At Swancon, I got together with a number of other awesome Aussie podcasters to record a megapodcast: Helen Merrick from Pangalactic Interwebs, Jonathan Strahan from Coode St, and Kirstyn McDermott from The Writer and the Critic. We spend an hour arguing over what bits of fantasy and science fiction people should – nay, must! – read or view. It was immense fun. I did nearly lose some friends by suggesting Lord of the Rings and admitting that The Fifith Element is my favouritest movie of all time… but I think they forgave me.
You can stream our marvellous podcast over at The Writer and the Critic, or you can also get it from iTunes by going to their podcast bit there. Thanks to Kirstyn for hauling her gear over west and making us sound professional!
Sorry, let me rephrase that: DITMAR-WINNING Galactic Suburbia, episode 30 ( 🙂 ) recorded live at Swacon36|Natcon50
Shirley Jackson nominees
PK Dick awards
SF Hall of Fame inductees
Tansy: The Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare, The Last Stormlord by Glenda Larke, Fun Home & Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, Tales of the Tower: the Wilful Eye edited by Isobelle Carmody & Nan McNab, especially “Catastrophic Disruption of the Head” by Margo Lanagan, Nightsiders (twelve planets 1) by Sue Isle.
Pet Subject: Indie Press: Alisa talks Ebooks!
Please send feedback to us at email@example.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!
Dagmar Shaw is a game designer, but her games are way more interesting than any MMORPG that exists today. I never entirely came to grips with what Alternate Reality Games actually entail, but it has players follow a story, interpret clues online, and it sometimes has real-world connections. The story opens with Dagmar Shaw designing a James Bond movie tin-in game that sees some players going to Turkey to actually follow some of the action in real life, while tens of thousands of others follow the video and other media Dagmar and her employees upload to the web. She runs a successful game, and is then recruited by a US – ah – security specialist to do some interesting things in Turkey. Which she does. Things do not go entirely to plan, not unexpectedly.
It’s interesting coming to Deep State after having read The Dervish House. Both are set in Turkey, but that’s about where the similarities end. The plots are entirely different, and Deep State isn’t as futuristic as Dervish House. More interestingly, where McDonald made almost all of his characters Turkish, and events happen exclusively in Istanbul with little reference to the outside world, Williams has only a few Turkish characters, and the plot revolves around foreigners getting themselves involved in Turkish politics. Williams does seem to know Istanbul, but he doesn’t evince quite the same love for the country as McDonald; and Turkey is not of the same fundamental importance to Williams as it was to McDonald. Deep State could as easily be set almost anywhere but Western Europe, I think. Turkey, although quite well realised, is not irreplaceable.
This is, it turns out, the second book about the main character here, Dagmar. She has a few flashbacks to the events of the first, This is Not a Game, and there are a few aspects of her character that are not entirely explicable but would be, I think, with knowledge of earlier events. However, it does stand alone fairly well.
The story is well-paced. The opening, with the James Bond game, is as exciting as it should be. There are lulls in the action for character development, the action is spread over a few different characters, and it wraps up nicely. I enjoyed the politics, although I’m not au fait enough with the current Turkish situation to know whether it is completely believable or not. The characters are not the most well-developed I’ve ever read, but they were more than sufficient to carry the plot. Dagmar herself is quite complex enough to be interesting; she had a difficult childhood and still suffers from the aftereffects of the events of the first book. These make her more than simply another game designer, as well as more than simply a cipher. Her boss is appropriately mysterious, while the members of her team are varied enough to provide interesting interactions. I really enjoyed the snippets of online discussion that were included; it was a nice touch. Overall the book could have done with a few more female characters; given that most of them are computer-types of one sort or another, there’s not even the (weak and laughable) excuse of needing men to do the action stuff. There were, I think, only three female characters, and one of them was almost incidental. This was my main disappointment with the novel.
Aside from the plot and the characters, the really cool part of the book – and one that, I must admit, I probably didn’t appreciate as fully as I might have – was the tech side. The creation of the ARG by Dagmar and her team, the way in which they manipulate video, the technology they use to keep track of everything: very, very cool.
Deep State is immensely enjoyable. I have put the first book on my to-read list, and expect that there will be a third at some time which I will definitely be seeking out.
Well, it was brilliant, basically.
I went over on Wednesday, to get a head start on the fun. Tehani picked me up, which was lovely of her, and then I got to spend the afternoon with Kathryn. We had dinner with Alisa and Justina Robson, one of the Guests of Honour, which was a great privilege! I managed to get a good night’s sleep, which was a good thing… Thursday involved chasing down Kathryn’s artwork, which was cool, and then we had lunch with Justina and the other Guests of Honour – Ellen Datlow and Sean Williams – and a bunch of other Swanconners. Which was awesome. Then to the hotel, and starting the real business of the weekend: catching up with lots of people. Also hanging around the Twelfth Planet Press table. Thursday night was free; there was the Opening Ceremony, which I attended and it was good, and panels, which I didn’t attend and that was fine too. The con bag was awesome – four free books!
The con proper involved a number of panels that I was both on, and attended, including a megapodcast recording where we got to tell people what books they MUST read, and films watch, and I got to shock people by saying Lord of the Rings and The Fifth Element; and a recording of Galactic Suburbia too. I presented at the Edustream, which was good, and on a panel about religion in fantasy too. I attended a number of interesting ones: Grant’s presentation on Disney films was utterly enchanting, and the “Vikings are awesome” panel was far more informed than I expected! The best, though, was probably the panel that in theory was meant to be on “the crisis of the midlist, and the rise of the celebrity author.” It featured Justina and Ellen, and two Aussie contributors. It turned into a broader discussion, at least partly about how we figure out what to read – the place of podcasts, reviewers, etc, and how to know who to trust in those arenas. It was fun, becoming quite interactive towards the end.I also thoroughly enjoyed Jonathan Strahan interviewing guest Sean Williams. They have known each other for a very long time, and rather than the conversation being full of in-jokes it meant that Jonathan knew exactly the right questions to ask for it to become an interesting discussion for the audience. Also, Sean’s concertina-pack of his books’ covers was awesome.
Most of the time, though, was spent with people. The foyer of the hotel had a large cafe/bar with lovely couches and chairs and I spent a large amount of time sitting, chatting… generally doing the things that make cons brilliant. I made a few new friends, but really it was about catching up with existing friends. It’s hard having friends all over the country that you don’t get to see very often. Twitter and blogs and Skype make it feasible to actually call them friends… but spending physical time together really shows just how much those things are not really a substitute. I had breakfast, lunch, and what passed for dinner with friends all weekend, and spent many hours into the night with them too.
The evenings were, of course, very entertaining! Friday night had a celebration of the Twelve Planets, and I was particularly thrilled to see that Tansy’s Love and Romanpunk had come back from the printer… and, even more than that, it is dedicated to meeeee! I was gobsmacked and overwhelmed to discover this. (Also, Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best Fantasy and SF vol 5 is dedicated to me, Alisa, and Tansy, as the Coode St Feminist Advisory Council – which is very flattering indeed.) The evening also involved a cake made by the awesome Terri, surrounded by pink cupcakes to make it look like the Twelfth Planet Press logo. Saturday night was the masquerade, which I went along to for a little while to see the costumes and then retired to a room party to continue various conversations.
Sunday night… well, that saw the presentation of the WA awards, the Tin Ducks; and the national fan-voted awards, the Ditmars. It was preceded by a cocktail party thanks to Orbit and Gollancz, which was very pleasant indeed. I am an awards junkie, so it was a lot of fun to actually attend one with friends. Um, especially when many of the awards were won by said friends. I was so very pleased that Tansy won for Power and Majesty, and backing it up with the William Atheling for her Modern Women’s Guide to Dr Who was brilliant! Alisa’s Sprawl won best collection, which was well deserved, and Cat and Kirstyn sharing Best Short Story was great. I was really, really happy for Thoraiya Dyer winning Best New Talent and Best Novella. And, yes, Galactic Suburbia won the Tin Duck for best Fan Production and the Ditmar for Best Fan Production. And Kathryn, Alisa, Rachel, Tehani, Tansy and I won Best Achievement for Snapshot2010, which feels like it was a very long time ago but was heaps of fun! And… I won for Best Fan Writer, for my reviews, which I am still utterly and totally overwhelmed by. The perceptive among the audience will notice that all of those names are female. There was one male winner: Shaun Tan, for The Lost Thing for Best Artwork… and given that short film won an Oscar, we figure that’s fair enough. So the awards ceremony was one big barrel of awesome, and we retired to the bar to toast our celebrations. And try to ignore the fact it was our collective last night together.
I came home having had more sleep than I expected but less than was necessary; 4kg of books, only a few of which I bought – most are review copies or were freebies!; 4 awards (one physical trophy, since we split the others); a reading list a mile long, and instructions that I must watch Blake’s 7; and, most importantly of course, renewed friendships. Also immense respect for and gratitude to Alisa and the rest of her committee for running a brilliant con. The hotel choice was excellent – it was a lovely venue, and the fact that the hotel didn’t believe we’d all be there to eat and drink and therefore didn’t staff the bar well enough on the Friday was certainly not their responsibility! The programme was diverse and interesting and well organised, the guests seemed like they were good choices, and although I know some people had hitches of various sorts I, at least, had a completely trouble-free con.
And now I am home.
I fell madly in love with Ian McDonald with Dervish House, so I pounced when I found Brasyl at the bookshop the other day. Given his other novel is Cyberabad Days, he’s an author who is clearly very keen to explore non-traditional settings for SF written in English – in a way that, as far as I can tell, is as true to those non-Anglo locales as he can be.
(NB: isn’t the cover a riot? There’s a mask, and a lizard, and tail feathers, and stars, and circuitry, and a butterfly…)
As with Dervish House, I am uncomfortable with making sweeping assertions that this book does not take an inherently white/colonial perspective, because I just don’t know – I’m a naive Anglo and I’ve never been anywhere near South America. However, as with the other book, I can confidently say that it feels sympathetic: it’s not simply showing good bits or bad bits or exotic bits, but gives the flavour of a genuine society; and it’s not simply set in Brazil because that’s a good selling point (I don’t even know if it would be). Brazil is absolutely integral to the story, and set anywhere else this would be a very different book. The ethnic mix of the population, the cultural results of that mix – especially the language – the history of colonisation and, in one narrative stream especially, the fact of the Amazon itself are all entirely necessary. And the result is that, perhaps especially to a foreigner like myself, an enchanting and sometimes repellant society with intriguing familiarities and disturbing incongruities.
On the topic of location, one of the marvellous things McDonald does in his worlds is make them contained – they are all that is required. The Rio of 2006 and the Sao Paulo of 2032 are all that is necessary for the stories to proceed. No foreigners, no other locales, are required for an elaborate and intricate story. The only other time other countries are mentioned, basically, is in talking of the soccer teams who have beaten or been beaten by Brazil. (The section set earlier in time does have some foreigners, but we only know them once they get to Brazil.) That I noticed this insularity is perhaps indicative of my earlier reading, in particular, often having involved characters who go to exotic locations to have their adventures, but rarely interact with the locals (except perhaps to sleep with; Clive Cussler, I am looking particularly at you).
Brasyl has eight sections and three separate storylines following through them. In each section, the contemporary story – set in 2006 – comes first. Next the reader is taken to 2033, and then finally to the 1730s. Each storyline is, on the surface, quite different, although there are similar themes bubbling along under the surface, and there are occasional, intriguing, cross-over references. In 2006, we follow Marcelina, a hard-living and hard-nosed TV producer for a TV channel known for making outrageous programmes. Her life isn’t an easy one; fads and trends rule, careers are made or broken on the whim of the ratings, and the effort to keep up with Society requires enormous energy and grit. And the occasional back-stab. Existence goes on as normal, until suddenly it doesn’t, and Marcelina discovers someone is messing with her life. And things do indeed get messy. Marcelina is a fascinating character. She’s good at her job, which makes her quite unpleasant much of the time. The reader is allowed occasional insights into her mind: her love of capoeira, the martial arts/dance; the way she interacts with her real and her “alt dot” families; the way she views everything as potential TV. However, we are never allowed very close to her; she remains essentially unknowable – as she is to most of those around her. I loved reading her story, but I didn’t feel as… empathic as I might have. Interestingly, for all that it’s set in 2006, I have no idea how true to the Rio of today this story is; the city, the TV, the telenovelas, the obsession with fashion all sound entirely plausible, but could as easily be that slightly exaggerated ‘tomorrow’ that McDonald does so nicely in Dervish House and the 2030s part here.
The 2030s narrative follows Edson, budding entrepreneur, who accidentally gets involved with some rogue quantum-computer scientists. In many ways, this story helps to explain some of what is going on in the other two, and why these seemingly disparate stories appear here together, because quantum mechanics and quantum entanglement are at its heart. Edson’s interactions with quantum theorists allow McDonals to posit multiverse theories and explore the repercussions of the idea that the multiverse might in fact be a quantum computer. The info-dumps are skilfully places, always in an appropriate context, an ever so heavy that they detract from the narrative itself. Edson is a more approachable and likeable character than Marcelina; he’s more innocent, despite his background, and more open, despite the difficulties of his life. While he shares a “seize any chance that comes along” attitude with Marcelina, he seems to do so with more… joy, really, and less malice. We also see Edson fall in love, and I think that has a humanising impact. Edson’s story revolved around the trouble he gets into thanks to quantum computation, but really it’s all about relationships: with his family, his neighbourhood as a whole, the bewitching female scientist and the his long-time male lover. The futuristic elements of this section are subtle and believable, epitomised by the Angels of Perpetual Surveillance keeping track of everything and everyone via RFIDs, which I can well imagine some politicians leaping at; and I-shades, which are exactly what they sound like. I think Edson may have been my favourite character.
In many ways I found the eighteenth-century plot the most confronting of all. Still set in Brazil, this is a time of European conquest – military and cultural. It follows Luis Quinn, a Jesuit sent on a quest straight from the pages of Heart of Darkness, and Robert Falcon, a French scientist. There are crazed Europeans and slave raids, dreams of building in the jungle and mysterious tribes, and over it all the immense, imponderable bulk of the Amazon rainforest that, by the 21st century, barely plays a part. I really enjoyed this section, despite its unrelenting acknowledgement of the horrible actions undertaken by Europeans, and it did require some faith that McDonald would actually connect it to the other two narratives. Quinn, on a most difficult task, is the sort of man the Jesuits wanted: deeply committed to his God and to the task at hand. Falcon is the classic 18th century opponent: Christian, but foremost a scientist, obsessed with calculations and the natural world. Together they discover some brutal truths both about the jungle and the actions of the other Europeans in the area.
All three narratives do indeed have links, although they really only become obvious towards the end. There are some similarities in theme that tie them together – trust, friendship, quest, and Brazil, most obviously. I would recommend each story on its own merits even if they didn’t coincide, to be honest. It’s a wonderfully written book, with intriguing characters and a really marvellous sense of place.
Nightsiders is the first anthology of the Twelve Planets series, a set of twelve collections being put out by Alisa Krasnostein at Twelfth Planet Press. Each of the collections will consist of four short stories. This one, by Sue Isle, features stories that all deal with the same place and similar issues: a near-future Perth, a city ruined by an almost complete lack of water, infrastructure damaged by bombs some time ago, and largely deserted in the Evacuation.
It should be said up front that I am friends with the editor, Alisa, although I do not know the author.
As a package, this is a nice little book. It’s 138 pages of narrative (with a short introduction from Marianne de Pierres), and given that’s split over four stories it’s the sort of book you can consume in one sitting or over several. I’m not a huge fan of the colour, but it is certainly appropriate given how much time is spent in the stories talking about the near-desert nature of Perth.
The first story is “The Painted Girl,” and follows Kyra and Nerina as they come into the city for the first time ever in Kyra’s experience; they’ve been wandering from place to place, never setting down roots. Kyra ends up with the Drainers, a name which is never fully explained, and learns something of the ways of this weird new place she’s been brought to. As an opening to the collection it works well, because the reader too is new to this near-future city, and has to come to grips with the lengths people go to to get and conserve water, the lack of basic amenities, and the fundamental changes which have happened in Perth, of all places.
The title “Nation of the Night” does not reflect the nature of the second story in the slightest. However, the story itself is fascinating, and I think the strongest of the collection. It deals with multiple issues with an elegance that makes reading the prose very easy indeed. Here, we follow the experiences of Ash – biologically female, psychologically male – as he heads East for surgery to resolve his conflicted nature. In Melbourne – described as intimately and recognisably for me, a Melbournian, as I am sure Perth is for natives of that place – Ash discovers that things over that way aren’t that much better, in many ways, than they are back home. The individuals Ash meets are vividly, if briefly, described, but it’s really the landscape and geography that stand out in this story; the changes wrought on a city that has taken in millions of refugees are as stark as those wrought on the city from whence all but a few thousand have fled. The story is not without problems – for all the talk of how difficult it will be for Ash to get to and from Melbourne, it feels quite easily achieved. However, as an investigation into gender identity, attitudes towards refugees, East/West relations in Australia, and the impact of climate change, this is a remarkable story.
Third comes “Paper Dragons,” which initially appeared in the ezine Shiny, also produced by Krasnostein. For all that I know entertainment has been a basic, perhaps essential, part of human civilisation since the earliest examples we have, I still found it slightly unbelievable that a community struggling as much as the Perth one appears to be would be able and willing to support a troupe of players who appear to do little else but rehearse and perform. Perhaps I’m too much of a pragmatist. I enjoyed the new characters introduced here, and the fact that Ash reappears in a different role, but I also didn’t really understand quite what the point overall was – of post-Evacuation teenagers staging an excerpt from a pre-Evac TV show, and its impact on the older people in the community. However, overall it allows yet more insight into how Perth society operates; the often brutally pragmatic choices that need to be made, and the suppression to some extent of ‘finer feelings’ that find at least a partial outlet in the theatre.
Finally, the collection closes with “The Schoolteacher’s Tale.” Here, a character referred to in other stories – Elizabeth Wakeling, teacher to generations of post-Evac Perth residents – gets a voice of her own. As a teacher myself, this story struck a chord with me, with its discussion of what learning would be necessary for generations growing up in a society like this. Elizabeth was delightfully curmudgeonly – as the oldest person in the area, and the only teacher, she’s entitled to it – but also pragmatic and willing to be flexible. Appropriately, as the collection opened with a confused young woman entering Perth, this story closes the collection with a determined old woman leaving it, with clear and specific plans in mind.
Across the four stories Isle portrays a striking, not-quite post-apocalyptic world that’s not quite believable, but not quite foreign enough to dismiss out of hand. The society she portrays in Perth is ethnically mixed, pragmatic, fiercely independent, and built on cunning. Most of those traits are ones that Western Australians would probably claim today, as well. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the eastern seaboard would abandon the western so completely, but with Isle’s portrayal of Melbourne it becomes all too possible. Overall, Nightsiders is an intriguing collection, and it left me wondering whether Isle plans to return to the world in a novel – it certainly feels like it would be sustainable. And if this is the standard of the rest of the Twelve Planets series, I cannot wait for the next eleven.
I watched Contact many years ago – possibly even at the cinema – and I read the book, too. I don’t remember the book very clearly, although I do remember thinking it was better than the film (what a surprise). I had fond memories of the movie, so when we decided to watch it again recently, I was a little apprehensive that the Suck Fairy might have visited.
I still really enjoyed it. The opening sequence is still simply marvellous; I utterly adore the perspective given to our Little Blue Dot, of course very appropriate given it was written by Sagan.
Jodie Foster… didn’t do much for me. To be honest I’ve never really understood the hype about her. I’ve never seen any of her early roles, to my knowledge, so maybe I just don’t have the context. But here – well, she’s good, but I certainly don’t see it as a role that no other actress could possibly fill. That said I do really like her character. I love how strong Ellie is, how determined she is to get her science done, that she listens to the radio waves herself rather than leaving it all to the computers. I also really appreciated that there’s really only one character who doesn’t take her seriously as a scientist, and that’s David Drumlin, whom I have called all sorts of rude names because of his treatment of her. His arrogance and sexism are aspects of his characters; they’re not meant to be taken seriously, as reflecting the sensible world. (Also, Tom Skerrit is brilliant.)
The rest of the cast is mostly good. I love William Fichtner: for his cameo in The West Wing as the judge who gets to be Glenn Close’s foil and plays with Toby’s mind, his bit part in The Dark Knight – he’s wonderful. And he’s great as Kent; the being blind is interesting and not over-played, and for me just seemed part of the diversity of characters. Yes, it’s played on to get the “ooh he has super hearing” thing, but it doesn’t feel overdone. David Morse is good in his cameo as Ellie’s dad… and then there’s Matthew McConaughey.
I like Palmer, McConaughey’s character, in theory. I really really like that the religious issue is a fundamental one in the movie, even though I don’t entirely agree with how it was handled; and even though I find it irritating that Palmer, as apparently the President’s go-to man on religion, ignores one of the big moral precepts of Christianity that helps set Christians apart from others in society (that whole no-sex-before-marriage thing). But I think he’s interesting, and I think he provides an interesting contrast to Ellie: for all he’s equally intent, he’s more relaxed than her, and they have some great discussions about evidence and faith. The Palmer character and his interactions with Ellie does, however, provide one of the things which most grieved me about the movie. He admits that he screwed up her chances to do the thing she most wants to do in the entire world not simply for religious reasons (which, actually, I liked – having to make the decision between your lover and your feelings of faithfulness towards the spiritual majority of the world), but for selfish reasons? Seriously? And our heroine still likes him? Pfft.
As a movie, I think it still holds up. The tech etc don’t feel like they’ve dated much, society doesn’t feel like it’s changed that much, and the look of it is still contemporary. Overall I was relieved, and pleased. Contact is still very watchable.
Diana Wynne Jones passed away.
Strange Horizons: dealing with the low numbers of female reviewers.
The Age on the poor numbers of women’s work being reviewed (in the literary “mainstream”), and coverage of a panel on the gender disparity, again in the mainstream.
Prometheus Awards nominees, from the Libertarian Futurist Society.
Authors, editors, and controversy: Running Press, Tricia Telep and Jessica Verday (links not necessarily linked to individuals).
This is a guest post from the wonderful Tansy. Her second book, The Shattered City, has in theory been released recently but I’ve not found it yet (grr) 😦 . When she announced that she was going to do a Mighty Slapdash Blog Tour, I had to be a part of it – and since I got to choose her topic, I asked her to discuss the development of Aufleur, her fictional city. It’s one of the aspects I adored in Power and Majesty (the first book).
Aufleur and Rome
So, I fell in love with Rome nearly ten years ago, when an academic scholarship gave the the opportunity to spend a month there, in a little rental flat with my honey. By day, we went hunting statues of Roman imperial women, tramping across cobbled and concreted streets to various museums or archaeological sites. By night we practiced Italian recipes, copied from the restaurants we’d visited, and watched our landlady’s collection of classic Hollywood movies, or episodes of Charmed and Buffy dubbed into Italian.
Charmed is way better in Italian.
We weren’t great tourists. We barely managed to have a conversation with anyone except each other, and we didn’t shop for anything but groceries (and shiny museum books!). But we hovered in a strange, happy bubble together in the middle of an ancient city, ignoring every modern bit (I couldn’t even bring myself to visit an exhibition of my favourite Renaissance artist of all time because omg, mustn’t get distracted!) and choosing just to exist in the ancient and ruined parts of the city. Sadly these were also the bits with the most expensive sandwiches, but we survived. Later, when I began to write the Creature Court, and I needed a city, Rome was there for me. Not the real, actual city (this much became obvious when my poor mother tried to map the place) but am imaginary, dreamlike Rome, with all my favourite bits and features mushed together. Memories of walks on the Palatine and around the baths of Trajan and the Forum, and the Capitolini Musei, and along the river Tiber, and around the Teatro Argentina, swarming with cats (near which we had a lunch so accidentally expensive that we have since compared its cost to every extravagant meal we have bought in the years since) all poured into my strange, fantastical city. When Ashiol walked from Kelpie’s nest all the way to the Gardens of Trajus Alysaundre with his bare feet in Book One, I was there with him.
All this, of course, means that the city is a real thing for me, something I love, so it means something personal to me when I put it
in danger. Most of the characters in my books are either desperate to save the city, or so cynical and beaten down that they are ready to see it fall. They all have some kind of relationship with it – love, or hate, or loyalty, or resentment.
One of the first images I had in my head of Aufleur was a scene of Ashiol, standing in a wreck of a city, watching scars slide and fall off his skin at the same time as the city rebuilt itself around him…. While the scene didn’t entirely survive the final manuscript, I always knew that this would be the key point of my city, that it was damaged and destroyed and beaten every night, but that it would heal itself, brick by brick, when daylight came.
Until, of course, it didn’t any more.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of Power and Majesty (Creature Court Book One) and The Shattered City (Creature Court Book Two, April 2011) with Reign of Beasts (Creature Court Book Three, coming in November 2011) hot on its tail. Her short story collection Love and Romanpunk will be published as part of the Twelfth Planet Press “Twelve Planets” series in May.
This post comes to you as part of Tansy’s Mighty Slapdash Blog Tour, and comes with a cookie fragment of new release The Shattered City:
“You have a city to think of,” he said sharply. “One house shouldn’t matter. It can’t matter.”
“And that’s why you live underground, so you care about nothing?” Velody flared. “How would you feel if it was the palazzo that fell to the skybolts? If the Duchessa didn’t wake up one morning, and you knew exactly why? How many cups of wine would it take to drown that one out?”
This is the April book for the Women in SF Book Club. I’ve been trying to read each book a month ahead of time, here at the start of the year, because I just know I’ll fall behind at some point… and those who know me know that I am nothing if not a completionist and a perfectionist. It’s a failing. Eh.
I’ve never read a Connie Willis. I know, I know; another failing. Anyway, I picked this up from the library without knowing anything about it. The first thing I thought was OMG THIS IS HUGE (669 pages, to be exact). The second was HEY, this is actually a medieval book! I didn’t realise that… and it made me a bit wary, to be honest. I’ve just finished a masters in medieval history, and while that by no means makes me an expert in the time, it does make me wary when I don’t know how expert authors are, and whether I can trust them or not. I knew a few of my friends – especially Tansy – thought she was a wonderful author, so I wasn’t entirely dubious, but… you know…
So, I began. And to be honest, the first chapter did not work for me. I don’t mind being thrown into a world headfirst, but this was a bit nuts. And I’m not sure why, but none of the characters were immediately engaging, so I neither knew who they were nor (immediately) cared to find out. I was worried that this was going to be another book to struggle through so that I could an informed and scathing commentary when the Book Club came around (which is what will happen with Darkship Thieves tonight…ETA: now!).
But I kept reading.
At the end of the first chapter, Mr Dunworthy has seen his star pupil, Kivrin, sent off to the Middle Ages via a time machine (basically). In the second chapter, Dunworthy and his friends go off to the pub, concerned but trying to be positive about Kivrin’s chances; there’s some worry over how the whole event has been organised. And all of a sudden… I cared. I don’t know why. I can’t pinpoint a moment when the people began to matter, or when I began to be engaged with the individuals and their concerns. But I think it was in this second chapter, with the minutiae of life in Oxford; and then the third chapter, with Kivrin recalling how she got the gig to be sent back in time and then waking up in the Middle Ages. And the description of the environment, Kivrin’s reactions to it… it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and forced me to keep reading. And keep reading. And I read the 669 pages in two days.
I really, really enjoyed the book. Obviously.
I initially expected that after the sending-back-in-time experience, there would be occasional flash-forwards to Dunworthy, but that mostly the book would be focussed on the medieval. I was wrong, of course. I’m not positive, but I think the book is almost evenly split between the near-future (from our perspective; it’s set in 2055, or so) and the past. I think I may actually have enjoyed the near-future section more than the medieval. It is riveting because there’s an illness – an influenza, perhaps the most obvious modern corollary of plague – rapidly taking hold of Oxford. When I first read the book I thought it was a much more recent publication than it actually is (1992) because of the way it imagines a population dealing with disease; it feels exactly like a book written post-swine flu. At any rate, it’s fascinating because although the disease is taking over the city, Willis is most interested in a couple of individuals and how they go about trying to ignore the disease and carry on with life – and, particularly, trying to figure out what has happened to Kivrin 700 years in the past. I enjoyed Dunworthy, and sympathised with his attempts at dealing with bureaucracy, and his concern for his student – although quite why he was just so concerned was unclear, and in fact a couple of times it made me a leedle uncomfortable, because it almost skirted the bounds of propriety. (Maybe that’s just me….)
The other reason I liked the near-future sections was for their utterly normal feel. The futuristic elements were quite muted: “the net”, whereby Kivrin was sent back in time (and others, too – it’s regarded as nearly normal); some aspects of government, such as the quarantine measures; and a few medical things that hardly warrant much attention. But it would be easy enough to ignore those, and read it as set in our contemporary world. It’s very believable and enjoyable.
Of the medieval sections I was, as mentioned above, more suspicious. I was beyond annoyed, by the way, with my copy of the book, which says on the front “Kivrin wanted to study the Black Death, not live it…” because actually NO, she was not interested in the Black Death, and by the way SPOILER!! since she only realises that she’s in the 1340s – twenty-odd years off the time she was expecting – MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH. Gah.
Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised with the medieval village Willis created. She didn’t try to do too much: staying in one village, with a fairly small number of people, and not really getting into the politics or anything was sensible on many levels, not least of which was allowing the reader to get to know and care about a smaller number of characters. I liked that Kivrin’s interpreting software didn’t work perfectly and that there were many surprises, large and small, about the realities of medieval life – things that historians do squabble about. Kivrin as a character didn’t really do much for me; she was likeable, and I sympathised when things went badly, but I didn’t ever entirely identify with her. Of the others, the only one for whom I felt much sympathy was the priest, Roche. The others were not developed enough for me to desperately want to understand. Perhaps the most telling part of my reading experience was that when the book flicked to the 21st century, I wasn’t that impatient to return to the 14th.
Tansy warned me that I would cry because of this book (actually, she told me to buy a box of tissues). I understand why she said this. However, I did not cry. There are probably a few reasons for this. The first might be that I was warned; the second may be that I am cold-hearted, as several people suggested! But third, and perhaps most to the point: I am a medieval historian. I know the reality of the Black Death. Nothing that happened to Kivrin, nothing that she experienced, was a revelation to me; there was no surprise in any of the events nor in people’s attitudes. I felt most sadness at some of the events in the near future. And fourth, I was also prevented from bawling because I read it too fast. I had to read it fast because I had to know what happened, but it meant that I didn’t form the emotional bond with the characters that I might have with a more leisurely read-through. Not that I’m regretting it; I thoroughly enjoyed the book and had enough of an emotional connection that I certainly regretted deaths and rejoiced at survivals. It’s also possible there’s a fifth reason that I didn’t cry: that Willis didn’t give me enough of the characters to make me want to cry. I think this is probably most true of the medieval characters; at least, they’re the ones I felt least attached to. I was closest to tears when I found that Dr Mary had died; that it happened while Dunworthy was unconscious, and that young nephew Colin has been so stoic through it all, was closest to being heart-breaking.
I think I understand why people rave about Willis. I have Blackout/All Clear on my to-read list, and it will definitely stay there… but it won’t get bumped up to must-read-or-will-cry level.