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.

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

From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2020

By Dev Agarwal, Focus editor

As 2020 recedes from us, we look forward to the world opening up and restarting from lockdown safely. While 2020 was obviously the year of Covid-19, it was also a year of community and solidarity. I hope that readers had those experiences as well.

Friend to Focus and writer, Leigh Kennedy, described the grip of Covid-19 as eerie and familiar, like “being in a science fiction novel we all read long ago.”

On top of the pandemic, 2020 was a year packed with political drama. The year started a month after a significant general election in December 2019 in the UK. By the end of 2020, the US had had one of its most important and defining presidential elections ever (where the election of a Black and Asian American woman as Vice President was one of many significant moments). And that’s without us even commenting on the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, major conflicts in Armenia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and elsewhere, wildfires across Australia, the attempted violent overthrow in the US on 6 January 2021, and the ongoing fight to vaccinate the planet.

That’s a lot to process and a tough year for writers and artists to make their voices heard and their work noticed. For readers, the challenge was possibly to concentrate long enough to fully enjoy the fiction and art available. A further struggle for writers and artists was to create art in the first place. Despite these challenges there were many successes to celebrate.

Continue reading “From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2020″

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling and Normal by Warren Ellis

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

If you ever publicly identify as a futurist, you will eventually be asked what contemporary futurism – an admittedly vague term which somehow covers everyone from tech-centric venture capital strategists and Pentagon policy wonks to Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil and the snake-oil Barnums of Silicon Valley – has to do with the proto-fascist 1920s Italian art movement of the same name. Bruce Sterling’s latest novella, Pirate Utopia, is (in part) an attempt to answer that question.

Written in the bombastic style that animates much of Sterling’s more recent short fiction, Pirate Utopia is populated by characters whose larger-than-lifeness is predominantly a function of their unfettered will-to-power (but also cocaine). In this alternate Adriatic, minor historical figures and allegorical types rub shoulders in Fiume, the little city at the heart of the breakaway microstate known as the Republic of Carnaro, where Futurist poets and artists work side by side with rogue military leaders and mercenary engineers to establish a proto-fascist entrepôt with its own hi-tech missile factory.

Identified by glamorous (and thus ridiculous) nicknames – “the Poet”, “the Ace of Hearts”, “the Art Witch” – the heroes of capital-F Futurism unwittingly slip into the narrative space occupied, in our own timeline, by the more fully developed European fascisms of the early 20th Century: Mussolini, a magazine editor, is emasculated in his office chair by Syndicalist women with single-shot handguns, while a former Austrian art student takes someone else’s bullet during a failed putsch in a Bavarian beer-hall. But Carnaro is doomed not to last – for as Peter Lamborn Wilson has observed, the pirate utopia is always-already temporary and contingent; the polder cannot hold.

The arrival of “the Magician” – one Harry Houdini, squired by two USian pulp fiction  pioneers – and his inviting of Lorenzo Secondari the Pirate Engineer to the States completes the story of Futurism and futurism. Both are essentially poetic movements fuelled by utopian genres of writing and the creative arts, and powered by the modernist legacy of a lust for power, velocity and creative destruction. Which is not to claim that small-f futurism is necessarily fascist, of course – but the same desires and fetishes can be found the manifestos of both, and today’s self-styled “neoreactionaries” (a small but scary intellectual splinter of the soi disant “alt-right”, fond of cool tech, racist pseudoscience and the presumed meritocracy of enlightened dictatorship) mark the ideological space where futurisms past and present overlap. Both futurism and Futurism are far less about the future than they are about a present in the perpetual process of radical sociotechnical reconfiguration, and the possibilities of power in times of flux.

Warren Ellis’s Normal begins with an ageing academic demanding cat gifs with menaces (assuming “menaces” can stretch to include a shank whittled from the handle of a ten-buck toothbrush), and the story only gets darker and weirder, unfolding around a plot featuring “a missing guy, a locked-room mystery out of Agatha Christie, and a pile of insects.” Normal Head is a retreat facility for burned out futurists – not the “woo, flying cars!!” sort of futurist, but the strategists and forecasters who have learned the truth of Nietzsche’s old aphorism about gazing into the abyss, and learned it the hard way. The abyss in question is the light-cone of increasingly plausible and probable end-games facing a civilisation whose ability to generate interesting new technologies has far outpaced their ability to plan, predict or control the consequences – and speaking from beneath my own futurist’s hat, I assure you it can best a basilisk when it comes to lookin’ back atcha.

In contrast to the pulpy swaggerdocio of Sterling’s story, Normal has a stark style and shape, tracing a bleakly Ballardian arc which, plotted on paper, would resemble a stock-market chart during a bank run: a justifiably and self-consciously doomed male Western professional attempts a heroic final act of self-abnegating redemption, only to reveal in doing so the even more comprehensive fuckedupness of, well, pretty much everything. Mercifully, Ellis leavens his grim prognosis with gallows humour, and with his well-tuned ear for the contemporary vernacular: you may be headed for a boot-on-a-human-face-forever sort of an ending, but you’ll find yourself smiling as an academic from a rival discipline describes economics as “a speeding death kaleidoscope made of tits” – particularly if you know anything about economics. (Or about academics, for that matter.)

Taken together, these two books shine a light on the intimate but often occluded kinship between science fiction and futurism, rooted in a shared ideology and teleology. I am reminded of a recent Clute riff, in which he observes – and I paraphrase – that in “the old sf” (which is to say, roughly speaking, 20th century sf) the reward for saying ‘yes!’ was the future, while in “new” sf, the reward for saying ‘yes!’ is death; this reflects and reproduces a recent tectonic slippage in our attitude to change, and to technological change in particular. The Republic of Carnaro may be doomed in Sterling’s story, but as Houdini and friends say ‘yes!’ to Futurism and smuggle its Promethean flame back to their homeland, they mark the beginning of a hegemonic American century – albeit one which seems to be drawing to a shuddering halt even as I type. But Adam Dearden and the other inmates of Normal Head, after long careers of saying ‘yes, but…’ to the future, suddenly find that it’s too late for questions and analysis, let alone for saying ‘no’. 

Things being what they are, I think we’re all victims of #abyssgaze to some extent … and yet the dream of Carnaro lives on in the tax-exempt sea-steading fantasies and vaporware Martian colonies of libertarian millionaires. Perhaps, then, we could say that Futurism’s greatest trick was – and still is – making the capital disappear.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

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

We all know the riff – y’know, science fiction is “about” the time in which it is written, rather than the time in which it is ostensibly set? Like most truisms, it’s not really true – or rather it’s not true of most science fiction, but it’s nonetheless true of enough science fiction that the truism persists. It’s only when one encounters a fiction that really does nail its Zeitgeist to the page that one realises how rare such stories are. Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, of which Europe in Winter is the third instalment, is just such a fiction.

Perhaps that seems tautologous: other readers and reviewers much faster to the mark than myself have noted the manner in which Brexit has made Hutchinson look a little like a prophet. But Brexit is merely a symptom of Fractured Europe’s true theme, which we might instead name as neoliberalism, so long as we’re willing to put up with the eye-rolling… but that’s still too narrow. We could say it’s about the collapse of the Westphalian consensus (which would at least allow us to coin the term “Westphaliure”), or the backwash of empire; less grandly, it’s about the exploitation of zero-hours workers under globalisation, or the grimy underside of the global construction industry. But really, it’s about all of these things, and more besides.

Europe in Winter (The Fractured Europe Sequence Book 3) by [Dave Hutchinson]

That said, Fractured Europe is not without literary precedent. The old po-mo saw about the map not being the territory definitely applies, letting us draw a line from Hutchinson back to Borges. Such a line might claim to sketch out a slim tradition of European magical realism more concerned with a Borgesian urban than with the ruptured rural dreamtimes of Garcia Marquez et al; Jan Morris’s Hav could be a point on that plot, as could Mieville’s The City & The City. I’d also make the case for Jeff Noon’s early books, in particular Pollen, which concretised the old map/territory riff so successfully that it became pure plot. Pollen is also, at least in part, about the relationship between society and its infrastructures, between people and systems – and that’s part of the game being played in Fractured Europe.

I’m just going to come on out and call that game psychogeography – not because it obeys Situationist methodology (such as it ever was), but because the Situationists were responding to the plasticity and fungibility of place, to the churning subjectivities of geography. In response to capital’s rewriting of the city in its own image, they attempted to disrupt that narrative through the creation of counter-stories: narratives assembled from play and randomness; directionless drifts from bar to bar, granted a rationale only in hindsight; theories that contradicted or abnegated themselves (and their creators).

Hutchinson’s Courers live rather like leaderless Situationists avant la lettre, drifting across the patchwork palimpsest of Europe, haunting its liminal spaces and infrastructural interstices, grudgingly resigned to a peripatetic existence playing out on a landscape where money has dissolved all certainties other than itself, where every map is a fiction and every story is a map. But Debord’s motley crew drifted through Paris in the hope of combatting, or perhaps outrunning, the looming hegemony; by the end of Europe in Winter, Rudy and friends are long past such naivete. They drift because drifting is the doom of the marginal, and they understand that understanding is not on the menu – though scraps do fall from taller tables, if you’re fast.

This may explain complaints about the “difficulty” of Fractured Europe, and its parsimony with regard to explanations and denouements: the reader’s experience reflects that of the characters, which is to say that individual agency is constrained, most knowledge is suspect, and the rules have a tendency to changing suddenly on the whim of distant, inscrutable powers. Fractured Europe is not so much difficult as it is perhaps too mimetic for the escapist reader’s taste: the challenge lies not in parsing its world, but in being forced to recognise it as a strip-lit fun-house reflection of the world in which you already live.

How ironic that only science fiction, the genre that helped invent The Future, is capable of documenting The Future’s foreclosure.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

Let me lay my lotería cards on the table: I read little horror, if any. I picked out Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel because I bought and published some of her earliest stories, back when Futurismic was still a going concern, and I was curious to see what she was capable of with a decade more experience under her belt; suffice to say it’s very clear to see why she’s lasted the course. The novel’s title makes it plain, even to a dilettante interloper, that there’s a direct connection to the earliest manifestations of the horror tradition—but I can’t tell you to what extent Mexican Gothic might be in dialogue with its generic predecessors, because I don’t have the necessary knowledge. As such, I will limit myself to a discussion of the book’s technique, affect and plot.

Let’s start with the latter: Noemí Taboada is a socialite in 1950s Mexico City, and her life of glamorous parties (and carefully distant dalliances with handsome but stupid young men) is interrupted by her father’s receipt of a letter from her cousin; Catalina recently married (unexpectedly, and against the family’s wishes and better judgement) and shipped out to El Triunfo, a faded former silvertown in the eastern state of Hidalgo, and has hardly been heard from since. The letter, full of high-gothic histrionics—cruelty, decay, poison, whispering voices in the night, the full works—suggests to Noemí’s father, already predisposed to disapproval of Catalina’s unsuitable husband Virgil Doyle, that she needs rescuing from her situation, or psychiatric attention, or some combination of the two: Catalina had a traumatic youth before coming to live with Noemí’s side of the family, after all, and has always been a bit flighty, her nose buried in literary Victoriana, a romantic in both the capitalised and lower-case senses of the term. Despite the horrors to come later in the novel, Noemí’s being dispatched on this mission by her stern yet doting father is perhaps the hardest event to swallow in terms of plausibility—but it’s done quickly, and no more than ten pages have passed before Noemí is en route to El Triunfo by train, with instructions to scope out the situation, and (if required) to persuade Virgil that he must either let Catalina see a shrink, or let her go entirely.

The Doyle family pile is the plainly-named High House, some way outside of El Triunfo proper, halfway up the mountain containing the mine that made the town’s (and the Doyles’s) much-diminished fortunes. High House and its cast of residents are as gothic as the title suggests they should be: this lot are, for the most part, monstrous and unpleasant from the get-go. Noemí, who starts confidently—as is her way—with the assumption that she’ll soon have her cousin out of there and onto a train back to the capital, discovers that things are (of course!) rather more complicated than the simple abusive-gold-digger-husband set-up that she and her father had assumed (though that is very much a part of the problem) and is soon entrapped in High House herself.

Now, I’ve never been much of one for deferring to the Spoiler Police, but I will in this case refrain from going deep into the spooky mechanics of the plot, which leavens its classic gothic hauntings and horrors with some scientific speculation and an (un)healthy dose of social psychology. I will say that it’s not a very violent or gory book, which I appreciated, and is perhaps all the more horrific (rather than thrilling or chilling) for that… and I will also note that the horror elements are used to explore, with no small degree of subtlety, the more mundane horrors of racism, colonialism and patriarchy. Mexican Gothic treats these themes with a sort of unflinching care, tracing the toxins without collapsing the veins of the plot. High House may be mostly lit by candles and oil lamps, but there’s a fair amount of gaslight in play, if you catch my drift; the entitled and not-always-passive aggressions of toxic masculinity, and the ways in which it warps and damages its protagonists as well as its victims, is poignantly portrayed, to the point that what might have been a far-too-fairytale ending instead feels both earned and redemptive.

It is telling, perhaps, that Moreno-Garcia chose the era of the post-war “economic miracle” as the temporal setting for the story—a period in which Mexico, like much of the rest of the world, was generally on the up in terms of social progress, particularly for women and those with indigenous (rather than Spanish) roots. Noemí fits both of those categories, and her privilege is contextualised with an appreciation of how much has changed, and how much is still to be done. As such, her distaste both for the obsolete patriarchal mores of the Doyles, and their interest in eugenic “science”, is informed by intellect and experience alike. (The redoubtable Clute would perhaps add something here about the ways in which the Doyles are Bound to the earth and their adopted home, both literally and figuratively, but I’ll leave that sort of theory to the experts.)

In terms of technique, while the gothic informs the imagery, atmosphere and plot, Moreno-Garcia mostly leaves the overwrought prose stylings out of it, writing instead from Noemí’s whipsmart sceptical POV as she figures out the form of the trap she’s wandered into. Furthermore, the way in which Moreno-Garcia displaces the classic gothic tropes to Central America, so as to expand and illuminate both the source genre and its idiosyncratic setting, is handled with deft and understated craft. Is it good horror? I’m really not the man to ask—but it’s a bloody good novel, that’s for sure.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

Vector #266

3 • Torque Control • editorial by Shana Worthen
4 • A Year in Review: Looking Back at 2010 • essay by Martin Lewis
5 • 2010: Books in Review • essay by Graham Andrews and Lynne Bispham and Mark Connorton and Gary Dalkin and Alan Fraser and Niall Harrison and David Hebblethwaite and Tony Keen and Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont and Martin McGrath and Anthony Nanson and Martin Potts and Paul Graham Raven and Ian Sales and Jim Steel and Martyn Taylor and Sandra Unnerman and Anne Wilson
15 • 2010: Television in Review • essay by Alison Page
20 • 2010 in Film: Not My Kind of Genre • essay by Jonathan McCalmont
24 • Strip Club: A Fanciful Flight • essay by Terry Martin
26 • The Promises and Pitfalls of a Christian Agenda in Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle • essay by Anthony Nanson
30 • Scholars and Soldiers • [Foundation Favourites • 12] • essay by Andy Sawyer
32 • Alpha Centauri • [Resonances • 61] • essay by Stephen Baxter
34 • Kincaid in Short • [Kincaid in Short] • essay by Paul Kincaid
37 • Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer • review by Paul Graham Raven
38 • Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan • review by Jonathan McCalmont
39 • Review: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks • review by Marcus Flavin
40 • Review: The Technician by Neal Asher • review by Stuart Carter
40 • Review: Version 43 by Philip Palmer • review by David Hebblethwaite
41 • Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu • review by Martin McGrath
41 • Review: Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson • review by Anthony Nanson
42 • Review: Music for Another World by Mark Harding • review by Dave M. Roberts
42 • Review: The Immersion Book of SF by Carmelo Rafala • review by Maureen Kincaid Speller
43 • Review: Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead by Christopher Golden • review by Colin B. Harvey [as by C. B. Harvey]
43 • Review: The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer • review by Niall Harrison
44 • Review: Feed by Mira Grant • review by Alex Williams
44 • Review: Tomes of the Dead: Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene • review by Shaun Green
45 • Review: Songs of the Dying Earth by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin • review by L. J. Hurst
46 • Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks • review by Donna Scott
46 • Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood • review by Anne F. Wilson
47 • Review: Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal by Sherryl Vint • review by Gwyneth Jones


[Mary] Gentle’s prose is sharp, her powers of invention brilliant, her characters real, especially the greasy, obese Casaubon with his pet rat. They are not necessarily likeable. Casaubon is a Lord, and not on Our Side (there’s a neat scene where he’s confronted with the woman who does his laundry who has to live on far less than the cost of one single garment), and when Valentine re-appears a couple of novels down the line she does a dreadful and unforgivable thing. But, in the best tradition of the malcontents in the Jacobean drama, boy, are they vivid! This was a new thing.

For a time I used the word scholarpunk for this fusion of erudition and bad-ass attitude. Fortunately no-one noticed.

Andy Sawyer

Nowhere was this tiredness more evident than in the lugubriously self-indulgent Iron Man 2. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) was something of an unexpected hit; its combination of clever casting and pseudo-political posturing caught the public’s imagination while its lighter tone and aspirational Californian setting served as a useful counterpoint to the doom and gloom of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). However, the second Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark steps on stage in the sequel, it is obvious that something is terribly wrong. The film’s onanistic triumphalism and bare-faced declaration that social ills are best confronted by private sector moral entrepreneurs feels astonishingly ugly and politically insensitive at a time when private sector entrepreneurs are having their companies propped-up at the expense of the poor and the hungry. The decision to cast Mickey Rourke as a shambling Russian baddy is laughably pretentious in a film that ultimately boils down to a bunch of computer-generated robots punching each other in the face for about an hour.

Jonathan McCalmont

I found a Darwin site where a respondent asked “who else thinks Beatrix Potter may have developed her stories, about animals with increasingly human characteristics, from acquaintance with Darwin’s theory?” The idea that Beatrix Potter had to wait for The Origin Of Species before she thought of writing about reprobate foxes, trusting piglets, thieving magpies and insolent rats may seem ridiculous but this internetgeneration query is revealing. Our animal folklore is no longer refreshed by experience. In my own lifetime, here in the UK, the estrangement that began as soon as agriculture was established, has accelerated almost to vanishing point. We see animals as pets; as entertainment products we consume through the screen (where their fate, nowadays, holds a tragic fascination). We see them, perhaps, as an increasingly problematic food source. We no longer ‘meet their gaze’ as independent neighbours. The neo-Darwinists have even been doing their damnedest to break the link that Charles Darwin forged, when he transformed our deep intuition of continuity with the animal world into ‘scientific fact’.

Gwyneth Jones

And was Karel Čapek really writing about newts?

Gwyneth Jones

On the whole, however, Vint does a good job of disentangling “the animal” from the mix and Animal Alterity is an impressive achievement. A study of this kind isn’t meant to offer solutions and there are none (beyond a rather vague promise that post-humanism will blur the line between human and animal). Instead there’s a mass of evidence identifying sf as a resource: a treasury for Animal Studies academics; a rich means of bringing those moral arguments to life —drawn from an overlooked genre that has (always, already) developed sophisticated ways of thinking about looming problems that have only just occurred to the mainstream.

To the general reader, Animal Alterity offers food for thought and a quirky compendium of offbeat and classic titles. Could a “related book” on this topic become widely popular? I don’t know. In my day, sf fans tended to be petrol-headed meat-munchers, their concern for our stewardship of the ecosphere constrained by a passion for beer, mayhem and go-faster starships. Times have changed. The younger generation may feel very differently: I hope so.

Gwyneth Jones