Monday, December 31, 2012
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Lynne Jamneck (ed.), Periphery. Untreed Reads, 2012. Pp. 149. ISBN 9781611873368. $4.99.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Alan Zendell, Wednesday’s Child. BookBrewer.com, 2010. Pp. 291. ISBN 978-1-6115604-3-5. $14.00 (print)/$7.99 (e-book).Reviewed by Kip Manley
Technothrillers, the ubiquitous “they” say, are just science fiction novels in which the president’s a character; science fiction, the critic Farah Mendlesohn has said, can be seen as an argument with the universe. The president doesn’t appear in Wednesday’s Child, the second novel from Alan Zendell, and what arguments it makes are hectoring at best—but with its present-day setting, its spies and terrorist threats, this competently written wish-fulfillment wants very much to be a technothriller when it grows up.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Time Travelers. dir Joe Cristiana, 2012. Starring Elliot Kotek, Gabe Bettio. Christiana Productions. 29 minutes.Reviewed by Candra K. Gill
Christiana Productions. It’s the story of two old friends who’ve drifted apart over the years. When they run into each other by chance, one of the friends invites the other to his home to catch up over drinks. We soon find that there’s a difficult history between the two, that there are ulterior motives at play, and that “chance” might not be the right word for their reunion after all.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
William Haloupek, Far-called. Smashwords, 2011. 75k words. ISBN 978-1-4660-2935-4. $3.99.Reviewed by RJ Blain
Far-Called by William Haloupek is a hard science fiction novel that pursues so many ‘what-if’ questions that it is as much just pure ‘speculative fiction’ as it is a hard scifi. This blend is what makes this book stand out. If you’re a fan of questioning society and ‘what would happen if’ scenarios, all of which are founded in a great deal of science and research, this is very likely a book that you will enjoy.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Nick Jackson, The Secret Life of the Panda. Chomu Press, 2011. Pp. 190. ISBN 978-1907681134. £9.00.Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
Sunday, December 09, 2012
Scott Bartlett, Royal Flush. Mirth Publishing, 2011. Pp. 198. ISBN 978-0981286709. $3.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Sunday, December 02, 2012
Jo L Walton, Invocation. Critical Documents, 2012. Pp. 90. ASIN B0091H7DP8. £0.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Saturday, December 01, 2012
Brigitte Wynn Karey, Lilith's Reflection: The Unseen. Trafford Publishing, 2012. Pp. 316. ISBN 978-1466936430. $18.70.Reviewed by Martha Hubbard
Monday, November 26, 2012
Christopher R Lockwood, Life In Our Galaxy. Lulu, 2012. Pp. 68. $9.01.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
Saturday, November 10, 2012
F.R. Merrill, The Final Act: From Woodstock to Broadway. From Death to Eternity. Red Fox Publishing, 2012. Pp. 266. ISBN 978-1466214941. $12.95 print/$9.99 Kindle.Reviewed by Jessica Nelson
Faith Straton has just gotten her big break. She had always loved the Native American stories her grandmother used to tell her. After her dreams of dancing on Broadway fell to the wayside, Faith became a dance instructor. Over time, she decided to merge her passions, so Faith created her own theatrical production, melding the stories her grandmother used to tell with dance. Now, her play is set to show on Broadway, bringing back echoes of former dreams. But when Faith and her daughter, Amanda, move to New York City, Faith gets more trouble than she bargained for.
Monday, November 05, 2012
Stephen V. Ramey (ed.), Triangulation: Morning After. PARSEC Ink, 2012. Pp. 209. ISBN 978-09828606-2-5. $15.00.Reviewed by Martha Hubbard
This collection of twenty-four original stories is the eighteenth annual release in the Triangulation series from the writers’ group PARSEC which is also the Con-runner for the Pittsburgh, PA Confluence. The anthology series has earned a long-standing and very positive reputation for providing a platform for new writers, a reputation which is well continued in this varied collection of stories.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Goliad Uprising. dir. Paul Bright, 2012. Starring Shannon Lark, Aaron Weisinger.Reviewed by Margrét Helgadóttir
The time has come. An underground group try to stop the Goliad Corporation from taking control of the government with their latest technology device that subversively brainwashes Americans. A politically charged sci fi drama about mass media’s powerful influence on our minds and how easily we are manipulated to support those in power.
These are not my words, but the description of the film Goliad Uprising on the film’s Facebook page. It sounds good, eh? You picture an action-filled science fiction film with dark political undercurrents, an intelligent story with surprising twists, a film you wouldn’t hesitate to choose if you are fond of science fiction, especially intelligent science fiction.
Well, I hate to say this, but you are going to be rather disappointed. I don’t like to give a film a bad review and rip it apart, and especially not an indie film, because I know how hard work it is to make a film on a low budget and how much enthusiasm it is on the film set, but this film does not deliver what it promises.
Friday, October 19, 2012
Plurality, dir. Dennis Liu. Traffik Filmworks, 2012. Starring Jeff Nissani, Samantha Strelitz. 14 minutes.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Sabrina Vourvoulias, Ink. Crossed Genres Publications, 2012. Pp. 234. ISBN 978-0615657813. $13.95 print/$5.99 e-book.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
Saturday, October 06, 2012
Rhys Hughes, The Truth Spinner: The Complete Adventures of Castor Jenkins. Wild Side Press, 2012. Pp. 260. ISBN 978-1-4344-4107-2. $14.99.Reviewed by Jessica Nelson
The Truth Spinner: The Complete Adventures of Castor Jenkins is the latest short story collection from Welsh author and essayist Rhys Hughes. Previous works by Hughes include The Coanda Effect and The Postmodern Mariner, both of which tie into The Truth Spinner, as well. The stories in this collection are all related, being stories Castor Jenkins tells his closest friends, Paddy Deluxe and Frothing Harris. Most of the stories involve Castor’s friends buying him beer or whiskey, either to keep him going, to shut him up, or just because people don’t know what else to do.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Terry Grimwood, Axe. Double Dragon Press, 2012. Pp. 296. ISBN 978-1-55405-965-3. $5.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
In the early years of the twentieth century, Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads and had his guitar retuned by the devil for rock music, or so they say. The deals have become a lot bloodier, and much for special-effects-laden since then. Building to a series of grisly, murderous climaxes, Axe is claiming that Hell really does still have, if not the best, then the most ear-splitting tunes.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Catherine Fitzsimmons, Halcyon. Brain Lag, 2012. Pp. 218. ISBN 9780986649356. $12.99/$2.99.Reviewed by Jessica Nelson
Catherine Fitzsimmons produced the cyberpunk novel Halcyon during NaNoWriMo. This alone was enough to pique my interest in the book. Reading a self-published book is always a little daunting in the beginning, as the reader can never be sure about what they’re getting; many self-published novels are fantastic and could have easily been picked up by a big publishing house. Others… not so much. Halcyon falls somewhere between these two extremes. It has a few issues that could be tweaked here and there, but overall it’s a pleasing read, with breakneck pace throughout and cynical political undertones.
Monday, September 10, 2012
Carla R. Herrera, Blue Tent. Smashwords, 2012. Pp. 21. ISBN 9781476127002. Free.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
Blue Tent is a short story by Carla R. Herrera and available via Smashwords. Set in a futuristic dystopian USA where the veneer of democracy has fallen to the point the country is now known as The Corporate States, protagonist Tele is in hiding from the authorities after taking part in a protest. She had no choice but to leave behind her family and live out a low-profile existence in a poverty-ridden camp. Such places are rife with danger but she manages to get by with the protection of an Inprod, a form of customised taser. She lives with hope of one day returning to her family.
Saturday, September 08, 2012
W.C. Anderson, Beloved Evangeline. Independent, 2012. Pp. 349. ASIN B006SB026W. $0.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Friday, September 07, 2012
Chris Ward, The Tube Riders. Amazon Digital Services, 2012. Pp. 516. ISBN 978-1475116502/ASIN B007LVFSP8. $14.99 print/$3.31 Kindle.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
The Tube Riders, written by Chris Ward and available through Amazon Digital Services, is a gritty dystopian novel set in future Britain, known as Mega Britain. Now a corrupt, deliberately isolated and socially devastated island, the government rules oppressively and the poor scavenge for food under a persistent threat of suspicion by the Department of Civil Affairs—almost like an Orwellian Thought Police outfit.
Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Sharon Kae Reamer, Primary Fault. Terrae Motus Books, 2012. Pp. 366. ISBN 9781475123098. $14.95.Reviewed by Martha Hubbard
Friday, August 24, 2012
Connie Wilkins and Steve Berman (edd.), Heiresses of Russ 2012: The Year's Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. Lethe Press, 2012. Pp. 287. ISBN 978-1-59021-159-5. $18.00.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
This is the second annual Heiresses of Russ anthology of lesbian SF, collecting stories first published in 2011. Despite the naming of recently deceased Joanna Russ in the series title, this anthology is not full of the aggressive, uncompromising, acerbic feminist science fiction she was famous for, but is rather a mixed and representative selection of different styles in queer SF with lesbian protagonists. By the nature of the collection it is hard to identify a single theme in this volume, but many of the stories share a tendency common in lesbian writing: fairly uncomplicated love stories with happy endings are preferred over angst-ridden or treacherous romances; this slightly clichéd, optimistic simplicity, sometimes classified as twee or idealized, is only as escapist as the worlds without overt homophobia that also occur often in queer fiction. Of course, by no means all of the stories in this collection are in any sense romances, and there are exceptions to this tendency; sometimes, indeed, the divergence from simplicity and innocence is the twist in the story. Like last year’s, this anthology is a mixed bag with some excellent pieces, more good than mediocre, and none really terrible. Most importantly, this collection of fourteen stories is an impressive gathering of speculative fiction, regardless of the theme or the reader’s tastes.
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Nightmare (2012), dir. Nic Collins; starring Nicholas Wicht, Pete Navis, Alexandra Leopold.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
Nightmare, a short sci-fi film directed by Nic Collins, is a monochrome thriller that broods with paranoia and intrigue, even from the first scene. It tells a story of Carl, a man who has sinister and violent dreams that each feature a brutal murder. However, the dream scenarios then quickly then happen in real life and Carl is motivated to kill the killer before the next murder occurs.
Saturday, August 04, 2012
Jungle Jim Magazine #12 (May 2012). Pp. 34. ASIN B00839I6WY. $2.99.Reviewed by Peter Damien
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Dan O'Brien, Cerulean Dreams. CreateSpace, 2011. Pp. 345. ISBN 9781467971201.Reviewed by Jo Rhett
Cerulian Dreams is a self-published dystopian/noir novel by prolific author and screenwriter Dan O'Brien. The book discusses a potential method for and the effects of population mind control. The story is told from the point of view of a retired detective who is trying to help a young girl escape the city and the obsessively controlling government. The story evolves as they discover deeper truths about the origin of Cerulean Dreams. A story with a lot of action and huge promise, perhaps leaving the reader a little too detached from the characters, but with powerful and futuristic social ideas that are well explored.
Saturday, July 28, 2012
T.C. Mill, A Spell of Passion or Fear. Dreamspinner Press, 2012. Pp. 162. ISBN 9781613723517. $4.99.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
A Spell of Passion or Fear, the first novel written under the byline of T.C. Mill, is a male/male romance in a pseudo-Ancient Greek setting released by Dreamspinner Press, prolific and sometimes controversial publishers of gay romance. This is a broadly steampunk novel, with machines and intelligent automata based on internal combustion engines in the setting of a Greek polis of indeterminate geographical location; as alternate history, this story imagines that Plato’s Καλλίπολις, as described in his Republic, was established and lasted at least several hundred years; this story takes place many generations after the philosopher’s time. Kalliopolis is a soviet-style orthodox dystopia, albeit not one presented as particularly grim or terrifying for its inhabitants. Rather than the politics, the story focuses on the illicit romance between a redundant human former Guardian, and a young Squire, a flirtation that begins as a somewhat by-the-numbers, semi-predatory encounter, but over the course of the book blossoms into a believable, tender and affecting love affair.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Nigel Edwards, Ferryman. Greyhart Press, 2011. 5,000 words. ISBN 978-1-4580-9931-0.Reviewed by Jo Rhett
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Rhys Hughes, The Coanda Effect. A Corto Maltese Adventure. Ex Occidente Press, 2010. Pp. 125. $55.00.Reviewed by Jessica Nelson
The Coanda Effect is a novel by Welsh writer Rhys Hughes, author of numerous novellas, novels and short fiction works, including the Fanny Fables series and The Crystal Cosmos. This attractive limited edition hardcover novel, a homage to the Corto Maltese stories of Hugo Pratt, is a story about journalist Lloyd Griffiths and the man he comes to idolize, gentleman adventurer Corto Maltese. We first meet our protagonists when they first meet each other, at an air show in Italy. Corto Maltese has such a vast impact on Lloyd that the journo begins to change the patterns of his own life, on a quest for adventure. In time, the two meet again and set out on a joint venture to stop the evil plot of a madman set on taking advantage of the second Balkan War.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ancient, Ancient. Aqueduct Press, 2012. Pp. 253. ISBN 978-1-933500-96-6. $18.00.Reviewed by Martha Hubbard
This new collection of arresting and beautiful stories by Kiini Ibura Salaam draws the reader immediately into a world of magic and struggle. The author describes herself as, “...a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. The middle child of five, she grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood with oak and fig trees, locusts and mosquitoes, cousins and neighbors.” Her fiction has been included in such publications as: Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, Dark Eros, FEMSPEC, Ideomancer, infinitematrix.com and PodCastle.org. She works as an editor and copy-editor in New York. This collection of moving stories interleaves many themes, perhaps the most effective for me being the alienation of the foreigner.
Thursday, July 05, 2012
B. Morris Allen, The Speed of Winter. Metaphorosis Books, 2012. Pp.59. ISBN 978-1477428177. $2.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Sunday, July 01, 2012
Benjamin David Burrell, Red Leaves and the Living Token. Red Earth Press, 2012. Pp. 306. ISBN 978-0615618524. $9.99 paperback/$2.99 e-book.Reviewed by Jessica Nelson
Monday, June 25, 2012
Godmachine. Dir. Richard Cranor, 2012. Starring Robert Leeshock and Von Flores. 22:42 minutes.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
Godmachine, a short promotional sci-fi film, is set in a futuristic dystopia of transient computer viruses and menacing global corporations. The protagonist John Lee, a traumatised war veteran, is tasked to destroy a computer virus which grants sentient cognition to androids. Things do not go to plan and the virus infects John through his own technological implants. Grace, an android whose voice is able to channel the big bang, comes to be protected by John and the couple lead to a new world away from the malign Chinamerica corporation.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Steve Whitmore, Broken Vacuum Cleaner & MacKillop Series 2, Episode IV: Yuckahula. Abysswinksback Books, 2012. Pp. 16. ISBN 978-1476363233. Free.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Monday, June 11, 2012
Brian Daunt're, Holes in Parallel Dimensions (The Illogical Detective #1). Untreed Reads, 2011. Pp. 112. ISBN 9781611872040. $4.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Something odd and awful is happening in Fairyland. For a start, Santa seems to have gone bomb-happy and heavily reindeer-intolerant. Old King Cole is not a merry soul; in fact, he has braved stepping into reality to seek out the help of Britain’s greatest detective. No, not Mr Holmes, but Mr Holes! Fairyland isn’t the only place about to descend into bloody madness. It is 1913, and Europe is gearing up for war.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
John Hennessy, At the End. John Hennessy, 2012. Pp. 232. ISBN 9781476249599. $0.99.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
Thursday, June 07, 2012
Gillian E. Hamer, The Charter. Triskele Books, 2012. Pp. 399. ISBN 978-0-9571932-1-5. £2.99 e-book/£6.99 print.Reviewed by Martha Hubbard
In many ways The Charter is a straightforward crime-thriller. Sarah Williams Morton has returned to Moelfre, the small Welsh town on the Island of Anglesey where she grew up, to attend the funeral of her father, Professor Owen Williams. She had not been back there since she fled her father’s drunken, controlling, behavior many years before. Now a successful Londoner, with her handsome, rich, husband, Dominic Morton, beside her, she is painfully aware of the local communities resentment of her and their animosity towards her father.
Tuesday, June 05, 2012
Ira Nayman, Luna for the Lunies! Smashwords/CreateSpace, 2012. Pp. 276. ISBN 978-0-9876996-2-6 (digital)/978-1470053734 (print). $0.99 (digital)/$14.95 (print).Reviewed by Steven Pirie
Saturday, June 02, 2012
Sur-Noir, Sein und Werden #8.2 (Spring 2012). Guest edited by Marc Lowe. Pp. 56. ISSN 2046-8601. £2.50.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Manni McRath, Aged Traveler of the First Expedition. Self-Published, 2012. Pp. c.50. ASIN B007LTM7IQ. $0.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Ostensibly, this short story in three chapters is a thought-map of a man’s mind as he faces the long, empty years of a deep space mission to a new planet. He appears to be latching future hopes on this planet, and as his ‘story’ continues, it seems that he has much thinking and worrying to do about the ethics of the mission, his crewmates, his position on the mission and his wider concerns with his position as a universal man. The mission takes, we are told, the better part of fifty years to travel, study and return to the home-world. Unfortunately, it feels like fifty years in the reading.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Jeff Edwards, Dome City Blues. Stealth Books, 2011. Pp. 316. ISBN 978-0983008569. $12.99.Reviewed by Jessica Nelson
The year is 2063. Rampant disease has wiped out a third of the human population, and most of the other two thirds have been driven to living in dome cities for protection from pollution and harmful UV rays. This is where former detective David “Sarge” Stalin thinks he’s going to live out his retirement as a metal sculptor; that is, until he’s approached at a bar by a beautiful woman who needs his help. Suddenly, Detective Stalin finds himself perched on the edge of a war between man and machines as he tries to solve a string of serial killings that the police have already closed the books on... twice.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Ras Ashcroft, Supervillain: The Concise Guide. Indie, 2012. c.26000 words. ASIN B0076ZZCIC. $0.99 / £0.77.Reviewed by RJ Blain
Have you ever wanted to be a villain? Or, dare I ask, a supervillain? If so, Supervillain: The Concise Guide may just be the book for you. Written in a self-help style that openly mocks the finance world, this parody pokes fun at those who want to go from rags to riches based off of the help from a book by presenting reasonable methods of becoming a modern-day villain.
Saturday, May 19, 2012
T.J. Lantz, Gnit-wit Gnipper and the Perilous Plague. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Pp. 42. ASIN B006AXG2Z8. $0.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Friday, May 18, 2012
Emily Devenport, Spirits Of Glory. Self-published, 2011. Pp. 113. ISBN 978-1-4523-3158-4. $0.99.Reviewed by Paul Wilks
Spirits of Glory, available through Smashwords, is a beautifully crafted young adult story based in the futuristic/speculative colony world of Jigsaw, where the existence of ghosts and gods is as normal and expected as driving down a highway and taking a toilet break. The protagonist Hawkeye is an astute, intelligent and refreshingly vulnerable character, and this is as much a coming of age tale as it is a curious and well-paced exploration of wider themes such as identity, otherness and disability.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Pavarti K. Tyler, Shadow on the Wall. Fighting Monkey Productions, 2012. Pp. 215. ISBN 978-0-9838769-0-8. $11.95.Reviewed by Kathryn Allan
Pavarti K. Tyler’s Shadow on the Wall: Book One of the Sandstorm Chronicles promises to be a new take on the superhero mythos by challenging the current trend of Islamophobia in the United States with its lead, Recai Osman: “Muslim, philosopher, billionaire, and Superhero” [backcover]. Set in modern day Elih, Turkey (Elih is the Kurdish name for the real Turkish city of Batman), Tyler creates a not-so-imaginary world of corruption and oppression that is “all in a day’s work for the nefarious RTK, the brutal, self-appointed morality police” [backcover]. Basically, the narrative follows the trials and tribulations of Recai, a spoiled—but disenfranchised—playboy who wakes up in the desert one day and must rely on the kindness of strangers in a hostile land. Recai is a difficult character to like, and Tyler takes her time with his transformation from mere man to the superhero, The SandStorm. Aiding him on his journey of self-discovery are an old Jew, Hasad, and a young Muslim nurse, Maryam.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
M. K. Flowers, Gaelen’s Gold. Kestralane Publishing, 2012. Pp. 544. ISBN 978-0-9832429-0-1. $14.95.Reviewed by Martha Hubbard
A common elf out hunting finds a mysterious box with a baby girl in it. He leaves her with a childless dwarven couple. Sixteen years later, the baby, now grown into a prodigious young woman named Gaelen, learns that she is a wizard and that the High Elves hunting her have decreed she must die because she is a powerful mana or magic user. This enormous book by father and daughter writing team M. K. Flowers, Gaelen’s Gold incorporates a number of familiar fantasy themes: coming of age, evil or misguided rulers and finding ones place in life—to list just a few. Along the way we meet more elves, scores of soon-to-be-dead goblins, dwarves, stone giants, wood fairies, more wizards and a cheerful dragon, Luminant. Dedicated to a dead brother and son, and described as “a labour of love,” I wish I could say I enjoyed reading this book. The authors have pulled together a vast assortment of tropes from Tolkien, Game of Thrones, the Bible and Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The description of the dwarf schoolhouse evokes The Flintstones. Just getting to the end of the pages was a prodigious task.
Friday, May 04, 2012
Ian Sales (ed.), Rocket Science. Mutation Press, 2012. Pp. 314. ISBN 978-1-907553-03-5. £8.99.Reviewed by Terry Grimwood
This is a drop of the hard stuff, raw science fiction, where the science informs and dominates. There are, as the editor points out in his introduction, no space ships in this book. The void is not seen as an ocean traversed by submarines and battleships with rocket engines, but a totally alien, inhospitable, nightmarish environment in which man struggles to travel, plunder, colonise and simply survive.
I approached the book with trepidation. Yes, I cut my reading teeth on Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein (they were all still very much alive and busy writing when I was a callow youth), I loved Niven, Leinster and Clement and will even dip in the odd Stephen Baxter now and then but I am usually more interested in the philosophical, political and sociological side of science fiction. Yet I was immediately at home here, comfortable and in many cases utterly riveted.
So, too much hardware? Too much pedantic science and insistence on accuracy of background? Well, there is a sense of scientific rigour, there are no vast and wondrous extra-terrestrial civilisations, there are no ray guns and square-jawed heroes. And to cap it all, there are factual articles to give the book even more scientific credibility.
But most importantly, there is humanity and heart.
Each of these stories is set in a world of very convincing scientific advancement, and while that framework is extremely important and effective in painting each individual world, it is the people, the characters, that are the ultimate focus.
In ‘Sea of Maternity’ by Deborah Walker, for example, we have an intriguing glimpse of the rigours of living in a lunar colony. Innovative ways have been developed to protect the inhabitants from lethal washes of radiation sent out by the sun. The first generation have survived and the second are growing up through adolescence toward adulthood. Yet all is not well, the children of the moon are as restless and rebellious as their earthbound counterparts. This is a marvellous story, and in a few thousand words, ‘Sea of Maternity’ gives us the vast backdrop and convincing history of the colony, and at the same time focusses tight into a fraught mother-daughter relationship that encapsulates the whole issue of lunar colonisation.
The International Space Station features in two stories, although both are slightly flawed, one of them, ‘Final Orbit’ by Nigel Brown, has a beautifully tense build-up to a surprising dénouement that doesn’t quite work for me. The other, Dr Philip Edward Kaldon’s ‘The New Tenant’, featuring (I can’t put my finger on why) a somewhat irritating heroine in a genuinely compelling situation.
‘Dancing on the Red Planet’ by Berit Ellingsen shows that even writers of hard sf have a well-developed sense of humour. This is the tale of the first men to set foot on Mars, and how they celebrate their Great Moment. There is also ‘Going Boldly’ by Helen Jackson which relates the adventures of Frankie, a Character Technical Director: Alien Morphologies in a software gaming company, when she is sent on a quest to study real life anatomy in an effort to enhance the latest game.
Contemporary issues are confronted in the very even-handed and powerful ‘Conquistadors’ by Iain Cairns, when the rights of humankind to rip vital resources from other worlds are in passionate dispute. Surely this is one of the true functions of science fiction, to analyse present day issues and examine them from the fresh perspective of the future, or by looking in from beyond the boundaries of our own familiar world.
The factual articles are utterly fascinating and every one, lively and compelling. For example Eric Choi’s ‘Making Mars a Nicer Place’, or Bill Patterson’s ‘A Ray of Sunshine’, which explains the almost insurmountable problems of solar radiation in space. A canny ordering of the fiction placed some relevant stories adjacent to these articles. One story, however, placed itself halfway between fact and fiction; ‘Dreaming at Baikonur’ by Sean Martin is a very human and moving account of a Russian rocket scientist and his brutal vicissitudes through the dark days of the Stalinist era. Definitely one of my own favourites.
Terry’s choice was a tough one to make. The opener, Leigh Kimmel’s ‘Tell Me A Story’, the tale of a children’s book through the centuries, took a place in my reading heart. Martin McGrath’s ‘Pathfinders’ is an intense, moving story of another Mars mission. However, The One is a very clever and convincing retelling of the Space race. I will not give the game away or even reveal the title because the joy of this story are the surprises and trip wires it stretches across the reader’s path.
My recommendation? Even if you are put off by the term “Hard SF” and are nervous of negotiating zero-g, aphelion, radiation, weightlessness and the dynamics of re-entry, give this book a try. The hardware, the steel and plastic actually emphasise the sheer fragile-yet-iron tough humanity of its protagonists. The real winner here is the human spirit.
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Saturday, April 21, 2012
L. Joseph Shosty, Abattoir in the Aether. Untreed Reads, 2012. Pp.124. ISBN 9781611872439. $4.99.Reviewed by Kate Onyett
In case you have never come across anything like Abattoir in the Aether before, ladies and gentlemen, strap yourselves in, because we are about to take a rumbling journey into the ether, with Victorians In Spaaaaaccceee! Otherwise known as the genre of Steampunk.
The plot is a standard one of peril and derring-do. An adventuring scientist and his ‘plucky’ female sidekick are drifting in the aether in a damaged craft, limping away from a previous escapade (this is one of a series of novellas based around the same characters). In an ‘alternative’ Victorian time, space is not a pure vacuum, but filled with the ever-present ‘aether’; a substance thought to exist in the 19th century, filling the void. Running low on fuel, hoping to make it back to Mars, they come across a space station under communication blackout. Taken on board, it transpires the rather beautiful station; decorated in high style with a view to being a future way-station of civilian travellers, is in danger. Its thrusters are not working, and it is drifting ever closer to the edge of an aether storm which will tear it apart.
While adventurer-scientist Nathanial just happens to be the best person to work on fixing the problem, he finds his investigations into the thrusters, and latterly, into strange goings-on and deaths aboard the station, thwarted by the sinister project director. Meanwhile, Annabelle, his companion, has become intrigued by the murders and starts investigations of her own. What they unearth is a dark plot involving a supremely dangerous piece of new equipment (the Steampunk equivalent of early nuclear power) and a lunatic inventor...
Steampunk, while not lead by any Big Name (cyberpunk, for example, has William Gibson often cited as a ‘founding father’), has a devoted following beyond purely fictional into other formats. For a genre to be ‘punk’d, one takes a known genre and twists it a little; adds a spin. Steampunk is the juxtaposition of quite advanced technology, but with a Victorian slant; it is steam-powered or similarly engineered, hence the name. Set predominantly in an ‘alternative universe’ within the Victorian/ Edwardian era, it features exploration of space, riding strange, self-locomotive vehicles and communicating with long-distance devices. It borrows from the ‘scientific romances’ of Jules Verne and H G Wells, developing the futuristic proposals these authors visualised utilising the technology of their day. The ‘space’ travel showcased in Abbatoir, therefore, is more properly termed ‘aether-travel.’ For the purposes of fiction, projects human drama into new arenas in the great beyond. And Abbatoir is a story all about human interaction and human emotion. No grand speculations on alien thought processes, or on intangible uncertainties. Like the greater part of Victorian science (which reacted badly to too much uncertainty and strove for completion), problems are explainable with the right data. Steampunk is refreshingly confident about explication of events.
Steampunk has become something of a catch-all description for all settings that look a bit old-fashioned featuring anachronistically sophisticated technology. There has yet to be a satisfactory filmic version of ‘Steampunk.’ Ironically, one of the clearest attempts has also been slammed by film fans as an absolute lemon: Wild, Wild West! It is not, however, one of the largest single genus on bookshelves, perhaps because it easily combines with other speculative fiction genres and can become subsumed to other, larger themes; notably horror and fantasy. It is a very flexible speculative genre.
The most striking examples are more to be found among the devotees who helped to give it a solid continuance: among the very visual, immediate role-playing community. Steampunk is a very visceral genre; it’s grubby with coal dust, creaks with corset stays, swishes with tailcoats and gowns and sparkles with brass fixtures and features. The unisex signifier for Steampunk role-play is the ubiquitous set of goggles, mostly worn pushed back on the head. An item for racers, explorers and scientists, they symbolise the go-getting attitude of Colonialism that drives steampunk’s moral core. Colonialism as a concept also comes with attendant ideas of racism, exploitation and overruling white, rich male authority, and these are definitely considered outmoded and even offensive to a twenty-first century mind. Instead the confidence and adventurousness is up-played as a form of personal identity by role-players and are carried over as the main drivers for Abbatoir.
Reading like a ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure, Abattoir in the Aether manages to convey a sense of solidity and immediacy while steering clear of too much emphasis on the less desirable aspects of the Victorian mindset. Packed with chases, escapes and strong hyperbole, Shoshty has struck a chord of more innocent genuineness in his writing. By steering the plot to the human drama and leaning heavily on the gorier aspects of a series of murders, he colours his tale like a penny dreadful without having to expand too much on the (to a modern reader) necessarily sexist and mildly racist attitudes of his characters; people of their era.
A potential weak spot within Steampunk can be largely attributed to twentieth and twenty-first century story telling neglecting to remember that the characters must not come across too modern, too slick. A collision of cultural values is inherent in applying advanced tech to old-fashioned social mores and is the ‘punk’ing of an era. As mentioned above, genuine Victorian/Edwardian beliefs can clash with modern ideas of individuality and self-empowerment, and certainly there are more powerfully seductive and plucky adventuresses among the role-playing community than there are domestic women. But in writing, it takes longer to set a scene word by word than the immediacy of a fully dressed-up character approaching you in person. Plus, the act of role-playing itself is a statement of self-definition for the modern attendee. To achieve a real milieu that is plausible to a reader, it helps to take one’s source material more seriously. Perhaps unwisely, modern storytelling set in a recently-passed era, such as turn of nineteenth-to-twentieth-century (only 100 years ago, so still pretty ‘new’ by historical standards), has tended to instil rather modern ideas into its characters; effectively acting out modern concerns in fancy dress (back to role-playing). Shoshty’s figures are still firmly rooted in what does pass for a suitably ‘old fashioned’ mindset, and it suits them.
Annabelle is notable for bending the rules and being considerably pro-active. She is ‘allowed’ to do so because a) she is an adventuress of deep aether-space with a few adventures under her belt, b) she spent time among native Americans in their village, attributing her with an earthiness, and c) as is mentioned in the novella, she is the only woman there, and the all-male crew are at a bit of a loss to know what to do with her. Also, Nathanial is a thinker, not a fighter; his lower levels of physicality make a suitable counter-balance for her higher effectiveness. The ‘hen pecked’ male was a comedic response in an era that was struggling to come to terms with increasing push towards female emancipation. Her very transgressive behaviour is still very traditionally ‘female’: emotional and intuitive and is the opposite of Nathanial’s more considered, ‘scientific,’ male approach. Interestingly, she is also the one who is the most beaten up. She is attacked nastily on two separate occasions, yet she keeps on going. Nathanial, by comparison, is straightened by his overriding sense of respect for a chain of command—really the on-board class system—and while he bemoans Annabelle’s injuries, he takes some time to be able to get up his confidence, and those of other middle management males around him, to overcome his sense of propriety and start making headway in his own investigations. Once he does, he finds the truth faster than Annabelle, and with less wasteful action.
Shoshty maintains his period detail in expanding gender boundaries into clear social delineations. There are definite boundaries between workers and managers; eating and sleeping in very different quarters. The workers live and work in the station’s dark, steam-filled, overheated underbelly, nicknamed ‘Hell’, whereas the management live in relative comfort in ‘Heaven’ above. Feeding into these elements of clear separation, Shoshty is not ungenerous with the hyperbole, drawing thick, definite lines around each image projected. Structures are vast, beautiful, amazing; laying on thickly the idea of impressiveness. And Shoshty did not hold back when it came to describing the station’s Director.
This is a man completely bandaged, head to toe, following an accident that left him scarred, and he is introduced as no less than a ‘horror’. From there, the character has nowhere to go but remain on a Brian Blessed level of bluster and blow. Perhaps ironically, acting in this hysterical, ‘feminine’ fashion leaves him wide open to suffer the same fate as the other female character; to become physically assaulted and reduced. With adroit humour, Shoshty names this brooding, gothic leader van den Bosch. Not only foreign (oh, horrors!), but also amusingly generic (all Germans were ‘The Bosch’ to WWI allied soldiers). Following a Victorian preference for overdoing it in advertising, this tale is entitled ‘abattoir’. It is not actually wall to wall gore, but it is a good signifier for the passionately murky plot to come. Shoshty has done a very good job of creating a tale that feels steeped in its own authenticity via all this excess.
If some of the detail comes across as self-parodying, it can be considered that modern minds can often feel this way when reading genuine historical documents from the same time. Instead of becoming bogged down in such detail, however, Shoshty uses it to his advantage as a spring board for his narrative, which is exciting and driven. The hyperbole and recognisable gender/social positioning is a strength he exploits as a common ground of understanding with his reader, as well as a distancing factor that allows the action to become outrageous and generous in its profusion of emergencies, escapes and reveals.
Drawing back the focus a moment and considering where Shoshty is coming from, it is well to consider that this novella is one of a series based around a significant success story for Steampunk. I mentioned role-playing above because not only is it the main creative venture for Steampunk as a genre, but the ‘Space 1889’ title started life as a role-playing game, the name a playful nod towards the 1970s cult TV show Space 1999; itself a show expressing future ideas for humanity in space. ‘Space 1889’ has now become a cross-media event, with audio adventures and novellas, tying into the same characters and background under the umbrella title of ‘Space 1889 And Beyond.’ These further projects utilise the role-playing game’s original guide book as a primer for limitations and expectations, meaning the writers of the novellas have a broad, pre-sketched landscape to refer to. Some conformity to an original idea should be expected, and having heard the audio dramas, I can confirm that the ‘world’ created is consistent within this novella, although Shoshty has done a far better job of maintaining a more recognisably Victorian social situation, his action is pacey and intriguing. Frankly, having picked it up, I could not easily put it down, and comfortably read it in one very entertaining sitting.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012
Rhys Hughes, Worming the Harpy and other Bitter Pills. Tartarus Press, 2011. Pp. 231. ISBN 978-1-905784-31-8. £14.95.Reviewed by Meredith Wiggins
After submitting my PhD thesis I found myself unable to read anything, even for pleasure (and I’m a reader, a dyed in the wool, 2-3 books a week, voracious consumer of literature) for months. And then I picked up the second edition of Rhys Hughes’ Worming the Harpy.
I found this collection of short stories completely infuriating. I also found it darkly comic, delightfully irreverent and downright brilliant. In considering these stories, it seems very likely that Hughes has strayed into a parallel world and come back with battle scars and tales to tell. The world of the book is one in which Whitby serves as a sanctuary against the forces of darkness (‘The Good News Grimoire’), where ice has been discovered to be fundamentally impossible (‘Quasimodulus’), where mad men quest for the perfect tone to raze their lives’ works to the ground (‘The Forest Chapel Bell’) and where spectres, seemingly from faded fairy stories, stubbornly refuse to believe their time has come and gone.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Kate Harrad, All Lies and Jest. Ghostwoods Books, 2011. Pp. 226. ISBN 978-1468064186. $4.99.Reviewed by Giulia I. Sandelewski
Elinor, the main character and narrative voice of Kate Harrad’s debut novel, finds her sleepy hometown strict and unforgiving. This oppression is symptomatic of fundamentalism on a much larger scale: the United States have recently reinvented themselves as the Christian United States, and the United Kingdom looks shortly set to go down the same theocratic route. It is in this anxious climate of unwelcome change that Elinor’s inner city girl flees to the capital, in the hope of meeting kindred spirits. Through Stefan—sound engineer, vegan, vampire—she finds more than she bargained for in the shape of many, intersecting underground worlds, all on the brink of extinction.
A documentary-feel is promoted by the inclusion of website excerpts ranging from Satanist identification to mushroom trip memories. While their location at the beginning of chapters is distracting, their very presence hones in on the liminal space between fact and fiction. Any temptation to marginalise the realities Harrad describes as implausible is dispelled in the face of actual experiences and perceptions. The line between research and invention sapiently blurred, we are invited to embrace the strangeness, and question common sense. This leads us to negotiate, on a case-to-case basis, how willing—if at all—we are to suspend our disbelief. From the outset, we may choose to side with Stefan in his vampiric conviction, or with Elinor in her conviction that Stefan is ‘clinically insane.’ We will grant fanatics who believe themselves weapons in the hands of God, so what about the vengeful Old Testament deity itself? There is a rich playfulness here which allows us to approach the text either as a Thomas Covenant-esque world of real (if disbelieved) magic, or else as a secular world in which peculiar subcultures are precisely that—subcultures.
In all likelihood, whether or not vampires—or God, or manifestations of the preternatural in general—are posited to exist is immaterial. What remains at all times tangible and pressing is the seemingly unstoppable spread of fanaticism, intolerance, persecution, misinformation, brainwashing, and absolutism, together amounting to a dismantlement of freedom of speech and belief, on both sides of the barricade. Perhaps to aid the making of this point, polarised perceptions become mutually exclusive by the end, a loss of relativity which puts the book in danger of being more mainstream in its alignment than it probably means to be.
This is not to say that the ‘mainstream’ is not acknowledged to be a problematic concept. Throughout, deviance is romanticised, a tendency which renders the quest for expression and approval incredibly delicate. Barring a few cases of opposites attracting, the people who define themselves as ‘different’ appropriate the (ab)normality discourse which originally alienated them, simultaneously defining everyone else as ‘odd,’ ‘weird,’ ‘freaks.’ Further, those on the fringes of society are revealed to be just as susceptible to discriminatory assumptions regarding heritage, class, and sexuality as the mainstream culture they stand against—yet may never take the place of, if they wish to retain their accolade of perversion.
Elinor reads as a bookish, non-conformist feminist struggling to reconcile credibility and fulfilment in a post-Mills & Boon, post-Twilight world. The self-confessedly un-heroic heroine is at once weary of the same old dramatic clichés, and irresistibly fascinated by them—because ‘silly’ as they may be, would life not gain in excitement and meaning if butterflies at first sight were real? The conflict between expectations and reality in relationships is handled with tongue-in-cheek humour, though the investigation seems restricted to heterosexual connections. In terms of plot advancement, the queerness of certain characters is key; yet queer identity itself feels oddly under-explored. While this does not detract from the overall success of All Lies and Jest, a more analytical queer slant would have seamlessly woven into the novel’s exclusion and acceptance dialectic.
Marianne, the switch who goes through lifestyles like fashionable totes, is immediately remindful of Buffy’s Cordelia, according to whom the illusion of friendship ‘beats being alone all by yourself.’ Through Marianne’s experience, the path to belonging—or rather, to the vanquishing of loneliness—is presented as strewn with obstacles, mistakes, and scars; a measure of manipulation at the hands of others is shown to be not only inevitable but, for some, a basic human need. Even more central are the nature, necessity, and prerogatives of the manipulation of others, in the context of a preoccupation with difficult choices, personal accountability, and the price of ideals.
It is difficult to pin down Harrad to a stable stance on any of the moral quandaries she raises. This seems to be intentional, and a logical extension of the fluidity of perception which characterises most of the novel. Perspective, omniscience, and objectivity are similarly blurred, a narrative choice leading to a final reveal which feels needlessly contrived. Less of a punch-line approach would have allowed greater psychological complexity, in turn leading to a more satisfying ending. As the novel stands, the discrepancies between what we are told and what we are not jar with the requests made of our emotional investment in the characters; a shame, as there is quite the depth, warmth, and humanity to invest in.
Bottom line: All Lies and Jest well suits the formally edgy, socially switched-on image young publishers Ghostwoods Books mean to project. Despite a style still in the process of defining and refining itself, Harrad awakens empathy and conscience in equal measure; her work should appeal to fans of subversive, other-centric speculative fiction in the vein of Clive Barker’s Cabal, and supporters of Ultraviolet’s commentary on political and theological extremism.
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