Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Book Review | Wolves by Simon Ings


At school, Mick and Connie cooked up all the ways the world could end.

Years later, Michel imagines apocalypses for a living, and lives inside fantasies of the Fall. Conrad works in advertising, spinning aspirational dreams out of imaginary light.

Will their reunion reveal who killed Conrad’s mother?

Will it make them a lot of money? Or, just maybe, bring about the collapse of Western civilization?

A surreal whodunnit about what happens when unhappy men get their hands on powerful media, Wolves is an informed, atmospheric, cutting-edge tale of the near future.

***

Wolves has been hailed as Simon Ing's "spectacular return to SF," and it is that, I think—though the text's spare speculative elements only come into focus in advance of the finale, when the augmented reality Conrad's company conceives of matures into something more meaningful than an idea.

The rest is something else: a catastrophic coming of age tale complicated by a macabre mystery which reminded me of This River Awakens. At the book's beating heart, however, is the frustrated friendship between Conrad and his schoolmate Michel:
Michel was quiet, lugubrious, self-contained. For me, at any rate, he had extraordinary presence. A glamour. If he understood my feelings for him, he never let on. He showed very little tenderness for me. He wasn't interested in my weaknesses. He wanted me to be strong. He cared for me as you would care for your side-kick, your familiar, for the man you had chosen to watch your back. He said we had to toughen up. (p.31)
For what? Why, for The Fall, folks!

"The End Times were on their way. [Michel] was convinced of this." (p.98) Conrad isn't so sure, but he plays along with his hero's apocalypse prep—both to be with him and to escape the hell of his own home, an Overlook-esque hotel with an equally unsettling clientele: war veterans who were blind before our central character's father equipped them with special sensory vests.

All of which comes into play in a major way later, but at the beginning of the book, it's background. At the foreground of this phase of the fiction is Conrad's manic mother: a woman who habitually abandons her family in favour of "a protest camp that had grown up around a nearby military airbase." (p.51) She has to be rescued from this retreat repeatedly—a pattern rudely interrupted one summer when Conrad discovers her dead body in the boot of his father's car.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Book Review | The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu


With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, the near-future Three-Body Trilogy is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience a multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author.

The first book in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, begins against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, when a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and begins planning their introduction to Earth. 

Over the next few decades, they establish first contact via very unlikely means: an unusual online video game steeped in philosophy and history. As the aliens begin to win earthbound players of the game over to their side, different schools of thought start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

***

What would you do to save the world?

That is, the planet as opposed to the people—we're the problem, after all—so better, perhaps, to ask: what would you do for a solution? Would you kill your own comrades, if it came to it? Would you sacrifice yourself? Your sons and daughters? Would you betray the whole of humanity today for a better tomorrow?

These are some of the provocative questions posed by The Three Body Problem, the opening salvo of Galaxy Award-winner Cixin Liu's fascinating science fiction trilogy, which takes in physics, philosophy, farming and, finally, first contact.

But it all begins in Beijing in the 1960s, when Ye Wenjie watches in horror as an unrepentant professor is beaten into oblivion by four fourteen-year-olds "fighting for faith" (p.19) at "a public rally intended to humiliate and break down the enemies of the revolution through verbal and physical abuse until they confessed to their crimes before the crowd." (p.11) The subject of this so-called "struggle session" is Ye's father, in fact, and his is a death she'll never forget:
It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. [...] This thought determined the entire direction of Ye's life. (p.28)

Monday, 17 November 2014

Book Review | Revival by Stephen King


In a small New England town, in the early 60s, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister, Charles Jacobs. Soon they forge a deep bond, based on their fascination with simple experiments in electricity.

Decades later, Jamie is living a nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll. Now an addict, he sees Jacobs again—a showman on stage, creating dazzling 'portraits in lightning'—and their meeting has profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil's devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings.

A masterpiece in the great American tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, this rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written.

***

Whether you love his work or loathe it—and there are those who do, difficult as that is for those who don't to discern—you've got to give Stephen King credit, in the first for working so damned hard. Over the forty years of his career, he's written fifty-odd novels, and financially, you have to imagine he'd have been sitting pretty after the first five.

This, then, isn't a man who does what he does for the money. Demonstrably, I dare say, he does it for the fun, and that's a fine thing, I think; after all, to paraphrase Dreamcatcher's central character, doing the same shit day after day does get dull, and dull is the last thing a writer writing recreationally can afford to be. To escape that fate, King has reinvented himself repeatedly in recent years. He's come up with a couple of very credible crime thrillers, commingled conspiracy with the stuff of science fiction and composed love letters to the old days and ways.

In that respect, Revival is a real throwback. A supernatural horror novel of the sort not seen since Duma Key, it's classic King, complete with fantastic characters, a suggestive premise and an ending I'm going to politely describe as divisive.

Revival begins reflectively:
In one way, at least, our lives really are like movies. The main cast consists of your family and friends. The supporting cast is made up of neighbours, co-workers, teachers, and daily acquaintances. There are also bit players: the supermarket checkout girl with the pretty smile, the friendly bartender at the local watering hole, the guys you work out with at the gym three days a week. And there are thousands of extras—those people who flow through every life like water through a sieve, seen once and never again. [...] But sometimes a person who fits none of these categories comes into your life. This is the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis. In the movies this sort of character is known as the fifth business, or the change agent. When he turns up in a film, you know he's there because the screenwriter put him there. But who is screenwriting our lives? (p.1)
There's a lot in this paragraph to unpack: the idea of the illusion of life; the allusion, not unrelatedly, to God as the author of all; and an introduction to the narrative's eventual antagonist, Reverend Charles Jacobs. Let's focus on that last.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Book Review | Wakening the Crow by Stephen Gregory


On a freezing night in January bookshop owner Oliver Gooch and his small daughter Chloe come across the crow, a raggedy skeletal wretch of a bird, which takes up a persistent refuge in their new converted church home.

Oliver took the money for the church from his daughter’s accident insurance. Chloe, once a rambunctious and defiant child, is now a silently smiling companion to Oliver; both a gift and curse as Oliver balances his guilt over her accident with his preference for this new, easy-to-manage child.

As the crow begins to infiltrate their lives it changes something in Oliver and Chloe. How is the crow connected to the boyhood tooth of Edgar Allan Poe, a mysterious gift to Oliver from which his bookshop draws its name, and with what purpose does it haunt the gloomy, fire-lit vestry of Poe’s Tooth Books?

***

Stephen Gregory pulls precisely none of his punches in Wakening the Crow, a darkly fantastic fiction about family which, like The Waking That Kills before it, is interested in the ties that bind us together largely because these lead to the lies that drive us apart.

Oliver Gooch is "a dabbler and a dilettante," someone who would "always procrastinate if there was an easier option," (p.95) and this past year, there has been. He and Rosie, his hard-working wife, have come into a substantial sum of money—enough, though the numbers go undisclosed, to purchase a church: an old Anglican in one of Nottingham's nicer suburbs.

"No, not the whole building," Gooch is quick to qualify. "As the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing, the commissioners had closed the church and sold it as two parcels. The body of the building was now a furniture warehouse. We'd bought the tower," to live in, and the vestry as well—a very special space our protagonist plans to turn into a bookshop. Specifically "a specialist outlet of strange and occult and arcane books. The shop I'd daydreamed foolishly about having." (p.27)

Now he's in a position to realise those same daydreams, you'd think he'd be happy, but how Gooch found himself here—the appalling cost of it—haunts him. Him and Rosie both. After all, they bought what they've got with blood money; with an insurance payout made after their daughter was brain-damaged in a car accident:
She wasn't the sly, defiant, occasionally foul-mouthed Chloe she'd been before. She couldn't speak. She couldn't read. She just smiled. She blinked and she smiled, in utter, blank, angelic silence. She was lovely, in the same way that a soft and harmless Labrador dog is lovely, but she was altered completely. (p.23)
For the better, in Gooch's book.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Book Review | Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney


Warder John Willoby is being pulled between worlds, disappearing for minutes at a time from the prison and appearing in the midst of a makeshift medieval encampment before tumbling back. That, or he’s going mad, his mind simply breaking apart. It’s clear, to him and to his family, it must be the latter. 

His wife can barely stand him, and his daughter doesn’t even try; he drinks too much and lashes out too easily. He isn’t worth anyone’s time, even his own. But in this other world—this winter land of first-settlers—he is a man with a purpose, on whom others rely. A man who must kill a King so as to save a people. With a second chance, Willoby may become the kind of man he had always wanted to be.

***

The third of three resplendent reissues of Northern Irish author Paul Kearney's very earliest efforts completes the sinuous circle described in his dreamlike debut, A Different Kingdom. Riding the Unicorn is a darker fiction by far—it's about the abduction of a man who's likely losing his mind by the conniving by-blow of a hateful High King—but it's as brilliant a book as it is brutal, not least because our hero, Warden John Willoby, is a horrible human being; fortunate, in fact, to find himself on the right side of the cages he keeps his prisoners in.

He has, in the first, a truly terrible temper. To wit, he's wholly unwelcome in his own home, where his wife and daughter strive each day to stay out of his way. Willoby isn't an idiot—he's well aware of their disdain—he just doesn't give a two bob bit:
There was a wall between his family and himself. It had been growing silently for years, a little at a time, and the little things that would have helped break it down had been too much trouble. Now it was a high, massive thing. He was no longer sure there was a way through it. Worse, he was no longer sure he cared. (p.29)
Still worse, Willoby is worried that a few of his marbles might be missing, so fixing things with his family is hardly his highest priority. He's been seeing things for some months—inexplicable visions of a luscious landscape—and hearing voices in his head; talking nonsense, no less, in some untold tongue.

He should see a doctor, obviously. His wife Jo certainly thinks so. But Willoby, in his infinite wisdom, refuses to face facts, presupposing a diagnosis delivered with "a bottle of pills and a pat on the head, some medical gibberish about stress, or insomnia. Bollocks, all of it." (p.26) That said, he can't shake the suspicion that a crisis is coming, "some crux of events inevitably advancing towards him. The sense terrified him. It was like a dark cloud always in the corner of his eye." (p.123)

Friday, 7 November 2014

Book Review | Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll


In Jonathan Carroll's surreal masterpiece, Bathing the Lion, five people who live in the same New England town go to sleep one night and all share the same hyper-realistic dream. Some of these people know each other; some don’t. 

When they wake the next day all of them know what has happened. All five were at one time “mechanics,” a kind of cosmic repairman whose job is to keep order in the universe and clean up the messes made both by sentient beings and the utterly fearsome yet inevitable Chaos that periodically rolls through, wreaking mayhem wherever it touches down—a kind of infinitely powerful, merciless tornado. Because the job of a mechanic is grueling and exhausting, after a certain period all of them are retired and sent to different parts of the cosmos to live out their days as "civilians." Their memories are wiped clean and new identities are created for them that fit the places they go to live out their natural lives to the end. 

For the first time all retired mechanics are being brought back to duty: Chaos has a new plan, and it's not looking good for mankind...
***

Jonathan Carroll's first full-length work of fiction in six years is as rooted in the real as it is the surreal its synopsis suggests. Bathing the Lion is about a quintet of cosmic mechanics who can read minds and remake the mundane recovering their talents in advance of the arrival of a fearsome force called Chaos—which seems, I'm sure, like a properly science fictional plot. But it's not.

To wit, the World Fantasy Award-winning author evidences precious little interest in the ultimate result of this clash between... not good and evil, exactly, but order and its opposite. Rather, Carroll restrains his tale to the strictly small scale, in the process pointedly refusing the reader's needs.

Bathing the Lion is a lot of things, but one thing it isn't is exhilarating. In fact, there's very little actual action. Instead, expect a whole lot of talking, some potted philosophy and a dream sequence that lasts the entire first act...

Not that we're aware of its nature, initially. By all accounts, Bathing the Lion's first third appears to be an introduction to the five former mechanics we foresee facing off against the coming Chaos.