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Fantasy, Fiction

Novella: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

April 3, 2017

The best satire succeeds by getting at certain truths. Perhaps nobody working in the genre has a better grip on this notion than James Morrow, who’s made a career of irreverently skewering the foibles of humanity. His forthcoming novella The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (Tachyon Publications, June 2017) is the latest ingenious example of his work, an inventive historical fantasy that layers slick, intelligent humor over a bedrock of serious antiwar critique.

In the summer of 1914, American artist Francis Wyndham takes a job as an art therapist at Träumenchen, an asylum in the fictional western European country of Weizenstaat. As it turns out, the man running the asylum, Dr. Alessandro Caligari, is an artist in his own right — and also a sorceror, callously capitalizing on the martial fervor of early twentieth century Europe. One of his paintings has the power to brainwash soldiers into a feverish lust for battle, a “service” Caligari soon begins selling to both sides in the Great War. Wyndham quickly falls for one of his art students, Ilona Wessels, who displays similar talents for magic. Together with the other patients and employees of the asylum, they hatch a conspiracy to destroy Caligari and hopefully put an end to the War to End All Wars.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a fast, funny book, which might make it easy to mistake for disposable entertainment. But under its zany surface, Morrow has seeded a sad, heartfelt message about the “transcendently meaningless” cost of war, perfectly situated against the backdrop of World War I. The art-magic worldbuilding is creative and well rendered, and those familiar with the era will enjoy the guessing game of determining whether the novella is a secret history or an alternate one. Brilliantly walking the line, its zippy energy camouflages a surprisingly powerful resonance. It’s yet another seriocomic triumph from one of the genre’s best satirists.

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Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction

Collection: Slipping by Lauren Beukes

March 21, 2017

Single-author collections can sometimes feel like side projects, perhaps merely of ancillary interest in an author’s oeuvre. This isn’t the case with Lauren Beukes’ Slipping: Stories, Essays & Other Writing (2016), a bold, impressive record of her work’s unique energy and versatility.

Over the course of four novels, Beukes has developed a reputation for shifting effortlessly into new and different gears, her genre work running the gamut from post-cyberpunk SF to gritty urban fantasy to horror-tinged police procedural. Slipping reveals even more modes, a blend of traditional and experimental pieces that span multiple genres. Those early futuristic chops shine through in tales like “Branded,” which depicts a future in which corporate sponshorship mashes up with body modification, and the slick, prescient cyberjournalism tale “Riding with the Dream Patrol.” “Confirm/Ignore” is a sort of contemporary fiction that riffs on the notion of social media as vehicle for generating alternate realities, a before-its-time spin on the notion of Internet complicity in post-truthism. Just as engrossing are the more traditional SF stories like “The Green,” a vividly imagined colony world scenario, or “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs,” an inventive, manga-inspired adventure with a humorous, stream-of-consciousness feel.

The non-SFnal tales are sociopolitically charged. The funny, fantastical “Princess” is a saucy, feminist reimagining of “The Princess and the Pea,” while more scathing glimpses of gender issues tinge the biting horror of “My Insect Skin” and the quietly creepy stalking plotline of “Parking.” Then there’s “Dear Mariana,” a clever epistolary of relationship horror that deploys a playful formal conceit.

Most of Beukes’ work brandishes the sharp edge of critique, targeting social injustice, gender inequality, and media manipulation, among other topics. When late in the volume the content switches over to non-fiction, the underpinnings of the author’s worldview come more into focus, while also illuminating her approach to fiction. Most striking of these is “Adventures in Journalism,” which paints a picture of Beukes’ journalistic roots and how they inform her creative process. There are also powerful pieces regarding her novel research: “All the Pretty Corpses” (The Shining Girls) and “Inner City” (Zoo City). The non-fiction selections are an effective touch to end the collection, highlighting the uniquely effective power of Beukes’ varied prose: her non-fiction effortlessly elevates real-life scenarios to the feel of heightened-reality legend, a reversal of the way so much of her fiction seems to be digging at a larger truth. I knew going in that Beukes was a powerfully talented wordsmith; Slipping broadened my appreciation more than I was expecting. Very highly recommended.

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novel: Impersonations by Walter Jon Williams

March 20, 2017

Typically space opera isn’t wheelhouse reading for me, but when Walter Jon Williams is involved, I’m always game. Impersonations (2016) is a standalone sequel to the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy of the early 2000s, and it’s an intriguing, fast-paced follow-up.

The original trilogy depicted a future interstellar empire composed of multiple species, conquered by a powerful alien race called the Shaa, who ruled their domain by a stringent set of guidelines known as the Praxis. The death of the last living Shaa led to civil war when a race called the Naxids attempted to fill the power void. Carolina Sula is a hero of the war whose command helped quash the Naxid rebellion. The only problem: she won the war through her own resourcefulness and ingenuity, rather than following the script of her stodgy higher-ups. As Impersonations begins, Sula has been “rewarded” for her success with a backwater command, running the shipyards of a now-insignificant planet called Earth. Fortunately, Sula is a history buff, and looks to make the best of her situation by delving into the ruins of humanity’s past. But her quiet posting is jeopardized when an old friend turns up whose presence could expose the darkest secrets of her checkered past. And this is just the first complication in a slowly escalating intrigue that ultimately proves explosive.

I loved the Dread Empire’s Fall series, and I suspect fans of the original trilogy will relish this return to its universe, even though the space opera trappings are scaled back slightly to focus on one familiar and yet strikingly different planet. While prior knowledge surely enhances the enjoyment, the story does stand alone, and the worldbuilding delivers a timely focus on alternative governance, which resonates interestingly in light of current events. Sula is a compelling and capable protagonist, and while the plot starts quietly, it builds nicely toward an exciting home stretch that delivers satisfying reveals that could point toward further adventures in the series. A bracing science fictional thriller.

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Fiction, Spies

Novel: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

February 22, 2017

Charles Cumming’s latest is A Divided Spy (2017), which completes the trilogy featuring his outsider-spy protagonist Thomas Kell. While it doesn’t quite match the addictive quality of the previous volumes, it’s a bracing, accessible read that satisfyingly caps off the series.

Kell is again at loose ends as the story begins, when a former colleague, Harold Mowbray, lures him back into the game. By sheer chance, Mowbray has uncovered a deep, dark secret about Kell’s nemesis in Russia’s SVR, Alexander Minasian, that may make him susceptible to blackmail. Kell sees this as the opportunity it is: to turn Minasian back against the Russians as a double agent. But is it too good to be true, or is he being baited into a trap? Before bringing in MI6, Kell decides to run an investigative operation of his own, which leads to escalating treachery and violence in the secret war.

A Divided Spy boasts most of Cumming’s strengths: nuanced characterization, cleanly executed plot, and a trademark focus on the emotional cost of the business, particularly as it relates to Kell, for whom spying has become a form of self-destructive addiction. But he also provides Kell with a compelling foil in Minasian, a hated opponent who at first motivates him to revenge, but later comes to feel very much like a sympathetic opposite number. Their rivalry and relationship is the heart of the book, providing its most interesting insights and interactions.

Where A Divided Spy falls short, I think, is in its stakes. This failing may be a byproduct of the novel’s release amidst the upped-ante, conspiracy-theory nature of the current political climate, which I suspect has raised the bar on convoluted spy novel plotting for decades to come. Of course, Kell’s personal motives are clearly more central to the story than any wider political situation; the human element has always been more Cumming’s focus. But it feels a touch pro forma that, to inject some thriller trappings, a crucial side plot involves a fairly stereotypical jihadist martyr plotting a terrorist attack on British soil. Radical Islamic terrorism may never go out of style in this genre, granted, and inserting this thread contributes a much-needed ticking clock and climactic action setpiece. But it’s a less-than-imaginative thread, somewhat marring an otherwise solid and engaging tale of espionage from one of the field’s best scribes.

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Fiction, History, Spies

Novel: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

February 10, 2017

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne NesbetInfusing middle-grade fiction with the dark and twisty tropes of the spy novel might sound like a counterintuitive notion at first, but Anne Nesbet’s wonderful Cloud and Wallfish (2016) delivers the best of both of those worlds. Briskly paced, with smooth, accessible prose and likable young characters, it’s a great, informative read for kids that also satisfies as a historical espionage puzzler, immersively depicting the end of the communist era in East Germany.

Noah Keller is smart young kid with an astonishing stutter and a photographic memory, and he’s about to go on an remarkable journey. In 1989, his parents take him out of school, change his identity, and bring them with him to East Berlin. Evidently his mother is behind the Iron Curtain to work on a dissertation, while his father’s along for the ride writing a novel. But as Noah acclimates to his new life behind the Iron Curtain as “Jonah,” he senses that his peculiar parents aren’t entirely what they seem…and neither is anything else in this bleak, paranoid country. Even more mystery is afoot when he meets the clever girl from the downstairs apartment, Claudia, with whom he becomes fast friends — much to the consternation of a very suspicious East German government.

Persuasively conjuring its era, Cloud and Wallfish is a bracing, entertaining read that seamlessly integrates classic spy tropes into a fun, educational middle-grade read. The common denominator, of course, is pretending: a confident voice manages to walk the line between the wide-eyed, make-believe fantasy of childhood play and the serious, high-stakes play-acting of secret agents in a hostile environment. The resulting tale is successful for readers of all ages, I should think, thanks to its likable protagonist, masterful historical world-building, and the endearing, loyal friendship at the story’s core. This book is a joy.

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novel: Zeroes by Chuck Wendig

January 26, 2017

Chuck Wendig’s action-packed hacker novel Zeroes (2015) has all the quirky character and spitfire language of his notoriously opinionated blog posts. Since that was pretty much what I was looking for, I found it satisfying, a fast and furious, cinematic read. It opens like a seventies heist movie, as government agent Hollis Copper rounds up and arrests a team of hackers: Chance, Aleena, DeAndre, Reagan, and Wade, a diverse bunch of computer geek misfits who are thrown together in the “Hunting Lodge,” a secret government facility where busted computer geniuses are put to work doing Uncle Sam’s dirty work. But this pod of five mismatched oddballs, who come to be known as “the Zeroes,” gradually come together as they start to make sense of the hacking challenges that are thrust before them.

Zeroes is a breezy, fun read, with a solid premise and well clocked plotting. Wendig likes his characters a little more than I did, I think: the humor of their bickering banter didn’t always entirely click for me. But their hearts are in the right place and they eventually make for a winning created family; similarly, the novel’s thematic subtexts are agreeabele, once you dig past the politically incorrect rough edges of its players. Happily, Wendig is as colorful and audacious in his fiction as he is in his opinion.

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Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction

Collection: Collected Fiction by Hannu Rajaniemi

January 23, 2017

Hannu Rajaniemi is a remarkable writer. Even at his most difficult — for sometimes, indeed, he’s a tricky writer to process — he’s certainly one of the field’s most inventive and interesting voices. Collected Fiction (2015) is a vibrant mix of his various genre stories, uneven in quality, but breathtaking in range and scope. The pieces don’t always connect but when they do, it’s stunning, and even when they don’t, it’s difficult to deny the author’s relentless creativity.

Rajaniemi is known primarily for complex futuristic SF full of brain-twisting ideas and quirky neologisms, so for me one of the surprises of Collected Fiction is that it shows his signature style to be just one of many. Indeed, he writes effectively in more conventional modes: more traditional SF, contemporary fantasy, even the tinge of dark horror. Most successful of these, I think, are “Fisher of Men,” an evocative contemporary fantasy about a man who encounters sirens and sea gods along the coast of Finland, and “Paris, In Love,” a charming, fantastical short-short about requited love between a man and a city. “Satan’s Typist” is a snarly, clever horror short, and there are other intriguing experiments on display, like the Twitter microfictions of “Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories” and a text iteration of “Snow White Is Dead,” one of several possible results of a “choose-your-own-adventure” fiction piece designed to react to human brainwaves while read with a brain-machine interface.

But Rajaniemi is at his most impressive when inventing truly visionary science fictional futures, which at times he does with such effortless, future-shocky disorientation that it almost feels like the work of an SF writer from the future, working from an advanced science fictional playbook. One of his earliest stories, “Shibuya No Love” — which I had the good fortune of sifting out of the Futurismic slushpile when I was an editor — shows glimpses of the future worldbuilding brilliance that would turn up in stories like “Deus Ex Hominie,” “His Master’s Voice,” “Elegy for a Young Elk,” and “The Jugaad Cathedral.” These stories defy easy synopsis, but dazzle with colorful language, eye-popping visuals, and more ideas per page than most writers pack into an entire novel.

In its comprehensiveness, Collected Fiction has its share of weaker, merely good entries, and to be fair it loses some steam late in the volume. But it’s still an impressive record of one of the field’s most distinctive, ambitious, and restlessly creative voices.

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Fiction

Novel: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

December 30, 2016

Surely Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus (1995) is too accomplished to be a first novel? Apparently not: Egan’s debut is as scintillating as her later work, an incisive and stirring drama. It follows the journeys (both physical and emotional) of Phoebe O’Connor, youngest daughter of a fractured Bay Area family. Phoebe spontaneously flies off to Europe in 1978, motivated by a rift with her mother, grieving for her deceased father, and her own youthful disaffection with the stagnant aimlessness of her own life. But foremost in her mind is a desire to solve the mystery surrounding the death of her restless, idealistic older sister Faith, who perished during a similar European walkabout. Phoebe has long lived in Faith’s shadow, but her journey through Europe — from London to Amsterdam, Germany to Italy — may finally lay that haunting dynamic to rest.

The Invisible Circus is a moving coming-of-age tale that deploys effective period detail, effortless prose, and insightful characterization. Phoebe is a relatable protagonist whose youthful discontent and frustration is rendered sympathetic, even when she’s at her most unreasonable, and it’s easy to cheer for her as she follows a trail of bread crumbs through the past to uncover the truth behind her sister’s tragic death, and her own obsessive relationship with the past. The novel is more evidence (as if any were needed) of Egan’s brilliant storytelling powers.

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Fiction, Spies

Novel: Breaking Cover by Stella Rimington

December 23, 2016

Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series is like an unexceptional but comfortable and friendly pub. The food isn’t spectacular, but the drinks go down smoothly, the faces are familiar, and the atmosphere is just right.

The series’ ninth episode, Breaking Cover, finds Liz working light duty in MI-5’s counter-espionage section, recovering from personal tragedy. But the workload’s about to intensify: she and her erstwhile sidekick Peggy Kinsolving soon begin tracking signs of a potential Russian subversion operation, that may be reorienting toward damaging the intelligence services. With the assistance of her long-time colleagues in MI-6, GCHQ, and the CIA, Liz works tirelessly to identify the treacherous agents responsible and protect the service.

Breaking Cover doesn’t shake up the formula at all, and its mysteries aren’t particularly complex; indeed, veteran spy novel readers will sniff out most of this one’s gentle twists pretty easily. It doesn’t help that the Russian plot on display, while timely, seems relatively quaint in light of recent events. But the simple, elegant prose and welcoming style makes this another cozy, speedy read, for me the literary equivalent of comfort food. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a good burger.

 

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novella: Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

December 12, 2016

Bruce Sterling is known primarily for science fiction set in the future, but in the bizarre Pirate Utopia (2016) he reaches back into history to examine the futurism of the past. In this alternate history “dieselpunk” tale, Sterling takes us to the city of Fiume, a small port on the Adriatic coast. Traditionally Italian, Fiume is served up as a bargaining chip to the new nation of Yugoslavia at the end of World War I, and becomes a hotbed of oddball political thought. The “hero” is Lorenzo Secondari, a half-deaf survivor of the Great War who sees himself as a utopian Übermensch, and becomes a major figure in the formation of the Regency of Carnaro, a nascent anarcho-syndicalist state with visions of world domination.

Manic, gonzo, and politically charged, Pirate Utopia is a singular piece of work, mining obscure corners of history to vivid, surprising effect. The storytelling isn’t particularly streamlined, but sheer invention more than makes up the difference. Sterling’s pirate utopian antiheroes are rather appalling, but their ambitions are rendered palatable with buckets of quirky humor and clever alt-history easter eggs that insert historical figures at key moments, a kind of celebrity stunt-casting. The ending is abrupt, but services the larger political point of the piece, which seems particularly timely.

It should be noted that Pirate Utopia’s print release is beautiful, with exceptional art and design by John Coulthart. I suspect this will be one of those idea-driven works that doesn’t appeal broadly, but will delight a chosen few, particularly Sterling enthusiasts.

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novella: Runtime by S.B. Divya

December 7, 2016

I’m quickly becoming a fan of Tor.com’s novella releases, which have added some quick, effective, and compelling near-future SF to my reading arsenal lately. The latest is S.B. Divya’s Runtime, a kinetic and enjoyable tale that uses its science fictional furniture to examine the tilted playing field of wealth and class in the United States.

Marmeg is an outsider looking to secure her financial future and make a name for herself in the Minerva Sierra Challenge, a cross-country race for mechsuit-wearing contestants that spans the mountains of northern California. She’s up against wealthier, better equipped competitors, but she’s also resourceful, confident, and more than handy with the makeshift cybernetic enhancements she’s salvaged from other people’s garbage. Her longshot attempt to win the race gets off to a good start, but then meets with unexpected challenges and difficult ethical decisions, propelling her toward an uncertain future.

Runtime is solid, core science fiction of the mundane SF variety that layers an entertaining, high-concept surface adventure over an insightful sociopolitical subtext about class, privilege, and opportunity. It’s a thoughtful, bracing, and satisfying read; I look forward to seeing more work from this author.

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Novella: Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny

December 6, 2016

Laurie Penny writes exceptionally well on issues of social justice, feminism, and politics in her non-fiction. Her first fiction book, Everything Belongs to the Future (2016), shows similar expertise; it’s a sharp and insightful novella of science fiction that deftly wields the tools of genre to comment on the present.

Life-extension technology has transformed the world, but it’s also exacerbated the inequality between the world’s wealthy and its underprivileged. In Oxford, a group of hardscrabble activists has mobilized to make a difference, their modest mission to steal “the fix” from the rich to redistribute it to the poor. But their latest operation, a pharmaceutical heist from a one-percenter party, introduces them to Daisy Craver, one of the scientists responsible for developing the life-extending drugs. Daisy is disillusioned with the unjust caste system the fix has perpetuated, and her rebellious involvement with the group is about to transform its capabilities — and propel their work in dangerous new directions.

Everything Belongs to the Future is a riveting read that channels the modern political zeitgeist into a gripping dystopian metaphor. It’s a dark vision, but written from a refreshing and insightful perspective. Highly recommended, and I hope we’ll see more fiction from this distinctive voice.

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