, magic flowing from her hands. Every fantasy geek's dreams seem to be embodied in the cheesecake cover of Sarah Harvey's The Convent of the Pure. Let's have a look inside this 'steampunk novella.'

The main character of the book, Portia Gyony, is a lesbian demon hunter, supported by the ghost of her dead lover Imogen. Both are Nephilim, descendants of angels, raised by a secret group of watchers who through the ages have fought off evil spirits. Just think a crossover of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Nephilim fantasy roleplaying game and a hint of steampunk.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gardner, The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon (2009)

Catherine J Gardner, The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon. Bucket O’ Guts Press, 2009. Pp. 23. $6.00 US/$7.50 International.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

This is the ‘first chapbook’ from the wonderfully named Bucket O’ Guts press; a short tale at twenty-three pages start to finish, Gardner's tale is the perfect length to while away a short commute or pass a lunch break. Folded and stapled, it’s unashamed in claiming to be ‘Designed and Printed in a Garage Somewhere in the USA.’ And why shouldn’t it be? The cover artwork by Stephen Blundell is as good as any, and the print within decently sized and legible. I’ve seen supposedly professionally produced works that don’t look half as good.

The publisher’s website states: “We want fiction that cannot be classified or pigeonholed. The only contingency is that your story must leave us all scratching our heads.” So, not being a fan of “bizarro” fiction, which is what I assumed the publishers are hinting at above, I wondered what to expect from The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon. I needn’t have worried. The story is conventional in that it has a beginning, middle and end, and there’s an adherence to logic and cause and effect throughout. The result is a delightfully off-kilter dark fantasy that's a pleasure to read.

In many ways I’m reluctant to summarise the tale. The fact that the story is so short makes it almost impossible not to add spoilers should I do so. I’ll say only that the tale is a journey through Olive Lemon’s dark and troubled mind. Her world is a town populated with colourful neighbourhoods and strange characters; with a mayor, for example, who imposes some odd rules indeed: "The use of ladders was restricted…" and "Puzzles were banned—both cryptic and Jigsaw". But, of course, infringing such restriction is normal behaviour for Olive Lemon.

The story is a good one. Gardner skilfully weaves the narrative along at a sidestep to reality. And she’s careful to provide enough subtle foreshadowing to keep the reader guessing what’s going on yet still lead that reader to a believable conclusion. It makes for a satisfying read indeed.

My only criticism is that The Sour Aftertaste of Olive Lemon was over too quickly; I'd have liked another couple of stories from Gardner thrown in to follow, to beef it out a little. Still, it left me wanting to read more from this author. I’ll watch out for her, and for Bucket O’ Guts press, with interest.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Rix, What the Giants are Saying (2009)

David Rix, What the Giants are Saying. Eibonvale Press, 2008. Pp. 200. ISBN 9780955526862. £9.95.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

When on a weekend break in Yorkshire a year or so ago I took a walk through a valley filled with giants. They were impassive, impressive, inscrutable and very intimidating. They were, of course, those love-'em or hate-'em wind turbines. I am one of those who finds the things graceful. They are strange beasts, there is a near-life feel about them and, as David Rix shows us in his novella, What The Giants Are Saying, they are far from silent. Their song is, indeed, the voice of giants.

In the novella, Rix introduces us to Don, a landscape painter, disillusioned by the mediocrity of his work and in the process of splitting up with a girlfriend he blames for the dissolution of his artistic inspiration. He is depressed, angry and self-destructive. Dangerous enough, in fact, to crash his car out on a lonely moor watched over by countless, whispering wind turbines.

That’s where he meets an enigmatic woman named Feather. Otherworldly and seemingly impervious to the bitter cold, she first haunts his thoughts then draws him into a bizarre, destructive relationship. She too is an artist, but the landscapes Feather creates are far more physical and bloody than anything Don has so far dreamed of. And watching over it all, their whispering song a haunting soundtrack, are the giants, hallucinatory and thrumming with a strange and threatening life of their own.

Following the novella is a short story called 'Red Fire', a prequel where we first meet Feather, this time the relationship reversed, she the canvas, her lover Cal, the artist. The result is just as brutal and unsettling.

What the Giants Are Saying is an unnerving, edgy work. It asks the inevitable question, what is art? And then explores the issue in a supremely visceral and unflinching manner. Yes, it has become acceptable (though controversial still) to manipulate inanimate tissue, such as Damian Hurst’s sharks and sheep, or Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ corpse sculptures, but to carve and stitch your art onto living flesh, to mutilate the breathing, that is another matter, or is it? After all, who owns our flesh? We accept the tattoo, the piercing, gender change (whether medically necessary or simply a need), even genital mutilation—weren’t the Castratos of a bygone age mutilated in the name of musical art—so who is to say where it ends, what is acceptable and what is extreme, if not even criminal?

Don’s ex-girlfriend sees Don’s new and bloody art as somehow a personal affront, it repulses her, is, in her mind, a crime. The irony of her role in the story is that she is seen by Don as the destructive influence in his life, the reason for his breakdown because she is “normal”, conventional, actually cares about his health and physical well-being But what right has she to judge? Whose body is it anyway? What are our responsibilities, to ourselves and to those around us, those who depend on us?

Don is a typical independent press character, self-centred, self-obsessed and far from easy to get on with. It makes a change from the taciturn square-jawed hero of course and is much more realistic, but it can be annoying, there are times you want to shout at him, shake him, tell him to pull himself together, but he is an artist, and, traditionally, the artist stands outside the mainstream, so much art flows out of suffering. These outsiders exist, have given us so much music and writing. .

What the Giants Are Saying is a bold work, it eschews story-telling conventions, it is readable, but difficult. It gives no easy answers or comfortable conclusions. It asks mote questions than it answers. It is horror, and then it isn’t, not in the conventional sense anyway, it is that rare and wonderful thing, an unclassifiable work. Even the beautiful, striking and disturbing cover is ostensibly horror, but then, on closer examination probably not. In fact the cover art has the same edgy, bold and savage imagery examined in the story itself.

David Rix is, as I understand it, the man behind the remarkable and adventurous Eibonvale Press, publishers of the off-beat and different. With his own book he has certainly flown the Eibonvale flag and all power to him for stepping off the main road into wilder, more difficult country.

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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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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shock Totem 1 (2009)

Shock Totem 1: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted. Summer 2009. Pp. 100. ISBN 978-1448621743. $5.99.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

The news has been fairly bleak lately. With a number of short story venues closing down, or claiming hiatus as they try to ride out the ravages of the economy, it’s hard not to feel a sense of foreboding that the small press is creaking under the strain. Possibly it’s a brave heart, then, that seeks to launch a new print magazine right now—and a pro-paying magazine at that—yet clearly the chaps and chapesses behind Shock Totem are made of stern stuff.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Golden, Evergreen (2009)

Bruce Golden, Evergreen. Zumaya Otherwords, 2009. Pp. 342. ISBN 9781934841327. $17.95.

Reviewed by Carolyn Crow

Though he began working on Evergreen years before the current explosion of public awareness of global warming and environmental issues generally took root, Bruce Golden’s foray into the forests of an alien world seems very timely. Yes, there is an underlying environmental theme, but the book is never preachy or pedagogical; despite the fantastic milieu he’s created for the planet Evergreen, this is a true character story. It’s told from several viewpoints, all the while exploring the emotional bents of revenge, redemption, and obsession.

If you’re looking for lots of futuristic advanced technology, this probably isn’t the book for you. Evergreen is still a frontier planet where many forms of technology are limited by solar activity and the planet’s magnetic field. Solar power is the colonists only form of energy other than muscle and sweat. The colony was initially built on the backs of its indentured lumberjacks, though “the company” that owns the planetary mineral rights has begun setting up mining operations.

A man known by the name of Gash is one of these timber jockeys. He’s got a past he’s trying to forget, and he makes use of the local narcotic to ease his pain—until he’s recruited by the colonists to join their insurrection against the company. This rebellion, led by a colorful “pirate” of a saloon owner, is only one of several storylines that crisscross and eventually converge for an almost surrealistic climax.

The novel unfolds when an ancient artifact is discovered on Evergreen, a heretic priest back on Earth becomes convinced it’s the link that will prove his theory about the existence of an extraterrestrial “City of God.” Dr. Nikira forms an expedition to Evergreen that includes renowned archaeology professor Luis Escobedo, his wife, Filamena, and his estranged son, Maximo. Unknown to the professor, his wife has recently put an end to a brief but passionate affair with Maximo, her stepson. She chastises herself for the weakness that led her to the affair, and is now determined to stay true to her husband. However, when Maximo unexpectedly joins the expedition, she must deal with the constant temptation of his presence.

Traveling aboard the same ship that will take them to Evergreen is Eamon, a young man wracked by both guilt and a need for vengeance. After years of searching, Eamon believes he’s finally tracked down the man responsible for his mother’s death. He intends to find the man and kill him. In order to do so, he has contracted himself to join the timber jockey workforce, which is made up mostly of debtors and convicts. Though the lessons he learns along the way may be a bit obvious, I still found the naivety of his character appealing.

At this future point of man’s exploration of space, several inhabitable planets have been discovered, but, as yet, not a single intelligent species outside of mankind has been found. However, an exobiologist studying a primate species on Evergreen believes these “ursu” may be only thousands of years away from evolving into a sort of primitive intelligence. She’ll discover these creatures have a past as well as a future.

I found the ursu to be one of the most interesting facets of the book. Once their entire story was told, it seemed to me, from a thematic point of view, that they represented primitive man on Earth. While the potential of the ursu’s intelligence is debatable, another intelligence on Evergreen is not. This one’s not so readily visible. I won’t give it away, but this is the literary centerpiece that connects the various character pieces of this tale, and brings them together at the end.

As for the relevant issue of the environment, it’s not something Golden slaps you across the face with. No character ever broaches it—there’s no editorializing. But, by the end of the book, questions have been raised in the reader’s mind: Should mankind be allowed to do whatever it wants with whatever planet it encounters? Should we be able to do whatever we wants with planet Earth?

One of the best aspects of this book is the way Golden sets up each and every payoff. The foreshadowing is subtle, but it builds dramatically and informatively. We get a little piece here, a tidbit there, until the entirety of it unfolds. One obvious example comes with the character of Gash, who experiences mental flashbacks from the thing that haunts him. Each time he flashes back, we get a little bit more of what actually happened—what led him to Evergreen.

Evergreen has everything you look for in a great science fiction read. Believably tormented characters, unique world-building, realistic dialogue, adventure, exploration, alien lifeforms, conflict, resolution, and topical content... by the time the book ended, I only wished it were longer. I wanted more of this alien world, and wanted to know what happened to these characters next—at least those who survived to the final page.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Zimmer, Exodus Gate (2009)

Stephen Zimmer, The Exodus Gate. Seventh Star Press, 2009. Pp. 580. ISBN 978-0-6152-6747-0. $19.95.

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

In Stephen Zimmer's novel The Exodus Gate Benedict Darwin, the host of a radio talk show devoted to the paranormal, gets access to a "virtual reality" system that has not yet hit the market from a friend of his in the employ of "Babylon Technologies." He tries it out at home, playing an RPG set in an earlier, antediluvian era, during which Darwin encounters a pack of giant, intelligent wolves, the "An-Ki." Speaking with them he starts to wonder if this is not, after all, more than an elaborate program, the technology involved something more than VR. This being that kind of story, his suspicions are soon proven correct, and he finds himself drawn into an ages-old struggle between Good and Evil ("Adonai" and "Diabolos, the Shining One") in which the human players are lining up to play their roles as the shadow of a One-World government on the side of Evil looms large.

As this summary implies, the story is at its core a version of the End Times narrative which attracted so much attention when Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's published their mega-selling Left Behind series. It is a thinly veiled one, however, the names of people, places and other such items very slightly changed, while being in all other respects nearly identical. (The United States is UCAS, Germany is Germania, Russia is Muscovy, China is Mandaria, etc.; the F-22 fighter jet has become the I-22; etc.) All of this makes it far too obvious to be regarded as an allegory in the manner of C.S. Lewis (an important influence on the author, as he acknowledges in an interview at the Something Wicked blog), which suggests other rationales: the taking of liberties with crucial story elements, the subversion of a conventional take on the material.

As it happens, an unconventional reading of the Great Flood is central to the story, specifically the idea that it was meant to wash away the giants mentioned in the sixth chapter of Genesis (giants who, in Zimmer's telling of the story, still have their role to play in Armageddon). In crafting the tale Zimmer also draws not only on this reading of the Bible, but a number of other religious traditions, not all of them easily connectable with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Additionally, while the book does not come across as a shot in the "culture wars" in the manner of John Shirley's 2006 novel The Other End (in his own words, an "unapologetically partisan" book aimed at reclaiming this territory from right-wing fundamentalists), being more politically ambiguous (at times, it even gives off a "black helicopter" vibe) and more theologically conventional as well (even with the talking wolves), the author does step outside safe territory. In particular Zimmer works in post-September 11 anxieties about the motivations behind the "War on Terror," and the hollowing out of a U.S. economy living off foreign-financed debt in a way much less in evidence during the tech boom years. His particular handling of this combination of elements also makes the book an easier sell with "Nine-Eleven" now "Seven-Four," and the Patriot Act now the "Guardian Act."

Of course, while the theological and political touches of the story are well worth commenting on, the book is first and foremost an epic fantasy--the first part of the mult-volume "Rising Dawn" saga Zimmer envisages. To his credit, the mix of ideas he brings together has its interest, though the execution is far from faultless. His prose and characterizations are on the whole unremarkable, and at times rather flat. (The An-Ki, certainly, have little trouble stealing the show from the humans.) It does not help, either, that many members of his rather large cast of characters are not put to much use in this 566 page book. Additionally, there are few immediately significant events after the mid-point of the novel. It might be said that too much of the rather large book is devoted to setting up what will happen in later installments.

Nonetheless, Zimmer knows how to keep the reader turning the pages, and delivers a sufficiently effective foundation for a compelling enough bigger story that he earns some benefit of the doubt.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Harris, The Third Craft (2008)

James T. Harris, The Third Craft. BPS Books, 2008. Pp. 300. ISBN 9780980923124. £12.00 / $24.95.

Reviewed by Karina Kantas

Knowing that The Third Craft is a trilogy, some readers may think they have the third installment and that the 1st and 2nd parts were called ‘First’ and ‘Second Craft’ respectively. But don’t be fooled: this is a novel about the third UFO to crash land in North America. The book is a comfortable read which could almost put it into the Young Adult genre, especially as the two protagonists are 18 year-old brothers. However, The Third Craft could also be classified as a sci-fi political thriller as the plot is about the political fight between aliens and the US government.

Twin brothers, Hawk and Joe, discover the eponymous craft and in doing so unleash a conspiracy involving aliens that are human and humans that are aliens. Twenty pages in the exciting plot has the brothers just discovering the crashed UFO, Harris’s version of ‘Area 51’, and what really happened in Roswell. Too many dates and name-drops later, we get back to the plot concerning the brother’s discovery.

Unfortunately, the split in the story may cause the reader to lose the flow. The back-story on the major players and their significance plays an important role in the novel, but would work just as well with half the wordage. Too much information overloads the mind, and distracts from the adventure. Certainly, a lot of research has gone into this novel, but with sci-fi, a reader expects to be wowed by advances in science, not delivered lectures on history or religion. The backtracking dulls the senses and may have the reader turning the pages quicker than they are reading them.

Science fiction rightly focuses on the science; the author explains scientific probabilities and results in great detail, but he does so as though explaining to a novice. Most of this lengthy detail would be left on the cutting room floor if The Third Craft were a movie. The scientific detail could be expressed more visually; although Harris’s grasp of the visual in his writing is exceptional, all the back-story and detail in the in-between sections slow down the exciting plot.

There is wonderful description in this novel, however—for example, when Joe first enters the alien ship, Harris allows the reader to explore and experience the interior of the craft along with Joe’s emotions and surprise. Then comes a delicious twist: the next time the novel backtracks, we learn that not only did the government know about the UFOs, but they had been secretly performing their own experiments using alien technology. Later in the novel, Harris offers another delightful twist, one that this reader did not see coming, and that only adds to the excitement of the plot as the twins learn that their life was built around secrecy and lies, and no one is who they seem to be.

The author keeps it in the family when it comes to aliens, and it’s good to know that even extraterrestrials have problems when it comes to politics and property rights!

The books ends how a first installment should: the last chapter is fast and thrilling, causing the reader to want to know what happens next. Harris thankfully doesn’t leave any unanswered questions for future installments, but we know that there is a war coming and that the twins have many more adventures ahead.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Amis/Conquest, Spectrum 2 (1962)

Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (edd.), Spectrum 2: A second science fiction anthology. Gollancz, 1962.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad.

This is the second of the Spectrum anthologies edited by Amis and Conquest, in which they present a handful of high-quality science fiction stories originally published in the late 1940s or early '50s. These two writers are both known in-genre and respected in literary circles, and part of the agenda behind these anthologies (explicitly recounted in the introduction) is hinted at in the epigraph:
‘Sf’s no good,’ they bellow till we’re deaf.
‘But this looks good.’—’Well then, it’s not sf.’
This volume includes stories by authors as legendary as Aldiss, Asimov, Dick, and van Vogt, as well as luminaries whose names may be less familiar to twenty-first century readers. Pieces range from visionary and thrilling, to silly and dated, but all are important examples of their type, and fit as well into the literature of the mid-twentieth century as they do into the history of the genre. I picked up a battered copy of the Pan paperback reprint of this volume from the £1 clearance shelf in a London bookstore, and this review will be one reader's personal reaction to each of the eight stories within.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rector, Around a Dark Corner (2008)

Jeani Rector, Around a Dark Corner. Turner Maxwell Books, 2008. Pp. 310. ISBN 9780956188403. £8.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

This is Jeani Rector’s second collection and an example of an author who is steadily improving and developing her style. She has definitely corrected some of the weaknesses evident in her first collection and moved from the some of the traditional horror tropes it contained to the grey-shadowed, more subtle regions of that gothic land inhabited by the writers of dark fiction.

The anthology opens with a gruesome, amoral and enigmatic tale involving ‘The Dead Man’ and his killer. The reader literally stumbles on an unnamed narrator who is trying to dispose of the corpse of the title. There is a lot of medical detail and the protagonist’s plight is engaging and unnerving, right up until the final, shocking moment.

Following hard on its heels is the rather clumsily titled ‘A Medieval Tale of the Plague’. As a story it is compelling and tense, the atmosphere of fear, the filth and horror of medieval London in the midst of the Black Death is well described and vivid. Tension is cranked up relentlessly as the feisty young heroine first tries to hide from the contagion, then escape the capital. A cracking good yarn, but the effect is spoiled by some very anachronistic and jarring transatlantic language; “I figured...”, “Next street over...” and “Hi...” for example. Not terms used by medieval English - as far as I know. This is a shame because the research and the ambience of the story were authentic up to this point.

‘The Spirit of Death’ is a corker; a tale of seduction and dark and very bloody rituals. Nicely atmospheric this one, and filled with a sense of encroaching doom. In ‘Horrorscope’ we have a disturbed son who is determined to make sure his horoscope comes true at any cost. Again, tightly plotted, well-written and nasty. ‘In any Language’ takes us to Mexico at the time of the American civil war as a deserter comes face to face with a very different violence to the one he has fled south to escaper. The actual horror is traditional, but given a fresh lick of paint by its setting and a lively, energetic telling.

Another disturbed gentleman with an unhealthy interest in ‘Maggots’into a horror of rotting flesh and obsession. There is enough detail and sensory description to make this a story to be avoided at meal time.

‘Flight 529’ is an oddity, a card Rector first revealed in her last collection Open Grave and one I like - the retelling of a true story. In Open Grave it was a personalised version of the genesis of the Ebola epidemic, this time it is the first-hand experience a man involved in a plane crash. The description of the awful realisation that something was very wrong, the terror of the descent, the preparation for imminent impact and the desperate fight for survival that follows all draw the reader in and puts you, white-knuckled, into that seat. The final act of great human courage is both inspiring and as good as any fictional account.

This is followed by my favourite, ‘Lady Cop’. This piece is Terry’s Favourite (I always have one) and a longer, first-person narrative that takes us into the world of a woman police officer. What makes this story stand out is a sense of authenticity and a strong emotional engagement with the protagonist. The cop is a rookie, anxious to impress but treated with disdain by her male partner and colleagues. The case is a nasty one, a murder. Step-by-step the story takes the reader through procedure, emotion, the tension surrounding the case and its brutal dénouement and aftermath. There was a sense of truth about ‘Lady Cop’.

Next is ‘The Golem’ about... well, it does what it says on the tin, and more so because it is a retelling of a Jewish legend. Set in the Prague Ghetto in the 16th century, the story centres around Rabbi Loew who is forced, reluctantly, to take desperate and supernatural action to protect his people from yet another wave of brutal persecution. The problem is that it is very hard to close the door on what comes through from the darker regions. This one is a good historical piece, with no anachronisms or jarring Americanisms. Leow’s dilemma is well presented and the story moves at a cracking pace.

The collection ends with a novella called ‘A Teenage Ghost Story’. Again, a clumsy title that gives too much away because essentially it is about a teenager and... well... a ghost. That said however, the story itself is another compelling, engaging tale that keeps those pages turning. The teenager at the centre of the tale is, thankfully, not the kind of whining, Oh-My-God princess Hollywood throws at us with its endless High School and then-there-were-none slasher movies, but a very personable young lady who quickly wins the reader’s affection. The supernatural element is perhaps not entirely original but the page-turning narrative does draw you in as it races neatly towards this dramatic conclusion.

The cover art is suitably gothic and provides the right feel for the collection. However, I’m afraid the publisher has messed up, certainly with my copy. The spine text is upside-down and off-centre. While not detracting from the stories themselves it doesn’t give the sharp, professional feel necessary to sell a book. And it is unfair to an author who has done her part in laying down some good prose and fine stories. Hopefully this has been rectified.

At her best, with ‘Lady Cop’ for example, Rector displays a keen eye for detail and an ability to engage the reader emotionally with her characters. The same, though to a lesser extent is true of the closing novella. There are some fine dark moments and enough morbid detail and nasty surprises to keep most horror fans happy. There are some predictable endings, but even they can be forgiven because the prose is friendly, likeable, the book is an acquaintance, relating some terrible and dark things that they heard about or experienced.

So, an immensely enjoyable collection of well-plotted and readable stories. There is a mixture of original and traditional–in the horror sense–work, but even the familiar monsters are given a fresh feel and there is no trace of tiredness to them. The historical and real-life re-telling is an interesting string to Rector’s bow, and one I hope she develops further, providing the research and attention to detail–particularly the dialogue–is sound. This is different and works well. Another admirable quality of Rector is that she has taken criticism of her first book on the chin and acted on it to produce a much improved and enjoyable work.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Dolan, Another Santana Morning (2008)

Mike Dolan, Another Santana Morning. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 195. ISBN 9780955318153. £5.99 / $12.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This collection stands out a little from the usual fare from small press favourite Elastic Press, by having a more laid-back feel than most. The stories collected here by Mike Dolan veer wildly from fantastic, through trippy, magical, realist, to allegorical, with a generous helping of childlike enthusiasm and innocence. A similar collection to this was first published in 1970, but fell victim to an obscure distributor (who specialised in porno rather than sci-fi) and disappeared rather quickly. The author has apparently not been active in science fiction in the intervening years, but he has come back strongly with this volume. In places the writing feels naive, the content perhaps dated (even in the case of previously unpublished pieces), but this is not entirely a bad thing: there is plenty of 1960s and '70s genre fiction that remains relevant and readable to this day, despite being obviously written in a different time.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Maloney, Six Silly Stories (2008)

Geoffrey Maloney, Six Silly Stories. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 64. £3.00.

Reviewed by Craig Bellamy

Six Silly Stories by Australian author Geoffrey Maloney is a collection of six short fairytale stories that subvert commonplace, everyday situations. The stories are brief and morbid, only at times rescued by the shear absurdity of the situation. The characters are threadbare, gloomy and tragic, and leave the reader with an eerie sense of loss rather than the buoyancy gained through having a giggle or a laugh. Perhaps there is a dark sense of humour at work; but it is not always apparent. The reader often feels uneasy and unable to laugh at situations that involve such absurd human suffering.

Maloney has been writing for 20 years and like many Australian authors, it is difficult to pin him down within any genre. Perhaps this is the nature of the small writing scene in Australia where authors are broader; unable to survive in a single scene that may flourish in larger readerships such as England. He has been known to write dark fantasy and ‘future political histories’ and in his own words if there is a unifying charter to his work it is that “I’m always keen to put my characters into odd situations and see how they deal with it. Basically, they need to suffer or at least be terribly confused by what is happening to them” (see Tabula Rasa interview [2006]). I tend to like this about his characters, and indeed this tactic to subvert the banal. This refusal to leave the reader in a comfortable known position surrounded by the prosaic attachments is not the safest path for an author, even in a field as weird as speculative fiction.

In Six Silly Stories there is the story of a woman in an office who has powerful perfume that renders passers-by unconscious—including the repugnant corporate boss. There is the story of a raunchy party on an aeroplane whilst the engines burn, a man dances on the wing, and ants strip the pilot's flesh bare. There is a story of indifferent voyeurs in an office tower who watch the ‘down-on-their luck’ residents in the tower-block next door whilst making wagers on the chances of them jumping to their death. This story is treated with caviller indifference and if there is humour there, then it is dark humour set against a night sky. There is a story of a man trying to get a job as an ant-catcher (that doesn’t really make sense at all); a story of a man levitating in a doctor’s surgery, and finally, the story of a rather dull character riding on the bus where he finds true love in the back of the head of the lady in front of him. Looking at the back of someone’s head on the bus may be something we have all done, but still this story didn’t really cross any conceptual boundaries for me. It still remains absurdly normal.

My personal favourite is ‘Miracle at 30 000 Feet’, the story about the raunchy party on the aeroplane. Whilst reading it was searching for a meaning, for a moral to the story, to something that my subjugated work-a-day practical mind could take away and apply to a useful and meaningful task. But it wasn’t about this. It was silly and absurd. It was meaningless! It takes one of the most rigidly practical and behaviourally-strict environments imaginable; this is mundane modern air travel, and turns it into a riotous feast of Armadillos, ants, a naked nun and drunken priest, and a mysterious grim-reaper type character in a wide-brimmed hat warning the narrator that the plane’s engines are on fire. This is a modern fairytale without the childish innocence; it is gibberish, surreal and visual, almost caustic in its subversion of the mass-produced mind with its particular modes of situational behaviour. The narrator asks ‘is there a Bolivian on board’ (the plane is in fact flying to South America) and a Bolivian puts up his hand. The narrator asks if he is carrying an Armadillo, to which the Bolivian answers yes. The Armadillo is then used to eat the killer ants that have in turn eaten the pilots. Perhaps this is a happy ending; I am not sure—I will think about it when I am flying to Cairo next month. At least I will have something to think about on the plane (whilst looking at the head in front of me), that is a little more intrepid than the mundanely blended world of air travel.

A little irrational spark here and there, a few silly stories to stir up the muck a few absurd images to subvert the ‘normal-o-pathic’ path on the long tedious journey to being, well, normal. Maloney has succeeded at doing this, if this is what he intended to do. The whole collection is a bit patchy with some stories standing out more than others, but still the whole silly collection is worth reading if your thinking, like mine, needs a little jolt every now and again. I just wish I could have laughed a bit more.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Ashley (ed.), Subtle Edens (2008)

Allen Ashley (ed.), Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-0955318191. £7.99.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

What exactly is slipstream? From the back cover of Subtle Edens: “Slipstream may use the tropes and ideas of science fiction, fantasy and horror but is not bound by their rules. Slipstream may appear to be conventional literary fiction but falls outside the staid boundaries.”.

So, this definition suggests, some stories are most definitely literary, and some are most certainly genre, and between the two there lies a kind of buffer zone, where each may dip into the other’s tropes and ideas. But not quite with impunity, because the progeny of this mixed marriage can no longer be thought purely genre nor literary, and so needs a name of its own: Slipstream.