Shining a Bright Light on Dark Matters

Intriguing science fiction, both old and new; and a top-notch piece of Australian crime fiction.

Issue #63: Saturday 30 March, 2024


My Reading

Genre-ally Speaking

My range of reading genres for the year so far, 17 book covers overlapping.

My reading this year has set me to musing a little on the genres of the books that I’ve been reading lately, and thus to my changing tastes in reading-matter.

What sparked this little reflection it’s taken until late in March for me to read my first modern science fiction novel of the year, the other books I’ve read so far being mostly non-fiction, crime, thriller, ‘literary’; or else classic SF works of the 1920s, 1950s and 1960s, and I read those for a specific purpose rather than for pleasure.

There was a time when I read almost nothing except SF and the occasional fantasy novel, as was the case when I was a teenager. Now, though, only the occasional such title drops into my reading list.

In recent years I’ve started to read considerably more ‘literary’ or non-genre books, and have become interested in looking at the winners of major literary awards like the Booker Prize, the Women’s Prize, the U.S. National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Miles Franklin Award, and so on. On a less literary front I’ve shifted to reading a lot more crime/thriller novels and have begun to keep a close eye on awards such as the Ned Kelly and Davitt Awards for Australian crime fiction.

On the other hand, my interest in the nominees and winners of SF/Fantasy Awards such as the Hugo and Nebula Awards has been trending strongly downwards. Last year’s dispiriting Hugo ballot turned me right off, as I had no interest in any of the books listed on it. The controversy about some much better works being declared ‘ineligible’ for the ballot hasn’t helped. And this year’s Hugo ballot, just released, is again full of books I’m not at all interested in reading.

How have your tastes shifted over the years? Send an email to the address at the bottom of the page and let me know.

Completed Since Last Issue

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

The cover of ‘Dark Matter’ by Blake Crouch. The image shows a man running over a curved surface with blocky maze-like markings on it.

This is a fast-paced thriller with a clever science-fiction concept behind it. It’s written in a spare, punchy style reminiscent of a screenplay—short sentences, brief paragraphs—so it’s hardly surprising that the book is being turned into a television series which will soon appear on the AppleTV+ platform.

The story is told from the first-person point-of-view of Jason Dessen, a physics professor in a small college in Chicago. He lives in a brownstone1A ‘brownstone’, as I understand it, is a particular kind of terrace-house in cities such as New York and Chicago and probably elsewhere in the United States. house in a small neighbourhood with his wife Daniella and his ten-year-old son Charlie. He has given up his ambitions to make major discoveries in physics to become a happily-married family man, content with his role.

One weekday evening, just before they start to cook dinner, Jason receives an invitation from an old friend who has just won a major award for his work in neuroscience and is out celebrating at a bar. Somewhat reluctantly, Jason leaves home, promising that he’ll only have one drink and be back for dinner.

On his way home, however, Jason is violently abducted by a stranger wearing a mask, and forced to drive to an abandoned industrial building, where the stranger forces him to change clothes and then injects him with an unknown substance. He falls asleep, obviously having been drugged.

When he awakes, he’s somewhere very different, some kind of large research facility. He’s groggy from whatever he’s been injected with, and is being taken for a medical checkup by a group of people he has never met before, but who clearly seem to know him and who are overjoyed that he has ‘returned’. Terrified, Jason tries to conceal from them that he has no idea where he is, and to fend off their questions he tells them his memory is a blank; but they become more and more angry with him.

It’s difficult to describe more of the book without giving away too many spoilers. To cut a long story short therefore, he eventually escapes from these people, and the rest of the novel is about his desperate attempts to return to his wife and son in Chicago. His journey, though, is very strange, fraught and difficult, and there are several intriguing twists.

The basic concept is not all that new—Bob Shaw’s 1968 novel The Two Timers had a similar starting premise—but Crouch brings that idea up-to-date and adds his own very clever spin to it. Fast-paced as it is, the book does raise intriguing questions about identity, chance, and life-choices.

I enjoyed this a lot. The quality of the prose isn’t particularly high, and there are a couple of what I think are logical flaws, but the book certainly grabs you in and keeps you going. Recommended.

Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher

The cover of ‘Under the Cold Bright Lights’ by Garry Disher. The background image is of a leafless tree silhouetted against a glowing patch of light as part of a starry night sky.

Excellent piece of crime fiction from Australia’s master of the genre, Garry Disher.

As in Disher’s other novels the focus here is on the life and relationships of the main character rather than on the mystery elements of the plot. Indeed in this book there isn’t much of the classic ‘who done it’ element to the story, just dogged and patient police procedure which leads to the answers.

Disher has a wonderful ability to run several different threads of story at once yet unite them into a strong and compelling narrative. That’s very evident in his Hirschausen series set in South Australia, and it’s certainly the case here.

The main character is Acting Sergeant Alan Auhl, an ex-Homicide detective who has recently returned to the police force after having retired early. He’s in his late 50s, I imagine. He’s come back to join a cold cases unit, where he has to grudgingly accept the snide comments of younger officers who call him a ‘retread’ and who make jokes about him needing a Zimmer frame. He’s good at his job though and starts to build respect.

Auhl lives in a rambling multi-storey house in Drummond Street, Carlton, which he inherited. He casually provides accomodation to a floating population of boarders, generally people he’s taken pity on. He’s separated from his wife, who nevertheless occasionally comes to stay.

Auhl is faced with two official cold cases, one dating back years which he had investigated while in Homicide, and another which arises from the body of a young man having been discovered under a slab of concrete on a rural property. He also gets involved in a case where the second wife of a prominent surgeon dies unexpectedly, just as did his first wife. Then unofficially he’s involved in supporting a young mother he’s taken under his wing after she fled an abusive husband. Throughout, there’s a sense of his anger at the arrogance of the rich and entitled men who get away, sometimes literally, with murder.

All of this is set in and around the city of Melbourne, where I live, so for me there’s a real sense of familiarity about the locations which come up in the story, all of which adds to to the interest and veracity of the story.

Top notch stuff. Really enjoyed it.

Short Fiction by H. Beam Piper

The cover of ‘Short Fiction’ by H. Beam Piper. The image is a brightly-coloured abstract with multiple overlapping figures and cityscapes, a detail from the painting ‘La Rivolta’ by Luigi Rossolo.

This was a production I put together for Standard Ebooks. It comprises all of the shorter fiction of H. Beam Piper now in the public domain, which is almost all of it, since he died by suicide and failed to renew his copyrights (something which was a requirement in the U.S. system until 1976).

If you’re not familiar with him, H. Beam Piper was a well-regarded and popular American science fiction author active in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, who published many science fiction short stories, novelettes, novellas and novels. One major strand in his writing is envisioning a future history based on human civilization expanding throughout the galaxy, with a rather paternalistic approach to sentient alien species. Another important theme was Piper’s concept of “Paratime”: the idea that there are many parallel timelines branching off from each other, and that it’s possible—with the right technology—to travel, and even carry out commerce, between these different timelines.

This is quite a hefty book, comprising more than 340,000 words and 27 individual stories, most of them of novella or short-novel length. In many of them, there’s a characteristic tongue-in-cheek humour, though there’s also a fair bit of violence.

The best stories in the collection, in my opinion, are “Omnilingual”, about the translation of the Martian language thousands of years after the Martians have become extinct, referencing one of my favourite non-fiction books, The Decipherment of Linear B; and “The Keeper”, a character-focused story about an old man tasked with preserving an ancient artifact.

Also worth reading, though neither science fiction nor fantasy, is Rebel Raider, a lightly-fictionalised account of events during the U.S. Civil War.

You can get a free, beautifully-formatted ebook of this collection from Standard Ebooks here.

The Absolute at Large by Karel Čapek

The cover of ‘The Absolute at Large’ by Karel Čapek. A vibrant and bold abstract painting of a sun setting over a mountain landscape. The sun is a large, bright yellow circle in the center, with mountains and a serene blue sky in the background.

Another production I did for Standard Ebooks. This one is a satirical science fiction novel by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, who is probably best known in the English-speaking world for his play R.U.R. (which stands for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’), which introduced the word ‘robot’ into the language.

He wrote this novel, Továrna na absolutno, in 1922. It was translated into English and published by Macmillan in 1927 as The Absolute at Large. The novel is full of sardonic but incisive comments on society, capitalism and religion.

The story starts with the invention in (an at-the-time future year of) 1943 of an ‘atomic engine’ which can convert matter directly into energy. Such engines can operate machinery for months from a single bucket of coal. However the inventor discovers that his engine has an unfortunate side-effect. It generates pure divinity as a waste-product. Anyone near an operating ‘Karburator’ soon begins to have uplifting religious feelings. God, it seems, is inherent and ominpresent in matter, and once matter has been destroyed, He is liberated from it.

Despite this ‘flaw’, a capitalist buys the design and begins to produce and sell thousands of these atomic engines, which are rapidly installed in a variety of situations such as buildings, factories, and even trains and aeroplanes. The consequences of the massive generation of ‘the Absolute’ therefore gives rise to unexpected complications in human society. The Catholic Church, for example, after struggling mightily, eventually recognises the Absolute as the Third Person of the Trinity and proceeds to officially canonise, nay, deify it. Other churches and religions claim the Absolute as theirs, however, and mayhem results.

Mayhem also occurs in the economy, as Karburator-powered factories begin to mindlessly over-produce, so much so that their products can’t be sold but only given away. There is thus no incentive for the factory owners to transport and distribute their products, and so paradoxically there are severe shortages of everything in the cities.

Marek, the original inventor, flees to the mountains, far from Karburators, to free himself from their influence. There, he talks to the capitalist who bought the invention from him. I loved this amusing comment he makes about this newly revealed God:

“You are running away from Him,” said Marek, “but I am running after Him, and I’m close at His heels. I know a bit about Him already, enough to get out a warrant for Him! Description: infinite, invisible, and formless. Place of residence: everywhere in the vicinity of atomic motors. Occupation: mystical Communism. Crimes for which He is wanted: alienation of private property, illegal practice of medicine, offences against the Public Assemblies Act, interference with officials in the execution of their duty, and so forth. Distinguishing marks: omnipotence. In short, have Him arrested.”

Lovely stuff. As with all Standard Ebooks editions, you can download it for free from here.

Currently Reading

Covers of three books: ‘Hush’ by Sarah Foster, ‘An Intimate History of Evolution’ by Alison Bashford, and ‘The Lost Cause’ by Corey Doctorow

Want to Read

Covers of two books: ‘The Hunter’ by Tana French and ‘What Happened to Nina’ by Dervla McTiernan.

Two books being released by favourite authors in the crime genre.


See you in another couple of weeks with another batch of my reading!


Footnotes
  1. A ‘brownstone’, as I understand it, is a particular kind of terrace-house in cities such as New York and Chicago and probably elsewhere in the United States.


Comments

Issue 63

1/4/2024

Rose Mitchell

Thanks for the recommendations, will take a look into Dark Matters.

My genre reading has also shifted from mainly science fiction & fantasy to crime also. Last year I read more crime/thriller than SF. One of the best was Cory Doctorow’s Red Team Blues a mash up of tech and LA Noir, not sure of what was actually today’s tech and what was SF. Cyber espionage best describes it. Highly recommend.

Yes, I enjoyed Doctorow's Red Team Blues. I can recommend his Little Brother, too (the title is a play on the Big Brother of Orwell's 1984, of course).

—David


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