All the Colours of the Shortlist

20 02 2017

The 2016 Aurealis Awards shortlist is hot off the press. Here’s the shortlisting for SF novellas:

Waking in Winter, Deborah Biancotti (PS Publishing)

“Salto Mortal”, Nick T Chan (Lightspeed #73)

“Going Viral”, Thoraiya Dyer (Dimension6 #8, coeur de lion)

The Bonobo’s Dream, Rose Mulready (Seizure Press)

“All the Colours of the Tomato”, Simon Petrie (Dimension6 #9, coeur de lion)

“Did We Break the End of the World?”, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Defying Doomsday, Twelfth Planet Press)

I’m flattered, or humbled (or both, if that’s possible) to be in such company, and really pleased to be one of the category’s two flag-bearers for Keith Stevenson’s Dimension6. (And, yes, the zine is still completely free to download …)

And just for a change, a book review

18 02 2017

I don’t seem to receive many reviews nowadays, so it’s always a bit of an occasion when I encounter a review of my work in the wild. This week, a review of my first collection (Rare Unsigned Copy) popped up on Suz’s Space, the booksite of reader/bookseller Suzie Eisfelder. Here’s a snippet (I’ll refrain from reposting the whole thing, but if you’re curious you can read it at the link above):

Good writing, sometimes very funny writing and sometimes not funny. The first story, The Day of the Carrot, had me in fits … if you like science fiction and puns then this book is for you.


Book review: Hour of the Wolf, by Håkan Nesser

18 02 2017

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish author and teacher who is most well known (in English translation at least) for his ‘Inspector Van Veeteren’ series of crime novels set in the geographically nebulous city of Maardam. The series has won several awards, including the Glass Key award in 2000.


Hour of the Wolf (Carambole, 1999, translated by Laurie Thompson) opens with a hit-and-run: late one night, a drunk driver hits, and kills, a teenager walking home along a poorly-lit street. The driver stops, but there’s nothing he can do for the boy … and so he does nothing.

But somebody witnessed the incident; two days later, the driver receives a blackmail letter. It’s not the sum of money that concerns him so much as the absence of any guarantee that this will be the end of the matter.

As it transpires, his concerns are justified; less so his methods.

We don’t get to meet Van Veeteren until quite some way into the story, and although he is in a sense the fulcrum on which the novel is balanced, he’s not truly the main character: most of the ‘head time’ in the story is devoted to the drunk driver (whose innermost thoughts the reader is privy to, but whose identity is not revealed until such time as the police uncover it) and to Reinhart and Moreno, two of the police officers central to the investigation. By see-sawing between the perspectives of the perpetrator and the police, the book treads a very effective line in … not exactly ‘moral ambiguity’, but more what might be termed ‘conflicted empathy’.This depth of perspective brings the story to a resolution that is at once deliberately hollow—there’s no sense of victory, of achievement, just of having attained some kind of end—and yet also satisfying, in its realistic portrayal of the emotions involved.

The book’s fictional setting (the nonexistent city of Maardam) initially feels incongruous, but its depiction is so patiently detailed that it takes on the attributes of somewhere real, even if it’s not possible to determine whether it’s in Sweden (as one might expect given the author’s nationality), or in the Netherlands (as would be in keeping with the names given to streets and parks, and to many of its inhabitants), or someplace else. Ultimately, it feels credible, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

Hour of the Wolf is a muscular, deeply-drawn story, well-plotted and with some memorable characterisation (although I did feel, as seems reasonably often to be the case with the Scandicrime I’ve sampled thus far, that the characterisation of the offbeat and deliberately abrasive officer among the supporting cast—in this series, he has the name Rooth—tended to detract from, rather than add colour to, the story). Ultimately, though, even the irritating Rooth can’t derail the story, which moves with a sort of locomotive purposefulness through its various waystations on its way to the terminus.

It’s that time of year again …

16 02 2017

… which it usually is, at this time of year.

I speak, of course, of awards-nomination season.

I haven’t produced much, myself, of awardish eligibility this year past: just one novelette (‘All the Colours of the Tomato’, in Dimension6 issue 9, which is a free download, and therefore excellent value for money) and one (very) short story (‘Jumping to Conclusions’, in AntipodeanSF issue 219; also free to read). It also seems appropriate to tout Adam Browne’s almost-uncategorisable illustrated-novella-length work The Tame Animals of Saturn (published by Peggy Bright Books), for which I did the typesetting.


In Australia, the Ditmar Awards are open until 11th March 2017: a full(ish) list of eligible works is on the Ditmar website here, and nominations can be made here. According to the rules, you must be a natural person, active in fandom, or a member of this year’s Australian Natcon, or possibly a cat, in order to nominate.

In New Zealand, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards are open until 31st March 2017: this site is the online nomination form, but if that link doesn’t work, there’s also the opportunity to send in nominations by email, as detailed on the main SJV webpage (ie the first link in this paragraph). Anyone can nominate, possibly even small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

And the Hugos are open as well, until 17th March 2017. You need to be a member of last year’s, this year’s, or next year’s Worldcon in order to nominate for these.

It should go without saying that you should only nominate work that you genuinely loved; and, naturally, it’s important that it be your individual decision, because that helps to ensure the diversity and the depth of the ballot. If you’re going to nominate, try to read as widely as possible from the material eligible for a given award, and don’t restrict yourself to any one list of recommendations.

Book review: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo

4 02 2017

Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish speculative fiction writer who has also been involved in the worlds of advertising, television, movies (she wrote the screenplay for Iron Sky) and Moomin-related comics. She’s so far written seven novels and numerous pieces of shorter fiction: to date, four of her novels (including Birdbrain, which I’ve reviewed here) and a few short stories have been translated into English. She has won several literary awards in her native Finland, and received a Nebula shortlisting for the story ‘Baby Doll’ in 2009.


In The Core of the Sun (Auringon Ydin, 2013, translated by Lola Rogers), it is 2016, and Finland has been, for several decades, a eusistocracy, a society dedicated to maximising (and carefully controlling) the health and safety of its citizens. Dangerous pursuits are outlawed; attitudes deemed unhelpful in an aspirationally hazard-free environment are slowly being bred out of the country’s citizens; unhealthy substances such as sugar, chocolate, yeast, and meat are strictly controlled; alcohol, narcotics, caffeine, and chilies are banned.

Vanna is a chili addict. She’s also trying to work out what fate has befallen her sister Manna, who has been declared dead.

Sinisalo’s Finland is a land of rigid societal constraint, imposed not just by limitation of the scope of allowed activities, but directly and personally upon the range of life options available to its citizens. Females are categorised as either ‘eloi’ (obedient, docile, attractive, permitted to breed) or ‘morlocks’ (less obedient, plainer, not permitted to breed, but useful as labourers), and males are classed either as ‘mascos’ (alpha-male types, able to assert authority, permitted to breed) or ‘minus men’ (no-hopers). Both Vanna and Manna have been raised as eloi, but Vanna’s secret is that she’s a closet morlock, with no inclination to kowtow to society’s restrictive expectations of her.

The novel is told as a mixture of narrative, letters from Vanna to her missing sister, helpful encyclopedia entries, and ethnographic samples (eusistocratic folk songs, and so on). This gives the story a somewhat fragmented feeling, more so in the book’s first half than its second where the narrative drive is stronger. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, in the sense that the encyclopedia entries are sufficiently well-framed that it’s very difficult to discern exactly where historical fact ends and speculative invention begins: for example, the extract detailing Dmitri Belyaev’s mid-twentieth-century research on the domestication of the silver fox is factual, although the subsequent extrapolation of Belyaev’s methods to human society is, one trusts, a fragment of fiction …

The Core of the Sun is a very different book from the authentically naturalistic Birdbrain, the only other Sinisalo work I’ve read. While both books feel, in their own way, subversive, there’s a significantly keener satirical edge to The Core of the Sun. I suspect that there are a good many local references in the work that I’m not getting, but I don’t think one needs much more than a glancing awareness of Finland’s reputation for ‘humanism with a social face’ (or whatever the prescription might be) to recognise most of the barbs. And it does, in some places, show a very definite humour which does nothing to detract from the underlying seriousness of its intent. It hasn’t really usurped Leena Krohn’s Datura (or a delusion we all see) as my favourite among the set of modern Finnish speculative fiction novels dealing with the spiritual / psychotropic properties of the Solanoideae, but it is nonetheless a useful and highly imaginative addition to this set (which might, admittedly, only comprise the two members at this juncture). It’s a pleasantly-unsettling, convention-inverting work that might well be just right for these times.

Book review: The Blood Spilt, by Åsa Larsson

2 02 2017

Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime novelist whose background as a tax lawyer, and upbringing in Kiruna prior to employment in Stockholm, have substantially informed her fiction: the heroine of her novels, Stockholm-based tax lawyer Rebecka Martinsson, also grew up in Kiruna. This adherence to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy has served Larsson well: she’s won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Association prize for best first novel, while subsequent novels have twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel award. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel The Savage Altar here.


The Blood Spilt (Det blod som spillts, 2004, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Rebecka’s second outing. She’s not travelling well: she gives every appearance, following the events of The Savage Altar, of suffering PTSD. Various of her more solicitous work colleagues try to help, but their well-meaning interventions only serve to make things worse. And so she finds herself, quite against her will, dragged back to the communities around Kiruna where her law firm is hoping to finalise a business arrangement with the church council. But there’s something beyond mere business in the wings, because Rebecka belatedly learns about the brutal murder, three months previously, of Mildred Nilsson, one of the local priests … Rebecka decides to stay on in one of the local villages when her colleague drives back to Stockholm. She’s not looking to solve the case, she’s just trying to come to terms with her past, but the case keeps confronting her.

Several of the supporting characters important to The Savage Altar also feature prominently in The Blood Spilt, notably the police officers Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke, Rebecka’s colleague Maria Taube and her flinty, socially-awkward supervisor Måns Wenngren. The perspective can jump quite suddenly, from one sentence to the next, between these characters or a good many others introduced in this novel. Larsson’s characters are clearly drawn, admirably varied, and richly imagined, but I do wish she didn’t head-hop to quite the extent that she does, because it can at times get disorienting. (There are several apparently-missed scene breaks in the final few chapters that certainly don’t help in this regard.) If you can cope with the perspective-shuffling, there’s a lot to like in Larsson’s clean, smooth, deep prose which sets the scenes exquisitely while layering on the mystery and the tension. I will confess to substantial misgivings, based on the book’s back-cover blurb, that Larsson was emulating too closely the storyline of The Savage Altar—both books are, after all, about the savage slaying of a Kiruna-area priest, an event in which Martinsson somehow becomes entangled from the initial remove of Stockholm, hundreds of kilometres away—and yet, while there is undeniably a loose commonality of theme, the stories are quite distinct in detail, in mood, and in structure. The Blood Spilt is, I would say, a more complex story than its predecessor: it lacks the full-on desperation of the last third of The Savage Altar, but it’s quite its match for barbarity, and some of the atrocity revealed is only tenuously foreshadowed (if that); as a result, it’s all the more confronting. (Larsson does not treat her characters with kid gloves.)

It’s probably inappropriate to describe a book which is (in parts) this bleak as a ‘triumph’, but it’s certainly a tour de force. The emotional depth and the empathy on display here, even in the most grim of contexts, is what makes Larsson’s writing work.

Review: Asimov’s Magazine, September 2016

29 01 2017

This issue has three short stories and four novelettes (which I’ve reviewed below) as well as several poems and the regular nonfic pieces (which I haven’t reviewed).


In Carrie Vaughn’s novelette ‘The Mind Is Its Own Place’, starship navigator Mitchell Greenau finds himself in medical/psychiatric care when his vocation catches up with him, in the form of OSDS, a disorienting and sometimes psychosis-inducing disorder brought on by the physically subversive mathematics underpinning jumpspace calculations. The medics tell Mitchell he should trust them, rather than his own mind … but then they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is a claustrophobic, in-your-face, reflective piece that quite gets under the reader’s skin.

‘Dome on the Prairie’, by Robert Reed, reimagines Little House on the Prairie as an alien invasion piece, which works better than it might sound.

‘Epitome’, a novelette by Tegan Moore, takes on identity dilemmas and recuperative medical themes in a manner quite different to Vaughn’s story. Shelby has elected to provide home care for the seriously-injured Vivian, her roommate and friend, but Vivian is not as mentally responsive as she was before the accident. When Shelby seeks to ‘improve’ Vivian’s Personify avatar, to recapture something of the Vivian it seems she’s lost, things snowball. The characterisation in Moore’s story is impressive, though I didn’t feel it quite matched the searing brutality of Vaughn’s piece.

Peter Wood’s ‘Academic Circles’ pits English Lit associate professor (and Philip K Dick aficionado) Kate Warner against her plagiaristic colleague Thomas Marzano, who has somehow managed to predictively steal her latest manuscript. Wood’s story doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it gets the academic politics pretty well spot-on.

Jack Skillingstead’s novelette ‘All That Mess’ also starts with a University background, as combinatorial topology lecturer Dunn is presented, by one of the students attending his lectures, with a fascinatingly-incomplete formula he is asked to resolve. Problem is, completing the formula initiates a decidedly suboptimal sequence of paradigm shifts, which Dunn is the only person able to correct—if he can do so before the monsters he’s unleashed finish off him and his newfound romantic interest. This is an enjoyable and effective piece which doesn’t address anything too profound, but which sustains reader engagement nicely.

In ‘All That Robot’, by Rich Larson, we see events through the photoreceptors of Carver Seven, stranded on an island with several others of his kind and with one sole outcast human. If Reed’s story is Little House on the Prairie meets Space Invaders, Larson’s is Lord of the Flies with robots, and it’s satisfyingly resonant.

Ian R MacLeod’s novelette ‘The Visitor from Taured’ rounds out the issue’s fiction. I’ve noticed several times that Sheila Williams, Asimov’s editor, tends to choose stories with at least one eye to how they interact with each other, and ‘Taured’, which again evolves out of a University opening, effectively plays off the disciplines of English lit (the narrator Lita is a student of noninteractive analogue literature, ie books) and multiverse theory (her close friend Rob Holm is an astrophysicist who hopes to prove the validity of the budding-universe hypothesis) against each other, thereby juxtaposing the themes of the preceding stories by Wood and Skillingstead. This is a well-realised story that unfolds slowly but finishes strongly.

This is a pretty strong issue, and though I felt a couple of the stories had some flaws, they all held up pretty well: there are some missed opportunities, maybe, but no wasted space. My favourites here are those by Vaughn, Larson, and MacLeod.