Matters Arising for the Identification of the Body by Simon Petrie – a review

Another delayed review from a book I read a while back – I’m trying to catch up!

From Goodreads:

Tanja Morgenstein, daughter of a wealthy industrialist and a geochemist, is dead from exposure to Titan’s lethal, chilled atmosphere, and Guerline Scarfe must determine why.

This novella blends hard-SF extrapolation with elements of contemporary crime fiction, to envisage a future human society in a hostile environment, in which a young woman’s worst enemies may be those around her.

‘Matters Arising’ won the 2018 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novella or Novelette, and was shortlisted in the analogous category in both the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards.

This novella by New Zealand born/Canberra based Simon Petrie was recently re-released under his own imprint. Petrie has a series of stories based on a colonised Titan (one of the moons of Saturn), and while most of them are straight sci-fi, Matters Arising is a sci-fi/detective story crossover. Perhaps due to the number of stories he has set in this world, there is plausible, in depth world building that doesn’t overwhelm the narrative which is a great starting point.

For instance Petrie creates an interesting conceit, having an arm of the government work to establish the details of suicides to see if the society can learn anything from the circumstances. It is an interesting reflection on how culture/government might evolve in a constrained environment like a Titan colony.

In fact, Matters Arising packs a lot into the novella length. As well as setting a good pace, Petrie uses the extra space of a novella to flesh out the main character nicely, showing glimpses of family and other background information which creates a much stronger connection between reader and protagonist.

The mystery at the core of the story is intriguing, and the payoff at the end satisfying. The mystery itself depends on some of the technological advances outlined in the world building, which I like in a sci-fi/crime story. When the mystery could be set anywhere, it seems to defeat the purpose of using a futuristic setting.

All in all, I found Matters Arising a thoughtful, exciting piece, well and truly worthy of its award winning status. Highly recommended!

What’s shakin’? – June 2018

So, what have I been up to in June, culture consumed wise?

TV

Finally got around to finishing a couple of TV seasons that I’d left half done for some reason.

Lost In Space Season 1 – visually spectacular, good characterisation, tense. So if it was so good, why did I pause half way through and not come back to it for about 2 months? I’m not 100% sure, but I think it had to do with the Dr Smith storyline. Waiting for the other shoe to drop and people to work out what she was up to created a tension that took the edge off the show for me. However, when I got back into it it was a good run to the end, and it was an intriguing cliff hanger.

Shadowhunters Season 3 – don’t generally love the angel/devil based urban fantasy (I love urban fantasy, just not the Christian element) but I remain vaguely interested in this one. Not enough to watch religiously (pun intended), but every now and then. I could make some comments about world building, but honestly I think I like it mainly because I can switch my brain off and just watch along.

The Magicians Season 3 – now this was excellent TV. I’ve liked The Magicians all the way through, but I thought this season stepped it up a notch. It goes without saying that Margo and Elliot steal the show as always, but using a portal fantasy setup to allow for the meta-examination of the tropes of fantasy makes this show stand out for me. If you haven’t been watching, definitely go back to season 1. But put it this way – any show that uses misheard request to result in “trial by wombat” is always going to have my vote.

Also watched the end of The Flash and Supergirl (my daughter loves both). I’m less of a fan these days, I think the characters on both shows (as well as Arrow) makes questionable ethical decisions, at least from a utilitarian point of view. Still, it is a good experience sharing with my daughter.

Next month, I watching along with Gotham (bonkers!) and looking forward to watching the next season of Luke Cage.

Books

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re just not smart enough to understand a book? The Stars are Legion has got a lot of love from a lot of people whose opinion I respect, but I didn’t fall in love with it myself. Didn’t hate it either, my reaction was more of the “meh” variety. I appreciated aspects of the novel, what it was doing with gender etc. But it didn’t grab me me by the throat and I had to drag myself through. Just goes to show, all the novels aren’t for all the people!

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz – I know I’m a bit late to this particular parade, but I liked this novel. It had that William Gibson/Bruce Sterling kind of feel which conjured up that warm, snuggly feeling you get when you are reminded of your teenage reading habits. Some really interesting comments on the long term impact of intellectual property law taken to an extreme. Some great characters as well – I like a novel that can write from the perspective of both the protagonist and the antagonist and still make both have sympathetic elements (as well as non-sympathetic ones).

Next month I’ve got Alan Baxter’s Hidden City on my reading list, not sure what else yet. As always, happen to entertain any suggestions in the comments.

Movies

My 10yo daughter has fallen in love with Oceans 8, and has insisted on seeing it three times at the movies. So I actually got to go and see it one of those three times. Does a great job at replicating the feel of the first movie, but still being a very fresh take on the theme. Script was tight, acting great – a fantastic movie, but if my daughter’s experience is anything to go from, particularly good for any young women in your orbit.

Speaking of heist films, I also saw Solo towards the start of the month. I know it hasn’t received as much love as previous films, but I really liked it. It was good to see another aspect of the Star Wars universe, and I thought the plot was good for the style of film (fast paced). There were enough nods to the history to keep fans happy, but I think a non-fan would also get a lot from it.

Next month, it’s Ant Man and the Wasp on the radar. I’d also like to see The Incredibles 2.

Writing

The experience of having my novella (‘The Reclaimers‘) released in Dimension6 earlier in the year was fantastic. Since then, I’ve been motivated to start editing my novel draft (Unaligned) and working on a new short story that I’m excited about. Family life and work have left less time than optimal for writing (and this blog!) over the last few years, and I’m trying to reboot now.

Dimension6 Issue 14 out now

The latest issue of Dimension6 is out now, a free Australian magazine of speculative fiction. You can get your copy at the Couer de Lion website, or download a copy here.

My novella length story, ‘The Reclaimers’, appeared in Issue 13 of Dimension6, so you know the editor has excellent taste. Well worth checking out.

Issue 14 features:

‘#WhiteWitch’ by Shauna O’Meara

Facing danger at the top of the world? You need #WhiteWitch.

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‘All in Green’ by Adele Gardner

Rappo and Finn were joined in life like no-one else. But what if one should face death?

_________________________________

‘In The Nexsphere’ by Doug Bost

It’s the next big thing in tech. Maybe you should read the user manual first.

_________________________________

‘The Giant’s Servant’ by Trent Jamieson

Did you know giants come in all shapes and sizes?


 

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer – a review

Another tardy review from a book I read last year, Crossroads of Canopy by Australian author Thoraiya Dyer (*). The recent release of the sequel Echoes of Understorey prompted me to finally put finger to keyboard.

From Goodreads:

At the highest level of a giant forest, thirteen kingdoms fit seamlessly together to form the great city of Canopy. Thirteen goddesses and gods rule this realm and are continuously reincarnated into human bodies. Canopy’s position in the sun, however, is not without its dark side. The nation’s opulence comes from the labor of slaves, and below its fruitful boughs are two other realms: Understorey and Floor, whose deprived citizens yearn for Canopy’s splendor.

Unar, a determined but destitute young woman, escapes her parents’ plot to sell her into slavery by being selected to serve in the Garden under the goddess Audblayin, ruler of growth and fertility. As a Gardener, she yearns to become Audblayin’s next Bodyguard while also growing sympathetic towards Canopy’s slaves.

When Audblayin dies, Unar sees her opportunity for glory – at the risk of descending into the unknown dangers of Understorey to look for a newborn god. In its depths, she discovers new forms of magic, lost family connections, and murmurs of a revolution that could cost Unar her chance…or grant it by destroying the home she loves.

The first thing that really struck me about this book was the world-building. Societies that have evolved living in the branches of huge trees, with the closer you can get to sunshine, the better off you are. Even though we are seeing the world through a single perspective, Dyer does a wonderful job hinting at a more complex world, leaving me with no doubt that future books will have plenty of material to explore. It does take a couple of chapters to orient yourself in the book, but a small amount of initial effort pays off handsomely.

Dyer has created an interesting pantheon to inhabit her world. No unknowable distant gods here, but 13 very tangible beings constantly reincarnated into new bodies. There were some tantalising hints as to how these gods came to be, and where they might have got their power from. There were also interesting societal consequences explored, when the evolution of your community is done in the presence of such powerful beings.

At first I found the protagonist, Unar, relatively unsympathetic, and a little hard to relate to. I hit a turning point when I started to think of her as a millennial, and those traits that I had initially found a tad grating became more recognisable. I think Dyer has been clever here, and as a result of her early portrayal Unar has a very satisfying character arc. A character drawn in less stark terms at the beginning would not have been capable of such fundamental change/growth.

The book forms a natural canvas for exploring issues of diversity by weaving themes of race, societal status, slavery into the fabric of the story, and the world building.

Dyer is one of Australia’s pre-eminent short fiction writers, and it was a pleasure to see her translate that skill into the novel length market. I am very much looking forward to reading her next book in the series.

 

(*) I am acquainted with Thoraiya through a writing group that I sporadically attend (it is an excellent writing group, my less than stellar attendance record speaks more to the demands of work and family than any deficiency in the group!). I don’t think this fact has influenced my feelings re: this book, but who knows?

The Reclaimers – out now in Dimension6 #13

Well, it has finally happened. My novella, “The Reclaimers”, is available in issue 13 of Dimension6.

I’m very excited to have this novella see the light of day. Regular readers might recall my post when the story was first accepted by Keith Stevenson. In that post I talked about some of the history of the story, and thanked a few people who helped along the way. Go back and have a read of that post if you’re interested. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

A little blurb to whet your appetite:

Ulanda wanders along the edge of civilisation, cleansing border towns of a deadly residue that lingers from the magical weapons of mass destruction that ended the war. It’s the only job still allowed for the paranormally-inclined and life is adequate, until an old girlfriend appears with a questing opportunity that Ulanda knows she absolutely should refuse…

Or the much more succinct:

Wizard garbage disposers – the pay stinks but the hours… yeah, they’re pretty bad too.

Not only will you get to read “The Reclaimers”, but you’ll also get to read two other excellent stories by Emilie Collyer and Robert Stephenson:

‘Reckoning’ by Emilie Collyer
The Earth was broken. Gia was broken. Could they save each other?

‘Water for Antiques’ by Robert Stephenson
Dravid couldn’t believe his luck. Maybe he was right not to.

And how much will these three stories cost you? Well, inexplicably Keith gives away Dimension6 absolutely free! Now you can’t ask better than that.

Go to the Dimension6 page at Coeur de Lion Publishing, or you can even get the issue here (this site is an affiliate for D6). I hope you enjoy reading “The Reclaimers” and would love to hear from you with feedback (good or bad!).

Faerie Apocalypse by Jason Franks – a review

First a confession. I’ve been very tardy writing this review. Partly because the business of life has got in the way of me updating this site as often as I should, but also because I felt I needed to sit on this story for a while before writing down my thoughts. It is, without doubt, one of the most refreshingly different stories I’ve read in a while. I knew I liked it. But I had to think a bit about why.

This is the second book I’ve reviewed by Australian author Jason Franks. The first was Bloody Waters, a fantastic story about magic and music.

From Goodreads:

Over the centuries the Faerie Realms have drifted away from the mortal world. But for some, the Doors will open. For some, there is a Way to travel there, if they want it badly enough.

If they dream it hard enough.

In this era, only lovers, poets, and madmen can access the Realms of the Land–and for good reason.
A succession of mortals travel to Faerie: a veteran seeking beauty; a magus seeking power; an urchin seeking his wayward father; an engineer seeking meaning. These mortals bring the horrors of our age to the Land, and the Folk who live there respond in kind.

As the title suggests, this is not a pleasant dip into the whimsical world of the fey. There are few characters whose behaviour would lead me to call them sympathetic. Compounding that, Franks uses labels instead of names (“The Magus”, “The Mortal” etc) to create even more distance. For the first few chapters I found this a little off-putting. I didn’t feel engaged with the protagonist. I even put the book down for a few days. But Franks’ prose has the same deceptively simple, and beautiful, style that I loved in Bloody Waters and so I came back, and was quickly hooked.

And that was when I realised that the characters were not designed to be sympathetic, and the additional distancing actually allowed me to focus more on the impact they were having to the world(s) around them, rather than wasting energy on trying to relate. It also gave the whole text the feel of a fable, almost in the style of aural storytelling. I found the combination compelling, and once I got into the rhythm of the storytelling I gobbled it up in very short order.

Not withstanding all that, I did love reading the character of the Magus. A bad man by any standard, but I love Australian bad guys. Franks draws out the Australian-ness of the character to a level that should resonate with overseas readers, but doesn’t go too far into parody. In that sense, it reminded me of the writing of another favourite Australian author, Jason Nahrung. There are also a few little quirks that would particularly appeal to an Australian sensibility, for the local reader.

There is a lot of violence, to almost gratuitous levels. However the violence has a purpose, and underpins the story. It is an apocalypse after all. And each fight/battle/encounter is rendered so uniquely that the violence doesn’t seem repetitive at all. Still, if you aren’t one for a bit of blood and guts steel yourself before embarking on this particular quest.

The novel is made up of a few interlocking stories that build on each other. Franks uses the structure to pointedly comment on a lot of fairytale tropes, usually without much mercy. The gradual accretion of evidence of fey-dysfunction built slowly over the course of the stories also helps make the case for the conclusion.

While the first couple of transitions are a little jarring, by the end of the novel the different strands have come together and you have a connected narrative in your head.

Franks plays a bit with time, and as a reader your progress through the story is not exactly linear. However, I’ve been a sucker for this type of storytelling since I fell in love with Catch-22 at high school, and I found it added to the other-worldly feel of the novel.

As a minor aside, there is one section, based in the “real” world that is clearly set in the future. Franks does a fantastic job seeding the story with just a small number of specific details that flags this fact, without having the character dwell on futuristic things. It is a subtle, but brilliantly executed, piece of world building and although it is only a very small part of the story, I did enjoy it as both a reader and a writer.

A fantastic, original piece of work that I very much enjoyed. Franks has delivered another great read, which I highly recommend.


Creative Commons License
This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Welcome to 2018 and Ditmar reminder

Hi all,

Welcome to 2018 – I hope your speculative fiction year is both happy and productive.

I suspect I am not alone in using the new year to try and develop a sense of renewed purpose in my writing (including this website). Best of luck to everyone!

Don’t forget that the Ditmar award nomination process is currently open. The Ditmars are the Australian speculative fiction voted awards. If you loved a piece of Australian speculative fiction during 2017, why not get in and nominate it?

If you want to remind yourself of what happened in 2017, there is a very excellent Ditmar eligibility wiki kept here.

I loved books like Nexus by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld, Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks, Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer and Corpselight by Angela Slatter in the novel section.

In the novella section, all the novellas by Tansy Rayner Roberts were excellent. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go with The Bromancers but it would be a line ball call.

There were some very excellent publications during 2017 – feel free to give a shout out to some of your favourites in the comments.

Swarm and Nexus by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld – a review

I recently read the second two books in the Zeroes trilogy by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld (Swarm and Nexus). Long time blog readers might recall that I read, and enjoyed, the first book in the series a while back.

From Goodreads:

EVERY POWER HAS A DARK SIDE. Keep the secret. Use your power for good. Keep out of trouble. Stick together. Or things will fall apart.

It’s the holiday season, but the celebration at the Zeroes’ underground nightclub is blown apart when two strangers with new powers take to the dance floor. The Zeroes pursue them, only to discover that they’re fleeing an even more sinister power-wielder, Swarm. The Zeroes must learn all they can about this dangerous new player if they are to stay safe.

Meanwhile each of the Zeroes also has their own issues to deal with. Bellwether’s confidence is challenged, and Mob questions the nature of her power. Crash’s conscience gets a workout, and Anon and Scam face harsh truths about belonging. And it’s up to Flicker to pick up the reins and lead the Zeroes into a terrifying showdown.

A terrific sequel with a cracking pace that raises the stakes in this brilliant and unique superheroes series.

From Goodreads:

The Zeroes are in disarray.
One of them has vanished into thin air.
One of them is in prison.
The rest of them are on the most-wanted list.
And something big is brewing.

After defeating Swarm in a breath-taking stand-off, Nate has been arrested for his murder. In prison and isolated, he can’t use his powers of influence at all. Flicker, Chizara, Kelsie and Ethan are on the run and in hiding from the FBI who believe the Cambria Five are domestic terrorists. And Agent Phan and the FBI have a secret weapon up their sleeve – a teenager with a superpower that the Zeroes haven’t encountered yet.

Meanwhile, Sonia Sonic and her growing band of weird-hunters are tracking inexplicable events across the country – and their investigations lead them to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where the celebrating crowds promise enormous power to anyone who can channel it. Time is running out for the Zeroes, but they must learn to trust each other again and combine their powers for good – to avert the looming disaster.

A brilliant, action-packed conclusion to the superb Zeroes series.

All my points from my review of the first book remain true. While it is very young adult perspective, there was enough adult material to hook me in.

I really like the idea of “networked” powers in this series. I was recently talking to a group of young people about the way they engage with social media, and I was blown away by what was essentially the sophisticated network theory analysis that they used to navigate that space. Rather than focus on individual posts or tweets, they seemed to hold a map in their head of a pattern of social media interaction from individuals they followed. They made judgements on authenticity and levels of accuracy based around these patterns. It was fascinating, and made the way the powers in this series work even more interesting as a reflection on this way of seeing the world. It made me feel old at the same time, but that’s my problem not the book’s!

The crisis level ratcheted up at an appropriate pace across the two books, with appropriately more powerful “bad guys” to stretch our heroes. What struck me though was how contained the story telling was. The progression seemed natural. Right up until the end, the stakes were high but not preposterously so. Of course, right at the end everything went a bit bonkers, with world changing consequences, but hey – this is speculative fiction. What’s not to like about a bit of bonkers? I could understand why some people might get put off by the sudden change in pace, but I liked it.

The level of teen angst was kept to a minimum, which I liked. That’s not to say there isn’t angst, but considering everything going on it was appropriate/proportional to the level of crisis.

The narrative voice for each point of view remained very consistent. I assume that the authors probably split up the work so that each author was responsible for different characters, but the overall effect worked. They seemed to work well together, and the work was well edited. If there were seams where one author ended and another began, they weren’t clunky, and I was well and truly able to suspend my disbelief.

Considering how over the top the last part of the last book got, I was happy with the ending. As a reader, I had a good sense of completion, without loose threads irritating me.

Overall, this is a good trilogy and one well worth your time, especially if you’re interested in a millennial take on super powers. Well and truly recommended.

Rewatching DS9 – Season 2

I’ve continued watching, and enjoying, Star Trek Deep Space 9 over the last few months. A few comments on season 2 follows – if you’re interested you can also go back and read about my initial decision to do a rewatch, and a few comments on season 1.

In season 2, I was really struck by the ongoing commentary on feminism. You’ll be shocked to hear that this wasn’t something I remembered from the first time I watched the show (I was a young bloke in my late teens/early 20s in the 90s – I wasn’t thinking about feminist issues anywhere near as much as I should have been). Looking back now, I can see that the show was influential in  introducing concepts that are now part of the more mainstream conversation on challenging the traditional role of women in society.  I suspect I have a lot to thank DS9 for – by introducing these concepts by “stealth” I think I’m a much better person today than I might have otherwise been.

Some of the commentary was quite explicit – for instance the treatment of Ferengi woman in the episode “Rules of Acquisition”. But the commentary lies throughout the whole season, often highlighted by conversations between the Kira and Dax characters in particular. The season as a whole very definitely passes the Beckdel test!

The individual characters were interesting as well. The Dax character, having been hosted by male and female characters over its lifetime, allowed for interesting contrast points between the genders. The Kira character was a fascinating blend of character traits – fierce and aggressive warrior who embraces her sexuality. Even the minor characters reflected this commentary, for instance the struggles of Keiko O’Brien – a professional scientist who made a career sacrifice, but was miserable doing it.

Another thing that struck me was the lack of neat endings throughout the season. Issues were left not fully resolved, or at least with a less saccharine ending. For instance, in the episode”Cardassians”, a young Cardassian boy who has been raised by Bajorans is sent back to Cardassia rather than being allowed to stay with his adoptive parents. Odo and Kira’s discussion about trust at the end of “Necessary Evil” is another example where a relationship is deepened by not giving the obvious resolution.

And while this season is still quite episodic, there was a three episode storyline! Two “To Be Continued” endings!! At the time, I was amazed. Sustaining a story over three episodes of television seemed incredibly ambitious. Now it is par for the course to see story arcs that last across whole seasons, but back then I was very impressed. It was a hint of things to come, as DS9 started to pioneer longer and longer story arcs in later seasons.

The introduction of the mirror universe in “Crossover” was a lot of fun. The over-the-top acting, the bat-shit crazy Intendant, humanity as second class citizens and slaves – its a wacky rollercoaster ride.

A fantastic season of a fantastic show! What memories do you have? Any other DS9 fans out there?

Dimension6 Issue 12 out now

The latest issue of Dimension6 is out now, a free Australian magazine of speculative fiction. You can get your copy at the Couer de Lion website, or download a copy here.

Issue 12 features:

‘The Curious Child’ by Paul Speller

Cats are not the only things that shouldn’t be too curious.

_________________________________

‘Correlation’ by Paul Stephanus

Perspective is everything, even when it comes to garbage disposal.

_________________________________

‘The Gods of Mwaia’ by Bryce Stephens

Renai just wanted some land for his family; he nearly lost everything.