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Science Fiction and Horror Review Column - Aurealis #43
This is the online version of the column that will appear in Aurealis #43 (read it first here).
By the time this column sees print, the debate about parallel importation of books will be done and dusted. Let’s hope the status quo remains because to give up our territorial copyright will have far-reaching and damaging effects on local producers. You’ve no doubt read all the pros and cons from companies such as Dymocks who are on the ‘cheap books at all costs’ bandwagon to such internationally recognised authors as Garth Nix and Peter Carey who argue strongly that they wouldn’t have made it if the practices being put forward by the Productivity Commission had been in place when they were starting out.
It is a fact that if the changes go ahead, local authors will find it much harder to get picked up by international publishing houses, particularly since those publishers will have no more reason to have ‘local’ offices in Australia as our copyright territory will have effectively disappeared. This will also have a devastating effect on the thousands of editors, designers and other workers in the publishing industry in Australia because there simply won’t be a publishing industry in Australia after that.
Sobering, I know. So read on about the wonderful stuff our authors are turning out with that thought in mind.
Chaos Space – Book Two of The Sentients of Orion
Marianne de Pierres
Regular readers of this column would remember my review of book one in the Sentients of Orion series, Dark Space (in Aurealis #40), and the fact that I wasn’t entirely bowled over by the book, although it had much to recommend it. Reading book two I found myself going back over my feelings about that first volume and questioning whether the perspective I’d had then was entirely justified. There had been a substantial amount of hype leading up to the release of Dark Space, to be sure. Orbit (and its parent company Hachette) had just announced the opening of a local Australian office which promised a new focus by an international publisher on home grown speculative fiction (and how much longer would such a thing last without territorial copyright?). Dark Space, although commissioned through Orbit UK, was launched with much fanfare at the natcon in Melbourne, and everyone was very excited.
You may recall I was a bit miffed by the misleading pre-publicity concerning the novel. Marketing blurbs portrayed it as a novel about big ideas: the nature of God and what would happen once we finally encountered Her/Him/It in deep space. That line persists in the marketing of Chaos Space, but the Sole Entity in Marianne’s book is not and never has been cast as God, i.e. the creator of all life in the universe (or at least that part belonging to S/He or It). Sole Entity is ‘simply’ a highly advanced life form. Of course it certainly wasn’t Marianne’s fault that those perceptions were confounded. I did also feel however that the first book dragged a little in terms of action and plot development. I still think that but having just finished book two, I can finally see why that was – perhaps unavoidably – the case.
The Sentients series has at least five main protagonists and to establish each of those as a rounded individual with at least one reason for being involved in the story takes a bit of time. And setting up the conditions under which a multi-character plot can run also takes time and space. Hopefully however once those conditions have been met, the story will explode out of the traps, which is exactly what has happened in book two.
Readers who have stayed with Mira Fedor, Araldis noble woman and the only female carrier of the gene allowing her to meld with the sentient biozoon ship Insignia, Principe Trin Pellegrini, wastrel son of Araldis’s ruler, now struggling to keep those who survived attack by the insectoid Saqr alive in the barren hinterlands of his world, Jo-Jo Rasterovich, semi-legitimate prospector and now feted discoverer of the Sole Entity who would sell his own mother for a drink, and Godhead Tekton, the scheming ArchiTect who will lay waste to planets to beat the competition for Sole Entity’s favours, are more than amply rewarded with Chaos Space.
This is a beautifully plotted, full-on action ride with gorgeous twists, nice time-shifts between the different plot threads and a host of engaging coincidences that combine to throw our protagonists together in dazzling set pieces that leave you breathless and eager to turn the next page. The characters are complex, earthy, humorous and infinitely believable, the situations are richly described and the coincidences ultimately forgivable when you realise anything that the Sole Entity has a tentacle in is probably less coincidence and more obscurely god-like plan. The book ends with a lovely set up for more of the same in book three and what I suspect is going to be a deeply satisfying pay-off. I’ll stop now because you should be running to your nearest shop to buy the first two books so you can savour the wait for book three. Marianne has really hit her straps with this one. Don’t miss out.
Poppy Z Brite
Following on from the beautifully presented Future Classics series published by Gollancz in 2007 comes a similarly well-packaged series of horror classics. The line up includes Stephen King’s The Green Mile, Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson, Fevre Dreams by George R R Martin, the lyrically scary Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce, who was a bit of a hit at Conflux in 2008, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, Song of Kali by Dan Simmons, and Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse, which I dipped into for this column.
Set predominantly in her native New Orleans and published in 1996, Exquisite Corpse, has as its background the height of the ravaging effects of the AIDS virus on the homosexual community. Many of the characters are HIV positive and the slow tumorous destruction of their bodies is counterpointed by the swifter, visceral and equally deadly ministrations of escaped serial killer Andrew Compton, who fakes his own death after imprisonment for the murder and dismemberment of twenty-three men. This then is not a supernatural tale but one more of physical horror and the psychology of those that can inflict their inhuman cravings and experimentations on the far-too-human flesh of others.
The storytelling and characterisation is compelling and well-crafted and the motivations behind the killers (yes, there are more than one) and the potential victims who have lives, loves and regrets are well developed. But for me, the portrayal of graphic violence went too far. This is of course a perennial debate and Brite is not alone in confronting her readers with scenes they would rather not witness. Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is another example of work that some would say goes too far. Chuck Palahniuk is constantly dabbling on the threshold of that particular doorway. Interestingly Brite acknowledges these concerns in the novel when Compton addresses us directly at the scene of one of his murders. ‘Horror is the badge of humanity,’ he says, ‘worn proudly, self righteously, and often falsely.’ And later, ‘How many of you have risked a glance at some wretched soul bleeding his life out on a highway shoulder? How many have slowed down for a better look?’ Well, yes, guilty. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to find a road accident. And I wouldn’t by choice buy a book that portrayed such events graphically. I’m not trying to be prudish but I believe that horror that resorts to this kind of device ultimately fails. Horror is a close relative to suspense. They both function best when they suggest and imply rather than reveal. Those ‘horrific’ scenes in Exquisite Corpse made me switch off. For the same reason Ellis’s American Psycho remains less than half-read on my bookshelf. I still enjoyed Corpse, but not as much as I could have.
It’s a personal thing, I know. Be tempted by the offerings of Gollancz’s Horror Classics. But be warned…
The Gene Thieves
The shoutline on the front cover of The Gene Thieves, a quote from a Bookseller and Publisher review, calls the book, ‘an exciting near-future thriller… fast paced and engaging’. Sadly I can’t echo their comments. And I am sad because with so very few science fiction titles being brought out by local mainstream publishers I really look forward to reading and championing those that make it through the mill. I want to love them. I want to tell everyone about them.
The fact is that although it says ‘Science Fiction’ on the back cover there’s less science in The Gene Thieves than a Michael Crichton novel and even less science fiction. Throwing in the odd reference to ‘mag-lev trains’ and a plot that is weakly linked to an amorphous ‘gene therapy breakthrough’ does not a science fiction novel make.
The story concerns Dancer, handsome, intelligent, successful surrogacy contract lawyer (and talented architect on the side) who is happily married to beautiful, intelligent, successful, one-time obstetrician now psychiatrist Marina, and what happens to them when Piggy Brown, not so handsome but still blindingly intelligent and awesomely rich genetic scientist comes to Dancer’s office with a proposition. Yes, the characters are very one-dimensional, pretty unbelievable and the dialogue is dreadfully stilted at times. The plot staggers along as Piggy requests and secures a surrogate to carry a baby he has genetically tailored. Then Piggy’s baby is kidnapped by very nasty baddies in order to wring the genetic secrets of his research out of him.
For a thriller the plot is very static. There’s lots of talking, particularly talking about stuff that’s happened ‘off camera’ and not a lot of action. The climactic scene revolves around getting past a dastardly booby-trapped lock attached to the baby’s room with a fiendish encoding device. The powers of good get hold of a secret US decoder and work feverishly for hours to get through the door, which they finally do. The fact that the baby is locked in an upstairs room of a normal suburban house which presumably has a window they could climb in through or, if not that, painfully thin wood and plasterboard walls which wouldn’t put up much resistance to a hammer-wielding hero, doesn’t seem to have been considered. I just couldn’t take it seriously.
The Gene Thieves is a big disappointment delivering nothing in the way of suspension of disbelief, unforeseen plot twists or empathy for its main characters. I can perhaps understand that publishing a novel like The Gene Thieves could be seen as a means to broaden the reader base for science fiction in Australia with a softer kind of SF melded with an exciting crossover thriller story. But this novel isn’t well enough written to achieve that.
The Last Albatross
Simon and Schuster
Strangely enough, the next book I picked up, The Last Albatross, is described as a ‘chillingly realistic thriller’ – and it IS! Simon and Schuster have decided to reissue the Human Rites Trilogy — of which Albatross is the first volume — and it’s easy to see why. The scenario of a near-future world staring down the barrel of environmental collapse is — nine years after its original publication — unfortunately even more realistically frightening. And in comparison to The Gene Thieves, realism is a word that kept cropping up in my thinking as I flicked through the fast-moving pages of Albatross.
Firstly, Ian Irvine is an environmental scientist by training and profession (as well as an international best-selling speculative fiction author), so you know the science and the future scenarios based on that science are right on the money — in fact this and other aspects of the novel has been updated by Ian for this new release. Secondly, the lives and relationship of Jemma and Ryn, the main characters, are realistically portrayed. Sure they love each other but individually and together they’re subject to internal and external pressures we can all identify with: mortgage, fear of unemployment, difficult managers who expect more than a pound of flesh for the measly wages they pay, oven on the fritz, too many bills… Thirdly, the worldbuilding projects us into a Sydney that is just a few years from today — and, yes, the roads are still chaotic — but the internet has taken over so that everything is interconnected, the fridge, oven, home security system, telephone are all wifi (and usually stuffing up) and the so-called reality TV streaming on multiple channels is even more sickening and morally bankrupt than now. In short, more of the same, but worse.
Jemma and Ryn’s less than domestic bliss is broken one evening by the arrival of Hercus Barges, one-time friend of Ryn and now environmental extremist. Spurred on by the death of the last albatross (which he produces in a very Ancient Mariner-like scene) he informs Ryn that he’s had enough of humanity and now plans to dig up a half kilo of plutonium he and Ryn ‘liberated’ from Maralinga during their student days and do something drastic with it. When Ryn refuses to help, Hercus storms off, and in the intervening days Jemma and Ryn are pulled into a sophisticated plot involving nihilistic environmental cults, organised crime and dodgy police. Ryn’s work modelling the potential break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf for a global forecasting corporation also starts to cause trouble when his unprincipled boss decides that a lot of money can be made by leaking his projections selectively rather than warning the world’s governments.
All this occurs against a backdrop that is all too familiar as nations make noises about saving the environment but slide into inaction when faced with the economic toll that doing the right thing will have on their industrial base. See what I mean about realism? The fact that what could be a downer of a book actually delivers an exciting adventure story that also brings some hope, shows just what a finely balanced piece of writing The Last Albatross is. The ultimate feeling I got from the book is that we’re in a desperate situation but there are still right-thinking people out there who can make a difference, and are prepared to do so even at great personal cost. This is a book for right now, that everyone should be reading and then thinking about what they — not someone else — can do to save the planet. Buy a copy for yourself and another for a friend.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth
In these post-Twilight days (will it ever leave the top ten book lists?) lots of people are looking for the next big YA vampire thing. It’s easy to see why a publisher would pick up Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth to get in on a bit of that Twilight action, although Carrie’s world is populated by zombies not vampires, but the fact is that Forest would have made it on its own even without the hype around Twilight, because it is a bloody good story told well.
Mary lives in a fenced off village which is constantly under threat from the forest of hands and teeth. Yes, it’s situated in a large forest, but it also contains an army of zombies who are just waiting for the fence to come down so they can feast on living flesh — they constitute the forest of the title. The village has been there for years, ever since the Return when the dead began to walk. Civilisation crumbled and was beaten back behind fences to live a simple rural life. The village is all Mary knows. Her whole world is bounded by the fence, but she dreams of the ocean that her mother told her about. The village is also ruled by the Sisterhood and patrolled by the Guardians who ensure the fence remains sound. There’s a lot of really good worldbuilding here and a believable love story with Mary betrothed to one brother when it is the other she really loves and, as a result, in danger of being declared a spinster and joining the Sisterhood, which seems to have dark secrets of its own. But the thing I really liked about Forest was Carrie Ryan’s willingness to suddenly shift the plot in unexpected directions. There are a number of breaks throughout the story where you think, ‘Wow, now what’s going to happen?’ And there are a number of truly chilling but beautifully underwritten images. Let’s face it, zombies are scary and Forest skilfully puts very sympathetic characters in harm’s way again and again to great effect. So, if you liked Twilight, you’ll love Forest, and if you didn’t like Twilight, but you like well-written and underplayed horror, then Forest is also the book for you.
Canterbury 2100 – Pilgrimages in a New World
Dirk Flinthart (Editor)
As I’ve said before, anthologies are a tricky thing to put together. A theme is useful. It gives the authors something to hang their stories around, it can produce a nice cohesion between what are really different pieces of writing, and it’s good for marketing to the reading public. But you need to be careful. The theme should inspire the writers but not constrain them too much, either consciously or unconsciously. Canterbury 2100 is a good example to illustrate this point.
The rather appealing idea behind this, the last book from agog! press (unless Cat Sparks can be persuaded otherwise), is to take Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a template and project it into a future where a group of pilgrims in 2100 are making their way to Canterbury through a landscape that has been scarred by plague, climate change and the general collapse of civilisation early in the 21st Century, and to have them tell stories to each other which create a kind of future history and, ‘become a window, a kaleidoscope looking into a world which doesn’t yet exist,’ as Dirk says in his introduction.
So, in a sense Canterbury 2100 could be viewed as a collaboration between the authors on a shared-world filled with and informed by the future history of the next ninety-one years. It was a great idea, but in retrospect, looking at the book that resulted, the stories fairly groan and chafe against the framing narrative.
Each piece is bookended by interstitial material written, I believe, by Dirk to set the scene for each teller and each tale. The travellers are on a train on the way to Canterbury that is halted due to foul weather, so to kill time they entertain each other with a story or two. All good and well but, firstly, this makes for a ‘static’ framing device. The pilgrims are stuck. They — and the interstitial story — can’t move on because they have to be stuck there until all the stories are told. Dirk tries to spice it up by introducing a possible terrorist attack on the train but that creates problems of its own which I’ll come to shortly.
The second problem is that the stories viewed together don’t feel like they come from the same continuing historical narrative. Internal consistency is an important attribute of both SF and Fantasy. We have only ninety-one years to fill, at most four generations. No matter how bad the world becomes, there are certain things that can’t be forgotten in that space of time, especially when it’s generally the case that three generations co-exist in any era. It’s a niggle, I know, but it spoils the overall enjoyment of each piece when you are kicked out of your suspension of disbelief because two or more narratives don’t mesh. So Angela Slatter’s ‘The Nun’s Tale’ seems to portray a world that would take several centuries to build and decay — and the same can be said for Matthew Chrulew’s ‘The Gnomogist’s Tale’ (which would also have benefited from a bit of judicious pruning). Laura E Goodin’s ‘The Miner’s Tale’ indicates that TV was still functioning at worst only 40 years before the story is related, but that doesn’t tally with other stories such as Sue Isle’s ‘The Sky Chief’s Tale’ and others. You can’t have it both ways. You either say it’s a consistent future history and make sure the stories all sing from the same hymn book and don’t contradict one another, or you say it’s a book that provides a ‘variety’ of visions around a common theme e.g. pilgrimage in the future.
Thirdly, Dirk’s in-between story sometimes amplifies on the information contained in the individual piece, not always to good effect and in the case of Lynn Battersby’s ‘The Conductor’s Tale’ actually provides a frame for the tale which contradicts the story’s own framing device of prologue and epilogue. All this leads to a feeling in the reader of confusion and disappointment that things aren’t quite hanging together ‘as promised’. And that’s the difficulty with stating an intent for an anthology that is not wholly delivered upon.
Okay, what about the individual pieces if we forget the framing device? I’d have to say it’s an uneven anthology. In one sense the ‘shared world’ leads to a sameness in the themes that are investigated, generally loss and striving for survival. There are some good stories. Lee Battersby’s ‘The Metawhore’s Tale’ stands out as a very original story that looks at some old themes and prejudices in a refreshing way. Trent Jamieson’s ‘The Lighterman’s Tale’ is a sharp and poignant retelling of a familiar fairy story or mermaid’s tale in his very entertaining and yet affective style. Angela Slatter’s ‘The Nun’s Tale’ is a kind of Matrix meets Handmaid’s Tale affair with some very strong characterisation, and as you might expect there is entertaining work from Geoffrey Maloney and Stephen Dedman.
Other stories were well put together but not dazzling in execution or concept and some didn’t seem to contain any speculative elements at all (other than the fact the year in which they were set was some time in the future).
Canterbury 2100 was just one of the titles considered in the new Anthology and Collection categories in the 2008 Aurealis Awards, a category that I convened with judges Marianne De Pierres, Van Ikin, Sarah Darmody and Anita Gibson.
The Starry Rift
Jonathan Strahan (Editor)
The winner of the inaugural Aurealis Award for an Anthology, The Starry Rift, features stories by Scott Westerfield, Neil Gaiman, Margo Lanagan, Greg Egan, Garth Nix, Cory Doctorow, and Stephen Baxter amongst some nine other authors, all writing around a simple theme: knowing what we know, imagine what the future will be like. Each story contains an endnote by the author generally talking about the genesis for the story in what’s happening in our world today.
The book is marketed as children’s fiction. It’s far from that. The stories engage with complex ideas and are brilliantly written. To focus on the Australian contingent, Margo Lanagan’s ‘An Honest Day’s Work’ is typically bizarre, a sort of cross between Gulliver’s Travels and a Japanese whaling operation, Scott Westerfield’s ‘Ass-Hat Magic Spider’ is infectiously feel-good, Garth Nix’s ‘Infestation’ is a rollicking vampire/alien tale, and Greg Egan’s Lost Continent tackles the ‘boat people problem’ head on.
The Starry Rift was up against stiff competition from Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again and the Mirrordanse Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Science Fiction. One of the reasons it won out was that, as an anthology, the stories it presented were consistently good.
Creeping in Reptile Flesh
In the Collection shortlist for the Aurealis Awards, there were just two titles, Creeping in Reptile Flesh and Sean Williams’s Magic Dirt (reviewed in Aurealis # 41). In any other year, Creeping would have won.
Robert Hood has been writing chilling, sickening, funny and thoughtful horror for longer than he cares to remember. Creeping in Reptile Flesh brings together some of the best from his twistedly evil mind including three previously unpublished works.
Robert’s writing has many shades. His heroes are often people just like you and me. Beset by the horrid and supernatural, they rise to the challenge or sink beneath the slime. Whatever happens, there’s humanity there, the best of us and the worst of us on show. Some pieces are brain-bendingly philosophical in their intent, like the title work and ‘Rotten Times’ which appeared in Aurealis #27/28, and my personal favourite, ‘Heartless’ (first published in Aurealis #31) which manages to be both viscerally gruesome and a cool-headed debate about whether the ‘soul’ resides in the heart or in the head. Others are funny with a sick (sometimes literally) twist, like ‘The Slimelight and How to Step Into It’ (which you can hear Robert read on the Terra Incognita podcast site at www.tisf.com.au), and ‘Rotting Eggplant on the Bottom Shelf of a Fridge’, and others are just plain weird, like ‘Dreams of Death’. There are many types of horror here to suit many tastes and all of them will please the discerning reader who enjoys good tales told well.