Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dombrowski (ed.), Growing Dread (2011)

Caroline Dombrowski (ed.), Growing Dread: Biopunk Visions. Timid Pirate Publishing, 2011. Pp. 150. ISBN 978-0983098744. $12.95/£8.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

I have of late had something of a renaissance over my enjoyment of the short story. And it is primarily thanks to this collection of intriguing bio-punk stories. I hope to show what lively interest and thought processes the stories sparked, and invite you to get your own mind sparking on this witty collection.

I would like to begin considering something of the etymology of ‘bio-punk’. All the ‘punk’ sub-genres seem to share a common ground: that of being vehicles for exposing human fallibility and taken to its extreme, to examine the most personal of failures: hubris through pride. Someone is going to come off worse for the events told in the stories. There is also, in this view, a form of ritualised punishment for those who aim too high or too arrogantly; or for those who take to much advantage of such advances. The ‘punks’, irrespective of whether they add steam-powered anachronistic machinery or biological experimentation or flow along the fast lanes of the information super-highway, connect back to the ancient Greek tragedies. The protagonist’s position in those plays was as a lowly human, in contrast to the elevated status of the gods, and his fall when he attempts to prove himself their equal was played out as a lesson in morality and humility.

These short stories work well when read on those terms; as tales of warning. Not only of potential apocalyptic dangers dredged from the minds of the writers (and note that ideas once considered science fiction are nowadays finding their realities in science fact and technological development), but also of the question of just how far scientist-Icaruses should spread their wings.

Virtue is rewarded; innocence, honesty and repentance are given leave to continue. The patriarchal sub-mariner (‘God Bloom’), the desperate person utilising technology to try to reach a lost loved one (‘Boosting the Signal’), the bioengineered sex slave, released from her owner and forging a new life and responsibilities (‘Unchained Melody’), and the repentant Dr Circe, ready to give her own life to destroy her work and prevent another catastrophic war (‘Doctor Circe and the Separatist Man-Cheetahs’). The arrogant, the unrepentant, the selfish; these are punished; either directly in the action of the tale or by an implication sown in the reader’s mind that carries on after the recorded events have ended. These include a genetic engineer (‘Muffin Everlasting’), murderous scientists that find their own creation turning on them (‘Kundalini Rising’), the narcissistic cop (‘Necrosis’), lazy, wasteful societies (‘God Bloom’ and ‘Green, Green World’), and manipulative, selfish investigators (‘Aesthetic Engine’). But there are also ambiguities; what would modern speculative fiction be without its grey areas, after all?

The ‘evil’ actions of Queen Victoria at the very end of ‘Aesthetic Engine’ are seen as such by her victim; the proud investigator she has ordered to death. But why this value judgement? Is the monarch perhaps seeking to repress the machine and its dangerous power for the sake of Empire and man? Or will she use the powers it offers to rule forever in an alternative history? Then there is the machine itself: fuelled on beauty. Surely consideration over what constitutes beauty and the value we place on it is an area so grey with ‘for’s and ‘against’s, that the very crux of this adventurous steam-bio-punk Victoriana tale is one steeped in uncertainty. This is a juicy juxtaposition against the very in-period detail of the certainty of the characters that their cause is right. The modern cult of celebrity, primarily based on physical perfection, only goes to show this is one argument that will not lie down and die, and could well be hypothesised a strong influence for the writer.

Then there is the desperately ill scientist (this book positively overflows with men and women in labs) in ‘Neurolution’, fighting to engineer a brain from scratch in order to save his ‘self’ from an early death. We learn he plans to download his complete self into the brain of a genetically engineered life-form in order to live on. While it is a practical success, we are left wondering how much of a success. Is the homicidal strangulation of the scientist at the very end by the new creation an act of mercy or a twisted act of confused rage by a malfunctioning experiment? Should selfish desire drive scientific advancement? This is a relevant point to raise. A bio-punk book is all about questioning the ethics of biological ‘development’: the big question of morality discussed above.

But... is science not, in fact, mostly about the ‘niggle’ that won’t quit? It’s the personal quest for the scientist attempting to find a satisfactory answer to a question put to them by the observation of events and matter. What they are satisfying is essentially their ego: this is something I do not know, I do not like not knowing, I want to know! Then, by finding an answer, we believe we have control over what we have manipulated? A long-standing trope of morality tales is the element of a greater, more powerful force at work to thwart the overconfident. In earlier cultures it was ascribed to one or more deities. In modern times this is attributed to Nature: Nature the great Thwarter and Destroyer. We watch in amazement as storms, tsunamis and quakes render our best achievements to waste. Nature, given the weight of totality, is the one force that can defy and destroy us in the end.

And these fictions tell us again; nature will out, and she will come down heavily on us for our conceit. The hijacking eco-warrior of ‘God Bloom’ turns out to be something a lot more... vegetative, and magnanimously forgives the decent sub-mariner, choosing to save him, the innocent children he is treating to a ride, and the scientists in retreat in their undersea laboratory. These will be the ‘allowed’ seeds of a new humanity, while everyone else is in for a cleansing-away of Biblical proportions. The mariner’s patriarchal figure is further blessed with restored health and vitality: attributes this new Noah will need to rebuild the world. This is the germ of hope: these few, frightened people huddling under the sea: the place from where life first crawled. Why save us? asks the mariner. Because there has to be a balance, replies the girl; the youthful face of Mother Nature. Humankind is recognised as destructive, but necessarily so. These things go in cycles; we rise, but we must accept we will fall, in the knowledge that there will be a rise once more. There is no final end; there is only the start of a new beginning.

Finally, there is the questionable area of augmentation. Already we have the technology to tweak our wrinkles and shape. DNA research seems to offer hope of ‘switching off’ undesirable genes. Given these very real issues, ‘How To Hack Your Dragon’ makes us question, should a hedonistic young man be allowed to alter the genetics of his dragon (yes, a genuine, bio-engineered, scaly, flying, fire-breathing beastie) to ‘upgrade’ it? In the hero’s favour, he does show evidence of taking responsibility for his decisions. At first it all seems a game, but when the first tweak goes wrong, putting himself, his girlfriend, and possibly the whole city in danger, he does not slink off and forget it happened, but attempts to make amends; to re-work the problem and resolve it. He even starts to show the beginnings of feelings of affection for his new pet and alters his own genetic code to be able to smell it out when disappears. Underneath this, there is the steelier issue of control: with a few casual swipes of a keyboard, one can create a vial of goo to effect profound alteration. This is primal control over one’s self and immediate environment effected as casually as ordering a pizza. Added to which, not only can one create a mythic animal to order, but the type of animal, we are told, is itself a status symbol. The ego needs soothing; to keep up with the Joneses, crazier and more dangerous creatures are required. This is very similar to the first story in the book, where an engineer is stuck making possible whatever strange creature his boss’s drunken son blabs about next. Just where does the buck stop? One cannot help wondering how far we should be allowed to go to tweak for fashion—a notoriously fickle entity. The shadow of eugenics in media-hyped tales of made-to-order babies looms long over both stories, yet both are told with believable panache and detail. It is the grounding of the stories in believable reality that keeps them ‘real’ and applicable to the reader.

Just thirty or forty years ago, and these would be pure science fiction, but even the man on the street knows about genetic science and hoped-for leaps in health and wellbeing this promises. What keeps the stories even more rooted in current times is the very human element of them. The hubris, the pride: those aspects of the morality play are so recognisable that one can relate very quickly to even the most extraordinary of concepts; hybrid man-cheetahs, anyone? For stories based on the ‘futuristic’ hypothesis, they are surprisingly mundane because one realises that none of these biological adventures would be possible without the human curiosity and human drive behind it. Possibly because it is tied into a biological slant, bio-punk is a more recognisable ‘punk’ than the others; for nothing is more intimate or bonding between writer and reader than the shared experience of the human body.

And then there is the playfulness. At the beginning I called the stories ‘witty’. Even when the tone is dark and dire, the sprightliness of style, the pace (these stories all move along at a far old speed) and the dextrousness of dialogue and information sharing is something I can only call ‘witty’ to best express the light touch. The collection was a pleasure to read for its engaging quality with the reader. The editor knows their stuff.

Timid Pirate is a small, independent press, proudly claiming to be not for profit. It espouses on its webpages and literature that it loves to ‘take a chance with a story’, aiming to highlight narrative quality over readership quantity. With a motto of ‘Adventures unlimited!’ this isn’t a shy and retiring press, contrary to what the name suggests. The major project underway is Cobalt City, a collection of books and podcasts about a place populated by superheroes. The bio-punk collection seems a little off-centre from this, unless one considers that both genres critique human behaviours. Superheroes have long been the stamping-ground for the emotional/ethical debate (even in the 50s, during the more bombastic era of their genesis, they were aligned specifically to ‘goodness’ and ‘justice’ and by extension their opinions and feelings were ultimately justified); both of which are rooted in the human experience. The morality plays of the bio-punk collection would be natural cousins to such examination of the human condition. Both genres lie within the fantastic-mythic: fantasy really does earn its corn when it is used properly as a ground for expanding the debates on human experience. Growing Dread wasn’t dread-full at all (!). It was juicy, jolly, dark and light, and it was a pleasure to review.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010)

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Corvus Books, 2010. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781848876828. £7.99.

Reviewed by Sam Kelly

This book contains itself. Which is to say, this book exists inside this book, just as Charles Yu exists inside this book. The inescapable corollary of this is that this book exists outside this book, or—to put it another way—this book exists without this book.
The book is read; the book is written; the book is reconstructed, repaired, rewritten. These actions are all simultaneous and equivalent, and Yu is clearly saying that this book is our book, that if we aren’t going to put the work in then he can’t do it for us. He’s right; this is an intensely complex and dense book, and one that powerfully rewards a reader who’ll work at their reading.

The spine of the novel is structured in a relatively classical way for an SF story, telling the story of a single time loop and its resolution. On the other hand, not only is “relatively” the keyword for two very good reasons, but this is as much meta-SF as it is SF. The universe within which the book’s set is quite literally science-fictional, operating by explicitly science-fictional physics (operated by Time Warner Time™), and undramatically aware of its own ontological status. As we can expect from a non-white author, it is very aware of status and hierarchy issues within the universe-that-is-SF, and “the way the world works”, socio-politically, is literalized in the story of Yu (senior)’s attempt to invent a time machine in his garage and the establishment figures for whom his demonstration doesn’t work. As with any good science-fictional inventor, Yu doesn’t let that put him off, and he effectively goes on to invent newer, more rarified branches of fictional science. Since this is a family novel, however, he never will have gone on to become the man who invented the time machine, and all the time spent inventing inevitably becomes snarled up with love and belonging and selfhood in Charles Yu’s mind.

As I mentioned above, “relatively” is the keyword for this book. First, time travel operates via a mechanism of perspective, shifting tenses and thus one’s perception of time, and there are no absolutes. Secondly, it’s a very traditional Family Novel, interested in father-son and mother-son relationships; the narrator is obsessed with finding his lost father, in the kind of looping circling way that normally requires therapy to untangle. His childhood trajectory was a fairly standard masculine one: from mother-space, home and abstract learning (tenses, particularly) into the father-space of the inventor’s garage, and thence into the wider science-fictional world. One way to look at this book is as Yu’s reified psychological journey out of father-space (tellingly, it’s described—as is nearly everything else in the book—as a box) into full independent selfhood, and coming to terms with his adult relationship with his mother. I am of course speaking of the fictional Yu; I wouldn’t want to venture an opinion on how closely that Yu maps to the Yu who wrote this book, nor to be honest do I care.

Yu tells us up front that he is not a protagonist, since that’s a restricted occupation within the science-fictional universe; instead, someone has to be the guy who fixes stuff, and what Charles Yu fixes is time machines. With nothing but his work, he lives inside his own time machine, with the AI who controls it and his nonexistent dog (a member of a set of ontologically valid entities which nevertheless do not actually exist; likewise, The Woman You Never Married and The Woman Your Mother Might Have Been, both of whom play roles in the novel) and the main strand of the novel is what happens when he crosses his own time stream and gets trapped in a loop. As in all SF, this is something you should never do; it always causes problems. Then again, that’s what time machines do, here; they cause problems. The first thing everyone wants to do is to set right what once went wrong, and they can’t. So: a time machine is a device for reliving the worst parts of your life. On the other hand, as Yu demonstrates for us, that isn’t always a bad idea.

Especially for a first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe is extremely well-written, and I enjoyed it immensely. The acclaim it received last year is well-deserved, and I think that whilst it approaches its aims very obliquely, they are very thoroughly met.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reed, What Wolves Know (2011)

Kit Reed, What Wolves Know. PS Publishing, 2011. Pp. 230. ISBN 978-1-84863-134-2. £19.99.

Reviewed by Sarah Ann Watts

This collection of stories by Kit Reed from PS Publishing contains 13 stories and also an essay: ‘What she thought she was doing: The fictions of Kit Reed’ by Joseph Reed. This gives an overview of her work and a bibliography of her titles. Coming new to Reed’s work as I did, I think it was for the best that the essay concluded the collection, allowing the reader to discover the stories first and form their own impressions. The essay provides context, further information and a guide to future reading.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Van Gelder, Welcome to the Greenhouse (2011)

Gordon Van Gelder, Welcome to the Greenhouse. OR Books, 2011. Pp. 336. ISBN 978-1-935928-27-0. $17.00.

Reviewed by Eric Gregory

There’s a strange detachment to Welcome to the Greenhouse. The book, edited by Gordon Van Gelder, features sixteen original short stories by an impressive roster of writers including Brian Aldiss, Bruce Sterling, Alan Dean Foster, and M.J. Locke. The table of contents is exciting, but even as some authors approach the anthology’s theme of climate change as an urgent and dramatically rich reality, the book as a whole feels surprisingly aloof. Enough of the stories turn on jokey or weirdly irrelevant hypotheticals that the anthology often feels both distant and dated. Neither of these qualities are deal-breakers in themselves, but readers’ mileage may vary even more than usual for a theme anthology of this kind.

The strongest stories here, such as Ray Vukcevich’s warm and wry ‘Fish Cakes,’ explore the pathos in adaptation to a changing environment. In Vukcevich’s story, most Americans have retreated to a wired indoor existence in order to escape the scorching world outside, but a young man named Tyler makes a rare cross-country flight to visit an online friend, Ilse, who has lost her grandmother. Vukcevich draws his characters carefully and with great empathy, and the story’s simple notion that our descendents will harbor a sad, resigned “Ancestor Resentment” is quietly affecting.

Unfortunately, many of the stories here foreground Big Snazzy Ideas over everything else. Or rather, Ostensibly Snazzy Ideas—few of them really stick in the mind after you turn the last page. In Michael Alexander’s ‘Come Again Some Other Day,’ scientists discover a way to send undesirable climate patterns elsewhere in time. The concept allows for some insight into the fundamental absurdity of our culture’s responses to environmental crisis, but there’s little else here: the characters are thin vehicles for exposition and plot summary, and the conclusion is a ludicrous wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Matthew Hughes’s ‘Not a Problem’ gives us a caricature of an industrialist named Bucky Sansom, whose attempt to recruit alien assistance in the fight against climate change backfires and (spoilers) results in an invasion by intelligent alien dinosaurs. You have to appreciate talking alien dinosaurs, of course, but the story feels like it ought to end with a rim shot, apart from seeming sort of arbitrary to the book’s theme: the precipitating crisis could have just as easily been nuclear standoff, superflu, or economic collapse.

Jeff Carlson’s ‘Damned If You Do’ depicts a pseudomessianic superhuman’s efforts to save the world in spite of the world’s assorted efforts to stop him, all told through the eyes of his father. The story is told almost entirely in exposition, which is especially problematic because the father’s voice too often skews toward the artificially folksy (he explains that “hydro-whats-it” engines are cleaner than oil engines). Refreshingly, ‘Damned If You Do’ gives us a messiah without allowing any easy answers, but that seems to be the only thing we carry away—it’s hard out there for a superman.

Other stories fare better without really standing out. Though barely related to the anthology’s theme, Bruce Sterling’s ‘The Master of the Aviary’ sketches an intriguing post-collapse society modeled after ancient Greek city-states, where self-styled philosophers like the protagonist, Mellow Julian, go about their Socratic business, educating aristocratic young men and coming into occasional tension with the state. The story ambles along without much direction, but the sights are well-realized enough that we’re content to follow along—it’s like a trip to the museum, pleasant enough if a bit staid.

‘True North’ by M.J. Locke offers a pretty standard post-apocalyptic quest enlivened by crisp prose and careful pacing. Alan Dean Foster’s ‘That Creeping Sensation’ is a mindless but fun videogame of a story about bugs grown giant (due to rising oxygen levels) and the folks who kill them. Paul Di Filippo delivers a fantastic premise in ‘FarmEarth’: a global environmental reclamation effort modeled after a massively multiplayer online game. It’s a big idea done right, optimistic and often fun, but hamstrung by constant wince-inducing neologisms, as well as frequent over-explanation. If you don’t flinch at lines like “even though I was reluctant to grebnard out, I activated the artificial setae,” then you’re likely to love this story; much like the anthology as a whole, I found myself wishing I liked it more.

It’s probably unfair to compare Welcome to the Greenhouse to an ideal, imaginary anthology, but I think it bears saying: Paolo Bacigalupi’s stories or Carrie Vaughn’s recently Nebula-nominated ‘Amaryllis’ would feel strangely out of place here. I wouldn’t want an anthology full of apocalypse, but there’s a visceral quality to the speculative extrapolation in those stories, a careful and meaningful extrapolation from this moment in time, and that quality feels largely absent from Welcome to the Greenhouse. “Dated” may be the wrong word for this book, because it’s not necessarily of the past: it simply feels not-contemporary. Well-intentioned, but not-of-this-moment. There are some fine stories here—the Vukcevich in particular is well worth seeking out—but few of them feel urgent.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sein und Werden #7.1 (2011)

Phamacopoeia, Sein und Werden #7.1, Jan 2011. Pp. 44. £4.50/$8.50/€6.50.

Reviewed by Sheri White

Sein und Werden is a small-press magazine published in Manchester, England by ISMs Press. Editor Rachel Kendall, in her manifesto on the magazine’s website, states that “the goal of Sein und Werden is to present works that evoke the spirit of the Expressionist, Existentialist and Surrealist movements within a modern context, which I like to call ‘Werdenism’.” The magazine is published monthly, both online and in print, with each issue hosting a theme for authors to adhere to. The print version publishes longer stories and poetry; the online version publishes shorter works. The January 2011 issue, Pharmacopoiea, includes stories revolving around medicine, illness, wounds and death.

‘Love Drugs’ by Willie Smith is a very short but powerful story about a man’s addiction to drugs. Unlike many addicts, he does not apologize for his addiction, but revels in it, even knowing that eventually the drugs will kill him.

In ‘Brauner’s Vision’ by Marc Lowe, Brauner is suddenly struck by an itch in his eye so deep and maddening that he jams his knuckle into it, blinding himself in that eye. He is already on his way to a Chinese medicine shop to pick up herbs for his wife, who doesn’t believe in modern medicine, so he decides to ask the acupuncturist to help him. As with many remedies, the cure turns out worse than the itch, which makes the man suffer hallucinations about his wife and the Chinese man’s son. Brauner tries to take off the medicinal blindfold covering his eye, but the acupuncturist won’t let him, citing patience. Eventually he frees himself and leaves the shop, only to horrify a passing woman with the condition of his eye. ‘Brauner’s Vision’ plays to several fears—doctors, blindness, pain, disfigurement, helplessness. This story will strike a chord with anyone with such phobias. This story was very well-written, suspenseful and full of paranoia. Excellent use of detail and mood.

Many people scoff at the notion of chiropractors. Michael Estabrook’s ‘Dr. Joe from New Mexico’ is a chiropractor who graduated from a “school” in New Mexico; his patient seems to be skeptical yet still willing to surrender to his ministrations. As the doctor and his assistant perform increasingly torturous, non-orthodox cures for the patient’s pains, he begins to feel older and more decrepit. ‘Dr. Joe from New Mexico’ demonstrates how chiropractic nay-sayers envision the practice and will scare off anybody who was on the fence about seeing a chiropractor. Estabrook’s story is a dark but amusing take on one of the most disrespected types of medical practice.

Nazi “medical” atrocities have been well-documented and have horrified generations. Major Calloway is searching for “Karas d’Carcasse,” an evil man who is knowingly selling infected penicillin that causes grotesque deformations in those it’s administered to. Wondering if this is yet another Nazi “medicine,” Major Calloway is relentless in looking for Karas. But when Karas is found, it is very clear that he has been using what he is selling. But was Karas a dealer who used—or a victim? ‘Karas d’Carcasse’ by Mark Howard Jones, is a grim story about dealers and their users that is just a relevant today, even though set in World War II.

Noel Slobada’s ‘Pluck,’ one of my favorite stories of this issue, shows how a single flaw can get in the way of a relationship. Gary is in love with Adara, thinks she is perfect. But one day he notices a hair protruding from one of her nipples and realizes he can’t stand the imperfection. Gary encourages Adara to get rid of it, and she agrees, but only if he is the one to pluck it. Although repulsed by the task, he takes the tweezers and pulls on the hair. But as the hair slowly comes out, it becomes a pile on the floor and Adara begins to fade away, leaving only a translucent outline of herself. As Gary tries to reach for her, she completely disappears. Flaws make us human; flaws make us who we are. Without our flaws, we lose ourselves as Adara was lost. And those who can’t accept our flaws are lost to us as well. This is the moral of ‘Pluck,’ and it is demonstrated very well by the author.

‘Pills’ is the second story in the magazine by Willie Smith; this time the drugs are crucial to a writer’s creativity and existence. ‘Pills’ explores the relationship between intoxication and the ability to still function. While the protagonist is writing and living his life, is it a good life? Do drugs make things better or worse?

‘Song of the Impure: a Love Story’ by A.A. Garrison is the longest story, as well as the best. Luke runs a suicide shop by day; by night he drugs himself with the fluids from the brains of those he has helped die. He feeds this fluid to the creatures in his aquarium, and once they are sated, he picks one to attach to himself with its tentacles, the tentacles administering the drugs he needs. One day he is roughly taken to a place by four men, only one whose language he can understand. Luke is told that he must “surrender his treasures” to save his city; he finally understands he must give up his creatures and his drug. Unwilling to do so, the city begins to fall into an Armaggedon-like state while Luke runs home to save his drugs. He also tries to save the woman he has been drawn to in the building next to his. Many drug abusers are reluctant to give up their habits, and Luke is one of them. Even at the risk of losing his home, his love and his life, Luke’s only thought is to get a fix. Drugs are a seductive, powerful lover, and this is made very clear in ‘Song of the Impure.’ This story is also filled with paranoia, which is a common trait drug users in these stories share, as well as addicts in the real world.

The weakest story in the magazine, ‘Untitled 22’ by Michael McAloran, is a stream-of-consciousness story that makes little sense yet does evoke disturbing, dream-like images. But images alone cannot sustain a story; strong plot is needed, in which, unfortunately, ‘Untitled 22’ is lacking.

‘Pockets’ by Zachary Scott Hamilton, is a murky story; it seems to fit in the new genre of “bizarre fiction.” While not my type of story, it is well-written and interesting. Poetry is also not my type of prose; however, as I read through the poems in the magazine—‘Marching Feet’ by Shannon Quinn, ‘Schizophrenia’ by D. H. Sutherland, ‘Friday Night with a Pen’ by Janann Dawkins and ‘Palpitategraphic’ by Zachary Scott Hamilton—I do recognize that the poems were written with great imagery and flow throughout. I found it interesting that scattered throughout the magazine are pictures of antique medical instruments and prosthetics, the kind that bring shudders to modern man.

I hadn’t heard of Sein und Werden until I was asked to review it. Rachel Kendall does a great job as editor; typos and grammatical errors are almost non-existent and the stories were well-chosen. Ms. Kendall’s “Expressionist, Existentialist and Surrealist” agenda—mostly the surrealist aspect—was met by the authors chosen for this issue, as demonstrated by their talent in storytelling. I enjoyed Pharmacopoiea very much, and will definitely check out more issues of this magazine.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gomez, Celebrity Space (2010)

Alain Gomez, Celebrity Space. Amazon Digital Services, 2010. 3,000 words. ASIN B004HD66P4. $0.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

This is a short, nifty little sci-fi piece. While not too demanding, nor heavily esoteric, it is engaging and well written. The story shamelessly taps into both the threatening alien and the shock-ending genres; the latter requiring a build-up and immediate release. In the short story format this works well, reading as a sort of dark, faintly paranoid extended joke with a punch line. It makes for a natural and satisfying finality to this story, while leaving potential narrative threads dangling: a few ‘what next’ hints to titillate and tease, giving the story a cognitive life beyond its final word. Overall, I was very pleased with the experience.

Speaking of dangling threads, Gomez seems to be aiming to make a small collection of stories affiliated by the setting, what she calls the ‘Space Hotel Series’ with four so far to the group. Characters cross stories (the doctor figure here features in her own tale elsewhere) as does the setting: a future where the super-rich party on a hotel in space. This story follows the adventure undergone by a shuttle of hotel guests en route to the space station and the somewhat creepy outcome. It’s the final line that’s the real kicker, so I’ll say no more on the plot. You’ll have to try it for yourself!

The style is light and casual: fresh and uncluttered. We follow just one character closely. There is a little background on Dan, the company rep, explaining his expertise in crisis situations (he had some time in the navy) and a touch of fallibility (he was booted out for drug misuse) to make him a relatable, feet-of-clay hero without being too cliché. An ironic nod to the necessity sometimes of utilising cliché as a commonly understood descriptive tool for quick scene-sketching is alluded to in the designation of the passengers not by name but by job description: actors, singers, athletes and a doctor. Similarly, the characters conform to the type these titular names bring to mind: shallow, pleasure-seeking public figures and a serious, separate, almost sour scientific professional. Dan is the only name actually used: we are seeing through his eyes alone. Added to this, any sci-fi fan worth their salt will have fun spotting recognisable narrative archetypes: claustrophobic situation, humans in danger in space. But Gomez is using these tricks of the trade, not being used by them. The shortness of the story helps to maintain a high level of brevity and pace, and nothing here has the time to feel hackneyed and dry. One is left with an impression of deft intelligence and wit.

Interestingly, despite Dan’s calmness, his clear thinking in the face of adversity (which enables us to track changes in the plot: break down in communications, the loss of visual contact with the space hotel) only go to show that the most competent of us can fail when subsumed by a bigger picture; which itself may not be apparent until it is too late. And also just how tiny mankind is in space, despite the events taking place in a shuttle that seems full to bursting with ego! It’s a humbling consideration, and flavours events with an ‘everyman’ feel in a decidedly sci-fi tale. The events are set in a credible not-too-distant future that is very relatable, and we stick with these characters, worrying and suffering with them.

This is a juicy read that fills a few minutes and should find success with the light-reading crowd as well as the sci-fi fan. Even better to this reviewer’s mind; it made me want to follow up and read more of Gomez’s work. This is an oeuvre that seems to specialise in the very short (this one clocks in just over 3000 words) format; bite-sized chunks of entertainment. In the modern attention-span-reduced world, she could well be on to a winner here, and I could see how this tale could be developed into a serial slot in a weekly or monthly publication.

I am reviewing this one a bit blind: there’s little out there on this author; the biography remains consistent, with no extra information, across the ‘Net. Gomez works in the music industry, but also loves to write short stories covering various genres; especially thriller, sci-fi and even the Western. She seems to be aiming primarily for the digital format: a quick search via her blog shows a range of finished works available at around $1 per story for Kindle via big online stores like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Reviews for this tale suggest that it “made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck”. I didn’t get the vibe to that degree, but I agree with others that it is succinct and sturdy. I am pleased to be introduced to her work and I will be checking out more of this author. I can see the beginnings of something exciting here and I strongly suggest you try her out so you, too, can say ‘I was there at the beginning!’

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Whitten, Confessions of a Zombie Lover (2011)

Zoe E. Whitten, Confessions of a Zombie Lover. Aphotic Thought Press, 2011. 27,000 words. ASIN B004SIR300. $1.99.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

I was initially wary about this book; for one thing, I was coming to the second book of a larger story without having read the first, which is something I never like to do. For another, the cover art did not thrill me. Oh, the image itself was fine, and it conveyed the contents well enough, but it lacked a certain polish. Ms. Whitten is largely self published so of course high-end professional cover art can be hard to come by. So while I was wary, I don’t read a book for its cover, I read it for its content and the somewhat amateurish art on the cover belies the very professional and well-written work inside. This is definitely a case of “you can’t judge an eBook by its cover image.”

Ms. Whitten’s second “Zombie Era” novella finds Eugene “G” O’Donnell two years out from his experiences in the first story, Zombie Punter, where he learns that the zombie apocalypse he and his friend Jake have been planning for isn’t exactly what he expected. The truth is, the walking dead’s minds may be down, but they’re not out. “G” has roamed the countryside looking for his best friend and “adopted daughter”—a zombie girl he’s helped—for those two years, ending up in a military installation where he once again begins his work trying to solve the problem of the epidemic. G has found a way to “heal” the infected zombies, training them off raw flesh and bringing their minds up out of the stupor of undeath.

Like many of the new zombie stories being written, Ms. Whitten’s focus is on the subject of human rights and the idea of creating a second class citizenry out of people who find themselves in a lifestyle they did not necessarily choose. Gay rights is a prevalent issue, with G being a homosexual and working in conjunction with the military. It is a situation full of tension, sometimes only imagined tension, which is nice. G has become, over the years, somewhat defensive about his sexual tendencies and it’s interesting when he sees a problem where none exists. It’s also fairly interesting to see the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy discussed as we may be finally seeing it thrown out for real.

The message is at times a tad heavy-handed, but it’s one that bears stressing and Ms. Whitten’s personal feelings about it certainly come to the fore. G himself knows what it is to deal with a world that sees you as something less than human and worries that he may be dooming the “healed” to a lifetime of actually being so. He also knows that without his work, humanity may very well have no hope of survival. In a world where any death that occurs brings a mindless killer into our midst, something must be done. Even in areas where people feel safe, all it takes is one elderly grandmother dying in her sleep to set off a chain reaction of death that could burn out of control if left unchecked.

Not having read Zombie Punter, I’m not entirely sure of the origins of Ms. Whitten’s zombification virus. I do know it was purposely engineered and let loose by terrorists of some sort, but truthfully I don’t know who or why. What I do know is that everyone is infected. Every man, woman, and child. You do not have to be bitten; there is no escape. When you die, by whatever means, you turn. One supposes this would bring about a certain culture of death, though Ms. Whitten does not detail it very much. Death-watches over elderly relatives or “safety” killings in which someone who is about to die is killed with some sort of cranial trauma would presumably become common even in non-military communities. One can imagine these sorts of events taking on sacred tones and entering the zeitgeist in much the same way as a funeral.

Of course, the whole point to “healing” the undead is not only to gentle them, but to use them to help control others of their kind that have yet to be healed. They have certain abilities of command over lesser undead and this is the rub of the story’s message. Will they be relegated to being not much more than appliances? Convenient tools to stock every house with so that if grandma does die, there’s an early warning and prevention system in place to wrangle her old bones before she messily devours the family dog.

I’m sad to say I’m not as familiar with Whitten’s other works, but the story moves well, taking little time to get where it needs to be quickly and, best of all, succinctly. Coming in at just around 50,000 words, she uses them all wisely, wasting none on anything unnecessary and referring back to the first story just enough to keep a reader who has missed it informed of character motivations and instilling a desire to play catch-up on this world.

As we find less and less reason to reduce whole sections of our population to that status of second class citizens, we seem to need to find more and more reason to not do so in the first place. There are always explanations that seem, to the general populace, to make sense at the time. This has held true in every civil rights movement ever born, and Ms. Whitten’s zombies are little different. Their danger can be offset, their ferocity mitigated. If their threat can be reduced, isn’t that better than outright slaughter? Do we have the right to reduce them to utensils if their brains can function on a higher level even if it is the means by which we may secure the safety of the human race? Difficult questions, difficult answers.

The story attempts to answer these questions, though I admit to having issues with the method by which G meets his particular fate. For me, it felt as though it undermined the story’s overall message. I do concede it nicely sets up another story set in the same world, which is something to look forward to, but in a story trying so hard to take a positive stance on gay rights and frown upon the concept of second class citizenry, one has to wonder if G’s fate was the best choice. It was certainly interesting from a storytelling standpoint, but from the viewpoint of the sociopolitical stance the story tries to take, I’m not sure it was the best way to go.

Nevertheless, that’s merely my opinion. There’s no doubting the skill and crafting that went into the story itself. One supposes a new installment in the series could help shed light on whether the ending was worth the setback to the message or not. I look forward to it either way.

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Monday, May 02, 2011

Parks, Heavenly Fox (2011)

Richard Parks, The Heavenly Fox. PS Publishing, 2011. Pp. 73. ISBN 978-1848631502. £11.99.

Reviewed by Regina de Búrca

I feel I've lost out because the review copy of this novella was in PDF format—since the cover art is so striking, I would have liked to have seen it rendered in print. I approached this book with great interest as I find the early Chinese folktales and Taoist / Buddhist philosophy that are the foundation for this story fascinating. And it didn’t disappoint. The Heavenly Fox is a beautifully written tale. Its lyrical style conveys the characters in vivid detail, while revealing a compelling plot rooted in the beautiful world of mythical ancient China.

It tells the story of Springshadow, a fox spirit is three days away from her 1,000th birthday—the day she will achieve immortality. She has achieved her long life by using the chi of her lovers; and it is the chi of her current partner, Zou Xiaofan that propels her into everlasting life. Springshadow has no compunction about doing this and when Guan Shi Yin, the Goddess of Mercy tells her that Zou still loves her, Springshadow still shows no remorse. But then what I like to call ‘vampire syndrome’ kicks in; Springshadow starts to realize that forever can be bleakly vast. She goes on a quest through different realms of reality to find answers and meets marvellous characters along the way.

I respected and admired Springshadow’s character. A strong female lead, she pursues her goals with searing focus, and in doing so learns the true nature of happiness. Springshadow grows from the loss she experiences, making her a very relatable character. Although her life-prolonging actions suggest an Elizabeth Báthory-type carnage, Springshadow only killed when necessary: “Xiaofan was the last human I used for my own purposes, but he was hardly the first. It was only through my own forbearance that I managed to take what I needed without killing anyone before now. I am sorry for Xiaofan. It would have been pleasant to complete my mission without taking any life at all, but I did what I had to do, and there’s the end of it.” (10)

I enjoyed the notion of a witch as female archetype; a powerful alchemist. The descriptions of Springshadow’s witchcraft are sumptuous: “Then, when all was ready, she worked the final magics that all foxes knew and converted the yang essence into the Golden Elixir, which she drank while it was still hot.” (9) The archetype of the Goddess, in the form of Guan Shi Yin also plays a strong role, making this novella a real homage to female empowerment—it is the female characters that drive this narrative. I enjoyed the way the goddess did not judge Springshadow’s actions—her concept of morality encompassed all aspects of the situation. Buddhist concepts such as the Law of Karma are also nicely explained; Parks is adept at simplifying complex philosophical concepts.

There are examples of very fine writing in the novella, my favourite was the moment of Springshadow’s apotheosis: “The expansive feeling she had before was nothing compared to this. She felt at once like Springshadow greeting the dawn on her one-Thousandth Birthday and the dawn itself, spreading to encompass the world and everything around it... She was all those things and becoming more all the time. She was exhilarated. She was terrified.” (17)

Other characters in the novella suggest that because she is a fox, Springshadow has no conscience. But there are hints from the beginning of the book that this is not the case. So when she does change, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Still, the story raises interesting questions on what an inherent nature is and how permanent are the characteristics we attribute to it? The novella lends valuable insights on how change is always possible: “Changing what you are requires reentering the field of time. Even gods can’t do it, only mortals. That’s what makes them greater than any god.” (43)

As Springshadow explores the Celestial City she grows disillusioned and disappointed with its similarity to the world she left behind. The encumbrance of immortality is foreshadowed by Springshadow’s thoughts on the awareness she has developed over the centuries: “While she had cherished the gift of awareness when it had come to her on her one-hundredth birthday, over the years it had become more a burden than anything.”(12)

The narrative is often sardonic, bordering on laugh out loud funny. There are too many examples to cite, but here’s one that illustrates the latter: “She would be nothing less than a goddess. Springshadow had never been a goddess before. She could hardly wait to try it.” (12) There are some other lovely features, such as the personification of the ‘little golden cloud’ that Springshadow travels on, like a magic carpet. As she enters the Hell of the Hungry Ghosts, the little golden cloud is too frightened to follow her. I was also amused by the Guide to being a Heavenly Fox, aka “The Den and Burrow Guide to Immortality,” that is quoted from on the first page and referred to throughout.

Parks does a wonderful job of creating a story that is as beautiful as the philosophy that underpins it, while using clever characterisation to bring the story fresh and up to date. It culminates in a love story that is reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The novella reads like a fairytale—it’s a gorgeous fable with a lot of heart. It was a pleasure to read, not to mention review. I will certainly by reading more of this author’s work in future.

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