Thursday, October 28, 2010

Schramm, Black Market Memories (2010)

David A. Schramm, Black Market Memories. CreateSpace, 2010. Pp. 216. ISBN 1452863091. $14.95.

Reviewed by Sam Kelly

This is David Schramm’s first fiction book, self-published through CreateSpace.com. It’s solidly bound and set in a thoroughly readable typeface, with a rather decorative galactic navigation map on the front cover. As the website says, “Frustrated by other intergalactic adventures that rely upon fantasy science such as Faster Than Light and Warp drives, Worm Holes and Star Gates, Schramm shows us a future based on real physics and achievable engineering”, and he certainly has the credentials to do that. It’s largely a police procedural, using the tropes of thwarted kidnap, witness protection, and murder charges to examine his future world and peoples’ emotional relations within it.

There’s a lot to like about Schramm’s worldbuilding imagination, with Stellars (uploaded humans in zippy little space computers), virus-laden grenades, and digital drugs injected by laser gun. Simgames, virtual worlds addictive enough that they were outlawed decades ago, are a major plot point.

Sadly, Black Market Memories is very much let down by Schramm’s writing style, which is rather pedestrian, crammed with infodumps and sprinkled with acronyms like hundreds and thousands on a fairy cake. Each piece of new technology (the Stellar Unit, the surgical lasgun, the Electromagnetic Pulse, the Paired-Particle Digital Quantum Radio, the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Package…) is carefully introduced with its full name and a description, and thereafter referred to by its acronym each time. I don’t doubt there are readers who appreciate this approach to futuristic technology (indeed, I’m sure Schramm is one) but I’m very much not one myself.

The novel is set around the year 3600. Of course, given that Schramm adheres strictly to lightspeed limitations (while explicitly leaving out relativity) that’s not as many centuries of development as it sounds, and none of the social structures or pastimes we see are at all unrecognizable to us. (Several, like the Stellar repair shop/hospital, are described as deliberately mimicking the originals for comfort.) It’s refreshing in a way; we see so many SF novels taking it as a given that everything changes, and it’s good to be reminded that that’s a genre convention and not an article of futurology.

Crime bosses are establishing an illegal simgame (set in 18th-century Earth—I’d have loved to have seen scenes set inside it, a la Steel Beach or Halting State, but alas, it was not to be) and kidnapping or murdering Stellars so their stolen memories will bring the world to life. Ex-Navy SEAL and now Ranger (policeman) Arden Hughes is on the track of their hired serial killer, determined to protect his brilliant biochemist ex-lover Bobbi Rimfeldt. The plotting is not at all bad, if straightforward, but the characterization is flat, almost notional; it’s not so much lightly sketched as it is a third-generation photocopy. Arden has no motivation or interests besides protecting his ex-girlfriend and the rule of law, and Bobbi’s studies are driven by her strong mothering instinct. We see these almost entirely in narrative backstory, and the flat, almost unwavering emotional register of the text makes it extremely hard to learn more about them.

There’s the core of an interesting far-future police procedural here, and some creditable attempts at examining what it is to be human (and to be vulnerable) without the flesh, but they’re almost unrecognizable beneath the overgrowth of tin-eared acronyms and distracting prose, and they don’t make nearly as much use of the setting’s unique strangeness as it deserves. Minds without flesh, isolated by airless space and connected by communications networks, donning and changing semblances as easily as we change hairstyles; a dense, addictive virtual world powered by helpless slaves; a new, alien world evolving its own vibrant life. A more disciplined style, with much more of a focus on character and worldbuilding details rather than on technology (and more of a willingness to allow the reader to learn, rather than being told) would have brought out a great deal more from the setting.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lowe, Sui Generis and Other Fictions (2010)

Marc Lowe, ‘Sui Generis’ and Other Fictions. ISMs Press, 2010. Pp. viii + 89. Free eBook (donationware).

Reviewed by Nathan Lea

‘Sui Generis’ and Other Fictions is a collection of twenty-three distinct short stories that, whilst using different themes and topics, each focus in one way or another on the notion of “uniqueness” as the title of the first story suggests. These stories were written between 2004 and 2006 whilst the author lived and taught in Hiroshima, Japan, some of them having since been published. Certainly, the author’s knowledge and experience of Japan are present in the stories, some of them being set in Japan, whilst others adopt a cleanliness of style and vividness that one might associate with Japanese aesthetics.

That is not to say that Lowe has mimicked or been overly influenced by Japanese culture in intellectual or aesthetic terms. The reader of this work is treated to a variety of themes that cover everything from slapstick humour, science fiction, through suspense (including the supernatural) to drama and philosophy. On a technical level, the stories are written according to a consistently clean and clear style, which adapts itself to the nature of the tale being told. In addition to this, Lowe ensures that the texts are detailed to the extent that the reader can immerse themselves in them, appreciate them and enjoy them for what they are.

Through some of the stories, Lowe applies an unusual method of relaying how time elapses. Readers who are familiar with the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot that finished airing last year will remember how different periods of the story were told out of the sequence in which they occurred, achieving a form of narrative effect that allows viewers to appreciate the story in different ways depending on what information they have been presented throughout the show: Lowe achieves something very different here, by weaving the non-linear nature of his tales as a narrative device more for the effect rather than a means of discovery—it is a bold manoeuvre for stories that last between three and five pages, compromising neither the narrative flow or the quality of the writing.

But Lowe doesn’t focus on temporal manipulation alone: he skilfully takes other factors and uses them to warp the narrative experience in a way that works to emphasise and invigorate the stories that are being told. Where appropriate, Lowe has turned convention on its head in terms if narrative flow, interjecting his own comments where one normally would not expect, let alone think that such “interference” work. In addition, this unusual approach is also clear from the way that characters behave, as well as how philosophical notions drive and perpetuate the story—I couldn’t help but feel that aside from attempting to create a truly unique experience between each story, and then form a collection of unique stories uniquely, there was a self-perpetuating element to many of the stories. Reading them was as though they each had their own flicker of individuality and life, something that I have not to date observed in reading a collection of short stories.

Lowe’s style is approachable, understandable and written at face value—what you read is what you get. Whilst some of the events and topics themselves deal with matters that are by no means new material, they are nevertheless compelling and particularly where there are psychological themes, told with a sensitivity that works brilliantly. In other tales, suspense is genuinely gripping, gore grim and thrillers are enticing. Lowe also uses reader participation effectively—he tells his stories based on what must be his own experience, but in such a clear way that it will resonate with other readers’ own experience to deliver a truly personal familiarity.

In terms of criticism, there are two areas that should be mentioned. The first is that a couple of the stories ended abruptly, in a way that left me feeling slightly robbed, much in the same way as when one has not finished all the delicious treats in a pack, and has them snatched away. In these cases, I couldn’t help but feel that more could be written for them, but I acknowledge that Lowe’s mission seems more avant garde, and others might feel that these abrupt conclusions work particularly well. The other is that I didn’t immediately understand a couple of the tales, prompting me to re-read them. That said, I did at least feel compelled to re-read them!

To end on a positive note, as this work deserves, ‘Sui Generis’ and Other Fictions will make readers think, and demand their full attention, which is exactly what this work should be granted.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Harding (ed.), Music for Another World (2010)

Mark Harding (ed.), Music for Another World. Mutation Press, 2010. pp. 270 ISBN: 9781907553004. £8.99 / $14.00.

Reviewed by Meredith Wiggins

In the introduction to Music for Another World, Mark Harding describes his selection process as unrelated to any consideration of form, genre, plot, or music. Instead, Harding’s choices were dictated by the stories themselves: they were ‘...stories that made me want to harangue innocent commuters at bus stops with précis of the plot, or tie people to chairs to read excerpts aloud at them...’ Of course, the thread that links each of the 19 stories together is music and its transformative, mysterious, and somewhat nebulous power over sentient beings (human or otherwise).

The stories themselves are wide-ranging, being set in any time from the recent past to modern day and well into the far-flung future. Characters vary in gender, ethnicity, and species - from a many-gilled alien warrior with a voice like a siren (in ‘Festspeel’ by Vincent Lauzon), to a sentient ship who likes to be sung to (in ‘Lorna’ by Tom Brennan), to a not-so-tortured musician with the desire to become immortalized in his first (and last) album (in ‘The Legend of Left-Hand Lewis’ by Maxwell Peterson). As varied as the characters in the stories are the backgrounds of the authors who wrote them; Harding notes that submissions came from Guildford to XiaMen, and many places in between. It is possibly a testament to the interesting mixture of authors that the themes explored in the collection themselves are diverse: loss, obsession, desire, solitude and redemption, among others.

I enjoyed reading this collection immensely, but I did have some difficulties with the pacing. Though the book was sectioned into ‘acts’, there were many times when I felt plucked out of one world and thrown into another. However, whilst this anthology is perhaps not the best example of how well thematically-driven collections of stories can work together to create an overarching narrative structure, it is certainly a testament to the discerning taste of the editor; I found myself agreeing wholly with Harding’s desire to discuss and share many of the tales in this book with anyone who was willing to listen. A few of the stories weren’t new in plot or structure, but were imaginative re-workings of familiar themes, whilst in others I found wholly new ways of seeing music that I had never previously considered. For example, the characters in ‘Arrhythmia’ by Neil Williamson live in a world dominated by rhythm; they work and interact to a collective tempo. However the narrator, Steve, feels nothing but dread about the endless cycle of work, eat, play, sleep. The root of the story lies in Steve’s perceived isolation—his misery is magnified because he believes no one feels the way he does. However when he hears a beat that drowns out society’s intonations and finds someone to share it with, the experience isn’t what he was expecting.

While many of the stories in this collection left me wanting more, there was one in particular which seemed to create a whole world through suggestion, and left me with the fervent hope that it will be expanded into a full length novel at some point. ‘Star in a Glass’ by Vaughan Stanger is the story of the re-forming of a ‘prog-metal-ballet’ band in the near future. The story itself is in some ways an interesting character study, being centred on the egos of once-great musicians hoping to re-live their glory days. However, the details Stanger intersperses within the tantrums and trials of the band create a richly textured (if somewhat gritty) world; one which I would personally love to visit again.

Not being musical myself I picked up this book with not a little apprehension, wondering if I might be put off by technical jargon or musical snobbery, but instead I found in its pages new ways to hear, see, and experience music, and a new appreciation for why it is such a powerful art form. Some of the characters in the collection also seemed to experience music differently at the end of their stories, leading me to believe that the editor may have either consciously or subconsciously chosen works with an emphasis on how music can affect and change the nature of life, reality, and society.

Music for Another World is the first offering from Mutation Press, the brainchild of the editor of the book, Mark Harding; and if this anthology is anything to go by, I’m sure Mutation Press will be “increasing bibliodiversity” for quite some time.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Astruc, A Festival of Skeletons (2010)

RJ Astruc, A Festival of Skeletons. Crossed Genres, 2010. Pp. 175. ISBN 145375735X. $8.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Fantasy and science fiction have long had a tradition of being flexible staging arenas for social and political debates and diatribes; a ‘see here, this is important, so get your eyeballs around this!’ earnestness. Refreshingly, while some more thoughtful aspects do appear in Astruc’s A Festival of Skeletons, this is principally an off-centre novel with elements of surprise and subtlety. The packaging of this novel leads one to expect a frothy, comedic fantasy novel, peopled by grotesques and stereotypes.

Not much is obvious about this tale. For a start, a brightly-coloured volume arrived with a cover depicting main characters in garish costume and with a queer intimacy the reader is plunged straight into character action. The author’s style does not lean towards detailed description, and this is perhaps the best and most subtle technique at her employ. We come upon characters and geographical and social minutiae piece meal; bit by bit we learn motivations and history, as if we are genuinely there, learning from scratch. Though the writing style is omniscient narrator (we can be anywhere, in anyone’s mindset from one chapter to another), it is a narrator that is omniscient only in terms of where it allows us ears to see and eyes to hear. We have to be patient. Thus we may start being baffled and more than a little annoyed by the transvestite mortician, his whims and mercurial moods. But by the end of the book he is nothing less than a much-maligned hero, with good reasons for all he does.

In a world constructed of three major landmasses arranged in a ring around a central sea, the action takes place in the city of Kamphor; principal city of the land of Gavistan. Kamphor lies at the edge of the large central sea, which is also the home of a race of ‘merkind’: a non-gender specific designation of a race of mermen and women. The merkind in Kamphor live on a floating slum in the harbour made of left over wood and building materials; a second-class citizenry faced with some xenophobic attitudes by the majority human inhabitants. These merkind are not a cuddly misunderstood race; they take years to mature from formless, limbless sac-like young and once mature and humanoid in shape, are cantankerous, cannibalistic and prone to firing poisoned barbs from any number of hidden orifices.

The human inhabitants live in an environment that adheres to some staples of the fantasy genre: a High-Renaissance-style mode of living including horse-drawn vehicles, an aristocratically structured social hierarchy, gold and silver coinage, gothic architecture, free-flowing magic, magicians and obligatory flowing robes, but also incorporates a number of incongruous modern-isms (high heels, trashy underwear in man-made fabrics, guns, plastic nick-knacks and a Nineteenth Century repertoire of embalming and mortuary techniques). The result is a hotchpotch setting that is recognisably ‘fantastic’, yet also very immediate and empathic to a modern reader.

We are introduced the main character and mortician, Ebenezer Sink, in the very first paragraph. Sink is a middle-aged, acerbic cross-dresser who can accurately predict people’s deaths after physical contact. He has some dubious history and contacts at the Royal court, and lives opposite noisy students whose drunken debates on a social revolution prefigure the rationale behind the baddies’ own plans later on. The murders; a series of violent deaths among prostitutes in the city’s East End, are no doubt a nod to Jack the Ripper, and are what drawn Sink into the case. What us not made clear until later is why Sink feels himself obliged to be the investigating expert on the deaths, nor what his credentials are to do so, although a second magical talent is alluded to, if not fully described, early on. His assistants at the West End morgue; Joshua; a very ordinary young man following a 15 Step process and a merkind with a chip on both shoulders called Vona, who seems lumbered with all the household chores, both have their parts to play in the ongoing investigation. This latter is hindered as much as possible by an angry young policewoman and Sink’s rival at the East End morgue, his ex-apprentice, Torvault. There is also an unlikely Don Juan in the form of a small, fat kitchen hand and a couple of extra loops in the tale. Then the dead start to rise and the city is under siege. This unlikely band of heroes and enemies must work together if they are to save the city, and, indeed, the world. Finding out why and by whom the prostitutes are being killed is only the beginning, for while the murders may forward the baddies’ ambitions, a darker, more desperate villain lurks in the shadows; a necromancer with nothing to lose...

Although both xenophobia and sexism are raised in the course of the character development of both Vona and the policewoman, Arifia, neither play terribly strong parts in the overall story arc. Yes, the merkind are second-class citizens, mistrusted and generally left to their own devices. And yes, women have a harder time trying to find equality in the social scheme, but these are not major factors in a plot where the main character is a cross-dresser with sufficient personal angst to sink a battleship. It could be said that Sink’s traumatic emotional past (he lost the love of his life years ago and has never looked at another since) and his adherence to women’s clothing endorse him as a strong ‘feminised’ character. This is of course a load of old tripe. Sink’s failings: his undoubted love of material gain, his closed emotional book, his sarcasm and dry wit, as well as his pig-headed secrecy about himself and his motives, make him both unsympathetic and decidedly ‘male’ in any theorist’s handbook. The fact remains, his is a difficult and uncomfortable primary character for readers to get to grips with; more anti-hero than pure hero.

Vona’s and Arifia’s continued resentment make them thoroughly unsympathetic, even rather two-dimensional characters; not exactly poster-children for their respective causes. It is not until during the climax of events that they mellow sufficiently to enable approachability, depth and much-needed wisdom to surface, hinting of more to come for their characters’ social dynamics. This could be Astruc’s point: that the dogmatic individual is a ridiculous figure and that only through engagement with the wider world, and maturation into a broader view, will they be able to develop.

The male characters, being more fallible, unlikely and potentially tragic make for more interesting reading, and are the main plot drivers. Considering that their secret traits include sexual predator, serial killer and cataclysmic, obsessive nervous wreck, they are not what a ‘moral’ tale should espouse as its heroes. And the thwarting of evil should be a moral tale, right?

Well, perhaps this is the novels’ truth: no one is perfect, and heroes are more often than not unlikely. This is not just a moral tale, though; it unpeels layer after layer of geographical, social and character detail like a magical onion of narrative possibility, revealing plot layer after plot layer, and finally stands revealed as a raw, painful core of love and loss, and the lengths people will go to, to seek peace from emotional wounds and scarring. As unbalanced and un-heroic as he appears, it is Sink who is the sanest one of all. For he has come to terms with his loss, and must be the one who has the hardest job of all; ensuring that loose ends are tied up, that social justice is served applicably and not blindly, who actually bears the burden of others’ actions. I came away from all this with the impression that this is a book about accepting one’s faults and bearing responsibility for them; a book about maturation.

It is a highly personal novel that blasts out of the water other novels that seek merely to be a stamping ground for authorial hobby horses. According to the author’s bio, the novel was first drafted during a ‘self destructive bender,’ and, indeed, the uncomfortable frankness of it makes this a less than cordial read. But it is a fascinating one. Astruc has packed more into her tight structure of just 15 chapters (reflecting the 15-steps process of the novel’s self-help group) than more indulgent fantasists do in longer books. This is primarily achieved by the style of writing. We are not privy to every last bit of information before we meet a character and we are as much in the dark as they over events until they have faced them. Clarification and explication come piece by piece, scattered over the chapters, so it is not until the final dénouement that we have all the pieces to the picture. Moreover, there is some suggestion that this is an author playing with the reader; this is a hall of mirrors that reflects onto the reader the emotional impact of the character’s experiences because they are elements that we can relate to: we are caught by the recognition. We become as involved as the characters; and we have much invested in reaching the end.

As mentioned above, I was expecting A Festival of Skeletons to be a frivolous comic fantasy novel. I was ambushed instead by a very believable realism and a deep tale of loss, revenge and very unlikely heroes. That said, the ascorbic, dry style will not be to every reader’s taste, and it would not surprise me if Astruc alienates as many readers as she draws into her fold. But for those who stick with it, this is a challenging and fascinating take on the fantasy genre. I for one sincerely hope that she revisits Kamphor, or moves further afield to one of the other countries within her world.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

James (ed.) Warrior Wisewoman 3 (2010)

Roby James (ed.), Warrior Wisewoman 3. Norilana Books, 2010. Pp. 302. ISBN 9781607620617. $12.95 / £9.50.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Warrior Wisewoman 3 is an ambitious and impressive anthology from Norilana Books’ science fiction division, a publisher responsible for speculative series’ including MZB’s Sword and Sorceress and Lace and Blade. The explicit theme of the Warrior Wisewoman series of books is that of science fiction with a strong female protagonist. The editor James is keen to point out in the introduction (12) that almost half of the stories in this volume are written by men, and she plays down the idea that such a collection might favour female authors. This is a fair point, but insistence on the fact that she doesn’t know the sex of an author until she’s decided she’s interested in a story is an uncomfortable reminder of the “colorblindness” fallacy in discussions of race; with a near 50/50 split in the ToC, however, I’m obviously not suggesting latent sexism in this case. And indeed the contents of this volume show a very wide range of approaches to questions of gender, from the unspoken inclusion of strong women to the explicit addressing of gender inequalities and prejudices; some of the best stories in this overall fine anthology sit at either end of this spectrum. The question is, does this focus on strong female protagonists result in a different kind of science fiction than a more mainstream anthology might?

Several of the stories in this collection take a “slice of life” approach to their subject matter: rather than a classic story structure with problems overcome or journeys undertaken, more than one of these stories have an anticlimactic shape with the protagonist enduring, surviving or demonstrating humility, and living to face another day. Perhaps this is a male reviewer criticizing “female” virtues, but I think there are also issues of genre in this question. The stories in this anthology are science fiction in the technical sense that they are set in a world recognizable as our own or in one of humanity’s possible futures, and the settings are explained in terms of science and rationality rather than supernatural or faith, but few if any of these are “hard science fiction” or stories whose climaxes involve the solution of technical problems; nor are there action stories whose conclusions require the physical defeat of a foe (although there are military SF stories, some of which are quite disturbing).

One complaint: the editor’s one-sentence summary/introductions at the top of each piece add nothing to the story that follows, and in some case are spoilery and irritating. I ended up deliberately avoiding reading them, and having to avert my eyes became a major irritant at the start of each new story. This is a personal preference, but I really wish editors wouldn’t feel the need to do this.

There are several excellent stories in this anthology, including the first several in the table of contents (good scheduling on the part of the editor there: most memorable pieces toward the beginning and end as well as spread evenly throughout the listing). The first story that really stood out for me was Aimee C. Amodio’s ‘Tourist Trap’, a beautifully written and unsettling story full of harsh truths, unflinching philosophy, and glimpses of beauty in the cruelest environments. The protagonist is Haryn, a tourist guide on a beautiful world where the rich come for decadent vacations, but the locals, the guides and other inhabitants of this alien planet, who have developed an intricate and expressive sign language because of the danger of exposing their hearing to the savage wild. The antagonist, the sentient alien ocean, perhaps the most terrifying, implacable, and just plain alien extraterrestrial intelligence since Lem’s Solaris. The story gives us the conflict between locals and tourists, demonstrates the beauty and foreignness of non-spoken language in a way that I have never appreciated before, and demonstrates the importance of respect for nature, even when that nature is in danger of killing you. A wonderful story that belongs in any collection of mind-expanding science fiction.

‘Mayfly’ by Gary Kloster is one of several stories in this anthology whose villains are trying to create a world without life-saving technology; in this case it is short-lived men angered by a vaguely described breakthrough that grants women eternal youth, but mysteriously doesn’t work for males. The science is very much second fiddle in this piece, but the protagonist, a 250 year old woman with the body of a teenage girl (who walks all over the men in the story, both intellectually and in quality of characterization) convincingly explores important issues of gender inequality, the value of life, the perniciousness of “non-prejudiced” conservatism. The victory in this story is won by violence (and more “magical” technology), but this is a story of ideas above action.

Another story that broke the mold, for me, and addressed important issues of gender and cultural respect was ‘Bearer of Burdens’ by Melissa Mead. In this lovely, understated piece the viewpoint character is male, an off-world genius artist brought to a closed, very constrained society to paint a very sensitive commission; but the heart of the story is his subject, Bearer Amberlynn, an enormously fat woman who takes on the griefs, joys and food offerings of her community. The painter’s task is to capture the Bearer’s beauty and show it to the world, while helping Amberlynn and her maidens gain a little freedom from the conservative Mandators who control everything in this world. A beautiful, delightful, infuriating and heartbreaking story.

The stand-out piece for me (and one of my candidates for top story of 2010 so far) was John Walters’s ‘Dark Mirrors’, a gritty military SF piece set in a brutal prison during a nightmarish interplanetary war that humanity is losing. Despite its setting, this story does not rely on violence for its climax. Rather, Walters demonstrates again and again (in both medium and message) the true meaning—and the true power—of pacifism, without excessive sententiousness or moralizing. In little details that you don’t see unless you’re looking for them, as well as in the big picture told only through infodump, we see violence begetting violence, we see that even winning a conflict through combat takes you further away from your desired ends. A gorgeous piece of writing; if this had been the only story worth reading (which it assuredly was not), ‘Dark Mirrors’ alone would have made this fine anthology worth reading.

A few of the pieces I am less able to praise so unreservedly, not because they are weak stories (I don’t think there are any of those in this volume), but because they left me unsettled or unhappy with the conclusion.

In ‘Natural Law’ by Alfred D. Byrd a diplomat causes a major diplomatic incident by secretly and illegally subverting the suffering that would be caused by the policies of a cult of “natural humans”. This could have made an interesting and dramatic conflict, but never explores the possibility that interfering with another culture’s mores is in fact wrong, and therefore remains one-sided and shallow moralizing. Therese Arkenberg’s ‘To the Altar’ is even more disturbing; a well-written story of an unending and increasingly jingoistic war, and the convincing process by which the peace-loving president of one nation comes to the decision to use a nuclear bomb to strike a crushing blow, kill countless innocent civilians but end the war. Alternative course are never explored, leaving the impression that this story does little more than justify atrocities like Nagasaki and Hiroshima (and of course the strategic killing of innocents by bad guys too) rather than tell a new story or explore moral complexity. ‘The Truth One Sees’ by Kathy Hurley is a story that uses science fictional conceits—hidden aliens, holograms and other hi-tech trappings—to bolster a psychic protagonist and some cheap stereotypes about closed-minded skeptics.

On the whole this anthology works extremely well, with a very diverse mix of story types and narrative adventures, stories that ask questions and challenge the reader’s expectations rather than merely providing escapism or flash-bang action and entertainment. Such variety and diversity makes it difficult to answer the question of whether this collection of female-focused science fiction has a different tone from the genre at large. Perhaps the focus on protagonists (heroines) who have ethical decisions to make rather than wars to win; who triumph through empathy or diplomacy rather than a strong arm or merciless spirit; whose adventure involve the desire for children rather than riches; whose concerns are at the human level rather than involving whole empires or planets. These are all stereotypes, and any one of them would be problematic and borderline offensive if stated as a generalization. As a break from science fiction commonplace, however, it makes for an anthology that this male reader finds refreshing and original, and of incredibly high quality.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Grimwood, The Places Between (2010)

Terry Grimwood, The Places Between. Pendragon Press, 2010. Pp. 111. ISBN 9781906864200. £7.99.

Reviewed by Nick Jackson


If there is such a thing as an over-arching cultural obsession these days, it might be the fascination with identity, and Terry Grimwood’s novella taps into this obsession in an interesting way, blending elements of realism and fantasy in a sort of ‘dark night of the soul’ for the main character. The Places Between is a psychological novel exploring the fear and alienation that exist within relationships. Grimwood tackles that most slippery of topics: the male/female divide and the sometimes violent attraction and repulsion between the sexes. This is the driving force behind the novella and not even the most vivid of his well-conceived monstrosities can eclipse that most alien of landscapes, the human condition.

The action and interest of the novella centre on the discordant relationship between the main character, Rebecca, and her husband, David. Grimwood writes confidently about inter-marital emotions and Rebecca’s fear of her violent and abusive husband functions as a powerful narrative force. Grimwood manipulates David’s Jekyll and Hyde persona and uses Rebecca’s alternating fear of the one and love for the other to illuminate their relationship.

The story opens with a desperate car journey and the nightmarish disposal of a corpse. After this darkly effective opening, Grimwood slows the narrative pace to focus on the characters’ inner lives and the marital conflict that will be central to the plot. The themes of physical and psychological abuse both within the marriage and beyond are introduced. Grimwood develops the inner torment of his main character through a series of “intermezzos” depicting Rebecca’s past relationships with men.

One of the novella’s ideas is that David is a changeling of sorts and that this explains the extremes of his personality. Rebecca spends the early part of the story pondering her husband’s identity; is he the ‘real’ David or an imposter and which does she prefer? Later in the novella, she begins to question her own identity. Fortunately for the reader, Grimwood doesn’t let the plot become too cluttered with free-floating alter-egos. Rebecca rediscovers the husband she once loved, in the ‘imposter’ David only to have him snatched away again. As she sets off in pursuit, the more fantastic elements begin to overwhelm the narrative. The banal realities of village life give way to a frenetic, unpredictable fantasy world and what takes shape as an internecine conflict between opposing forces of good and evil. Rebecca, only half-understanding her predicament, is forced to flee her village accompanied by an endearingly monosyllabic monster and is pursued through the English landscape to the novella’s climax in the crypt of a Baptist chapel.

Grimwood is adept at keeping the reader in a state of suspense and moving the narrative forward at a bounding breathless pace. Car journeys and chase scenes figure prominently in the plot and there are some wonderful set pieces involving an increasingly bizarre menagerie of fantastic beasts.

With all his imaginative flair and descriptive skill, it’s a bit of shame that the author rushes certain sections of the plot and there are some rather too abrupt plot twists. Grimwood is working with a broad-brush technique in a limited space and the effect is at times a little crowded. However, the dark and thoughtful ending is skilfully brought together, leaving the reader with plenty to reflect on in terms of relationships.

The Places Between worked for me on a variety of levels. It is enjoyable as a straight fantasy story but is most effective at those points where the action is poised between the real and the surreal and the characters, trapped in their own identities, struggle to come to terms with each other.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Morris (ed.), Cinema Futura (2010)

Mark Morris (ed.), Cinema Futura. PS Publishing, 2010. Pp. 271. ISBN 978-1-848630-95-6. £25.00 / $38.75.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

As a collection of essays, one of the best places to start in ascertaining whether the book has/will hit its mark is in the editor’s forward. It will, after all, be the editor’s guiding hand that will to a greater degree determine the book’s direction. As it turns out, this book emerges from a freely admitted—nay, a proudly stated—ambition to catalogue a genre that the editor, Mark Morris, has a long had an abiding fascination for. He begins with a very personal snippet about the effect of his first horror film on his eleven-year-old self. And recalls the experience with “fondness and nostalgia.” Having equated horror with science fiction in the arena of speculative fiction, this personal, visceral response is the vein in which he wants his book to run. Morris claims that after the publication of a collection of horror essays he edited, he intended for there to be a ‘sci-fi’ follow up, and he is proud of the result (my emphasis). This is a book that wants to present, not the grave, dry and deeply technical, but the personal and the affecting, from the viewpoint of the affected; moreover, an affected that can lucidly, amusingly, interestingly, describe and to some extent examine the effect they took on board. In describing the brief he gave to his contributors, Morris states that they had ‘carte blanche’ to choose their film, but it was one they had to “champion.” This is no book for the intellectually distant. This is a collection of responses that range from, yes, something of an academic flavour (mentioning in passing social, economic, political and ethical considerations), to the anecdotal, the flippant, the emotional. As Morris himself says, this is a highly subjective book. Perhaps therein lies the base of its charm; it lays the innate subjectivity of any review book, any book of ‘essays on’, wide out into the open. But instead of trying to hide this facet like a dirty little secret as so many ‘intellectual’ tracts attempt to do, it plays on it as a strength. By the writers’ enthusiasms, we are enthused; by their passion and apocryphal moments, we can be recharged, too.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mellon, Napoleon Concerto (2009)

Mark Mellon, Napoleon Concerto. Treble Heart Books, 2009. Pp. 342. ISBN 9781936127085. $13.50.

Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian

It is 1806. Napoleon Bonaparte rules France and most of Europe. Yet Britain remains out of reach; however strong Napoleon may be on land, at sea the Royal Navy is supreme. Then an engineer named Robert Fulton meets an Irish ex-naval captain named Wolfe O’Sheridane at a Paris salon. Fulton has a design for a powerful engine and his new friend has the audacity required to get them both an interview with Josephine herself. Mark Mellon’s Napoleon Concerto (the title is presumably a reference to Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony) is a steampunk, alternate-history retelling of the Napoleonic wars as they might have happened had France possessed the naval might necessary to challenge the British on their home ground.

It’s an idea that, if thoroughly researched and well worked, has the potential to be both a fun thought experiment and a romp. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way.

From the start, Mellon throws us possibilities that might be interesting. At the beginning of the book the major point-of-view character appears to be Robert Fulton himself. Fulton is a genius, though the author soon seems to forget that aspect of his character. He’s fond of money and status and averse to taking risks. All of these traits make him extremely unhappy about the schemes into which his association with O’Sheridane leads him. Moreover, O’Sheridane through Fulton’s eyes appears almost the charismatic fellow the the text seems to expect the reader to believe he is. Fulton’s attraction towards O’Sheridane is pretty extreme—there are moments when Fulton is noticing O’Sheridane’s “muscular thigh next to [his]” where one would think the novel was going in an entirely different direction. This is a point of view (and possibly a relationship) that might be quite fun to explore.

Almost immediately, though, the novel’s focus shifts from Fulton’s contemplation of the Irishman to O’Sheridane himself. O’Sheridane remains the book’s focus for most of the rest of the plot, bar a short period towards the end where Bonaparte takes centre stage. But O’Sheridane is entirely uninteresting. He is too typical an Irishman—the name that could have come out of a bad Mills and Boon romance aside, he is reckless, audacious, red-haired and green-eyed and charming with the ladies. He is a passionate Irish nationalist, and we soon discover that his services to Napoleon are rendered with the condition that should the French triumph, Ireland will be freed.

O’Sheridane’s storyline once again shows the possibility of being interesting with the introduction of Ghislaine, a beautiful widow with her own reasons to be distrustful of Bonaparte. Much is made of Ghislaine’s brilliance, and her capacity to outwit people. On meeting her O’Sheridane is “intrigued by the prospect of how far she would go in her efforts to manipulate him.” So was I. It doesn’t happen.

Ghislaine is one of two female characters in this book, the other being Josephine. This may not be a particularly low number for a war novel set at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but it is certainly unnecessarily low for a novel set to a large extent in Parisian society. Josephine is just portrayed as shrewd, but overly fond of shopping. Ghislaine fares a little better, since as I mention above the book makes much of her intellect. Yet we never actually see this intellect, only hear other people referring to it (often in rather cringeworthy terms: O’Sheridane explains that “for a minute I thought myself in conversation with an exceptionally well-informed minister of the Council of State rather than a beautiful young woman”).

As for the war itself, Fulton’s engine destroys the careful balance of power that prevails at the beginning of the book so that everything that follows is distinctively one-sided. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in the real world most armies are not entirely evenly matched, and the portrayal of a country’s defeat is probably far more realistic. And Mellon’s shipboard battles are some of his best writing. On the other hand, a conflict where one side doesn’t have the ghost of a chance isn’t exactly riveting.

And this is what is strange about Napoleon Concerto. Potentially interesting characters and situations are continuously tossed out or forgotten about. No character actually undergoes any sort of development; what we know about them as soon as they are introduced (Fulton is greedy and materialistic; Ghislaine is pretty, clever and attracted to O’Sheridane; O’Sheridane is reckless, soulful and Irish) is what we know about them at the end of the book. Perhaps Napoleon himself is the only character to escape. And yet it’s never clear what these elements are being jettisoned in favour of; certainly not plot.

Napoleon Concerto is a book containing a number of possible plots and fascinating characters. But in touching on all of them Mellon does justice to none.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Storrs, TimeSplash (2010)

Graham Storrs, TimeSplash. Lyrical Press, 2010. Pp. 261. ISBN 9781616501235. E-book $5.50.

Reviewed by Keith Lawrence

A crime thriller set in the near future, TimeSplash centres on a new form of terrorism, a destructive form of time-travel, and the efforts of the two young protagonists to prevent a catastrophe that will devastate a European city. Graham Storrs’s previous published works have been thoughtful short stories in magazines such as Concept and Bewildering Stories (and indeed here in TFF), but this is his first published novel. The publishers, Lyrical Press, deal mainly in ebooks, and their stable encompasses works from a wide range of genres. Although this novel is marketed both by Lyrical Press and Storrs himself as science fiction, the plot more closely resembles the sort of cold-war spy thriller beloved of beach-readers.

The core of any time-travel story is the nature of time. Is time a mutable thing, a flow of cause and effect which can be altered by time travellers to affect their own present (as in Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant); is it a fait accompli, in which travellers can only observe or at most become part of a preordained chain of events (as in the film Twelve Monkeys); or is it something in between? In TimeSplash, time is envisioned as closer to the latter, something like a glass of water into the depths of which bubbles can be pushed through a scientific straw. The bubbles rush back to the surface and behind them the waters of time heal up just as they were, but the ripples they leave on the surface are devastating.

This attitude towards time neatly avoids excessive complication, but does mean that the time-travel scenes of the book are essentially exotic backdrops before which the action can occur. They perform this role as handily as any foreign port or exclusive casino in a Bond film, and the descriptions of the localised disruptions that dog the time-travellers are engaging.

The plot is not especially complicated, but suits the book well—the pace of the story proceeds evenly and without dragging at any point. It’s interesting, though, that TimeSplash resembles a modern crime thriller not only in its strengths but also in its weaknesses. Some of the dialogue seems clunky, and although the characterisation of the main protagonist (Jay) is relatively even and unremarkable, the two most important supporting characters are rather two-dimensional.

Sandra, the female protagonist, is a woman out for vengeance whose fatal attraction to cruel men seems to be miraculously cured by Jay’s clean-cut niceness. There are very few female characters who appear as more than an adjunct to the men
in this novel, and although Sandra’s part is more substantial it appears to be little more than a simple morality play—Sandra’s failings are sexual and her redemption tied to the love of a good man. In many ways the future of TimeSplash is a bit of a Parson’s Egg—the technology of the mid-twenty-first century, the sexual politics of the mid-twentieth. Although Sandra finally prevails, the middle of her story (in which she is effectively punished for consorting with Sniper, the story’s antagonist) seems more pointed than its conclusion. This progression is echoed in the misfortunes of the only other woman of note: Camilla, a handler put in place in Sniper’s organisation by his terrorist backers.

Sniper himself is potentially an interesting character—his motivation for making the devastating timesplash which Jay and Sandra must work together to foil is actually much more plausible than that of many fictional villains. Sadly, particularly towards the latter half of the book, he rarely appears in any scene without it being used to demonstrate that he is milled from a block of solid evil.

I read the e-book version of TimeSplash. At the time of writing this was the only way to get hold of the book, although it had just been picked up by Big Bad Media for publishing in both physical and audiobook formats, enhancing Storrs’s already thorough work at making the book available and supporting readers and potential readers. The TimeSplash website features links to reviews, vendors, and even fan fiction. For the technically-minded, Storrs helpfully provides a list explaining which formats you will receive if you buy the ebook from any particular vendor, including whether or not they are sold with DRM. Buying from Lyrical Press directly gets you access to 7 different DRM-free formats of ebook, hopefully catering nicely for all forms of hardware—I saw both the EPUB and PDF formats, and apart from a few niggles with the formatting of the EPUB, they were both made to a high standard. This is all extremely laudable, and something I hope other writers and publishing houses will emulate.

I had mixed feelings about TimeSplash:
I liked it less than I wanted to, and in particular I would find it difficult to recommend it to my female SF-loving acquaintances. I found it thought-provoking only in a sense that I suspect Storrs did not intend (i.e. regarding the characterisation of women)—a shame, since Storrs’s short stories have tended to be deeper. As a straightforward terrorism thriller in which the time-travel elements are clever window-dressing, TimeSplash works well; it is a competent story and although the plot is nothing special it is a pleasant read.

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