vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.

Vector 268

The latest BSFA mailing arrived with the post this morning! I’d been expecting it any day now for the last week or so, after it been sent off to the black box of the publisher. And here it is, Focus (TOC) and Vector both.

This quarter’s Vector is primarily devoted to Diana Wynne Jones, who died in March this year. When I started putting the issue together, I’d hoped she would be with us for years to come, that she would be able to see the issue for herself. Instead, it became a memorial issue to a much-missed author whose influence was formative for many (including me).

Vector 268 contains…

2011 BSFA Awards – Donna Scott
An Excerpt from a Conversation with Diana Wynne Jones – Charlie Butler
Translating Diana Wynne Jones – Gili Bar-Hillel Semo
Diana Wynne Jones in the Context of Children’s Fantasy – Jessica Yates
The Mistress of Magic – Meredith MacArdle
On Screen: Two Filmed Versions of Books by Diana Wynne Jones – Gill Othen
Diana Wynne Jones: A BSFA Discussion – Farah Mendlesohn & Charlie Butler, transcribed by Shana Worthen
Infertility in Science Fiction as a Consequence of Warfare – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo & Ivan Callus

Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Kincaid in Short: The Heat Death of the Universe – Paul Kincaid
Foundation Favourites: Forbidden Planet – Andy Sawyer
Now and Then: Invisible Words – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis 

My apologies to Meredith, whose first name is missing an ‘h’ in the table of contents.

Three Hundred Years Hence, next month

One occasional convenience of looking at much older works of science fiction is that, when old enough, they are out of copyright. This is true of the book which Andy Sawyer will be looking at in the forthcoming issue of Vector. (Subscribers will be receiving it in early July.)

Out-of-copyright doesn’t always mean more-convenient-to-get-hold-of, but in this case, someone has already gone to the trouble of digitizing the text.

Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence, the subject of Andy’s next Foundation Favourites column, was published in 1836. It features in the annotated “Pre-1923 Utopias and Science Fiction by Women: A Reading List of Online Editions“, edited by Mary Mark Ockerbloom, where you can read her vision of the year 2135 for yourself.

And, while you’re there, a great deal of other early science fiction by women too.

Vector 265

Saturday morning’s post brought with it Vector 265, at long last. Not just Vector: the mailing includes a booklet in memory of Rob Holstock, edited by Niall Harrison; the BSFA Awards booklet, with all of the shortlisted short stories; and a ballot for voting on the BSFA awards.

Vector 265 is the last one edited by Niall, and it’s a hefty one, a rich tribute to Stephen Baxter, plus book reviews, edited by Martin Lewis. For those of you not currently BSFA members, here is what you’re missing out on:

Table of Contents
“That Cosmological Feeling: An Interview with Stephen Baxter”
“Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Cycle: No Coming Home”, Jonathan McCalmont
“The Settee and the Stars: Stephen Baxter and the Dilemma of Scale”, Gary K Wolfe
“An Atomic Theory of Baxter’s Fiction”, Adam Roberts
“Three Colours NASA: Reflections on Stephen Baxter’s ‘NASA’ trilogy”, Simon Bradshaw
“Putting the Past into the Future: The Time’s Tapestry sequence”, Tony Keen
“Foundation’s Favourite: Stone Spring”, Andy Sawyer
“Baxter’s People”, Niall Harrison
“Giant Killer Rodents in Space Armour, With Guns: the other side of Stephen Baxter”, Graham Sleight

“First Impressions”, Martin Lewis
Book reviews edited by Martin Lewis
Orgasmachine by Ian Watson (Newcon Press, 2010) – reviewed by
Justin Robson
Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Anthony Nanson
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2010) -
reviewed by Paul Kincaid
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed
by Tony Keen

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by
Michael Abbott
The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2010) -
reviewed by Martin Potts
Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009)
- reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett and The Last Reef by
Gareth L Powell (Elastic Press, 2008) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Holy Machine (Corvus, 2010) and Marcher (Cosmos
Books, 2008) by Chris Beckett – reviewed by Jim Steel
Inside/Outside – Chris Beckett interviewed by Paul Graham Raven
Major Carnage by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications, 2010) -
reviewed by Shaun Green
Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk (ChiZine Pubications, 2010)
- reviewed by Graham Andrews
The Nemesis List by RJ Frith – reviewed by Ben Jeapes
The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Stuart Carter
Brave Story and The Book Of Heroes by Miyuke Miyabe
(Haikasoru, 2007 and 2009) – reviewed by Cherith Baldry
WE by John Dickinson (David Fickling Books, 2010) – reviewed by
Donna Scott
I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (Penguin, 2010) – reviewed by CB Harvey
Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2010) – reviewed
by Anne F Wilson
The Iron Hunt, Darkness Calls and A Wild Light by
Marjorie M Liu (Orbit, 2008-10) – reviewed by Amanda Rutter
The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan (Orbit, 2009) – reviewed by
Alan Fraser
Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster, 2010) -
reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Office Of Shadow by Mathew Sturges (Pyr, 2010) – reviewed
by AP Canavan
Lord Of The Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit, 2010) -
reviewed by Lynne Bispham

BSFA Awards Shortlist 2011

Anyone who joined the BSFA recently may end up with the wrong impression as to how frequently mailings occur, inasmuch as we expect the next one to be sent out within the next month-or-so. It’s all still quarterly, however.

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

Vector 265 update

You probably already know the bad news: Vector 265, the Winter 2011 issue, is running late. There were crossed communication lines which led to this, and the issue is now back on track.

On the bright side, there is a major advantage to its lateness. It was due to go out in January, around the time the BSFA awards shortlists were announced. Since it’s going out in the next few weeks instead, there’s been time to include the BSFA awards shortlists and ballot. This means that subscribers who rely on the mailings to find out what’s going on with the awards will learn much sooner than they would have just which novels, short stories, works of non-fiction, and artworks are on the shortlist.

So some things are late, but they’ve made other things early.

(And – shhh – I’m 90% sure you’ll be getting still more extra material with this BSFA mailing than originally planned, making it even more worth the wait. I should be able to tell you more about it next week!)

Wireless

Wireless by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

‘Missile Gap’, the novella that opens Wireless, is a pretty good encapsulation of Stross’s concerns as a writer. It takes place in the middle of the Cold War but on an Earth that has been radically altered and flung into another galaxy. The reconstruction of the planet into one flat plate on a vast disc brings with it gravitational changes that render the Space Race dead and flight difficult. These changes allow Stross to play with his love of abandoned engineering projects by introducing, for example, a vast nuclear-powered ekranoplan the size of an aircraft carrier. Piloted by Yuri Gagarin. Carl Sagan also appears as a character and there are many similar winks. So: a big picture hard SF idea, a Twentieth Century alt history, a strong awareness of the history of science fiction, a couple of in-jokes and some cool toys that never were. Like Ken MacLeod, Stross is looking towards the future with nostalgic eyes.

There is more of the same on display throughout Wireless. In fact, ‘Missile Gap’ is something of a retread of ‘A Colder War’, published five years previously. Gagarin and Sagan are replaced by Colonel Oliver North and Stephen Jay Gould, and the missile gap becomes a shoggoth gap, but otherwise they are the same, right down to the infodump chapters presented as classified briefing films with identical security warnings.

‘A Colder War’ is the only story which overlaps with Stross’ previous collection, Toast (2002), and this repetition makes its inclusion a mistake. It also points towards a lack of purpose in a collection which is almost-but-not-quite comprehensive and where Stross unfortunately uses his introduction to pointlessly justify his existence as a short story writer. Obviously the stories collected as the mosaic novel Accelerando (2005) are not reprinted here but only one of his three collaborations with Cory Doctorow appears (‘Unwirer’). Why this one, which feels more Doctorow than Stross in composition? Why include ‘MAXOS’, a joke about extraterrestrial 419 scammers that at three pages is still too long? ‘Down On The Farm’, part of the ongoing Bob Howard series that mashes Lovecraft (him again) with spy versus spy, is great fun – if clunkily structured – but is cut adrift from the rest of its continuity here. The impression is of a writer casting around for any material to hand, that the overriding reason for this collection is that Stross gets jittery if he doesn’t release at least two books a year.

The main selling point of Wireless is ‘Palimpsest’, an unpublished novella. A mix of time travel and deep time future history, it is a powerful piece but sabotaged by an afterword in which Stross makes clear that it should really be a novel, had industry requirements not dictated otherwise. I understand the travails of the jobbing writer – Stross has chronicled them well on his blog – but Wireless is so market-driven that any enjoyment of the stories was overwhelmed by a desire for less haste and graft and more reflection and quality control.

This review originally appeared in Vector #261.

Fools’ Experiments

Fools’ Experiments by Edward M Lerner (Tor, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Perhaps this is just an unfair prejudice of mine but as far as I’m concerned any book that uses sound effects is likely to be a bad book. In this case, at least, the cracks and thwocks and blats do indeed herald a writer with very little facility for the English language.

Edward M Lerner is a traditional SF writer in that he is an engineer who knows a lot about S and not much about F. After ghostwriting a couple of Ringworld prequels for them, this is his first novel proper for Tor and only adds to my sense that something has gone badly wrong with their quality control of late. Fools’ Experiments is a tedious technothriller doled out in 71 bite-sized (but not particularly thrilling) chapters. Although it is divided into thirds, rather than this being a classic three act structure we have a false start, the actual plot and then a pointless retread of the middle third. The story chiefly concerns the emergence of artificial life but the structure of the novel is so broken backed that it is initially hard to tell where our attention is meant to be focussed.

In keeping with the strictures of the technothriller format there are lots of viewpoint characters but they are all drawn so crudely that you would never mistake them for actual human beings. The main characters are initially Doug, a researcher in neural interfaces, and AJ, a researcher in artificial life. In order to differentiate between them Lerner makes Doug a lover of bad puns. He also (since Hollywood has taught him it would be unthinkable to do otherwise) pairs both of them up with hot chicks. Unbelievably in the case of the overweight, middle aged AJ this involves bagging the attractive IT reporter who is interviewing him with the line “nor do I want to know ahead of time what our children will be like.” (143) These poorly realised characters only add to the sense of dislocation as they can disappear for sixty pages at a time whilst the narrative wanders elsewhere and other characters spring up in their place. Not surprisingly Lerner is better with machines than humans. The section where an artificial intelligence breaks free from AJ’s lab, causing devastating to the surrounding area, actually lives up to the genre’s name. Even this becomes interminable after a while though.

RUMIR is a very useful acronym that Karen Burnham invented from an old Joanna Russ review that described a work as “routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable”. In five letters it sums up vast swathes of published SF and it could, charitably, be applied to this novel. Fools’ Experiments is not bad because it is a catastrophic failure, it is bad simply because there is absolutely nothing good about it. In some ways this is even worse, at least with a catastrophe there is a perverse pleasure in seeing what abomination the writer will come up with next. This novel just inspires supreme indifference.

This review originally appeared in Vector #260.

The Edge Of Reason

The Edge Of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass (Tor, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Imagine if Richard Dawkins was not only American but retarded. Imagine he taught himself to read using the work of illiterate megasellers like James Patterson and Tess Gerritsen. Imagine he further fleshed out his understanding of human nature on a diet of romance novels and misery memoirs. Finally, imagine he stayed up one night getting drunk and watching piss poor police procedurals before having the sudden brainwave of re-writing American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Imagine all that and you have imagined Melinda Snodgrass’s dire The Edge Of Reason and thus saved yourself the pain of actually reading it.

Our hero, Richard Oortz, is an East Coast blueblood concert pianist turned New Mexican policeman with a Terrible Secret. You might think this sounds unlikely and you would be right. He is also an extraordinarily good-looking bisexual gymnast whose DNA, unlike most of the rest of humanity, contains no magic. This last is of paramount importance because, counter-intuitively, it allows him to wield a magic sword that will save the world.

The idiotic plot revolves around the rather large co-incidence that the Devil also happens to live in Alberquerque (apparently this is because “it is a place where science and magic rub close”.) In a mind blowing twist, He is actually the good guy since he represents rationality and Oortz must unite with him to overthrow the tyranny of God. What follows is tosh to the nth degree, Snodgrass has somehow managed to harness the worst of the blockbuster thriller and paranormal romance genres. And if the plot is bad – lacking sense, structure and interest – then the writing is even worse. To take an example:

Lean Cuisine hefted light in the hand as if the contents of the package were as cardboard as the box. Richard hooked open the crisper drawer of the refrigerator with the tow of his shoe. Fresh bok choy, peppers and ginger flashed color and guilt at him. He would cook. (p82)

The rest of the prose is equally cloth-eared and over-wrought and the dialogue reads like the work of Elizabots. It was solely because of professional obligation that I read all the way to the end, only to be rewarded with a limp, open-ended conclusion that paves the way for equally appalling sequels.

The book’s jacket bizarrely claims that it is as controversial as The Golden Compass or The Illuminatus! Trilogy, possibly the only time those two books have been mentioned in the same sentence. The Golden Compass was controversial (in the US) because it was marketed at kids and suggested that organised religion wasn’t that great. The Illuminatus! Trilogy was controversial because it was an insane counter-culture conspiracy theory fuckfest. The Edge Of Reason is supposedly controversial because of the whole theological inversion thing but this is only going to shock you if you have parachuted in from the 19th Century (as Oortz appears to have done.) In fact, the only thing controversial about the book is that it ever made it into print from a major publisher like Tor.

This review originally appeared in Vector #258.

Exotic Excusions

Exotic Excusions by Anthony Nanson (Awen Publications, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

This collection promises to map “the territory between travel writing and magical realism”. Actually the territory it covers is rather broader than that. Regardless of genre or mode though, there is a great deal of uniformity to these stories and the opening story, ‘The Things We Love’, provides something of a template for what follows.

An engineer (and amateur palaeontologist) goes to Africa to supervise a water pipeline project he helped set up. Whilst there he finds indications that dinosaurs may still be living in this remote corner of the world. Accompanied by native guides he goes in search of one such creature and, with very little incident, finds it, only to discover that it is dying because of the changes to its habitat caused by the pipeline. It ends with his realisation – signposted by the title – that we always kill the things we love.

At thirteen pages this is one of the longest stories in the collection but it is still rather abrupt. These are more vignettes than stories, impressionistic rather than narrative, over as soon as they have begun. ‘The Things We Love’ is nowhere near as trite or as moralistic as my bald synopsis makes it sound but both these threats are lurking in the background of Nanson’s work. The themes of pastoralism and colonialism are overwhelming and all the stories end on such a moment of minor internal revelation. Every final sentence is designed to impart Meaning but the effect, particularly cumulatively, is that the reader is beaten over the head with Nanson’s philosophy.

Nanson writes well, if not particularly excitingly. For a writer who makes clear in his introduction that his work is infused with spiritualism he is surprisingly rigorous. If anything it is so self-consciously precise as to be slightly stifling. It is not his writing that proves the problem though but rather his subject. The problem with trying to convey the ineffable is that it is, well, ineffable. Nanson is well aware of this and even explicitly addresses the problem in ‘Touching Bedrock’:

“I pointed down at the sea, hoping she might perceive what I had perceived, that our eyes would meet in an epiphany of understanding… To convey to her what the sight meant to me suddenly seemed a great labour that once set upon would obliterate the tenuous feeling it sought to express.” (33)

It is a striving for the transcendent that he remains unable to realise. Several times whilst reading the collection I was struck by how much better Nanson’s concerns could be served in verse rather than prose. Instead it really only amounts to a sketch book of autobiographical and anthropological observations so although it contains a fair percentage of material that could be considered fantastic, Exotic Excursions is unlikely to be of interest to Vector readers. In fact, it is so strongly personal that its audience is probably very limited indeed, perhaps limited solely to the author himself.

This review originally appeared in Vector #257.

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.

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