Saturday, January 23, 2010

Harvey, Winter Song (2009)

Colin Harvey, Winter Song. Angry Robot Books, 2009. Pp. 409. ISBN 9780007321018. $10.20 / €5.80.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Colin Harvey's Winter Song is one of the first books to appear in the new genre imprint from HarperCollins, the promising-looking Angry Robot Books, promotional copies of which have been circulated by the BSFA and elsewhere. The story is both a hard science fiction adventure with cultural details that should please historical fiction enthusiasts, and a study of convincing and sympathetic, while complex and sometimes infuriating human characters, in all their tragic and comic aspects, their familiarity and their alienness. The world-building is proficient, detailed and explicit, as the ice planet Isheimur batters the cast of characters with an impressive array of dangers. But behind this is the more subtle Universe-building, with details hinted at and a whole never quite glimpsed, while characters are the products of their environment, and can be seen to grow and as they adapt to their settings.

The narration shifts abruptly from character to character in the early stages of the book, with a close focus third-person voice for each of the three protagonists, plus a disorienting second-person narration for the most autistic and solipsistic character. With no omniscient narrator to give the book its moral compass, this is a subtle and intelligent novel full of social observation and characterization. We see from close-up the functioning of a "degenerated" society, the repression, especially of women, in a hierarchical and patriarchal culture; the women are indeed repressed by their social positions, not only by the men around them, and the men are no more free to chose their own fates (although they are, inevitably, less constrained and brutalized). Harvey's novel does a good job of undermining the romance and idealization of Viking culture, while simultaneously showing a certain admiration for the Germanic warrior's code of honour. It is to his credit that he explores these repressive, primitive, conservative and reactionary cultural features without using Muslim imagery as so many science fiction writers today seem to.

Karl is the pilot and solo crew-member of a sentient spaceship that is attacked by radical Traditionals while on a long-haul journey through an apparently unsettled system. He ejects just before his ship is destroyed, and falls into the atmosphere of the winter planet Isheimur with only his healing nanophytes and micrometre-thick lifegel to protect him. Crash-landing on the icy surface of the world he is terribly injured and mentally scarred by the ordeal. Karl is rescued by Ragnar, the tyrant and respected gothi of a wealthy but desperate farmstead on the surface of this isolated planet, who saves the mysterious spaceman's life but demands a dire debt of service in return for his hospitality. The raving and schizoid off-worlder is nursed back to health by the tragic Bera, a grieving, shamed and bullied young woman who is being punished by her adoptive family for having—and losing—a child out of wedlock.

The icy planet Isheimur, which orbits a binary star and is in a period of almost perpetual winter and thin atmosphere, is populated by inedible beasts, monsters named after figures from Icelandic mythology, and devolved humanoid "trolls". This freezing world—I wonder if the horror of its description would have been as intense had I not read it during one of the coldest Januaries for many years—is the setting for a story in three acts. In the first part, beautifully observed and written, we see life on the struggling farmstead under a tyrannical gothi, with a varied cast of characters and a sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere. The second part is a journey across the wilderness, a thrilling adventure, pursued by Norsemen and facing dangers every step, the protagonists learning the limits of their human (even enhanced human) abilities. The third part—in my view the weakest, with perhaps the most contrived plot-twists and morally problematic decisions—is a space journey on a doomed ship.

Winter Song is a very competent book by an author with several novels to his name already. It is nicely packaged by Angry Robot Books, with an unmistakably scifi but not tasteless cover, and generally good production quality. (There are a few avoidable mistakes in the text, such as a couple of partially edited sentences, with what seem to be rewritten clauses with the original accidentally not deleted, and trivial inconsistencies such as the statement that when they first left the farm the fugitives travelled "a hundred kilometers per day" but later only half that, and a few pages later, that they had started out covering "over fifty kilometers a day" but later only half that. On the whole proofreading and editing are excellent.) That the characters, social interactions and cultures are so nicely constructed and observed is no detraction from this novel's claim to be a hard science fiction adventure, and it is the stronger book for it.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Whates, The Gift of Joy (2009)

Ian Whates, The Gift of Joy. NewCon Press, 2009. Pp. 254. ISBN 9781907069017. £9.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

Joy is the best word to describe The Gift of Joy, a collection of mostly (but not only) science fiction stories from Ian Whates, because that is what comes across from start to finish, a sense of sheer enjoyment, a feeling that writing is nothing but pleasure. Here is someone, you think, who loves writing. Even its striking Vincent Chong cover crackles with energy, there is light and dazzle, technology and menace, a perfect representation of what is inside.

Take the opener, and title story, for example. Here we have the ultimate gigolo, the consummate tribute act, someone who can literally turn themselves into their client’s fantasy. Then there is the breathless, not-a-word-wasted, time-running-out thriller ‘The Final Hour’ in which there are only 60 minutes to save the universe. War, the real meaning of heroism and its consequences are examined in ‘The Battle for Paradise’, which is a vivid, visceral epic in which men fight and die but for a cause, which like all causes, is seldom really one that is worth such a monstrous loss of life. ‘Flesh and Metal’ is yet another fast and furious thriller, man on a mission verses killing machine, cross and double-cross, threat on every side, who do you trust? Another loner manoeuvres his way through deceit and danger in ‘One Night in London’, an enjoyable and imaginative package-to-be-delivered yarn.

On a more thoughtful note there is ‘Fear of Fog’ which is a tricky, elusive tale about a couple caught out in a fog that reeks of malevolence and oncoming menace. The woman seems to know what is going to happen, and there are other things that seem wrong, atmospheric this one. Another slower and darker piece is ‘Ghosts in the Machine’, the haunters of the foul and shadowed underground of the city; lost souls or something more vital?

For light relief there is ‘Glitch in the System’, set in a village battered by a stream of lorries taking a short cut through the lanes, and ‘Hint of Mystery’ set in the competitive world of Asian food.

Tel’s Favourite is ‘The Sum of the Past’, once again an examination of identity, of why we are what we are, told by a space hero who is, or perhaps isn’t such a hero after all. A clever story laced with subtlety beneath its portrayal of the brash and bold.

There is more, a lot more, each one filled with that same energy and vitality that sets this collection apart from so many I have read. It is not completely devoid of cynicism, yet even the darker stories hold some element of the upbeat. Is it the style of writing, the pace, it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but nothing in here left me beaten and bruised and in need of fresh air.

This joy is not shallow however. Okay there are out-and-out adventure stories, but there are difficult questions asked, examinations of the human condition carried out in the extreme laboratories of fantastical fiction. There is mood and shade among the bright colours. ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ for example is a powerful allegory of rich and poor, of the privileged, blind to the grinding, oil-covered machinery that maintains their bright and smooth running world. There is consideration of the true nature of heroism, of the indescribably waste of life wrought by war. Political folly and national ambitions are dissected in ‘The Laughter of Ghosts’.

The book is not without blemish of course. For me, the weakest link is ‘It’s About Time!’, a chronological romp inspired by the time travel tales of Isaac Asimov. I just don’t like this type of story and, sadly, this one did nothing to change my mind. Also a lot of the stories are set in the type of dark, deadly and noirish underbelly of the futuristic city which readers find themselves visiting more and more in the pages of the SF story. That said, however, Whates does zap those much-used places with a much-needed lick of fresh paint and so can be forgiven for leading us into such familiar dens and dives yet again. The short afterward to each story was, I think, unnecessary. For me the stories were very strong and able to stand up without explanation as to their origins and also these potted autobiographies brought me back to earth too quickly, I wanted to carry on believing that I had been to a real Universe of Wonder for just a little longer.

Ian Whates’ writing is smooth and immensely readable. There is no pretentiousness, words are well chosen and the narrative straight to the point, but at the same time able to connect the reader emotionally to the cast of these stories and that, along with an electric imagination is his strong point, is what keeps the pages turning and the bedside lamp glowing far beyond its normal switch-off time.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Fry, Mindful of Phantoms (2009)

Gary Fry, Mindful of Phantoms. Gray Friar Press, 2009. Pp. 276. ISBN 9781906331078. $26.00 / £14.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

Supernatural fiction tends to be gathered together into a general, rather messy pile made up of vampires, monsters, blood-stained fang and claw, crazed, demon-possessed killers etc. In some bookshops it is even dumped into the same out-of-the-way dark corner as science fiction and fantasy. Okay, there are overlaps, and long may they lap over, but for me the ghost story is a separate entity, a sub-genre replete with its own mores and tropes. The ghost story is rooted deeply in human emotion. Ghosts themselves often wander the earth because of unfinished business, unresolved love, justice to be done. Ghosts are seldom demon-possessed killers or in need of flesh, blood and souls to feed on. Ghosts are that part of us that cannot be fed or touched, our souls I suppose, the intensely emotional part of our makeup that has somehow survived and needs to fulfil one final purpose before rest can be found.

Gary Fry’s Mindful of Phantoms fits this definition perfectly. Here you will find the lingering and often dangerous remains of human emotion made manifest and explored classically through the medium (no pun intended but it is a neat one don’t you think?) of the ghost story. Fry himself is an author who fascinates me. I often feel that there is a lot more going on in his work than meets the eye, that there are layers to be peeled away before the real text can be laid bare. It is in the ghost story, therefore, that Fry’s explorations of the human condition find a good home.

So, to the book itself. Mindful of Phantoms, a clever title, another neat pun. The cover art, suitably dark and unsettling, is the work of the author himself. The edition I read, a handy sized and pleasant-to-handle hardback.

There are 18 stories in all, none of them overstays its welcome but all are long enough to fully develop character and theme. These characters are realistic, people you could meet on your way through life, builders, teachers, newlyweds, the old and the young. They live in this world, in houses like ours, in streets like ours. And, importantly, their motives and pressures, their emotional souls are like ours. What they want are the normal, the mundane and necessary things that make life work. Indeed, it is these everyday needs and desires that form the foundation on which the supernatural element is built, giving the stories three solid dimensions and delivering a hefty emotional jolt to the reader. None of the of the protagonists are tiresome ghost hunters or mindless gun-carriers and, importantly, none of them are the standard angry, alienated small press loner-loser. Something I found refreshing about the collection because more and more I want to grab Mr Small Press Hero, tell him to pull himself together, get a job and make up with his long-suffering girlfriend.

The opener, ‘School of Fought’ sets the tone nicely. Acted out in a private boarding school it has all the elements of the classic ghost story, an old building, a dark secret seldom spoken about but buried in the shallowest of graves and justice still to be done. It also reveals an M R Jamesian ambiguity that permeates most of these tales and one that, for the most part, works well because the glimpsed, the imagined monster is always more frightening than the full-on horror.

‘Black Dogs’ takes us into more subtle ground where the ghosts may be real, or they may be imagined. Whichever they are, they are certainly no less unsettling. Yes, it is a tale of shadows and lurking menace but it is also an examination of family politics, of father-and-son love and this is what gives it its strength. ‘The Tree House’, ostensibly a tale of possession, also considers family tension as seen through the eyes of a young boy who is given the gift of a tree house by a shadowy benefactor. In ‘On the Wings’ a young lad struggles for acceptance in that most terrifying of all jungles, the school playground. He chooses his friends badly, and his own talents and strengths suffer as a result, he finds cruelty coiled in himself, and all the while something dark and monstrous is circling about him. A real monster, or a manifestation of his own guilt and frustration? Or both? Again, questions and no comfortable answers, one of the great strengths of this book.

Among the longer stories is ‘Unfriendly Fire’ which features an aging and recently widowed academic who is seeking some peace by the sea. He is an affable character, and, in the end, an unlikely detective, because a chance encounter leads him into yet another of Fry’s simple-yet-complex mysteries. It represents the slightly lighter side of the collection, a side that includes ‘The Price to Pay’, the tale of an unpleasant Estate Agent who finds more to a property than its prime location and suitability for the DIY enthusiast. A gang of builders take centre stage for another entertaining slice of darkness in ‘Figure of Fun’. Having spent the first twenty years of my own working life on building sites I found this bunch realistic and engaging, and the ghost/spirit/evil force original and truly menacing.

I have a pair of favourites; I know normally I go for one but I can’t decide between the two. The first is ‘Man’s Best Friend’ in which a woman who has fled from an abusive relationship discovers that escape is not as easy as she would have liked to believe. There is a tightness to this story and, again, that out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye M R James ambiguity, which heightens the sense of dread and arouses the got-to-finish-this curiosity of the reader.

‘Index of an Enigma’ is the other Tel’s Favourite. The tension between husband and wife, suspicion, self-pity and a vivid I've-been-there descriptions of the dreaded professional conference gives this tale its edge. I was quickly connected to the protagonist, and, even though I didn’t like him, was along for the ride and not willing to get off until I’d seen it through.

On the down-side, some of the prose was a little clumsy and clunky, but this was a small price to pay for the journey. When he is flying, Fry’s style is individual and interesting. He is able to engage the emotion, he takes you with him and there is enough unpredictability to keep you once he has you. Also, there is a tendency for the ghosts (real or imagined) to be glimpsed in a similar way, a face at a window or a figure lurking among the trees and so on. I know this is gives a phantom its menace, its shivery, half-seen fearfulness, but I would have liked a little variety in the manifestation department.

Having said that, it in no way detracts from the excellence of this book. Mindful of Phantoms does what a collection of ghost stories should do. It removes the soul, the glowing, indefinable part of ourselves we call our emotions, our needs, and gives it form. It is sadness and loss and danger. It is uncertainty.

It is good.

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