I’ve finished reading Revenger by Alastair Reynolds and, look at that, just in time for Talk-Like-a-Pirate-Day…

revengerRevenger
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £14.99
Review: Val Nolan

When ya first clamp yer lamps upon the nightblack new tome from Welsh landlubber Alastair Reynolds yar grey’d be wonderin’ what it is dis author’d be at. Cove’s tellin’ tall tales in a mismatch ‘a piratespeak ‘n technobabble? Ancient skulls whisperin’ t’each other across the night? Fifty million worldlets circlin’ the Old Sun like islands in the sky? Yet when the book spills its secrets like so much fancy loot ya quickly sight the glimmer o’somethin’ worth yar quoin, a swashbucklin’ ‘n unapologetically pulpy tale filled with sly-eyed characters ‘n daring-do. Whereas the last Reynolds voyage, Poseidon’s Wake, dallied for sure with Gulliver’s Travels, Revenger is more’a piece with Treasure Island: a comin’a’age yarn run through with’a cutlass o’moral ambiguity as the young sisters Adrana ‘n Arafura Ness light out inta the Empty with Cap’n Rackamore in search o’baubles ‘n fortune.

The Ness sisters be green but they both got the aptitudes, the skills for readin’ the alien bones which allow ships to communicate instantly over the interplanetary seas. That makes ‘em valuable to a captain like Rack, atop a’which they’re eager to tackle their share o’hazard by pickin’ over the ruins o’dead worlds shielded behind dense energy fields “like god’s own scab”. But things ain’t all peachy out on the edges o’the Swirly ‘n when their ship is murderously jumped by the ruthless pirate Bosa Sennen, Adrana ‘n Arafura are separated. The former is taken prisoner by the vicious Bosa; the latter carried by fate ‘n law back to her family ‘n an insidious bout o’pharmaceutical gaslightin’.

Things are thus knottier at the sharp end o’the story. The yo-ho-ho o’the opening salvo gives way to a darker aft half and the development o’Arafura, the prim and proper book-learned “girlie”, into just Fura, someone “harder and scowlier and [who] knew what needed to be done…” Her arc rigs a taut plot cuttin’ quick through a universe rich for the narrative plunderin’. Reynolds doesn’t hold back on the blood ‘n violence neither, not when close action is called for, while his taste for “wrong things […] things against the common laws o’nature” seeps through in the “Ghostie gubbins”, the high-tech treasures buried in the shivery places o’long gone civilisations.

Settin’ a course ‘tween the near-future plausibilities o’the Poseidon’s Children trilogy ‘n the cold hard sci-fi Gothicism o’the Revelation Space series, Revenger offers an adventure that t’aint hard to sign aboard for, an engagin’, shipshape, ‘n standalone (for now) Reynolds space opera which the author anchors deep in character. Tis a fast read for all the right reasons ‘n, with more than one unexpected tack that’ll have ya gaspin’ for lungstuff on yer way to its satisfyin’ final port o’call, Revenger is a story that oughta put the spur for more in any reader.

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Thoughts on Emma Newman’s Planetfall

PlanetfallThe affecting, twisty-turny, and beautifully written Planetfall (ROC Publishing) is easy to recommend but difficult to review because, honestly, the less you know going into it then the better your reading experience will be. Personally I knew almost nothing about the story when I began the novel a week-and-a-half ago (I had seen it praised by Gareth L. Powell on Twitter and, honestly, that was good enough for me). I read the first hundred pages or so aboard the train en route to Mancunicon and quickly finished it over the following few days.

This is a very strong novel which consistently surprises the reader despite what, in retrospect, seems to be the inevitability of the story’s trajectory. The protagonist is Renata Ghali, or simply Ren, is a fabrication engineer and one of the leaders of a human colony on an alien planet. Twenty years ago she followed “Pathfinder” Suh-Mi – part scientist, part messiah – to the foot of an alien structure known to the settlers as “God’s City”. Since then Shu-Mi has resided in the city alone while the colonists wait for her return and Ren struggles with the difficult, debilitating truths of life on this otherwise desolate world.

Newman carefully paces Planetfall and builds the novel around a handful of genuine game-changing moments (the first of which is the appearance of a stranger who bears a striking resemblance to Shu-mi despite being far too young to have been part of the initial landing). Such reveals are convincing, with the reader never feeling cheated or mislead. What’s more, they build on one another in organic fashion. The novel is thus a masterclass in using little details to prefigure big developments. It is delicately done – typically arising from Newman’s logical, lyrical worldbuilding – and for the most part it is not apparent until after the event. In that regard, Planetfall is a novel I am already looking forward to rereading.

Indeed, as much as a reread offers the chance to trace Newman’s careful use of foreshadowing, it also offers an opportunity to spend more time with Plenetfall’s complex and realistically rendered protagonist. For it is Ren’s perspective, informed by suspicion and loneliness (and there are good reasons for both of those), which grounds this otherworldly novel. She refers to her own story as a “mosaic” and it is one assembled not just from secrets dating back to the colony’s foundation but from fragments of a heart broken multiple times over. Her narrowly focused first person narration further allows Newman to conceal and manipulate in satisfying fashion.

Some observations:

  • Newman employs something akin to social media throughout the novel but does so in a laudably unobtrusive fashion. Despite the tech underpinning it, it is nothing special; it is simply part of the characters’ lives and how they communicate.
  • Planetfall is, in many ways, like Prometheus done right.
  • The novel is as much an indictment of organised religion as it is an endorsement of faith.
  • If you enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation you are likely to find things you will enjoy in Planetfall.
  • This might be the first great novel about 3D printing.
  • Go read it.

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Puppet vies with puppet-master in thrilling cyberpunk debut

A great novel I read over the summer but which I’m only getting around to blogging about now…

Crashing HeavenCrashing Heaven
Al Robertson
Gollancz
Review: Val Nolan

An accountant and a ventriloquist’s dummy walk into a bar. One is an ex-soldier branded a traitor; the other is “a military grade systems infiltration unit” capable of hacking into anything. Such are the heroes – and the term is used loosely in the case of the sociopathic dummy – of Al Robertson’s hugely satisfying cyberpunk debut, a noirish sci-fi detective story pounding its neon beat from grotty backstreets to the minds of gods to the edges of death itself.

Of course, labelling Jack Foster an accountant is selling him short. He was the best forensic auditor there was before being drafted into “the Soft War” against rebel AIs in the outer solar system, at which point he was feared as much by his own side as by the enemy. Thus nodding to the best traditions of crime writing, Robertson portrays Jack as a hard-nosed investigator traumatised by his time on the front and by memories of a botched love-affair back home, an underdog for whom the reader roots more with every beating. But, that said, the real draw here is Hugo Fist.

An offensive weapon “grown” in Jack’s mind itself, the foul-mouthed Fist manifests virtually, with a macabre touch, as a “half a metre of wooden viciousness, all dressed up for an elegant night out”, a pair of “little black polished shoes, a scarlet cummerbund, bright red painted lips, a black bow-tie, dangling unarticulated arms, and varnished shining eyes”. He is both an unqualified bastard and an utterly memorising character.

For now Fist is “caged”, reduced to taunting and chattering inside Jack’s head, but, like most software, he has a licence agreement. When it runs out – and it soon will – Fist will take over Jack’s body and erase the identity of his host. This literal ticking clock grants the novel a propulsive quality and leaves Jack just enough time to return from internment and find out who murdered the woman he loved.

Home, however, is a nauseating futurescape of neoliberalism run amok. With the Earth a toxic ruin ravaged by war machines, humanity shuffles forward aboard an industrialised asteroid known simply as Station. Here they are watched over by the “Pantheon”, sentient corporations who behave somewhere between gangsters and Greek gods. In fact the Pantheon are worshiped by the humans of Station and, in return, grant favours and status to those who please them or prove themselves of use.

Robertson too rewards the reader by way of the attention and detail through which he brings Crashing Heaven to life. His Station blends the decaying urban dystopia of Blade Runner with the overly connected, information saturated world of today. In turn he populates this with cackling mobsters, despised artificial beings, and with eerie “fetches”, those being digital ghosts who mostly exist on the novel’s immersive version of the internet, though some have escaped that restriction.

Discarded into this morass of criminality and corporate skulduggery, Jack and Fist discover that they are both puppets in the wider machinations of the Pantheon. Yes, their seeming powerlessness contrasts starkly with their war record but, when Fist is eventually unleashed, it is everything the reader has been hoping for and the gratifying throw-downs which ensue confirm that, as much as Crashing Heaven is packed with ideas, Robertson also possesses the descriptive muscle to back them up. Indeed, as a consistently arresting and carefully paced novel combining striking characterisation with a masterclass in worldbuilding, the clever, cynical Crashing Heaven might well be the science fiction debut of the year.

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Journey to the ends of the universe recalls a classic tale

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Poseidon’s Wake
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; €28.50; ebook €12.99
Review: Val Nolan

There has always been a strain of Science Fiction concerned with exploring the human condition via journeys to faraway places. Star Trek is the obvious example, but the tendency is just as apparent in proto-SF such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Indeed, from secrets hidden in a “dusty-looking” copy of the latter to a prominent character tellingly named Swift, it is to that book, published almost three hundred years ago, that this latest interstellar adventure from Alastair Reynolds looks.

A follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth (2012) and On the Steel Breeze (2013), Poseidon’s Wake carries the story of the Akinya family forward several hundred more years while mostly fulfilling its promise to act as a stand-alone work. The Akinyas, the “movers and shakers of history”, are here represented by Goma, the biologist daughter of a disgraced physicist, and by her uncle Kanu, human ambassador to a Mars overrun by intelligent machines.

Gorma has dedicated her life to “Tantors”, genetically engineered elephants “with the resilience to survive in space”. Tantors possess consciousness, however Gorma has been unable to find a cure for cognitive decline in the herd. Kanu, meanwhile, is introduced to the reader on the day he dies. Revived by the machines, he is coerced by the robotic Swift into an investigation of a shared concern: “the larger narrative of his family – the things they had made, the events they had caused, the web of responsibilities they had inherited”.

A mishmash of Swift’s – the real Swift’s – ideas, filtered through the imagination of Reynolds, is apparent from the get-go. The flying island encountered by Gulliver finds its counterpart in a mobile, hollowed-out asteroid. Knowledge sans application, a characteristic of Gulliver’s Laputans, is echoed by the “Watchkeepers”, alien automata “so clever they forgot how to be conscious”. Later talking elephants take the place of talking horses and, if that was not enough to cement the homage, Reynolds grants his Swift a “face, outfit, and bearing approximating those of a young man of learning of the late eighteenth century”.

Yet where Jonathan Swift produced a satire of his genre, Reynolds is not necessarily ridiculing anyone. Unless, perhaps, you consider his dramatis personæ to be a needling of those who maintain Space Opera to be the domain of only white, male, heterosexual protagonists. Because even if that was not intentional, Reynolds’s focus here, as throughout the trilogy, on characters of African heritage and diverse sexualities offers an oblique comment on recent controversies in the SF community.

Thus with a nod to the past, Reynolds tells a contemporary story in a future that is very much his own. Gorma and Kanu’s travels lead them from the Martian robots to the Tantors to the “zombie-machine” Watchkeepers, but the literal elephants in the room are always the questions of self-awareness and cooperation. Each race possesses a different form of consciousness, a further contrast to the accepted norm, but, without being didactic about it, Reynolds demonstrates each – including humans – to be incapable of unlocking the novel’s tantalising secrets alone.

Concluding in a tense but beautifully imagined rescue mission reminiscent of writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Poseidon’s Wake is a novel unafraid to ask big questions about human nature and, for that matter, about the “truth of life’s fate in the cosmos”. The dubious prize which Gorma and Kanu chase is a typically Reynoldian esoteric mystery, yes, but the thoughts it provokes are sure to stay with the reader long after the novelty of elephants in spacesuits has “passed into the Remembering”.

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Wry dispatches from a west coast state of mind

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Pond
Claire-Louise Bennett
The Stinging Fly Press; €12.99
Review: Val Nolan

An unnamed woman lives on the edge of a coastal village in the west of Ireland. She reads books about the “gruelling practical exigencies occasioned by confinement”, cultivates “low maintenance crops”, and only rarely experiences “any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk”.

Thus uproarious, digressive, and predicated on a subjective accentuation of meaningless detail, Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut volume succeeds where other contemporary depictions of rural life collapse beneath the weight of their own self-conscious seriousness. It is a work which exists as both a short story collection and as a novel, surely even as a memoir of sorts, a narrative linked by the voice of a narrator for whom the unravelling of “minor foibles is a relevant pursuit”.

Embracing formal experimentation in this fashion grants the volume an usual energy and, though any work pushing fiction in this manner is in danger of confounding reader expectations, Bennett finds balance here in a pleasing back-and-forth between shorter pieces capturing moments of personal significance and longer offerings – stories or chapters as the reader prefers – which yoke the often abstract artistic ambitions of stream-of-consciousness writing to the more mundane trepidations of everyday life.

Her narrator sees the world through “thoroughly square” windows and has an “innate weakness for shabby clothes”. Men and cattle drift through her life, yes, but Bennett’s focus never leaves this woman who is curious in all sense of the word. She displays a “level of intuition” of which it “is impossible for anyone to make anything without mirroring the nascent twists of cosmic upheaval” and, in that way it must be said, is often “highfalutin”. Indeed, the narrator is the type of character who uses “highfalutin” with nonchalance and a total lack of irony.

Her resulting wordiness borders on overt parody of the artistic-temperament, yet Bennett imbues Pond’s narrator with just enough self-reflection to undercut any charge of true pretentiousness. And when she fails to do so – one suspects deliberately – the side-splitting results veer from meditations on the “stigma” of writing in green ink to quasi-Beckettian asides on rural living such as “I am used to vehicles coming up this way. That is something I am used to. And sometimes – though less often – they go down the way, and I’m used to that too”.

This is to say that Pond is a very funny book. It is also one which benefits from being read – and for that matter reread – aloud, perhaps to family or friends, perhaps alone. Only in that way is the slow building avalanche of Bennett’s weird hilarity truly apparent. From a delightful early description of bananas and oatcakes to a letter to a South African company requesting replacement nobs for an “obsolete mini-cooker”, the volume’s defining characteristic is a tendency to ramble which is both ridiculous and ridiculously profound.

Like the bird which falls down its narrator’s chimney, Pond is “a small sharp thing”. The book is “something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventurous souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation”. But, at the same time, Bennett consistently roots these desires in her narrator’s shyness and her cockeyed way of looking at the world. It lends the heroine of this highly recommended volume all the tremendous authenticity of a “mind in motion as it railed, proclaimed, recalled, confessed, imagined, and eventually wrung itself out”.

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The importance of human bonds in a world short of people

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel
Picador; £11.99
Review: Val Nolan

On a snowy winter’s evening in Toronto, a famous actor named Arthur Leander dies on stage during a performance of King Lear. As his friends and colleagues gather for a drink to process this event, the author tells us, with astonishing casualness, that “the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city”.

Because the night Arthur dies is the night the “Georgia flu” touches down in North America. Within a day this illness has overwhelmed hospitals and, before too long, the pandemic has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the world’s population. Goodbye air travel, goodbye internet, goodbye antibiotics. It is the ultimate Malthusian check and, in its wake, cities lie empty and survivors wander a desolate Earth. Yet Mandel is less interested in disease vectors than she is in characters and in interrogating the notion of interconnectedness, and that is the great strength of Station Eleven.

Thus when the novel jumps forward twenty years we meet a young woman named Kirsten who, as a child, was on stage during Arthur’s death. Kirsten is now part of a “Travelling Symphony”, assorted performers plying their trade in the string of small settlements along the coast of Lake Michigan. She is considered “the best Shakespearean actress in the territory” but, fittingly for a novel so concerned with the power and legitimacy of popular culture, “her favourite line of text is from Star Trek”.

Her story anchors this carefully and cleverly structured novel which dances back and forth between the recent past of Arthur and his various ex-wives, the near-present in which the flu strikes, and the world two decades hence which is slowly being rebuilt. In between, Mandel treats us to brief glimpses of the horrific years of collapse. Many will consequently draw comparisons with The Road by Cormac McCarthy but, though both novels emphasise the importance of familial bonds and the precariousness of social institutions, Station Eleven is the more generous work.

Moreover, the novel is built like a puzzle with Arthur at its centre, his greatest performance of all being how he ties together the disparate storylines. In the future, Kirsten collects old tabloid articles about him even as the Travelling Symphony finds itself on the wrong side of an eerie – and admittedly somewhat stock – religious cult; in the present, the man who tried to save the great actor struggles with the fact that civilisation has entered its closing act; while in the past, Arthur’s wife Miranda labours over an intensely personal art project, a comic book named Station Eleven.

Mandel reveals more and more connections between the different timeframes as the novel progresses but this never feels forced as the world of these characters is one of coincidence rather than fate. Though the symphony’s final confrontation with the cult feels rushed, the novel builds to a conclusion which is otherwise largely earned, one simultaneously sad and uplifting. It is a serious and realistic affair awash with unexpected “moments of transcendent beauty”.

There are shades of Stephen King (The Stand) and Douglas Coupland (Girlfriend in a Coma), but, ultimately, Station Eleven is entirety Mandel’s own thing. She combines the familiar crossbows of post-apocalyptic fiction with an astute assessment of how important stories – everything from the Bard of Avon to the bridge of a starship – are to the human experience in times of crisis. Her narrative is propulsive but her prose never loses the polish of a gifted writer. The resulting novel is, in a word, unputdownable.

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The aliens are here… and they want to help

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…

Something Coming Through

Paul McAuley
Gollancz; £16.99
Review: Val Nolan

Paul McAuley’s twentieth novel is the ultimate bailout narrative. Economic collapse, environmental destruction, terrorism, and political extremism have crippled the world, but help is here in the form of the Jackaroo. These secretive aliens “gift” fifteen planets and the means to travel to-and-from them to the human race. It is “a chance to redeem ourselves” however, after much fine talk, all humanity seems to have ended up with are new ways of killing one another.

Thus it is not the aliens which are McAuley’s focus here but characters like Chloe Millar, a sociologist investigating “deep changes in the collective human psyche” caused by the appearance of the Jackaroo. Chloe tracks outbreaks of “people trying to express the new ideas that have infiltrated their minds”, dangerous memes, algorithms, eidolons, and memory fragments spreading like flu. In the process she is drawn into the hunt for a particularly transformative piece of alien technology.

Meanwhile, on one of the fifteen planets, hard-bitten homicide cop Vic Gayle has seen too much to believe that humanity can ever change (“What does it say about us when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high?”). Vic’s beat is Mangala, a “strange, old, vast and mostly empty planet”, a “dry red world like Mars, which is why it had been given one of Mars’s old names”. It is a Wild West of murders, kidnapping, extortion, and all the skulduggery of the new interplanetary drugs trade.

Something Coming Through is therefore as much a detective novel as it is a work of science-fiction, a change of gear after McAuley’s more recent space operas. It is a human story set against a sci-fi backdrop, one which in this case is not that far-fetched. Climate refugees and petty criminals populate the artificial reefs of a flooded London and the dusty streets of Mangala alike; all the while a UKIP style movement calling itself the “Human Decency League” dominates the Earth-side political landscape and regards both the aliens and those investigating them with hostility.

Readers of McAuley’s previous novels will recognise the manner in which he takes an interest in “humanity’s bicameral nature. Love and hate. Phobia and agape. All that jazz”. Like the Jackaroo, he toys with the reader in ways they cannot immediately see. A case in point is the true cost of alien assistance. It is never the primary concern of Chloe or Vic yet it informs everything about their lives, especially as no one knows what happened to the Jackaroo’s previous client races.

For though all fifteen worlds have been occupied multiple times before, the Jackaroo will not say what happened to those species. They are thought to have destroyed themselves, dwindled on account of pronounced culture shock, or even transcended into something beyond understanding. The human race may or may not have been set on a similar path but, by the time Chloe, Vic, or indeed the reader place all the greedy intrigues and manipulations within their larger context, events have taken on a certain inexorable momentum.

McAuley of course knows exactly what he’s doing and so the multiple strands of the story converge in satisfying fashion via not just plot developments but through a clever use of structure (one impossible not to read as a nod to the work of the book’s dedicatee, novelist Alastair Reynolds). The result is a compelling and realistically imagined piece of speculative fiction anchored by weighty contemporary concerns over doing deals with the devil.

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