Monthly Archives: December, 2010

Death Most Definite

(By Trent Jamieson)

Anthropomorphising death is not a new idea; humans have been doing it for thousands of years. Perhaps my favourite, and one of the more famous modern examples, is Terry Pratchett’s Death, astride his white horse Binky. ‘Death’ has often been characterised as a single individual, either solely responsible for the actual death of every person (much like Santa visiting every kid), or as some sort of observer, making sure your death goes according to plan. Trent Jamieson takes a different approach, by taking and developing the idea of the psychopomp.

Psychopomps act somewhat like the ferryman Charon: not responsible for death itself, they are rather charged with ensuring the soul makes it to the afterlife. This role has often been seen as a supernatural one, with the psychopomps themselves feared as bringers of death. Jamieson’s trick, and one that works very nicely, is to make psychopomps basically ordinary humans, who happen to have a somewhat unusual job. And this is one aspect that makes Death Most Definite an amusing novel to read: being a psychopomp is just that. A job. Complete with bureaucracy, office politics, bad Christmas parties, and the potential for aggressive takeovers.

Our narrator is Steve, a Pomp who joined the business because it’s what people in his family do (with the exception of the Black Sheep, that is. I love the idea of the black sheep being the ones who want ordinary lives). He’s not bad at his job, which essentially consists of being a conduit for souls to reach the afterlife (they actually go through his body, in some sense), and keeping an eye out for Stirrers – nasty critters from the Other Side, who are capable of inhabiting a dead body and must be sent back, lest they start to take over the world. But he doesn’t love it, and he doesn’t really have the social nous to deal effectively with office politics. Things start to go badly for him when he sees a dead girl in a food court who doesn’t appear to want pomping – and who then tells him to start running. Right before someone starts shooting at him. These things should not happen; and he should most definitely not be checking out the dead girl, and finding that she is decidedly hot.

The plot follows Steve discovering that all is not well at Mortmax (which is a great name), the company that employs the Pomps. In fact, things go very bad, with all sorts of unscheduled deaths taking place and office politics getting decidedly unpleasant. Steve must figure out what is going on, not get killed himself, cope with being one of the few Pomps left to do their work… and eventually take a stand to save the world (his bit of it, anyway).

Steve is an engaging and amusing narrator. He’s self-deprecating, which adds a nice light wit to the tone of the novel without turning into an attempt at a seriously comedic book – attempts that too often fall flat. He’s agreeably individual – tall, gangly, moping for an old girlfriend, and into scrapbooking – without coming across as The Only One With A Destiny. He’s ordinary, and so are his workmates, which helps make the business of being a pomp also seem quite ordinary.

The other main character is Lissa, fellow Pomp and recently dead. She’s feisty and determined, not prone to damsel-in-distress mode. She and Steve share some marvellous banter – it felt quite realistic. Because the novel is from Steve’s point of view, however, we don’t learn nearly as much about Lissa as we do about Steve, which was a little disappointing. As a result, she’s less well-developed and complex than him. This is not to say she’s stereotyped, though – she’s not, and there are hints at depth which will hopefully be more fully explored in the next two novels (Managing Death and The Business of Death).

One of the more unexpected aspects of the novel is the fact that it is largely set in Brisbane. Brisbane is not exactly renowned as a place to set urban fantasy (which I think this is, although I’m not a great categoriser). I don’t know the city at all, but from the descriptions of the streets, the shops, and the general layout I get the feeling that the book stays quite true to it. Such a setting – and the occasional foray into the Queensland hinterland – adds to the sense of ordinariness that permeates the book. I mean that in a good way, of course. Clearly the work of a psychopomp is not ordinary, and the nastiness that ensues throughout isn’t either – thankfully. But unlike some urban fantasy that makes the characters and places seem exotic and mysterious (which can be entertaining to read), I can well imagine meeting these people and walking these streets. It brings a sense of… proximity, I guess, that made me at least care all the more about what happened to Steve in particular.

This is Jamieson’s debut novel, which actually surprised me a bit; it doesn’t have that feel. It’s a fast-paced, engaging, and overall entertaining book. Although it’s the start of a trilogy, it is self-contained, for which HALLELUJAH. Of course it’s nice to know that there is more to find out, but it is also very nice to not be left in suspense at the end of a book when you don’t have the sequel sitting right next to you. Hopefully, Death Most Definite and its sequels do well, and there will be more Jamieson novels in the future. I read it in one sitting (well, with a break for dinner, but that hardly counts).

Galactic Suburbia 22

You can download or stream the episode from Galactic Suburbia, or get us from iTunes.

In which we have run out of our supply of feminist ire for 2010 and are reduced to being happy bunnies with rainbows and vanilla sprinkles.  Also, we discuss re-reading, re-watching, and our (apparently unhealthy) emotional attachment to beloved books.  With zombies. BONUS: see if you can pick how many times yours truly screwed up the recording because my stooopid Skype crashed. Is fixed now.

News

Black Quill nominations.

Best of 2010 Tables of Contents, Rich Horton & Jonathan Strahan (Niall Harrison tweeted about online percentage, 14/29 stories in Strahan – and 16/28 in Horton. Last year JS had 4/29 and Rich had 7/30).

Torque Control’s Week of Women & SF (also here).

Swancon invited guests announced.

Pet Subject
On re-reading. Did you re-read books as a teen? Do you re-read now, or would you if you had the time and the publishing industry stopped for a year (or three)? Why/not… (on re-reading The Belgariad).

What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa – Fringe Season 1 and half of Season 2
Tansy – Feed, by Mira Grant, The Five Doctors easter egg commentary
AlexQuantum Thief (Hannu Rajaniemi), Zima Blue (Alastair Reynolds)

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Zima Blue

Published in the UK in I think 2009, this is a collection of some of Alastair Reynolds’ short stories from 1991 through to 2007. I’d read a couple, but not many, so I enjoyed it immensely, even though there were a few stories that didn’t really rock my world. I won’t give a complete review here; suffice to say that I don’t think there are any Revelation Space stories here; there are some very near-future as well as some awesomely far-distant future stories; and mostly they’re great. Three stories in particular caught my attention, not least because they revolve around the same character: Merlin.

The stories are (in narrative chronological order) “Hideaway,” “Minla’s Flowers,” and “Merlin’s Gun.” I’d read the second, because it was written for Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois’ most awesome anthology The New Space Opera. It remains my favourite; having the additional background provided by “Hideaway” makes it all the more fascinating. The sequence is one of Reynolds’ very, very far future histories. It begins with a group of humans in an enormous spaceship attempting to escape the Huskers, who have been systematically wiping humans from the galaxy. The group ends up hiding in a solar system, making various discoveries, and ultimately taking a drastic decision to escape annihilation. All except Merlin, who goes on and – in “Minla’s Flowers” – lands on a planet divided between two factions, and whose sun is (cosmologically speaking) going to be blown up any moment. Merlin gets involved, and the story follows the consequences of that. Finally, in “Merlin’s Gun,” Merlin finds the weapon he’s been seeking that will allow the humans to combat the Huskers, hopefully stopping the genocide. Of course, things are never quite that simple, and all sorts of interesting things are revealed.

I love the plots of these three stories, and my precis here does not do them justice. However, more than just the plots, it’s the ideas that I was intrigued by. Firstly, the vision Reynolds presents of galactic civilisation is a fascinating one. There are any number of far-future stories that imagine a basically unbroken chain of human existence, where humans just keep on building on what they already know, with few hiccups along the way. More rarely, someone writes of a pangalactic spread of humanity that hasn’t managed that continuity – as suggested by Isaac Asimov in Foundation, for example. In those sorts of stories, humans sometimes have an understanding of what they’ve lost, and sometimes not. The former is the case here, and is most vividly demonstrated by the fact that Merlin and his companions have no idea how to use the Waynet: a system of nearly-faster than light tunnels traversing the galaxy. This suggestion of galactic ups and downs is a really fascinating one. (Taken to extremes you get cargo-cult stories, which can be well done or can be painful.) I think it’s the most likely outcome, really. It does suggest a pessimism about human nature, of course, because usually the ‘downs’ are caused by wars.

Secondly, “Minla’s Flowers” deals really interestingly with issues of colonialism and the oft-accompanying attitude of paternalism. Merlin has a century to get Minla’s people up to speed on how to escape their doomed planet. But he doesn’t make them anything, or even give them all the answers. He provides what were probably intensely annoying, vague suggestions that lead to the development of atomic power. Merlin sleeps away most of the time, waking every couple of decades to provide further tidbits of information. Now, partly he acts this way because he himself doesn’t understand all of the technology he uses, for the reason outlined above. But partly he does it because he thinks that the people ought to do things for themselves. In general I’m in favour of that idea, I think, although it’s problematic when it would be easy enough to simply provide technology and supplies and instantly make things better. Both approaches have their problems, of course.

Finally, the character of Minla is a fascinating study in power. Meeting Merlin as a young girl, over the years she becomes the leader of her people and is shown as responsible for the actions they undertake. In the author notes, Reynolds says he was inspired in writing her by “a certain grocer’s daughter with ambitions to high office,” and it’s clear he had things like the Falklands War in mind when writing about her. The decisions she takes, particularly in relation to how the opposing faction is dealt with, are never suggested to be inevitable. Rather, they are precisely that: decisions, made deliberately, not forced by circumstances. I like that sort of dedication to your character, and I like that although she started off admirably she went downhill terribly – yet with a sort of terrible dignity.

The anthology in general is awesome. These stories are in the middle, and form a nice centrepiece.

The Quantum Thief

Sensory deprivation tanks are weird things. They remove all sensory inputs from the inhabitant, who is left just… floating… presumably so that they can concentrate on just thinking.

The first couple of chapters of The Quantum Thief (by Hannu Rajaniemi) are the complete opposite of a sensory deprivation tank. Within just a few pages, the narrator dies and comes back to life, confronts a copy of himself, bemoans being in prison, is rescued by a woman having hallucinations, and discovers that he has been rescued in order to do what he does best: steal something. Descriptions are vivid, and I had the feeling of being swept along – like there was no time to lose, everything has to happen fast so get on with it! – an effect that never let up over the whole 330 pages.

The book switches perspective several times, which adds to the hectic feel. The main narrator – the only character whose perspective we actually share – is Jean le Flambeur, master thief. After being rescued by Miele (whose story is quite hazy, one of my few issues with the book as a whole) to undertake a theft, they travel to Mars, where Jean begins to remember things long forgotten that threaten to undermine… everything. I quite liked Jean; he’s from the urbane, amusing thief mould, with enough complexity that he never feels like a stereotype. In Jean’s story there are elements of the classic caper, like The Italian Job: we like the thief, and although we know stealing is wrong we’re still basically cheering him on. I enjoyed finding out more of his back-story, which deepened his complexity without changing the basics of who he is.

The other perspective that dominates the book is that of Isidore, a student moonlighting as a detective. His sections of the book have a detective noir feel that nicely complements Jean’s story. Isidore is commissioned to investigate a crime that hasn’t happened yet, which brings him into contact with all sorts of interesting people. And along with his semi-professional life, the reader is also brought into his personal life, made particularly difficult by the fact that he is dating a girl from the zoku colony – and zoku don’t usually mix with native Martians. Difficulties, of course, ensue. Again, I really liked Isidore. I was a bit concerned that he would turn out to be a naïve boy-wonder, but thankfully he’s a much better constructed character than that.

As a native of Mars, the reader gets a more intimate understanding of the place through Isidore than is possible from Jean’s (and Miele’s) tourist perspective; and a weird place it is, too. Isidore lives in a city floating above the surface of the planet; a city where rather than money, the inhabitants trade in time. (Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase time-poor.) Once your time is up, you become a Quiet for some unexplained period of time: physically changed into whatever sort of machine is required for the city’s maintenance, from an Atlas supporting the whole place to merely a personal servant. And then you get changed back, but of course the experience can’t help but have altered you. The other fascinating feature of Martian society is the privacy aspect. Everyone has a gevulot: essentially a privacy screen with different levels, allowing you to do everything from be visible to absolutely everyone, to completely invisible, with shades in between. In light of current concerns over personal privacy, this is an intriguing idea – as is the idea of choosing how much of your information is available to the people you meet. Quite the reverse of Facebook then.

The plot, essentially, revolves around the theft that Jean is to undertake, which isn’t actually revealed for quite some time. Weaved through this, though, are at least two love stories, a political discussion, several explorations of the self, and a bucketload of really cool and mind-blowing technology. So it’s not a simple caper-on-Mars story. In fact it’s not a simple anything; this is definitely not the book to give someone who has never read any science fiction. There is a lot of science in this book; it expects at least a passing knowledge of quantum mechanics and entanglement theory, as well as other bits and pieces. And it’s one of those books where many disparate parts only come together at the end – if you’re not aware of how that style works, this could be a very annoying book.

Rajaniemi has had numerous short stories published, but this is his debut novel. There has been a lot of hype about it being the best debut of 2010, and indeed one of the best science fiction books of 2010, period. For a debut, it is fantastic, but I am not convinced about it being one of the best books of the year. It’s certainly very good: the characters are mostly multi-faceted and well-developed, the plot is well-paced, and his vision of Mars is wonderfully imaginative. However, as I said before, I was disappointed that Miele is not more fully explained – there are tantalising hints about her background, but not enough to really come to grips with her motivations. Given that she is a fairly major character, this is a flaw. My other problem is with the conclusion. It bugged me. A lot. I felt that it came out of nowhere, and that it did not add to the plot. It was a disappointing note on which to end. As is this.

Bold as Love

It’s Women in SF week over at Torque Control, and they’re posting the top ten SF books written by women over the last decade. Coming in at #10 is Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones, which I read a few weeks ago and have been meaning to blog about… so it seems an opportune time.

This is the book that, infamously, Tansy threw across the room when she got to the end and discovered it wasn’t a standalone novel. And I can understand that; I was halfway through it before she told me it was this one, and I too had just assumed it would stand alone. Truthfully, I think it could: there’s a huge messy pile of unresolved issues by the end of the book, but it’s done in such a way that actually I don’t feel a burning need to go find the next FOUR BOOKS. Well… that’s kind of a lie. I really really want to know what happens to my guys, but it’s a delicious sense of anticipation, not a burning MUST HAVE RESOLUTION NOW GETOUTOFMYWAY feeling.

Anyway. I was amazed to discover the book was only written in 2001; I thought it would prove to be much older. As Torque Control point out, it feels like it’s rooted in 1971 – the music, the festivals, etc. At the same time there are definite aspects that make it very modern – and those are mostly the same aspects which, when I thought about them carefully, contribute to the science fictional feel. (More on that later.) So it’s set at some time in the near future when the United Kingdom is splintering into separate countries, and a music festival has been organised to mark Dissolution. From this, essentially, come the main players in the novel – all musicians of one stripe or another – who end up being involved in politics. This seemingly-natural transition was, for me, the one aspect that didn’t sit comfortably. Perhaps it’s because I’m not very aware of the counter-culture movement in the UK (or Australia for that matter), and maybe they have, or could be imagined in the near future to have, this sort of political clout. It’s a minor quibble, though; after all, it’s sf/fantasy, and sometimes they require a bit of a leap.

Sf/fantasy? Well. Yes. When Tansy mentioned that it’s part of a series, she also mentioned that the fantastic elements become more pronounced over the series, and I can already see areas in which that can happen. But it is also definitely science fictional: there’s advanced technology in some areas, for example, and anyway it’s set in the future. I know that’s not a hard&fast guarantee of sf – just look at Michael Chadbourn – but it’s still there. In fact I think it’s one of the most fascinating meta-aspects of the book: it’s so genre, but… why does it have that feel? I don’t know, and I’m slowly coming to the realisation that actually, I don’t care about classifications so much. It’s a GOOD BOOK.

The plot, then, revolves around what happens to England (mostly) after Dissolution. There are social issues – such as the impact of a large Muslim minority; environmental issues – mostly around sustainability – which also tie into technological ideas; political issues – exactly what would happen if you put a bunch of counter-cultural musicians in a position of power? – and lots&lots of personal issues. After all, even when society is collapsing around you, in reality the thing that’s most likely to concern individuals is Does s/he like me? Who are my friends? What’s going to happen to me?

This is actually the first Gwyneth Jones book I’ve managed to get through, of two attempted: I gave up on Escape Plans pretty early on. And she is nasty to her characters! I don’t think there’s a single undamaged person in the entire ensemble. Thing is, the damage doesn’t make you want to cry for them, usually; instead, it turns them into quite hard characters, who would be utterly contemptuous of anyone even thinking of being sympathetic. Fiorinda is the sort of woman (girl, really, she’s a teenager – at least in years) who would fascinate me in real life but probably repel at the same time: she’s cynical and hard, and I’d be way too soft for her. She makes for an intriguing, and contradictory, main character. The main two male characters essentially revolve around her. I love Sage: he’s totally anarchic and narcissistic, while also being tender and considerate and generally awesome – plus his stage shows sound like they’d blow your head off. And Ax… well. He’s Mick Jagger and Jim Morrisson and David Bowie. And Bono and Bob Geldof too. I really really liked him, but I think Sage is still my favourite because he’s a bit more… human. And he’d hate me for saying it.

It’s a marvellous book. It deals with gender issues, social issues, and political issues. It wraps all of those things into the equivalent of the most awesome three-day music festival in the mud; you can’t let go, you can’t go home, you have to see it through. I have two copies (by accident) and I’m seriously thinking about keeping both of them.

Brightness Falls from the Air

One of the most interesting things about this book as an object is that nowhere (that I could find) does it mention that James Tiptree Jr is actually Alice Sheldon. Neither, though, is there any personal pronoun used for the author. This is really only interesting when you know something about the history of Tiptree, I guess, but it is revealing. It came out in 1985, which puts it only a couple of years before Tiptree’s death and several after s/he had been ‘outed’ as Alice Sheldon. So was the publisher trying to cash in on the Tiptree name and people now knowing the ‘truth’? Was it Sheldon/Tiptree’s decision? I’d be fascinated to know.

Going in, I thought this would have some of the terribly interesting gender discussions that many of Tiptree’s short stories have, and that – combined of course with the reality of Tiptree’s life – led to the Wiscon award for  gender-bending in SF/fantasy being named after her. However, it’s not there. This isn’t to say anything against the story itself, which I’ll get to, but it was something of a surprise for me. There are awesome female characters; a female in command of a base, who is never questioned by the males under her, and a bunch of other women playing vastly different roles from one another – very few of the female characters or their dialogue had me cringing, which is laudable. There’s a homosexual relationship that’s neither more nor less obvious than the hetero ones… and everyone is referred to by the same honorific…. hmm. Ok. Maybe it actually is quite gender-subversive, or at least was for 1985.

Mild spoilers

There is a certain attitude in books and films that I – no doubt derivatively – refer to as the Agatha Christie Vibe. A group of people get together somewhere nice, mostly unknown to each other, and you just know that something very bad is going to happen. Brightness Falls from the Air, by James Tiptree Jr, is strong in that vibe. A planet where few humans live in order to monitor (in a good way) the indigenous sentients is about to experience a phenomenal cosmic event, and a select few tourists get to land for the show. Hello, sinister vibe.

I’ll admit, somewhat guiltily now, that I went into this book not entirely sure that I was going to enjoy it, but figuring it would be worthwhile because yo, it’s Tiptree, right? Yes, well. This is one of the best action-SF books I’ve read in a long, long time. The characters are awesome, the plot is skilfully drawn and brilliantly brought together, the worldbuilding is exquisite, and the issues it addresses – because there are some – are relevant and not overdone. Also, the writing: I could Not. Put. It. Down.

Whoever would have thought that a book which includes kiddie p0rn could have me waxing so lyrical?

Yeh. Kiddie p0rn. When I realised what was going on I was initially horrified – and, honestly, still am. It’s not a major focus of the book, but I have to put it out there, as I imagine it was picked up by contemporary reviewers. So: there’s a group of four teenagers who, with their manager, are among the tourists who arrive on the planet. It’s clear from the outset that they are TV-equivalent stars. But it’s only maybe a third of the way through that you discover there’s a sexual element to their stardom, and that there has been for a number of years. There are a number of fascinating things about this element, which account for why it didn’t immediately make me want to throw the book across the room. For a start, the manager is not the one exploiting them – he’s sympathetic, and looks after them as well as he can. For another, they’re mostly doing p0rn with each other; there’s a vague suggestion that they have been in such situations with adults, but it’s unclear. The main thing that makes this… not acceptable, because it is still horrendous, and Tiptree never suggests that it’s a good thing, but… easier to read about, is the adolescents themselves. They don’t suggest it’s a wonderful life; they’re pragmatic about their careers; and it’s never actually a central element of the story. I don’t think I’ve explained this at all well, to be honest, but all I can say is: despite its presence, I am not hesitating to recommend the book.

So, the characters. They’re marvellously entertaining. There’s an aloof one, a slightly crazy one, the teens, an on-the-surface pleasant one, sensible and earnest ones – and all of them, basically, are given interesting backgrounds, sound motives for all of their actions, complex and intriguing interactions with everyone else, and individuality. Seriously, Tiptree was a master at characterisation. There’s maybe one character who doesn’t get much explanation overall, but that’s not bad in such a large ensemble.

The plot? As I said, there’s an Agatha Christie vibe: something is clearly going to go disastrously wrong. And it does… in fact, several things do. I anticipated one of them, but the other major plot point was totally unexpected – in a good way: it made perfect sense, and upon revelation I could see where Tiptree had been leading up to it by stealth. And the two disasters weave around one another, without tripping the other up. One is an intensely personal disaster, while the other is on a more mercenary level, which is really nice; they deal with different issues and allow Tiptree to explore different reactions, emotions, and all that stuff.

Finally, there’s a really interesting element of, essentially, post-colonial critique, particularly at the very end. I have no idea whether Tiptree was into literary theory – I should hurry up and read that bio I guess – but I know post-colonialism was starting to be discussed at around the time the book was published. There are aliens on this planet, and they were terribly abused by humans in the past. Now, humans have taken it on themselves to try and rectify that… but of course, that’s still a colonial, paternalistic attitude, assuming the aliens are completely incapable of looking after themselves. Towards the end, then, there’s a suggestion of how this could change. It’s neat.

It should be clear that I adored this book, of course. It’s brilliantly paced, full of awesome characters, deals with meaty issues without getting moralistic, ponderous, or annoying, and the plot is just wonderful.

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