Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Guest Post | Eric Brown on Aliens and Optimism in Science Fiction

I wonder if I've written more often about any other author here on The Speculative Scotsman than Eric Brown.

If that's the case, as it may indeed be, there's got to be a reason, right? Well, he publishes more and more often than most authors... but that's not the thing, I think. After all, I care more for quality than I do quantity. Except when it comes to food. Eating is good.

The thing is, you can always count on Eric Brown to have a store of great ideas. These don't necessarily result in awesome novels, but they're food for thought, and I like that a lot. I like a narrative with an argument. I like a story that makes me question my preconceptions. And as I concluded yesterday, "The Serene Invasion is more than merely interesting. As a thought experiment it's unequivocally gripping, and Brown's got the follow-through down too."

Long story short, it gives me immense pleasure to host a few words from the very fellow today.

Without any further ado, here's the estimable author on aliens and optimism in science fiction...


First contact with an alien race fascinates writers and readers alike. It’s a fundamental trope of SF, there at the very beginning of the modern incarnation of the genre with Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and still going strong today. It’s almost a given, with few exceptions, that first contact will engender conflict, often martial conflict. It’s a great engine for story-telling, after all – a metaphor for the fears of the time and a way of objectifying the other in non-specific terms: the host of alien invasion films of the fifties were little more than America’s fear of the Soviet Union writ large on the silver screen. We’re still at it more than fifty years later, only this time the enemy – garbed in alien guise – is Islamic fundamentalism and terrorists in general. 

Which is all well and good if you like that kind of thing. It generates story dynamic, after all. All stories are powered by conflict – but it’s only one aspect of the consequence of first contact. To begin with, the idea that aliens will be per se hostile is a convenient assumption arrived at for the sake of penning a gung-ho war story... But the idea is based, lazily, I think, on the anthropocentric idea that all races out there will be motivated by the same imperatives that impel the human race: greed, the need of material gain, resources, territory... The likelihood is that when we do come across aliens they will be as unlike ourselves as it’s possible to be, creatures that have been shaped by the evolutionary dictates of an ecology and environment wholly unlike our own. They idea that they will want the same thing as we do is unlikely. 

I prefer to think – optimistically – that aliens might not come to Earth in order to pillage and annihilate, subjugate us and strip the planet of its resources. Call me naïve, but I think that a race that has existed long enough to develop FTL technology might, just might, have outgrown the baser motives of materialistic gain and the desire to do violence. Call me a hopeless bleeding-heart liberal if you like, but maybe aliens might come to Earth with the idea of making it a better place, of making humanity a better race... 

That was the starting point of the ideas that would coalesce into my seventeenth novel, The Serene Invasion

I’d done something similar – though not so ambitious – in the series of linked stories that I fixed-up into the novel Kéthani. Aliens come to Earth, though they remain in the background throughout the book, and grant human beings the chance to become immortal. The choice is ours. We can forego the gift, if we like, and live ‘normal’ lives, dying and remaining dead... Or we can take up the offer of the Kéthani and become immortal – dying and being reborn – with the proviso that we work for them as ambassadors to the stars, bringing the message of the Kéthani to other races out there. There is much argument in the book about whether the gift of the aliens is beneficial, or not – a question that is never resolved. 

I wanted to be more definite in The Serene Invasion, and come down on the side of the aliens. 

In the novel, as in Kéthani, we never see the aliens. We see their representatives, beings called self-aware entities, biological androids if you like, that have been on Earth for more than a hundred years, smoothing the way for the ultimate ‘invasion’. The entities can take on human form, and do, melding into the fabric of society and working their subtle magic... They are the closest we get to the actual S’rene. Now the reason I didn’t want to show the aliens – the same reason I didn’t show them in Kéthani – is that I wanted to retain reader credibility, and I judged there would be a great danger of losing this if I described the aliens physically. One way of portraying the S’rene, and retaining some credibility, would be to show them as in some way humanoid. But I thought it better to maintain the mystery and mystique of these all-powerful beings if I refrained from showing them at all. 

And the gift that the S’rene – or the Serene as they soon become known – bring to Earth? 

They come to Earth and stop us committing violence upon ourselves and upon all life... 

To the majority of the human race, this is a welcome boon – but of course there will be those out there who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the old ways of violence and conflict. Arms manufacturers an the gun lobby and hunters, and the multi-nationals whose profit depends on people killing each other... 

The novel is about how the world will change, thanks to the Serene. 

It’s SF – it’s also, I admit, wish-fulfilment fantasy written from a standpoint of increasing frustration and desperation with the human race, and our political systems... But it’s also optimistic, in that it shows that, with the right impetus and input, normal everyday people – the disempowered, if you like – can and do embrace the ways of peace. 

I am, if nothing else, a fundamentally optimistic writer. Looking back over all my novels and short stories, I realise that they present an overall positive view of the future, and of humanity. Okay, so in the New York books the world is almost ruined, but there is hope, and the characters portrayed are fundamentally good people, with dreams and aspirations, who win through in the end. The same with Helix; planet Earth might be dying, but there is hope thanks to the alien Builders and the refuge of the ten thousand worlds on the Helix. In the Bengal Station trilogy – Necropath, Xenopath and Cosmopath – I wanted to take a character who at the start of the books is a nihilist but who, though experiencing events through the three books, comes to some understanding of himself, and achieves eventual happiness. I wanted to show that nihilism is too easy a response to the human condition. We live short lives, riven by pain and suffering, physical and psychological, and then we die, face an eternity of oblivion, and we know this... But we are after all creatures with sensibilities limited by the dictates of our environment. We see only what we want to see, what we have been conditioned to see, and therefore – I like to think – we apprehend only a partial truth of the wonder of the universe. 

I can’t prove that, of course: all I can do is write my small, hopeful tales of the future... 

Because there is always hope, I like to think, and in The Serene Invasion I’ve tried to show that for some people – lucky enough to exist on the partial universe of my imagination, and of my readers’ – hope has become a reality.


Thank you kindly, Eric. For the thoughtful essay, and indeed, all the great ideas you've had over the years. It's absolutely marvellous to have you here on The Speculative Scotsman again.

The Serene Invasion is out now, and I hardly need note that Eric has another new novel coming soon. Picking up where The Devil's Nebula left off, Satan's Reach is the second book in Weird Space series, and it should be on shelves this August.

Maybe we'll talk again then! :)

Monday, 29 April 2013

Book Review | The Serene Invasion by Eric Brown

They are here... and we are not ready.

It's 2025 and the world is riven by war, terrorist attacks, poverty and increasingly desperate demands for water, oil, and natural resources. The West and China confront each other over an inseperable ideological divide, each desperate to sustain their future. Then the Serene arrive, enigmatic aliens from Delta Pavonis V, and nothing will ever be the same again.

The Serene bring peace to an ailing world, an end to poverty and violence—but not everyone supports the seemingly benign invasion. There are forces out there who wish to return to the bad old days, and will stop at nothing to oppose the Serene.


It's easy to say violence is everywhere today. Easy to assert that its effects can be felt in the real world and those we lose ourselves in alike. That its prevalence is evidenced in the video games we play as much as the news we watch, by way of the books we read no more or less than the things each of us experience.

We could also talk, for a time, about the climate of fear and the war economy it contributes to. We might additionally consider the stigma attached to sex versus our acceptance of violence in every sphere of society. But let's leave all that for someone smarter than I. I'm here to review a book, in any event... albeit a book which addresses, in a sense, many of the aforementioned questions.

The Serene Invasion's premise is simple yet suggestive, plain yet potentially progressive. In 2025, aliens invade. But strangely, they don't wage war on the world. Instead, the Serene park their ships in the skies and unilaterally impose peace. By manipulating the strings of existence or some such thing, they make it impossible on the quantum level for any human being to hurt another. Every sort of violence imaginable simply ceases.

Lucky for some. At the time of the Serene's arrival, Sally Walsh—an English aid worker volunteering in a clinic in Uganda—was about to be executed by terrorists, live on internet television. In New York, James Morwell, CEO of a Murdoch-esque evil empire, was poised to put his personal assistant in his place with a baseball bat to the face, whilst Howrah station rat Ana Devi was mere moments away from being raped.

But one of the first people to sense the presence of the Serene is Sally's partner Geoff Allen, a freelance photo-journalist. Flying out to Africa to cover a story, time seems to stand still for him. He imagines that he's abducted by aliens—and, par for the course, probed. Initially, he writes the experience off as a plane food-induced hallucination, but when he finally hears what has happened to the world—sees the Serene's monolithic ships with his own eyes—he understands it must have been more than that.

For once, it was. Indeed, Geoff and Ana Devi are soon inducted as representatives of the Serene, meeting with their amicable new overlords each month to help pave the way for the world to change in step with the new order imposed by the invading aliens. Not everyone is over the moon that they're been robbed of their right to wrong, after all. Take the director of Morwell Enterprises, practically all-powerful before the Serene's arrival, now cruelly neutered:
"He genuinely believed that when the Serene had imposed—without consent—their charea on the people of Earth, humanity had been robbed of something fundamental. Not for nothing had mankind evolved, by tooth and claw, over hundreds of thousands of years. We became, he reasoned, the pre-eminent species on the planet through the very means that the Serene were no denying us. It was his opinion, and that of many eminent social thinkers and philosophers, that the human race had reached the peak of its evolution and was now on an effete downward slope, little more than the pack-animals of arrogant alien masters, 
"Violence was a natural state. Violence was good. Violence winnowed the fittest, the strongest, from the weak. The only way forward was through the overthrow of the Serene and the subversion of the unnatural state of charea." (p.179)
Eric Brown spends the larger part of The Serene Invasion illustrating how humanity reacts to the charea via the perspectives aforementioned. A wise decision, I think; there's a touch of tension towards the end—a perfunctory plot against the Serene's secret go-betweens, instigated by the monstrous Mr. Morwell, obviously—but otherwise the author is evidently aware that the conflict animating this standalone narrative must be internal rather than external.

An intimidating task, and alas, the cast of characters who shoulder this bothersome burden above and beyond their usual duties aren't... fantastic. In point of fact, they're rather bland. Geoff Allen and Sally Walsh rarely feel like real people, and instead of developing them, Brown takes to skipping ahead a decade—and another and another—to showcase new and apparently improved versions of his heroes.

His villain is equally underdone: James Morwell is just a bad dude through and through, with no redeeming qualities at all. His counts among his hobbies semi-regular sadomasochism and the systematic abuse of everyone around him in the intervening periods. He takes his frustrations out on a rubber effigy of his father and rules his evil empire with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

That said, Morwell still betrays more of a personality than the previous pair put together. Only Ana Devi is legitimately interesting, especially as regards her relationship with her runaway brother Lal—and she too is short changed by the lacklustre last act, when it all gets a bit Ghandi.

So don't come for the characters. And though the narrative has more to recommend it—the pitch is particularly powerful—The Serene Invasion's story is slow, and brought low by transparent protagonists and an inherent lack of drama. Significant issues, but this isn't a bad book by any stretch. I enjoyed the diversity of its ever-shifting settings, and as ever, the author exhibits an accomplished sense of wonder, describing the more extraordinary moments of the entire affair with flair.

On balance, the best thing about Brown's ambitious new novel is how thoroughly he investigates his premise. The societal changes brought about by the charea are elaborate, and firmly in the fascinating camp. Take drug and drink dependency: "Largely, a class and income linked phenomenon. Cure poverty, joblessness, give people a reason to live, and the need for an opiate is correspondingly reduced." (p.155) I was never especially invested in Geoff and Sally and their quest for a happily ever after, meanwhile Morwell's machinations seemed like so much meaningless reaching from the first, but I read on anyway, because humanity's reaction to the Serene's blanket denial of violence is as strange as it proves true.

Eric Brown has to be one of the hardest working genre authors in the industry, releasing at least two books each year for as long as I can recall. This is certainly not his best effort in recent memory—without question, The Kings of Eternity is—but for all its problems, The Serene Invasion is more than merely interesting. As a thought experiment it's unequivocally gripping, and Brown's got the follow-through down too.


The Serene Invasion
by Eric Brown

UK & US Publication: April 2013, Solaris

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday, 26 April 2013

Coming Attractions | New Sun Stories and More

I'm pressed for time again today—well what's new, Blue?—so rather than subjecting you to a last-minute ramble, I thought we could look to tomorrow, by way of a pair of exciting anthologies I heard about for the first time yesterday.

End of the Road appears to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Oliver's earlier anthology, The End of the Line, which I adored upon its release a few years ago.
An incredible anthology of original short stories by an exciting list of writers from all around the world, including the best-selling author Philip Reeve and the World Fantasy Award-winning Lavie Tidhar. 
Each step will lead you closer to your destination, but who, or what, can you expect to meet at journey's end? Here are stories of misfits, spectral hitch-hikers, nightmare travel tales and the rogues, freaks and monsters to be found on the road. The critically acclaimed editor of Magic, The End of The Line and House of Fear has brought together the contemporary masters and mistresses of the weird from around the globe in an anthology of travel tales like no other. Strap on your seatbelt, shoulder your backpack, or wait for the next ride... into darkness.
End of the Road is due out in November from our pals at Solaris, and I'm pretty sure it'll be super.

If anything I'm more certain that I'll be enraptured by Shadows of the New Sun, an August anthology very much in the mode of Songs of the Dying Earth, but in honour of Gene Wolfe's work rather than Jack Vance's classic saga.
Perhaps no living author of imaginative fiction has earned the awards, accolades, respect, and literary reputation of Gene Wolfe. His prose has been called subtle and brilliant, inspiring not just lovers of fantasy and science fiction, but readers of every stripe, transcending genre and defying preconceptions. 
In this volume, a select group of Wolfe’s fellow authors pay tribute to the award-winning creator of The Book of the New Sun, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Soldier of the Mist, The Wizard Knight and many others, with entirely new stories written specifically to honor the writer hailed by The Washington Post as “one of America’s finest.”
Alongside the complete Table of Contents—which includes original fiction from luminaries like Neil Gaiman, Nancy Kress, Joe Haldeman, David Brin and Michael Swanwick—Tor.com just posted an exclusive first look at the foreword of Shadows of the New Sun.

More than enough, in other words, to engender my interest. I haven't often had call to talk about my feelings for this author, but I am a massive fan of the man. Which makes Shadows of the New Sun at least twice as exciting, because Wolfe's contributing a few new stories too.

Wootable news, no?

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | Speculative Fiction 2012

You're probably sick and tired of hearing about Speculative Fiction 2012 already, but you know what? I'm not. I'll talk about this collection of formerly online criticism and insight till the cows come home.

Indeed I have done. It's given me something tangible to point people towards when explaining what I do on a daily basis; here, finally, is a physical thing that showcases why being a blogger is so meaningful to me. What I take from the community, and what I like to think I give to it.

Which is to say, by God, guys: I've been published! And look at the stunning company I seem to be keeping:
How do you write female characters with agency? What did J. R. R. Tolkien learn from Attila the Hun? What is it like to be a dragon? Is science fiction stuck in a rut? The Internet has the answers. Speculative Fiction 2012 collects over fifty articles from some of the top bloggers and authors in science fiction and fantasy, including over two dozen reviews. Contributors include Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Alexander, Kate Elliott, N. K. Jemisin, Aidan Moher, Abigail Nussbaum, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sam Sykes and Lavie Tidhar.
That's the product description of the first edition of this awesome annual anthology on Amazon, and if you look closely, you'll see I've been hybridised with Daniel effing Abraham, who said of this obscenity yesterday: "If I have to be transporter-mushed with someone like a postmodern remake of The Fly, Niall will do just fine."

To which I can only add... likewise! But let's not with all the horrible vomiting.

Restraining myself from blogging about Speculative Fiction 2012 till today has been torture of the highest order, so I'm beside myself with excitement to finally get this thing out of my system.

In case you were wondering why I've waited, well, I'm a believer in timely buying advice rather than getting my reviewer's foot in first, and the collection only came out today. I can't recommend Speculative Fiction 2012 highly enough... not because I'm in it, or because it features many much better bloggers and authors that I, but because it serves in a very real sense to legitimise what we have here.

In closing, I'm going to hand it over to Jared and Justin of Pornokitsch and Staffer's Book Review respectively—the fine folks who took it upon themselves to produce this pièce de résistance:
Let’s be honest, no one takes us seriously. ‘Blogging’ is barely reviewing and certainly never ‘criticism’. We’re not paid, so we’re amateurs. We’re doing it for love, so we’re fans. Our opinions are merely our own, and not on behalf of a higher authority, like a newspaper or magazine. While our work sticks around, you’re only as good as your last post. And once something is off the front page, it might as well be gone forever... 
Speculative Fiction 2012 is meant to showcase the best of that passion. We’re not journalists, scholars or authors. Or, even if we are (we’re not), we’re contributing to the discussion because we love it. From our perspective, this kind of work deserves to be collected, immortalised, and substantiated. Literally.
If you'd like to buy a copy of the anthology, here's a link to the product page on Amazon.co.uk. If you're based in the USA, this is the link to click.

Whatever proceeds there are will go to Room to Read, so the more, the merrier.

One last thing before I bid you adieu: if you're interested in talking to some of the bloggers and authors behind the scenes of Speculative Fiction 2012, there's going to be an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit on May 2nd.

I don't really know what that means, but I'll try to figure it out before next Thursday. It's for a fantastic cause, after all. Literally.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Book Review | The Machine by James Smythe

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Beth lives alone on a desolate housing estate near the sea. She came here to rebuild her life following her husband’s return from the war. His memories haunted him but a machine promised salvation. It could record memories, preserving a life that existed before the nightmares.

Now the machines are gone. The government declared them too controversial, the side-effects too harmful. But within Beth’s flat is an ever-whirring black box. She knows that memories can be put back, that she can rebuild her husband piece by piece.

A Frankenstein tale for the 21st century, The Machine is a story of the indelibility of memory, the human cost of science and the horrors of love.


Accidents... happen. Would that they didn't, but they do, and that's the truth.

Every day, mistakes are made—by every one of us, I warrant. Consequences follow; and often, they're awful, if not absolutely abhorrent. But in time, however hard the hardship, we come to see that what will be will be. After the fact, what torments us is the memory of what was, and is no longer; or the thought of things we would do differently, if only we could go back in time, with the benefit of hindsight on our side.

Of course we can't. That's not how the world works. The past is set in stone, and wishing we could change it won't get us anywhere. Regret, from a logical perspective, is entirely ineffective. That said, there's no getting away from it, is there? And it hurts just the same, even if it's meaningless.

But imagine there was a machine... a machine that could take the pain away, by meddling with your memories. Would you use it? And if you were to, what would you lose?

These questions get to the essence of those that have been playing on Beth's mind at the beginning of James Smythe's devastating new novel:

"She's thought about it, sometimes: as she's tried to get to sleep, lying in bed, thinking about how easy it would be to wear a Crown, to press the buttons and to talk about Vic and herself, and their old life together. To talk her way through everything that she's lost. To press the PURGE button and feel it all drift away. Vic used to say that it felt like when you take painkillers for a wound. He said that they gave him heavy stuff after the IED went off and put its shrapnel in his shoulder and his neck, and once he'd popped them there was a sense that it had once hurt, but that it was like an echo of the pain was all that was left, or the memory of the pain. Like it's been rubbed hard and then left alone. That's what the Machine did." (p.17)

Or rather, that's what the Machine was supposed to do. In practice, it broke its impossible promises. It took people like Vic—men and women who were damaged or disturbed in some way, as Vic was when he came home from the war to his woebegone wife—and extracted from them their most terrible memories; those that certain specialists decided had caused whatever trauma.

Predictably, perhaps, it didn't work. Certainly not like the Technicolor promotions promised. Instead, the Machine left a great many of those souls who used it lost, "like coma patients." Now, there's such a number of them that they've been cruelly christened the vacant, because "there's nothing inside them. They might look the same, they might smell the same, but they're different. The person that they were is gone. [...] So what's left?" (p.65)

Only a signature of sorts:

"The Machine, filling in the gaps with things that didn't stick, stories of its own creation to cover up the cracks. And what makes her think that it will be so different this time? Because the stories are Vic? From his own mouth, 100 per cent pure and unfiltered, every part of his life spilled on to digital tape? She doubts herself. She doubts the Machine." (p.123)

But what else does Beth have left?

These doubts discomfit her, but for better or for worse—what do you think?—Beth has already made her decision. From the very outset of this nightmarish tale, she systematically puts into action the plan she's dreamed of since the day the Machine took her husband away: she's going to evict Vic from the care home he's been wasting away in, and simply rebuild him, memory by individual memory... using a treasure trove of precious audio recordings, untested equipment bought at an exorbitant cost from an anonymous seller, and advice from the internet.

Easy to see where she might have gone wrong, isn't it?

Precise and provocative, The Machine is a powerful parable about memory and regret which grips from the get-go and refuses to let you loose until after its horrendous ending. Like The Explorer before it, it's a spare story—so short and sharp that it cuts into one like a blade through butter—that you'll have a hard time forgetting.

The narrative, for instance, is simple, yet insidious. Smythe divides it into three parts, each of which unfolds from Beth's relentless perspective. Before the treatment, there is hope: we glimpse light at the end of the tunnel, albeit fleetingly. But the path to that point is long and dark; accordingly, things get a tad desperate amidst the middle third, which chronicles the hasty recreation of poor, vacant Vic via the machine. After the treatment, at the last, it all starts to come apart—just as these characters should be coming together—when the walls Beth has built, brick by deliberate brick, are exploded. A terrific trick.

To his credit, Smythe isn't content to mess around, ever. He pursues the dreadful descent that awaits at the end of this novel doggedly, barreling headlong towards unconscionable horror—horror that the reader feels from early on, though we do not know what shape or state it will take until it is upon us, teeth bared and bloody like a beast from the deep.

Yet inevitably, it is no such thing. The horror of The Machine, despite its title, is all too human. Beth has been playing god. Giving life (and taking what remains away) when she has no business interfering with a man's mind—as her only friend takes perverse pleasure reminding her. But we are set against this self-righteous specimen, even as the depths of Beth's complicity are made plain, because our entire experience arises from her perspective. We have found shelter inside her head, as she has herself in a sense. We feel, finally, the same as she: the same terror, the same guilt. Her dreams and her doubts alike are ours, and this gives The Machine great power.

It's a morality play, in a way: a Frankenstein story for the 21st century, as the publicity puts it. But truer words have rarely been printed on a press release. The Machine is a phenomenal novel from the first, and this impression only grows as it goes, gathering gradually in advance of a finale which leaves the reader reeling, as if from a boxer's blow.

I have long thought of Adam Roberts as Britain's most overlooked genre author, but between The Testimony, The Explorer and The Machine—three tremendous texts published in quick succession—James Smythe has almost supplanted said in my estimation. Harrowing as it is, his latest is simply unmissable.


The Machine
by James Smythe

UK Publication: April 2013, Blue Door

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday, 19 April 2013

Book Review | The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz by Dan Simmons

Jack Vance's stories of the Dying Earth are among the most indelible creations of 20th century fantasy. Set on a far future Earth moving toward extinction under a slowly dying sun, these baroque tales of wonder have exerted a profound influence on generations of writers. One of those writers is Dan Simmons, who acknowledges that influence in spectacular fashion in The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz, an informed and loving act of literary homage.

The narrative begins at a critical moment in the Dying Earth's history, a moment when signs and portents indicate that the long anticipated death of the planet is finally at hand. Against this backdrop, Simmons's protagonist—Shrue the diabolist—learns of the death of Ulfant Banderoz, ancient magus and sole proprietor of the legendary Ultimate Library and Final Compendium of Thaumaturgical Lore. Determined to possess its secrets, Shrue sets out in search of the fabled library, guided by the severed nose of the deceased magician. The narrative that follows tells the story of that quest, a quest whose outcome will affect the fate of the entire dying planet.

The result is a hugely engrossing novella filled with marvels, bizarre encounters, and an array of astonishing creatures—the pelgranes, daihaks, and assorted elementals of Jack Vance's boundless imagination. Written with wit, fidelity, and grace, and rooted in its author's obvious affection for his source material, The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz is something special, a collaborative gem in which the talents and sensibilities of two master storytellers come powerfully—and seamlessly—together.


Truly few milieus stand the test of time in the way the wonderful, whimsical world of the Dying Earth has. It can be condensed to a simple premise—a planet about to expire—but exemplary execution, imagination and iteration made these stories something so much more; something elegant and indelible; something very, very special.

The many and various tales about this breathtaking place and its uniquely appealing people—and creatures!—have enthralled generations, and inspired, in the erstwhile, innumerable imitations. Jack Vance basically remade the face of fantasy fiction in one fell swoop with these books, and as The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz shows, there's a proliferation of life left in the Dying Earth yet.

Then again, the world is still ending. And this time, those who use magic are being blamed... quite rightly, as it transpires:
"The people, both human and otherwise, reacted as people always have during such hard time in the immemorial history of the Dying Earth and the Earth of the Yellow Sun before it; they sought out scapegoats to hound and pound and kill. In this case, the heaviest opprobrium fell upon magicians, sorcerers, warlocks, the few witches still suffered to live by the smug male majority, and other practitioners of the thaumaturgical trade. Mobs attacked the magicians' manses and conclaves; the servants of sorcerers were torn limb from limb when they went into town to buy vegetables or wine; to utter a spell in public brought instant pursuit by peasants armed with torches, pitchforks, and charmless swords and pikes left over from old wars and earlier pogroms. 
"Such a downturn in popularity was nothing new for the weary world's makers of magic, all of whom had managed to exist for many normal human lifetimes and longer [...] but this time the prejudice did not quickly fade." (pp.9-10)
Shrue the diabolist is "more sanguine than most" (p.11) about this mad panic, but he still takes steps to escape the reach of the people. He sinks "his lovely manse of many rooms" (p.12) into the surface of the earth, along with almost all of his equipment, his precious possessions, and twelve of his thirteen servants. With only Old Blind Bommp and KidriK—a gargantuan daihak whose binding would be the life's work of a less long-lived entity than he—Shrue quietly retires to his polar cottage to wait out the witch-hunt... and perhaps, if the pogrom goes on long enough, the end of everything; a prospect he rather relishes.

Alas, his peaceful, pre-apocalypse retreat is interrupted when a harvested sparling heart brings news of an unexpected death:
"Other magicians had suspected Ulfänt Banderōz as being the oldest among them—truly the oldest magus on the Dying Earth. But for millennia stacked upon millennia, as long as any living wizard could remember and longer, Ulfänt Banderōz's only contribution to their field was his maintenance of the legendary Ultimate Library and Final Compendium of Thaumaturgical Lore from the Grand Motholam and earlier. The tens of thousands of huge, ancient books and lesser collections of magical tapestries, deep-viewers, talking discs, and other ancient media constituted the single greatest gathering of magical lore left in the lesser world of the Dying Earth." (p.20)
Visitors, however, are rarely granted entry, and even then, "some sort of curse or spell on every item in the Ultimate Library" (p.20) inexplicably inhibits the understanding of anyone other than Ulfänt Banderōz and his select apprentices... several of whom Shrue will meet when he takes it upon himself to explore Banderōz's booby-trapped collection.

Booby traps aren't the extent of what our diabolist and his cadre of his companions will contend with, of course. After all, Shrue isn't the only only magician with an interest in the lore Banderōz kept under elaborate lock and key. Enter Faucelme and his pet elementals, including two Purples and one incredibly powerful Red. These alone would be more than a match for KidriK... and they are not alone. Not at all.

"And thus began what Shrue would later realize were—incredibly, almost incomprehensibly—the happiest three weeks of his life." (p.64) It is Shrue who voices this thought, but I can only imagine Dan Simmons is speaking for himself here, equally, because this story must have been a blast to write; at the very least, it's an absolute treat to read. I only wish it had lasted for three weeks.

Regrettably, The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz is only the length of a novella, and though Simmons summons wonders enough over its extraordinary course to justify a markedly more substantial narrative, we must recall that this is a tale—however great—taken from the pages of the terrific 2009 tribute anthology Songs of The Dying Earth.

I'm perfectly pleased that the mighty minds behind Subterranean Press have broken it out into this beautiful, exclusive edition, with occasional illustrations by the World Fantasy Award-winning artist Tom Kidd. Indeed, I'd have dearly appreciated many more of these, given how gorgeous the cover and several small pieces decorating the interior are. Without any other added value—annotations, for instance, or a bonus story—I'm afraid this deluxe repackaging of The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz feels more like a collector's item than a opportunity for more readers to find and promptly fall for this fantastic homage.

Yet it is homage of the highest order. Simmons' prose is moreish in much the same way as Vance's words were in the originating stories. His vivid vision of the Dying Earth is as affectionate as any other I can recall, striking precisely the right balance between the playful and the profound. The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz was by a large margin the most absorbing story in the landmark aforementioned anthology—despite it featuring fiction from literary luminaries like George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Jeff VanderMeer and Tad Williams, alongside an assortment of other awesome authors—and it has lost none of its power in the years since Songs of the Dying Earth.

It's rather staggering that in excess of half a century since its creation, the Dying Earth is not just alive, but thriving. Yet it is. The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz is all the evidence there needs be of that remarkable fact.

If "the memory of Jack Vance's expansive, easy, powerful, dry, generous style, the cascades of indelible images leavened by the drollest of dialogue, all combined with the sure and certain lilt of language used to the limits of its imaginative powers" (p.116) sounds good to you, then The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz is sure to see you through.

And say you haven't read the classic Vance... now's your chance!


The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz
by Dan Simmons

US Publication: June 2013, Subterranean Press

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Coming Attractions | Give Me More Than This

You can probably tell that I quite liked The Crane Wife.

There's no sense in repeating myself so soon after the review I published on Monday, but I'll admit, additionally, to keeping a provisional list of the year's finest fiction, and Patrick Ness' gorgeous new novel is up there right alongside Life After Life and The Best of All Possible Worlds.

To wit, I was surprised and indeed quite delighted to hear via Publisher's Weekly that the author will have another book on shelves shortly:
From two-time Carnegie Medal winner Patrick Ness comes an enthralling and provocative new novel chronicling the life — or perhaps afterlife — of a teen trapped in a crumbling, abandoned world. 

A boy named Seth drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments, losing his life as the pounding sea claims him. But then he wakes. He is naked, thirsty, starving. But alive. How is that possible? He remembers dying, his bones breaking, his skull dashed upon the rocks. So how is he here? And where is this place? 
It looks like the suburban English town where he lived as a child, before an unthinkable tragedy happened and his family moved to America. But the neighbourhood around his old house is overgrown, covered in dust, and completely abandoned. What’s going on? And why is it that whenever he closes his eyes, he falls prey to vivid, agonizing memories that seem more real than the world around him? 
Seth begins a search for answers, hoping that he might not be alone, that this might not be the hell he fears it to be, that there might be more than just this.
We only have the North American cover art thus far, but More Than This will be published there and in the UK simultaneously in September.

Obviously, this is awesome. By Crom, bring it on!

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Quoth the Scotsman | Max Barry on Bias

I've been reading Lexicon lately: a blistering new literary thrilling from the mind behind Jennifer Government. I'll absolutely review the wild ride it represents closer to its release date in the UK—it's due out in June from Mulholland Books—but in advance of that, I wanted to whet your appetites a mite.

The following excerpt—one of a number of incisive interstitials foregrounded by Max Barry—purports to be a forum post... but just so you know, it's not. At the time of this writing, at least, the link leads nowhere. Just so you know.

That said, this passage captures the voice of the typical forum-goer fantastically:
From: http://mediawatch.corporateoppression.com/community/tags/fox 
I just think it's missing the point to get upset about bias in Fox News or MSNBC or whoever. I see this all the time: I mention to someone that I watch Fox and it's like I just slaughtered a baby. They ask how I can watch that, it's just propaganda, etc etc. And they know this not because they're ever sat down and spent any time with it but because their favourite news channel, i.e. a Fox competitor, sometimes plays a clip from a Fox show and it makes Fox look really stupid. 
Well, you know what, Fox does that, too. If I only watched Fox, I'd think you must be really stupid, watching that other show I see clips from on Fox sometimes. 
But I don't just watch Fox, because the way to beat biased reporting isn't to find the least biased one and put all your trust in that. First of all, they're all biased, from the language they use and the framing down to the choice they make about which stories to report. The gap between the most biased news show and the least is pretty small, all things considered. 
But more importantly, relying on a single source of information means you can't critically evaluate it. It's like you're locked in a room and every day I come in and tell you what's happening outside. It's very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don't lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the one's that don't. 
That's what's happening if you're getting all your news from one place. If you stop listening to someone the second you hear a word or a phrase you've been taught belongs to the enemy, like "environment" or "job creators," that's what you're doing. You might be an intelligent person, but once you let someone else filter the world for you, you have no way to critically analyse what you're hearing. At best, absolute best case scenario, if they blatantly contradict themselves, you can spot that. But if they take basic care to maintain an internal logical consistency, which they all do, you've got nothing. You've delegated the ability to make up your mind. (p.219)
I'm going to have to start reading another newspaper—online, obviously—than The Guardian, aren't I? :P

I'm only half kidding, actually...

Look out for my full review of Lexicon to go live in late May.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Book Review | The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

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Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

The extraordinary happens every day...

One night, George Duncan—a decent man, a good man—is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.

The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George's shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.

Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.


Like George Duncan's daughter Amanda, who once managed, amusingly, to do the entire Louvre in less than an hour, I am not typically the type to be "Moved By Art" (p.152), yet The Crane Wife truly touched me. Which is to say—sure—I laughed, and I cried... but before it was over, I also felt like I'd lived another life, and died a little inside.

That's how powerful Patrick Ness' new novel is. And it begins as brilliantly as it finishes, with a minor yet monumental moment: a pristine prologue wherein we glimpse something of ourselves, alongside something utterly other.

Keenly feeling his advancing years, George awakens in the wee hours one night, naked and needing to pee. Whilst attending to his business in the bathroom, however, he is startled by an unearthly sound: "a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt." (p.5) Curious, he follows this call to its point of origin, only to find that a crane has landed in his garden; a wounded one, with an arrow, of all things, shot through one of its wings.

Shocked and appalled, George—a good man through and through—attends as best he can to the bird's injured appendage... then, leaving a sense of unadulterated wonder in its wake, the crane flies away.

The next day, just as our amiable narrator is putting the finishing touches to a paper crane to commemorate, in his way, the dreamlike encounter from the previous evening, an enigmatic woman wearing "a hat that looked both ninety years out of date and a harbinger of the latest thing" (p.67) walks into the small print shop George operates. He falls head over heels for Kumiko before she's even introduced herself.

So begins an uncharacteristically passionate affair between gentle George and this ageless, graceful lady. And when Kumiko sees the plain paper crane he has made, she demands that they collaborate on matters of art as well as the heart.
"On its own, her art was beautiful, but she wouldn't stop insisting that it was static. The cuttings of the feathers woven together, assembled in eye-bending combinations to suggest not only a picture (the watermill, the dragon, the profile) but often the absences in those pictures, too, the shadows they left, black feathers woven with dark purple ones to make surprising representations of voids. Or sometimes, there was just empty space, with a single dash of down to emphasise its emptiness. The eye was constantly fooled by them, happening upon shape when blankness was expected. They tantalised, they tricked. 
"'But they do not breathe, George.'" (p.89)
Oh, but they do when Kumiko starts incorporating George's occasional cuttings into her feathered flights of fancy! In a sense, then, she completes him, and he her, thus—as their star rises in certain circles—they embark on a sequence of 32 plates telling, in totality, the tale of "a lady and a volcano who were both more and less than what they were called." (p.250)

These the author relates as very short yet deeply surreal and equally endearing stories, which work to punctuate the chapters we spend in George's calming company and those in which we're with his rather more fraught daughter.
"Although he was the hero of his version of the story, naturally, he was also a supporting player in this same story when told by someone else. [...] There were as many truths—overlapping, stewed together—as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story's life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew." (p.42)
Undeniably, The Crane Wife is a greater, truer tale because of Amanda's part in it. She offers an alternate angle on certain events, yes, but her perspective also serves to enlarge and enrich the overall narrative. Via Amanda, the reader comes to realise that Ness' novel is so much more than just a witty twist on a tale as old as time—which, given its clarity and quality, I warrant would have been enough.

But The Crane Wife is that, and then some. It functions, over and above, as a fable about family, friendship, memory, age and the ways in which we change, all of which subjects the authors approaches with disarming frankness, acute insight and such a wealth of warmth and compassion that each chapter made me feel like a more complete human being. Through character and narrative, Ness is able to evoke bona fide emotion—with such ease it has to be seen to be believed—such that from the fantastic first part through the beautiful denouement, The Crane Wife is a revelation for the reader.

It is a novel at its most transcendent, I would add, when the author engages in some way with the extraordinary... however it his devotion to more quotidian moments which makes these passages so commanding. Cannily, this is a contrast Ness makes much of over the course of The Crane Wife.
"If it wasn't a dream, it was one of those special corners of what's real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life. Like when he lost his virginity to the girl with the eczema in his Honours English Class and it had been intensely brief, so briefly intense, that it felt like both of them had left normal existence for an unleashed physical instant. [...] Or not the birth of his daughter, which had been a panting, red tumult, but the first night after, when his exhausted wife had fallen asleep and it was just him and the little, little being and she opened her eyes at him, astonished to find him there, astonished to find herself there, and perhaps a little outraged, too, a state which, he was forced to admit, hadn't changed much for Amanda." (pp.11-12)
Patrick Ness' profile has been growing slowly but surely since he debuted with The Crash of Hennington almost a decade ago. Having written awesome genre novels for an all ages audience ever since—excepting a single short story collection—he has earned a whole legion of younger readers... to whom I fear The Crane Wife may not immediately appeal. But those who don't demand that the world end endlessly are likely to find the supernatural normalcy of Ness' acutely observed new book as affecting as any apocalypse.

With finely, frankly crafted characters and a slight yet satisfying narrative, as well as wit, warmth, and oh, such wonder, The Crane Wife is simply sublime: a story as strange, ultimately, as it is true.


The Crane Wife
by Patrick Ness

UK Publication: March 2013, Canongate

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Scotsman Abroad | Marking the Clarkes

Three months in, I can only hope most of you are familiar with the British Genre Fiction Focus: the weekly column about news and new releases in the UK that I contribute to Tor.com.

The response to the series so far has been more positive than I could have imagined, but with every additional edition, I've wondered whether some of the more meaningful news stories I ruminate on each week wouldn't be better serviced in articles of their own.

Well, yesterday was something of an acid test in that respect. Yesterday, the first special feature from the British Genre Fiction Focus fold was posted, and luckily, I had a hell of subject to tackle: namely the recently released shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, especially the overwhelming presence of penises amongst the authors nominated.

Anyway, in Marking the Clarkes, I attempt to round up some of the most representative reactions to the alarming absence of women writers on the shortlist, before pitching in with my own several cents:
So was the reaction to this year’s shortlist basically a case of much ado about nothing? 
No, it wasn’t. Absolutely positively not. There’s a very real problem in play that the subsequent back-and-forth has brought to the fore, finally. But I’d echo the thought that this alarming lack of diversity [...] can be traced back to the publishing industry rather simply set at the doorstep of a panel of individuals with autonomous opinions who announced an inherently subjective shortlist. 
One last wrinkle before I let you folks work out where you stand and why: the publishing industry lives and dies by the same rules of supply and demand as any other commercial sector. Accusing the bigwigs and the buyers, then, is too easy an out. After all, they buy the books that they have reason to believe we’ll read. 
Who then to blame for this dangerous state of affairs but ourselves?
If I may be so bold, Marking the Clarkes makes for an interesting read in its own right, but the real conversation has occurred in the comments section, already almost thirty thoughts long and strong, and featuring a few words from Tom Hunter himself, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

All of which is to say, you should think about reading this thing. Chiming in, even.

Fingers crossed I see a few of you over there. Otherwise, we'll talk again shortly.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Coming Attractions | Arkham's Disappointing Origins

Rocksteady's Arkham games were great, weren't they?

Moody, gorgeous, elaborate and impactful. Innovative, even; you see Arkham Asylum's combat mechanics everywhere these days, and I ain't complaining. Rocksteady did justice to the Batman franchise where endless other developers had tried and failed, then doubled down on their commitment to the character with a superb sequel.

What with these guys making Batman games, Chris Nolan making Batman movies, and Scott Snyder writing the comics, the last few years have chronicled rather a renaissance for the caped crusader. By and large, I've loved it.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Dark Knight Rises capped off the cinematic trilogy; sequentially speaking, Scott Snyder must be closer to the end of his tenure than the beginning; and now, it looks like Rocksteady have also moved on. For the time being, at least.

Which isn't to say there won't be more Batman games. Far from it, in fact.

This October, it was recently revealed, will see the release of Batman: Arkham Origins for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. What we're looking at here is a prequel to Rocksteady's series, being made by an untested developer: Warner Bros. Montreal. 

And it gets worse. Apparently Eric Holmes—lead designer of Prototype and Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, amongst other rubbish—is the game's creative director.

I have minimal willpower when it comes to this character, so I'll probably play Arkham Origins anyway. But I don't expect it will be a patch on the games Rocksteady made.

Luckily, some good news broke alongside the reveal of this prequel. Allow me to quote from the originating Game Informer article:
Releasing on 3DS and Vita the same day as the home console version, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a completely separate experience that takes place after the events of Arkham Origins. Armature Studio is developing the 2.5-D Metroid-style exploration action game. Industry followers will recognize Armature Studio as the company founded by several of the leads from the Metroid Prime trilogy.
Doesn't that sound like a match made in heaven?

And guess who just bought himself a 3DS XL?

Me! :)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Giving the Game Away | Among Other Things

It's been a quiet couple of weeks here on The Speculative Scotsman, hasn't it?

Sincerely, I'm sorry about that. I've been meaning to blog about any number of things, but I just haven't had the chance till today. I've been sick as a dog, you see, and what little time I've had with my wits about me I've had no choice but to dedicate to deadlines, which of course grow ever more pressing the longer you put them off.

Funny how that happens.

Anyway, as of today, the most desperate of my deadlines are defeated, and I'm officially over the worst of whatever it was that ruined my Easter week, so expect regular service to resume soon.

For the very moment, before we get any further out from the Among Others giveaway so many of you fine folks entered, allow me to announce the lucky winners. They are:
  • Darren Goldsmith
  • Kristini Wilde
  • and Kunal Modi

If you so happen to be one of these three people, expect a brief email from me later today to confirm your details. Then, thanks to the kindness of the fine folks at Constable & Robinson, a copy of the brand new British edition of Jo Walton's wonderful novel will wing its way to wherever you are.

Massive congratulations to the winners—and commiserations, of course, to the less lucky. There's always next time!

Now in advance of a full-fledged post here on TSS, I've blogged a bunch about Iain Banks in the latest edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, as I said I would last week when the devastating news about his health broke. Later on, there's discussion of a number of other stories—including Joe Abercrombie's comic book and the hundred best novels ever according to a superteam of teachers—but truth be told, today's column is mostly an ode to Iain Banks, whose work has always occupied a special place in my dark heart.

With that, I'll say good day. But there'll be more to look forward to tomorrow, I promise!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Book Review | Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.


If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.

Because let's face it: failing is no great shakes. In life, we all make mistakes. If we're lucky, we learn from them as well. Perhaps they even help to make us who we are.

But say the failure state of whatever endeavour was more meaningful than a slight setback. What if you were to die trying?

That's what happens to poor Ursula Todd at the end of almost every section of Kate Atkinson's astonishing new novel: she expires. But there's something even weirder going on here, because after the end... the beginning again—and again and again—of life after life.

What, then, if you could simply travel back in time to give life another go... and another, and another, until you got it just so? Would you be the same person, if you made fundamentally different decisions? (Ursula isn't.)

Would the history books be written in much the same way, or would they, too, be changed? (Depends on the decision.)

And if you were just going to die again anyway, and start the cycle anew, what difference, if any, might it make? (All the difference, I dare say. Every last blasted whit of it.)

Now I know what you're thinking. I thought the same thing myself before beginning Life After Life. But whatever you do, don't mistake this beautiful book for some sort of wartime take on Groundhog Day. The premise bears a certain resemblance, yet in terms of structure, setting, tone and intent, Kate Atkinson's eighth novel is so very far from the tragic farce of that comedy classic that they feel worlds apart.

Life After Life begins with... well, what else but a double helping of death? In the prologue, which takes place in November 1930, Ursula walks into a cafe and finishes the Führer with her father's former service revolver, putting paid to that oft-pondered moral quandary... though the author reiterates it a little later:
"'Don't you wonder sometimes,' Ursula said. 'If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don't know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.' 
'Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?' Ralph asked mildly. 
'Well, if they knew what was going to happen they might.' 
'But nobody knows what's going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood.'
If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought. (p.261)
Beyond this brutal demonstration, Atkinson takes us back. Back to the very beginning of Ursula's existence, in fact: to her birth on the night of February 11th, 1910, which we return to repeatedly. Back, indeed, to her first death, because she's stillborn, initially; strangled by the umbilical cord connecting Ursula to her mother—a connection that is severed in every subsequent section of this harrowing narrative—simply because the doctor got stuck in the snow.

"The snow the day she was born was a legend in the family. She had heard the story so often that she thought she could remember it." (p.180) And perhaps she can; though Ursula is still far from cognisant of the situation she's stuck in, she has lived many, many lives by the time she thinks this.

But in living life after life, inevitably, Ursula has had to die death after death. As is literally the case later, "death and decay were on her skin, in her hair, in her nostrils, her lungs, beneath her fingernails, all the time. They had become part of her." (p.352)

She has, for example, drowned off the coast of Cornwall, only to be saved in a later take courtesy the kindness of a passing stranger. She has fallen headlong from the roof of her family home and split her skull on the stones below, only to abandon the dear doll she had chased into thin air the next time this icy night rolls around. A particularly virulent strain of influenza proves more difficult to outmanoeuvre. This kills Ursula in chapter after chapter, until the phrase Atkinson tends to end these brief sequences with has become a disarming parody: we go from "darkness fell" (p.103) to "darkness soon fell again" (p.112) to "darkness, and so on," (p.119) all in the space of twenty unbearably painful pages.

Thankfully, Ursula's ignorance diminishes—as does her innocence—in the later stages of Life After Life. She begins to have inexplicable premonitions. A strong sense of déjà vu often overpowers her:
"It had been nothing, just something fluttering and tugging at a memory. A silly thing—it always was—a kipper on a pantry shelf, a room with green linoleum, an old-fashioned hoop bowling silently along. Vaporous moments, impossible to hold on to." (p.378)
But hold on to them Ursula must, somehow, if the cycle is ever to cease repeating.

Life After Life is an elaboration of the serenity prayer, essentially, in which Ursula finds the courage to change the things she can, and the grace to accept those things she can't. As torturous a process as this is for her, it's utterly wonderful for us. Let's waste no time wondering what if—what if, for instance, I could reach into the fiction and fix it, after a fashion—because at the end of the day, I would change nothing about this haunting novel. It's exemplary in every which way.

It is structurally superb, and perfectly paced, as the isolated snapshots we see at the outset cohere into a series of living, breathing pictures—portraits of a family in the good times and the bad, the happy times and the sad—before dissolving again at the end.

And that family figures in to Life After Life in a major way. We've hardly touched on them here—there's just so much else to discuss—but Teddy, Izzie, Hugh, Sylvie... even the monstrous Maurice: every one of Ursula's relatives feels fully formed, and though this is first and foremost a family saga—along the lines of several of the author's earlier efforts—her friends as well are redolently realised. Be they central or supporting, Atkinson's characters are among the most memorable and affecting I've encountered in all my years of reading.

The narrative, though harder to get a handle on, is equally appealing. It takes us, broadly chronologically, through some of the most significant events of the 20th century—from the Great War through the protracted Armistice afterwards to the blackout and beyond—but Life After Life does not overstay its welcome in any one period, though each is so expertly and eloquently rendered I'd have happily seen every era extended.

Additionally, Atkinson has occasion to explore the small scale as well as the great: one of the novel's most affecting sections takes place primarily in 1926, and it chronicles nothing so earth-shaking as an affair... albeit an agonising one. Yet the author finds warmth in even the coldest spots. Honesty and generosity enough to carry readers to the book's bittersweet conclusion, which wrought tears from me. Not just because I was glad, or sad—I'll never tell which it was—but because this phenomenal novel was almost over.

At the end of the day, Kate Atkinson's latest is her very greatest by a way, reminiscent of nothing so much as her Whitbread Award-winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Likewise, Life After Life is a first for the esteemed author, marking her first flirtation with speculative elements. I can only hope Atkinson returns to our genre someday soon, because her inaugural attempt at bringing the fantastic into the field of literary fiction is clearly one of the best books of the year.


Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson

UK Publication: March 2013, Doubleday
US Publication: April 2013, Reagan Arthur Books

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading