Book review: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

20 06 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer, with a number of fantasy and SF novel series and tie-in novels for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis. She has received numerous nominations and awards, including a recent Nebula ‘Best Novella’ award for All Systems Red, the first instalment in the ‘Murderbot Diaries’ series (which, as it happens, I have reviewed here).


Artificial Condition is the second ‘Murderbot’ novella. It sees the newly-liberated security cyborg seeking to make its way back to RaviHyral, a mining installation on a world set aside for minerals exploitation; in its former existence, Murderbot was one of several SecUnits charged with defending the human workers in one of RaviHyral’s corporate mines… until a mishap leads to an all-humans-have-been-killed situation. Murderbot’s involvement in this incident is unknown—its memories of the tragedy, and indeed, of its entire time at the mine, have been wiped—but it has always understood that it simply went rogue, slaughtering the humans because of some hardware or software glitch. Now, Murderbot has decided, it’s time to learn the truth of the incident. But human society is rather skittish on the subject of autonomous SecUnits—you know, the whole killing-machines-running-amok thing, as hyped up by the entertainment and news media—and so it’s important that Murderbot is able to travel incognito and unrecognised, and for that it’s going to require help…

The Murderbot series is not really as bloodthirsty as the name suggests. A large part of this novella is concerned with the cyborg’s exploration of issues such as trust and responsibility, and its attempts to define its own moral core. In the process, it learns (and illuminates) aspects of human behaviour. This perhaps makes the series sound dry and instructional, which it is not: it’s moderately-paced (because Murderbot, though notably paranoid in some respects, is not really prone to panic in any demonstrable fashion), intriguing in several ways, and quietly addictive. It helps, too, that Murderbot has a discrete personality (somewhere near the intersection of Star Trek: TNG‘s Data and Altered Carbon‘s Takeshi Kovacs, if that helps to clarify matters at all). If anything, I think I enjoyed this novella somewhat more than its Nebula-winning predecessor, which I felt was slightly let down by an overly-complicated and awkwardly-choreographed combat sequence. This time around, things are more pared back, and the story flows more assuredly. I’m not sure what comes next, but I’m looking forward to it.

Does it count as hard SF? I’m inclined to assess that it does: while there seems to be some nebulosity on the vexatious subject of interstellar propulsion, the laws of physics are otherwise treated with appropriate seriousness, and the processes of data transfer by which Murderbot communicates with other artificial intelligences and bots (and, on occasion, hacks into security systems) are credibly detailed. It’s thoughtful, it’s fun, and it’s serious: what more could you want?

(This is the fourteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)


Book review: What My Body Remembers, by Agnete Friis

17 06 2018

Agnete Friis is a Danish writer and journalist, best known as co-author (with Lene Kaaberbøl) of the ‘Nina Borg’ crime fiction series, of which I’ve reviewed the first book, The Boy in the Suitcase, here.


What My Body Remembers (Blitz, 2015, translated by Lindy Falk van Rooyen) would appear to be Friis’ crime-novel debut as a solo author, though I gather she has previously written children’s fiction and possibly other adult novels. WMBR is marketed as crime fiction—and in that capacity it was one of the six finalists in this years Petrona Award—but it’s as much a closely-observed study of privation, institutional care, and life on the margins as it is a mystery. Central to the story is Ella, a deeply-troubled single mother whose occasional unpredictable seizures are connected to childhood trauma: at age eight, she lost her mother, Anna, to a gunshot inflicted, the investigators decided, by her father, Helgi, who was found holding the gun. Ella has never seen fit to query this history, but has sought instead to escape it through every method available to her. It’s only when it appears likely that she’s about to lose her eleven-year-old son Alex for good, to a ‘respite’ care appointment that the authorities wish to make permanent, that she’s thrown back into the past with all its secrets: she needs a safe haven, beyond the authorities’ immediate reach, and the only bolthole available is her grandmother’s abandoned house on the outskirts of the North Sea fishing / tourist village Klitmøller, close by Ella’s own childhood home. She’s hoping for solitude for herself and her son—Ella’s coping strategy is to shut the world out (through abrasiveness and evasion) and lick her wounds in private, and to turn to vodka for its temporary amnesiac properties—but those in the area have long memories and curiosity, particularly about the two-decades-old murder that played out on the local dunes, and Ella’s habit of shoplifting from the few local merchants doesn’t do her any favours in an attempt to keep a low profile. Alone of those with whom she reluctantly has contact, her paternal grandmother still believes her son Helgi to be innocent of Anna’s death—but then, she would, wouldn’t she?

Still, what if the old woman is right?

What My Body Remembers is slow to unfold: possibly too slow, although the seamy details of Ella’s circumstances, her upbringing, and her underdog refusal to stay beaten by life (even as she attempts, as far as possible, to hold it at bay with alcohol and self-seclusion) are all impressively catalogued and sketched with far greater flair than that shown by Barbara, the aging hippie-artist who insinuates herself in Ella’s return to Klitmøller and who seeks to provide a buffer between Ella and the world while also covering the walls of her guest bedroom with bad art. There’s a clarity and an emotional depth to the text which make it a rewarding read: minor-key, and more accretive than eventful, but overall a highly effective example of character-driven crime fiction.

Upcoming collection TOC reveal

16 06 2018

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single author in possession of a good number of published short stories must be in want of a collection.

…well, perhaps not. But I have such a collection in the pipeline, largely to replace the now-out-of-print Rare Unsigned Copy and Difficult Second Album. The new collection, which should be released to the wild at the end of September, includes some of the stories from RUC and DSA—but none of the Titan stories, and no Gordon Mamon, to avoid unnecessary duplication—as well as a healthy infusion of newer pieces. It’s a mix of serious SF and humorous stories.

It’s called 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess.

Here’s the TOC:

Product Warning
Jack Makes a Sale
All the Colours of the Tomato
Working Girl
The Fridge Whisperer
Running Lizard
You Said ‘Two of Each’, Right?
The Speed of Heavy
Talking with Taniwha
Half The Man
Tremble, Quivering Mortals, At My Resplendent Tentacularity
The Assault Goes Ever On
Dark Rendezvous
Must’ve Been While You Were Kissing Me
The Day of the Carrot
At the Dark Matter Zoo
Suckers for Love
The Thirty-First Element
Against the Flow
Reverse-Phase Astronomy as a Predictive Tool for Observational Astronomy
November 31st is World Peace Day
Mole of Stars

I’ll do a cover reveal closer to the release date.

On bringing new toys into the sandpit

5 06 2018

When I started writing Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body, I hesitated over the setting. It was a story, after all, that didn’t have to be set on Titan (although in having made the decision to set it there, certain significant aspects of the story were influenced by that setting)—it would have worked as well, in essence, on Mars, or the Moon, or elsewhere. But Titan was, for me, a readymade setting—I’d written eight stories previously, by that point, which were all set on my version of a near(ish) future colonised Titan—and that obviously simplified aspects of the novella’s worldbuilding. But it complicated things as well, or at least drove me to consider that the writing of it might complicate things for me.


Matters Arising is SF, but it’s also a procedural crime story, something that my other Titan stories to date (i.e., those collected in Wide Brown Land) are not. So I was concerned about sending mixed messages, of crossing the streams in some way. I needed to decide whether it was reasonable to ‘contaminate’ my pre-existing world of Titan (and insofar as I have a brand as a writer of serious SF, it’s reasonable to say that Titan is that brand) with a crime story. Obviously, I decided it was reasonable, but it could have gone either way.

I’m not the first person who has made this decision. The set of ‘SF writers who have decided to incorporate crime fiction in their pre-existing fictional universes’ has quite a healthy population. Alastair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space’ universe includes several pure-SF novels, but it also includes the ‘Prefect Dreyfus’ novels Aurora Rising (formerly The Prefect) and Elysium Fire, which are as much detective story as hard SF. Similarly, Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ already encompassed several novels and numerous short stories by the time he introduced tough-guy PI Gil Hamilton in a noirish set of stories exploring corpsicle crime. Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Vorkosigan series has as often incorporated aspects of the detective novel as it has every other genre variant that Bujold has folded into the mix, from mil-SF space opera to comedy-of-manners romance. Asimov, too, did it, if in a somewhat after-the-fact fashion: in Foundation and Earth, he reveals that his classic SF/crime novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are a part of the same timeline as his ‘Foundation’ series. I’m sure there are a good many other examples also.

Why should this be? Why start a SF series or sequence, and then add crime fiction to it down the track? I suspect it has something to do with synergy: there are certain features in common to SF (especially, I would say, hard SF) and the procedural. One is an imperative to operate within rules that are not, for the most part, of your own devising: the laws of physics, say, and the characteristics of human nature. In a SF novel, the technology must make sense, even if we wouldn’t know how to operate it ourselves, in just the same way as a murder must be seen to make sense (to the killer, at least) and to have been executed in a manner that is plausible. Another is that SF is as much a literature of exploration and discovery as it is of introspection, and this is true also of the procedural crime novel: if the crime must be understood on a motivational basis, it must also be uncovered, deduced. These are things, I suppose, that are true also of other genres, but there seems to be a certain kind of symbiosis possible between SF and crime that does not exist, for example, between, say, fantasy and crime (where I would think the writer would need to establish very early on the rules surrounding the setting’s ‘unreality’ so as to be playing fair with the reader) or romance and crime (which can definitely be merged successfully, though the shared focus on the often-concealed motivations of individuals has the potential to complicate rather than streamline the mixture). It obviously helps, too, I think, that whereas (on the most simplistic level) SF is a genre defined by its setting, crime is a genre defined by its plot, so the two can mesh in ways that reinforce each other constructively, something that doesn’t necessarily occur (to my tastes, at least, though your mileage may vary) when one combines two setting-defined genres such as SF and fantasy. A SF setting can usefully suggest certain novel flavours of crime (such as the ‘organlegging’ of Niven’s Gil Hamilton stories); crime can also usefully allow the SF writer to explore their setting in a novel way. For example, a common feature of almost all my stories in Wide Brown Land is that they are largely set out in the environment, with characters in T-suits or in vehicles of one form or another; it wasn’t until I wrote Matters Arising that I usefully found a way in which to explore the settlements, arcologies and habitats in which most people spend most of their time, without having such exploration drag down the story.

I still have further plans for Titan, both as a setting for a couple more planned procedural crime pieces, and for more straightforward SF extrapolation. The two styles won’t necessarily click for the same readers, but that’s OK: different people are drawn to different things, and that’s how it should be.

What other SF sequences are out there, that sometimes (but not always) add the procedural crime style to the mix? There must be some I’ve missed …

New(ish) publication news

4 06 2018

My 2012 SF / mystery novella Flight 404 is now back in (e)print in, I think, all the usual places as of today (or whenever ‘today’ gets to the trailing hemisphere, which depending on your perspective will either be today or tomorrow) and will be available again in print print as of next week.


Two reviews of my Titan books have turned up in the past couple of days. Book Reviews Anonymous has reviewed Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body, and over at Strange Horizons, Octavia Cade has reviewed Wide Brown Land: stories of Titan. Click on the link for the review.

Finally, I’ve begun an attempted conquest of local bookshops. This means that Harry Hartog’s in Woden now has copies of Matters Arising and Wide Brown Land for sale, at prices that may well undercut those available online.


Book review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

3 06 2018

Seanan McGuire is an American speculative fiction writer who would be prolific enough under her own name, but who also writes under the pen name of Mira Grant. She’s best known for her long-running ‘October Daye’, ‘InCriptid’ and ‘Newsflesh’ series, but has written much else besides. She’s received numerous award nominations, has won Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus Awards (and many others besides), and is also a noted filker.


Down Among the Sticks and Bones is McGuire’s second title in the ‘Wayward Children’ novella / short novel series; I’ve reviewed the first, Every Heart a Doorway, here. Down Among is a prequel of sorts to Every Heart, since it explores the backstory of troubled twins Jack and Jill who feature prominently in the first book. Twin daughters Jacqueline and Jillian are raised by their status-obsessed parents, Serena and Chester Wolcott, to be, respectively, the daughter and son they had always (sort of) wanted, as long as they don’t have to do any of that messy parenting—a task which, for the most part, falls to Chester’s mother Gemma Lou, until such time as she is bundled out of the family home for fear of exerting too substantial an influence on the growing girls. Trapped in their respective roles as pampered princess (Jacqueline) and loner tomboy (Jillian), it’s not too surprising that when an opportunity for escape arises, the girls take it. And so it is that a bored rainy-day exploration of their grandmother’s former bedroom results in their finding a Narnia-style magic door at the base of a chest of clothes. They descend a long flight of stairs to arrive, mysteriously, on a bleak moorland with a sky dominated by a super-large blood-red moon: it’s not, perhaps, the most salubrious of escapes, but they have no way back. The door has closed behind them.

Jack and Jill find themselves in the fabulously magical castle of a man known only as the Master who, it transpires, has a fear of sunlight and a near-insatiable taste for human blood. He would be happy to adopt both girls as his ‘daughters’, but a pact with Dr Bleak, who lives in a rickety hilltop windmill, requires that one of the girls must go to the windmill. Jack, tired of a childhood of pretty dresses, chooses the windmill; Jill, who has never been allowed to explore glamour, opts for the castle. They grow into their roles, as mad scientist’s apprentice and vampire’s understudy, and do not see each other for years. It seems as though this situation could endure indefinitely … except, of course, it cannot.

McGuire’s writing seems effortless, declarative, steeped in hidden or slow-unfolding meaning. Her play with the stereotypical tropes of B-grade horror, and with the deftly-drawn polar-opposite personalities of tomboy-to-princess Jill and princess-to-tomboy Jack, is both surprisingly effective and unexpectedly heartening: there’s a sense (illusory, as it transpires) that the scenario is so classic, so timeless, that nothing truly grim can happen. It’s an intriguing book, and one that expands in useful respects on the events in Every Heart a Doorway. (The connection between the two books is sufficiently tenuous that it would be entirely possible to read Down Among the Sticks and Bones first, but I think I’d still recommend beginning with Every Heart.) If you have any kind of affinity for portal fantasy, this is very definitely worth checking out.

Book review: Echoes of Understorey, by Thoraiya Dyer

28 05 2018

Thoraiya Dyer is an Australian speculative fiction writer whose work has won several Aurealis and Ditmar awards. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel, last year’s Crossroads of Canopy, here.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I’ve edited (or co-edited) two of Thoraiya’s stories: her novella ‘The Bird, the Bees, and the Thylacine’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 51 and her short story ‘Faet’s Fire’ in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, co-edited with Edwina Harvey. I also consider her a friend. I’ll endeavour, as always, to offer an unbiased assessment of the work reviewed here.


Echoes of Understorey is the second volume in ‘Titan’s Forest’, Dyer’s unfolding arboreal quest fantasy trilogy, following on from Crossroads of Canopy and set in the same height-stratified society within the outsize, magic-infused, gods-controlled forest of the earlier book. Though several of the characters from the first volume—Unar, Ylly, Bernreb, Aoun and others—recur here, the protagonist and viewpoint character in Echoes is different.

Imeris (or Imerissiremi, or Issi) is a young Understoreyan of (literally) Canopian descent, rescued as a child from a chimera and raised in the same extended, blended family that took in Unar in the preceding book. Imeris, trained as an Understoreyan commando to wreak summary justice on the lower reaches’ treetop overlords, and able with the divine intervention of her sister Ylly (now the goddess Audblayin) to enter and exit Canopian territory with comparative ease, is beset by problems both of identity—does she owe allegiance to Understorey, within which she was raised, or to Canopy, the realm of her birth—and of survival: how can she keep clear of the soul-stealing, body-swapping witch Kirrik who now wears the form of Issi’s childhood friend Nirrin? How can she slay a woman whose consciousness and motivations are capable of effortlessly hopping across to the nearest available warm body (which might, after all, be that of Imeris herself)?

Imeris hatches a plan, with her Oldest-Father (Esse) and her Youngest-Father (Marram), which they believe capable of destroying the witch Kirrik and providing her no opportunity to transfer to another. It’s a solid plan, but it requires everything to go right. Not everything does go right. Imeris, devastated and bereaved, has achieved nothing more than to ensure she has secured the enmity of an immensely powerful creature. For the safety of her loved ones, and to buy herself time while she skills up as the witchslayer she is apparently destined to become, she must leave home, and obtain whatever assistance, training, and experience she can from within both Understorey and Canopy. Which, as a fallback plan, would be a good one, if it weren’t that others within those realms appear also to have reason to want Imeris dead …

Echoes of Understorey, like its predecessor, is a busy, crowded novel with very impressive worldbuilding (Dyer, a trained veterinarian and keen conservationist, is excellent on the pithy description of both flora and fauna, with a strongly antipodean flavour to her novels’ supersized forest; there’s also a lot of imaginative and societally-appropriate engineering in her forests’ varied human settlements) and strong and intriguing characterisation. Though it adheres broadly to the form of the quest fantasy, it repeatedly and constructively subverts the expectations of that form in both structure and story arc. In doing so, it augments rather than merely mimeographs the world explored in its predecessor, and yields a story that resonates, surprises, and satisfies. I am looking forward to volume three.