A Flaming Elephant Falls

Magical realism, satirical fantasy and hardcore science fiction this time around

Issue #17, Saturday 5 March 2022

Bookish News

New and Forthcoming Releases

A couple of new books which caught my eye.

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

An electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private. The Candy House opens with the staggeringly brilliant Bix Bouton, whose company, Mandala, is so successful that he is one of those tech demi-gods with whom we’re all on a first name basis. Bix is 40, with four kids, restless, desperate for a new idea, when he stumbles into a conversation group, mostly Columbia professors, one of whom is experimenting with downloading or externalizing memory. It’s 2010. Within a decade, Bix’s new technology, Own Your Unconscious –that allows you access to every memory you’ve ever had, and to share every memory in exchange for access to the memories of others–has seduced multitudes. But not everyone. (Readings review)

This sounds like a fascinating work of science fiction. I’ll lay good odds that it’s ignored by the genre awards such as the Nebula and the Hugo.

There are a number of books now out, or coming out, dealing with analogues of the tech giants like Facebook, of which this seems like one. I’m thinking of Dave Egger’s The Every dealing with an analogue of Amazon, and even Claire North’s 2017 novel The Sudden Appearance of Hope which features a social media tech giant called Perfection. All to the good, these organisations should continue to be put under a microscope.

Buy it at Readings.

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang

This looks intriguing. It’s by the author of The Poppy War trilogy (which I haven’t read, though it appears to be highly acclaimed). At 704 pages, though, Babel is pretty chunky!

Due out: 23 August, 2022.

Oxford, 1836. The city of dreaming spires. It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world. And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows. Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift.
Until it became a prison…
But can a student stand against an empire?
An incendiary new novel from award-winning author R.F. Kuang about the power of language, the violence of colonialism, and the sacrifices of resistance.

Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn’t as friendly as Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. And it isn’t as safe.

I mentioned this in Issue 7 of Through the Biblioscope as a forthcoming book. It’s now available.

Buy it at Readings.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey

I’m continuing my self-imposed project of re-reading my way through all of the books in The Expanse series before I allow myself to read the final, ninth volume. This one is number 6 in the series.

Interestingly (or worryingly) I found on re-reading this that I felt strongly that I had never read it before, though there are a couple of incidents in it which I do recall, so I must have done so. Puzzling!

Anyway, Babylon’s Ashes keeps up the interest of the series, with lots of tension and deep space action, as Earth tries to recover from devastating asteroid attacks and the Inner Planets try to deal with the rogue Belter Marco Inaros.

Buy it at Readings.

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

This was also a re-read.

If you're not already a Terry Pratchett fan I can only feel sympathy for you for what you are missing. Most of his books utilise the utterly fantastic setting of the Discworld, balanced on the backs of four titanic elephants who in turn stand upon the cosmic bulk of Great A'tuin, the star turtle swimming through the void. Yes, this is absurd. But in this setting, Pratchett uses satire and humour like a scalpel to probe some deeply serious themes.

The Fifth Elephant is a late book in the series, number 24, in which Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch and now the Duke of Ankh, is sent into the scary realm of Uberwald, controlled by dwarves, vampires and werewolves, to attend the coronation of the dwarves' Low King. Things do not go smoothly, and Vimes is lucky to escape with his life.

If you've never read Pratchett before, be warned, don't start with the first two books in the Discworld series, which to be honest are just not very good. My recommendation is to start with Mort, in which Death takes an apprentice. If that doesn't hook you, I despair of you.

Flames by Robbie Arnott

The term “magical realism” is one which I don’t think I ever properly understood, though I’d heard it applied to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in particular. After reading Flames, though, I decided to look it up. Here’s what Wikipedia says in part:

Magic Realism : …despite including certain magic elements, it is generally considered to be a different genre from fantasy because magical realism uses a substantial amount of realistic detail and employs magical elements to make a point about reality, while fantasy stories are often separated from reality.

That certainly seems to apply well to the novels of Robbie Arnott. Flames was his debut novel, published in 2018, and he then went on to write the acclaimed The Rain Heron, which was one of my favourite books from last year.

Flames is set in a very recognisable contemporary Tasmania, but right from the first couple of paragraphs we know that this isn’t going to be an entirely realistic work.

Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge. She was definitely our mother—but, at the same time, she was not our mother at all. Since her dispersal among the fronds of Notley, she had changed. Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of common filmy fern… And her hair had been replaced by cascading fronds of lawn-coloured maidenhair—perhaps the most delicate fern of all.

This kind of thing wasn’t uncommon in our family…

So here’s the start of those “magical elements” that characterise this kind of fiction. Arnott fills the book with many more, while nevertheless adhering to an otherwise largely realistic perspective. It is told in many individual chapters, each with a unique point of view. This first chapter is told by Levi McAllister, who lives with his sister Charlotte in a small town in Northern Tasmania. Levi decides that he can’t bear the thought of Charlotte returning after her death like her mother, grandmother and several aunts before her, transformed into some strange form. So he decides to build her a coffin so she doesn’t need to be cremated. Charlotte, who is only in her mid-20s and in perfect health, flees the family home in terror.

The book is therefore a story of flight and transformation, not only that of Charlotte, but of Levi as well, and as we discover later, their father, whose origin and nature, we discover, is very strange. Along the way, however, we are introduced to some extraordinary characters: Karl, the fisherman who dives into the sea to hunt “oneblood tuna” in partnership with a seal which he has raised from a pup; a native water rat who is the incarnation of the God of the River Esk; a crazy coffin-maker who has a hilariously abusive correspondence with Levi; a gin-swilling female private investigator hired by Levi to find Charlotte; a wombat farmer going mad in the far south of the island; and even the grief-stricken Godess of the Clouds. Throughout all this there is a celebration of the power and beauty of nature, and of the Tasmanian landscape.

The author weaves all of these threads together into a cohesive and compelling story which makes a number of incisive points about human beings, our obsessions, and our relation to the natural world.

Highly recommended.

Buy it at Readings.

The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie

Very promising debut crime novel by this Australian author. I might wait for next issue to do a full review though, as I want to discuss it first on the next episode of our podcast.

Buy it at Readings.

Currently Reading

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

Only just started this, hoping to have it done for the next episode of our podcast, which will concentrate on crime. Interesting that (so far as I know) it’s the first novel written by an actual astronaut.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

A project for Standard Ebooks, the fourth in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. I picked the cover here, thinking that it was a pretty good representation of young Lily Dale, whose affections are at issue in the book. It’s a painting by Edward Poynter called Pea Blossoms.

Waiting on the Shelf

And that’s your lot for this issue. See you next time!

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