Saturday, February 25, 2012

Butler, Hellhound on My Trail (2011)

D.J. Butler, Hellhound on My Trail (Rock Band Fights Evil #1). Smashwords, 2011. Pp. 135. ISBN 978-1-4661-3254-2. $0.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Sometimes, just sometimes, a genuinely bumptious romp of a story comes along that makes you want to praise the gods of narrative for the ragingly camp, OTT genre of pulp fiction. Bursting with action, snappy one-liners, quirky characters and tantalising glimpses of the author’s own view of fantastic mythology, Hellhound on My Trail is a heady series of set-piece fight scenes, improbable adventures and, naturally, rock music.

They say the devil has the best tunes. Apparently the Fallen Angels can no longer appreciate music at all (something they were deprived of, being a Heavenly pastime, when they rebelled), but the collection of individuals comprising the titular rock band are all still literally hell-bent, but determined to stick two fingers yup at Old Scratch before they are doomed forever. What the devil does have, as the story emerges during the course of snatched conversation between fights, is a range of nasty pets and servants and quite possibly bigger problems, politically speaking, among his own demons and the angels. Having escaped from a heavenly prison, the devil left behind a part of his hoof (a sort of satanic toenail), and possession of this is of somewhat vital importance to the band. But there’s an angel on the loose, too, with designs of his own on the item...

Told from the point of view of Mike, an ordinary human (a ‘vanilla’ in Buffy-speak: a not unfair interjection since the story reads very like a high-octane, effects-laden episode of the Joss Whedon supernatural comedy-drama) and a session bassist, called in to play with ‘some band’ in New Mexico. But everything rather goes south when a portal to Hell opens in the middle of the set and a hellhound leaps out, followed shortly thereafter by a Baal (a very nasty fly-demon-thingy). Mike has his own problems: a violent past, a need for drink and suicidal tendencies due to being haunted by the bloodied spirit of his long-deceased brother. Now he’s got a small matter of join a bizarre group of evil ass-kicking musicians or most likely be eaten by a big bad nasty. Thankfully for the continuation of the story he opts for the former; his youthful miss-exploits standing him in good stead in handling a gun against infernal foes.

Mike is the newest member of the band, but not the strangest: there is a man who sold his soul to Satan to become the best rock musician in the world (without specifying which instrument he wanted to master; Satan has a sense of humour, after all); an ambiguously-gendered shape-shifting Fairy; a son of Hell; and a narcolepsy-cursed wizard. Obviously the first choice of squad for the fighting of evil. Since we meet the group with Mike, and this is the first episode (the entire story runs to ten short chapters and is the length of a novella), set-up, characters and tone are all new. Butler’s intention is not, I think, to produce some great artistic polemic on the state of society or of mankind’s moral health, but to whip up a froth of exciting action, far-fetched monsters and add a hefty sprinkling of varied mythologies. We have some Mexican Indian, Christian, Kabbalah, Apocryphal and downright inspired connecting of the dots. These are not a group on a mission to save the world, but to save their hides and try to keep out of trouble. In this instance, they are very believable characters; rarely does one have to save mankind, but often one might feel as if one is fighting one’s own corner. You get the impression, however, that trouble follows them pretty much consistently.

The whole show eases in with a raging battle in a dusty two-bit tin-roofed bar in the middle of nowhere, continues with a pitched battle in a ruined synagogue/temple and finishes out the back in an ancient pyramid structure in the desert: a situation not dissimilar to the pyramid-backed bar in From Dusk Till Dawn. The level of demon-splatter is about the same as that road movie, too, as are the pithy comments thrown back and forth between the combatants. It starts low-key: Mike, we are told, is awaiting the end of the gig to get drunk then take his gun and shoot himself. His guilt over his younger brother’s death years ago still overwhelms him. We don’t appreciate that Mike might have seriously spooky supernatural problems of his own until we also ‘see’ the ghost; a bloodied, furious spirit, spitting blood and rage at the brother it felt let it down in life. In comparison, as Mike’s thoughts tell us, facing a running battle with tangible demons actually seems the better option.

Once ramped into action, the narrative does not flag, nor however, does it become over-excited and wear itself out (and the reader’s patience) before the end of the adventure. Butler keeps a firm hand on the reins; springing his horses, as it were, but not letting them gallop in a mad rush and spoil the narrative’s momentum with an unbalanced, messy crescendo. Out come the adjectives and adverbs, certainly, scattered liberally over the action. But this latter is cleanly described; there’s colourful, but not excess, description here. The images are clear and graspable. For immediacy of content to reader, one is as much ricocheted around the narrative alongside the characters as they are in their beat-up van trying to outrun the forces of Hell. Although it is basically a series of set-piece action situations, Butler is wonderfully unapologetic about this. Undoubtedly, his intention is of a rollicking great time for the reader, but thanks perhaps to the use of verbal quips and having a ‘vanilla’ as the first person, reader’s way in, it is all grounded in a very understandable level of communication. As sheer entertainment, it’s a right royal bouncer: bursting with energy, likable characters, improbable nonsense and a whole can full of whup-arse.

Written with a cinematic eye for the wider picture, it is not a hard jump to imagining the events as written about unfolding on the screen of the mind. As I said above, this is not a story with any great ‘message’ to proclaim unless it is ‘walk softly and carry a big gun’. These are not Heroes on an Epic Quest. Like most of us; they are people just trying to stay alive, in this case, literally! It is all about machismo, unlikely heroes (the comedic value of this is always a winner if properly exploited, and thankfully Butler tweaks his characters, but leaves just enough hanging to keep interest going) and visceral, cathartic thrills and lots and lots of bubbly, liquefying, grizzly, giggling carnage. Truly, the pulpiest of fiction, without being self-parodying. I felt this was a genuine argument for the solid value of a good pulper, rather than as a sardonic ‘homage’. It is so caught up in its own story, it stands utterly alone in a bubble of entertainment on its own merits, and on that basis it has to be something that you might enjoy in order to, well, enjoy. If heavy action, mythic beasties, swearing and gun-toting are not your thing, you won’t find anything in here to please you. It does exactly what is says on the tin: a rock band that fights evil. Repeatedly.

One could argue the merits or otherwise of pulp fiction till the cows come home. Yes, it’s not any great shakes in the moral department; in fact it is a delightfully a-moral genre; its characters nearly always a mix of ambiguity with a large wodge of the down-and-dirty about them. The band members aren’t saints either; all have flaws and problems. And while there’s the old argument about believability of characters being based on their realism, I rather feel that pulp fiction should not be judged on the post-Stanislavski obsession with ‘truth’. Yes, pulp fiction characters are gnarly; most humans are gnarly. This doesn’t mean it’s a social commentary. Pulp fiction, rather, belongs to the ranks of old-fashioned melodrama; the overdone, the grand gesture, the technicolour sets and costumes. Yes, it might be hopelessly overblown compared to ‘real’ life, but there’s no question in anyone’s minds over what is being presented; and what is more overblown than supernatural actioneering? The splatter-gore sub-genre in horror is itself also a child of melodrama. By going overboard we see more clearly our ‘real life’ narratives for what they are; apologetically scrambling on the surface of what they crow over being ‘complex’ human ‘issues’. Pulp fiction reminds us we can have story for story’s sake, and that we can have fun.

Could the format become repetitive? The shoot-'em-up-a-few-times-per-tale format in this start of a series of such tales? I have started in on the next two stories, and I can report that, while they follow the basic format, there is sufficient difference within them to make each its own little bundle of joy. Plus, given enough time between readings, the answer can be given as a no. A favoured episodic TV serial can become repetitive, but still claims one’s affections because it does so with such charm (moderated, of course by its genre. Splattered entrails of the damned might not be everyone’s idea of ‘charming’). Charm in this instance is taken to mean to cast a spell of agreeability (at the very least) over the eyes of the beholder. This is what creates the fan. So with a breather between each story of a day or so to increase the expectation, treating the stories like a TV series aired weekly, I’m finding them to be a roistering series of punchy entertainments.

If they ever make this into a TV serial, it has hit written all over it. Butler very much has his finger on the pulse of reminiscent pop culture classicism (I shudder to use the hackneyed title of ‘retro’). Instead of long-drawn-out angsty reasoning; the milieu of shows and books in the horror/fantasy genre since the early 1990s (themselves victims to Stanislavski’s realism ghost), his characters get on and do, in the spirit of the more lovably awful 80’s serials. It is a marvellous throw-back with all the wit of more up-to-date ventures. Coming out as a series of e-books, it is in a more modern format than the pulp serial magazines of half a century ago, but follows their lead of ‘in next week’s instalment.’ However, I am still waiting (and hoping) for a real hum-dinger of a one-liner delivered dead-pan, 80's action-hero style after a particularly Big Bad is dispatched. There has to be one at some point!

The group is not utterly aimless; they do want a hold over Satan and to win back some un-damnation for themselves. Given the introduction of the characters piecemeal and the fact that the subsequent two tales are focused on other members of the band; their viewpoint, the troubles they are trying to get solved, it is probable that over time we will build up a bigger, richer picture of the whole. The main frame is one of physical action; the tapestry itself on the frame will come from separate, interlocking threads as the characters mould and change one another. Apart from which, they have that piece of diabolic ungula to use, so there should be a build-up towards that at the very least!

This is a solid piece of writing. The author himself is obviously a well-read and literate man; it takes a lot of intelligence to write so deftly and believably about religious mysticism; a musician and someone with a strong background in law. His confidence in his work is clear; it is the confidence that one can pick up from another and make one confident in them. I would love to see this go more mainstream, but it is niched by its content and genre. Certainly I am very pleased that there is more on the way; that we will learn more, and see more action from Jim, Twitch, Eddie, Adrian and Mike.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Grimwood (ed.), Monster Book for Girls (2011)

Terry Grimwood (ed.), The Monster Book for Girls. Exaggerated Press, 2011. Pp. 289. ISBN 978-1-4710-0975-4. £8.99.

Reviewed by Georgina Bruce

Exaggerated Press is published by horror and fantasy writer Terry Grimwood, who is the editor of this anthology of stories and poems. In his foreword to the book, he states that anthologies “grow a soul of their own, a thread within a theme...” Unfortunately, this is precisely what I found lacking in The Monster Book for Girls.

The collection is a real mixed bag of stories and poems with no discernable theme, or “soul”. Nothing connects or unites the pieces in the anthology, and there is no sense that an viewpoint is being developed, or an argument explored, or a series of images uncovered. The pieces have little in common besides the fact that they all feature females in some way. Stories and poems are thrown together with apparently little thought as to how they play off one another. Literary fiction sits next to schlock horror; thoughtful poems rest alongside comic japes. There is a case to be made for a ‘something for everyone’ approach, but I wished for a more coherent read, with less changes in tone from piece to piece.

The Monster Book for Girls, with its brilliant, evocative title, could have been all sorts of things. I was hoping for a fascinating insight into the complex relationship between gender, sex, and horror. There might have been an exploration of the historical, political and religious elements to the question of where females stand in relation to society. For example, a longstanding point of view claims that girls are inherently monstrous, and therefore must be controlled and tamed—or even trapped and destroyed. A feminist argument is that the monsters girls face are in and of society—they represent patriarchy and institutionalised male control over female lives and experiences. It would have been interesting to see these points of view clash and battle it out. I would have liked to have seen a few stories that explored these ideas with some degree of conscious intent. Even Buffy managed to take on the patriarchy, after all—these are not groundbreaking ideas, but they are sadly lacking from this anthology.

There is no implicit agreement on what a ‘monster’ could be (and no real agreement on who could be a ‘girl’ either. There are girls as in female children, but several of the pieces feature adult women protagonists.) So we have stories that tell of child sexual abuse alongside stories that feature sinister and murderous women. A large proportion of the stories are from male writers, which I found somewhat unbalanced, especially given so many stories about monstrous females. But then, this book is not really about girls and women and the monsters that we face and fight. It is a ragtag bag of pieces with only the most tenuous of connections between them.

Many of the pieces are problematic in how they present female characters. For example, Terry Grimwood’s story, ‘Think Belsen’, presents a world in which extreme thinness and anorexia is the ultimate value, one which women pursue with absolute blinkered devotion. The protagonist of the story is so desperate to lose weight after the birth of her child that she willingly contracts cancer. Worse still, in order to pay for the ‘cancer pill’, she sells her own tiny baby. How gender, bodies, and commerce interact is a fine subject for fiction, but I felt that it was too easy to blame the women involved for perpetuating anorexia, and I found it hard to believe in a society where women could sell their babies as a matter of course—or indeed, that women so starved are able to conceive in the first place. Society places a huge and sometimes oppressive importance on motherhood, and women’s value is often considered to reside in their ability to give birth and raise children. There was no explanation as to how such a stable value could have been overthrown in this story. I felt that it oversimplified and depoliticised the issues involved in thinness, dieting, and mothering.

One story in the anothology stood out as an exceptionally strong piece. ‘Razor Voices’ by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back was a fierce and sorrowful story of love and loss. Young homeless girls and prostitutes are being abducted and murdered, and the protagonist fears for her friends and fights for her own freedom. She makes a terrible sacrifice in order to protect herself and those around her. The imagery in this story is startling and beautiful, and Pflug-Back creates a convincing and moving character arc, with a bittersweet ending. This story was much more along the lines I was hoping for from the anthology. There are real characters here, dealing with all kinds of monsters – monstrous ideas, monstrous people, and the monsters inside themselves. I would have loved to have seen more thoughtful and poignant stories like this in the collection.

Another piece I enjoyed was the mysterious and evocative ‘The Spirit Level’, by Sarah Hilary. This was a flash piece that was packed with strong, precise imagery. The narrator deals with a complex desire and repulsion for her monster. It is compelling and lyrical, although somewhat confusing.

‘Monster Girl’ by Andrew Hook was beautifully written, although the way females were sexualised and devalued by the protagonist, Yoshi, was somewhat disturbing. Yoshi works as a host in a bar in Japan, where he consorts with lonely young women. He saves up and buys a lifelike doll to spend his time with, preferring her company to that of the real women he meets at work. Despite the title, the truly monstrous character in the story was Yoshi himself, with his creepily repressed sexuality and disdain for flesh and blood women.

There are several poems in the anthology, though many of them are the sort of ‘comic’ poetry that you generally see on souvenir tea towels or in greeting cards. A few of them were rather better than that, however, and I particularly liked ‘A Study in Solitude’, by Jessica Lawrence, a meditation on the strangeness of being alone (and perhaps ill) for a long time. It contains the wonderful lines: “But the / mirror whispers back, /its mouth moves when / I speak, its eyes open / when I wake, if it’s a / book I’m a page.”

Unfortunately, there were many more pieces that I thought were weak and a few which I felt were badly written. It is part of an editor’s role to help improve the standard of writing, and I felt that some editorial help and input would have improved some of these stories immeasurably. Many small presses nowadays publish writing of serious, award-winning quality, and small presses are in serious competition in the current market. Unfortunately, the lack of a distinct theme and the variable quality of the writing puts this anthology out of the running on that front, despite a great concept and a few fantastic stories and poems which deserve to be read.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Alexandre/Loepp, Nuncio and the Gypsy Girl (2012)

Kristen Kuhn Alexandre & Thomas Loepp, Nuncio and the Gypsy Girl in the Gilded Age. Runnymede Press, 2012. Pp. 80. ISBN 978-0977668724. $14.00.

Reviewed by Jessica Nelson

Nuncio and the Gypsy Girl in the Gilded Age is a romantic graphic novel that takes place in the early twentieth century. Populated by all manner of innovators of the era, the story centers around a Gypsy girl named Neci Stans and her love, composer Ezra Muster. Ezra is taken with Neci and her people, but is torn by her young age and his desire to succeed. When Ezra meets Marlene, a beautiful woman with connections that can help him, the two soon become engaged, completing the classic love triangle. But in this tangle of hearts, something more sinister lurks; something that could destroy them all.

Thomas Loepp’s beautiful illustrations bring the story to life. In the beginning, the very basic, scratchy artwork can make telling people apart a little difficult, but as the story moves along, it’s easy enough to sort out who’s who. This is far from a drawback; the artwork brings a simple elegance and tone that adds so much to the romantic feeling of the book, I can’t imagine it being illustrated any other way.

Author Kristin Alexandre brings the Dayton, Ohio of the era to life with a plethora of historical inventors, engineers, and other innovators of the time. Expanding to a national scope, Alexandre adds President and First Lady Wilson to the cast of characters, and expanding further still to a worldwide view, elements of what would become the Great War haunt the reader’s subconscious mind as the danger of German forces on our protagonists becomes apparent. The narrator, Neci’s African Grey parrot Nuncio, along with Neci’s snake Coil bring a vague symbolism to the story that adds to the haunted tone.

Questions of good and evil are a pervasive theme in the story. The author seems to like asking what they mean, if they are always large and absolute concepts. Neci and Nuncio repeatedly state that Marlene is evil: “...and it’s not all of her own doing, but nothing good will come of her.” Soon after, the point is made, when we see how romantically manipulative Marlene can be to get what she wants, and the dire consequences that result.

We see the wisdom in Alexandre’s choice of Nuncio as narrator when she uses him to make large statements about the human condition that perhaps no human could make without certain pretenses. Nuncio remarks on the importance of being careful in courtship... a thing no human ever really considers at the time, often to our detriment. If we were so wise, we would all date and marry only one person in our lives, never giving our hearts so easily, never ending up broken-hearted. But then, we would miss out on so many of the very feelings and experiences that make us human, wouldn’t we?

The author examines love even more closely when Nuncio adds that in the human world, “the plumage is all artificial.” This begs the question, what is it that we fall in love with? We, all of us, as human beings, are always so acutely aware of the judgments of others, that we make every attempt to sway those judgments in our favor. So how can any of us ever truly know another in the short amount of time it takes to fall?

For fans of romance, graphic novels, and cerebral reads, Nuncio and the Gypsy Girl promises to be a rare treat of blended genres. Nuncio and the Gypsy Girl in the Gilded Age is the first in a series, and the cliffhanger ending...

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hudson, Panoptica (2011)

Patrick Hudson, Panoptica. Kindle ebook, 2011. c. 90,000 words. ASIN B006F37Y5K. £1.15.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

Panoptic: seen by all. Hudson’s Panoptica is a near-future parody of today’s surveillance society and its seemingly insatiable appetite for all things celebrity. Of course, being parody, this celebrity culture is extrapolated and exaggerated to epic proportions, and the result is a cross-genre work part Science Fiction in terms of futuristic technologies, but mostly Humour in terms of society and its blatant abuse of such technologies.

This is Hudson’s first novel, and self-published at that, and whilst I pride myself as an advocate of the small and independent presses, I nevertheless wondered at the wisdom of taking on such a novel for review. In the acknowledgements Hudson thanks his wife for copy editing it, which gave me the uneasy feeling that even if Mrs Hudson is a professional editor this can hardly be a cold, unemotional edit. Such an edit surely leads to slammed doors and lonely nights on the couch. But I took the book because its humorous premise appealed to me; and because I had a new Kindle just aching to be tried out. As a fellow humorist I know how unforgiving a genre it can be, and I was curious to see whether Hudson could ‘pull off’ such a wild idea as Panoptica.

This is London of the future. The Mall is lined with people, for today is the coronation of a new king. But not everyone is happy. Puritanical Titus Spring knows King Hugh Grant IV is not even an English brand, and Spring’s distaste at the swirling media circus is all but palpable, yet the three graffiti bombs nestling in his pocket as he awaits the appearance of the royal cavalcade are mere protestations, aren’t they?

But when the third ‘bomb’ blows the new king’s head clean from his shoulders, there begins a second media circus; one in which Titus Spring himself is the most awkward of star performers. The charge is Regicide—there’re pictures to prove it—because this London is constantly watched by the most invasive technologies. The people, long forced-fed on a diet of reality television, are still desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame. They’re baying not for justice, but entertainment.

Spring is to be given a very public trial, at the end of which he will undergo a celebrity execution, live on all channels and visors, including pre-death lunch with the embalmed corpse of Michael Winner and a song especially composed by the Estate of Elton John.

Dragged before Mr Justice Malmsey, High Court Game Show Host, he all silver-suited and song-and-dance ready, Spring astonishes all by invoking the ‘old justice’ of being allowed to plead ‘not guilty’. All that’s left is to appoint the defence council, none other than that showman Robbie Williams III. Thus begins Titus Spring’s quest to prove his innocence... after these messages.


The odd thing is that as an opening it really works. The relentless pace, the madness, the often chaotic leap from exaggerated voyeuristic concept to the people’s endless appetite for ‘the show’ is perfect to illustrate such a dystopian London Hudson is rattling at us from the page. Given today’s appetite for Big Brother, X-Factor and their like, it’s not too far a leap to make.

‘Don’t you care about justice?’ says Spring to his defence lawyer Robbie Williams III. ‘I've never thought about it before, but let’s give it a go,’ answers Williams.

The dead king is all but forgotten, but again that’s perfect for this society whose shallow attention wanders from one glittering object to the next, and all that matters is Spring’s sudden leap to notoriety and the drama therein. There’s going to be some ‘click-through’ on this, and everybody who’s anybody wants in.

Spring and Robbie Williams III escape the court—very easily, it has to be said, but then it’s most likely scripted—and begin a trek that will ultimately take them to Norwich, because that’s where Spring believes the answers as to who framed him lie, with the Court and MTVCOPS and all manner of would-be celebrity in hot pursuit.

It’s on the road that some of Panoptica’s funniest moments occur. The encounter with Mrs Passworthy, for example, is really an exercise in creating double entendres. It’s like Benny Hill gone wrong. Hudson is clearly the master of the innuendo. We meet ‘head hunter’, Pete, and he had me simultaneously enthralled and maddened by his almost indecipherable ‘street talk’. There’s also Cat Weasel in there, which probably gives away both mine and Hudson’s age. There’s a host of incompetent cops in pursuit, balloon cops that descend from the sky, and drones that appear from nowhere, and I think it fair to say the mid section of the novel proceeds at times at a breakneck pace.

If I have a criticism of the tale it would be of the ending. Without wishing to add too many spoilers, whilst I felt the ending did well to cement the idea Spring has learned and can now win the day, the actual ending itself felt incomplete. It seemed a little rushed, as if in its writing Hudson had seen the finish line and sprinted. It meant a lack of concentration to speech tags, for example, meaning there were times when I was confused as to who was speaking. It also has something of a ‘Well, Mr Bond...’ feel, where the villain waxes lyrical and long about how clever he’d been.

Parody aside, from a technical aspect I think a good judge of a book’s ending is its ability to foreclose on everything that occurred at the beginning. In my opinion, Panoptica doesn’t deliver in this respect. It’s true that we learn effectively the circumstances which led to Spring’s regicide, but I feel the story ends with too many people remaining who need to address Spring’s innocence or guilt. Whether this is a cunning plan on behalf of Hudson to provide a continuation of the story by way of a sequel I don’t know.

But don’t let that detract you from purchasing what is, after all, a terrifically fun and entertaining read. Any book where the cops try to arrest you adding disclaimers as to what Rights they’re taking has to be read.

However, to dwell only on the humorous side of Panoptica would be unfair. There is lurking depth here, too. Both main characters are seen to grow as the tale progresses. Spring, at the beginning, is a somewhat hapless individual dragged along by events, and is easily manipulated by the scene-hungry Robbie Williams III. But by the end of the book it’s Spring who is often more decisive and able, one thinks, to control his destiny, while Williams grows less ‘showbiz’ and more ‘serious’. It’s clear they have developed a friendship. We feel there’s hope for both.

There’s also I felt an almost apologetic idea that to change his fortunes Spring is forced to dilute his anti-publicity, anti-establishment ideas and embrace the system he despises, that to succeed he must use the ‘show’ mentality to his own ends, an idea that would surely be anathema to him at the outset. Does this mean Hudson’s message is we can’t fight Big Brother, that ultimately banality will win and we have to accept our world is destined to become Bentham’s Panopticon?

And let’s face it, there’s a very real social commentary going on here. I once heard that in the United Kingdom there is more surveillance than anywhere in Europe. We already live under the gaze of the technologies Panoptica presents. Our screens are already filled with hours of banal entertainment. This future is pretty much already here. Our privacy is already under threat, with all the fears of abuse that brings. So, what better way to explore those fears than with humour and parody? Often a novel like Panoptica, under the guise of comedy, is a better vehicle to do so than any academic study. In the words of the author, it has knob jokes after all.

Overall Panoptica works well; well enough for me to forgive any perceived shortcomings to the denouement and leave me no worries in recommending it should you feel the need for a fast-paced trip into chaos. In such a work there will always be times when the humour is a little forced, but more often the jokes work well and lead to a very pleasant read. And Mrs Hudson’s editing? Well, I did spot a few errors and omissions, but not enough to justify my fears at the outset. Mr Hudson is probably not relegated to the couch just yet.

I enjoyed Panoptica, and I think you will too, and at a mere £1.15 for a download you’ve not much to lose if you don’t.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Thompson, Apoidea (2011)

Douglas Thompson, Apoidea. The Exaggerated Press, 2011. Pp. 211. ISBN: 978-1471007897. $10.82 / £6.99.

Reviewed by Martha Hubbard

In his new book, Apoidea, Douglas Thompson proposes a chilling and potentially all too real scenario. Sitting in his hermetically sealed, climate controlled, home-compound in the Colorado desert, Gert Villers is feeling very pleased with himself. His creation, his children, miniature silver, bee-like creatures, ‘apodroids’, developed to take on the task of pollinating the world’s harvests after the death of natural bees, has made him unbelievably wealthy and given him a sense of satisfaction few ever achieve.

Nothing stays the same forever and Gert’s idyll is about to change irrevocably. The U.S. Government in the shape of Major Bob Brautigan wants Gert’s apodroids to use in the war against its enemies. Soon other visitors, Steve Dobs of Lemon, and Bill Yates of Winterra also request a piece of the apodroid pie. Gert refuses all of these requests even as he realises that events are moving out of his control.

Far down south in Mexico City, Del Freemont, a disgraced former employee also has plans for Gert and his apodroids. He arranges for Gert to be kidnapped by the apos, reintroduced to Del and shown a vision of the future potential for the apodroids. While Gert is in the desert, a swarm of apodroids invade the pentagon and kill Major Brautigan. Staggering back to his compound he is placed under house arrest by soldiers who refuse to let him see his wife Marielle. This does not prevent the apodroids from killing Bill Yates and making a near fatal attack on Steve Dobs. In addition, more than half the world’s AI bees have stopped working. Without their pollinization of the world’s crops, the world’s economy will crash and millions will starve.

Because the government and Gert’s other company officers are convinced he is behind these actions, they are treating him like a criminal. Frustrated and angry, he is surprised when a voice from the air-vent system tells him that he is to be rescued. The apodroids drug him, then form a swarm which first tunnels out of the compound and carries Gert away into the desert. Now in the eyes of the world and his family he is an escapee as well as a criminal.

Del’s plans for him continue. Plastic surgery and months of retraining create a new man. When the time is right, Vernon Hopkins is turned loose. He begins an odyssey that, guided by his creations, will take him down through Texas, picking up the lovely and troubled Melissa along the way. Finally Vernon and Melissa make it into Mexico where Del has been waiting for them. He takes them to the cave system where he has set up a control centre. He needs Gert’s engineering expertise to solve a problem that he has been unable to master. But has Del now become another enemy who wants to control of the apos for his own purposes? The answer to this provides the shocking climax of Gert/Vernon’s adventure.

I was drawn to this book because of my long term involvement with the organic and local food movement where I live. Here we are all too aware of the dangers of limiting species variety, of food contaminated by pesticides and antibiotics. As the book says: the need to create an artificial means of guaranteeing pollination after the destruction brought about ‘by our monoculture and selective breeding. As well as the excessive use of pesticides,’ is an all-too real possibility. Currently scientists are baffled by the devastating rise of ‘hive-death’.
‘In 2007, about one third of the US domesticated bee population was wiped out as a result of a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), with some commercial hive owners losing up to 90% of their bees.’ (BBC, 28 September 2010)
More insidious is the spread of monoculture genetically modified crops. These, developed, sold and controlled by enormous agri-businesses like Monsanto, are causing wide-ranging problems in many of the developing countries that have adopted them.
‘Shankara ... facing the loss of his land due to debt, drank a cupful of chemical insecticide. Unable to pay back the equivalent of two years’ earnings, he was in despair. ... Shankara’s crop had failed—twice. Of course, famine and pestilence are part of India’s ancient story. But the death of this respected farmer has been blamed on something far more modern and sinister: genetically modified crops. Shankara, like millions of other Indian farmers, had been promised previously unheard of harvests and income if he switched from farming with traditional seeds to planting GM seeds instead. Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests failed, he was left with spiralling debts—and no income.’ (Daily Mail, 28 February 2012)
All over the world, governments and farmers are handing control of their livelihoods and nutritional security to giant corporations that have greed as their primary motivator. These are very real issues that have been brilliantly addressed writers like Paolo Bacigalupi in The Windup Girl. Apoidea is a worthy member of this pantheon.

However, an event last week set me to thinking. First was the rescinding of Kormen for the Cure’s decision to cease funding Planned Parenthood The initial announcement of Kormen’s plans, set off a firestorm of reaction, debate and determination to protect what most regard as a critical agency assisting women. A support PP campaign was spontaneously born that generated substantial donations. Kormen’s newish right wing director Karen Handel subsequently resigned. Regardless of which side of the issue you stand on, what was truly remarkable was the speed and effectiveness of the response on various social media. Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal et al. were a-buzz from morning to night.

This is where I saw the real parallels with Apoidea. What is interesting, exciting and frightening is the power of the hive mind, its uncontrollability, once set in motion, as Del learns to his detriment. Individually an ‘apo’ has limited intellectual capacity; collectively, in the tens of thousands they can learn, reason, plan and carry out complicated group activities that in the book make them a formidable force. In the way that many of the most important events of 2011, the Arab Spring and OWS were reported and driven by multitudes using social media hint at a sea-change in the way revolutions are carried out, the rise and proliferation of linked world wide social media may be a seminal event on the same history changing order as the Gutenberg printing press.

A few small quibbles: The use of blatant name jokes i.e. Steve Dobs and Bill Yates is not really bad—just silly. More annoying were the polemics and propaganda during Gert and Melissa’s road-trip. These create mind blank-out and turn-the-pages moments that interrupt the forward movement of the adventure. This seems to be a dangerous trap some authors fall into when they feel the message is so important it overrides the need to concentrate on the story telling. The message should be in the story; the story itself should be the message.

These aside, Apoidea is an exciting adventure story that raises some challenging questions about the world we are creating.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Elhefnawy, Surviving the Spike (2011)

Nader Elhefnawy, Surviving the Spike. CreateSpace, 2011. 264 pages. ISBN 978-1463691875. $12.99.

Reviewed by D. Joan Leib

Surviving the Spike is a near-future novel, taking place in the 2070s. Dr. Elhefnawy uses this setting to create a novel that is not quite sure whether it wants to be a black-ops spy story, a polemic on bioethics and religious philosophy, a shoot-’em-up thriller, or a romance.

Our protagonist is a young woman named Bobbie, who at the age of 17 finds out that she is the result of a genetic-modification experiment with which her parents complied. Mysterious Men In Black yank her away from her home, tell her that she can never again contact her loved ones, and set her up with an apartment in a new city and a job for which she isn’t qualified. At this point, the author has a problem. The story he really wants to tell takes place several years later, after Bobbie has worked at her secret surveillance job for a while and gained experience, technological knowhow, and a healthy dose of cynicism. But how to describe her gradual evolution from sheltered teen to jaded spy? Unfortunately, like many a first-time author, Elhefnawy couldn’t find a way to make this happen other than by violating the all-important “show, don’t tell” rule. So we get pages and pages of text telling us that Bobbie is learning her job, and that in her spare time she hangs out in coffeeshops eavesdropping on other people to learn social skills. We’re even told that she engages in several relationships—although the phrasing is vague, I believe we’re intended to understand these as sexual/romantic relationships—all of which eventually fail when Bobbie is unable to tell her partners anything about her past.

The reader comes out of these exposition-dumps understanding what the author wants us to know about the character, but not really “feeling” it. A few well-crafted anecdotes could have accomplished the same purpose and engaged more interest. Similarly, later in the story a love interest is introduced, apparently just for the sake of character-building; but again we are merely told that Bobbie finds the man charismatic, while the author’s depiction of him gives no clue as to why this could be.

As the plot progresses, Elhefnawy effectively builds suspense by showing that the more Bobbie learns about surveillance and tracking technology, the more paranoid she becomes, suspecting that the MIBs who ripped her from her family are still watching her. Though she wants to try to find and contact the people she used to know, the fear that her every move is being watched holds her back.

At the same time, Bobbie occasionally overhears snippets of conversation that seem to provide clues as to where her story might go. The reader is never certain which of these concepts might eventually become relevant to the story. Bobbie spends some time wondering about the genetic modifications that were made to her, and whether they relate to the particular job that the MIBs chose for her. Yet, where one might expect her to do some research into the latest GM developments and technology, she doesn’t: a curious omission. Other conversational threads introduce a new religion based around uploading one’s consciousness into virtual reality, and various geopolitical struggles; but none of these threads seem to be going anywhere either.

Are the MIBs watching Bobbie? Did they set her up in her surveillance/courier job for some nefarious purpose, and indeed, did they genetically tailor her skill set for that job? Is there some pattern to the assignments Bobbie is given? Do the antagonists she encounters have something against Bobbie specifically, or just against her employers? In the end, unfortunately, most of these questions remain unanswered. New plot threads crop up toward the end of the story, which provide a fairly pat resolution to Bobbie’s predicament, but without resolving what had earlier seemed the important questions. The forward momentum of the story is derailed (almost literally) by a bizarre interlude that finds our hero stranded somewhere in Russia, having inadvertently become part of an internecine struggle that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot. Given the nature of the assignment that Bobbie is on at this point, and the surveillance technology that the author has so carefully described previously, it’s hard to suspend disbelief and accept that Bobbie can disappear into this side plot for several days without her employers—or her enemies—finding her.

Also problematic to me is the fact that, beyond the first few weeks, Bobbie apparently never spares another thought for her parents. Even as she devises complicated spy programs to run on the worldwide network searching for the people she knew prior to her abduction, no mention is made specifically of her parents, nor does she seem interested in finding them any more than her friends or acquaintances. This was difficult to credit.

In summary, Elhefnawy has the basics of an interesting story, but makes the common mistake of introducing too many plot threads, which seem to tangle him up. In the end, he can’t do them all justice, so most are left hanging. The book would have benefited enormously from the attentions of a good editor. In particular, several major, glaring plot holes could have been avoided, character development improved, and unnecessary scenes pruned. There is some really good meat here for interesting discussion of concepts such as the nature of friendship, the psychological implications of digitizing personality, the ethics of experimenting on humans—all of which are touched on at least to some degree—but a more carefully crafted plot would allow for more nuanced exploration of these ideas. (A good editor could also have introduced the author to the correct construction and usage of the past perfect tense.)

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Allan, Silver Wind (2011)

Nina Allan, The Silver Wind. Eibonvale Press, 2011. Pp. 154. ISBN 978-1908125057. £6.99.

Reviewed by Kev McVeigh

Clocks, I venture to suggest, are the most unadorned form of story. Their inherent conflict between the precision rhythm of mechanism and the seemingly inevitable friction drag of entropy drives the plot of time. Listen carefully, however, for true clocks are not unadorned, within that remorseless tick tick tick tick tick are patterns and digressions.

Nina Allan’s The Silver Wind adopts clocks (not time) as central device. The broken clock, the altered clock, the stolen clock each take a measure of time and recast it in review, rewind, in repeat. The four stories here (along with an afterword I am tempted to disregard as unnecessary and unhelpful) share the repetitive pattern of a clock. Each involves some of whom may be, or appear to be iterations of the same people, yet there are differences, subtle and obvious, in each instance. The narrator Martin’s living sister becomes a dead brother, a lost wife, an alternate. Read collectively therefore, there are patterns and deviations. The recurring character Andrew Owen becomes Owen Andrews, tick tock tock tick.

In the second story Allen introduces the horological concept of the complication, in this and subsequent instances the tourbillon, a device to simulate freefall, removing gravity from the watches mechanism, its wind, to limit running down. Having done so, she continues to describe people and places in a deadpan, precise, taut prose reminiscent at her best of the quiet, bare short fiction of M John Harrison. If Allan, or her characters are not as overtly misanthropic as Harrison’s, she shares his acute observation of the grotesque within people and a directness of approach to this.

Flannery O’Connor insisted that the writer of the fantastic needs to ensure a more intense level of reality, and Allen achieves this to a point. In The Silver Wind clocks ensure grounding in the mundane even as time appears to warp all. Opener ‘Time’s Chariot’ is a literary family set-piece which shows no sign of the fantastic in isolation, but when ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ reworks this with a possible ghost we see what Tricia Sullivan means when she writes in her introduction that the stories ‘haunt one another’.

Only with the title story itself are we explicitly in fantastika, a dystopian near future under a racist government and military control exemplifying entropy in society’s structures. This time our narrator risks entering a restricted area to meet a mysterious dwarf (a significant character with avatars in the earlier stories) who he hopes can reset time to bring his ex-wife back to life. This, it appears, is impossible but the fallout from the attempt reveals variant universes, suggesting a link to the earlier stories. It is at this point however, when Allan abandons her realist mode for a dark mysterious surrealism, that decay enters the system and her carefully constructed mechanisms show signs of breaking and running down. The little detailed exposition of this is more than in other stories where scenes are set in fragments of street names and one-line leftfield impressions. ‘The Silver Wind’ therefore stands out from the other stories, is almost in opposition to them, but binds them as a whole. Where reality was confronted head-on and fantastic obliquely, the fantastic is made explicit and reality disappears. Tick Tock Tock Tick.

There is a brooding awkwardness in every relationship here, a function of characters changing identities between stories, but also Allan’s characters are uniformly cold, artificial and given to false notes like this:
‘He pointed to one of the entries, Juliet Caseby, with the surname in brackets, 24 Silcox Square, Hastings. The postcode began with TN, which Martin knew was for the main sorting office in Tonbridge.’
People just do not think like that, and that last sentence is both jarring and unnecessary. That it works at all is down to the quiet prose breaking down at mostly the right points. That it almost fails is that there are no real characters in most of The Silver Wind, there is a literary artificiality consistent with her use of the measuring device, the clock, ahead of the natural phenomenon, time, that will not be to some readers’ taste. The title itself, The Silver Wind, might be Wind as in breeze (a natural variable phenomenon) but in my mind it might more likely refer to the mechanism of the clock, the Wind, a tense construct.

Ultimately I finished The Silver Wind unsure of what I had actually read and not a little puzzled by how it meshed together. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable book where execution almost matches conception, and one that I will be drawn back to. In time.

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Saturday, February 04, 2012

Johnson, R/evolution (2011)

Tenea D. Johnson, R/evolution: A Mosaic Novel. Counterpoise, 2011. Pp. 148. ISBN 978-0615553726. $13.00 print/$2.99 ebook.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

The scope of this series of interconnected tales is nothing short of epic. A stylishly presented larger tale covering the state of the USA as it turns upon a near-future of decreasing resources and heavy social unrest. Thematically, this is not a frivolous book; it is politically driven with strong views on racial and social discrimination. Set in a future that is decidedly dystopian, we learn that the rich and powerful are controlling not only the wealth, but also the genetic future of the country, affording as they can to have their genomes tweaked for fashionable statements and improved health in an increasingly collapsing environment. Underneath this the dispossessed, particularly the poor and coloured citizens, struggle with industrial poisoning, starvation and racist violence, leading to near civil war between the haves and have-nots. Into this steps a brilliant young geneticist whose attempts to make genetic reparations to the lower orders does not go quite as he planned.

On her website, Johnson claims that she is ‘adoring of ideas’, that she ‘lives beneath a 300-year-old oak.’ But this is not a woman of utter, fanciful whimsy; she also claims to have a ‘swell of honesty (sometimes refreshing, sometimes catastrophic).’ And her writing is about as honest as one can get about what must be very heartfelt opinions. The politics of African-Americans is her metre, but she is just as much concerned with the broader canvas of social justice. On issues of class and race, the author sees these as the most vulnerable cracks along which fragmenting human society, struggling with environmental and social disintegration, will break. Within R/evolution, the predominance among the poorer characters is for non-Caucasian, but through this unbalance Johnson raises once more the issue of slavery. In a modernised sense, she means those exploited workers with no rights as equated with the historical sense of black slaves brought in on the terrible slaving ships from Africa. The connection between the plantations and the modern ‘slavery’ of industrial workers brought together in chapter one where the geneticist, as a boy, hears the origins of his family name, and carried on by direct referencing throughout the book to the ‘slavery’ of the factory worker. In one story a privileged white woman is kidnapped along with other politicians’ children and held in conditions similar to those of the slaving ships in order to teach them about the pain of the black underclass then and now.

The style of the book saves it from becoming too heavy-handed, too much of a shouty polemic. Structured as a self-styled ‘mosaic book’, instead of a direct, single story, what we are presented with is a series of vignettes that colour in areas and leave the rest to the imagination to fill in. These are short stories, connected by the common social and historical-futuristic backdrop and the personal connectivity between the main characters of each tale. The lynchpin is the geneticist, the other characters emerging as satellites to his wide-reaching orbit; those that admire him, are related to him, who have worked beside him and then others besides in other stories, as well as the children who are the results of his procedures. As an exercise in writing, it is remarkably bitter-sweet. Time passes with the unveiling of each story; we are being allowed snapshots along a wider timeframe, as if we had privileged insight into moments in a historical narrative. In fact, this is the strongest impression I had: that these are the main figures in a historical past that I was being allowed to see, to gather from them, from the stories of individuals, the progression of history. This writing reminds us that history is human history; it begins and ends with the decisions and actions of individuals who are in the right place and time to make differences. Writing on black-white relations and the political strife that marks this history in the USA is not new; a great number of authors cover the same subject in a variety of ways. Johnson’s talent is in making a proposed, and possible, future condition sound as realistic as a well-known past: effectively, nothing changes that much. People and their politics rise and fall; sometimes times are good, sometimes they are bad, but they carry on, because people carry on. There is an incredible sense of hope in this—life does carry on.

And this is despite the extremism that Johnson appears to see as the biggest enemy to peace and tolerance. There is racial extremism. White supremacists, the heirs of the KKK, self-titling themselves as ‘knights’, openly attack black communities with bombs and lynching. In an era where, we are told, inter-state law enforcement has collapsed and communities are left to defend their own, the geneticist is persuaded not only to create children healthy enough to survive the modern environment, but who are also strong, fast and efficient, to act as the shields of their town. Facing these new sprigs of humanity is religious extremism. Johnson does not forget the bigotry of the closed-minded against the new. The genetic alterations are seen as aberrations against God, the resulting children are treated with hostility and the geneticist damned for playing God. The irony is that the strongest hate in this quarter comes from the very poorer communities that the genetic ‘reparations’ are trying to help. Johnson seems to be showing us that old human foolishness: fear of difference. And by this means she is also showing us that such fear, leading to ostracism and even violence, is not just a white-black/rich-poor division; that even the underdogs are not helping themselves by clinging to superstition and dividing their own chances of survival. Johnson may have stern ideas on social injustice, but she is equally critical of those who waste opportunities. The ‘reparations’ are attempts to bridge something of the wealth/poverty gap, at least on the terms of the wealthy and powerful, moved to a genetic level. In this way, genetics is the new political, social, religious battleground; it is the new history book where progress, failure and change can be measured. It is also insidious. Instead of material change, changes which can be lost with war and natural disaster, the changes are those that the individual can carry with them at all times, no matter what obligations are laid upon them by others. And there is mention of the dangerous side of genetics; the ‘voodoo doll virus’ is a genetic nightmare that hunts down a specific person based on their DNA to infect them with a fatal illness. Assassination with no escape; genetics may improve lives, but they are also the ultimate weakness. This is the debate of human-ness inscribed within the very body itself; the social-political brought into the most intimate space of all, so there is no escape from the effects or the responsibilities.

Across all of these dialectics is, of course, the narrative archetype of Us and Them writ large. Johnson’s genetic alterations are seen by their supporters as the next stage for human evolution, the created beings are stronger, healthier and more vital than the non-enhanced. This is the Monster Dialectic: who emerges as the better being; the creator or created? This is the Child Dialectic: will the offspring make a better go of things than the parent? The stories raise questions over humanity’s future through the humanity (or lack of) in those involved in upheavals and change, and for all of them the choices come down to stay or go, change or fall. The ‘other’, the ‘monster’ comes across as the hope of the world. The final word is the first-person ‘statement’ of one of the geneticist’s last living creations. Having seen his entire family and community literally blown apart (by a catastrophic bombing), the last man standing is left to consider why he continues; for continue he does. It is, he feels, the boundless ability of the genetically enhanced to move on, if not forget, with the suggestions that the non-enhanced are also capable of this, if they try. Furthermore, this lone survivor with strong, almost perfect genes is prepared to share his DNA in a clinic to improve the position of those at the most disadvantage. This ‘monster’ is prepared to help the race from which he sprang, even while it fears him for his skin colour and his difference. This is Johnson’s hope.

And that hope is manifest in the love (or lack of it) that each character gives and receives. There is the hate-filled, yet loved, stepson; the loyal triplets; the embarrassment of a traumatised daughter (to a wealthy family); the driven young genius and his grandmother’s love and affection; poorer families broken due to illness; the sense of community among the poorer districts; and the genius geneticist’s positive decision to actively help the less fortunate instead of taking a cushy job in research. Those in loving situations notably blossom; affection is vital to human happiness. And yet those who are the most lost—the enhanced triplets living under their township’s suspicion, the ‘forgotten’ daughter, the repentant terrorist—are those who are the most driven to do what is ‘right’; out of crisis comes the most good.

The book moves at a feisty pace, the content is uncompromising and marvellously lacking in over-sentimental fluff. This is a thought-provoking, moving and clever piece of writing, which seems to shift the turn with definite sense of musicality; a symphony of meanings. I was intrigued and challenged. Highly recommended.

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