Brittle Innings (1994) by Michael Bishop

BrittleInningsThe afternoon’s fractured dazzle hung on us like warm honey, golden and clingy (43).

…and sweet and sticky, cloying and suffocating. An apt description for a novel thick with the muggy, oppressive climate of the southern United States in the midst of World War II and at the height of baseball season, where nostalgia ambers and crystallizes the past, but stops short of sweetening reality.

But this is a tale about monsters. The daily monsters. The people monsters. The go-about-your-business-and-don’t-you-dare-try-to-change-the-status-quo monsters. The oppression monsters.

It’s the perfect place for a real monster to hide. Continue reading

BSFA Shortlist Reviews: Wolves by Simon Ings

wolves1

Ings’ novels were just released in the U.S. All of them have Jeffrey Alan Love covers. If there was ever a reason to start book hoarding…

Wolves by Simon Ings

Setting: Near-future, pre-flood England.

Summary: Conrad is an unremarkable millennial twenty-something who works in AR tech (Augmented Reality) and has a girlfriend with prosthetic hands. His best friend, and his best friend’s girlfriend, are remodeling a boat because the ocean is rising. The narrative flashes back and forth between Conrad’s formative and adult years, and his friends do remarkable things while he sorts out his past, and maybe he comes to terms with some things about himself, but not really, because he’s too noncommittal to really give a fuck.

Surface synopsis quote:

I have revealed too much of myself. The inner shallows. [87]

Actual synopsis quote:

One by one we are transforming the spaces we have cleared. [206]

Biggest reader question: Where’s the SF?

Biggest reader answer, three-quarters in: OH, THERE’S THE SF.

How it feels: Bleak and gray. Casual characters in a brooding environment. Metaphors are like wow.

A taste:

This is my home with its inner chaos exposed, no more now than a ghastly iteration of the same salt crystal. City as tumour. A spreading circle of dead tissue. City as leprosy. [199]

Typical reader criticism: Conrad is an indolent, selfish dick, and his friends are indolent, selfish dicks.

My response: And?

Narrow-minded criticism: Conrad is confused about his sexuality.

My response: No, he is not confused. And sexuality is not static for many people, anyway.

Harshest criticism: All style, no substance. Just postmodern cool kids with no real struggle.

My response: The plot is “the adaptation of millennials in a pre-decay, pre-flood world.” But the story is actually about the human interpretation of and human effect upon space: landscape space, memory space, relational space. It is about how things change, and how we adapt to it and reconstruct our own stories about it. How our own manipulations of the landscape of life dehumanize us and remove us from the truth. Not a new interpretive plot, but compelling from a millennial POV.

Possible other criticism: It’s sexist. The female characters are mere ancillaries, annoying contrivances by design, cast in bad situations without much narrative sympathy.

But: Coming from the first-person POV of an indolent, selfish dick, that’skindathepoint. This is a critical depiction of the male POV within the hip, tech subculture. How timely.

My only real criticism: There is a cringe-inducing trunk scene that I think will hook most readers with its suspense, but I thought it was silly and interrupted the thematic arc.

Why it’s special: While the narrative slings back-and-forth in time, the novel’s motif of flooding landscapes builds momentum with a circling, swelling pattern full of consistent metaphorical themes. The spiral feels meandering, but is conclusive to the tale. The plot trickles, then swells, then engulfs.

Why it’s really special: The definitive near-future, post-modern tale for/about the millennial generation.

Should you read this: No. This was my favorite novel of 2014 and it’s all mine.

***

And that concludes my 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist! The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5. Sure, I have my favorites, but every book on this list is progressive and special in some way.

And remember that as the SF world collapses in dismay due to other big SF announcements this weekend.

Thanks for keeping it classy, British SF-ers! And thanks for such a delightful reading list!

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

 

BSFA Shortlist Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

TheFirstFifteenLivesofHarryAugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Setting: Pre- and post-WWII Europe. Over and over again. With some dalliances to China, Argentina, U.S.

Summary: Harry August is a “kalachakra,” a person who lives his life over and over again, but he is a “mnemonic,” and remembers everything from his previous lives. A little girl (another kalachakra) brings him a message to his deathbed: The world is ending, but more rapidly than before. Harry thinks he knows why, but can he stop it without becoming part of the problem?

Existential quote:

What is the point of me? [145]

Some reader criticism: It’s so boring. It’s just about this old guy.

My response: Shouldn’t you be watching your cartoons right now?

Why it’s so cool: Forget redundant reincarnation. That’s just the crux. With the barreling invasion of premature technology (color television in the forties, cell phones in the sixties), North (Webb, actually) conveys a surreal world unready for its advancements. Maybe it’s not so surreal…

How it feels: Riveting, with game playing and historical manipulation. Taut with character tension. Not since Batman and Joker have a protagonist and antagonist needed each other so badly. High quality storytelling.

Funny lines like:

If Pietrok-111 was a one-horse town, Pietrok-112 was the glue factory where that horse went to die. [174]

Best enjoyed by: Book or audio. North’s writing is captivating, but Peter Kenny’s narration is like buttah. (Kenny can switch character voices on a dime, hence his recent Audie Award nomination.)

SF literary sibling: Oh, you already read that other big name 2014 SF novel about a club of immortals who battle for control over time and reality? This one comes without the contrived and exaggerated fantasy mess.

Should you read this? Yes. Yes, you should read this.

Should you give this to a friend for Valentine’s Day? I did.

***

This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
Wolves by Simon Ings

 

BSFA Shortlist Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

ancillarySwordAncillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Setting: Mostly on a space station belonging to the vast Radsch Empire, thousands of years in the future of the galactic human diaspora.

Summary: After the destruction of the ship Justice of Toren, the Lord of the Radsch gives Breq, the only surviving Justice of Toren ancillary soldier, command of a Mercy ship. She is assigned to Athoek Station, where institutionalized classism has led to the neglect and abuse of conquered citizens.

The blurb that was never blurbed:

Time for Breq-fast! (Because it was a long time between reading Justice and Sword. Get it? Ohnevermind.)

The premise-puncturing quote that everybody’s thinking:

‘I may well be extremely foolish just letting you live, let along giving you official authority and a ship…’ [5]

Yep.

Synopsis quote:

…there were no tiny, brightly colored penises hanging in the corridors,… [18]

Haha, just kidding, but yeah… a funny scene in book full of “shes” and “hers.” I think Leckie is digging at herself here.

How it feels: Television-in-a-novel, much like its predecessor. Less than subtle address of imperial classism. Lots of indignant dialogue of the Picard shirt-tugging variety, which upstages the much more interesting quirks of an “unplugged” AI protagonist. Much tea drinking.

Word count time: Tea is mentioned 74 times, up from 39 in Ancillary Justice.

The blurb that was never blurbed, part 2:

More tea with your Breq-fast? (Eh?… eh?)

But about that tea drinking: It is a worn out sensory detail that I am quick to condemn, but it does serve the character of this sprawling empire maintained by delicate diplomacy.

Should you read this: Meh. Dramatized sci-fi makes for a blasé read, but I genuinely look forward to seeing this on the small screen, where the indignant dialogue and overt social commentary will be best utilized. Non-gendered pronoun use among sexually-ambiguous humanoid characters is not the most nuanced form of social commentary– it should not blow away dedicated SF readers– but this will be good for mainstream ‘Murica. I eagerly await the conservative huffing and puffing that will come from this development.

***

This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

 

Previous BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Upcoming BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings

 

BSFA Shortlist Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

lagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Setting: Lagos, Nigeria

Summary: A scientist, a soldier, and a rapper lead this multi-character exploration of Lagos in the midst of first contact with aliens.

Actual summary: A social peephole into Nigerian society.

Synopsis quote/Commentary about Western politics: We can work with you people, the alien tells the people of Nigeria.

How it feels: Hyper and lampooning. Primarily dialogue-driven, with some confusing head-hopping in scenes. Might disappoint critical readers with its initial pedestrian style, but the second half of the novel drives home Okorafor’s dark and funny observations about Nigerian social sectors, civil unrest, and mob mentality.

Characters you’ll meet: Shapeshifters and crossdressers, profiteering preachers and machete-wielding youths, a crazy Christian church lady and some level-headed Muslims. Oh, and a highway that eats people. (Nigeria and Texas have a lot in common.)

Best enjoyed: The audio format is supreme, and available in the U.S. (The book will be released in the U.S. in July.) The Nigerian performers are brilliant and wonderful and SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED FOR THIS YEAR’S AUDIE AWARDS AND WERE NOT.

Unanswered question: So why do all of the main characters’ names begin with ‘A’? They ask, but did I miss the alien’s answer?

Should you read this? Yes. Yes, you should read this.

Irrelevant observation: I get excited when giant story-weaving spiders show up in books. What’s that about?

 ***

This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings

 

 

BSFA Shortlist Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

TheMoonKingThe Moon King by Neil Williamson

Setting: An island bound to the cycles of the moon.

Summary: Glassholm’s first king captured the moon and tethered it to the island city. For five hundred years, the moon’s presence has influenced the mood of the people, who experience dramatic swings in temperament over the course of each month. But crime during the Dark days has become more heinous, and now leaks into the Fullish days. No one feels safe anymore.

Synopsis quote:

The earth moved around the sun, the moon moved around Glassholm. After that it was all a matter of shadows. [Loc. 1520]

The blurb that was never blurbed:

Gives new meaning to the phrase “that time of the month.”

How it feels: Fleeting moments of glittery fish scales and pearlescent moondrops are juxtaposed with a smoky crime story aesthetic. However, strained dialogue and strained motivations overshadow the intriguing, albeit flimsy, setting and premise. Many scenes feel blocked, as if in a play, as if the author is shouting, “Places, people!” An imaginative effort by a first-time novelist who is unpracticed in long fiction transitions.

The message: Loaded with positive, superficial messages about bipolar disorder and atonement. Ultimately about the importance of being different. Might also serve as a political allegory about the power of our leaders to make our lives miserable, and the passive compliance of citizens to allow misery to continue.

Celebrity blurbers: Jeff VanderMeer and Nina Allan have both praised this novel.

My response: Did we read the same book?

Should you read this? Passive readers looking for a unique secondary world setting might enjoy this. Critical readers might not buy the initial premise or the general passivity of the citizenry. (British colonists rioted over taxes; I should think state-induced suicidal depression might warrant regicide after the first month of lunar-entrapment.)

Ultimately: In general, reader feedback is split, most reviews are very positive, but this was my least favorite of the BSFA shortlist.

Publishing observation: The ebook version is loaded, LOADED, with typographical and grammatical errors, which, for this reader from a bilingual household, is not terribly important. (In my house, words make themselves!) More distracting is the urge to rewrite entire sentences to make them less explanatory, and more alluring.

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This is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge

Next week’s BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings