Updatery, updated

18 10 2018

A couple of weeks back, I backgrounded recent and upcoming happenings in my orbit. It seems both apposite and timely to provide a short update on this…

First, as foreshadowed in the previous notice, I’ll be signing and selling books at BookFace in Gungahlin, from 1 to 2 pm this Saturday (20th Oct). Or more reliably, I should say I’ll be seated at a signing table during that time; whether there’s any signing or selling is in the hands of the customers. If you’re in a position to drop by during the appointed hour, whether to chat, to peruse, or to purchase, you’d be most welcome.

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One of the books I’ll have at the signing is 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess (as recently reviewed by the ever-perspicacious Tsana Dolichva: the grab from her reading of the collection is ‘there’s much to enjoy here’, but I’d encourage you, as always, to check out the full review). 80K TSP (one of the disadvantages, of course, of giving a book a long title is that it’s a long title) is also featured among many other low-priced Australian specfic offerings in Ashley Capes’ imminent Oztober promotion, which runs from the 19th to the 21st of October (hence, I’m guessing, the promotion’s name). There’s enough specfic on offer to constitute the perfect ebook TBR pile, so give Oztober a look, here. (Link may not yet be active; if not, I’ll edit for activity as it comes onstream.)

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Book review: The Second Cure, by Margaret Morgan

15 10 2018

Margaret Morgan is an Australian writer and screenwriter with a background in criminal law and training in plant science, genetics, and parasitology. She has furnished scripts for Australian TV shows as Water Rats and GP and her short fiction has appeared in outlets such as Meanjin and Going Down Swinging. The Second Cure is her first novel.

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The Second Cure postulates a world in which cats are dying out, by virtue of a new strain of Toxoplasma gondii (the unicellular parasite with a life cycle that takes it alternately through the metabolisms of the cat and the rat) that’s sufficiently distinct, in its genotype and its parasisology, to be considered a new species. Charlotte (‘Charlie’) Zinn, a microbiologist whose expertise in parasitology and symbiosis has suddenly become sexy—or at least topical—with the new species’ emergence, dubs the new parasite T. pestis. It spreads rapidly, through contact with infected cats and by ‘exchange of bodily fluids’, to become endemic in a large and growing proportion of the human population. The parasite at first appears to be harmless, but it soon becomes apparent that its assumed inertness is merely an indication of a significant incubation period. Symptoms of infection are highly varied—the parasite affects brain chemistry, with results that appear to depend at least in part on the preexisting structure of the infected brain—but often include one of several forms of synaesthesia, the ‘blending of senses’ that allows some people to hear colours, etc. Charlie’s partner, musician-artist Richard, is one such; but since this new characteristic succeeds in interweaving his two consuming interests of music and art, he sees it not as an affliction, but as a gift. This attitude takes off, and a growing population of ‘thetes’ revel in their new capabilities.

Not everyone is so enamoured of this change in a fraction of the infected population. Jack Effenberg, newly-elected populist premier of Queensland, and his charismatic televangelistic power-behind-the-throne wife Marion, are determined to stamp out what they see as a sinful shift in human nature: if not globally, then over at least whatever geographical area they can wield control. Richard’s sister Brigid, a reporter, is equally determined to ensure the Effenbergs’ divisive and opportunistic right-wing policies are exposed to significant critical attention, an attitude hardly shared with the rest of the Queensland press pack. And Charlie, her colleague Juliette, and her scientist-entrepreneur husband Shadrack Zinn are all committed, in their various ways, to combatting the insidious new disease with all of the tools at their disposal. Of course, with so many different active agendas, something has to give…

It’s almost impossible to fault this book. Morgan’s biomedicine-inspired extrapolation is enthralling, her characterisation is muscular and moving; she plays dramatic tension like an instrument. And onto a contemporary Australian setting she throws a varicoloured patchwork of social commentary, political commentary, geopolitical speculation and gradual technological advancement that feels tangible, in some ways almost inevitable. Above all, it’s character-driven hard science fiction that’s perfectly accessible, yet doesn’t compromise, anywhere, on the science. I’m deeply impressed.





Book review: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

12 10 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer who until recently was best known as the author of the ‘Raksura’ and ‘Ile-Rien’ fantasy series; Wells has also written tie-in novels for the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. Within the past year or so, she has received increasing attention and acclaim for a new sequence of thoughtful and propulsive SF novellas, collectively termed ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, which detail the exploits of a somewhat-misanthropic combat cyborg (a ‘SecUnit’) that has slipped the yoke of its human-controlled programming and is now trying to find its own place in the hostile and confusing realm of human society. I’ve previously reviewed the three earlier novellas in the ‘Murderbot’ sequence.

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Exit Strategy is the fourth title in the series, and follows a form that will be familiar to readers of the three earlier novellas: (1) Murderbot breathes sigh of simulated relief at conclusion of preceding events, looks to plan escape so as to minimise detection. (2) Murderbot is distracted in its preferred task of ingesting media shows by self-perceived need to safeguard stupid humans from their own intended reckless actions. (3) Murderbot carefully plans best-practice approach for averting harmful consequences to identified group of stupid humans. (4) Murderbot puts plan into effect. (5) Shit gets real: best laid plans, etc., etc. (6) Bad things happen.

This time around, the ‘stupid human’ most directly in need of safeguarding is Dr Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s ‘owner’, and for whom the technically-rogue Murderbot therefore feels conflicting emotions… which is to say, emotion of any sort. Mensah has been kidnapped by evil corporate empire GrayCris, an entity with which Murderbot has had several previous dealings, none of them good. With the human it most cares about at the mercy of a ruthless, almost-lawless corporation, how will Murderbot rectify the situation?

Wells’ Murderbot novellas always build patiently to an explosive finale, and Exit Strategy is no exception. This perhaps makes it sound formulaic; not an inaccurate assessment, perhaps, but an incomplete one. There’s a slowly-developing awareness accreted across all four novellas that the SecUnit, repeatedly forced by circumstances to mimic a human being (so as not to appear in public as a dangerous, and therefore eminently targetable, item of killing machinery), is gradually becoming more adept in this role, a process which Wells uses to subtly tease out useful insights into the nature and limitations of humanity itself, as seen by an entity that’s still technically outside that walled city. Somewhat surprisingly for such an ostensibly-unemotive protagonist, the principal sparseness of the writing shows up not in the characterisation, which is fairly vivid (as expressed through body language, observable reactions, and SecUnit speculation), but in the scene-setting which, because it’s portrayed almost entirely without metaphor, can come across as pallid, functional, and sketchy, like a wireframe rather than a fully-rendered scene. Action sequences, however, are expertly-defined and propulsive. Murderbot is at its best seeking to survive against seemingly-overpowering opponents.

And, like some cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Terminator, Murderbot as a character is deliciously self-deprecating, curmudgeonly, and flippant at times. It’s a memorable nonhuman creation, by turns refreshingly philosophical and highly entertaining. By seeking to reunite the rogue SecUnit with Dr Mensah, Exit Strategy brings the multi-novella story arc to a memorable and effective conclusion. (There are, nonetheless, some indications that Murderbot is to return in a subsequent novel, which will be interesting.)





Book review: The Thin Blue Line, by Christoffer Carlsson

9 10 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer. He has won several awards since his crime-novel debut, The Invisible Man from Salem, in 2013. He’s best known for his four-volume ‘Leo Junker’ series, of which Invisible Man marks the start, and which concerns a highly-conflicted Stockholm detective who seems persistently unable to escape his and others’ mistakes. I’ve previously reviewed several of Carlsson’s novels.

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The Thin Blue Line (Den Tunna Blå Linjen, 2017, translated by Michael Gallagher) sees Junker once again inveigled into one of his escaped-criminal friend John Grimberg’s intrigues. This time it’s a plea for Leo to unofficially reopen the investigation into the unsolved murder of Stockholm prostitute Angelica Reyes, a low-priority five-year-old cold case that’s a couple of months away from being passed on to a team specialising in such cases. There’s no ostensible reason why Grim should want the case investigated by Leo in particular, but Leo feels compelled… and as he and colleague Gabriel Birck dig deeper into the records of the original investigation, which are meticulous but with unexplained gaps, it becomes clear that something important, something deadly, has been concealed. But the time available for Leo’s and Gabriel’s investigation is short, and much of it hinges on the need to talk to people who do not wish to come forward…

Carlsson’s Leo Junker novels combine immediacy, neo-noirish intrigue, and a measured pace that seems consistently unhurried while never flagging. In Junker, Birck, Grimberg, and Leo’s partner Sam he has crafted a memorable central quartet of characters who, across four books—and there is reason to believe this to be the last in the series—play off each other to extraordinary effect. The background, too, is particularly well crafted, with considerable credible detail.

In my review of the first in the Leo Junker series (The Invisible Man from Salem), I suggested that Carlsson may have affectionately Tuckerised fellow Swedish crime novelist (and fellow criminology specialist) Leif G W Persson as a background character in the novel. I suspect Carlsson has done something analogous in this book also—his pair of ‘lazy beat cops’ Larsson and Leifby, who just happen to be patrolling out-of-area at a crucial point in the story, appear intentionally reminiscent of the similarly-alliterative and similarly unprepossessing team of out-of-area beat cops, Kristiansson and Kvant, who appear in certain of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ novels, such as The Laughing Policeman. If this is indeed intentional, it leads me to wonder what other examples of homage might occur in books two and three of Carlsson’s series… but it would be remiss of me to imply that the books require a deep familiarity with Swedish crime fiction for full enjoyment, because I don’t believe that to be the case. They are their own thing, and Junker is a surprisingly sympathetic if deeply-conflicted protagonist.





Book review: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

6 10 2018

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Indigenous Australian (Palyku) legal academic, novelist, and illustrator. She has written several children’s picture books and YA novels, of which the latter (notably ‘The Tribe’ trilogy) merge themes of dystopia, sustainability, and Indigenous lore. Her YA novel debut The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award in 2013.

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The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf isn’t one of those novels with an evasive or even misleading title: it is what it says on the tin. Its protagonist, de facto leader of a group of teens with unusual abilities—Ashala’s own ability, in essence, is flight-capable sleepwalking, managed through lucid dreaming—has been captured by administrators who are determined to see such traits stamped out, even if this means stamping out the individuals carrying such abilities. But Ashala is as determined to keep concealed her knowledge of her mutually-adoptive Tribe’s location, numbers, and range of represented abilities as those arrayed against her—administrator Neville Rose, neuroscientist Miriam Grey, strangely-familiar guard Connor—are determined to learn her secrets, through whatever means are required. As her incarceration stretches on and as the danger to her (and her friends) grows, Ashala begins to suspect she’s missing something…

Interrogation has something of the form expected of a dystopian YA novel, valiant teens arrayed against an untrustworthy adult power structure, with a mostly-clear demarcation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but the inclusion—arguably, the centrality—of Indigenous storytelling and environmentalism adds a few different levels to this form. The result is a broadly enjoyable self-contained trilogy-opener with a sure sense of itself and a focus on truth, loyalty, and friendship.





Book review: Eventide, by Therese Bohman

3 10 2018

Therese Bohman is a Swedish editor, art critic, and novelist. Her three novels to date have all been translated into English; I’ve previously reviewed the first two, Drowned and The Other Woman.

Eventide

Eventide (Aftonland, 2016, translated by Marlaine Delargy) focusses on Karolina Andersson, a forty-year-old professor of art history who has recently ended a long-term relationship and is finding the single lifestyle difficult to readjust to. Anton, a headstrong and difficult-to-contact PhD student who is nominally under Karolina’s supervision, contacts her with an intriguing discovery he’s made: correspondence which strongly suggests that the obscure nineteenth-century Swedish artist Ebba Ellis had a significant, and hitherto unsuspected, influence on the work of her better-known German contemporaries. As art-history developments go, this is big-league stuff, and as Anton’s continuing research uncovers further links, Karolina begins to become convinced that they are on the threshold of something major, something career-defining. But Anton’s activity as a PhD student is seemingly very much on his own terms, and elsewhere in her day-to-day existence, Karolina runs off certain rails, faced with a progressively-louder biological clock and a sense that her inability to sustain a meaningful and mutually nurturing relationship with any of the men to whom she’s attracted marks her as a failure and an impostor.

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Bohman’s novels to date are cut from consistent cloth: indeed, even the cover on this one is reminiscent of its predecessor The Other Woman, with little more than the replacement of one obscuring filter by another. But though the protagonists are broadly similar—educated, thoughtful, assertive women who start the book without ongoing romantic attachments—the important details are quite distinct.

Bohman’s writing is subtle; clear; direct; slow-unfolding. In a structural sense, Eventide appears looser than either Drowned or The Other Woman, both of which were anchored by their doomed romantic arcs, in a way that Eventide isn’t. And the organisation of the text, not into chapters but into sequential scenes without any further imposition of hierarchy, can play into a meandering sense that’s not helped by the didactic nature of Bohman’s focus here: particularly within the latter half of the book, some of the activity and observation appears so tangential to the book’s core that it feels as though, in places, the story has lost its way. I believe this to be a consequence of Bohman’s attempt to show, as completely as possible, Karolina’s mounting uncertainty and personal desperation, but it nearly founders the text. In other respects, though, the words are razor-sharp, and the resolution to which Karolina’s story is brought is rewarding and delivered with impressive understatement. If the above makes it sound as though Eventide is too slow for your own sensibilities, that’s quite possibly the case; but if you are drawn towards books that offer the patient construction of real fictional lives with tellingly-detailed inner voices, then you can be reassured that Bohman is exceptionally good at this stuff.





Updatery: Oct 2018 edition

3 10 2018

Conflux 14 has been and gone. It was a lot of fun to catch up with familiar faces, many of them from interstate (or from NZ), and to meet new ones. Traditionally, Conflux is something where I forget to do something that needs to be done, and this time around that was visiting the art show, which was just a short walk from my base in the dealer’s room but which I totally neglected to check out. Next time!

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With Conflux over, it means both 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess and Murder on the Zenith Express have now been irretrievably released into the wild, and are available wherever omnipresent books are sold. 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords was launched at the con by the wonderful Craig Cormick: it’s always a major egoboo when a much better writer than oneself says such appreciative things about one at a launch, and the book seems to have been received well generally. Murder on the Zenith Express emerged with a little less fanfare, but did feature as one of a dozen books that were touted by their authors at the con’s Book Love Fest, a kind of speed-dating book-promotion thing, if that makes sense.

But the bookish star of the con was clearly the CSFG’s A Hand Of Knaves anthology (edited by Leife Shallcross and Chris Large, and with Shauna O’Meara’s cover artwork on display in the image below), which was launched on Sunday evening in a boisterous and brilliant event run by the boisterous and brilliant Rob Porteous and attended, if my calculations are correct, by around 70% of the antho’s contributors. As one of the behind-the-scenes forces producing the antho (slushwrangler and layout artist), as well as a contributor, it was great to see it get such well-earned attention.

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In post-Conflux developments, there are a few events during the next month at which I may be encountered. First up, on Saturday 13th October, I’ll be endeavouring to sell books and badges (and perhaps a few creepy dolls) to innocent bystanders at the annual Impact Comics Festival in Garema Place, from 10 until 4.

A week later, which according to my Earth calendar would be Saurday 20th October, there’s a Gungahlin Town Festival intended, I believe, to celebrate the putative completion of work on the Gungahlin-to-Civic light rail connection (though the skeptical among us might suggest that such completion may not in fact be complete as of that date). In any event, I’ve been drafted into helping the excellent local bookstore Book Face with their participation in the festival; I’ll be signing books (and hopefully selling some) at the bookstore’s signing table, between 1 and 2 pm.

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And on Saturday 3rd November, I’m participating in one of the panels during the Writing NSW science writing event Quantum Words, an exploration of  the interaction between science and culture. I’m chairing the noonday panel on ‘Writing the Universe’, alongside poet P S Cottier, Indigenous writer Cathy Craigie, and astronomer Fred Watson. For those interested, tickets for Quantum Words (which is an all-day festival) are available via the link above. Maybe I’ll see you at one of the above events!