Saturday, July 30, 2011

French (ed.), Monk Punk (2011)

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

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

McDonald, Automatic Safe Dog (2011)

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

Reviewed by Jessica Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ings, Dead Water (2011)

Simon Ings, Dead Water. Corvus Books, 2011. Pp. 343. ISBN 978-1-84887-888-4. £16.99

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Dead Water is Simon Ings’s seventh novel, and the second published by Atlantic Books. Although published by Corvus, the relatively young genre imprint of Atlantic, this novel is neither quite a thriller nor historical fiction nor science fiction, although it owes aspects of mood and tropes to all of the above. The story is told in non-linear fashion, set simultaneously in five periods of Twentieth Century history, from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean. Viewpoint characters change so dizzyingly that it would be fair to say there is no real protagonist, certainly not one with whom we empathize for long. The cavalcade of disaster the cast go through—the more sympathetic the character, the more grotesque their fate—becomes numbing after a while. This dark and bleak tone, which in places leaves the reader cold, is clearly not accidental.. This is an impressive book, well written and masterfully researched, but it left me a little confused. Perhaps this was just me being slow, but the subject that I suspect is meant to be the core of the plot, the titular “dead water”, took so long to show up that over halfway through the book I was still wondering if I had missed something.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Whates (ed.), Fables from the Fountain (2011)

Ian Whates (ed.), Fables from the Fountain. NewCon Press, 2011. Pp. 252. ISBN 978-0-907069-24-6. £9.99.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

Don’t go traipsing London’s streets looking for The Fountain pub. You might find the Old Fountain, on Baldwin Street, but that’s never the Fountain.
“The Fountain is in Holborn… It nestles on one of the network of little lanes that leads eventually to the broader Chancery Lane, though I’ve never yet arrived there by the same route twice… You might stumble on the Fountain and slow down, perhaps make a mental note to come back here sometime, only to never find the place again.”
This ethereal public house, then, is the rather wonderful setting for an anthology of eighteen tales—eighteen writers given a common setting and a predefined list of characters, and the remit to write up their antics and anecdotes and drinking habits.

It’s not a new concept. In fact, the book is dedicated in homage to Arthur C. Clarke, whose work Tales from the White Hart was the first and definitive offering of this kind of conversational, shared-world, linked-story anthology. Where Fables from the Fountain differs is that it’s also a shared-author anthology, and I was interested from the outset to see if each author’s writing style would flow between stories or if each would rub against the other. I wondered given each author uses the same characters just how similar or otherwise the characters would turn out.

The book’s editor, Ian Whates, opens proceedings with the story ‘No Smoke Without Fire’. It sets the tone very well, and is written somewhat as an oeuvre that’s intended to introduce and ease us into the setting and characters as much as to entertain as a story in its own right. It’s not surprising, then, that the bones of the story—the rather pun-like idea of how a smoking habit saved a life—begins well into the narrative and is almost an afterthought. But as a scene-setter this opening is perfectly constructed, and most certainly whets the appetite as to what’s to follow. I like Whates’ easy-on-the-eye writing style. It adds a friendliness to this fictitious group of pub oddballs, and draws the reader in without trepidation, as if to reassure this is one group he’d gladly join for a pint or two of Old Bodger and a yarn on a wet Tuesday in Holborn.

In ‘Transients’, Stephen Baxter introduces the notion of ‘extra’ characters that might wander into, or be introduced to, the Fountain’s group of Tuesday night regulars. In Baxter’s own words: “A transient is a guest, you might say, who will show up once or twice, who will if we are lucky will have something interesting to say, and if even luckier will have a fecund credit card lodged behind the bar…” Barry Noakes is such a transient (or is it Norrie Boakes? He’s so much the transient that no one really remembers his name) and he brings with him the yarn of the equally (and cleverly) transient nature of signals the likes of SETI might get excited about.

What follows is, as with Whates’ opener, very conversational in tone and is deliciously humorous, although a reader without a science bent may feel parts of the story reads like a science lesson. Of course, this is in keeping with Clarke’s original work, and indeed the science in Fables from the Fountain as a whole can seem somewhat esoteric at times. I myself have a science degree, but I wondered at times what was factual and what was artistic license. The boundary is fuzzy in places and the stories are either well researched or written by authors who have some expertise in the field of science.

There’s certainly plenty of meat in ‘Transients’, from extra terrestrials to CIA conspiracies, to the periodic table and the physics of star death and more. But then Baxter adds such concepts as the Fountain’s three ploughman’s lunches being the same three prepared in 1946, and these deft touches reassure the reader that all’s not to be taken too seriously, that if you need to skim the science there’s still plenty there to entertain in these stories. Be assured; all’s still well within the Fountain if you like your science in moderation.

In ‘Forever Blowing Bubbles’, Ian Watson follows a similar style to Whates and Baxter, and produces a fine, humorous tale of bubble universes and quantum foam and unfortunate flatulence. Must be the Old Bodger, I assume. The science is still there, but as you might guess this one is written very tongue in cheek. Great stuff.

On the ‘Messdecks of Madness’, by Paul Graham Raven, sees ‘The Raven’ recount the story of how he ‘left the Navy’. This story is laid out slightly differently from the first three offerings in that while it starts and end as a told anecdote, the crux of the story is related by Raven without interruption from the Fountain’s denizens. This takes us out of the pub somewhat and instead immerses us in the story itself. Such a diversion is not unwelcome, providing that little bit of difference lest we get too bogged down in the conversational nature of the work so far. The story is a twisting affair of alliance and counter alliance and in truth feels more fantastical than science fictional. This slight leaning away from science fiction I also welcomed as something of a breather from the purish science fiction presented thus far.

By this point I felt there was a potential problem with Fables from the Fountain in that the stories, though undoubtedly well written and entertaining as they are, begin to feel a little samey. All tend to follow roughly the same format—a brief introduction in the pub, followed by the meat-and-veg of the tall tale told, and finally a short postscript back in the pub where comments may be made or the story’s veracity dissected.

I think also that all the stories on offer miss the opportunity to explore the pub itself as a character. Any pub that’s not entirely on the map and yet is frequented by such tellers of tall tales as we are presented with should surely be a character in its own right. Only in ‘The Hidden Depths of Bogna’, by Liz Williams, with it’s brief sojourn to the cellars and the catacombs therein, is the suggestion there’s much more to the Fountain than a meeting place of story tellers. Had I been invited to write for the Fountain (oh, how I wish I had been—am I allowed to say that in a review?) I’d have written a tale told in the grunt of the pipes and the hum of the fridges when the pub was closed and no one was there. Possibly Whates would claim giving the pub more of an active role would produce a different anthology than his remit requires, and if so I certainly wouldn’t argue with that.

Strangely, there is also one tale told in an Edinburgh pub with barely a passing nod to the Fountain. ‘The Last Man in Space’, by Andrew J. Wilson, is a good story, but why it strays from Holborn I’m not sure.

Probably the biggest name in the anthology, Neil Gaiman, provided by far the shortest tale with ‘And Weep Like Alexander’. I must confess to being a big fan of Gaiman’s work, and his tale of Obediah Polkinghorn, the uninventor didn’t disappoint. Except, perhaps I wanted more.

I loved the suffusion of humour in many of the stories:
“‘…knew a barmaid in Rhyl, back in the late seventies,’ Crown baker was saying. ‘Face like the offspring of a stoat and a hatchet…’” (Liz Williams, ‘The Hidden Depths of Bogna’).
“For God’s sake don’t risk the ploughman’s,” Laura warned her new protégée: “the cheese is unpasteurized, and as for the pickle, Graham’s sure it’s recycled from an experimental growth medium for GFAJ-1-” (Charles Stross, ‘A Bird In Hand’).
… to quote just two of many fun lines.

Then there’s ‘Cyberseeds’, by Steve Longworth, which is a rather awful pun on the Jack and the Beanstalk nursery story, that somehow mixes burger vans and space elevators and magic beans and yet nevertheless works very well. Possibly my only criticism is that towards the end it perhaps tries a little too hard to be funny. But, Christmas Panto will never be the same.

And so, to answer my question at the outset—do the characters flow between authors/stories, or do they conflict in style? They flow very well. Whether this is down to Whates’ editorial skill, or whether each author simply nailed each character from the outset, I’ve no idea. But not once did I feel any one character acted, urm, out of character. Fables is probably the closest I’ve ever seen to a multi-author anthology reading like a single-author work. I’m guessing this is what Whates set out to do, and if so he’s achieved it admirably. There’s not a poor tale in here, and but for brevity in this review I could have quoted much good from any of them.

Do I recommend Fables From the Fountain? Without a doubt. I read the anthology as a PDF on a computer screen, which in truth is as close to torture on the eyes as I can get, but even then I was lost in the entertainment value of each story. I’d say reading it in book form (in the bath, of course) will be pleasurable indeed. I have to admit to not having read Tales from the White Hart, so I can’t say how Fables from the Fountain compares to Clarke’s original. But, of course, ultimately Fables is its own beast, and will stand or fall on its own merit. All in all, I think it will stand nicely.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Vanderhooft, Steam-Powered (2011)

JoSelle Vanderhooft (ed), Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. Torquere Press, 2011. Pp. 378. ISBN 978-1610401500. £8.69.

Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian

Steampunk is often associated with nineteenth-century Europe, implying a world the majority of whose population is under colonial rule, and where gender roles are still strictly segregated. This is, of course, a very narrow definition of a far wider genre. However, if this subsection of the genre has been criticised in the past for the uncritical romanticisation of a far from perfect moment in history, it’s equally true that it provides ample opportunity for engagement with this historical period.

A number of the stories in Steam Powered: Lesbian Steampunk do just this. A lesbian story in this setting is necessarily going to challenge some cultural mores, but most of these stories go beyond that, bringing in issues of race, class and gender. A notable feature of this anthology is the sheer range of settings used. N.K Jemisin’s ‘The Effluent Engine’, has as its main character a Haitian agent, sent to New Orleans to find a scientist to develop an engine that will produce energy from the waste product of rum distillation. Only with this energy will her countrymen be able to withstand French colonial forces. ‘The Padishah Begum’s Reflections’, by Shweta Narayan, is set in the Mughal court of Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara and in the context of diplomatic relations with the British and French. Narayan chooses not to simplify or explain her history, leaping quite happily from the Mughals, to Tipu Sultan to Shivaji and trusting the reader to catch up. Both of these stories engage with the larger politics of colonial history in ways that are complex and give a lot of depth to comparatively short pieces. Both fictional worlds give the impression that they could quite easily sustain longer works. In the case of “The Effluent Engine” in particular I think a longer story might have done more justice to the plot.

Georgina Bruce’s ‘Brilliant’, which takes place in a train travelling across Africa, is a completely different sort of story. Occasional references gesture towards a complex world outside the train, but the focus is entirely on the two central characters and their relationship. The setting and the style give this piece a very classic, early Twentieth-century feel, and it’s one of my favourite pieces in the book.

Not every story that attempts to engage with Victorian mores does so successfully. D.L. MacInnes’s ‘Owl Song’ starts off well enough, with a British father despairing of his daughter’s shameful (and open) interests in women and engines. Once the daughter has been shipped off to South America it all goes downhill. The story’s attempts to deal with the racial and cultural aspects of the romances it introduces are clearly well meant, but shallow and unsatisfying.

‘Love in the Time of Airships’ by Meredith Holmes also sets itself against historical social norms, this time in Europe. I get the feeling that this would make for quite a good film. As a short story, it is far, far too long. Particularly since things happen so abruptly; the predictable American heroine who is uncomfortable with European class consciousness takes all of a minute to leave her evil husband for a working-class woman.

And yet, as I mentioned above, steampunk as a genre has far wider interests, and this focus on the nineteenth century is only a part. Other stories in the book demonstrate this admirably. Beth Wodzinski’s ‘Suffer Water’, one of the best pieces in the collection, plays with the tropes of the Western and has a cyborg for its protagonist. Rachel Manija Brown also touches on the western, marrying it to gundam-esque robots that would earn the story points for sheer coolness even if it was not wonderfully written. Mike Allen’s gorgeous ‘Sleepless, Burning Life’ bases the mythology of a universe on something that feels like clockwork. Mikki Kendall’s ‘Copper for a Trickster’ feels a little like a myth, and so works despite the ending that is not quite horrifying enough. Tara Sommers is in slightly dangerous territory with ‘Clockwork and Music’ which tackles mental illness, institutionalisation and automata. I think she does well: she certainly manages to create something that is quiet and creepy and lovely.

Some stories had me questioning, then dismissing the question of whether they really belonged here—I’m too glad to have read Amal el-Mohtar’s beautiful ‘To Follow the Waves’ to question whether it was ‘really’ steampunk (though on reflection my answer is probably ‘yes’). The very dark ‘Under the Dome’ by Teresa Wymore made me wonder if it was still ‘lesbian’ if it was post-human; but then this question of bodies and relationships and where personhood ends came up constantly through the collection (in Narayan’s and Wodzinski’s stories among others) and it was never a bad thing to have to think about. And there were many points at which I had to remind myself that “Lesbian Steampunk” need not mean “Lesbian Steampunk Romance”.

Like most anthologies, Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories varies in quality from story to story. But by any standards this is a solid collection with the good stories by far outweighing the less impressive ones.

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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Farooqi, The Jinn Darazgosh (2011)

Musharraf Ali Farooqi, The Jinn Darazgosh. Amazon Media, 2011. 3500 words. ASIN B00546MF7G. $1.13 / £0.69.

Reviewed by Paul Wilks

First in a series entitled ‘The Scandals of Creation’ published through Amazon Media, The Jinn Darazgosh is a supernatural fable which crafts a tale loosely around the familiar notion that ‘curiosity kills the cat’. The ‘cat’ here is the character Darazgosh, whose curiosity leads to problems in the lives other characters, then ultimately his own. The text itself is a mere 3500 words and is finely reminiscent of traditional folk tales. There is a familiarity with tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop and ancient religious texts. They infer a basic morality of some kind, demonstrated elaborately across the narrative. Whether we agree curiosity is a bad thing or not—I certainly do not—the story nevertheless has an incredibly well crafted plot that creates a number of narrative strings which come together by the end of the tale.

Darazgosh is a Jinn, a form of genie common in Arab folklore and Islamic texts, that can apparently exist on a spiritual plane as well as the human one. Darazgosh’s purpose would appear to be that of a messenger. He eavesdrops on angelic conferences, determining what God has planned for mankind, and subsequently advises humans known as ‘augurs’ who in turn advise their people accordingly. Darazgosh overhears one such conversation amongst some angels, yet out of curiosity withholds part of the news regarding the God-determined deaths of two lovers. While the purpose of their deaths never revealed, and the pettiness of God’s whim in the tale is unexplored, Darazgosh’s actions ultimately save the lives of the lovers.

The construction of the plot and its subsequent unravelling is superb. I am unsure whether this is a retelling or translation of a specific Arabic tale or a fully reworked adaptation of a mythical story, but there is a genuine brilliance to the maintenance of such a narrative, and the simplistic yet precise way the story is conveyed. Ancient religious texts are often written in a simple way—the messages were usually directed at the poor and needy of the time, not the scholars and philosophers. Therefore it is a challenge, in the 21st Century to tell a story such as this that yet retains the innocence and simplicity of the genre. The narrative isn’t in any way a challenge to read and feels effortless and comfortable.

However I also feel the need to wrestle with the problems this kind of text presents in a modern context. It might be argued that the suppression and repression of women is sometimes at its most fervent in many ancient texts. The Jinn Darazgosh, written in this archaizing style, is not an exception. While it might be easy to negate writing about the abuse of women as being, sadly, historically accurate, I do not believe it should be glossed over as irrelevant. In the tale an honest, kind and generous young woman is essentially sold into marriage and later raped. While this is isn’t the only form of abuse in the story, it is perhaps the most striking and this is why I wish to discuss it. The delivery of this treatment, in particular the rape, is done so in such a matter-of-fact way it should be shocking to a modern reader. The coincidental and vehemently selfish manner in which the perpetrator rapes the woman in never considered either, appearing to normalise the assault. The rapist here would appear to be, if anything, ultimately rewarded for his behaviour and, if such actions and fates are controlled by God—which the nature of the text might arguably imply—then God is permissive in the abuse, resulting in scant justice in the story’s resolutions.

However the ‘crime’ of the tale isn’t rape but rather curiosity which, in our more enlightened eyes represents a deeply unpleasant logic. Texts such as these are usually given protection or apology, under the guise of being traditional, historic or mythological, but this doesn't mean this is valid defence. Texts should be challenged and kept alive by analysis, interpretation and debate. The theology behind a world where curiosity is worthy of punishment yet rape is shrugged off makes me wonder how advanced our world might be if it had been the other way around. So, vitally, The Jinn Darazgosh provokes great debate.

While I found the treatment of this issue unsatisfactory, this in no way detracts from the skill and the writing of Farooqi—the book is crafted expertly and with an extremely sharp eye for detail and imagination. The construction is complex yet consistently maintains a coherent simplicity that would perhaps appeal significantly to fans of intelligent mythological narratives. The story is part of a series so it might be interesting to follow how the collection unfolds.

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