Rule 34 – Charles Stross

So I’m less than one paragraph, not even a full line into Rule 34 and I read, “…and you’re coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk”. I bite down on a sudden surge of frustration that threatens to overwhelm me.

The thing I disliked the most about the previous book by Charles Stross, Halting State, was the use of the second person perspective. “You’re” is the seventh word in this novel. A quick scan of the rest of the book seems to indicate the entire thing is written from my own point of view. I lose a fraction of a millimetre of enamel as my molars grind against each other in an involuntary expression of irritation, then I wrestle control of those muscles back from my subconscious.

I unclench. This is Stross’s second book in this universe, maybe he got better at using the second person and somehow it’s going to feel a little less like someone’s scratching the surface of my brain and then smearing tabasco on it.

What is Rule 34, anyway? Is there a rule 33? Turns out that Rule 34 is an internet meme, so we’re going to need to know what one of those is too. Rule 34, or the 34th rule of the internet, states that pornography or sexually-related material exists for every conceivable content, somewhere. In Stross’s universe, the Rule 34 police unit trawls and monitors the most disgusting things on the internet in an attempt to police the overspill of the aforementioned imaginative horrors into the real world.

Given that the world itself seems replete with filth of every conceivable kind, the unit is somewhat overtaxed, all the more so since it’s considered a not-very-good-place to be assigned, so it’s long on deliverables and short on talent.

The local police force (because we’re in Edinburgh, in an independent Scotland), is suddenly dealing with a very twisted and somewhat revolting death caused – it would seem – by foul dealings of a very technologically sophisticated kind, and this death turns out to be the small and phallically-protruding tip of an iceberg of mammoth proportions.

By the time I’ve understood all this, my subconscious has more or less made peace with the second person perspective, but every time I put the book down and pick it up again, the shock of (self?) recognition causes my sense of style to grumble indignantly and I’m running the risk of a premature enamel shortage.

I find the book hard going. The Scottish dialect is deliberately kicking the glass house of story immersion and reminding me I’m turning the (virtual) pages of a (digital) book. As cracks appear in my acceptance of Stross’s reality, only a lifetime of polite upbringing prevents me from cursing the author by name for his love affair with phonetic spellings of accents that hail from beyond Hadrian’s wall. Nevertheless, I soldier on.

Somehow, two thirds of the way through the book, I find that I am closer to the end than I thought, and that I am anticipating the dénouement. A short period of life spent in Glasgow many years ago perhaps makes the style more approachable for me than some, and the interaction between new technology and the people in Stross’s universe is, after all, very well thought through.  Oh God, am I actually enjoying this now?

I’m almost bitter that I’ve been tricked into liking a book written in the second person (actually a great variety of second persons that get quite confusing at times, you might want to dial it down a bit next time). I’m also, to my immense distaste, accepting the fact that some of the characters would have been impossible to understand had we not been put into their heads (thankfully with some editing-out of the more repulsive thoughts). Therefore the use of the second person does – am I actually agreeing with this? – serve a real purpose here.

The final page flickers briefly across my eReader as I swipe from right to left and I’m presented with a list of other books by Charles Stross. What? That’s how it ends? Also: steady on, I’ve bought two of his books already, one thing at a time. But here’s the thing: while I had a hard time with it to start, and it clearly required more effort than many books to get into, against all expectations, I actually enjoyed this. Despite some story elements that are – to say the least – quite disturbing.

The story doesn’t end so much as fall off the edge of a cliff, with a deus-ex-machina-esque wrap-up that’s almost as sudden and unexplained as Don Juan taking the statue’s hand for a one-way trip to hell. I realise I’m not sure what the motivation of some of the characters really is, or that I have fully understood what happened, or even if I have enough information to attempt a full understanding.

But this doesn’t matter, because the story was actually less important than the people who inhabit it. The mystery we’re following is too convoluted to lend itself to a casual understanding, and too much is left unexplained (especially to a financially-trained person) for it to hang together nicely, but by the end, I was in it for the scenery, I wanted to know what happened to the characters, and I was just enjoying the descriptions of how the technology changes our interactions with the world around us, and with each other.

Jupiter Ascending

I’m honestly not sure what science fiction as a genre has done to deserve the awful movies that are released like a biblical plague upon the loyal fans. With source material in the form of hundreds of novels from masters of the genre, and concepts such as ringworlds, Dyson’s spheres, generation ships, advanced AI, the Culture, etc to choose from, the relative paucity of anything remotely watchable is a great tragedy as far as I’m concerned.

Of course we have the original Star Wars, we have Pitch Black, Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator, the Matrix – these were good movies, in the speculative fiction genre. But they’re old, and they’re still pretty thin on the ground. You’d think that as we’re continuously approaching the future we might get better at representing it on screen in the context of a reasonably well-structured narrative.

But for each good movie we get, we seem to earn a terrible sequel (Ok – Terminator and Alien count as exceptions), and for each movie-plus-dreadful-sequel combo we get a bonus side order of a couple of truly abysmal stand-alone science fiction turds that somehow manage to obtain theatrical releases.

Jupiter Ascending is one such piece of utter drivel.

A basic technique that ensures a science fiction book works is that it be character and story driven first, and that the technology actually serve a useful purpose and create a universe with rules and limitations that bound the story in interesting ways. Here, the script is very weak on characterization, and the plot devices are wildly implausible. The characters fill out the blank spaces in the script with ever more improbable lines to read, in the service of a plot so weak it barely pretends to hang together.

Jupiter Ascending’s storyline begins to fray before the overdressed and dramatically over-eared aliens even show up. With ridiculous story artefacts, odd notions of planets “belonging” to alien cultures, an omnipresent and thinly-veiled capitalists-are-evil meme, and an advanced race so utterly backward in their personal interactions that they could all use a session with a shrink. You get the picture: The film quickly becomes annoying.  In addition, the fight scenes are indecipherable, no matter how hard you stare – even if they are quite pretty.

Add to this two other elements: On the one hand some really pointless technology and concepts (flying boots, deployable wings, a really big, really heavy gun that doesn’t actually kill anyone, bees that identify royalty and fly around them in patterns…), and on the other, the use of storytelling laziness and short cuts such as, for example, the mass editing of people’s memories so they don’t remember there are little grey men flying around shooting holes in skyscrapers, or a totally random alignment of genetic code that means our protagonist is the reborn queen of a 91-thousand-year-old galactic empire, or the fact that the entire story is motivated by sibling rivalry, and you have the perfect ingredients for the mother of all cinematic turds.

Of course it’s when I watch bad science fiction that my television goes on the blink and for the entire last quarter of the movie I couldn’t fast-forward because of a software glitch, which means I had to sit through some of the most improbable fight scenes, useless dialogue and a wedding scene that was so overdone I almost threw the remote through the screen.

Not the Wachowski’s finest moment. I think they’re great directors, but they should really leave the screenwriting to someone else.

British Fantasy Awards 2015 Nominees

The British Fantasy Awards nominees have been named. I’m quite fond of the way the BFS nominate – they have a democratic nominations process, but the juries can add two further nominees per category as egregious omissions, which means that if the voting public undergoes a collective neurological event and puts a bunch of dross on the ticket, the juries have the ability to claw back some respectability by adding a few candidates that deserve to be there, which provides some ability to correct a failing trajectory. Assuming the jury isn’t the one having the neurological event, of course…

The awards ceremony is on October 25th, 2015, so there’s some time to read up and decide what you think ought to win. For myself, I have to admit that I have made absolutely no inroads into any of the material below, and much of it doesn’t immediately appeal, so I shall perhaps have to make an effort and acquire at least some of the writing below if I’m to understand the context of this award at all.

Best Anthology

The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic 2
ed. Jan Edwards and Jenny Barber
Alchemy Press
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease
ed. by Joel Lane and Tom Johnstone
Gray Friar Press
Lightspeed: Women Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue
ed. Christie Yant
Lightspeed Magazine
The Spectral Book of Horror Stories
ed. Mark Morris
Spectral Press
Terror Tales of Wales
ed. Paul Finch
Gray Friar Press

Best Collection

Black Gods Kiss
Lavie Tidhar
PS Publishing
The Bright Day Is Done
Carole Johnstone
Gray Friar Press
Gifts for the One Who Comes After
Helen Marshall
ChiZine Publications
Nick Nightmare Investigates
Adrian Cole
The Alchemy Press and Airgedlámh Publications
Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites
Hal Duncan
Lethe Press

Best Comic / Graphic Novel

Cemetery Girl
Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden and Don Kramer
Jo Fletcher Books
Grandville Noel
Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Image Comics
Bryan Lee O’Malley
Through The Woods
Emily Carroll
Margaret K. McElderry Books
The Wicked + The Divine
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Image Comics

Best Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)

K.T. Davies
Fox Spirit Books
City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books
Cuckoo Song
Frances Hardinge
Macmillan Children’s Books
A Man Lies Dreaming
Lavie Tidhar
Hodder & Stoughton
The Moon King
Neil Williamson
NewCon Press
The Relic Guild
Edward Cox

Best Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)

The End
Gary McMahon
NewCon Press
The Girl With All The Gifts
M.R. Carey
The Last Plague
Rich Hawkins
Crowded Quarantine Publications
No One Gets Out Alive
Adam Nevill
Station Eleven
Emily St John Mandel
The Unquiet House
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books

Best Independent Press

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The Alchemy Press
Peter Coleborn
Fox Spirit Books
Adele Wearing
NewCon Press
Ian Whates
Spectral Press
Simon Marshall-Jones

Best Magazine / Periodical

 BlackStatic  Interzone  th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_40_september_2013[1]
Black Static
ed. Andy Cox
TTA Press
Holdfast Magazine
ed. Laurel Sills and Lucy Smee
Laurel Sills and Lucy Smee
ed. Andy Cox
TTA Press
ed. John Joseph Adams
Lightspeed Magazine
Sein und Werden
ed. Rachel Kendall
ISMs Press

Best Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award)

The Relic Guild
Edward Cox
The Three
Sarah Lotz
Hodder & Stoughton
Laura Mauro
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease
The Boy With The Porcelain Blade
Den Patrick
The Copper Promise
Jen Williams

Best Non-Fiction

rtr23[1] Ginger Nuts of Horror
D.F. Lewis Dreamcatcher Real-Time Reviews
D. F. Lewis
D. F. Lewis
Ginger Nuts of Horror
ed. Jim McLeod
Jim McLeod
Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961–1971
ed. S.T. Joshi
PS Publishing
Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions
Hal Duncan
Lethe Press
Sibilant Fricative: Essays & Reviews
Adam Roberts
Steel Quill Books
Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic
John Howard
The Alchemy Press
You Are the Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks
Jonathan Green

Best Novella

Cold Turkey
Carole Johnstone
TTA Press
Mark West
Pendragon Press
Newspaper Heart
Stephen Volk
The Spectral Book of Horror Stories
Water For Drowning
Ray Cluley
This Is Horror

Best Short Story

A Change of Heart
Gaie Sebold
Wicked Women
The Girl on the Suicide Bridge
J. A. Mains
Beside The Seaside
Laura Mauro
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease
A Woman’s Place
Emma Newman
Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets

I have not included the Best Artist award above, for which the nominees are Ben Baldwin, Vincent Chong, Les Edwards, Sarah Anne Langton, Karla Ortiz and Daniele Serra.

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s latest work of almost-but-not-quite fantasy. Nobody wraps elements of the fantastic into the setting of modern life as seamlessly as Mitchell does. So much so that if the person sitting next to me on the plane in a few weeks announces that they’re an atemporal, one of the immortals from The Bone Clocks, I might not even be surprised.

A Bone Clock is a normal human being, counting down the years to their death. But in Mitchell’s world, there are a few individuals who are something more. Referred to as atemporals, these people come back when they die (in the case of Horologists), or they hold off the effects of the passage of time by consuming the souls of other rare psychoactive individuals (in the case of Anchorites). Horologists do not choose to be what they are, and find the existence of Anchorites, who prolong their lives at the expense of others, unacceptable. Hence: War.

A war carried out in hiding, among a very few individuals. A war that feels important because we see it up close, but is actually dwarfed in its effects on the world at large by the evolution of global politics and the climate over the novel’s span. The story is told within the lifetime and, in two of the six parts, from the point of view of Holly Sykes, an intelligent 15-year-old when we first meet her, who elopes after an argument with her mother, only to discover that her boyfriend is cheating on her, causing her to elope farther than she at first wanted to.

During her journey away from home, Holly will come into contact with the conflict between Anchorites and Horologists, and will become a piece on the chessboard of their war. This is due to more than just coincidence, and involves her own gifts as well as her brother’s. Much of what happens will only be understandable with hindsight from later on in the novel, because just when it feels as though we’re getting enough information to make sense of it all, the scene changes. Mitchell does what he does best, and we find ourselves following a different story in a different place, from the point of view of a different person, whose narrative will inevitably cross Holly Sykes’s at some point.

Mitchell pulls off point-of-view changes masterfully, leaving important unanswered questions hanging for quite some time as our attention is drawn to other events that affect another character’s life. He adroitly nuances right and wrong in the minds of young protagonists, setting them on trajectories in a way that presages much more pronounced moral positions at later points in their lives, when we meet them again, but keeps both his protagonists and antagonists human, because having seen the world through their eyes, we know they are not cut from cloth of a single colour.

The tapestry is woven with care and with a strong sense of how much ambiguity the reader can cope with before he is overwhelmed by open questions. Nevertheless, this is a book that requires your attention, and a failure of attention will be paid for in confusion as things are revealed later on. A serious book, you might call it.

Relevant subplots are thick on the ground, from the resentment between a writer and the reviewer who trashed his book in public to the origin stories of some of the atemporals in the Russia of several hundred years ago. Mitchell has given himself (as he did in Cloud Atlas), a story mechanic that gives him licence to visit any time in history and weave his story in the context of his choosing, and he uses his superpower to great effect.

Mitchell avoids holistic denouements. At no point do we feel that a subplot or story thread is completely “wrapped up”. True to reality, stories continue until their motivating protagonists die, or move on to other endeavours. Conclusions are messy compromises that don’t entirely satisfy our desire to see evil punished and good rewarded. Nevertheless, an undercurrent of individuals getting their just desserts does more or less permeate the novel, even if our heroes end up having less than idyllic lives and some of our antagonists deserve far more than they eventually get. Perhaps it is this very softness in the telling of the end of the story that made me put the book down feeling sorry that it had ended. There had been no major battle, the victors were not standing on the corpses of their fallen foes, and yet the story was finished, insofar as the threads that we were given at the beginning were concerned. It wasn’t so much anticlimactic as just more believable.

Will this win the World Fantasy Awards? I have no idea. I think it perhaps unlikely, because I’m not sure this is what fantasy readers are necessarily looking for. I think this could win some mainstream awards despite the strong thread of speculative fiction that runs through the entire novel. I might get shot for saying this, but I think this is a level of literature above what most fantasy books seek to achieve. Unsurprising perhaps, this is after all the novelist who gave us Cloud Atlas, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Nebula, Locus and Arthur C. Clark awards for best novel, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Few people will say that The Bone Clocks was not a very good book, but there are a lot of voters out there who prefer Gandalf to Holly Sykes.

To be clear, I think this book is spectacular, but hard to compare to other works of “fantasy”, as it if doesn’t wholly belong in the genre. I enjoyed it in a different way to how I enjoy most of my fantasy and science fiction. It provokes reflection on the motivations of characters and the interactions these motivations engender in a far more complex way than the more two-dimensional individuals who populate many of my favourite novels. It also, however, lacks many of the whiz-bang special effects that I quite enjoy in these genres, or the resounding conclusion that’s timed to coincide with the crescendo of the accompanying musical score. Perhaps not for all audiences then.

That said, in the hands of a good screenwriter, with a few liberties taken with the pacing and the story, this could make one hell of a movie. Someone call Christopher Nolan! I’d pay good money to watch that.

City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett

A grand novel by Robert Jackson Bennett, brought to my attention through its nomination for a World Fantasy Award, City of Stairs is many things.  It is a spy thriller. It is the concluding tome in an Epic never written. It is a fantasy novel that plays with the genre the way a cat plays with the loose thread on your favourite sweater.

The Epic landscaping involves two cities, Bulikov and Ghaladesh. The former used to be the seat of the world, built and maintained by six Divinities of varying persuasions, and the capital city of the Continent. The latter is the capital of Saypur, across the South Seas, a country that spend most of its history under the Continent’s thumb, before it’s hero, The Kaj, invented weapons capable of laying low the Divinities themselves, and at the moment of their destruction, all that they had wrought ceased to be.

That moment, known as the Blink, savaged the Continent, knocking it abruptly backward in its development and into a state of chaos.  Saypur led a peaceful invasion in the wake of this short war, bringing a semblance of order to the Continent, and creating in the process a deeply-felt resentment in the majority of the population.

Into this morass walks a Foreign Ministry agent, a sort of spy, if you will, from Saypur, called Shara. She is going to Bulikov, or what is left of the once-great city, to investigate the murder of someone dear to her. This now-dead person used to be a professor who was researching the history of the Continent and its Divinities. This is something that only citizens of Saypur can do, since any mention of Divinities, and any symbol that might refer to them, is outlawed on the Continent according to the Worldly Regulations.

What follows is a fantastic tale of gradually fading magic dating back to the time of the Divinities some 70 years ago. A multitude of objects maintain some semblance of their former power, remain miraculous. Some spells, referred to again as miracles, still seem to work despite the disappearance of the Divinities. In a manner that students of real modern history will recognise, the citizens of Bulikov and the Continent are deeply resentful of not only the occupying presence of their conquerors, but also the deliberate repression of their belief system and the humiliation, both real and imagined, imposed upon them by the victors. There simmers a reservoir of rebellion, and unhealthy things are afoot.

City of Stairs is first and foremost an exercise in world-building. The system of magic and nature of the Divinities is unique, interesting, and provides plenty of opportunity for plot twists as the underlying fabric of this world is revealed to us.

The political backdrop is also quite fully formed, with detail painted in where necessary (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example), and provides for a rich reservoir of nationalistic resentment that ably drives the story forward, motivating many of the main actors.

The detective story, spy novel and political intrigue are perhaps all too closely tied together, as we grow to realise that these are not different threads, but part of the same picture, and the characters we are following are not random heroes, but predictable heroes, once we learn of their own origin stories. I found this part of the book a little too convenient. I read another review that compared one character to Aragorn, but that is too generous – Aragorn, in the Lord of the Rings, had a self-determined reason to be exactly where he was, whereas Sigrud is there by virtue of coincidence. It’s all a little too neat for me.

The only other criticism I have is that I found some of the miracles worked by the Divinities a little trite. If there is magic in the world, and we give the name “Divinity” to the one who created this or that particular miracle, I feel that the miracle in question ought to be more meaningful than a cantrip that allows one to sneak into a monastery for a quick shag. Maybe that’s just me…

I found the story extremely entertaining, the world is fascinating and the concept of a civilization recovering from the loss of its very active and supportive Divinities is very original. I also feel that a lot of what needs to happen for this world to come to any sort of equilibrium has yet to happen, and so there is lots of scope for further books in this universe. I’m usually not a fan of serial novels set in the same universe because it all too often seems driven by a combination of commercial interests and a lack of new ideas, but I could certainly stand to read another novel set in this world, so it’s perhaps a good thing that another one is gestating as we speak (and a third in the planning stages).

I happily recommend this novel to readers of fantasy looking for new ideas to nourish their imaginations that go beyond finding another word for “goblin” or a new take on elvish culture, and I fully understand how it came to be nominated for the World Fantasy Awards.

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

In Seveneves, Neal Stephenson goes one-up on all the other apocalyptic disaster stories out there with a narrative that begins with the explosion of the moon, and follows this up with the natural consequence of such a catastrophe – an extinction-level event that almost puts an end to the human race some two years after the opening scene.

On his website, Stephenson attributes the inspiration of this narrative to a discussion he was having about the space debris problem, whereby a collision in orbit could lead to a chain reaction that results in a cloud of obstacles basically shutting off access to space. This is known as the Kessler Syndrome after a NASA scientist who first put forward the theory in 1978.

The human race quickly comes to understand that the continuous collision of moon fragments will create a white sky, as the entire atmosphere becomes saturated with moon fragments, and that this will quickly by followed by the hard rain, a several-thousand-year long ongoing rain of moon fragments that superheat the atmosphere as they fall to earth and comprehensively reshape the surface, destroying everything and killing everyone.

The first half of the book follows the adventures of the rapidly growing crew of the international space station, as well as the efforts of a proactive and determined entrepreneur, who all struggle to prepare in time for the beginning of a long exodus from Earth. The chosen few representatives of the human race are going to have to survive away from the surface for several thousand years if the human race is to survive at all.

Stephenson explains it all through the eyes of the professionals in orbit, explaining in great detail the constraints, challenges and obstacles the astronauts face, and the difficulty of creating solutions in an environment where resources are scarce and every mistake has disproportionate consequences. Eventually, politics and human conflict inevitably get involved, further complicating survival in an environment where the slightest error inevitably leads to loss of life. This results in the human race eventually reduced to seven women – the titular Seven Eves, parents of the future human race.

The second half of the book starts five thousand years later, as the planet is finally being reseeded in advance of recolonisation. We find a society deeply influenced by its starting point – seven distinct peoples more or less cohabiting in orbit, three billion people overall, the custodians of the largest engineering project ever imagined – the re-terraforming of old earth to bring it back to life.

Here the narrative continues with carefully wrought descriptions of incredible technologies, most of which are designed to orbit or de-orbit objects reliably and in as short an amount of time as possible. Much of what we discover is influenced and inspired by the ad-hoc solutions found by the original Eves and their compatriots in the space station, five thousand years ago. A history that is now known as the Epic, a hugely influential origin story which is replayed on screens everywhere as the video footage has survived the intervening centuries.

We enter now into the world of emergent politics and jockeying for the best position during the next stage of civilisation – the return to the surface of the Earth, but we see it from a distance as our main actors are no longer the movers and shakers but rather a small group of people caught in the political crosswinds.

Stephenson points out the many ways in which politics troubles the waters during the latest phase of what is – if you take a step back from it all – a triumphant story of survival and regenesis. The focus on the difficulties of the present moment, even though the chosen moment is clearly critical in the future of the human race, draws attention away from the overall success story – a civilisation capable through ingenuity, planning and patience, of bringing life back to its ancient world after a calamity of cosmic proportions.

This second part to the book lacks the immediacy of what precedes it. In some ways, it matters little who wins a war of politics when the race has survived thanks to the heroics of a small clutch of individuals five thousand years ago, and the trials and travails of these new characters matter only insofar as we are placed in their position and live the events through their eyes.

Perhaps Stephenson felt (rightly) that he couldn’t finish the story at the inflection point when the seven find themselves finally safe from space debris and cosmic rays, and can start rebuilding rather than merely surviving. Unfortunately, the initial two acts were so powerful that it is difficult to imagine what could have followed it as a final act that would have been abvle to measure up. Furthermore, the long and detailed descriptions of the technology reach saturation point a fair distance from the end of the book, and this seems to throw the balance between narrative and description slightly out of whack, to the point where I was sorely tempted to skip a few paragraphs – never a good sign.

Regardless of this imbalance in the last third of the novel, Seveneves is near-earth, hard science quasi-space opera on a tremendous scale, without a doubt an impressive flexing of the muscles by a master of the genre, and a book I would not have wanted to miss for all its 880 pages!

World Fantasy Award Nominees 2015

The World Fantasy Award nominees have been announced, causing my reading list to bulge slightly. They are available at the 2015 Convention Website, but are also reproduced for you here below, in as fancy and readable a format as I am able to manage. I apologise for the lack of an image on the front page, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put a picture of that awful statuette on my website.


The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison
Tor Books
City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Broadway Books/Jo Fletcher Books
The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell
Random House/Sceptre UK
Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy
Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals
My Real Children
Jo Walton
Tor Books US/Corsair UK


F&SF Nov/Dec 2014
We Are All Completely Fine
Daryl Gregory
Tachyon Publications
Where The Trains Turn
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (19th Nov 2014)
Hollywood North
Michael Libling
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov./Dec. 2014
The Mothers of Voorhisville
Mary Rickert (30th Apr 2014)
Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)
Rachel Swirsky
Subterranean Press Magazine, Summer 2014
The Devil in America
Kai Ashante Wilson (2nd April 2014)

Short Story

mcs48_cover_WEB[1] 11695340_982703865084737_4433182036142831675_n ApexMag56[1]
I Can See Right Through You
Kelly Link
McSweeny’s 48
Do You Like to Look at Monsters?
Scott Nicolay
Fedogan & Bremer, chapbook attached to Ana Kai Tangata
Jackalope Wives
Ursula Vernon
Apex Magazine, January 2014
Death’s Door Café
Kaaron Warren
Shadows & Tall Trees 2014
The Fisher Queen
Alyssa Wong
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014

Best Anthology

Fearful Symmetries
Ellen Datlow, ed.
ChiZine Publications
George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds.
Bantam Books/Titan Books
Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History
Rose Fox and Daniel José Older, eds.
Crossed Genres
Shadows & Tall Trees 2014
Michael Kelly
Undertow Publications
Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales
Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds.
Candlewick Press


Mercy and Other Stories
Rebecca Lloyd
Tartarus Press
Gifts for the One Who Comes After
Helen Marshall
ChiZine Publications
They Do the Same Things Different There
Robert Shearman
ChiZine Publications
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings
Angela Slatter
Tartarus Press
Death at the Blue Elephant
Janeen Webb
Ticonderoga Publications

In addition to the work listed above, there is an Artist category, and special awards are voted on in the professional and non-professional fields. There is also a person selected to receive the lifetime recognition award.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War – P.W. Singer & August Cole

I don’t usually get my speculative fiction reading suggestions from The Economist, but I found a recommendation for Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War in the reviews section of the June 27th edition, and since I trust the Economist not to (at least in general) provide positive recommendations for weak writing or unintelligent prose, I figured it was a pretty safe bet that the book would be a good read.

My trust, I am happy to report, proved well-placed. The book is a well-told near future story driven by a large cast of believable (if not particularly lovable) characters. The style straddles the gap between the Tom Clancy combat narrative style and a Pentagon policy paper on future defence strategies. Given the author’s credentials in the latter respect, the novel benefits from believability, depth and a knowledge of the subject matter that’s not a regular feature of my reading. At least in the SF genre.

This is most obvious when referring to the copious footnotes, an exercise that was a lesson in itself because much of what I initially assumed was speculative was, in fact, not speculative at all. The authors applied their imagination to what might be done with the current bleeding edge of technological development, and pushed technology only a little into the future. How do these capabilities affect geopolitics, naval warfare, communications vulnerabilities and so on, that is where the initial thrust of the book is directed, before we get to the action.

The book is also unashamedly military in its approach – much of the near-future geopolitical ideas I have read focus on tropes like a hacker in one country making nuclear power plants go critical in another. It is perhaps because this risk is so often talked about – and therefore mitigated – that the authors focus elsewhere, with direct “hack attacks” taking only a supporting role in the development and execution of their war.

The story starts with energy shortages, in the form of diminishing oil and natural gas reserves – the consequence of a previous conflict that enveloped the Middle East and clearly left its traces on the international political landscape. China’s communist government has collapsed, replaced by a balanced coalition of Chinese military and corporate interests, and this new “Directorate”, has a far colder and more ruthless view of the world’s future energy and power balance than does the West.

A discovery of a vast gas field under the Pacific leads the Chinese government to launch an all-out coordinated assault to secure global domination and thereby ensure that the new energy reserves are theirs and theirs alone. Supported by years of planning and infiltration, their plan is extremely effective, and all the more frightening for how simple and believable it is.

There closes the opening act, and from here on we will see how the rest of the world responds, how old and new technology must be repurposed, harnessed and adapted to recover from an initial strike so effective it almost wins this unexpected war in a single act.

We follow the action from a great many viewpoints, including policy-making sessions in both China and the US, the decks of warships, the computer terminals of Chinese hackers, the astronauts participating from orbit and the resistance fighters on Chinese-occupied Hawaii, to name but a few. The writing is fluid – even though the viewpoint changes a little too frequently for my personal tastes – and there is a strong sense of the authors having worked (or having been worked) very very hard in order to reach the clipped and comprehensible prose that the book deploys with great success.

While this will not satisfy those who seek true science fictional weaponry or technology, let alone aliens or faster-than-light travel, the novel is a very satisfying bridge between where we are today, the technology of tomorrow, and the forces that will decide how these get used.

Halting State – Charles Stross

A multi-viewpoint novel that manages to weave several  threads at once to make a story, Halting State takes us into a future where information, interaction and games have to a large extent blended with the real world through the near ubiquitous use of augmented reality overlays.

I had a very hard time deciding if I liked this book or not.

On the one hand, the vision of the future is extremely well-pitched, with augmented reality providing different layers of information overlaid onto the real world through the use of glasses that are more or less ubiquitous. The police see the Copspace overlay, army see Milspace, and the technology has allowed gaming to step out of the realm of 100% simulation and into the real world. At the same time, massively multiplayer online gaming has reached a stage where so much value is at stake that specialised financial companies are contracted to manage the in-game economies by taking control of the central bank. The games run on compatible platforms, which results in borders and passages from one game to another, and games compete for players through the aggressive management of “fun”.

These technologies, valuable though they are, provide numerous new ways to compromise national security and corporate secrecy, and this is not lost on the various secret services and terrorist groups, who have all been creative in their use of the virtual and semi-virtual environments.

What we then have is a detective story that begins with the robbery of the central bank of a major online game. This is the thread that our main characters pull on, which begins to unravel a much larger series of interlocking conspiracies that rapidly spill over into the real world.

Despite the very promising melange, somewhat reminiscent of Neal Stephenson (the master of this particular art), we have a narrative that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and therefore tries to do too much.

A short way into the book I began wondering why I was being beaten over the head with a narrative written in the second person. That is a very strange point of view to adopt, and a very unusual literary device. Had there been a specific point to adopting it I might have found it interesting, but instead it was just jarring, and combined with the rapid jumps between three different main characters – each with their own point of view – made the book heavy going. I had such a hard time getting used to the narrative style that I put the book down, re-read Snow Crash to remember how this kind of world can be properly portrayed, and then came back to it.

The narrative also doesn’t entirely decide whether it wants to be a bit funny or more serious. The technology and its implications are very interesting and have the potential for much storytelling and analysis, but while we’re reading about the very real theft of tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a virtual environment, we get descriptions of orcs and dragons that appear to serve no purpose, all narrated by a confused Scottish police officer which means we’re in for lots of “Aye, Reet” and “Ye dinna have tae take ma wurd fer it, I’ll text you a photie“, in order to get the point across that her accent is unintelligible.

I’ve lived in Scotland, briefly, so it doesn’t bother me too much, it’s even charming in small doses, but I can’t imagine it going down easily for a US audience, for example.

I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, but I keep thinking of Stephenson and the way he gets so much more into the story than just a detective story – the interesting world-building is just that, it doesn’t go further, making any points about how this world affects people, how it might affect the balance of power between government and people, rich and poor, first world and third world, or whatever. It doesn’t go into much depth about the relative importance to people of the online world versus the offline world, and how people’s habits might change, and what felt like a world quickly becomes window-dressing for a detective story.

Given the potential of the vision, I’ve already bought the next book in the series and it’s on my virtual “to-read” shelf, and I’m hoping Charles Stross is more ambitious next time. I think this could lead to something great.

In short, I enjoyed the book, but was left with the feeling that I’d been sold a full meal and realised at the end of it that I’d been put on a diet without getting told first.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

I was a little dubious of Uprooted , in large part because several reviewers classified it as Young Adult, which is not my preferred genre, and I really wanted something I could enjoy selfishly while I was travelling.

I needn’t have worried. While there are overtones of the Young Adult style, there are clearly scenes and themes that stretch well beyond the borders of teenage fantasy.

Set in a world that is evidently based on Poland (our heroine is Agnieszka, the wizard wears a Zupan, the country is called Polnya), the main events occur in a set of villages and towns at the perimeter of a bewitched forest, and in the capital, where political intrigue gets in the way of any form of logical or coherent decision, as is so often the case in works of fantasy.

I enjoyed the writing style and I thought that the pace of the novel was close to perfect – I rarely had the urge to jump ahead a few pages, a problem that plagues me as soon as I feel a story is beginning to stall, nor did I have to stop and go back to figure out what was going on.

I understand, however, why some others thought this might be best categorized as a Young Adult novel, and this is driven largely by simplicity in characterisation and fairly linear storytelling. It all unwraps like an intricate work of origami, neatly leading to a culminating moment. The characters are nearly clustered at each end of a simple spectrum, either fooled into acting on behalf of the enemy, or unimpeachable in their dedication to the cause. This is neither good nor bad, and facilitates the flow of the story, but is a feature of young adult novels rather than more complicated, character driven stories that deal with moral ambiguity, true conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas where every answer is a wrong answer.

I enjoyed the read and powered through the book faster than I thought I would. While the ending is coherent and neat, I felt it was perhaps a little too much so, to the point of being a little trite, I can’t say more for fear of spoiling it, other than to say that I felt there was a lack of people among the survivors getting their comeuppance (or showing real remorse) for the abject stupidity and selfishness of their actions.

Magic is depicted as a talent-based career requiring study and mastery, rare but not so rare that it alienates its practitioners, and key to the survival of the realm. The culture is not very developed, but familiar, leaning of our pre-existing understanding of castles, courts and cities. The book doesn’t impose a radical re-imagining of the world upon the reader.

If you like the fantasy genre, this is a good example, with solid storytelling, an enjoyable story and a very likeable heroine that’s easy to relate to.