Thursday, December 01, 2011

Heuler, Made-Up Man (2011)

Karen Heuler, The Made-Up Man. Livingston Press, 2011. Pp. 284. ISBN 9 78-1-60489-080-8. $21.00.

Reviewed by Nick Jackson

Karen Heuler’s novel begins with a cautionary statement for the post-feminist:
“There are three things a woman should take for granted: looks will fade, men will stray, and wishes are worthless without actions.”
Alyson, a thirty five year old editorial assistant, is on the cusp of learning the bitter truth of this dictum. As the novel opens she lives in a comfortable relationship (or at least in a state of blissful ignorance) with her boyfriend Peter, until she discovers he's having an affair with her best friend, Maggie. The torrent of emotions she experiences, from self-pity to hatred and a desire for revenge, lead her to enter into a Faustian bargain with a gypsy, Madame Hope, who agrees to change her into a man in exchange for her soul.

This is more than just well-written fantasy; it's an articulate psychological study of a woman's perception of her gender role. The strength of the book rests on its assured rendering of the journey from a female to a male viewpoint. Alyson, like Marlowe's Dr Faustus, is an intensely self-reflective character who retains a sharp consciousness of what she has lost as well as what she stands to gain from her gender swap. Heuler manages the shifting viewpoints of the central character well, whilst providing a convincing world of work and leisure within which Alyson plays out the drama of her new-found masculinity. Bob, Alyson's masculine alter-ego, plunges headlong into a struggle for success, wealth and sexual conquest.

Interestingly, unlike Goethe or Marlowe's literary creations, Alyson/Bob seems to exercise greater autonomy at the same time as her/his aspirations have shrunk to the socio-economic mindset of middle class USA. This is a Faust for the 21st century: goal-orientated, workaholic and status aware.

The fantasy element is confidently executed with some wonderful dreamlike transformation sequences but Heuler’s allegory works mainly because it’s rooted in the everyday. There’s even a Mephistophelean figure in the shape of the gypsy’s dog.

It’s the authentic language of the editorial world and the down-at-heel barfly that gives the novel both its sense of place and its engaging humour. The narrative is alive with comedy. At one point the newly transmogrified Bob is disconcerted to find that despite his otherwise perfectly masculine exterior, he’s still wearing Alyson’s nail polish. After a fruitless search for nail polish remover he’s forced to ask himself: “Why should there be no polish remover? Even more important, however, was why there was polish on his nails. Could the devil manage everything and not manage that?” In fact, Heuler’s devil is often incompetent, making a series of small practical blunders and proving hopeless at DIY.

Bob eventually finds his feet and sets out to achieve alpha male status in the office, with a strategy that leads to him proposing successively to two women. Unusually, this man seems to have an unnatural desire to tie himself down to domesticity and a peculiar urge to pick up and fondle baby clothes on a visit to a maternity store. Perhaps it’s just another of the devil’s blunders—or is Heuler suggesting that neither sex really knows what they want? Whatever the author’s intentions, it makes entertaining reading—Heuler’s instinct for the dramatic pause is always spot on.

Alyson/Bob pursues a range of ambitious editorial promotional projects that have their own complex life. Just occasionally I'd have wished for a little less office banality and a little more magic but Heuler brings off a startling conclusion in a publicity stunt in which contestants compete to score Bigfoot sightings.

Heuler goes under the skin of gender stereotypes and gives a real sense of a character having run the gamut of the emotional and physical spectrum from male to female. Heuler makes us laugh at the egocentric posturing of men and the self-deluding fantasies of women who just want “to love and be loved forever”.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jeapes, Jeapes Japes (2011)

Ben Jeapes, Jeapes Japes. Wizard’s Tower Press, 2011. ISBN 9781908039057. £4.99.

Reviewed by Paul Wilks

Jeapes Japes is a diverse collection of short stories from author Ben Jeapes and published via Wizard’s Tower Press. The narratives range from horror and fantasy to deep-space science fiction, and further interweave the author’s humour with canny story-telling and imaginative plot-lines. There are seventeen stories in the collection and the author interleaves each story with a brief afterword which goes some way to provide the story context and background.

The stories contained in the collection generally find the characters tending to merely support the novum of the story, rather than being the centrepiece of the tale. The tales therefore better present ideas rather than uniquely interesting characters, and after each the reader dwells more on the notion presented than the personalities. While in some genres this might not work, Jeapes Japes here instead feels like an impressive patchwork of different ideas, each rich with bubbling creativity and often sharp humour. Another element of the work that stands out is the diversity of genres the author explores. While many stories do overlap, for this review I felt it prudent to group the seventeen titles into four groups: Horror, consideration of Artificial Intelligence, Time Travel and simply ‘Ideas’. While there is such a diverse range here, the stories melt together beautifully as Jeapes’ humour, logic and eye for originality sweep through the collection.

The collection begins with ‘The Data Class’—a story where a sentient artificial intelligence reads, comprehends and decides to act upon the works of Karl Marx. It’s an intelligent, well written and clever narrative that superimposes Marxist theory within a future cyber-world. Such superimposition also works well with ‘Digital Cats Come Out Tonight’—the ‘cats’ are essentially anti-virus programs within an apartment-block computer system. The mice and other creatures are forms of an artificial intelligence virus. The story draws satirical correlation between the real and the digital in an intelligently simplistic and readable way. ‘Memoirs of a Publisher’ explores another means into which intelligent artificial intelligence might involve itself in a human world. It’s a clever and subtle take on discrimination and work ethics, placing such themes in a futuristic cyber-environment. ‘Crush’ is a rather chilling tale of obsession. This time the protagonist of the story is the focus of a high-functioning AI’s obsession. While this online/offline blurring is clearly a common theme in Jeapes’ work it is never as intimate, and subsequently daunting as it is in ‘Crush’. Jealousy, obsession and incarnate rage are all wonderfully snippeted in this brief tale, and it struck me as one which could be easily expanded upon. Finally in this section, ‘Jacqui the Giantkiller’ tells the story of sales person Jacqui who must get around sentient household gatekeepers. A solid sales anecdote about thinking outside the box in order to gain new customers, it’s a clever take on changing marketing models within a world using more and more technology.

Psychologically one might place ‘Crush’ almost as a form of horror, such is her cold pursuit. However the collection has more stand-out horror titles within it. ‘Getting Rid of Teddy’ was my favourite, and one of the collections highlights. It is a story of a supernatural relationship between a boy and his teddy. Using a young child is an oft-used trope in horror but it is certainly effective here. The tale features a particularly chilling finale, and blends family tension, the supernatural and religious intolerance. In ‘The Grey People’ protagonist Malcolm is haunted by creatures only he can see. Attacks affect his memory severely debilitated. In short story form it provides a brief snapshot of Malcolm’s troubles and I felt in many ways it might also provide an alternate narrative of mental illness.

Time travel is another science fiction genre Jeapes delves into on occasion. It also presents, possibly the collections stand-out story, ‘Pages Out of Order’. It is a superb example of how science fiction can be used in the most innocuous of situations, indeed it is not until the end of the story the reader is allowed to understand the reasons for protagonist Tom’s sudden confidence and attitude. It could perhaps be argued that short stories can either provide platforms for specific ideas to be notionally expressed, or a brief exploration of a much bigger novum. ‘Pages Out of Order’ felt like the latter and I would have thoroughly enjoyed a novel of the same idea. ‘Correspondents’ are futuristic human drones sent back in time to record historical events of varying impact. Our protagonist is confronted, in 16thc England, with a rogue correspondent who interferes with the course of history by torturing a Catholic priest, himself a torturer. In just a few pages it produces a wide range of ethical, religious and moral arguments that could easily be expanded. As it is ‘Correspondents’ is a fine short story, but also demonstrates the essence of limited character analysis in many of Jeapes’ collected stories. You grasp the idea—a time-travelling chronicler of events, in addition to the rogue correspondents dilemma in wanting to interrogate an interrogator, but these characters lack the depth you would see in longer works. ‘Winged Chariot’ is a further time travel tale, this time about a man who treats people from a Cornwall village with futuristic medical treatments. It also discusses well-known time quandaries such as time-stream collapse, in addition to the ethics of medical treatments. It is a fascinating story, very well written and a great example of short story writing in that it takes a relatively short snapshot and fills it with rich description.

Medical ethics is arguably a topic also contended in ‘The Robson Strain’, and the way I’d like to shift into the much wider subheading of Ideas. Although ‘The Robson Strain’ is well written it perhaps fails to grab the reader in the way the other stories do. It deals with topics such as animal testing and unethical medical practices and, while it makes the kind of scary predictions you see in much experiment-gone-wrong science fiction, it arguably doesn’t punch hard enough in so few words, seemingly desperate for a longer consideration in fully-fledged novel form. ‘Spoilsport’ raises the notion that pettiness can infuse even the most intelligent of post-humanity, proposed by the sibling rivalry between a brother and sister. The story, despite having a science fiction setting, is more about the relationship between the protagonists rather than an obvious novum. In this case the moralistic takes centre stage as neither character warrants much sympathy. ‘Cathedral No. 3’ is a simple, yet wonderfully described piece which momentarily explores theology, religious piosity and privilege within an intimate post-nuclear setting. The story aptly demonstrates Jeapes ability to spin a situation on its head and integrate alternate discourses which easily expound the tales setting and enter a more contemporary social space.

‘The Fireworker’ is a seething anti-hero narrative regarding a con man that controls magical crystals. Placed robustly in a kind of medieval fantasy setting, the story challenges the reader throughout to sympathise with a thoroughly dislikeable rogue. It’s all deliciously contentious, but I get the impression from his afterword that Jeapes enjoys writing this kind of narrative. ‘Trial by Alien’ is arguably where the author’s humour shines through brightest in this collection. It’s an almost farcical courtroom drama which plays upon differences between humanity and an alien species. This is one of the few short stories which has an older, and more complete, sibling novel, and something I’d be interested in reading myself.

The atmosphere changes suddenly with ‘A Holiday on Lake Moskava’, an alternative history story that proposes that Hitler had received more sympathy from other European states. The story is set modern day, with the protagonist a spy in a relationship with a young Russian aristocrat. While the tale is again well narrated and intriguing, it feels somewhat out of place amongst the quirk-filled humour of the other ‘japes. A much more serious affair, it still bites with sharp writing and far bigger ideas than the few pages it takes up can contain. Finally the collection returns to a recurring thematic: blending serious subject matter with a far lighter twist, in ‘Go with the Flow’, is a story about a sociology-by-number theorist and based upon an interview as to why he dedicated his work to his Gran. A story that moves the reader perhaps more than other stories contained in the collection, it remains a funny and interesting narrative.

The stories leap sporadically from one genre to another, without flow or warning and yet they still somehow all work so well together. A reader gets far more from the ideas and suggestions each story creates, than from the characters themselves which are never really explored to much depth. This augments Jeapes Japes as the classic SF short story writing that gives each tale a striking novum and characters far more incidental to that central idea. Indeed it is not the characters that stay with you when you put the book down, but the rich and exciting ideas that burst from this collective library of short stories.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Cotterill, Rebellion (2010)

Rachel Cotterill, Rebellion. Independently published, 2010. Pp. 418.
ISBN 978-1452846323. $14.99 paperback / $0.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Rebellion. A strong, stirring title; grand yet also with a sense of serious intent rather than just outrageous impetuousness. It brings to mind great, stirring images of conflict and change, thesis crashing into antithesis, producing a new synthesis. That is not what Cotterill’s novel is about, and it actually took me some time to twig that the ’rebellion’ is a one-woman show against the expected formula of her life. But in the style of the book, and through the attitudes of other characters that should be the formative, conflicting experiences for the heroine but are instead rather more laid-back about her aims, this is a condition that is for the most part accepted without the need for tears, tantrums or ‘overcoming’. For, despite the title, the actual rebelling part is remarkably small-time and quietly dropped.

The story opens a view into a new fantasy world, based on quasi-High Renaissance and populated with stock characters one would expect to find in any half-decent fantastic oeuvre, minus the magical element: humans-only, although there are some minor tremors over race and Orientalism. In this place we learn that within the Charanthe Empire, where the ruling classes run on an organised system of cause and effect (the right jobs for the right people, leading to a higher efficiency of output), certain privileged schools turn out future administrators, law-keepers, scientists and law-enforcers. The children are also orphans; given wholly to the schools and thereby the state, raising an idea of a potentially elitist oppression.

Do not despair! For there is also the pre-requisite collection of ‘local colour’: the plebeian, working classes. This incorporates the merchants, lively local taverns, sailors, smugglers, warriors, gypsies and itinerants. To these happy folk the system that Eleanor, the heroine, has been raised in, is little more than an inconvenience of taxes, inefficient policing and general rough-housing. As a position for a heroine to rise up against, it does not have much going for it, and even the promise of a grey area in which to delve is lost among the confusion of potential, and then dropped, themes that Cotterill seems to have no patience with.

Introduced in the prologue to the heroine as a child, we learn she is to be carefully watched and tutored by a mysterious fellow in the woods behind her school. Before this becomes too questionable, fast-forward over a decade to the final days of her schooling, and she and her friends await the outcome of their career choices (made for them by the state). Finding her official position below the level of her dignity and self-assessed ability, the confident Eleanor throws the old expected pathway up and runs away to find out more about a semi-mythical group of assassins and secret society types she has read about. What follows are her adventures in doing just that; falling in with smugglers, dungeons, questing, challenges, and then, come the second half of the novel, the challenges of the hidden college for that secret society. Through this she holds her own, to arise, a fully trained agent (effectively) by the end, leading us into the second novel following her professional adventures.

When I was much younger, I loved a sequence of books by Tamora Pierce, following the adventures of Alanna; a girl masquerading as a man to become a knight in a fantastical setting. Unlike those childhood favourites, Cotterill’s world studiously avoids all magical suggestion; a very practical created world. The comparison holds up better for the heroines: strong-willed girls who are fighting to prove themselves in a man’s world. But where Alanna was emotional, interactive and recognisable to an excitable young mind, Eleanor is considerably cooler. To begin with I found her self-possession and almost un-emotional reactions supremely irritating. She appears entirely too confident and logical for a youngster from a sheltered upbringing alone in the world for the first time. I could forgive errors made out of an immature, inexperienced judgement, and indeed such errors help to develop a character for reader and writer alike and are what made exploring Alanna’s world through her eyes so memorable. Instead I rather got the feeling that Eleanor was studiously, somewhat creepily, assimilating information like a computer testing an experiment and collating resulting data.

Cotterill tries to add a layer of causality to her character by implying a ‘woman against the odds.’ A woman as an adventurer? Male characters scoff! But instead of oppression by gender discrimination, instead of flying a flag for feminism we have a character that gets her head down and carries on. Opposition—real, difficult opposition—melts away in response. It would be nice to think that Cotterill is trying to show an alternative feminism: get on and do and prove yourself, but if there really is a ‘glass ceiling’ in this world she has made, the implied ‘impossibility’ of breaking from the norm, then it is too flimsy to make a point. There is nothing for Eleanor’s get-on-and-do character to ‘rebel’ against.

The men who oppose her most (indeed, the only ones to oppose her) at the assassins’ college are products of the misogynistic programming of the all-male school they came from: a boys’ only club that cannot admit women are as able, if different, to the strengths of men.

Eleanor also comes across as inhumanly able to cope with inner conflict; the tension of which normally helps to add depth and relatability to a character. As the set-up, her training and schooling has prepared for her a mindset that considers the processes of the Empire irrefutable and organised She expresses (we are told) surprise that her Empire does not always get it right, or more firmly control the inhabitants of the wider swathes of land within its boarders. Eleanor does show some surprise to begin with that its logic and equality of work ethic (women are permitted to hold office, but denied physical roles in assassination or soldiery) does not always succeed and is even considered next to laughable by non-urban citizens. But her own desire to adventure, to track down the assassin college; her confidence in being able to succeed at such a school, is in direct contradiction of these ideals. Yet never does her focus waver, never is there any consideration that she is expressing a contradiction, and no lesson is learned from such. After some thinking and unpicking, it could be that Cotterill is exploring how one’s programming plays a forceful role in producing parroted aphorisms, but is not the boss of us if we strive for our individual aspirations.
Likewise, the ‘secret’ training Eleanor received from the mysterious man in the woods; physical training, knife throwing and general tough-girl-ness, instilled in her the idea she could become an adventurer, and is itself a type of programming.

The ‘Rebellion’ of the title, then, is not a grand, political upheaval of expectation but rather the breaking of Eleanor’s programming.

This is a subtle message, so subtle that Eleanor shows no sign of having learned it herself. Still she classifies her ‘rebellion’ as the intentional move away from the State-sponsored plan of her life; still using her old definitions. Therefore, I have come to consider it as the product of my own reaction to the book, in attempting to find a reason behind Cotterill’s writing. As a take-home message the first and primary impression I had was of an emotionless Vulcan of a character. And if it were not for the overall ‘meh’-ness of the attitude of other characters toward the seriousness of the Empire’s structural systems and punishments, then the idea of rebellion against State and a state of mind as controlled by the State would be a lot more powerful. Any commentary on the disparity of thought and action between the higher echelons (the schools, the lifestyle and expectations Eleanor was raised in) and the common people (the cheerful, rambunctious lives of working folk) disappears into a narrative drive that hangs primarily on a series of physical adventures.

If we still want to derive ‘meaning’, then exploring feminism in relation to a female protagonist might be one way in. But even here, the character of Eleanor fails. The main emotion she does display; the one that sends her off her default mode of lone-wolf-ness into mood swings and tears when she is having ‘issues’ in her early 20s at the college, is that of first love. Captured while attempting to collect information on the college, she shares a cell with another proto-student, a young man she bonds with over their shared incarceration and torture. Held by ‘exotic’, ‘foreign’ powers, Eleanor is moved to notice how different this place is compared to the order of her home Empire, how smelly, and different, and awesome it is; typical Orientalism.

Indeed, this might say something about the ‘Western’ character of Eleanor and her people; possibly stir up some provocative commentary on how one deals with the Other. But, no; torture happens because it makes for dramatic plot, not because Eleanor or her companion are going to learn anything. Eleanor’s memories will seem dim and dark of that time because of the physical depravation and what she learned about surviving as a good little fighter from her cell mate. Heaven forefend that the action is held up by consideration!

Later on she has to leave him behind to return and warn the college about the kidnapping of candidates by distant powers; a warning that is dismissed along the liens of “we know already, old news”, utterly deflating the impact of her experiences. She does manage to gain admittance to the college, but continues to mope on and off about her lost friend. The one insight into her soul is the main affectation primarily ascribed to the feminine as a weakness in the paradigm of classical story telling: love and affection.

What kept me reading was not Eleanor’s scintillating company but rather the intensity of the world Eleanor inhabits: majestic, detailed and colourful. Huge attention is lavished on interactive detail with the locations and characters. Considerably less time is spent in describing how any of the ingenious devices might work, just as the character motivations are left unclear. The underpinning (meta-)physics of the world are kept a mystery, even if recognisably ‘normal’ by the standards of our reality.

There isn’t even a map (normally a staple of fantastic fiction) to guide the reader in the dimensions of the places described! Yes, it does mean the reader is free to choose their own ideas of the places brought forth, but, considering all the foregoing above, this is not a book based on deep social discussion,. This is an action film in book form; for that very reason some visual prompting is entirely acceptable, and, indeed, necessary. Plot is entirely driven by finding the next piece of the quest. Cotterill has developed her cinematic set-pieces, and boy, will she employ them! Consequently I truly felt as if I were in the events themselves; much as an adventure film will draw in the viewer with flashy scenes and exciting moments. A film adaptation of the book would not be hard to do, neither would finding a suitably dead-pan heroine among the modern trend of pretty-but-soulless performing by young actresses.

This is solid fantasy; very solid. Geographically gorgeous with shallow characterisations, this is not a demanding read. The binding does not help: the cover image is a total non-starter. It bears no relation to any of the interior, and is off-putting. Indeed, I showed the cover and described the story to two different friends and both agreed, unanimously, that the cover was “crap” to the purpose. A wooden shack? It brings to mind a plantation drama; a Caribbean mystery. Definitely not a middle-fantasy genre piece.

Finally it comes down to a simple question: would I read the next books? Yes, I would. Because the action is lively, the descriptions juicy and the reading is easy and fun. I would want some serious work done on Eleanor to help her develop organically as a person, instead of an oversized plot device. Too much of that cold fish and I could get turned off pretty quick. And I want a map!

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Youers, End Times (2010)

Rio Youers, End Times. PS Publishing, 2010. Pp. 235. ISBN 978-1-848631-00-7. £20.00 / $31.00.

Reviewed by Nathan Lea

End Times, published by PS Publishing, is the first novel by Amersham-born Rio Youers, the author of several short stories (including ‘The Ghost of Lillian Bliss’ published in The New and Perfect Man and ‘Quoth the Rock Star’ published in Required Reading Remixed Volume 1), and two novellas: Mama Fish and the 2010 British Fantasy Award nominee Old Man Scratch. PSP have also recently published his short story collection Dark Dreams, Pale Horses. Youers has won critical acclaim for his work: New York Times bestselling author Peter Straub believes that “Rio Youers is one of the most vital, most exciting young talents to come along in this decade”, whilst Horror Drive-In’s Mark Sieber lists him amongst his favourite authors after reading Mama Fish, counting him among “guys that knock your socks right the fuck off of your feet...”

End Times describes the journey of Scott Hennessey, a self-mutilated, relapsing cocaine addict, from his drug-addled life as a writer for a local paper to the fulfilment of his destiny as a fundamental participant in the realisation of an American Indian prophecy. This journey, narrated for the most part by Hennessey himself, is punctuated by his need to indulge his reckless desire, which becomes managed through time spent with a mysterious love interest, a woman who becomes the embodiment of his new-found peace and contentment, and his long-time best friend and confidante, Sebastian Cross, a survivor of a fatal joy-riding accident that left the driver dead and Cross a paraplegic; both of these characters form the foundations of Hennessey’s life and ultimately, end times. On starting to read the book, armed with the ill-advised yet inevitable judgment of the book’s cover and its summary, and given the other topics that Youers’ work seems to focus on, I wondered pessimistically what this spiritual, psychological thriller would deliver: would this be a story that employed a plethora of dark subject matter for the sake of it to the point that it undermined the quality of the end result?

Despite the predictability of Cross’ fate and occasional blandness in writing style where the narrative lapses into seemingly lengthy descriptions that read like they belonged in a surveyor’s report, I cannot praise this work more highly: the account is sensitive, detailed, compelling, honest and sometimes heart-wrending: Hennessey’s experience of living on the street is galling, and the death of a homeless companion is tenderly and poignantly described; the meeting where he admits his guilt to the elderly, frail Luther Big Crow, father of a girl that he had assaulted with a group of cult members, is relayed so honestly that it leaves a swell of ache and pity for not only Big Crow, but also Hennessey. The use of contrast in this work is superbly executed—the harsh, grim reality of living with addiction, guilt, self-mutilation and loathing is juxtaposed with an honest, self critical consideration as the narrator recounts his story. Always clear, personal and believable, the tale is riveting, often exciting and, at times, terrifying.

Youers masters tone and character superbly: as Hennessey’s character remembers dealing with going cold turkey, the tone shifts to a visceral, engulfing and utterly believable mania; where the narration shifts from Hennessey to other characters, it is remarkably and deftly altered. The depth of Hennessey’s character is matched by that of Cross, the ageing Big Crow, Joseph Dreaming Bear, a companion and confidante for Hennessey when he comes to Pine Ridge, and Jimmy High Pipe, an eccentric Elvis Presley fan who dresses as the singer, but slips into his role as a medicine man with striking suddenness as he uses his skills to empower Hennessey to confront and overpower his addiction.

These intense concepts, characters and issues are well supported by a streak of subtle humour peppered throughout the narrative: from the antics of Dreaming Bear and High Pipe to Hennessey’s own dry sense of humour, this proves to be a much needed, uncontrived facet of this novel. There is also a refreshing linearity to this work, which helps to accentuate the narrative and journey. I also felt the cynic in me occasionally tickled—sometimes wanting to dismiss Hennessey’s journey as self-induced and not something that I felt I should be taking so much interest in. But these moments were rare: for all the wickedness, selfishness and stupidity that a harsher reader might see in Hennessey and Cross, I liked these people. I felt enormous sympathy for them and truly wanted them to find the peace and contentment that they had hitherto lacked, and which the Oglala Sioux characters seemed to have in abundance, despite their personal pain and dire circumstances.

Mindful of my initial uncertainties prior to completing the novel, I am delighted to be reminded that you should never judge a book by its cover. End Times expertly handles difficult, profoundly dark and very real issues, tying them in to a narrative that includes a well-structured story and believable, compelling and loveable characters; it serves as a voice for the ancient, vibrant American Indian culture and people, telling their story as it is and allowing the reader to infer their own thoughts and feelings on their situation. Nothing in this novel is irrelevant, out of place or laboured, or pressures the reader to think or feel anything other than what they want to. For these reasons I recommend this book: it certainly offers scope and material for thought, informed discussion and self-reflection.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Astruc, Harmonica & Gig (2011)

RJ Astruc, Harmonica & Gig. Dragonfall Press, 2011. Pp. 371. ISBN 978-0-9806341-4-3. $2.99 AUD (+ suggested $2 contribution).

Reviewed by Jessica Nelson

“Arnold Lee is found in a pool of his own blood with seventeen silver-steel knives sticking out of his body. Door unlocked, no signs of a struggle, naked except for a neurocap and bodysuit. Best case scenario the forensics can come up with is that Lee did it to himself. He’s sat there in his swank Wellington apartment and calmly inserted seventeen implements into his torso, one after the other, twisting them savagely now and then so the blood comes faster. Steak knives, bread knives, butter knives—he’s raided his kitchen for the tools. You’d think a man intent on committing suicide would find a more pleasant way to go.”

In RJ Astruc’s Harmonica & Gig, corporate matriarch Viger Singer seems to think so, too; but in a time when reality, virtual reality, and even altered reality are so intermingled that you can’t always tell them apart, nothing is ever what it seems.

When hacks Regina ‘Harmonica’ Carter, Felix ‘Gig’ McGuiggen and Lloyd ‘Talobos’ Hong are summoned to INTROMET headquarters on the premise of a job interview, all are taken aback to learn they are, in fact, being blackmailed into solving the mysterious death; but with the whole world watching and bodies piling up, it only becomes harder to tell who is really pulling the strings, and why.

Beyond the story itself, Harmonica & Gig is a cautionary tale. At its root are the dangers of openness on the internet, and the power wielded by massive corporations that quietly gather personal information without users’ consent. As the usefulness and importance of having an online life, and the number of news stories of information-gathering by companies such as Facebook, Google and various smartphone app developers increases, so too does the importance of the lessons in Harmonica & Gig. At one time, the internet was an anonymous place to while away the leisure hours, a form of escape, sans responsibility and accountability. Yet as more people discover the usefulness of the internet as a networking tool, our online and real lives become more and more intertwined, causing us to continually define and redefine our personas, our relationships, even our intentions... and in real life, we haven’t even started using neurochips or implantable brain computer interface devices... yet. Did you know those exist?

While the general public quietly goes about the business of living daily life, corporations quietly go about the business of recording it. While they do, they also quietly grow. And grow. And then, just for fun, they grow some more. This is how a capitalist world works. And while everyone is honest, it works well. The thing is, in a dog-eat-dog business world, how many people stay honest? As Harmonica’s son says he read on the internet, “Most CEOs of major companies demonstrate pathological behaviours in order to maintain their position and hold of the market.” It feels pretty good to be on top, so who wants to stand idly by and watch it all go away because someone else had a better idea, or a better marketing plan? What kind of information have you given to a psychopath today?

As Harmonica hacks into Viger Singer’s personal INTROMET area in the qverse, she is outright embarrassed by what she sees, and she wonders, “What was it about the qverse that made people so open? That made people so willing to wear their neurosis on their sleeves?” It’s a good question. For all the false security afforded by relative anonymity, we cannot help but seek out real connections with people, often saying and doing things we wouldn’t in face-to-face situations. These days, most people are using their real names for much of their online activity, but still we have that same feeling of anonymity. We’ve taken computer screens and digital code, and manufactured psychological shields out of them. But when’s the last time a good psychological shield protected you from a car accident? We feel safe, secure. That doesn’t mean we are.

Along with the lurking darkness of corporate greed and corruption, the author also uses Harmonica & Gig to question what effects mankind’s partnership with science have in more personal areas. “These impossible designer children resting uneasily in their designer genes...” Harmonica reflects, “It was a small wonder that Gig remained ignorant of just how good-looking he was. Then again, you often got that with test-tube kids—a psychological peculiarity Malachy Memphis termed ‘appearance apathy’. They’d look in the mirror and see not a person but a construction, a laboratory technician’s fusion of catalogue DNA.”

It is undeniable that infertility can be devastating for those people who want to have a family. To date, millions of ‘test tube babies’ have been born since 1978, with the help of in vitro fertilization. Harmonica & Gig takes a look at a rarely viewed side of this genre of scientific advancement with the character of Felix ‘Gig’ McGuiggen, asking questions like, “What effects will this have on the kids?” How can they be proud of who they are, when everything, from looks to behavioral tendencies, to intelligence, was purposefully spliced into their genetic code? The engineers could make an entire populace just like them, if they wanted, so where goes the pride in those things that make a person an individual?

Astruc is successful at conveying feeling and making her characters real. Every single person introduced quickly becomes a solid, defined individual, with a strong personality; even those whose own sense of self is so precarious. We feel we know them better than they know themselves, and that makes them truer still.

The writing in Harmonica & Gig is fluid and strong, never faltering. Astruc does a great job of foreshadowing, without making it obvious and spoiling the tension, suspense and mystery. All of this together makes the book feel more like a cohesive experience than a leisure-time diversion. I would recommend it to anyone. In fact, I’ve recommended it to people already. Why this book is not a best seller, or at least an instant cult classic, I do not know.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rhys Hughes, Brothel Creeper (2011)

Rhys Hughes, The Brothel Creeper. Gray Friar Press, 2011. Pp. 230.
ISBN 978-1906331221. $16.00/£8.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Rhys Hughes: a name to conjure with. Already a solid presence in speculative and fantastical fiction for his outrageously weird and wonderful storytelling, he has turned out this collection of his short (tall) tales; some reprinted from magazine sources, others new, with the combining themes of “sexual and spiritual tension”. Along a line of tension the speculative writer can have a lot of fun playing with extremes and relishing in the clichéd outcomes of the questing extravagances of the protagonists. Basically, if you lurk in the line between zones (for a line of tension is the final frontier between A and B; there would be no tension, if not for opposing forces growling at each other over the fence), then pretty much anything goes. It is to Hughes’s credit that instead of submerging into an indulgent series of rants, over-florid of language and confusing of image, he has a lighter hand that trips merrily along that line, producing clear if disturbing visions that spark the reader’s mind and the reviewer’s appetite. While on the surface the greater shapes of his tales are recognisable, they are constructed from strangely contorted details. These are everyday items and events as viewed through a glass, distorted. Yet the clarity of meaning is not for one minute lost.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Hook, Ponthe Oldenguine (2010)

Andrew Hook, Ponthe Oldenguine. Atomic Fez Publishing, 2010. Pp. 176. ISBN 9780981159782. $16.99 / £9.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood (allegedly)

What is the truth? Is there any such thing? Is the truth what we make it ourselves, is it a constant or does it shape itself to fit whatever reality we want to believe in? This is one of the questions posed by the outlandish, funny and original novella, Ponthe Oldenguine. Even the book’s title is an anagram, possibly. Everything in these pages is a puzzle, a game, and a highly entertaining one at that.

Set in Norwich, Ponthe Oldenguine is a first person narrative written by a disillusioned journalist who goes by the unlikely name of Andrew Hook—which, of course, is probably a pseudonym. Hook is bored, trapped in a hack role in a local newspaper. Then he hits on the idea of repeating George Orwell’s experiment of living among the homeless, a sort of Down and Out in Norfolk. He will sleep rough, well, at night certainly, his need of modern convenience and luxury preclude a total immersion in that cold, squalid and unpleasant world.

A chance meeting with a real homeless man with whom he shares a doorway, and who appears to know more about the book’s hero (is that the right word?) than is healthy, leads Hook into a labyrinthine journey through a number of versions of Oldenguine’s life. All of them involve the man’s efforts to revolutionise BBC television programming with a series of increasingly ludicrous scripts.

Many of these scripts were produced, allegedly, but quickly dropped. Or were they? Produced or dropped that is. Internet searches reveal nothing, but then, can the Internet be trusted? Surely Oldenguine’s claims of persecution and conspiracy can explain that away. Or can they?

Oh, and about Oldenguine 's homeless status...

All the time, the narrator finds his own world dissolving into a chaotic splintering of the borders between truth and lie, while the borders between his own and Oldenguine’s life seems to be blurring. Even Hook’s girlfriend seems to know more than she is letting on and living another life that the narrator knows nothing about. Or perhaps she is simply living her life.

To add insult to Hook’s injury, including the contempt for him displayed by the staff of the Greggs bakery opposite the doorway he shares with Oldenguine, the book is littered with asides from Hook’s editor, snide comments, aspersions and downright insult.

So, we have a heady mix, the ubiquitous small press hero, at war with the world, awful to his long-suffering girlfriend, gauche and single-minded, plunged into a mishmash of truth and lie and half-truth and semi-lie and wild ideas and wilder conspiracies while, all the time, starkly, bleakly, the truth is staring us in the face.

Truth is what we all make it, whether an embellished yarn told to our mates in the pub or what those in power decide we need to hear. And, especially these days, it is the oddly ordered universe created by the media. Interesting then that Oldenguine’s own mad journey was within the world of television, which in itself is purveyor of fantasy, because surely nothing, even so-called reality, is the bare truth. Surely everything it touches is dramatised, scripted, air-brushed and packaged to make it work.

Ponthe Oldenguine reminded me of a raft of so-called true memoires published at the end of the last century, all written by people (mostly men of course) claiming to have been operatives in some elite wing of the armed forces or secret service. On being challenged for proof that they were even in a particular organisation, because no evidence existed, no mention made of them in any records, their reply would invariably be that “it was so secret that all records were destroyed”.

In the end we can prove or disprove nothing because there will always be a Ponthe Oldenguine who will argue that left is right and up is down and that all evidence has been expunged and all we can do its trust him...

So, don't believe a word, but please believe me when I tell you, that Ponthe Oldenguine does exist and is one entertaining, ambiguous and funny book.

Honest.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Napier, Mouth for Picket Fences (2010)

Barry Napier, A Mouth for Picket Fences. Needfire Poetry, 2010. Pp. 88. ISBN 9781926912066. $9.99 print / $2.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Christopher Michaels

How do you review poetry? It’s such a subjective art, both in the writing and the reading. This wasn’t always true. Poetry was the primary form of stylised speaking and writing, as a performance art in the past; now, apart from its role in song, it’s a minority art mostly accused of being elitist. As a writer and appreciator of poetry I focus on emotion and passion and on these ways of experiencing and thinking about life, relationships and self. I like poetry with a strong emotional core. To me the power of poetry is its ability to point to the deep complexity of life beyond the limitations of words, its medium. For me another important quality of good poetry is the sense that it expands our language by playing with its metaphoric uses and the edge-meanings of it.

Barry Napier’s book is full of beautiful poetry in a modern free-verse form which fulfils these criteria admirably. Some of the poetry in the book continues the pattern of elitism of modern poetry in the complexity of its colliding imagery in ways that obscure meaning and feeling at first but then you learn his language. There is a sense of melancholy to his style which is not quite the enraged darkness we see in a lot of modern poetry, that slows you down to think and feel. He disrupts the blackest moods he suggests with gentle humour.

This is demonstrated in the very first poem ‘Hiding in October’. It starts with images of a one-track world and bored birds suggesting we have no control over the world and therefore life, but then he says:
“This was the same day you realized that a clock
has hands that can’t applaud
or hide themselves in coat pockets
or hold a baby, slick and new to the world.”
A humorous way of expressing the limitations of time yet filled with compassion. The poem is lovely and profound about the way symbol and organisation can overtake life by talking about how thin the calendar page is between September and November. The sad thought that a month is reduced to no more than a page in that calendar.

Another beautiful very sad poem from the first segment is the ‘Sentinel’. This one has no humorous relief. It is a short emotionally precise expression of self-destructive solitude, though it also seems to be about the loneliness old age and dementia. In contrast, towards the end of this segment, there is a rather sensuous contemplation on haunting, heaven and death, ‘We Will All Be Voyeurs in Heaven’, which nonetheless ends with:
“you will waste away in the shadow of life
regardless.”
The book is divided in three segments or chapters: ‘Normalcy’, ‘The Darkness Weighs Us’ and ‘(in)humanity’. To be honest I found it hard to know the relevance of the titles of the segments to the poetry within them. Normalcy has pieces, like the above three, which don’t necessarily seem to have much to say about normal life, unless he is saying normal life is melancholic.

The first poem of the second segment gives the book its name, ‘A Mouth for Picket Fences’, a description of mysterious evil, or is it God? This poem suggests a Stephen King-like story and character with an Old Testament complexity for the higher power. The strength of this poem is that he could be talking about marketing and capitalism just as easily as gods, demons and/or spirits. This poem has quite a different feel to the poetry of the first segment, there is a passion and clarity of opinion to it. The next poem ‘Morning Choir Practice’, a reflection on the sounds of a suburban morning chorus, returns to the melancholic feel of the first segment, but has a more judgemental sense to it. In away it seems to be more of a statement about normal life than most of the poems in the segment called ‘Normalcy’.

Most of the poems are about one page, short intensely emotional. ‘What We Know of Blackbirds’, at six pages, is the longest poem and picks up the theme from the sentinel of loneliness and aging. It uses the language and images of horror and mystery, reminding one of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Raven’, but is a contemplative exploration of hallucinogenic solitude brought on by profound grief. The choice of blackbirds as the birds of focus gives it symbolic depth. It could easily have been cliché, bringing on Stephen King, Hitchcock’s Birds and the Beatles, but the subtle understanding of the subjective, of feelings and the edge of sleep terror takes it into the realm of beauty.

The last poem in the book is appropriately ‘Rituals of Farewell and Departure’. It picks up the feel and narrative style of the earlier ‘Mouth for Picket Fences’, though not quite as strong as it, in the sense that it tells the story of a mystery spirit, maybe death, moving though suburban and small town life; a
“single shadow sulks across town,
under layered shadows and a collective naiveté”
Barry Napier’s collection of around forty poems is a substantial work worthy of wider notice. It courageously explores areas of life that are left untouched by many other art forms. Its style and emotional qualities take it into much deeper territory than the horror or dark lit that the promotional back pages suggest. To review a book like this is a little unfair since some of these poems are worthy of long consideration, of whole reviews by themselves. If there is a criticism it is that the collection is unlikely to pull non-poetry readers from the general public, people who don’t already love and appreciate poetry, but that’s not its aim.

Another minor problem is that of consistent emotional tone, maybe this is about his voice and the publisher’s idea that it should all fit together thematically and stylistically but for me it makes it a bit flat. A poem in the last segment like ‘The Misogyny of Writing’ heads towards sensuality and love with humour but then ends with grave-robbing obsession. A beautiful rendition of an afternoon of lemonade and a daughter’s relationship with her mother ends with a wasp landing on a “glazed-over eye where it marched onward, unseen”. It is as if everyday life is not enough, not profound enough or worthy enough for poetry unless it points to death and grief. However, the fact is few ordinary people in everyday conversation chat comfortably talk about death and its emotional consequences, its relationship with love and loss. These are important parts of our human experiences and Barry Napier is unflinching yet compassionate and sensitive in his expression of the intimacy of these moments.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Baum, American Book of the Dead (2009)

Henry Baum, The American Book of the Dead. Backword Books, 2009. Pp. 248. ISBN 978-0578026930. $13.95.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

A simple cover, featuring a series of stylized cartoonish scenes, white on black, belies a complex tale of humanity’s ability to be both rational and stark raving mad. Baum, who is at work on a follow up story set in the same universe, makes this novel available for free download, as well as on sale as a traditional hardcopy; it is more than worth the cost. The American Book of the Dead is an apocalyptic tale of an apocalypse that hasn’t happened, does happen, doesn’t happen or might happen.

Eugene Myers is a failed author who simply wants to leave a mark on the world. His career is going nowhere and his family is falling apart. His marriage is rocky at best, and he has discovered his daughter is doing Internet porn for extra cash. Things look bleak for his life when the dreams start. Dreams of faces, places, names and addresses. Dreams of real people, people he has never met. He begins chronicling the phenomena and the state of the world, only to watch as everything he writes begins to unfold. Is he making the future, or just seeing it?

Baum sets the novel’s beginning in a near, all too believable, future where violence is commonplace, almost expected and Internet porn is just something college kids do, because to them it’s not really a big deal. It is easily a world that could believably exist a very few short years from now. The novel presumes that humanity is slowly going mad, society devolving all over the world.

Enter President Winchell, his father, and his cabinet, who believe completely that it is their job to bring about the End Times. Winchell the elder has secret information, things that only top level government officials know and he divulges this information to Winchell the younger upon his son’s ascendency to the seat of President of the United States. Aliens exist and they wish to help us become a better society. There is no hell. Everyone who dies goes to a peaceful place, free of sadness, pain, and doubt. Everyone who dies goes there. It is knowledge that would make war obsolete, killing an enemy would be pointless.

Armed with this knowledge, Winchell the elder seeks to, as Eric Voegelin put it in The New Science of Politics in 1952, immanentize the eschaton, which is to bring about a final stage of heaven on earth. It is felt, however, that getting people to come together, unified as a species, is more than difficult. Too many cultural and religious boundaries exist. Winchell the elder seeks to break these concepts with a massive and devastating war. Billions will die, but he knows, he doesn’t just believe, he knows what will become of them afterward. For those that remain, life will be harder, but this hardship will force a social evolution as nothing else possibly could.

Winchell the younger, however, seems to wholly miss the point of there being no “correct” religion and sets about the task as more of a religious crusade. At first he sees himself in the role of a necessary Anti-Christ and then, later, decides that he may be the actual Messiah. His father supports this delusion at first for he feels it is necessary to get the American people to back what seems to be an insane war, but comes to realize his son has his own personal agenda.

Written in a self-aware, sometimes humorous style, Baum portrays protagonist Myers as a genuine human being, filled with the sort of traits we all share, even the ones we don’t always want others to see and never give voice to. His constant discomfort at his role as either author or prophet of the apocalypse feels genuine; his desire to not have the constant responsibility is understandable. The reader finds Myers easy to identify with and therefore his actions, whatever they may be, seem reasonable.

On the flip side of this is the almost cartoonish demagoguery and naiveté of President Winchell. It is unclear whether Baum intends him to be a parody of former President George W. Bush, but it certainly feels that way. It is difficult to tell whether the man is insane, stupid, or both. He is easy to hate but also easy to pity. He truly believes in what he is doing, but is unwilling to accept all of the information his father provides him. Like any good zealot he cherry picks what parts of the truth to believe in and twists each revelation with his own personal interpretation based on his preexisting beliefs. He is the closest thing the piece has to a true villain, and though he may be completely mad, unlike predecessors such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mr. Burns he may actually be the closest any one madman has been to correct. His father, who approaches the whole situation with a more logical, less narrow minded view, pulls all the strings perfectly right up until it is time to bring the survivors together, at which point the puppet decides to assert its own will. When President Winchell meets his eventual fate, it is easy to, if not sympathize with, then at least pity him.

At the core, the novel is a story about mankind and the need for change. Myers wishes to change his life, his world, and begins the novel in effort to vent this desire for change. Though things seem bleak, the novel manages to hold on to a certain hope in the intrinsic goodness of people, but also seems to feel that without a some catastrophic event forcing total social reevaluation, the human race is ultimately going to continue to degrade. While the Winchells’ plan for war may be unfathomably destructive, even Myers is unsure whether or not it is needed. As casualties mount, first thousands, then millions, and ultimately billions, the cost in lives forces the remaining few to reassess social priorities in a way that it seems little else could.

I don’t mean to say that I agree that an apocalyptic war is the only way to bring about change but… well maybe I do. Policies, however well meaning, will be resisted. Politics are a constant battle between left and right and I don’t think it matters what side of that line you may fall on, we can all probably agree that government may have lost any real interest in governing and is instead more interested in playing a game of thrones. Religion has ever been a huge dividing line, the words of one prophet or another fought over as it has been for centuries and likely will be for centuries to come. Cultures will always try to preserve themselves, which isn’t a bad thing by any means, but it does leave one to wonder if it isn’t just another way we separate ourselves from one another. “Separate but equal” sounds good in theory, but even while many are perfectly fine with it (I count myself among that number), there are just as many who regard that separation with suspicion. While you may define this as largely just the ignorance of the uneducated (as I do) it is difficult to come up with any real piece of social engineering that could break through that ignorance.

This is where the war comes in. Keep in mind that the ideas here come with the caveat that it is known utterly and without question that the survivors will reach a new stage of enlightenment due to their shared experiences and those that fall will absolutely go to “heaven”. Operating with that as a known set of parameters, can I at least see the argument that the war is a valid means of social change? Sure. Even the protagonist Myers wishes there were another way, but seems to accept that there may not be. If the power were put into his hands to try a different route, would he take it? Absolutely. That does not mean, however, that it is impossible to accept the apocalypse war as a means to an end.

The ground covered in the novel is not particularly new. Plenty of apocalyptic novels have covered it before. 1949’s Earth Abides, in which humanity is all but wiped out by an unknown virus and must be rebuilt, focusing specifically on one man as an architect of a new society explored it. 1977’s Lucifier’s Hammer in which a massive comet slams into the Earth, reshaping the landscape, burning away or drowning much of the life on the planet, causes the priorities in the lives of the survivors to be completely rethought. Even in Cormac McCarthy’s unbelievably bleak novel The Road, The Boy has been raised in a burnt and ashen wasteland, filled with every manner of human horror imagineable, but has been instilled with and clings to a very palpable sense of right and wrong. We wonder sometimes if The Man is doing the right thing by sheltering The Boy in this way, if he is not in fact teaching The Boy to be weak in an age meant only for the strong, but The Boy seems strong with conviction, even bending his father under the weight of it. The Boy represents an ideal that persists even in the face of overwhelming misery and violence.

Even in stories where a full-on apocalypse is not on the setlist, there plays a similar song. Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Unite and Conquer”, published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1948 has mankind uniting against an engineered alien threat. This would later become the basic plot of the Outer Limits original series episode “The Architects of Fear” starring the late Robert Culp which in turn would inspire comic book creator Alan Moore to write the now classic Watchmen graphic novel (in the film version you can actually see the Outer Limits episode playing on one of Ozymandius’ monitors).

It would seem that many writers agree that a paradigm shift of this magnitude would require an equally massive catalyst. The subject matter has been covered again and again. Baum does manage to put a rather pleasant new twist in the tale but in the end it’s the same lesson we’ve been trying to teach for who knows how long. Race, religion, culture, or country we are all humans and have, at our core, the same strengths and weaknesses. The lesson always seems to be that we should try to leave behind this focus on our differences, and instead concern ourselves with the similarities. It’s a lesson taught in many different ways, but it’s always the same lesson. It’s a pity it’s one we seem to have so much trouble actually learning.

Like two great men once said: Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Whitten, Life and Death of a Sex Doll (2011)

Zoe E. Whitten, The Life and Death of a Sex Doll. Belfire Press. 2011. Pp. 178. ISBN 978-1-926912-37-0. $11.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

The time: the future; the place: not so different from our own. Zoe Whitten’s vision in The Life and Death of a Sex Doll contains very recognisable social features including malls, blocks of flats, grumbles and gossip at work—but with very much cooler gadgets (an embedded telepathic communications device from Apple is naturally named the iPath, and sophisticated android home helps, sexual partners and pets are widespread). Here we plunge into Whitten’s highly allegorical tale about family, sex, gender and self, when lonely Kelly buys and modifies a sex doll to become her companion.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Lund, First World: Covenant (2011)

Mark Lund, First World: Covenant. The Ashton Times, 2011. ISBN 9780615491752. $0.99 Kindle.

Reviewed by Jonathan Cullen

Any significant historical event is inevitably paired with its ugly sister: the conspiracy theory. There was no bigger historical event of the 20th century, and perhaps in human history, than the 1969 Apollo Moon landing. A shockingly pervasive minority maintain that this event never occurred and was instead an elaborate hoax. As recently as 2009, in a poll by Britain's Engineering and Technology Magazine, a full quarter of respondents thought that John F. Kennedy’s dream of a lunar mission never happened. (In perhaps a scathing indictment of the British education system, the same poll revealed that eleven of the 1009 people surveyed thought that the Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear and jazz musician Louis Armstrong were the first humans on the Moon.)

Mark Lund’s 2011 novella, First World: Covenant, explores the Moon landing conspiracy theory, but not the one we might expect. China’s unexpected announcement in 2018 that it is launching a manned mission to the Moon sets in motion a clash of competing secret world organizations. One is an alien presence that has permeated Earth’s governments and global economy. The other has been poised for decades to prevent further manned lunar missions in order to guard a secret that would shatter the realities of all of Earth’s inhabitants.

The story engages a number of current issues: the end of NASA’s Shuttle program, China’s growing power, our diminishing trust in government, and even the US debt woes. The thread woven in First World reaches back to the Apollo space program (and really even further still) and implicates past US Presidents and other world leaders. Its basis is audacious and inventive.

First World has a plethora of appealing themes for the reader to consume. The battle of clandestine world orders is intertwined with alien infiltration, Watergate, and secrets passed down from one world leader to the next. Mark Lund walks that thin line that is every conspiracy story’s challenge. On the one hand, given its magnitude, it is realistic that the cover-up would be tied to many world leaders, powers and historic events. On the other, the key to a plausible conspiracy story is to avoid entering Forrest Gump territory and linking the characters and plot to absolutely every significant event in the last forty years. First World walks this line successfully by keeping the correlations relevant to the lie the public has been told.

An important aspect of science fiction is pushing the limits of innovative and plausible technology. It’s admittedly unfair to expect mind-blowing new tech from a story set only seven years in the future. Nevertheless, First World offers up a few tantalizing nuggets such as a second generation anti-gravity space shuttle and implanted communication devices. I read these descriptions with great interest but in some cases Lund reaches a bit too far in an attempt to relate these devices to today’s known technology. The mention of a “Bluetooth successor”, for example, grabs me by the collar and shakes me out of that all important suspension of disbelief. Lund expertly describes the technology, and in my view such references are unnecessary and detract from the story.

As a reader, First World did leave me with some wants, a few of which are inextricably linked to the conspiracy theory paradigm. Lund’s story is very plot driven and a lot happens. However, the answers to many of my questions have apparently been left to the sequel. Tantalizing the reader into picking up the sequel is an art and it is easy to over-promise and under-deliver in a first book of a series. Although it’s more than desirable to leave us wanting more, an opening book should be a complete story arc unto itself. I think First World could have given up a few more secrets and still kept me salivating for the next volume. Most sections and chapters end with a cliffhanging question. That technique could have been used more judiciously.

It’s telling that former President Richard Nixon plays a significant role in a story built on a web of lies. In Ranking and Evaluating Presidents: The Case of Theodore Roosevelt, presidential biographer and Pulitzer Prize winner James MacGregor Burns aptly describes Nixon by saying, “How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic President, so brilliant and so morally lacking?” It’s perhaps even more telling that Nixon’s legacy and the epitome of clandestine illegal activity, the Watergate scandal, is footnoted as a necessary evil in First World’s schemes. Is Lund arguing that certain truths are best withheld from the public for our own good? Can leaders who face complex political and economic realities in an age where the public expects full and immediate access to information justify deception for the greater good? Are they not simply protecting the unwashed masses from themselves? Unfortunately, without some of the answers to the many questions that this first book raises, it is difficult discern whether First World is offering any such comment. If it is, there is definitely an opportunity in the sequel to flesh out that premise. If it is not, it might be a missed occasion that could still be seized.

A lot of the information we receive is by way of exposition of past events. I find factual revelation through the actions of characters more engaging. This also allows us to relate to the cast at the same time.

And there are a lot of characters. There were a few spots where I had to flip back to remember where this particular government or military official fit in. This might have been because I read it over several sittings, but I was in the weeds a bit. The protagonist, however, Kathleen Gould, is absolutely memorable and interesting. Our introduction to Gould in her kitchen having coffee is very benign and every-day. This contrasts vividly to her fundamental impact on world history and direction. The scenes involving her are the most appealing.

A novella is not long and there is always the temptation on the part of the author to get on with the plot too quickly and therefore miss opportunities to use engaging stick-to-your-bones language. While there are several memorable and clever turns of phrase in First World, and Lund clearly has that capacity, I wanted to see more of such flourishes. There was also an occasional frustrating mix of points of view in the same scenes. This is particularly jarring in a conspiracy theory when knowledge of a secret by one character is very much what separates her from another character who is blissfully ignorant. Being in both heads renders the scene harder to swallow.

Overall, First World is an exciting take on the Moon landing conspirary genre and I would pick up the sequel, First World: Synedrion, due out in the fall of this year. However, I hope to see a tightening of the points of view, an increased confidence in the use of bold turns of phrase and a cutback in ever-escalating cliffhangers. A nod is warranted to illustrator Marek Purzycki and his beautiful artwork that accompanies First World.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

French (ed.), Monk Punk (2011)

A. J. French (ed.), Monk Punk. Static Movement, 2011. Pp. 214. ISBN
978-1617061165. $15.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Before considering the stories in this anthology, questions loom large, prompted by the audaciousness of the book’s title: Monk Punk. What is it meant to be, and does the book achieve it? Editor A. J. French wants to introduce a new sub-genre, to add to the list of mixed and matched writing that speculative fiction broadly allows within its eminently flexible remit. In his lurid and highly personally enthusiastic introduction, French outlines what he believes to be monk punk’s position. First of all, French seems to come to the conclusion that to ‘punk’ is to subvert narrative convention and expectation. After all, the TV show that is about practical jokes and shock surprises is named ‘Punk’d’.

I am not going to go over well-written ground here, but to summarise for context: French traces cyberpunk’s genesis to the mid-1980s. This was an era of clunky, pedestrian computers requiring large amounts of specialist programming knowledge to create. They were solid objects very much separate from human flesh; tools to be used rather than partially assimilated into the Self; unsexy and awe-inspiring. The idea of the direct connection between man and machine, the sensuality of such and the prevalence of dystopian futures in such a set-up seemed novel. The hope was in the new machines; a cleaner, better, more organised society. Anyone who has worked in a so-called ‘paperless office’ might well dispute that!

Steampunk, too, redirects expectation. In re-imagining a past more technologically advanced, utilising the technology of the 1800s, e.g. clockwork and steam, reads as quaint and even magical. French is right that sci-fi (or more broadly, speculative fiction) will always “comment on the sociological condition of a given author’s present time”. The leap, the ‘punking’ of narrative normalcy is made when a personal element is made: the author expresses beyond what has been tried before. Indeed, fantastic storytelling could be said to have its roots in ancient myth and legend, when amazing events and creatures befell the heroes as a matter of course. These days we read them more as metaphors; earlier civilisations seem to have truly believed that ‘here be dragons’. Making up a story that has no actual truth is itself a fantastic act: fantasy and speculation in storytelling could be said to be storytelling, punking the world of ‘truth’ as it is witnessed.

Considering, then, the rich climate of the liberal, melting-pot magic that seems to be prevalent in the current modern era in the West, there is an extreme of style and presentation in the action-packed sections of the visual arts and a taste for the supernatural, romantic and strange that lies at the heart of many of currently popular narratives. It could be a reaction to the wider social background: if there are fear tactics in politics, wars being fought and worries over financial ruin, is it any wonder people seek more obvious ‘escapism’ in their leisure hours? Perhaps movie studios were hoping that 3D would be the new ‘punk’ of film. So, given all this, can a new theme be said to be able to ‘punk’ modern story-telling anymore?

Some of the stories ‘punk’ the format of the short story by feeling unformed. They read more as smaller snippets of a larger story that, just as one is getting into it, ends, denying one the bigger picture: ‘Wonder and Glory’, ‘Brethren of Fire’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Xenocyte: A Kiomarra Story’, ‘Vortex’ and ‘Citipati’ fit this model. Indeed, ‘Wonder’ and ‘Xenocyte’s author bios suggest that these are ideas that are being worked up into longer novels. ‘Brethren’ does not, unfortunately, include an author bio, but I would not be surprised at all if it was a snippet from a larger book as well. Most, though, apply the short story ‘rules’ and have a beginning, a middle and an end!

But do the stories justify French’s enthusiasm for an “evolving foray into Beat literature”?—that is, something subversive in what it presents and how it does it, a ‘spiritual’ punk effort, where the monk’s place in the story acts as a pivot for dualism, a “vibrant dualism” that “stems from an aesthetic of play. With genre. With form. Ultimately with new ideas.” I am sorry to say that, apart from the aforementioned cut-off stories, there is little here that is new in form or point of view in writing, or in ideas, or even in genre bending. French allows for the bigger genres—sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, etc—while claiming that monk punk will take them and play with their conventions. But this simply does not happen.

I was entertained, I was amused, but I was not amazed at a new dawning. And I did not feel, unlike one reviewer, that the stories “hand you your ass in a hat and make you ask them if you look pretty in it.”

Maybe I was missing something. Perhaps I am cynical. Maybe it is because I acknowledge that there has been a huge mixing of Eastern filmic conventions (and with it certain Eastern story-telling traditions as expressed in the clichés of those films) with the West. Eastern martial arts have become the standard fighting style in Hollywood’s far-reaching film factory. Eastern ‘mysticism’ has been camped up and used to explain the weird and wonderful by simply being there for some time: the wizened kick-ass monk, the vibrant fighter, the foolish, clownish character, the earnest warrior-lover. Even George Lucas was apparently inspired by original classic Japanese cinema to create his Star Wars franchise; a sci-fi staple many succeeding generations of films have looked to as their natural ancestor. Thus the ‘Eastern’ detailing in the Eastern-themed tales in the book were not surprising. There were highly choreographed action sequences in these stories: written with an eye to the visual, and easily brought to mind.

Maybe because I have read a variety of fantastic fictions, the suggestions for the ‘new’ worlds and situations presented did not seem to far-fetched at all.

But maybe mostly because I was disappointed that, considering this was meant to be a new sub-genre driven by a spiritual core monk figure, I felt these were actually takes featuring or about monks doing things, interacting with people; not necessarily being the central element. Or the gap within the centre that other non-monks revolve around and react to. (Such an absence would be entirely Zen, after all). I identified action, comedy, sci-fi, android monks (Douglas Adams got there first), alien spiritualists/ monks (Star Trek is a bigger proponent of such), horror, won-ton western (a term I’ve coined to mean a Westerner writing a story in the style of an Eastern mini-epic) and psychological thriller. But these were bigger than the monk-characters involved.

Alas for French, I don’t think this one is going to fly as a new sub-genre, but it is a great collection of fun, action-packed reads.

I am not going to cover every tale; that would dry out the fun of the book immeasurably; you will just have to try for yourself! To pick out a few favourites, though; ‘The Cult of Adam’ by Mark Iles is a short, sweet tale following what seems to be the return of humanity to Earth following a catastrophic war between their faithful left-behind androids and alien invaders. In the space just two sort pages, Iiles wittily turns this potential re-grown Eden into a charnel-house when it goes to show that a lone gatekeeper must be chosen very carefully, and that even among never-failing androids (running on Asimov’s seminal Laws of Robotics; used right across the board in sci-fi as the basis for artificial life) new subroutine faiths can split from orthodoxy! It left me darkly amused and actually appreciating the android’s decision for the twisted yet preserving desire that it was.

‘Nusradin: Desert Sufi’ by Barry Rosenberg reads like a shaggy dog story. One is left awaiting a punch line, and when it comes in the final line, alas it was all too obvious. But the charm is in the obviousness to the reader juxtapositioning with the slightly pompous voice of the main patsy, to whom it is far to say, Nusradin happens. Another tale that made me giggle was the quirky, somewhat sarcastic commentary on religious order life in Gayle Arrowood’s ‘Capital Sins in a Dominican Monastery’, featuring a brilliantly apoplectic monk and a series of events that, were they not in a monastery, would most likely have brought the offenders onto Jeremy Kyle!

Of the more obviously ‘balanced’ and more deliberately monk-ish stories that French seems to want to champion, there is the bloody judgement that comes calling on a repentant sinner-monk among the Himalayas in the form of a mutating doctor in ‘The Key To Happiness’ by R. B. Payne. Here the ‘duality’ comes from the letting-going of the worldly—both doctor and monk will be leaving behind their previous lives. There is the acceptance of rightful punishment by the monk and the joining of male and female to continue a species (the doctor was bitten by a she-yeti). This balancing of events and accepting of them is perhaps what Payne means by being a key to happiness; just as Zen and Buddhism espouse removing desire and thwarted will to achieve peace.

Keeping universal elements in balance is the provenience of the action-dramas ‘Black Rose’ by Robert Harkess and John R. Fultz’s ‘Where the White Lotus Grows’. In each the warrior-monks draw their strength from their spiritual practice and are seen as the moral cleansers in troubled times; defeating the pretensions of the forces of darkness when they would threaten what is otherwise innocent and natural. These read like solid Eastern actioneers: chop-socky, magical powers and wise pronouncements. We are reminded of an added element of balance in ‘White Lotus’: where there is good and light, there has to be darkness to balance it (according to the principles summarised in Yin-Yang). As the hero monk rises and discovers humanity in his nature; fathering a child and taking responsibility for the spiritual direction of a town, so his love is captured and rendered demonic by evil. Where man is seen as purifying, strong; woman once more takes the traditional dialectic role as seducer and vileness. I cannot feel too offended by this rather simplistic effect: the story is about traditional balance and strictly speaking, that has been maintained in this fictional world.

The most confusing stories include ‘Snowfall’ by J. C. Andrijeski; did the human pioneer, returning to a post-apocalyptic world actually fight a dragon or not? Did they just have some variety of spiritual quest through the medium of strange monk-like figures in colourful robes; a sort of bald-headed Polyphonic Spree grouping? Certainly the astronaut appears to land twice; first we follow as she enters the stone castle-like building her ship has spotted. She meets robed figures and sees the devotional aspect of flowers and paper birds left in the lap of a seated human statue; a sort of latter-day Buddha. Then she faints, seems to awake to battle a monster, then re-awakes in her escape pod, hurtling down to the plant for the first time. Clever, but not revolutionary story telling; a fun experience and colourfully written.

Dean M Drinkel’s ‘The Liturgy of the Hours’ by comparison is a deeply disturbing sequence of hallucinatory first-person stream-of-consciousness passages as what emerges as a damaged religious nutter kills and rapes a prostitute.

This latter tale aside, for the most part what I keep returning to is that this was a fun book to read; a lively, playful collection. The play is present, not necessarily for the reasons French hoped for, although play itself needs balance to work. Too much, it looses its appeal; too little, and it is a sorry, fragile little thing in a stressed-out world. Perhaps it can be said that where there is playfulness in writing, there is a desire to re-tip the aesthetic scales a little: produce something irreverent to counterbalance something too serious. But the treatment of the monk archetype perhaps says more about the modern relationship to religious figures. There is something of an awkwardness about them, portrayed in most media as either mystic, wise persons of awe or totems of ridiculousness, subject to all the weaknesses, contaminations and failings of mankind, yet hypocritically hiding behind robes of office.

If French collected these stories with this more in mind, I would agree with him, but instead of seeing this as a response from writer to religious figure, he wanted to place the figure as the pivot for meaning, instead of the subject for exploration. Such objectifying of the monk is more of a ‘punk’ on current social and cultural narratives concerning spirituality and on how much those perceptions have changed. The West was, once upon a time, fundamentally in awe of its holy orders. With Henry VIII’s formal dissolving of the power of the monasteries in the UK, splits within the church and increasing secularisation, it has been a long time since that has been the case. We still relate to them as something separate, but not necessarily part of the main-stream world; no longer part of the building blocks of our cultural identity. This setting-aside allows a certain fluidity of opinion. Sometimes this is playful (e.g. see the Sister Act films), sometimes dire (e.g. scandals that break in newspapers and The Magdalene Sisters). While I cannot quite agree with French’s angle that it is the shaking-up of established narrative convention to create a new sub-genre on its own, if this collection of stories proves anything, it is that the perception and commentary on cultural figures can be punked, through the medium of speculative fiction.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

McDonald, Automatic Safe Dog (2011)

Jet McDonald, Automatic Safe Dog. Eibonvale Press, 2011. Pp. 270. ISBN 978-1-908125-01-9. $13.75.

Reviewed by Jessica Nelson

Automatic Safe Dog is the debut novel from musician Jet McDonald. In it, we are introduced to a strange man by the assumed name of Terribly Velour... ‘Telby’ or ‘T’ for short. Working as a dog comber for Pet Furnishings, Telby meets and is instantly taken with a woman by the name of Ravenski Goldbird. When circumstances separate them soon after meeting, Telby resolves to do anything and everything he can to insert himself back into Ravenski’s life and heart, even if that means committing various crimes and completely reinventing himself.

Telby is a classic unreliable narrator, and like him, nothing in Automatic Safe Dog is what it seems. You might assume Pet Furnishings would sell furnishings for beloved family pets, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, they sell pets that have been converted into furnishings, with a few ‘quick and easy’ surgical modifications. Advertising assures customers dogs love being sat on, as it gives them that little touch of ‘extra attention’ they wouldn’t otherwise get. As Telby says, “Dogs are just furniture with pets attached,” and this seems to be the general belief of most of the population, with the exception of the Animal Liberation Liberationist group.

In the style of classic British comedy, McDonald’s character’s are all somewhat ridiculous in their own ways. Each is an exaggerated parody of the type of personality they are meant to represent. At the same time, much like the drawings of the cityscape on the cover, all of the characters are decidedly flat, lacking in dimension and... well, character. Seeing the story play out in my mind is very much like playing with paper dolls when I was a kid—a bunch of thin cardboard cut-outs that bobble to and fro as words pop from their mouths in imaginary speech bubbles. However, this is not the result of poor writing ability, but an effective and purposefully used tool to highlight how shallow the people have become.

In McDonald’s London, none of the people have any real sense of who they are or what their place in the company (and the world, since the company is their world) really is. All of them have inflated egos and low self-esteem, trying to prove to everyone else—but mostly to themselves—that they have some sort of worth, which is always being undermined; a cruel, vicious circle, yet they all keep going round and round it voluntarily, apparently blind to its existence. People are driven to move for the sake of movement; forward movement at all costs, never taking a moment for reflection or introspection. They don’t work for the love of their work, they work as a means to an end, like a horse chasing a carrot. Everyone wanting to ‘make it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be) and never taking any real joy from the lives they’re living, always looking and reaching forward for more, better, newer, trendier. In this sense, McDonald has created a wonderful treatise on progress as opposed to conscious living. In modern society, far too many people share Ravenski’s philosophy; “We’ve got to keep on moving, moving, keep on moving, don’t stop, don’t ever look back...” “Sometimes it’s easier not to understand, because then you can’t see and who needs to see as long as you get where you want to go.”

Even people are treated not so much as human beings, but as property. Sex has become something to do rather than something to share, and the corporation has taken over control of private relationships. Ibore Davidson refers to Telby as her ‘prop’ and decides he needs to change his image based on her desires during a short-lived fling between them. Telby is at one point informed, “You’re company property now,” and not only forbidden to speak to Ravenski, but physically prevented from doing so, when the boss decides fraternization is not in his best interest.

The result of all of this, of course, isn’t pretty. One of Telby’s first sane thoughts is, “It’s as if at the centre of all these occupations and leisures and restaurants and hobbies is a soullessness and we make for ourselves a whirlpool; a whirlpool around us.” A bold statement about the incessant need to always do, do, do and never just be. Living like this, it’s only logical that eventually some sort of boredom-induced insanity will appear as people will do anything to cut loose and go crazy to release these pent up feelings of anxiety and rage. Substance abuse is the norm rather than the exception, and decadence reigns supreme. It gets to the point where we even understand Telby’s newfound masochism, because as Three Days Grace sings, “I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all.”

The money men and ‘big dogs’ on top know you need to keep people down to keep people down. People are so concerned with their pocketbooks and looking out for their bank accounts that they’re willing to overlook and even accept the wrongs perpetrated by those with more, those in charge of moving the money and supplying the jobs. “But it’s our jobs... we need the money. We can’t afford a revolution.” Eventually, though, in life and in fiction, people get tired of being numb. They get tired of being bored. They get tired of being controlled. They get tired of never attaining because they can’t define what they really want, and then they get tired of being tired. So the real money question becomes, what does it take to start a revolution?

After all of this—the skillful writing, the carefully crafted characters, the ridiculous humor—I really want to like this book, but I just can’t bring myself to. I may be wrong, and McDonald may be a mad genius in his approach, but for someone like myself, an animal lover whose dog is like one of my children, someone who does what I do for the joy of it, my biggest response overall was a sort of sickness. It took me a lot longer than usual to read this book, because I dreaded picking it up. Descriptions of the ways the dogs were treated and designed bothered me more than I can say.

And this is the crux of the problem. I have to wonder if, using this approach, McDonald didn’t shoot himself in the foot, so to speak. I fear that the people who read and enjoy this book may be the very people it seeks to make fun of, and its points will be lost on them. I fear those who would read it and understand all the things he tried so hard to say (and I only touched on just a few) will be put off by the same things that made me want to stop reading after just one chapter. My hope, however, is that after reading this, those last people will know more than I did what to expect, and perhaps be better prepared, so that they can pick this book up and read it for the salient points I started out with. If someone had written this review before, or if the forward had said something like this, I might have known better what to expect, and I think that would have made it more of the experience it was intended to be.

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