Saturday, 30 June 2012

Zoo City - Book Review

Zoo City also has one of the best covers I've seen

Zoo City is an Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning urban-fantasy book by Lauren Beukes. It tells the story of Zinzi December, an ex-journalist and recovering drug addict who became ‘animalled’ after her actions led to her brother’s murder. Now she carries around a sloth, as well as a nasty drug-money debt and a lot of guilt. The day she gained Sloth she also developed a new, magical talent for finding lost things. When she is hired to locate a missing girl, one half of a famous teen pop duo, the case begins to lead her to darker and more dangerous places than she had expected.

Zoo City was not quite what I was expecting, but then, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. Perhaps something in which the fantasy or science fictional element was more prominent, not necessarily the focus of the plot, but at least more central. In this, the animals, the magic, the strangeness, are all just there, while Zinzi gets on with things. But you know what? This is a large part of what makes Zoo City so brilliant. Not only are the magical elements never fully explained (which I often prefer anyway), they are not even really important. Except that they are, just not in the ways the reader might think. Animals and the consequences of being animalled are vital to the characters and their world, as well as allowing the author to explore ideas of prejudice, guilt and the stigma attached to rehabilitated criminals, amongst other issues, without ever becoming preachy or heavy-handed. Each element that makes the world strange – the animals, the undertow, the mashavi – is revealed almost as a mundane detail in the background while the missing-person mystery takes centre stage. And then, suddenly, all these little details become vital as the plot takes a darker turn, and the existence of the animalled becomes central to the story after all. This seems like a risky approach, but it is a risk that really pays off.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Embassytown - Book Review

 Embassytown has just won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. In his thank you message, China MiĆ©ville described the book as a homage to some of the science fiction authors he grew up with and was influenced by, including Ursula le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, and Joanna Russ. This is quite a lot for Embassytown to live up to, but thankfully, it really does. (And I say that as a complete unashamed fangirl of Ursula le Guin, whose review was one of the main reasons I decided to read the book.)

Embassytown, by China MiĆ©ville, is a science fiction story about human interaction with an alien race called the Ariekei, whose Language (capitalised here on purpose, as it is in the book) is very different from any human language. The Ariekei, “insect horse coral fan things,” speak with two mouths but one consciousness, and they cannot lie. In fact, they cannot speak in, or seemingly even perceive of, abstractions. This makes communication extremely difficult, sometimes all but impossible. Only specific humans – the Ambassadors – can speak Language, and so all interaction with the Ariekei must go through them. One day, sent by Embassytown’s suspicious mother-planet, a strange and impossible new Ambassador arrives to speak to the gathered Ariekei diplomats. The consequences are unexpected, and devastating.

This is a book about language and its complexities, but also about the disturbing and shattering effects one society can have on another, the clash of two very different cultures, imperialism and power politics, and a colony struggling to find its independence. Finally, it is about the breakdown of the Ariekei culture, the attempts of the humans to prevent this for various reasons of their own, the Ariekei struggle to change their often simplistic worldview in an ever-increasingly complicated world, and the resulting mix of triumph, understanding and lost innocence this brings. However, it seems some readers have fixated a little too much on what the book’s Big Message might be, forgetting that it is also (and first and foremost) a truly fantastic, gripping and emotional story. By the end I had been taken on such a spiralling journey of shifting sympathies that I felt exhausted. But in a good way. The ‘can’t put down, staying up all night to see what happens’ kind of exhausted that only comes with a really compelling read. This is easily the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

British Books Challenge 2012

Just signed up for the British Books Challenge, to read and review 12 (or more) books by British writers in 2012. Starting a little late (well, ok, more than a little late), so I have some catching up to do! Find out more here.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Economics in Spec Fic - Podcast

In my last post I reviewed the latest issue of Clarkesworld magazine, in which an article on economics in speculative fiction particularly seized my imagination. I wished that the article could have gone a little deeper into economics in popular fiction, as well as into some well-known sci-fi such as Star Trek, but this was beyond the scope of the article. The article provided fascinating ideas about how to include economics and trade when world-building, but it left me wondering - what is the potential future of economics? Are the futures presented in some science fiction novels - and all the currently-popular dystopia stories - actually possible or realistic?

Then I came across this interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, in which he discusses economics in science fiction and fantasy, with John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley from the podcast 'Geek's Guide to the Galaxy' (which is well worth checking out, by the way). Clearly economics is a hot topic in spec fic right now, and this interview is fascinating.

Just some of the subjects covered: Asimov, The Foundation and psychohistory; how alien attack will end the recession in 18 months; socialism and capitalism in sci-fi; the economics of building a death star; Star Trek's utopian vision; and what evil will really look like in the future.

Listen to the interview here.

Geek's Guide to the Galaxy.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Clarkesworld Issue 69 - Review

Target Detected, by Mark Davenport

 Clarkesworld is an online, monthly science-fiction and fantasy magazine. Every issue contains at least three short stories, as well as non-fiction articles of interest to science-fiction and fantasy fans. The latest issue (issue 69, for June 2012), includes three stories, ‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard, ‘If the Mountain Comes’ by An Owomoyela, and ‘You Were She Who Abode’ by E. Catherine Tobler; and two articles, ‘Energising Futures: How SF Fuels Itself’ by Stephen Gaskell, and ‘Neither the Billionaire nor the Tramp: Economics in Speculative Fiction’ by Jeremy L.C. Jones, as well as a quick look at the statistics behind Clarkesworld’s readers and authors by the editor-in-chief, Neil Clarke.

All three stories are strongly character-driven and genuinely emotional. Each deals with a distinctly different subject, but there is a beautiful, bittersweet feeling that runs through all three, complementing each other nicely. One non-fiction article, dealing with sources of energy and fuel in science-fiction, is very interesting, but it is the article on economics in speculative fiction that is particularly fascinating, as well as being a subject that's rarely touched on. These articles approach speculative fiction from a more technical and factual perspective, looking at world-building and what powers these new worlds, providing a contrast to the very character orientated approach of the writers in the three fictional pieces. I enjoyed all of it, though for me the highlights were certainly the stories (which is probably how it should be).

The following is a more in-depth review of the stories and articles in the issue.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury

Photo by Alan Light
Sad to hear that Ray Bradbury, one of science fiction and fantasy’s greats, author of Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Martian Chronicles, among many others, died June 5th aged 91.

On the website io9, which broke the news earlier today, Bradbury’s grandson Danny Karapetian shared these words about his grandfather: "If I had to make any statement, it would be how much I love and miss him, and I look forward to hearing everyone's memories about him. He influenced so many artists, writers, teachers, scientists, and it's always really touching and comforting to hear their stories. Your stories. His legacy lives on in his monumental body of books, film, television and theater, but more importantly, in the minds and hearts of anyone who read him, because to read him was to know him. He was the biggest kid I know."

Ray Bradbury was one of those authors who clearly loved writing and books so deeply and so passionately that it came through in every sentence, drawing readers in and bringing out the same joy in them, for the future, for the imagination, for vivid new worlds and mythical tales, and for the wonderful power of stories. He will be remembered mainly for the books mentioned above, but for me, some of his short stories have had the deepest effect. In many, such as ‘R is for Rocket’ and ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun,’ Bradbury provides a magically optimistic, exciting vision of the future. Amongst today’s more jaded, dark and ‘gritty’ speculative fiction, it’s always nice to be able to read back over Bradbury’s stories and feel that childlike, hopeful wonder for the unknown again. This does not mean that Bradbury thought the future, or human nature, was all roses. There are stories that warn against the misuse of machines and weapons (for example, ‘The Murderer’ and ‘The Flying Machine’), or that comment on racism and prejudice (e.g. ‘The Big Black and White Game’). But there is a refreshing sense of hope and love for life that runs through most of his short stories. He seems to have always remained the boy from ‘The Sound of Summer Running,’ with his new tennis shoes and his awe of a beautiful future that is alive with possibility. It is well worth picking up a collection of Ray Bradbury’s shorts.

Many authors are deeply indebted to Bradbury and the influence he has had on their own work. On his blog, Neil Gaiman expresses the beauty of Bradbury’s fiction and the profound effect that it has had. Gaiman also writes that Bradbury “was kind, and gentle, and always filled with enthusiasm, and the landscape of the world we live in would have been diminished if we had not had him in our world. And I am so glad that I knew him.” Read his tribute here.

Bradbury liked to tell a story about meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, when he was a young boy. At the end of the show Electrico touched the boy with an electrified sword to make his hair stand up, and commanded him to “Live forever!” Bradbury said that he started writing every day since then, and never stopped. Bradbury’s stories are so loved and so popular that he does indeed seem to have fulfilled Electrico’s command – he will never be forgotten.


Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Piano Tuner - Book Review

The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason, is the story of Edgar Drake, a piano tuner sent to Burma to fix the Erard Grand Piano of Surgeon-Major Carroll. Edgar travels from London to India, where he catches a train, then a boat to Burma, finally travelling through Burma to Mandalay and on to Mae Lwin in the Shan States where the Surgeon-Major is stationed. Here he works on the piano while enjoying the peace, beauty and seductive charms of the idyllic Burmese village. As he grows more nervous concerning Surgeon-Major Carroll’s unorthodox methods for establishing peace, he nevertheless falls completely in love with the land and its people. However, the British Army does not share Edgar and Carroll’s desire for harmony and understanding, nor their belief in the power of music.

The front cover of this book promises three things: extraordinary, seductive, haunting. If these words adorn the front of the book, then the reader is going to expect just this. Now, it did not quite meet ‘extraordinary,’ but two out of three isn’t bad, right? Unfortunately, this book made me realise that ‘seductive’ and ‘haunting’ are all very well, but they do not necessarily equate to a great story.

The Journey: Potential for ‘Extraordinary’?

The book begins promisingly. Edgar is an intriguing character, a little dreamy and introverted, a little odd, but deeply passionate about music in a way that convinces the reader to be deeply passionate about music with him. It is very easy to like him, to feel for him, to sympathise with him. Right from the get-go he is uneasy about the typical Victorian imperialistic attitude to the East, and dislikes society’s racist opinions of the ‘Oriental’. He does not like the army on principal, and sympathises instantly with Carroll because of his efforts to promote peace. Edgar is a guy we can get behind. This does leave the question of exactly how Edgar will grow and change on his trip, however. Does he actually have anything to learn? Might it have been more interesting to see the more ‘typical’ middle-class Victorian suddenly thrown into Burmese life?

Edgar’s journey is also promising. He encounters a man on the boat, known as ‘The Man with One Story’ who launches into a haunting tale of mysticism, magic, and the devastating power of music. This is meant to complement Edgar’s own journey, both physical and emotional, but it is slightly unfortunate that this ‘mini-story’ is far more intriguing than anything that happens to Edgar. Still, Edgar’s journey continues. On the train across India he sees a boy at a station who wants to sell him a poem, a tale of the leip-bya of Burma. The train pulls away before Edgar can hear it, but the story of the leip-bya will be visited again later in the book. Edgar faces other events on his way to Mae Lwin including a tiger hunt which goes badly wrong, in which he must face his own attitude and realise that despite his best intentions he is still just another British intruder. Edgar sees beauty, strangeness, mysticism, violence and oppression. He sympathises further with the Burmese people. Over the journey the reader has been taken from the gritty realistic feel of London into a world of magic and ‘otherness.’ Edgar has seen things that bewilder and intrigue him, and is adjusting some of his own attitudes to become a better person.

Problems and Dreams

Unfortunately, the book does not stay on a high note for long. In between the beautifully written moments of awe, or the suggestions of the supernatural, Edgar’s journey is a somewhat boring list of places reached and then instantly left, like the author is ticking off points on a map. This is interspersed with a fairly dry history of the Shan people, followed by an even drier history of Erard Grand Pianos. Despite Edgar re-assessing some of his preconceptions (such as the patronising belief that they can ‘bring music’ to a country that clearly has its own rich musical traditions), he does not really change at all. In fact, he barely reacts to anything around him. He seems to be drifting along as if in a dream, letting things happen to him without engaging. He is possibly the most passive main character I have ever read about.

This is, perhaps, intentional. Edgar’s entire time in Burma feels like a dream to him, and he writes home to his wife that he is losing a sense of what is real and what is only imagined. This connects to the story of the leip-bya, the Burmese word for a person’s spirit or soul, that flies around moth-like at night and returns at daybreak. The leip-bya’s nightly excursions are responsible for dreams. Edgar’s own connection to the leip-bya seems to suggest that he is also flying around moth-like, experiencing a constant dream from which he needs, or perhaps can never again, wake up. This is enhanced by references to the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey, as well as the story of Gautama. Edgar is the man who has fallen in love with a dream-land, who has left his wife and everything else behind to live in an idyllic new land. The reader is never quite sure if this is a wonderful thing, or a deeply sinister thing.

Haunting and Seductive, but at the Expense of Story and Character?

This is the strength of the book, but also its failing. Daniel Mason gives the reader ‘haunting’ and ‘seductive’ in bucketloads. The story is strange, ethereal and surreal. It never quite feels real, and the constant references to dreams, illusions and magic, as well as to men lost to other lands, adds a clever and enjoyable element to this. However, this also means that Edgar never really steps up and becomes an interesting character. He never does anything, simply observing and letting things happen to him. His feelings and emotions are therefore unconvincing, and his extreme love for Burma slightly baffling. He remains so much on one emotion throughout the whole story that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes him so desperate to stay here.

The story itself, as well as the setting, also falls a little flat. In an effort to keep everything feeling so dreamy, the author appears to have neglected to keep his plotting tight and his descriptions evocative. There are plenty of long, rambling sentences about what Edgar sees around him, and yet none of these creates a sense of anything beyond Edgar’s impression of beauty and slight bewilderment. In other words, we are told that what Edgar experiences is beautiful and wonderful, but we do not see this for ourselves. I expected lush descriptions that would make me feel as though I was transported to Burma. I wanted impressions of what this place feels like, smells like, and sounds like; I wanted similes and comparisons that could make me feel as emotionally connected to it as we are informed that Edgar is. I did not get this. In fact, I cannot picture what Mae Lwin, or indeed Burma, looks like at all. The book left me with a hazy dream-image, an impression of heat and trees and a river, but nothing more. This certainly complements the theme and ideas of the story, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

Daniel Mason also has a style of writing that began to grate on my nerves a little. He switches between past and present tense without warning, and seemingly at random. Sometimes this generates a sense of confusion that connects to Edgar’s feelings, but more often it feels as though the author simply forgot what tense he was writing in. At other times, quotation marks indicating speech would disappear without warning, only to reappear again a few paragraphs later. These ‘quirks’ were, presumably, meant to add to the sense of dreaminess and disconnect from reality, but I just found them distracting and annoying. To a certain extent this is what I get for reading a book from the literary fiction genre (yes, literary fiction is a genre. It can pretend all it wants but it’s not fooling anyone), but in general I have nothing against this kind of experimentation, if it feels appropriate. Once again, too much time spent enhancing the haunting, dreamy air, not enough spent on good, simple storytelling.

Ending: The High Point

Despite its problems, The Piano Tuner is perhaps worth reading for the end alone. Suddenly all the meandering elements of the story are drawn together and reality kicks in again with a bang. There are revelations that are surprising and shocking, and a twist-that-could-be-or-not-be-a-twist that is left for the reader to ponder. The story is left on an ambiguous and gloriously bittersweet note. It is a tremendous shame that the majority of the book did not share the same powerful writing and emotional impact as the ending. This is an ending that I will definitely not forget, even as the rest of the book fades into dream.