Arthur C Clarke by Gary Westfahl

Arthur C Clarke by Gary Westfahl (The University of Illinois Press, 2018)

Gary Westfahl has been a bit unlucky. After reading his Arthur C Clarke – an instalment in the “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” series from The University of Illinois Press – and while I was trying to work out what to say in this review, I picked up two books. The first was No Laughing Matter, Anthony Cronin’s fine biography of Irish humourist Flann O’Brien. The second was Working by Robert A Caro, in which America’s greatest living biographer (probably, he’s certainly its most thorough) discusses how he gets to grip with his subjects. Both helped me crystallise the sense of frustration that  kept growing in me as I was reading Westfahl’s book. Continue reading

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Dennis Etchison

About fifteen years ago I was given a book to review by the then editor of Vector – it was Fine Cuts, by Dennis Etchison. It was the first book I’d read by him, but in a (too brief – he didn’t write enough) binge I immediately tore through the rest of them. There was something about his slightly sly, slightly sparse style that really appealed to me. Since he’s passed away today, I thought I’d dig out that old review and put it up.

Fine Cuts by Dennis Etchison (PS Publishing, 2004)

I have never been to the USA, yet through television, film and books I have the idea that I know many of its cities intimately. They’re not communities or centres of commerce, they’re movie stars – no more substantial and no less the fruits of conscientious image manipulation. And, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood they may appear in different stories, they may get cast in different roles, but they always play themselves.

Fine Cuts book cover

I have a soft spot for New York, that I imagine as a braggart that blusters and boasts to disguise a sentimental core. Washington’s capitol might shine like a beacon but it can’t disguise the fact that its foundations are in the swamp. Las Vegas would fiddle while Rome burned if it wasn’t busy looting everything not nailed down.

But, of all the American cities, Los Angeles has the firmest grip on my imagination. It shines like a jewel in the films of Michael Mann (Heat and Collateral) but, like a dame in a Chandler story, it’s really as dangerous and duplicitous as Jake Gittes’s Chinatown. Los Angeles burns through natural resources (oil on its freeways, water on verdant desert lawns, human talent in its business) with a reckless disregard for renewal while poverty and racial tension gnaw at its foundations.

It’s a terrible city and yet it is also irresistible.

In story after story throughout Fine Cuts, Dennis Etchison captures this weird, scary but compulsively fascinating place perfectly.

I must confess that I was completely unaware of Dennis Etchison before receiving this book to review so I should point that many of you may already be familiar with the stories contained here. Fine Cuts contains no new work by an author whose output falls some way short of prolific. The twelve stories included in this volume by PS Publishing first appeared between 1973 and 2001 and most (perhaps all) have previously been collected elsewhere.

Still, as a jumping on point for new readers, this volume is very rewarding and I think even those familiar with Etchison’s work may find the decision to group these particular stories – all of which share Hollywood and the associated media industry as a setting or theme – rewarding.

There is nothing gothic about Etchison’s writing style – his prose is spare, almost invisible but his stories have a knack for getting under your skin, upsetting your equilibrium and re-emerging from your subconscious days later in disturbing and unexpected ways. Perhaps my favourite of all these stories is “The Dog Park” which, on the surface, is simply about a man returning to a park to look for his lost pooch, but Etchison invests it with a powerful sense of loss and desperation.

That idea of having lost something – missed opportunities, wasted talent, vanished innocence – and being unable to escape the consequences of that loss permeates these stories. In “Deadspace”, “When They Gave Us Memory”, “Inside the Cackle Factory”, “The Spot” and “Deathtracks” the characters become trapped in relationships or patterns of living from which they cannot drag themselves free. In “Calling All Monsters” and “The Late Shift” Etchison traps his characters in their own bodies, to quite chilling effect. This is a landscape where no one wins, even those that have made it big – like the former child-star in “The Last Reel”, the actress in “I Can Hear The Dark” or the game show host in “Gotta Kill ‘Em All” – soon come to realise that success is fleeting and that it is without substance or worth.

Like the sun-bleached skull of a steer in the Californian desert, Etchison’s characters are stripped bare, their pretensions torn away, their hopes shredded until all that’s left is a brittle shell. But these aren’t dour stories. I found that I read most of them with a grin on my face – Etchison has a sardonic wit that surfaces (albeit sometimes quite nastily) in almost every tale.

The humour is one key factor in leavening what might otherwise be a rather stodgy collection. The other is that no matter how much Etchison highlights the soul-sucking banality and insincerity of Los Angeles, he returns again and again to describe in intimate detail the city and its people. He is clearly, in his own way, in love with this city and seems no more capable of escaping Los Angeles than the characters in his stories.

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REVIEW: VIRTUES OF WAR AND GHOSTS OF WAR BY BENNETT R COLES

The latest issue of The BSFA Review (no.4, Summer 2018) has been published. It contains two of my reviews.  The first one – of a pair of military sf novels by Bennet R Coles – is below. The second will follow shortly.

Bennett R Coles is a former Canadian naval officer. His first two novels (of a promised trilogy) are part of that military science fiction tradition that values “authenticity”. What that means, in this case, seems to be a fondness for three letter acronyms, recounting the petty frustrations of military life and detailed portrayals of brutal violence.

These books are set in a future where humanity has spread to planets around nearby stars and Earth is struggling to assert control over fractious colonies. In the first book a Terran task force, deployed as a show of strength in the Sirius star system, becomes the trigger for the start of a widespread rebellion and must fight its way home through enemy territory. Virtues of War follows the adventures of four core characters. Lieutenant Katja Emmes is the leader of a “strike team” of marines and scion of a military family who feels she has something to prove. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Kane is the ambitious but weak commander of her ship, The Rapier. Lieutenant Charity Brisebois is The Rapier’s communication officer, but she is also a ruthless, driven, intelligence officer with a nastily Machiavellian streak. Finally, Sublieutenant Jack Mallory is a puppyish pilot trained in stealth warfare and, handily for the plot, a savant in advanced, exotic physics. In Ghosts of War, this cast of characters find themselves back on Earth, some struggling to cope with what they’ve been through, and discovering that their distant war has followed them home. Continue reading

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REVIEW: AURORA RISING/THE PREFECT BY ALASTAIR REYNOLDS

The latest issue (no. 3) of the BSFA Review is out, and it contains my review of Alastair Reynolds’ Aurora Rising (previously released as The Prefect). This is a slightly extended version.

I jumped into the ebook of Alastair Reynolds’ Aurora Rising without glancing at the cover or paying any attention to any publicity or even the blurb on the back. I then spent the first fifty or sixty pages with a steadily growing concern that this was all a bit familiar. So, it was a relief, when I finally checked, to realise that Aurora Rising isn’t a new book, it’s a new edition of The Prefect (first published in 2007). It has been re-released ahead of a sequel, Elysium Fire, which is coming in 2018. To be fair to the publisher (and author) this is made clear on the cover, so this confusion was not their fault, it was mine.

However, despite feeling a bit foolish, it was interesting to return to a book I first read ten years ago. I remember quite clearly looking forward to the release of The Prefect. It marked a return by Reynolds to the universe created in Revelation Space for the first time since 2003’s Absolution Gap. Reynolds’ first four novels remain, for me, one of the most impressive achievements of British space opera and while I’d liked the two novels Reynolds had published in between (Pushing Ice and Century Rain) I was, fannishly, keen to return to the familiar. Continue reading

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REVIEW: CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY BY THOMAS PIKETTY

I was just reminded of this after a random comment on Twitter (hi @redrichie). I wrote this review back in 2014 for an editor who, in the end, never used it. The row over inequality hasn’t moved on much and, reading it back, I think some of the things I said are still relevant – we are certainly no closer to a political response to growing inequality and mainstream economics seems to have slipped back into its comfortable irrelevance.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The Twenty-First Century is a number of things. It is, most obviously, a forceful argument in favour of putting inequality – a subject long plagued by “an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact” – back at the heart of intellectual and political debate. In addition, and almost as importantly, it is giant single-fingered salute to economics as it is most commonly done. Capital is a trenchant criticism of the way in which the study of economics has become dislocated from history and reality, focussed instead on abstract models and “laws” that seek to universalise the particular and the specific. Piketty’s theory is based on carefully collected data and lived human experience – a book that seems to spend as much time considering what can be learned from the novels of Austen and de Balzac as from the theories of other economists. And Capital is also – and this is not something to be lightly dismissed – a social sensation. A seven-hundred-plus-page economic thesis has become an international bestseller and the subject of near endless debate, attracting praise and opprobrium in about equal measure. Continue reading

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GENRE HIGHLIGHT OF 2017 – OCCUPY AVENGERS #8

The BSFA’s Vector Review of 2017 was delivered today, which includes a piece I wrote on the bit of genre reading that stuck in my mind most clearly in the past year. I chose a few panels from a crossover comic book. The piece got a bit mangled in the production process (some repeated text and confusion) so this is the definitive version.

OCCUPY AVENGERS #8: THE QUIET MURDER OF A BLACK SUPERHERO

My genre highlight of 2017 is really just a handful panels from a comic book. It’s from Occupy Avengers #8 (June 2017), written by David F. Walker and drawn by Martin Morazzo and Jorge Coelho. The story is a tie-in to the Secret Empire crossover that dominated Marvel’s line of books in the middle of 2017 and, at a casual reading, the panels are easy to overlook.

The story features those resisting the authoritarian rule of Hydra (led by the briefly evil Captain America) which has taken control of the American government. In one panel a black man is being shot. He seems to be standing in front of a group of black men, trying to protect them. In the second panel the unidentified man lies dying on the ground and the people he was trying to protect are being gunned down by white men in Hydra uniforms. Seven pages later, briefly and a bit obliquely, we learn that the man we saw being shot was an out-of-costume superhero, Nighthawk. Continue reading

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SOME REASONS TO BE SCEPTICAL OF THE HYPE ABOUT CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA (PART ONE)

Like lots of people, I’ve been thinking about the current row about Cambridge Analytica and their supposed influencing of the US election and Brexit and possibly other elections around the world.

I understand people’s anger and I understand the degree of fear that comes with the idea that we (or, more usually, some other group: “them”) are being manipulated to undermine democracy. But there are good reasons to be sceptical over the claims made for and by Cambridge Analytica (CA).

The basic story is that CA scraped user data off Facebook. Some people equate this with stealing data or an elaborate hack of Facebook, but what they actually did was take information that users left lying around about themselves because they couldn’t/didn’t want to/didn’t know how to make it private. It wasn’t particularly clever, if my interactions with people studying social media are anything to go by then there are probably quite a few academics standing around with their hands in their pockets trying not to look guilty as the current row rumbles on. What sets CA apart is the claims they make for what they did with this information. Developing psychographic profiles of millions of individuals which, they say, they used to create online advertising that was uniquely persuasive and effective. They’ve also claimed, in the Channel 4 videos, to “seed” viral information around the web and to indulge in various types of dirty politics.

I’ll come back some of the other stuff in another post, but first I want to talk about online advertising and why I consider it an unlikely tool for manipulating “the masses”. If your goal is to persuade anyone of anything you could hardly choose a worse weapon than the online display advert. Continue reading

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REVIEW: THE HIGH GROUND BY MELINDA SNODGRASS

The High Ground by Melinda Snodgrass (Titan Books, 2016)

When I was a child I loved the breakfast cereal Ready Brek – instant porridge whose television advertisements used to feature a young boy protected from the winter elements by a warm glow of healthy goodness. I would eat Ready Brek for breakfast, supper and, basically, whenever I could persuade someone to give me a bowl. If I’d had my way I might have eaten nothing but Ready Brek. Recently, in a moment of nostalgic weakness, I thought I’d revisit my childhood obsession and made myself a bowl. I’m not sure what my seven-year-old-self saw in the stuff, but I can tell you that I was left wondering why anyone would eat this flavourless, textureless, pap.

Melinda Snodgrass’s The High Ground is a lot like Ready Brek – easy to consume and familiar but also bland and unappealing. Unlike Ready Brek this book does not leave the reader with a warm, protective glow. Continue reading

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REVIEW: WITCHES OF LYCHFORD BY PAUL CORNELL (AND A RANT ABOUT CLASS)

Those she talked to who wanted the store to come here had hardly embraced evil. They talked about how hard things were, how they needed to shop more cheaply without spending a lot of money on petrol, how they and their relatives needed the jobs Sovo would provide. There was something of a class divide there. Those who weren’t well off tended to back the store on the basis of economic survival.

As Lizzie had seen so many times with victims, the harder your life had been, the harder it was to give yourself room for ethical choices.
(Witches of Lychford, p103)

 

“Victims” – remember the word “victims”.

I’m going to start with two apologies – or one apology and one partial apology. First, I apologise for starting a review with a longish quote from the book I am reviewing. I’ve always thought this is a bit lazy, but it’s no exaggeration to say that these two paragraphs made me so angry – punch walls and slap innocent bystanders angry – that I thought it was worth pulling them out and considering them in detail. And, second, I apologise, in advance for writing a review that won’t talk much about the plot, writing or anything else within the covers of Paul Cornell’s Witches Of Lychford except the way it talks about class.

Actually, I’m not really apologising for that one. Consider it more of a warning about what is to come.

I don’t imagine Paul Cornell will be bothered that I was annoyed by his book. This little novella has been very popular, warmly reviewed, award nominated and the basis for not just a sequel but also a soon-to-be-released third book. Lychford and its witches appear to becoming the foundation of an ongoing series. And Cornell writes well enough – his style is restrained and understated (English, you might even say), there’s nowhere where the writing really takes flight stylistically, but nowhere either where you’d be offended by the gratuitously stupid. If you like this sort of thing, and people evidently do, there’s no reason why you won’t like this.

In Witches of Lychford an idyllic English market town, nestled in the Cotswolds, faces an existential threat – the arrival of Sovo, a big-brand supermarket. But not just any big-brand supermarket. Sovo is, literally, the work of the devil and the only people that can stop the defiling of Lychford – this other Eden, this demi-paradise – are three women of various varieties of witchiness: old-style, new age and Church of England. Continue reading

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BOOK REVIEW: OCCUPY ME BY TRICIA SULLIVAN

occupy-me-by-tricia-sullivanThe overwhelming sensation left at the end of Tricia Sullivan’s strange, awkward, new novel is of things straining and stretching and struggling to be free. This is true of the characters, all of whom seem to be constantly pushing against something literal and/or metaphorical, but also true of the book itself – it feels as though the story, the very fabric of the book is stretching and struggling to contain itself. There’s so much packed in here, and at such conflicting, awkward angles, that it’s as though the paperback covers might, at any moment, tear themselves asunder and the whole lot will flop, exhausted and spoilt, on to the floor. That Sullivan juggles it all so deftly, so that disaster is not just avoided but that a sort of triumph is delivered, is to her great credit. But, for the reader, I have to confess, the journey was not always comfortable.

At one level this is a straightforward book – a nowish/near-futurish thriller in which money and oil and intrigue lead characters around the world from exotic locales to, well, Edinburgh. Pace Industries, a rapacious oil company, is trying to recover stolen money and a mysterious briefcase.  The briefcase is in the possession Dr Sorle, the physician who cared for the former oil executive, financier and embezzler – Austen Stevens. But Sorle is also – it quickly emerges – something much stranger than that. And, behind all the thriller elements, driving itself to the surface through the book’s thin skin, is a story about time travel, a giant flying dinosaur, alien birds whose habits include collecting the “waveforms” of the lost, entropy, the end of the universe and Pearl, the lost angel. Continue reading

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