House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008) 473 p.

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I was lukewarm about Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space but recently found myself going down a Wikipedia wormhole of his fictional universe while I was bored at work, remembered that in terms of sheer creativity and ideas I actually quite liked him, and figured he was worth another crack. The Revelation Space sequels are exactly the kind of books I was happier to read the Wikipedia synopses of rather than slog through hundreds of pages of more padding and thinly drawn characters, so I thought I’d jump ten years further into his career and read House of Suns.

I’m glad I did, because it’s really quite good. Revelation Space took place in a universe a few thousand years into human colonisation of the galaxy: a cold, bleak and frightening place full of extinct alien civilisations, decaying cities and autocratic governments, where humanity is clinging to life rather than prospering. House of Suns takes a rather different tack: humans are still the only intelligent life to arise in the galaxy, but after six million years we’ve splintered, evolved and gene-tweaked our way into a million daughter species who have flourished in every corner of the galaxy – a steady tide of thousands of different stellar empires rising and falling. The novel is built around the concept of “shatterlings,” the thousands clones of wealthy industrialists who – back in the solar system, six million years ago – sent them forth to explore the galaxy. Thanks to the time-dilating effects of near-light travel, cryogenic freezing and generally advanced medicine, these clones operate on an entirely different timescale than other human civilisations; at one point a different kind of near-immortal describes the protagonist as “a bookworm who has tunnelled through the pages of history.” The shatterlings have powerful starships, conduct engineering feats on grand scales, trade with other civilisations for their immense amount of accumulated knowledge, and are generally perceived by lesser human civilisations as something like angels or gods.

Plotwise, House of Suns revolves around the shatterlings Campion and Purslane of the Gentian Line, i.e they are both clones of a woman named Gentian. They’re engaged in a taboo love affair and are on their way to one of the regular reunions held by the Gentian Line  every few hundred thousand years. Upon their late arrival at the designated system they discover their Line has been ambushed and nearly wiped out. Most of the book is a mystery, as Campion, Purslane and the other surviving Gentians try to figure out who tried to annihilate their Line, and why.

House of Suns grabbed me right from the beginning. Over ten years of his writing career Reynolds has really improved: there’s far less bloat, the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and information is never brazenly withheld from the reader (a repeated sin in Revelation Space). The characters are still a bit flat, but I found it nice to read about people who are friendly and helpful to each other, rather than the cast of Revelation Space, who were bafflingly hostile and suspicious of each other even when they were natural allies. The plot gets a bit complex towards the end, but most of the loose ends are tied up and the conclusion is really quite nice. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015) 404 p.

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This was one of the critical darlings of the past few years, garnering rave reviews everywhere from Strange Horizons to the Guardian. I was surprised by how much I disliked it, even though in the case of Becky Chambers that’s a bit like kicking a puppy.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the multi-species crew of the wormhole-building ship the Wayfarer: a gang of Super Best Friends who zip around the galaxy in their cosy spaceship drinking tea, talking about their feelings and braiding their hair. (Yes, there is actually a hair braiding scene.) I could tell within the first 100 pages that this was absolutely not the book for me, but stuck with it partly to see if it improved and partly to rubberneck. Calling it “girlish” feels sexist, but the problem I have with it is specifically that it’s girlish rather than feminine, which is to say, it’s juvenile. It’s not YA, it’s not juvenile in a good way – it’s juvenile in the sense that it appeals to a child’s cosy fantasies rather than genuinely grappling with the world.

The conflict and drama in this book, while theoretically there, is anodyne. Crises arrive, are quickly solved, and then everybody talks about how it made them feel for the next fifty pages in passages that feel more like exercises from a self-help book than dialogue in a novel, let alone an actual conversation. Everybody is super courteous and incredibly understanding of each other’s feelings at all times… except for Corbin the fuel specialist, a character deliberately written to act like a needless jerk merely so he can serve as a whipping boy for the rest of the crew, who talk about how they wish they could push him out the airlock. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Corbin is the only white male in the book.

I’m sure that fans of the book – and there are a lot of them, apparently – would disagree that the novel is without conflict. Sure, a couple of bad things happen; sure, there are nasty things in this galaxy. But rather than have her characters face up to them, Chambers opts every single time for a predictable homily about the importance of respecting differences or the value of friendship.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has all the usual problems of a debut sci-fi novel – brazen exposition, flat characters, insipid writing – but it was really that cloying, all-pervasive niceness that drove me up the wall. This is not a grown-up novel. This is Enid Blyton meets Tumblr. This is the Babysitter’s Club in space. This is a paper version of chamomile tea and a hot bath. If that sounds like your thing, go nuts. If you want something less insufferably twee, there are far more challenging and well-written space opera series out there.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987) 208 p.

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This one was a bit of a slow burn (appropriately enough – a moon tiger is a mosquito coil), narrated by an old woman dying of cancer in hospital and looking back on her life. Important notes struck include her incestuous relationship with her brother, her adoption of a Hungarian student marooned in London after the 1956 revolution, her lukewarm relationship with her daughter, and most importantly of all, her tragically short romance with a tank commander in Egypt during World War II.

Sometimes I finish a book but don’t get around to reviewing it until later, and realise that only a week has passed and I’ve forgotten the main character’s name. Moon Tiger is one of those. I warmed to it as it went on, and enjoyed the second half more than the first. I liked Lively’s evocative description of WWII-era Cairo and its bustling population of millions of Arabs living in the shadow of a vanished civilisation, putting up with the occupying British waging a war the Arabs don’t care about. But that’s the kind of book Moon Tiger is – a good one, a well-written one, but one where I know a year from now I’ll remember very little from it except a handful of scenes and impressions.

 

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1991) 286 p.
Discworld #12 (Witches #3)

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In the tiny hilltop kindom of Lancre, the witch Desiderata Hollow passes away – and passes on her magic wand and responsibilities as a Fairy Godmother to Magrat, the youngest of Granny Weatherwax’s coven. The three witches must set out for the distant city of Genua to find Magrat’s young charge Ella (as in Cinderella) and free her from the manipulations of her other, evil Fairy Godmother, Lilith – who also happens to be the de facto ruler of Genua, having deposed the old Baron.

Witches Abroad, as the title suggests, is a road story. The witches don’t actually arrive in Genua until halfway through the book. The first half is a sequence of comedic setpieces as a pair of old biddies and their exasperated younger friend bumble their way through Foreign Parts. (“Abroad” is such a classically English word.) At first – the dwarves, the vampire village, the running of the bulls – this is a reason for Pratchett to exercise his overactive imagination in amusing vignettes. As the witches approach Genua, however, their encounters are lifted straight out of fairytales – not just because Pratchett wants an excuse to satirise them, as would have been the case in previous Discworld novels, but because Lilith is deliberately engineering her local world to resemble a world of fairytales, regardless of the implications. This comes out most strongly in the Red Riding Hood analogue, as the witches save an old woman, only to find that the Big Bad Wolf is a victim as well – an ordinary wolf given human predatory instincts, slowly going insane:

She stared at the wolf, wondering what she could do for it. A normal wolf wouldn’t enter a cottage, even if it could open the door. Wolves didn’t come near humans at all, except if there were a lot of them and it was the end of a very hard winter. And they didn’t do that because they were big and bad and wicked, but because they were wolves.
This wolf was trying to be human.
There was probably no cure.

“Someone made this wolf think it was a person,” she said. “They made it think it was a person and then they didn’t think any more about it. It happened a few years ago.”

Lilith’s autocratic wonderland is on full display as the witches eventually reach Genua: a swamp town, a party town, a very clear New Orleans analogue. It seems a strange place to set your novel about fairytales and princesses, but Pratchett is deliberately contrasting it with another city in the same part of the real world – Orlando, and specifically Disneyworld. In an interview he said:

[Witches Abroad] had its genesis some years ago when I drove from Orlando to New Orleans and formed some opinions about both places: in one, you go there and Fun is manufactured and presented to you, in the other you just eat and drink a lot and fun happens.

The old Genua – the swampy shanty town – still clusters around the outskirts of the new Genua, a pristine, polished wonderland which is utterly soulless, and which reminded me of Lord Farquaad’s castle in Shrek (which is, of course, another paordy of Disneyworld). The witches go about finding Ella, encountering a voodoo swamp woman who is neither quite ally or enemy, and and attempting to disrupt the threads of narrative power that will enable Lilith to cement her hold on the people of Genua.

I remember liking Witches Abroad quite a lot when I first read it, and I still do. The plot hums along very nicely considering it’s a book of two halves, treading a good balance between comedy and gravitas, much like Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! (In fact, it’s strange to me that Pratchett clearly hit upon excellent characters in Weatherwax and Vimes, yet waited so long to write their follow-up stories – six and seven books respectively, if you consider the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites to be a sort of proto-character.)

What works best of all is the dynamic between the three characters: Granny, the iron-willed leader of the group, a cranky and contemptuous woman who was “born to be good” and doesn’t like it; Nanny Ogg, the rambunctious, cheerful, drunken old hen, the kind of woman you wish you had as a crazy aunt, who’s nevertheless sharper and more powerful than she first seems; and Magrat, the youngest of them, a hippie-dippie New Age wet hen. Granny and Magrat in particular clash a lot over the use (or non-use) of magic and Granny’s scornful attitude towards Magrat’s idealism, which culminates in a very nice scene at the climax of the book in which Granny overcomes a voodoo practitioner by doing something she repeatedly told Magrat is impossible. (“When Esme uses words like ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one,’” Nanny Ogg notes, “she doesn’t include herself.”)

An excellent entry in the series, and I again have to say how puzzling it is, in retrospect, that Pratchett waited so long before reintroducing some of his best characters. He must have realised he was on to something after this one; after Small Gods, which is next (and possibly the only totally stand-alone book in the series) he went straight back to the witches with Lords and Ladies, which I recall being the high point of their arc. The City Watch books will start coming thick and fast soon as well.

Rereading Discworld Index

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (2006) 310 p.

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Told in the manner of a fireside fairytale, it becomes apparent early on that The Book of Lost Things – despite having a child for a main character and a strong Narnia influence – is something more of a dark urban fantasy for adults. David is a 12-year-old boy in London during World War II, struggling to adjust to the aftermath of his mother’s death, not getting along with his father’s new wife, and filling his spare time with reading. As one would expect, he eventually finds himself sucked into a fantasy world in which he encounters a series of traditional fairytale adventures while attempting to find his way home.

This makes The Book of Lost Things sound fairly predictable, and it is, but that doesn’t stop it from being enjoyable. Connolly has a pitch perfect narrative voice, capturing the tone of a mid-20th century fantasy writer telling a straightforward fairytale with hints at a darker narrative. (I could have done without the Pratchettesque communist Seven Dwarves, though, which completely jarred with the tone of the rest of the book).

It don’t think it’s a book which left a lasting impression on me, but it is one which I think was well-written, which I enjoyed a lot while I was reading it, and which I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (2016) 303 p.

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Railhead ended with interstellar thief Zen Starling and his robotic friend and lover Nova escaping the encroaching forces of the Network Empire by riding their train through a newly-built teleportation gateway to an entirely alien railway network. That sentence sounds completely bonkers if you haven’t read Railhead, but the general gist is that it’s a space opera set in a far-future universe where people travel on intelligent trains, moving between different star systems by virtue of a network of mysterious gateways; there’s some confusion as to whether they were built by a long-vanished alien race, or by the Guardians, the pantheon of god-like AIs who have exercised benevolent rule over the human race for centuries now.

Black Light Express is a fast-paced, enjoyable sequel to Railhead. Reeve has a lot of fun in Stark Trek mode during the first half, inventing all kinds of bizarre alien species for Zen and Nova to encounter as they travel upon what turns out to be the original interstellar network. As always, he shows a great flair for creating morally grey characters, and for expanding upon characters who were seemingly introduced to serve purely as villains – like Kobi Chen-Tulsi, a spoilt rich jerk in Railhead but somebody a bit older and wiser now. I also enjoyed seeing more of the Guardians, which were brushed upon in Railhead but are explored more thoroughly here.

Reeve also explores the concept of unconventional love, whether it’s Zen and Nova or the even stranger relationship between Malik (one of those morally grey antagonists from Railhead) and the human “interface” of the Guardian Mordaunt 90. This is a particularly interesting thing to see in the YA genre, in which authors these days are very cognisant of the fact that their target audience includes what you might call at-risk teenagers. The obvious example I’m thinking of is the need for closeted gay kids to see valid, celebrated gay relationships on the page and on the screen – but it’s quite easy to just throw in a couple of gay characters. Instead, by depicting unconventional relationships with a sci-fi slant that will never apply at all in the real world, Reeve has come up with a creative and thoughtful metaphor that young readers can interpret more broadly: a statement that love knows no boundaries, is not necessarily linked to sex, and can manifest in surprising and unexpected ways.

But that’s just a small part of it, one which I thought was particularly original and worth noting – Reeve’s not writing some manifesto on love. Black Light Express is still mostly adventures and explosions and all-powerful AIs and alien ruins and snarky trains. I don’t love the Railhead series quite as much as I loved the Mortal Engines series, but I’m pretty sure that’s just the nostalgia factor. These books are brilliant examples of YA sci-fi which deserve a place in every school library, and Reeve remains of Britain’s most criminally underrated authors. I hope we get a third entry in the series next year.

Meg and Mogg in Amsterdam and Other Stories by Simon Hanselmann (2016) 164 p.

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More of the same hilarious winning formula of drug abuse, suburban ennui, depression and Owl’s relentless bullying at the hands of his alleged friends. Possibly the best part of this volume is the introduction of Diesel and Jaxon, “the terrifying children of Werewolf Jones.”

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Werewolf Jones is already such a terrible person – a cruel, narcissistic, obnoxious, mooching heroin addict – that the idea of him being a deadbeat dad to two actual children (who are utter terrors, considering their home environment) is brilliant.

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I don’t have much more to say. Simon Hanselmann is a comic genius and you should buy his books.

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey (2008) 272 p.

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Not one of Carey’s best efforts; indeed, one of his weakest. For the first few pages it seems like his writing might have finally caught up to his life: New York City, the Upper East Side, Bloomingdale’s, Lexington Avenue. A young boy in the 1970s, Che, being raised by his grandmother because his parents have waltzed off to join the Weathermen. Then the narrative twists and turns its way very shortly down to Queensland, where Che and his adpotive new mother Dial spend the next two hundred pages in a hippie commune near Nambour, as Carey himself did in the ‘70s.

Part of what made His Illegal Self a slog was that Carey’s prose seems to lack its usual spark. He writes from the perspectives of both Che and Dial and his characters have lost some of that loquacious charisma that always lets you know – whether it’s 19th century England or contemporary Australia or some completely fictional country – that this is a Peter Carey novel; give or take a few lectures Dial receives about American arrogance, or the occasional observational gem:

Then she waited for the lawyer, watching him stroke his mustache like a fool. She could not imagine how this man had ended up in this crappy little office with felt tiles on the floor. All those years in law school and then spend your life in fucking Nambour, staring through the window at the Woolworths loading dock.

Overall, though, this is a strangely flat outing from an author who is many things but rarely boring.

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I think the last time I saw something slowly playing out on television and thought “this wasn’t supposed to happen” was the 2015 UK election. (Brexit, despite what people seem to think now, was always tight in the polls.) That was a mild version of this, because Cameron and Osborne cannot begin to compare to this. An election result that goes to the party you don’t support is a fluffy daydream compared to this. This is more like 9/11: watching something on your TV screen which you know cannot possibly be real. Something which, therefore, does not feel real. Something which makes you feel as though you’ve woken up in a nightmare. Something which makes you feel as though you are witnessing history in the making, and not in a good way; you are watching the dawn of a darker time.

We are all fucked. It is difficult to underscore how fucked we are. I am not American; by “we,” I mean everybody on the planet. Every human being.

This has nothing to do with being a left-winger. Of course I would prefer a Democrat in the White House. But this is not the same as if John McCain or Mitt Romney had won the presidency. This is a chilling, unprecedented catastrophe in the making. Every other Republican candidate in that race obeyed the norms and conventions of a liberal democracy. I’ve said throughout this election that if it were a vote between Trump and, say, Dick Cheney, I wouldn’t just vote for Cheney – I’d fucking volunteer for him. Donald Trump represents a historically unique threat to the United States and, therefore, to the world, and I am far from the first person to say this.

In the short term, I am frightened for the economy. Today the Dow Jones fell 750 pointsmore than the first day of trading after 9/11! I am frightened that the first year of Trump’s administration will usher in a global depression which will make 2008 look like a joke. I am frightened that now that Australia’s mining boom is over – and given that Trump has proposed 45% tariffs on Chinese imports – Australia will not, this time, be shielded from the worst of it. I am worried for my savings, my scant investments, my shitty job that I badly need. White male privilege, sure, whatever. Economic recession isn’t good for anybody anywhere in the world.

In the medium term I am worried about a man like Trump with access to America’s nuclear arsenal. Did you know that “the President has almost single authority to initiate a nuclear attack“? Is it beyond the realms of imagination that he might choose to nuke, say, Raqqa? Can you imagine him having a cool head to handle a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula? Would you be comfortable, as he apparently is, with an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia, with Saudi Arabia and South Korea and Japan developing nuclear weapons? This planet has gone 76 years without using a nuclear weapon in conflict. We all collectively came through the Cold War unscathed. Will that still be true in four years?

In the long-term, I am worried about society – human society, everybody’s society. The rise of populist nationalism across the Western world has been bad. Brexit was bad. Nothing has made me feel despair like this. Nothing has made me worry more that we are slouching towards a science fiction dystopia, a William Gibson novel, the end of The Bone Clocks, a dark and frightening world of inequality and hate and survival and despair. Americans have willingly voted for a man who ignores all democratic norms, who believes climate change is a hoax, who shows a disturbing love of authoritarian dictators like Vladimir Putin, who said he would only accept the election result if he won, who has called for the jailing of his political opponent for nonsensical reasons, who has willingly stoked racial division and bigotry in ways the Republican Party had previously only flirted with.

Trump is already a disgrace to his office and to his country simply by being what he is: an arrogant, bloviating, bullying, cruel, erratic, hypocritical, ignorant, inexperienced, lying, narcissistic, vindictive, racist, sexist, sleazy, swaggering, tax-avoiding, thin-skinned monster. He is a monster. Nearly every bad adjective you can say about somebody applies to him, and I literally cannot think of a good one. (He’s not even a good businessman, he just plays one on TV – if he’d invested his inheritance in index funds and played golf for the past 40 years he’d have more money than he does now.)

He is a man who dodged the Vietnam draft and then went on to criticise POW John McCain, and the family of a deceased veteran.

He is a man who has been caught on tape talking about committing sexual assault, and has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women.

He is a man who appears to be running for president – who has won the presidency, Jesus fucking Christ! – simply to serve his own ego, his narcissism, his desperate need for fame and adulation.

I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know why I’m linking to examples, when everybody already knows all this, after the last torturous year which turned out to be merely a harbinger for the horror about to descend on us.

Maybe I can’t fathom what has happened. I don’t understand how a country which voted for Obama twice could vote for this. I can’t believe that a majority of Americans looked at this self-entitled piece of shit; this dangerous, know-nothing braggart; this man who is plainly, obviously unfit for any kind of public office, who clearly never thinks of anyone else but himself, and thought: “Yes, OK. Let’s give him what he wants. Let’s let him live in the White House and sit in the Oval Office. Let’s let him have the nuclear codes. Let’s make him President of the United States.”

This is beyond satire. This is beyond nightmares. This feels like a rejected Hollywood script. This is a waking nightmare for intelligent people all over the world. I do not know what is going to happen in the next four years and I do not particularly want to find out. I do not want to see white supremacists given carte blanche to harass and assault African-Americans and Muslim-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. I do not want the economy to crater. I do not want to see nuclear weapons used. I do not want to see agreements on climate change rolled back, I do not want to see the world cope with billions of climate refugees by the time I’m in my old age. I do not want this horrid, awful man to feel the satisfaction of once again getting exactly what he wanted. I do not want to see the democratic norms of the United States undermined by voter suppression continuing, by Trump considering bullshit criminal charges against Clinton, by Trump appointing some crackpot alt-right judge to the Supreme Court. I do not want to feel the horrible, sickening sensation of my planet, my species, my lifetime, pitching forward off a cliff and into a dark and ugly void.

Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (2014) 211 p.

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“Meg, Mogg and Owl” sets a pretty close record for me for the shortest amount of time between discovering an online comic, reading as much of it as I could find, and then buying the book and reading all of that. It’s been floating around on the internet for a few years, on Tumblr and VICE and so on, but Megahex collects a few dozen of Simon Hanselmann’s more polished earlier works into a single hardback volume.

Based on the characters from an innocuous 1970s British children’s cartoon, “Meg, Mogg and Owl” re-imagines them as deadbeat drug addicts slouching around a sharehouse and getting into various revolting hijinks. The heart of the series, for me, is Owl: the most responsible of the friends, still a stoner and a deadbeat, but someone who at least manages to hold down a full-time job and tries to keep the house clean. In return, his friends consider him a stupid nerd and mercilessly torment him.

Lots of this goes into some pretty dark and horrible territory, and this is most definitely not a comic for everyone. A litmus test of whether or not you’ll find MMO compelling or just sick is the comic “Boston Clanger” (not part of Megahex) which neatly encompasses all the main dynamics at play in the broader series: Owl’s abuse at the hands of his friends, the gross-out comedy, but also the more subtle levels of characterisation and comedic timing. Because the funniest part of “Boston Clanger” – go read it now if you haven’t already – is not Werewolf Jones and his children messily shitting on Owl’s bed, as funny as that is. It’s the following twenty-four panels in which Owl is left to painstakingly mop up their mess, singing the Frasier theme song to himself as he goes through the kitchen cabinets for cleaning products, scrubs his floor, hoses his blanket off against the back fence, etc. It’s horribly pathetic and sympathetic at the same time and it absolutely cracked me up.

I completely get that some people would just be turned off by this, or don’t have a sense of humour dark enough to find the torment of others funny, or – even among people who do – would find the cumulative effect of Owl’s personal hell a bit too much. That’s fine. But oddly enough, the more MMO I read, the more sympathetic I find the characters and the more comfortable I feel with it. Meg and Mogg do actually care about Owl, but seem oblivious to how awful their treatment of him is. Owl himself is no saint. Even Werewolf Jones, whirlwind of disgusting chaos that he is, has a core of wretched neediness alongside his malice.

Part of what makes it easy to enjoy humour this disturbing is that it’s rendered in the form of children’s cartoons – a witch, a cat, an owl, a werewolf. Hanselmann has said in interviews that many of his comics are based on real life, on experiences he had with friends and housemates growing up in Hobart and Melbourne. I doubt it would appeal to me as much if I were reading the awful adventures of actual human beings, but Owl – an inherently risible figure, a ludicrous bird man – yeah, sure, I can laugh at him all day.

Which is not to say that Megahex is nothing but button-pushing comedy; I’ve weirdly come to actually care about the characters, and the final comic in the book is surprisingly affecting. Like I said, it’s not for everyone, but if you can stomach it then it’s something wonderful and unique.

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