Railhead by Philip Reeve

Review by Christopher Owen. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Nominated for the Carnegie Medal and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, Railhead and its sequel, Black Light Express, are set in a future where sentient trains travel the galaxy. The Great Network is an intergalactic railroad that connects planets across the universe through mysterious portals. It is controlled by the rich, and obsessed over by railheads, riders who travel for no reason other than to see strange and distant planets. Zen Starling is a railhead.  

Zen Starling is a thief. With a sick mother and an overworked sister, Zen steals so they can afford to survive. But he also does it for the adventure, hopping trains to escape the law and travel the universe in the process. When a mysterious stranger named Raven approaches Zen and offers to pay him a fortune to steal a mysterious box from the Emperor, Zen agrees to pose as a distant relative of the Emperor’s large family and board the Emperor’s train. He is accompanied by a motorik, a humanoid robot, named Nova, and on the train he befriends the Emperor’s daughter, Threnody Noon. After a series of mistakes, Zen and Nova are forced to destroy the Emperor’s train, killing many (including the Emperor himself) and fleeing as terrorist outlaws.

Railhead by [Philip Reeve]

Their adventures lead them to the answers of the secret history of the K-gates, the portals that allow the trains to travel across the universe. It is a widely held belief that the K-gates were built by the Guardians, Artificial Intelligence so powerful that they became like gods, worshipped by humanity through digital prayers. But the Guardians are hiding the true origins of the K-gates, and Raven knows that the answer lies with the mysterious box Zen has stolen for him. 

Meanwhile, Rail Marshal Lyssa Delius has decided that Threnody Noon will be the next Empress. But Lyssa Delius fully intends to control Threnody, and in turn the Great Network. This sets off a civil war, causing Threnody and her criminal servant Chandni Hansa to flee into hiding and inadvertently join Zen and Nova on their adventures to learn the truth about the origins of their intergalactic society. 

The two novels feature imaginative world building with fascinating societies, complex systems of power and intriguing characters. The majority of characters are people of colour, and several protagonists are queer, including a gender non-conforming robot, a gay soldier and an asexual criminal. The borders between who is a human, who is a machine and who is a god are played with in a society that is as diverse as it is oppressive. 

The first novel, Railhead, is set in a universe in which a complex and unfair system of power pervades in the background of a thrilling adventure set on several different planets. The characters are well developed and interesting, and the story takes many surprising twists and turns. While it is unfortunate the book features the tired trope of a human boy falling in love with a robot girl, the book otherwise features some really unique and interesting characteristics in a richly imagined universe. 

Unfortunately, the sequel, Black Light Express, falls off the rails. This book really wants to be two books. The plot is unfocussed with a disconnecting structure. The ending feels incredibly rushed, and instead of tackling the system of power in a nuanced way, the story takes an easy and violent out that leaves several social issues unresolved. 

Railhead deserves all of its praise and award nominations, but its sequel, Black Light Express, is rather disappointing. Yet both books feature diverse characters, exciting adventures, and strange new worlds, demonstrating Philip Reeve’s famous imagination. 

Copyright Christopher Owen. All rights reserved

AfroSF Vol 3 edited by Ivor W. Hartmann

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

Bookended by two very strong stories which show just what can be done with the “standard” sf theme, AfroSF returns with a third volume which takes a specific theme (“space”) and explores what it means, from out-and-out epic to stories of simple poignant humanity.

“Njuzu” (T. L. Huchu) combines sf and traditional story in a way which succeeds in bringing out vivid imagery and emotional strength. Following an accident on Ceres, the narrator takes part in traditional rites to appease the spirit-being who has “taken’” her son. There’s a lot in this story, which hinges on her being “forbidden” to cry, as this will ensure the entrapment of the lost boy. There is also the element of mutual resentment with her partner. As I read it, the ending of the story is an acceptance of the necessity of giving up comforting myths of hope, in order to keep hold of memory and love. Not all the stories that follow have the same sense of really experimenting with different interpretations of the fantastic, with sentences and half-descriptions suddenly causing you to think about what is being said, but Huchu is a strong writer to begin with.

“Home is Waiting for You” — The Space-faring Futures of AfroSFv3 | Tor.com

In Cristy Zinn’s “The Girl Who Stared at Mars”, the narrator, on an expedition to Mars, takes refuge in simulations, encountering the memory of a family tragedy. A crew member, trapped by his own inability to convince himself that their experience is “real”, makes things worse, but Amahle successfully confronts her own hesitations. Humanity is not lost simply because we are not on Earth: instead, Amahle is moving from one state to another (evoking, in a political sense, diaspora rather than colonisation?) yet keeping her sense of belonging.

“The EMO Hunter” by Mandisi Nkomo is ambitious but hazy; involving a post-Earth scenario and an “Earth Mother” religion. It’s not entirely clear whether the “Earth Mother Knights” (of which Joshua is one) are the good guys or whether Joshua’s wife Miku, who activates a clone to destroy him, is combating tyranny or trying to deal with her failing marriage. In contrast, “The Luminal Frontier” (Biriam Mboob) takes the flavour of space opera, which infuses several of the stories (not always to their advantage) and applies it to something larger. A ship in Luminal Space is messaged by the police. The crew are clearly involved in something illegal, and this means having to dump their cargo: something that, according to the religious ideas that infuse their views of the Nothing around them, is sacrilegious. And the cargo, we soon find out, is slaves. Later parts take place within a kind of dreamworld, following a time-paradox. The final part of the story is miles away from the beginning, and Mboob is clearly a writer who has a firm grip upon what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. 

This strange story, effectively mingling the science and spiritual aspects of the scenario, is followed by Gabriella Muwanga’s “The Far Side”. A spaceship captain smuggles his five-year-old daughter onto his ship despite a ruling that her asthma means he has to leave her behind. It’s story that features simple human relations: perhaps over-sentimental but calming the more experimental aspects of the collection. Wole Talabi’s “Drift-flux” is in many ways, a standard “Federation/Confederacy” trope of the type that space-opera writers are too fond of and, at times, marred by excessive infodumping. The Igodo witnesses the explosion of another ship, the Freedom Queen.  Orshio and Lien-Adel are “arrested” on suspicion of the bombing, but it soon becomes clear that there is an ulterior motive. “Drift-flux” would probably make a better tv episode than a short story, though that is not so much a criticism as an acknowledgement of way the strengths of its pace, action, and well-imagined scenario overcome its faults.

Possibly the most effectively-written story is “Journal of a DNA Pirate” (Stephen Embleton). The narrator is part of an experiment in human transformation, an experiment which is actually a terrorist enterprise. With its fusion of discontent, anger, and fleeting human contact, this, along with “Njuzu” and Mame Bougouma Diene’s closing story, best gives what transforms entertaining fiction into something memorable: a genuine sense of difference in worlds carefully and coherently imagined. For “formal” rather than “aesthetic” reasons several of the following stories don’t work like this. “The Interplanetary Water Company” (Masimba Musodza), in which the secret of a super-technology is hidden on a planet dislodged from its orbit, reads like the first chapter of a longer work. Dilman Dila’s “Safari Nyota: A Prologue” certainly is such. It is the space-opera beginning of a multimedia project with great potential; one that intrigues and invites you to follow it up, but about which snap judgement is unwise. “Parental Control” (Mazi Nwonwu) and “Inhabitable” (Andrew Dakalira) are competent but flawed. In “Parental Control”, the son of a human father and an android mother suffers taunts and prejudice until taken up again by his father. The father-son relationship works effectively. The “revelation” at the end doesn’t, though the story remains an effective use of science fiction to talk about painful aspects of everyday humanity. In “Inhabitable”, explorers find aliens needing their help, which they give. The action leads, however, to an unsettling end. Basically, competent traditional sf, the story needs room to breathe to become more.

Mame Bougouma Diene’s “Ogotemmeli’s Song” is the closing “bookend” strong story of the anthology. Though partly another space opera with Trekkish overtones, it soon moves to another plane entirely to features alien conversations and cultural conflicts on an epic scale with occasional flurries of topical locations and references and memorable images like “Ogotemmeli paddled his fishing boat of space dust along the solar winds”.

On this basis, AfroSF still has much to look forward to. This third volume’s thematic approach perhaps constrains as much as it liberates, but the best stories are those which pick up the theme and wrestle with it. To use a clichéd expression that I dislike intensely but which seems appropriate, there is a strong sense that the best writers here are taking up science fiction and owning it. Another successful snapshot of the talent to be found in Africa and the African diaspora.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games by Andrew Reinhard

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

From the dual-pistol wielding Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (1996-present) to the suave Nathan Drake from Uncharted (2007-2017), video games are replete with heroic archaeologists and their exploration of lost worlds. While surely a far-cry from its real-world counterpart, these is a certain pervasiveness to excavational practice within digital media that demands further attention. Can video games themselves be artefacts? How would we excavate a virtual world? Can this medium extend archaeological practice? It is precisely these questions that Andrew Reinhard engages with in his compelling and lucidly written Archaeogaming – a fascinating study of the ‘archaeology in and of games’ (2).

Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games

Throughout Reinhard identifies that this is not just archaeology within video games, but also a perspective which encourages the identification of games as artefacts themselves. Fittingly, then the first chapter, ‘Real-World Archaeogaming’, examines the significance of video game physicality – arcades, retro shops, and developer studios – alongside the field’s potential to scrutinise recent cultural products. As the author outlines, video games are irrefutably artefacts of material culture and offer a fascinating insight into such intersections as 1980s popular culture and nostalgia. Take, for example, the urban myth of Atari burying multitudes of E.T: The Extraterrestrial (1983) cartridges in the Alamogordo city landfill – after its wide-spread acknowledgement of being ‘the worst game ever made’ (23) – a perfect encapsulation of real-world archaeogaming at play. Reinhard narrates their own experience as part of the excavation team that dug up the ‘Atari Burial Ground’, a fascinating insight which unseats archaeology as merely the study of ancient history to suggests its applicability to the recent past. This archaeology of garbage – or Garbology – thus allows a more faithful appraisal of contemporary material culture and how the waste left behind is intrinsic to artifactuality. Reinhard then turns to the virtual, cogently examining how video games have their own historicity too, one which can instead be identified through version and build numbers.  

Video game archaeological characters have a massive impact upon public awareness of the field, which Reinhard appropriately explores through their prominence of ‘Playing as Archaeologists’. Providing a brief, but informative, survey of the different roles which archaeologists plays in a multitude of texts, this study not only demonstrates the voracity of the trope but also its variance between back-drop setting and the implementation of excavational practice. The separation between archaeologist Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) and mechanical process poignantly queries how an ethical excavational practice can be deployed within the game format. For example, if we can study material culture through the waste left behind, how can this be translated to the digital? Exploring object looting and disposal in World of Warcraft (2004-present) and Elders Scroll Online (2014-present), Reinhard considers the historicity of virtual objects, how they each embody their own ‘fake’ and ‘real’ history while existing across multitudes of player-based instances. Crucially video game worlds can therefore become landscape to not only test and explore archaeological theory, but also one to challenge methodological practice. 

It is within this vein that Reinhard next turns to ‘Video Games as Archaeological Sites’ to explore the multifarious ways in which excavational practice can be applied to digital spheres. Utilising No Man’s Sky (2016) as the main example, the author identifies how the ‘No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey’ (NMSAS) – established by Catherine Flick with L. Meghan Dennis and Reinhard – is a platform that deploys a rigid archaeological structure to study the game’s procedurally-generated universe of over eighteen quintillion planets and its resulting material culture. Outlining an extensive and impressive background of archaeological theory, Reinhard’s meticulous approach offers a compelling framework through which the reader can also establish their own excavational study – the NMSAS’ ‘Code of Ethics’ are replicated in full at the end of the book, a compelling read indeed for interested parties. Certainly, one of the greatest strengths of Archaeogaming is its enthusiasm and openness to wider public immersion. I am particularly interested to see NMSAS’ future excavations now that No Man’s Sky has implemented full multiplayer features – arguably is applicability is as limitless as the procedurally-generated universe itself. Reinhard’s own documented landscape excavation of a Moon within No Man’s Sky is refreshing for its innovative approach, one which is not above commenting on the draw-backs and frustrations incurred from limited mapping mechanics in the game’s early versions. 

The final section, ‘Material Culture of the Immaterial’, engages with the complexity of studying the ephemerality of digital presence. Reinhard explores the importance of video game archives alongside the challenges of arranging these artefacts within a museum – are they categorised by genre, by publication date, are the games playable? Museums, of course, equally feature within games, a location which Reinhard interrogates similar to the previous archaeological character study. For indeed, while video games often point or gesture towards a narrativized history, often these are merely artificial or illusionary. In Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games no ‘past’ can be verified, as any traces of a player – such as discarded trash – are quickly eradicated. As Reinhard notes, although there may be no material trace to this intangible physicality, this does not preclude archaeologists from exploring the rich didacticism of these increasingly immersive frontiers. 

While some may challenge the validity of archaeological study within video game worlds, Reinhard steadfastly and convincingly presents their unique application for expanding excavational processes. To disregard this singular potential is thus to overlook the manners in which they enrich and challenge current practice, questioning our mediation of waste, artifactuality, and ‘presence’. Archaeogaming is by no means an exhaustive study of every excavational video game – and as the author notes, nor can it be – rather Reinhard provides a productive and compelling framework that indeed encourages the reader to enter the field and see what artefacts they too may uncover. 

Vigil by Angela Slatter

Reviewed by Duncan Lawie. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Urban fantasy, as we now know it, is dominated by a few big cities and a few common types of nightmare creatures. Angela Slatter’s success with Vigil is to make such a style work in a place as seemingly mundane as Brisbane, Australia and to do so with a collection of Weyrd more subtly defined than the default vampires or were creatures.

Whilst it is a long time since I lived in Brisbane, the city I see in this book is familiar. Slatter makes good use of iconic locations. The book returns repeatedly to the cliffs of Kangaroo Point, which feels like a natural gathering place for flying mythical creatures. West End, always friendly to those of a Goth outlook, works well as a suburb for the Strange to be hidden amidst the merely strange. The ordinary city comes alive too, particularly the incessant driving to get from one place to another.

Vigil

In common with much urban fantasy, we have a first-person female protagonist, a private investigator with a liminal role. In this case Verity Fassbinder has mixed blood. She was brought up by her normal grandparents after her Weyrd father died in prison for killing and butchering children. For the Weyrd of Brisbane, the old ways of preying on the normals are forbidden for selfish reasons rather than moral ones. Fassbinder Senior’s principal crime in their eyes was to bring them close to exposure.

There is an interesting theme here of fitting in, of being an immigrant community which needs to take up the apparent norms of their host society, but it seems a generation out of date. Both the Weyrd and regular human population of Brisbane we see here are immigrants from Europe to Australia and their descendants. I understand the nervousness most modern Australians feel about invoking the Aboriginal uncanny, but it seems a little odd that the waves of immigration of the last forty years aren’t visible.

Nevertheless, the Weyrd come from a broad variety of European ancestry – creatures of myth, fairy tale, nightmare. Many aren’t clearly identifiable types, which means they can take individual shape, whilst some “types” help to shape the plot. Amongst these are Sirens from Greek myth, though I am rather bemused that these are flying women, when I would have expected such to be called Harpies; perhaps that carries expectations of ugliness. The angels are dependent on the faith of the people for their power. The Three Fates run a cafe. 

The private investigator plot is a classic mechanism for explaining the city. There is every sense that this city, this community, has existed for a long time and that many stories are waiting to be told. Slatter throws several apparently unconnected mysteries into the mix and gradually shapes them together. Can the new boyfriend really be as good as he seems? Who is killing Sirens and why? How does The Winemaker connect to Verity’s father? Slatter builds up the intrigue, though there is never a genuine feeling of peril. Fortunately, Verity’s character convinces, to the extent that I found myself getting somewhat frustrated with Verity’s apparent obtuseness in chasing the clues placed in front of her. 

Perhaps this tells me that Slatter is a great writer, building the tension in her reader by showing us things which our protagonist has seen but not understood. There is clearly enough here to show that Slatter can plot well, but she needs a tighter edit. Verity’s relationship with her primary police contact is inconsistent, which makes it harder to understand either of them. Minor items would matter less except that the reader is trawling for clues – for example a conversation about taking a child to school the next day when that next day turns out, in the next paragraph, to be Sunday.

Beyond these gripes, Vigil is an entertaining read, particularly if you know the setting. 

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.

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