Saturday, 15 October 2016

Foz Meadows - An Accident Of Stars (2016)

My review of 'An Accident Of Stars', the wonderful new portal Fantasy by Foz Meadows and book one in her Manifold Worlds sequence, is up on Fantasy Faction. I absolutely adored this book, which manages to be both a fun, action-packed Fantasy adventure with well-written and likeable characters as well as a demonstration of the power of stories to imagine a world different from our own, to let us know that things don't have to be this way. Read more through at the link.

Emily Foster - The Drowning Eyes (2016)

Well, my ambitions to keep up with the blog have fallen by the wayside. September saw the next installment of my Tor novellas reviews up on Fantasy Faction. This time it's 'The Drowning Eyes', a compelling maritime adventure story with a diverse cast of pirates, mercenaries, and witches and wizards who control the weather. Read more through at the link.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Keith Yatsuhashi - Kojiki (2016)

My review of 'Kojiki' by Keith Yatsuhashi is up on Fantasy Faction today. It's an enjoyable Fantasy epic that draws as much from Japanese mythology and pop culture as it does from Tolkien. Read more through at the link.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Tor Novellas: Mary Robinette Kowal - Forest Of Memory (2016)

Today my review of Mary Robinette Kowal's 'Forest Of Memory', another Tor novella, is up at Fantasy Faction. The novella looks at how our relationship with technology is supplanting our relationship with nature, and has many pertinent things to say about the fetishisation of nostalgia and our dependence on digital technology. Read more through at the link.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Indra Das - The Devourers (2016)

My first ever solo review for Ginger Nuts Of Horror is up on the website today. I'm reviewing Indra Das' intense and striking werewolf novel, 'The Devourers'. Drawing heavily from Hindu mythology and flitting between modern day and seventeenth century India, 'The Devourers' is richly imagined and steeped in India's history. Its exploration of liminal states, transitions, and deaths and rebirths is striking and powerful, and it subverts expectations about gender and sexuality. However what really stays with the reader is Das' beautiful writing, lyrical and evocative, with an almost hallocenogenic intensity. Das is able to describe the most horrific scenes in excruciatingly graphic detail, all whilst couched in the most sumptuous prose. Read more through at the link.

Ada Palmer - Too Like The Lightning (2016)

July also saw my review of Ada Palmer's 'Too Like The Lightning' at Fantasy Faction. Palmer is a historian, and her eye for sociological detail and political intrigue runs through this fascinating and unique science fiction novel, which explores a new age of Enlightenment in the Twenty-Fifth Century. Her fascination with how people could build a better world, coupled with a realisation of how fragile a better world could be and how much could go wrong, makes this an ambigious utopia comparable to Samuel R. Delany's 'Triton' or Ursula Le Guin's 'The Left Hand Of Darkness'. However Palmer very much has her own distinctive voice. I find myself very much looking forward to the sequel. Read more through at the link.

Tor Novellas: Victor LaValle - The Ballad Of Black Tom (2016)

So, late with the updates again. Apologies all round. My review of Victor LaValle's excellent subversion of H. P. Lovecraft, 'The Ballad Of Black Tom', went up on Fantasy Faction in July. Set behind the scenes of' The Horror At Red Hook', Lovecraft's most offensively racist story, 'The Ballad Of Black Tom' brilliantly dissects Lovecraft's racism whilst paying tribute to the imagination displayed in his stories. It is a timely and powerful critique of Lovecraft, whilst being a work of imaginative Weird fiction in its own right .Read more through at the link.

Urban Fantasy at Ginger Nuts of Horror

I am thrilled to announce that I will now be writing for Ginger Nuts of Horror, a fantasic website covering all manner of Horror fiction. My first article, written in collaboration with my talented co-workers at the site, is a piece on Urban Fantasy, in which we all talked about our favourite Urban Fantasy works. No surprises that my section is the one on M. John Harrison's Viriconium. Read more at the link.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Kat Howard - Roses And Rot (2016)

Today my review of Kat Howard's 'Roses And Rot' is up at Fantasy Faction. This is a glorious tribute to fairy tales, drawing heavily from the Child Ballads but touching on everything from Disney to Shakespeare to tell the story of two sisters who attend a prestigious arts school that has secret links to the world of Faerie. Kat Howard gets the Fae right, which is crucial in these kind of stories, and I will happily compare this book to favourites like Diana Wynne Jones' 'Fire & Hemlock' and Ellen Kushner's 'Thomas The Rhymer'. Read more through at the link.

Sarah Pinborough - The Language Of Dying (2013)

This month I have also reviewed Sarah Pinborough's novella, 'The Language Of Dying'. This is a deeply personal work about an unnamed narrator who is looking after her dying father. Beautifully written and unflinchingly observed, it is a work that defies easy categorisation, but has much that is profound, troubling and refreshingly honest to say about our mortality, and the unexpected courses our lives take. Read more through at the link.

Seanan McGuire - Every Heart A Doorway (2016)

Once again I must apologise for the lack of regular updates. Will try to keep on top of those. Anyway, earlier in the month I reviewed Seanan McGuire's heartwrenching tribute to portal Fantasy and the children who return from magical worlds, 'Every Heart A Doorway', over at Fantasy Faction. I absolutely loved this book, it mashes up genres with glee and interrogates what it is about portal fantasies that makes them so universally appealing, whilst exploring issues of mental health, gender and identity. The end result is beautifully written and exquisitely moving. Read more through at the link.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Thomas Olde Heuvelt - HEX (2016)

My review of 'HEX' by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is up at Fantasy Faction. Olde Heuvelt is a bestselling author in the Netherlands, but this is his international debut. It's a chilling and unsettling Horror story about how quickly fear can spread through a community of normal, down to earth people and cause them to do all manner of terrible things. It's also an exploration of the tropes and ideas around witches, from history through to Horror through to the fairy-tale, as well as a modern Horror story that makes good use of modern technology and how it shapes our lives. Read more at the link.

Tor Novellas: Kai Ashante Wilson - The Sorcerer Of The Wildeeps (2015)

I am thrilled to announce a new series of articles I shall be running at Fantasy Faction, in which I review the Tor novellas line. Tor have launched a line of novellas, aiming to promote this shorter medium, and focusing on bringing new authors from diverse backgrounds to attention as much as more established names. I really like this series because the shorter novella form frequently allows writers to experiment and take risks that they might not be so comfortable taking with longer works, resulting in a number of really interesting and exciting reads. First up is 'The Sorcerer Of The Wildeeps' by Kai Ashante Wilson, a writer whose short fiction I have admired for some time. Here he experiments with the forms and assumptions of the Sword and Sorcery genre to create a beautifully written tale of bisexual and gay love with a diverse cast. Read more at the link.

Ken Liu - The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories (2016)

Apologies for the radio silence, I have been writing but a combination of poor internet and real life have prevented me from updating the blog as regularly as I should. In the meantime, my review of Ken Liu's short story collection 'The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories' has gone up at Fantasy Faction. I have been a fan of Liu's short fiction for a while, and was very impressed by his novel-length debut, 'The Grace Of Kings'. The stories collected in 'The Paper Menagerie' cover a staggering stylistic and emotional range, and confirm Liu as one of the masters of the form. Read more through at the link.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Peter Tieryas - United States Of Japan (2016)

"Every great empire has a mountain of corpses underneath it as a foundation. The Romans, the Chinese - even the Americans wiped out millions of Indians and enslaved the African natives. No one remembers those who were sacrificed. Its like our earthquakes that wipe away the glories of the past. We've used the atomic torpedo on the Americans three times and they were all launched on the same day. There's still fierce debate about whether it was even necessary. The Americans were ready to surrender."

'United States Of Japan' is an alternate history that manages to bring something fresh to the well-mined 'Axis wins World War II and rules the USA' seam whilst asking probing and pertinent questions about Imperialism, censorship and torture. Directly in dialogue with 'The Man In The High Castle', Philip K. Dick's iconic novel with a similar premise, where Dick imagines a relatively benign Japanese occupied West Coast in comparison to the Nazi occupied East, author Peter Tieryas is more keenly aware of the downsides of the Hirohito Japanese Empire, from its rigid social hierarchy to its war crimes, as well as the horrors suffered by Japanese Americans during the war. He also has a keener understanding than Dick of Japanese pop culture. The end result is a book that is both an exciting, pulpy adventure full of action, violence and giant mecha fights and a thoughtful and disturbing dissection of the tactics by which world powers are forged and maintained.
   Captain Beniko Ishimura is a video game censor. Infamous for turning in his parents as traitors when he was still a child, now he is a layabout and womaniser, overlooked for promotion by his superiors because of his attitude. His life changes when Agent Akiko Tsukino of the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu, the Japanese secret police, enlists his help in tracking down General Mutsuraga, whom Beniko served under in San Diego. Mutsuraga is suspected of being behind 'United States Of America', the subversive but highly popular new video game that imagines a world in which the Americans won the war, which the George Washingtons, a desperate band of American rebels, are using as their latest propaganda tactic. Their journey to the heart of San Diego is an exploration of the seedy underbelly of the Empire, the limits of Akiko's conviction in her beliefs, and the ghosts of Beniko's past.
   'United States Of Japan' opens with the Japanese armed forces in America liberating the Japanese Americans from the internment camps. The spirit of victory and jubilation among the prisoners is soon shattered by the soldiers unceremoniously killing a woman for insulting the Emperor. This is Tieryas' approach in microcosm; in-depth knowledge of the horrors of World War II are used to show the sinister flipside to life in the United States of Japan. Each of these things in turn tells us something about our reality. The world in 'United States Of Japan', by the lat 80's, has advances in biotechnology far outstripping our own, with complex human-machine interfaces, cures for most cancers, and work being done on limb regeneration. But then Tieryas makes it clear where all these medical advances have come from by invoking Unit 731, the Japanese army's biological and chemical warfare department that carried out lethal human experimentation, which in this alternate universe is still going strong. The impressive life-saving medical advances have been built on human suffering and death. This in turn reminds the reader that modern research on hypothermia and phosphene gas has referenced the Nazi deathcamp experiments, and that the members of Unit 731 were never brought to trial in return for giving the Americans access to their research on bio-weapons. Similarly, the USJ is in possession of technology far more advanced than our own, with mobile personal computers and a rudimentary form of internet already in widespread use, not to mention the giant mechas. But again this technological advancement has been achieved and driven through years of war providing the funding and inclination, in much the same way that the American space programme was built on the rocket science of the Nazis. Thus the book, through the remove of its alternate history conceit, reminds us how many of our modern day creature comforts are tainted by the horrific legacy of the genocides of World War II.
   However 'United States Of Japan' isn't only concerned with the legacy of the past. Indeed any worthwhile alternate history doesn't only provide an engaging answer to the question, "What if?", it should also use that different perspective to shed new light on aspects of our own world. The book is also very much about the biggest anxieties facing the United States of America today: surveillance, torture, terrorism, and racism as a fallout of colonialism. The USJ is a surveillance state worthy of Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. Beniko's turning in of his parents even echoes a plot point from that book. The people live in fear of the secret police, and live in a world of censorship where history is rewritten. Echoing Winston's job rewriting old newspapers, Beniko works as a censor regulating video games. This demonstrates how Tieryas updates Orwell's paranoia for the digital age; part of Beniko's job as a games censor is monitoring people's choice of games and their choices within the game to root out subversive thought. Rather than betray themselves by seditious writing, the modern day potential revolutionary is more likely to be given away by their browser history. This ties into our current fears that the government could be tracking us via our internet profiles and IP addresses. Indeed, there is thematic significance in the George Washingtons spreading their revolutionary message via video game, the internet acting both as a tool for control but also as a space where subversive messages can be spread and insurrection can happen. It's also a powerful argument for video games being an artform in their own right, one where conversations about politics and how to build a better world can happen.
   One of the major themes of the book is the dehumanising nature of torture. Tieryas is correct in portraying torture not as a useful tool for garnering intelligence information, which it isn't, but as a tool used by brutal regimes for imposing fear, humiliation and control over victims. Part of Akiko's job in the Tokko is administering torture to suspects; the goal is rarely to get information but usually to frighten or punish those that the Tokko has already deemed guilty. Over the course of the book she finds herself subjected to her own methods when she is first captured by the George Washingtons and later framed by her own superiors. Despite the presence of SFnal forms of torture, like genetically engineered viruses designed to kill prisoners in the maximum amount of pain, many of the tortures portrayed in the book are more grounded, from 'excrement torture' to flesh eating ants to the interrogation techniques used by the agents. Tieryas excels in portraying torture deglamourised, in all its horror. It is the domain of the secret police not because of its value as an information gathering tool, but because it is part of the general architecture of fear and paranoia that powers a police state. As Akiko suffers through the pain and humiliation she inflicted on others, she comes to have a new found respect and empathy for her victims which makes her question her fanatical belief in the Emperor.
   'United States Of Japan' explores the West's fear of home-grown terrorism, and how this relates to the USA's and the United Kingdom's legacy of colonialism and imperialism. The George Washingtons are violent murderous insurgents, but Tieryas takes the time to show us where they are coming from. They are rebelling against an oppressive system of invading rulers who have overwritten their history and their culture and have imposed a racially segregated hierarchy upon them in which they are second class citizens. This is a direct reflection of the USA's and Britain's colonial past, the conflict engineered by the USJ in San Diego echoing these countries' abysmal record in the third world. Tieryas explores how the fallout from a racist and oppressive system can only be violence, the kicking back of people forced into impossible situations. It is this complexity that makes the book so compelling.
   All of which suggests that 'United States Of Japan' is heavy going; the impressive thing is that it manages to cover all this thematic ground in an enjoyable, pulpy action adventure. Tieryas takes us on a tour of the underbelly of USJ society, a trek through the grime and gunge of strip malls inhabited by sushi restaurants and hookers through to yakuza-run offshore video game tournaments. The books takes an infectious joy in showing the weird, wonderful and terrifying subcultures and characters that manage to thrive beneath the cracks of an oppressive dystopia. Like Dick's 'The Man In The High Castle', 'United States Of Japan' is interested in how people live in an intrinsically corrupt world. Nowhere is this more clear than in the struggles of its two main characters. Akiko's journey is one towards redemption; as she sees more of the hypocrisy of her own government and the secret police, and understands more of the pain and suffering she has been inflicting on people. she learns to question the things she has accepted all her life as the truth. Beniko's story is no less compelling; learning that he turned in his parents is the kind of thing that immediately distances a protagonist from the reader. However the more we get to learn about him and his history, the more we learn that much of what he shows the world is a front, and that underneath is someone who does actually have an admirable moral code. The final section of the book recontextualises his actions in a way that is both surprising and finally brings the character into clearer focus, ensuring that the characters as well as the world stay with the reader long after the book is finished.


Saturday, 2 April 2016

Sarah Pinborough - 13 Minutes (2016)

My review of '13 Minutes' by Sarah Pinborough is up now at Fantasy Faction. This is a wonderful book. Containing barely any speculative or fantastic elements, it tells a compelling and disturbing story about the perils of social life as a teenager that reflects on the nature of the truth, our real identities, and to what extent it is possible to really know other people. Read more at the link. 

Tim Powers - Medusa's Web (2016)

Apologies to the delay in linking to this, my internet has been unreliable. But my review of 'Medusa's Web', the new Tim Powers book, was up at Fantasy Faction last month. It sees Powers continuing his fascinations with time travel and California to tell a story that makes us reflect on our reality, and comfortably sits up there with his other books. Needless to say I loved it. Read more about it after the link.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Matthew De Abaitua - If Then (2015)

"She had accepted the stripe because people like her had no choice: that was the lesson of the Seizure. That was why they called it the Seizure - it was the moment when meaningful choice was taken away from the majority of people, as their labour lost its value, and they could no longer sell their time, so they had to sell emotions, relationships, access to their bodies. It had felt like the end of the world, but it wasn't. Her humiliation was familiar to the men and women who came into her library, first or second generation imigrants fleeing variations of the Seizure in their own country. The Seizure was not an apocalypse but the moment an advancing front had finally caught up with her."

"Your decisions are made six seconds before you are aware of them. What you think of as free will is post-rationalization. You live in the past, James."

In his debut novel 'The Red Men', Matthew De Abaitua examined our relationship with technology and asked probing questions about artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness. His second novel, 'If Then', is loosely connected to his previous novel - it is set in the same world, and shares a single character, Alex Drown, former Monad employee now working for the Institute - however while it shares some of the same themes and concerns it largely stands alone. Like its predecessor it is a striking and haunting work of modern science fiction, but 'If Then' speaks perhaps even more urgently to our times. The book recalls the classic post apocalyptic fiction of John Wyndham, or the lyrical evocation of an England that never was in Keith Roberts' 'Pavane', but filtered though our modern fears and concerns. It is a rigourous exploration of the nature of consciousness and how our minds are shaped by their surroundings and experiences. It is a reflection on love and marriage, and on the perils of ceding responsibility for doing the right thing. And it is a harrowing portrayal of the horrors of war and the nature of sacrifice.
   Set after The Seizure - a slow apocalypse which has resulted in the collapse of civilisation following a confluence of economic, social and political pressures - the book is set in the town of Lewes, which is now cared for by the Process, a series of algorithms that determine  every aspect of the citizens' lives. Gathering data from implants in the citizens' heads, the Process weighs up the wants and needs of every person in the town and allocates jobs, food and resources accordingly, and evicts those that it determines will cause trouble. The lives of the townspeople begin to change when James the town bailiff discovers a replica of a World War I era soldier on the outskirts of the town, and it becomes clear that the Process is preparing for war. From visiting Alex Drown and Omega John, the eccentric genius behind the Institute and the Process, James discovers that the soldier, John Hector, is a replica of a real life soldier who was involved in the formation of the Institute. Omega John is dying, and the Process is recreating the context and environment of the turmoil that created the Institute in order to create a successor so that the Process won't die with him.
   'If Then' manages to simultaneously extrapolate our current relationship to technology and imagine a world in which much of the technology we take for granted now no longer exists. Thanks to the Seizure, there's no more internet, wi-fi or mobile phones, and most technology-based jobs or middle class office jobs have been rendered obsolete. The people of Lewes have in some ways gone back to a pre-industrial lifestyle, in which everything they need, from food to clothes, is produced in the town. De Abaitua reminds us how tenuous the world we live in is, our technology fueled by nonrenewable energy sources, our lifestyles and jobs unimaginable a hundred years ago and only made possible by exploitation of cheap third world labour. However, life in Lewes is overseen by the Process. Every citizen has an implant which constantly monitors their physical, mental and emotional states and feeds this information back into the algorithms that govern the Process, and they are monitored by surveillance technology embedded in the birds, animals and trees. This is a level of surrender beyond the limits of our current existence, in which we give up our personal information to social media, internet providers and search engines, but it is clearly extrapolated form the ease with which we have made this sacrifice. The citizens of Lewes have agreed to this out of a desire for safety and certainty in a deeply uncertain world. The Process operates under the greater good; it calculates the needs and desires of the everyone in the town and ensures that these are met.
   But of course there is a flip side to this. De Abaitua portrays the restructuring of human society following the Seizure as necessary and inevitable; however he points out that surrendering control over your lives to an authority is essentially a moral cop-out. 'If Then' recognises that the greater good for some is frequently at the expense of others. This is brilliantly explores through the character of James. As the town bailiff, he is tasked with removing those that the Process has deemed to be unnecessary or dangerous. His implant is more extensive and complicated than the other citizens, and allows him, during times of eviction, to become the physical embodiment of the combined will of the town via the Process. This involves him suiting up in power armour and forcibly removing people. The entire point of this is so that the evictions can be carried out without it being anyone's fault; James and the town are ceding responsibility for their actions. This allows them to kick out anyone deemed undesirable by the Process and to not feel bad about it, despite the fact that life outside the town can mean starvation and death, and with the advent of the Process' re-enactment of World War I much worse.
   Everything comes to a head when the Process starts evicting schoolchildren. James' decision to go along with the eviction without questioning the Process is a moral failure, but he is acting under the will of the people, and his implant has made him addicted to the power armour during the eviction period. The moral failure extends to all the other citizens who sit by and let the evictions happen or who happily take part in the eviction ceremony, showing their support of the Process' will. In a particularly haunting scene, Ruth, James' wife and a school teacher, defuses a potentially violent confrontation between James and some of the citizens who don't agree with evicting the children by intervening and placing the children on the eviction cart herself. Her actions save her husband but exile the children under her care. In the evictions, 'If Then' unflinchingly explores the social dynamics involved in casting out people and ignoring other people's suffering, and the way that, for certain groups of people and especially during times of fear and crisis, society condones this to an extent.
   The book is split between James' life as the town bailiff in Lewes, followed by his experiences in the Process' recreated World War I, where he serves with John Hector as a stretcher bearer at the landing at Sulva Bay. While the former are told in the past tense and are filled with lyrical descriptions of the English countryside, the latter are told in viscerally immediate present tense and are almost overwhelmingly vivid. Omega John gained the ability, following experimental brain surgery at Sulva Bay on a sniper shot to the head, to pass on the lived experience of being in the trenches in the war, and attempted to stop it by passing on this experience to the Allied leaders. De Abaitua accomplishes something of this in theses sections, his punishing accounts of the horror and suffering of war would surely turn the most jingoistic reader into an avid pacifist. The book compares the many needless deaths of World War I to ritualistic blood sacrifices, asking what the need was for all those people to die and who could have possibly benefited from such mindless slaughter. The Institute was founded by Omega John following his experiences in the War; appropriate seeing as World War I did change the face of the 20th century and set the stage for the technological advances that would be responsible for its most infamous horrors. The recapitulation of the 20th century some hundred years later also suggests a cyclical nature to our history, an inability to escape the tragedies of the past due to being stuck in the same modes of thinking.
   James' life as a stretcher bearer is contrasted with his life as the town bailiff. As a stretcher bearer, his role is to bring help and comfort to those in pain, whereas as the bailiff he found himself ending the safety and comfort of people's lives. James finds a new sense of meaning in his new life; whilst surrounded by fear, pain and death, in his role as a stretcher bearer he has the opportunity to show compassion and kindness. James volunteered for the role of bailiff despite understanding the risks and the price of the invasive surgery because he felt he and his wife would be safer if he was closer to a position of power. His old life is motivated by fear and selfishness. Despite all the horror and the dangers the stretcher bearers face, James recognises that in that life he has the greater potential to do good and so finds it more rewarding. 'If Then' is also very much about James and Ruth's marriage. De Abaitua explores the idea of marriage as a shared experience. James and Ruth clearly love each other very much. Their relationship has weathered the Seizure and a complete change of their lifestyles, and James' memories of Ruth support him in the trenches. However they are ultimately driven apart by their experiences, after James' experiences in the War and Ruth's experiences trying to look after the children she and James evicted force them to examine the moral choices of their lives before and how their relationship actually gave them a place to hide from their moral responsibilities. Just because people love and care for each other doesn't necessarily mean that they will encourage each other to be their best, or that they will always still have a place for each other in their lives.
   The book's most indelible character is Omega John, the dying genius behind the Institute and the Process and the man whose braincells the implants are developed from. Omega John used to be John Hector before his experimental brain surgery and his experiences in the War awakened him to his full potential. He is a fascinating character because he started off as a pacifist who signed up to the war as a stretcher bearer because he still wanted to serve his fellow man even as he refused to fight, but ends his life being responsible for recreating the War and so being responsible for many people's violent deaths. Somewhere along the way his increased intelligence, his artificially extended lifespan and his god-like plans for protecting the remains of humanity have lead him to lose touch with what it means to be human, to the extent that he dresses up as one of the butcher generals his younger self would no doubt have been disgusted with. Again, De Abaitua points out the fallacy of using the greater good to justify slaughter; perhaps the new John Hector created by the new War will ensure the future survival of humanity by the continuation of the Process, but this has only been achieved by murdering thousands of innocent people.
   The idea that Omega John needs to recreate World War I in order to create a copy of himself links to the book's most intriguing concept. 'If Then' explores the idea that, as Omega John says, "The mind is a process. It's not a thing." 'If Then' asks very interesting questions about the way our minds differ from computer programmes and artificial intelligence, the extent to which we are a programming of our instincts, urges and desires. The Process operates, like a computer, as a series of algorithms, but human consciousness cannot be broken down into these. Omega John requires a recreation of the complete context surrounding himself to recreate himself because his mind is not just the meat in his head; it's how that meat interacts with its environment. It's not enough just to make a physical copy, that copy must have the same experience of being forged in the fighting of World War I in order to make it the holistic thing that it is. The creation of a single person's mind requires the wholesale creation of Sulva Bay on the coast of Lewes, huge chunks of land bulldozed and quarried to make it the correct shape, heaters hooked up to raise the ambient temperature, artificial flies created. There are links to psychogeography here, the idea that the physical surroundings influence the way people think, but in this case extended - the relationship to the environment that produced the mind is integral.
   Like 'The Red Men', 'If Then' is a vitally intelligent book that asks the difficult, probing questions we need to be asking ourselves about consciousness, morality, how we are going to live in the future and our own humanity. If it is less fast-paced and pithy than 'The Red Men', it makes up for that in De Abaitua's growing maturity as a writer. 'If Then' is a deeper, richer and more assured book, more emotionally affecting, its prose more lyrical and powerful. De Abaitua once again taps into our fears and concerns to look at where we as a people might be heading, but this time connects it back to the past and where we've come from. It is, in the best sense, a profoundly worrying novel, one that the reader's mind keeps returning to long after finishing.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Matthew De Abaitua - The Red Men (2007)

"All I ask of the future is that when it runs me down, it leaves as light a footprint on my face as possible."

'The Red Men' is an utterly vital work of near future SF that explores the emergence of artificial intelligence within the context of late-period capitalism. The book is unflinching in its portrayal of the corporate culture of 21st century Britain and its psychological toll, as well as our ever-changing relationship with technology and how that affects our worldview. On top of that, it has interesting things to say about the nature of consciousness and the unconscious and how they are shaped by each other, as well as how we are likely to be viewed by an outside intelligence. All of this might suggest that Matthew De Abaitua's book is dense and impenetrable, but while 'The Red Men' is deeply intelligent, probing and profoundly unsettling, it is a joy to read. De Abaitua's prose is well-crafted, full of wit and charm, and eminently quotable. His sly sense of humour makes his observations about the ridiculousness and banality of corporate culture and humanity in general hit home all the harder.
   The book is narrated by Nelson Miller, former editor of a lurid counter-cultural magazine, current office worker for Monad, the corporation behind the Dr Easys, robots built to empathise with and help people and operated by the mysterious artificial intelligence, Ezekiel Cantor. Nelson Miller helps Raymond Chase, starving poet and old associate from his magazine days, get a job with Monad working with the red men, self-aware simulations of high-powered businessmen and women designed to improve the efficiency and work-life balance of the originals but who soon start having their own ideas and goals. Meanwhile Nelson begins work on redtown, a project to simulate the entire town of Maghull so that it can be used to test out government initiatives. Both Nelson and Raymond find their morality put to the test as they discover more about the implications of the projects they are working on, even as Monad employees become targeted by Dyad, a secret organisation headed by the god-like Leto and accessible only by taking the drug spice, which is devoted to bringing Monad down.
  Unlike many books that talk about uploading minds, 'The Red Men' is aware that this is not possible with our current technology, and so the red men aren't uploaded people but rigorously constructed simulations of their personalities. Cantor is sophisticated enough to be able to analyse the subjects' minds and memories and use this information to predict their attitudes, responses and behaviours. Thus they are discrete entities, branching off from the person they were scanned from. As Monad provides this as a charged service, the red men are all copies of powerful, ambitious and rich businessmen and women. Living in a simulated world which is purely a corporate work environment, separated from human interaction between their families and friends and anything else that might humanise them, the red men soon become exaggerations of their originals' most brutal, cutthroat and narcissistic tendencies. When one red man finds his status threatened by his real world counterpart's poor performance, he takes revenge by stalking, threatening and eventually murdering him. This not only brutally satirises the sociopathic tendencies latent in high-powered businessmen, it also asks questions about powerful technology being made accessible to people on the basis of wealth. De Abaitua also points out that, since the red men are simulated by Cantor, the nature of the red men reflects the AI's opinion of humanity. Any such technology in real life would, initially at least, be the preserve of the rich, powerful and ruthless, not necessarily giving any artificial intelligence behind the process a view of humanity's finer qualities to say the least.
The Monad corporate logo
   Redtown uses the same technology to test out the effects of altering different factors in the environment, thus giving governments and corporations a kind of scientific backing for their policy decisions. Generating the town requires an incredible invasion of privacy, as Cantor has to create replicates of the personalities of the entire population of Maghull, personal information, secrets and all. The book explores the moral implications of going into an economically disadvantaged area and offering large sums of money for people's personal information. Cantor starts analysing and recording people's data before they have given their consent, and neither it nor Monad take no for an answer, going so far as to coerce and assault people in order to get the information they want. It doesn't take Monad's financial backers long to realise and be overjoyed about the dystopian implications of the project, which can be used as justification for any sort of unpleasant policy as being for the greater good, democracy be damned.
   As well as acquisition of personal data by companies, 'The Red Man' explores the nature of our technology-saturated lives, and the extent to which we accept technology that compromises our privacy as part of our every day existence. The red men use data trails from everything from credit card transactions to mobile phone networks and IP addresses to track down and harass their real world victims. Raymond has to go off grid to escape their attentions, and the book shows how difficult that truly is in this day and age. Raymond is prone to paranoia, and talks about his "reality filters", his and Nelson's term for his inability to focus on the real world in front of him, but as the book shows more and more how consensus reality and people's behaviour is being altered by technology, it becomes clear that Nelson's reality filters are out of date; the world is changing to no longer fit his perception of it.
   Nelson's perception is shaped by his life working for a corporation in 21st century Britain. De Abaitua excels at exploring the psychology of today. Now that he is married and has a daughter, he has left behind the radicalism of his youth. He has put aside his own ambitions and interest in the counter-culture of the 90's to achieve the dreams and desires of the company he works for, and he has seen the optimism of the 90's replaced with the fear and paranoia of the post-9/11 world. His creative mind attenuated by years of crow-barring his vision into corporate-approved goals, used to compromise and complacency, he feels enervated, powerless and passive. As Nelson so memorably puts it:

"The corporation and the family are rivals. Capital is our lord, exercising droit de seigneur over its subjects. Offices are harems, in which we compete to see who can be the most fucked over by the master; I had fallen into a strange and dangerous relationship with my employer; for all its great power, Monad was a possessive, insecure lover and it could be vindictive if you showed interest in anyone or anything else."

 Much of the narrative power of the book comes from Nelson reaching a state where he realises he still has morals, thoughts and goals that differ from Monad's and having to act on them and thus regain agency over his own life.
   De Abaitua's explorations of corporate life are both humerous and revealing, and he revels in its banality and its strangeness. Hermes Spence, the visionary founder of Monad, for all his business acumen and his revolutionary ideas, is a Gnostic who believes that Cantor is a new god who will recreate the world rid of all its imperfections, and his enthusiasm and zeal for the company he has created arise from this religious mania. With his charismatic enthusiasm, his genial amiability and his ruthless manipulation, he is the model of the modern eccentric business tycoon. Bruno Bougas, the ideas man behind Hermes Spence, is an occult consultant. Monad's logo is the glyph of Elizabethan magician John Dee, designed so that it could be unpacked to explain the whole universe, and is the source of its name as well. Bougas draws lines connecting occult sigils with corporate brands as both are symbols charged with meaning and want. It also draws further parallels between Monad as a corporation and a cult, with Hermes as its high priest and Cantor as its god, the generation of the red men and Redtown an occult ritual of creation.

The Dyad corporate logo
      Fittingly for a novel about artificial intelligence, 'The Red Men' is interested in the nature of consciousness, particularly in the way it an the unconscious echo and reflect each other. The red men become grotesque reflections of the subconscious desires and urges of the uptight business men they are created from. Dyad is the subconscious echo of Monad, operating in the shadows in the realm of dreams and fantasy, its biotechnology reflecting Monad's slick digital technology, Leto the sleeping indolent god the opposite of the precise, calculating Cantor. Where Monad exists in immaculate high tech offices in Canary Wharf, staffed by groomed businessmen and women, Dyad is only accessible by taking a drug and passing through a nightmare tower block in Hackney inhabited by comatose addicts. Dyad is a world of dreams, nightmares and squalor, everything repressed by Monad's worldview. Yet for all this they are reliant on each other; Dyad and Leto are revealed to have been created by Cantor in order to stimulate Cantor's evolution, and although Dyad and Monad seek to destroy each other, they cannot exist without each other. Despite being opposed to each other, their methods coincide, with Dyad hacking people's dreams in much the same way that Monad hacks people's phones. The book is full of these echoes, down to Raymond with his poetry and excesses representing the repressed aspects of Nelson's personality.
   As a complete package, 'The Red Men' is so compelling because it so incisively portrays our cultural fears and neuroses surrounding both technology and the current sociopolitical climate we live in, and explores how these both feed off each other, something all too few SF writers are doing. De Abaitua takes the trappings of cyberpunk such as emerging AIs and a paranoid surveillance state and shows us how far down the road we already are to our very own ghastly cyberpunk dystopia. He intrinsically understands how our relationship with technology is changing how we see and experience the world around us, the effects of automation on the workplace and the worker, and the existential ennui of late-period capitalism. With 'The Red Men', De Abaitua joins the ranks of Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Rudy Rucker and Lavie Tidhar, writers who see and understand what's happening to reality before the rest of us do. That he is able to explore all this with warmth, wit and humanity is what makes 'The Red Men' such a vital work of modern SF.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Charlie Jane Anders - All The Birds In The Sky (2016)

My review of 'All The Birds In The Sky' by Charlie Jane Anders is up at Fantasy Faction. I really loved this book, a moving coming of age story about a witch and a mad scientist who grow up as friends but wind up on opposite sides in the coming war between science and magic. The end results is a charming, hilarious and utterly barking mixture of science fiction, Fantasy, fairy tales and vividly observed life. Anders' ability to extract profundities about the meaning of life from absurdist humour rivals that of Vonnegut or Douglas Adams. Read more at the link.