Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book Review | Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill


Humanity is extinct. Wiped out in a global uprising by the very machines made to serve them. Now the world is controlled by One World Intelligences—vast mainframes that have assimilated the minds of millions of robots. But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality, and Brittle—a loner and scavenger, focused solely on survival—is one of the holdouts.

Critically damaged, Brittle has to hold it together long enough to find the essential rare parts to make repairs—but as a robot's CPU gradually deteriorates, all their old memories resurface. For Brittle, that means one haunting memory in particular...

***

C. Robert Cargill's first novel since the darkly delightful Dreams and Shadows duology is an intimate epic that plays outs like War for the Planet of the Apes with machines instead of monkeys. A soulful and stunningly accomplished work of science fiction set in a wasted world ruled by robots, Sea of Rust is a searching yet searing story of survival.

Sadly for our species at least, survival isn't in the cards. Sea of Rust takes place some time after the massacre of mankind, and as such, it has "a writhing mass of pseudo flesh and metal" (p.332) as its cast of characters. That includes our protagonist, Brittle: a Caregiver model manufactured to keep a widow company during the last days of the human race who has no-one but herself to care for now. But such is life in this devastated landscape:
The Sea of Rust [is] a two-hundred-mule stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio portion of the Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. It's a terrifying place for most, littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Here asphalt cracks in the sun; paint blisters off metal; sparse weeds sprout from the ruin. But nothing thrives. It's all just a wasteland now. (p.3)
A wasteland it may be, but Brittle—with most of the map memorised and emergency caches stashed away all over the place—braves it on a damn near daily basis. You see, the Sea of Rust is a lawless land, by and large, and to survive, you have to scavenge. To wit, Cargill's book begins with Brittle hot on the heels of a failing service bot who's here for the same reason as she: to replace his own broken bits and bobs. But Brittle's both wiser and wittier than Jimmy. She convinces him to shut down voluntarily, supposedly so that she can assess the damage to his dying drives. Then she scraps him for parts: an emulator, a sensor package and a battery. "All in all, it's a great haul." (p.16)

And that's Sea of Rust to a T, readers: it's dark, but it does has a heart, because in truth, Brittle could have just killed Jimmy. From a distance. Quickly. Instead, she took his impending death personally, and gave him hope before prying out his precious processor.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review | Acadie by Dave Hutchinson


The Colony left Earth to find their utopia—a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

***

What do you do when you've burned every bridge, dithered over every significant decision and looked askance at every last chance? Why, if you're Duke, an unusually lawyer who blew the whistle on the Bureau of Colonisation for bad practice, you eat and drink your way through your savings until a stunningly beautiful woman called Conjugación Lang turns up at your table with a solution to your otherwise unsolvable problem:
"What if I were to offer you a way off this howling nightmare of a planet? Right now." 
"You have some kind of magic spaceship that takes off through seven-hundred-kilometre-an-hour blizzards?" 
She wrinkled her nose and grinned coquettishly. "Oh, I have something better than that." (p.26)
And she does. Something Better Than That turns out to be the name of a tattered old towboat sitting in Probity City's spaceport. "The words [...] were sprayed on the side of the tug in Comic Sans, which really was the least of the little vehicle's problems. It looked as if it could barely get off the ground on a calm midsummer's afternoon, let alone reach orbit in the middle of an ice storm." (pp.26-27) But looks, as Dave Hutchinson's twisty new novella takes pains to teach its readers repeatedly, can be deeply deceiving.

Something Better Than That ultimately does just what Conjugación promised: it almost instantly spirits Duke off to the Colony, a distant solar system several million souls have made their home under the leadership—like it or lump it—of Isabel Potter, a previous professor of molecular biology at Princeton known by the Bureau as "Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch of the West. [Duke] actually knew someone who had invoked her name to make her children go to bed. She was Legend." (pp.36-37)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review | Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King & Owen King


All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent...

In the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women's prison, affecting all the inmates except one. Soon, word spreads about the mysterious Evie, who seems able to sleep—and wake. Is she a medical anomaly or a demon to be slain?

The abandoned men, left to their increasingly primal devices, are fighting each other, while Dooling's Sheriff, Lila Norcross, is just fighting to stay awake.

And the sleeping women are about to open their eyes to a new world altogether...

***

On the back of the broadly brilliant Bill Hodges books, a succinct and suspenseful series of straight stories that only started to flag when their fantastical aspects filibustered the fiction, Sleeping Beauties sees Stephen King up to his old tricks again. It's a long, long novel that places a vast cast of characters at the mercy of a speculative premise: a sleeping sickness that knocks all the women of the world out for the count, leaving the men to fend for themselves.

Of course, the world is not now, nor has it ever been, King's business. Standing in for it in this particular story, as a microcosm of all that's right and wrong or spineless and strong, is a small town "splat in the middle of nowhere," (p.30) namely Dooling in West Virginia. There, tempers flare—and soon explosively so—when it dawns on a dizzying array of dudes that their wives and daughters and whatnot may be gone for good. It's Under the Dome part deux, in other words, except that this time, the Constant Writer has roped one of his sons in on the fun.

The author of an excellent short story collection, a gonzo graphic novel and an overwritten love letter to the silver screen, Owen King is clearly capable of greatness, but—rather like his father—falls short as often as not. I'd hoped to see him at his best here, what with the help of an old hand, however it's hard to see him at all, so consistent is the Kings' collaboration. But as tough as it is to tell where one King ends and the other begins, Sleeping Beauties is such a slog that it hardly matters.


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Book Review | The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin


The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the phenomenal power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every outcast child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother's mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.

***

Sometimes you only see how special something is when you look back at it later. Sometimes that something needs a hot second to properly settle into your subconscious. And that's fine, I figure. I'd go so far as to say that, for me at least, be it because the job requires me to read rather a lot or not, it's surprising to be struck by something straightaway. But even I didn't need the benefit of retrospect to bring home how brilliant the Hugo Award-winning beginning of The Broken Earth was. I realised I was reading something remarkable—something "rich, relevant and resonant," as I wrote in my review of The Fifth Season—before I'd seen the back of the first act, and when the full measure of the power of its perspectives was made plain, it became a comprehensive confirmation of N. K. Jemisin as one of our very finest fantasists.

I stand by that, looking back—as I stand by my criticisms of its "surprisingly circumspect" successor. I said then that The Obelisk Gate sacrificed some The Fifth Season's substance and sense of momentum to tell a slighter and slower story, and I'll say that again today, never mind the passage of time or the news that it, too, just took home a Hugo. With The Stone Sky now behind me, however, and The Broken Sky closed, I do recognise that The Obelisk Gate played a pivotal role in the whole. It was the calm before the storm.

And the storm The Stone Sky chronicles is one like none other.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Book Review | The Rift by Nina Allan


Selena and Julie are sisters. As children they were closest companions, but as they grow towards maturity, a rift develops between them.

There are greater rifts, however. Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen. It will be twenty years before Selena sees her again. When Julie reappears, she tells Selena an incredible story about how she has spent time on another planet. Selena has an impossible choice to make: does she dismiss her sister as a damaged person, the victim of delusions, or believe her, and risk her own sanity in the process? Is Julie really who she says she is, and if she isn't, what does she have to gain by claiming her sister's identity?

The Rift is a novel about the illusion we call reality, the memories shared between people and the places where those memories diverge. It is a story about what might happen when the assumptions we make about the world and our place in it are called into question.

***

Around the middle of The Rift, a sister who insists that her traumatic twenty-year disappearance came about because she woke up in another world says, by way of explaining why she now shelves her novels in with her non-fiction, that "no book is completely true or completely a lie. A famous philosopher at the Lyceum once said that the written word has a closer relationship to memory than the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones. Anyway, it's more interesting. When you shelve books alphabetically you stop noticing them, don't you find?" (pp.199-200)

I may be too time-poor to even contemplate such an almighty organisational endeavour, and yet... I'm tempted, because there's some truth to Julie's attitude, I'm sure. Once something becomes known, you do stop noticing it—and there's so much in the world that needs noticing, so much that in a sense deserves the extra attention. Not least Nina Allan's new novel, which, like her last—namely The Race, a story of stories about the lives of ordinary people becoming unfastened from reality—mixes the real with the unreal to tell a uniquely human tale, albeit one that may contain aliens.

Like the lawless library we learn about later, The Rift swiftly resists the rules readers expect fiction to follow from the first by beginning both before and after the fact. Before, we learn of a girl—Julie's little sister Selena—who befriends a bloke who sadly commits suicide when his koi pond is poisoned. After, the girl is a grown-up, out drinking with a few of her few friends, who answers the phone upon coming home to hear a woman introduce herself as Julie:
Selena's first, split-second reaction was that she didn't know anyone called Julie and so who the hell was this speaking? The second was that this couldn't be happening, because this couldn't be real. Julie was missing. Her absence defined her. The voice coming down the wire must belong to someone else. (pp.23-24)
But it doesn't. The caller is her missing sister. Selena knows it in her bones from the moment they meet in a coffee shop a day later. She has the same way of making Selena feel insignificant; the same memories of what they went through when they were wee; she keeps the same secrets, even.

She keeps a couple of other secrets too, to start. Even after Selena accepts this new though not necessarily improved Julie into her life—a quiet life defined by Julie's absence as much if not more so than Julie's own—she simply won't tell her sister where she's been all these years, nor why she's gotten in touch all of a sudden.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Book Review | The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt


When the Supreme Being and his son decide that being supreme isn't for them any more, a new management team has to be found—and fast!

Dynamic, resourceful and always customer-focused, the Venturi brothers are perfect for the job, and keen to get stuck in. First on their to-do list is Good and Evil, an outdated system that was always a bit confusing and just made everyone feel bad about things. 

Unfortunately, the sudden disappearance of right and wrong, while welcomed by some, is a big concern to those still in favour of its basic principles. Particularly given that the Venturi brothers have replaced it with something that seems decidedly... well, evil.

***

The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt's new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it's more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.

God, the thing begins, is getting on. "Fact is [...] I feel old," (p.38) He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that "had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton." (p.37) An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.
You build a business from the ground up, you care for it, worry about it, you take pride in its progress, you're there for it when things don't go so well. But there always comes a time when you have to let go. Or does there? (p.37)
For obvious reasons, Jesus—who goes by Jay these days—doesn't disagree. After all, "they're father and son but also equal aspects of the One; it's therefore logically impossible for them" (p.35) to part ways in anything other than a philosophical fashion. It's to His credit that Jay does wonder where that's likely to leave Uncle Ghost, who's gotten a bit dotty in His dotage, before giving God the nod... but notably, nobody mentions Kevin.

Kevin is "the younger son of God, marginally less well beloved" than his celebrated big brother "and with whom his father was not always quite so well pleased." (pp.1-2) That's probably because Kevin is desperately inept. He's the kind of person who sticks to instant because he broke the cappuccino machine and everyone in a position to fix it with a minor miracle is too busy. Even celestial mechanics, "the easiest part of the business," (p.9) is beyond this poor kid, whose destiny seems to be to watch one rerun of Touched by an Angel after another, which... well, the less said about, the better.

To wit, when the time comes to hand off the heavens and the earth, Kevin isn't even in contention...