Recent reads: Gibson, Strahan, Kiernan, Abbott

I’ve been slack, sneaking in a bit of reading and not passing on the goods. So here’s a quick summary of yarns I’ve read lately (outside of last year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge) that have made me happy:

william gibson book the peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (Penguin/Viking 2014): Gibson time travels, from the economically bereft American South to a socially bereft future London, where climate change has wrought its sneaky damage and only tech has saved humanity — at the price, perhaps, of its humanity. The book needs its own review — there are plenty out there, and this one by Keith Stevenson tags a bunch of my responses (yeah, the tracking device, way too convenient) — but suffice to say, I love Gibson’s writing. Here’s a protag who is perhaps slightly under-equipped to handle the situation in which, tired and lonely though not alone, he finds himself; here’s another who is coping very well with it, thanks, due to her smarts, and those family and friends in dangerous places. There was little tension, though, and the happy endings all round left me a bit meh, but the ride was comfortable (but not safe — Gibson does not err on the side of over-explanation, bless, though some of the sentence fragments actually jarred me from time to time) and the view deftly drawn and suitably gloomy in all the right places. Makes me want to read Neuromancer et al all over again.

fearful symmetries anthology editor ellen datlowFearful Symmetries, Ellen Datlow (ed) (ChiZine 2014): I helped Kickstart this tome and it was money well spent; a solid bunch of spooky yarns. One, though, blew my socks off; it dispensed with linear narrative in a way that made my head spin — that it was partly set in New Orleans probably helped, sure, but wow: ‘Ballad of An Echo Whisperer’ by Caitlín R Kiernan floated my boat like few other short stories I read last year.

 

fearsome magicsFearsome Magics, Jonathan Strahan (ed) (Solaris, 2014): One of the strongest anthologies I read last year, with not even a handful of yarns that made me go ‘meh’. While magic was the core theme, the variations to be found within are wide and wonderful: faery magic, science as magic, high fantasy, urban fantasy. Strahan has conjured a strong field for this table of contents and they cast quite a spell.

 

die a little by megan abbottAnd finally, I should be reading, oh, dozens of books right now, I guess, but sometimes you just gotta go for a safe, enjoyable read. A palate cleanser, for want of a more charitable description. One where you know the voice and the world will immerse you, the writing will thrill you, and the story will be worth your investment. And so it is I have picked up Megan Abbott’s Die A Little (Simon and Schuster, 2005). It’s another (early) of her period noirs, in which a school teacher and her policeman brother get caught up with a femme fatale with a shadowy past. I’d probably still pick Queenpin as my favourite so far — I note I am behind in Abbott’s catalogue *sigh* — but I love the voice and the use of a chapter-free progression of scenes told in the first person from a rather cool cucumber. I’m halfway through and the dressing’s just hit the salad and I can’t wait to see who dishes up the just desserts …

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Snapshot 2012: Rjurik Davidson

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoRJURIK Davidson is a freelance writer and associate editor of Overland magazine. Rjurik has written short stories, essays, reviews and screenplays. PS Publishing published his collection, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. His novel, Unwrapped Sky, will be published by Tor in 2012. He writes reviews of speculative fiction for the Age newspaper, film reviews for several magazines and has a regular column in Overland. Rjurik’s screenplay The Uncertainty Principle (co-written with Ben Chessell) is currently under development with German company Lailaps Films. He has been short-listed for and won a number of awards. He can be found at www.rjurikdavidson.blogspot.com and has a blog on the Overland website called Against Reality.

You have a collection and, in the pipeline, novels set in your world of minotaurs and sirens: how have you approached such mythic creatures in your fiction?
As a child I read the Greek myths and, around the age of six, my imagination was captured by the ruins of Ancient Rome. There’s always been something transcendent about myth, which is why they still resonate with us. But in my stories, I wanted to approach the mythology — minotaurs, sirens, cyclops and gorgons — with a modern sensibility. That is, I wanted to keep the sense of myth and the mythic, but place it within an industrial world. The minotaur myth, for example, is sometimes said to be about technology: Theseus finds his way through the minotaur’s labyrinth with a ball of string. In a sense, ‘The Passing of the Minotaurs’ <read the short story at SciFi.com> — which is an extract from an early section of Unwrapped Sky — is a rewriting of this myth in an industrial capitalist world. The minotaurs are undone by modernity — by the power of commodification, if you like, in a similar way to many old and beautiful things in our world (old buildings or old forests, for example).

This fantasy world, and the city of Caeli-Amur, might be thought of as city a bit like Rome or Turin in the 1920s. In Caeli-Amur, there’s industrialism, a rising working class, a strange bureaucratic capitalism, but there’s also the remnants of an older less developed society, and even further back the ruined remnants of a more advanced society. So the mythology all takes place in a world where there’s a great deal of of change. There’s social turbulence. No one quite knows where it’s all headed. It is a world where ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’ as Marx once described it. What could be more profane than the death of a minotaur and the use of its body parts as commodities?


Have the short stories been a way of exploring the world in preparation for the longer works, or were the novels always the end goal?
I love short stories. In many ways, they’re more interesting than novels. You can be more experimental and you can be more adventurous in content. Quite often, the things which become famous at novel-length are first done in short story form (think of Gibson, for example). The stories gain a certain notoriety and this encourages the writer to develop those sorts of stories at longer length. One of the reasons is that novels have a slightly longer shelf-life, and there’s a little more money in them. That’s the way it happened with me, anyway. People liked Caeli-Amur and the stories set there, so I thought, right, time to write a novel set there. Still, I’ll always write short stories, just as I’ll always write essays and scripts and other things.


You are an editor on a literary magazine and you’re a Ditmar winner for best new talent: what’s your take on the literature/genre divide?
Oh, I have several responses, all pretty contradictory. My first response is that the division is false. Writers like Atwood, Ishiguru, Houllebecq and Winterson are clearly writing SF. On the other hand, there are plenty of SF writers writing very ‘literary’ science fiction: Gene Wolfe or M John Harrison, for example. Partly the division is invented by the marketing departments of publishing companies, partly there’s an inherited prejudice against SF in the ‘mainstream’ (which I find ignorant and repulsive), but there’s also quite often a self-reinforced ghettoisation from the SF community also.

I find it all pretty frustrating because there are all sorts of deleterious effects of the division. SF writers are unfairly ignored and ‘literary’ writers writing SF too-often claimed as ‘original’ when they’re really borrowing tropes that have been around for decades. At Overland we try to be inclusive: we’ve had special SF editions, publish SF stories and articles, but I do feel fairly sad that the SF community pretty much ignores us — something reflected not only in terms of our submissions but reflected in things like awards, links to our online articles and so on.

Another passed-down quirk of the division between the literary and SF worlds is the over-emphasis on plot-driven narrative in genre. Genre writers, readers and editors probably do want more ‘action’ than the literary world (which could often do with more action!). I’m not sure that’s healthy. Having said that, the SF community is a really welcoming and in the end, in terms of fiction, that’s where I happily exist.


What Australian works have you loved recently?
There’s a bunch of really great Australian SF writers. In fact, I’m amazed by the talent in Australian SF. I’ve loved stories by James Bradley, Lisa Hannett, Angela Slatter. But you know, I’m constantly surprised by the number of new writers coming though. And then there are other wonderful writers who have been around a while: Kirstyn McDermott, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti, Trent Jamieson and so on. I might say that the loss of Paul Haines leaves a massive hole in the SF scene.


What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
I’m not sure I could answer that. I’ve been a bit lost in novel-writing. But things seem to be coming along okay. The Aurealis Awards I went to last year were vibrant and professional, and the writers coming through, as I mentioned before, are talented. The end of Clarion South is a pretty big blow, I think, and there’s the ongoing ‘digital’ revolution (Aurealis is now mostly in e-book format).

The challenges here are going to be the challenges the whole publishing industry is facing. No one can be sure quite where we’ll end up, but it seems likely that there will be less money around, and fewer readers (the statistics show that the average reader age is increasing). None of this is great for writers or publishers and we can expect that as an money-making industry, publishing might be on its last legs.

At Overland we’ve been debating this for some time (on the website, in public forums and in the magazine’s pages) and some of us think that the solution may be to return to a more, for want of a better term, ‘social-democratic’ system, where the government funds an independent publishing house (or houses?) in the way it funds something like the ABC.

In this sense, the challenges of publishing are similar to those of quality Australian TV drama, which can’t compete with international TV without stepping out of the system of commercialism. SF steps out of these bounds with labour-of-love small presses (which are wonderful), but they’re not a way for anyone to earn a basic living.

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THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 1-8 June and archiving them at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. You can read interviews at:

Zero History by William Gibson: luke-cool espionage fashionably portrayed

I’m a big fan of William Gibson, the man who brought us Neuromancer and helped forge the cyberpunk movement and a great deal of our internet nomenclature in one fell swoop. And has continued to take a poke at near-future technological change in and on society.

His most recent novel, Zero History, returns to characters introduced in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country – a lot of them have names beginning with H – and further delves into industrial espionage, marketing and fashion.

Hollis Henry is back in Hubertus Bigend’s traces, looking for a mysterious clothes designer, with assistance from former bandmate Heidi Hyde and former addict Milgrim (who comes across as a sad, neglected fallout from a Le Carre novel circa Smiley’s People).

Add some gadgets, some pithy one-liners and weird decor, and that’s about it, really.

The story builds on its predecessors but does stand alone, though having read the previous volumes will deliver a bigger payoff. The writing is descriptive and label-laden, as you’d expect, but the commentary isn’t particularly biting and the action doesn’t really grab, partially because the threat level seems quite low. Neither of our narrators, Hollis and Milgrim, are in the loop, reducing us to bystanders on the rim of the action as Bigend’s curiosity leads them into vaguely dangerous ground.

In some ways, the mundane nature of the characters’ desires, framed within the hyper-real world of Bigend’s manufacture, is part of the appeal; in other ways, there is a feeling that a soap opera is being brought to a close, family trees tidied, rewards handed out, just desserts delivered, even if the chemistry of attraction might seem to be missing.

Zero History is enjoyable and comfortable, but not compelling, a bit like old jeans when we’re used to something a little more shiny from this label. Not so much lukewarm as luke-cool.

Neuromancer, Henry and Madigan

neuromancer by william gibsonHenry Hoey Hobsonmadigan mine by kirstyn mcdermott

Something old, something new, something cool …

Neuromancer, by William Gibson, blew my socks off when I first read it. It came out in 1984, helped forge the cyberpunk movement and threw a few words into our technical lexicon. It still rocks. A sweet moment: reading this masterpiece of cyber intrigue and corporate shenanigans with Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk album drowning out the worst of the commuting interference. I love Gibson’s style, his flawed characters, his requirement that the reader keep up, his depictions of cyberspace and razorgirls, the plot twists and stinging conclusion — all of it, really.

Today I rolled another yarn, putting that commute to good use: a brand new story from Chris Bongers, a Brisbane writer who’s in the zone with her first book getting attention from the Children’s Book Council, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Henry Hoey Hobson does too. Chris sent it down as a nod, one I was proud to receive — it seems my penchant for using a coffin as an ice box at our Halloween parties has made an impression! In the Twilight age, it might be easy to think the Fright Night-style cover indicates yet another slipstreaming YA love-in-the-dark affair, but thankfully, it ain’t so. Chris grew up in the central west of Queensland and that dry, larrikin humour is tickling under the surface of this book, an affecting tale of a young fellah and his mum trying to cut it in the big smoke. It’s a yarn about family and fitting in and acceptance, the voice is spot-on, and the Addams Family elements made my day. The details of the Brisbane launch are here.

Which leads me to the other big news: Lucy Sussex (who has her own book launch coming up soon as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival — details TBC) is to launch Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine at the Carlton Library on August 2 at 7pm. The book is now officially out. Do come along if you can and help make a night of it. More details here.