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Monthly Archives: August 2014

To Spin a Darker Stair by Faith Mudge and Catherynne M. Valente, illus. Kathleen Jennings

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Forget everything you think you know about fairytales…
~~~~~
Tehani Wessely of Fablecroft Press is one of the number of Australian editors producing really interesting work… that unfortunately isn’t seen enough by the wider world. To Spin A Darker Stair is an excellent example of how fairy stories can be told in a revisionist manner, and come out of the process truly fascinatingly.

Both writers in this slim volume have taken a traditional fairy story villain and reworked them through a feminist lens; the witches in Rapunzel and in Hansel and Gretel. Each takes the stock character from their fairytale and explains them; not content with the simple “evil witch”, To Spin A Darker Stair instead takes the Maleficent approach: seen from their own angle, and with more information, these characters move from unsympathetic to tragic figures whose bad ends we mourn, rather than celebrating. The recasting also, of necessity, recasts the roles of some of those around them; while in Valente’s ‘A Delicate Architecture’ only the witch is affected and Hansel and Gretel’s arrival only comes at the end of the story, let alone their interactions with the witch, Mudge completely recasts Rapunzel into a much darker, more interesting figure and her family in an altogether grimmer, tragic and arguably Greek light in ‘Oracle’s Tower’.

The way these fairy tales work is by their magical feel; both Mudge and Valente capture the feel and idea of ‘fairy tale’ excellently, combining the impossible magical whimsy with cultural tropes and ideas to create a story that really sticks. To Spin A Darker Stair contains two very poetic, very lyrical writers whose work can’t be discussed without discussing their style; it flows like a folk tale, rather than feeling like a story written down. It has the lilting rhythm of something that has been spoken time and again, worn smooth by tongue after tongue wrapping around its parts. However, ‘A Delicate Architecture’ suffers from a certain repetitious slowness and arguably a degree of obviousness; while ‘Oracle’s Tower’ uses its tragic inevitably as an inexorable, oncoming thing that gives the story a mythic power, Valente loses that rather, as she seems to try to gain that power while not quite successfully achieving it.

‘Oracle’s Tower’ alone makes this volume worth buying, but bring in Wessely’s introduction and ‘A Delicate Architecture’ and I recommend it not just to fans of fairytales but all readers everywhere.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

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Harrison was the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time popping pills and not sleeping. Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by unreadable messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. Martin never takes of his sunglasses. Never.

No one believes the extent of their horrific tales, not until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these seemingly insane outcasts form a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within – and which are lurking in plain sight.
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The best horror is the creeping kind that builds, slowly; the kind where the characters can’t see what’s coming and the audience can just about see it, ever so slightly out of focus. Daryl Gregory, in We Are All Completely Fine, has written horror which works in exactly that mode…

This isn’t a long book, but for most of its pagecount, Gregory is simply wracking up the tension, slowly, and focusing the camera ever more for the readers. That isn’t to say We Are All Completely Fine is a dull book; the dual tracks of revelation, the misdirection of our attention with the focus of the novel, and indeed the ways in which Gregory ratchets up the tension are all powerfully used. The revelations of the different traumas of the different characters, and the links between those traumas, come out slowly over the two thirds of the book, while the second (overlapping) two thirds set up and carry out the main plot, reliant on those links and traumas. This is a novel of the interstices, the blank spots, the unexplained; Gregory isn’t trying to turn something small into horror but the whole world, and We Are All Completely Fine delivers a number of moments of shivering, where the reader looks over their shoulder, sees nothing… and isn’t reassured.

The characters are brilliantly archetypical. We Are All Completely Fine has the expected characters of a horror film, including the blonde, the hero, the manipulator, and the cranky paranoid one; but subverts every single one of these characters, reworks them in subtle and less-subtle ways, reveals characters as the story goes on, and generally achieves more development in less than 200 pages than some fantasy epics manage across all their volumes. It is perhaps unsurprising that a novel focused on a therapy group, with a strong sense of interiority around its characters and an interest in their personalities and interactions, is good at character; but Gregory really shows a singularly strong hand in writing distinct personalities that still somehow mesh fantastically.

In part this is achieved by the combination of narratorial voices; each chapter is introduced by a first-person plural narration that never gives away who, if any specific individual, is narrating, then moving in the third-person from character to character though largely focusing on one. Gregory combines this with a sort of jigsaw of the plot, in which each character has a part of the puzzle but can’t bring them together properly, to make the novel feel at once huge and really close.

We Are All Completely Fine isn’t your typical psychological horror novel, nor your typical Lovecraftian one; instead, Gregory looks at what happens next, and does so brilliantly. A really great piece of terrifying, revealing work.

Kaleidoscope ed. Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios

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What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!

Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage.
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Diversity is an increasingly strong theme in discussions of the state of the genre, and the inculcation of that diversity, but rarely are practical steps taken. Rios and Krasnostein decided to take a practical step through Krasnostein’s Twelth Planet Press publishing business, and with the help of Pozible (a crowdfunding site), Kaleidoscope was born!

I have to declare a certain interest here; Kaleidoscope is dedicated to me (in the Acknowledgements section – flip to the back and check!), and I have consistently supported the project and cheered as Krasnostein and Rios brought a host of voices both veteran (Garth Nix! Karen Healey!) and new (Sofia Samatar!) to bear on the broad theme of “diversity”, an idea that the fan community is coming to terms with but that is still seen as too “PC” a theme for an anthology by some. Kaleidoscope is an excellent artistic rebuttal of that.

Entirely made up of original fiction, Kaleidoscope covers themes from trans narratives (though not the narrative you’re expecting!), ablism and the perception of the disabled, and neurodiversity (two stories centre on OCD, one on schizophrenia) through to immigration, class issues, racism, and a lot of sexuality; it’s impressive to see the broad scope of “diversity” Rios and Krasnostein have embraced in collecting and curating this anthology, and the avoidance of some of the common, awful tropes that tend to reoccur in stories. There are no magically fixed people here, and indeed magical fixing as a theme is interrogated quite harshly; there is no sudden cathartic moment of universal reconciliation, and no utopias of perfect acceptance. Instead, the fantastic is used as a lens to interrogate our own prejudices, our own ideas of normalcy.

There is a wide range of types of storytelling on display here, from Samatar’s tragic and beautiful ‘Walkdog’, in the form of a book report, through Susman’s archival compilation of emails, phone transcripts, application forms and more in the stunning and unexpected ‘The Lovely Duckling’, and achronological chapter-sectioned wonderfully self-referential myth in El-Mohtar’s ‘The Truth About Owls’. The table of contents also boasts a lot of more conventional stories, including Roberts’ ‘Cookie-Cutter Superhero’, a truly wonderful subversion of superhero narratives and brilliant satire of the comics of the Big Two all at once. Indeed, to highlight every story here that is a stand-out beauty would take too long, and involve listing every single one; this is an anthology of what would be highlights in any other anthology, truly superlative work.

There is, unfortunately, one misstep in Kaleidoscope, and it is Flinthart’s ‘Vanilla’. ‘Vanilla’ is the sole story that discusses nonbinary genders (there are multiple stories about trans characters, but all within the gender binary), and it situates that nonbinarism in its aliens; that is, literal, non-homo sapiens aliens. Indeed, the story includes the idea that even without gender, the being carrying the child is made female by the act; that femininity is defined by the ability to give birth. Now, it’s inevitable that one story in the anthology would be problematic, and ‘Vanilla’ is, in its discussion of immigration and integration, amazing, but it feels rather unfortunate that the problems in the story punch me in the face.

That said, Kaleidoscope is overall a wonderful, monumental achievement and a really stunning collection of good fiction quite apart from Rios and Krasnostein’s efforts to foster a sense of diversity, empathy and understanding. If you can, buy this book. If you can’t, ask booksellers to order it in so you can buy it. Give it to teachers, to teenagers, to educators of all kinds; to politicians, to friends and family, to community leaders. Kaleidoscope deserves to be distributed far and wide, and its message needs to be distributed far and wide.

And it really is that good.

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Automated Alice by Jeff Noon

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In the last years of his life, Lewis Carroll wrote a third Alice book. This mysterious work was never published and has only recently been discovered. Now, at last, the world can read of Automated Alice and her fabulous adventures in the future.

That’s not quite true. Automated Alice was in reality written by Zenith O’Clock, the writer of wrongs, who sends Alice through time, tumbling from the Victorian age to land in Manchester at the end of the Twentieth century.

Oh dear, that’s not right at all. Zenith O’Clock is only a character invented by Jeff Noon, who really wrote this trequel to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. What Alice encounters in the automated future is mostly accidental too… a series of skewed misadventures, even weirder than your dreams.
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Rarely has the blurb of a book so perfectly captured the spirit of it. Automated Alice, in some ways, barely needs a review after that braintwister of a blurb. But we’re here now, so let’s have one anyway.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are famous for concealing all number of brilliant mathematical logic puzzles in their whimsy. Jeff Noon’s Alice book similarly plays with puzzles, using them as a thematic motif in its jigsaw pieces and in logic or word puzzles threaded through the book. These make the novel feel very true to the originals, especially when combined with a writing style that really does sit very similarly to the Caroll novels; this playful book is explicitly in conversation with the reader, and with itself, acknowledging its own narratorial nature, and using it. As a construct it’s brilliantly done and the metafictional commentary on the fiction is well carried off in fascinating, skillful ways.

Automated Alice has a massive cast, aside from Alice, most notably Celia, Alice’s twin twister. Celia allows Noon to play around with the idea of reality; Celia is automatic, but Alice is both real and fictional – and these categories are ones Noon plays with extensively, as well as categories of idea and others. That playfulness extends into the character; Noon lives in a world ripe for whimsy, it seems, with the Civil Serpents, Inspector Jack Russell, and poets worse than McGonagall. All of these fit into the strange, sideways look at the world that Automated Alice wholeheartedly embraces as its own, a mingling of puns, fancies, and reinterpretations that really pack all kinds of ideas into a short book.

The plot is even more absurd, and indeed more absurd than Carroll’s Alice books. That most modern genre, the crime fiction novel, is perhaps the closest plot equivalent to Automated Alice, although the caper novel and conspiracy thrillers also have their place in the DNA of this trequel; each contributes something to Noon’s extraordinary, chaotic plot that blurs the lines between linearity and nonlinearity, between absurdism and simple fantasy. It’s a messy, busy, at times nonsensical plot that fits perfectly with the novel’s content and ideas, a heady blend of the strange and the familiar into something utterly new.

Automated Alice is a chaotic hot mess; Noon’s trequel ought to not work, ought to completely fall apart… but it doesn’t, instead working beautifully. Truly stunning.

Principles of Angels by Jaine Fenn

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Khesh City floats above the surface of the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. Topside, it’s extravagant, opulent, luxurious; the Undertow is dark, twisted and dangerous. Khesh City is a place where nothing is forbidden – but it’s also a democracy, of sorts, a democracy by assassination, policed by the Angels, the élite, state-sponsored killers who answer only to the Minister, their enigmatic master.

Taro lived with Malia, his Angel aunt, one of the privileged few, until a strange man bought his body for the night, then followed him home and murdered Malia in cold blood. Taro wants to find the killer who ruined his future, but he’s struggling just to survive in the brutal world of the Undertow. Then an encounter with the Minister sets him on a new course, spying for the City; his target is a reclusive Angel called Nual.

Elarn Reen is a famous musician, sent to Khesh City as the unwilling agent of mankind’s oldest enemy, the Sidhe. To save her own life, she must find and kill her ex-lover, a renegade Sidhe.

Though they come from different worlds, Taro and Elarn’s fates are linked, their lives apparently forfeit to other people’s schemes. As their paths converge, it becomes clear that the lives of everyone in Khesh City, from the majestic, deadly Angels to the barely-human denizens of the Undertow, are at risk. And Taro and Elarn, a common prostitute and an uncommon singer, are Khesh City’s only chance…
~~~~~
Jaine Fenn is one of those authors whose work is widely regarded as excellent science fiction and often brought up in discussion of female authors of SF… but also as someone who, over the course of the five books of the Hidden Empire series, appears to have been increasingly sidelined and vanished by Gollancz.

Principles of Angels is the first of the Hidden Empire novels, and introduces us to concepts and settings such as the Angels, the Concord, and Khesh City; it never quite infodumps, but is very information-heavy, with exposition to introduce Elarn Reen, a tourist, to the world in which the events of ther novel actually take place; that world is a complicated one, with a political system resting on murder rather similar to the way the Athenian democracy rested on the ostrakon process, guarded from the hostile atmosphere of Vellern by a strange unknown force, divided into the posh topside and the underclass of the Undertow. The formalised, covertly-ruled anarchism of Khesh City is not the utopian anarchism of much science fiction, but rather a dystopian, class-divided, starkly unequal, lawless and lethal society. Fenn’s posited world in Principles of Angels gives much of the grimdark fantasy out there a real run for its money in the “grittiness” scales.

The characters, on the other hand, stand as rays of hope in this darkness; Principles of Angels may present us with a world ruled by thuggery, but it also presents characters with hearts. Taro, the rent-boy, is driven by anger at the murder of his aunt-and-protector; but his capacity to take care of himself is strangely variable – at times incredibly strong, at times, convenient to the plot, much weaker. That’s without going into the very problematic approach Fenn takes to his sex work, which treats it as equivalent to rape, and indeed directly draws parallels between the two; Taro’s character allows Fenn to blur these lines in a way I found deeply disturbing. Similarly, Elarn is a mixture of incredibly canny and incredibly naive; indeed, it’s those two characteristics that inform all our major characters, in a weird approach that doesn’t endear so much as frustrate with its inconsistency.

The plot is similarly balanced between excellent and dull. Principles of Angels gets terribly bogged down in detail, in a whole lot of chasing its own tale trying to complicate the story; but at times it is as pacy as a thriller, racing along through the action scenes. This uneven pacing makes it a bit of a tough read, as one moves from high-adrenaline reading to a crashing halt with whiplash suddenness, only made worse by the different viewpoint characters in approximately alternating chapters not necessarily being even remotely similarly paced. While this is arguably a near literary trick, in practice Fenn makes it hard to get and stay in the world of the book, because the bumpy pacing and transparent attempts to set up later twists just become wearing.

In the end, Principles of Angels suffers from a number of the problems of a debut novel, including its issues with pacing; but despite that, the ideas show a talent that, with refinement and experience, might well be worth reading more of.

The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood

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Salisbury Forth is a courier of contraband in the alleyways of inner Melbourne, a city of fuel rationing, rolling power outages and curfews.

It’s a stressful life, post-pandemic. A vaccine dispensed Australia-wide is causing mass-infertility, and the government has banned all remedies except prayer.

Vigilantes prowl for transgressors while the pious gather like moths under the streetlights at dusk. Then someone starts trading tainted hormones on the boss’s patch. Salisbury must find whoever is trying to destroy the business before everything goes belly up…
~~~~~
For a novel that made the Tiptree Honour List and won an Aurealis and a Ditmar Award, and that is cited in every discussion of queer science fiction, The Courier’s New Bicycle is hard to find in print; in the end, I resorted to asking Alisa Krasnostein to lay hands on a copy and bring it with her to LonCon 3 – which I am grateful to her for doing!

The Courier’s New Bicycle is not only cited in every discussion of queer speculative fiction out there, it deserves to be, and in any discussion of near-future or postapocalyptic science fiction too; the world posited by Westwood is terrifying, but also terrifyingly plausible. In the wake of environmental catastrophe and pandemic, fertility has dropped, green vehicles are not just the norm but the law, and a Christian fundamentalist government with very strict ideas of morality (cisgendered male and female are the only acceptable genders, hetero the only acceptable sexuality) rules Australia. Westwood paints this, and its consequences, vividly and in strong forceful strokes; the images of scooters and beetle-wing-quiet cars crawling the streets of Melbourne, bicycles whipping past them and ruling the road; fanatics gathered in prayer-shawls beating up “deviants” – these are described with an amazing vividness and immediacy.

The role of the fanatics is in part driven by the degree to which this is a book peopled by “deviants”. Salisbury Forth, Sal, is intersexed; various of Sal’s friends are homo- or bisexual, a number are trans, and her closest friend is also her boss, a producer and provider of fertility hormones. Every character has their own interests, voices, motivations, and characterisations; that The Courier’s New Bicycle manages to be sympathetic to some of the grimmer villains of the piece while still being absolutely clear that they are villains is impressive, and fantastically well done. Westwood’s ability to give each character interiority despite the book being wholly from Sal’s perspective is really a beautiful thing to see.

The Courier’s New Bicycle is a queer book through and through, treating queerness as the norm and repression/suppression of that as a deviation form it; but this is done subtly and neatly, worked in throughout the book as the various characters interact. It’s certainly subtler than the animal rights message Westwood wants to put across, which is very direct indeed, but also effective; it’s not a character giving a Goodland/Rand style diatribe, but descriptions of abuses of animals for economic purposes that drive this element.

Finally, the plot; The Courier’s New Bicycle could be accused of falling into tropes here, with elements of cyberpunk and the mafia novel both involved, but the way Westwood brings it off the page and into a kinetic, powerful life of its own puts it a cut above most novels of either type. The various threads which tie in, the refusal of Westwood to ignore the role of the personal in economic and political relationships and dealings, the fast pace and brilliantly done laying of clues, all combine to be a stunningly good plot; it doesn’t tread new ground per se, but once the layers of the queerness and the setting are noted, it stands above most books around it.

Westwood’s second novel is hard to find. But, with awards aplenty, accolades abounding, and absolutely wonderful writing, The Courier’s New Bicycle really rewards the hunt!

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Hugo Awards 2014 Thoughts

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I’ve previously talked about my thoughts on the Hugo nominees. Now that the Hugos have themselves been awarded, I feel it is worth talking about how those awards went. My initial thoughts, on the night and in the room, were rather too incoherent to transcribe other than sheer joy mingled with some slight disappointment; but with a few days distance, and with the statistics out, there are a few things worth noting.

First, the nominations game. Ancillary Justice, my favourite for Best Novel, not only got more nominations than anything on the ballot, it got exactly twice the nominations of the second-placed entry there; and more than the sole novel withdrawn from the ballot, too – Ann Leckie got more nominations for her debut novel than Neil Gaiman got for the novel he said may be his best. That, alongside the consistency of the sad puppies’ failure to get more than just their bloc onto the ballot, is the big story of the nomination figures – although individuals, such as Amal El-Mohtar of Goblin Fruit, also have reason to celebrate.

The awards themselves mark a new stage in science fiction fandom. The Not A Hugo award went to Sofia Samatar, a woman of colour of non-US origins, in no small part for a fantasy novel published by a small press that follows none of the established tropes of the genre and is simply a beautiful thing all its own, and an amazingly literary piece. That win is an applaud for the nontraditional, more interesting approach; while I’m disappointed the brilliant Max Gladstone didn’t do better, and hasn’t been appropriately recognised for his stunning body of work to date, Samatar’s win is one I am still more than happy to point to as what the genre thinks its next generation of writers should aspire to be.

The non-fiction, down-ballot awards tell a similar story. While largely same-old same-old, there was one name that came up time and time again; Kameron Hurley. Hurley is not only a nominee for a large number of fiction awards, she is also the first person to win a Best Related Work Hugo for a single blog post, and also won at least two more half-Hugos (Fan Writer, and Fanzine for Aidan Moher’s A Dribble of Ink as credited in Moher’s own speech). Hurley could not make it to LonCon, unfortunately, and sent in her place proxies with the kind of speeches the Hugos are said to have tried to avoid; Tricia Sullivan collected her award for Best Related Work while Kate Elliot collected the Best Fan Writer rocket. Each is a long-time inhabitant of the genre, outspokenly feminist, and perfect deliverers of the fiery white heat Hurley aimed at the conservatism and misogyny of the genre; from the stage she aimed a blast at all those who claim women can’t write, who try to silence women, who attack their work, their voices, their bodies and personalities. She has posted both speeches on her blog, and I strongly recommend you read them.

The fiction categories saw some more interesting things happen, too. John Chu’s short story rocket was a wonderful moment and a fantastic reward for an amazing story; a vindication of queer themes, racially diverse stories, and the use of not just dialect but straightforward non-English language in stories (‘The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere’ included dialogue in a dialect of Chinese, using the appropriate characters). That’s before we get to Chu’s tearful, amazing speech, in which he talked about the discouragement he got from numerous editors, always starting “I’m not racist, but…” or “I’m not homophobic, but…”; that the community has now rewarded him with a rocket is a well-deserved acclaim.

The novelette category was the one everyone was paying very close attention to, with Vox Day’s story vying for supremacy with Mary Robinette Kowal, Ted Chiang, and Aliette de Bodard. In the end, and predictably, Kowal won; not necessarily for the quality of her story, but rather because of the controversy over its disqualification last year on dubious grounds and the sympathy that the whole affair drew to Kowal. It’s undoubtedly a good story, but compared to the Chiang and the de Bodard it didn’t deserve to win; this ought not to have been Kowal’s year. On the other hand, the run offs tell us something else; that No Award does have a place. ‘Opera Vita Aeternae’ didn’t just lose the award, it placed bottom out of all the nominees, including No Award; a slap in the face to the toxic author who wrote it and his equally toxic fans.

We’ll brush over novella, where there’s not much to say, and move on to novel. Ancillary Justice was the clear, runaway winner, both in the voting statistics and the nomination statistics; a debut novel, a space opera with an interesting approach to gender and an inclusive attitude to sexuality, a critique of colonialism and imperialism… if it was fantasy, one might call it the anti-Hugo, and in a year with the full Wheel of Time nominated in the Novel category, everyone wanted Ancillary Justice to win but no one expected it to do so. That it did tells me a lot about the state of fandom; increasingly engaged in conversations around diversity, increasingly kicking back against the sad puppies rather than ignoring them or tacitly agreeing, increasingly willing to look at a wider variety of perspectives.

The Hugo Awards 2014, much as I am wary of saying it, give me reason to hope for our genre. They give me reason to hope for an increasing diversity, and widening discussions of what that means. They give me reason to hope for the slow death of homophobia, misogyny, ablism and ciscentricity amongst fans. And, most of all, they give me hope that people like Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley and me represent the future of fandom, not Larry Correia, Vox Day and his ilk. Well done, fandom; give yourself a pat on the back.

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