Tuesday 31 August 2010

Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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"Zinzi December has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit, and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she's forced to take on her least favourite kind of job - missing persons."


Who here remembers urban fantasy? Hands up.

No, no, no. Those of you waving your arms in the air at the thought of some forbidden affair between a tough female protagonist and a gentleman of the night, think again. Of late, there's been a largely regrettable insurgence of such fiction: a counter-culture of wish-fulfillment fiction bearing transparent elements of the fantastic and set against one urban environ or another has arisen - if only to be subsumed itself by the zeitgeist. Paranormal romance by any other name (the vast majority of which smells as sour as the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton and Stephanie Meyer have taught us to expect) has thoroughly co-opted urban fantasy in recent years, and the genre, as is, bears only a trifling resemblance to the mature and sophisticated fiction it once espoused. In short, an overabundance of Twilight wannabes and screeds of sexy vampires have given urban fantasy a bad name. With Zoo City, South African author Lauren Beukes is taking it back.

Meet Zinzi December. Animalled after murdering her own brother, Zinzi serves out her penance in a district of Johannesburg where "Zoos" such as she and sometime-significant other Benoit can live in relative peace, zoned off as they are from the rest of the world. With a Sloth slung over her shoulder, an externalisation of her fratricidal guilt and a constant reminder of her crime, life isn't easy for Zinzi. Against her better judgment, she works as a 419 scam artist in order to repay the staggering debt she has accumulated thanks to a past-tense drug addiction, making ends meet in the erstwhile by "finding lost things" with the supernatural talent she acquired as a by-product of being animalled. Only ever things, though - never people. But Zinzi's fallen on hard times. When one of her clients ends up mercilessly slaughtered and an opportunity to pay off her crippling debt once and for all arises, she puts her principles to the side and sets about her unusual charge: the rooting out of a missing Afropop starlet.

You simply wouldn't credit that Zoo City is only Lauren Beukes' second novel. She doesn't put a foot wrong for the duration. With endless verve and a cynical wit, she carries off a concept so audacious as to beggar belief, an inspired riff on the daemons of His Dark Materials which has humanity reevaluating its roots in the aftermath of the Zoo Plague, or AAF (Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism). "It's a fragile state - the world as we know it," Beukes warns us. "All it takes is one Afghan warlord to show up with a Penguin and a bulletproof vest, and everything science and religion thought they know goes right out of the window." Relevant and revelatory, the ghettoisation of the Zoos in the pockmarked and unrelentingly urban landscape of Johannesburg also recalls the quandary of the slumdog prawns of District 9, yet Beukes confers on the animalled of her novel a murky sense of depth Neill Bloemkamp could only imply.

The Zoos are tragic creatures, one and all; some hateful, others haunted - Zinzi most of all. A recovering journalist, as Beukes has it, and "master builder in the current affairs sympathy scam," Zinzi is an embittered anti-heroine living, as all Zoos do, in fear of the Undertow, an unknowable terror which suffuses the fringes of her existence. She has, of course, more immediate concerns, foremost amongst them the everyday dangers of life in a city bereft of (conventional) order. Singularly the most disturbing of all her encounters in Zoo City, short perhaps its truly gruesome dénouement, is with a gang of junkie tunnel rats who have stolen her phone. Zinzi has fallen so far, yet she still has her pride, and so she makes the mistake of confronting them. Realising her mistake, she runs; they tear through the sewers after her with a rusty, sharpened screwdriver and such unadulterated hate that we see it is the city, in as much as the Zoos, that she need fear.

Zinzi is not so easily dissuaded. She washes the stink of the sewer off her and immediately follows up on her next lead: could Songweza, the absent half of Afropop sensation iJusi, have taken up with a burly bouncer working the doors of Counter Revolutionary? Zinzi is a strong female protagonist in every sense; and she is strong in the face of violent crime, betrayal and a city that seems to want her dead - not just a bit downtrodden until she attracts the attention of a devilishly handsome werewolf, as in the mode of many so-called "urban fantasy" narratives. Her Sloth, meanwhile, is more than a glorified pet: it has its own personality, its own desires - often at odds with Zinzi's - and yet it is a part of her that she must come to terms with, however much she despises what Sloth recalls, for the Undertow comes for all those who are separated from their animal companions.

Zoo City is lean and mean urban fantasy in the best and most respectable sense of the thing. In Zinzi Beukes gives us a truly compelling character: strong, centered, flawed just so and brilliantly intertwined with her world. In the titular district of Johannesburg, the South African author offers up an environment so desperate and evocative it puts innumerable paint-by-numbers fantasylands to shame. Hard-bitten, deliciously vitriolic and utterly engaged, both with the city and what the city means to those who call it home - for want, one intimates, of anywhere else to - Zoo City is, in short, the best thing to happen to urban fantasy in years.


Zoo City
by Lauren Beukes
September 2010, Angry Robot

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Recommended and Related Reading

Monday 30 August 2010

The Boss for 30/08/10

Corvus come out in force in this week's edition of the BoSS - and with a trio of releases you might not expect from them going from the two Corvus books I've reviewed here on the blog: Finch and The Holy Machine. This week, the publishing house is all about the other side of the genre coin. Crime fiction - up to and including a spy thriller in The Nearest Exit, the "Scandinavian phenomenon" that is Anne Holt's 1222, and a ghost story from Fay Weldon. Who has, umm... also written crime? But we'll talk about that later.

For the moment, click through to Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag, or read on for a sneak peek at some of the books - past, present and future - you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


The Nearest Exit
by Olen Steinhauer

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/10/10 by Corvus

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "'The first rule of Tourism is not to let it ruin you. Because it can. Easily.' The Department of Tourism is an ultra-secret black-ops branch rumoured to carry out the CIA's dirtiest and deadliest work. Most agents don't even believe it exists. Milo Weaver knows otherwise. Trained to kill cleanly and keep moving, he is a Tourist that understands the rules. Don't ask questions. Don't form attachments. Don't look back. But Milo is the only Tourist with a daughter. When he is told to assassinate a teenage girl, his commitment to the cause starts to crumble - and for the first time, he disobeys his orders. The consequences pull him down into a complex world of clandestine government warfare, but Milo's own battle is with his conscience. When a security breach threatens the very existence of Tourism, will he choose to save his job, his family, or himself?"

Commentary: In case you can't read the quote on the cover picture up there, have it in text form. Stephen King says The Nearest Exit is "the best spy novel I've ever read that wasn't written by John Le Carre," and I can't help but wondering... does he mean to damn Steinhauer's novel with faint praise, or is Le Carre really all that? I wouldn't know. Come on, guys, you don't expect me to have read a book, do you know? You should know better by now!

In all seriousness, though, The Nearest Exit could be great. I'll admit I'm that much more likely to get to it given that Stephen King's blurbed it; what can I say? I'm easy. And it does sound like a ride, doesn't it? Let's say that unless a Bourne movie appears out of nowhere to satiate my occasional hunger for clandestine intrigue, I'll be giving The Nearest Exit a good going-over.

by Scott Sigler

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
19/08/10 by Hodder

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "On a remote island in the Great Lakes, an unusual group of scientists are using extinct DNA to create the perfect organ donor. It could save millions of lives and win Dr Claus Rhumkorrf the Nobel Prize he craves.

"The donor animal is genetically the ancestor of all species on the planet – but Nature wiped it out two hundred million years ago.

"Rhumkorrf and his team are about to find out why."

Commentary: So, umm... Jurassic Lake?

I'm finding it somewhat difficult to write about Ancestor with a straight face, but you know what? I loved Jurassic Park. I haven't seen or read it in a decade or more, nor do I mean to for fear it turns out to be utter rubbish as with so many of my other youthful favourites, but there's one thing I can be quite sure: I had loads of fun with that story. I don't know how soon I'll be able to get to Ancestor, but eventually I will, and I fully expect to have a whale of a time. Perhaps even a Megalodon of a time... :P

by Fay Weldon


Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/08/10 by Corvus

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "A kehua is a Maori ghost - the wandering dead searching for their ancestral home. Without the proper rituals to send them on their way, kehua are forced to remain on Earth to haunt their relatives. They're not dangerous, and they even try to help the living, though it's wise not to listen to them. They tend to get things wrong...In the wake of murder and suicide, a young woman flees New Zealand, hoping to escape the past and find a new life. But the unshriven spirits of the recently departed can't rest peacefully, and are forced to emigrate with her, crossing oceans to finally settle in - of all places - Muswell Hill, London. Here their shadowy flutterings and murmured advice haunts the young woman and her female bloodline across the decades, across the generations. 'Run!' the Kehua whisper. 'Run, run, run!'"

Commentary: Embarrassingly, I don't seem to have a clue who Fay Weldon is. I thought I did; for sure curious reason I thought Weldon was a contemporary crime writer. But Wiki says no. Nevertheless, though I haven't read Fay Weldon in the past, and I appear to have rather misunderstood her genre of choice, I have made a habit of catching up on her contributions to newspapers, and this is an author who knows how to put the words together, yessir.

In any event, I'm very much looking forward to Kehua! Not least because of the absolutely bloody gorgeous cover, which shares much with the design of that hallucinatory beauty adorning the dustjacket of Corvus' UK release of Jeff VanderMeer's Finch. Now that I'm back from my little jaunt, expect to see a review within the week.

The Museum of Innocence
by Orhan Pamuk

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
02/09/10 by Faber & Faber

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "The Museum of Innocence - set in Istanbul between 1975 and today - tells the story of Kemal, the son of one of Istanbul's richest families, and of his obsessive love for a poor and distant relation, the beautiful Fusun, who is a shop-girl in a small boutique. The novel depicts a panoramic view of life in Istanbul as it chronicles this long, obsessive, love affair between Kemal and Fusun; and Pamuk beautifully captures the identity crisis esperienced by Istanbul's upper classes who find themselves caught between traditional and westernised ways of being."

Commentary: Now this one came rather out of nowhere. I have a few of Orhan Pamuk's books in my library: My Name is Red, which I've read - thanks to a rather misleading Paul Auster comparison - and Snow, which I haven't. The Paul Auster connection was helpful insofar as it got me to read a book I otherwise wouldn't have, but though I admire the Turkish author hugely, My Name is Red left me mostly cold. No dragons, you know? Not even a chosen one!

Ah, I kid of course. I'm sure The Museum of Innocence will broaden my perspective when I do sit down with it [done! - ED], but it's a beast of a book, and mostly old news at this point - except to say "out now in paperback" - so don't expect anything more on it till I've cleared some of the stack.

by Anne Holt

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/12/09 by Corvus

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced-over tracks as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered. With the storm showing no sign of abating, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is asked to investigate. But Hanne has no wish to get involved. She has learned the hard way that truth comes at a price and sometimes that price just isn't worth paying. Her pursuit of truth and justice has cost her the love of her life, her career in the Oslo Police Department and her mobility: she is paralysed from the waist down by a bullet lodged in her spine. Trapped in a wheelchair, trapped by the killer within, trapped by the deadly storm outside, Hanne's growing unease is shared by everyone in the hotel. Should she investigate, or should she just wait for help to arrive? And all the time rumours swirl about a secret cargo carried by train 601. Why was the last carriage sealed? Why is the top floor of the hotel locked down? Who or what is being concealed? And, of course, what if the killer strikes again?"

Commentary: "The Scandinavian phenomenon" finally comes to the UK, and Corvus are certainly pitching 1222 pretty hard. They're a discerning lot, I think, and the exciting synopsis goes some way to reassuring anyone out there who might doubt as much; we could be looking at something pretty special here. As with The Museum of Innocence, however, it's likely to be a while before you see a review of Anne Holt's English-language debut here on TSS. Not due to any lack of desire on my part, you understand, but 1222 isn't out till December, so I'll be doing the decent thing and waiting a while before publishing anything more on it.

by Ursula K. LeGuin

Release Details:
Published in the UK
on 21/05/09 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "'Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn't be given, wouldn't be taken, but chose my man and my fate. The man was famous, the fate obscure; not a bad balance.'

"Lavinia is the daughter of the King of Latium, a victorious warrior who loves peace; she is her father's closest companion. Now of an age to wed, Lavinia's mother favours her own kinsman, King Turnus of Rutulia, handsome, heroic, everything a young girl should want. Instead, Lavinia dreams of mighty Aeneas, a man she has heard of only from a ghost of a poet, who comes to her in the gods' holy place and tells her of her future, and Aeneas' past...

"If she refuses to wed Turnus, Lavinia knows she will start a war - but her fate was set the moment the poet appeared to her in a dream and told her of the adventurer who fled fallen Troy, holding his son's hand and carrying his father on his back.

Commentary: More old news, I suppose, and I didn't get Lavinia for review, either - would you believe it: I bought a book! - but I had to mention it. If only to tip the hat to Victoria for the recommendation she made over on The Speculative Book Review, which rather won me over. Very much looking forward to this; it puts me in mind of Tigana, and that's high praise indeed from me.

Catching Fire
by Suzanne Collins

Release Details:
Published in the UK
on 07/09/09 by Scholastic

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "After winning the brutal Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen returns to her district, hoping for a peaceful future. But Katniss starts to hear rumours of a deadly rebellion against the Capitol. A rebellion that she and Peeta have helped to create. As Katniss and Peeta are forced to visit the districts on the Capitol's cruel Victory Tour, the stakes are higher than ever. Unless Katniss and Peeta can convince the world that they are still lost in their love for each other, the consequences will be horrifying... The terrifying sequel to The Hunger Games."

Commentary: Oh my god, spoilers! Well, damn, I guess I know how The Hunger Games ends now. Sorry - no more researching Catching Fire for the BoSS in case I ruin any more of The Hunger Games for myself, but know that at the time of this writing [at least two weeks ago - ED] I'm reading and adoring book one, and the plan, as it stands, is to have reviews of all three volumes of Suzanne Collins' YA zeitgeist-grabber up shortly. Maybe I'll even arrange a special crossword for you all to play with too!

Saturday 28 August 2010

From the Comments: Complex Inferiority

Seventy or so comments in, the discussion over my post on Thursday, entitled Inferior Fantasy, has finally leveled out - which isn't to say there weren't cogent arguments being made throughout, only that they were rather lost, rather sadly lost, in the great vengeance and furious anger of the aftermath of my suggestion that perhaps a genre we all hold dear could be... better.

And rather than simply stirring the hornet's nest up all over again, I'll accept my share of responsibility for that. I don't have a world of time to labour over the blog posts I write: firstly, foremostly, I blog because I enjoy blogging. I blog about speculative fiction in particular because I love speculative fiction - primarily fantasy. I had thought eight months of news and reviews and the inherently opinionated (and often rather snarky) commentary I've offered up to you all would have been an ample assertion of my credentials in that regard. As per the note I originally concluded on, I'm "a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the form," the form here being fantasy, and so I took it as a given that people wouldn't automatically assume I'd somehow turned on them - them, and a genre they love, as evidenced by the fact they'd come to TSS to read about it in the first place.

Evidently, I couldn't have been more wrong. Almost immediately, despite my attempts to couch the difficult question I had hoped to ask in assurances that it was a question, not - not by a long shot - a statement, a flood of readers chimed in to tell me, in essence, what a back-stabbing ass I had turned out to be. In and of itself, that wasn't entirely unexpected (though the particular people who did so did take me aback); I understood going in that for many, the notion that fantasy falls short in some respects would be a hot-button topic. I hadn't, admittedly, expected that those readers who disagreed would do so with such vitriol. Beginning with an anonymous commenter - never something, I'll admit, that sits well with me, though it's something I allow because not every reader has an account with Blogger, and most such commenters have the good grace to sign their contributions to the discussion in lieu - beginning with an anonymous commenter, then, the backlash: "all told," anon asserted, "this is a spectacularly dumb conversation."

I disagree. Strenuously. As did many of the other commenters, among them Vector Reviews editor Martin Lewis, Mike Johnstone, Eric M. Edwards, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Charan Newton, solarbridge, Jeff Vandermeer - who, needless to say, I've clashed with in the past - and Robert Jackson Bennett. Some of whom have taken the conversation I'd attempted to have to their own blogs - away, and wisely so, I would say, from the wilful misinterpretation thereof that had overpowered it here on TSS. Not all of the above agreed with me, of course; some did, certainly, but before someone accuses me of taking things out of context, let me be clear: I'm not saying that they did. But they did engage with the question, rather than, as I joked in the original article, losing their lunch.

But let's put all that to one side.

Celine Kiernan, author of The Poison Throne, and Paul Charles Smith of Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream - both of whom I have a great deal of respect for - as well as several others I'm surely forgetting, agreed with anon. Various commenters iterated much the same sentiment.

Amanda Rutter of Floor-to-Ceiling Books dismissed my question thus: "This blog post was ill-conceived, IMO."

Gav of NextRead stopped by to say "Sorry but this is really a load of bollocks."

Isn't constructive criticism a fine thing? And those comments, though it pains me to say so, were among the more considered non-responses to Inferior Fantasy.

Alex, for instance, asserted: "Sounds like you've had some time off, read something more mainstream and supposedly a bit more highbrow, and have come back thinking you're hot shit and Fantasy's a load of rubbish. LOL."

The Evil Hat simply called it as he (she? Sorry) saw it: "Fantasy is inherently inferior? Bull. Shit."

All of which came from... where? Search me. In the original post, in fact, I contradict the very (offensive) sentiment I've been accused of issuing: "Don't for a minute think I'm asserting that fantasy is an inherently inferior genre of fiction. That's borderline bigotry, and... utterly repugnant to me." Perhaps as the day wore on and my hackles were raised by understandably defensive readers (or commenters, I should say; I'm not entirely convinced all those who commented had actually read the article itself) whole sole goal seemed to be misconstrue my position and indeed my intent - the better to tell it like it is, one presumes - I responded in the heat of the moment, and talked myself, as is all too often my way, into ever-decreasing circles that I might reframe the debate before it became completely sidelined by the shitstorm which had resulted from the mere suggestion that, as fantasy fans, should we not demand more from our genre of choice rather than heralding good fiction as great fiction?

...and breathe.

Yet the perception - that I believed for a second that fantasy was inferior - proved pervasive. Weirdmage asked, "If you really think Speculative Fiction is an inferior genre, why start a blog about it?" while LEC took after Alex's tactic, wondering "Are you trying to become the Literary Scotsman, Niall?"

Let me stop for just a second to say: no. I have none of the delusions of grandeur, as if blogging about literary fiction - so called - would somehow grant me such grandeur, that so many commenters seem to assume. I blog as the speculative Scotsman for two reasons. One, because I'm Scottish, and two, because I adore speculative fiction (and by extension fantasy) in all its forms. In film, in literature, in video games, in comic books - wherever there's speculative fiction, you can be sure there's at least one Scotsman determined to adore it.


I fully accept that I could have taken more time to raise the issue in question, and more care in doing so. As Ran asserted, "You've put your thumb on the scale with the specific comparisons and the definitions you provided, Niall," and yes, I surely did; guilty as charged. Perhaps Brandon Sanderson's almost universally acclaimed new fantasy isn't the equivalent of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. China Mieville or Guy Gavriel Kay would have been better contenders, authors I'd happily pitch against the best of literary fiction with the expectation they stand up to any such comparison, or at the least put up a hell of a fight. But I had a point to make - a question to ask, I should say - and a simple way to make it. I could take more time and more care composing everything that goes up here on TSS - except that I only have so much time to spend. To paraphrase Joe Abercrombie, I spiked a few definitions to fit my argument.

Isn't that the way of things, though? Isn't that every academic argument in a nutshell right there? Selecting the evidence that reinforces your assertion all the while dismissing the evidence which does not?

But I won't make too much of a fuss about that point, Ran's point. I could have substituted Brandon Sanderson for Ian McDonald and crafted my argument more carefully to compensate. My point, I hasten to add, would (in my view) still stand. Ian McDonald is awesome, but how many Ian McDonalds are there in this field? Five? Ten? Wouldn't it be nice if there were more authors of that caliber, that ambition, to point to?

Some, I suspect, will take that paragraph as a tacit admission that I wrinkle my nose at the thought of... let's say new Mark Charan Newton. To which accusation I would ask, how did you enjoy Mark Charan Newton week? For myself, I had a hell of a time. I don't need for every fantasy novel I read to be academically and intellectually remarkable. I don't demand that all of fantasy must suddenly devote its attention entire to impressing notoriously hard-to-please critics. That's not what I want from the genre by any stretch. I understand that what matters most of all, in terms of the experience of reading, is that, as @NextRead put it, we have a good time. I had a good time with The Way of Kings (more on which later, and elsewhere, in fact). But is having a good time truly all that matters? In a vacuum, that kind of argument might fly. As one genre among many, however, and as a staunch supporter of that genre with high hopes that it be less often on the receiving end of snooty, derisory and dismissive attitudes, the likes of which we're constantly complaining about across the blogosphere, I want twenty Ian McDonalds where I've suggested there might be ten, as it stands. I want a hundred Ian McDonalds, damn it. And how is that such a horrendous thing to hope for?

I made this very argument on Twitter the other evening, in fact, in (woefully restrictive) increments of 140 characters. Salvaged and re-appropriated from amidst a flurry of often spiteful, condescending responses, then:

"So let's have another go at this. I love fantasy; let's begin with that. I love speculative fiction as a whole, but in particular, my bag is fantasy. Thus, I want others to love fantasy. But the market for the genre is not what it could be, because, I think, it gets a bad rap. People - mainstream critics, literary fiction aficionados, bookstore buyers and so on - seem to think fantasy is a bit childish, a bit "below" them. They view the genre in the same light as they do comic books, video games... the same way people (now proven wrongheaded) used to view cinema, television and crime fiction. Which isn't to say those forms of storytelling are inferior either - they're not. Within reason, no one form of anything is. But snobbery.

"Snobbery prevails. Critics decry fantasy as juvenile. They're wrong - of course. Categorically, they can't say an entire genre is juvenile based on one or two or even ten instances of it. Those instances may indeed be juvenile, but they are not in and of themselves representative of the genre. But one wonders. What are these critics reading that's made it so easy for them to dismiss fantasy according to their prejudices? They're reading fantasy that isn't representative of the best the genre has to offer, clearly. Sit even the snootiest critic down with The Dervish House or The City and The City and their views would surely be untenable.

"But reviewers - 'gatekeepers,' as Mark has it - don't, as a rule, pick and choose what they devote their energies to. They're given a couple of books to review, books that someone, somewhere has decided are sure to be a big deal; books which certain somebodies have intuited are likely to be what these critics' respective audiences want to hear about. These sorts of decisions are made based on buzz, hype, the strength (or perceived strength) of such and such an author's back-catalogue.

"And so, my point. I feel like fantasy fans (myself included) are so enthusiastic about the form that we will champion, and so help to create that buzz, that hype, just about anything we enjoy. For instance, The Black Prism, or The Way of Kings. Both of which are very fine reads, in their way (and here we're getting subjective - there's no getting around that that I can see), but not, I would argue, the genre figureheads they're made out to be. And so snooty critics sit down with The Black Prism, say, thinking, 'this is the best fantasy has to offer?' And no, it isn't. But we portray it as if it were. And they read it under the presumption that it is. Snotty mainstream critics everywhere have their preconceptions reinforced, fantasy at large suffers - insofar as it doesn't benefit - and who do we have to blame but ourselves? If we're to hope fantasy will one day be respected in the way we respect it, the way we love it, we need to be more careful, more reserved, with our praise. We need to set the bar for what is truly great in fantasy that much higher."

Which reiteration of the argument I'd hoped to pose earlier in the day met with some interesting debate - but I'm digressing already. Had I thought to substitute Brandon Sanderson for Ian McDonald, I wonder, would the initial majority of responses have been any less outraged? Did I, as @Murf61 suggested on Twitter that night, write a post without thinking about the consequences? No. I don't believe I did. The knee-jerk defensiveness it met with, however, the siege mentality Martin has talked about on Everything is Nice, was not among the consequences I'd considered in the writing of Inferior Fantasy. Cara is bang on the money insofar as saying I hit a raw nerve with the offending article, but was it thus, as she further asserted, "the wrong subject for discussion"? Are we simply to hold our tongues when it comes to debating difficult subjects?

I dearly hope not. From the very depths of my soul, I hope that isn't the case.

In any event, I find my own appetite for such debate completely and utterly deflated after all the fuss that followed. After the thousands of words I've written on the subject, or rather around the subject, defending and reframing the particulars of my argument rather than addressing the very things I'd imagined it might lead to - which as of now, it has (thank the dead) - I'm spent.

Which isn't to say the issue is dead in the water, as so many would no doubt like it to be. Several authors and erstwhile bloggers have picked up the torch to offer their own thoughts on the matter, many of whom have made the point I'd aimed to make more elegantly than I could have hoped to. So. I refer you to the following:

On the Orbit blog, Robert Jackson Bennett, author of Mr Shivers and The Company Man, forthcoming from that esteemed publisher, gives us a piece he thinks might land him "neck-deep in shit." Probably, Robert... probably! In any case, it's called On Content, Execution and the Future of Genre. It's here, and it's highly recommended reading.

Robert has also been blogging about the merits of eating babies, and not entirely coincidentally, I suspect. I haven't meant to eat any babies, honest I haven't!

Over on Everything is Nice, meanwhile, Vector Reviews editor Martin Lewis gives us Inferiority Complex, which begins with a rebuttal I'm sure many of you will disagree with - "Yesterday Niall Alexander put forward a reasonable point of view... needless to say, everybody lost their lunch" - but goes on to make an alluring argument of the comparative mess I gave you in the first instance. That's here.

On Speculative Horizons, which I'm such a fan of I'll link to given the slightest inclination, thank you very much, James puts his $0.02 into the hat as part of his Friday Links post. Not to worry, James: I'll still be here when the dust settles! Whether anyone else will be, well, that remains to be seen...

And please, if you haven't already, do take the time to read through (the more cogent) comments, in which the likes of Jeff Vandermeer, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Charan Newton, Sam Sykes and Celine Kiernan have made their diverse opinions plain. Just look at all the pretty authors! :)

I'd also urge you to check out the comments from E. M. Edwards and Mike Johnstone in particular, each of whom appears to agree with me - to differing extents - but irregardless engage with the issue in exactly the way I'd hoped more readers would. In fact, let me conclude this already ridiculously-overlong rebuttal with a quote from that latter's thoughts on the matter:

"I think Niall is in fact asking a very relevant and important question that has implications for a wide range of issues related to speculative fiction. Moreover, I think he's coming at the issue from an honest and searching perspective, one that ultimately bears directly on the possible function(s) and significance of reviewing -- or, criticism.

"Thus, this discussion is not in any way "spectacularly dumb" or "bollocks" or "Bull. Shit."

"The question of quality in speculative fiction compared to literary fiction is definitely a fair one. Above, Sam Sykes writes, "Art exists to comment on humanity," and he's right in a broad sense. However, this statement also suggests that, in effect, all Art can be judged based on this broad criterion.

"Regardless of genre (or marketing category), works of speculative and literary fiction are equally Art, broadly considered. Even more specifically, the predominant form in both is the novel, and so we have a further broad, common criterion of judgment for assessing the quality of each (i.e., a novel is a novel, whether it's sword-and-sorcery fantasy or [a literary chronicle of middle-aged men having affairs]).

"In this light, Niall's discussion has a great deal of merit.

"It has merit because there are objective, concrete measures of "quality" for literary art and then for prose narratives in the form of novels. As Niall mentions, these measures are in part "technical," or matters of craft: grammar, paragraphing; dialogue; plotting; description, exposition; point of view; consistency of characterisation and in the setting; genre conventions/tropes, and so forth. These measures are also in part "artistic" (let's say): style, voice; metaphor, allegory, simile; rhythm and sound patterns; layered meanings, and so forth. Together, these technical and artistic measures make up a novel's "comment on humanity," whether that novel involves sorcerers and dragons, spaceships with FTL capability, or real places and times such as New York City or the antebellum era in the southern US.

"Based on these objective, concrete measures, much speculative fiction, unfortunately, does fall short on "quality" in comparison to much literary fiction. As written art, speculative fiction generally is simply not very good.

"Yet when it is very good, it is the equal of the best literary fiction out there, past and present."

Fucking spot on, Mike. Well said.

Thank you and good day.

Thursday 26 August 2010

From the Comments: Inferior Fantasy

Last week I came clean about something that'd been playing on my mind for ages.

Shamefaced, I admitted how I'd been secretly stepping out on speculative fiction. After eight months of reading almost exclusively within the genre - the better to have something you'd all be interested in to blog about from day to day, you know - I confessed that I'd had to take a break from it to recharge the old batteries. I'd hoped that together the time and the distance might mean I would come back with my enthusiasm renewed.

And so it did; so it has. Over the weekend I gorged myself on the first volume of The Hunger Games (tremendous fun) and began The Uncrowned King by Rowena Cory Daniels, which I'm totally digging. Now I don't mean to belabour the discussion we all had last week - I'm back, and it's good to be back, damn it - but of all the comments on Stepping Out, and thank you kindly for those, one in particular, I think, bears further consideration.

Rachel had this to say:

"I'm not going to be popular saying this, but I did try to read some fantasy books a month or so ago and found them so excruciatingly badly written that I couldn't get past the first few pages. I don't think that fantasy books are in general worse than non-fantasy, rather... if you apply Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything is crap: there are fewer fantasy books than non-fantasy and 10% of a small number is going to be smaller than 10% of a large number. Are there fewer amazing fantasy than non-fantasy books? Yes. But only statistically speaking."

And I tend to agree with her. Fantasy can be a bit crap, can't it? However close the genre may be to our hearts, we've all read some particularly awful examples of the form in our time, I'm sure.

But I'd go one further. Put what the consensus has deemed a "well-written" fantasy beside an acclaimed non-genre work, and I'd bet good money that the latter is of a significantly higher quality than the former. I mean technically... artistically... narratively - every which way, ultimately. Would anyone argue the merits of Brandon Sanderson's latest tome as opposed to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Is there a soul out there who'd fight for Mark Charan Newton's City of Ruin - a warmly received fantasy indeed - over Solar by Ian McEwan, say?

I can see this being a divisive subject, but let's not everyone lose our literary lunches at once. After all, the market for non-genre literature is so much larger, and so much more crowded, than that for fantasy - and there's hardly a shortage of fantasies - that the barrier for entry is that much higher. Rachel's point about Sturgeon's Law bears out here. The cream of the crop of non-genre fiction is going to be necessarily creamier than that in fantasy, simply for the fact that there are more crops to cream from. Fantasy is but an isolated field; "general fiction," meanwhile, as it's so ominously known, is a network of farms entire next to the smallholding of our genre of choice.

What a fine line this is to traverse. Don't for a minute think I'm asserting that fantasy is an inherently inferior genre of fiction. That's borderline bigotry, and as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the form utterly repugnant to me. But there's something to this argument, isn't there? I've not taken two and two and come up with five here... have I?

So set me straight. Where has my equation gone wrong? Is fantasy truly inferior - woe betide us all if that's the case - or is it simply a case of strength in numbers?

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Millennium Animator

God damn it.

Have you heard the news already? Satoshi Kon, director of some of the most remarkable anime ever, is dead. The Anime News Network reports that he "passed away from pancreatic cancer [on Tuesday] at the age of 46."

I don't know that I want to speak to the fact that this news broke over Twitter. That's pretty sickening in itself, but it had to break somehow, I suppose, so... I'll let it slide.

The man was a legend. You should all watch his films. One in particular: Paprika, which Christopher Nolan called out as one of the inspirations behind Inception. I wonder if he got to see it?

In any case, Satoshi Kon was a filmmaker in his prime. He'd gone from Perfect Blue to Millennium Actress to Tokyo Godfathers to Paprika, and in between times he'd made Paranoia Agent, one of my very, very, very favourite anime series ever. He'd been slaving away at his latest speculative haze for years before the hammer finally fell: The Dream Machine was to be "a road movie for robots," and who knows if we'll ever have the chance to see it now. I don't know that it matters overly much... if we do, it won't be the finished product, and Kon was nothing if not a perfectionist. No doubt GAINAX will draft another director in to polish the last few frames up, but The Dream Machine won't be what it would have been, had Kon lived to wrap up production himself, on his own terms.

But Satoshi Kon is dead - and so young. Long live Satoshi Kon, then, in our hearts, and in our heads.

God damn it.

Wishing You A...

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Film Review: Pontypool

So you want to make a zombie film. Not just any zombie film: an intelligent zombie film, sophisticated and restrained. You've got no money, in any event. You can't afford to pay an expensive CG studio to generate the special effects inherent in most movies of the undead ouvre, nor can your budget accommodate enough prosthetic heads packed full of pig intestines to do the trick. What do you do?

You do exactly what Pontypool does: construct a narrative which by design excludes the very things you cannot afford. You make a film set during the zombie apocalypse without actually showing said apocalypse - nor, for the most part, said zombies. Pontypool does a whole lot without very much at all. It's tense, clever and occasionally quite scary. And please, let me open the floor: when was the last time a zombie film actually scared you? It can be difficult to separate an actual fright from the combined shock of a surprise cut and an overbearing score,  or the toe-curling unease of an extreme close-up on some disturbing body horror. Pontypool makes that distinction clear for all to see. It's a hell of a film, all things considered.

Stephen McHattie's Grant Mazzy is a controversial talk-radio DJ, gruff-voiced and wonderfully hungry despite having fallen from grace. He makes ends meet in these, his twilight years, by hosting "Mazzy in the Morning" for a modest audience more interested in local gossip than Grant's trademark anti-establishment diatribes. One morning, however, the usual routine grinds to a halt when reports begin to come in of a violent mob overrunning the town. Before his connection cuts off, the station's eye in the sky reporter describes the outbreak firsthand: locals are massing in what Ken Loney (actually just a man in a car on a hill) calls "a herd." They seem to be repeating the same words and phrases over and over, like automatons. It is not entirely out of the question that these people may also have a hankering for brains.

Together, then, with a spunky young audio engineer (Georgina Reilly) and Lisa Houle as a producer who's begun to regret hiring Grant in the first place, Mazzy and company hole up in the radio station HQ, promising to broadcast until the very last. That's Pontypool. Well, that and the particular species of undead it latterly hinges on: zombies infected by language itself, by a virus that lurks in certain words, in the metaphysical chasm between reference and perception. Tony Burgess' script is really very clever - it melted a bit of my brain, though your mileage may of course vary - yet disarmingly intuitive for all that. It demands so little in terms of cast and location, quantitatively speaking, that it could easily be a one-act play.

Such simplistic concepts rarely play in cinema, however. Cinema is a ruthlessly visual medium, increasingly dependent on poking its audience in the eye with a pointy stick every five seconds, and there's simply very little in Pontypool to smash-cut to. A few guys and girls chatting into microphones in a soundproof room just isn't the sort of narrative that plays well on screen - even if the world is ending around them all the while. Car chases, explosions and sex scenes, on the other hand, perhaps even amid the aforementioned apocalypse... now that's more like it!

Well, no. No it bloody well is not. Pontypool is the most definitive rebuttal of modern cinema's overreliance on in-your-face effects, vast casts and globe-trotting "storytelling" that I've had the pleasure of seeing in years. It is refreshingly free of the cheap (though tremendously expensive) tricks with which cinema so often seduces us. At least, it is until director Bruce McDonald buckles under the weight of our expectations in the final act. In ten misguided minutes, there's a clinch, a twist and a slathering of unnecessary nastiness. Come the climax, Pontypool is a little bit too... Outer Limits, say, for its last gasp to sit well with all the low-key horror preceding it. Oh well.

Still. All things considered, remember? For a movie a few dudes made for pocket change, it's a hell of a film. Pontypool is briefly a bit ridiculous, but by and large, it works wonders with precious little. A tense and affecting drama wrapped in the inference rather than the fact of a zombie film's trimmings, Pontypool is a lesson to all indie filmmakers with a speculative tale to tell; a low-budget masterpiece in microcosm. What Primer was to science-fiction, Pontypool is for the genre George A. Romero has single-handedly driven six feet into the cold, clammy earth.

Saturday 21 August 2010

The Boss for 21/08/10

Best of the week? It's got to be a tie between Zoo City and new Jeff VanderMeer. The unwitting subject of a carnival over at The Mumpsimus, The Third Bear is the first collection of VanderMeer's short fiction which - when I've come across it in the past - has always been a treat, in a pleasantly baffling sort of way. Zoo City, meanwhile, represents an opportunity for me to finally catch up on an author I've been meaning to read since the love-in over Moxyland.

Got a review copy of the first book of The Hunger Games this week, too, which could be cool. Anyone out there a fan? I hear they're in no short supply...

Click through to read Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag.

Read on for a sneak peek at some of the books - past, present and future - you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


The Uncrowned King
by Rowena Cory Daniels

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
05/08/10 by Solaris

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Thirteen year old Piro watches powerless as her father's enemies march on his castle.

"A traitor whispers poison in the King's ear, undermining his trust in her brother, Byren. Determined to prove his loyalty, Byren races across the path of the advancing army, towards the Abbey. Somehow, he must get there in time to convince the Abbot to send his warriors to defend the castle.

"Meanwhile, the youngest of King Rolen's sons, Fyn, has barely begun his training as an Abbey mystic, but he wakes in a cold sweat, haunted by dreams of betrayal..."

Commentary: Meet book two of King Rolen's Kin. We talked a bit about book one, The King's Bastard, in last week's edition of The BoSS, and here, a mere week later, we have The Uncrowned King. And The Usurper is just a few weeks out. Can I keep up? Well, I'm already behind, but dang and blast, I'm going to give it my all!

The Third Bear
by Jeff Vandermeer

Release Details:
Published in the US on
01/08/10 by Tachyon Publications

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "The award-winning short fictions in this collection highlight the voice of an inventive contemporary fantasist who has been compared by critics to Borges, Nabokov, and Kafka. In addition to highlights such as 'The Situation', in which a beleaguered office worker creates a child-swallowing manta ray to be used for educational purposes and 'Errata', which follows an oddly familiar writer who has marshalled a penguin, a shaman, and two pearl-handled pistols with which to plot the end of the world, this volume contains two never-before-published stories. Chimerical and hypnotic, this compilation leads readers through the post-modern into what is emerging into a new literature of the imagination."

Commentary: I got off on the wrong foot with Jeff VanderMeer: Veniss Underground was the first of his books I read, and it was... not great. Not great enough, in fact, that it worked to discourage me from the Ambergris books until Finch came along wowed the hell out of me. Only after that did I go back and catch up, and I acknowledge now that my first experience of VanderMeer was of what must be his published fiction's lowest, least engaging ebb. He's been onwards and upwards from there ever since, and Finch was among my very favourite books of last year (on which note, I politely demand my VanderFan badge!), so to see a collection now... well, let's just say I fully expect to come away a little smarter from having read The Third Bear, and that's always a plus, isn't it?

by Tim Davys


Release Details:
Published in the US on
22/07/10 by Harper

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "While finishing what was to be his greatest symphony, famed composer Reuben Walrus discovers he is going deaf. Desperate to stave off the encroaching silence, he embarks on an odyssey to find a fabled creature named Maximilian, rumored to have healing powers but only traceable via an underground network. But as Reuben gets closer to the truth, he must ask himself: just who - or what - is Maximilian?

"The story of the legendary creature is recorded by Wolf Diaz, Maximilian's oldest friend and most loyal follower. Oddly, unlike the other stuffed animals of Mollisan Town, Maximilian did not arrive by green delivery truck. He cannot be identified as any particular species and is made from a material unlike any other with almost invisible seams. And most puzzling, he grows in size. As Maximilian matures, he begins to preach odd parables, attracting a legion of followers hoping to learn from his teachings. But his believers aren't the only stuffed animals paying attention as his growing influence threatens the power of the darker forces currently ruling Mollisan Town. Now Maximilian is in hiding... and time is running out for Reuben to find him. As his search widens, the composer encounters a detective mouse, a giraffe who swears Maximilian miraculously cured his stomach cancer, and a mink who may hold the key to Reuben's salvation. But it's a race against time as Reuben's world steadily goes silent, and his desperation may ultimately lead to his undoing."

Commentary: Hmmm. That blurb kind of works for me, actually - and I confess, I hadn't expected it to. We have Publisher's Weekly to bring us down a peg or two, on the other hand: they say "the stuffed animal conceit adds little to a story whose characters are so tritely human that readers may find themselves wondering why the author even bothered to cast it with fantasy surrogates," but... I find myself intrigued nevertheless. Don't expect a review of Lanceheim soon - too many Next Big Things to take care of just this second - but I'm curious enough that I'd be surprised if I didn't at least give it a shot in the not-too-distant.

Tempest Rising
by Nicole Peeler

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
19/08/05 by Orbit

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "Living in small town Rockabilly, Maine, Jane True always knew she didn't quite fit in with so-called normal society. During her nightly, clandestine swim in the freezing winter ocean, a grisly find leads Jane to startling revelations about her heritage: she is only half-human. Now, Jane must enter a world filled with supernatural creatures that are terrifying, beautiful and deadly - all of which perfectly describe her new 'friend' Ryu, a gorgeous and powerful vampire. It is a world where nothing can be taken for granted: a dog can heal with a lick; spirits bag your groceries; and whatever you do, never - ever - rub the genie's lamp."

Commentary: You know what? I understand this book's a pretty big deal for fans of urban fantasy - there's been enough noise about it as of late - but I just can't get past that stupid Hello Kitty cover. In fact, it kind of offends me; how old is Jane True (I presume) meant to be, anyway? Is this Goth erotica? Well, the blurb insists it's for fans of Sookie Stackhouse, so... pretty much. Methinks Tempest Rising might not be for me.

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
05/01/09 by Scholastic

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. But Katniss has been close to death before - and survival, for her, is second nature. The Hunger Games is a searing novel set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present. Welcome to the deadliest reality TV show ever..."

Commentary: How late to the party am I? Well, I brought a keg...  forgive me?

On the other hand, I do wonder how appropriate kegs are likely to be to fans of The Hunger Games. And this series - of which this is the first novel - certainly has its fans: legions of young adults and mature readers in living in blissful harmony. The publication of the trilogy's concluding volume later this year is being strictly embargoed in the same way as the latter Harry Potter novels. Mockingjay looks to be bringing the excitement for the series to a fever pitch, and despite the dodgy sounding reality TV premise - The Running Man anyone? - I'd like to be hammering at my local bookstore's doors for a copy too on release day too. Kind of miss that mass midnight hysteria...

So I've got my work cut out for me. Two novels to catch up on and just a few weeks to do so. Wish me luck!

Zoo City
by Lauren Beukes

Release Details:
Published in the UK
on 02/09/10 by Angry Robot

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she's forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.

"Being hired by reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a teenybop pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in the shadow of hell’s undertow.

"Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own."

Commentary: "Zinzi has a talent for finding lost things. To save herself, she's got to find the hardest thing of all: the truth." So it goes - the tagline for the next novel from the South African author of Moxyland, that is. Lauren Beukes made a huge impression with her debut, attracting acclaim from all quarters, and wouldn't you know it... I haven't read it, have I? This despite my solemn promise to read anything China Mieville recommends. Well. You can be sure I'm going to get to this, and soon.

As a matter of fact, I might just start it tonight. Cup of tea here I come!

Beautiful Malice
by Rebecca James

Release Details:
Published in the UK
on 01/07/10 by Faber & Faber

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "So. Were you glad, deep down? Were you glad to be rid of her? Your perfect sister? Were you secretly glad when she was killed? Following a horrific tragedy that leaves her once perfect family devastated, Katherine Patterson moves to a new city, starts at a new school, and looks forward to a new life of quiet anonymity. But when Katherine meets the gregarious and beautiful Alice Parrie her resolution to live a solitary life becomes difficult. Katherine is unable to resist the flattering attention that Alice pays her and is so charmed by Alice's contagious enthusiasm that the two girls soon become firm friends. Alice's joie de vivre is transformative; it helps Katherine forget her painful past and slowly, tentatively, Katherine allows herself to start enjoying life again. But being friends with Alice is complicated – and as Katherine gets to know her better she discovers that although Alice can be charming and generous she can also be selfish and egocentric. Sometimes, even, Alice is cruel. And when Katherine starts to wonder if Alice is really the kind of person she wants as a friend, she discovers something else about Alice – she doesn't like being cast off."

Commentary: The world loves this book. Behold, an excerpt from the publisher's prideful preening: "Beautiful Malice has become a publishing phenomenon, sparking numerous auctions worldwide, selling to 27 countries, and launching a previously unknown writer into the centre of the international book market." Perhaps not the world, then, but certainly, the publishing industry loves Rebecca James' suspenseful debut. Can it be mere coincidence that I have a week of crime fiction reviews - the TSS crime spree, I'm calling it - on the books? Only time will tell.

Well, actually, it is just coincidence. But what a handy one! Look for a review of Beautiful Malice soon... as well as write-ups of Noir: A Novel, So Cold the River, The Levels and The Scent of Rain and Lightning.

Teasing! :D

That's all, folks.