Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Book Review | The Outsorcerer's Apprentice by Tom Holt


A happy workforce, it is said, is a productive workforce.

Try telling that to an army of belligerent goblins. Or the Big Bad Wolf. Or a professional dragons layer. Who is looking after their well-being? Who gives a damn about their intolerable working conditions, lack of adequate health insurance, and terrible coffee in the canteen?

Thankfully, with access to an astonishingly diverse workforce and limitless natural resources, maximizing revenue and improving operating profit has never really been an issue for the one they call "the Wizard." Until now.

Because now a perfectly good business model—based on sound fiscal planning, entrepreneurial flair, and only one or two of the infinite parallel worlds that make up our universe—is about to be disrupted by a young man not entirely aware of what's going on.

There's also a slight risk that the fabric of reality will be torn to shreds. You really do have to be awfully careful with these things.

***

An affectionate send-up of the fairytale from the author of such sarcastic tracts as Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages and May Contain Traces of MagicThe Outsorcerer's Apprentice features overlords and underlings, self-aware wolves and woodcutters, plus a prince from another world: ours.

Benny isn't a prince of anything hereabouts, however. Point of fact, he's in a bit of a pickle when the book begins. He has his final exams at Uni in a few weeks, and with his whole future before him, all of a sudden he doesn't have a clue what he's been doing. Studying to be a mathematician, maybe? In a moment of inspiration that some might mistake for laziness, he realises what he really needs is a good, long break to take stock of his situation. To that end, he borrows his Uncle's "omniphasic Multiverse portal" (p.137) and travels to a parallel reality where he can pretend to be a powerful person, because of course. Wouldn't you if you could?
The YouSpace XP3000, designed by Professor Pieter van Goyen of Leiden [is] capable of transporting you to any or all of the alternate realities that make up the Multiverse. Intuitive targeting software and state-of-the-art Heisenberg compensators mean that all you have to do is think of where you'd like to go, and you're instantly there. It's as simple as that. 
All you'll need to operate your YouSpace XP3000 personal multiverse interface is a dream—and a doughnut. (pp.136-137)
What Benny—pardon me, Prince Florizel—doesn't yet get, and won't for quite a while, is that his very presence in this innocent kingdom is destined to affect its host of fantastic inhabitants, including, but not limited to, dwarves, dragons, goblins, elves, etc.

Readers come to this conclusion somewhat sooner than fair Florizel; by way of Buttercup, a wily woodcutter's daughter waylaid with increasing frequency by wolves wearing old ladies' clothes. She grows so sick and tired of their charade that she starts worrying she may be single-handedly endangering the population—because of course Buttercup kills all the animals that attack her. She's had a lot of practice, and they'd eat her otherwise.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Press Release Your Luck | Imagining the Truth

With the British Genre Fiction Focus on hiatus over the holidays, and most of the kids I teach in real life relaxing anywhere other than the education centre that employs me, I've had a fair bit of time to play with, lately. I don't want to tell you yet what I've been doing with it yet—I just don't want to jinx the thing before it's finished—but suffice to say this project has been as much of a time-suck as the columns I curate for Tor.com.

Long story short, I've been neglecting my inbox for a bit, so I spent a few hours picking through it this morning, in the course of which I came across a recent press release from the Institute of Art and Ideas, informing me of an event in which Jasper Fforde and Adam Robots—I mean, ah, Roberts—joined forces with Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis to ask and answer questions about the imagination.

This is the pitch:
We believe reason is our best tool for acquiring true knowledge of the world. But Picasso said "art is a lie that tells the truth," and many others before him have made similar claims. Are they right? Can imagination lead us to truths hidden from the rational mind, or is this romantic hogwash?
And this is the video:



It's worth a watch.

If the embed above isn't working... well. That'd be because Blogger is being a bother. But what can it do to disrupt an old-fashioned link like this?

Now I'll be knee-deep in seekrits for the foreseeable, but I do solemnly swear to keep a closer eye on my inbox going forward, so if anyone needs me, that's how to make the magic happen.

Toodles for the time being!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Guest Post | "Why Read Sci-Fi and Fantasy?" by Anna Caltabiano

“I just don’t do fantasy.”

That is a sentence I’ve heard more than once in various libraries and bookstores. I understand that people have their preferences, but I never understood why some people are so quick to shun fantasy and sci-fi past the age of twelve. In my opinion, that’s when it really gets good, because we develop a better understanding of what we read.

For the same reason many adults (and a few very serious teenagers) don’t read fiction, many people find fantasy and sci-fi to be simply a distraction, and therefore not worth reading. As a writer, but also as a reader of all sorts of fiction—sci-fi and fantasy included—I find this to be heartbreaking. I find that these novels often aren’t given the credit they deserve. 

“Why read fantasy or sci-fi?” That’s a fair question. Some people read it because they’re looking for an escape from their everyday lives, but others, like me, read sci-fi fantasy to better examine the world they live in.

I find that some of the best sci-fi and fantasy books I’ve ever read take place in worlds that look almost exactly like ours, except with one major difference—a single change that effects and alters the fictional world and the way people interact with their world and each other. Parallel universes, time travel, immortality... these are all small changes that effect everything. These seemingly minute changes magnify certain elements in our world: parallel universes speak to our desire to make different choices and explore their consequences, time travel connects us to our past and future, and addresses the eternal question of “What if I could do it over again?”, while immortality speaks to our collective fear of death and the meaning that it gives to our lives.

Fantasy and sci-fi genres are vehicles for us to look at our own world in a different light. Nonfiction can be helpful, but it can’t allow us to live new experiences. Realistic fiction does many things, but rarely triggers our minds to question the daily assumptions through which we live our lives. Good sci-fi and fantasy frees us to float to other worlds and other times, and while seemingly being disconnected from our daily lives, bring us back inside ourselves, permitting a new found understanding of who we are and what we believe.

***

Having been born in British colonial Hong Kong and educated in Mandarin Chinese schools before moving to Palo Alto, California—the mecca of futurism—Anna Caltabiano is a child of the transnational cyber punk era. She's seventeen years old and already the author of two novels: All That is Red and The Seventh Miss Hatfield. You can find out more about her and her work on her website, or follow the author on Twitter @caltabiano_anna.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Book Review | The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi


Alone on a timeless beach, Josephine Pellegrini find herself disappointed by the end of the world.

The sun is almost down, an orange flare just beyond the edge of the calm expanse of the sea. The globe of Earth hangs in the sky. There are dark tendrils chasing each other in the white and blue, spreading like spilled ink. Matjek Chen's Dragons, turning matter and energy and information into themselves. Soon they will burrow into the crust of the dying world.

And when the world has died? Josephine will turn her attention to the tools that have failed her. To the traitorous Mieli and to the thief who betrayer her: Jean le Flambeur.

With his infectious love of storytelling in all its forms, his rich characterisation and his unrivalled grasp of thrillingly bizarre cutting-edge science, Hannu Rajaniemi has swiftly set a new benchmark for SF in the 21st century. He has told the story of the many lives, and minds, of the gentleman rogue Jean le Flambeur.

Influenced as much by the fin de siecle novels of Maurice le Blanc as he is by the greats of SF, Rajaniemi has woven intricate, warm capers through dazzling science, extraordinary visions of a wild future, and deep conjectures on the nature of reality and story. And now it's time to learn the final fates of Jean, Mieli and all mankind...

***

The finale of the stellar science fiction saga that The Quantum Thief kicked off begins days after the devastating denouement of The Fractal Prince, with Jean le Flambeur, the trilogy's fin de siecle frontman, finally free, if crestfallen after the abject failure of his latest caper. His partner in crime, meanwhile, finds herself in terrible peril, in part because of the last act of her sentient spidership Perhonen:
When a Sobornost hunter attacked us, the ship tried to save Mieli by shooting her into space. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. [...] The problem is that Mieli served the Sobornost for two decades and carries a Founder gogol in her head. There are too many forces in the system that was access to that kind of information, especially now. For example, the Great Game Zoku, the zoku intelligence arm. They might be nice about it, but when they find her, they are going to peel her mind open like an orange. The pellegrinis, the vasilevs, the hsien-kus or the chens will be less polite. Let alone the mercenary company she infiltrated and betrayed on Earth. (pp.10-11)

The Causal Angel is as daunting a novel as this early excerpt suggests, requiring from its readers such deliberate committment that those who come to their fiction for fun—though there is some—would be best to leave this baby be. Accessible it ain't, I'm afraid. What it is is brilliant: far more focused than the books before it, and as fulfilling, finally, as it is difficult.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Book Review | The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti


Throughout Thomas Ligotti's career as a horror writer, many of his stories have evolved from physical or emotional crises. And so it was with the surgical trauma that led to the stories in The Spectral Link, an event that is marginally mentioned in the first of these stories, 'Metaphysica Morum.' In the second, 'The Small People,' Ligotti returns, although not precisely in the usual fashion, to his fixation with uncanny representations of the so-called human being. Having nearly ceased to exist as he lay on the surgeon's table, the imposing strangeness of the nature and vicissitudes of this life form once again arose in his imagination.

So what project and publications are forthcoming from Thomas Ligotti? As ever, not even he knows.

***

An anachronism in an age when authors are expected to be out there, selling themselves every second, Thomas Ligotti has never been particularly prolific, however he did, for a period of years, publish new short stories on a semi-regular schedule, every one of which represented an event among enthusiasts of his existential efforts.

Then, a decade or so ago, Ligotti was laid up with a crippling case of writer's block. Perniciously, this persisted until 2012, when a near-death experience moved him to pick up his pen again. The Spectral Link is the result: a slender collection of novelettes that is no less essential for its relative brevity.

In 'Metaphysica Morum,' the descendent of "degenerate swamp dwellers" (p.40) documents his desire to die. Feeling left behind in life, and utterly unable to relate to reality, our unnamed narrator dreams of release, but cannot bring himself to do the deed.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Book Review | The Child Eater by Rachel Pollack


On Earth, the Wisdom family has always striven to be more normal than normal. But Simon Wisdom, the youngest child, is far from normal: he can see the souls of the dead. And now the ghosts of children are begging him to help them, as they face something worse than death. The only problem is, he doesn't know how.

In a far-away land of magic and legends, Matyas has dragged himself up from the gutter and inveigled his way into the Wizards' college. In time, he will become more powerful than all of them—but will his quest blind him to the needs of others? For Matyas can also hear the children crying.

But neither can save the children alone, for the child eater is preying on two worlds...

***

Representing Rachel Pollack's first original genre novel since Godmother Night in 1996—a World Fantasy Award winner in its day, and a classic now, by all accounts—the release of The Child Eater is bound to be a big deal in certain circles. How her returning readers respond to it remains to be seen; this was my first of her works, I'm afraid... but not likely my last.

Based on a pair of tales from The Tarot of Perfection, Pollack's last collection, The Child Eater tells two separate yet connected stories. Separate in that the boys we follow are worlds apart, and divided in time, too; connected, though neither knows it, by the parts they're fated to play in the downfall of the eponymous monster: an immortal man wicked in the ways you'd expect, not least because of the innocents he eats.

Matyas, when we meet him, is a slave to his parents, the proprietors of The Hungry Squirrel, a "dismal wood building on a dismal road that ran from the sea to the capital. Most of the inn's business came from travellers on their way from the port to the city, or the other way around. Sometimes, with the wealthier ones in their private carriages, Matyas saw the faces screw up in distaste, and then they would sigh, knowing they had no choice." (p.1) Likewise dissatisfied with his lot in life, he follows one such weary wanderer to a forest far from his home, where he sees something he can hardly believe: the man—a magician, he must be—shooting the shit with a head on a stick.