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.

The watch list

My weekly[-ish] list of speculative fiction novels that I think are worth looking out for. They are mainly – but not always! – new or forthcoming releases.

Sketch-Book-icon The watch list

Most weeks, I feel completely overwhelmed by the number of awesome new books coming out, and I go crazy updating my wishlist at the Book Depository and cross-checking books’ availability at my local library and downloading sample chapters onto my Kindle. And other weeks … it gets quiet. Like now. So just one book on the list this week.

Plan D by Simon Urban

Plan D Simon UrbanOctober 2011. While West Berlin enjoys all the trappings of capitalism, on the crowded, polluted, Eastern side of the Wall, the GDR is facing bankruptcy. The ailing government’s only hope lies in economic talks with the West, but then an ally of the GDR’s chairman is found murdered – and all the clues suggest that his killer came from within the Stasi.

Detective Martin Wegener is assigned to the case, but, with the future of East Germany hanging over him, Wegener must work with the West German police if he is to find the killer, even if it means investigating the Stasi themselves. It is a journey that will take him from Stasi meeting rooms to secret prisons as he begins to unravel the identity of both victim and killer, and the meaning of the mysterious Plan D.

A dystopian alternate history murder mystery! ‘Plan D is less about the crime and more about the political backdrop and increasing tensions between the two Germanys. Urban’s world-weary main character tries to maintain his personal values within the corruption of a superbly detailed GDR regime.’ (from Putting the science into fiction.)

New banner artwork for She reads speculative fiction or, Zoetica Ebb is a creative genius

Today, the She reads speculative fiction site got a little upgrade: a glorious banner illustration by Zoetica Ebb.

Zoetica describes herself as “a Moscow-born, LA-raised artist, writer and photographer, dedicated to proving that life is as beautiful as we make it.”  And beyond that, words are entirely inadequate to convey the extent of her myriad talents. Her website is a must-visit if you want to know more about Zoetica, and see more of her art, design, and photography: http://www.biorequiem.com

I still can’t quite understand how she was able to turn my stick-figure concept, which I scribbled on the back of a shopping receipt while sitting on the bus, into the wonderful image that now sits at the top of my website (oh, wait … that’s right: creative genius!). This is the actual sketch I sent her, along with vague instructions that I’d like it to look something like a cross between Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince illustrations and her own Space Friends sticker set:


And she made this:


I believe my response was: I totally totally totally LOVE IT!

And I do. I totally love it. I hope you do too.

The watch list

My weekly[-ish] list of speculative fiction novels that I think are worth looking out for. They are mainly – but not always! – new or forthcoming releases.

Sketch-Book-icon The watch list

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice Ann LeckieThey made me kill thousands, but I only have one target now.

The Radch are conquerors to be feared – resist and they’ll turn you into a ‘corpse soldier’ – one of an army of dead prisoners animated by a warship’s AI mind. Whole planets are conquered by their own people. The colossal warship called The Justice of Toren has been destroyed – but one ship-possessed soldier has escaped the devastation. Used to controlling thousands of hands, thousands of mouths, The Justice now has only two hands, and one mouth with which to tell her tale.

But one fragile, human body might just be enough to take revenge against those who destroyed her.

Orbit describes this as “inventive and intelligent space opera for fans of Iain M Banks.” Now, I suspect that Banks fans are going to have a pretty high bar when it comes to standards for space opera – the Culture is simply inimitable, as far as I am concerned.

That aside, this first published novel by Leckie is garnering positive attention, and for me the stand out feature is this: in Leckie’s future, the default gender is female. Woah! And it’s a bit complicated. The protagonist Breq is physically female, but the distributed consciousness that inhabits is genderless. What does this to do language? There’s a link to be made to Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

I’m very excited about this one.

Read a sample from Ancillary Justice.

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Violent Century Lavie TidharFor seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account…and the past has a habit of catching up to the present. Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism – a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms, of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields – to answer one last, impossible question: What makes a hero?

Lavie Tidhar has been nominated for loads of awards (and even won a few!) for his work, and he carried off the 2012 World Fantasy Award prize for best novel for Osama.

The press release for The Violent Century describes it as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy meets Watchmen”, athoughtful and intensely atmospheric novel about the mystery, and the love story, that determined the course of history itself.”

Dream London by Tony Ballantine

Dream London Tony BallantyneIn Dream London, the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day.

Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage by the bucketful. He’s adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He’s the man to find out who has twisted London into this strange new world, and he knows it.

But the towers are growing taller, the parks have hidden themselves away and the streets form themselves into strange new patterns. There are people sailing in from new lands down the river, new criminals emerging in the East End and a path spiralling down to another world.

Everyone is changing, no one is who they seem to be, and Captain Jim Wedderburn is beginning to understand that he’s not the man he thought he was…

I am beginning to think any book with a cover illustration by Joey Hi-Fi is a book worth reading! As well as this one for Dream London, he has created covers for Lauren BeukesMoxyland (and also this one) and Zoo City, and for Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Mockingbird.

Joey Hi Fi

The Dead Roots Comic Anthology on Kickstarter or, Zombies!

As you know, I have a bit of a thing for zombies, and if you do too, you might be interested in this fine project over on Kickstarter: help print The Dead Roots Comic Anthology. It’s a four-part (180+ finished page) shared-world zombie comic anthology.

Mike Garley, the project’s creator, explains his idea:

‘I wanted to create a shared world anthology that even though told by multiple creators was still about the characters, so I needed a way to cut through all the potentially page-wasting exposition and create a world where the problem was obvious, that way the creators can get straight into what they do best, and that’s telling great stories.

Zombies gave us that way to cut into the crux of storytelling. Although sometimes overused, there’s no mistaking what zombies are, they’re scary kill or be killed monsters, that more often than not signify the end of the world.

Instead of focusing on the zombies we focused on the characters and how they would react in the initial hours of the outbreak, avoiding clichéd, gun-toting stories, and dealing with real world problems… amplified by zombies.’

And, making the stakes even more exciting (for me, at least), is the first stretch goal for the project: if this goal is reached, there will be an additional six-page story by Adam Christopher, author of Empire State, The Age Atomic, Seven Wonders, and the forthcoming The Burning Dark.

Today is Day 2 of the campaign which ends, fittingly, on Hallowe’en–Thursday 31 October at 7:59pm EDT, to be exact.  Go and do your part for this creative expression of the zombie apocalypse.

Death Knocks - written by Gordon Rennie, art by Lee Carter, letters by Mike Stock

Death Knocks – written by Gordon Rennie, art by Lee Carter, letters by Mike Stock (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1668205146/the-dead-roots-comic-anthology)

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.

The watch list

My weekly[-ish] list of speculative fiction novels that I think are worth looking out for. They are mainly – but not always! – new or forthcoming releases.

I have been too busy lately to keep up with news of recent releases in spec fic, so both books on my list this week are older publications.

Sketch-Book-icon The watch list

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Sarah CanaryWhen black cloaked Sarah Canary wanders into a railway camp in the Washington territories in 1873, Chin Ah Kin is ordered by his uncle to escort “the ugliest woman he could imagine” away. Far away. But Chin soon becomes the follower. In the first of many such instances, they are separated, both resurfacing some days later at an insane asylum. Chin has run afoul of the law and Sarah has been committed for observation.

Their escape from the asylum in the company of another inmate sets into motion a series of adventures and misadventures that are at once hilarious, deeply moving, and downright terrifying.

I have an old hardback edition waiting patiently for my attention, and it has also been republished as part of the SF Masterworks series.

The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope

The Fixed PeriodThe Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope is an unusual early science fiction novel, originally published anonymously. It is part utopia, part dystopia, part dark satire, with overtones of modern “steampunk” and quaint technological devices.

In this amazing visionary work by the British Victorian master of social mores and relationships, Britannula is an imaginary “futuristic” island country and a one-time British colony near New Zealand, and the story is narrated by the President. In Britannula, a law has been passed decreeing that all citizens who have reached the age of 67 must be removed to “The College” to undergo euthanasia, for the good of society.What happens when the first and oldest man reaches the end of his “Fixed Period” and must prepare for his “humane” death is a fascinating study of moral and social impossibility.

David Lodge, writing in The Guardian, assures me this novel has been unfairly overlooked. I am a bit of a sucker for overlooked books (and dogs with three legs, and cats with one eye … ) so this is now on my list. First published in 1882, the book  “received mixed, somewhat baffled reviews, and sold only 877 copies, making a loss for its publisher. It has not been any more popular since then.” I suspect part of the problem is the awful cover …

The watch list

My weekly[-ish] list of speculative fiction novels that I think are worth looking out for. They are mainly – but not always! – new or forthcoming releases.

Sketch-Book-icon The watch list

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Sklyer White

Incrementalists Brust and WhiteThe Incrementalists–a secret society of two hundred people with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years.

They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time.

Their ongoing argument about how to do this is older than most of their individual memories. Phil, whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has loved Celeste–and argued with her–for most of the last four hundred years.

But now Celeste, recently dead, embittered, and very unstable, has changed the rules–not incrementally, and not for the better.

Now the heart of the group must gather in Las Vegas to save the Incrementalists, and maybe the world.

As John Scalzi wrote about this book: “Secret societies, immortality, murder mysteries and Las Vegas all in one book? Shut up and take my money.”

A free excerpt is online here: http://www.tor.com/stories/2013/08/the-incrementalists-excerpt

One Crow Alone by S D Crockett

One Crow Alone S D Crockett“They say it’s going to get worse. That it’s not going to end.”

The snow won’t stop falling in this dangerous-new-world prequel to “After The Snow“.The long, bitter winters are getting worse, and a state of emergency has been declared across Europe. In Poland, the villagers are subject to frequent power cuts and fuel shortages.

After the death of her grandmother and the evacuation of her village, fifteen-year-old Magda joins forces with the arrogant, handsome Ivan and smuggles her way onto a truck bound for London – where she hopes to find her mother. But London, when they reach it, is a nightmarish world, far from welcoming. Riots are commonplace and the growing chaos is exploited by criminals and terrorists alike. Magda’s mother is not to be found, and as the lost girl struggles to come to terms with her changing situation, she eventually becomes friends with a rag-tag group of travellers planning a new home and future.

Blood Red Road Moira YoungKnife-of-never-letting-goThey will need all the cunning and know-how they possess as they realise that the frozen wilderness of Britain has become just as lawless as the city.

I enjoyed the first in this series,  After The Snow, even though so many things about it invited comparison with other books that are simply better. Basic concepts, book design and even typography are very similar to Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy and Blood Red Road by Moira Young.

Thanks to Tor for the free expert: http://www.tor.com/stories/2013/09/one-crow-alone-excerpt

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

A thousand perfect things Kay KenyonIn this epic new work, the award-winning Kenyon creates an alternate 19th century with two warring continents on an alternate earth: the scientific Anglica (England) and magical Bharata (India).

Emboldened by her grandfather’s final whispered secret of a magical lotus, Tori Harding, a young Victorian woman and aspiring botanist, must journey to Bharata, with its magics, intrigues and ghosts, to claim her fate. There she will face a choice between two suitors and two irreconcilable realms. In a magic-infused world of silver tigers, demon birds and enduring gods, as a great native mutiny sweeps up the continent, Tori will find the thing she most desires, less perfect than she had hoped and stranger than she could have dreamed.

Science v magic–the heart of fantasy!

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)

Get your free digital copy of New York Review of Science Fiction #300

The New York Review of Science Fiction’s 300th issue is available now, and its free:

As a thank you to the many people who have made it possible for us to reach this milestone, the digital edition of NYRSF Issue 300 is FREE. It’s a sampler of all the types of material NYRSF publishes—appreciations of authors both well-known and forgotten; reviews, long and short, of good science fiction, fantasy, and horror books; theatre reviews; personal essays related to the larger f&sf field; and a vigorous letter column.

You can download a copy of the issue in ebook (epub or mobi/Kindle format) or print-ready PDF.