Saturday, April 21, 2012

Shosty, Abattoir in the Aether (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

Hughes, Worming the Harpy (2011)

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

Harrad, All Lies and Jest (2011)

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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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wolff, Sacrifices (2012)

Tarah L.Wolff, Sacrifices: Embraced by Darkness book one. Self-published/Amazon Digital Services, 2012. Pp. 398. ISBN: 978-0-9850228-0-8. $15.00.

Reviewed by Martha Hubbard

Four women strive to determine their destinies; to live with the choices they have made or that have been made for them. Sacrifices, a first novel from Tarah L. Wolff, deals with the struggles that women face to take control of their lives. The decisions they make will determine not only their own fate but the safety and future of their country. This is the first book of what is planned as an epic fantasy saga; the players are introduced and like the opening moves in a game of chess, at the end of this book they are all in place for the battles to come. With what seems like a cast of thousands and multiple intertwining plot lines, this is a very ambitious beginning for a new author.

We first encounter the Warlord Osondrous when, on a simple journey from her own Castle of the Wards to review her troops in a not so distant castle, she just barely survives an assassination attempt. After decades of peace, strange and unsettling events have begun to proliferate. Tempers flare that should not: Telenay, Osondrous’ human second in command strikes the an innocent woman. The King Ward is missing and now this attempt on the Warlord’s life makes it clear that the coming danger cannot be ignored.

This is a book full of strange and engaging characters, As well as Wards, Healers and Warlord—humans with powerful magical abilities—there are Centaurs, War Horses and Darkhalks, humans who have given away their personalities to serve the Castle of the Wards; and Implins, small creatures who exist to serve and be loved, much like useful pets. And this is only on the good guys’ side. While this could easily have descended into a kind of D&D-esque monster saga, Ms Wolff has succeeded in making the most of the major characters glow with authentic personalities.

This is no courtly Troubadour-inspired romantic fantasy. Life outside and inside the castle is dangerous and brutish. Unless a woman can claim a better reason for her presence, she exists to serve the soldiers of the castle in every way. They are waitresses, cooks and sexual gratifiers. The best they can hope for is that the soldier who claims them will be kind. Rape however is forbidden. Women who have risen to a more valued level (Warlord, Ward or Healer) are allowed and do initiate almost any kind of sexual licence.

For good or ill, the sexual mores of this unnamed country form the underpinnings of many of the decisions made by the protagonists. It is an area that the author has clearly given much thought to in her world building. This is why the absence of any hint of same-sex relationships seems to me to be a serious flaw. Despite the problems caused by various prohibitions on human / non-human intercourse, the possibility of LGBT contacts is never considered. Well known female authors of epic fantasy from Storm Constantine to Laurell K. Hamilton have been exploring these issues in their best-selling sex-pics for many years. There is no longer any justification for ignoring LGBT issues in a novel that has sexual relationships as one of its key themes.

The setting: to bring an end to the 500 year war between the Fae and the Draegoone, the ‘King’ Ward, Lionel created the Killing River, dividing the country into three sections. The Fae were sent to the West on the fringes of The Swoon, while the Draegoone occupied the East section along with a strange race known as the Vamepire. The humans and their supporters were given the middle section. The races are separated by a river so noxious and deadly that nothing can cross over or above. Only when a new King Ward is crowned does the power of the Killing River diminish enough for the Fae and Draegoone to cross and continue their deadly feuds.

After a long period of peace and stability in the central, human-ruled area, someone, possibly a mysterious Red Man, wants to use the next King Ward ascension to launch a war against the Castle of the Wards and its inhabitants. From the rape-seduction of Jezeline, which brings on her powers, to the murder of the unstable and ineffectual King Ward, Shankan, we only slowly become aware of the dangers posed by the Red Man. The structure of the book with the POV shifting from woman to woman in successive sections, works very effectively here. As each woman’s story unfolds from her perspective, there is little need to interrupt the forward motion with excessive info-dumping.

Four human women, lives intertwined, each have critical roles to play in the coming battle:

My favourite character in the book is Osondrous. Trained from childhood as a warrior, she has fought to achieve the highest military position in her country. She is the Warlord. Still young and inexperienced in the ways of managing people, when the King Ward is discovered dead, she must deal with strange almost supernatural pressure to have herself crowned. She does not know that on the day of a new King Ward’s ascension the Killing River diminishes enough for it to be crossed. For me Osondrous is the most interesting of the key women. In her struggle to master the people skills needed to do the job being forced on her, we see a fully realised human: bored, angry, loyal, passionate, imperfect but determined to do her best. Wilful and trained as a solder, her struggle to become worthy of the challenge she faces is monumental and engrossing.

Karaly, a young healer, deeply troubled by a forbidden love for her Darkhalk protector, does not consider what problems her actions will cause for colleagues in the Castle of the Wards. I find her the least likeable of the four women as she seems so wrapped up in her own emotional issues that I want to reach out and shake her. In many ways, the standard ‘wilful woman’ whose foolish actions advance the plot, her character is the least fully developed of the four.

In Jezeline, the author has created another complex and fully rounded character. Born and brought up on a horse breeding farm in a distant province, she had never imagined that her life would be anything different. On her sixteenth birthday, she encounters a powerful red-headed man who seduces her, bringing on the magical powers of a Ward. The insatiable sexual hunger created by the Red-headed Man sends her on a journey that will lead her to become the lover not only of the King of the Vamepire but also the heir apparent of the Draegoone.

Constance is a cipher. Her story seems to be an icon for the situation of women in this world. Attached to the castle as a servant, she hopes to one day be accepted as a trainee Ward. Just before her sixteenth birthday when she must choose her first lover, she is raped by a guard, Marcus and two friends. In a spectacularly gruesome scene, that provides still another picture of how brutal and violent this world is, Osondrous punishes the rapists with what are truly fates worse than death.

In Sacrifice, Ms Wolff has created an entire stage full of interesting and complex characters, many with their own unique identities. However another issue for me, is the universal whiteness of the characters. We get a vast array of human and non-human characters, centaurs, draegoone, vamepire, fae and so on but no indication that any of these has any skin colour but white. This seems retrogressive. Nowadays, people of colour now do make valuable contributions to many successful fantasy epics. After the success of books like The Hunger Games, their absence in a planned epic of this type is troubling. The story itself is compelling and believable and the writing moves along briskly. Despite the vast number of characters and a complex plot, the information is presented in such a vivid and clear fashion that I had no difficulty following the action.

A few weeks ago there was a Twitter discussion about women writers of epic fantasy. Among the issues raised was: why do men not want to read epic fantasy by women. I did some research on this topic and unearthed this discussion started by Katie Elliot, herself a fine writer of epic fantasy, Do females write epic fantasy differently than males do? If so, how and why? The question elicited over 200 passionate responses, but for our purposes Kari Sperring’s trenchant analysis seems the most useful:
“Oddly, I've been thinking about this, too. I think there's a perception of difference—there is an assumption that the women will be all emo and relationships and misunderstood witches, while the men deal with the Big Stuff—the swords but also the Important Politics. But the truth is that I think there's not that much real difference and that women in epic fantasy are writing some very interesting, important, subversive, political stuff and not being recognised because the assumption gets in the way.”

Sacrifices offers a multitude of awesomely bloody fight scenes, political intrigues and a full array of emo inducing exotic sexual activities, including several inter-species couplings. All are described in enough luxurious detail to satisfy almost any reader.

From the biographical material provided at the end of the book, it seems that the writing was in part an attempt to exorcise a number of traumatic personal events. If so, I say BRAVA! Far cheaper than a course of psychotherapy and far more useful.

Embraced by Darkness, Book Two, Stricken is due Christmas, 2012. As well looking forward to seeing how the characters’ lives develop, it will be interesting to see how the conflicts between the Fae, Draegoone and the Vamepire are resolved and what kind of King Ward Osondrous will become.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wingett, Turn the Tides Gently (2011)

Matt Wingett, Turn the Tides Gently. Amazon eBook, 2011. c. 13,000 words. ASIN B006L4C9CG. $0.99.

Reviewed by Peter Damien

When I initially chose to review Turn the Tides Gently, by Matt Wingett, it was solely because of the mention of mermaids being in the story. I have a weakness for mer-creatures of any kind, and a general love and obsession with the ocean and all of the things in it (real or imagined). I went into the story just expecting a piece focused on mermaids, and I was terribly surprised at how much further the story went. The first few pages lay out the initial premise, and I found it irresistible: Dave is sitting down by the seaside one evening when he sees a mermaid in the water and, mistaking her for a drowning woman, he nearly rescues her. So, Dave has seen a mermaid. The problem is that Dave also sees vanishing cats, a Butler perpetually making tea, dock-workers and soldiers and citizens of the past, none of which anyone else can see. He is not the most reliable person to have seen a mermaid. He knows what he saw was real, but there'd be no convincing anyone else of that.

The novella carries on from this excellent starting premise, and I am very hesitant to say too much about the plot, because I don't want to give away what happens. I was very surprised at how quickly the story spiraled beyond the twin facts that a mermaid had appeared, and that Dave is seemingly crazy. More of a threat than his visions is Doctor Cassell, who is in charge of Dave's mental health and who keeps putting him on medications... which do work, in that they dull his mind and eliminate all of the interesting and strange things he keeps seeing. But of course, Dave isn't going to want to stay on pills. He needs the visions. They aren't a burden to him. The pills and Doctor Cassell's disbelief and constant attempts to mend things are the true obstacle.

Without giving much away, I can tell you that the story grows into a piece about time travel, and about the past, and about the way history overlays the present. Matt Wingett has written a novella which is an exercise in psychogeography, something very interesting I learned about from Alan Moore and Iain Sinclaire. It is taking a single physical location (in this case, a single town) and looking back through history at that single space. It's exploring history, rather than space. I hadn't entirely expected that from this novella, and was thrilled to read it.

The biggest problem in the novella is that the writing is very florid and dense. There are very few short, sharp sentences to be had. Everything goes on at great length. Toward the end, as the tension mounts and the story accelerates, this is actually a good thing. The grandiosity and poetic qualities of the storytelling language actually lend further emotion and tone to the ending of the story. Towards the beginning, though, it just makes it difficult to do what you, the reader, need to be doing: getting a grip on the characters, the place, and the premise. I was bothered by it for the first ten pages, and then never minded it again.

I was very pleased that it was only a novella, as well. A novella is an uncomfortable size in writing. It's not long enough to be sold as a novel, too long to be sold as a short story. Happily, we now live in a digital age where the novella can live and breathe again (and as someone who writes too many hard-to-sell things at just that length, I'm thrilled). There is no inflation to make the story longer, nor is anything cut out. It tells precisely the story it needs to, then exits stage right.

Turn the Tides Gently is a quick read, and an excellent one. I look forward to seeing further pieces from Matt Wingett, and I'll be curious to see if the psychogeographic elements figure into his later works too. I wouldn't mind too terribly much if they do.

(And as an aside: if you enjoy this novella, I would recommend getting yourself something by Iain Sinclaire, or perhaps the book Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore. This novella provides an excellent introduction to the world of slightly dense, historically packed storytelling, and you may find a niche you love reading.)

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Monday, April 09, 2012

Arkenberg, Aqua Vitae (2011)

Therese Arkenberg, Aqua Vitae. Wolfsinger Publications, 2011. Pp. 70. ISBN 978-1936099092. $7.95.

Reviewed by Joan Leib

Aqua Vitae is a futuristic tale, set in the 26th century, about a woman seeking to become immortal. As the story opens, the protagonist, Jenes, receives a clue from a mysterious (and possibly mythical) Chinese man. Soon Jenes and several of her friends are haring off on an intergalactic pleasure-cruise to a tropical planet whose natives are allegedly immortal. The story is sparsely written, with little explanation given for certain crucial plot points, which was at first frustrating, but as I thought about it over the next few days, it began to grow on me. The sketchy nature of the background reflects the protagonist's personality: Jenes is so single-mindedly focused on her goal that she simply doesn't take notice of anyone else's experience. Still, the lack of detail on certain aspects of the plot can be confusing and distracting: for example, the question of whether the immortality treatment that Jenes undergoes is well-known or secret. The plot is vague on this point, at times maddeningly so.

And Jenes is not a likable character; I think this is deliberate. She is alcoholic, belligerent, rude, and completely self-absorbed. Inexplicably, she has friends, who for reasons at first difficult to understand choose to join her on the cruise. Also inexplicably, a handsome alien falls in love with Jenes, and she with him, leaving her with a difficult choice to make once she is immortal and he still isn't.

The central absurdity of Aqua Vitae is the idea that Jenes has set her sights on this goal, and pursued it (we are left to assume) fairly doggedly for some time—yet, until her goal has been achieved, she apparently has not spent any time at all thinking about such big questions as: why do I want this? what will my life be like afterward? and of course, what the heck will I do with myself once I have all the time in the world? That Jenes hasn't given these questions any thought at all is bizarre and incredible, and yet, it works—because the author has so effectively painted her as someone who always acts first and thinks later (if at all). The reader can easily sympathize with Jenes's friends in their frustration with her lack of forethought. Toward the end of the story, her one remaining friend confronts her with these questions, to no avail. Jenes needs to reach her lightbulb moment in her own time, and by the end she appears to have done so, although the ending, like much of the story itself, is somewhat vague and open to interpretation. Sadly, this does a disservice to the big topics of mortality and human nature that the author has opened up.

The story is marred by a few jarringly anachronistic details. It's bad enough that in the year 2542 there's no way for passengers on an interstellar cruise ship to contact each other without knowing each other's name and/or room number; technology being what it is, one would hope that a person should be able to simply ask the ship's computer itself for the name and contact info of a fellow passenger. (Something like “Ship, who’s that guy I was just talking to?”) That option being unavailable, Jenes resorts to writing a note for the alien she wants to contact—a note, written with actual pen on paper! Somehow that seems a bit hard to swallow. Worse, while our characters are on the tropical planet, Jenes gripes about tourists "wasting rolls of film" on pictures they'll never look at. Film? That reference is already archaic here in 2012.

I found myself a bit disappointed with the various romantic relationships portrayed in the story. Call me crazy, but I like to think that by the 26th century, human beings will be conducting their romances a bit less dysfunctionally than they do today. Of course, this may be primarily about the Jenes character in particular; as I said, she’s difficult to like, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the men in her life find her difficult as well. At the beginning of the story, Jenes describes the character Artemus as her boyfriend, but she certainly doesn’t treat him like a boyfriend; she spends most of the time trying to avoid him, except when she needs money. As for the alien man who falls for Jenes, it’s hard to understand what he sees in her, especially when she keeps pushing him away.

In the end, the story is interesting enough, but left me feeling unsatisfied. I’m of two minds about the novella form for this story. On the one hand, expanding it would have given the author an opportunity to explore more fully the characters and ideas she has created, and resolve some of those unclear plot points that I personally found so frustrating. On the other hand, the author’s lean prose style probably would not work well for this story in a full-length novel. Bottom line: an engaging and challenging read, with some food for thought if you have the patience to ferret it out.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Astruc, Clockworld (2010)

RJ Astruc, Clockworld. Originally Wilde Oats, 2010/2011. Amazon Digital Services Reprint 2012. 85 pages. $1.99.

Reviewed by Jessica Nelson

There aren’t a lot of things Josie Cooper wants from his father, but his presence and approval are two of them. His father disapproves of the boy he’s in love with, not because he’s a boy, but because he has ‘problems’... big problems. In Clockworld, Festival of Skeletons-author RJ Astruc introduces us to these two boys and some of their closest friends, and together we delve into a world where reality is twisted, and drugs and friendship are the only escapes from a world gone mad.

All those things we, as a society, don’t like to talk about, don’t go away just because we don’t talk about them. In fact, they tend to balloon, instead, becoming entities of their own accord, instead of minor issues that would resolve if only we had the courage to address them. Do you talk plainly to your kids (or parents) about drugs? Do your kids (or parents) know you love them, no matter who they are and who they love? Have you even really spoken to your kids (or parents) today? About anything that really matters, I mean?

Galaxies away from Earth is a planet called Clockworld. Clockworld is mostly used for agricultural purposes, but there’s also a school there for children of Earth. The school is called Blackhall. The kids who attend range between the ages of 11 and 19, roughly post-elementary through college prep years. Most of the kids who attend Blackhall are the children of wealthy parents, or any parents who can afford it and don’t want to be bothered raising their own kids. In fact, they rarely even speak to their kids, being allowed only an hour of time to talk each month, and that one hour being rarely used up. The school and the agricultural settlements are isolated pod communities scattered across Clockworld’s only continent; in-between and everywhere else, the native flora of the planet grows wild and thick—and all of it can be used as some sort of drug or another. Whether inhaled raw, smoked, or eaten, the flora of Clockworld is a drug-dealer’s dream... and this is where people send their kids to school.

Being in such an isolated place does have its high points, though; the students of Blackhall spend all their time together, and get to know each other well. This creates a generally accepting environment for students of all sexual orientations, and it seems that each one is as common as any other there. Gay, bisexual, pansexual, heterosexual, confused... friends accept each other for who they are, because on Clockworld, your friends are your only lifeline to sanity, and everyone knows it. I mean, when your own parents have shipped you off to be raised by teachers and shrinks, who else do you have? But then, who do you have to turn to when you have a falling out with your friends, and teachers and shrinks are still just teachers and shrinks?

RJ Astruc has authored many novels and short stories, including one of my favorites, Harmonica & Gig. In Clockworld, a whole new voice emerges in the narrative; the voice of some unknown and uninvolved student telling the story of what happened to Jocelyn ‘Josie’ Cooper, Aubrey Partington-Hale, War Vladistov, and Xiaoping Hathaway. “What happened”... sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Well, it sort of is, in a Lord of the Flies or Stand by Me sort of way.

Clockworld is not a long book, by any means, but Astruc manages to squeeze in more social, moral and ethical points than I could have ever imagined. LGBT issues, nationality and race stereotyping, parenting issues, drug use and abuse, mental health, kids who need help and slip through the cracks with dire consequences; all of these are addressed—plainly, bluntly, with no illusions. The reader who comes to the story with no illusions, either, will see the reality of this fantastical story... how it takes what’s happening in our real world and gives it a good twist of exaggeration.

There’s not much to do on Clockworld but play sports, and drugs are everywhere. Without parents around to encourage hobbies and special interests and—gasp!—talk to their kids about life in general, most of the kids’ free time is spent getting high, making out, and talking about life. Yes, parents, even the jocks. Believe it or not, sports don’t keep your kids off drugs. Kids aren’t dumb: they recognize all the ways you try to keep them ‘busy’ while you’re off living your own life. It’s pretty normal for most kids to do a little dabbling, a little experimenting, but when they’re around drugs far more often than they’ve ever been around you, what do you think is going to win out? When they can’t talk to you about their problems, but drugs are there to help them forget them, which do you think they’ll turn to?

Clockworld is a good, fast read, not only touching on myriad social issues, but slapping the reader in the face with their consequences. I would recommend it to any mature reader who liked Lord of the Flies, Stand by Me, The Catcher in the Rye, or even The Grapes of Wrath. And if you, Reader, have kids... please take its lessons to heart. If you, Reader, are a kid, or young adult... don’t be afraid to demand the attention you deserve from your parents, or grandparents, or someone who’s been around the block and come through it okay. If you can’t go to your parents, that’s something only you can decide, but find someone. If you’re here, reading this, I have faith in you; faith in your desire and ability to do this. Because sometimes, the world feels like a lonely place, and fictional characters can be family, too, and books a healthier, more imaginative escape than any drug could ever be.

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Monday, April 02, 2012

Peck, A Short Stay in Hell (2012)

Steven L. Peck, A Short Stay in Hell. Strange Violin Editions, 2012. Pp. 110. ISBN 978-0-9837484-4-1. $11.95.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Metaphysics: the philosophical study of meaning in existence: the ‘why’ and ‘how’. It’s a big subject. Huge. Only bordered by the scope of human imagination, which a creative soul will tell you can encompass far more space than conventional physics; there is more within the human psyche, thought being a product of the mind unbound by physical laws, than there is without in the physical world. And it is just as well, because this novella is set in a place that’s about as vast as it is possible to conceive of; even in part. Just to get you around the mind-bleedingly large numbers at work, the action is set entirely in one library, containing 951,312,000 books. Ok, if that’s too big to think of (and I don’t blame you, we’re into stupidly mammoth numbers at this juncture), then consider this: it has been calculated that there about 1.580 electrons (tiny, wizzy sub-atomic particles that are present in everything because everything is built up from atoms of varying size) within the entire universe. Even if maths sends you into cold sweats, just looking at the number of digits in each of those figures shows that the novella wants us to consider a place humongously bigger than even our own universe. Already I am running out of synonyms for ‘big’. Take it from me; the canvas for this one is epic. Probably the biggest proposed stage for a story since the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel, that Peck openly admits (through his hero’s voice) inspired this setting. The action is, thankfully, much, much more focused and very, very human.

To sum up the most basic premise; this is a metaphysical novella. Within its short length the hero is the instrument of discussions on meaning. To do this, it takes the form of a type of thought experiment. A scenario is created with minimal stimulus; just the barest essentials and a goal primed for the human element to aim for, and then the various ways humans try to find meaningfulness is toyed with. Like an intellectual rats-in-a-maze test.

The plot or hypothesis of this experiment is also deceptively simple. A man dies and ends up in Hell. No ordinary Hell, this, but one chosen specifically as one that will provide the best “edification and instruction” that having learned and passed, he can move on to a better afterlife or Heaven. The task; a seemingly never-ending library within which is a book that will be the entire description of one’s life. One must find it and post it into a slot provided. The hero is a Mormon, like the author. This turns out to have been the wrong religion. No, apparently the ‘right’ one isn’t any form of Christianity, Islam or Judaism, either! Most bases covered as the hero and the other occupants of the library struggle to exist and find point and purpose in such an overwhelming task. There’s the visceral; eating, drinking, sex, violence and injury. Each night all damage is repaired and made new, so there is no release from the base line of physical being. Then there is the gamut of emotion; boredom, happiness, rage, fear, humour, and despair and social-intellectual interactions with the formation of social groups to aid furtherment of a common goal; the ‘university’ of thinkers the hero belongs to at one point, various forms of worship attempted and the standard greeting on meeting someone new of exchanging of life stories.

If this is Hell, then is this torture? A rather conventional-sounding demon (red skin, horns, sulphurous breath) whom the hero briefly meets to be assigned his type of hell, rubbishes the idea of eternal punishment. For what is punishment without a lesson being learned? However, when faced with the continuous monotony of the geography, the reset of all damage and death to health and life and cleanliness again over night, the identical race and ethnicity of the hero’s fellow residents (all white American) and the enormity of finding one book in quizzillions, this is perhaps the worst kind of torture. Subtle, too, for in the need to find definition; that human need that compares, contrasts and struggles to identify either for or against in order that we can say ‘I am’. How would one find meaning for existence as a consciousness existing for millennia?

The amounts of time that becomes the norm for units of measurement; weeks, months, years, turn into centuries and eons. So vast that they nullify their own gigantisms, becoming almost commonplace in a sea of ‘meh’ness into which the hero sinks in order to continue his existence for large swathes of time. It’s a brave idea to explore.

Thankfully, the novella centres on the most experiential part of his life in Hell; the first couple of thousand years, during which he suffers love, loss, hope, despair, joy, bitterness, pain and consideration. This is the human mind latching onto the most intense snippets of memory as a form of self-description. Even in the wider vastness of time; human life is a drop in the ocean, yet we live so intensely, and that intensity is what frames our existence into a manageable sense of ‘what’ and ‘how’. Given this, the title is, of course, deeply ironic. Any further writing would be to attempt to unravel what is actually impossible; the chart a life of googols of years, given the very finite frame of earthly reference the author is working with. Instead it is for us, the reader, to make our own decisions and carry on the thinking and the debating after the novella ends. This is the beginning of a dialogue with our own life experiences; the idea that should set us looking; not a book with the answers.

It does make one wonder, as the hero oscillates between company and loner wandering, whether hell is truly other people (thank you, Sartre) or being utterly alone in a faceless, almost bureaucratic geography. The functionality of this Hell, while it stands as a suitable lack of distraction for the human reactions upon which life in this Hell and the story are both predicated, cannot but help reminding people of a Kafka-esque nightmare vision of ‘powers that be’. Without any other beings visible than the residents, yet all inhabitants of this Hell are utterly at its faceless, bland mercy.

The choice of one type of race and ethnicity is also deliberate. It narrows the boundaries of the baseline into something manageable. The author is a white American; he sensibly (given the otherwise huge scope of his thought experiment’s questions) sticks to a Western approach to ideas of selfhood. There is no point in getting upset over a ‘lack of diversity’; the author seems to be admitting he just has understanding as a white Westerner and he is not trying to make assumptions about other peoples’ ideas. For such a thought experiment to work, one has to draw the line somewhere at one’s included elements. Equally, a non-white, non-Western writer could do the same, but using their own cultural background to present questions on identity.

Faith and religion cannot be ignored in this context. Peck’s background is one of and evolutionary ecologist and Mormon, and he has energetic ideas on how evolution is not precluded by his faith, and also compiles a lively blog on his faithful life. Thankfully, the religious slant does not detract from the story, and this novella is not a polemic on one faith, given the very public confidence of Mormonism. In order to find meaning in a place with none except what you bring to it, the hero makes leaps or breaks from some of his previous beliefs. One gets a feeling that the thought experiment is an active for the author; he presents non-Mormon ideas and meets them with his own, filtering this through his hypothesis. The hero is inevitably seen as an avatar for Peck’s thinking on drinking, sex, marriage and godhood. The idea of a principled, apparently normatively calm and centred character (the implication being this is the result of disciplined faith) gives an aura of credibility to the facts presented from his POV.

There are, however, breaking points where one’s values are tested. Such testing, too, is a form of definition, although the hero has broken a fair few by the time we reach the end and he has spent untold swathes of time in that place. Eventually, it seems we wear down our prejudices in line with the environment we find ourselves in, although there is an inner core of personal morality; the hero would not attack another for no reason, for example, or rape a vulnerable woman.

The style is practical; it gets its point across in a remarkably short space of time. The author’s gift is to start us thinking, and if we want to, leave us still thinking beyond the close of the book.

Some of the sentences are a little heavy and wordy. There are chunks of information about mathematical probabilities, substantial speech to express theories on Being and Meanings. But given there is a lot to squeeze in, it could be a lot worse and considerably dryer. Instead there is action and emotion to oil the plot wheels, and on one level it could be read just as a short, amazing adventure story. Everyone’s going to read it differently, and one interpretation is that this is a very original, quirky view of Hell. All in all, I feel privileged to have had a chance to read this.

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