In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

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Before I begin: This is the last of my pre-prepared posts (because The Slump is nowhere near over … *sigh*) which I wrote back in August. After this anything I post will be me winging it – for which I apologise in advance!

 

Even if you were to glance at this and think it’s not your kind of thing, I can recommend reading Doctorow’s introduction. In it he talks about economics, how the internet is changing ways of doing things, the importance of knowing where your stuff comes from and the power of protest. In the story that then follows, he and Wang tell a tale with all of these themes as their protagonist Anda navigates a new school (having moved with her parents from California to Arizona), makes new friends both online and IRL and learns what she’s ready to stand up for.

For a graphic novel that has a few problems, which we’ll get to, this was nonetheless an enjoyable read. Anda is a quiet main character, beautifully drawn by Jen Wang, who grows in confidence over the course of the story. She’s into coding and Dungeons and Dragons, and, after a guest speaker at school invites girl gamers to try their hand at the MMORPG Coarsegold, she gets into online gaming, where she quickly becomes involved in the illegal practice of taking out gold farmers for real world money. Fortunately, she’s more uncomfortable than some with the rule “if they don’t speak English you should probably kill ‘em” and strikes up a friendship with one of the gold farmers she’s supposed to kill, a Chinese boy called Raymond. This friendship takes Anda on a steep learning curve as she is faced with the very different life that Raymond lives, and the very different reasons he has for playing Coarsegold.

Coarsegold itself looks like a game I totally want to play. A full-on fantasy world in which you can play as one of five different races (I lovelovelove character creation tools, possibly more than actually gaming itself – I couldn’t play XCOM 2 very well at all, but my avatar was just the prettiest darn kickass chick you’ve ever seen), it is populated with magical creatures and artefacts and looks like a rainbow explosion of visual joy thanks to Wang’s lovely illustrations, which give it the feel of a cross between Ni No Kuni and Dragon Age.

I hadn’t come across Jen Wang before this, but she’s on my watchlist now. The two things that I really liked in In Real Life were her use of colour and her gorgeously expressive drawings. She uses two different palates to distinguish between the real world and the online world without clashing or making either one the lesser. The slightly muddier brown-dominated tones of her real-world panels are just as lovely as her more vibrant in-game panels and paired with her skill in rendering subtle facial expressions and body language in a lovely cartoony style Wang carries a lot of the story. Truth be told, I kind of fell in love with real-world Anda with her head of unruly brown-later-red hair, big eyes and adorable pink cheeks. Even when she’s cross she’s cute!

IRL Anda Montage
Is it wrong that I want to look like this IRL?

 

However, there were a couple of things that made me uncomfortable about this story. The Chinese gold-farmers all play as pixies and wear identical outfits that make them easily identifiable as ‘other’, but which makes me think of that horrible, loaded generalisation “they all look the same to me”. It also makes them appear childlike which doesn’t sit well with the whole privileged white girl saves disadvantaged Chinese kid thing that happens. It all made me feel ill at ease with what I believe is a good story that Doctorow and Wang are trying to tell.

I also question the ending. It’s a little too sweet and Hollywood after what’s happened. In telling a story about the real-world implications of online gaming I feel that the ending should have also been real-world. Sure, it’s a nice ending, but it undermines some of the message and while I feel like it’s there so Doctorow can make his point about communication, it could have been done differently and to better effect.

IRL Communicating

 

So, this left me with two thoughts:

One. The internet is a powerful communication tool. We only have to look at our little international community of book bloggers to get a taste of that. I am in awe that in my lifetime and only in my personal experience I have gone from having friends and acquaintances who lived within no more than a half-mile radius of myself, to having friends and acquaintances across the globe that I am able to interact with daily. That is a crazy beautiful thing.

And two. I believe that people both in the singular and united can make a difference. But I also think we have to think really hard before we start trying to make a difference for people who haven’t asked us to. I know this is all highly complicated stuff – there are people who cannot speak out for themselves and need advocates, but I think we have to ask ourselves, and keep on asking every step of the way, why we are doing something, to ensure that we don’t get carried away with our own self-righteousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

 

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I love reading about people who can do a thing I find incomprehensible really well. One of the best things about reading is that you get to imagine what it must be like to love something or be good at something that you have no experience of – it makes the world feel wider and more interesting.

“There are times when numbers paint pictures in my head.”

I can’t do maths. I don’t understand anything more than basic addition, subtraction and multiplication. I still get in a sweat when I have to work out people’s change at work. So I love reading about people who get numbers. Not just the basics, but all that stuff that underlies the workings of the world. And it blows my mind that being able to do that kind of maths means that you can work out things like how to get a shuttle into orbit, or how the planets move in relation to one another. It’s a mark of Kowal’s skill as a writer that she can make mathematics sound beautiful and glorious and relevant when she also states in her acknowledgements that she doesn’t understand any of the maths she has Elma do. Throughout the book I was convinced that she was writing about something she comprehended, and I was deeply impressed when I discovered she didn’t.

 

So, this is the absorbing alt-history tale of one woman’s role in an accelerated space race that is jump-started by a cataclysmic meteorite impact in early 1950s America. And in telling Elma York’s story, Kowal tells the story of a great number of other men and women who really did a lot of the things she has her characters do. The first thing to love about this book (after the maths, of course) is that none of her characters are placeholders, they all feel quite real and imperfect and sympathetic. I love that Kowal deals with so many issues in this book too: disability, racism, sexism and mental health issues are all explored, as opinions that were typical of the 1950s are challenged head on in this alternative world in which humanity is facing (when it’s not in denial) its own extinction. It certainly makes for an emotional read. When I wasn’t cheering Elma on for sticking it to Parker (you absolute and utter areshole, you) and any other man who tried to keep our girl grounded, I was sobbing in frustration at the sly, small ways, and the horrendously massive ways, in which difference of any kind was pushed out of view. By the end of the book I was an exhausted, soggy mess.

The second thing to love (unless you hate this kind of thing) is that this book is the how-she-got-there companion to a short story by Kowal called The Lady Astronaut of Mars which you can read for free online at tor.com, (it’s a great story, even if you’re not interested in reading The Calculating Stars, but I warn you now, it’s a killer), which is awesome because we get to meet a less snarky Elma at the start of her career and really appreciate how far she’s had to come. But which is perhaps simultaneously not so great because now you know that no matter the obstacle, Elma will become a Lady Astronaut because she already is The Lady Astronaut.

And then the things to love become a stream of delightful details, all adding up to an incredible reading experience: all of the characters: Myrtle and Eugene; Helen, Basira, Pearl, Nicole, Imogene, Sabiha and Ida; Aunt Esther and Hershel; even Betty. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles being read by a couple of characters was just awesome. The use of phrases like “bless your heart” and “isn’t that nice” to mean the exact opposite. The term ‘computer’ always referring to a person who computes and never to a machine, and the IBM being a not-terribly-reliable punch-card-fed data-processing machine. Elma’s love of both flying and the Multi-Axis Space-Test Inertia-Facility (just the idea of which make me want to throw up). Mr Wizard. And the stars at the end, after everything.

There was one small problem for me with this book that has so many great things to say and some excellent scenes and a ton of good characters that were easy to like or hate where appropriate, and it was this: the sex. If you’ve read anything else on my blog, you’ll have picked up that I am absolutely not a fan of sex scenes, so it’ll be no surprise to anyone that I didn’t like the sex scenes here. Sure, they were pretty mild and I doubt many people would be offended by them, but I had no need for them, and all the talk of ‘rocket launches’ just made me cringe.

And there was one other thing that I was ever so slightly less than OK with. I want to be clear right now that it was fantastic to read about an incredibly talented woman achieving amazing things without her husband having to step in and save her or pull some strings without her knowing. And Elma and Nathaniel’s relationship is one of the most heart-warming, solid and unquestionable aspects of the story (even with the … *small shudder* … sex). I too am lucky enough to have a husband who is remarkably tolerant and who listens to me when I have something to say, (he also does cute things like hide chocolate in the house for when I need it, or animate my cuddly toy panda to make me laugh when I’m being pissy). He’s a great guy. And, like Elma, I also have some mental health issues that impinge on my ability to function in some circumstances (and I felt a bit sweaty just typing that out, so we’ll move swiftly on). But my husband, Thumbs, is not always there for me, and doesn’t always understand, and sometimes gets downright irritated with me because … he’s human and he has his own life to live and I am not the centre of the universe (no matter my personal convictions on that subject). So, while Elma and Nathaniel gave me all the feels and I can’t wait to catch up with them in The Fated Sky, they remain most definitely fictitious for me.

Finally, there were two things I’d have liked more of: One, I would have liked just a little more information about what was going on in the rest of the world. Food riots were briefly mentioned, and there was a reference to the former Soviet Union but no follow up on when that happened, and I think Elma talks a couple of times about how cloud cover has become a permanent thing since the strike. These details were great, as were the news headlines at the beginnings of the chapters, but they weren’t quite enough for me to picture this world as clearly as I’d have liked (because I do love to know how the world is going to go to hell). And two, I wanted more of the life-in-space problem-solving stuff, although I’m thinking that may be a bigger thing in the next book. Because we are not at all made for space, so how, starting with 1950s technology and knowledge are we going to fix it so we can live there when our planet becomes too hot to handle? I want details. I want science, or near-science, or convincing pretend-science. Tell me what it’s going to look like, our living on the Moon. Pretty please.

I am and will be recommending this to everyone I meet. I have already had a brilliant discussion with one of our regular customers about it and off the back of that he lent me his childhood copy of Manned Spacecraft by Kenneth Gatland which was awesome because it was a bit like being handed a piece of Elma’s world, if that makes sense. And this book has given me a great list of follow-on reading (thank you, Mary Robinette Kowal). In my non-fiction life I’m currently reading The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson, or at least I will be again when this stupid reading slump I’m in has passed, but when I’m done with that I’m definitely jumping on Kowal’s recommendations: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (book, then film) and Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt and The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. And that’s pretty satisfying.

 

 

 

 

 

Saga, volume 1 Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples

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Oh the glee! Don’t you just love that feeling when you read (or watch) the first in a series, enjoy yourself thoroughly and get to anticipate everything you have still to read (or watch)? I’m wallowing in that feeling right now. After finally buying volume one of Saga at the end of last year (thanks to Dragons and Zombies making it sound exactly like something I’d want to read – you can read her thoughts here, here and here on the first three volumes) and being all in a hurry to get on with it, I only picked it up and actually read it last week.

And, finally, I saw that it was good.

 

With nine volumes out so far, and Vaughan and Staples apparently on hiatus at the moment, I stand a chance of catching up a little. This first volume barely scratches the surface of the story I’m sure, but if it’s anything to go by then I have a lot of feelings to come. So far, I know that there is a planet (Landfall) and its moon (Wreath), and the people that live on these two worlds have been at war forever. I know that the people of Landfall have wings and guns. I know that the people of Wreath have horns and magic swords/staffs/spells. And I know that Alana (who has wings) is in love with Marko (who has horns) and they’ve just brought their daughter into the world, the adorably winged and horned baby Hazel, who is telling the story. And I know that a lot of dangerous people, for a variety of no doubt stupid reasons, want to destroy this little family.

I love Staples’ expressive, colourful, dynamic artwork and Vaughan’s excellent, often very funny, writing. Between them they’re creating a universe that is diverse, massive, and bat-crap insane. Not only do we have horned and winged peoples, we have a Clive Barker-ish bounty hunter with an armless female head and chest, spider abdomen and some seriously gothic style, a giant turquoise cat that can detect lies, and some sort of royal family who have TV screens instead of heads and are all called Robot, (and I’m pretty sure that one of them is suffering from a severe case of PTSD). And I haven’t even mentioned the Horrors: the pink swirly ghost-children who’re all casualties of the war on the planet Cleave. Or the big-ass spaceship-tree that can’t be steered … holy cow.

I know I’m going to love Alana and Marko more than I love them now. Alana is fiercely protective of her husband and baby daughter and happy to carry a gun. Marko is a magic-using conscientious objector just as devoted to his small family, but trying hard not to use violence (for good reason, it would seem). The two of them have that lovely back and forth that all the best couples have; and while they are clearly past the getting-to-know-you, still-brushing-my-teeth-way-more-than-normal stage of their relationship, they’re not yet at the know-everything-about-you, wearing-the-same-pants-I’ve-worn-for-the-past-nine-years stage. They’ve still got spark. And what’s clear from the very beginning is that they are in it together, whatever it is and wherever it takes them. In her little asides Hazel has already told us that she survives to become an old woman, but I feel that the real story is going to be whether her parents will survive her upbringing and survive it together.

I am absolutely here for that.

 

Lying Cat
I need to know everything about Lying Cat

 

 

(Here beginneth a mini rant: Alana and Marko are clearly both adults with past relationships under their belts who have grown to love one another. Yet it keeps getting likened to Romeo and Juliet out in the webbyverse. The story of Romeo and Juliet is that of young teens experiencing the first flush of sexual awakening with all the over-the-top-ness that comes with it. Shakespeare’s most ‘romantic’ play is anything but, it’s a play about lust and stupidity and the hot-headedness of youth and romance has got bugger all to do with it. Go read it again and then tell me it’s the greatest love story ever told. I dare you.

So I am always a little annoyed when what I think of as a real romance is likened to those two idiots. Yes, I know R&J are used as a shorthand for two people from opposing sides who fall in love, but can we find another example, please? It’s just not accurate enough for me. And the term ‘star-crossed’ isn’t accurate for Alana and Marko either … or at least, not yet.

 

Here endeth my rant. Normal service shall now resume).

 

 

 

 

 

Nightflyers by George R R Martin

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Banner by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More; image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com

Originally published back in 1980, Nightflyers is a novella-length story that was recently repackaged and turned up on the shelves at work. I wouldn’t have picked it up but for the fact that this new edition is illustrated by David Palumbo (the man responsible for those gorgeous painterly Binti novella covers *all the hearts*) and I really love his stuff. And, yeah, it’s a short, quick scifi read and my month is going to hell in a handcart so I’ve had to restack a couple of bigger tomes I intended to read. Ugh, life gets in the way sometimes, you know?

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A group of scientists have been drawn together by Karoly d’Branin, a man obsessed with the as yet unseen alien volcryn, who is determined to intercept this mythical race out in deep space and study them. For this purpose d’Branin has chartered a Nightflyer and her captain Royd Eris, an eccentric individual who will only interact with the group via his hologrammatic self. Things go south quickly. The powerful telepath d’Branin has employed is convinced that the crew are in danger from the get-go and only becomes more distressed as the journey continues …

This is a horror story in space (did you guess?). I’d have paid good money to read more of the secondary story about the mythical volcryn, but the plot mostly concerns itself with the extermination of the small academic crew aboard the Nightflyer and the mysterious Royd Eris. A couple of the deaths are pretty spectacular, but I suspect that may be all I take away from this book.

Martin certainly has a talent for writing compelling, if not necessarily likeable, characters though, and he puts it to good use here. Of the ten characters in this story, only one is anywhere near pleasant, but they are all interesting. For a future in which the “Academy of Human Knowledge” appears to be the highest power, this motley group aren’t very Star Trek and they fall prey to suspicion and paranoia in record time, (because humanity will always be its own worst enemy, I guess). That just made watching them die one by one more fun than scary, however.

It’s definitely something that would translate to the screen well (all that blood!), or so I thought while I was reading it. Then I found out that it had already been made into a TV series for the SyFy channel, and the general consensus on the interweb was that it wasn’t very good. Which is a shame because I feel that it was written very much with an eye to the visual, something Palumbo is able to take full advantage of in his gorgeous full-page illustrations. I really like Palumbo’s style anyway, but here he does a great job of creating dark, moody images that made me feel almost claustrophobic. (As an added bonus, the artist’s Instagram account was mentioned at the end of the book and there you can find an extra handful of paintings that didn’t make the cut for the book – very cool).

There were a couple of things I didn’t like so much in the story. There were some weird manners of speech that I found a bit jarring, particularly d’Branin’s oddly old-fashioned chatter and his frequent use of the term “my friend” (‘friend’, ‘love’ and ‘mate’ from people who are not any of those things to me is a pet hate of mine); and Melantha’s need to repeatedly remind everyone that she is an “improved model” also grated a bit.

And there was quite a lot that I’d have liked Martin to expand on: Royd and Melantha’s relationship was quite interesting and had either one been in the slightest bit sympathetic I’d have enjoyed more of that; Royd’s backstory, too, was fascinating and could have made a book on it’s own especially if his mother had been given a bit more room. The volcryn were awesome too (I particularly loved Palumbo’s illustration of them), and I felt they were another potentially much richer storyline given too little room. In fact, I think that may be my main complaint with Nightflyers: there were a ton of great ideas in here, enough for three books, but none of them were explored in any great depth because, in the end, only the body count really seemed to matter.

So, yeah, a bit of a mixed bag this one. With a bit more space and one or two redeeming features in the cast I think this would have been a much cooler novel. As it is, it was a fairly satisfying series of deaths and some interesting ideas. Must try harder. (which, of course, Martin did, didn’t he?!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing Vision by Julie E Czerneda

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Banner by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More; photo by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com

Changing Vision is book two in Czerneda’s Web Shifters trilogy. Book one was Beholder’s Eye, which I first read for SciFi Month last year – thoughts here if you’re interested – which I find a very pleasing; there’s a symmetry in that. Nothing I have to say here is going to overtly spoil the first story for you, but if you’re thinking of reading them my advice would be to read these books in order. A lot of what happens in Changing Vision is directly related to events and characters from Beholder’s Eye and you really don’t want to miss any of it.

Because it’s awesome.

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I loved Beholder’s Eye. In it we met 500-years-young shape-shifting alien Esen-alit-Quar and got to see a Star-Trek-esque universe of fabulous variety from her unique (and adorable) perspective. We also met Paul Ragem, a Commonwealth alien communication specialist, and Esen’s first true friend outside of her small Web-family. A lot of shit went down in that first book: murder, mystery, family secrets, an unstoppable force tearing its way through the universe killing everything in its path. And Esen and Paul did an awesome job of handling it all, together. So my only real worry at the end of Beholder’s Eye was that Paul wouldn’t be around for the rest of this trilogy, being as Esen is so long lived in comparison. Thankfully, while fifty years has certainly aged our ephemeral Human somewhat, he’s nowhere near done with life yet (I can’t find it now I want it, but there was mention of the Human lifespan being quite a bit longer than what we have now to explain why Paul is such a bad-ass septuagenarian in this story).

Changing Vision picks up the story of Esen and Paul – now business partners running the Cameron and Ki Freight Company and living under assumed identities – in a backwater corner of space. Right off the bat I loved that their friendship had still not gone heart shaped, and as the story unfolded I loved too that it had become appreciably richer after fifty years and was still grounded in a shared curiosity about and compassion for life in all its forms. As I settled into reading this on the sofa one evening I actually felt that weird happy-sad feeling you get when you finally spend time with someone you’ve not seen for ages and realise you’ve just picked right up where you left off.

So this won’t be objective at all. Ha!

If anything, I found this episode in the adventures of Esen and Paul even more exciting than the first one: A series of increasingly suspicious coincidences, first contact with a race Esen has no knowledge of, three characters with troubling (to say the least) obsessions, a fascinating communication problem between two sentient species, more threats to Paul and Esen’s safety than you can shake a stick at, and some of the political, social and emotional ramifications of the events in Beholder’s Eye thrown in for good measure, made this the least relaxing read of the year. I spent a fair amount of time gasping, shouting at bad guys and chewing my fingernails as our heroic duo bounced out of one scrape and into another with increasing rapidity. But that was only when I wasn’t feeling all the feelings about the guilt and loss that haunts a number of characters in the story.

For Esen fifty years is nowhere near enough time to come to terms with the losses she sustained in Beholder’s Eye and while she keeps making the point that she is now the eldest of her Web, it’s interesting that her real vulnerability is that she is still the youngest. Just because she is considerably older than everyone she knows doesn’t mean she has yet reached maturity and a couple of the most touching moments here were when Paul comforted her as a parent would a child, underlining how much he has become family for her.

Then there is what happened to Garson’s World, and the guilt assumed by the Tly; Esen’s friendship with Joel Largas; Lefebvre’s loss; and Esen’s Ersh memories of the Fenedens and the time before the Web. How each species deals with loss and guilt makes for a fascinating undertow even as the story gathers momentum. The impact that Esen and her kind have had on the populated areas of space is far-reaching, and while she has Paul, Esen is still alone as the representative of her species – with all that that could entail if she were discovered.

Fortunately, she is still her impulsive, earnest, well-intentioned self, so there were as many laughs as gasps (and supressed sobs). There’s a lot of fun to be had with her Lishcyn form (as pictured in the cover art by Luis Royo) in which Es is beautifully clumsy – particularly in the Circle Club restaurant, a scene that had me howling with laughter – and has to give much more thought to the condition of her five stomachs and, ahem, associated functions. Not to mention her inclination to decorate herself with leaves when upset. As an unfamiliar, but stunningly beautiful Feneden Es is a lot more restrained, but there is still a laugh out loud moment when she finally has something to eat in that form, much to the horror or her attendant medic. Then there’s her irrepressible mischievousness even in the face of real danger: stuck on an enemy ship and trying to find the captured Paul, she takes advantage of the Tly crew’s superstitious nature by posing as the ghost of a blood-encrusted child to move about unchallenged; and in trying to find a parking/hiding place for a herd of Ganthor and their armoured vehicle she reframes their recent attack of the Iftsen’s art gallery as performance art. And gets away with it.

There’s another wonderful array of alien species for us to meet and muse over in this book, (I’d love to know what Czerneda’s notes for some of them must have looked like). I was delighted to see Esen’s Quebit self again, if only briefly (I identify with these little obsessive fixer-organisers) and the fabulously smelly, noisy Ganthor. I was also pleased to make the acquaintance of the party loving Iftsen, the attractive, nervous Feneden and a young Erkickian hustler. And I just loved Es as the Lishcyn Esolesy Ki. Czerneda’s got the gift for making all of these various beings both fascinating and relatable in some way, but when Esen becomes them they often turn out to be terribly adorable. Which has a lot to do with Esen’s own affectionate and cheeky nature shining through her various disguises, I think. Certainly, I am as much in love with Esen as a Lishcyn as I was with her in her Ket and Lanivarian forms in Beholder’s Eye. What I picked up this time round that I perhaps missed in that first book was the interesting way in which each different form impacts on her personality just a little – she is more relaxed or more aggressive, more able to concentrate or more flighty depending on some of the evolutionary aspects of her chosen species. I thought this was pretty darn cool, now that I’ve noticed it.

Changing Vision is a tightly plotted adventure and a festival of fun rolled into one. It is also a celebration of friendship, something that I applaud long and loud, (because, sure, romances are great and they have their place, but how often do you read about a friendship that isn’t just a reason for some sort of heroic effort on the part of the protagonist?). There’s a lot to be said for optimism, heart and humour, so if you feel the need for some, or you already love Lois McMaster Bujold’s or Becky Chambers’ books, or Star Trek, or the Mass Effect games, then I heartily recommend you give these books a go.

 

 

 

 

 

The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag

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Banner by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More; photo by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com

 

A young girl and her little bobble-headed robot travel across a dystopian America, heading for the coast.

Doesn’t sound too worrying, does it? Might even be adorable.

Don’t be fooled. This is an infectiously spooky, creep-inducing story told in sparse prose and stunning digital paintings. The mounting unease I felt while reading this was unexpected, but, man, did I enjoy myself.

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In Stålenhag’s America, circa 1997, the country (perhaps the world? We never find out) has fought some sort of massive war using technology that has allowed humans to pilot giant warships and battle-robots remotely. The scars and detritus of this war litter the landscape: craters, huge abandoned shooting ranges, and the carcases of incredible weapons left where they fell like discarded toys and picked over by scavengers. It’s not a lifeless world, however. We see evidence of other travellers in their parked cars and headlights on the road, we see lights on in suburban homes as the girl drives by, and as she moves into more populated areas, we see … far more unsettling things.

The technology used in the war has bled out into the entertainment market. A company called Sentre has created the neurocaster, a VR helmet that looks like a plague mask as designed by Apple. But neurocasters are proving to be fatally addictive, amongst other things. As for the drones leftover from the conflict, many have undergone strange makeovers and now, oddly cobbled together and trailing vine-like cables, they appear to have a life of their own.

Stalenhag Shooting Range

Visually, a big part of the appeal of Stålenhag’s work in The Electric State is that it echoes so much of my childhood – a childhood spent watching and re-watching Hanna Barbera cartoons and movies like Flight of the Navigator, Robocop and Blade Runner, and playing games such as Pacman and Flashback. There’s almost a George Lucas/Steven Spielberg vibe to this alternative America, but with fewer adorable robots and undertones that are a whole lot more disconcerting.

That’s not to downplay Stålenhag’s writing though. It’s sparse, yes, but without it there’s only half a story. In the written part we learn the girl Michelle’s backstory, and, ever so slowly, her reasons for the journey she’s on. Through her we learn a little about how the world got the way it did and what’s she’s been through to survive. Her story is a human one of loss, followed by loss, followed by loss, and it’s heart-breaking in its brevity. Then there is the second voice. At first it seems to be giving us a more factual account of the war and the technology behind it, but it becomes clear later that it is the voice driving the man who is tailing Michelle.

One of the things I loved most about this book was that Stålenhag chooses, at two critical moments in the story, to forgo words and tell us what happens in a series of much more closely related images. Both these moments occur near the end, and I won’t say too much so as not to give anything away accidentally, but there is a movie-feeling to both episodes, they are utterly absorbing, and I swear I could almost hear what was happening, as if my brain took the lack of descriptive writing as a sign to fill in the blanks for itself.

This was a far more successful marriage of word and image than I expected it to be. It’s also a book I’m really looking forward to reading again, because I feel like there’s more to be gleaned from some of those incredible digital spreads than I got first time round. And, yes, it’s left me with a lot of questions: who were the Americans fighting? How far has the Convergence spread? And what is its goal? Who was the man following Michelle and who did he work for? Who was it giving him orders? But I think some of the allure of The Electric State is in these unanswered questions.

 

 

 

Simon Stålenhag? Now most firmly on my radar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Implanted by Lauren C Teffeau

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Banner by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More; Photo by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com

It seems appropriate for me to kick off this year’s participation in Scifi Month by reading the book I won during last year’s Scifi Month: Implanted by Lauren C Teffeau – the first thing I have ever won, and which I am still very excited about one year later (it’s even signed by the author – squeee).

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I have a soft spot for stories set in enclosed societies. I don’t know quite what it is that appeals to me about these worlds in miniature, but if the planet’s gone to hell in a handcart and survivors are living underground or in an orbiting space station, or under a glass dome as in Implanted, then I’m already halfway to loving the story that follows. And Teffeau’s creation is pretty cool. The city of New Worth, instead of sprawling outwards across a damaged, poisoned Earth, extends upwards as far as its glass dome will allow, and its class structure follows suit. The Echelon and the Canopy, the highest levels of the city, are where the government operates from and where the wealthy make their homes. The Understory is the middle-class layer and the gloomy Terrestrial District at the bottom of the pile houses the working class. Later we learn that there is also an Underground, where the malcontents make their homes. All that said, this class structure is not rigid – people can ascend and descend because of money, smarts and tech. There is a thriving economy, there is tourism, crime, entertainment arcades, competing news channels, designer clothes and rip-off copies. Teffeau creates a satisfyingly realistic city that feels city-sized, with all the variety that that entails.

Emery Driscoll, our POV and kick-ass heroine, grew up in the Terrestrial District, but thanks to her parents’ hard work and her own smarts she is, at the start of the story, a final year student at the College of New Worth in the Canopy. She’s chosen a safe degree that will guarantee her work so that she can get her parents out of the Terrestrial District too, she has a cute and bubbly bestie and just maybe she has a boyfriend lined up. Everything is looking promising, almost rosy, until Emery gets blackmailed into becoming a super-secret courier for the possibly sinister company Aventine.

Let’s take a moment, shall we?

So, yeah, this is all pretty standard fare so far. I can think of a bunch of books on the library shelves (looking at you Young Adult section) that have virtually this same set-up, give or take a detail. And I have to admit that when the potential boyfriend showed up in Chapter 2, I rolled my eyes and settled down to be unimpressed. But … amidst some fairly predictable (but still very exciting) thriller stuff, Teffeau also examines where our love of smartphones may take us. And this is what I’d really like to talk about, instead of just giving you a run down of characters and events and reactions.

Most people in New Worth have an implant. It’s received around the age of eleven and it’s essentially like having your smartphone in your head. With your implant you are connected to your family and your friends as much or as little as you want to be. You can communicate telepathically (for want of a better word), with or without emotional bleed as you choose. There is a visual overlay so you can bring up maps when you’re lost and can see the news as it happens. You can augment your vision if it’s dark, you can turn down the sound of the world around you, you can live entirely in your own head. So instead of everyone walking around with their heads bowed over their phones, we have a city full of people doing weird things with their eyes (implants are controlled with eye movement), which at least means a lot less bumping into one another.

Some people, called Disconnects, choose (or have been forced) to have their implants removed. They live in the Terrestrial District and the Underground because not being connected to the network means that they cannot apply for a lot of jobs, won’t be considered for a lot of housing, and are invisible to a lot of people. They are distrusted by most of the city’s inhabitants, as minorities often are and are given risky, low-paid work.

The thing is, being implanted is only an advantage within the dome. And everyone in the city, implanted or not, knows that they are only living in New Worth until their regeneration efforts outside reach tipping point and the day of Emergence arrives, when everyone can live outside in the fresh air again. And, sure, it’s been a long hard slog, but it looks like Emergence is within reach.

Which makes me think of where we’re at right now. Computer illiteracy is something I come across every single day. Local councils like the one I work for, for example, are pushing people to use online services instead of face-to-face or telephone services as they cut back on staff in response (at least in part) to severe budget cuts. In the library we deal with many frustrated people who now can’t access services they have a right to because of their lack of knowledge. These people didn’t choose to be ‘disconnected’ and they have many different attitudes. Some are belligerent and feel they shouldn’t have to learn something new and difficult in order to do something they used to be able to do with ease. Some are terrified and feel out of their depth, confused and unable to catch up. We’re in a weird place in time where people with little or no computer knowledge are becoming second-class citizens and I am afraid for them.

On the other hand, the people who are hyper-tech-literate are becoming a different class in and of themselves. And then there are the people who can navigate a smart phone or a tablet with ease, but are utterly stumped when faced with a PC or laptop.

We’re in a weird place in time.

Me? I love my smartphone. I love that I can check my emails with it, can take photos with it and post them on Instagram, can read blogs during my lunch break, or search for pictures, or find out what’s on at the cinema and what’s on the menu at the nearest place to eat. (I don’t love Twitter yet, but it’s possible I will in time). And sure, it’s good to be able to text or phone friends and family as and when too.

But I also love turning it off or leaving it at home.

 

Anyhow, back to Implanted. This is a good scifi thriller. It’s a smidge predictable in places, and the potential boyfriend was a sulky, scowling sort (I will never understand what’s attractive about grumpy men), but the big conspiracy thing at the heart of it was satisfyingly meaty. And there is always plenty to love about shadowy organisations that blackmail people into working for them and then fake the deaths of said people and give them new identities and cool kit and train them to kick ass even better than they did before. In twelve words or less: A fun read with some interesting and non-judgemental things to say.

 

 

 

Mini rant, unconnected to Teffeau’s book: I wrote this in the newest update of Microsoft Word and got mighty pissed off with the new ‘conciseness’ feature. I write like I speak (without all the ums and ahs) because I find it easier to get my thoughts down that way, because I love the sound of my own voice, and because I’m not writing an essay or an article here. If I had followed all the little conciseness advisories I got while writing this, it’d be the flattest, saddest thing I’d ever written. On the upside, it’d be a heck of a lot shorter. Concise, even.

Technology, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Banner by Lisa @deargeekplace; photo: Kenai Fjords National Park, United States by Daniel H. Tong on Unsplash

I enjoy that moment, when you start to read a little more by an author, and get a feel for the characteristics of their writing or the themes that preoccupy them. Having only read Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle previous to this (my thoughts here if you’re interested) I didn’t know quite what to expect going in, although I had hopes. On finishing The Haunting of Hill House I desperately want to go scoop up everything Jackson has written and anything that has been written about her and greedily gobble it all down, because I really like her writing style, her characters and her preoccupations.

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I spent a lot of time with my Nana growing up and, as we both loved to read, a lot of that time was taken up with talking about stories. We had a small blue hardback book of short stories in particular that we would read from and then discuss at the kitchen table early on Sunday mornings. That book was my favourite because most of the stories seemed quite ambiguous and from one week to the next we could make up whole new reinterpretations of what they meant. I enjoyed having to puzzle over word choices and imagery as though the various authors had set conundrums for us, their readers. And I think that’s one of the attractions of Jackson’s writing for me. Her style is economical and clear (the book is only 246 pages long) and yet there is always this underlying ambiguity. Specifically, there is a disparity between what her protagonists think is happening and what is actually going on. Both Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House have rich interior lives that colour their perceptions and, because we see through their eyes, ours too.

Eleanor Vance is, for me at least, an incredibly sympathetic character. A woman who has spent her life so far nursing an ailing (now dead) mother and being belittled by her sister and brother-in-law, she steals/borrows the family car and runs away to Hill House at the invitation of Doctor Montague, who wants to study the phenomena of the haunted house scientifically with the aid of a few assistants who are open to “psychic manifestation”. Throughout the book she is repeatedly infantilized by others because, despite being 32 years of age, she has led such a sheltered existence up to now that “she could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life”. She spends much of the book struggling with the concept of being an individual, capable of her own decisions, and lives quite firmly in her own interior world. She is an incredibly lonely character who moves constantly between states of not-quite-smothered-rage and bubbling excitement, never quite understanding what is going on within the small group she finds herself in, having no real experience of people or relationships.

The rest of Doctor Montague’s research group are made up by Theodora, a capricious, free-spirited sort; the liar, thief and member of the family that owns Hill House, Luke Sanderson; and Doctor Montague himself. None of them are quite as interesting as Eleanor, but they are all distinct characters with their own baggage, and the group dynamics over the course of the story are as fascinating as the paranormal events which have brought them together. In the end, Hill House agrees with me on this though: Eleanor is the most desirable of the bunch.

I almost don’t want to talk about the house itself for fear of inadvertently spoiling something for the would-be reader. I’ll tread as carefully as I can. Hill House is a massive, dark presence throughout the book. Once we’ve glimpsed it for the first time with Eleanor, and thought “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once” at the end of chapter one, it is with us for the rest of the book, deeply oppressive and insistent. It is a place characterised by claustrophobia and tension, a house standing apart and alone and always watchful. Something I loved in We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I didn’t expect to find again in Jackson’s writing is her habit of giving life and personality to the inanimate. It charmed me so completely I think because it’s such a human quirk, to give personality to our things, to imagine that our shoes don’t feel like dancing today, or that the kettle is in a grump because it hasn’t had a holiday. And here Jackson uses it to spook the heck out of her readers. Yes, the fronts of houses do look like faces, but this one is a malevolent face, defined by ill-will, and hardly anything more is needed to convince us and the little party who have come to stay that Bad Things will happen in Hill House.

In fact, the history of the house, as recounted by Doctor Montague, isn’t particularly spectacular (it’s not built on an Indian burial ground, there haven’t been any murders within its grounds and no nuns were bricked into the walls alive during its construction). Even the scary bits that we and the characters witness are typified by restraint, Jackson doesn’t overegg her scenes and there’s a lovely questionable quality to it all – is it the house? Or is it a shared delusion? Or is it in some way caused by one or more members of the group? She layers unsettling details with an artist’s skill, doesn’t attempt to explain everything witnessed, and leaves it all to brew in her characters’ subconscious and in ours.

It’s kind of perfect that my last read for Spooktastic Reads was the scariest one, (it is so very nearly Halloween, after all). It had so many little details that I loved – not just the creepy stuff, none of which I am going to give away – like the bizarrely punctual, deadpan Mrs Dudley (such a great cook?!), and the ridiculous latecomers Mrs Montague and Arthur; or all of Eleanor’s lies and daydreams, and the peculiar décor of Hill House complete with weird marble statues and plush-but-uncomfortable chairs. I loved how the house dominated the book, a character in itself, almost tragic, almost worthy of sympathy; and I loved the ending, the whole last chapter about which, again, I can say nothing.

 

Shirley Jackson has only in the last ten years or so become the subject of renewed interest, which means right now there’s quite a lot of interesting articles about her and her work kicking around the webiverse. She sounds like a fascinating woman from the little I’ve read so far, and I’m intending to buy Ruth Franklin’s biography A Rather Haunted Life to learn more. Because of this new fan-girl crush however, I feel like I’ve done a worse job than normal of saying anything coherent or useful about The Haunting of Hill House, so if you want to read some far more analytical and thorough (and spoiler-ish) thoughts on the book then I recommend the following three articles linked below, all of which I enjoyed:

Laura Miller’s brilliant introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of the book

Alison Flood’s 2018 article for the Guardian

And Brit Mandelo’s article for tor.com, which was originally published in December 2016 to mark what would have been Jackson’s 100th birthday

 

” ‘And so the old house has just been sitting here,’ Luke put out a tentative finger and touched the marble cupid gingerly. ‘Nothing in it touched, nothing used, nothing here wanted by anyone any more, just sitting here thinking.’

‘And waiting,’ Eleanor said. “

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thread that Binds the Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

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Banner by Lisa @deargeekplace; Photo: Kenai Fjords National Park, United States by Daniel H Tong on Unsplash

OK, this wasn’t quite as spooky as a Halloween read should be, but I’m still counting it because there were ghosts.

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Jo Walton only had to write one sentence about the type of magic Hoffman writes to make me hunt down this first Chapel Hollow book: “If you’re asking how it works then you’re reading it wrong”. Because that’s the kind of magic I want to read about. (And some of Walton’s thoughts on Hoffman can be found here at tor.com if you’d like to be similarly enthused).

It’s great magic: instinctive and intuitional and not bound by a lot of rules requiring special chants and sigils and ingredients. Not that magic with ingredients isn’t also pretty cool, but it’s all about how the magic works in the world of the book, and that kind of magic wouldn’t have worked here. Reading The Thread That Binds the Bones was like sinking into a slightly better version of the real world. Yes, dreadful things still occur, but magic is there as a method of redressing the balance. This book was first published the year I turned thirteen and, man, do I wish my best friend and I had been able to read it back then. It was written for us as we were then.

I don’t know if I really want to talk about the plot at all. I’m not sure it would make a lot of sense if I wrote it all out. Things happen, slowly at first and then much quicker, and it all feels pretty organic and you get swept along. By the end, you look back and realise that you’ve just read a heap of crazy stuff that made a lovely kind of sense while you were reading. I’ve mentioned before that I am left with distinct visual impressions after I’ve read something – well, The Thread left me with a kaleidoscope-view of scenes and characters, rainbow-hued with purple sparkles.

What I think Hoffman is interested in is power dynamics and how people turn out when they have been either a victim or victimizer. She’s not afraid to talk about abuse and rape and yet she doesn’t write about these things in a particularly triggering kind of way. She focuses not on the abuse, but on the consequences of it for both parties and how to heal or move on or grow beyond. There is, perhaps, a naivety there that wasn’t obvious while I was reading this, but that I feel must have been there when I think back on what I’ve read. I am thinking very specifically about Maggie here and her relationships with both Carroll and Eddie. Eddie seems completely let off the hook because he too was a victim of the Bolte family, but the point is made later with Maggie that just because you’ve been a victim does not mean it’s OK to dish out the treatment that you yourself received.

Anyway, that’s making it sound like it’s a really heavy book, and it’s not at all. It’s got a wonderful community of both mundane and magical characters whose lives have been intertwined for centuries and it deals with some of the complications of such entanglement. This is going to sound a bit weird, but go with me on this: while I was reading it I imagined that the town of Arcadia was like Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls and the house out at Chapel Hollow was like Richard and Emily’s house, only bigger and more magical.

The house is awesome. I’m not going to say any more than that, but, yeah, seriously cool. And the Powers and Presences are awesome, particularly Peregrine. I also loved all the Family names: Bolte, Locke, Seale and Keye (I feel like there’s a theme maybe?) But the clothes? Ouch! It’s possibly the only detail that really dates the book, and while I would have loved Laura’s wardrobe as a teenager and probably would have spent quite some time drawing pictures of her every outfit, now I just wanted to take all her accessories away from her.

I have a very small list of authors I would quite like to meet. Other than Jo Walton herself, Connie Willis and Julie Czerneda are the only other two people on it, but I think Nina Kiriki Hoffman may actually just have gone on the list. It’s a totally subconscious process, so I’ll have to go check …

Yep. She’s on it.

Finally, it has only just occurred to me that this was urban fantasy, although it didn’t follow the rules in the way you’d expect. There were no leather-clad loners keeping the mundane world from discovering the magical world. In fact, the mundane world was painfully aware of the magical world’s existence at the beginning of the book and it was much more a case of those two worlds achieving some sort of peace together. And whereas urban fantasy normally feels like it would be powered by a rock or grunge soundtrack, Hoffman’s book is definitely powered by folk music – there’s some melancholy notes in there, but also that warm, rich music that creates a sense of belonging and has everyone tapping a foot.

I don’t know if I’ve made it clear that I really enjoyed reading The Thread That Binds the Bones, but if it needs to be stated, then I did. A lot. And I know I have another book by Hoffman somewhere which I’m looking forward to digging out and reading, because I want more of the world of Chapel Hollow.

 

I’ll take anything else she cares to write too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

It’s time for something creepy, something a little bit spooky; it’s time to wonder at the things that go bump in the night. It’s time, in fact, for the Wyrd & Wonder mini event: Spooktastic Reads 2019.

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Banner by Lisa @deargeekplace; Photo: Kenai Fjords National Park, United States, by Daniel H Tong on Unsplash

 

Let’s get this out of the way first: I am a huge scaredy-cat. Horror movies terrify me and I never go to the cinema to watch one because I need the lights on and to be able to tuck my feet up on my seat and … you can snigger all you want … I need a soft toy or my blanky to cuddle. Horror books are even worse because then your brain is in collusion with the author to scare the wits out of you and you can’t turn your brain off. All that said, body horror is the least disturbing kind for me. Yes, we can be bent and broken in some extraordinarily nasty ways, but that’s just gross, not scary (unless it’s being done to me – then, obviously, it’s frigging horrifying!).

So, I knew The Murders of Molly Southbourne had body horror elements in it and I knew it was a novella, and therefore it seemed like a pretty safe option for Spooktastic Reads. Boy can I be wrong sometimes.

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This was one hundred and seventeen pages of creepy-ass, thumb-chewing tension. I was suckered in with the Nikita/Hanna vibe (movies about young women trained to kill with precision and utter detachment? I’m there before they’ve finished putting up the posters), and by then it was too late. Molly’s situation is truly scary as much for it’s inevitable repetition as for it’s being inescapable. How can someone not bleed? We bleed all the time via little bangs and scrapes, or by maybe brushing our teeth too vigorously, as well as via menstruation and nose bleeds and a hundred other ways I can’t think of or imagine. No matter how careful or mindful we are we will all bleed, it’s part of life. But when Molly bleeds a replica of her is born, identical to her in every way no matter her age. And then it tries to kill her.

Sometimes a molly will be confused for a time, or friendly, or talkative, before their murderous impulse kicks in. Sometimes it’s immediate. Either way, Molly has to always be ready and always be better than the mollies that will come for her. While she was a child her parents killed the mollies as they appeared, but they also trained their daughter: taught her how to fight and kill, how to efficiently cut up and dispose of a body, how to deal with her own blood. That her parents were also able to maintain a loving relationship both together and with Molly was a part of the horror for me – they have had to kill perfect replicas of their daughter, whom they love, again and again, from when she was tiny to when she was grown, and then hack her up and bury her. That that doesn’t destroy them is both incredible and kinda creepy.

That it doesn’t destroy Molly (open for debate this) is equally incredible. Yes, she goes through a period of delusion, she self-harms and yes, she contemplates suicide briefly, but she has a great deal of self-discipline and a pragmatism that I really loved. Actually, I liked Molly a lot. She’s a keen reader, she’s smart and direct. She doesn’t do small talk. Her decision not to shave made me laugh. Her reason for not committing suicide says a lot about where she places value. And her calm and efficiency, passed on to her by her parents, make the book that much scarier.

She’s also extremely lonely. And perhaps this is part of The Scary as well. Think about it: in all the scary movies or books you’ve watched/read, how often do more than a couple of people survive? And that lonely figure or two at the end, having survived whatever horror they were pitted against (probably by having to do unspeakable things), what future do you envisage for them? Do you imagine they’ll reintegrate into society, make lots of new friends and lead happy, nightmare-free lives? Because I never do. Part of The Scary is being marked out as different, is having survived something terrible and being unable to talk about it with anyone. Part of The Scary is being the survivor and Molly has been the survivor all her life.

 

And then there’s all the Thoughts that come with this book:

How are the mollies different to Molly? Why do they have to die? If they are perfect copies, then they surely have the right to life just as she does? Then again, they all think they’re Molly and have the same memories as she does, so … what does that mean?

Do the mollies only want to kill Molly because that’s what her parents have taught her: “If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight”? If she’d been taught to make friends with them, would they have reacted in kind? Or, in other words, did Molly’s parents, in trying to protect their only daughter, actually create this situation in which she is in constant mortal peril?

And what the heck’s going on with Leon and James?? I want to know everything about that.

 

Finally, I want to talk about Thompson’s writing. I haven’t read anything else by him yet, although Rosewater has been ready and waiting for me on the stack for a couple of months now. Having read this, I am looking forward even more to reading that novel now. Because Thompson writes really clear, precise prose. Like Picasso’s light pen drawings (not seen them? Google them now, they’re pretty awesome) his writing is simple, immediate and incredibly evocative. I mean, he manages to pack more information into one hundred and seventeen pages than some writers do in five hundred. So if you haven’t already read this, you definitely should. It’ll take maybe an hour of your time. I read it on my bus journey home and, no word of a lie, was so engrossed I missed my stop.