‘Wide Brown Land’ print proof sighted …

18 03 2018

Oh, look! The printed proofs of my Titan-themed short story collection Wide Brown Land have now turned up:

Wide_Brown_Land_proof_pic

I’m biased, of course, but I’m really pleased with how Shauna O’Meara’s cover art has come out. I also like how well the cover meshes with Lewis Morley’s (Ditmar-shortlisted) artwork on its smaller cousin, last year’s novella release Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body:

WBL_and_MA

(That’s an artificial backdrop, though with heat, high wind, dust and distant bushfire smoke, the Canberra skies seem to be unusually titanian this afternoon, so perhaps I hardly needed the backdrop.)

I should be able to provide links for purchase, etc., a bit closer to the release date of 2nd April, so, in the time-honoured tradition of self-promoting as much as I think I can get away with, there’ll be another update or two between now and then.

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A spot of foreshadowing

30 12 2017

Light levels are low. It’s killingly cold. These conditions are, it transpires, connected.

The icy landscape around you—hillocks, boulders, ravines, foregrounding a hazy, rumpled horizon beneath an opaque, lowering sky—wears a patina that shades from sepia to umber, puddled with drifts of dark sand. The atmosphere, though thick, would permit only a parody of respiration: there is no succour in it. Were it not for the insulating, carefully-regulated containment of your suit, you would be dead within minutes, frozen solid within an hour.

Welcome to Titan.

huygens_titan_TOP

(Image credit: ESA / NASA / JPL / University of Arizona)

I started my first Titan story, ‘Storm in a T-Suit’, almost exactly nine years ago today. It took a few months to finish, as I recall, which is one of the drawbacks of not knowing the ending when you begin the thing. (There are a lot of false starts in my writing.) I had, at the time, no broader ambitions for Titan: it was just an intriguing extraterrestrial environment to explore and populate, and that sort of thing always piques my interest. But as time went on, along with its share of fresh false starts, I wrote another Titan story, and then another. Eight of them—seven short stories, and my novella Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body—have already seen release into the wild, in various places. Soon, there’ll be more.

Early next year, Peggy Bright Books is to publish my collection Wide Brown Land: stories of Titan, which is essentially what it says on the tin. Wide Brown Land will collect those first seven published short stories as well as four new ones. In case you’re interested, here’s the TOC (with asterisks denoting previously unpublished stuff):

Storm in a T-Suit
Hatchway
Broadwing
Emptying Roesler
CREVjack
Lakeside
Erebor*
Goldilock*
Fixing a Hole
Phlashback*
Placenta*

A sample story, ‘CREVjack’, has been available for free online reading here for quite some time: it’s not entirely representative (what single story ever is?), but it gives a taste. The aim in these stories has been to focus on what I call the four C’s: scenario, character, science, and setting.

I’ll update with more details—cover image, release date, etc.—as they come to hand.





Book review: Jagannath, by Karin Tidbeck

28 12 2017

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish speculative fiction writer and creative writing instructor who works in both Swedish and English. (There’s a fascinating afterword by Tidbeck which offers an analysis on the differences between those of her stories written initially in English and those that started life in Swedish.) To date, her books comprise one novel, Amatka, released in both Swedish and English, one Swedish-language short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? containing eight stories, and one English-language collection Jagganath containing thirteen stories, the first seven of which also appear in Vem är Arvid Pekon? (I’ve previously also reviewed Amatka, here.)

Jagannath

I’ll offer brief comments on each story, before I give an overall summary.

In ‘Beatrice’, Franz, a physician, and printer’s assistant Anna both fall in love; not with each other, but with, respectively, an airship and a steam engine. This is a tragic and surprisingly tender tale that sets up the tone of the collection very effectively.

‘Some Letters for Ove Linström’ is an eerie, fae-tinged tale of a late father, a lost mother, and a daughter trying to find her way in the world.

‘Miss Nyberg and I’ tells of the relationship, seen through the eyes of its possibly-envious narrator, between a rebellious green-thumbed artist and the small, possibly wooden, homunculus that has been her life’s secret companion. It’s a wistful and quietly beautiful story, but also elusive.

‘Rebecka’ is a sexual assault survivor who wishes she wasn’t, but her numerous attempts to take her own life are divinely intercepted (then left to be cleaned up by Rebecka’s loyal friend Sarah). This is a compact, powerful, highly disturbing tale which goes to some very dark places, as uncomfortable and as resonant in several ways as Connie Willis’s ‘All My Darling Daughters’.

In ‘Herr Cederberg’, the eponymous plump businessman of the title pursues a flight of fancy inspired by two teenage passersby jokily comparing him to a bumblebee. This is an entertaining enough story, but it seems decidedly lightweight when placed against those preceding it.

‘Who is Arvid Pekon?’ will be innately recognisable to (and will probably confirm several of the suspicions of) anyone who has had the misfortune to telephone a government department, where former ventriloquist Arvid answers calls with a disturbing versatility. This is probably the most humorous of the stories in the collection, blunted only by an abrupt and not particularly illuminating ending.

‘Brita’s Holiday Village’ seems like the perfect retreat for a narrator who wishes to finish a novel she doesn’t know how to start. But what’s with the large pupae hanging from the trees? This one is, by Tidbeck’s standards, almost straightforward, its ominousness overt rather than camouflaged.

‘Reindeer Mountain’, the collection’s longest story, is seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Cilla, who accompanies her sister Sara and her mother to the decaying, trash-filled cottage from which their curmudgeonly granduncle Johann is shortly to be evicted. While the girls are exploring the cottage’s attic, they discover a chest containing the wedding dress of their great-grandmother, a woman claimed (by several in the extended family) to have been a vittra, a form of elfin nature spirit whose genetic heritage in this case appears to be a propensity to eccentricity and temperamentality. Brooding and elegiac.

‘Cloudberry Jam’ is a bizarre, affecting tale of a strange birth and an attempt to shape the nature of that which will not be shaped. To summarise it in greater detail would probably not illuminate much.

‘Pyret’ is a fictionalised study of a creature from Scandinavian mythology, the ‘Pyret’, a generally benign animal-mimic thought to have been displaced by urbanisation and changes in land use patterns. It is, ultimately, strongly atmospheric and just a little bit creepy.

‘Augusta Prima’ inhabits a timeless realm built on privilege and cruelty. But when she discovers a working pocketwatch in the jacket pocket of a corpse (presumably a casualty of the lethal games of croquet played by Augusta and her peers) she finds sprawled beneath a garden shrub, she starts to question what time is, and why her surroundings don’t obey it.

The three ‘Aunts’, who live in the same orangery visited by Augusta in the preceding story, are dedicated to the task of gorging themselves to the point of a Mr-Creosote-like obesity. This surreal and macabre piece may, or may not, be a comment upon inequality.

In ‘Jagannath’, newborn symbiont is put to work helping out with the peristalsis gang within the belly of Mother, a perambulating meatship on a far-future Earth. But Mother is dying … This one’s your average rite-of-passage tale, filled with uncomfortable mechanovisceral detail.

Having now read both Amatka and Jagannath, I’m tempted to say that Tidbeck’s shorter fiction is stranger than readers of her novel might expect, perhaps because the internal logic to a short story need not be so constrained by the requirements of plot as is the case in a longer work. The logic, by the way, is one of the things most notable about Tidbeck’s stories: though they are, demonstrably, all kinds of weird, they still strive to make sense, and the various outcomes have a kind of grim inevitability about them which is both appealing and disconcerting—this, I think, is true of all of Jagannath‘s stories with the possible exception of ‘Who is Arvid Pekon?’, which seems determined not to distil any discernible meaning or completion. Though all the stories, more or less, are immersive and fascinating in their own various ways, those that most strongly impressed me were ‘Beatrice’, ‘Rebecka’, ‘Some Letters for Ove Linström’, and ‘Reindeer Mountain’.

 





Book review: Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors

23 11 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer (and former translator of Swedish crime novels) who has been awarded the P O Enqvist Literary Prize and was this year a finalist in the Man Booker International Prize. I’ve previously reviewed her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal here.

KarateChop

Karate Chop (Kantslag, 2008, translated by Martin Aitken) is a collection of fifteen of Nors’ short stories, previously published in magazines like Harper’s, Boston Review, and The New Yorker. They are pithy, quirky, and often unsettling. There is, overall, less of the situational humour here that I found so appealing in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but there is the same sense of closely-observed subterfuge, expressed here in a wide variety of scenarios. I’ll highlight a few:

In ‘The Buddhist’, a government official declares himself to be a Buddhist, so as to be a better person, and armed with a resultant sense of moral invulnerability, seeks to misrepresent himself into the position of CEO for a respected charity organisation. It’s whimsical, self-mocking, and sharp-edged.

In the cleverly-symbolic ‘The Big Tomato’, the narrator is working as a cleaner and home help for the wealthy Bangs. When the grocery delivery to their upscale New York apartment includes an unreasonably-large tomato, Mr Bang demands that the grocery send someone to take the tomato back, but the cleaner is the only person in the apartment when the delivery boy calls to collect it.

‘Karate Chop’ itself is a tale of an abusive relationship that is in its portrayal at once disturbingly intimate and clinically detached. Annelise is a special-needs teacher whose insight into human behaviour is not able to protect her from a string of doomed relationships with flawed men such as the bullying Carl Erik, father of one of the boys in her class.

‘Duckling’, one of the shortest pieces in the collection, is a getting-of-wisdom piece that catalogues a young girl’s awareness of the centrality of injustice as revealed through her duck-farmer father’s casual infidelity.

‘Hair Salon’, another vignette, engages principally by virtue of its close observation and offbeat introspection.

In several ways, Nors’ collection is reminiscent of another Scandinavian short-fiction collection I reviewed recently, Knots, by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Both of them are filled with acerbic, concise stories edged with absurdity and with a cynicism for human motives. Nors’ fiction is, I would say, less barbed, more polished, less allegorical, though there is certainly some common ground.

Ultimately, I didn’t find Karate Chop quite as fulfilling as her Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but it nonetheless contains some wonderful short-story writing, which I can certainly recommend to students of the form.





Book review: Cracking the Sky, by Brenda Cooper

9 04 2017

Brenda Cooper is a futurist, the Chief Information Officer of the city of Kirkland, and an established author who has written around several SF novels. Her work has won the Endeavor Award and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award, and she has co-authored one novel (Building Harlequin’s Moon) and several short stories with Larry Niven. I co-edited one of Cooper’s stories, ‘Between Lines’, in the Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear anthology.

cracking_the_sky

Cracking the Sky is a collection of Cooper’s short fiction, and contains twenty-one short stories and novelettes. It’s organised into five sections, of which the first, ‘On A Future Earth’, is longest.

‘The Robot’s Girl’ is a wonderfully evocative piece—of novelette length, I suspect—in which a couple of young professionals, Paul and Aliss, become fixated on the circumstances of their neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in a house tended (and guarded) by a troupe of serious-minded and highly protective robots. Where are her parents? Why do the robots not permit human contact with their charge? This is the sort of story that fulfils the promise of Isaac Asimov’s pioneering ‘Susan Calvin’ stories, adding solid emotional depth to the technological fizz of the central idea.

In ‘Savant Songs’, Adam is a doctoral student, and then a postdoc, for physics savant Elsa, a specialist in theories of the multiverse. Elsa’s communication with her own universe seems consistently perpendicular; is this an advantage, or a disadvantage, in seeking to establish the underpinnings of multiverse theory?

In ‘Riding in Mexico’, Isa is a Northwestern US university student taking a course which involves ‘riding’ a client’s mind: in laboratory sessions, she shares the sensory perceptions of Valeria, a young Mexican woman in difficult and possibly dangerous home circumstances. Isa has no way to help Valeria; all she can do is watch. As with much of Cooper’s writing, this piece is vivid and immediate.

‘The War of the Flowers’ details the predicament of single-mother Kelly, whose young daughter Cherry has to live in an interactive hypoallergenic environment so as not to trigger an extreme sensitivity arising from Kelly’s experimentation with tailored drugs before her pregnancy was diagnosed. What makes this story is, again, the clarity and urgency with which the scenario is depicted through Cooper’s prose.

In ‘Trainer of Whales’, kelp-farmer Kitha is outside the Dome when a seaquake hits. With no way of communicating with the denizens of Downbelow Dome, she has no way of knowing whether anyone within the Habitat, including her ten-year-old son Jonathon, is safe, or even alive. While this story is wonderfully imaginative and full of colourful and interesting ideas, it didn’t convince the way the four preceding stories did: its crisis seems more obviously confected, and the detail never transcends convenience to attain coherence.

In ‘Star of Humanity’, teacher trainee Tanya and vet student Susan receive internet invitations to a shadowy recruitment program, the Star of Humanity. Neither young woman is particularly keen on the idea of signing up to a program about which they have no useful information, but jobs are hard to come by. This is a story that asks a bit more than it answers, but it’s possible that it’s part of a larger sequence. (I suspect Cooper’s story in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, ‘Between Lines’, may well be another component of such a sequence.)

‘My Father’s Singularity’ is a difficult story to properly characterise. I suspect the best that I can do is to say that it’s a low-key exploration of the pain of technological advancement, and seems to compress a lot within a small frame.

The collection’s second section, ‘Space’, comprises three stories. ‘Trellis’ a story cowritten with Larry Niven, plays out as a rescue mission on an immense umbilical connecting Pluto with its mutually face-locked companion Charon. There’s a wealth of invention in the setting, but it has too much of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ about it and not enough of the slice-of-life futurism that is, I think, Cooper’s forte. (That said, it does seem to be a constructive collaboration. I can see traces of Niven’s worldbuilding in the setting alongside Cooper’s often-urgent characterisation, but it comes across as a blended rather than a chimeric construct.)

In ‘Second Shift’, Kami is an absent companion for Lance, a lone astronaut on a long-term asteroid-retrieval mission. She’s been warned not to get emotionally invested in her communications with Lance, but sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to instructions. This is a short, wistful, wise piece.

In ‘Blood Bonds’, Aline, Lissa’s twin, is clinging to VR-enhanced life support following a terrorist attack. As with the preceding story, this is essentially a tale of heartfelt communication across a seemingly-insurmountable barrier. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that broke suspension of disbelief for me—the handling of the lightspeed delay for communication between planets didn’t convince—but the remainder of the story is solid, if disorienting in places.

There are two stories in the ‘Stories From Fremont’s Children’ section, which apparently relate to Cooper’s series of YA novels starting with The Silver Ship and the Sea. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, and I imagine I’d have a stronger connection with the stories if I had. As it is, the stories, ‘The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned’ and ‘The Street of All Designs’ are readable enough, and possess sufficiently-engaging characters, but for me they lacked the power of Cooper’s best near-future work.

The fourth section, ‘Short And To The Point’, contains seven stories of three pages or less each. Of these seven stories, the most successful to my mind is ‘My Grandfather’s River’, an impressively compact tale of dedication and memory; ‘Alien Graveyards’ is also effective. The others too often seemed incomplete and fragmentary: while they intrigued in places, I felt that they required more flesh to properly resonate with the reader.

There are two stories in the final ‘Military Science Fiction’ section. The first of these, ‘For the Love of Metal Dogs’, depicts a woodland skirmish from the viewpoint of a combined human / canine / robodog combat team. It’s a concise and well-envisaged piece which conveys its freight well enough.

The title story, ‘Cracking the Sky’, details a raid by a human / robodog troop on a clandestine laboratory facility. It’s tense and vivid.

There’s quite a bit of variety in this collection, which I would say is a good thing. I had some definite preferences within the stories: to my mind, the first (and longest) section, ‘On A Future Earth’, is generally the strongest. Cooper seems to be most adept at depicting imaginatively detailed near-future scenarios, and my favourite stories in the collection, ‘The Robot’s Girl’, ‘The War of the Flowers’, ‘My Father’s Singularity’, and ‘My Grandfather’s River’ all fall into this category, and each of these combines worldbuilding displaying plausible technological advancements with a powerful and nuanced emotional undercurrent and memorable characterisation. These are crystal-clear vistas of possible futures as well as highly satisfying stories in their own right. While one could convincingly argue that not every story in the collection is hard SF, I would say that a substantial majority are, and those that aren’t (chiefly, as I see it, the two Fremont stories and ‘Alien Graveyards’) still mostly play nice with the laws of physics. My perusal of Cooper’s longer fiction suggests that most of her novels are a touch more fanciful (time travel, cyberpunk, space opera) than the most solidly grounded of these stories; without intending to slight her output in these other styles, which I’m sure she can handle adroitly, I would nonetheless be especially keen to see some longer near-future SF work from her.

(This is the twelfth in my ‘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: Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna, by Michael Swanwick

4 04 2017

Michael Swanwick is a US science fiction writer whose novels and short fiction, over the past three-and-a-half decades, have won the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards.

FieldGuideToTheMesozoicMegafauna

I’m a sucker for dinosaur stories, and Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna is chock-full of them, eighteen in a chapbook-sized volume of just thirty-two pages. Swanwick’s writing, perhaps especially his flash-fiction work such as showcased here, is characterised by whimsy, inventiveness, and intriguing juxtaposition. None of these stories is long enough to fully engross the reader, but equally, none outstays its welcome; and several, such as ‘The Thief of Time’, ‘Parallels’, and ‘Iguanodon anglicus‘ convey a poignancy beyond their brief wordcount. While not every story here manages to hit its mark precisely, most do, with wit and deftly twisted humour. Thematically it’s not, I think, particularly representative of Swanwick’s larger body of work, but the writing is wonderful, like a less gonzo Howard Waldrop. It’s fired me up to check out more of Swanwick’s short fiction.





Book review: With Her Body, by Nicola Griffith

24 12 2016

Nicola Griffith is a  British-born writer of speculative fiction and crime fiction, now living in the USA. I’ve previously reviewed her 1992 debut novel, Ammonite.

withherbody

With Her Body is a slim volume of three novelettes / novellas, published as part of Aqueduct Press’s ‘Conversation Pieces’ series of feminist SF.

‘Touching Fire’ explores the evident attraction between Kate, who serves drinks and sweeps floors at Tallulah’s, a women’s bar, and customer Nadia, whose kinesthetic control is so precise that she is the only human capable of LAOM dancing, a skill so demanding that she has been accorded National Treasure status, and is (almost) always accompanied by armed guards. But Nadia warns Kate that she’s trouble, and not to be trusted … which turns out to be true enough. This is a racy, wrenching piece, urgent yet still reflective.

In ‘Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese’, Molly is an immunologist living in the isolation of an abandoned apartment complex twenty miles out of Atlanta. It’s a world in which ninety-five percent of all people, including her partner Helen, have succumbed to a fatal variant of chronic fatigue syndrome. Under such conditions, what’s the purpose in going on? Suffused by her own grief, her persistent listlessness, and a sense of professional helplessness against an all-consuming foe, Molly struggles to find purchase. This is a closely-observed and effective piece of post-apocalyptic pastoralism.

In ‘Yaguara’, the longest of the chapbook’s stories, photographer Jane Holford travels to a minor archaeological site in Belize to capture images of epigrapher Cleis Fernandez and the Mayan glyphs she is convinced hold an unexpected significance. But the experience pushes Holford well outside her comfort zone: sharing quarters with Fernandez feels claustrophobic; their contact person among the local villagers, Ixbulum, seems taciturn and passively hostile; and the surrounding jungle is full of unfamiliar danger, typified by the silent, steathy jaguar that stalks Jane on her walk back from the dig site one afternoon. Cleis seeks to reassure her that jaguars have never been known to attack humans, but it’s an assurance that, in the circumstances, appears rather hollow, as first Cleis and then Jane seeks to puzzle out the connection between the glyphs and the jaguar.

Each of these stories is vivid, immersive, uncomfortably frank, as Griffith’s heroines grapple with an elusive understanding of The Other. There’s a well-defined physicality to Griffith’s imagery: the book’s title is well-chosen, and equally applicable to each of the three stories. While each undoubtedly qualifies as ‘speculative fiction’, the speculative component is generally reasonably subtle, with a predominant focus on character, and on what it means to be human.