Wednesday, October 05, 2005

For what it's worth:

My top three SpecFic book picks from
Apex digest Reviews


Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolf - The first book in the Urth of the New Sun tetralogy, and perhaps the bar-setter for New Weird published back when the rest of the genre world was still getting to grips with Cyberpunk. Set in an ancient future, Wolfe's literary masterwork speaks to the present about truth and identity through his narrative of a young torturer's journey from apprentice to emperor and saviour. I recommend this book because it will lead you into Wolfe's world which comes full circle through two subsequent trilogies.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks - A single book that displays the Culture, Banks' amusingly insightful and deeply disturbing dys-utopic galactic civilisation, in exquisite relief. A single book that showcases Banks' ability to show a reader a doorway leading to depravity and inhumanity, and for the reader to willingly pass through. A single book that holds between its thin covers a dissection of morality and western politics presented in rich, clever, and exciting SF prose. If you only ever read one SF book, then read this one.

The Real Story: The Gap Into Conflict by Stephen Donaldson - Genre writing is a fickle world, and nothing highlights that fickle nature so much as that Stephen Donaldson is famous for 'Thomas Covenant' rather than his Wagnerian Ring cycle inspired Gap series. The fabulously flawed main characters are introduced in The Real Story, and the scene is set for the grand events of the subsequent books in the series. Without doubt, Donaldson's SF offering is the most pure and mature example of Space Opera to enter the popular market. The Real Story is the first (and shortest) of five books that combine page-turning action with operatic plotlines to produce that rare thing: a SpecFic book genuinely written for adults.

Steampunk

Mainline Sequence
Apex Digest Online - October 2005

Although steampunk literature appeared virtually (pun intended) at the same time as its cyberpunk parent genre with works such as Jeter's appalling 1979 Morlock Night and Heinlein's equally atrocious 1980 Number of the Beast, it wasn't until Gibson's and Sterling's 1992 The Difference Engine that steampunk came into sharp focus. Having said that, an often overlooked precursor was Michael Moorcock's Grand Bretan from his Eternal Champion cycle.

Steampunk is the branch of SpecFic that combines alternate historical (usually Victorian) settings with cyberpunk trappings. Identity and politics and counterculture are examined through the devices of cybernetics and information technology wrapped up in exagerated steam technology. Or enhanced steam technology. Or extrapolated steam technology.

In visual media, a watered down version of steampunk gave rise to TV shows and movies such as Wild Wild West, but it could be argued that the 'punk' was missing. Not so Alan Moore's brilliant
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (currently two volumes), which combines 19th century adventure literature with 20th century superhero comicbooks to produce a steampunk masterpiece starring Dracula's Mina Harker (going under her maiden name of Murray), Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyl/Mr Hyde, Wells' Invisible Man, and H. Rider Haggard's Alan Quartermain as the League. In the first series the League are set against Moriarty, and in the second they rise to the defence of Earth against H.G. Wells' Martian Invasion, with Jon Carter (and many many others) making a guest appearance.

Less well known, although easily The League's equal in narrative complexity, is Joe Kelly's Steampunk: Manimatron (which brings together the first five issues of his Steampunk comicbook series). The rich detail of the illustrations mirrors (and is integral to) the temporal mind-fuck of Kelly's story, set in an England held in the hundred year thrall of archeo-science maven, Lord Absynthe. The people are revolting, and need a leader. The vivacious cyber-assassin Victoria (yes yes, it's THAT Victoria) is playing a double-game, so it falls to temporal refugee Cole Blacksmith (urged by political activist Robert Peel) to fill the role. The story details the reluctant Blacksmith's rise, but it does so in such a way that an immediate re-read is called for by the time the last page is turned.

Steampunk works better in the comic medium than any other -- sometimes you need to see it to believe it, and yet by its nature there also needs to be a literary feel to the work to capture the nineteenth century adventure literature flavour. Comics are also very much a part of the punk culture (less now than in the eighties and nineties perhaps).

Either of the titles described in this article would make great launch points into the subgenre.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Apex Science fiction and Horror Digest (Fall 2005)

I'm a contributor to this issue.

So sue me.

That said, let me talk about Jason Sizemore's latest collection of macabre Specfic in his own words:

Best.

Issue.

Ever.

Did the issue live up to the hype? Hell yes!

It kicks off with The Kaarst; a post global-warming character study by novelist
M.M. Buckner set (fittingly given the publication's home) in Kentucky. The impoverished albino locals are living a subsitence existence deep underground, but what they lack in worldly goods and material sophistication, they make up for in their generosity of spirit and the richness of their dreams. And they have great hope. Buckner describes the final hours of an interloping geologist from the material-rich Greenland.com, a thinly disguised inheritor of Imperial America. Through her protagonist, Buckner throws spiritual enoblement and altruism up against the ponderous cruelty of neglected nature. The story leaves one wondering wherein lies the greater meaning. This is a good thing.

I'll not talk of my own Accountant: Life on the Streets other than to note that the name of the bar in the story was changed from the original "pHrUt3 bRut3" to "The Radioactive Monkey" so the story could be submitted to Requiem for a Radioactive Monkey (fortunately for Apex Digest, A:LotS was duly rejected from that worthy publication). In a stroke of cosmic irony, Apex Digest (a Kentuckian publication) contains a story by a New Zealand writer featuring a bar called "The Radioactive Monkey" and also a story by a Canadian writer (Barbara Geiger) who has previously been published in Requiem for a Radioactive Monkey. What are the chances of THAT?

And then it gets very dark indeed.

Big Sister/Little Sister by
Jennifer Pelland is that rare thing in the sophisticate modern genre world within which we live: a horror story. From start to finish, the story layers spite and malice and cruelty and hurt to a screaming nub of horror; an irresistible vortex of incredulity that (at the risk of giving all away) leaves the reader crying "For the love of God, Montresor!"

The Meateaters by Sue Lange is a cock-teaser of a story. Monstrous behaviour is made commonplace, and even greater monstrosities are hinted at. The ending is an obvious corollary of the underlying premise if the reader can clear their head of nasty voyeuristic possibilities long enough to think straight. The title says it all.

Heroes, All by novelist Steven Fisher is a brave story of sacrifice and (possibly) redemption. Thematically, it is well placed with The Kaarst and Accountant: Life on the Streets in that a measure of closure is achieved, and the reader is drawn through the SF trappings of a conquered Earth and time-shifted settings for the pleasure of alien overlords possessing famous people from the past. A bittersweet tale, and no mistake.

Irish writer Artie Nolan's story Upgrade won second place in the BBC World Service short story contest. Any description of the plot will likely blunt the sting-in-the-tail. Suffice to say that it uses an established POV gimmick to excellent effect. If the reader is familiar with the 1953 Fantasy Award winning City by Clifford Simak then Upgrade will resonate as a well written homage to the trope. If not, then it will certainly deliver a head-smack at the end and prompt an immediate re-read.

Human Resources by Christopher Stires provides an understated pause for the reader who chooses to progress through the issue in sequential order. It reads almost as a black comedy; a parody of our Occupational Safety and Health obsessed culture tackling workplace stress head-on. The denoument is a wake-up call to the reader as much as it is to the protagonist.

But for this reviewer, the sit-up-and-take-notice-of-THIS-one-boys-and-girls story is Trees of Bone by Malawian writer (and stand-up comedian) Daliso Chaponda. It has a gentle start owing more to magical realism than dark SpecFic, with a wedding in a near-future rural village. A village hot-head has been injured during a foray into the nearby town, and tribal violence bubbles near to boiling. But the elder Katulo insists the wedding should go ahead to help defuse calls for revenge, and during the wedding the reader is introduced to his power of Waking temporal ghosts. That power is used later in the story to terrible effect. Chaponda's skill is that he uses the horrors of the Tutsi/Hutu racial cleansing from our own recent past to infuse his story with a powerful morality rich with allegorical references, African/European ideological collisions, and past/future tension. This story uses the device of science fiction for a compelling examination of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. Extremely professional, and highly recommended reading.

Little Black Boxes by Canadian writer (and Radioactive Monkey) Barbara Geiger relates a tale of human freedom fighters caught in a web of betrayal and counter-betrayal between warring factions of Earth's alien (body-snatching) conquerors. The gruesome elements and shifting frame of reference work well with the harder science fiction elements, but Geiger's strength is in presenting sympathetic characters who respond to their extreme situation with true humanity.

Alexandria and Nebs by the prolific Bill Eakins will not be to everyone's taste, but stands nonetheless as a bittersweet short story that in very few words paints a beautiful character sketch against an abyssal backdrop. Alexandria and Nebs are the remnants of the AI of an archival extra-galactic expedition. The story relates the finale of their eons-long deterioration. A gem of a story set amidst the preceeding gore, and well worth finding.

The Parting Shot for this issue is Within the Darkness by K.A. Patterson. It seems to be a snap-shot story that certainly aspires to the Dark SF niche Apex sets out to achieve. But for this reviewer the lack of flash-fiction punch made it the weakest contribution in an otherwise extremely powerful collection.

The non-fiction is of the same high standard as in previous issues. Editor Jason Sizemore has demonstrated Issue #2 was no accident and he has a sure hand at the tiller. His vision has always been clear, and now with Issue #3 he displays confidence more befittting an industry veteran.

Best.

Issue.

Ever.

... untill Issue #4!




Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Thing in the Refrigerator that could Stop Time by Mathew Kressel

There are many small press publications, (and even more web publications) touting for horror, who state in their guidelines that anyone whose stories feature the usual tropes of vampires, or demons, or ghosts need not apply. They want new ideas, new forms of horror, and God help us all if anyone dare submit any of the things that have given the horror fanbase the chills since Adam was a cowboy.

The thing is, those elements crop up time and again, because they do put a frightener on readers IF they are handled well by the writer. It could be argued that the protesting publishers see a lot of bad writing incorporating vampires and demons and ghosts not because the vampires and demons and ghosts are the subject of the stories, but just because there a lot of writers who have yet to get to grips with their craft.

Not so Matthew Kressel (himself the publisher of Sybil's Garage).

In The Thing in the Refrigerator that could Stop Time e-published in Apex Online #7 , Kressel offers his readers a take on the old horror trope of the nasty-little-things-are-out-there-but-we-just-can't-see-them-and-if-we-could-we'd-all-go-mad. His narrative style reeks of craft.

The slightly-out-of-dimensional-step-creatures (fug it, let's just call them 'creatures' from now on) have the power to slow percieved passage of time (given their ability to alter thought, one presumes the mechanism is through speeding up perceptual processing, but that's just the SF writer in me). Similarly, Kressel contracts and telescopes time during his sophisticated narrative technique, so that when the main character reaches the climax of his slow-motion bid to prevent a captured creature from escape, so too the reader has joined the protagonist with a full grasp of the events leading to the current crisis.

Just as artfully, everything is ripped away from the protagonist at the same time the reader is left with a nagging suspicion that perhaps the story is an exploration of the emotional disintigration of a very unhappy man, rather than a tale relating the events of an objective reality. And ultimately, the story is more about the nature of perception, and about personal responsibility, than it is about a supernatural 'Twilgiht Zone' set of events.

See what can be done with 'tired' horror tropes in the hands of a skilled horror writer? Take THAT and stick it up your arse, all you 'we-don't-accept-vampires-demons-and-ghosts' poseur publishers out there.