The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod.

Intriguing police procedural, set a few dozen years in the future and predominantly in Scotland. The Earth’s groaning in the wake of some fairly nasty climate change problems, resulting in a pair of massive space elevators being constructed to facilitate vast, floating solar barriers in an effort to mitigate UV radiation. Robots are becoming relatively commonplace and some of them are developing artificial intelligence, which is something of a problem for the general community as they don’t quite know how to deal with it — or integrate them properly into society. Add to this the fallout from the Faith / Oil War, which has effectively banned religions of all kinds, and we have a very interesting world postulated.

Into this mix we have the bombing murder of a man who turns out to be a Catholic priest, a title which has no official standing in this new world and has cause for potential future political ramifications, especially since religious terrorism has effectively been wiped out by the ‘winning’ of the Faith War. Casualties with ‘underground’ religious affiliations begin to mount as the protagonists, a Scottish police inspector and his robot aide-de-camp (once-combat mech) Skulk, desperately try to work out what is going on — and whether extremist religion is making a monstrous comeback as a very significant anniversary approaches…

Enjoyed very much. Particularly liked the fairly harsh, albeit balanced, treatment of religion — it effortlessly segued into an e-mail meme that’s circulating at the moment that’s very resonant and powerful: a picture of the World Trade Centre twin towers with John Lennon’s words: Imagine no religion beneath it. The story isn’t horribly politically correct (it can’t be with that type of subject matter) and doesn’t mince words as it beats down on the religious, the authorities and the fundamentalists alike.

The interaction of robots and people was also compellingly drawn, especially the sensitive and awkward issue of incipient artificial intelligence spreading like a slow virus through otherwise non-sentient machine workers… and the hideous potential for fundamentalist religious extremism to infect even the inhuman.

It becomes a bit chaotic towards the end (and not a little nihilistic either), but in the main MacLeod keeps all of the many balls he’s juggling in the air and the effect is, for the most part, mesmerizing. Definitely recommended.

 

 

 

…unfortunately, unlike the following three:

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling.

 

Well, I liked the cover…

This is a mad, sprawling, incoherent future-tech-dying-planet-eco-disaster, er, splat of a novel. One of those books where the ideas outpaced the story — in fact, the story seemed almost nonexistent, or at most very flimsy indeed. Four clone women in different situations, bred to be avatars of now obsolete technology, trying very hard to… nope. Didn’t get it. Doesn’t mean others won’t, but for me The Caryatids fell very, very flat: it was like a future-tech wiki and a Greenpeace screed met in a bar, fell in lust over a few cigarettes and then went home and tried to shag out a story before realising they were sexually incompatible. I applaud the intent, loved some of the ideas, but the whole didn’t work at all…

 

 

…rather like Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente — and I’ll be brief with this one. Style over content, and of the latter there was none. People dream their way into a fantastical world, the trigger to enter (no pun intended) is sex with someone who bears a tattooed map of this oneiric wonderland. And then… nothing happens except a few weird sights, incomprehensible rituals and/or conversations, and a desperate neeed/want, like drug withdrawal, to stay there forever.

Not I. Unfortunately I wanted to leave from the moment I first got there, and am still somewhat surprised I persevered through to the end. If dreamy, poetic but ultimately meaningless prose and ridiculous, improbable characters desperately seeking escape into a world that makes no sense and is drawn about as clearly as a charcoal sketch on a blackboard is your thing, then go for Palimpsest and good luck. I like a little story with my opium musings, thanks….

 

 

 

…and that brings us to the titular ‘urgh’, which I will keep short and sweet:

Brian Keene’s Castaways.

  • Apparently a homage: Jack Ketchum’s Off Season and elements of Richard Laymon’s original ‘Beast House’ trilogy;
  • Apparently a homage: the television game-show Survivor;
  • Has cannibal Neanderthal monkey monster rapists in it;
  • And the most cardboard-cutout characterisation and phoned-in plot, complete with astonishingly out-of-place and romance-novel happy ending I’ve ever had the misfortune to read…

Sorry. Awful. I used to like Brian’s work a lot, but some of his recent work… well, I love horror, but for some reason I don’t seem to be his audience anymore, because his last couple have been indifferent to me, and this one was dire. From someone who absolutely loathes reality shows like Survivor, being unable to give a positive report on something that was essentially panning the TV genre is sad indeed.

 

 

‘Kay then. Next time it will be all good, rather than some good and some urgh, promise. 🙂

Advertisements

 

Another gem from the steampunk canon (cannon? heh heh oh forget it), George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge is a rather full-throttle Victorian potboiler of a murder mystery, set in a world of airships and brass automatons, clockwork technology and steam-powered road ‘trains’, all tied together rather neatly and gruesomely… and with a very effective twist at the end that I probably should have seen coming, and didn’t.

It follows a case — rather, two cases initially seeming quite separate — being investigated by Sir Maurice Newbury, former soldier in the British Army (and, incidentally, the only man known to have survived a bite from a particularly virulent Indian plague which turns people into flesh-craving revenants) and current antiquities expert-cum-investigator-cum-occultist, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, a surprisingly forthright and capable woman whose actions and abilities scene-set the coming of the suffragettes. Allied with Newbury’s oldest friend, Chief Inspector Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard, they become involved in the issues of a string of murders perpetrated in Whitechapel by a glowing spectral policeman and an airship crash in the middle of London from which the pilot has mysteriously vanished. The latter case has an added complication: Queen Victoria herself (who continues to live and breathe somewhat past her prime via huge, hulking, steam-bellowing machines infibulated into her body) has asked that Newbury investigate it, with potentially serious political ramifications.

What follows is pure adventure, mixed with a very healthy dollop of violence and a fascinatingly realised world where the expected and the unexpected alike blur like the septic fog that perpetually clouds the Londons streets. A spreading plague of bloodthirsty dead Victorian workers, clockwork automata rewired as killing machines, lightning weapons and gruesome vivisection are only some of the treats you’re in store for in this tale: there’s much more packed in this compact little hardcover, and once you crack the cover you’ll be reading it ’til the wee hours, unable to pull away.

Mann’s writing style has been criticised a little for being plain and unadventurous; I didn’t mind it in the least and found it suited the breakneck pace of the story — I certainly couldn’t fault his sense of description which, whilst minimalist on occasion, eerily evoked the world and characters he was building and put across faultlessly some gruesome, evocative and fantastical scenes. This isn’t childrens’ literature though, unlike the previous post: although there’s no sex the violence is, on occasion, quite brutal and detailed.

If you’re fascinated with this particular genre or just want a phantasmagorical adventure story, you can’t go wrong with this one. Very recommended, and I’m now impatiently waiting for the next one

Briefly, damnit…

August 5, 2008

Popping in to reassure myself I’m not dead, and am in fact drowned in other things. Promised myself I’d update this today and didn’t get to it until the deathknock. So, very briefly what has passed recently through the Reading Stomach™ and made it to the other side:

Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross: enjoyed very much, but not quite up to his previous three sci-fi extravaganzas. The convolutions were marvellous but became a little too much towards the end. Still, slightly sub-par Stross is still an order of magnitude over most of what passes for sci-fi out there, so it’ll certainly do me ’til the next one. Oh, and loved the cover, even though it seems to have polarised half the known world: very tongue-in-cheek (or, I guess in the case of protagonist Freya Nakamichi-47 sexbot, tongue-in… er, somewhere else).

Flesh House, by Stuart MacBride: gruesome and surprisingly funny police procedural re a serial killer who likes serving up his victims as cuts of meat. First book I’ve read of his; apparently fourth in a series so it looks like I’ll need to start searching him out backwards.

Heart Sick, by Chelsea Cain: enjoyable, slightly derivative detective novel wherein the chief character is basically a female Hannibal Lecter, even down to her psychologist / psychiatry background. And incarcerated, to boot, with the occasional prison conversation. Still liked it; occasionally squirm-inducing violence (using a hammer and nails to break someone’s ribs, for example) but ultimately a bit chaotic and the string of coincidences were too long. Hard to believe that someone could’ve killed over 200 people and not even been sniffed at by the law either. Nonetheless, worth a quick read… and now that I think about it, I must’ve liked it more than this paltry review probably comes across, because I’m rather looking forward to the sequel, Sweetheart.

‘Nuff now. Will do better as soon as I have time, I promise myself. Yep. Sigh. 😦