Monday, 21 December 2015

Book Review | The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

"I saw the John Carpenter film The Thing for the first time recently. That wasn't one of the VHS tapes they gave us, back then, to watch on the base. For obvious reasons. That's not what it was like for me at all. That doesn't capture it at all. They, or it, or whatever, were not thing-y. They are inhuman. But this is only my dream of them, I think."

Two men, alone together on an Antarctic research base. A killer. A sceptic. Alone for months on end. Separated by what they believe. Joined together by Fermi's Paradox.

Are we, indeed, alone in the Universe? Could it be that we are not alone but that we cannot know it? Could we deal with the horror of either answer?

Crossing the boundaries of time and space, the many threads of The Thing Itself weave both a terrifying adventure and a mind-blowing philosophical conundrum, reaffirming Adam Roberts' unique place in the SF canon.


At an Antarctic research station in the 1980s, two men at their end of their respective tethers, alone in this lovely if unlovable land but for one another and a copy of Emmanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, see something that cannot conceivably be:
There was a hint of—I'm going to say, claws, jaws, a clamping something. A maw. Not a tentacle, nothing so defined. Nor was it a darkness. It made a low, thrumming, chiming noise, like a muffled bell sounding underground, ding-ding, ding-ding. But this was not a sound-wave sort of sound. This was not a propagating expanding sphere of agitated air particles. It was a pulse in the mind. It was a shudder of the soul. (pp.25-26)
Sound familiar? Well, it is—for a fraction of a chapter.

Would you be surprised if I were to tell you that The Thing Itself is not—not even nearly—what it appears to be? If you answered yes to that question, I'd be given to guess you've never read an Adam Roberts novel. If you had, you'd know that this is not an author who likes to linger on any one thing for long, so though the first chapter has a handful of callbacks to John Carpenter's tentacular classic, the second is a short travelogue of sorts set in Germany almost a century earlier.

"Let me pick the threads of this story up again, rearrange the letters into a new form," (p.48) the next bit begins—which sentence, I'll confess, had me panicking preemptively at the prospect of a new narrative in every chapter. But although Roberts does repeatedly rewrite the rules of the tale he's telling, The Thing Itself is an easier and more coherent read than it appears.

Which isn't to say it's simple.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Coming Attractions | This Census-Taker by China Miéville

We all have our bad habits. Happily, I have far fewer as we approach the close of 2015 than I did in years previous, but there's at least one I haven't been able to give the boot to: my tendency to hoard books I have every reason to believe will be brilliant.

I'm still sitting, for instance, on a number of new-to-me novels by Guy Gavriel Kay and Catherynne M. Valente—a pair of my foremost favourite authors. But the knowledge that I'm entirely likely to love the likes of Palimpsest and The Lions of Al-Rassan has led to me saving them for a rainy day; a long-delayed rainy day during which I'll be able to luxuriate in these reading experiences rather than have to rush headlong towards their respective ends.

I can now add to that list Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville, another of the writers I'm not afraid to place on a pedestal. Admittedly I've already read a fair few of the short stories said collection brings together, but I'm hoarding the assemblage itself—not least because I wasn't sure when to expect Miéville to put out anything else.

I'm sure enough now, needless to say. A new novella, name of This Census-Taker, is coming out in January in the United States, and in the UK a full frustrating month later. I'll be buying the limited edition Subterranean Press are in the process of putting together, however, in large part because of Vincent Chong's typically terrific cover art:

Here's a bit about the book, too:
A boy ran down a hill path screaming. 
This running, screaming boy has witnessed something terrible, something so awful that he cannot even properly articulate it. All he can do is run. His story is investigated, but no evidence is found to support it, and so in the end, he is sent back. Back up that hill path to the site of his terror, to live with the parent who caused it.  
The boy tries to escape. He flees to a gang of local children but they can't help him. The town refuses to see his danger. He is alone.  
Then a stranger arrives. A stranger who claims his job is to ask questions, seek truth. Who can, perhaps, offer safety. Or whose offer may be something altogether different, something safety is no part of.  
In This Census-Taker, multiple award-winning writer China Miéville offers a story made of secrets and subtle reveals, of tragedy and bravery, of mysteries that shift when they appear to be known. It is a stunning work, full of strangeness and power.
Since I seem to have squirreled away plenty of Miéville already, I'll be reading This Census-Taker just as soon as humanly. You should too, to be sure.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

News | A BAMEless World Book Night

The notion of a “reading nation” is an unquestionably wonderful one, and making that fantasy a reality is what World Book Night is all about: celebrating “the enrichment that reading and books can bring to people’s lives” at the same time as “encouraging those who don’t already read for pleasure—an estimated 36% of adults—to get involved.”

How? Well, how else—by giving away hundreds of thousands of the things! Little wonder, then, that though it still struggles to reach some, the six-year old initiative has met with tremendous success. As Free Thought Research recently revealed, “80% of those who received a book on World Book Night had never read or read infrequently before the event, while 85% talked to others about books more, of which 47% reported an increase in the number of books they bought and 32% borrowed more from their local library.”

Thus, the announcement of the fifteen books to be distributed on the next World Book Night, on April 23rd, 2016, should have been a happy moment; a date to save. Instead, the lately-launched list—described by the organisers as “diverse” and “curated to appeal to a breadth of audiences”—has quite rightly come under fire for failing to feature a single Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) author.

In a blog post for The Bookseller, Nikesh Shukla, author and editor of Rife, dubbed World Book Night “a wonderfully charitable way of spreading your love of reading with friends and strangers alike,” but there’s a but, and it's a biggie:
Lists can do what prizes necessarily can’t—be inclusive. Prizes are effectively competitions. There’s an arbitrary standard of literary merit to be upheld. Publishers will submit subjectively to suit judges’ tastes. Lists, on the other hand, are a set of items, in this case books. World Book Night’s panels are looking for books that are “good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives.” It seems problematic, thus, to not include any authors from BAME communities. 
If World Book Night is about getting that 36% of the country reading, what about the brown pound? It’s potentially a huge market, but one that will feel disenfranchised by not being visible in a high profile list such as this. For one, having BAME writers will encourage more BAME readers to become givers or to take a book, but also it’ll show that, on lists, we belong just as much as everyone else.
Saying that “some questions are too important to go unanswered,” and that this is one “we at World Book Night have been struggling with for some time,” Project Manager Rose Goddard responded to Shukla’s condemnation the next day:
World Book Night is an extraordinary industry initiative achieved through a wide coalition of authors, publishers, printers, distributors and other partners—not least the volunteer givers. However, like all charitable initiatives the funding model and submissions process which underpins it also shapes its delivery. The curation of the final books is not simply a question of choosing freely from publishers’ lists; publishers submit titles for the list and financially support the printing of the titles selected and the programme overall. Participation in the programme represents a significant monetary commitment for all of them, particularly for the smaller presses we’ve been delighted to welcome on board over the last few years. They all think very carefully about which books to suggest in the context of our drive to reach people who do not normally read for pleasure and WBN would not exist at all without the generous backing they provide. Each year we strive to strike a balance across the list. This year, despite our best efforts we have not been successful in respect of BAME writers.
In other words, World Book Night’s hands were tied.

But who by? Why, by the same, “increasingly out of touch” industry that was the subject of Spread the Word’s deeply dismaying survey of “writers from a variety of backgrounds, as well as literary agents, and mainstream and independent publishers” operating out of the UK.

In other words, as Writing the Future concluded, “despite all the hard work, good intentions and a ‘signing up’ to the principles of diversity, it seems that an old mono-culture still prevails” in publishing.

And none of this—none of this—is good enough.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Book Review | The Light That Gets Lost by Natasha Carthew

A small boy hiding in a cupboard witnesses something no child should ever see. He tries not to look but he still hears it. And when he comes out, there's no mistaking. His mum and dad have been killed. And though he's only small, he swears that he'll get revenge one day.

Years later, Trey goes to a strange camp that is meant to save troubled teenagers. It's packed with crazies, god-botherers, devoted felons and broken kids. Trey's been in and out of trouble ever since the day the bad thing happened, but he's not here for saving: this is where he'll find the man who did it. Revenge and healing, salvation and hell are a boiling, dangerous mix, and Trey finds himself drawn to a girl, a dream and the offer of friendship in the dark .


When you think about it, the business of living boils down to a string of decisions; seemingly insignificant decisions about little things, largely, like whether to take the left road or the right. Maybe one direction gets you to your destination without delay on this postulated day, and perhaps that matters, but taking the long way could lead, equally, to a chance meeting that leads to laughter that leads, at the last, to love.

What I mean to say is that, in a very real way, we're changed by our choices—made or broken or both. Take Tremain Pearce, the deeply damaged protagonist of Natasha Carthew's languid but ultimately uplifting latest. When a man murders his mother and father, and hurts his big brother Billy so seriously that he'll require round-the-clock care for the remainder of his days, Trey chooses to make the guy who got away with it pay: a decision that determines the lot of his lamentable life from that sickening instant on.
His short life, sketched and drawn wrong since memory began, had been rubbed down to this one moment in time; he was sitting at the brink of a place where there was no turning back and he was ready to jump. For Mum and Dad and Billy he was ready to leap into the unknown and all he knew of that unknown was it had one single solitary name and the name was revenge. (p.5)
In the name of revenge, then, Trey contrives a transfer from his foster family into the care of Camp Kernow, a faith-based prison facility which purports to teach difficult children a trade, where he has reason to believe the man who took his family from him has sought safety "in the cloth of God." (p.6)

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review | The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

In the radically advanced post-human worlds of the Amaranthine Firmament, there is a contender to the Immortal throne: Aaron the Long-Life, the Pretender, a man who is not quite a man.

In the barbarous hominid kingdoms of the Prism Investiture, where life is short, cheap, and dangerous, an invention is born that will become the Firmament’s most closely kept secret.

Lycaste, a lovesick recluse outcast for an unspeakable crime, must journey through the Provinces, braving the grotesques of an ancient, decadent world to find his salvation.

Sotiris, grieving the loss of his sister and awaiting the madness of old age, must relive his twelve thousand years of life to stop the man determined to become Emperor.

Ghaldezuel, knight of the stars, must plunder the rarest treasure in the Firmament—the object the Pretender will stop at nothing to obtain.

The year is 14,647 AD. Humankind has changed, fractured, Prismed into a dozen breeds of fairy-tale grotesques, the chaos of expansion, war and ruin flinging humanity like bouncing sparks around the blackness of space. Man has been resculpted in a hundred different places, and the world as he knew it—this world—is gone for ever. (p.96)
This is the posthuman premise of The Promise of the Child: an extraordinary space opera which charts the inexorable fall of an assortment of autocratic immortals in a milieu so elaborately imagined that immersion in it is as risky as it is rewarding. Taken together with its dizzying depth and intelligence, the debut of Tom Toner, a twenty-something science-fiction savant with a sweet spot for shark teeth, has an ungodly amount going for it.

If Hannu Rajaniemi had come up with The Culture, it would have read rather like this, I think. But like The Quantum Thief before it, The Promise of the Child has an approachability problem: absent the warmth and wit that made Iain M. Banks' books beloved, it can come across as cold, calculated and at points impenetrable.

The first difficulty those who do dedicate themselves to Toner's text will need to deal with is its stupendous setting: "an impossibly delicate, eleven-light-year-wide ecosystem" (p.276) known as the Firmament. Here, the aforementioned immortals—the Amaranthine—hold sway; that is to say, they do today, if only by dint of "the ratio of butlers, gardeners, housekeepers and paying tenants to the riff-raff that inhabited the thin wilderness—the Prism Investiture—that surrounded their huge and desolate estate, the twenty-three Solar Satrapies." (p.276)

But the Amarantine's grip is slipping, and quickly...

Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Review | Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

In a fractured Europe, new nations are springing up everywhere, some literally overnight. 

For an intelligence officer like Jim, it’s a nightmare. Every week or so a friendly power spawns a new and unknown national entity which may or may not be friendly to England’s interests. It’s hard to keep on top of it all. But things are about to get worse for Jim. 

A stabbing on a London bus pitches him into a world where his intelligence service is preparing for war with another universe, and a man has come who may hold the key to unlocking Europe’s most jealously-guarded secret...


A great many maps were made in Europe in the Middle Ages. Foremost among them were the Mappae Mundi: "maps of the world" meant not as navigational aids but to illustrate different principles—the earth's spherical shape, say, or its flora and fauna. Such scrolls represented repositories of medieval knowledge, but even the most definitive had their limits; here be lions and the like was oft-enscribed where the unknown roamed. The Ebstorfer Mappa Mundi, for instance, depicts a dragon to the east of Africa—also asps and basilisks, presumably because it was better to show something than nothing; better, according to that thought process, to invent the positively extraordinary than to admit the littlest deficiency.

In this day and age, we expect rather more from our maps than that. We demand that they are exact, in fact—detailed to the nearest nanometre at least! And perhaps they are. But you know what? I hope to God not. If we're to understand that modern maps are absolutely accurate, then there remains nothing about the world we do not know, and me... I love a bit of a mystery. Which might be why I loved Europe at Midnight. That and a hundred other reasons, even.

The second section of the sequence Dave Hutchinson kicked off with Europe in Autumn—an "awesome concoction of sci-fi and spies" which went on to be nominated for a whole hodgepodge of awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke—Europe at Midnight is damn near the definition of unpredictable. It doesn't pick up where its predecessor left off, with Rudi welcomed into another world; indeed, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the glorified postman who was our last protagonist. Instead, the story, told by two brand new narrators, starts in a strange country—one of the milieu's proliferation of pocket nations, maybe—called the Campus:
The Campus was made up of four hundred Schools, scattered over an area about two hundred miles across and surrounded by mountains. Opinions differed over whether we sat in the bottom of the caldera of an ancient supervolcano, which was a charming thought, or the crater of a colossal prehistoric meteor strike, but to be honest nobody was thinking very hard about those theories at the moment. (p.29)
Why? Because the Campus is under new management following the overthrow of the oppressive Old Board, which left a mountain of mass graves in its wake, and an impoverished population. Unfortunately, well-meaning as it may be, the New Board doesn't have the slightest clue what it's doing, and though he has his own array of failings, no one knows this better than Richard, or rather Rupert of Hentzau—The Prisoner of Zenda, anyone?—"the worst Professor of Intelligence the Campus had ever had." (p.19)

Said sorry state of affairs isn't on him, however:
Part of the problem was that we just couldn't trust the few members of the Intelligence Faculty who were left alive, so I'd had to rebuild it from scratch, mostly with people who immediately changed their minds when they discovered that intelligence work was less like a John Buchan novel and more like being a particularly nosy village postmaster. (p.19)
Poor Rupe clearly has his work cut out for him, but when he discovers the hastily-burned bodies of a host of human beings genetically engineered to have working wings and whatnot, he puts his other assorted responsibilities on pause to look into a sickening conspiracy which not a few folks from Science City are complicit in. Little does Rupe realise that his investigation will culminate in a catastrophe that could collapse the entire Campus...