Thursday, March 31, 2011

Trevillian, A-Men / A-Men Return (2010-11)

John Trevillian, The A-Men. Matador, 2010. Pp. 410. ISBN 978-1848763432. £18.99 / $24.95
and The A-Men Return. Matador, 2011. Pp. 400. ISBN 978-1848766198. £18.99 / $24.95.

Reviewed by Paul Wilks

The A-Men and The A-Men Return are the first two parts of an anti-utopian trilogy, written by John Trevillian and published by Matador. The final part of the trilogy, Forever A-Men, is not yet released. The first two parts of this stunning, visceral dystopia concern a hellish world set in a dark future where the mega-corporations have all but vacated a devastated Earth for neighbouring moons. The narrative is divided into numerous character perspectives and the reader is led through the alternating streams-of-consciousness of the principal A-Men members.

‘The A-Men’ are essentially one of many gangs within the troubled Dead City, who randomly come together under the leadership of amnesiac Jack, also known as The Nowhereman. While it could be argued that the novel is wrapped around the actions of Jack, we also glimpse the world-views of: ‘Sister Midnight’, a tough-yet-kind religious zealot; ‘Pure’, a beautiful street-smart junkie who becomes obsessed with Jack; ‘D’Alessandro’, a slightly unhinged scientist inventor; 23rdxenturyboy, a young comic-obsessed urchin and ‘Dingo The Wonder dog’ his genetically spliced dogman. The author cleverly blends these individual perspectives, and the chapters give a vibrant, continuative narrative to follow. The danger of this kind of text, similar for example in the way David Mitchell writes Cloud Atlas, is the possibility of overlap, where a character’s language spills over into other stories. This thankfully doesn’t happen in the A-Men novels, instead the stories are intelligently crafted apart.

As mentioned, the central focus of both books is Jack. The novels essentially tell of Jack’s induced amnesia and his journey to unravel the whys, the whos, the wherefores of his existence. His sections of the book dominate, which proves challenging at times because there is very little to like about the man. Jack comes across as an angry narcissistic hedonist who shows little or no compassion to his fellow characters, except for those he wants to have sex with. His behaviour is continually without any kind of moral code, and it strikes this reader as remarkable that his fellow A-Men feel inclined to do anything for him. This threatens the text at times, as it is difficult to understand where character motivations come from and the narratives struggle at times to justify character behaviours. However, the story is told at such a pace, this doesn’t detract enough to derail the novels.

Most startling about the novel is the sheer volume of swearing. I am in no way offended by bad language, and the inventive use of four-letter-words would probably impress the likes of Richard Curtis. This said, the overt use of certain word, in certain contexts, makes Jack especially appear highly misogynistic and perpetually angry towards the women in the novel. The language entwines the accounts of violence and sex throughout the books to the point where they occasionally blur. Sometimes this really works, sometimes it doesn’t. Lines like “Pull out my D&K (gun). Feels good in my hand. Feels like a dick when it’s hard. My metal cock. Ready for fucking” sound more like a line from an immature pubescent rap artist than a literary protagonist. Fortunately, this only occurs occasionally as Trevillian writes to a very high standard. The linguistics employed in the novel are innovative, refreshing and funny, the humour snakes through the book and I laughed out loud a number of times. The vocabulary is delicious throughout, and during the times where the novel slows, this keeps the narrative alive. There is a distinct William Gibson feel to the language. While in my opinion the story itself isn’t quite as good as, say, Neuromancer, the language is superior. At around 400 hundred pages each, there is a thoroughly entertaining story running throughout The A-Men and The A-Men Return, but there were times I felt it was diluted by the volume of the books. I must stress however that, even if the books have been padded, they remain incredibly entertaining.

Besides Jack, the characters themselves sometimes lack development and, as I have mentioned, a reader might sometimes wonder what their motivations are. Survival would be one, perhaps that the other options available to them render Jack the most viable, but it becomes difficult to distinguish for the reader. There are some quite elaborate yet indulgent passages that add little to the story. At great risk, Jack emancipates Sister Midnight from a religious commune and has sex with her, only to dump her completely, in addition to the other A-Men, when the pneumatic Pure comes along a few pages later. The A-men as a gang seem to impress quite a reputation upon other gangs within Dead City, and I couldn’t quite fathom how this reputation was manifest. There is kind of legendary reverence about them, and I would argue it isn’t really justified. Jack and Sister Midnight are the principal fighting antagonists for the A-Men and seem to have earned the group’s reputation more though luck than endeavour. This does not impinge upon the story one jot, but for a while I found this to be a curious assumption on behalf of the other gangs that served the A-Men well.

There is great depth in both novels; themes include family, religion, identity, fairy tales, sex, drugs, computer games and virtual reality. I would suggest that Jack’s misogyny sometimes becomes a little overbearing upon the narrative, and the continual referral to Sister Midnight as ‘black’ is a peculiar and disconcerting. This is unlike most dystopias I have read and there is little focus on the collapsing society, rather it concerns itself more with the journey of the protagonist Jack. If Jack was a little more likeable, for me the books would be even more engaging. But, as a reader might struggle to endear themselves to Jack’s narcissism, they must rely on the soaring language used in the novel for pure engagement. The language is utterly uncompromising and, while it occasionally slips horribly, Trevillian’s use of words is both fantastic and mesmerising in equal measure. I eagerly look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 (2011)

Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 (January 2011). Pp. 114. ISBN 978-0615443713. $11.99.

Reviewed by Keith Lawrence

Crossed Genres, a monthly speculative fiction magazine, spells out in its name its unique premise—although I think a strong argument can be made that it does not necessarily spell it correctly. Each issue of the magazine collects stories that combine the month’s “Current Genre” with Science Fiction or Fantasy. I would describe the genres in Crossed Genres Quarterly (CGQ) #1 as themes instead; CGQ#1 collects issues 25 (“Celebrations”), 26 (“Opposites”), and 27 (“Tragedy”), and the collection examines these themes through the lenses of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magical Realism and even an old-fashioned Ghost story. Semantic nit-picking aside (and I do accept that Stories Written in Various Genres Concerning a Common Theme would have made an unneccesarily Victorian title for a magazine), as a premise it works nicely, giving each of the three issues a centre from which the stories can blossom without constraining them too strictly.

“Celebrations”, the first issue in the collection, was also for me the weakest—despite containing by far my favourite story: ‘Prudence and the Dragon’, by Zen Cho, in which an oriental dragon woos a Malaysian student in modern-day London. The heroine Prudence is a gratifyingly solid character, headstrong and somewhat oblivious but in a sympathetic way—a fish out of water antidote to the Bella Swans of this world. I was also pleased by the dialogue: the idiosyncratic English as spoken by Prudence and her friend Angela is rendered very neatly, making it sound exotic without falling into the common practise of making part of a story’s dialogue into a comprehension test. I also liked Christie Yant’s Christmas-themed story ‘The Gift’, the shortest piece in the issue, which was both simple and fun. It does require the reader not to think through the premise too thoroughly, but fortunately the brevity of the story meant that I had read and been pleased by it and was well into the next issue by the time I noticed. Jaymee Goh’s ‘Lunar Year’s End’, an alternate-history vignette of the crew of a trading ship was well written but felt like more of a mood piece rather than a story—not necessarily a minus point in my book, but I know that I’m in the minority in that respect.

The theme of issue 26, “Opposites”, was best realised in Shelly Li and Ken Liu’s ‘Saving Face’, a story in documentary form with a familiar theme (computer programs do not understand human behaviour) deftly handled by the authors. The opposites in this case are an American scrap metal merchant and a Chinese businesswoman attempting to strike a deal, and their story is told in the form of interviews with the two of them and with the computer programs attempting to broker the agreement. The interviews with the humans are believable and make their motives seem very solid, transforming what could have been rather a pedestrian story into something interesting and engaging. ‘Love in the Atacama, Or the Poetry of Fleas’, by Angela Rega, is a desert fairy-tale love story in the magical realism vein concerning a young woman who flees into the Chilean desert to escape a violent suitor. Full of detail and colour, and a whimsical foreground over rather a dark back-story. Jacob Edwards, who also has a story in the first issue, provides ‘The Failed Redemption of Michael Ostrog’, which I’m afraid fell a bit flat for me. The dialogue in his earlier story (Issue 25’s “Desert Tango”) seemed unremarkable but transparent to the story, possibly because it was set in a future Australia. ‘Failed Redemption’, a Ripper story set in London, seems hobbled by dodgy Londonisms.

Issue 27 is the “Tragedy” issue. The tragedy of Ada Milenkovic Brown’s heroine in ‘Nadirah Sends Her Love’ is helplessness in the face of religious beliefs in an alternate universe. Told in the form of a series of letters in a medical log, the story lacks any twist beyond the historical inversion of its setting, but relentlessly follows the chain of events to their awful conclusion, embodying the theme fully. ‘They Gather In The Green’, by Michelle Muenzler, is a simple fairy-tale with a simple fairy-tale tragic end, but an equally simple overtone of horror. At first I didn’t quite understand why I liked it so much, but on reflection I realise that it’s because it adopts, again, a “less is more” approach to the background. The last decade or so (following Terry Pratchett’s lead, perhaps) has seen a great number of stories about the danger of dealing with fairies and similar creatures, generally filled with exposition. Muenzler’s story isn’t quite that, but it treads a similar path and does it without making any of the details too explicit. Corinne Duyvis’s ‘Rule of Threes’, a survival horror story set in Australia, showcases awkward decisions made by a flawed heroine. It seems to run on rails throughout much of the body of the story, but the end, although in some ways expected, leaves a hint of ambiguity which matches the theme well (even, arguably, twists it slightly).

Although not without a couple of lemons, I found CGQ#1 to be an enjoyable collection of short stories from a diverse set of authors. Although not quite creating hybrid genres, the issue themes all stimulated a wide range of settings and styles or story, particularly pleasing in their global coverage. Indeed, the more localised the story, the better they seemed to be—the most disappointing stories were those set in rather generic futures. CGQ#1 will, I think, appeal more to fans of fantasy or magical realism than science-fiction, but the gems of the issues I would recommend to anyone.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bourdon, Cemetery Psalms (2011)

Danielle Bourdon, Cemetery Psalms. Wildbloom Press, 2011. Pp 34. ISBN 978-0982831755. $0.99.

Reviewed by Sheri White

Cemetery Psalms is an e-book collection of five stories that take people from everyday life and throw them into unusual and sometime horrific situations. The author, Texas-based Danielle Bourdon, is the author of two novels, Dreoteth and Bound by Blood (both 2010); a third, Sin and Sacrifice, is forthcoming. The cover art is less than impressive; it shows a face over a graveyard that looks like an afterthought for the collection. However a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover, an adage proven by the stories collected here.

Everybody loves a good ghost story, and the teens in the story ‘The Haunted Carousel’ have lured a friend to “Gravity Hill,” where supposedly ghost children push cars up a hill in the road. Although the friend, Mark, tries to act brave, he is visibly shaken when the car actually moves. Pleased with the results, the group decides to go visit an abandoned farm that features a haunted carousel. Will this adventure end with the desired result as well? This story takes what is a joyful children’s icon and turns it into the ride from Hell. This carousel doesn’t have the usual horses and unicorns; this merry-go-round boasts a mime, a devil and a court jester. I enjoyed ‘The Haunted Carousel’ very much; it was well-written and even gave me the creeps. However, I don’t think the last scene was necessary to the story. The last scene seemed tacked-on, and cheapened the story somewhat, like a movie in which the antagonist jumps up at the screen before the credits roll.

In ‘Petrified’, a married couple searches for a shop called “Surlee’s” that sells beautiful carved items out of petrified wood. They look around the wonders of the store, fascinated by the faces carved into wood, some sorrowful, others terrified. As they reach the back of the shop and go outside, they find out the secret to the beautiful artwork. ‘Petrified’ is a fun story, although somewhat violent towards the end. The story is unique and told well, even though it might have been better if the antagonist hadn’t told the woman exactly why and what was going on. A little mystery would have made the story creepier.

The weakest story of the collection, ‘Music Box’ uses the “’til death do us part” meme, but doesn’t do anything different or clever with it. A man who has killed both his wife and himself in a fiery car crash has immortalized the two of them in a music box, him playing the piano and her dancing. The box is passed down through the family to keep their love alive. The details of the story are interesting; the music box has been carved into a miniature ballroom that mirrors the one in the home they shared together. The reason for the murder-suicide doesn’t make much sense; there is no other man or other woman to come between them, no threat to their relationship. It’s just a selfish act that really makes no sense in the context of the story.

‘I Am Ellis Moore’ is the story of a man who sneaks around his house, foraging for food. He is not wanted there; another family lives in the house although they hear things and think the house is haunted. Soon it becomes apparent that this is a ghost story/haunted house story, and discover that even Ellis Moore isn’t quite aware of what he is. This is the other weak story in the book. Haunted house stories need a good twist to make them scary and interesting; unfortunately, this twist in this story is telegraphed from the beginning. I’ve read this type of story many times, and ‘I Am Ellis Moore’ doesn’t stand out in any way.

‘Chameleon’, on the other hand, is a fun story of a man who drinks his ex-wife’s special tea called “Chameleon,” and proceeds through his day, taking on the emotions of everyone he comes into contact with. As Thaddeus finds out, this can be both a blessing and a curse. What happens if he comes across a robbery, a basketball game, a lover’s spat? In a way, ‘Chameleon’ reminded me of the wonderful story by Richard Christian Matheson, ‘Echoes’, in which a man is suddenly tortured by the voices of people who are suffering until they drive him insane. Thaddeus doesn’t go insane, exactly, but he is deeply affected by the emotions of those around him. I enjoyed ‘Chameleon’ very much, it was extremely well-written and fun to read.

Danielle Bourdon has put together a good, solid collection with Cemetery Psalms. Although at times flawed, the stories were mostly well-written and the details kept me involved in each story. I haven’t read anything else by the author, but would gladly check out her other works.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fantastique Unfettered #1 (2010)

Fantastique Unfettered #1 (December 2010). Pp. 144. ISBN 978-0983170914. $9.95.

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

M-Brane Press, the publisher of small press science fiction magazine M-Brane SF, launched a fantasy counterpart to that publication last year, Fantastique Unfettered (or FU). Under the editorship of Brandon H. Bell, FU has as its stated purpose the publication of ‘well-written, compellingly readable, original stories of fantasist fiction,’ both short fiction and poetry, which is ‘unfettered by traditional copyright,’ so that all its content carries a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license.

The authors appearing in the premier, Winter 2010 issue of the publication, which has eleven short stories and three poems in its 140 pages, offer a wide range of approaches and settings. Perhaps exemplary in this respect is the story to which the issue’s cover art is devoted, Michael J. Shell’s ‘The Death of a Soybean’, which presents an off-the-wall alternate version of the Manhattan Project and World War II. More a uchronia than an alternate history, ‘Soybean’ surreally scrambles the events of our timeline rather than exploring a counterfactual scenario, with Robert J. Oppenheimer just a Los Alamos security guard who happens to be eccentrically preoccupied with an idea called ‘nuclear fission,’ and a femme fatale lady physicist with the unlikely name of Maladi scheming, seducing and killing her way to fame, fortune and a place in scientific history.

Offering a nightmare complement to Shell’s noirish dream is Kaolin Fire’s ‘The Aetheric God’, in which a young technician named Asher who spends his days building steam-men for his employer ‘Chief Technician’ Father Isaiah. He spends his nights hiding in the cathedral’s library-desperately burying himself in its books to try and quiet ‘the voice of God within his head’ calling for Asher’s mutilation and destruction, a crisis that soon enough moves out of his head and into the physical world.

Going in a sharply different direction from either is Alan Frackelton’s ‘A Blessing From the Blind Boy’, the story of a disgruntled gaucho named Juan Hernandez who burglarizes the mansion of his ruthless landowner employer somewhere (and somewhen) in twentieth century Latin America, putting Hernandez’s young son Ramon in the center of a cycle of revenge, loss and longing.

In a lighter, more fanciful vein, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Breaking the Spell’ (a reprint from Philippine Speculative Fiction 4) has for its protagonist a little girl who becomes fascinated with the miniature world her father keeps under a bell jar. While her father’s fairy tales never ring true for her (she is ‘determined not to kiss a prince’), entry into that little world becomes the object of her own fairy tale quest.

However, in contrast with exoticism, the issue favors toward contemporary contexts, and compared with the world-changing (and rather nihilistic) events of Shell’s story, or the intense confrontation with the supernatural of Fire’s, subtler uses of speculative elements inside quieter, more personal stories. The descriptor that came to mind when I read Frank Ard’s story of a love triangle between a man, mer-man and woman ‘Small Fish in the Deep Blue’ is ‘slipstream.’ Others incorporate surreal intrusions into what might otherwise be a realist narrative, like in Mary J. Daley’s ‘The Book of Barnyard Souls’, in which a young farm girl named Kalee receives nightly visits from the souls of deceased animals; Natania Barron’s ‘Without a Light’, in which a sixth-grade teacher in a small town starts an affair with a mysterious colleague; Elizabeth Creith’s ‘Five Oak Leaves’, where a man encounters a young changeling girl living on the street.

In Anna Manthiram’s ‘Boris’, a meditation via fortune cookie-like clothing tags on the titular character’s involvements with various women; Christopher Green’s ‘Holding Hands’, in which a Vietnam veteran encounters a girl he left behind at thirteen many years later in his wife’s ballet studio; or Michael J. Deluca’s ‘The Driftwood Chair’, in which a man roams the beach trying to cope with the loss of a love; it is possible to blink and miss the speculative touch.

By and large the sensibility is ‘literary,’ and the quality is high (the two, of course, not always the same thing), virtually all the stories assembled here working, though to different degrees and in different ways. ‘Death of a Soybean’ succeeds on the strength of its pacing and strangeness, Fire’s ‘The Aetheric God’ on the nightmarish force of the telling. The poems offer similar grandiosity, particularly Bruce Boston’s rich, dark, chaotic ‘The Time Traveler Leaves History Behind’ and Alexandra Seidel’s glittering ‘In Babel.’ Daley’s touching ‘Barnyard Souls,’ is the most emotionally resonant story in the volume, though the pieces by Frackleton and Creith also succeed on this level.

That combination of quality and variety means that Fantastique Unfettered #1 offers something for many different tastes, in what seems to me a very promising start for the new publication.

This review is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, (c) Nader Elhefnawy. You are free to republish this review anywhere you like, so long as you give attribution to the author and to The Future Fire and keep this license text intact in any copy.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Theakers Quarterly Fiction #35 (2011)

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #35 (Winter 2011). Pp. 80. ISSN 1746-6083. £3.99.

Reviewed by Nick Jackson

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood, started out in 2004. The magazine aims to publish stories with an element of the fantastic, defined as: hard sf, soft sf, fantasy, heroic fantasy, dark fantasy, humorous fantasy, slipstream, magic realism, horror and terror. In their publishing statement the editors say, “Difficult, arch and oblique writing is a lot of fun. We certainly don't demand it, but it's something we enjoy when submitted. I love to be sent to the dictionary when checking proofs.” With disarming honesty, the publishers ask potential submitters to take note of the magazine’s uncertain credentials and tiny print circulation. All of this is either an indication that the magazine has a true spirit of independence about it, or perhaps just wants to keep submissions down. In this issue they have made the unusual decision to combine a short modern horror story by Maura McHugh and a dark rambling fantasy novella of 65 pages or so by Matthew Amundsen. These two stories, together with 25 pages of reviews, make up the entire issue.

Maura McHugh’s ‘Involuntary Muscle’ is a dark existential horror story in which a woman’s superficially perfect life begins to unravel following an unexpected pregnancy. The writing is precise with strong imagery. The story opens as Lilly, “with a smile so automatic she can no longer judge its authenticity” begins to realise the fragility of her existence and has the first intimations of unsettling forces as work within her. The “grit of cigarette smoke” is the kind of minutely telling detail which McHugh exploits brilliantly—what could have been a perfectly banal memory of her mother’s smoking becomes a deeply alienating fear of becoming like her mother with a hint of disturbing early memories. The horror is subtly brought out in startling half-revealed images. It is this light touch which makes this story so effective. McHugh manages with admirable conciseness to convey Lilly’s disintegrating state of mind and the horror of the ‘monster within’ which Lilly cannot bring herself to talk about with her bland friends. I was gripped by this character’s inevitable slide into doubt and self-recrimination. Definitely not a story to be read by expectant mothers!

‘House of Nowhere’ by Matthew Amundsen begins well with a fluid undefined setting. I couldn’t decide whether the setting was post-apocalyptic or just run-down but found the vagueness interesting. The plot revolves around a manipulative magician, known simply as The Conjuror, and a boy whom he has kidnapped and imprisoned. The Conjuror uses the boy to animate and manipulate a golem-like creature he has created to rescue himself from the decaying house which forms the setting for the story. So far, so good... Amundsen sets the story going and has a flair for imaginative and stomach-churning detail: shelves full of bottled worms, a horrific array of nightmarish devices and torture implements which he uses to gain the boy’s co-operation. However, the description slowly becomes more and more impenetrable with flights of literary fantasy that serve merely to puzzle and obfuscate. The following passage illustrates Amundsen’s skill at creating dream-like images at the same time as he loses a grip on clarity and communication.

Visions like dreams assaulted him. Rivers of blankets scared rigid without ripples under the baleful headlights of the Cyclops search party releasing pigeons plummeting to the earth flowing blood carrying tourist parties along crocodiles’ jaws to a periphery of silver shining a signpost tunnel pasted round with faded pictures of a sinking house and its grand pink topiary clasping skeletal welcome fingers. (34)
Not even poetic licence can justify the lack of grammatical coherence in these lines. This is a great shame because I get the feeling that Amundsen has a powerful sense of his created world and he risks alienating readers with these kind of riffs. I found these descriptive passages, of which there were many, tended to fragment the narrative rather than enriching it, making the reading a tortuous exercise in interpretation.

The best writing comes when Amundsen is conveying the golem’s journey, under the boy’s psychic manipulation. The writing flows well and I was intrigued and pulled along by the story. About three-quarters of the way through, however, there is an abrupt plot development which left me floundering for meaning and motivation. If the story had been more conventionally plot-driven, Amundsen might have managed to get away with his literary quirks but having set up the boy’s psychic link with the golem creature as a major plot device he just abandons it.

It’s perhaps no surprise to read in the editorial that ‘House of Nowhere’ began life as a 500 page novel. My feeling is that, in attempting to condense 500 pages to 70, Amundsen has jettisoned some of the plot and character development that might have justified the abstract ending which takes the form of a battle of wills between the Conjuror and the boy. Lovers of dark fantasy will still appreciate the rich detail and energetic action sequences but for me it lacked the coherence and completeness of a story.

Overall, this is a bit of a chalk and cheese issue. The writing is certainly dark and imaginative but, in the case of Amundsen, the editor’s penchant for the “difficult and arch” left me wanting to reach not for the dictionary but the please translate-from-incomprehensible-to-plain-English device.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Christian, Bachelor Machine (2010 [2003])

M. Christian, The Bachelor Machine. Circlet Press, 2010 (2nd ed.). Pp. 200. (ASIN B003Y8XUK2.) $7.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This collection of erotic science fiction short stories (first published in 2003 by Green Candy Press), is re-released now in e-book format by Circlet Press, publishers of erotic romance with “a sex-positive outlook” (12). The PDF reviewed here was a little rough around the edges; I understand that another print edition may materialize presently. There is an uncommon variety of material in here, from cyberpunk to space opera, alternative history to dystopia. The science-fictional settings are manifold, as are the sexual positions and inclinations—and, more importantly, the role of the inevitable explicit sex within each story. From the frivolous to the poignant to the socio-politically scathing, there’s something in this book for everyone. (Except, perhaps, titillation, but more on that later.)

The opening story in this collection, always important because it sets the reader’s expectation for the rest of the volume, is the finely crafter ‘State’. A blue-skinned, élite (and expensive) robot-whore with a secret welcomes a discerning john into her room in the bordello and fulfils his fantasies with machine-precision. There is not much plot in this story, just one sexual encounter between a whore and client; apart from the protagonist’s robot nature (and blue silicon skin) this wouldn’t really need to be a science fiction story; nor is it particularly sexy. “Fields” (the whore) technically has a certain amount of initiative and therefore power by virtue of her deceit, but this is still the story of a john using a hooker, and neither character has much to endear them.

The next couple of stories in the collection (‘Bluebelle’ and ‘Winged Memory’) did little to dispel the notion that characters were all going to be shallow and obnoxious, and the sex graphic but unappealing. But then comes perhaps the darkest and most poignant piece in this volume, one much more about the characters than about the sex. ‘Eulogy’ is a very dark tale of a man and woman who get together to remember a flawed genius engineer they both mourn, and they seem about to topple into a pathetic (although at least guiltless) comfort fuck which she thinks of as a eulogy to her dead lover. But their memories and their relationships with the dead man (and his mysterious disease) are obviously more complicated and more problematic than the reader at first realizes, and what starts as a depressing but harmless seduction scene becomes deadly serious. The lightly but convincingly sketched characters reveal surprising depths of complexity. From the sci-fi perspective, there is some beautiful description of water-parting wave technology in the backstory.

One of the short pieces, ‘Fully Accessorized, Baby’ is more or less a vignette, recounting a kinky, gender-twisted single scene of paid-for-sex with cyberpunk toys and countless role-reversals (both physical and behavioural). The cyberdildo technology didn’t strike me as terribly creative, but the erotic tension of domination play with what was effectively two tops made this one of the most impressively original pieces in this collection. (And, yes okay, pretty hot.)

Perhaps the best crafted piece in the volume is ‘Guernica’, which recounts a hard core S&M sex party in a futuristic dystopian state where all such pleasure is strictly banned and penalties for abuse are brutal. Although in outline this story is little more than an extravagant litany of transgressive and sadomasochistic sexual scenarios, it somehow builds to a whole greater than its parts. The dystopian message is a powerful one, and the piece ends up casting light both on the intolerance of society and on the mentality behind sexually motivated threat/fear play. Here is a great example of graphic erotica that serves the purpose not of titillation, but of social commentary and satire. After reading the end of this story, I had to put the book down for a while and get my head around what I thought, which is an excellent sign for any piece of writing.

In a more traditional cyberpunk story, the heroine of ‘Heartbreaker’ is an undercover cyborg vice cop, infiltrating the hidden, run-down premises of a ring responsible for “drugs, puppets, illegal stims, stolen memories, and [...] slavery” (107) in a high-stakes sting operation. She has been hunting the notorious kingpin, known only as “Heartbreaker” for years. Inside, she encounters only a naked young girl, almost as modified as she is, who appears (but only appears) to be “barely legal”; there follows a lengthy scene of very hot, very dangerous, almost violent lesbian sex, as the cop keeps the perp occupied while her backup team can trace the operation and mount a raid. But she has more than met her match in this sexed-up cyber-girl, ultimately both sexually oustripped and (of course) outmanoeuvred. There’s not so much of a moral to this story, but it is a well-constructed short thriller.

‘Skin-Effect’ is a much darker, but essentially much simpler tale of a military cyborg—a “brain in a polyarmor combat frame”—who has evaded the obligatory PSTD treatment and misses the rage, violence and distruction of war. On the recommendation of a now-lost comrade, he visits a patchwork whore-bot who is even less human and more fucked-up than he is, but who may have a solution to his problems. Ironically, all of the sex and all of the kink in this story are in the world of flesh, pre-war and pre-cybernetic, so neither the military technology nor the psychotic pathology are invoked.

At once more mundane and more fantastic, ‘Sight’ is the story of the only human artist whose work is popular with the superior alien race who bestow limited technological largesse upon the people of Earth. Our artist is horrified to discover that his priceless works are, to the clients who have made him super-rich, mere pornography. His artistic purity sullied, he is unable to create until he relearns—graphically, of course—the value of “beauty and lust” (156). Despite (or perhaps because of) the present of the aliens, this may be the most human story in the collection.

Finally, we are ushered to a climax by the title story, ‘The Bachelor Machine’, saved for last, and perhaps containing the most pathos and poignancy of all. It is also probably the least sexy story in the collection, in as much as the graphic descriptions of flirting, foreplay and fucking are designed to be unattractive rather than titillating. Our hero, a drifting in a post-apocalyptic cityscape, visits a decrepit and barely-functioning robot whore; reminded at every step of her artificiality (both in terms of manufacture and of faked sexual interest), of the countless men she has serviced, and the disrepair this has left all over her ruined chassis. Telegraphed a mile off, it is no surprise to learn that the drifter is actually the whore in this relationship, paid to make the has-been sex-bot feel wanted when no one would pay to have sex with her now; more surprising is how Christian manages to imbue this relationship with a certain tenderness, a sense of sympathy for these decayed characters whose best is behind them. Another case of the erotic motif used to tell a human story, perhaps the most important story of all.

There are technical problems with this book; not really enough to spoil the reader’s pleasure, but more than you would expect even from a small-press publication. A scattering of infelicities and repeated words, clustered more in some stories than others, are little more than typos, although they should have been caught by an editor. More interesting, although a subjective taste, is Christian’s penchant for rich and poetic metaphors, sometimes bordering on the synesthetic, whose beauty he then undercuts by feeling the need to explain them in the adjacent phrase (an example: “pulsing advertisements: product-placement nebulae” [157]; either half of that expression would have been enough). On the whole, the erotic passages are a bit better written than the science fiction.

Perhaps it is not the role of erotic literature to titillate or sexually excite the reader; this is not, after all, mere pornography. Personally, I find most erotica too personal, too geared to the kinks of the writer (or, I should say, of the implied narrator, since the author’s own sexuality is not necessarily revealed in his work), to work for me; I couldn’t even appreciate a classic eroticist like Anaïs Nin, for her brand of mildly kinky sex is not mine. So I would be reluctant to argue that Christian’s erotica fails to titillate, as I hinted above and have been suggesting throughout this review; in fact on the contrary, there is such a wide variety of sexual preference, performance, and function in this collection that there will be something for almost everyone (and something to turn off almost everyone).

More to the point, however, the sexual content in stories such as these serve rather to remind us that we’re human, that our concerns such as love, lust, companionship, rejection, nostalgia, however fleshy or base, are universals. The sex in these stories serves as a microcosm for all of life, for social observation, for political satire, for the promotion of tolerance. In other words, the role of sex in well-written erotica is analogous to the role of technology in science fiction, or magic and beasts in fantasy: yes it’s exciting, yes we take a geeky or prurient interest in them, yes we enjoy them for what they are, but ultimately they’re the tools that tell a bigger story, that paint a more important picture. And on these terms, Christian’s science-fictional erotica is very well-written indeed.

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