Book Review: Binary System – Eric Brown (Solaris – 2017)

This is an enjoyable sci-fi adventure.  A good tale, but unlikely to convert those not already committed to SF.

Cordelia ‘Delia’ Kemp is a survivor a catastrophic starship explosion which results in her being thrown further from the Earth than anyone has ever been before.

Delia’s only companion is ‘Imp’, an AI implant that acts as counsel, computer and friend.  It’s a great idea, I wished I had an ‘Imp’ to help me out too.

In the first of a series of ‘billions to one’ chances, Delia reaches an inhabited planet that is able to support human life.  It struck me that it is difficult to explain a new idea or form without comparing it to something that already exists.  The inhabitants of the planet are likened to monkeys, locusts and centipedes.

Eric Brown offers a number of expository ‘information dumps’ to quickly fill in the background and provide explanation for what is to come.  Sci-fi readers will be used to this but it can appear quite mechanical and the writing is functional and straightforward.  There are lots of recaps of where the action is and how we got there. Some of the dialogue is a little hackneyed, like it was written for a summer blockbuster action movie.

At one point, Delia has a discussion about emotions with Imp.  One would suspect anyone fitted with AI would have had that exchange with the device a long time previously and it is obvious that the dialogue is for the benefit of the reader’s understanding.

This is a fun adventure/quest story with lots of good ideas if you can get past the outlandish probabilities without thinking too hard about it.

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Book Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar – David Grossman (Translated by Jessica Cohen)

I’d wanted to read this book since hearing an interview with the translator, Jessica Cohen.  The book, written in Hebrew, won the International Man Booker Prize 2017.  The prize is split equally between the author and the translator, recognising the skill and contribution of both.

The story is set over one evening in a comedy club in the Israeli city of Netanya.  The comedian is Dovaleh G,  an ageing performer who seems to have retained his ‘edgy’ image.  His painfully thin appearance makes us suspect that he is suffering from an illness.

The narrator is a very old acquaintance of Dovaleh G, a former friend whom he has not seen for decades.  Dovaleh tracks him down and pleads with him to watch this particular performance.  The acquaintance, a retired Judge, agrees to go but regrets it almost immediately.  He tries to leave but Dovaleh embarrasses him into staying.  The Judge then shoves “handfuls of nuts into my mouth and grind them like they were his bones.”  A vivid line.

Dovaleh builds up some rapport with the audience.  He is endearing, insulting, frustrating, violent and unpredictable.  Jokes are followed by random monologues and self-harm.

Dovaleh picks on a small lady who does not appear to be enjoying the show.  It turns out that she knew him when he was young and says that he used to be a ‘good boy’.  This is the catalyst for the disintegration of Dovaleh and the show.   Outraged audience members leave, but some remain as they cannot resist “the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The comedy routine turns into a monologue on a painful incident in Dovaleh’s early life when he was faced with terrible circumstances, life-changing uncertainty, cowardice and indifference.

The writing in the translation is compelling.  When Dov is remembering a particular member he is described as having “Sleepwalking terror on his face: he’s there.  All of him is there.”  It’s a line that took me to the heard of the story, I could picture him and felt like an audience member, needing to watch but feeling guilty for doing so when a man is falling apart.

This is an unusual story of a childhood tragedy,  decades old guilt and confession told in a setting where you’d least expect it.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (MacLehose Press 2016)

An immersive story about the lives of a close Norwegian family as they cope with growing-up, ageing, work, tragedy and the vicissitudes of the weather on their sparse life.  Contemplative and humane.  You will put the book down feeling like a family member and have an odd longing to visit the island.
The story, translated from Norwegian, follows fisherman/farmer Hans Barroy and his family over a number of years.  Hans lives with his father (Martin), wife (Maria), daughter (Ingrid) and sister (Barbro) on the eponymous isle of Barroy.
I was unsure what to expect when starting this book and suspected that the bucolic existence could be marred by some form of violent tragedy.  This isn’t that type of book, however, but I soon fell into the peaks and troughs of their lives.
Jacobsen writing is thoughtful and peaceful, I very much enjoyed the state of calm that I felt when reading.  At first nothing much seems to happen but then I realised that plenty happens but it is simply the narrative that takes away some of the sharp edges of events, both good and bad.  You feel the happiness and suffering of the Barroys, but not in a shocking, melodramatic way.
The island and the sea are important parts of the book.   The island is under a kilometre from north to south and half a kilometre from east to west.  The seasons and the tides are massively important to the Barroys.  The sea brings treasure but also ‘fragments of distant lives, testament to opulence, laxity, loss and carelessness, and misfortune which has befallen people they have never heard of and will never meet.’
The joy of the environment is obvious, as are its dangers
Jacobsen will sometimes focus on small or odd experiences.  For example, when Ingrid is taught why the ‘carding’ (cleaning) of Eider-down is important, or when a cat is carried away by an eagle.
The language of the Barroys is translated into a colloquial English which, in part, reads like Yorkshire dialect.  The meaning is never lost though.
The characters are thoroughly believable, all with their own particular strengths and foibles.  Ingrid starts in the book as an infant and, in some respects, grows into the most important and strong character in the book.  She is a survivor, it is a lifestyle that makes no allowance for the feint-hearted.
This is a book that takes you on a journey of years and engenders moods and an odd form of nostalgia in the reader. A book I would thoroughly recommend.

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year 11 – Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris 2017)

You’d have to be very lucky to pick up a  compilation, such as this, and find you liked every story.  Conversely, you’d have to be incredibly unlucky to find that you disliked all of it.

This collection contains some excellent short stories.  It also contains some that, whilst not terrible, undermine the claim to be ‘The best’ of the year.

Some of the stand-out stories include:

  • The Future is Blue by Catheryne M Valente – This is a fantastic tale about a girl with the unlikely name of Tetley Abednego who lives on a floating continent of waste following an environmental disaster caused by the ‘Fuckwits’ i.e. us.  Tetley is widely despised, obscenities are flung her way regularly.  The descriptions of the floating world are vivid.
  • Even the Crumbs Were Delicious by Daryl Gregory – Babes in the Wood meets Philip K Dick in a funny, warm tale.
  • Things with Beards by Sam J Miller – Often dreamlike.  Space creatures deal with issues of equality and social justice.  A story to dwell on and read again.
  • Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson – A high fantasy story concerning war, magic and unimaginable sacrifice in the pursuit of victory.  Simply stunning, a standout in this collection.
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman – Concerns contact with aliens who are sentient but not conscious as “Being aware would just degrade their skill”.  This is an interesting contemplation on how many strive to lose self-awareness.
  • Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley – Eco sci-fi, similar in theme to Catheryne M Valente’s story.  A massive remedial industry exists to prevent rising sea levels.
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R MacLeod – A love story in which the multiple universe theory plays a part.  Very well written and poignant.

There are many more stories, some good and some that are average.  The one criticism of this collection is that it feels too long and would have made a tighter, more impressive book with some of the weaker stories omitted.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy are unlikely to feel short-changed if they buy this book.  There are enough great stories to make up for the ones that don’t quite hit the mark.

Book Review: The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories.

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories – Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (Solaris 2017)

I love the variety and surprises that short story collections often bring.  I was intrigued by this book which aims to showcase global storytelling and to showcase the djinn (alternatively jinn or genie) as an element of folklore with “immense contemporary” relevance.

The stories are written in a variety of styles.  Classic fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction and ‘weird’ feature amongst others.  Many of the writers bring contemporary issues into focus through a lens of magic.

I’ll highlight a few of the stories that stood out:

The Congregation by Kamila Shamsie – This has a traditional feel and is about a boy, fathered by a jinn, who wishes to feel whole again by being possessed by his jinn brother.  There is a lovely line it where a character says “There is no evil here, only love.  God save us from a world that can’t tell the difference.”

Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North – Tells a tale of the Sultan’s favourite lady who is believed to be a witch.  It’s about the suspicion and rumour that dogs women of influence and the hatred they face.

Glass Lights by J.Y YangThis is a lovely story of Mena, a Muslim girl who was told by her grandfather that she is a djinn.  Mena quietly helps others without expectations.  It is a tale of everyday life, passing encounters with strangers and the mundanity and randomness of the working day.

A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar – The immigrant experience is writ large in this tale.  We are told that “Nations are great magicians; they pull borders out of hats like knots of silk.  Here, says the wizard nation, here are the terms of a truce: be small, be drab, above all be grateful, and we will let you in.”  This is a prose piece rather than a straightforward story.

Reap by Sami Shah – US based drone operatives spend long shifts watching and analysing a small village in Pakistan.  Through heat signatures and movements they watch a supernatural horror unfold.  Tense and very effective.

Message in a Bottle by K.J. Parker – Witty and mediaeval in style.  Some of the dialogue is a bit too contemporary to fit in comfortably but an excellent story nevertheless.

Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain – Great dystopian sci-fi about the poor and dispossessed.  A Djinn, a cook and a smuggler set up a kitchen and shelter to provide for the poorest.  Well written.  The descriptions of the simple meals cooked made my mouth water.

Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman – Taken from his novel American Gods.  This is just excellent.  Funny, explicit, moving and empathetic.  It works as a standalone short story.

Overall an engaging, though provoking collection.

 

 

 

 

Book Review – But What If We’re Wrong? Chuck Klosterman (Amberley – 2016)

This is an interesting non-fiction book that could be described as a thought-piece (speculative non-fiction maybe).  The author, Chuck Klosterman, points out that ‘This is not a collection of essays.’  He does seem to be rather talented at anticipating what the reader may be thinking at any given time and addressing it in his writing.
Klosterman tries to view our current world as it will be seen by future generations in many hundreds of years time.  Klosterman acknowledges that this might be a futile task as he will not be around to see if he is right and accepts that any prediction he makes is likely to be wrong.
He considers a wide range of current human knowledge and endeavours, including science, rock music, television, sports and democracy.  Klosterman carried out interviews with a number of authorities and people well known in their fields such as David Byrne, George Saunders and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Gravity is tackled early on.  Klosterman notes that Newton was right and then Einstein was right.  He asks if scientific theories will change in 500 years time or whether Einstein effectively ‘nailed it’ for all time.  We will never know but it’s a very interesting question.  How often do any of us think about gravity?  What if it is a manifestation of other forces currently beyond our understanding?  I was reminded of being studying for A levels at school where a number of science teachers told us that what we had learned up to that point was not wrong but a simplification of what the actual ‘truth’ was.
In questioning science, Klosterman appears to try the patience of Neil deGrasse Tyson, which is quite amusing in itself.
Rock music seems to be an area in which Klosterman feels more at home.  He talks about how we apply filters to the past to cope with complexity and settle on a few famous names as being typical of a genre or the best in their field.  I think this is true to an extent.  Most people will only have a passing acquaintance with classical music might be able to name a few composers and it would probably be safe to assume that Mozart and Beethoven would feature.  At first I thought ‘yes, but there are many classical music lovers out there who could name lots of composers and tell you which ones stand out’.   But then I realised that the point he is making is that, to the layman, Mozart or Beethoven would be their answer because it is accepted wisdom, they’ve been told since childhood that these composers matter.  It doesn’t matter whether they’ve heard any music by them or whether they actually like it.  Individual opinions do not have any impact on the collective view of Mozart and Beethoven now.
Klosterman argues that normal humans don’t possess enough information to nominate alternative possibilities.  He believes that most Americans would name Frank Lloyd-Wright as the greatest architect of the 20th century. Again, there seems to be some substance to this.  If I were to ask you who were the greatest:
1. Writer in the English language,
2. Greatest British Prime Minister.
3. Greatest British naval commander
the answers for many people would be the same.  Many answers would be based on accepted received knowledge and if a person had not read Shakespeare or knew nothing of the lives of Churchill and Admiral Nelson then it would not matter.
In talking about popular music, Klosterman comments that ‘weirdos get to decide what matters about the past, since it’s the weirdos who care the most.’  By ‘weirdo’ he means collectors, obsessives who feel marginalized by society and who were drawn to music that reflected those feelings.  This might suggest that importance is dictated by older white males.  As a reader of Mojo, this seems to ring true.  The letters page is regularly filled with obscure references and arcane knowledge wheeled out to highlight their deeper grasp of lore.
It is really interesting to consider our knowledge and how certain truths have been determined by society as a whole.  I suppose we could argue that how this process has worked in the past is no guide to how it might work in the future.
A chapter entitled ‘Don’t Tell Me What Happens.  I’m Recording It.’ Is an elliptical, obtuse monologue on what TV programmes will be treated as being significant in the future.  It seems to fizzle out in Klosterman’s own uncertainty as to what argument he is putting forward and whether it actually belongs in his book.
Chuck Klosterman writes engagingly and wittily.  It’s a good read even if you feel you are not really grasping his argument.  It’s heavy on subjective arguments and you might just think ‘what’s the point of reading this?’   It would certainly be futile to try to argue which scientist, musician, writer or artist would be regarded as the ‘greatest of the 20th/21st century’ in ,say, 500 years time.  However, the idea of looking at our own knowledge and accepted beliefs is a good one that can help us to understand ourselves better and challenge the status quo.  The book is rather like listening to a garrulous and funny friend opening up to you over a drink and that’s no bad thing.

Note:  Book pictured right way up!

Book Review: By Gaslight – Steven Price (Oneworld Publications – 2016)

By Gaslight is the newest novel of Canadian poet Steven Price and it’s a prodigious work. At 730 pages I could have done with a portable lectern to hold it whilst reading it. Once I had picked it up I was captivated. The characters, story and settings are vivid, sympathetic, well-formed and enthralling. If I did not already know that Steven Price was an acclaimed poet by the bio that accompanied the book I would have guessed as much after a few pages.  
The story concerns William Pinkerton, son of Allan Pinkerton founder of the Pinkerton detective agency. Pinkerton, a hulking Civil War veteran, is stalking the streets of Victorian London looking for a lady called Charlotte Reckitt, who he believes is the key to finding one Edward Shade and elusive and some believe mythical master criminal. Allan Pinkerton was obsessed with Shade and went to his grave having failed to apprehend him. William inherits his father’s mania and becomes fixated on finding out what happened between Shade and his father. Some of Pinkerton’s friends and associates think that Shade did not exist, that he was a made-up person or a cover for a criminal gang.

The descriptions of Victorian London are vivid and poetic. Smoke, fog, smog, grime, dirt, soot and effluent are in abundance. People and buildings appear dimly in orange or brown lights and are then lost as the smog closes around them.  

Price’s writing style is measured and allows readers to get to grips with characters and plot themselves without being spoon-fed. There are slow-burning introductions to characters. Unusually, no speech marks are used but it does not affect the reading experience, I quite liked it.

Pinkerton is not the only person interested in Charlotte Reckitt. Adam Foole, an ageing entrepreneur, gambler and criminal has travelled to Liverpool from the U.S. after receiving a letter from Reckitt. Foole is accompanied by a young girl named Molly and a gigantic shaggy man named Japheth Fludd to whom he is friend, boss and family.  

For his part, Pinkerton is assisted by his father’s old associates and Scotland Yard detectives. One of my favourite characters was Inspector Blackwell, a diligent detective with a love of puns. Moments of dark humour light up the grimy London atmosphere. On examining a decapitated head and dismembered torso at a mortuary, Pinkerton’s asks ‘What happened to her hair?’

The story rolls backwards and forwards between Pinkerton’s present investigation and his past life as a Union soldier and young detective assisting his father’s business. We are also given insights into Adam Foole’s early life and relationship with Charlotte Reckitt. The scenes switch from London to take in the U.S and South Africa. All feel vivid and real.  

Pinkerton and Foole’s mutual interest in Charlotte Reckitt brings them in contact with each other and their relationship is at turns one of common interest and mutual mistrust. Foole’s shady dealings are the antithesis of what Pinkerton represents but it is Pinkerton who often appears as a bully who uses suspect methods to persecute those who stand in his way of discovering Edward Shade.  

Some of the main themes of the book are obsession, the treatment of children and women, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, how much we can know people and how much they really know themselves.  

Criticisms? None of note. A comb of parlour matches is described in the early pages but I suspect they would not have existed in Victorian England at this time. After landing in Liverpool, there is talk of ‘travelling up to London’ but I would think that ‘travelling down’ would be more appropriate. However, these are of no consequence. 

 By Gaslight is an exceptional, compelling and very satisfying novel that I would recommend highly.