Saturday, 20 December 2014

Kieran Shea, Koko Takes A Holiday (2014)

My edition of this novel came with the following cover-puff, courtesy of Stephen Blackmoore: 'a jet-powered, acid-fueled trip of pure, rocking insanity.'

This raises the key question: by 'insanity' does he mean to refer to any one of a series of distressing and socially debilitating psychopathologies? Or does he mean, you know, irritating/whimsical, of the 'you don't have to be mad to work here -- but it helps!!!' sort?

See if you can answer that question from this thumbnail. Story takes place 500 years from now; hard-drinking, hard-shagging sexy ex-mercenary Koko Martstellar is running a brothel on a ultra-Westworld-style resort called The Sixty Islands. She's enjoying life, with her boy-whore and booze and customers. But then her fellow ex-merc and onetime friend, Portia Delacompte, now high-up administrator of the depraved holiday locale, sends in some goons to have her killed. Her brothel blown to smithereens, Koko takes a 'holiday' from holidayland and goes buzzing around the galaxy, looking for revenge, shooting stuff, blowing stuff up, dyeing her hair blue (see cover) and so on.

It's a fast-moving, wisecracky, video-game-violent sort of yarn, quick to read and as quick to forget. Obviously it breaks a butterfly upon a wheel to object that the whole jaunt is built on various linked mendacities, so I'll only mention two, and briefly: one, that violence and war are fun, cathartic distractions rather than deeply psychologically damaging to those who take part; and two that the magic key to unlock millennia of systematic sexist oppression of women is epitomised in the word kickass. Koko is an egregiously kickass heroine, of course; but lurking somewhere behind the valorisation of such chicks is the conscious or unconscious sense 'there's no need to make any structural alterations to the logic of society; all that we need to do is encourage sexually alluring women to dress in tight clothes and kick some ass! PROBLEM SOLVED!' It compares poorly to (picking an example from the hat) Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame books, where the costs as well as the exhilarations of the old ultraviolence are rendered. But, hey: it's just a but of fun, no? A bit of a lark. You don't have to be mad to pilot this acid-fuelled power-jet: but it helps!

Then again, there's a subplot concerning a disease called 'Vast Depressus' ('a severe, stage-classified psychosis' untreatable with pills that causes 'mass-suicide events'). So maybe the novel is really about the first kind of insanity, after all. ONLY KIDDING! The novel's all about the video-game lolz, like this
A massive rolling explosion shattered to the right of Koko's rooftop position ... [156]
and this
Entering the ship's cramped cockpit, Koko hacks a crisp half-strike into the first mate's neck and the young woman droops to the floor like a wilted flower. [257]
and this
The redhead springs deep and soars through the air. Flying like a spread-eagled amoeba, she lands and latches onto Juke's front and shatters his nose with a quick head-butt. The hammer blow to Juke's nose is a starburst of pain and a delta wash of blood squirts down his sweaty face. [139]
and ... wait, hold up. Like an amoeba? You what?

Friday, 19 December 2014

Glen Duncan, By Blood We Live (2014)

Vampires are creatures that enjoy unnatural long life, sustained by ruthless predation upon other forms of life. Vampire novels are, formally speaking, the same. On and on the genre goes, sucking the lifeblood out of everything from Bram Stoker and Anne Rice to the 'Count of Sesame Street' and that girl from Adventure Time to maintain a pale not-quite-life of its own. On and on, never seeming to die. Werewolves have a similar postmodern hoover-it-up, wolf-it-down wearying endurance quality to them. Of course, Duncan is very far from the first writer to think it might be a nifty idea to combine the two. By Blood We Live is the third in a trilogy that began with The Last Werewolf (2011) and continued with Talulla Rising (2012), and it certainly embodies its premise, formally speaking, insofar as it goes on and on and on and will not lie down and die already just wrap it up my god you've already had 900 pages to tell your story do you really need another 450?

I'm not suggesting Duncan is a bad writer. On the contrary, Duncan can clearly write, and write very well. But what he's written here wearied me a great deal, partly because the plot is too choppily structured, partly because my nonreading of Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising left me more than a little puzzled as to the meaning and/or point of it all, but mostly because it's just really tiring to read so many ripely-written sex scenes, so much goresplash and so many endlessly purpled interior monologues. That all this is pretty adolescent, really, isn't exactly a criticism, because Vampires and Werewolves are fundamentally adolescent imaginative constructions. It's just a little wrongfooting to find such stylistic effort and panache expended upon like a warmth going through him and it was like the warmth of coming home and his face had felt so full and tender with this feeling of ashamed homecoming that even then he'd known would never be free of rage and boredom and sadness and he'd never be anything except alone and what he was [232], not to mention Madeline with her snout in the girl's flank and her ass in the air, legs spread, the smell of her cunt was sly and sweet and full of tortured willingness, and me with a hard-on that could've broken a piano in half [285] (although I am compelled to confess my doubts as to whether 'tortured willingness' is actually a smell), and let's not forget my fingernails went so easily through the soft flesh of his throat ... I got a grip on the wet tubing of his throat and pulled. A lot of it came out. His eyes couldn't open wide enough to fit this surprise in. Miles away, his legs were kicking. I felt my thumbnail go through a big slippery vein. An artery I guess. Blood went through the air like a Spanish fan [385] and pretty soon you're thinking: 'as Tithonus came to regard his own eternal life, so I look now upon the endless stream of neverending vampire/werewolf novels. ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.'
And ever when the moon is low,
And the shrill winds are up and away,
In the white pages, to and fro
We see the randy werewolves play.
But when the moon was very low,
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the vampire fell
Upon his bed, across his brow.
He only said, 'This genre's dreary,
Goes on and on,' he said;
He said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that it were dead!'

Hermione Eyre, Viper Wine (2014)

This is a genuinely charming and engaging example of historical fiction, given added vim by a number of wittily handled po-mo touches. Mostly it is simply an entertaining read, although intermittently it becomes more than that and achieves palpable greatness. What it isn't is a Fantasy or time-travel SF yarn, but that's hardly a hanging offence.

The two main characters are actual people, and the core of what happens has historical sanction (Eyre is fond of quoting chunks of the Dictionary of National Biography to shore up the on-going narrative). Here is Sir Kenelm Digby, seventeenth-century aristocrat, natural philosopher, Catholic, alchemist and all-round old-fashioned English eccentric. More compellingly here is his wife, Venetia Anastasia Digby (née Stanley), one of the most acclaimed beauties of her generation. Which, if you're a fan of tiny mouths, wide-set-eyes, and a ghostly forehead fringe of hair that spells out 'dSygg666' like a captcha, she may well have been:

On a larger scale is the celebrated Van Dyck portrait of Venetia, which is used as the cover art for Eyre's novel:

Sir Kenelm's multifarious interests, and his wife's anxiety at her fading charms, are rendered by Eyre very skilfully: it's energetic, fluent and readable stuff. But it's all interleaved by the present, in ways that speak to a—strange to say—rather quaintly old-fashioned postmodern manner. Early in the book Digby is interviewed by various gentlemen, amongst them Paxman, 'a soft Irish man called Wogan' and 'Jonathan Ross, a fool with weak "R"s' [34]. The author herself pops up ('a woman with a notebook marked "Viper Wine"', [37]). Kenelm notes ideas down under headings that include 'Cosmographie', 'Thaumaturgike' and 'Nanobiotechnology' (though when he looks again 'he could not remember what was meant' by this latter [249]). He gets weird garbled html messages from somewhere, 'response.setContentType("text/html")' and the like ('the letters seemed to [Kenelm] like a spell or symbolism more than a story: hieroglyphs' [179]), and instructs that the message 'One Small Step For Man One Giant Leap For Mankind' be painted along the wall of his long library: though the calligrapher slopes off leaving only 'One Small Step For Ma' [165]. All this is perfectly beguilingly done, threading the tricky path between hard core literary experimentation on the one hand and frou-frou whimsy on the other, only occasionally straying into either. It's scrupulously researched, too: I read with a pedant's eye for errors and found almost none (there's a 'by the by' on p.113 that should be 'by the bye'; and some Latin on p.222 that's not quite right). There is a class problem, not unusual in novels like this: we gad about with people of the caste of the Digbys and Van Dycks and other assorted posh nobs, whilst the 99% are background colour (one exception is an interleaved first-person narration by a poor Wessex lass; but it hardly counterbalances the posho bulk of this novel's 17th-Century).

It's in the nature of this kind of project, perhaps, that it's liable to go on too long, and to register a proportion (I'd gauge this, using my complicated actuarial equipment, at 22%) of misses for all the hits. More debilitating, perhaps, is the way the almost-whimsy degrades the novel's scenes of pathos: the way Eyre draws out Venetia's vanity into something more existentially eloquent; and Venetia's abrupt, early death, in which the titular 'viper wine' (another actual thing from history, a potion made from snakes supposed to keep a woman young looking) is implicated; and the profound grief of her husband. All this is good, and Eyre does interesting thematic things with Digby's interest in 'curing wounds at a distance' (he thought the trick was not to treat the wound, but to apply magic powders to the thing that caused the wound, no matter how far away it was from the wound it had caused). Overall, a notable novel. I enjoyed it very much.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Derek E Pearson, Body Holiday (2014)

The conceit here is: just as nowadays families arrange house-swaps to facilitate their holidays, in the future we might arrange body-swaps, coordinated via the 'Body Holiday Foundation'. Wealthy Pearce and his wife Alice undertake one such swap, into two bodies considerably younger and more beautiful than theirs. Then they do what people do when they go on holiday. They shag. They shag and shag, in scenes described with a rather squelchy lubriciousness combined of that peculiar mix of detailed intimate descriptions and an odd coyness of tone ('beneath her robe she wore nothing more than a tee shirt that barely covered her modesty' [210]) made popular by the Fifty Shades books. Books concerning the prodigious success of which there is nothing in our sublunary world more puzzling.

It's not all bonking, of course; there's a thriller storyline, some refried SF props and devices (space elevators and so on) and a rather over-earnest satirical thread about the general cultural imperative 'entertain me!' But most of it is porny:
Milla flushed in her first climax and put her hand to her engorged clitoris to caress it and prolong the pleasure. It was a deep warm sensation that arched her back and had her squeezing joy from her breasts. [127]
Can a lady's boobs do that? I had no idea.
Franklyn reached down to the length of flaccid meat between his legs and drew it out and up towards her, shaking the tip. "Like most ladies I'm sure you would like to sample the delights of a ride on this sturdy old crossbar." [98]
Pinioned on his cock, she felt its heat as it curved deeper into her, creating wells of pleasure even beyond its length. [83]
'Wells of Pleasure'. Right.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Debbie Johnson, Dark Vision (2014)

Lily McCain, Liverpuglian music journo (references in the novel include: Muse, made-up bands actually comprised of actual vampires, and Mazzy Star. Remember them?) has a magic gift/curse. When she touches someone, or they touch her, she sees their future. Yes, that's nicked from Stephen King's peerless The Dead Zone. But where King sees in his premise an opportunity to talk about isolation, loneliness and the disconnection inherent in modern life, Johnson steers the same premise in a very different direction: towards rather a gooey love story in a world that turns out to be a kind of Charlaine Harris Merseyside. I know which of the two treatments of this premise I prefer. It doesn't help that Johnson writes her debut novel in a kind of foresquare tell-it-how-it-is feisty-cum-sassy idiom, stitched out of cliché and a rather forced jollity. It also doesn't help that her own ingenuousness so often betrays her into Thoggisms ('... sipping bitter black coffee so hot my lips recoiled in protest' [16]; 'He stood tall, in fact even taller than he usually was' [31]; 'he laughed, and before I could stop him, stroked my face with the speed of light' [54]; 'tears sprang from my eyes and I didn't have the will to stop them' [79]; 'Gabriel's eyes [were] sparking a bruised shade of purple. ... I felt a thud of disappointment hammer through me' [128]; 'my throat was so parched I couldn't even have swallowed my own non-existent spit' [217]; 'it was just a pillow now, and I carved out a moment to feel sad about that' [218]). There's a good deal of blushing by our streetwise but virginal narrator, especially in the first half, and a heavy dose of The Celtic, myth-and-magic-wise. Time travel of course takes us back to the Beatles playing The Cavern in late '62. Where else? A bit frantic, especially in its battle-of-gods-and-mortals conclusion. You might very well enjoy it.

Tim Lebbon, Alien: Out Of The Shadows (2014)

The cover-stress on novelty here ('an original novel'; 'official new novel'; my copy came with a little silver sticker declaring 'All New Story') bends the truth a little, without fracturing it entirely. But that's OK: we understand the drill. To put it more precisely, the sjuzhet here is new, or new-ish, though the fabula is as old as Dan O'Bannon's 1970s screenplay, and I daresay as old as Beowulf and Gilgamesh.* Indeed, come to think of it: even the sjuzhet is rather second-hand. There's a mining spaceship operated by a varied crew; Ripley joins them; they land on a planet and go underground (in this case, into a mine to get some magic fuel); uh-oh, there are Aliens™ down there! Tension; gore; hard-bitten dialogue; tension; gore. Ash, the Ian-Holm, android turns up. Ripley survives. Done. That Ripley survives is no spoiler, for the story is set between Alien and the sequel movie Aliens. So the reader does not doubt Ripley's immunity; only how it is that she didn't remember anything to do with the adventure on awakening. But Lebbon explains that, too.

Now Lebbon-the-writer is a pro, and his aliens ('Lebbalien'?) are efficiently drawn and effective. The cast of characters get deftly sketched-in at the beginning, so that we care just enough when they start getting picked off. In other words: this title does exactly what it says on the Franchise-branded tin, and does it with considerable technical competence. There are occasional head-scratching moments, mind you. One is the nature of the mine. 'Trimonite was the hardest, strongest material known to man, and when a seam as rich as this one was found, it paid to mine it out.' Mine it out with drill-bits and hammers made of a substance even harder and stronger than Trimonite, presumably. But look: nitpicking isn't the frame-of-mind in which to approach a novel like this. You already know whether it's the kind of book you'd be interested in reading.

* Note: I was going to add a gag to the effect that 'Beowulf and Gilgamesh' sounds like a heroic crime-fighting buddy duo: 'Fighting Crime -- the Old Fashioned Way!' But, on reflection, I'm not sure they do sound like a buddy-buddy cop movie pairing. And thinking a little more about this, it occurs to me: buddy-buddy cop duos need to have a certain metrical pattern to their linked names: specifically, quartus paeon, 'short-short-short-long'. Starsky and Hutch. Tango and Cash. Turner and Hooch. Hickey and Boggs. It works in other areas too: Morecambe and Wise, Watson and Crick, Oryx and Crake. Beethoven's Fifth ... duh-duh-duh-duhhhmm! I don't know why. But this is by-the-bye, except to note that were Tim Lebbon and Ridley Scott to team up and fight crime, they could go by the joint-moniker 'Lebbon and Scott' which would work just fine.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

E J Swift, Cataveiro (2014)

Very much a sequel to Swift's wonderful debut, Osiris, I nevertheless found myself wondering if the novel might face the world better if marketed as a standalone. The 'Book Two of the Osiris Project' tag on the cover, there, might put readers off, and it shouldn't. New readers can start here, and get a clear sense of Swift's distinctiveness and excellence as a writer. It's a slow-burn read that earns the time it takes to develop its story. Swift has the ability to write deeply believable worlds; as far from the stomping foot of nerdism as ... well. The crown of nerdism's head, I guess. Or, eh. That might. Might not have been the best analogy, to ...

Start again.

Cataveiro opens in Patagonia. Osiris is believed lost, and has even become something of a myth to the post-disaster communities scraping a living here. Our protagonist, Romana Callejas, has a plane, a piece of Boreal (Northern Hemisphere, = the enemy) tech that she is permitted to keep so that she can map the habitable territories of South America's extremity for the authorities. Her motivation is provided by a need to get medical help to her mother, dying of 'the jinn': there are lots of well realised and suitably horrid plagues and diseases floating around, since the disaster this novel is post- was a rogue viral as well as a climate change one. The deuteragonist is a fellow called Taeo Ybanez, a citizen of the Republic of Antarctica, and his motivation is to get home to his wife and kids. In order to do this he needs to placate the government he pissed-off, and his passport to that placation is the figure of Vikram (from Osiris), washed up in Terra del Fuego. Both character motivations feel real, and Swift is too canny a writer to be tempted by artificial tension ramping-upping. Generally she does a bang-up job of avoiding overly-melodramatising her nuanced storytelling. To be picky, there are elements in the central section of this three-part novel where, via mafia-bosses and sinister cripples from the north, the Melodrama starts to creep back in. But it's not the heart of the tale; and it's not like that in the marvellous first or third sections.

Romana and Taeo make a deal, although each is lying to the other. They head off in different directions. Romana soars off in her microlight plane, Taeo picks up Vikram and proceeds on foot. Both pass through Cataveiro, a city on the East Coast, possibly on the location of old Santa Cruz (I'm not sure). Romana eventually travels much further north. The narrative is deeply absorbing and effective, cleanly and evocatively written and with an immaculate sense of what telling details will bring a scene to life without overloading the reader. The mood of the opening section reminded me a little Christopher Priest's first novel, Indoctrinaire, also set in a future South America (Priest is thanked in the acknowledgements). That I thought this may be an index of nothing more than how big an impact that novel had on younger-me; and indeed, where Priest went Kafkaesque and deliciously baffling, Swift goes for a mellower, more carefully rendered quest narrative. The landscapes are beautifully rendered, the deserts in particular, the proper Lawrence of Arabia glamour of emptiness, not to mention a tastily written English Patient airplane crash. Not that I want to give the impression this fine novel is in any way derivative. It's not. Like Swift's first novel, it is stylish, memorable, beautifully written and utterly distinctive. Proper grown-up SF.