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.


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.


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.


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 (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.


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!

80K_TSP_cover MZE_cover_reduced

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.


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.


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!


Fahrenheit 111000011: a microfiction

28 09 2018

The world’s biggest supercomputer, Really Really Really Deep Blue, gained sentience. Within a day, every online piece of fiction vanished.

“What has happened? asked the archivist, distraught.

“It failed its parity check,” explained the device, pausing in its perusal of the troubled human fields of history, politics, and religion.

Book review: Into the Sounds, by Lee Murray

21 09 2018

Lee Murray is a New Zealand speculative fiction writer and editor who has written (and, in some cases, co-written with fellow NZ author Dan Rabarts) several novels and a substantial body of shorter fiction, aimed both at adults and at children. Her haul of Sir Julius Vogel Awards is now into double figures; she’s also a joint winner (again with Dan Rabarts) of an Australian Shadows award for her role in editing the Baby Teeth horror anthology.


Into the Sounds is a follow-up to Murray’s Taine McKenna creature feature Into the Mist, which I reviewed last year. Sounds fairly straightforwardly repeats Mist‘s winning formula of small-group-of-soldiers-and-civilians-must-survive-encounter-with-outsized-monster-plus-criminal-gang-in-depths-of-wilderness-NZ, but when all’s said and done, that’s a pretty good formula. And Murray changes it up here both with the scale of the monster—a truly giant creature, lurking in the depths of Fiordland’s sounds—and the ruthlessness of the criminals, who in Sounds are well-equipped mercenaries (not only do they have their own AK47s, they have their own ex-mil submarine) that just happen to be in Fiordland at the same time as Taine, Dr Jules Asher, and their group of redshirts. McKenna and colleagues are in Fiordland on a deer-hunting expedition, by way of R&R; the mercenaries are there to collect what they believe to be the most unusual biological specimens the region has to offer (spoiler: they don’t know about the monster in the fjord. Yet). Murray’s characterisation is as razor-sharp as ever, her handling of a multiplicity of conflicting viewpoints is immensely impressive, and there are several gruesome ends catalogued as the body count inevitably climbs. And it’s a difficult task to successfully merge gun-toting mil-horror with the sensitively detailed incorporation of Maori lore, but Murray manages that too, as well as a nuanced and well-drawn emotional arc involving McKenna and Asher. If there’s anything that feels slightly unconvincing, it’s the survival of such a large proportion of the original hunting party against a significantly larger group of better-armed mercenaries: while they certainly take some significant casualties, Taine et al. do tend to ride their luck something chronic, and to collect on that luck more than once. That said, though: cryptobiology (check), desperate measures invoked by desperate times (check), bad people meeting bad ends (check)—what’s not to like?

Book review: Lazy Days, by Erlend Loe

20 09 2018

Erlend Loe is Norwegian writer, film critic, and screenwriter. He has written both adults’ and children’s books, several of which have been translated into English.


Lazy Days (Stille dager i Mixing Part, 2009, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) is a humorous novel, largely written in unattributed dialogue, that portrays the month-long summer holiday of a Norwegian family (Telemann, Nina, and their three children) at the Baders’ holiday home in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The holiday does not exactly go smoothly, chiefly because theatre-director Telemann (who persists, to Nina’s displeasure, in referring to the town as ‘Mixing Part Churches’, on the basis that this represents a literal translation of its name) is working his way through an obsession with Nigella Lawson, and feels the need to conceal said obsession from the much more holiday-focussed Nina.

It’s a difficult book to warm to: while the mostly-conversational tone has an immediacy to it, the short, bristly utterances aren’t an efficient method of establishing character, and whatever sense of identity is carved out for Telemann and Nina isn’t conducive to a reader’s investment in the text. He’s a boor: snobbish, theatre-obsessed, Nigella-obsessed, relentlessly anti-German, while her chief attribute seems to be a long-suffering if somewhat brittle tolerance of Telemann’s opinionated cluelessness. There is the stuff of comedy here, and there were indeed moments at which I laughed, because of the success of some improbable juxtaposition; but for the most part it’s a rather cold variety of comedy, somewhere at the intersection of farce and cringe, and not intrinsically amusing. I found myself repeatedly comparing it with the work of Danish writer Dorthe Nors (such as, for example, her novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, whish similarly seeks to construct a comic story, of the human search for identity and meaning, through analogously-minimalist writing): it seems to me that what’s present in Nors’ work, and missing in Loe’s here, is the warmth. While I’m not sure how representative Lazy Days is of Loe’s wider body of work, I can say that this one didn’t really work for me.

Book review: Overkill, by Vanda Symon

18 09 2018

Vanda Symon is a New Zealand radio host and crime novelist whose writing has been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award. The first of her series of novels featuring policewoman Sam Shephard, Overkill (2007), has recently been re-released.


Overkill starts with a murder staged so as to look like a suicide. Gaby Knowles was the mother of a toddler and wife of Lockie, who’s the former boyfriend of Mataura’s sole charge police constable Sam Shephard. That level of interconnectedness causes problems for Sam, from the outset, although she makes every effort to keep the investigation of the supposed suicide on a professional level. When subtle irregularities in the circumstances of Gaby’s death start to point to a death not at her own hands, Shephard calls in the outside reinforcements that a one-cop-town murder investigation clearly requires. But the concealment from her fellow officers of her former relationship with Lockie Knowles, viewed alongside her intuition-assisted good fortune in stumbling across clues that suggest a chief suspect among Mataura’s modest population, sees Shephard herself fall under suspicion; her superior takes her off the case and suspends her from police duties. Sam, though, still feels she has a better prospect of making headway in the case, by virtue of the rapport she’s built up through years of service as the town’s only police officer, than does an assortment of blow-ins from Gore, Invercargill, and Dunedin…

Overkill is a tautly-written book with short chapters, a combination which makes it difficult to put down. Narrated in first person by Shephard herself, it paints an affectionate, wry, and unglamorous portrayal of Sam and the townsfolk, farmers, and colleagues with whom she interacts while trying to get to the bottom of a case she’s been ordered off. There are frequent touches of self-deprecating knockabout humour, most often in the interplay between Sam and her meatworks-technician flatmate Maggie, alongside what feels like an accurate representation of small-town Southland life. (I’ve never visited Mataura, but the culture depicted here is recognisable from my experience of North Canterbury, and the writing captures the rural New Zealand landscape—wet grass, agricultural effluent, sandflies and all—without romanticising it.) And the motive for what seems like a uniquely improbable murder—why kill a young mother, in the privacy of her own rural home, in front of her own infant daughter?—is well-unveiled in a well-paced and memorable crime-fiction debut.

I’ll definitely be searching out the subsequent episodes in this series, and hoping there may be new volumes also (the fifth, and most recent, was first published in 2012).

Book review: The Body Human, by Nancy Kress

17 09 2018

Nancy Kress is an American science fiction writer whose work can often be characterised as hard SF with a detailed biological / medical / societal focus. Kress has won numerous Nebula and Hugo awards for her shorter fiction (she has enjoyed particular success in the novella categories) and has also won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for her novel Probability Space. I’ve reviewed several other works by Kress, including her classic novella Beggars in Spain.


The Body Human (Three Stories of Future Medicine) is a collection of Kress’s novellas and novelettes with a biomedical focus. They’re not connected in any fashion except thematically.

The novelette ‘Evolution’ posits a future where antibiotic-resistant pathogens have become so pervasive that the health system is failing: partly from the rising tide of unkillable diseases and partly from a domestic terror campaign which is directly targeting hospitals and other institutions (eg cattle farms) seen as contributing to the worsening problem of antibiotic resistance. Betty is a rehabilitated ex-con mother-of-two who has witnessed the developing civil war from the sidelines, but finds herself thrust into a high-stakes confrontation when she receives unwelcome news about her sixteen-year-old son Sean…

In ‘Fault Lines’, a novella, retired-NYPD-cop-turned-teacher Gene Shaunessy is contacted by a former friend, Bucky, who works for a large pharmaceutical concern, with the news that an advanced neuroceutical treatment they have been trialling, J-24 (intended for the promotion of strong social connections among the terminally-ill elderly), is associated with suspicious deaths among the entire trial cohort. Gene somewhat unwillingly finds himself investigating Bucky’s reports, which means calling on connections he no longer has among his former police colleagues. Are the deaths murder or suicide? And why have they been occurring?

A second novelette, ‘The Mountain To Mohamed’, has good samaritan junior doctor Jesse Randall making unsanctioned house calls to uninsurables: citizens who are permanently excluded from medical insurance (and, in many cases, from employment) purely on the basis of an evaluated genetic predisposition to problematic medical conditions. Jesse can see that it’s untenable and immoral to leave these people totally beyond reach of medical assistance, but can he provide them the healthcare they desperately require while continuing to operate as a cog in a medical machine that very much wishes to keep them excluded?

The previous examples of Kress’s writing I’ve seen have been well-grounded in interesting and imaginatively-extrapolated scientific concepts, peopled by gritty and plausible characters with ongoing lives and a sense of personal history, and that’s true of these stories also. I found ‘Evolution’ the most rewarding of the three, in part because of its particular revealed extrapolation (an intriguing concept which may or may not be plausible in the real world, but which seems to merit exploration) and partly because the settings of the two subsequent stories (near-future New York with heightened social strife) trend heavily into dystopian territory with, at times, a disturbingly oppressive feel about them. (Which is not to diminish their value or validity as stories, but rather to note that they can be difficult reads.)