Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book Review | Seveneves by Neal Stephenson


What would happen if the world were ending?

When a catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb, it triggers a feverish race against the inevitable. An ambitious plan is devised to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere. But unforeseen dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain...

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown, to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is at once extraordinary and eerily recognizable. He explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant.

***

You certainly can't judge a book by its cover, but its first sentence, I find, can be tremendously telling—and so it is with Seveneves, the latest doorstopper of a novel to bear Neal Stephenson's name, and his greatest since Cryptonomicon in 1999.

It starts simply: with eleven ordinary words arranged in such a straightforward way that the eye absorbs them almost automatically. It's only when the significance of said sentence registers that the eye tracks back to take in its content more carefully. Still, it takes a few seconds to make sense, for as easy to read as these words may be—as indeed is the entirety of Seveneves—their meaning is a world away from mundane.

This is a sentence so shocking, so appalling, that the brain demands a double-take. But even a second look later, the song remains the same:
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. (p.3)
In this way, the extraordinary and extraordinarily complex content belied by the seeming simplicity of Seveneves is revealed, and the fate of something like seven billion human beings is sealed.

In short, Seveneves startling first sentence sets the tone for much of what's to come, but in a novel approximately a thousand pages long, there's just so much to come that it's hard to know where to start, and when to stop. I won't be giving the game away, that much I can say. Nobody's going to hold it against you, however, if you opt to stop reading this review right now—so long as you immediately start reading Seveneves instead.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Heads Up! | Back to The Vorrh

Though I realise that a lot of Alan Moore's later work is lacking, his earlier efforts are so superlative that I'll never not consider myself fan of the man, so when, back in 2012, he blurbed a book called The Vorrh, I got in touch with the publisher—a small press called Honest Publishing—and sorted out a copy.

I went into The Vorrh, then, expecting something special. And fuck me, I found it. From the conclusion of the review I wrote:
Equal parts dark fantasy and surrealist dream, [The Vorrh] is inescapably dense, and unrelentingly intense. Shelve it shoulder to shoulder with 2012’s other most notable novels, be they of the genre or not, then consider carefully which stands lacking in comparison.
It was a decision I dithered about, but I went on to call The Vorrh the second-best book of the year, after only 2312, in Top of the Scots.

Alas, I was and I am only one man, so no matter how strenuously I recommended it, without the word of many mouths, The Vorrh wasn't the unfettered success—commercially, I mean—that it could have been. Should have been, even.


That changes today, with the release of a revised and expanded edition of Brian Catling's dizzyingly good debut. It's out from Hodder & Stoughton hereabouts—and thanks to Vintage, the new edition of The Vorrh is also available in the States.

But wherever you're based, and whatever your tastes, please: read it. It's remarkable.

Let me leave you with the new cover copy, the first sentence of which would surely have sold me on The Vorrh if I wasn't already admirer: 
In the tradition of China MiĆ©ville, Michael Moorcock and Alasdair Gray, B. Catling's The Vorrh is literary dark fantasy which wilfully ignores boundaries, crossing over into surrealism, magic-realism, horror and steampunk. 
In B. Catling's twisting, poetic narrative, Bakelite robots lie broken—their hard shells cracked by human desire—and an inquisitive Cyclops waits for his keeper and guardian, growing in all directions. Beyond the colonial city of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, the forest which sucks souls and wipes minds. There, a writer heads out on a giddy mission to experience otherness, fallen angels observe humanity from afar, and two hunters—one carrying a bow carved from his lover, the other a charmed Lee-Enfield rifle—fight to the end. 
Thousands of miles away, famed photographer Eadweard Muybridge attempts to capture the ultimate truth, as rifle heiress Sarah Winchester erects a house to protect her from the spirits of her gun's victims.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Scotsman Abroad | The Deleted Testament of Hal Duncan

Sorry it's been so long! I'll explain The Situation in a few days, I swear.

For the time being, as I'm sure some of you know by now, it was my pleasure yesterday to help tease Testament—the first novel to come from my fellow Scotsman Hal Duncan in damn near a decade—over on Tor.com.

Testament itself is a properly exciting prospect, but to tell the truth, anything that has to do with Hal has a special place in my heart. You must be wondering why. Well, I spent a wee while explaining exactly that in my first pass at the aforementioned article—though I realised the error of my ways before hitting submit on the thing, given that said section would surely be rather more relevant here on The Speculative Scotsman than on Tor.com. 

Without further ado, then—a deleted scene from The Testament of Hal Duncan:
It’s been damn near a decade since The Book of All Hours blew my tiny mind. 
I was still a student in 2005—of English literature, largely, alongside a spot of philosophy. As I recall, I was within sniffing distance of my degree, and well pleased to be, but by then I’d become so sick of my subjects that the prospect of never having to read anything else ever again had real appeal. 
Clearly, it wasn’t to be, because come the conclusion of my course, a couple of books broke through. These books—books like The Scar by China Mieville and City of Saints & Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer alongside Hal Duncan’s tremendous two-volume debut—opened my eyes to a whole new world of words. In short, it’s fair to say that Ink and Vellum helped made a speculative fiction devotee of me. 
Duncan has been pretty prolific as an author and as an editor in the short story scene since—see Fabbles the first, Scruffians! and Caledonia Dreamin’—and as my two year tenure as co-curator of the Short Fiction Spotlight shows, I hope, I’m a huge fan of the form.
But sometimes a novel is needful. Sometimes an author requires the room long-form fiction allows to thoroughly explore a theme or an idea. To wit, I’ve been watching Notes from New Sodom like a hawk, and in April, the aforementioned author teased something called Testament. I reached out to find out more about the project post-haste, and today, it’s my pleasure to tease you about Testament in turn.
Read the remainder of the reveal right here.

Rest assured, in the interim, that you and I will talk again shortly.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Scotsman Abroad | Ascending the City of Stairs

As we speak, I find myself on a bit of a science fiction kick. On the back of Way Down Dark by James Smythe and Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson, I'm deep in Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, with Slow Bullets by Alasdair Reynolds, Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson coming up.

Far be it from me to moan! The first few of those books have been brilliant, and I have every reason to expect great things from the remainder. If I had my druthers, I'd be reading a bit of fantasy, a spot of horror and maybe a mite of crime between all that sf, but deadlines are deadlines, and that's fine.

Happily, the last fantasy novel I read for review was tremendous, too—apart from a somewhat sluggish start:
Building worlds is hard work: a self-evident statement which goes some way toward explaining why most authors make do with the mundane plane that has us all in its thrall. But putting the umpteen pieces of truly wonderful worlds together—worlds whose histories and mysteries resonate with readers and ring of authenticity despite the fact that they’ve been conjured whole-cloth—has to be harder by far. There’s no right way to do the deed, either, and the field is replete with wrong ‘uns. Some creators descend into tedious detail; others leave so much to the imagination that the foundation of the fiction that follows is fitful. Robert Jackson Bennett falls fleetingly afoul of the former problem in his first full-on fantasy; but I’ve got good news, too, in that the world, when it is built, is brilliant: the story of City of Stairs springs from Bennett’s setting, leading to a feeling of coherency, of completeness, that precious few fantasies can match. The narrative’s characters, too, are inextricably of the divided domain it describes. 
Imagine, if you will, a realm in which gods once walked among men: a Continent complete with a half-dozen different living divinities. No one can say with any certainty where they came from, or what they could possibly have wanted—only that each of the six built its own city, its own base of operations, and called upon its most fervent followers to further the divergent doctrines of their chosen one of choice.
Read the rest of my review of City of Stairs on Strange Horizons. You can and you should, too. It's a bloody good book—certainly the most satisfying fantasy I've laid eyes on since Smiler's Fair.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Heads Up! | The Three of The Two of Swords

K. J. Parker is to my mind one of the best writers writing right now, so I was all sorts of excited when Subterranean Press announced Savages, the author's first novel proper since Sharps three long years ago. I still am; I dare say I'm delighted. But—be still my beating heart—Orbit has gone and beaten Savages to market with a serial novel project called The Two of Swords.
"Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. Because war is good for business and it's better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Because they started it. But at this stage in the proceedings," he added, with a slightly lop-sided grin, "mostly from force of habit." 
A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No-one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no-one knows how it will end.
Initially, The Two of Swords will only be available as eight ebook "episodes" released between now—as in RIGHT NOW, readers—and September, but collected print and digital editions are of course on the cards for some undisclosed date after the fact.


To tell the truth, I'd really rather have the whole novel in hand before I begin... but hey, you won't catch me waiting for new K. J. Parker if I can help it. And I can! And at 99 pence a pop, or less than a dollar across the pond—the perfect impulse purchase price—I've already bought a copy of the first installment of The Two of Swords, and I plan to crack open my Kindle just as soon as I've put the finishing touches to this post.

P. S. Done... and done! :)

Friday, 10 April 2015

Book Review | The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall



For almost a decade, Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District.

The earl's project harks back to an ancient idyll of untamed British wilderness—though Rachel must contend with modern-day concessions to health and safety, public outrage and political gain—and the return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family.

The Wolf Border investigates the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness, both animal and human. It seeks to understand the most obsessive aspects of humanity: sex, love, and conflict; the desire to find answers to the question of our existence; those complex systems that govern the most superior creature on earth.

***

Between land and sea, day and night, life and death and the like, there lie those borders that, much as we might try, we cannot deny. Equally, though, there are those we impose: make-believe borders drawn to defend against that which we fear, as well as to keep what we want for ourselves within.

Set in the pristine wilderness split down the middle by the border between Scotland and England—as powerful a haunt here as it's ever been—in the run-up to and the aftermath of 2014's hotly fought Independence Referendum, Sarah Hall's fifth work of fiction is a sumptuous study of truth and trust some are sure to slight because it seems slow... but no. The Wolf Border takes longer than I'd like to find its feet, but before long it's toddling confidently, then running rampant—not unlike the near-mythical infant its protagonist produces.

An age ago, wildlife biologist Rachel Caine escaped this close-knit community—most notably her suffocating mother—to run a sanctuary of sorts in Idaho. There, she learned how to live and how to love—not by befriending her fellows, but by watching the wild wolf packs that prowl the plains of the reservation.

At the outset of Hall's novel, Rachel has to head home for her first visit in what feels like forever:
The last ended badly, with an argument, a family riven. She is being called upon to entertain a rich man's whimsy, a man who owns almost a fifth of her home county. And her mother is dying. Neither duty is urgent; both players will wait, with varying degrees of patience. Meanwhile, snow. The Chief Joseph wolves are scenting hoof prints, making forays from the dent. The pups have grown big and ready, any day now they will start their journey. (pp.3-4)
See how the author suggests something of Rachel's situation in the same breath as introducing the wolves? That's not an accident. Next to nothing about this book is. The Wolf Border is almost impossibly purposeful: its every element is meticulously measured, developed with painstaking consideration, before being brought to a carefully controlled conclusion.