Archives » Reviews published in Interzone
This edition is out now (news via Jim Steel’s blog.)
This is the one where my review of John Scalzi’s Redshirts can be found.
I’ll be posting that here after a decent interval.
Gollancz, 2012, 302 p. Reviewed for Interzone 243, Nov-Dec 2012.
Sub-titled on the cover and the main title page as “A Haunting,” Empty Space follows on and amplifies the universe Harrison constructed with his novel Light and continued in Nova Swing.
In early twenty first century London, Anna Waterman, obsessed by the memory of her first husband Mike Kearney, shuttles in an affectless way between her psychologist Helen Alpert, her daughter Marnie and other rather shiftless denizens of her world. Every so often on her night strolls she imagines her summerhouse is on fire.
In Saudade City, on the planet Saudade, overshadowed by the lurking strangeness of the astronomical anomaly called the Kefahuchi Tract, riddled by its impossible physics, Enka Mercury and Toni Reno are bizarrely murdered to the sound of a disembodied voice saying, ‘My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.’ Their bodies hang suspended, rotating and slowly disappearing. An unnamed police assistant with data scrolling down her arm helps investigate the crimes.
R I Gaines is struggling to make sense of the mysterious apparition known as the Aleph, the figure of a woman contorted in an awkward way (and mysteriously accompanied by a cat) and who may bear some sort of relation to the Tract.
Meanwhile Fat Antoyne, who is no longer fat, and Liv Hula, undertake a commission from the elusive M P Renoko to transport odd containers called mortsafes in their spaceship “Nova Swing.”
Many of these characters are familiar from Light and Nova Swing but here Harrison extends and refines their relationships.
The Waterman sections of Empty Space, at least in the early stages, are related in what seems a straightforward mainstream prose and are at odds with the SF elements – which are as jargon-filled as any devotee could wish. But this highlights a problem.
The trouble with ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ scenarios, with impossible physics, is that if nothing is explicable, if things just happen, then nothing means anything – or everything. When chains of causation are lost narrative becomes problematic and the trust between writer and reader can be undermined.
While considering the Aleph one of Harrison’s characters muses that the universe is “a useless analogy for an unrepresentative state.” This could, though, be a description of the novel Empty Space itself as Harrison is attempting a literary description of that unrepresentativeness, with all the cognitive dissonance that implies.
What redeems the book is Harrison’s prose; which sweeps grandly along, his descriptive powers manifest, the Waterman sections being the most flowing, apparently effortless.
Nevertheless; that Harrison in the end brings all the strands together – thus also resolving the whole of his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – comes as something of a release – and relief. The connections between the various types of haunting are finally made; though they are more than a little strained. Maybe even impossible: for the strangenesses around Saudade and the wrongness of the Tract physics remain pretty much unresolved.
Still, Harrison devotees and those who loved Light and Nova Swing will find Empty Space a notable conclusion.
Orbit, 2012, 561p. Reviewed for Interzone 242, Sep-Oct 2012.
Note: this is not how the review appeared in Interzone. The post below is 650 words or so long. Due to a mix-up over Interzone’s move to a new page size their reviews editor had to cut 150 of these.
The Solar System has long been colonised; from asteroids inside the orbit of Mercury out to the mining of the Oort cloud. Earth is garlanded with space elevators and its billions of mainly impoverished inhabitants are resentful of the easier life they imagine spacers enjoy. The planet has succumbed to global warming – there is a nice vignette of an inundated New York as a kind of stalagmitic Venice (though I would have thought storms would have ravaged the skyscrapers quite quickly.) Terraformed asteroids – either hollowed out and spun up “innies” or tented over “outies” – provide habitats for the growth of food (much of which helps to supply Earth,) the preservation of animals now extinct on the home planet, or as spaceships for fast inter-system travel. Politically the structure is Balkanised with habitats jealously guarding their own interests and playing each against other. Humanity too is splintering as a proto-speciation of humans with different statures has developed as a result of the different living environments that abound. Medical advances mean limbs can be regrown, life span has increased, gender become more plastic. Quantum computer AIs known as qubes control many processes, some are utilised as wrist aids or even via head implants. 2312 has no lack, then, of Science-fictional ideas with which to tickle the sense of wonder. The characters’ longevity is almost incidental, though, as apart from not seeming to worry about their children they do not behave very differently from at present. Despite being well over one hundred they act as if they’re in their twenties or younger. This may be how long life spans affect us, of course.
The narrative follows four viewpoint characters; Swan Er Hong, a gynandromorph who lives on Mercury and whose grandmother’s death leads off the story; police Inspector Jean Genette, a so-called small; Fitz Wahram, an androgyn, and Kiran, a young earthman who rescues Swan from possible kidnapping on one of her visits to Earth. The – plot such as it is – hinges on whether or not the qubes are developing consciousness and designs of their own; even manifesting themselves as androids, possibly as terrorists. It is a feature of the narrative that we see the characters caught up in events, variously imperilled, but never quite at the centre of things; which is like life. This is not the usual mode in SF but none the less welcome for it.
Since his Mars trilogy Robinson has rarely borne his research lightly. Here the “story” chapters are variously separated by descriptions of eight (sub)planetary bodies/habitats, fifteen lists, eighteen extracts from an apparent history written well after the events of the novel and three “quantum walks.” It is a style which largely circumvents the crudities of information dumping by parading them as a strength. It is not an entirely new approach to the problem. Robinson credits John Dos Passos in his acknowledgements and, within SF, John Brunner employed a similar technique in Stand on Zanzibar.
In pursuit of this the novel ranges all over the solar system from Terminator, a city constantly on the move over the surface of Mercury, out to Io, back and forth to Earth, taking in Venus, Saturn’s cloud tops, Titan, Pluto and various interplanetary terraria, surfing the gravity wave on Saturn’s F ring along the way. The main fault with all this is that it can seem the narrative has been designed to show off the research. At one point Swan says, “All right. I will. But I’m going to take the long way there.” But she is, in our terms, old, and she has time.
Without these interpolations between the chapters, though, the book would have been much less impressive.
In 2312 plot and characterisation are not Robinson’s primary concern. It is the solar system – to which, as one of the interludes reminds us, humanity is bound by the vastness of interstellar space – that is his hero.
HarperVoyager, 2012, 339p. Reviewed for Interzone 241, Jul-Aug 2012.
This is the second in DeStefano’s “Chemical Garden” trilogy set in a world where all children are doomed to die of a virus by the age of 25. The only older inhabitants are the pre-virus First Generation. Accompanied by the young manservant Gabriel, Rhine Ellery has escaped from the mansion where she was brought after her kidnapping, leaving behind her forced marriage to the aristocratic son of the house, Linden, and the Housemaster, Vaughan, who performed sinister experiments in the basement. Her freedom does not last long, however, as she and Gabriel soon fall into the clutches of the deranged Madame Soleski, who runs a brothel in an old fairground complex. Rhine’s characteristic non-matching eyes make her an asset to be prized. After a thwarted attempt to sell her on she and Gabriel are administered a drug known as Angel’s Blood to keep them compliant, and to be the star act in a look, but don’t touch, exhibit.
Despite her difficulties, Rhine finds an ally in Lilac, who helps the pair escape just as Vaughan turns up to try to persuade Rhine to return to her marriage. Rhine and Gabriel stow away on a truck, rely on the kindness of an old woman who tells Rhine’s fortune (“things will get worse before they get better”) and then of a pair of restaurant owners – the man tries to rape her before Gabriel clocks him. Using money stolen from the restaurateur they finally take a bus to Rhine’s former home, Manhattan.
Throughout the book, Rhine spends a lot of time ruminating on her twin brother, Rowan, who must think she’s dead, and on her existence in the mansion. She also does not remove her wedding ring and in spite of her lack of years is showing increasing signs of the virus acting on her. And Vaughan’s is a presence that she can’t seem to shake.
DeStefano handles the story telling problems inherent in the second instalment of a trilogy mainly by making commendably little concession to them. There are, though, some instances of too obvious information dumping. And – without adding too much of a spoiler – you could skip it before reading volume 3.
There was, too, a whole series of wrong notes. Rhine displays knowledge of her new surroundings in the fairground and the activities of the “girls” in the compound before she could have acquired it. The behaviour of the older people she encounters does not seem much altered by the bizarre circumstances of the world. The only attempt to describe the conflict between those who seek a cure for the virus and others who have had enough of meddling with nature fails to convince. Rhine and Gabriel’s refuge in Manhattan ties in too neatly with earlier events. Rhine’s retention of her wedding ring is at odds with the attitudes and emotions she attributes to herself – and later displays. The rationale for, and logistics of, the “Gatherers” who steal girls only to shoot most of them remain unexplained. Despite all her experiences Rhine still goes out for an unaccompanied walk in the Manhattan she had been kidnapped from and then later sits on her doorstep in the middle of the night. This is a case of the exigencies of plot driving a character’s behaviour which damages credibility. Vaughan is an even more pantomimic villain than he was in “Wither” and the narrative carries a strong undercurrent of anti-scientism.
The problems with the trilogy’s background that were apparent in “Wither” are more evident two books in and the nature of the Chemical Garden is still mysterious. It would appear this world is effectively lawless but, beyond the virus, the mention of Gatherers and the dead bodies of kidnapped girls it is utterly familiar. There are still delivery trucks, restaurants, fortune tellers, brothels – even interstate buses, not to mention public meetings. It is as if DeStefano doesn’t quite believe in it herself.
Jim Steel’s blog has reported that Interzone 243 is out imminently. This is the issue that contains my review of M John Harrison’s Empty Space.
After a few difficulties with the printing of the issue I believe Interzone 242 has now been published. This is the edition which contains my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.
Details of the printing problems have been posted on Interzone’s web page. Who’d be a small publisher?
My review of Lauren DeStefano’s Fever can now be read in Interzone 241 (Jul-Aug 2012.)
I will publish it here after a decent interval.
I have also submitted my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, due to appear in Interzone 242 (Sep-Oct 2012.)
Tindal Street Press, 2012, 348p. Reviewed for Interzone 240, May-Jun 2012.
Lionel Byrd’s mother died three days after his birth. He was adopted by her best friend, Judy, and brought back to Britain from Kenya. However he is mixed race and his adoptive family are all white. Only his father, David, and sister, Lilith, regard him with any affection while his mother and her two sons treat him coldly. In childhood the two boys subjected him to “games” in which he was the butt of their cruelty, describing him (apparently after Blade Runner) as a replicant and, at one point, nearly hanging him. His recall of these events is hazy as an accident when he was ten has deprived him of many of his childhood memories.
As an adult he is estranged from his adoptive family, apart from his sister, and lives a lonely existence in a grotty flat in a rundown district near a “Health Centre” which is a cover for people-trafficking and prostitution. He is aloof at work despite attempts to befriend him, his closest companion is his cat Buddha, and he fantasises about a girl he has seen in the street with whom he is convinced he has made a connection. While friendly with his barber, a West Indian whose speech is rendered demotically and doesn’t like Lionel’s taking up of dreadlocks, he has a close relationship only with Lilith and escapes from mundane reality into an immersive computer game called CoreQuest where his avatar is Ludi, a much more active persona. His father’s final illness leads to Lionel’s re-entanglement with his adoptive family and revelations about the circumstances of his adoption.
The novel is on the whole well written but its structure is problematic. It is divided into chapters dealing with Lionel’s life, each usually followed by an epigraph relating to gaming, then a segment from the game. These latter – escalating through the game’s levels – are related from Ludi’s viewpoint in a partly debased form of English. Irritatingly, Packer does not always sustain this street language throughout the game segments’ lengths.
We are intended to draw parallels between the characters in Lionel’s world and avatars in the game but these sections do not add to the story. References to the possibly elusive nature of reality – the phrase, “It’s only a game,” appears in Lionel’s narrative several times; a character says, “People are so programmed,” – are not enough to justify the conceit embodied within them nor the presence of the gaming chapters. There is also the problem that in games there is no jeopardy. Why should the reader care about the characters within them when they are not real and can be resurrected at will?
As a result the novel as presented is unsatisfying, particularly to readers of speculative fiction, who are used to the mixing of the real with the fantastic – or paranoia – and even the melding of reality with games. Packer seems either to be unaware of or unconcerned with the literary antecedents.
This is a pity as the main narrative is well handled and, until it begins to unravel somewhat in the latter stages, convincing. It could stand alone, without the game aspect, and be entirely coherent – though of course not SF. The attempts to suggest a degree of futurity, such as the coinage “Google device” for a hand-held computer-like phone, are ill thought-through (even when shortened to “Google”) and there is insufficient foreshadowing of Lionel’s ultimately shaky grasp on the real world.
The website of the book’s publisher (Tindal Street Press) states it does not consider submissions, among other genres, of Sci-Fi (sic) nor Fantasy. In those circumstances it does seem strange to be reviewing one of their books for Interzone. Yet its back cover blurb says “for readers of …, Cory Doctorow, China Miéville and Neal Stephenson.” Very odd. But then again despite its trappings “The Game Is Altered” overall does not read as SF, nor Fantasy.
Harper Voyager, 2011, 358p.
Published in Interzone 237, Nov-Dec 2011.
A genetically based cure for cancer has left a First Generation almost immortal barring accidents. However their children and grandchildren are not so lucky as a side effect – referred to as “the virus” – kills off males at 25 and females at 20. The societal consequences include a large cohort of children of these unfortunates being brought up in orphanages or left to fend for themselves. Efforts are being made to find a cure but these are opposed – sometimes violently – by groups who think there has been too much meddling already. “Gatherers” sweep the streets for young vulnerable females to provide subjects for research or suitable wives for wealthy young aristocrats. In addition a Third World War has “demolished” all of the world, except for North America (of course.) The rest is ocean dotted with a few islands.
At the novel’s start Rhine Ellery has been kidnapped and is being transported in a darkened van with other captives. At journey’s end the girls are subjected to a selection process. Rhine’s differently coloured eyes attract the selector and, as she is whisked off in a limousine, with two others, a naïve young Cecily and a more streetwise Jenna, she hears gunshots from the van. The three girls’ fate is to become prisoners in a vast establishment in Florida run by the First Generation researcher into the virus Housemaster Vaughn and to be “sister wives” of Vaughn’s son, House Governor Linden, whose present wife is 20 and dying.
Rhine is resolved not to succumb to this (albeit pampered) existence. She strikes up a relationship with a young servant, Gabriel, and despite being officially married, allows Linden no sexual favours. Cecily, happily, and Jenna, less so, provide his distractions in that regard.
There are irresistible echoes in this scenario of “The Handmaid’s Tale” but as in that novel the background leaves a lot to be desired and fails to convince.
While orphaned adolescents live in perpetual fear and Gatherers leave discarded victims to rot at the roadside there are still business expos, televised first nights and New Year parties where those and such as those turn up to be seen. People even go to the cinema. In most respects life outside captivity in the Big Houses is depicted pretty much as in our present day. How the Himalayas, for example, could be reduced to sea level yet Florida be above the waves is something of a puzzle and though hurricanes are to be expected Florida seems very wintry here. In addition the “virus” does not behave like a virus and a cure for cancer that’s also effective against ageing is just too pat. Why the lives of girls rejected by Gatherers are worth so little remains unexplained. Surely it is more likely they would be treated as a resource not to be wasted?
All of this is unfortunate as at the level of the writing “Wither” is very good. Though she seems unaware that “none” is singular DeStefano can otherwise turn a sentence and she relates the unfolding relationships between the sister wives deftly and that of Rhine and Gabriel delicately – though Housemaster Vaughn is a bit of a cardboard villain and House Governor Linden, despite his profession as a kind of architect, is too lacking in self regard. Scions of wealthy families are not usually noted for their reticence.
The resolution, when it comes, is a bit rushed and is achieved too easily but provides ample scope for continuing Rhine’s story.
The nature of the Chemical Garden of DeStefano’s planned trilogy is a mystery; unless there is a deep plot as yet unrevealed beneath the surface of the book. It would be good to think there is. On this evidence, though, that is unlikely.
Yet DeStefano shows promise. With a bit more rigour in her backgrounding she might be one to savour.