Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Originally published as short stories in The New Yorker, and first collected in 1977, Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s books to be published in her lifetime. Although some of her books were among the first to be published as Virago modern classics in the late 1970s and her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), with its witch protagonist, is now well known, there was a period when Warner was chiefly remembered for her role in the anti-fascist generation of 1930s writers. Along with her life-partner, Valentine Acland, she joined the Communist Party and worked in support of the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Kingdoms of Elfin, with its enchanting and enigmatic tales of fairies scattered across Europe and beyond, seems far removed from such political concerns and yet under the surface there is something inexorable which gives these stories an exquisite, but nonetheless mortally sharp, edge.

Warner’s fairies are fascinated with the short-lived humans around them but not overly bothered about their individual welfare. In the first of these stories, ‘The One and the Other’, a changeling accidentally kills the human he replaces – who has already grown old and been evicted from the fairy kingdom he was taken by – while experimenting on his blood, but consoles himself with the thought that he can probably sell the body to the anatomists in Edinburgh. In ‘Elephenor and Weasel’, Elephenor finds himself working as the assistant to a travelling necromancer – involving, amongst other tasks, deploying his wings to imitate the devil – and loving every minute: ‘To have a great deal of power and no concern was the life for him’. In ‘The Occupation’, a group of fairies drive a Scottish clergyman mad by making a home in his manse and even attempting to clean it. In a rare but neat political twist, his wife leaves with the children ‘to live with her sister above a grocery shop in Glasgow, where she was much happier, just as dirty, and insisted on her standing as a Minister’s wife’. 

Yet, if humans and their foibles are relentlessly subjected to dispassionate scrutiny, Warner’s fairies, themselves, are also often shown as the victims of capricious fate. Or, at least, that is how it appears when viewed from a conventional perspective, but perhaps Warner’s greatest achievement is to encourage readers to dispense with their pre-existing moral frameworks, which are made to look narrowly time-bound in comparison with a more fluid fairy temporality. In ‘The Five Black Swans’, the dying Queen Tiphaine (Warner’s fairies are not immortal but have lifespans of centuries) of the Scottish elfin kingdom of Elphane, relives her relationship with the human Thomas of Ercildoune, making love outside whether in the dew-drenched grass, rain or even hail: ‘Love was in the present: in the sharp taste of the rowanberries he plucked for her, in the winter night when a gale got up and whipped them to the shelter of a farm where he kindled a fire and roasted turnips on a stick, in their midnight mushroomings, in the long summer evenings when they lay on their backs too happy to move or speak, in their March-hare cuvettings and cuffings.’ Here, the pure moment contains all of existence and thereby encompasses eternity as opposed to the insubstantiality of the conventional human present, enslaved by causality and condemned to endless unfulfilling repetition.

It’s not that fairies don’t have their problems. There is rather a lot of overly formal court procedure and an annoying class system that constrains those of the higher ranks from some of the more bodily pleasures, such as flying. However, being fairies, these boundaries are frequently transgressed. Long after they find themselves ejected at the text’s end on to the cold hillside, the memory of these tales will haunt readers with the lingering sense that we could live differently.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Immediate Pasts and Soon-to-be Futures: Sinofuturism in Review

By Virginia L. Conn. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

This is an extended version of the essay that first appeared in volume 50 number 3 of the SFRA Review.

Like a snowball picking up speed, the last year has seen a growing aggregate of academic and popular interest in sinofuturism, both in China and abroad. Writing in a special issue of Screen Bodies on queer sinofuturism, scholar and designer Yunying Huang notes that as of 2020, the only results in Chinese for the term were a conversation between artists aaajiao, scholar Gabriele de Seta, and curator Xuefei Cao, and “a workshop on ‘Wudaokou Futurism’ (Space 2019) which convened a discussion of Sinofuturism in the geo-physical location of the Beijing region” (Huang 59). This Wudaokou futurism workshop, in fact, was the impetus behind the SFRA Review’s 2020 sinofuturism special issue, with many of the same speakers who participated in the workshop — including original workshop organizer Dino Ge Zhang — contributing articles that built on their prior presentations.

The Wudaokou alternative futurisms conference itself was held in December 2019, when China was already in the grips of the pandemic that would soon engulf the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world. I participated from a dark hotel room at 5 am, Skyping in (this was before Zoom became an omnipresent part of our connectivity — a lifetime ago!) to talk about alternative modes of temporalities to an audience that was, themselves, temporally and geographically disparate. Since then, the technology that sweeps us along towards an increasingly interconnected future has also come under the same orientalist scrutiny that informs so much sinofuturist anxiety in the first place: from then US president Donald Trump’s abortive move to ban both TikTok and WeChat in the States, to the widespread conspiracy that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon deliberately engineered to destabilize Western nations, to the fear of surveillance technologies deployed in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the role technology plays in China’s place in the future is as central to Western perceptions and fears of global power relations as it ever was.

As I wrote in the introduction to the SFRA Review special issue on sinofuturism that grew out of the Wudaokou workshop, the theory itself has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “sinofuturism” developed out of the same orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardsness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies — such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms — allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues (Xu 2015). What’s more, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds — a central tenet of sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible (Lek 2016).

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer , 2017. Poster from CGI Film. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

Continue reading “Immediate Pasts and Soon-to-be Futures: Sinofuturism in Review”

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There’s a blurb on my copy of Gnomon where Warren Ellis explains how much he hates Nick Harkaway for having written it. I can relate: the ambition of this book would be enviable even if the execution weren’t very impressive. And the execution is very impressive indeed.

I need to capture Gnomon’s essence in not many more words than it has pages: a daunting challenge in its own right, made harder by my heaping praise on it in my opening paragraph. Readers familiar with my reviews will know I hold no truck with the Spoiler Police, but I’m nonetheless hesitant to reveal too much – not because outlining the plot would spoil your enjoyment of it, but because it’s effectively immune to summary. There’s just too much going on.

Gnomon

But still, let’s give it a go. For the setting, we have a dystopian future UK of the algorithmic-panopticon type: cameras and sensors everywhere, AI running all the things, democracy driven by mandatory online plebiscites covering everything from local disputes to major reforms of the legal apparatus. (It’s like the blockchain-enabled Society Of Tomorrow™ that features in TED talks, which is of course the point.) There are no police any more, only the Witness, one of whom – Meilikki Neith – is our viewpoint character. 

Neith has to investigate a high-profile case: the death in custody of a suspected dissident. Dissidents like Diana Hunter are routinely identified by the System and brought in for questioning; more often than not, their dissidence is diagnosed as some incipient or as-yet-unnoticed mental illness or social dysfunction, and is treated before they’re released to go on with their lives in a happier, more well-adjusted manner. The treatment and diagnosis are performed by the same means: a combination of innovations that make it possible to read human mindstates with an astonishing level of fidelity, and also to edit them. It is during such a questioning that Diana Hunter, minor novelist and luddite recluse, died. The rarity of such deaths merits Neith’s investigation – she’s one of the best – because it’s important that the System be seen to be fair, that due process is followed. 

The procedure is for Neith to review the memories retrieved from Hunter’s mind, so as to check whether she was the dissident that the System considered she might be, and whether her death was thus akin to the suicide of a captured enemy agent – to see if she had something to hide, in other words. Hunter’s memories are duly dumped into Neith’s mind. But while she’s waiting for them to settle, she decides to go gumshoe around in Hunter’s anachronistic house. The place is a Faraday cage, lined with books, devoid of cameras and sensors, and thus effectively off-grid in panopticonic terms. There, Neith meets an oddly-named androgyne who asks her a series of confusing questions, before roughing her up and doing a runner. In the aftermath of this assault, Hunter’s memories begin to surface in Neith’s consciousness… only it seems that they’re not Hunter’s memories at all, but those of a succession of other characters.

These could almost be treated as novellas in their own right: first-person accounts which bring the experiences of their narrators into sharp and immediate (if deliberately foreshortened) focus. Kyriakos the stock-market whizz-kid gains a god-like ability to see where the markets will turn, only to see them – and the rest of the world – turn sharply downwards. The alchemist Athenais is assigned to solve a Byzantine murder mystery that occurred in an occult contraption of her own fraudulent invention and ends up on an inter-planar vision-quest. Berihun, a feted artist in the last years of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, finds his creativity revitalised when invited by his games-designer daughter to contribute to her latest project, a dystopian surveillance-society RPG that presses all the wrong political buttons in a very Brexity contemporary Britain. And in a post-human far future, the book’s eponymous character takes up a tainted offer that might let them bring an end to all things, now, then, and forever more. As we move through these accounts, interspersed with Neith’s attempts to make sense of the mind they tumbled from, we realise that they are not mere nonsense that Hunter had hidden in her head, but something larger and stranger and more interconnected than that.

The central notion isn’t exactly original – it’s rather Strossean, in fact. I doubt I was the only reader who, a third of the way through, had a solid notion of Harkaway’s intended trajectory, not to mention an inkling of why he was going there. Perhaps this is a thing that only a writer would say, but there’s a sense in which the real protagonist of Gnomon was Harkaway himself: much tension came from wondering how, if ever, Harkaway was going to land this thing without tearing off the undercarriage and ploughing into a passenger terminal. I was prepared for (and would have forgiven) a moderately bumpy or abrupt landing, an ending that tried to play the game straight while using a doubled deck of cards. Heck, I’d have probably forgiven a hammer-it-home boot-on-a-face-forever conclusion – though that’s almost the exact opposite of what you get, even if things are far from happily-ever-after. 

But I never imagined Harkaway would have the audacity to have the book itself address me so directly and plainly in its final pages, to state its metafictional purpose while simultaneously claiming its own success… and yet he did, and it does, and it works (at least for me, shameless postmodernist that I am).

There’s so much more I could say, so much more I want to say, so much more I don’t know how to say. So I’ll just say: you should read it, it’s a masterpiece.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven.

The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Reviewed by Kerry Dodd. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Strugatsky brothers are often synonymised with their most famous novel Roadside Picnic – which is hardly surprising as it certainly is a breath-taking read. Until fairly recently finding copies of their less well-known works, such as Hard to be a God or Monday Starts on Saturday, has been a veritable challenge. SF Masterworks’ re-publication of these iconic classics is both a joy and a tribute to the rich literary output of the brothers. Particularly timely given last year’s re-release of Stalker, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic directed by Andrei Tchaikovsky, these novels offer a thrilling window into SF written during the Soviet era whose core messages still have an urgency that resonate in the modern day. Indeed, Dmitry Glukhovsky, who himself has become a key figure in Russian SF following the cult success of Metro 2033, writes in his introduction to the new release of The Doomed City that ‘there comes a point at which science fiction is transformed into a means for at least hinting at the true state of affairs.’. Proudly declaring on its front cover that this is a book that was ‘so politically risky that its very existence was kept secret for sixteen years’, The Doomed City evidently is unafraid to challenge systematic hegemony and re-inscribes how SF offers not only poignant messages about the future, but equally the present. 

The Doomed City

The Doomed City centres around ‘The Experiment’ in which people from different countries and time-periods within the twentieth century are separated from their previous lives and forced to co-exist in an artificial new city, where the sun is akin to a giant lightbulb that can be turned off in an instant, and the occupants can mysteriously understand each other, regardless of language barriers. As the title suggests, this social experiment is one which is not marked for success. Each occupant must take part in the job lottery, a system which dictates every person’s function and place within the metropolis. Following the political rise of Andrei Voronin, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad, who transitions from garbage collector, police investigator, newspaper editor and eventually bureaucrat, The Doomed City interrogates the core conceptualisations of social hierarchy. Each chapter focuses on the challenges that Andrei faces within these roles, from a hoard of baboons that descend upon the city to the Red Building that uncannily appears and abducts people seemingly at random. The novel is overtly one with many questions, few of which are concretely resolved. For although the city’s quirks add a sense of intrigue to the narrative, the Strugatskys’ writing really shines in the realistic conversations that simultaneously affirm and expose the social stratification which the experiment has artificially induced.  As the novel progresses, some of the critiques are evidently closer to the surface than others. The stark contrast in Andrei’s disposition to professions he deems as being ‘lower’, as he rises through society, has overt classist overtones; meanwhile, the apparent lack of any creative industry within the city is mentioned in an almost ephemeral aside that has a chilling parallel to modern anxieties towards arts funding cuts. The concluding expedition to discover what lies beyond the city, as well as the mythical supposition of an anti-city, is one which seeks to push the human to its extreme – to analyse what the term ‘human’ even means. As Andrei reaches the ‘final understanding’ at the novel’s close this is clearly the opening of one small area amongst a much wider vista. Each of the sections has a wistfully vignette style to them, for while at times they may be all too brief, the small allusions have a pervasively haunting nature. The Doomed City is a robust novel that is not just a gateway to Russian SF or Soviet censorship but one whose core ideas will retain a continuing relevance as the human race scrutinises social stratification against the enduring backdrop refrain that ‘the experiment is the experiment’. 

Copyright Kerry Dodd. All rights reserved.

The Djinn Falls in Love (and other short stories) ed. by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Reviewed by Dan Hartland. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In the introduction to their excellent anthology The Djinn Falls In Love, Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin write that “every culture, every author, has their own djinn, jinn or genie”. This is another way of saying not just that all cultures have fairies, but that jinn have long been bowdlerised by other cultures; the anthology’s great strength, and occasionally its only weakness, is that it appears unconcerned by this thorny inheritance of tradition.

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

In Helene Wecker’s “Majnun”, for instance, jinn are far from existentially hidebound, perfectly able to convert to precisely the faith whose verses also exorcise them. In Kuzhali Manickavel’s menacing “How We Remember You”, it is the jinni who is tortured and beset, the humans who are the sadistic tricksters. In Kirsty Logan’s “The Spite House”, the djinn have been emancipated, but remain only half-admitted to wider society.

The tricky ghost of appropriation is sometimes present in all this garrulous invention. There’s a queasy Orientalism in Claire North’s rollicking “Hurrem and the Djinn” – sultans and harems, evil viziers and powerful sorcerers – which seems not to reinvent the jinn so much as rehash Agrabah. Maria Dahvana Headley’s atmospheric “Black Powder”, on the other hand, transplants the jinn to the Western, reconfiguring them as bullets in a mystical gun; but it’s not clear what we gain from this, other than a tightly and evocatively written story.

I sound more equivocal than I mean to. In Amal El-Mohtar’s elegiac “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” alone, this collection earns its keep: as the jinn shapeshift from one avian form to another, desperately seeking one which can survive first a thriving and then a collapsing human society, the reader experiences in a few brief pages all the magic that one might expect to flow from a realm of smoke and flame. In EJ Swift’s science fiction “The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice”, meanwhile, the jinn have made it to the stars – and cause as much havoc and horror onboard a spaceship as any Giger-ish nightmare.

Indeed, the anthology is often on safer ground when looking towards one future or another. In Saad Z. Hossain’s memorable “Bring Your Own Spoon”, for example, the jinn awake after a long sleep to find a post-collapse human civilisation made habitable only by air-cleaning nanotechnology with which they feel an odd kinship. In “Duende 2077” by Jamal Mahjoub, meanwhile, capitalism has “spiralled into social anarchy, chaos and moral bankruptcy” (p. 207), and an Islamic Great Britain has emerged from the wreckage; here, too, the jinn appear as a sort of meme, a symbol of rebellion and refusal (jinn don’t feature in KJ Parker’s high fantasy “Message In A Bottle”, either – except as a Schrodinger’s mist).

Where the jinn are made contemporary, too, these stories shine. In the claustrophobic horror of “Reap”, US military drone operators encounter a force beyond them; Sophia Al-Maria pointedly makes domestic violence the consequence of her protagonist’s belief in a jinni’s capacity to possess and corrupt his wife; JY Yang’s bittersweet “Glass Lights” focuses on a woman descended from jinn who perceives desires and enables others to fulfil them, but is powerless to achieve her own. These are all powerful statements and exceptional stories. It is a sign of their quality that they eclipse arguably more minor contributions from names like Gaiman, Smythe and Okorafor.

One of the most exciting developments in SF of recent years is its opening-out to global perspectives and traditions. Murad and Shurin’s collection is at the vanguard of this movement, its polyphony testament to the refreshing power of diversity. In Kamila Shamsie’s “The Congregation”, the narrator is half-human, half-jinn. “All he’s ever wanted is to be possessed,” an exorcist remarks of him, “There is no evil here, only love” (p. 22). In its most creative and thoughtful recreations of the jinn, this collection of very high literary merit also brings us closer together in understanding and endeavour.

Copyright Dan Hartland. All rights reserved.

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The House of Binding Thorns follows on from the BSFA Best Novel winner of 2015, The House of Shattered Wings but both is and isn’t a sequel to that earlier book. While key characters, such as the addicted alchemist, Madeleine, and weak-willed immortal, Philippe, are still central to the proceedings, they are joined by a range of new protagonists, such as the heavily-pregnant Françoise, who lives with the dying ‘Fallen’ (magical returned angel), Berith, outside the big ‘House’ system through which the Fallen exert their power over this alternate Paris, and Thuan, a nephew of Ngoc Bich, the ruler of the Dragon kingdom under the Seine. While the first novel concerned the fortunes of House Silverspires, the action in the second is centred – as its title suggests – on House Hawthorn, headed by the enigmatic and deliciously evil Asmodeus. 

The House of Binding Thorns

The advantage of unabashed genre fiction over mainstream realist fiction is that it enables a much clearer depiction of how power relations, both at individual and societal level, function. In a modern society with the ideological veneer of the political equality of citizens, Asmodeus would no doubt be the epitome of the manipulative centrist politician who is truly monstrous. However, as de Bodard gradually reveals to us, the seemingly absolute power of the House system actually forces him to take responsibility for his actions. By the end of the novel, his relationship with his dependant, Madeleine, who is initially terrified of him, has been transformed into something mutually meaningful in subtle and complex ways. 

Of course, the idea that relationships in a feudal system might be both richer and more human than those in a capitalist democracy has been a mainstay of genre since Walter Scott’s historical novels of the early nineteenth century. But while this understanding is central to The Lord of the Rings and the subsequent works it influenced, this doesn’t mean that all fantasy writers employing feudal elements share the politics of Tolkien. De Bodard takes pains to show us the difficulties but also the possibilities of building a community outside the Houses in the poor dockside region of La Goute d’Or, where Françoise, Berith and Philippe are trying to make their lives amongst the Vietnamese Community. More significantly, however, the world she depicts is devoid of the patriarchal and compulsory-heterosexual logic that once upon a time was taken for granted as the natural mechanism of fantasy.

A queer feudal society in which power relationships are openly visible and consent proves central to meaningful relationships turns out to be highly seductive. It is not fear alone that maintains the loyalty of House Hawthorn dependants to Asmodeus. Indeed, in perhaps the most important political dimension to the novel, de Bodard shows how fear corrupts the potential for dynamic consensual relationships in her society. Fear is shown to be self-perpetuating and immune even to attempts to begin with a clean sheet, as the revolutionary terror at the beginning of Asmodeus’s reign as Head is retrospectively revealed to have been. Instead, we are offered the prospect of a future with no promises other than the opportunity to live in it and see what happens.

The House of Binding Thorns blends the power plays and magical exchanges of classic fantasy with intriguing mystery, queer romance, Parisian settings, Vietnamese legends, and the sensibility of the nineteenth-century gothic novel into an intoxicating potion. While the plot is skilfully constructed to move the protagonists through a series of interlocking climaxes, the overall effect is not so much resolution as a delirious feeling of sensory overload. The reader is left with that kind of hangover in which dizziness and pain are experienced as sensual pleasures; still able to feel the burn of angel essence at the back of their throat and in thrall to the orange-blossom-and-bergamot scent of desire.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved

Lost Gods by Micha Yongo

Reviewed by David Lascelles. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

It is sometimes weird how coincidence works. I went to the launch of Lost Gods in Manchester, Micah’s home city, on a mission to take some photos of the event and decided on the strength of the reading to buy a copy and get the man himself to scribble in it. The next morning, I get the list of BSFA books to review and prominent on that list was Lost Gods.

Naturally, I leapt on the chance to review it. After all, I’d already read the first chapter so I was already ahead of the game.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

Lost Gods is set in a fantasy realm that is based on stories that Micah loved as a child. This means a mix of Middle Eastern and East African mythology mixed in with a number of typical fantasy ideas. The novel introduces us to a ‘Sovereignty’ of different countries. Each of them, apart from one, conquered and brought under the aegis of one Sharif or Sovereign hundreds of years ago. The exception, Dumea, maintains an uneasy independence thanks mostly to it being the location of a famous library and the clever diplomacy of a succession of Stewards. There is no religion in the Sovereignty. The first Sharif banned worship of the gods and killed all the priests.

Our story follows Neythan, a teenage assassin. He is a member of a secret order of assassins based vaguely on the real world Hashashin, called the Shedaim. This brotherhood has been used by the Sovereign for centuries to prevent rebellion and unrest and to basically keep the Sovereignty together. We join Neythan as he completes his training and is about to embark on his first ‘decree’ (assassination) along with his fellow recent trainees – Arianna, Yannick, Josef and Daneel. However, things do not go exactly as planned and Neythan ends up on the run, accused of murdering one of his friends.

What follows is a richly written political thriller set in a fantasy kingdom. Imagine the Bourne films only set in a fantasy Persia rather than modern day Europe and with Bourne replaced by a teenage boy looking for the answers to why people are trying to kill him. Initially, I found some of the political sections a little tedious as they seemed to bear no real relevance to Neythan’s plight, which is the exciting central plot and I was keen to see how that progressed. However, as the layers of the deeper background built and the relevance of those scenes began to emerge, you start to see the full story develop. Some of this I was able to predict. However, there were still surprises and twists to be seen. 

Neythan himself is a relatable character. Far more mature and competent than many teenagers put in similar situations but that is testament to the training he has endured, which has turned him into an independent person. This isn’t Hogworts for assassins, no trustworthy tutors to help out, just Neythan and some people he meets and never fully trusts. He still manages to have some naivete. In fact, you see him develop through the story from loyal assassin to rogue operative reacting to what others are doing to him but not really knowing what is going on and finally to a character who takes control of their own fate. The other characters are also well written and have solid personalities and backgrounds.

Overall, this is an entertaining debut novel and shows much promise for the sequels and is part of an exciting and long overdue recent trend for the stories of Africa and the Middle East in fantasy.

Copyright David Lascelles. All rights reserved

Zero Bomb by M T Hill

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

You wait years for a horribly plausible novel about imminent civilisational collapse, and then two come along at once. In terms of topicality, M T Hill’s Zero Bomb can – and should – be read as a companion piece alongside Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail, dealing as it does with an end-of-the-world inflicted by misguided infrastructural terrorism. But these are wildly different books in almost every other way: Zero Bomb is more focussed on the sociological dimension, more concerned with character and the role of alienation and bad-news anomie in producing would-be world-enders; it’s also structurally stranger, comprising three distinct elements which might easily have been bulked out into separate novels in their own right. (Indeed, one section *is* a novel in its own right, albeit one reduced to a synoptic summary of itself by the secret resistance network for whom it is both gospel and recruitment tool.) But don’t expect a fat tome; Zero Bomb is surprisingly short, refreshingly so in an age of wrist-snapping epics – the sort of length that you could realistically scarf down in an afternoon.

First we follow the fall from grace (and sanity) of Remi, a naturalised European immigrant in the north of a bleak and brutal post-Brexit Britain, as he quite literally runs away from his life and seeks out a new career in a new town, riding courier bikes and delivering clandestine dead-tree manuscripts across a near-future London that reads like Jeff Noon remixing Jeff Bezos, a glitchy bit-rotted prospectus for the “smart city” that we’re constantly told is coming to solve all our problems. Remi’s recruitment into what he sees as a resistance movement is achieved in a manner which leaves the reader sympathetic to both him and it, before the novel hinges on the heavily excerpted (and convincingly anachronistic) novel of robot uprising already mentioned. 

The second half of the book switches characters and locations to follow the life of Remi’s estranged daughter, whiling away her late teens on an allotment of refuseniks, harvesting biotechnological replacement limbs for an all-but-vestigial National Health Service. Here, in a small northern town far from the political or technological centre of anything, as sympathies become harder to sustain, the threads draw themselves into a terrifying tangle as the book (and its world) take a definite turn for the terminal… or maybe not? As in Infinite Detail, there’s some shafts of hope at the close of Zero Bomb, but they pierce a dark and gloomy future that could realistically result from our increasing over-reliance upon the technologies of automation and algorithmic analysis, and from the solipsistic alienation that is their seemingly inevitable consequence.

Hill’s obvious authorial affinity for the hinterlands combines with his concerns for the intimate human cost of surveillance capitalism (and the ease with which it enables the scared and the angry to manipulate others, as well as themselves) to mark out Zero Bomb as something quite special and (dare I say it?) distinctly British, as well as more knowingly of-its-time than science fiction usually dares to be. The end of the world is always a local and personal experience, taking different forms depending on who it’s happening to, and the technological apocalypse of Zero Bomb feels significantly secondary to the very personal tragedies of its three focal figures, even as it offers a caution to a nation on the brink of a socio-political breach of unprecedented scale and depth: decisions made now in haste and frustration may never be undone, and indeed might be the undoing of everything they were meant to protect.

It’s not a happy book – though perhaps the epilogue will sweeten the last few sips? – but it’s a thrilling, twisted trip across this septic isle, and an exemplar of a sort of science fiction which, at times, has seemed all but extinct. Do yourself a favour and get a copy right away, while there’s still light by which to read it.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

You might know Tim Maughan for his BSFA Award-nominated story “Havana Augmented”, or for his lengthening list of by-lines on articles about the imminent future. (Or perhaps for his caustic yet compassionate presence on the birdsite.) But from now on, you should know him for his debut novel Infinite Detail, a tapestry of near-term prognostication that stuns you with its contextual implications, while its streetwise prose gets to work on picking your emotional pockets. 

“You would say that, Paul,” I hear you mutter, “he’s a friend of yours.” Well, that’s true – but you should see the thousands of words of seething envy I discarded in the process of drafting this review, and read some of the blurbs from writers far better known than me. I say it because I believe it; if I didn’t, I’d say nothing. It’s a question of trust: do you consider me honest, or am I just another algorithm in the surveillance-consumerism panopticon? (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Infinite Detail

This is a central issue in Infinite Detail, which is – at least in part – about the mediation of social relations by global infrastructural networks of inscrutable complexity. It’s not just about who (or rather what) you trust to recommend things, but who you trust to keep you safe, to keep the lights on and the shops stocked. In a very-near-future Bristol, a gang of smart young techies and artists have reached such a point of distrust that they start trying to build an alternative system… and in the same world, a handful of years later, everyone is dealing with the consequences of another group of smart young techies having decided that the best solution was to throw a global kill-switch and hope it all comes out in the wash. (Spoilers: it doesn’t all come out in the wash.)

Infinite Detail is an angry, tragic plea for a more intimate and local sort of connection than we’ve become accustomed to. It’s perhaps also nostalgic for a lost past in a way that might seem unimaginable coming from a relatively young writer… until you think back to the 1990s (if you can remember them) and recall, with a sharp lurch of anxiety and confusion, how different the world now seems. But that’s actually an illusion, and Maughan and I (and others of our generation) are just now getting our own serving of the futureshock that so animated middle-aged people in the 1970s, the golden age of the critical utopia in sf. That movement was a bitter yet hopeful flinch from a transformation which must have felt sudden and totalising, but was really just the first flourish of a long, slow three-card trick: ARPANET, microprocessors, containerised logistics. Infinite Detail is about the end of that game, which not even the house can win in the long run.

It’s not unremittingly dark; there’s as much hope here as in Gibson’s The Peripheral, if not more. But in both cases, it’s a hope that emerges from Pandora’s box, among a flood of horrors which cannot be re-contained. The ghost at the feast is climate change, of course – but it’s in no way a work of denial. Instead of using the warming world as his backdrop, Maughan has foregrounded the global machine whose consequences are climate change: the optical fibres and sub-arctic server farms, yes, but also the mines and power stations, the retail palaces and container ports, the logistical systems which create and distribute the disposable crap that arrives to fill our jam-packed lives before we know we want it. 

It’s a novel of failed utopias, then: the technological utopia of Silicon Valley, whose gloss is turning to tarnish, but also the counter-utopia which is its negation. Maughan locates this latter in Stokes Croft, the gentrified but defiantly countercultural zone of Bristol which is his personal Mecca: a vibrant strip of street art, galleries and hipster hangouts whose cool is nonetheless parasitic upon the overlooked poverty of the city’s underclass, from whom much of its now-mainstream cultural cachet – hip-hop, drum’n’bass, grime, graffiti – was originally appropriated long ago. 

It’s about the failure of utopias, but it’s also about why utopias fail: about the cruel efficiency of networks, and the role of power and significance therein, but also about the cruelty of removing them suddenly without an adequate plan for their replacement. It’s billed as a novel of “the end of the internet”, but it’s important to understand that “the internet”, despite the reductive way we talk about it, isn’t just Twitter and Snapchat and smartphones but, well, everything – the systems that feed us, light us, keep us warm and connected, keep us from a life of clothes patched and re-patched over decades, from jerk-seasoned seagull roasted over an oil-drum barbecue. And it’s scary, because it’s true… though I wonder if it reads as far-fetched to anyone who hasn’t spent the last decade learning how this stuff all fits together.

But therein lies the redemption of the bits of the book that can feel a little like lectures on the fragility of our hypermediated just-in-time-and-always-on society: in a sense, this is the hardest of hard science fiction. There’s nothing in Infinite Detail which isn’t plausible as well as possible; Maughan knows networks and supply chains inside out, and that knowledge is reflected in the Janus faces of awe and horror with which the novel considers the crystallisation of a world which we don’t yet quite inhabit, but are nonetheless rushing toward with arms open and eyes closed. So read it as a cautionary tale – but read it also as a searing debut novel from a writer who couldn’t be more relevant to these troubled and troubling times. You can trust me on that.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There’s something fascinating about the “Time War” scenario which we find in, for instance, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and the stories from the 50s and 60s published as The Change War, or Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time. In El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s short but emotionally-packed novel we get something similar to Leiber, in which the Change War is fought by two forces, the “Spiders” and the “Snakes” who never quite reach the dynamic of “good guys” versus “bad guys”. Here, we have two agents in a battle fought throughout tangled braids of human alternate-history/parallel-worlds between the Agency and the Garden: whose characteristics—material, technological, militaristic versus organic, insidious, ruthless—become part of the conflict. Following a cataclysmic battle, the Agency operative, Red, savours her victory, and finds ambiguity in it. She picks up a letter from her Garden adversary Blue; a mocking taunt to an opponent, to which, in a sense that this is a tournament and a tease, she replies in the same vein.

This Is How You Lose the Time War

And thus begins another always-fascinating scenario, the battle between two opponents in a war who come to find a kindred-spirit in the enemy: the secret-agents who find in the to-and-fro of the “game” a personal satisfaction more attractive than ideological commitment. Already there is much to like in the novel, and as Red and Blue exchange ever more ingenious letters and self-revelations after each of their confrontations, this becomes a love story playfully referencing Ghengis Khan, Atlantis, Romeo and Juliet, the poet Thomas Chatterton, Wordsworth’s “Marvellous Boy”, and the Russian Front during World War Two (or at least, versions of all these, and more.) From mocking adversaries, Red and Blue become passionate if distanced lovers. At one point, Red writes “I veer rhapsodic: my prose purples”, and there are certainly times when playfulness hovers over whimsey without (for this reader at least), ever tipping in the wrong direction. There are enough asides, mini-digressions (Naomi Mitchison’s novel Travel Light at one point becomes part of the conversation) and sharply-if-briefly imagined alternative “strands” to make up a dozen novels in the Leiber/Anderson tradition, but the focus is upon the tension and teasing which never stops until it becomes clear that their superiors suspect that something is going on between their top agents, and something drastic is going to have to happen. 

We know from our extra-generic reading that secret agents groom and attempt to “turn” each other. This is a novel of traps and tangles, duels and seduction, as if a writer of eighteenth-century epistolary romances had suddenly discovered Golden Age science fiction, though it is considerably sharper and more snapshot than the one and much, much more lyrical than the other. The methods with which the “letters” are written and exchanged are themselves beautifully and baroquely imagined, and worth the price of admission. But as we progress towards the inevitable denouement, there are scenes and evocations that are the distinct opposite from the cuteness and sentimentality that a brief summary of the plot might suggest. You suddenly find yourself seeing “Red” and “Blue” as characters rather than symbols in a highly literary confection, and actively want to see how this will work out. At this point, the authors deliver, and we find that we have been reading not a series of highly-wrought vignettes, but a carefully plotted novel. I would not be surprised to see it among the competitors for at least one major award; nor would I be particularly surprised to see it waved aside as “too clever for its own good”. So I shall come down with an opinion: this is almost certainly the best book I have read this year and one that I intend to re-read for the third time. Behind the playfulness, there’s a dark humour, an aspiration for passion, and, yes, a science-fictional inventiveness that comes along too rarely.

(c) Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

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