Robogenesis: A NovelRobogenesis: A Novel by Daniel H. Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first heard about this sequel to Robopocalypse, I was more annoyed than interested to read it, as this clearly meant that the big bad robot did not die at the end, as we had all thought. Well, if there is one lesson that Hollywood ‘sci-fi’ has taught us, they never do, do they?

Then curiosity got the better of me, as I kept on wondering how on earth you follow Robopocalypse with Robogenesis. Surely the latter should be first in the order of things? I am glad I did decide to read it. Not only is it a relatively seamless sequel, but it builds quite spectacularly on the ideas of the original.

The first novel was about an extinction-level event inadvertently engineered by humans themselves, when all our web-enabled technology becomes sentient and integrated and decides to take over the show. Of course, this is not original at all, with clear antecedents from The Terminator to Runaway by Michael Crichton, not to mention Transformers.

However, Robogenesis is a superb example of a new breed of contemporary, postmodern SF cobbled together from such a wide range of sources, influences and dominant socio-cultural memes that the critical mass of this accumulation actually transcends the material.

And it also does not hurt that Daniel H. Wilson is an incredibly cinematic writer, with a fine ear for the sort of detail that makes characters jump off the page, combined with an instinct for spectacular set pieces that alternate horror with sense of wonder.

So the sequel takes place in the aftermath of the original war, when humanity found itself united against a common implacable foe. But now the remnants of the species are divided and squabbling (again), and something is rising from the ashes (also, again).

I loved where Wilson took this story. Despite its horror trappings – the parasitical ‘robo zombies’ are described in loving, stomach-churning detail – this is a very well thought-out hard SF story that has some beautiful surprises up its sleeve.

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Catherine the Great

Havisham: A NovelHavisham: A Novel by Ronald Frame
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The classic image of Miss Havisham in her decaying wedding dress, entombed in the mausoleum of Satis House, is surpassed by an even more disturbing image in Ronald Frame’s imagining of her back story: that of a young Catherine masturbating.

When we finally get to the epochal Wedding Day scene, I roundly cursed Frame for planting a seed of a thought in my mind, that Catherine Havisham responded in such a Grand Guignol fashion to being jilted because she instinctively knew she would now never be fucked by Charles Compeyson, or by anyone else for that matter, as she had been yearning to happen to her ever since her sexual awakening. (Indeed, at one point Arthur dismissively calls her a “frustrated virgin”).

It takes a brave writer to, firstly, tackle a character as iconic as Miss Havisham and, secondly, to follow in the footsteps of an author as accomplished as Charles Dickens. Added to this is the fact that everyone knows how Great Expectations ends. This is probably due to the unending movie adaptations; few people read Dickens outside of academia these days, I wager.

Frame goes hell-bent for psychological realism, outdoing even Dickens for a resolutely grim and depressing conclusion. The book starts off slowly, more Jane Austen than Dickens, as we follow the young Catherine on her road to becoming a productive member of her (breeding) class.

The writing style is also resolutely modern, clipped yet sort of stream-of-consciousness, with the emphasis on brevity and compartmentalisation. Catherine quotes heavily from The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe which, of course, is the basis for the equally famous A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes.

This literary sub-text unfortunately does not elevate Catherine to the status of a tragic heroine, especially given Frame’s rather limiting view of her as a “frustrated virgin”. What is equally frustrating is that all the male characters here are mere ciphers, from Catherine’s father to Arthur, Mr Jaggers, Pip Pirrin and, crucially, Charles Compeyson. Without a clear handle on what attracted Catherine to Charles, apart from the fact that she was horny and vulnerable, the reader is unable to comprehend the magnitude of her tragedy.

Still, there is much to enjoy here. Frame is a master at the quieter scene-setting bits, such as his simple descriptions of the English countryside, the brewery and even Satis House. I was fascinated by the part of Catherine’s story where she gets to take over the reins of her father’s business, and how she has to deal with economic and labour problems.

Frame’s acute knowledge of furniture, fabric and general bric-a-brac reminds me of Allan Hollinghurst. He also has a formidable writer’s vocabulary, stuffed with archaic words that fit the story beautifully.

Given Frame’s stated intention of psychological realism, it is perhaps inevitable that he stumbles at the great transformation scene where Catherine is jilted. This transpires very quickly, especially given the rather languid pace of the story up to that point.

Of course, the problem is that Miss Havisham is much more a symbol than a fully-fledged character; and yet Frame has to ensure that she fits the popular image we all know. Interestingly, he perceives the true horror of her fall as not being encapsulated in this moment, but in the slowly dawning realisation of how wrong she has been all along. This is a much subtler and far more devastating terror, culminating in a resolutely depressing and yet strangely cathartic ending.

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There But For The

There But For TheThere But For The by Ali Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I appreciate Ali Smith’s attempt to take me out of my comfort zone as a reader with this meta-novel, which is a unique approach to that much-loved trope of crime fiction, the ‘locked room’ mystery. But this did not quite gel as a novel for me.

Throughout it I was too conscious of Smith’s tinkering and pulling the strings to engage fully with the characters, or to become emotionally invested in the story she was telling. (As I get older, this is becoming more and more important to me as a reader).

Still, there is much to admire here. Smith is a dazzling wordsmith, and there is a fizzy messiness to a lot of the writing to make it resemble the spontaneity and randomness of human thought and interaction.

Of course, it takes a lot of skill to emulate this. (At times I did get a sneaky feeling that Smith was a bit too enamoured with her own cleverness, as with the child character Brooke.)

When I began reading this, I noticed that, again, Smith is one of those oh-so-modern writers who eschew ordinary punctuation, such as speech marks. This is one of my pet peeves, as I honestly think writers do not realise how difficult this makes it for readers, as for me personally it throws me out of the narrative too often.

In this case though Smith uses it for a stream-of-consciousness effect; she remarks at one point about a character being too hip’ to use punctuation when texting. Indeed, there is even some phone-speak thrown in here, plus random quotations, rhymes, limericks and various bits-and-pieces to create a kind of literary logorrhea.

This is definitely one of those instances where it is, indeed, best to go with the flow. There is a lot of very topical rumination on the novel as both an art form and as a means of social activism. Smith also ponders the impact of technologies such as Internet on the function of history and the meaning of representation.

This might all sound drily academic, but Smith is way too savvy to fall into the trap of hectoring her readers: this is a sprightly and thought-provoking read that fairly bristles with the author’s formidable intellect and empathy.

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The Love We Share Without Knowing

The Love We Share Without KnowingThe Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is a particular kind of science fiction that delves into the mysteries of ‘otherness’, such as the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. The Love We Share Without Knowing reminds me of such Le Guin masterworks as Always Coming Home, as both deal with the rituals of alien cultures. Then again, Christopher Barzak also reminds me strongly of William Gibson and David Mitchell, but also particularly of Graham Joyce and Jonathan Carroll.

There is such a plethora of authors and books available today that we inevitably compare books we like to what we have encountered before. I generally do not have a problem with this, as one’s taste and aesthetic are constantly evolving (one hopes). The fact that Barzak reminds me so strongly of so many other authors I admire is a strong testament to his craft.

At the end of the day, of course, he is his own wordsmith. And there is such a singular talent behind this book, such a luminosity of insight and vision, that it is quite overpowering and overwhelming at times.

What I loved about this book is how unclassifiable it is, how much of a shimmering mystery it refracts into when one reads it. This intricate Russian Doll nesting of short stories, linked together by a careful patterning of repeat characters, is breathtaking to behold as a work of literary art.

I cannot begin to say enough about Barzak’s technical mastery here. Suffice it to say, this novel is simply exquisite. It takes a while to get into, and at the beginning all the pieces seem so random and ephemeral, but then when things start to fit together, there is such a sense of resolute completion and joyous culmination, that the reader is quite swept away.

No novel can be complete without heart and emotion though. This is one of the best evocations of expatriate culture I have ever read, and of being a foreigner on strange shores. Expats know innately how such a profound dislocation can often highlight the idiosyncrasies of their own societies as much as it does of their host cultures; Barzak explores this dichotomy with intimacy and delicacy.

This book caused such conflicting emotions in me. It is sad and funny, melancholic and elegiac, tender and wistful. In other words, full of the wondrous dichotomies of life. Barzak’s focus on Japanese culture, and its curious, almost schizophrenic commingling of folk tradition and cutting-edge technology and cultural assimilation, is a very good metaphor for the dislocation that the modern, hyper-texted world often engenders in its cosmopolitan masses.

How to deal with loneliness and being alone in an urban sprawl, the effort it takes to connect with a fellow human being, and the poverty of feeling and reaction as we become increasingly benumbed by the very technology that we think is our only salvation: this novel is an extraordinary paean to what it means to be human.

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I, the Divine

I, The Divine: A Novel in First ChaptersI, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters by Rabih Alameddine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a novel that, to all intents and purposes, should not work at all. The gimmick of an entire novel composed of false stops and starts of a Lebanese-American woman’s memoir – hence the ‘A Novel in First Chapters’ of the sub-title – should just be that, a gimmick.

For how else how can you possibly engage the reader emotionally if you are constantly highlighting its form? Surely, then, character and feeling are subjugated to the artifice inherent in the novel’s form.

And yet it works, magnificently, and also most importantly, coherently. From a technical point of view, Rabih Alameddine is a writer of incredible skill, precision and daring. The Sarah Bernhardt theme, the use of colour, art and painting as a motif, the use of extended family as narrative linkages … this novel reminded me of a good piece of jazz music: from the outset, it all seems jumbled and chaotic, but one glimpse behind the façade reveals just controlled it really is.

However, the supreme achievement of this novel has to be the character of Sarah Nour El-Din, and how much life, love and yearning Alameddine packs into her story. The fractured narrative reflects the way that memory functions in real life, and how history is an accretion of lived moments, many of them quiet and not really noteworthy. Taken all together though, you have the inexorable ebb and flow of time.

This is also a very funny and hugely entertaining novel, from Sarah’s grandfather coaching her in the subtleties of Lebanese cursing, to Kooky the parrot’s vendetta against the family dog, and the grey hairs that Sarah gave her stepmother when she plays soccer, to her best friend Dina’s mother’s conviction that Sarah’s waywardness and contrariness turned her beloved daughter into a lesbian.

This is also a sad, grim and often brutal novel, from the account of the impact of the civil war on Beirut, to Sarah’s rape at the hands of a taxi driver, to the dissolution of her various relationships and marriages.

I was reminded of a remark by Michael Cunningham in a recent Lambda Literary interview that he hoped we were moving into an era of ‘post-gay fiction’, where characters are not merely defined by their sexuality, with it simply being taken as a single facet of their lives and identities.

The corollary of this statement is that gone are the days where we can comfortably have novels populated solely by gay (male) characters, for, at the end of the day, this is restrictive and niche, and is likely to appeal only to a narrow band of readers.

Yes, there is a range of gay characters in this novel, but one can expect the author of The Perv to be subtle and inclusive, and this is indeed what Alameddine achieves here: a glorious polyphony of the messy and polymorphous essence of human relationships.

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Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites

Scruffians! Stories of Better SodomitesScruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites by Hal Duncan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember trying Vellum many years ago, and it drove me to distraction. I must confess I never finished it. I was much younger then; you probably have to be ready to read certain books.

Suffice it to say I enjoyed Scruffians! so much that I will return to Duncan’s longer works again. It almost feels like a totally different writer: the dazzling word play and erudition are still there in abundance, especially in a few delectable Delanyesque pieces about semiotics and art theory (one of the best stories in the collection, ‘The Shoulder of Pelops’, is original to this collection).

But there is such feeling here, such love, brio and mischief, that the reader cannot help but fall in love. Of the 15 stories, only nine deal with the titular Scruffians, which is a reworking of the Peter Pan mythos. My favourite of this bunch is ‘The Disappearance of James H–’, a jaw-droppingly gorgeous and heart-rendingly sad Peter Pan origin story. I defy anyone to be dry-eyed at the exquisite ending of this luminous story of love and loss.

Then there are such delectable gems as a story about gay comic book heroes, and a bona fide Wild West gunslinger tale. And then there is ‘Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!’, perhaps the ultimate werewolf/vampire (erotic) fantasia, that puts paid to the twinks of Twilight in the most transcendent and sexually visceral way possible.

Wow. What a magnificent compilation, bounteous testament to the imagination and humanity of Hal Duncan, scribe extraordinaire of the New Sodom. Long may he write and dream.

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