Book review: We Who Are About To…, by Joanna Russ

22 03 2017

Joanna Russ was a US writer and literary critic perhaps best known for her seminal (or should that perhaps be germinal?) work in feminist SF, as typified by her novel The Female Man. Her genre writing has won the Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, and Pilgrim awards.


We Who Are About To is a novella or short novel (I’m not sure of its wordcount, but I’d estimate it’s on the cusp between those categories) first published in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1976, appearing in book form a year later. Its narrator, who never names herself, is one of eight starship passengers (there are four women, three men, and one twelve-year-old girl) who become marooned, with a limited set of resources (a water purifier; food for six months; a single-seat ground-effect vehicle) salvaged from their vessel, on a habitable but deserted and probably uncharted planet. Most of the group want to establish a colony that will allow them (and / or their descendants) to survive until they can be rescued; the narrator just wants to be allowed to wander off and die, because she knows the prospect of rescue is exceedingly improbable. This aspiration causes friction within the group, not least because she’s one of three potentially-childbearing women on the planet. And, because any sufficiently-small group of people, in complete isolation, is essentially lawless once it starts to notice that there’s no higher authority on call, this friction is taken to a conclusion. It is, in a thematic sense (though not in style or in tone), rather reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Or, if you prefer, a riff on the Gilligan’s Island trope, but with the misanthropy dialled up to eleven, or maybe higher.

It’s a very bleak story, in several ways: none of the characters, not even the narrator (and perhaps especially not the narrator), is likeable; and the predicament doesn’t engender hope. And yet the first two-thirds of it are quietly compelling, as one watches the miniature conflict of ideas that erupts between the narrator and her fellow maroonees, and as one grows accustomed to the narrator’s voice, anger, and mindset. I did feel that the latter section was rather too rambling and unfocussed. (There’s a reason it has this form, which I can appreciate even if I disagree with the author’s choice of presentation.) And there’s also scope for confusion: is Russ railing against society, or against a popular trope in SF? If it’s the latter, then I think it runs the risk of presenting itself as novel-by-strawman-argument. But this description is probably too harsh: there is some very good writing in here; the plotting is skilful, making optimal use of a minimal palette; and the narrator is deeply drawn, with her own particular strengths and vulnerabilities, and a sense of drive that’s admirable whether or not one agrees with the choices she makes. It’s probably better suited to those who are more comfortable with dystopias than am I, but it’s certainly a thought-provoking read, and that’s seldom a bad thing.

Book review: When It Grows Dark, by Jørn Lier Horst

16 03 2017

Jørn Lier Horst is a former Norwegian police officer and a crime fiction writer whose ‘William Wisting’ series of police procedurals now comprises eleven titles, although the first five appear not to have been translated into English. His work has won numerous prizes including the Riverton, Glass Key, and Petrona awards.


When It Grows Dark (Når det mørkner, 2016, translated by Anne Bruce) is the most recent entry in the Wisting series but, aside from the present-day ‘framing story’ composed from the book’s first and last chapters, this short novel is essentially a prequel to the earlier books. The bulk of the text takes us back to the events of December 1983, when Wisting is just starting on a career as a policeman, but much of the text concerns an unsolved crime from over a half-century earlier, as Wisting tries to piece together the sequence of events that led to his discovery of a long-hidden car, pierced by bullet hotes, that lies in a dilapidated shed a short distance from a quiet country backroad. Who shot up the car? Why was it hidden? And how did the doors of the shed come to be padlocked on both the inside and outside? Most of the people who could have answered such questions have died of old age in the time that the car has lain rusting in the shed, but a few of those connected with the events leading to the vehicle’s long seclusion are still available for Wisting to interview. But will the young policeman manage to wrap up a mystery already fifty-eight years old?

There’s no sensationalism here, the story is told in plain and streamlined language, and yet the credible detail and methodical approach leads to a story that is, in its own way, quite compelling and steeped in atmosphere. It has much of the same sense of patient intrigue as Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series and, as a short novel that appears to comprise Wisting’s first significant case, it serves as an excellent introduction to Lier Horst’s writing.

Book review: The Hercules Text, by Jack McDevitt

14 03 2017

Jack McDevitt is a long-established American SF author, with sixteen Nebula nominations (of which he’s won one); he’s also won the Campbell Award, the UPC Science Fiction Award, and the Robert A Heinlein Award. I’ve reviewed a couple of his books previously: Echo and The Devil’s Eye, both from his ‘Alex Benedict’ sequence.


The Hercules Text is McDevitt’s first novel, and is a standalone. It was first published in 1986 but, so as to preserve the integrity of its near-future setting, was apparently updated in 2015.

Harry Carmichael is a mid-level administrator at Goddard Space Flight Center who learns—on the same night that Julie, his wife of ten years, announces she’s leaving him—that an object one of the teams at Goddard has been observing as telescope time permits, an X-ray pulsar in the constellation Hercules, has gone unnaturally quiet. It starts up again after a while, though when it does it’s no longer simply emitting the hot noise of X-ray pulses that project leader Ed Gambini and his colleagues have been expecting: it is, undeniably, a signal.

The pulsar hangs in intergalactic space at a distance from Earth of around one and a half million light years. Whoever has sent the signal is unlikely to be waiting for a reply. But what can be the rationale for broadcasting towards the Milky Way a string of code that, ultimately, is found to be an encyclopedia of arcane and almost untranslatable knowledge?

Harry assists in the assembly of a team of experts—cosmologists, physicists, microbiologists, psychiatrists—who seek to interpret the signal’s reams of data, and to conceptually reverse-engineer the creatures that have sent this information. It’s unlikely that creatures at such a vast distance from Earth can pose any kind of threat to terrestrial civilisation, but can the same be said of the knowledge they’ve sent Earth’s way?

The Hercules Text doesn’t have the full grandeur and casual sense-of-wonder that typifies McDevitt’s later, far-future novels like, say, The Engines of God or Seeker, but it does show his facility with the bold idea, and his ability to map out, in quite impressive detail, a set of plausible scientific, bureaucratic and political responses to what must surely qualify as the Grand Bull Moose Achievement Winner of all possible SETI results, as well as the many unforeseeable but almost unavoidable knock-on effects that such a signal would inflict on society. It’s an impressive first novel, which plays out somewhat like a teleconferenced Childhood’s End. My main criticism of it would be that it makes a rather Heinleinish claim to uncomplicated American integrity, but it’s sufficiently thoughtful overall that this can, I think, be overlooked. And it’s always a pleasure to read a hard SF novel that features characters who seem more-or-less like real three-dimensional people, rather than simplistic ciphers of the author’s creation.

Book review: Babylon, by Camilla Ceder

13 03 2017

Camilla Ceder is a Swedish social worker and writer, based in Göteborg, who has to date written two crime novels and, more recently, several children’s books.


Babylon (Babylon, 2010, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Ceder’s second crime novel; like the first, Frozen Moment, it’s set in and around Ceder’s home turf of Göteborg and is headed up by Inspector Christian Tell.

Rebecca Nykvist is a care-home worker with longstanding anger issues directed against the men in her life. Her current partner, Henrik Samuelsson, is an archaeology student who is having an affair with his tutor, Ann-Marie Karpov. So when Henrik and Ann-Marie are summarily executed late one night, by a visitor to Ann-Marie’s apartment, it’s only natural that Rebecca, who has just that night learnt of Henrik’s duplicity, should emerge as a prime suspect for the double murder, particularly when it’s established that she had visited the apartment on the night in question. But Rebecca swears her innocence, and when her own home is systematically ransacked by burglars apparently seeking items other than the conventional targets of jewellery and high-end gadgetry, it begins to appear that the murders may not have been motivated by simple jealousy …

This is an intriguing novel with sophisticated and detailed characterisation: there’s quite a bit of head-hopping, but Ceder gives enough individuality to each of the players that the frequent changes of perspective don’t usually become disorienting, and the various protagonists grapple with realistic human problems as well as the complexities and trials of the ongoing investigation. (The title Babylon can satisfactorily be interpreted on at least two levels, the literal location and the metaphorical tower of miscommunication, both of which are contextually appropriate.) There’s so much character development that, at times, it threatens to overwhelm the novel’s crime core, particularly in the sequences that deal with Tell’s romantic interest Seja Lundberg, a journalist whose connection to the investigation is incidental at most: I suppose this plays into the reputation that Scandinavian crime fiction has for social commentary, but it would seem churlish to expect a writer trained in social work and psychotherapy to eschew such explorations into the human psyche. I would also argue that the quality of Ceder’s writing is a saving grace and further argue that, while the novel is in places a little sedate in its pacing, it remains interesting. (And the pace does pick up quite markedly towards the end.) It helps, too, that the story which emerges is one with considerable currency—indeed, its relevance has arguably been increased by events which have occurred on the geopolitical scene within the seven years since the book was first published.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit, and I’ll be watching with interest to see whether Ceder returns to crime fiction; I hope she does.

Book review: The Human Flies, by Hans Olav Lahlum

9 03 2017

Hans Olav Lahlum is a Norwegian historian, chess player, politician, and holder, as interviewee, of the world record for longest broadcast interview (at slightly in excess of thirty hours non-stop). He’s also a crime novelist, with a series of recent novels, set in Oslo during the 1960s and 70s, featuring the protagonist K2 (Criminal Investigator Kolbjørn Kristiansen).


The Human Flies (Menneskefluene, 2010, translated by Kari Dickson) is the first in Lahlum’s K2 series, and opens with the discovery of the death, by gunshot, of retired politician and Norwegian resistance hero Harald Olesen, in his upstairs flat. Suspicion quickly falls on the building’s half-dozen other tenants, particularly the elderly Konrad Jensen, who during the war had been a Nazi sympathiser. But Kristiansen finds it difficult to believe that any of the building’s occupants, none of whom have watertight alibis, would genuinely be capable of murder; an assessment that lasts until he learns that each of them has been, for one reason or another, lying to him …

I have to say that it took me a while to warm to The Human Flies. The writing has a rather dated feel—which might, I suppose, be appropriate in a book set about a half-century ago, although my experience thus far of the work of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which was written about a half-century ago and set in the same era, suggests that it’s not at all necessary for crime fiction of such vintage to use stilted or stodgy prose. (I also take issue with one of the choices made in translation of the book, to express Oslo streetnames as, for example, ‘Erling Skjalgsson’s Street’ rather than ‘Erling Skjalgssons gate’ as it would appear on maps.) And engagement is not really helped by the personality of K2, who is quite bland and seems hardly to have a life other than as a policeman. But though the book is generally quite slow-moving, it does feature an intriguing mystery at its core, with an admirable (and generally plausible) number of twists to the investigation before the murderer is unveiled; and Kristiansen’s unofficial offsider, the paraplegic polymath and amateur sleuth Patricia Louise Borchmann, is an interesting character who, thankfully, also returns in the subsequent books in the series. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the Oslo of 1968 to ascertain whether it’s historically reliable, but it feels authentic and Lahlum’s academic credentials (evidenced in the book’s afterword, as well as elsewhere in the text) bolster confidence on this score.

I’m not sure of the merits of a cross-genre comparison—many crime readers wouldn’t be deeply familiar with SF, nor vice versa—but I detect a degree of similarity with the prose style of SF writer (and dabbler in crime fiction) Isaac Asimov, who tends not to be read for his characterisations (which were pretty ordinary) but rather for the intricacy and imagination of his conceptual extrapolations, and for his reliance on sometimes protracted but generally insightful exposition. If you’re comfortable with Asimov’s writing style, you’ll probably click with Lahlum’s. (As I said, I’m not sure how useful such a comparison is, but I feel it worth noting nonetheless.)

In summary, this is a well-plotted mystery with a solid and nuanced historical background, expressed in language that can sometimes seem distancing. It would be interesting to discern whether the subsequent books in the series are a bit more fleet-footed than this debut.

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.