Monday, September 27, 2010

Bull Spec #2 (2010)

Bull Spec issue 2, Summer 2010. Pp. 64. ISSN 2152-5234. $8.00.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

I tend to prefer full-sized magazines. Digest sized magazines are fine, but in my opinion they’re never going to match holding a glossy, full-sized offering. There’s the extra detail that can be gleaned from the artwork, and the contents appear far less pinched. Fonts tend to be bigger, too. Bull Spec, as you might have gathered, is a full-sized speculative fiction magazine, with colour covers front and rear, and colour first page and last.

I thought at first this was a magazine purely for fiction, but in fact Bull Spec is very much compartmentalised in that all the fiction is offered first, followed by a graphic short, then poetry, then interviews and features, and an editorial.. It struck me as an unusual layout—most, if not all, magazines I’ve read tend to interweave such material—and I can’t quite decide if I like this particular way of doing things, whether it felt clunky to read everything in segments. And then I think, why not be a little different in layout?

The fiction is of a very high standard. The opener is ‘Echoes of the Bouncing Ball’, by Paul Celmer. At a page and a half, Echoes is one of the shorter offerings. It’s a story of choices, of an off-world gift for a small son; but more so of life choices and their consequences for a miserable or a contented future. That the protagonist, Wheeler, is given a second chance turns what could be a bleak tale into a satisfying one. It’s a thoughtful story well crafted.

‘By the Dragon’s Tail’, by Kaolin Fire, is also very short in length. This feels much more of a traditional fantasy story. After what I felt to be a somewhat vague opening (surely vagueness at the start is a trademark of tales leaning toward higher fantasy?), Kith is sent upon a quest to seek the dragon’s tail. It’s here the tale, for me, comes into its own. The writing, particularly towards the end, feels much more dynamic and vibrant, and through this and because of the story’s short length, I can forgive the somewhat pedestrian opening.

‘Hirasol’, by Melissa Mead, is a great read. On a distant world, when a landing earth-ship hits and cripples one of the planet’s indigenous, horse-like creatures, there evolves a deeply poignant tale of caring, and love, and choice, and loss. The story unfolds naturally, growing in complexity until we can appreciate all the subtle undertones Mead feeds us and all is ultimately revealed in context of why they’re there and what it means for the earth. I was spellbound by this story from start to last.

‘The Other Lila’, by Gwendolyn Clare, deals with the aftermath of a teleportation malfunction creating two identical copies of Lila. My first instinct was that this was not a new storyline (has this been done already by Star Trek?). But I think Clare adds a subtlety to the idea that makes for a thoughtful read. The two Lilas are portrayed so deliciously similar that the reader has to question just what it is that makes for an individual. And that leads to deeper questions about what is consciousness itself (if you can get the same thought processes simply by replicating a bunch of atoms then consciousness can only be a hardware phenomenon). I like also that Clare thinks about the legal implications of such an accident—which individual is the true Lila? I think there’s much more to this story even if ultimately Clare hints there’s an (albeit somewhat bleak) solution to Lila’s predicament. A fine read indeed.

‘The Sad Story of the Naga’, by Uri Grey, is an odd amalgamation of urban fantasy with a mixing of mythologies (assuming I can call Christianity a mythology). It seems to me this is one of those stories from which I should glean some deep, meaningful message. Yet the meaning always remains elusive, and I’m left feeling a little empty. There’s more unanswered than answered. I Googled Naga and frankly that didn’t help. So whilst this story is nicely written, I personally would deem it unsatisfying overall. Of course, there is the distinct possibility that I’m a bit thick.

An excerpt of the novel Firefly Rain, by Richard Dansky, followed by an interview with the author makes for interesting reading. Similarly, a review of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer, when also followed by an interview with the author adds that nice personal touch. I like that in Bull Spec. There’s also a further interview and the transcript of a talk given by author and academic John Kessel. The subject, ‘Imagining the Human Future’, is as relevant today as it was in 2001 when first delivered.

Bull Spec editor, Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, included a personal note along with the review copy. In it he says: “I hope to build my magazine into a place not only for stories, but for discussion of the important subjects of our shared future.” Well, my impression of Bull Spec is that he’s doing just that. This magazine comes well recommended.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tidhar, Cloud Permutations (2010)

Lavie Tidhar, Cloud Permutations. PS Publishing, 2010. Pp. 130. ISBN 9781848630437. £12.00.

Reviewed by Sarah Ann Watts

Cloud Permutations is a novella set on a planet called Heven with a magical South Seas setting. Kal is a boy who just wants to fly, but flying on Heven is tabu, against kastom, and carries a fatal penalty. A very young Kal is warned by his grandfather, ‘One should never speak lightly of clouds.’ Clouds are a mystical and powerful force in this world, ever present in the skies they inspire an almost religious awe and are regarded with respect and fear.

Kal and his friend Vira slip away from school to build a kite, named after the original ship, the Hilda Lini, that brought the people of Man Vanuatu to their new world. Here they have established a new society based on the culture of the world they left. Kastom is everything and traditions endure—like meeting in the nakamal in the shade of a nambanga tree brought from ‘Old Earth’, and the drinking of kava.
“But this, Kal thought, was not Earth. This was Heven. It was a new world, his world and he would not bow down to kastom. He wanted—desired—to fly. And flying had been forbidden by kastom.”
Kal and Vira rebel against this tabu, and the retribution is immediate. Vira falls from the sky and Kal is exiled from his home island Epi to the floating island of Tanna. The decision to exile Kal is taken more in sorrow than in anger—‘those who live in the sky have been offended’ and so Kal must leave. Arriving at the floating island of Tanna he is greeted by the mysterious Moli Solomon, ‘wan woman blong wotadroing’ and learns there is a dark tower in his future.
“It waited for Kal. It had waited for a long time. How long, perhaps, only the clouds really knew.”
So Kal becomes the boy of the prophecy, meets a new friend, Bani Voko Voko Leo, ‘a thief by reasons of ideology’, who has his own prophecy to fulfil. Bani invites Kal to join him on a ‘small trip’—possibly the most casual invitation to a quest since Bilbo Baggins rushed headlong out of Bag End without a handkerchief. Kal sets sail from Naetsaed on a ship called the Sanigodaon with Bani, three students and Captain Desmon for the island of the Narawan, or ‘other’. Soon he discovers that there is so much more to Heven than the small part of it that his people colonised and made their home.

This is a tale that has everything. Described as a planetary romance and with a setting that begs for the Avatar 3D treatment, it is nevertheless the detail and honesty in the characterisation that does so much to bring the story alive and make it real. In some ways it is rite of passage—Kal grows up, he finds a friend and falls in love—and yet there is so much more.

Lavie Tidhar makes inventive use of Bismala language: sometimes there is a translation and sometimes the meaning hovers elusively just out of reach. It is a game he invites the reader to share—there is an inspired chapter heading that invites a gasp of appreciation and many other resonances and allusions lie in wait beneath the surface of the story. This playing with the reader invites complicity; the reading experience takes on something of the dynamic of a story teller telling tales to an audience around the fire.

It is perhaps not only Moli Solomon who draws fabulous images on water. Her creator shares something of the same art, giving us cloud castles that drift just out of reach yet linger in the mind. I felt like a child who didn’t ever want the book to close or the story to end.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pincent, Magic Mirror (2010)

Ed Pincent, Magic Mirror. Eibonvale Press, 2010. Pp. 354. ISBN 9780956214799. £12.99.

Reviewed by Jaym Gates

Magic Mirror is a giant compendium of 44 of Ed Pincent’s graphic works from over the years (1982-present), personally selected by the artist and including out-of-print material. The pieces range from one page in length, to the 90+ page story ‘Saga of the Scroll’. The illustrations are entirely black and white. Pincent has been heavily involved in the small-press British comics scene, at one point buying the magazine and distributor Fast Fiction. His work has also been published in Australian magazines such as Escape Magazine, Knockabout Comix and Fox Comics.

Citing influences ranging from Calvino and Borges to modern comics, Pincent’s personal style is certainly unique. Somewhat chaotic and appearing to draw heavily on the styles of magic surrealism and slipstream, Magic Mirror is a fun romp through the imagination. From Aesop-styled fables (‘The Ballad of Mr. Ossawary’) to full-out surrealism (‘The Scapegoat’), the range is impressive.

The collection comes with a set of author’s notes at the end, talking about each story. While he expresses, in these notes, a wish that the reader will form their own opinions of each comic, I did find the notes to be helpful in gaining a broader understanding of the story underneath. Because some of these stories are so surreal, and so many are open-ended, the notes can be a good closure.

The art is black and white line-art, bold and striking. The styles range from grotesque forms that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror story, to a simpler form, reminiscent of Thurber’s cartoon people. The black and white can get a little tiring on the eyes. I would very much like to see Pincent release a color version of this.

In ‘The Saga of the Scroll’, a story covering nearly 100 pages, Pincent’s talent has a chance to really display itself. The bizarro aspects of the story certainly do not detract from the deeper mythological elements of it. Pincent has drawn from the Bible, mythology, the tarot deck, history, and half a dozen other influences to craft a story of the victory of Good Over Evil, and a new beginning for the world. This story has been out of print for some time, which is a shame!

‘The Seven Faces of Manley Ville’ is an example of one of the weaker pieces in here. Without a clear plot and an ending best described as abrupt and unexplained, and the telling does not sparkle like so many of the others do.

The only real drawback I noticed in this collection is that the stories do run together and the divisions are not always clearly marked. So there are times when one ends, but the beginning of the next is missed. Read carefully, or it might get a little confusing! The individual pieces in Magic Mirror are coherently positioned, adding up to a sort of arcing mythology. Overall, this is an eclectic, enjoyable collection, good for the Pincent enthusiast to add to the collection, or for newer fans to introduce themselves to his work.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Baddeley, Vampire Lovers (2010)

Gavin Baddeley, Vampire Lovers: Screen's Seductive Creatures of the Night. Plexus Publishing Ltd, 2010. Pp. 192. ISBN 9780859654500. £14.99/$19.95.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Gavin Baddeley is a new writer to me. There appear to be no formal academic credentials attached to his previous oeuvre, but there is a list of cheerfully robust gothic titles to his name: novels, examinations of lurid episodes in history (‘Devils Histories’ series), ‘guides to’ themes of gothic subculture and a profile of Marilyn Manson. Baddeley is vaunted as an ordained Priest in the Church of Satan and journalist, with Kerrang! Magazine dubbing him 'King Goth' and The Journal of Popular Culture naming him as 'the patron saint of Gothic journalism' (quotes from author’s blurb on Amazon). His books are widely promoted through multiple sites that link back to commercial giant Amazon, establishing pop-culture appeal. I approached Vampire Lovers as a newcomer to his work; expectations based more on the saturation of vampire-themed books on the market, and wondering how Baddeley could make his stand out.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Slavnikova, 2017 (2010)

Olga Slavnikova, 2017. Duckworth Overlook, 2010. Pp. 414. ISBN 9780715639108. £16.99.

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Acclaimed Russian writer and critic Olga Slavnikova’s 2017: A Novel won her a second Russian Booker Prize three years ago. London-based Duckworth Publishers has recently released an English-language translation by Marian Schwartz, which given Duckworth’s list, can be taken as either a rare foray into speculative fiction (like their publication of Brian Aldiss’s HARM back in 2007), or a reminder of the often blurry line between “literary fiction” and “science fiction.” (As might be expected given Slavnikova’s standing, and as I quickly confirmed, the latter strikes me as more useful.)

2017 centers on a gem-cutter named Krylov living in a large city in Russia’s Riphean region at the titular near-future date. (The city is unnamed, and the fictional Riphean mountains are only vaguely located for the reader, though it has been common to take them as drawing on Slavnikova’s native Urals.) In the book’s opening pages Krylov is at the train station, seeing his old colleague Professor Anfilogov off on a prospecting expedition in the Riphean mountains. Before he departs the scene he encounters a mysterious woman named Tanya, with whom he begins an unconventional liaison. Meanwhile, a bizarre replay of the events of a century before—the October Revolution of 1917—seems to be getting underway inside the country.

There is a touch of the thriller here in Krylov’s involvement in the illicit gem trade, and the intrigues in which his affair with Tanya embroils him, the stirrings of political revolution, and later on, the business scandal Krylov finds exploding around him. However, the thriller elements are essentially a framework for Slavnikova’s satirical portrait of an ultra-commodified, decaying world where humanity has become superfluous.

To be frank, I found many of Slavnikova’s themes and techniques rather familiar. The novel’s preoccupation with authenticity and its absence in a late capitalist context; the exhaustion of history and politics; the touches of conspiracism and anachronism; the epistemological pessimism and the declarations of humanism as dead; the science fictional and fantastic touches blurring the boundaries of what is conventionally thought of as reality (and the organic and inorganic); the quality of rendering the familiar strange, and the deliberately oblique, diffuse, even hazy storytelling which deprives almost everything of solidity—this has been standard, even textbook postmodern fare for decades.

Nonetheless, the central subject, Russia one hundred years after the Bolsheviks, is a substantial one, and the book is compellingly ambitious in taking it on. Some parts of the story are quite memorable, like the depiction of the funeral home business run by Krylov’s ex-wife Tamara, which offers its customers a lottery drawing with prizes like Caribbean vacations. (The “Masker’s” revolution, in which Red Cavalry did battle with White Guards, is nothing short of brilliant.) There is an impressive touch of atmosphere in various places in the story, and the whole effectively conveys a sense of a shabby, decrepit, unreal world.

Yet, the novel only occasionally reached that level, and the fragments never quite added up to the postmodern epic the book seemed to be aiming for. The Riphean mountains intended to offer a counterpoint to Krylov’s city never came alive for me, and for that matter, neither did Krylov. Additionally, the narrative rarely gave me a sharp sense of the extremes of which Slavnikova’s characters speak, and which are essential to the story—those extremes of greed and commodification run amuck, of wealth and poverty, of the vulgarization, marginalization and even destruction of what should be respected as essential to life, even the best bits losing some of the punch they should have had. The vast journalism on the state of post-Soviet Russia I have seen these last two decades (fact more striking than fiction in this case), and a great deal of far less celebrated fiction (from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants to the cyberpunk science fiction writers of the 1980s and their heirs) have much more vividly conveyed such visions.

Consequently, Slavnikova’s 2017 did engage me as a reader, but less often and more briefly than I hoped, especially given what the book accomplishes when it is at its best. When it was over, I felt that the book fell short of both its promise, and the unqualified praise that it has attracted from many reviewers, though its strengths still made it worthwhile.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Connell, Metrophilias (2010)

Brendan Connell, Metrophilias. Better Non Sequitur Press, 2010. Pp. 102. ISBN 0974323578. $12.00.

Reviewed by Nathan Lea

Metrophilias is a collection of short stories that explore the nuances of obsession and desire whilst focussing on a series of individuals in thirty-six different cities across the world. The obsessions range from the unusual to the bizarre to the grotesque: whilst they include descriptions of sexual pleasure derived from intercourse with amputees, deep meditation leading to orgasms after physical contact with blades of grass and insect feet, through to the total consumption of one character by his fervour for absynthe, the author writes without judgement in a detailed, honest and revealing style. These are difficult themes, and whilst grotesque in many ways, the reader is compelled to read on and honestly explore this raw yet fundamental aspect of the human condition (though in one case, the focus is on a woodland creature’s desire).

There are several striking features of this book, even aside from the vulgarity and bizarre nature of the desires. The lavish, beautiful and ekphrastic descriptions of the settings in which these tales are told, the wealth of immersive storytelling that truly captivates the reader and eases them into caring about the characters in such short stories, the honesty about the wish to keep reading and open mindedness that it demands of the reader, and the detail that the stories go into in terms of mapping desire and raw physical need to a credible piece in an incredible and often outrageous premise are especially noteworthy. There is also the use of sensuality and contradiction: food as a metaphor; much told with little; cities and people described in wonderful detail, all of which make these works breathe. Throughout the stories there is a dry humour interwoven with an earnestness and seriousness that demands respect. With so much richness, the reader needs time to absorb and appreciate these features.

I would be remiss if I did not complement Connell on his technical skill. Each character has its own voice, each story its own spark. These tales are rarely formulaic, and each has its own tale to tell. This work has an air of Catullus, Sappho, and Ovid, all of whom have explored the nature of desire, love, need and obsession using earnestness and humour. This is not to say that Connell is unoriginal or inadvertently seeking “money for old rope”—indeed, the exploration of desire is all the more vivid and revealing because he truly pushes all boundaries by using the bizarre and unthinkable, sometimes detestable, to flesh out the details. One small criticism is that on occasion, the style becomes so intensely and literally expressed that it is almost too much to swallow. However these issues can be overlooked given the overall quality and use of a philosophical style in some of the stories.

The notes of the book do say that some of these works had appeared elsewhere with a corresponding list of publications over the last decade, and as a collection of stories that explore desire and obsession, I found that reviewing this work raised questions about the significance of gender in this exploration of desire: I am left wondering how a female reader might take to this book. It is worth noting that the majority of the protagonists are male and the folly of men when succumbing to their desires is clearer than their female counterparts, who have a far more measured response (which one might argue is art imitating life!). It would not be fair to go as far as to definitively conclude that this work suffers from a gender or other cultural bias or assumes a male audience—in fact it seems to attempt an even-handed style where gender is concerned and it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on how a female audience might respond. That said, this work does focus on desire and obsession, and need not necessarily be expected to address gender explicitly.

I can certainly recommend Connell’s Metrophilias. Try to read one story at a time, maybe before bed. Each of the stories should be given appropriate time to digest so that you can appreciate their nuances.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Wilson, They Had Goat Heads (2010)

D. Harlan Wilson, They Had Goat Heads. Atlatl Press, 2010. Pp. 148. ISBN 9780982628126. $12.00.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

One of my favourite albums is Rain Dogs by the unique Tom Waits. From the first track you are transported into a dark, surreal, noir-ish universe of accordion-playing slaughterhouse workers, ships captained by one-eyed dwarves, a woman with a set of tear tattoos (one for every year he's away, she says) and the most menacing version of ‘The Rose of Tralee’ you are ever likely to hear. Why am I muttering about Tom Waits when I should be reviewing D. Harlan Wilson’s collection, They Had Goat Heads? Well, it’s because this book took me instantly into that dark, threatening, often incomprehensible, Waitsian world. In fact, I had the album’s songs spiralling through my head all the time I was reading the book.

They Had Goat Heads is best swallowed whole. A set of individual stories, vignettes, flash fictions and single-sentence narratives, it is by turns menacing, hilarious, eccentric, surreal and downright incomprehensible. Taken as a standard collection the book is difficult and a little too splintered to be fully appreciated, but as a complete work it is almost an epic poem of the absurd.

Kafka-esque enigmas litter the book, flavoured darkly with hints of menace. For example in ‘PO Box 455’, the narrator visits a post office and finds himself confronted by layers of ludicrous bureaucracy which include a visit to the Key Insertion Room, where keys are, well, inserted. Every so often a trapdoor slides open in the ceiling, then slides shut again, a touch of delicious menace that unnerves as well as puzzles. In fact this entire story could be read as a satire on the plethora of mostly unnecessary processes and procedures that control the modern world and end up achieving nothing other than the fulfilment of their own self-contained existence.

Two excellent stories provide interludes of Pythonesque humour. The first is ‘The Arrest’ in which a number of unnamed characters attempt to arrest each other with increasingly farcical violence. The story is told with great comedic energy and reminded me in many ways of the opening passages of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (read it as well as this book and you’ll see what I mean). The second stand-out comedy was ‘The Storyteller’ in which the narrator is pursued and beaten down by a colleague who insists on telling him a story.

‘The Kerosene Lantern Tour’ is a further mix of humour and utter futility. A guided tour of a lantern is now in its 86th day and begins to fall apart as the tourist themselves engage in the most bizarre activities and the guides run out of things to say. ‘Strongmen and Motorcycles (and Monkeys Too)’ has one of he best first lines I have ever read, and it maybe it is true. ‘Balloon’ asks an interesting question about the nature of murder.

Lurking in the midst of all this insanity and mayhem is a graphic story called ‘The Sister’, illustrated with unnerving skill by Skye Thorstenson. This tale is an unsettling slice of very black humour and horror in which atrocity is piled on atrocity with a matter-of-factness that makes the darkness even more disturbing.

While we’re on the subject of illustration, the book’s cover art (the work of Brandon Duncan) is delightfully surreal and its orange brown and yellow colour-scheme gives it a distinctly pulp-feel—an irony in itself because pulp fiction this book is not.

The narrative style is simplistic yet complex, detailed descriptions of the strange, conversations, rituals and actions of the protagonists, reminiscent of a cross-eyed, cross-tempered Ben Turpin berating Laurel and Hardy with an angry “You gave to him and he gave to you and you gave to him, you’re all nuts!” Many of the stories have no obvious plot or direction, yet, as stated earlier, reading the book as a whole, complex work rather than a dip-in collection gives a sense of the absurdity of the world in which we live, the pointlessness of bureaucracy and, sadly, our own obsessions and actions, and the random nature of life itself.

Often infuriating and puzzling, but glorious anarchic, satisfyingly different and immensely rewarding, They Had Goat Heads is not an easy read, but then shouldn’t difficult be an essential part of our reading experience?

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