Friday, 29 June 2012

The Scotsman Abroad | Weird Spaces, Familiar Faces

Another week, another edition of The Scotsman Abroad.

I really do get about these days, don't I? :)

Today, anyway, I'm here to tell you all about The Devil's Nebula by Eric Brown — the inaugural installment of Abaddon Books' latest shared world, Weird Space.

And... it's basically okay. Fun, vehemently, but eminently forgettable.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about The Devil's Nebula - my friend and fellow Eric Brown admirer Mark Chitty certainly seemed to enjoy it, and to a certain extent, I did too - but in the end, I was left feeling largely underwhelmed.

Anyway, my full review went live over at late last week. Here's a snippet from it:
Riding high on the contrails of The Kings of Eternity, perhaps his most excellent effort to date, as well as his least conventional, Eric Brown returns to known space in The Devil’s Nebula, to revisit some familiar faces. Ahoy there, evil aliens!

Principally an introduction to Weird Space, which is to say Abaddon Books' latest shared world setting, The Devil’s Nebula is a novel as fun and undemanding as – and not a lot longer than – any episode of Farscape or Firefly... though I fear it goes in want of the wit and the warmth that made those gone but not forgotten science-fiction series so smart and remarkable.

And the width. Because this is not, shall we say, a narrative concerned with fundamental questions of "life, death, existence, non-existence. The arbitrary nature of the universe; the chaos, the order." There’s no harm in that, of course, no inherent foul; after all, not every novel need occupy itself with deep and meaningful experiences. Instead, The Devil’s Nebula’s core focus is on interstellar antics — such as the near miss with which it begins, when deep in enemy territory, the cast-offs who crew The Paradoxical Poettouch down on Vetch-controlled Hesperides.
Ultimately The Devil's Nebula could have been better, but problems and all, it still makes for a reasonable start to Weird Space. Decent enough that I'll at least read the next in the series, Satan's Reach — though coming off this kinda sorta disappointment, I'm rather more interested in Eric Brown's next next novel, which is to say The Serene Invasion.

But what about you guys? Anyone got a favourite shared setting? Suggestions for which other worlds I might be inclined to walkabout one day?

I've heard good things about Wild Cards over the years, for instance - and George R. R. Martin's involvement does tend to suggest there'll be something special about it - but I've never been sure where to start, or if I should even bother. Thoughts?

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Best of #EdBookFest | Part III

Last Thursday, the programme for this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival was made available. From the 11th of August - that's a Saturday - through Monday the 27th, almost a million authors are set to appear at various venues around Scotland's prettiest city... or at least, so it seems.

As a matter of fact a million might be overstating the case somewhat, but there are so many events on the slate that a comprehensive read of the catalogue could take as long as the festival itself, and by then, everything of interest is sure to be fully booked. If you're planning to attend, specifically to see a certain someone speak, then in my experience you've got to be on the ball when it comes to ordering.

So how about some help figuring out your potential schedule before tickets go on sale at 8:30AM this Friday? Really, it's the least I can do. :)

To save you some time and effort, then, I've taken a good, long look through the 2012 programme for writers and artists that the likes of us - which is to say fans of speculative fiction - are apt to find fascinating. Even then there's such a surplus of good stuff that this it's going to take us a couple of days to get through just the genre-related authors, and considering that I've taken pains to arrange everything in chronological order, please: start with Part I, then read through Part II, and last but not least... behold the third installment of three!


Who: Iain Banks

When: Wednesday 22 August, 8:00PM - 9:00PM

Where: RBS Main Theatre

Iain Banks is back on non sci-fi territory. And with Stonemouth, he is firmly on his finest and funniest comedy-drama behaviour as he explores one Stewart Gilmour’s return to his north-east home town to attend a funeral after 5 years in exile. Not everyone is happy he’s back though and he spends a long weekend trying to keep one step ahead of local gangsters.

Who: Ian McEwan

When: Thursday 23 August, 3:00PM - 4:00PM

Where: RBS Main Theatre

The most gifted British novelist of his generation unveils his new book at the Book Festival. Sweet Tooth tells the story of a woman drawn into intelligence activities, who then falls in love and faces a challenge to maintain the fiction of her undercover life. Ian McEwan’s previous bestselling novels include Saturday, On Chesil Beach and the Man Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam.

Who: Mark Haddon

When: Thursday 23 August, 4:30PM - 5:30PM

Where: RBS Main Theatre

The Red House was one of the most anticipated novels of 2012, and it has certainly lived up to that billing. Mark Haddon’s latest revolves around a newly remarried hospital consultant, who attempts to build bridges with his estranged sister. The author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time talks to the Guardian’s Literary Editor, Claire Armitstead about how he constructed his new novel using 8 distinct voices. 

Who: John Connolly and Stuart Neville

When: Thursday 23 August, 6:45PM - 7:45PM

Where: Peppers Theatre

What: While Stephen King has imprinted Maine on the literary landscape, a new kid on the block has been threatening to slap away King’s crown. Irishman John Connolly’s latest Charlie Parker mystery is The Burning Soul, in which a man is haunted by his past. Stuart Neville’s Stolen Souls features a woman who travels from Russia to Ireland only to be coaxed into a horrific world of modern slavery. 

Who: Michelle Paver

When: Saturday 25 August, 10:30AM - 11:30AM

Where: RBS Corner Theatre

Following the conclusion of her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, Michelle Paver is here to introduce you to her thrilling new series Gods and Warriors. Set during the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean it promises exciting adventures against the backdrop of a vividly-imagined prehistoric setting. Come and hear all about Michelle’s inspiration for the books and her extensive research, including dolphin watching.

Who: Jasper Fforde

When: Saturday 25 August, 8:30PM - 9:30PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

The irrepressible Jasper Fforde joins us again to unveil his seventh novel featuring the much-loved Thursday Next. In Fforde's comic parallel universe, England is a republic whose first president was George Formby, and Thursday's genius 15 year old daughter, Tuesday, is working on a shield to protect their home town from the wrath of an angry Deity. Join Fforde to enter a hilariously unpredictable world. 

Who: Eoin Colfer

When: Sunday 26 August, 1:30PM - 2:30PM

Where: RBS Main Theatre

A new Artemis Fowl is a much-anticipated event but when it’s the last ever... Eoin Colfer introduces his final thrilling instalment, Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, featuring a magical portal, fairies and rampaging dead soldiers. Thankfully, Eoin has stated that he will keep writing until people stop reading or he runs out of ideas. As neither is likely, the final Artemis adventure doesn’t spell the end for his fans, there will be plenty more from Eoin Colfer to look forward to in the future! 

Who: Ken McLeod and G. Willow Wilson

When: Monday 27 August, 8:30PM - 9:30PM

Where: Peppers Theatre

In G Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen, we journey to an unnamed Middle Eastern security state where a young hacker has just discovered an ancient book which may unleash a new level of information technology, and he’s extremely keen to get hold of it. Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion is another of his disturbing dystopia novels in which a future state commits atrocities with the best of intentions.


And that, as they say, is that!

So how are your schedules coming along? Any last minute additions?

Now as much as I'd love to see every one of the thirty-odd authors we've covered over the last couple of days, if I'm honest, I'll be lucky to find the time for half of the events aforementioned. Edinburgh isn't exactly nearby, even for me. Would that it were...

But enough moping! This year's festival sounds fantastic. As ever, there's something for everyone, but this year seems particularly geared towards speculative fiction fans like me. :)

One last thing before we say good day: if you end up in Edinburgh at some point during the fortnight of the book festival, there's a decent chance I'll be out and about, so feel free to give me a shout. It might be nice to finally arrange some names next to a few of those famous internet faces.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Best of #EdBookFest | Part II

Last Thursday, the programme for this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival was made available. From the 11th of August - that's a Saturday - through Monday the 27th, almost a million authors are set to appear at various venues around Scotland's prettiest city... or at least, so it seems.

As a matter of fact a million might be overstating the case somewhat, but there are so many events on the slate that a comprehensive read of the catalogue could take as long as the festival itself, and by then, everything of interest is sure to be fully booked. If you're planning to attend, specifically to see a certain someone speak, then in my experience you've got to be on the ball when it comes to ordering.

So how about some help figuring out your potential schedule before tickets go on sale at 8:30AM this Friday? Really, it's the least I can do. :)

To save you some time and effort, then, I've taken a good, long look through the 2012 programme for writers and artists that the likes of us - which is to say fans of speculative fiction - are apt to find fascinating. Even then there's such a surplus of good stuff that this it's going to take us a couple of days to get through just the genre-related authors, so here's a link to yesterday's inaugural installment  of The Best of #EdBookFest. And remember to tune in again tomorrow for the catastrophic conclusion!


Who: Grant Morrison

When: Friday 17 August, 9:30PM - 10:30PM

Where: RBS Main Theatre

Leading Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison divides his time between Scotland and Hollywood, and he joins us this evening to talk about the comics industry as it squares up to the game-changing developments of the 21st century. Following up the arguments in his brilliant book Supergods, Morrison contends that superheroes are powerful icons for a multimedia age. 

Who: Garth Nix

When: Saturday 18 August, 10:30AM - 11:30AM 

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

The hugely successful, award-winning writer Garth Nix travels to Edinburgh from Australia to draw you into his world of fantasy and science fiction. His many books are popular worldwide and include the Sabriel trilogy, The Keys to the Kingdom series and his latest novel, A Confusion of Princes. Find out what it takes to make a fantasy novel really work - or not! - and pick up some expert tips on how to write a compelling book of your own.

Who: Hari Kunzru and Yiyun Li

When: Saturday 18 August, 12:30PM - 1:30PM

Where: Peppers Theatre

Douglas Coupland’s recent review of Hari Kunzru’s novel Gods Without Men suggests Kunzru has spawned a new literary genre: Translit. It’s certainly a sparkling, multi-layered gem that confidently slides across boundaries. But then so too does US-based Yiyun Li’s superb book of short stories Gold Boy, Emerald Girl which is predominantly set in modern China. Whether or not they’re creating a new genre, here are two writers whose writing is a joy to behold. 

Who: Jennifer Rohn and Neal Stephenson

When: Saturday 18 August, 5:00PM - 6:00PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

Science fiction writing is readily dismissed as mindless escapism but in fact it is a hugely influential and creative genre, able to critique our society and inspire our scientists. New York Times bestseller, Neal Stephenson, discusses the importance of science fiction on science fact with Jennifer Rohn of University College London and author of

Who: Helen Dunmore

When: Monday 20 August, 5:00PM - 6:00PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

She won the Orange Prize for her novel A Spell of Winter, and was Man Booker longlisted for The Betrayal. Now, this most versatile of writers has produced a deliciously chilling novella set in East Yorkshire. The Greatcoat tells the story of a woman who discovers an RAF officer's coat in her new flat. Later, in her dreams, she hears a knocking on the window...

Who: Margo Lanagan and Melvin Burgess

When: Monday 20 August, 6:30PM - 7:30PM

Where: RBS Imagination Lab

What: Meet two of the most controversial authors writing for young adults today. Melvin Burgess and Margo Lanagan have both been criticised for the explicit nature of some of their work, in particular Doing It by Melvin and Tender Morsels by Margo, novels that reflect elements of life all too familiar to today’s teenagers. Come and hear them talk about everything from sex to drugs, mythology to fairy tales and let them demonstrate how a skilful writer can sensitively lead their reader down any path to explore difficult subjects.

Who: China Mieville and Patrick Ness

When: Monday 20 August, 8:30PM - 9:30PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

China Miéville is often billed as a genre-busting science fiction writer but in truth he’s impossible to categorise. With Railsea, Miéville has imagined a post-industrial landscape of small islands, where the sea is not water but a mass of criss-crossing rails. The story takes a young islander across the railsea, and Miéville has created his most enticing and compelling novel to date. Chaired by Patrick Ness.

Who: Shaun Tan

When: Wednesday 22 August, 5:00PM - 6:00PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

Shaun Tan offers a fascinating journey through his work as author, artist and film-maker, explaining how his early career developed. In 2011 Shaun received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden for his body of work and won an Oscar for his short film The Lost Thing. This is a rare opportunity to hear from an inspiring and uniquely talented master in his field.


With which, the second part of The Best of #EdBookFest comes to a close.

I'll have one last round of must-see authors and artists for you all tomorrow, but in the interim, any ideas yet which events you'll be attending? China Mieville's 'Going Off The Rails' is a gimme for me...

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Best of #EdBookFest | Part I

Last Thursday, the programme for this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival was made available. From the 11th of August - that's a Saturday - through Monday the 27th, almost a million authors are set to appear at various venues around Scotland's prettiest city... or at least, so it seems.

As a matter of fact a million might be overstating the case somewhat, but there are so many events on the slate that a comprehensive read of the catalogue could take as long as the festival itself, and by then, everything of interest is sure to be fully booked. If you're planning to attend, specifically to see a certain someone speak, then in my experience you've got to be on the ball when it comes to ordering.

So how about some help figuring out your potential schedule before tickets go on sale at 8:30AM this Friday? Really, it's the least I can do. :)

To save you some time and effort, then, I've taken a good, long look through the 2012 programme for writers and artists that the likes of us - which is to say fans of speculative fiction - are apt to find fascinating. Even then there's such a surplus of good stuff that this it's going to take us a couple of days to get through just the genre-related authors, so when you're done with today's post, be sure to pop along again tomorrow for Part II.

For the very moment, let's get this show on the road!


Who: Colson Whitehead and Ben Marcus

When: Sunday 12 August, 6:45PM - 7:45PM

Where: Peppers Theatre

Humans are fighting back against a zombie outbreak in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One with ordinary guy Mark Spitz part of an armed unit patrolling the New York streets. As we dip into Spitz’s past life, he wonders whether a doomsday scenario is about to unfold. Ben Marcus’ innovative The Flame Alphabet zooms in on a virus which originates in the speech of children and kills their parents.

Who: Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

When: Monday 13 August, 8:00PM - 9:00PM

Where: RBS Main Theatre

To mark the 10th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Chris Riddell has created beautiful, atmospheric and unsettling illustrations for a new edition. The tale of the lonely girl who discovers an alternate world where her ‘other mother and father’ live has been turned into a graphic novel and a film. Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell discuss their inspiration for the words and the pictures and, of course, those button eyes

Who: Ned Beauman and Nick Harkaway

When: Tuesday 14 August, 10:15AM - 11:15AM

Where: The Guardian Spiegeltent

After his heavily acclaimed debut Boxer, Beetle, Ned Beauman recounts The Teleportation Accident. In this 1930s tale Egon Loeser seeks pleasure in Berlin’s experimental theatres, the absinthe bars of Paris and physics labs of LA. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker features Joe Spork who sidestepped his criminal ancestry to enjoy a quiet life repairing clockwork. But why is he receiving visits from sinister cultists and dastardly lawyers?

Who: Hilary Mantel

When: Tuesday 14 August, 6:30PM - 7:30PM

Where: RBS Main Theatre

Wolf Hall was one of the most remarkable novels of recent years and it became the bestselling Man Booker Prize winner to date. Now Hilary Mantel joins us to discuss its much anticipated sequel, Bring up the Bodies, which imagines Anne Boleyn's downfall at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. She discusses her work with James Runcie, director of a stunning BBC2 documentary about the author.

Who: Patrick Ness

When: Thursday 16 August, 5:00PM - 6:00PM

Where: RBS Corner Theatre

The multi-award-winning author Patrick Ness is one of our leading writers for young adults. His Chaos Walking trilogy is en route to the silver screen and his latest novel, A Monster Calls, has been shortlisted for both the Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway Medals. An incredibly versatile writer, moving with ease from fantasy to family drama, Patrick has a lightness of touch that goes deep – his novels are not easily forgotten. Chaired by Keith Gray.

Who: S. J. Watson

When: Thursday 16 August, 8:30PM - 9:30PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

NHS audiologist S. J. Watson took time out from his day job to pen his debut novel Before I Go to Sleep, which has already become a worldwide bestseller, won several awards and been made into a film. It tells the story of Chrissie, who can store memories for only 24 hours. As she continues to re-learn everything, how can she tell if anything is quite what it seems? 

Who: Michael Morpurgo

When: Friday 17 August, 5:00PM - 6:00PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

It’s been a crazy couple of years for Michael Morpurgo, following the success on stage and screen of his acclaimed novel War Horse. Come and hear Michael talk about his life, his work, Oscars and Spielberg. He also discusses Private Peaceful, the latest of his novels to be adapted and the process involved. Afterwards, you have the chance to receive a specially designed bookplate as Michael will not be available to sign individual books.

Who: Neal Stephenson

When: Friday 17 August, 8:30PM - 9:30PM

Where: ScottishPower Studio Theatre

In Neal Stephenson’s book of essays, Some Remarks, he blends such diverse topics as technology, economics, history, science, pop culture and philosophy, pondering a wealth of subjects, from movies and politics to video games and geekdom. In his latest novel, Reamde, he delivers a high-intensity, action-packed adventure thriller in which an entrepreneur gets caught in the crossfire of his own online war game.


And that's that for the first part of Best of the #EdBookFest. Lots more tomorrow, I promise!

In the meantime, you tell me: which of the the authors discussed above would you most like to see?

I'd say Neil Gaiman - a favourite author and a terrific speaker to boot - except that I've been to three of his events already, over the years, and perhaps I should take this chance to do something a little different...

Friday, 22 June 2012

Book Review | The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The possibilities are endless. Just be careful what you wish for...

1916: The Western Front. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong and the wind in the leaves. Where have the mud, blood, and blasted landscape of no-man's-land gone? For that matter, where has Percy gone?

2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Police officer Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive—some say mad, others allege dangerous—scientist who seems to have vanished. Sifting through the wreckage, Jansson find a curious gadget: a box containing some rudimentary wiring, a three-way switch, and... a potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way humankind views the world forever.

The first novel in an exciting new collaboration between Discworld creator Terry Pratchett and the acclaimed SF writer Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth transports readers to the ends of the earth—and far beyond. All it takes is a single step.


There is something to be said for accessible sf like The Long Earth.

Exactly what slips my mind at the moment, but I'm sure it's perfectly profound... unlike The Long Earth. In the main, this playful collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is more interested in absurdities, such as the potato which powers the invention which changes everything, as per the elevator pitch.

Folks come to call this ungodly gizmo a Stepper: a simple name for a simple bit of kit. It's a box which, in addition to the aforementioned power supply, contains some wires and a switch — and that's it! Anyone can make one. Almost everyone does. And when they do, they disappear.

But only from our Earth, because beyond the initial panic, Steppers don't seem to be dangerous. Perhaps the prominence of potatoes in the tech spec gave the game away? In any event, all they do is transport their users into a parallel universe — or rather, one of an apparent infinity of planets like yet in the very same second utterly unlike our own.

This, of course, is the answer to many people's prayers:
"That was the main thing about the Long Earth. [...] It offered room. It offered you a place to escape — a place to run, endlessly as far as anybody knew. All over the world there was a trickle of people just walking away, with no plan, no preparation, just walking off into the green." (p.55)
Not everyone is so freed by this pivotal discovery, however. You see, amongst the majority who can and do investigate the worlds notionally to the East and West of what becomes known as Datum Earth, even if only to carve out a second garden, or pan for gold - a currency which soon loses its value entirely - amongst this majority, then, there exists a disenfranchised minority "who can't step at all. They resent the Long Earth, and those who travel it, and all that this great opening-up has brought." (p.233)

One can only imagine we'll hear more from these people in subsequent volumes of this promising series-to-be, because their presence is only felt towards the cataclysmic conclusion of The Long Earth. That goes for Madison County police officer Monica Jansson too, whom the blurb paints as a protagonist, when it fact she's a recurring character at best.

Instead, our main man is Joshua Valienté, a Long Earth orphan who's spent his whole life stepping. Without the aid of a Stepper, even! An indeterminate twenty-something when the bulk of the narrative occurs - though he comes across somewhat younger, as if he had been a teen in a past draft - Joshua is blackmailed by the dastardly Black corporation into an airship-aided quest to the ends of the Long Earth... mostly to see if such a thing exists.

His only companion on this fantastic voyage is Lobsang, an ostensibly artificial intelligence that the courts have famously declared human. He, or else it, is funny and friendly: an invaluable aid to both the reader and the read — though Joshua has a hard time figuring out where he stands with regards to this synthetic person, and so, equally, do we.

Thus, the larger part of The Long Earth involves Joshua and Lobsang getting to grips with one another, as beneath them a vast tapestry of alternate Earths scroll past. Worlds that could have been; worlds that would have been, if this or that climate crisis or asteroid impact had happened differently; worlds, perhaps, that should have been. However, as one fellow pilgrim so memorably puts it, whilst "rattling along in [their] great big penis in the sky," (p.243) they take precious little in; they learn almost nothing new, except about themselves.

This is certainly the biggest issue with Pratchett and Baxter's book, for though at the outset we experience the Long Earth from a variety of incidental perspectives, these recede into the middle distance the moment the Mark Twain sets sail. Thereafter the reader is so removed from it all that this fantastic voyage feels oddly... normal. Once the initial wonder of The Long Earth wears off, I'm afraid there's not much more to it than a robot and a boy trading barbs in a ship in the sky.

Not until the Earth-shattering last act, that is, when Pratchett and Baxter double down on their deeply appealing premise, revealing - not before time - the infinite possibilities of The Long Earth as a setting and indeed a series. I won't give the game away, except to say that there's no going back now — and how!

On the whole, The Long Earth is a little more frivolous than I might have liked, and the middle section sags to the point of distraction, but thanks to Baxter the science in solid, and overall the fiction is fantastic fun — that'll be Pratchett. Whatever their respective roles, between the pair of them they get it together when it matters most: the beginning is brilliant, and the end - a cliff-hanger of course - is epic. Considering the mind-boggling possibilities of a milieu wherein "the next world is [but] the thickness of a thought away," (p.123) The Long Earth stands as a measured success: initially exciting, ultimately awesome, and eminently accessible to any and all comers, be you a fan of one co-author or the other. Or both.

Or even neither.


The Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

UK Publication: June 2012, Doubleday
US Publication: June 2012, Harper

Buy this book from /
IndieBound / The Book Depository 

Recommended and Related Reading

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

I Tube | My Quantum Conundrum

In late 2009, Portal co-creator Kim Swift did the unthinkable: she left Valve to "pursue opportunities elsewhere." Some time later, she resurfaced as the creative lead of a project called Quantum Conundrum: a first-person perspective, physics-based puzzle game with a silly story and a sense of humour.

Sound familiar?

But of course it does. Still and all, I adored Portal, and there've been a couple of indie games since that have honed close to its oddball formula and come up somewhat triumphant — not least QUBE, which I reviewed here. Given its particular heritage, however, I had very high hopes for Quantum Conundrum.

And then?

Then this trailer:

Call me a misery-guts, but I didn't even crack a grin. Your mileage may vary... though probably not a lot, if I'm honest.

Depending on the reviews I read, I may still play it for the puzzles, but if this trailer is as telling as I think it is, then Quantum Conundrum's sense of humour looks to be as tepid as tap water. Which is a real shame. Because the puzzles weren't what made Portal so awesome in its day, were they?

Quantum Conundrum will be coming to consoles sometime this summer, but if you're happy to play it on your personal computer, it's actually out tomorrow — ironically via Valve's ubiquitous digital distribution service, Steam.

If you'd asked me yesterday if I was planning to buy it on either platform, I would have told you my money was practically spent already. But not so much, now. Not so much...

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Scotsman Abroad | The Last Days of Novel Docu-Horror

Time is in short supply today - this whole week, even, because I'm filling in for an absentee tutor - so I can't stop to talk for long. Sorry! But I did want to direct your precious attention to the most recent of my reviews to be published on

It's of Last Days by Adam Nevill, and in short, if you're even a passing fan of the horror genre, you really should read this book.

Excepting the "divisive denouement" I mention in the quote reproduced below, I truly did adore The Ritual, and if Last Days isn't quite its equal, then it comes close enough to warrant a good, long look. It's a book about the making of a documentary movie about a creepy cult, and though its middle section sags somewhat, it begins brilliantly, and it ends reasonably well as well. Which is more than you can say for the vast majority of horror novels.

Luckily for all involved, this isn't the moment for me to go off on one about that topic — again!

There's just time for me to share the first few paragraphs of my full review, and say adieu:
"Adam Nevill has gone from strength to strength in the years since he invited us all to dine with the dead in his promisingly ominous horror fiction debut, Banquet for the Damned. Its successor, Apartment 16, gave no signs of a sophomore slump, and despite a divisive denouement, The Ritual stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best novels of the genre in recent recall. Now, like creepy clockwork, Nevill’s come a-calling again, and Last Days is his unholy offering.

"Interestingly, it purports to be a documentary clothed in prose — a narration of a found-footage film in the making, which is itself an elaboration of events that have been the subject of myriad other books and movies, in the fiction if not in fact: namely the last days of the Temple of the Last Days, an infamous suicide cult known to have met with a particularly grisly end in the mid-seventies. Unless I’m very much mistaken, this is Nevill’s longest novel to date, and perhaps it suffers somewhat for that in a lacking middle act and a conclusion that cannot quite bear the weight of all that goes before it, but by and large, Last Days makes for a vile and grimy ghost story, as gripping as it is ghastly."

Please do click on through to read the rest of my review of Last Days by Adam Nevill.

(Adam Nevill, who was lovely enough to namecheck The Speculative Scotsman in the acknowledgements — a first for me, as far as I'm aware. Thank you in turn, good sir!)

And then? Well... I do believe I've already advised you to buy this book. Overall, it's excellent. Not to mention the fact that it was exactly what I needed after an accidental string of science fiction.

So, anyone else read Last Days already?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Quoth the Scotsman | Tom Pollock on The City & The City

A couple of caveats to bear in mind before we start. Unless otherwise indicated, none of the quotes quoted in the following post are representative of the beliefs of the person in question quoted nor those of the person quoting the person in question. Additionally, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

In short, Quoth the Scotsman is just a space here on TSS for me to post neat quotes as and when I come across them. Simple. As. That.


I'm a country mouse, I suppose.

(As opposed to a city mouse, I mean.)

I certainly haven't lived long-term in a city, though oddly - or perhaps not - I've holidayed in a great many, across the UK, Europe and North America. Most always, I've enjoyed the experience. Sometimes, I've even wished I could stay a little longer. But I've never wanted that to be the new norm. To be able to come home, to the peace and the quiet, to the flora and the fauna, to the sizable apartment I can only afford because frankly, it's a bit out there... that means the world to me.

Maybe it's indoctrination. Maybe I'm a country mouse in my old age because that's the way and the where I was raised. Truth be told, I don't know, but it's perfectly possible. There are certain perks to a life in the cityside that I'm desperately envious of, mostly involving food: namely the nearness of vegetarian restaurants and takeaways.

But I bet you city mice feel the exact same way: that you wouldn't trade your day-to-day for anything... though perhaps there are a few things you wish you could change? A few sacrifices that must, alas, be made.

Apropos of which, last week I was reading The City's Son by Tom Pollock, and quite aside from its awesome monsters and pretty prose, a short section specifically struck me. 

The following excerpt, then, forms part of one of the most convincing arguments I've heard in favour of city living.
"Our memories are like a city: we tear some structures down, and we use rubble of the old to raise up new ones. Some memories are bright glass, blindingly beautiful when they catch the sun, but then there are the darker days, when they reflect only the crumbling walls of their derelict neighbours. Some memories are buried under years of patient construction; their echoing halls may never again be seen or walked down, but still they are the foundations for everything that stands above them.
"Glas told me once that that's what people are, mostly: memories, the memories in their own heads, and the memories of them in other people's. And if memories are like a city, and we are our memories, then we are like cities too. I've always taken comfort in that." (p.276)
Isn't that a lovely idea? And I would wager there's some real truth to it, too.

Tom Pollock's tremendous debut is still a fair ways off from its publication date, I'm afraid. You won't be able to buy it in the UK until August, or September in the States, so I'm going to hold off on posting my full review till it's rather more relevant.

But do stayed tuned. I assure you, The City's Son will be worth the wait. Plus, I'll be blogging about the book at least once more in advance of my review and its release ...

Friday, 15 June 2012

Book Review | Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Once, one hundred moons rose every evening with Mother Night across the Eternal Sky. Once, there were one hundred sons and grandsons of the Great Haghan who ruled the steppes from one edge of the world to the other. Now, the flame of civil war is burning, and Temur's iron moon is one of only a handful remaining in the Eternal Sky.

Temur is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who fought each other to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather's throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.

Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards.

These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.

"For a few hours, as he rode the bay and led the rose-grey into wooded glades now, he allowed himself to dream that he would rescue Edene and make her his wife and that they would live to an untroubled old age with all their children and her cousins and her cousins' children.
"It was a fantasy and he knew it. But he was soldier enough to know that such fantasies were all that carried men through the supposed glory of war." (p.91)
So muses Temur, not the sole survivor but one of a very few to live through a bloody battle between brothers at the outset of the latest novel by two-time Hugo award-winning author Elizabeth Bear.

But it's not always so easy to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, is it? Between memory and invention, I mean. To differentiate what we have ourselves experienced from what we have only imagined. It sounds simple, sure enough, but bear in mind that the mind is a minefield of deceiving appearances, of fanciful facts and factual fantasy.

At times, Range of Ghosts is a lot like that.

Let me explain what I'm bumbling on about.

I have a few folks out in South Africa: grandparents and aunts and an almost-uncle, all on my mother's side. The first time your Scotsman went abroad, in the literal rather than the literary sense, it was to meet this extension of my immediate family. The year after that - I must have been about 14 by this point - I went back to Johannesburg on my lonesome ownsome. It was that or bible camp. That said, I'd had an awesome time with my aunt and almost-uncle before, and methinks more of a good thing is good.

That summer was a formative one for me in many senses. That summer I started reading Dan Simmons, China Mieville and Arthur C. Clarke. That summer I learned, at length, about nanotechnology, genetically engineered supersoldiers and the trouble with faster-than-light travel. My almost-uncle was a complete geek, but a genuinely good guy - which is not to say the two are usually exclusive - and in retrospect, I took an awful lot from the time I spent in his company, under South Africa's scorching summer sun.

In that sort of weather, however, even the geeks come out of their caves occasionally. So it was, shall we say somewhat incongruously, that that summer also marked the first time in my life I'd ever ridden a horse, and a decade and change later, I've never experienced anything else quite like it. Somewhere in the savannah, you see - I no longer recall where, but it took days of driving to get there - I was installed without prior warning upon a palomino mare, and accompanied by a cadre of adults all across the desert plains at midday, to gape at the stark, red-rock outcrops that stretched beyond the barren horizon every which way.

At one point our company split into groups, and I assume I ended up with the advanced band of riders because my aunt and almost-uncle numbered amongst them - that would seem sensible; on my own I was hopeless - but somehow the day only got more mind-blowing. Beneath me a gentle animal became a beast, galloping to keep up with its own kind and mine as they raced on ahead. Shortcuts were taken... fences were flown over... heart-rates, on the whole, were dangerously raised. I have rarely in my life been so thrilled, and at the same time so very afraid for my life, as I was by that afternoon's antics.

I remember telling people about that day later in my life, and thinking, as the unlikely story unfolded from my baby-fat face, how surreal the experience had been. How terrifying and breathless. It seemed so absurd that for a fair while, I'd all but convinced myself it had been a fever dream, rather than something real.

Range of Ghosts is a lot like that, then. Hence the lengthy digression. Also: it has horses. Horses!

In fact, the first meeting in the narrative entire is between our main character, Temur - the son of the Great Khagan and heir apparent to the Qersnyk kingdom - and the gorgeous horse which in effect saves him from certain death. Bansh and Temur are two of the few survivors of an awful slaughter, wherein one brother warred against another for the very throne our man stands to inherit.

Blood followed on all sides, obviously, and lest his luck run out, Temur takes up with a broken but not beaten family of fellow refugees on the road "through the mountains called the Range of Ghosts to Celadon Highway city of Qeshqer. Away from the dead." (p.16) He seeks shelter with these decent people, and receives respite: a brief reprieve from the intolerable horrors of war, the comfort of kindly strangers, and perhaps the promise of love with one woman, Edene.

Alas, a happy ending is not to be had so simply for him, or her, or anyone in truth — not in this bleakly beautiful book. Because in Range of Ghosts, the fantastic first act of the Eternal Sky trilogy - and I suppose I should stress that it is only that: an opening act that does not even attempt to appear standalone - in Range of Ghosts, the dead do not rest until they have been blessed, and an army of these seething specters has been set on Temur by someone with dark designs on his hide. To wit, one night, under a many moons - for there is one for each of the living heirs to the Great Kaghan's kingdom - Temur's idyll ends with the same violence that presaged it. And though they maim or murder everyone else they touch, the ghosts - unable as they are to best our man, with salt on his sword - take Edene alive.

So we come full circle, back to Temur with the horses in wooded glades, confusing happy fantasy with harsh reality. In fairness he knows how unlikely it is that he will ever see Edene again, in one piece at least, but short of going back to the battlefield for vengeance - and he would have to raise an army of his own to do that - Temur's options are few, and ugly to a one... excepting the prospect of saving a damsel in distress.

However misguided his intentions, Temur's hopes are mostly noble, and ultimately it is this meandering rescue attempt - meandering because he has no idea where Edene's been taken - that leads Temur into Samarkar's path. And it is the character of Samarkar, I think, that elevates Range of Ghosts into a space shared with the genre's greatest rather than merely its latest.

There are a lot of interesting observations to be made about Samarkar, but - my bad - this review's gone long already, so suffice it to say that she's every bit as imperative to Range of Ghosts' sweeping narrative as Temur, if not more so, for he is a more traditional fantasy protagonist by far. Samarkar, on the other hand, is a woman so sickened by being manipulated by powerful men all her life - being a dutiful daughter, a dear sister and a willing wife has only brought down disgrace - that she has opted to give up her child-bearing capabilities in exchange for a chance to harbour magic. When Bear introduces us, she's recovering from said sorcerous surgery, waiting to see if her life can take on this meaning, in want of any other.

Samarkar is a fantastic character from the offing - beautifully put though the others are, hers were the chapters I looked forward to for the first hundred pages - and when she meets a feverish Temur, she becomes even greater. "He knew her because she lifted him up and set him on Bansh's back when he could no longer cling there by himself [...] and he knew her because after she had led him and the mares out of danger, she girded herself in her coat of night and her collar of stars and went back into the cold valley to seek Edene." (p.143)

In addition to illustrating Samarkar's strength of mind and body both, this enmeshing of narrative perspectives allows Bear to welcome several other POV characters into the fray, and it's as well that this width exists, because the least interesting act of Range of Ghosts is yet ahead. Temur and Samarkar's time in the city of Qeshqer has its moments, but I dare say they are waylaid there too long by preening and politics when Range of Ghosts is at its best exploring the glorious freedom of the road, and the ride. One senses this section has a vital part to play in the series' grander narrative, but in contrast with the sheer exuberance on either side of it, it becomes a bore. Nor is it particularly pleasant for our imperiled prince:
"The weight of the palace itself seemed to press down on Temur's chest, shortening his breathing and closing his vision to a tunnel. His people believed it ill luck to spill blood at an execution, and so they sewed criminals into leather bags and heaped stones upon them until they died. He knew this was not the same [...] but for the moment he imagined that each breath grew shallower than the last, his lungs exhausted with pushing out against all that stone." (p.221)
If Range of Ghosts ends at all, it ends with an exhalation: with a great gasp drawn quickly in, then pushed slowly out. Which is to say, Bear's latest earns the To Be Continued with which it concludes, and though some in this age of pseudo-standalone installments of ongoing series will find its lack of resolution positively abhorrent, I did not, and I expect that's suggestive of how winning this thing is. Certainly, I was left wishing I could read The Shattered Pillars immediately, but the wait won't kill me; indeed, its absence may make my heart grow still fonder, and I am awfully fond of Range of Ghosts as is. It's this year's Under Heaven, and from a dyed-in-the-wool Guy Gavriel Kay devotee like me, that's saying something.

A magnificent start, then, to a trilogy that could and should cement Elizabeth Bear's place amongst the greats. Miss it at your own risk.


Range of Ghosts
by Elizabeth Bear

US Publication: April 2012, Tor

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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Meme, Myself and I | Now With 100% More Mieneke

A little while ago, Mieneke van der Salm of A Fantastical Librarian fame asked if I wouldn't mind answering a couple of questions for her new Blogger Query feature.

I agreed immediately. I had already seen her interview with Stefan of Civilian Reader, and secretly, I was hoping she would ask. As you folks know, I talk about myself and my personal experiences here on The Speculative Scotsman almost every day, but always in support of a point, and the point had never before been me. In Blogger Query, however, the tables are turned.
One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?

You know, I used to be militant about this. I was of the mind that a number, no matter how many or how few of them you had to choose from, was an awfully simplistic way to talk about anything.

The argument has always been the most important thing to me, and it still is: I’d much rather read about how a book reviewer formed an opinion than look at a number and be done with it. And that’s one of the risks, isn’t it? That you see a 5 or 6 or a 7 – not that there are terribly many of those (though that’s a whole other discussion) – and think... well why bother?

Ratings used to really rub me the wrong way, but I guess I’m getting mellow in my old age, because I’ve learned to live with them. As a sort of shorthand, sure... though I’m still of the opinion that book reviews shouldn’t be written in shorthand.

Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?

Oh, yay. Absolutely! There aren’t very many things I find more fascinating than a negative perspective – so long as it’s reasoned and reasonably well written – on some new hotness that everyone seems to adore.

In fact the very idea that anyone would say nay to the notion of negative reviews – excepting authors, given their intimate involvement – the very idea offends me no end. What could possibly be the problem with someone having an opinion that isn’t identical to every other opinion? That’s the sort of thing the world needs more of, not less.
So say you want to know about the role of speculative fiction in modern English education, or the relationship between blogs and readers and writers. Say you're interested in hearing how The Speculative Scotsman came about, or what I want from the future. Where before you would have had to bribe me with bookish delights to secure such insights - I kid of course - now all anyone need do is pop on over to A Fantastical Librarian, and read the most recent installment of Blogger Query.

Which, to be perfectly frank, you should be doing on a daily basis anyway.

Last but not least, do keep your eyes peeled, peeps, because I'll be following up on a couple of the subjects Mieneke made me think about here on the site shortly, including firstly - and foremostly - the fall of blogging.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

We Interrupt This Broadcast | Literally... But I'll Live

Ladies and gentlemen: today on The Speculative Scotsman, we're on autopilot.

And not, I should stress, because I'm busy, or better yet, busy being lazy. Oh no, not today. Today, we're on autopilot because the power company - I'll not name names - has opted, in its infinite wisdom, to cut the electricity to my entire town. From 7AM till 7PM.

At least they're being sort of symmetrical. 

(I'm the kinda guy who can get behind a thing like that. Does that make me crazy? Anyway.)

In fairness to the folks, they let us know that this was on the cards a couple of weeks ago. I mean, they didn't give us any choice in the matter, and they're demanding access to the property at an ungodly hour OR ELSE, but at least we had a little while to acclimatise ourselves to the idea. So there's that.

And I have. That is to say, in time, I acclimatised to the idea. At first, I'll admit it, I declared a state of emergency. I started stockpiling bottled water, bought in a vast amount of snacks — strictly for sustenance, you understand. Furthermore, I stuffed the laptop so full of crap to keep me distracted during this offline apocalypse that I'll have to take some serious time to delete it all after this day is done. Assuming I make it.

But of course I'll make it. I knew that even then. Still, in this day and age, the idea of a whole day without power is sort of a scary thought, isn't it? And if not scary, then cruelly, unusually inconvenient. I mean, I'm going to get nothing done.

Then it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, no power - the absence of even the prospect of productivity - could be... brilliant.

So, long story short: today, I'm going to luxuriate - albeit temporarily - in the old ways. I'm going to go without the web, and gladly. I'm going to without the blog, without Twitter, without a connection to anything of any sort, and damn it all, I'm going to enjoy it. No video games, no movies, no music.

I'm even going turn off my mobile phone, because who needs half measures?

Can you imagine?

I can. :)

I've got what looks to be a good book: namely Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey. I've got a warm blanket. I've got a pot, enough bottled water to sink the Starship Intrepid, and a camping stove to make coffee if it comes to that. I may well be hoping it does.

Wish me luck, everyone!

And here, between you and me, if you in the near-to-far future have the chance to get off the grid for a day, pause in your mad panic buying. Take a moment, the better to remember this most excellent advice:

I'll see you all on the other side, alright?

Monday, 11 June 2012

Book Review | Redshirts by John Scalzi

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Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better... until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the Starship Intrepid really is... and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.


Now don't get me wrong: growing up, I adored Star Trek. Every week for years, come hell or high water, I would watch repeats of The Next Generation, and a little later, when Deep Space Nine and Voyager were on air, my fandom went further. I spent a truly terrifying amount of money collecting a magazine called the Star Trek Fact Files, and on the rare occasions I had pocket change to spare, I would buy the books, too.

Even then, though, at the height of my fondness for all things Federation: an emerging awareness that Star Trek was... well. Far from perfect, to put it politely. If I were feeling less forgiving, I'd say it was pretty terrible at times. What with the bad writing, the clumsy characters and the awful effects; the mad science, the tired old tropes and an overabundance of filler. The failings of the episodic formula Star Trek rarely strayed from were many and various... and yet.

And yet, I'll buy the Blu-rays. I'll go to the cinema to see the rebooted movies. Then, whenever some nugget of not-news comes along to suggest there might be another weekly series in the offing, I get all kinds of excited. It's not just nostalgia... but it's that, for a start.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi, is probably smarter than Star Trek's ever been. It's certainly funnier, and markedly more self-aware:
It was a great story. It was great drama.

And it all rested upon him. And this moment. And this fate. This destiny of Ensign Davis.

Ensign Davis thought, Screw this, I want to live, and swerved to avoid the land worms.

But then he tripped and one of the land worms ate his face and he died anyway. (p.14)
Finally, for the moment, Redshirts is in every sense a product of the postmodern era, whereas its inspiration - in all its incarnations - was rather a throwback from the first.

The plot is difficult to talk about beyond what occurs in the blurb, but suffice it to say that the captain and his recurring crew are not, as Scalzi has it, our central characters. Instead, an assortment of Ensigns rule this roost—or should I say roast? In any event, we have Dahl, Duvall, Finn, Hester and Hanson, and for a fair while, it's tough to tell them all apart. I dare say Scalzi might be making a joke even here, but the lack of differentiation between Ensigns A through E is a legitimate issue in the early-going: it makes it hard to give a hoot when one or another of them meets a meaningless end, as per the manifest destiny of all the Redshirts riding the Starship Intrepid.

Luckily, this grim thinning leaves the reader with a more manageable cast of characters, and the initially pedestrian plot soon takes a fascinating recursive turn. By way of a planet of unlikely Ice Sharks, death by exploding head, and an incursion into the underbelly of the Dub U's most famous flagship, Scalzi finally takes our impromptu away team back in time, the better to finesse his familiar universe's very fabric. To admit any more of The Narrative than that would be to give the game away—but make no mistake: it's a great game.

The most remarkable thing about Redshirts, however, isn't its onionskin story, or its smart, snappy dialogue. Scalzi's witty exposition is winning, yes, and his observation-based sense of humour comes across as incisive as ever, if not quite cutting—and thanks be for that. But these aspects, each and every one, seem secondary to a far greater motivation, for the most remarkable thing about Redshirts is its honest-to-God warmth. This is a genuinely joyous celebration of a subject near and dear to almost all our hearts, and though it is not uncritical of the weekly TV series it spoofs, Scalzi's love of Star Trek - not to mention Stargate, Blake's 7, Babylon 5 and the original Battlestar Galactica - shines through, and brightly, at every stage.

Redshirts, then, is that rare thing: a story you wish wouldn't end. Alas, it does. Several times. In quick succession. Because following the conclusion of the novel proper, three codas - sidestories of a sort - which feel, I fear, awfully unnecessary. Attempts, one suspects, to fatten up what is otherwise a very slim volume. At a push, Redshirts represents two or three hours of reading, and come the conclusion - the first one, that is - you'll want more. Much more... if not of what Scalzi has in store.

Still, if you're anything like me, you'll be glad of what little of it there is. If you have any affection at all for Star Trek and its ilk, you're going to love Redshirts, at least for as long as it lasts.

Now let's take a lesson from the text in question and end on an aside: the reason I haven't mentioned Old Man's War or Fuzzy Nation or Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is because, for some reason - and more's the pity, methinks - I haven't yet read Old Man's War or Fuzzy Nation or Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. If, however, Redshirts is in the least indicative of this author's output... then beam me up, Scalzi!

(I know, I know... but this is what I've had to resort to, because Joe Hill, the Borgovian Land Worm that he is, nabbed all the best puns already. "Read on and prosper," indeed.)


by John Scalzi

UK Publication: November 2012, Gollancz
US Publication: June 2012, Tor

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