Hugo Sails Across the Tranquil Sea

Awash with waves of science fiction and fantasy ahead of the Hugo Awards.

Issue #24, Sunday 19th June 2022


Bookish News

New and Forthcoming Releases

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time.

With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems.

I’m a big, big fan of the writing of Kate Atkinson, whose work I discovered about 12 years ago. Since then I’ve read every novel she’s written, and this new one, due out in September of this year will be no exception. I’ve already placed a pre-order for it.

We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets

Translated by Emma Rault

Kayleigh needs money. That’s why she takes a job as a content moderator for a social media platform whose name she isn’t allowed to mention. Her job: reviewing offensive videos and pictures, rants and conspiracy theories, and deciding which need to be removed.

We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets is a chilling, powerful and urgent story about what - or who - determines how we see the world.

This seems like a very timely and relevant sort of book (and I do like to read a number of works in translation each year).

Buy it at Readings

Basin: A Novel by Scott McCulloch

A nomad swallows poison and drowns himself. Resuscitated by a paramilitary bandit named Aslan, Figure is nursed back into a world of violence, sexuality and dementia. Together, Figure and Aslan traverse a coastline erupting in conflict.

Scott McCulloch’s debut novel, Basin, explores the axis of landscape and consciousness. Echoing the modernist tradition, and written in an incendiary yet elliptical prose style, Basin maps the phenomenon of a civilisation being reborn - a hallucinatory elegy to the inter-zones of self and place.

A debut novel from an Australian author which sounds intriguing and well worth a look, though I’ll probably wait until I can get it from the library rather than buying a copy.

Buy it at Readings


My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

This is a gently-paced handling of some traditional science fictional ideas with a few unexpected twists along the way. One thing which was unexpected is that it’s a kind of sequel to Mandel’s previous novel, The Glass Hotel, with some of the same characters, though that earlier novel was pretty much a work of pure realism, whereas there’s no doubt that this one is SF.

The book is told in sections set in four different periods of time, each section with a different main character. It’s a structure we’ve seen before in such books as Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. It works well here.

We begin with Edwin St. Andrews, a young man just arriving in Canada. He’s a “remittance man”—banished to the colony by his English family and given a regular but small allowance with the expectation that he will stay there. He’s spoken out too boldly and critically about the British Raj in India and is thus in disgrace. Not really knowing what to make of his life, Edwin eventually finds his way north to the tiny settlement of Caiette on Vancouver Island. After a few weeks there he has a very strange experience while walking in the woods. Though it only lasts for a few seconds, he is suddenly blinded; he feels himself inside some vast space and hears strange noises: a violin being played, and then a louder, incomprehensible sound. He’s unnerved by this experience and wonders about his sanity.

Then we move to the modern day with a character called Mina, who was a friend of Vincent, the protagonist of The Glass Hotel. As this section opens, Vincent’s brother Paul is putting on a concert in which he replays some video which Vincent shot when she was young and living in Caiette. The video shows an experience similar to that of Edwin St.Andrews many decades earlier.

A couple of hundred years later, that is, into our future, we meet an author called Olive, who lives in a colony on the Moon. At the moment, she’s on Earth, on a global tour to promote her new book, Marienbad, which is a novel with many characters and settings but featuring a world-wide pandemic which kills millions. This becomes highly self-referential as while she’s on Earth a real pandemic is just breaking out. As she leaves Earth, Olive, too, is to experience this strange momentary shift in consciousness.

These three periods of time, and the strange experiences of Edwin, Vincent and Olive, are tied together eventually by a character from the fourth period in the book, a man called Gaspery, who also lives on the Moon, but centuries on even from Olive’s time. This character’s story is the only one told in the first person.

It’s not giving too much away to say that time travel is involved, but also the unnerving idea that we may all be just living in some immense computer simulation of reality. And that simulation may have the occasional software glitch.

The book ends in a satisfying way with the resolution of the mysteries it poses. I thought this was all very cleverly done. Each of the four main characters of the book is well-drawn and their stories are engaging. I liked it a lot.

I do admit that I was annoyed by the technical inaccuracy of a couple of things: the idea that the colonies on the Moon could use gravity generators to create Earth-normal gravity there is a casually thrown-away bit of nonsense science; and the lack of any light-speed delay when Olive talks to her partner on the Moon while she’s on Earth. I’ll forgive the book those lapses, but only just.

It’s worth noting that Sea of Tranquility was written in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, during an extended lockdown, and that in the book Olive undergoes just such a difficult-to-endure lockdown when she returns to the Moon.

There’s also a joke by the author I’d like to note here: the title of the book which Olive is on tour promoting, Marienbad, obviously references the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, which has confused and overlapping timelines.

Wake by Shelley Burr

A really excellent debut crime novel by an Australian author, which I’ve just finished. But I’m out of time and room, so a full review will need to wait until next issue.


Hugo Award: Short Fiction Nominees

A lot of my reading over the last couple of weeks has been short sf/fantasy fiction (not my usual fare). As part of our podcast, each year Perry and I discuss the nominees for the Hugo Award, which this year will be awarded at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in September.

So far we’ve discussed the short stories (less than 7,500 words) and novelettes (from 7,500 to 17,500 words). Since Perry and I alternated which works we would discuss on air, in what follows the longer pieces are for the works I discussed, with very short notes on the ones Perry talked about.

The links in the title of each story will take you to where it appears online so you can read it for free and see whether you agree with me.

Short Stories

Tangles by Seanan McGuire

I thought this wasn’t a very interesting bit of fantasy. We start off with a character called Wrenn who has a companion she simply calls Six. It turns out that Six is a walking tree and Wrenn is a dryad who is able to dwell in and control certain trees with which she has some kind of magical resonance. With them, she travels between worlds in different universes/timelines (?) Six is now weary or used up and she leaves it behind on a new world, Innistrad, to look for another tree she can live in.

Cut to another POV character, Teferi, who is a wizard , who is here on Innistrad to help the locals track down a dangerous witch who is reportedly loose in the forest. Turns out, of course that the ‘witch’ is Wrenn. They meet up, make friends and are attacked by some kind of monster. He defeats the monster with a spell but messes it up and they have to deal with a maze of paths he’s created, so they can’t find their way out of the tangle; and all while Wrenn is getting weaker and weaker, not having found her special tree.

In the end it turns out that Teferi has inadvertently created a way for Wrenn to find her tree. She climbs into the tree, which thus becomes Seven, and everyone lives happily ever after. Ho-hum.

Unknown Number by Blue Neustifter

So possibly the most interesting feature of this story is that it was published on Twitter, not as a series of tweets, but as a series of images, which purport to be screenshots from a mobile phone conversation in a series of texts. Well, that’s interesting, yes, but I don’t see how it would be very different from presenting the same conversation as though it were a face-to-face or phone conversation. Surely the interest here can’t be all about the unusual format?

Beyond that, it’s a slightly touching story about someone from another timeline seeking out themself, their doppelganger, in this timeline to see if they changed gender, and getting some useful life advice in return. It reminded me a little of Bob Shaw’s novel, The Two Timers which has a similar theme of someone switching timelines to try to correct a mistake they make in their own timeline.

So I put this down as OK but not outstanding. Certainly I don’t think it’s of the calibre that a Hugo-winner should have.

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker

I liked this a lot. It has an interesting structure, purporting to be a series of posts on some forum which discussed old ballads and verse. There are competing voices arguing about various aspects of a particular ballad. And we slowly start to discover that something weird must have been happening when the ballad was written, after one enthusiast visits the little English village from where it appears to originate.

Definitely the best of the short stories on this year’s ballot. It will get my vote.

The Sin of America by Catherynne M. Valente

I really didn’t like this story much. It starts off fairly well, and is well written but it ends up seriously weird and creepy, and I don’t really understand the point of it.

The core of the story is an ancient concept: the idea that one individual in a society can be chosen, either at random or specifically targeted, to atone for the sins of that society. You can see this idea coming up in many primitive societies, the idea of the “king for a day” who is then sacrificed to ensure the next harvest. It’s the basis of Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery”. And of course it’s the fundamental idea behind the crucifixion of Jesus, chosen to be the sacrificial “Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world”.

Here, the presentation is much more banal: the protagonist Ruby-Rose Martineau is eating the sin of America. Literally, somehow eating it in the form of a huge meal she’s forced to consume in a local diner in the town of Sheridan. At the end, she staggers out, bloated, and then meets the kind of sticky end you would expect from knowing all these other tellings of the story.

And everybody else lives happily ever after.

Nope, didn’t like it.

Mr. Death by Alix E. Harrow

A lightweight but reasonably interesting story about a Death’s assistant or apprentice not wanting to let the victim die (shades of Terry Pratchett’s novel Mort though without the level of humour). I thought the ending was a bit wimpy, though.

Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte

I wasn’t sure what the point of this story is. love is more important than maths? I felt let down at the end.

Novelettes

L’Esprit de L’Escalier by Catherynne M. Valente

Considering how much I disliked “The Sin of America” by the same author, I wasn’t expecting to like this. But I was wrong, I liked this one a lot. It’s a clever, if depressing modernisation of the Orpheus tale.

Orpheus is a famous rock musician, living with his wife Euridice in modern-day America. Euridice is in a bad way, however, because she’s dead, but has been brought back to live on Earth by Orpheus, who in this telling of the tale never looked back as they climbed up from Hades. It’s this stairway, presumably, which is referenced by the title of the story which in English means “the spirit of the staircase”, used figuratively by the French to describe that feeling of regret you have after thinking of the best comeback in argument, after you’ve left the scene. Here it’s a bit more literal because the regret here is that Orpheus didn’t look back at Euridice as he does in the original myth. In that myth, his looking back means she has to return to the underworld. In this telling, he didn’t look back and so she returns to Earth, mobile and aware, but not alive.

Though she’s back in Orpheus’ house, her state as a living corpse makes his life very difficult and her existence intolerable. Late in the story she accuses him and points out that he never asked her whether she wanted to return to Earth from Hades. Like far too men dealing with women, he simply assumed that he knew what was best for her.

I thought this was very powerful, with a very dark sort of humour. And the points Euridice makes about her treatment by Orpheus and the breaking of the myth dig very deeply.

That Story Isn’t the Story by John Wiswell

This isn’t a bad horror story, with something of a point to it.

We meet Anton at the point where he’s filling a trash bag with his stuff, clothes and a few personal effects. He’s about to leave the townhouse where he’s been living with a number of other people for a long time. He’s trying to escape from the owner of the place, a Mr. Bird. We quickly realise that Mr. Bird is some kind of vampire, though his bites don’t turn others into vampires, just makes them subject to his will. The bites fail to heal, and bleed copiously when Mr. Bird is near, and if he’s angry.

Anton makes it out the door when Mr. Bird’s car pulls up outside. If it were not for Anton’s friend Grigorii, who is picking him up, Anton would be drawn back inside.

The rest of the story is about Anton’s struggle not to be drawn back into Mr. Bird’s house of horrors, and how his example manages to encourage the others who are living there. Anton’s struggles are not without pain either to him or his friend Grigorii, and a great deal of courage is required to resist the threats Mr. Bird’s acolytes make against them.

I thought this was pretty well written, and it tells an interesting story.

Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim

This would be my pick for the best of the novelettes this year. I thought it was very well written, and full of interest. It’s all about art and immortality, of being an outsider, a misfit.

The first person point of view character is Mari, or properly Mariko. She’s Japanese, though raised in France. As the story opens, she’s working as an artist’s model, and in the studio of an artist in Paris, in the late 1800s. But not just any artist. He is, it seems, immortal, perhaps a kind of vampire. This fact is no secret, and he is accepted by the other Parisian artists as just one more eccentric member of their group. Ironically, she as both a woman and an oriental, is more of an outsider than he is.

Mariko, though, isn’t merely a model. She too wants to become an artist and fears she doesn’t have enough time in her life to succeed, to become famous. She eventually begs the immortal artist—whose name I don’t think we ever learn, it’s suggested that we would recognise his name well if we knew it—she begs him to make her immortal too. He is able to do this, it seems, but at great cost to himself.

Mariko becomes immortal and tries for immortality of reknown for her art. We follow her through several periods of time, up to and beyond the modern day. Throughout, she finds it difficult to suceed in the male-dominated world of art. Until the latest period, she is better known for the nude portrait the vampire artist painted of her in the late 1800s, the portrait she was modelling for at the start of the story.

Being immortal is not without cost, of course, as Mariko realises as her close friends and the artists she knew grow old and die one by one, including her closest friend Victorine, whose loss she takes very hard.

There’s a lot to this story. I was very impressed by it. It was beautifully written and will get my vote.

O2 Arena by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Interesting enough, good concept, but I wasn’t sure what the take-out message is: forget laws, just go for vigilante justice? However, it won in the Best Novelette category in the Nebula Awards, so what do I know?

Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer

Amusing enough story, not very profound. A small bot is tasked with freeing the starship from a crowd of renegade bots.

Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. by Fran Wilde

A slightly amusing tale of a magical dress shop and enchanted seamstresses. dresses which take over their wearers, sometimes to fatal effect.

Novellas

I’ve now also read all six of the nominees for the Best Novella category of the Hugos, but I will wait for next issue to talk about them.

Currently Reading

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

A production for Standard Ebooks. It’s a long book (800-odd pages) so it will take me a while to get through. The above cover is my choice of artwork, a work by Claude Monet called The Thames Below Westminster.

The Master of Djinn by P. Djèli Clark

This is one of the books nominated for Best Novel at this year’s Hugo Awards. I’ve only just started it, not really enjoying it so far, I hope it improves as I go along.

Waiting on the Shelf


Whew! A lot to get through this time. Let’s see what the next couple of weeks brings.

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