‘Reboot’ and fore-edge painting

I recently read Reboot by Amy Tintera. Despite the dystopian setting and intriguing premise (see synopsis at end of this post), it was one of those books that just did not make much of an impact on me–it was not amazing, and it was not awful. I suspect if I was a tween I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

But there is one overriding reason I impulse-purchased it, which is the reason I am happy to have it on my shelf:  the edition is edge-printed! In fact, all three “edges” are illustrated, and the image is retained when you fan the pages because the printing sits on the edges of each page as well. Fore-edge printing uses a special process to print on the cut, outside edges of the book block of a publication.

Reboot strip

This is not something you see often on mass-market paperbacks, and it’s not something you would ever notice if you shop online for books, as I do 95% of the time.

Admittedly, this edition of Reboot is not quite in the same artistic league as, for example, the beautiful watercolour fore-edge painting on this 1976 limited edition of Watership Down:

Watership Down fore edge painting

The book experts at AbeBooks summarise the technique of fore-edge painting:

The front page edges of the book are bent back to expose a greater area and a watercolor painting is applied to this surface. After completion the book is closed and the painting cannot be seen. The opposite is also true. The painting is done on the edge of the pages so it can be seen when the book is closed but is not visible when the book was open.

The technique of fore-edge painting dates back to the 17th century (and even earlier, in other forms). I love the gifs of the 19th century “secret” fore-edge paintings from the Special Collections at the University of Iowa (more here):

Summer

________________________

Reboot by Amy Tintera

In this fast-paced dystopian thrill ride, perfect for fans of The Hunger Games, Legend, and Divergent, a seventeen-year-old girl returns from death as a Reboot and is trained as an elite crime-fighting soldier . . . until she is given an order she refuses to obey.

Wren Connolly died five years ago, only to Reboot after 178 minutes. Now she is one of the deadliest Reboots around . . . unlike her newest trainee, Callum 22, who is practically still human. As Wren tries to teach Callum how to be a soldier, his hopeful smile works its way past her defenses. Unfortunately, Callum’s big heart also makes him a liability, and Wren is ordered to eliminate him.

To save Callum, Wren will have to risk it all.

Random Acts of Senseless Violence, now in SF Masterworks series

I was thrilled to learn today that Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence is being republished as part of the SF Masterworks series. I read it a couple of years ago, and summed it up as “an un-heralded classic that left me feeling liked I’d been punched in the gut – and I mean that as an absolute compliment to the power of the book.” It’s bleak, intense, and absolutely exquisite. From the back cover copy:

Paying meticulous attention to the evolving rhythm and syntax of speech, and their alliance with class and race, Womack demonstrates that woven into the mutable nature of language are clues to the dark and shifting potentials for the future of the society in which we live.

Random-Acts-of-Senseless-ViolenceIt’s just a little later than now and Lola Hart is writing her life in a diary. She’s a nice middle-class girl on the verge of her teens who schools at the calm end of town.

A normal, happy, girl.

But in a disintegrating New York she is a dying breed. War is breaking out on Long Island, the army boys are flamethrowing the streets, five Presidents have been assassinated in a year. No one notices any more. Soon Lola and her family must move over to the Lower East side – Loisaida – to the Pit and the new language of violence of the streets.

3 zombie novels, as told by zombies

3 zombie novelsYou don’t have  to like zombies to appreciate a good zombie novel. If there is one thing I have learned about zombie novels, it’s that they are not about zombies. Or more accurately, not only about zombies. Zombie novels span the entire fictional spectrum, from Jonathan Maberry’s action thriller Patient Zero to Colson Whitehead’s “literary” zombie novel, Zone One, which can be read as an allegorical elegy for the America that was lost on 11 September 2001. Then there are those stories told from the point of view of the zombie …

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learned to live with it. I’m sorry I can’t properly introduce myself, but I don’t have a name any more. Hardly any of us do. We lose them like car keys, forget them like anniversaries. Mine might have started with an ‘R’, but that’s all I have now. (Warm Bodies, opening lines)

R is a zombie. He has no name, no memories, and no pulse, but he has dreams. He is a little different from his fellow Dead. Amongst the ruins of an abandoned city, R meets a girl. Her name is Julie and she is the opposite of everything he knows – warm and bright and very much alive, she is a blast of colour in a dreary grey landscape. For reasons he can’t understand, R chooses to save Julie instead of eating her …

This was recently adapted into a fairly decent movie. But read the book first. The books are always better than the movies.

Zombie, Ohio by Scott Kenmore

I remember waking up … or something … by the side of the road, near a town I would later learn was Gant, Ohio. It was midwinter. My eyes were closed as I came  to, but I could tell it was winter. I could smell it. (Zombie, Ohio, opening lines)

When rural Ohio college professor Peter Mellor dies in an automobile accident during a zombie outbreak, he is reborn as a highly intelligent (yet somewhat amnesiac) member of the living dead.

With society crumbling around him and violence escalating into daily life, Peter quickly learns that being a zombie isn’t all fun and brains. Humans unsympathetic, generally, to his new proclivities try to kill him at nearly every opportunity. His old friends are loath to associate with him. And he finds himself inconveniently addicted to the gooey stuff inside of people’s heads.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, Peter soon learns that his automobile accident was no accident at all.

Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

This is not a first-person narrative, like the others, but it is nevertheless a deeply personal account of the life of a zombie, Stony, and his incredibly close and fiercely protective adoptive family.

It was the number-one commandment in the list that had been in effect his entire life: Hide. Never leave the farm, never answer the phone, and never let  visitors see you … His mother told him about the disease he was born with. She told him how some ignorant people would say he was dead, even though he obviously wasn’t, and think he was contagious, even though he definitely, definitely wasn’t, and that’s why he had to stay hidden. (Raising Stony Mayhall, chapter 2)

In 1968, after the first zombie outbreak, Wanda Mayhall and her three young daughters discover the body of a teenage mother during a snowstorm. Wrapped in the woman’s arms is a baby, stone-cold, not breathing, and without a pulse. But then his eyes open and look up at Wanda–and he begins to move.

The family hides the child–whom they name Stony–rather than turn him over to authorities that would destroy him. Against all scientific reason, the undead boy begins to grow. For years his adoptive mother and sisters manage to keep his existence a secret–until one terrifying night when Stony is forced to run and he learns that he is not the only living dead boy left in the world.

Read any of these novels, and you’ll disregard everything George A Romero ever taught you about zombies.

On Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Wolfhound Century Peter Higgins

Investigator Vissarion Lom has been summoned to the capital in order to catch a terrorist — and ordered to report directly to the head of the secret police.

A totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown insurgents with an iron fist. But Lom discovers Mirgorod to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.

Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone implanted in his head.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

In Higgins’ own words, Wolfhound Century is a mixed-genre creation, ‘an SF-fantasy-thriller set in an immense totalitarian state, the kind that spies on and murders its own citizens, but it’s also a world of giants and golems and sentient rain, with an alien presence deep in the endless forest.’ And yes, there really is sentient rain (see pp.45-48). The full interview with Higgins (from which the quote comes) is well worth reading.

The city of Mirgorod is the heart of the totalitarian state called Vlast (apparently ‘Mirgorod’ translates to something like ‘world city’ or ‘peace city’), and the description of the central administration building, the Lodka, perfectly encapsulates the unfathomable complexity of the regime; it’s Gormenghast meets Kafka:

It was said the Lodka had been built so huge and so hastily that when it was finished, many of the rooms could not be reached at all. Passageways ran from nowhere to nowhere. Stairwells without stairs. Exitless labyrinths. From high windows you could look down on entrance-less vacant courtyards, the innermost secrets of the Vlast.

The complexities of the regime’s bureaucracy and its martial power keep the citizens controlled (for the most part). But as with any good totalitarian state, there’s an active dissenting force threatening to undermine it. In this case, rebellion is fomented by terrorist Josef Kantor, and Investigator Vissarion Lom is sent from his provincial hometown to Mirgorod to catch him.

Wolfhound Century sits nicely within the sub-genre known as the New Weird*, alongside works by China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, K J Bishop, and Steph Swainston. In fact, Wolfhound Century reminds me of Miéville‘s The City and the City: both have a quasi post-Soviet setting, and both deal with the concept of a city sharing the same physical place as another place.

I think Miéville handles this idea with more sophistication and complexity than Higgins. In part, this is because in The City and the City, the twin cities are a known fact and central to the plot of the novel. The co-existent spaces overlap each other in parts, and citizens of each city are trained to ‘unsee’ the people and things of the parallel city.

In Wolfhound Century, the overlap between the co-existent locations forms part of an unfolding, wider mystery about the true nature of Mirgorod. The second place, about which we know very little, is referred to as the Pollandore. However, the Pollandore is not a place per se, but rather an object that was made, long ago, to contain a world:

The Pollandore hung in blankness, a pale greenish luminescent globe the size of a small house, a cloudy sphere containing vaporous muted light that emitted none. Illuminated nothing. A smell of ozone and forest leaf … The Pollandore looked small for a world, but Kantor knew it wasn’t small, not by its own metrication.

And now, it seems, the Pollandore is ‘broken, or leaking, or failing, or something’, and parts of the world within it are bleeding or blurring into the real world.

One of the characters, Vishnik, notices these overlaps and keeps records of the ‘times and spaces when the city slipped and shifted … Like it had when he went back to a familiar place and found it different.’ Sometimes the differences are small, barely noticeable; other times, they are horrifically vivid. In a photograph, Vishnik has captured a street scene,

but the familiar world had been torn open and reconstructed all askew. The street skidded. It toppled and flowed. All the angles were wrong. The ground tilted forwards, tipping the people towards the camera … A baby flew out of its mother’s arms.

The city of Mirgorod, is, in Higgins’ words, a world of ‘revolution and war, marching crowds and gulags and state police, writers and artists and composers and dissident intellectuals.’ Outside Mirgorod, the natural world reigns. The vast, endless forest, the rivers, the mud and rain and wind have a tangible power and presence of their own. And each world threatens the other.

The tension between these two powers, these two worlds, is at the centre of the story. It’s the classic Nature-Culture dichotomy at play, reimagined and recast in a fantastical way. We see it at work in the wonderful character of the giant Aino-Suvantamoinen, ancient caretaker of the land and waterways outside the city. He knows that Mirgorod and its people have adversely impacted the land around them:

‘Every time the floods come now, the city builds its stone banks higher. But that is not the way. The water has to go somewhere. If you set yourself against it, the water will find a way, every time.’ …

‘I tried to tell them,’ the giant continued … ‘When they were building the city, I tried to tell them they were using too much stone. They made everything too hard and too tight. You have to leave places for the water to go.’

We see it in the paluba, ‘an artefact carefully constructed of birch branches and earth and the bones of small birds and mammals,’ and in her companion, the ‘breath of the forest, walking.’ The paluba is the avatar or ‘vehicle’ of a forest-being, made to ‘carry the awareness of its creator and act as a proxy body for her, while she herself remains in the endless forest, in the safety of the trees which she can never leave.’

We see it, corrupted, in the golem-like mudjhik:

A kind of quiet began to settle on the square, until the tall bronze doors of the bank were thrown open and a mudjhik came lumbering out, twelve feet high, the colour of rust and dried blood. Whatever small animal had given its brain to be inserted inside the mudjhik’s head-casket must have been an exultant predator in life. This one was barely under control.

The world building is exquisite, and the plot intriguing, fast paced, and entirely satisfying. My only complaint, my greatest criticism of the book, is the ending. Interviewing Higgins, the Mad Hatter puts it mildly when he says ‘Wolfhound Century ended a bit abruptly’! Whatever Higgins’ motivation for the ending, I still believe a half-decent publisher should not have let him get away with it. Higgins does actually explain his reasons for ending the book the way he does (read the interview), and we are assured of a sequel, Truth and Fear (due out March 2014).

If you have not read Wolfhound Century, you can sample the first five chapters for free.

*What is the New Weird? Well, it’s complicated. But I will offer the definition proposed by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer in their introduction to the anthology The New Weird (2008): “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.” (I pulled the quote from the Wikipedia entry for New Weird, accessed 14 September 2013)

On The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

Lives of Tao Wesley Chu (large)Wesley Chu seems like a cool guy. Chuck Wendig threw a bunch of questions at him earlier this year, and helpfully got a tweetable story pitch for The Lives of Tao out of him: “Fat loser meets snarky alien. Gets in shape. Fights war over control of humanity’s evolution. Gets a girlfriend. Not in order of importance.”

The central premise is simple: aliens are amongst us, and have been for thousands of years; they need hosts or “agents” to survive on Earth and have decided humans make a pretty useful vessel; through ostensibly benign occupation of these agents, they have managed to significantly impact the course of human history;  then “lovable disgusting slob [Roen]” meets “gas-life snarky alien symbiote [Tao],”  and we’re off …

Roen is, in some respects, a wonderfully reluctant hero/antihero–he’s almost literally dragged kicking and screaming from his sedentary, dull existence to become a secret agent for an alien faction in a war for the future of humanity. I did feel Chu relied too much on the Roen-is-a-fat-loser joke, which he carried through far into the novel, even as Roen progressed to combat competence and gained significant experience and skill as an agent.

If I chose to dwell on it, I might become disgruntled about the role of women in the book. I suspect the novel would fail the Bechdel test, which assesses a fictional work’s gender bias–essentially, it asks whether the work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. But at least Sonya is, on the whole, a kick-ass sort who can look after herself.

The overall writing style suggests first-draft meets not-very-diligent-editor, and you need to be a little generous to overlook it. For example, in the middle of a car chase scene there’s this incredible sentence: “Then suddenly, a white van came out from the corner of Roen’s eyes and rammed into the side of the lead-grey sedan” (my italics, chapter 28, p.321). This is probably the worst example of clumsy writing in the book, and while it’s not a crime punishable by death it did detract from my reading experience.

Ultimately, I was happy to be generous, because books like this have their place. For me, this one’s place was keeping me amused on my bus commute to and from work, and for that I give thanks to Chu.

The sequel, The Deaths of Tao, will be published later this year.

On Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin

day_of_the_oprichnik_by_vladimir_sorokinIt’s Moscow, 2028. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull Andrei Danilovich Komiaga out of his drunken stupor. But wait – that’s just his ringtone. So begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar’s most trusted courtiers – and one of the country’s most feared men. In this new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy, Komiaga will attend extravagant parties, partake in brutal executions, and consume an arsenal of drugs.

Think A Clockwork Orange, only set in a future Socialist state of the Soviet Union. Think Alex, think ultra-violence, think droogs–only all are are state-sanctioned enforcers of the divine monarch’s will. This is a day-in-the-life exploration of New Russia through the eyes of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, one of the oprichniki.

It’s 2028, and Komiaga takes calls on his mobilov, drives a crimson Mercedov (adorned daily with a freshly-severed dog’s head), and activates the vehicle’s State Snarl to push through traffic (when not utilising the designated government-only lanes). He lives in the house of a disgraced comrade from the Treasury who, for his crimes, ‘was dragged with his mug in the dung; banknotes were stuffed in his mouth, it was sewn shut,  candle was shoved up his ass, and he was hung on the gates of the estate.’ The property was transferred to Komiaga, who considers it ‘a good house, with a heart and soul.’

Komiaga’s job is to find sedition and mete out state ‘justice.’ The means employed are violent, ruthless, heartless, and frighteningly efficient. Ordered to raid the home of a nobleman with his fellow enforcers, he participates in the gang rape of the nobleman’s wife–with the authority and tacit approval of the state:

This work is–passionate, and absolutely necessary. It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state. Even this succulent work requires a certain seriousness. You have to start and finish by seniority. So this time, I’m first. The widow of the now deceased Ivan Ivanovich thrashes on the table, screaming and moaning. (italics in original)

This is not for the faint-hearted–there are several graphic scenes. There is no suggestion of redemption, or the possibility of redemption, for its anti-hero (unlike A Clockwork Orange); Komiaga commits violent acts with moral certainty. At the end of the novel, Komiaga is safely back in his home and muses as his drifts into sleep that ‘as long as the oprichniks are alive, Russia will be alive. And thank God.’

There are intriguing elements to Sorokin’s future Russia. America has lost its global significance, and it is China and the East which hold economic and political power. China manufactures all necessary goods, and is connected to Europe by the Guangzhou-Paris Road: ‘It’s got ten lanes, and four tracks underground for the high-speed trains. Heavy trailers crawl along the road with their goods 24/7, and the silvery trains whistle.’ Russia is in every way dependent on the Chinese–for their cars,  their beds, their toilets–and yet still finds a way to exploit its position by imposing ‘insurance’ on the Chinese to travel through Russia. And for all the availability of Chinese manufactured commodities, the sale of goods within Russia is rigidly controlled by the state:

His Majesty’s father, the late Nikolai Platonovich, had a good idea: liquidate all the foreign supermarkets and replace them with Russian kiosks. And put two types of each thing in every kiosk, so the people have a choice … Choosing one of two things creates spiritual calm, people are imbued with certainty in the future, superfluous fuss and bother is avoided, and consequently–everyone is satisfied. (italics in original)

When I read any work in translation, I have to wonder how much credit (or blame) the translator is due. In this case, my reading experience was not without difficulties. The most glaring intrusion into the narrative flow was the seemingly haphazard use of italicised words. In some cases, it was clear they were used for emphasis, or to indicate foreign words or special concepts. But other times it was simply annoying and jarring … And I am not the only one to comment on this.

Stephen Kotkin’s review in the New York Times raises other issues:

In “Oprichnik,” the playful antique terms and gestures have sometimes confounded the not-to-be-envied translator. Ivan the Terrible’s short-lived oprichnina (literally, “the place apart”) was separated in 1565 from the boyar lands, known as the zemshchina, here mistranslated as Zemstvo, a late-19th-century form of local self-­government. Nor were the oprichniks doing “government work,” as translated, but rather acting as a Praetorian Guard of the sovereign, often against the government.

Day of the Oprichnik had the potential to deliver a formidable dystopian vision of new Russia, but it ultimately it falls short. It’s no Clockwork Orange.

On Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

roadside picnic strugatskyRed Schuhart is a stalker, one of those strange misfits who are compelled, in spite of the extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artefacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his mutant daughter has been determined by the Zone. And it is for her that he makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile territory.

Roadside Picnic, Gollanz (SF Masterworks) 2007.

First published in 1972, Roadside Picnic was heavily edited by Soviet censors who were concerned not with the novel’s ideology but with its bleakness and the coarse immorality of the characters. Boris Strugatsky told the censors:

the novel contained nothing criminal; it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous in that sense. And the fact that the world depicted in it was coarse, cruel, and hopeless, well, that was how it had to be—it was the world of “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology.” (The Politics of Roadside Picnic, by Michael Andre-Driussi)

Roadside Picnic is a powerful and disturbing sociological and philosophical exploration of how technologically advanced artefacts left on Earth by alien visitors impact us. The aliens themselves never directly appear; all we know of them is based on the artefacts or “trash” they have left behind, littered across six Zones. These artefacts are so truly “other” that any real understanding of the beings that left them behind is impossible. Unable to fully comprehend or relate to the objects within the Zone, we seem primitive, pre-technological:

We’ve unearthed many miracles. In a few cases, we’ve even learned how to use these miracles for our own needs. A monkey pushes a red button and gets a banana, pushes a white button and gets an orange, but it doesn’t know how to get bananas and oranges without the buttons. And it doesn’t understand the relationship the buttons have to the fruit.

Red–our hard-drinking, hard-living, rough-talking protagonist–guides the story to its almost inevitably ambiguous ending. He lives in a town bordering the Zone:  “Life is tough in the city. There’s military control. Few amenities. The Zone right next to you–it’s like sitting on a volcano.” The tough realities of life here make Red increasingly desperate.  He loses friends and fellow stalkers to the Zone, and his own daughter is a mutant, barely human, almost certainly because of his forays into the contaminated areas. Losing faith in himself, he places his hope and seeks redemption in the mysterious power of the artefact known as the Golden Ball or Wish Machine. He makes one last trip into the Zone to find the Golden Ball, and his prayer to the artefact– “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED” – is the last line of the book, left unanswered.

Even though the final vision emphasises human reliance on miracles as a way to salvation, Roadside Picnic is also book that explores human knowledge, its limits, and the ways in which we frame our understanding of the world. Does man have an “indefinable need for knowledge”?

There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas plus so-called intuition and so-called common sense.

Roadside picnic illustration by Diggiahl on deviantART http://deggiahl.deviantart.com/