The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton

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Almost halfway through Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month and I am finally well enough to talk about my first vintage SF read The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton (published in 1974), after being a big pile of snotty, coughy germs for the last few days. Blergh.

 

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Vintage Science Fiction Month Read #1

 

I had never heard of D.G. Compton before I picked up this book. Looking online I see that he’s written a good dozen or so books, and I haven’t heard of any of them before either. I feel like I should have though because Katherine Mortenhoe was a really interesting, thought-provoking read, and Compton depicts his 44-year-old female protagonist – in a 70s Sci-Fi novel! Is anyone else impressed by this?! – sensitively, realistically, and not in the slightest bit sexist-ly. That’s brownie points right off the bat.

This is one of those books that stands up to scrutiny pretty well. Compton didn’t over-decorate his future with tech that now looks ridiculous, and his central idea that in a world where people have got it easy voyeuristic reality shows will be big business is bang on the money. And then the story itself is so much about Katherine and Roddie and what’s going on in their heads, about mortality and human connection and empathy, that the setting hardly matters. There’s enough sketched in that I was curious to know more about this future world, but most of my questions went unanswered. In the background to Katherine and Roddie’s journey there are protest marches on the roads, talk of bombs and riots on the news, motorcycle gangs that pull over and rob motorists, a corrupt police force, ramped-up Privacy Laws, and ‘fringie’ communities that reject money and technology and build their homes out of rubbish. It provides enough of a picture of unrest and unease, symptoms, I guess, of this “pain starved” world where people don’t die of much except extreme old age, (and Compton shows us some of the oldest members of society too, in the ‘Retirement Wing’, but they’re all drugged up to the hilts and happy in their own little worlds – no pain to be had).

Possibly the most Sci-Fi thing about the whole book is Roddie, “the man with the TV eyes”. He’s the first of a new kind of reporter-and-cameraman-in-one, recording everything he sees, and as such he is virtually owned by NTV, which paid for the very expensive operation that he’s undergone. Appropriately, he is the only character written in first-person in the story – while the ever-watched Katherine remains enigmatic in third-person – although as the novel progresses it becomes clear that he has lost as much privacy as Katherine has, for while everything she does is seen, everything he sees is seen, and there’s not much to choose between the two. The whole book positively reverberates with images of seeing and being seen, with mirrors, and reflections of reflections, with expectations and projections. And amidst it all is very little of the truth that Roddie claims to be after.

Because Katherine is a brilliant puzzle of a character. She is utterly normal: a working woman, on her second marriage, without children, she hasn’t achieved anything much, and hasn’t failed at anything much either. Her only claim to fame is that she is going to die soon. But she is so wonderfully written – nervous and inclined towards hysteria in the doctor’s office; brittle and prickly with few friends at work; going through the motions of a not-quite-satisfying marriage with Harry; intelligent and determined when making a break for it; vulnerable and afraid as the symptoms of her disorder manifest; and always unapologetically herself – she’s not easy to sympathise with and she’s awkward to get a handle on, but she feels very, very real. Which makes her struggle to come to terms with her own mortality that much more moving … and not a little uncomfortable. In a book where the public, the audience, is depicted as a baying, bloodthirsty crowd with no capacity for empathy it’s hard to read about Katherine and not feel that you too are invading her personal space.

In that way D.G. Compton was way ahead of his time. He foresaw the current (and ever-escalating) fascination with ourselves and others. Reality shows abound, the more ludicrous the better, social media is used to inform the world of what we are doing every minute of the day, and to check up on what others are doing – we are more connected than we have ever been, and yet often so much less so. The people Katherine comes into contact with when she has one of her first attacks of tremors in a public space don’t offer sympathy or help, they ask “who does she think she is?” and complain that she “couldn’t have something ordinary, not like the rest of us”. We watch actors and actresses protest at their lack of privacy and argue back that they’ve brought it on themselves, as if by putting ourselves on display we somehow forfeit our right to respect and understanding. And as if by watching those on display we somehow forfeit our capacity for compassion and care; (in some of my own personal darkest moments I worry that we’ve stopped seeing other people as people at all).

“Television did that for you, took your mind off things.”

So, this all sounds really bleak doesn’t it? Well, it mostly is. There’s a whole big reveal about two-thirds of the way through that makes the whole thing even more upsetting (or did for me at least), and I’m sure it could be argued that Compton wasn’t big on faith in humanity. And yet … And yet I don’t think it’s a story entirely without hope or, as Roddie puts it, “the possibility of joy”. Roddie and Katherine parallel each other in a number of ways, and so, while she doesn’t get the time to understand everything that went wrong with her first marriage and maybe mend it, it looks like Roddie will. And while Roddie had seemingly sold his soul to NTV, his connection with Katherine, the love and compassion he comes to feel for her in all her odd and awkward glory, empowers him to make another decision, and maybe get back what he lost. It’s tentative, but it is hope.

 

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Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

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Book Bingo – a SciFi novel translated into English = Achieved!

Well this was the bleakest book I could have chosen to finish off this year’s reading. Earlier in the year I had chosen The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu for this Book Bingo category, but I found it really difficult to get into. It also kept getting requested by other library borrowers while I was trying to read it, so I’d read a bit, return it so someone else could have it, then request it and read a bit more before returning it again, which all made for a fairly broken narrative. I gave up on it when I heard about Metro 2033, thinking this might be easier for me to grasp. Now I kind of wish I’d kept trying a bit longer with Mr Liu, because Mr Glukhovsky is just such a downer. 

The world above ground is a radioactive wasteland. Humanity cannot live there anymore, but there are still survivors down in the Moscow Metro, possibly the very last of humankind, eking out a living growing mushrooms, rearing pigs and scavenging. The various metro stations are like mini kingdoms, each governed in a different way, with different beliefs, politics and economic strategies. The only thing really agreed upon across the whole network of stations is that bullets are the new currency. Glukhovsky does an excellent job of portraying this claustrophobic and oppressive environment lit only by red emergency lighting, dim torches and campfires. It’s a world dominated by the darkness, by shadows and stories – word-of-mouth being the only way information can be passed from station to station – and H G Wells’ Morlocks are very appropriately mentioned at the beginning of the book to describe the humans that now people the darkness.

Artyom is a young man who barely remembers life above ground, or his mother, who was killed by rats (!!) while he was saved by the man he now calls Uncle Sasha. He lives with his ‘uncle’ at VDNKh, the northernmost station still inhabited, and, in a rather deliberate Fantasy novel fashion, we soon learn that he is Special, he has a Destiny. He appears to be more psychically sensitive than most people, (and normally this would be where I’d have put the book down and moved on to something else, because really? … But I carried nobly on in the name of Book Bingo), and there are ‘dark ones’ attacking from the surface and some sort of dark psychic force in some of the tunnels that can send people cuckoo … yada-yada-yada. Anyway, looooong story short, Artyom is given a quest and travels to the fabled Polis at the heart of the Metro. Along the way he meets lots of very odd people: traders and old intellectuals, a man who claims to be the last reincarnation of Ghengis Khan (my personal favourite), fascists and anti-fascists, Christians and the cannibal worshippers of the Great Worm… you name it. And at the end of his journey he sort of achieves what he set out to do, (I can’t say any more about the ending without giving something away).

I suppose I found this an odd kind of read altogether. Glukhovsky writes well, (although I think the translation is a bit off in places and there seem to be multiple names for each station, which made it very hard to trace Artyom’s journey on the Metro map provided on the inside cover), and even though there’s really not much to the plot I felt compelled to read on because I never knew who Artyom was going to meet next, and each character had something to add to the picture that emerged of the state of humanity. The author portrays the remnants of the human race squabbling over pointless ideals, turning on the weak, confused and afraid and seeing no way through, clinging onto beliefs and stories. Civilisation is truly lost. Humankind is back down at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, working for food, water and warmth, there’s no room for anything more. The meaninglessness of existence is discussed. It’s all brilliantly, overwhelmingly hopeless. Even Artyom’s mission feels empty. He faces obstacles and near-death as he struggles to get to Polis, and I wondered the whole time what anyone could possibly do to improve things when it wasn’t even clear what Artyom’s mission was.

But I was most disappointed after finishing the book. I went online to see if I could find some pictures of the Moscow Metro – not realising then that it is something of a tourist attraction, one of the things to see if your ever go to Moscow – and, wow. It’s gorgeous. Its stations are ornate and massive and just so grand. I had no idea. While I was reading I was imagining the London Underground, which is not even remotely like it. And I was disappointed because Glukhovsky set his book in this amazing network of beautiful stations, albeit dilapidated and overrun with people and rats and things that go bump in the night, but never gave me any sense of their grandeur, never gave me enough detail to picture them. The same setting as written by, hmmm … China Miéville say, would have been such a different thing. The Metro would have become a character in its own right, which I feel it should have been, as a counterpart to the degeneration of the people now finding shelter there. Knowing that this book was inspiration for a game of the same name I took a look at some of the game images to see if the designers had used any of the Moscow Metro in their creation, but nope. No such luck.

For all my grumbling this isn’t a bad book. It does its dark-hearted sowing of hopelessness and despair very well, and the ending is a doozy. It has the feel of an epic fantasy novel – chosen one, destiny, journey, journey’s end, big reveal – just with none of the admirable fantasy character traits, and no decent secondary characters. And no women. Without getting my Feminist rage on, there’s only one woman permitted to speak in the entire book, she says nothing of consequence and she’s not even given a name. Other than her, there are no women at all in this book. Then again, perhaps that’s why it’s all gone to s**t.

Anyway, Book Bingo 2017 is done! Yay me!

 

 

Now I’m off to read something soft and fluffy so that I can remember why it’s good to be alive. Happy New Year everyone – I hope 2018 will bring you all good health and good fortunes, and great reading material. x

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

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Book Bingo – a sci-fi from the bottom of the TBR pile = Achieved!

Redshirts was the first John Scalzi book I read a couple of years ago, and having been a massive Trekkie all my life I loved it. I found it funny and clever, and I assumed Scalzi must have been writing for years. It’s only very recently that I’ve started to get any idea of where various authors sit on the great timeline of SFF, and I was convinced Scalzi must be one of those late-seventies early-eighties writers making a comeback. Convinced. When I first found Old Man’s War I thought I must have found one of his earlier books, reprinted. And it reads so much like the awesome pulpy sci-fi of the seventies, (but way less sexist), that it wasn’t until I was getting ready to write this and did a quick search for his bibliography that I learned this was his first published novel. In 2005. So I clearly have a lot to learn.

It’s a great book, whatever it’s age. Scalzi has got an ace sense of humour, but he’s also able to write really solid, sympathetic characters and really, really good dialogue. John, Alan, Harry, Jesse, Maggie, Susan and Thomas, a.k.a. The Old Farts, are a group of new recruits in the Colonial Defence Forces; all in their seventies, all volunteers. Having given DNA samples along with signed letters of intent at the age of 65, John and his wife Kathy intended to join together. Now that Kathy has passed away John says goodbye to her grave, to his son Charlie and his family, and leaves Earth (forever, it’s part of the deal), for the CDF, space travel and a brand-spanking new body in any colour as long as it’s green. He meets his fellow Old Farts on the journey into orbit and the absolutely best bit of the book is their developing friendships as they go through all the tests and upgrades to get them ready for the CDF. When they have to go their separate ways to begin training for military service it’s genuinely sad that they have to split up, although Scalzi is so good at writing character that you just get to care about a whole new set of people once John and Alan have arrived on Beta Pyxis III, and I hooted aloud throughout their training under the stereotypical shouty-sweary drill instructor Master Sergeant Ruiz. This is a pattern that repeats throughout the book, (because, you know, war): It is truly affecting when a character dies (some more than others, obviously), and Scalzi pays them due attention, but then new characters come on board so you don’t feel the hole for too long. It’s good, good writing.

And it’s an awesome universe. While life carries on very much as normal down on Earth, up in space everything is out to get us. Humanity is just one of hundreds of other species out to colonise as much of space as it can get its greasy little mits on, and there is fierce competition with absolutely no interest in sharing. The alien species are diverse, often savage, and occasionally inexplicable. While I personally prefer my aliens friendly and inclined towards coffee and cake rather than our death and destruction, it’s fascinating to read about this chaotic scramble for territory and the tech needed to hold off all other comers. It’s written so gustily that you can’t help but be drawn in.

On the flip side, becoming a killing machine after a pedestrian Earth-bound life definitely messes with a person’s head. There is plenty of discussion about war throughout the book, especially when John loses it after slaughtering the Covandu on Cova Banda. The Covandu are very similar to humankind except for their being only inches tall, and John and his fellow soldiers kill them by stomping on them. The CDF forces wade through the Covandu cities like uniformed Godzillas stamping out life as they go.

“I’m talking about the fact that our opponents are one fucking inch tall. Before this, we were fighting spiders. Before that, we were fighting goddamned pterodactyls. It’s all messing with my sense of scale. It’s messing with my sense of me. I don’t feel human anymore, Alan.”

“Technically speaking, you’re not human anymore,” Alan said. It was an attempt to lighten my mood.

It didn’t work. “Well, then, I don’t feel connected with what it was to be human anymore,” I said. “Our job is to go meet strange new people and cultures, and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as we possibly can. We know only what we need to know about these people in order to fight with them. They don’t exist to be anything other than an enemy, as far as we know.”

I like that, for all he keeps his tone light, Scalzi still has a place for these discussions. It’s not all blood guts and glory and screw the other guy/girl/being.

There’s some cool tech and science on display here too. The faster than light travel employed in this universe is the Skip Drive, which kind of hurts my head if I think about it too much (there’s talk of multiple universes – I seriously can’t handle that sort of thing, my brain’s not big enough); there are space elevators known as Beanstalks (and I’m back on solid ground with that concept); guns, ‘empees’, that can fire different types of round that it creates itself, and can self-repair; and my favourite thing, the BrainPal. Well, it’s probably everyone’s favourite thing. The BrainPal is an implant that is essentially a smart phone in your brain. It enables instant communication, can be used as an ereader and television inside your head, it can translate things for you, you can look anything up on it, and you can operate your empee via thought. I have no doubt that Apple is already working on it. (In We by John Dickinson people have a similar kind of implant and I loved the idea then as much as I do now. The only advantage Scalzi’s BrainPal has is that you can name it whatever you want and I love all the names the Old Farts choose for theirs).

If there’s just one more thing that lifts this book up out of the quagmire of military sci-fi it is, for me at least, the exploration of John and Kathy’s marriage. For John his marriage to Kathy is not a thing of the past, even though she has passed away it is something ever-present for him. It’s not a marriage described only in rosy hues, it feels pretty authentic with its ups and downs and everydayness, which is perhaps why, when John starts to question his own humanity, his marriage and his feelings about it are the things that keep him grounded. And when he meets Jane, a Ghost Brigade soldier created from Kathy’s DNA but with none of his wife’s memories, his tentative relationship with her is another aspect of that first relationship, as well as something new. The next book in the series is called The Ghost Brigades and I am secretly hopeful that there will be more about Jane (Jane Sagan – nice touch) to come because I think she definitely needs more page time – I have so many unanswered questions.

I’ll say it again: This is a great book. It is absolutely worth reading. It’s got action, and space travel and a sense of humour. It’s also got a heart. I really, really like it. John Scalzi is up there on my list of most awesome writers of all time. He’s got style as well as smarts, and if it weren’t for the fact that I am woefully close to finishing my Book Bingo I’d go back to the beginning and read Old Man’s War all over again.

“I simply refuse to acknowledge that there is not something about you I despise,” Ruiz said. “Where are you from?”

“Ohio, Master Sergeant!”

Ruiz grimaced. Nothing there. Ohio’s utter inoffensiveness had finally worked to my advantage. “What did you do for a living, recruit?”

“I was self-employed, Master Sergeant!”

“As what?”

“I was a writer, Master Sergeant!”

Ruiz’s feral grin was back; obviously he had it in for those who worked with words. “Tell me you wrote fiction, recruit,” he said. “I have a bone to pick with novelists.”

The Matrix Comics

Matrix Comics

Book Bingo – Virtual Reality = Achieved!

Love it or hate it, the first Matrix movie overturned cinema as we knew it. And to my mind the wave of geekdom we are all riding now sees some of its origins in the release of that film. It had a massive effect on me in 1999 when I first saw it, so much so that I can remember all the details of my cinema visit that day the way previous generations talk about where they were when the first Moon Landing happened. I don’t even mean that hyperbolically. It was a MASSIVE deal for me. So, it’s more than a little bit embarrassing to admit that I’ve never read the Matrix comics. What’s worse is that I thought I had done. I was going to read You by Austin Grossman for my Virtual Reality Book Bingo category, but with all these seasonal interruptions going on, and my complete lack of speed-reading ability I realised yesterday that it just wasn’t going to happen. I dug the Matrix comics out of our book mountain late last night thinking I’d do a swift re-read and try to throw something together today, but when I flicked through nothing was familiar. I think I probably watched the Animatrix and got used to seeing the comics on the shelves and just kind of blurred those two things together in my mind. Either that or the machines are onto me and are mucking about with my reality …

Anyway, considering that the Wachowski siblings’ whole concept of the Matrix is now eighteen years old, and the images and ideas from the movies are as much a part of our subconscious as Hanna-Barbera cartoons and the Oxo adverts, the stories in these two volumes still feel pretty fresh and engaging. It’s a mixed bag of goodies produced by some huge names from the world of comics like writer Neil Gaiman, and artists such as Bill Sienkiewicz and Ted McKeever, Dave Gibbons and Gregory Ruth to name only my favourites. Some of the pieces are the briefest of vignettes, (“Sweating the Small Stuff” and “A Life Less Empty”, for example); some add depth and breadth to the Matrix universe, (“A Sword of a Different Color” and “The Miller’s Tale”); and some suggest or explore possibilities (“Goliath” and “Déjà vu”). The best ones, in my opinion, are the ones that capture the awful conundrum of the Matrix universe where freedom from the Matrix means a miserable battle to survive outside of the lie and phenomenal powers within it, whereas enslavement means being caught up in a VR so pervasive that you have no knowledge of your imprisonment at all.

The prize for Most Outstanding Story in the first volume goes jointly to “There Are No Flowers in the Real World” and “Hunters and Collectors”. In “There are No Flowers…” Mariner crew-member Rocket finds himself alone and trapped in the Matrix when his ship is attacked IRL and he, the only survivor, is critically injured. Inside the Matrix he is still apparently whole and able, he’s in a familiar location, and it may even be possible for him to make contact with the girl he left behind when he took the red pill. But his real life body is getting weaker and weaker, and his mind less and less able to keep up the fiction of his health within the Matrix.  Ironically his last thoughts are of ‘saving’ his old girlfriend Mona from the Matrix even as his time runs out. It’s all drawn in punchy black and white by David Lapham, who also wrote the story, and it ticks all the boxes for me. As does “Hunters and Collectors”. Gregory Ruth is an incredible artist – check out his site here and check out these amazing portraits that he did of some of the characters from Frank Herbert’s Dune here – and this Moby Dick story is told as much through his elegant green-washed panels as is it through the dialogue. It’s a bleak tale of revenge, but there is also a hopeful note at the end about how myths and stories inspire people.

Volume one is, on the whole, fairly hopeful in tone, touching as it does on love and human connection giving people the determination to face ridiculous odds. Volume two on the other hand, is bleak. I don’t know how deliberate this was when the two volumes were compiled, and I don’t know the order in which the stories were originally put up online, but there’s not much hope kicking around, no matter how prettily drawn the stories all are. The absolute prettiest is Keron Grant’s “Run, Saga, Run”, which is eye-poppingly pink and purple in a collection otherwise dedicated to green, brown and grey. However lovely to look at it may be though – and it really, really is – the rebellious young Saga’s escape from a trio of agents really only plays into some nefarious plan of theirs in the end. The following story, “Wrong Number” by Vince Evans and Jason Keith, also gorgeously drawn, sees a Trinity-esque girl dead and a poor telephone repair guy left wondering if he killed her – it’s just six pages long and still it’s heart-breaking. And finally, rounding off this little trio of doom, is “Broadcast Depth”, again following directly on. The incredible Bill Sienkiewicz (who did the Delirium chapter artwork in Gaiman’s Endless Nights *heart*) tells the story of two girls wanting to surprise their mom on her birthday. By successfully doing so, they kill both her and her crew. Brutal. Even the final story, featuring the Kid from the Animatrix, which I feel is intended as a rallying cry after all the death, didn’t leave me feeling any better. I’m sure it is your turn now, kid, but your skateboard doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Sorry.

The Kid

What I have realised, after immersing myself in these comics, is how much I still love the mythos of the Matrix. It’s got an allure to it, this world where nothing is as it seems, where we’re all being duped by a not-too-perfect VR simulation while we’re milked to power the machines. Maybe it’s because the daily grind can feel a bit like that sometimes. And on the flip side, once you see the lie for what it is, you can do amazing things. It’s definitely because the Matrix is the scifi equivalent of all that fantasy I love where there is a world beyond that of the everyday; I want to go down the rabbit hole, through the back of the wardrobe, up the bookladder; I’m waiting for the clock to strike thirteen; I’m looking for a way out of the maze of real life … and the Matrix is just another way to get there.

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

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Book Bingo – A prize winner = Achieved!

China Miéville won the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book with his novel Un Lun Dun in 2008 (frankly it’s not a surprise when he wins any award, it’s only a surprise that he doesn’t win all of them). Looking at our purchase label in the library copy of the book that I’ve been reading we bought it hot off the press in 2007, which means I’ve been meaning to read Un Lun Dun for ten years. I honestly don’t know whether to be pleased that I finally got round to it, or annoyed with myself for taking so long. I suppose I should just be impressed that the book was still available for me to borrow when I was ready, and hadn’t been lost or nicked or damaged in the meantime.

Anyhow, Un Lun Dun is Miéville’s version of an Alice in Wonderland or Neverwhere-ish type story and as I am coming to expect from him the whole book just oozes and squirms with ideas and mad-scientist creations. What appears at first glance to be a standard Chosen-One-saves-the-world-as-has-been-foretold plot gets neatly flipped on its head, which I found deeply satisfying; there are some awesome character names to conjure with, like Obaday Fing, Inessa Badladder, Benjamin Unstible, Mr Brokkenbroll and – my personal favourite – Margarita Staples, Extreme Librarian and Bookaneer (heck yes!); Miéville also includes plenty of Lewis Caroll-esque word play, and further trope subversion, and a pretty serious environmental message to boot. And while at five hundred and twenty-one pages long you’d think it’d be a slog to read, it’s pretty zippy too.

Deeba Resham is perhaps the best reason to read this book, however. She’s not tall, not blonde, and not the ‘Schwazzy’ (the Chosen One), but she is the unlooked for heroine of Un Lun Dun. When her best friend Zanna (who is the Schwazzy) gets knocked out in her first confrontation with the Big Bad and goes home, throwing all the Propheseers who’ve been waiting for her arrival into confusion, it’s Deeba who returns to UnLondon to try and sort things out. And while no-one really has much faith in her ability to achieve anything – “you’re not the Schwazzy. You don’t have any destiny here” – she gets on and does what needs doing with a beautifully no-nonsense attitude, outspokenness and bucket-loads of good humour. Deeba cares, about UnLondon and about her friends, and because she does she overthrows everyone’s expectations.

Growing up I was always just a little suspicious of those books where prophecies foretold the coming of someone or other to save the day. I could never quite get my cynical little head round the concept – I mean, who wrote the prophecy? What did they have to gain from writing it? And who says there aren’t a whole bunch of people who could meet the Chosen One criteria? Who’s to say you’ve picked the right person? I also had a BIG problem with heroines always being exceptional. Exceptionally beautiful. Exceptionally smart. Exceptionally shy and retiring. Exceptionally exceptional. Snooze. As a completely unexceptional person I really wanted to hear more about people like me, instead of all these paragons of virtue. And reading Un Lun Dun I wonder if Miéville ever felt the same way. Because, no, Deeba isn’t your typical heroine, but while in the Propheseers’ book she is relegated to “Schwazzy, sidekicks of the. … Funny one” she proves to be clever enough, practical enough and determined enough to save the day. Which is pretty darn awesome.

know you’re not a sidekick —‘

‘No one is!’ Deeba shouted. ‘That’s no way to talk about anyone! To say they’re just hangers-on to someone more important.

Deeba’s chutzpah is all the more impressive when we learn about her adversary, Smog. Bodiless, pervasive and ever-growing, Smog is sentient pollution banished from London by the ‘Klinneract’, or Clean Air Act of 1956, now grown again to megalomaniac proportions and planning to burn the world. I had to go and look up the Great Smog of 1952 (that lasted five days and is believed now to have killed around 12,000 people), as it wasn’t something I’d ever learned about despite it being one of the big reasons for the rethink on pollution (thank you Wikipedia). It’s scary enough that this was a real thing, that some people tried to brush it under the carpet, and that we, the human race, are still capable of ignoring all the physical proofs of the damage we are doing to our planet. It’s scary in Un Lun Dun because Smog learns and grows from everything it burns and inhales:

I want to breathe. To suck in smoke and know. The lovely burning of books, and houses, and pictures, and people. Silly UnLondoners. Silly Deeba. It’s not like ending. Everything burns and floats in smoke into me. I keep it safe. Make it me. I am everything.

It’s scary because in the way of all Big Bads everywhere, nothing matters but the increasing of its power and the destruction of everything that it isn’t. A handful of misfit types led by a snarky schoolgirl with a pet milk carton against an incorporeal cloud of evil? No chance … And yet Deeba manages it.

If I have one reservation about Un Lun Dun it’s that having read a couple of Miéville’s adult books it feels a bit odd reading something where he is clearly holding back from his usual full-on weirdness. Not that this book is not weird. It’s just that while Un Lun Dun is inventive, clever, fun and unusual, it feels very … linear … in comparison with his other stuff. Like there’s less exploring going on here. It’s still as complex and wonderfully realised a city as only Miéville can create, (his UnLondon could quite easily be a suburb of Bas Lag), but we the readers don’t get to look into all the nooks and crannies in quite the same way that we’d usually do. I like to think though, that there’ll be younger readers out there who will pick up Un Lun Dun and enjoy it so much that they’ll search out more of Miéville’s stuff, because they are going to be blown away. And just think what kind of adults young people who read Miéville will become. Even if Un Lun Dun is the only one of his books that they read, somewhere in their minds there will always be the seeds he’s sown, ideas like: no one is any more or less important than anyone else; and “destiny is bunk” – we’re all responsible for our own lives, the directions we take, journeys we make and lessons we learn. And that’s pretty darn awesome.

 

Smog and Hexxus
A final thought: Miéville’s Smog and Hexxus from Ferngully – separated at birth?

 

 

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

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Book Bingo – Time Travel = Achieved!

I didn’t expect this to be as much fun as it was. The jacket blurb talks about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Regency London and, even though it also mentions time-travelling tourists, it all sounded a little too much like my A-Level English Lit classes to be thoroughly enjoyable. And yet that’s exactly what it was. This is the most fun I’ve had since reading A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer back in March (albeit way, way darker), in terms of rip-roaring, can’t tear myself away, capital ‘F’, Fun.

So the blurb does this book no justice at all. Having said that, I don’t know how anyone could succinctly sum up The Anubis Gates in a way that would really tempt someone to read it. Any effort to lay out clearly the multiple, intertwined plots with the aim of luring someone in just results in headaches all round – I know, I tried to explain it to Thumbs and got into a right knot. Yes, time travel (by magical rather than scientific means) is a big element of the storyline, vital to the goings-on described. Magic and sorcerers abound. There are lots of characters with multiple assumed identities, and a number of mysteries to be solved, (which is where it all starts to get a bit complicated), but none of this really captures the adventure and pace of the story. My blurb would read something like: “This book’s awesome. Don’t ask questions, just read it and see for yourself”, which isn’t very helpful, but sometimes you do just need to bully people into reading something when it’s so good you want to tell the poor unsuspecting stranger standing behind you in the supermarket queue all about it.

Growing up, time-travel stories made me very cross. I mostly blame this on the Back to the Future and Terminator movies. And Timecop. My very literal, rule-loving childhood brain couldn’t handle all Marty McFly’s chaotic zipping about making everything different, nor Kyle Reese’s closed loop dad-of-leader-of-the-Resistance-sent-back-by-leader-of-the-Resistance-to-become-dad-of-leader-of-the-Resistance-arghhhhhhgurgle (which, honestly, I still have trouble with); and as for Timecop, the less said the better. Anyway, after years of arguing with everyone I know and love about how much time-travel stories suck, I read Connie Willis’ Blackout/ All Clear (Why? Because Jo Walton told me to naturally) and watched Primer (because my brother got very excited about it), and was so entertained and distracted that I’ve kind of chilled out about the whole thing now. As long as I don’t think about it too much, as long as it makes some kind of surface sense, I’ll roll with it. I put it down to being much older and lazier than I once was. Anyway, I like Tim Powers’ image of time as an iced-over river, and time-travel as moving between holes in the ice – climb out of the flow onto the ice and you can drop through another hole into a different part of the time stream. My simple brain could keep hold of that image, which was just as well because then Powers’ went and got all Terminator-screwy with his plotting and my ears started to bleed. I risk giving too much away if I say any more, so let’s just finish this untidy thought off with the fact that there are some excellent surprises, and some things that you may see coming, but it’s all very well done and not too important to your enjoyment of the story if you don’t quite get it. (If you have questions, just tell yourself the answer is magic, like I did, and you’ll be fine).

What I can talk about without spoiling anything is the superb array of characters in the book. Our hero, Brendan Doyle, starts out not being particularly interesting or inspiring, but as the book moves on he becomes progressively more kick-ass, and by the end I loved him. I mean, this dude is beaten up repeatedly, loses an ear, is stabbed through the foot, poisoned and mutilated, gets shot on several occasions, and is finally brutally, near-fatally tortured, and yet he survives all of it. In a time without decent sanitation or healthcare services. He gets the prize for most abused character I’ve read about this year (possibly ever … I’ll have to think about that). He’s not the only great character though, the book’s swarming with them: there’s the beggar boy Jacky, out for revenge hunting the terrifying murderer Dog-face Joe; there’s the beggar kings Copenhagen Jack and the stilt-walking, clown-faced Horrabin; the mysterious Master and his servants Amenophis Fikee and Doctor Romany/Romanelli; the gypsy Damnable Richard and his little wooden monkey; the wealthy, scheming J. Cochrane Darrow; the enigmatic poet William Ashbless, and his contemporaries Coleridge and Byron; not to mention a number of hairy, mad ape-men, the creatures known as Horrabin’s Mistakes and his Spoonsize Boys; the Eyeless Sisters and the wonderful Big Biter; or my personal favourites the mischievous, toy-loving yags. It’s absolutely jam-packed with brain-searingly memorable characters.

It’s also creepy as a creepy thing with lots of legs, on your face, in the dark. I try to get an extra half-hour’s reading done before bed most days, and reading this before lights-out made for some very interesting mental images to drift off with. Every time I went to bed I seemed to have just reached another part of the story featuring Horrabin, and he and his Rat’s Castle are all kinds of spooky. The most intense part of the book for me was Jacky’s capture and escape from Horrabin in his lair – I swear I held my breath the whole way through – and I couldn’t sleep at all after that. Long after I’ve forgotten the finer details of The Anubis Gates, when I’m old and grey and trying to get to sleep, I think Horrabin will still be in there, grinning horribly out at me. He’s a keeper (*shudder*), and worthy of anything dreamed up by Clive Barker.

What else can I say? This is a book that feels like it was as much fun for Powers’ to write as it was for me to read. I don’t know if all of his books are like this as The Anubis Gates is the only one I’ve read so far, but it’s made me want to read more of his work, and I’m surprised this isn’t a book more widely talked about. I should definitely have heard about it before now. Those books that stand out for me are the ones that leave me with clear, full-colour, visual impressions, and this is one of those books. I’m going to be bullying as many people as possible into reading it … starting with you:

This book’s awesome. Don’t ask questions, just read it and see for yourself.

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

 

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Book Bingo – Debut fantasy novel = Achieved!

 

Ulysses 31 was the greatest show on earth when I was a kid. I was five years old when it aired and completely smitten with Ulysses, Telemachus, Yumi and Nono and enchanted by their many adventures. As I grew up I remembered the show as something rich and layered and utterly bewitching in every way. I waxed lyrical about it to Thumbs when we talked about things from our childhoods, and finally, one Christmas, he bought the DVD boxset for me. I was so excited. We settled down to watch it. I sang along with the opening theme. And then I learned that my five-year-old imagination was in some ways more sophisticated than my twenty-five-year-old one. The show was still good, and beautiful, but it wasn’t everything I remembered. The episodes were so short! Every trial was overcome so quickly! All the deep meaningful stuff was missing … My childhood brain had taken the show as a starting point and ran with it, creating a massive imaginary world in my head where Ulysses and his small crew were my friends and we all had adventures and then went home for tea together. My adult brain wondered where all the detail was. I didn’t finish watching the boxset. I took it to a charity shop, where I hope a someone bought it for their young daughter or son and the magic happened all over again.

Tempted as I am, I will not be buying The Mysterious Cities of Gold boxset.

 

1980s Cartoons
My childhood rocked – how about yours?

 

 

The Girl of Ink and Stars doesn’t have much in common with either Ulysses 31 or The Mysterious Cities of Gold, except that it too is written for a younger audience. This is a book that I would have loved as a kid and it’s only now that I’m older and lazier and expect authors to do all the work of imagining their world and characters for me that I can’t appreciate it quite as much as I should. Then again, that’s what you get for swapping out your planned book for one two hundred pages shorter because you’re behind on your own self-imposed Book Bingo deadline. (It’s only cheating if I say it is though, so I’m in the clear).

Anyhow, at just over two hundred pages long and aimed at a pre- to early teen audience, I got lost in this story for an afternoon, curled up in front of the fire with a bar of chocolate. It’s about a cartographer’s daughter, Isabella, and her best friend, the Governor’s daughter, Lupe. It is also about their island home of Joya – which everyone is forbidden both to leave or explore – and the myths that surround it. It’s an adventure story, a mystery, and it’s got a nice blend of fantasy and reality.

Things I couldn’t get enough of:

  • The beautifully descriptive writing. There are some lovely images, particularly of maps and the art of map-making, and some striking ones, such as all the remaining animals trying to escape the island by stampeding into the harbour. In places this book made me think of authors like Isabel Allende and Carlos Ruis Zafon, which is never a bad thing.
  • Isa and Lupe’s relationship. I really liked that it was the girls’ relationship at the heart of the story and not some gooey romance or … snooze … a love-triangle. It’s a well-imagined, authentic relationship: Isa and Lupe squabble over silly things, but they also admire each other’s strengths and know they can trust one another. The ending wouldn’t be as good as it is without this relationship.
  • The adventure. There’s exploration, mild peril, and a real cost for surviving the journey. The tension at the beginning of the book when Cata is found dead in the orchard was pretty compelling too.
  • Miss La – I definitely want more grumpy chickens in my reading material! (As I am sure others have pointed out, there are quite a few parallels between The Girl of Ink and Stars and Disney’s Moana – a heroine with a fascination for the ocean that is forbidden her, the threat of a fiery supernatural being and the land dying, and a chicken companion in a South Sea island setting. Just saying).

 

Things I wanted more of:

  • Lupe’s relationship with her father the Governor could have been explored a lot more. It had so much potential, kid’s book or not. The Governor is the sort of character whose secrets are just begging to be revealed and while we discover something of his past, there is a mention of redemption that never follows through. So, so much more could have been done with him. (Lupe’s mother, on the other hand, may as well not have been in the story at all).
  • The Banished from the Forbidden Territories of the island. OMG! We meet a couple of them for a few pages and then they’re gone and we hear no more. I was gutted. How have they survived for so long cut off from the rest of the island? What’s the story between Ana and the Governor? What was Doce’s childhood like? How have the people of Gromera and the Banished never crossed paths before? Surely someone would have said ‘ah, sod the rules, let’s go see what’s over there’??
  • Arinta and Yote and the demon dogs. Oh, I wanted more flesh on the bones of that story! What really happened to Arinta? What’s Yote’s motivation? More! More! More!

As a kid I’d have filled in all these blanks, but now I’m just a greedy, lazy adult who doesn’t have the brain space. What I do have is a couple of younger library customers who would love this book, and it makes me happy to think that it might become something special for them. And if I’m lucky they’ll want to talk to me about it when they’ve read it, and I’ll get to see it from another angle. In the meantime, if Kiran Millwood Hargrave decides to write more I’ll be interested to see what she does next.

Hei Hei