Quantum of Nightmares
I read this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, Tordotcom. It comes out in January, 2022.
This is a Charles Stross novel on… whatever drugs you take that make you talk at, like, three times the normal speed. (Hmm. Is it speed?)
One blurb says this is a Laundry Files novel. Another says that it is Laundry Files-adjacent… and that’s the accurate one. I haven’t read every Laundry Files, but I’ve read enough that I know what’s going on. The start of this novel, though, was unrecognisable… so then I went to look it up, and it’s the sequel (not mentioned in the blurbs I saw) to a spin-off. So… that’s all important information to have on hand. (There is no Bob Howard in this novel.) Having said that, I did read the whole thing and I did largely enjoy it, so Stross manages to get enough background info in without dry info-dumps to make it understandable… eventually.
CW: there’s some pretty gross stuff here. Think… meat packaging… and really the very worst bits about what can go wrong in abattoirs. Also, and I’m only slightly joking, if you have a phobia about HR and their policies, this is not the book for you; it takes corporate speak and the ill-intentions of large corporations to a whole new level. I suspect this does count as horror, because of those aspects, in which case this is right on the giddy edge for me.
There are many different strands entwined throughout this story. There’s a pseudo-nanny looking after kids who are not what they seem (well, they’re annoying little kids but with Extras); there’s loafers who just want to play D&D who get pulled into annoying real world stuff; there’s the aforementioned HR and a truly heinous view of cut-price supermarkets and a nightmarish future for how they might turn a profit. There are desperate people and sad people and bewildered people; there are double-crosses and worshipping of sinister entities and ruthless acts that just made me blink at their atrociousness. It’s not a particularly happy book; nor is it uplifting; so if that’s what you need right now, go somewhere else. But there is a dark humour to parts, and there’s a diverse cast of characters (trans, queer, not-Anglo), and the occasional good deed, so it’s entirely and unrelentingly depressing.
… when I put it like that I’m not sure how I managed to get through it! It’s not quite as bad as that makes it sound. For one thing, it rockets along at a tremendous pace. I never quite got lost but it was occasionally a white-knuckle, hold-on-tight and trust that Stross is in control of the narrative kind of experience. I probably only kept going because I do, indeed, trust Stross to land such intricate stories in a way that makes sense. Which he does here, yet again.
I don’t think I’ll go find the first book now – I suspect much of it is now spoiled, because I know who survives various difficult situations. Also, if it’s like this one, I need a fair while to balance out the grimness. But I don’t regret reading this one.
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
I have been chastised in the past – and rightly so – for saying ‘I don’t like horror’ and then trying to justify something as ‘not being real horror’ and therefore ok for me to like. I’ve only done this a few times, I think, and I have been super aware of not doing it since that particularly poor attitude was pointed out.
(And for me, horror and thriller are close enough that they go together. I don’t enjoy them, in general, for the same reason: I do not like being scared.)
So I do not like horror. This is, though, the second time I’ve read this book.
Many, many years ago, I went to visit my mum interstate because my beloved aunt had cancer, and we knew it was terminal. A day or so after I arrived, she died, and so I was fortunate to be able to stay for the funeral. This did mean, of course, that I didn’t have enough clothes for while I was there… and, oh so small in the pile of consequences, I didn’t have a book to read.
All of this context makes sense of the fact that I read this book. Despite the title, if I had read the blurb I would never have read this book ordinarily; I do not tend to enjoy vampire stories, and I don’t know much about the historical or literary Dracula, so there’s no appeal there. But my mum had it, and I was bored and needed distraction, and so I read it. And, yes, I enjoyed it. Enough so that when my mum was clearing out books, I took it with me – mostly for nostalgia.
I recently re-read it, and I enjoyed it again. It wasn’t as scary this time – not only because I knew what was coming (I had mostly forgotten) but also because I wasn’t reading it stupidly late at night…
I like the way it’s basically a series of found documents; done well, it’s a very clever and appealing style for me. The one thing that irritated me was the letters sounding far too literary, even for a bunch of academics. Anyway – there’s letters from various people, across time; and historical documents, and the occasional bit of narrative to join it together.
In some ways this is almost a Dirk Pitt or Indiana Jones version of history: following one improbably clue after another, happening to meet useful people and locating useful documents in unlikely places. Nonetheless I enjoy reading about historians in archives, doing real primary research!
It doesn’t make me interested in going to read more about vampires. In thinking about where this sits in horror/thriller territory, I would guess that some horror fans wouldn’t class it as horror – but since I’m not one, I’m not sure, and I’m also not au fait enough with the intricacies of the genre. The level of violence isn’t greater than other books I read; I suspect I managed to read it because the focus isn’t on scaring me out of my wits. Is this a “it’s horror but…” argument? maybe. Are there bits I found frightening? yep. The first time I read it, I read it late at night a couple times, and that was definitely a bad idea. Does this mean that I might enjoy other books in the horror or thriller genre? Maybe, but there are so many other books I want to read where I’m in little danger of increasing my fear of the dark, I probably won’t seek them out.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It’s out in July 2017.
The Laundry, which has several novels about it now, is a secret government agency that’s a bit like the Men in Black but more high-tech because the Scary Things in the Night are often accessed via maths and/or technology. Computers may well summon extra dimensional beasties. Bob Howard started as a tech guy who fell into the Laundry accidentally and now he’s a fairly significant player in the organisation, although still a bit hapless sometimes. In this novel, someone from Outside (of the world) is trying to take over via minions and the very 21st century method of privatising government operations.
There’s unlikely alliances, dastardly deeds, unfortunate deaths, spy craft, domestic difficulties, desperate last-minute decisions, and some rather silly jokes. There’s also exasperation at the short-sightedness of governments and some deeply unpleasant actions on the part of the villains.
I’ve read a couple of the Laundry Files books and short stories in the past. When I first read them, I didn’t realise that they’re kinda Lovecraftian… because I am no connoisseur of Lovecraft. So that’s the first thing to know: if you like Lovcraftian stuff (with humour) and you haven’t read this series, you probably want to check it out.
If you loathe Lovecraft and all his derivatives, just stop reading now; it’s fine. This isn’t for you.
Not sure? Well that’s where I fit too. I wouldn’t deliberately read a Lovecraft homage, but – obviously – I read this. In terms of horror, it’s not so horrible. I mean bad things happen but the levels of violence aren’t any different from a lot of science fiction or fantasy. And there’s no creeping horror here – that is, I didn’t ever get tense and worried about what was around the corner, which is what puts me off a lot of horror. (I don’t enjoy being scared.) And you definitely don’t have to know anything about Lovecraft to read the book, since I have a passing knowledge of some names from his books and that is it.
Prior knowledge of the Laundry Files is useful for reading this, but not completely necessary; there are a few ‘as you know, Bob’ bits that basically fill in details of how the agency works. It does flow directly on from the previous book, which I haven’t read, but I managed to be going on with it.
It definitely kept me entertained, occasionally grossed me out, and half made me wonder if I shouldn’t go back and read more of the earlier ones…
I have now read Frankenstein. I’ve never had the impetus to read it before; I never studied Gothic literature, and it’s just never been bumped up the to-be-read list. But a few weeks ago someone at church read it, and waxed so lyrical in wanting to have a pop-up book club to discuss it (as a sequel to one last year on The Book of Strange New Things) that I agreed… and here we are.
I do not like Victor Frankenstein.
I had a general knowledge of the story – that Victor created the monster, who then implored his creator to create a mate for him, and then the monster killed Victor’s bride. I knew there was something to do with the Arctic but I didn’t know why. So to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting to be particularly surprised by the novel. And in the broad outlines, I wasn’t, but in some of the details I certainly wasn’t.
I had no idea that the story was structured as a story within a story, with Victor relating his tale of woe to Robert as they sat stuck in the ice in the far reaches of the Arctic, who is then relating it by letter back to his own sister. I don’t think that particularly changes the story itself but it’s intriguing to see Shelley using this conceit as the excuse for why, and how, the story is being told – that she wasn’t just writing a third-person omnipotent narrator watching and relating all the events. Instead, this allows Victor to include his passionate remonstrances and remembrances, and for Robert to include his own reflections at beginning and end.
Side note: I would have liked more about Robert. Did he get home? Why was he so passionate about finding what was in the extreme north? I wanted more than just what he told his sister!
And so Victor. Continue reading →
Ballad of Black Tom
This novella was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.
I may not have the context with which to really comment on this story – I have a bit of knowledge of America in the 1920s but not all that much; my understanding of race relations in America is slightly better than superficial but not exactly deep. Also I have next to no knowledge of HP Lovecraft’s work
With all of that said, I really enjoyed this story, so as someone without masses of history about the period of the story that’s a pretty good recommendation.
The story is split in two, with two different narrators – which actually really surprised me, so that’s kind of a spoiler I guess. The first half is told by Tommy Tester, a young black man who makes a living by hustling, basically. He wears a musician disguise to be both seen and unseen; he gets jobs that need that sort of look. One day he encounters a wealthy white man, Robert Suydam, and things… get weird.
The second half of the story is from the perspective of a white policeman, Malone, whom Tommy encounters early on and then later. He’s not entirely a stranger to unnatural occurrences, and gets more involved in the weird stuff Tommy and Suydam conjure up than he would perhaps like.
The plot isn’t especially intricate but it’s certainly compelling enough to keep me turning the pages. On top of that is what (with all the caveats above about my knowledge of the period) I found to be a very interesting commentary on race relations. The (white) police treatment of black people in Harlem wasn’t a surprise, dealt with bluntly but with compassion I thought; Suydam’s manipulation of race resentment struck me as all too plausible (hello living in Australia in 2015). I don’t know whether the attempt to make Malone sympathetic to the plight of non-white immigrants was an attempt at not making all whites evil, or whether it reflects reality; possibly it’s a case of both being feasible? Makes the story that much more compelling, anyway.
Lastly: Ma Att? Brilliant.
Snapshot: Kirstyn McDermott
Kirstyn McDermott has been working in the darker alleyways of speculative fiction for much of her career, with many critically acclaimed and award-winning short stories under her authorial belt. Her two novels, Madigan Mine (Picador, 2010) and Perfections (Xoum, 2012) both won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel in their respective years, and a collection of short fiction, Caution: Contains Small Parts was published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2013. Both her novels are to be reissued by Twelfth Planet Press in 2014 – Perfections for the first time in print. When not wearing her writing hat, she produces and co-hosts a bimonthly literary discussion podcast, The Writer and the Critic, which generally keeps her out of trouble. After many years based in Melbourne, Kirstyn now lives in Ballarat with her husband and fellow scribbler, Jason Nahrung.
1. Congratulations on “The Home for Broken Dolls” picking up a Ditmar this year! You said at the time that it was a horrible story and seemed surprised that it won the award… how hard a story was it to write?
Thank you very much, I was so pleased with the Ditmar! Emotionally and psychologically, “The Home for Broken Dolls” was the hardest story I’ve ever written due to the nature of the research involved, and the need to stay intimately connected to all of that, to remain open and not inured to it, during the year or more I was working on the piece. Technically, it was difficult as well. The tone of the novella very much reflected the protagonist, Jane, so the writing itself needed to be calm and controlled and, to some extent, distant, almost clinical in its observations and descriptions. It was a departure in style for me from a lot of the work I’d done in the past, a commitment to a type of minimalism that was quite confronting. When you’re writing such sparse, deliberate prose, there really is nowhere to hide, artistically speaking. I actually learned a lot about myself as writer from working on “Dolls”, although, for various reasons, I didn’t actually compose another word of fiction for more than a year afterwards.
2. Twelfth Planet Press recently picked up and published Perfections, which is really exciting. What’s it like to have a book given a second outing?
Exciting is definitely the word – and it’s such a relief to see it published again, especially in print. The amount of people who asked about the availability of a paperback when it was only a digital release was heartbreaking. I’m exceedingly grateful to Alisa from Twelfth Planet Press for picking Perfections up, dusting her off, and sending her out into the world with a swank new party dress! It’s a novel I’m very proud to have written, even if it did steadfastly refuse to be the novel I thought I wanted to write for much of its creation. It’s funny, but when I was proofing the manuscript for re-publication, I started to see some precursor themes and ideas – and even stylistic notes – that would later become core elements in “The Home for Broken Dolls”. I guess my own personal obsessions and concerns are never really far from the surface . . .
3. What are you working on at the moment? Do you have lots of stories waiting impatiently to be told, or do they form an orderly queue?
I’ve started a PhD this year, so my creative work for the near future will be in that arena. I’m writing a suite of short fiction that I think of as post-fairy-tales – the stories of what happens after the fairy tale ends, when the fairy tale girls become women. And because I’m also doing oodles of research on fairy tales, I actually do have a whole bunch of stories percolating in my mind right now, some more ready to be told than others. There’s no queue as such – I only ever really work on one story at a time, so whichever one is speaking the loudest once the current work in progress is finished will get my attention. I’ve spoken in the past of how I see my creative process as akin to walking around a junkyard, finding interesting bits and pieces and putting them in my pocket for later. After a while, sometimes after many years, I’ll stumble across a piece that fits with two or three others I have and – voila! – there’s a story to be written. It’s still the same process now, I suppose, only I’m exploring a much larger junkyard at the moment, my searching is a little more targeted and I’m finding a whole lot more interesting bits and pieces!
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ve been catching up on story collections over the past year and have been so damned impressed by the wealth of talent we have here in terms of short fiction writers. The Bride Price by Cat Sparks, The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton, The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins, and Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer are all absolutely sterling books, imaginative and intelligent and exactly the kind of eclectic speculative fiction that I adore. Very recently, I read Dead Americans by Ben Peek, a collection I had been looking forward to for ages and which was well worth the wait – I’m even more keen to get my hands on his upcoming novel, The Godless, now.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be writing in five years from now?
I can’t say that any recent changes in publishing have affected how I work to any significant extent. I realised quite a few years ago that I’m not a highly commercial writer and – barring some miraculous confluence of events – the kind of writing that I do, the kind of writing that I am interested in doing, will never really be highly commercial. So I’m never going to have a writing career that will pay a mortgage but, on the other hand, I’m never going to have to rely on a writing career to pay a mortgage. Swings and roundabouts. I do find the recent developments in crowdfunding and regular patronage models fascinating, though, and I love the idea that this is where the former “midlist” might find a home, with a direct connection to a readership. That would be a model I might be tempted to consider in the future, if I had the right project for it.
As to what I see myself writing in five years from now, I haven’t really thought about it. Barring incident, I’ll be finished my story suite and PhD by then so who knows? There is a quasi-SF novel that’s been loitering about in the junkyard for a while now and I might have found enough pieces to start putting it together by then. Or the Dolls might have finally convinced me to write their novel, or else I might have stumbled across some other compelling idea that I can’t put down. Five years is such a long time. As long as I’m still writing, and developing as a writer, I’ll be happy.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at:
It’s Showtime (a review)
Disclaimer: I am friends with the publisher of this book, Alisa Krasnostein.
I’m not a big fan of horror, so I am not the ideal reader for this collection which, although not overwhelmingly scary, uses horror tropes to tell its stories. Nonetheless, it is a quite readable quartet.
The first story, “Stalemate,” is probably the scariest, and that’s because it is the most mundane. Which is saying something, because three out of four of these stories are defined by being set in domestic settings (by which I mean only non-exotic, like another planet or a medieval castle). It’s a suburban kitchen, with a mum and her grown-up daughter, arguing over all the tired old things that parents and grown-up kids argue over, with the added bitterness that Mum is there to help the daughter while she is sick. Of course, it turns out that things aren’t quite as mundane as they seem – and this revelation makes things all the more awful because of the very setting, and the consequences. It’s terrible.
My favourite story is “Thrall,” because it does the most clever things with the horror ideas it’s working with. It’s the story that is least obviously ‘domestic’, involving as it does a Hungarian castle; but even then, it opens in a dingy suburban cafe, and the castle is a tourist trap. Dragomir is a vampire, returned to Hungary to get a bit of rest. He has called a thrall to him – a woman whose ancestors pledged their allegiance to him many centuries before – to help him get ready. The narrative is fairly simple and straightforward. What really makes the story intriguing though is people’s reactions to Dragomir, and his reactions to them. Harris has gone with a much more ‘realistic’ vampire, in that he is very much a man of his times – his original times. He is shorter than the average 21st century man. He despises much of the modern world. And, in return, much of it despises him, too.
“The Truth about Brains” makes the reader into zombie territory, and the heady days of summer in the suburbs. Again the characters revolve around the family, this time an older sister impatient with her brother who, as the story opens, has kind-of sort-of accidentally been turned into a zombie. The narrative backtracks to explain how that happened, and then explores the consequences for the sister, the brother, and the other people involved. I think I found this the least convincing of the stories, mostly because the characters didn’t work for me. It could also be that I just don’t like zombie stories.
The last story is the longest, and relates to Harris’ novel The Opposite of Life, which I’ve not read. “Showtime” involves Gary – a not-that-happy-with-it vampire – and his friend Lissa, a librarian, heading to the Melbourne Show, location of rides, craft, wood-chopping exhibitions… and a haunted house. Harris does well to bring those unfamiliar with this version of Melbourne up to speed, with crafty hints at Gary and Lissa’s shared past of dealing with less-than-friendly vampires, and how this friendship manages to exist at all. It captures some of Gary’s angst and rue at not being alive, and suggests an interesting take on the implications of being undead (sunlight isn’t deadly but more like a beta-blocker; he has no adrenaline so rollercoasters are pointless). However, in the end the story fell a bit flat for me, and I think that was partly because I wasn’t as invested as I could have been in the lives of Gary and his vampire brethren existing (as it were) in the shadows of Melbourne.
Overall, this is generally an interesting look at how horror tropes can be used in familiar settings, and it’s certainly a neat addition to the Twelve Planets series.
Galactic Suburbia becomes an adult
I , like you, have to just accept that these show notes are accurate, as I was absent for the recording of this, the 18th episode of Galactic Suburbia! However, Tansy and Alisa have never given me reason to doubt them… yet…. The podcast can be got from iTunes, or streamed/downloaded from here, which is where I’m heading after uploading this post.
Episode 18: Special Horror Edition
In which we discuss translated awards, constructive feminist discourse on the internet, make a special Swancon announcement, and dissect our complex relationship with the horror genre.
Geffen Awards (Israel)
Torque Control discussion on women & the Clarke & the dire state of women in British SF, with list of all British releases of SF or SFnal books by women in 2010.
— inspired by interview with Tricia Sullivan.
Torque Control announces they will be blogging about 2010 British SF releases by women in December and ask for readers to join them. Also call for contributions of top 10 female authored SF books in the last decade for a theoretical “future classics’ list.
Super Special Swancon Announcement!
What have we been reading/listening to?
TANSY: The Wiscon Chronicles IV edited by Sylvia Kelso; Azu Manga Daioh by Kiyohiko Azuma; Asimovs & F&SF, Salon Futura
ALISA: secret projects & another Book I Am Not Reading
Pet Subject: while Alex is away, let’s talk about HORROR
– we’re both pretty selective about the horror/dark fiction we read. What does it have to do to catch our eye?
– favourite horror/dark writers
– where do we draw the line on what we like/can appreciate in horror?
– does our feminism get in the way of reading/enjoying horror fiction?
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs and on Facebook! and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes!