James Smythe, The Machine (2013)

The MachineLast year, I watched ‘Be Right Back’, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in which a woman has her dead husband’s personality downloaded into a robot body. It was the kind of intimate, human drama that genre science fiction doesn’t seem to do very much these days (on page or screen); too often, I find, interesting ideas will be drowned out by an ill-suited conspiracy/thriller plot.

It was so refreshing, then, to read James Smythe’s The Machine, and find a work of contemporary science fiction that’s happy to be understated (tellingly, the novel is published as mainstream). We begin with Beth McAdams taking receipt of three large packages. The delivery men don’t know what they are (‘exercise equipment,’ Beth tells them, though she knows they won’t believe her); the neighbours gawp as these parcels have to be brought in through Beth’s window because they won’t fit through the door. When the whole contraption is assembled, it fills most of one wall and emits a constant whirring noise; even before Beth begins using it, the Machine has staked a claim on her world.

The Machine was originally invented as a means of treating the effects of harmful memories (such as those of conflict experienced by soldiers like Beth’s partner Vic), but it left those who used it severely brain-damaged, and the original device was banned. Later, it emerged that the Machine might also be able to reinstate the memories it took; Beth has sourced an outlawed model, and plans to use it on Vic.

So there are questions of identity to be explored – who will Vic be if his memories are restored? for example – but what particularly intrigues me about The Machine is how much it focuses on Beth. The first third of the novel consists largely of Beth’s preparations for the summer holidays, when she will be able to put her teaching job aside and concentrate on tending Vic. The second part of The Machine then begins with Beth bringing Vic home from the hospice; his unresponsive body is difficult to get through the door, and she wonders if the neighbours are watching. This is a marvellous touch, because it draws parallels between Vic and the Machine, underlining the similar position that each has come to occupy in Beth’s life. Smythe then depicts the routine that Beth has to establish, looking after Vic in his current state, and playing back his memories through the Machine. The detail is unflinching, emphasising that this is what Beth must do to achieve the end she wants – perhaps the regime that Beth’s caught up in is the real Machine.

Smythe’s evocation of place in The Machine is economical and effective. Beth lives on the Isle of Wight, the crossing to the mainland now made more treacherous by the effects of a warming climate (so Beth is partly dislocated by geography, which mirrors her emotional state). The heat frays tempers has brought about all sorts of little pragmatic social changes; we see these particularly through the tense relations between adults and young people in the novel – and, again, the technique underscores Beth’s feelings, this time her desperation.

I’m tempted to quote from The Machine, because its prose hits the mark so well. But the real effect of Smythe’s writing comes not from its individual pieces, but from the accumulation of the whole – its relentless, plain-speaking precision. Smythe portrays a situation which is as intense for the reader to experience as it would be for Beth, because we move through it in the same way, and at the same pace, as she does. The line ultimately blurs between whether Beth is doing what she does for Vic or for herself ; and maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe it all comes back to the actions, the mechanics.

Elsewhere
James Smythe’s website
Some other reviews of The Machine: Nina Allan; Savidge Reads; Words of Mercury; For Winter Nights.

Reviews elsewhere: Dave Hutchinson and Jeremy P. Bushnell

Europe in Autumn

Today I’m rounding up a couple of recent reviews that I’ve had published on other sites. First, I am back at Strange Horizons with a look at Dave Hutchinson‘s new novel, Europe in Autumn  (published by Solaris). This is a tale of espionage set in a future Europe which has fractured into myriad small polities – but there’s a quietness to the whole book that I find very interesting. Europe in Autumn has an engagement with form and tone that I’d love to see more often in contemporary genre science fiction. You can read my full review of the novel here.

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I also have a new review up at We Love This Book, of Jeremy P. Bushnell‘s debut novel, The Weirdness (published by Melville House). Here it is:

WeirdnessJeremy Bushnell’s first novel is the tale of a man finding his way in a world that turns out to be stranger than he ever imagined.

Billy Ridgeway is a thirty-year-old aspiring writer who wonders at the weirdness of everyday life: isn’t it just odd that you can walk into a bodega in New York and buy bananas? And why exactly did people start keeping animals as pets? One day, the Devil visits Billy’s apartment and offers him a deal: stop a warlock who’s trying to unlock the secrets of a magical artefact that could destroy the world, and Lucifer will ensure that Billy’s book is published (short stories are such a hard sell, after all). Billy doesn’t quite agree at first, but the Devil has ways of persuading him; and so begins Billy’s journey of adventure and discovery.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The Weirdness is its sheer exuberance (or cheek), as Bushnell gleefully piles absurdity on top of outlandishness. Barely any part of Billy’s life remains ordinary, so it’s not so much a case of suspending your disbelief as just abandoning it and going with the flow. Yet there’s a certain distancing effect at play, as though all the magic is just a sideshow; at the heart of The Weirdness is the story of Billy finding out what really matters in life – and what matters is much more down to earth. For all that Bushnell’s novel is a fantastical romp, it doesn’t lose sight of the human dimension.

(The original review is here.)

Reading round-up: early February

Roelof Bakker & Jane Wildgoose, Strong Room (2014)

A new project from Roelof Bakker, the artist-photographer behind the 2012 anthology Still, presented as  a stapled booklet fastened with a crocodile clip. Like the earlier anthology, Strong Room contains a selection of Bakker’s photographs of the vacated Hornsey Town Hall; but, where Still was perhaps more about space, this collection is focused on detail, and how physical objects can be both permanent and transient.

The images in Strong Room are close-ups of objects in the Town Hall: the torn upholstery of chairs in the council chamber; boxes of nuts and bolts in the maintenance room; document files in the strong room. It seems to me that Bakker is highlighting that the context in which these objects mattered has gone, and what’s left is their abstract detail.

Alongside Bakker’s photographs is a short piece in which writer Jane Wildgoose describes an instance of requesting an old document from a medical library. It seems a fairly unremarkable act, but Wildgoose uses it to reflect on themes of past and present, virtual and physical: using the electronic technology of her laptop to call for a hefty leather-bound tome which is handled with great care. Wildgoose’s text approaches the same issues as Bakker’s photographs from a different angle; all adds up to a thought-provoking whole.

Darkness at NoonArthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)
Translated from the Hungarian by Daphne Hardy

This was my book group’s most recent selection, and it generally went down well. I was undecided after reading Darkness at Noon as to whether it was a book for me, and I’m still not sure after our discussion. This book is the tale of Rubashov, once a high-ranking official in his country’s governing Party, now imprisoned and interrogated as a traitor to the regime. Koestler’s depiction of a show trial is grimly effective, with reference to people being executed for holding the ‘wrong’ opinions on seemingly trivial subjects, and Rubashov being inexorably worn down. I still suspect that Koestler’s prose is a bit too clinical for me to experience its full force; but, then again, that detachment is part of the point. I’m glad I read Darkness at Noon, though; and I wouldn’t have read it if not for the book group.

Eliza Granville, Gretel and the Dark (2014)

In Vienna of 1899, eminent psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is intrigued by his latest case, a girl he calls Lilie, who claims to be a machine. Some years later, young Krysta is living in a strange new place, where she befriends a boy named Daniel, whom her uncle insists is not a real child. Gradually, the two stories intertwine, as Josef tries to find out more about Lilie, and Krysta’s world grows darker. Along the way, Granville reflects on different ways in which people may put stories to use: to justify terrible prejudices, but also as a source of hope and (literal) escape. And the closing revelation is of the sort that makes me feel like reading the novel again, to see what else there is to find.

Antti Tuomainen, The Healer (2010)
Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (2013)

In a Helsinki beset by the effects of climate change, poet Tapani Lehtinen searches for his missing wife, Johanna. He learns that Johanna, a journalist, was researching ‘The Healer’,  a serial killer targeting those he deems responsible for climate change, with the aim of ‘cleaning up’ society’s ills. Tapani starts to wonder whether Johanna’s work took her too close to The Healer. There’s an interesting sparseness to the atmosphere of Tuomainen’s novel, but overall The Healer doesn’t quite work for me. The near-future setting doesn’t seem to add much (there is a subtext comparing the encroachment of climate change to Tapani’s personal situation, but I don’t find it to be carried through), and the resolution of the mystery plot is corny.

Mother Mother

Koren Zalickas, Mother, Mother (2013)

Things are not going well for the Hurst siblings. The eldest, Rose, disappeared in her last year of school. Violet attacked her brother, Will, and has been sent to a psychiatric institution. Will, who has autism and epilepsy, is looked after and home-schooled by his mother, Josephine, who obviously knows best for him – doesn’t she? But now Violet is receiving letters from Rose, who appears to be happily settled in a new life; and child protection officers are calling on Josephine… The ghastly truth of what’s really happening in the Hurst household is only gradually – and effectively – revealed in an interesting debut novel from Koren Zalickas.

Alternate worlds, Stephen King, and Vector

Issue 274 of the BSFA’s critical journal Vector arrived in the post just before Christmas. It was a very special moment for me, because this issue contains my first published piece of criticism about books: a look at how two contrasting collections of linked stories (one, Nina Allan’s The Silver Wind, speculative fiction; the other, David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, not) treat what might be termed ‘alternate worlds’. I was pleased with how the piece turned out, and hope to be able to republish it online at some point.

For now, however, I will leave you with the review that I also have in this issue of Vector, of Stephen King’s time-travel novel, 11.22.63:

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (2011)

112263There’s a portal leading to 1958 in the storeroom of Al Templeton’s diner. No matter how much time someone spends there, only two minutes will have elapsed in the present when they return. Their actions in the past may altered the present – but all will be reset if the portal is used again. Al has tried to change the course of history by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy; but cancer caught up with him before he could wait out the necessary five years. Back in 2011, he enlists teacher Jake Epping to go back and do what he couldn’t.

JFK’s murder may be the impetus of its plot, but the main focus of 11.22.63 for much of its length is Jake’s experience of the past: his realisation that he quite likes it back there, and his personal relationships, especially in Jodie, the small Texas town where he eventually settles and falls in love with a librarian named Sadie Dunhill. This strand has its moments, but in many ways it’s the least interesting aspect of King’s novel: as a character, Jake is rather anonymous – which is part of what helps him slot into 1958, but it also means there’s less emotional interest when he’s not being driven by his mission.

Nor is there much friction between past and present in the novel. Jake sees signs of the period’s prejudice and bigotry, but never has cause to truly confront or engage with them. For King’s protagonist, the 1950s and ‘60s can, unproblematically, be a time when root beer tasted better and folks were friendlier. The odd acknowledgement of social attitudes that don’t sit well with Jake’s liberal sensibilities does not carry much force in the face of this living past’s seductive nostalgia.

There are intriguing hints throughout 11.22.63’s midsection that time itself its resisting Jake’s attempts to change history; this maintains tension over whether he will actually succeed. But it’s not until novel’s end that the time travel aspect comes right to the fore – and here the book unbalances, as the tone built up over 700 pages shifts more than once over the next 30. A historical domestic drama with overtones of a thriller becomes a compressed science fiction story, and the transition is too abrupt to work.

The characterisation of Jake also causes the ending to come unstuck. Up to that point, the protagonist has seemed mostly detached; now, he acts with a strength of feeling that we haven’t really seen before – that King hasn’t really earned on the page. What’s more, the closing shifts feel like an author trying to have his cake and eat it, backtracking on a commitment to an emotional position. It’s a frustrating end to an uneven novel.

Reading round-up: late October

Here are some notes on what I’ve been reading lately…

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (2013)

Hearing Bernardine Evaristo read from this novel was one of my highlights from this year’s Penguin General Bloggers’ Evening, so naturally I was interested to read Mr Loverman. Our narrator is the charming Barrington Walker: 74 years of age, not quite as happily married to Carmel as he once was, and sixty years into a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. Now is the time for Barry decide what he really wants in life; his story on its own would be fine, but Evaristo broadens out her portrait to show other characters’ analogous difficulties. The occasional chapters told from Carmel’s viewpoint (in a prose-poetry style that’s a little less immediate than Barry’s narration, and so distances us slightly from her, just as she is from him) show how her delight at marrying Barry back in 1960s Antigua has paled in the decades since. The Walkers’ daughters are also finding that their lives may not necessarily have turned out as they or their parents imagined, adding another layer to a satisfying read.

Ian Sales, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself (2013)

Ian Sales continues his Apollo Quartet of novellas set in futures where the history of space exploration went differently; as with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the second volume proves an interesting character study. We join Bradley Elliott at two points in his career: in 1979, when he was about to become the first (and only) human to set foot on Mars; and twenty years later, as he goes on a mission to a far more distant world. What’s so striking about this novella is the air of resignation and melancholy that Sales creates: Elliott may be the only person capable of undertaking his 1999 mission, but there is also the strong sense that this is the only thing that Elliott can do with his life.

Maryam Sachs, The Passenger (2013)
Translated by Gael Schmidt-Cléach

In this intriguing short novel, a German woman arrives in Paris for her son’s birthday. She’s taken the journey from Charles de Gaulle many times; but this one becomes very different when the woman strikes up a conversation with her taxi driver, a Romanian who once lived in Japan. The pair’s conversation ranges far and wide, taking in their personal histories, their thoughts on art and moving between cultures. But this journey is not just a geographic one, as the woman starts to realise she is something of a passenger in her own life, and that it may now be time for her to take the wheel.

Tom Cheshire, The Explorer Gene (2013)

Technology journalist Tom Cheshire tells the story of Auguste, Jacques and Bertrand Piccard: three generations of the same family who became respectively the first person to enter the stratosphere; the person who travelled deeper into the ocean than anyone else ever has; and the first to circle the globe non-stop in a balloon. The Piccards’ story is extraordinary, and Cheshire brings it vividly to life, from the opening scene of Auguste struggling to deal with the leaking cabin of his experimental balloon, right through to Bertrand’s current plans for a solar-powered aircraft.

Jorn Lier Horst, Closed for Winter (2011)
Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce, 2013

A dead body is found in the summer cottage of a television presenter, sparking a new investigation for Chief Inspector William Wisting. Retreating from her relationship, Wisting’s daughter Line, an investigative journalist, settles into the family cottage to write a novel – and finds another body on the nearby beach. These two threads spiral together into a tense narrative, with an added undercurrent examining social change and the forces that may drive people to commit crime.

Books in brief: early September

Here’s another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.

Christopher Priest, The Adjacent (2013)

If there’s one thing you can be sure of with a Christopher Priest novel (and that’s quite an ‘if’), it is that the spaces between what is told will be at least as important as the tale itself. That was certainly true of 2011’s The Islanders, whose gazetteer-like structure left readers with a set of pieces from which multiple narratives could be constructed.

The Adjacent begins with photographer Tibor Tarent returning to what is now the Islamic Republic of Great Britain from a war zone where his partner Melanie, a doctor, was caught in the blast from an adjacency weapon, a device which annihilates everything within its triangular field.  He has been summoned by the government, who are keen to learn what he knows of one Thijs Rietveld, the Dutch scientist who invented adjacency technology; Tarent insists he’s never heard of the man – though that assertion would seem to be contradicted by a later chapter. It transpires that an adjacency weapon has wiped out a large area of West London; so much for Rietveld’s certainty that his technology could never been used in aggression.

The novel returns to Tarent periodically, but also takes in the First and Second World Wars, and Priest’s own fictional world of the Dream Archipelago; in these times and places, we meet individuals who may be analogues of Tarent and Melanie (and perhaps other characters besides). We learn that adjacency technology works by shifting matter into an adjacent quantum universe – though it evidently does a lot more than that.

The characters of The Adjacent do not always feel fully rounded, which in turn has a detrimental effect on the power of the novel’s love story. But there is still much to enjoy here, in how Priest paints with realities that bleed into each other and fray at the edges. There’s a wonderful recurring image of flight as freedom, the Spitfire used not to make war, but to transcend it. This gives rise to a sequence towards novel’s end which is one of the most affecting passages of imaginative writing I have read in a long time. Priest casts the fantastic into shapes that no one else does, and The Adjacent is a fine demonstration.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (2012)
Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, 2013

And Other Stories return to where they started with a second title from Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of the superb Down the Rabbit Hole. Quesadillas shares the earlier book’s wry wit and cutting absurdity. We meet Orestes, one of seven children (all named after characters from Greek mythology) living in the family home on a remote Mexican hill. Orestes would dearly love to escape, but his siblings seem to have better luck on that front than he does.

What makes the novel work so well for me is how the wider political and economic upheavals in the background are filtered through Orestes’ home life – so the quesadillas that his mother makes become more or less substantial as fortune allows; his household comes under pressure from the rich family who build a big house next door; and so on. As the pages turn, reality stretches further, until the family are literally defending their home. Add to this some sharp lines (‘Basically, all the rebels did was shout “Long live Christ the king!” and pray for time to go back to the beginning of the twentieth century’, p. 22) and you have a book that’s very much worth reading.

John Williams, Stoner (1965)

The Vintage Classics edition of this novel really seems to have taken off in the UK these last few months; I wasn’t too surprised to see that it was the next choice for one of my book groups. It chronicles the life of one William Stoner, who is born into a Missouri farming family, but ends up a professor of literature. After his death, Stoner is not much remembered, let alone celebrated; John Williams then explores the quiet dramas that make up such an ‘ordinary’ life.

I feel ambivalent towards Stoner, and think Scott Pack has it about right. The novel has some very good aspects: I especially like Williams’s evocation of the grit and graft of the farm; and the running theme of domestic and professional spaces being used as the battlegrounds for control in Stoner’s life. But Williams gives his female characters short shrift (to put it mildly); and, for me, there’s too little sense of friction – Stoner lets life sweep him along to such a degree that I find it working against the emotion and drama. There are a few times when Stoner’s strength of conviction does come to the fore, and they are some of the book’s most compelling moments; but I wish they weren’t so few and far between.

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven (2012)

This was my other book group’s latest choice; I liked it better than Stoner, but still have my reservations. I didn’t know much about A.M. Homes’s work beforehand, but I was anticipating a darkly humorous twist on the Great American Novel, which is pretty much what I got. What I’m unsure about is whether May We Be Forgiven subverts the archetype enough for my liking.

At the start of the novel. George Silver causes a fatal road crash and later smashes a beside lamp over his wife Jane’s head, killing her. He’s then sent away to a psychiatric institution, which leaves his brother Harry having to move in to look after George’s and Jane’s children. Harry’s wife Claire leaves him because he was having an affair with Jane – and so Harry’s run of misfortune continues, to a sometimes-absurd degree. There are certainly parts of May We Be Forgiven which I found amusing, such as the late of blooming of Harry’s ninety-year-old mother, who suddenly gets into dancing and all kinds of other activities. It often seems as though Harry is surrounded by people who are in command of the stories of their own lives, and the novel reveals how he tries to take control of his.

Looking back, I can’t quite put my finger on the reason I didn’t enjoy May We Be Forgiven More. I do know that the book group discussion made me feel like reading it again, to see what I’d missed. Maybe the time will be right, another day.

Peter Mattei, The Deep Whatsis (2013)

The spine of this novel reads: ‘The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is the bastard love-child of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Eric Nye is a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.” Well, I feel somewhere in between the two extremes towards him, so there.

Eric Nye is an ad agency’s ‘Chief Idea Officer’, who takes delight in his job of weeding out people to be fired; seemingly can’t look at a woman without objectifying her; and is about to find out that the pretty young intern with whom he’s just had a one night stand is not going away any time soon. So far, so unpleasant; and Nye stays that way for much of the book – but there is a relentless rhythm to his narration that keeps one going.

The novel’s satire of advertising and corporate culture feels a little too over-familiar truly to bite; but, further in, Nye’s subjectivity is challenged – there are hints that he may have done things he cannot remember – and this is what really captured my interest. Nye’s view of the world is all to him, so when its integrity is called into question, that hits him more than talk of morals or ethics ever could. Nye doesn’t quite become a reformed character, but he does start to change his mind; and his narration becomes a little less self-assured as a result. He’s not quite likeable, but we do start to see the person he could be. I’m struck by Mattei’s skilled control of language in The Deep Whatsis, and I’d certainly look forward to reading more of his work.

Sunday Story Society: ‘Meet the President!’ by Zadie Smith

sundaystorysmall

It’s time for the first installment of the new monthly Sunday Story Society, for which I’ve chosen to look at Zadie Smith’s story ‘Meet the President!‘ in the New Yorker (you can read it by clicking on the link). The way it works is, I start off with a review of the story, then you can join in talking about the story in the comments here, and we’ll just see how it goes. So…

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Zadie Smith has reportedly said that she’s working on a science fictional novel, which is an intriguing prospect to me. I’m not sure whether ‘Meet the President!; is an extract (it stands well enough on its own. And seems to make all the point that it needs to make), but it is a taster of how Smith may approach science-fictional material.

We begin on the edge of what is presumably still Suffolk, in a future sketched fairly conventionally, but efficiently: there was flooding a hundred years previously; Felixstowe has moved inland; a woman of forty-nine qualifies as ‘very old’ (on reflection, this may simply be reflecting the viewpoint of the protagonist as a teenage boy, but it still strikes me as fitting with the harsh nature of life in this place). Then comes the key technological innovation around which the story revolves: a personal augmented-reality device which allows users to place pretty much any situation or setting over the world they see.

‘Meet the President!’ is about dramatising contrasts. On the one hand, we have Bill Peek, the rich boy with the Augmentor, whose task (perhaps a futuristic analogue of the Grand Tour) is to travel around and use the augmentation technology to deepen his understanding of the world and its inhabitants. If that ends up looking like play, or ticking the boxes without really learning anything, so be it: Bill has the privilege to get ahead; to be safe; to move away from here (‘If you can’t move, you’re no one from nowhere,’ he says).

On the other hand, we have Melinda Durham and Aggie Hanwell, the local woman and girl who disturb Bill as the story begins. They have none of Bill’s advantages, and quite a few disadvantages if you go by what the Augmentor tells Bill about their likelihood of falling ill. But that kind of itemisation doesn’t give Bill the true measure of people – and the lacks the ability to deal with the real place in which he finds himself, as we see in the contrast between the rural community and the game Bill creates through the Augmentor.

I suppose that contrast could be seen as somewhat heavy-handed – Smith clearly has her thumb on the scales – but I think it ultimately works because there is such a sharp difference between the augmented and physical worlds that Bill experiences. I’d stop short of saying ‘Meet the President!’ is a great story (I don’t think it has quite enough depth for that); but it does make me look forward to that novel.

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And now, over to you…

“This is how hard you should have fought for my son when you brought him into the world”

Adam Marek, The Stone Thrower (2012)

Who is the Stone Thrower? In the title story of this, Adam Marek’s second collection, he is a boy killing the chickens  of the lakeside house that Hal’s family is renting. Hal pulls out all the stops to save his birds, demonstrating an action hero’s dexterity – but he is unprepared for just how determined the boy is to achieve his goal. In the collection as a whole, the figure of the Stone Thrower may the extraordinary forces at work in Marek’s stories, forces that may inspire extraordinary (to us, at least) responses in the adult characters seeking to protect their charges (chickens in Hal’s case, but more often children).

Marek’s tales typically begin with what appears to be a fairly unremarkable situation, but as they develop we may discover that not all is as it seems. In ‘The Stormchasers’, a father heads out with his son Jakey to go looking for a tornado. At story’s end, however, we find that the true purpose of that journey was to protect Jakey from a different kind of storm which has been going on at home. ‘Remember the Bride Who Got Stung?’ sees Victor out on a picnic with his family, when his allergic son Nate is stung by a bee; having left behind Nate’s shots , Victor determines to get the child’s adrenaline flowing – by any means necessary.

That latter story in particular illustrates one of Marek’s common techniques: to show how particular circumstances have shaped a character’s psychology in ways that appear reasonable to them, but may not to an outside observer like the reader. But – like many of The Stone Thrower’s tale’s – ‘Remember the Bride’ is understatedly and elegantly fantasticated. The appearance of a bee is a rare occurrence in the world of this story; and that’s the only hint we receive that we may be reading about a near future.

When Marek writes about the future (or an alternative present), there’s usually a greater degree of difference than that; but he’s always primarily concerned with the characters and their relationships. ‘Tamagotchi’ sees a new, more sophisticated, generation of those virtual pets on the market. Young Luke has a Tamagotchi which is sick, and spreading that sickness to other children’s pets; one parent asks that he keep away from the other children at a birthday party. But Luke is also epileptic, and his parents talk about him having a “design fault”: the stigma of having a sick Tamagotchi shades into how Luke is treated because of his condition, and affects the way his parents think about him. Sometimes this kind of mirroring extends further outwards: in ‘A Thousand Seams’, a mother clutches her ill son in the midst of a protest and tells him, ‘”WI’m going to make everything okay”. It’s an open question whether the boy or society is more threatened by having too much pressure placed on their respective weak points.

The collection ends with ‘Earthquakes’, which tells of a boy named Toby who has a rare condition that induces seizures which have external effects. The effect is different in each case (Toby’s seizures cause earth tremors), but no children with the syndrome have yet lived into their teens. The format of this story gives it a slightly different tone from most of the others in The Stone Thrower: it’s written as a generic fundraising letter – the details of the case are specific, but there’s just a placeholder for the recipient. So we have a curious mix of the personal and impersonal: there’s enough of a story about the text that it carries emotional weight; but there is also a sense that it may all be fake, a marketing document generated to drum up sympathy and cash. Even if we accept ‘Earthquakes’ as genuine, it feels like a lonely cry in the dark, because the mother writing this letter doesn’t know if anyone will ever read it. But, as ever in Marek’s stories, the adult characters will go to any length for their children if the circumstances demand it.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

Clarke Award 2013: And the winner is…

Quite a belated announcement at this point, but this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award went to Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. Not the result I had predicted, but that’s the Clarke for you.

All congratulations to Chris Beckett, who’s a writer I think deserves to be much more widely read. I didn’t get around to reviewing Dark Eden properly, so instead let me point you to some of my previous reviews of Beckett’s work: I’ve written about his Edge Hill Prize-winning collection The Turing Test (and did a guest post for Gav Pugh’s blog on the title story); and I considered his novel The Holy Machine (in a double review with Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys).

Clarke Award 2013: in review

I find the Clarke Award difficult to call this year, in terms of both what I think might win, and the order of personal preference in which I’d place the place the books. I think there are a number of books on the shortlist which are very close in quality, and they’re so different that they become hard to separate. But that’s no reason not to have a go, so let’s line the books up and whittle them down…

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First out of the balloon this year is Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars – which is actually not as harsh a judgment on the book as it might seem. In the few years that I’ve been reading the whole Clarke shortlist, the titles I’ve thought weakest have ranged from OK to downright awful – but The Dog Stars is pretty decent. It has issues with plotting, and its treatment of female characters, but it’s also wonderfully written. My greatest problem with Heller’s novel as a Clarke contender, though, is that I can’t help feeling it would be stronger without its speculative content.

With reluctance, I’ve reached the conclusion that Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 just isn’t my type. I enjoyed Galileo’s Dream a few years back (admittedly some aspects more than others); but 2312’s panoramic view of a terraformed and colonised solar system didn’t engage me to nearly the same extent. I found Robinson’s prose beautiful at times (some of the best scientific writing I’ve come across in a work of fiction for a long time), but other parts of the book left me feeling indifferent. I must acknowledge that I’m not ina position to be able to form a proper view on 2312; but, on the basis that I enjoyed the remaining books on the shortlist more, it’s my second title to go.

Chris Beckett is one of my favourite contemporary science fiction writers, someone I always feel is serious about using sf to explore particular issues. Dark Eden is not quite Beckett at his best, but it’s an interesting piece of work nonetheless. It tells the tale of an abandoned colonists on a distant world, who have made rituals out of the wait for three of their number to return from Earth with help. Beckett is efficient and effective at showing how the colonists’ language, thoughts and behaviours have been altered by their isolation. I also appreciate the way he examines not only the desire for change (the novel centres on a teenage colonist who wants to break away from the others’ ritualistic existence), but also the need to keep going once a great change has been made. I like Dark Eden, but I don’t think it reaches as far as the remaining books on the shortlist, so I’m discarding it next.

If I were to rank these six novels purely by my enjoyment of the reading experience, Nod by Adrian Barnes would top the list – but is that enough to make me think it should win the Clarke? I like Nod’s nervy energy; I think it does interesting things with the form of apocalyptic fiction; and it shares with Dark Eden an interest in how mythologies may develop. But Nod also has its shortcomings: its portrayal of female characters is problematic (to say the least); it puts all its eggs in one basket, and gleefully throws the basket at the reader’s window. When I look at the two other novels left, I see fewer flaws and broader achievements, and I think those qualities make them more worthy of the Clarke than Nod.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker is a showstopper, probably the most theatrical book on the shortlist. It has linguistic fireworks, grand imagination, and an underlying vein of seriousness to balance out its more playful aspects. Angelmaker has broad ambitions, and pretty much achieves them, even when they might seem contradictory. There’s a lot to recommend about Harkaway’s novel, and I think it would be a worthy Clarke winner – but for me it is just edged out by the last contender…

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod works on a smaller canvas than Angelmaker, and is a much quieter book. But it has a concentrated vision of a society stifled by prohibitions, ruled by a government afraid of anything it can’t label; and it uses very well the idea of seemingly innocuous details coming together in unexpected ways. It’s the completeness of vision – and the sharpness of observation and exploration of vision – that brings Intrusion to the top of the Clarke shortlist for me.

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How about a guess at which novel will actually win? I don’t think my ordering here is going to be the same as the judges’ – I doubt that Nod will survive as long in their process, and I’m certain that 2312 will end up higher on their list than I placed it. But I do suspect that The Dog Stars will be shown the door early on, and that Dark Eden will be overshadowed by some of the other books. I’d expect the final tussle for the winner’s mantle to be between two of Angelmaker, 2312 and Intrusion  - and my instinct is to plump for Angelmaker as the likely winner. But maybe I’m barking entirely up the wrong tree; whatever, the winning title will be announced on Wednesday.