Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void

Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void by Simon Logan (Prime, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Fade in across the Hackney skyline, sirens and the smell of Vietnamese food filling the air. Cut to a man in an overpriced flat reading a novel. Zoom in as his lip curls up in distaste on discovering it is written as a pseudo-shooting script.
Cut.

Films aren’t books and an author who is a frustrated director usually makes for a frustrating reading experience. The directions are an infuriating affectation which is a shame because Logan is a good – albeit uneven – writer. One notional reason for his stylistic choice is the fact that one of the characters is a documentary maker but it is a pretty thin justification. The artifice extends as far as calling the chapters “scenes”. This grates as well but perhaps, given their slender length, it is right name for them.

Logan has previously published three short story collections and it initially shows in the rather fragmentary nature of his debut novel. (Or, as he irritatingly styles it, “n*vel”.) It chops rapidly back and forth between his cast of characters: Elisabeth, the aforementioned film-maker; Catalina, a teenage thrill seeker; Auguste and Camille, artists and lovers; and Shiva, a freelance terrorist. Of course, their lives are all intertwined and over the course of the novel they are pulled together for a transformative conclusion. It is much to his credit that this spiralling inwards seems natural and unforced, a grasp of structure that is unusual for a first time novelist. In fact Logan is good on all the fundamentals. For someone who clearly fancies himself as a prose stylist, most of his misfires, such as describing pylons as “fascist metal weeds”, come when he is striving to attain a level of industrial poetry. Instead it is his characters, and more specifically their interaction with each other, where his strength lies. It is the sixth character – the city itself – that makes the novel so confounding though.

These scenes are all set in a nameless, placeless and, most puzzlingly, timeless city. The novel is deliberately anachronistic and obsolete: characters use payphones, pagers, VCRs and joysticks. One character is referred to as having a “Soviet jaw line” and then later “jagged Soviet features”. Whatever this description means (and I am not sure) it seems likely that some of Logan’s prospective readership weren’t born until after the collapse of the Evil Empire. Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void clearly harks back to the early days of cyberpunk but it is too redundant even to be the future as envisaged in the Eighties. In fact, this is almost pre-cyberpunk and shares more in common with Hubert Selby Jr than with any current SF writers. It is clearly a conscious choice but I’m not sure exactly why or to what end. One thing is for certain; this isn’t science fiction but nor is it purely mimetic because is so strongly abstracted from the real world. The city is a sort of fantasy sinkhole, a playground for malcontents, and this robs it of its power.

This review originally appeared in Vector #256.

January Review Round-Up

Shana will start reading future classics by women next month but I thought I’d round-up a few reviews published this month of books by women. I’m planning to make more of the BSFA’s archive of reviews available online so let’s start with a couple of re-prints from Vector. Firstly, Nic Clarke on White Is For Witching:

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is a subtle little gem of a ghost story, written in a sparsely elegant style and paced as a page-turner whose mystery lies mostly in its characters’ fears and flaws. It centres on a haunted bed and breakfast in Dover, and the people – living and dead – whose lives are entwined with the house, and with each other.

Then Niall Harrison on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:

The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else. Those details interest Beukes, too, I think.

I also reviewed Moxyland to inaugurate a year of reading science fiction by women:

This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.

Ian Sales started a similar project by reviewing The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein:

Had I not known of it when I found it in that charity shop, I would not have bought it. I’d heard it was quite good – but how often do you hear that about books, which promptly disappoint? I’d heard it read as fantasy but was really science fiction – but there’s so much room for manoeuvre in that statement, it’s hard to take it as any kind of useful description. Something brought The Steerswoman to my notice, something persuaded me it was worth reading… And I’m glad I did. The Steerswoman is a gem.

As you would expect, Strange Horizons covered several books books by women in depth, perhaps most notably Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin. Here is Farah Mendlesohn on Who Fears Death:

There is a hint in Who Fears Death that we are in the far future of Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor’s debut novel. For all the resemblances to our own Africa, this is a distant planet in a distant time, and the story the Okeke and the Nuru tell, in which the Nuru come from afar, might well be true. This is a science fictional world with water captures, hard-tech computing, and newfangled biotech. It is also a world of magic, of small jujus and powerful sorcerers.

And Paul Kincaid on 80!

Conceived by Kim Stanley Robinson and compiled by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, 80! was intended as a personal birthday present on the occasion of Le Guin’s 80th birthday in 2009, and originally came in a specially bound edition of one. But now, a year on, Le Guin has agreed that the book should be made more generally available. It is worth it for parts, if not for the whole. It is not easy to describe this book. I suppose it comes closest to being a festschrift, and there are several pieces that would not be out of place in such a volume. But it is also an opportunity for people simply to express gratitude, which is genuine and often moving, and certainly not out of place in a birthday card

Finally, Abgail Nussbaum reviewed both Bold As Love and Life by Gwyneth Jones:

So that’s Gwyneth Jones seen through two novels–a feminist who seems not to like women, or perhaps people in general, very much, a science fiction writer who can’t seem to keep both feet in the genre, an ideologue who mocks her own convictions at every turn, an angry feminist who can’t quite keep from winking at her readers. What I feel at the end of these two novels, mostly, is intimidated–by Jones’s intelligence, her forcefulness, and the complexity of her vision.

Reminder: BSFA London Meeting tonight

Frances Hardinge will be interviewed by Farah Mendelsohn at the BSFA London meeting tonight at 7 pm at the Antelope, near Sloane Square. Details are here.

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Moxyland

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot Books, 2009)
Reviewed by Niall Harrison

“Full of spiky originality,” declares Charles Stross, on the cover of Moxyland. “A new kind of sf, munching its way out of the intestines of the wasp-paralysed caterpillar of cyberpunk.” We’ve heard this too often, haven’t we? And it’s not true of Lauren Beukes’s first novel. To the contrary, it’s a book that would be all too easy to reduce to a string of buzzwords. Individuality, conformity, conspiracy. Wired, urban, dense. Terrorism, gaming, marketing. Cadigan, Sterling, Stross.

The word missing from the list is knowing. The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else.

Those details interest Beukes, too, I think. Other things too, of course: in an afterword, she emphasises the plausibility of some of her novel’s more prominent conceits: proprietary, corporation-run universities; law enforcement robots; use of mobile phones to deliver a disciplinary electric shock; biotechnological art; corporate co-option of rebellion for its own ends. But what marks the novel out is its texture.

Set in Cape Town in 2018, Moxyland is told in four voices. First-person in a near-future setting is always a high wire act; the narration must be different enough to evoke a changed world but not so different as to sound implausible or just silly. Differentiating four such voices is an even bigger ask but Beukes makes a reasonable fist of it and her characters’ personalities and situations are distinct enough to make up for any tonal similarities. In addition to navel-gazing Kendra (“I feel like the tarps sop up emotional residue along with the dust drifting down to settle on the carpets”), we meet: Toby Ward, self-consciously slangy blogger, spoilt and obnoxious (“It’s always fun to infringe on people’s personal space”); Lerato Mazwai, AIDS orphan, now a programmer indentured to the corporation that raised her, gossipy and shallow (“this fat chick across the aisle keeps giving me these dirty looks”); and Tendeka Mataboge, middle-class activist working with street kids, profane but unfailingly empathetic, even when being threatened (“Compared to what he must have gone through getting here, who the fuck am I that he should be afraid of me?”).

It’s the glimpses of these lives in this setting — Lerato’s upbringing, Tendeka’s struggle with corporate sponsorship of his aid programmes — that snag the attention, more than the overarching manipulation they struggle against. The novel’s conclusion is never really in doubt; Moxyland wears its cynicism on its sleeve. But it’s a sharp, sly ride, not new but proficiently done. You’ve heard this too often, as well, but indulge me: Beukes is one to watch.

This review was originally published in Vector #263.

Reading Future Classics by Women

As I mentioned last week, one of my projects for this year is to read through the eleven books voted by Torque Control readers as the best science fiction novels written by women between 2001 and 2010. Hopefully, some of you will be joining me in this!

Each month, I will post a reminder at the beginning of the month, along with a bit of background discussion. In the second half of the month, I will host a discussion of the book here. I’ll post round-ups of reviews and discussion elsewhere of the novels too, whether recent or from previous years. Sometimes there will be contributions exploring a novel from other people, and I would certainly welcome others. (Niall has volunteered!)

There’s no great incentive to read this list in ranked order. I suspect some of the rankings are a very close thing, and the given order of the list is no authority for subjective quality. So instead, this will be a chronological project. I’ve gone with global chronological dates instead of their publication dates in the UK in particular. Life has yet to be published here, and some of us are occasionally prone to reading books on import instead of waiting for the possibility of local publication. Further, a major proportion of the poll participants were based outside of the UK, and so this country’s publication schedule does not necessarily affect the local availability of a given novel for them.

(It’s been an interesting challenge: I had no idea how hard it was going to be to figure out the month in which some of these books were published.)

So here’s the schedule:

February Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones
March The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon
April Natural History, by Justina Robson
May The Time-Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffennegger
June Maul, by Tricia Sullivan
July City of Pearl, by Karen Traviss
August Life, by Gwyneth Jones
September Farthing, by Jo Walton
October The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall
November Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin
December Spirit, by Gwyneth Jones

2010 BSFA Awards Shortlists

The BSFA is pleased to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel

2010 BSFA Awards Best Novel Nominees

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.
Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.
Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40
Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other
Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot
Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle
Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe – the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)
Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

The BSFA Awards Administrator will shortly make a voting form available for members of the BSFA and this year’s Eastercon, who will be able to send advance votes based on the above shortlists. Advance votes must be received by Monday 18th April. After this date, ballot boxes will be made available at Illustrious – the Eastercon Convention taking place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. The ballots will close at Midday on Saturday April 23rd and the winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted that evening at the convention.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

P.S. Voting details are here.

Looking ahead

It’s the hush before the ballot.

The nominations are in, and the BSFA Award Administrator is working, tabulating them.

It seems as good a time as any to introduce myself. As Niall has told you, I’m Shana Worthen, and I’m taking over from him as features editor at Vector. This also means that I’m joining the group blogging here at Torque Control.

In addition to updating you with the highlights of forthcoming Vectors and the details of BSFA events, I have two projects I’m intending to pursue.

The first is my own interest in becoming better-read in science fiction criticism. I will be writing about much of what I’m reading as I go. This should be useful both for knowing the field better, but also in the hopes that when next year’s BSFA awards roll around, I will have already read more of the possible non-fiction award nominations than I had this year. If it keeps the rest of you thinking about the non-fiction award along the way (and, indeed, the BSFA awards in general), so much the better.

The second project is a followup to Niall’s fantastic survey of the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years. I will be reading a book a month from that list over the course of the next eleven months, and hope that many of you will join me in this. Each month, I will be posting and collating discussion about each book here on Torque Control.

Look for more details on group-reading the top eleven books from the survey, including the reading schedule, in the coming week.

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