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September/October 2012
 
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Books
by Chris Moriarty

Wide Open, by Deborah Coates, Tor Books, 2012, $24.99.

Fountain of Age: Stories, by Nancy Kress, Small Beer Press, 2012, $16.

Sorry Please Thank You, by Charles Yu, Pantheon Books, 2012, $24.95.

Death Sentences, by Chiaki Kawamata, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, $17.95.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, DAW Books, 2012, $24.95.

Blue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds, Ace Books, 2012, $26.95.

 
HAVE YOU ever noticed that the future never stays in one place for more than a decade or so? In the 1980s the future—at least according to science fiction writers—was turning Japanese. (And I am not just saying this because of the pop song.)

The cyberpunks kicked off the Japanese futures market, and by around 1985 it was starting to feel like if a story wasn't Japanese (or at least vaguely Japanese-ish) it wasn't science fiction as anyone was prepared to recognize it. The 1990s was the heroic age of the Pacific Rim, culminating in the grand Pan-Pacific scavenger hunt of Cryptonomicon. Then China and India took the ascendant. And then there was a brief post-911 bull market in Islamic futures…though that seems in retrospect to have been merely the usual imperial literary noblesse oblige. ("Hey, we just invaded this nifty new culture! How 'bout settin' a few books in it?")

But lately I am starting to get the feeling that the future is migrating once again—this time to Africa. This feeling is partly attributable to the recent arrival of several stellar African writers on the sf scene, including Lauren Beukes (author of the cult post-cyberpunk tour de force Moxyland and the Clarke Award-winning Zoo City) and Nnedi Okorafor, whose post-apocalyptic genocide parable Who Fears Death was the single best book in any genre that I read in 2010. But of course these writers didn't spring from the void; whenever a clutch of new books from a previously unnoticed region suddenly hits the radar screens of North American readers, you can safely bet that a whole lot of great writing was happening there already—and the only real news is that we've finally gotten around to noticing it.

So why has our genre suddenly decided to notice Africa? I don't know—and I honestly think it's too early for anyone to say—but I do know that in the last several years I've seen new books set in Africa by several major mainstream sf writers who don't have any obvious ties to the region—including, most recently, Alastair Reynolds's Blue Remembered Earth.

 

But before we get to Japan, Africa and points between, let's talk short stories.

Charles Yu's Sorry Please Thank You, is a worthy followup to his phenomenal earlier works, Third Class Superhero and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It takes readers to the same day-after-tomorrow world of cubicle farms and white collared desperation. Yu takes us on a guided tourist trip through hell—where "hell" is defined as eternal servitude to a morally bankrupt high-tech startup, and your tour guide is a dead ringer for the guy in the next cubicle over who was the only redeeming feature of the worst job you ever had. Is it just me, or does anyone else get a sort of carsick "this is your life" feeling when reading Charles Yu's books? Still, carsickness or not, the trip is always worth taking when Yu is at the wheel.

Nancy Kress's Fountain of Age, also delivers a full dose of just what Nancy Kress fans have come to rely on when they pick up one of her books: well-written hard sf, peopled with strong and vivid characters, and articulating a subtle and highly nuanced vision of the moral quandaries inherent in genetic engineering, global warming, and other intentional and accidental manipulations of our biosphere. The nine stories in this collection include the Hugo Award Winning novella, "The Erdmann Nexus" and the Nebula Award-winning short story, "Fountain of Age." Other highlights are "Images of Anna," in which a routine photo shoot morphs into an alchemical romance about the relationship between selflessness (or perhaps more accurately "self-loss") and self-discovery; and the post-apocalypse, harsh to the point of brutality, global warming parable, "By Fools Like Me."

 

Wide Open is Deborah Coates's first novel, and it has a first novel's quality of urgency—that taut, wired feeling of a book that had to be written. Of course, not all first novels have this quality. But the best ones do. And this is one of the best first novels I've read in a long time.

Frankly, I didn't intend to read this book. And I certainly didn't intend to read it in a single sitting, which is more or less what I ended up doing in spite of myself. I had things to do the day I started reading it. Things that mattered. Things that it actually screwed up my life not to get done on time. And then I picked up Wide Open.

I almost put it right back down again, unread, because at first glance it looked like yet another in the apparently neverending series of "she can see ghosts" (or kill demons and/or hypnotize vampires and/or insert superpower of your choice) paranormal romance. But then I skimmed the first few pages and realized that the main character was an Afghanistan vet who actually came off like a real vet—even to this ex-army brat who usually can't read about fictional soldiers without wanting to scream. And then I read a little further and met a bunch of South Dakota cattle ranchers who actually looked like real cattle ranchers, right down to their precision pressed shirts and lace-up ropers. And, miracle of miracles, they talked like real ranchers too. (Or, well, I guess it would be more accurate to say that they didn't talk like real ranchers.) And somewhere along the way it snuck up on me that the actual prose I was reading was, on a line-by-line level, better written than almost any sf book I've picked up this last year or so.

By then I was hooked. Not to mention feeling a little sheepish at the idea of how close I'd come to writing off a really, truly, excellent first novel. I won't say much more about Wide Open, except to tell you that the magic and the romance—because, yes, there is at least a hint of a romance here—both unfold in a low-key and highly believable way. And also that the book manages to combine gripping action with sensitively handled writing about the corrosive effects of war and violence on the communal life of so many American towns.

So read Wide Open. I mean it. You won't be sorry. Just don't read it on a day when you plan to get anything else done.

 

Death Sentences by Chiaki Kawamata has been a cult novel in Japan ever since its 1984 publication. I've been hearing about it for years, as have most other fans of Japanese sf, but there has never been an English translation. So when the new translation by Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens hit my mailbox, I jumped all over it.

The book does not disappoint. It is tightly written, in a curt, telegraphic style that will be comfortingly familiar to manga fans. And the characters, science fictional ideas, and pop-culture references make it one of the smartest, quirkiest, funniest, and most psychologically twisted PoMo riffs on pulp sf that I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Indeed, so many of the tropes, plot devices, and lines of dialogue seem to dial around the intersection between Philip K. Dick novels and classic manga that this read got me thinking in intriguing ways about the confluence between early noir sf and manga aesthetics. The storyline, on the other hand, is pure post-WWII Japanese surrealism. It reminded me strongly of the early Haruki Murakami novel, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982). It revolves around a mysterious surrealist poem called "The Gold of Time" by a French-Vietnamese poet named Who May. The poem has the power to transport readers into "another world" and radically transform their brains and bodies. André Breton, Arshile Gorky, Marcel Duchamp, and other well-known surrealists have cameo roles in the drama of the poem's birth and early dissemination. And then the story picks up in near-future Japan, where "the stuff" (now being marketed as a kind of literary designer drug) sweeps through Tokyo, its "dealers" pursued by a special police unit whose duty is to suppress the poem—without ever actually reading it. But of course one of the detectives does read it. And when he is infected, his consciousness jumps the rails of time, and the story ping pongs from Earth to Mars and back again.

This should all be sounding highly familiar to Philip K. Dick fans. And any Philip K. Dick fan—or, really, anyone interested in surrealism, new wave fiction, cyberpunk, or Japanese sf—ought to read this book.

 

Okay, okay. I know I should have more professional pride than to resort to cliche and commonplace. But honestly…the first word that pops into mind when I think about Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is "romp."

That said, the word romp—though highly applicable—does not even come close to doing justice to either Saladin Ahmed's fantastic setting or his memorable main character.

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is certainly an unlikely epic fantasy hero. He's fat, past his prime, and far less interested in magical adventure than in sipping cardamom tea and dreaming of his unrequited love for an over-the-hill whore turned brothelkeeper. But unheroic though he is, Makhslood is the last of the great ghul hunters—the only honorable magician left in a city full of frauds and charlatans. The tarnished honor of his beloved native city of Dhamsawaat rests in Dr. Makhslood's hands. And when his mistress asks him to save her orphaned great-nephew, whose parents have just been devoured by bone ghuls, Makhslood is cast into the middle of a diabolical plot on which (naturally!) the fate of the civilized world depends.

Throne of the Crescent Moon appears to be the first book of a forthcoming trilogy—and I couldn't be happier about that. I only wish that the next two volumes were going to be out in time for sumer vacation this year, because Saladin Ahmed has produced that rarest and finest of literary treasures: beach reading for the thinking fantasy fan. This book delights, amuses, romances, and entertains the reader …without ever insulting his or her intelligence. And on top of that, Ahmed has produced an epic fantasy that feels authentically Islamic, not just in its setting, historical references, and magical systems, but also in the wonderfully drawn character of Doctor Makhslood, a man who sees all the absurdity and charlatanry around him…and yet somehow manages to keep on keeping on with a self-deprecating heroism that reminds me uncannily of more than one Arab human rights activist I've known over the years.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a delight in every imaginable way. The writing is surefooted and confident. The humor is spot-on page after page. The setting is so richly drawn that it practically smells like walking down the streets of Fez or Cairo. The magic draws convincingly on Iraqi and Egyptian folktales, as well as the Thousand and One Nights, Sufi lore, and much much more. And wrapped up in all the swordslinging and spellmongering are a few hard-won grains of wisdom about what it takes to be a hero in a world run by bullies and despots.

 

I think Alistair Reynolds may be my secret superhero. Year after year, he quietly writes his books. And year after year, he quietly insists that what he does is "just space opera" and not "real" hard sf. And year after year, his books knock my freakin' socks off.

In Blue Remembered Earth Reynolds focuses on the story of Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, two siblings who have spent their lives trying to distance themselves from their powerful and wealthy family. Geoffrey is an elephant researcher who works with one of Earth's few remaining wild elephant herds. Sunday is an artist who has fled to the autonomous zone on the dark side of the moon—one of the few places in settled human space where humans are not constantly subject to intrusive government surveillance for their own good. The paternalistic "Mechanism" is a libertarian's nightmare…although I couldn't help thinking that some analogous system would miraculously transform the lives of abused children. It not only constantly monitors every individual member of society in real time, but it actually intervenes to prevent physical violence by dropping anyone who even threatens to throw a punch with a paralyzing migraine. The discontents of this futuristic utopia take refuge on the dark side of the moon like Sunday Akinya, or in the less developed areas where surveillance isn't completely effective. And in those technological liminal zones—crucially to Reynolds's story—violence and even murder are still possible.

Geoffrey's and Sunday's grandmother is the legendary and reclusive matriarch of one of the great pioneering space dynasties. She is a woman who has voyaged to the far edge of known human space—and come back determined to hide the secrets she discovered there. But when she dies she leaves her grandchildren the opening clues to a solar-system-wide scavenger hunt that leads to a treasure humanity may not be ready to use wisely. Entwined in the geopolitical thriller is a complex and subtle story about the use and abuse of animals (including human animals) in an age of invasive technology and transformative genetic engineering.

In some ways Blue Remembered Earth presents a recognizably Alastair Reynolds-tinged future. There is the vision of a highly civilized and intrusively engineered future in which crime, death, and violence are sort of like polio today: still breaking out now and again on the fringes of the developed world, but mostly relegated to the history books. There is the notion of human nature as something imperfect yet highly malleable—a problematic kind of clay that can be massaged into civilized forms with enough technical know-how but that tends to bounce back in rather nasty ways if left to its own devices. And there is the vaguely theological strand in Reynolds's worldview—a sort of thread that unites otherwise completely different books—that boils down (or at least so I think) to a notion of greed as humankind's true original sin…or more precisely, a sort of radical existential selfishness as humankind's true original sin. There's something satisfyingly Victorian about this theme. Reynolds has been hammering away at it over the course of a dozen books. And he has developed a clear, matter-of-fact, deceptively simple way of writing about collective social responsibility that allows him to adroitly handle ethical themes most writers since Anthony Trollope and George Eliot wouldn't touch with a ten-foot barge pole.

In other ways, however, Blue Remembered Earth represents an intriguing departure from Reynolds's prior work. For one thing, this is relatively near-future extrapolation by Reynolds's standards. And that comes with all the get-your-geek-on wiring diagram pleasures of near future spacefaring sf. Readers who remember Reynolds's early and brilliant alien artifact story cum space opera Pushing Ice know that he is eminently capable of delivering this kind of "How the West Was Won" account of near-future spacefaring. And on that level this book was as much fun as any space exploration saga I've read since Adam Roberts's Gradisil.

Interestingly, both Blue Remembered Earth and Gradisil posit a future history of space exploration in which the seminal figure is an enigmatic and eccentric matriarch. I'm not sure what to make of the strange hold matriarchy seems to exert on the science fictional imagination these days. It is just a new version of the classic Star Trek-style future-by-reversal trope, or is there something more going? Does morphing Daniel Boone into Danielle Boon allow writers to celebrate the heroic virtues of explorers and colonizers in an unabashed way that readers are too jaded to enjoy without that twist? Or are these writers exploiting some shadowy corner of our collective consciousness in which they can write about power in more nuanced and ambiguous (and therefore more narratively interesting) ways when the hands wielding that power are female?

It's actually a bit unfair to ask this question about Blue Remembered Earth since Reynolds has real, built-in, structural reasons for making his spacefaring clan a matriarchy. The whole book revolves around an interlocking series of matriarchies, from the human Akinya family, to the matriarchal clan of elephants that Geoffrey Akinya devotes his life to studying, to the sea-adapted society headed by the human-whale hybrid Arethusa. Still, I can't get past a feeling that Reynolds has dragged an artifact of sf collective subconscious out into daylight.

And then there's that African future thing. As I suggested above, Reynolds isn't the first mainstream sf writer to make this move. But his extrapolation of a resurgent future Africa is convincing enough that it doesn't feel manipulative, appropriative, or simpleminded. I finished the book still radically unsure what to make of the genre-wide sfnal migration toward imagining Africa as the future global superpower. Good, Bad, Ugly? (Most likely it will turn out to be All of the Above if history is any indication.) But in Alastair Reynolds's hands it is at least certain to be interesting. And as Blue Remembered Earth contains just enough hints of future sequels to make Alastair Reynolds fans sit up and take note, I'm very optimistically looking forward to the next installment….

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