A New Dawn

A New DawnA New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is ironic that Disney, the new home of Star Wars, has acted somewhat like the evil Empire itself in declaring the so-called Expanded Universe non-canon. A big corporate broom has come in and swept away all that has gone before. The first salvo in the New Approved (if not entirely Improved) Canon is, of course, A New Dawn, which also serves as a lead-in to the Star Wars: Rebels animated series.

George Lucas himself began the Disneyfication of Star Wars with the child-friendly Return of the Jedi, with those adorable little Ewoks yub-nubbing in their own telly-movie trilogy (culminating in the aw shucks cuteness of Jar Jar Binks, but that is another story).

What surprised me about A New Dawn is that it is probably not as Disneyfied as the Empire would like it to be, which could be a welcome holdover from the grittiness and entangled storylines of the Expanded Universe.

There are welcome shades of grey to the depiction of the rise of the Empire, with a particularly brilliant touch being the portrayal of Vidian as a famous ‘efficiency expert’ and motivational business lecturer. That he is more cyborg than human, of course, does not detract from his, er, efficiency, for when did the Empire ever quibble over something like humanity?

This is a colourful tale that teeters in the direction of fantasy rather than SF, particularly with the overly fanciful descriptions of the thorilide mining operation in the Gorse/Cynda system, not to mention that the planetary dynamics of this particular solar system are rather glossed over.

Vidian refers to Kanan as ‘gunslinger’, and while there is definitely something Wild West to Star Wars, a writer like John Jackson Miller has to be careful not to paint Kanan as too much of a louche. There is a seedy side to the Empire and the first flickers of rebellion, an anarchic dissolution, that can only be hinted at in broad strokes.

Hera is perhaps the least carefully delineated character here, as she has to bear the brunt of the background sexism and implicit patriarchy in this universe. She certainly has her work cut out in taming the overflowing testosterone of a character like Kanan.

At the end of the day, John Jackson Miller has delivered a perfectly adequate, if not scintillating, initial instalment in the New Canon. He does a great job of adding texture to what is essentially a cartoonish depiction of the ongoing battle between good and evil, where the good guys like Kanan inevitably have to have a hint of this evil in their own characters in order to fan the spark of rebellion.

That such careful gradation is achieved much more successfully in the written form of Star Wars than on the screen to date, especially with the later trilogy, reveals the hope riding on J.J. Abrams’ shoulders that The Force Awakens will, indeed, be the new dawn that all fans are longing for.

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Alien: Out of the Shadows

Alien: Out of the ShadowsAlien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am usually leery of any movie novelisations or tie-ins. However, the recent announcement that South African director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Chappie) had been given the green light by Fox to film his long-gestating Alien project coincided with my discovery of this Alien novel by Tim Lebbon, a respected fantasy and horror author. (There are two more in what is a loose trilogy, by James A. Moore and Christopher Golden). And being in the mood for a popcorn read, I thought, how bad can it be?

To my surprise, this was hugely enjoyable and accomplished – despite a half-assed marketing attempt by Titan Books to bill as this a direct sequel to Alien. Which I suppose means it is a prequel to Aliens. (Which also gives a wry nod to some of the more outré excesses of Prometheus, if you are not confused enough already).

Any fan of the movies knows, of course, that Ripley’s appearance in such a book is totally illogical: Lebbon’s answer to this dilemma is the only misstep in a generally assured and confident horror novel.

The 1979 movie by Ridley Scott – and let us not forget H.R Giger’s Alien design – is one of the greatest SF movies ever made, revelling in the genre’s gothic and pulp origins. Indeed, the Alien creature has become as iconic as Jaws, King Kong or E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

One of the greatest attributes of the Alien creature is its mystery and savagery, combined with its ability to evoke both awe and a weird sexual frisson – Scott masterfully introduced all these elements into his original movie.

Subsequent sequels tended to focus on a single element at the expense of all the others: action in Aliens, martyrdom in Alien 3, and who knows what-the-fuck in Alien Resurrection. Scott’s own Prometheus (2012) raised its nose disdainfully at the schlockier elements of his seminal original, and was a pretentious failure as a result.

Lebbon’s continuation of the original story – what happens to Ripley (and let us not forget Jonesy the ship’s cat, as well as the more-corporate-than-thou Weyland-Yutani) after they escape from the Nostromo in a shuttle craft is positioned somewhere between Aliens and Alien 3 in terms of tone and effect.

There is sufficient action to please even the most diehard movie fan, but the real achievement here is how nuanced the characters are, and what insight we get into Ripley. Surprisingly, Ripley herself has remained as much a cipher as the Alien creature itself: more a means to an end (elaborate death and destruction on a galactic scale) than a flesh-and-blood person.

Lebbon gives Ripley a nicely textured palette of pathos, anger and terror. In addition, he wisely resists the temptation to write a by-the-numbers book explaining the origin and evolution of the Alien culture: all we get are tantalising, and sometimes awe-inducing, glimpses.

Given how good this novel is – how it manages to tell a gripping, character-driven story in which a bunch of disparate characters have to deal with a terrifying manifestation of the Unknown – it remains one of the more perplexing mysteries of Hollywood as to how it has managed to fuck-up all the sequels from Alien 3 onwards. Let us hope Blomkamp and his team restore Ripley to her rightful place.

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Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Love in the Age of Mechanical ReproductionLove in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Judd Trichter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. What an incredible debut for Judd Trichter, who has written one of the best dystopian robot novels I have ever read. I gulped this down with the same keen sense of excitement I felt when I originally read Neuromancer by William Gibson and Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. You just know that these once-in-a-blue-moon novels blaze a bad-ass trail across the literary firmament.

When we meet Eliot Lazar, he is in love with a C-900 android called Iris Matsuo. Iris goes missing in rather dramatic fashion, which propels Eliot on a madcap quest to recover Iris. The catch here is that in this particular iteration of the future, robots are definitely not more than the sum of their parts.

They are worth infinitely more when reduced to their individual components. So Eliot’s quest is akin to Dr Frankenstein assembling his creature. But Trichter also artfully weaves in elements of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, for this is a great love story, after all, set in the Age of Mechanical (Re)Production.

Such a hackneyed plot is fraught with pitfalls for the first-time writer. Trichter’s execution is spot-on though, with sufficiently detailed (and highly plausible) world-building to give his story both depth and feeling. While there is a noirish edge here as well, it is definitely not a case of style trumping substance – which is so often the downfall of cyberpunk in general.

I suppose the logical question to be posed by a non-genre reader is why write about a fictitious world of oppressed robots when there are entire classes of humanity relegated to second-citizen status from Africa to the Middle East.

Well, this is an allegory after all, and a lot of the violence against (robot) women in this novel underscores the gender inequality still so prevalent today. At one point a character comments that every form of oppression has its own semantics. And that is exactly the point: there is so much violence, discrimination and inequality that is condoned (or even ordained) in the name of capitalism in particular and civilisation in general.

You can read this as a straight SF thriller; Trichter is a master at plotting, and the book rattles along faster than a robot on an assembly line. But under the hood there is a hell of a lot going on, driven largely by deft characterisation and a wonderful emotional core.

What I particularly liked about Eliot is how flawed a human being he is, and the slippery moral slope that his love (obsession?) with Iris places him on. A drug addict, and with a robot arm himself (we eventually learn what happened), Eliot’s quest is not as simple as tracking down all the missing bits and pieces (and at the same time solving the mystery of Iris’s disappearance).

Trichter prefaces the last third of the book or so with Eliot’s gradually diminishing chop-shop list of parts. Grisly, but supremely effective; and it underlines the fact that every stage of Eliot’s journey involves a moral (re)evaluation and, ultimately, a choice.

Sad and somewhat despicable, Eliot is often not a very likeable character, and he inhabits a very dark and messy world. But that is the nature of fearless SF: to show us the abyss of our own making, with nary a blink. Welcome to the pantheon of great SF writers, Mr Trichter.

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LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor says she was so pissed-off at Neil Blomkamp’s depiction of Nigeria and its traditions in ‘District 9’ that Lagoon was the result, “a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future.” The novel “touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction.”

Apart from ‘District 9’, I think Lagoon can also be seen as a response to Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2011. Both novels engage in a dialogue with Amos Tutuola and D.O. Fagunwa, commonly referred to as “the fathers of African fantasy”.

So how successful is Okorafor? It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this novel, which is written in short chapters from multiple viewpoints (Okorafor has indeed said that the novel started out as a screenplay idea).

Yes, Okorafor does thrown a bit more light on the Yoruba religion, said to be one of the world’s oldest and most widely practised religions (its influence can be seen as far afield as Santería in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil).

Unfortunately, this takes the form of some stock Yoruba figureheads such as Mami Wata – in a ‘deleted chapter’ included at the end, a character refers to “some X-Men shit in Africa”. However, the Yoruba mythology sits uncomfortably with the alien invasion of Lagos, where the Elders, replete with tentacles, reminded me of a half-assed Lovecraft pastiche.

Okorafor also does not know what to do with the more outlandish aspects of Nigerian society, such as the pervasive corruption, bad traffic and 419 scams. In the end she resorts to broad satire, with such scenes as a Yoruba spirit animating the Lagos-Benin Highway and an alien creature appearing to the Nigerian president in the form of Karl Marx.

Once you get past the episodic nature of the writing and the short shrift given to the SF elements, this does gel into quite an enjoyable and eccentric take on First Contact. Nigeria is such a conflation of the bizarre and the mundane, not to mention being such a perfect example of the worst stereotypical perceptions of Africa, that at the end Okorafor fails quite spectacularly in refuting Blomkamp. Still, an exciting and notable entry in the sub-genre of ‘Afro-futurism’.

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The Long Mars

The Long Mars: A Novel (Long Earth, #3)The Long Mars: A Novel by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At the beginning of a new reading year I was delighted to discover that Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett would be continuing their Long Earth saga with The Long Utopia. Three volumes in, and this is already one of the most consistently enjoyable SF sequences I have ever read.

It also helps that I am a fan of both Baxter and Pratchett (I do feel though that there is more of the former in these books than the latter, especially in The Long Mars). The joy of reading these books is, I suspect, the similar singular joy of the authors of taking a Great Idea and wringing every ounce of wonder from it.

What elevates the third instalment to five stars for me, as opposed to the four I gave each of the preceding volumes is, surprisingly, the weakest aspect of the trilogy to date: the rather perfunctory characterisation.

However, at this stage the characters have grown into their roles – especially Joshua, Sally and Lobsang – and so the authors can reflect on their lives. We also have the introduction of the Next children, who are supremely creepy and alien, despite their apparent humanity.

It is this wonderful achievement of making us look anew at the familiar that is one of the signature achievements of these books. It is also one of the defining characteristics of SF as a genre. Long live the Long Universe.

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Rhapsody: Notes on Strange FictionsRhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions by Hal Duncan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everything you ever wanted to know about SF/fantasy/horror/literary fiction, but were afraid to ask. This is one of the most exciting and challenging books on genre criticism that I have ever read.

It joins such classics as The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine by Samuel R. Delany, Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction by Darko Suvin and Reading by Starlight by Damien Broderick.

Indeed, Hal Duncan dedicates this book to Delany and Thomas Disch; one of his particular achievements here is to make heavyweight theorists like Suvin and Delany understandable and relevant, which is no mean feat.

What I loved about this book is that it is both a rigorous analysis of the development of SF criticism, as well as a fascinating debate about the relevance of genre fiction, and the distinction between SF and the Sci-FI of Hollywood.

Here Duncan wears multiple hats as writer, fan and reader. He is not afraid to skewer various sacred cows along the way towards his goal of explicating a broader fiction of the fantastic, strange fiction, that eschews any labels or genre definitions.

Rhapsody is also extremely well written. Duncan uses the central conceit of the SF Café, located in the less salubrious areas of the city of New Sodom, downtown from the more upmarket and favoured Bistro de Critique. Here old timers and young bucks kvetch and argue fine points.

I stepped through the doors of the SF Café with a borrowed copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in my hand, expecting to find more of the same, only to find Philip K. Dick sitting at a table, obsessing over Gnostic demiurges and ersatz realities, Robert A. Heinlein across from him, spouting libertarian aphorisms but paying for Dick’s coffee. The talk at that table was as much philosophy as science, as much monsters and messiahs as spaceships and simulacra. Palmer Eldritch and Valentine Michael Smith fought, like Zoroastrian deities, over my soul.

The framework that Duncan assembles in this book to both discuss and classify SF is largely based on Delany’s essay ‘About 5,750 Words’. Duncan argues that strange fictions can only be understood in terms of their particular aesthetic modalities:

Coulda, woulda, shoulda—the words in use here are markers of modality, judgements written into the text. As the earlier references to epistemic modality might suggest, such judgements come in more hues than just the judgement of possibility. There is: epistemic modality, judgement of fact; alethic modality, judgement of possibility; deontic modality, judgement of duty; and boulomaic modality, judgement of desire/dread.

If this sounds overly complicated, fear not: Duncan explains at length, and with great finesse. He uses easy-to-understand text fragments throughout, which he then proceeds to break down and analyse according to their specific modality. Duncan is also a voracious reader of SF, and his prodigious knowledge of the genre is amply on display here.

Duncan himself is a proponent of the so-called New Weird, with such books as Vellum and Ink, and his recent collection Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites. Yes, Duncan is unabashedly, and transgressively, queer, and brings a lot of the same anarchic energy and offbeat humour of his books to his critical writing.

As a final note: Towards the end, Duncan discusses Bruce Sterling’s concept of ‘slipstream’ fiction as well as ‘infernokrusher’, the spoof SF literary movement curated by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. He adds, in passing: “On a hot summer day, about a thousand years ago, it seems, when I was sixteen years old, my brother stepped out into the path of a Ford Capri. Death is full of surprises.”

The final quote, fittingly, brings us back to Delany:

the crescent sun is high, the moon low;
life is not for the faint-hearted;
so why the fuck should art be?

I was completely blown over by this book. It is definitely one of the most important non-fiction SF books of recent times, and deserves to be read by anybody with any sort of abiding interest in genre fiction.

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The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Andy Weir’s debut novel, a self-publishing sleeper hit, seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people who do not normally read SF. Of course, he is writing within a venerable sub-genre, both in terms of Mars novels and NASA politics, from The Martian Race by Gregory Benford to Voyage by Stephen Baxter.

There is nothing spectacularly original about The Martian, not to mention that it has particular problems in pacing and structure. What seems to have caught the imagination of readers is the character of Mark Watney himself, a latter-day, larger-than-life Robinson Crusoe whose wit and endurance in the face of adversity is luminous and affecting.

I was quite surprised at how science-heavy the book is, as Watney’s struggle to survive on Mars is rigorously extrapolated and analysed. Despite all the science though, Weir engages in heavy mythologising, particularly of astronauts (as immortalised in The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe). Maybe astronauts are the new cowboys, and what Weir has simply done is write a John Wayne-type novel that happens to be set on Mars.

I need some encouragement. I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”
He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.

Early on in the novel Watney manages to re-establish contact with NASA, while Weir also widens the scope of the novel by adding various characters in Houston. Annie, NASA’s media relations officer, seems suspiciously like a female version of Watney: a foul-mouthed yet endearing wise-ass. We also get introduced to the crew of the Ares mission that abandoned Watney for dead on Mars, and who are now headed back to Earth.

This broadening of focus ratchets up the narrative tension and increases the stakes for all concerned. However, Watney loses comms again, whereupon Weir reverts to the single-person for the final act. This section feels repetitive and lags quite a bit.

Another problem is that Watney is (understandably, I suppose) rather anti-Mars. I wish that Weir had engaged in some objective nature writing to attempt to convey some of the majesty and size of our neighbour, as Kim Stanley Robinson did so memorably in his trilogy. This would not only have given Watney a larger context, but also helped the reader get a sense of humanity’s own dwindling significance against the scale of the cosmos, and hence a better understanding of how important inter-planetary exploration truly is.

It is unclear if Weir is assuming any sort of political stance here, as in whether or not NASA should be more committed to space exploration. The fact that China has to help out the US with an additional booster rocket is a nice touch, as is the sobering bit where the Chinese ops director comments that they have had to scrap a mission of immeasurable scientific importance to simply save one man.

Well, not any man. Mark Watney, of course. That Weir chooses to end his novel when he does – I will not divulge the ending – was hugely disappointing for me. Let us hope that Ridley Scott’s big-budget adaptation, with Matt Damon in the lead role, does not make the same mistake.

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