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New Book: The Fractal Prince

Last Thursday I attended the launch of fellow East Coast Writers’ Group and Writers’ Bloc member Hannu Rajaniemi’s second novel The Fractal Prince. I reviewed his first novel The Quantum Thief for Interzone. Hannu made a reading from the new book and was interviewed by another Group and Bloc member Andrew Ferguson before the floor was opened for questions.

The reading was enthusiastically received and Hannu’s thoughts on translation and the way his Finnish origins are reflected in his writing were interesting. It seems he has a Finnish self – with family and friends back home – and an English (speaking) self in his day to day life in Edinburgh. The Finnish translation of The Quantum Thief, not carried out by him, apparently read like his “English” self.

Halting State by Charles Stross

Orbit, 2010, 376p, plus author interview.

 Halting State cover

Since Christopher Priest’s bemoaning of the Clarke Award shortlist in which Halting State’s sequel Rule 34 is included I bumped this up my reading list.

The usual caveat applies to this review. I did see an early version of the first chapter or so, back in the day. The author is a fellow member of the East Coast Writers’ Group and of Writers’ Bloc.

The setting is a near future independent Republic of Scotland in 2016 or so. A bank in an on-line game is robbed, despite the levels of encryption involved. A panicked employee of Hayek Associates (the Edinburgh company overseeing the game) calls the local police. This leads to the involvement of our first viewpoint character, Detective Sergeant Sue Smith. The other two narrators are Elaine Barnaby, an insurance fraud investigator, and Jack Reed, an IT specialist just sacked from his previous job and on a bender in Amsterdam. An unusual facet of the book is that all three strands are written in the second person – a notoriously difficult authorial trick to pull off. Here the conceit is mostly effective. It only falls down a few times and after a while becomes almost unnoticeable. (Sue Smith’s narrative voice jars, though, at the times when USian creeps in – Defence with an “s,” “out back” for “out the back,” “fit” for “fitted.”) As the story proceeds layers of complication add in, as not all is what it seems, even in the real world.

The dangers of writing SF set in the near future are apparent even only four years after original publication (2008.) The banking-crash-induced recession and our present day austerity are entirely absent and the ubiquity of the location software, of driverless vehicles and so on feels a bit premature. Not to mention that a Scottish Republic is unlikely in the short term. However, if read as an Altered History (which will actually be necessary in five years’ time) these problems disappear.

Such technologies’ vulnerability to hacking/decryption is foregrounded, highlighting our growing dependence on such things. (I would add that they are equally vulnerable to a simple loss of electricity supply to servers etc.)

One of Christopher Priest’s complaints was that Stross uses “Och aye” dialogue. On this ground I acquit him. The book is set in Scotland after all. Not being Scots born it is more than commendable that Stross makes the effort to convey local speech – he still lives in Edinburgh – even if sometimes his ear is not perfectly attuned. (Oh, and the word dreich doesn’t have a “t” at the end.) He even has one of his narrators display the Edinburgher’s antipathy to all things Glaswegian.

The book is clearly aimed at a target audience of games players in addition to SF readers. Small portions consist of the MMORPG which was hacked into; these integrate well with the main thrust, as indeed does game playing. In this respect, pace Mr Priest, outright literary quality might be considered to be a drawback. Horses for courses. Halting State is not deep and not pretending to be, but I enjoyed it. Whether a “light” novel like this deserves an award, though, is surely a matter of subjectivity.

2010 Hugo Awards

I found a list of this year’s winners over at Frederick Pohl‘s blog The Way The Future Blogs. This is because he won the award for Best Fan Writer.

Surprisingly the list isn’t up at the official Hugo site though there is a video of the award ceremony.

Edited to add (9/9/10):- The list is there (see comment.) The link I followed only took you to the video.

Other awards of interest to me were:-
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Doctor Who: “The Waters of Mars.”
Hmm… I didn’t think that episode was particularly good.

Best Novella
“Palimpsest” by Charles Stross (Wireless, Ace, Orbit.)
Charlie is a one time and now somewhat detached member of the East Coast Writers Group. We bask in his reflected glory.

Best Novel (tie)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
I’ve read the Mieville.

Review Gig

I’ve been asked through Jim Steel to write a review for Interzone of debutant novelist Hannu Rajaniemi’s forthcoming The Quantum Thief, due in September I believe. I said yes.

This does represent something of a conflict of interest for me as Hannu is a fellow member of the Edinburgh and East Coast Writers’ Group and of course of Writers’ Bloc. But, as Jim reminded me, everybody in British SF knows just about everybody else and the book’s title suggests a Science background might be an advantage in assessing it.

I mentioned Hannu a while back when he got his writing deal. He knows string theory, though, which wasn’t around when I were a lad.

Some of my time in July will naturally be taken up with this project but the review won’t, of course, be appearing here.

Writers’ Group Publications

Two fellow members of the East Coast Writers’ Group have had books published recently.

Alan Campbell’s third novel, God Of Clocks, has garnered some good reviews, notably these ones in Strange Horizons and Scotland On Sunday.

I reviewed his first novel Scar Night, here.

Poet Jane McKie’s second collection is called The Sun Is Green. Her first, Morocco Rococo, won an award for best first book.

More From The East Coast Writers’€™ Group

I think I’ve mentioned my writers’ group before. I believe its full title is the Edinburgh and East Coast Writers’€™ Group. Its offshoot performance arm, Writers’ Bloc, I’ve mentioned many times.

Anyway, fellow group member Andrew J Wilson has a story in the latest H P Lovecraft’s Magazine Of Horror. If horror’€™s your bag you might want to check it out. Though, as another group member Zornhau says, this story is more like a Borstal style Harry Potter with overtones of horror.

It’€™s available as a free download.

The Flying Finn

Hannu Rajaniemi, like me a member of the East Coast Writers’ Group, is a Writers’ Bloc stalwart. He has just landed a three book publishing deal with Gollancz – on the strength of a 24 page synopsis. I didn’t know that sort of thing happened any more.

Hannu is Finnish by birth and upbringing but has been living in Edinburgh for quite a while now. His English prose puts many writers born to the language to shame.

He also has a PhD in something to do with string theory but don’t ask me what. I’m an Organic Chemist – we don’t care what goes on inside nuclei.

I’ve no doubt Hannu will make it big in the SF world.

Scar Night by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2006

Scar Night

Disclaimer. Alan Campbell belongs to the same writers’ group as I do, so you may wish to discount what follows. Nevertheless, I only saw very small parts of this book before it was published and none of it in its published form. Apologies to Alan for taking so long to get round to actually reading the finished novel but it’s another 500+ pager and time is short. I will refer to him as Campbell throughout as in a normal review.

In the city of Deepgate, someone is going about murdering people, draining them of their blood and hence their souls. Moreover, it is not the usual culprit, Carnival, who normally takes just the one victim and then only on Scar Night. The perpetrator is trying to produce angelwine, a forbidden concoction that confers resistance to wounds and, perhaps, death.

Deepgate itself is an impressive creation. It is held together by chains and is suspended over an abyss at the bottom of which a god is believed to wait to collect the blood and souls of the departed.
Because he wants to convince us of the reality of his setting, Campbell has a tendency to overdescribe at times, even if lovingly, but this is of course probably what the intended reader will most like about the book.
A minor caveat is that there is sometimes an overtone of default mediaevality about the city, especially in the importance of the church and the degree of technology, though, refreshingly, there are airships.

As you would expect from a first novel there are some infelicities scattered throughout and there can be problems with pacing but Campbell has created believable characters – Dill, Mr Nettle, Presbyter Sypes, Rachel Hael, Fogwill Crumb, the poisoner Devon – and even the minor ones all behave the way real people would in their circumstances.
However, when the inevitable happens and some of the characters descend into the abyss and others move on to the plains surrounding Deepgate the emphasis on character becomes lost and action begins to predominate. This may have been necessary but I felt it was to the novel’s detriment overall.

Campbell is at his most convincing in the earlier part of the book, depicting the city, its inhabitants and their daily lives. He may have created a rod for his own back here if his fans develop obsessive tendencies.
However, the build up to the climax is, to my mind, too rushed. (There may perhaps have been a touch of rapidly approaching publisher’s deadline about it.)
And the title is a bit askew. We experience two Scar Nights during the book’s course not just one.

Further disclaimer. A fantastical tale of this sort is not my usual preferred reading.
But there is enough good writing here to make me want to read the sequel Iron Angel.

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