Intellectus Speculativus

Home » 2017 » September

Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Memoirist by Neil Williamson

book_memoirist
In a future dominated by omnipresent surveillance, why are so many powerful people determined to wipe a poignant gig by a faded rock star from the annals of history? When Rhian is hired to write the memoirs of Elodie Eagles, former singer with the politically charged, electro-rock band, The HitMEBritneys, she has no idea of the dangerous path she is treading…
~~~~~
Britain is one of, if not the, the most heavily surveilled place in the world; figures from 2013 suggested there was a CCTV camera for every fifteen people in the country. Add to that the way we share information about ourselves on social media and are both rewarded for it and used by marketing departments because of it, and a novella about the Panopticon society becomes incredibly timely…

The Memoirist is a near-future science fiction novel set in a society where surveillance of all, by all, at virtually all times (except where specific opt-outs have been applied) is the rule. Williamson doesn’t go into the way this society came about, instead handwaving at terrorism, safety concerns, and social media universalisation as having led to this point; he’s not particularly interested in how we get to the society he’s putting under the microscope, instead wanting to talk about how it functions when we get there. It’s an interesting thought experiment and extension of where society is now; universal surveillance and social media ranking as determining friendships and job prospects, given that people have lost jobs over social media posts, aren’t outlandish prospects, and The Memoirist isn’t optimistic about where that might go given human nature and prurience.

The reaction against this society drives much of the plot of The Memoirist; indeed, what starts as a minor theme, over the course of the novella, becomes the dominant melody. Williamson is interested in different factions’ takes on the society this creates, especially the uneven distribution of information – inevitably, government and government officials still have secrets; the richer one is, the more privacy one can afford. The Memoirist sees different people approaching how to deal with that reality in very different ways; it’s a thoughtful and intelligent meditation, and doesn’t come to any easy answers on the topic, insteead suggesting a multiplicity of futures.

That only really defines one strand of the plot, in which Rhian is drawn into a factional fight between different groups of people who have different ideals of how the pseudo-panopticon society they live in should develop. The other strand is a historical attempt to unearth the last concert by Elodie Eagles, to curate her memoir from the information about her out there; this is the strand that names The Memoirist. It’s an interesting one, and the way Williamson engages with the mutability of memory, and the preciousness and personal nature of individual recollection of even group experiences and of the ephemerality of individual memory is brilliant. However, it’s not given very much weight when compared to the other strand, and the way Williamson ties it into the broader societal topics of the novella seem overdone and unnecessary; rather than being neat, they make The Memoirist feel a little overcontrived.

The emotional core of The Memoirist is Rhian and her relationships, and that’s where Williamson really shines. Rhian is a brilliant character, flawed and constantly curating her online presence and persona, always aware of the surveillance she’s under; her reactions feel intensely familiar to anyone who has lived under the scrutiny of online peers. Her relationships are deeply human – the strained and complicated relationship with her mother, whose reaction to the society they live in is so different; her off-the-grid sometime-lover and friend Pawel, whose connections to extralegal conspiracies drive so much of the plot; and the way she constantly sands down her spikier edges when talking to people professionally.

In the end, The Memoirist might be somewhat flawed, but it’s a fascinating novella; I want to spend more time in Rhian’s spiky company, although I wouldn’t want to live in the society she does…

Disclaimer: Neil Williamson is a personal friend and a regular host of events at my place of work.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

isbn9780356508689
The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the phenomenal power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every outcast child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.
~~~~~
N. K. Jemisin is one of only three authors to win two Hugo awards on the hop in their 65-year history (the other two, Orson Scott Card and Lois McMaster Bujold, also won for two novels in the same series); The Stone Sky finishes out this multiply-Hugo-winning peri-apocalyptic series…

Inevitably, this review will contain SPOILERS for the earlier volumes in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate.

The Stone Sky is a novel that really brings into central focus the concerns of the previous volumes of the series: the response of the marginalised to that marginalisation, and the way the powerful commit to marginalisation and the social structures that underlie and reinforce it. The three strands of the narrative, as this trilogy is structured so deeply around threes, all raise different aspects of that issue, and different responses by the marginalised to their marginalisations in different ways.

Essun’s is perhaps the most traditional; The Stone Sky sees her seeking to help her daughter and, through peaceful revolution, overturn the established order, by simply taking away any need for the violence of it. Jemisin doesn’t write Essun as naive, but as optimistic; hopeful that once the stills don’t need the orogenes to survive, they can live side by side, reliance not fuelling fear and resentment. This is the thread the narrative has largely been carried on so in the first two books, so The Stone Sky sees Essun struggling with it as Castrima pulls away from her for her actions in The Obelisk Gate. The tensions, Jemisin suggests, are not going to disappear from one heroic act, or one lifetime, but one lifetime can lay the foundations for them.

Her daughter has had different life experiences; as with Ana in A Song For Quiet, Nassun’s answer to the injustice and violent inequality of the world is to burn it down and destroy it. Again, Jemisin doesn’t present this as a false view of the world; it is one born out of anger and pain, as opposed to the hope that drives Essun, and its destructive end is acknowledged whilst also suggesting that it is not unreasonable. The anger that runs through this narrative, and also the complicated love, is palpable, and powerful; Jemisin really conveys, despite the third person narration, Nassun’s emotional state in these chapters.

The balance between the two is to be found in the new narrative of the novel, the voice of Hoa, who has narrated the previous novels to the reader (to Essun, for reasons revealed at the end). The Stone Sky sees him narrating his origin story or creation story, depending on your reading; it is the one that most nakedly engages with ideas of power, race, and genocide, being very explicit in its discussions of racially charged oppressions and racist social structures. This is also the narrative thread where Jemisin makes her strongest points about the way racist systems, and people, see those they marginalise; and the way slave societies necessarily see those they keep enslaved. That may make this narrative sound incredibly academic and abstruse; Jemisin is far from that, however, ensuring that The Stone Sky never loses sight of the importance of story and emotional resonance while dealing with these issues.

The three narrative strands are kept separate, although obviously linked, until the close of the novel, when Jemisin brings them together dramatically; The Stone Sky hinges on which choice, one born of hope or of hopelessness, its characters will make. The way she balances three narratives across the novel, and indeed the series, is absolutely brilliant on a structural level, and really gives a sense of grand expanse and power to the story. The conclusion is a tragic and moving one, in its inevitability; The Broken Earth was always tragic, and reaches the apogee of that in its ending.

N. K. Jemisin has written a true masterwork and an absolutely brilliant capstone to one of the best trilogies out there; The Stone Sky wouldn’t be unworthy of being the first book to win an author the Hugo three years in a row…

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

6429650
It is 1892, and the backstreets of Edinburgh are rife with disease. Sarah’s journey into medicine has been chequered: she’s left London and scandal behind her, and embarked on a career that neither her family, nor the male students she encounters in the bastions of Edinburgh’s university is happy about. But what Sarah hasn’t anticipated is the hostility of her fellow female doctors. No one is accepting of a fallen woman.

Then Sarah discovers the battered corpse of one of her own patients in the dissecting rooms, and she is drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels and body snatchers – and a confrontation with her own past. Even in medicine, Sarah realises, success comes at a price.
~~~~~
Medical crime mystery isn’t a new genre; Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series focus on a forensic scientist, and Patricia Cornwell has been writing about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta for over two decades now. Welsh’s innovation is to reset this same kind of story into a past when both medical and crime-solving knowledge were rather behind their present state…

Wages of Sin is centred on Sarah Gilchrist, who has been sent to Edinburgh to escape some disgrace in London whose nature is hinted at from the start of the novel but only revealed later on. Welsh writes her as something of a snob, and very driven; but she’s also an engaging character, with an absolute desire to be an independent woman engaging in the work of medicine. Those kinds of contradictions drive many of the other characters as well; Welsh shows women attacking other women not as a manifestation of misogyny, but as a self-defence mechanism. However, the male characters tend to be a bit flat, whether heroes or villains; they feel rather cardboard, as does everyone a little beside the fleshed out complexity of Sarah herself.

The plot of Wages of Sin is an interesting one, combining as it does a murder mystery with Sarah’s struggle to get through medical school. The medical side of things takes an increasing back seat as the novel progresses, which is rather frustrating, since it’s well researched and fascinating to see the obstacles Sarah faces as well as what she’s learning. The murder plot is where Welsh’s great strength lies; it takes us across the dark underbelly of Edinburgh as well as into some of its higher houses, and looks at conceptions of gender as an explicit element of the murders. The suspects change and shift, and so much of the chase is affected by Sarah’s preconceptions, which Welsh plays with very well. It’s unfortunate that Wages of Sin includes the developing romantic subplot that it does, given how poorly written that element is an how steeped it is in obvious cliche, and the way the novel ends is a little too convenient and trite, but overall the plot works and the clues are properly placed.

One thing that must be discussed is the way that Wages of Sin is an explicitly feminist novel. Welsh engages with the way women in the late 19th century were patronised and locked out of public life, by other women as well as by men; the way the legal system and social attitudes discriminated against them; and with homophobia. One of the things running through the whole novel is the attitude of 19th century Britain to rape, especially in the upper middle classes; Welsh deals with the topic sensitively, but doesn’t let the reader escape without realising how much some of those harmful attitudes persist.

The place where Welsh’s feminism falls down is in its engagement with sex work; Wages of Sin engages strongly in whorephobic language and models of sex work; this is partly due to its protagonist’s views, but the narrative never challenges those views, and indeed consistently upholds them as true. Given the engagement with sex work that is present in the novel, it would have been nice to have Welsh challenge the views of the society about which she is writing – which tend to be the views of our modern society, too.

In the end, Wages of Sin is a fun novel with a good crime caper at its heart, and a great medical student drama; the romance is overwritten and the ending is trite, but I look forward to seeing where Welsh goes next.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

isbn9780356508887
Meet Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead.

After inheriting a highly specialised, and highly peculiar, medical practice, Dr Helsing spends her days treating London’s undead for a host of ills: vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s dreamed of since childhood.

But when a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human undead and alike, Greta must use all her unusual skills to keep her supernatural clients – and the rest of London – safe.
~~~~~
There is a fine tradition in crime fiction, going back as far as Doctor John Watson if not further, of doctors acting as, or alongside, murder investigators. There’s a long tradition in urban fantasy of crime plots, from Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire through to less known authors. What Strange Practice does, what Vivian Shaw’s innovation is, is bringing those two things together.

Strange Practice is essentially a kind of whodunnit, albeit with a lot of supernatural elements. A killer is attacking supernatural creatures with weapons actively designed to destroy them as rapidly as possible, at the same time as another killer is stalking humans and killing them in ritualistic ways – and they might be the same killer. Much of Shaw’s narrative is actually revealed in the blurb of the novel, unfortunately, in that regard; but who those monks are, and why they’re doing it, and the cosmology involved, are more interesting that that bald plot summary makes them sound. Shaw has clues planted for the reader and repeatedly calls back to earlier brief mentions in the course of the investigation undertaken by Greta and her group of allies, and manages that well.

Greta and her allies are what really makes the novel. Strange Practices has quite a large central cast of six, leaning overwhelmingly male, although the secondary characters balance that out a little more; but they’re all fantastic and fascinating individuals, many drawn from gothic and horror literature. Greta herself is really well written, with her desire to make sure the supernatural community in London is safe and taken care of fighting her curiosity and desire to actively protect, rather than heal, that community. Her personal life is a bit of a mess, and Shaw really ties that into her general commitedness to her job as a whole person, a really well done bit of writing.

Ruthven, Varney and Fastitolacon (Fass) are the three supernatural members of Team Helsing; two vampires from classic gothic works, and a supernatural being whose nature only becomes clear late in Strange Practice, and that Shaw works with really well. Their different personality types are fascinating, and their relationships with Greta are really well drawn; the way that Shaw treats developing attractions, and the way she treats paternal care, are so true to life it almost hurts.

They’re far from the only things that go bump in the night in a book that also has ghouls, mummies, rusalka and more in. Strange Practice sits interestingly in the continuum of monstrous urban fantasy; different creeatures have different reactions to being a monster, and one of Shaw’s innovations is making those parallel to different kinds of queerness, in many ways: self-hatred, assimilationism, and holding oneself apart in a separate society entirely. Different characters of the same kind of being are allowed different reactions, and none are judged for it – though society is judged for putting them in that position, at times. The mundanity of their problems is also brilliant – a ghoullet with an ear infection, for instance, or mummies with arthritis and bone problems; Shaw has a real flair for the medical side of the book, and the ghoullet is incredibly adorable.

If there’s a flaw in Strange Practice, it’s that it tries a little too hard at times. The descriptions are architecture are atmospheric and powerful, and usually accurate, but at times end up feeling trite; the level of trope-laden weather and scenic cliches abounds, at times feeling far too dense – tripes both about gothic weather and about British weather, sometimes clashing; and occasionally, Shaw shows off how clever she is a little too much by making unsubtle literary allusions that don’t work very well.

In all, though, Strange Practices is a fun novel, and a great new take on an old idea in urban fantasy; I want to hear more from Vivian Shaw about Dr Greta Helsing and her work with the supernatural community of London, especially the medical side.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png

Datura (Or A Delusion We All See) by Leena Krohn, trans. Anna Volmari & J. Robert Tupasela

cover-resized-datura-leena-krohn-amazon-cheeky-frawg
Our narrator works as an editor and writer for a magazine specialising in bringing oddities to light. Her mysterious publisher sends her exploring through a city that becomes by degrees ever stranger. From a sunrise of automated cars working in silent precision to a possible vampire, she discovers that people are both odder and more ordinary than they might seem. Especially if you’re earing datura seeds. Especially when the legendary Voynich Manuscript is involved.
~~~~~
Leena Krohn is a writer the VanderMeers, through their small Cheeky Frawg publishing imprint, seem to be working hard to bring into more prominence among Anglophone readers of the Weird; they brought out Datura in 2013, and have since released a Complete Fiction volume. I decided to start with the slimmer option…

Datura is a very strange book, although for readers familiar with publications like Fortean Times, it is perhaps a little less strange that for those less familiar; after all, the fictional New Anomalist magazine of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to the fabled Fortean Times and its quest to catalogue and publicise the weirder reaches of humanity. What makes Krohn’s novel slightly weirder, though, is that it is largely a collection of meta-articles; pieces about the writing of pieces for the New Anomalist, so we don’t learn much about the subjects themselves so much as how our narrator felt about them, an interesting twist.

That leads to a slightly disjointed feel about the book, though. Datura very obviously has something of a through-line, of the disintegration of reality around the narrator and the way her reality has separated out from that of the rest of us, and a lack of clarity as to where those divides are. However, the way that throughline is constructed is in a series of snapshots; there’s little linking each of the short episodes, although some things do carry through and a couple of characters appear multiple times, but on the whole there’s no sense of chronology to the episodes and the book as a whole.

Oddly, that doesn’t detract from the strangeness of the whole experience. Krohn presents each of these weird encounters, real or delusional, without judgement, and without enough framework around them to really separate out which is which; Datura is, in that sense, a fascinating exercise in breaking down the barriers of the real. That Krohn also mixes real fringe groups, such as Otherkin and kinksters, with wilder fringe science ideas that also have a hold, and with actual delusions such as slipping into other realities, and never makes it clear which are which necessarily, really adds to the slightly unreal and disjointed feel of the book.

Most of the episodes are hung onto a single character with whom our nameless narrator is interacting, and one of the greatest strengths of Datura is the brief thumbnail sketches which come out of these encounters. Every character pops off the page in a believable and real manner, with a whole interior life implied by their brief appearances; interactions with the narrator imply a lot about their life beyond their interactions with representatives of the New Anomalist, and the way the world receives them and their ideas. Indeed, having someone so determinedly not fringe as the narrator of Datura really throws the ideas of the other characters into highlight, and works to make the strange things that happen to her even stranger by her mundane, albeit confused, reactions.

In the end, Datura is a brilliant book, although I remain a bit on the fence about the level of disjointedness of it; Leena Krohn really has created a marvellous work of the Weird here.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, trans. Karin Tidbeck

dgfxqyuv0aaanz6
Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony, and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

In Karin Tidbeck’s world, everyone is suspect, no one is safe, and nothing—not even language, nor the very fabric of reality—can be taken for granted. Amatka is a beguiling and wholly original novel about freedom, love, and artistic creation by a captivating new voice.
~~~~~
Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention through Cheeky Frawg’s publication of Jagganath a few years back; it feels like even then we were all waiting for a novel by this multitalented multilinguist who translates her own fiction from Swedish into English, including this novel. So perhaps it is no surprise that Amatka is such a linguistically involved novel…

Amatka is on the surface of it a novel in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin mixed with a good dash of George Orwell; The Dispossessed meets 1984. At the start, it seems like a fictionalised version of the Soviet Union with a dash of the Weird, with its intrusive government presence, communist and communal system, dismal dreariness, spartan tendencies, and general bureaucratic and depersonalising approach. Tidbeck sets us up to expect one kind of novel, very much in the mode of 1984, where love as resistance leads to a more generalised resistance against an unjust authority; but Amatka goes in a different direction, with its weirder elements.

Those weirder elements are also present almost from the very start, with the labelling of everything; it’s implied that in the world of Amatka, naming things helps them or forces them to keep their form. It’s an interesting concept on the face of it, and that’s before Tidbeck goes further with the idea, playing with it and pushing it to weird and strange places. Tidbeck uses Amatka to play with, and literalise, the ideas of form and function as defined by language, and reality being what we describe it as; there are fantastic unspoken parts of the book about the way poetry versus prose describe things, and fiction versus fact, that are really interesting and could have been almost a whole novel in themselves.

Amatka is an entry in a long discussion in fiction about dystopia and the way strictures are enforced on society. Tidbeck builds her Soviet-reminiscent setting before explaining at all why it is necessary or how it came about; we see everything from the perspective of Vanja, and her status in society, which influences our reactions to everything, for reasons which only become clear as the book continues. Amatka plays with the necessity of the strictures of oppression, requiring the reader to ask whether freedom is worth the price, in this context, of that freedom, or whether order is worth the cost of order; there aren’t easy answers here.

The characters of Amatka are the weak link here. While Vanja’s outsider status and feeling of being a universal outsider is well written, and her doubts and anguish at the oppression of the communes well conveyed, the rest of the cast have a tendency to feel a bit flat, like ciphers or game-pieces moved into place for the sake of the plot and the sake of Vanja rather than people in their own right. Nina comes closest to breaking this pattern, and Tidbeck conveys her various conflicts between ideology and personal relationships very well, although at times, especially when they’re most strongly opposed, it can feel a little forced.

In the end, despite the weakness of characterisation, Amatka is an absolute masterpiece of a novel, and Tidbeck’s writing and ideas spark off the page and engage the reader wholly. An intellectual, literary piece of brilliance.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png