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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