The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror EmpireTitle: The Mirror Empire
Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 04 September 2014
Publisher: Angry Robot
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

I normally start a review with my preferred kind of plot summary – one that covers all the major inciting events and most, if not all, of the key characters. But it just doesn’t work with The Mirror Empire. This book pushes the boundaries of what it means to be “epic”, and from the very beginning you’re in the middle of a strange world, surrounded by characters, bombarded with backstories, while caught up in complex current affairs and personal conflicts. I won’t lie – I found this book difficult to read and review, but here goes.

The Mirror Empire relates the beginning of a war brewing between parallel worlds. ‘Mirrored’ worlds. They have the same hourglass suns. They have the same stars, which give various powers to those gifted with magic (known as jistas). They have the same people, more or less. But each world has moulded those people in very different ways. In one the sky is amber, the Dhai race wage constant war, and the world is dying. In the other, the sky is lavender-blue and the Dhai are scholarly pacifists in their own land and slaves in another. On both worlds, the star Oma is rising, a cataclysmic event that has dire consequences for the politics of magic and leadership throughout the land. Those who are gifted In the blue-sky world where most of the story is set, different regions wrestle with each other, while seething with their own internal conflicts. A large cast of diverse characters drive the story, which is set across a variety of locations, each with its own culture.

And that’s just a very, very broad overview of the plot. Given how much hype this book has received, you’ll have no shortage of plot summaries available anyway, so I’m going to take advantage of that and delve into other discussions. There is a lot I really appreciated in this novel. It’s not only impressive in its scope, but in the way Kameron Hurley seems to have considered all the conventions and lazy assumptions of fantasy (epic or otherwise) and said “FUCK THAT”. She subverts everything, from the bottom up.

For example, the characters don’t ride horses. Horses don’t even seem to exist. They ride dogs or bears with forked tongues. The landscapes in Dhai are not forests and open grasslands, but treacherous jungles of semi-sentient, occasionally carnivorous trees and vines. The plant life is so savage that it has to be razed to build homesteads, and then kept at bay with fences, protective webbing or magic. Travelling through this woodland on foot or by bear/dog presents a unique peril. Weapons like swords are only sometimes made of metal – many warriors carry ‘infused’ swords made from plants that spring from a seed inside the wielder’s wrist, or wrap around the wrist, binding the wielder to the weapon. Even food is different. You get a kind of paradoxical vegetarian cannibalism – people who don’t eat any meat except human meat, although only in certain circumstances; humans are not kept like livestock. Food is also made from blood, insects and the strange plants, none of which is treated as exotic. There is one occasion when a character balks at the weird food, but it’s when he’s served the kinds of meat and fish dishes that are more familiar to us.

Then there are family structures. I don’t recall coming across any patriarchal, heterosexual nuclear families (ie. one man, one woman, and however many kids). In Dhai, families are large, polygamous units with a very egalitarian feel. In Dorinah on the other hand, families are matriarchal but deeply sexist. One of the POV characters, a general named Zezili, has a beautiful husband who is more like a concubine, sitting quietly at home while she goes off on military campaigns. With this kind of marital structure comes a different view of gender and the body, as you can see in the way Zezili describes her husband:

He wore a white girdle that pulled in his waist just above the hips. He was, of necessity, slender. She believed men should take up as little space as possible. He wore his black hair long over his shoulders, tied once with a white ribbon. Those men allowed to live were, of course, beautiful; far more beautiful than many of the women Zezili knew. Anavha was clean-shaven, as she wanted him, lightly powdered in gold, his eyes lined in kohl, eyes a stormy gray, set a bit too wide in a broad face whose jaw she had initially found almost vulgar in its squareness. He stood a hand shorter than she; she easily outweighed him by fifty pounds. She liked him just this way.

Zezili is very gruff and not especially likeable, but she and her husband – along with other characters – undermine several gendered stereotypes or norms – women as slender beauties, men as strong warriors (most of the warriors are female), men as leaders. In Dhai and Saiduan, there is also more than one gender – the Dhai recognise five different kinds (male/female assertive, male/female passive, and ungendered), each with their own pronoun, and the Saiduan have three physiological sexes. There’s even a character – an immortal warrior assassin – who periodically changes gender.

It makes sense then, that in these societies heterosexuality is not the norm. In fact characters don’t categorise their sexuality at all. People are simply attracted to other people, rather than specific genders. You could say that bisexuality is the norm, although the term doesn’t really apply when there’s no heterosexuality or homosexuality to define it against. No one is particularly possessive either – having multiple sexual partners seems as normal as having multiple friends, although it’s a bit different in unequal relationships like Zezili’s marriage (she can lend her husband out to her sisters, for example).

I like that there’s this balance of good, bad and grey-area characteristics to these societies. It’s not simply a utopia of sexual freedom and progressive family structures, but a different kind of society with its own problems and advantages. So it’s cool that you have female warriors like Zezili, but not that she has the power to own her husband like a sex toy. Then there’s the story arc of a character named Ahkio: he becomes Kai (the Dhai leader) when his sister dies, but he and others are uneasy about this, because the Kai has traditionally been a woman gifted with magical powers (of which Ahkio has none). It’s not that the Dhai discriminate against men, but rather that people tend to cling to tradition.

And some parts of the world are pretty racist. Both the Saiduan and the Dorinah keep slaves, and most of those slaves are Dhai. So some Dhai are comfortable, well-educated and enjoy the support of large family units, but quietly ignore the fact that their own people are slaves in other parts of the world. This becomes an important plot point later in the book, and the issues of slavery and and racism also make Zezili’s story one of the most interesting. Zezili is half-Dhai, half-Dorinah, and achieved a position of prestige in service of the Empress because her Dorinah mother accepted her, thus favouring the Dorinah half of her heritage.

She’s given a tediously gory and baffling task – to systematically slaughter all the Dhai in the slave camps, supposedly to quell some rebellion. Zezili is not one to question her Empress’s orders, but she finds the task depressingly easy and wonders why the Empress is crippling their society, which relies on the labour of the slaves to function. And, in the back of her mind, Zezili knows that once all the slaves are dead, half-breeds like her will be next.

I enjoyed specific aspects of the story like this, but now I need to get into what I found problematic, which is that, on the whole, this is an overwhelming sprawl of a novel. As I said, I found it to be a very difficult book in some ways, and several things contribute to that.

It’s a totally unfamiliar world. This is part of what makes it great, but it also means that, throughout the book, you’re concentrating on all the new details. It not just a few cool ideas, but entire landscapes, social structures, cultures, a magic system etc., all of which have bearing on the plot.

Then, while trying to picture the contemporary world, you’re also given the history behind it. There is an unbelievable amount of backstory that you need to understand before you can get a good grasp of the current story. I’ll be honest: I don’t think I got much more than a general idea of either. Because, as I’ve mentioned, the plot is a pretty complex one too, and it’s told using many (too many?) characters. It took me a while to get to know the cast, some of whom start getting POV chapters later in the novel, or disappear for several chapters so that you can’t quite remember who they are when they pop up again. If I had the time, I would have re-read the book and made twice as many notes before attempting this review. I will definitely have to re-read it before I even think of attempting the sequel.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get particularly attached to any character, except perhaps Roh, a charming young parajista (he has magic abilities linked to the star ‘Para’), and Zezili (unlikeable, but in a way I like). Ahkio, the ungifted man unwilling pushed into in a leadership position usually given to gifted women, has one of the most potentially interesting story arcs, but I found him a bit bland, and got bogged down by all the politics and people involved in his chapters. The ‘main’ character Lilia, who we meet as a child in the first chapter, fulfils, in some ways, the standard trope of  the orphan with hidden Powers and a Destiny, but differs in other ways. She was handicapped as a child, when acid burned half her foot off, and she’s asthmatic. She’s hopeless at magic, but brilliant when it comes to strategy and puzzle-solving. You know, according to storytelling convention, that she’s eventually going to get stronger and more powerful, but she still has to deal with her disability, and her journey is characterised by terrible violence that strips her of that golden aura of nobility that typically surrounds this kind of character. These are the kinds of things that should make Lilia one of my favourite characters, but instead I found her tedious. I’d like to meet her in the next book, but in this one? Meh.

So, do I think The Mirror Empire is a good book? Yes, mostly. I cannot fail to admire Hurley’s ambition, and what’s she’s achieved as a result. Epic fantasy often looks to me like a somewhat stagnant genre, where too many of the books are so lacking in imagination that it’s more like vaguely historical fiction than fantasy. But you can’t say that of this novel; Hurley’s world is jsut so invigorating.

That said, this was too much of a sprawl for me. It’s so challenging, in a way that tends to more tiring than enjoyable. I took ages to finish. I don’t mind that it’s quite slow, building up to what will surely be massive, devastating events, but I do wish that it was more focused, more tightly written. It looks geared to be an influential book in the genre, so I’m glad to have read it, and I’m glad to have read an epic fantasy novel that takes a fresh approach to worldbuilding, social structures, sexuality, etc. But it’s not going to be one of my favourites.

Short Fiction Review: July 2014

My favourite story for July – and one of my favourites this year – was “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides by Sam J. Miller, from Nightmare Magazine. The story won a Shirley Jackson Award, and I can see why. It’s about Jared, a gay teenager, who has been viciously bullied by six boys at school. However, he discovers that he has a unique ability that he can use to take revenge, with the help of his best friend Anchal. What makes the story particularly interesting is that the whole thing is told in a list of 57 items – the reasons for the Slate Quarry suicides. It builds quite slowly, but the gruesome ending is just superb.

STP_Summer2013-1400px-425x561Most of the rest of my short story reading for July came from Subterranean Magazine, the Summer 2013 edition (free to download in ePub or mobi, or you can just read it online). It was here that I discovered the artful storytelling of K.J. Parker. I knew the name, but not that it’s a pseudonym for an author whose true identity has never been revealed. I hadn’t paid much attention to Parker before, but his/her story “The Sun and I” was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and I wanted to check out the nominees I hadn’t read.

“We could always invent God,” the narrator says in the opening line, and proceeds to outline a plan for creating a religion. He and his friends are all highly educated but utterly broke and running out of wine, so they need  a scam to make some money. They pool their talents and their last few copper coins and design a system of belief tailored to fit people’s longings for religion, and improve upon the frustrations that have made other contemporary faiths unpopular. The result – the Church of the Invincible Sun – is an unbelievable success. With a few clever tactics and what looks like uncanny luck, the friends convince an entire city that they’re the real deal, and start raking in more gold than they ever imagined they’d have.

The absurd prosperity of the Invincible Sun unsettles some of the friends, including the creator and narrator, Eps. He even starts dreaming about the god he created, as if he actually were the prophet he pretends to be. The power of the religion just continues to grow, as if it’s somehow becoming what its creators say say it is

“The Sun and I” was part of a special K.J. Parker section in the magazine so I went on to read the other two pieces. “Rich Men’s Skins: A Social History of Armour” is a great essay on armour designs across the ages, comparing the rich warriors who owned expensive armour to common soldiers who were given mass-produced armour. Parker examines the ways in which the different classes relate to the way armour was designed, how wars were fought, and how they were perceived.

I can’t say too much about the story “Illuminated” without giving the plot away, but it immediately drew my attention to the intricacies of Parker’s writing. A professor and his female student investigate an abandoned ‘wizard’s tower’ of sorts, and examine the books that have been left there. There’s a mystery to be solved, but the story moves slowly at first, fleshing out the awkward relationship between the student and her sexist professor, and the sexism in the field of magic study. Parker engages your interest with character long before the plot gets going, and if the storytelling skill of “The Sun and I” hadn’t already convinced me to go and check out all of his/her other work, “Illuminated” did the trick.

I was pleased to find that this edition of the magazine included a Catherynne M. Valente story (I never need prompting to read one of hers) – “The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World”. If you liked the Old West voice Valente used in Six-Gun Snow White, you’d probably enjoy reading it here too. The story is a surreal allegorical post-apocalyptic fantasy western. In other words, it’s really weird. The US states are personified as witches an warlocks, and they’re fighting to the death to win the bride of the world, who narrates the story. It’s the kind of tale that I don’t really know what to make of, but that I enjoy purely for its quirky style and ideas.

The rest of the edition was ok, so I’ll go through it quickly. “Don’t Ask” by Bruce McAllister and W.S. Adams is memorable for its very graphic gore, as a soldier examines the body of his girlfriend, who was killed by a mine. I’m don’t like excessively gory stories, but in this case I found the juxtaposition of the shattered body and the reconstruction of the couple’s relationship appropriate. The story employs a commonplace sf trope at the end, but I like the way it resonates with the title.

“Stage Blood” by Kat Howard is a restyles Bluebeard as a stage magician who kills a woman in a glass coffin for one of his tricks, and keeps them all in a secret, magical room. Not the most memorable retelling, but a nice enough story.

“The Case of the Stalking Shadow” by Joe R. Lansdale is the only piece in this edition that I didn’t like. It uses an old-fashioned setup -  a ghost story told around lounge lit by a roaring fire, and transcribed by one of the listeners. I actually quite like this style, but the story revealed too much, in my opinion, and I lost interest.

Overall, a good edition of Subterranean. I’m very sad to see that this year’s Summer edition will be their final issue :(

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long EarthTitle: The Long Earth
Series: The Long Earth #1
Authors: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Published: 2012
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: own copy
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 8/10

‘The Long Earth’ refers not to one planet but millions, perhaps infinite Earths, in universes parallel to our own. Throughout the ages, a few people have been able to “step” from one world to the next, but the Long Earth remained a secret. Then, in 2015, the plans for a simple stepping device went viral, and on a day later known as Step Day, people all over the world found themselves in pristine parallel Earths where humans never evolved.

Fifteen years before, Joshua Valiente’s mother accidentally stepped while giving birth to him, and for a few moments he was alone on another Earth. In those moments alone, Joshua developed an affinity for what he eventually called the Silence – the calm feeling of being far away from other humans. On Step Day, Joshua found out that he was a natural Stepper (he can step without using a device or getting nauseous like most people do), and he became famous for rescuing a bunch of kids who lost their way in the other worlds. Afterwards, he did a lot of stepping on his own, escaping the Datum (our Earth) for the Silence.

At the start of the novel, Joshua gets recruited by Lobsang, a godlike AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. Lobsang is working with the very powerful Black Corporation and has discovered a way to step very quickly across worlds. Lobsang wants to explore the “High Meggers” – Earths millions of steps away from ours – and he wants Joshua to join him because of his ability to step without getting sick and because of his tendency to live without much human company.

What follows does not have much of a plot (this is not a criticism). Rather, it’s a meandering exploration of the idea of the Long Earth, while also relating Lobsang and Joshua’s actual journey across those Earths. There is just a touch of intrigue to give the novel some pace – although humans only evolved on the Datum, there are other humanoid species across the Long Earth, who are all natural Steppers like Joshua. Some are friendly, others are not, but they all seem to be migrating, running away from something in the High Meggers. Lobsang believes they need to find out what it is.

What I liked most about The Long Earth is its speculation – the possibilities of the other Earths, and the ways in which they’ve changed human society. The Long Earth represents all the ways Earth may have turned out given major or minor changes in evolution, geological events, astronomical events, climate, etc. Joshua and Lobsang come across lots of unfamiliar plants and animal species, some of which are just slightly different from the Datum versions, and some that are completely new to them.

And, of course, the Long Earth also shows what the Earth could have been like if humans had not evolved. What this means for almost all of the Earths (barring those that suffered catastrophic natural disasters, for example), is that they remained lush paradises, overflowing with life. And humanity, having nearly exhausted the resources of the Datum, has suddenly been saved from the threat of ecological collapse. For those that can step, there are millions – perhaps an infinite number – of untouched Earths to spread out on. Scarcity of resources ceases to be a problem, and human life starts to change in myriad ways. For example:

‘Consider this. If the Long earth really is effectively endless, as it is beginning to look, then all mankind could afford to live for ever in hunter-gatherer societies, fishing, digging clams, and simply moving right along whenever you run out of clams, or if you just feel like it. Without agriculture, Earth could support perhaps a million people in such a way. There are ten billion of us, we need ten thousand Earths – but, suddenly, we have them, and more. We have no need of agriculture, to sustain our mighty numbers. Do we have need of cities, then? Of literacy and numeracy, even?’ (236)

You can’t carry iron across when you step, which means that most modern technology is limited to the Datum so people have to start almost from scratch, but many are willing to do that. Practical, archaic skills become immensely valuable, while money becomes useless. What value does gold have if every person can have their own gold mine? How do you pay people when they can take all the food they will ever need from trees and rivers? The Long Earth settlements are all interesting thought experiments in themselves.

Naturally, this also affects society on the Datum. Some societies are shrinking as people leave the old world for new ones, escaping debt, poverty, unhappy lives, or just looking for a new way to live. And there is a minority of people who can’t step at all, even with a device, and they’re being left behind. There’s a subplot about a family who leaves to live in a little village over a hundred thousand Earths away, and they leave their teenage son behind because he can’t step. This story could have used more page time, but it’s still an interesting thing to ponder.

I was disappointed that the novel focuses mostly on the United States, although I had to say that it’s not too bad in this case. The authors admit in the acknowledgements that most of the Datum parts of the novel are set in Madison, Wisconsin, simply because the second North American Discworld convention was going to be held there, and it gave them the opportunity to “get a hell of a lot of research done, as we authors say, on the cheap”.

And it works well enough. The Long Earth, and the possibilities it poses for humanity, fit in very nicely with the American Dream, and in fact there are groups of American pioneers who head out “looking for a place to spread out, a place you where could trust your neighbours, in a world where the air was clean and you could start over in search of a better future” (104). Out on the Long Earth, the whole concept of countries becomes obsolete anyway, and Joshua and Lobsang’s travels take them all over the globe. The idea of the Long Earth also has so many implications that it’s hard to explore them all without the book turning into an unfocused sprawl. We do at least get some idea of what’s happening in other countries, and I hope it’s explored in more detail in other books.

I want to make a few comments on the characters. I love quirky AI characters like Lobsang, who reminded me of the drones in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. His vast intelligence is a very useful narrative device, while also holding a lot of potential for the plot of the series, both exciting and sinister.

I wasn’t all that keen on the other characters though. Joshua is bland, although intentionally so, because he’s so antisocial. He’s at his most interesting when he tells stories about the eccentric nuns who raised him at the orphanage (Pratchett’s wonderful humour, I think). He’s always questioning the artificiality of Lobsang – his consciousness, his personality, his ‘humanity’ – but in fact Lobsang has so much more life and individuality than Joshua. In fact one of the other characters describes Joshua as “the great loner who’s barely human himself”.

This might explain why Joshua’s behaviour doesn’t always make sense. There’s a lot of telling in place of showing with him, and it was often at odds with my expectations. For example, it’s stated that Joshua is amused by Lobsang, when I thought he was annoyed. Or he’d be annoyed when it seemed like he was being friendly. Or Joshua would get angry, and that would make perfect sense in context, but it doesn’t quite show in his behaviour. This could be the authors’ way of presenting Joshua as a very distant person, but I found it a bit irritating.

Niggles aside though, I really enjoyed reading this. It’s the kind of sf novel that appeals to me purely because of the way it keeps saying “what if?” and then wandering along that thought. I think it’ll be one of the few series I make an effort to finish.

Taking an unexpected break

A while ago I was having internet problems because of the government-owned Ethiopian telecoms, and I posted a quick notice about how it might affect my blogging. I felt a bit daft about it because the problems cleared up around the same time.

But now Ethiotel has royally fucked something up and local internet problems are much, much worse than before. I basically get about 1 minute of internet every 10-15 minutes. It’s just enough to check my email, facebook and reply to a few messages.

Blogging, however, has become such a tedious task that I decided to just take a break until the problem is fixed. I’ll post something if I get the chance (I’m online now thanks to a friend with a different kind of connection) or if something important comes up, but for the most part I’ll just retreat into the real world and focus on other projects.

Hopefully I’ll be able to return soon.

The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String DiariesTitle: The String Diaries
Author: Stephen Lloyd Jones
Published: 4 July 2013; my edition published 1 July 2014
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, thriller
Rating: 4/10

The story of The String Diaries is set across three time periods. In the present, Hannah Wilde drives frantically through the night to a remote safehouse in Snowdonia, Wales. Her husband Nate is bleeding to death on the seat beside her, and their daughter Leah is asleep in the back. It’s now Hannah’s responsibility to keep them safe from Jakab, a monstrous man who has hunted her family for over a century.

In 1979 in Oxford, Professor Charles Meredith meets a beautiful young woman studying Hungarian history. He finds himself inexplicably captivated by her, only to find that she’s spent her life running from an old enemy described in a collection of diaries bound up in string.

In 1873 in Hungary, an awkward boy from a wealthy family resists the demands of his birthright. He is “hosszú életek”, one of a race of aristocratic shape-shifters blessed with longevity and other supernatural skills. For some reason, he’s always struggled to use his powers, and he knows that he will be disgraced in front of his peers at their coming-out ceremony. He chooses to break away from the path laid out for him, with brutal consequences.

At the start, The String Diaries is a tense thriller. We’re given lots of intriguing little hints about the underlying mystery, and the villain Jakab has a terrifying power – he can take the form of any person. Hannah and her family have learned to ask questions to verify people’s identities, but it’s hard to keep your guard up all the time. If a friend goes out of sight for even a few minutes, it might be Jakab who comes back, wearing their face. He could do all sorts of terrible things by posing as an ally, and one of the scariest possibilities involves him killing a loved one and taking their place. There’s also a bit of plot in the backstory that I quite liked, about how Jakab’s actions turned Hungarian society against the hosszú életek, leaving a trail of dark stories in the folklore.

The hosszú életek is a great idea for a thriller and the novel works pretty well with it for a while, but the more we learn, the less exciting it becomes. When Jakab’s motives are revealed about halfway through the book, the tension starts to dissipate until there’s nothing left. By the end, I was thoroughly bored.

I had a lots of problems with the story. Firstly, Jakab’s motives are unconvincing. The entire thing started with the loss of his first love and somehow develops into a crazy attempt to reclaim the happy life he had for just a couple of months. It’s hard to believe that this was enough to drive Jakab to torment a family for over a century, because another problem is that he doesn’t get much time on the page, and we don’t have a proper understanding of his psychology. He does some terrible things and then feels bad about them, but the boy who commits the acts and the one who feels guilty don’t seem like quite the same character. He goes from being a troubled boy to an obsessive psychopath, and exactly how this happened is left to your imagination. It’s one thing to go a little loopy after losing your first love and another to stalk, torture, murder and rape people because of it. As a reader you just have to accept that Jakab is a nutjob and get on with the book. Personally, I find villains who are just generically crazy to be pretty boring. I prefer to get inside their heads and get intimately acquainted with their madness.

But Jakab’s backstory ends far earlier than I expected it to and we’re left only with the vague and insipidly evil modern version. He’s scary at first, but gets increasingly dull. His powers should make him terrifying, the way he uses them is not as impressive as I thought it could be. One of the characters says she thinks Jakab is getting better at what he does, but on the contrary I think he’s crap. Even if he spends ages studying someone well enough to imitate them, he almost never manages to keep up the persona for more than a few hours. Usually he gives himself away with a stupid mistake. I was expecting some brilliant and unnerving twist where it’s revealed that Jakab has been hiding in plain sight for ages or something, but he’s not nearly that clever. It’s more like Jakab’s greatest power is his insane capacity for relentless pursuit, with his abilities to shift and heal himself as added extras.

As a result, the story degenerates into a more mundane thriller. It’s also bogged down by an excess of personal drama and unnecessary detail. I got tired of hearing how difficult it is for Hannah to keep her husband and daughter safe, how much she loves them and will do anything for them, how much she wants to kill Jakab, etc.

Towards the end, Jones incorporates this totally pointless subplot that adds nothing to the story but a few more guns. Then, at the climax, he starts pulling all sorts of silly tricks out of a hat to achieved the desired outcome. Which, I probably don’t need to say, was disappointing. To add to that I’ve got lots of little niggles, like sloppy writing, contrivances, flat characters and cheesy expressions of emotion. Overall, it didn’t come close to being the thriller I was expecting.

The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansTitle: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 9 May 2013
Publisher: Canongate Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

This book, this actual book, is set right here, on Earth. It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody, and save them. It is about love and dead poets and wholenut peanut butter. It’s about matter and antimatter, everything and nothing, hope and hate. It’s about a forty-one-year-old female historian called Isobel and her fifteen-year-old son called Gulliver and the cleverest mathematician in the world. It is, in short, about how to become a human.

An unnamed alien is sent to earth in the guise of a forty-three-year-old mathematician named Andrew Martin. The aliens kidnapped and killed the real Andrew Martin shortly beforehand, after he proved the Riemann hypothesis – “the most significant mathematical puzzle the humans had ever faced”. It’s a breakthrough that would have “advanced the human race beyond anyone’s imagining”.

But the aliens – Vonnadorians – don’t want such a greedy, violent, narrow-minded species to achieve space travel and go around exploiting other planets and killing other beings. So they’ve sent an unpopular underling to do the unpleasant task of destroying all knowledge of the proof – wiping it from any computer, and killing anyone who might even know that it was solved. LIke Andrew’s wife Isobel and his son Gulliver.

Despite the Vonnadorians’ sophisticated technology however, they can only turn themselves into clones of humans, not replicate their memories. And their understanding of humanity is actually very unsophisticated and deeply, deeply cynical.

Thus, the new Andrew Martin is essentially a “forty-three-year-old newborn on planet Earth”. Or rather, a weirdly rational and extremely pessimistic newborn. He arrives naked and utterly clueless as to why he can’t walk around Cambridge without any clothes on. He stops at a petrol station and reads a copy of Cosmopolitan at the shop to educate himself, giving him a very skewed idea of humanity that focuses rather heavily on orgasms.

The new Andrew’s clumsy attempts to be human are often funny, but it gets a lot more serious when it comes to his wife and son. The original Andrew was a distant and uncaring father who always chose his work over his family, and as a result the alien Andrew’s extremely odd behaviour is not just baffling but hurtful to them.

Not that alien Andrew is happy to be on Earth. At first the only creature he can get along with is the family dog, Newton. He finds everything about humans repulsive and ridiculous, from their protruding noses to their feelings to their clothes. He’s shocked that they actually have spend parts of their short little lives reading instead of just instantly consuming books in capsules – “No wonder they were a species of primitives. By the time they had read enough books to actually reach a state of knowledge where they can do anything with it they are dead”. He criticises the news for being only news about humans (and not one of the other millions of species on the planet) and generally only about war and money rather than “new mathematical observations or still undiscovered polygons”. He can’t believe that the buildings and cars are all dead and stuck to the ground.

His home planet is, of course, completely different. They have no names because they never prioritise the individual over the collective. Their mastery of mathematics has given them immortality, telekinesis and many other gifts. The cars and buildings are living beings in beautiful, complex shapes. They have no weather, no fear, no war, no suffering etc. And they can’t just let the universe do what it wants to do, because [they] will be inside it for eternity”. Hence halting the progress of dangerous species like humans (and probably many others, from the sound of it).

The interesting thing is that the Vonnadorians have achieved many things that humanity desires, like highly advanced technology and immortality, but the novels forces us to look askance at these things when juxtaposed with primitive humanity and all its terrible flaws.

Because, of course, Andrew slowly becomes more and more human, and learns to appreciate humanity. It’s illogical and chaotic, but there’s a beauty in that craziness. As Andrew sees that, he reveals the darker side of his supposedly utopian home – that the Vonnadorians never enjoy anything, never feel anything, don’t care about each other. Despite their vast understanding of mathematics and everything that comes with it, they are stagnant in their understanding of other species and cultures. Andrew’s masters, who are constantly watching his progress, are unable to understand his growing empathy for humans, particularly his ‘wife’ Isobel and ‘son’ Gulliver. He doesn’t want to murder them for the greater good, but his masters won’t give him any choice in the matter.

This novel has frequently been lauded as inspiring and heartwarming, and it’s easy to see why. It wholeheartedly affirms the wonders of human life, despite all its shortcomings and failures. It’s sf aspects are not particularly impressive, but it’s got a feel-good aspect to it that I don’t often encounter in the genre, and it’s the kind of well-written, emotionally charged book that you can give to people who scoff at sff to show them that it’s not whatever cliche they assume it to be.

I’m not a particularly sentimental person though, and there were times when I felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of a Disney movie, particularly in the way alien Andrew becomes a far better father and husband than the original ever was. There’s also a very soft fluffiness in that his growing appreciation for humanity is made so easy by the privileges of Andrew Martin’s life. He’s extremely intelligent, well-educated, has meaningful work as a professor at Cambridge University, lives in a large, comfortable home, enjoys good food and wine. He doesn’t live in an impoverished country, doesn’t have to worry about food, shelter, medical care, political unrest, or a high crime rate. He doesn’t have to deal with the prejudices or other difficulties that might arise from being black, gay, female, poor, disabled, etc. Andrew Martin is a straight white male from an intellectual elite living a cushy life in a first-world country. The only way you could make it easier for him to appreciate being human would be to make him young, gorgeous and athletic too

So, Andrew’s supposedly inspiring insights into the beauty of humanity can sometimes be rather trite or narrow-minded. As a result, It wasn’t a profound and meaningful read for me, as it seems to have been for some people.

That said, it has an optimism that I find charming and perhaps even important. Whether or not your life is anything like Andrew Martin’s it helps to be reminded to appreciate the little things or the way the bad things in life can be good for you. Haig also does some really beautiful things with his story, by entwining mathematics and poetry with Andrew’s awakening. One of the reasons he learns to love humans is the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which is frequently quoted amidst other lovely bits of literature.

And, overall, The Humans is just a nice book to read. That might sound bland, but amidst the horror, grimdark, and dark fantasy, the dystopian and (post)apocalyptic fiction, it helps to be reminded that the world isn’t always as bleak as the Vonnadorians assume.

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson

Parasites Like UsTitle: Parasites Like Us
Author: Adam Johnson
Published: originally published 2003; this edition published 19 June 2014
Publisher: Black Swan
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 2/10

As a rule, blurbs typically include some degree of bullshit. It can be difficult to sum up the plot in just a few words, and make it sound enticing at the same time, so you tweak it. You throw in words like “haunting”, “thrilling”, “hilarious” because people will pay for those kinds of experiences. It doesn’t matter if the book can deliver them.

I’m totally fine with that. You don’t put time, effort and money into getting a book on the shelf and then tell people that it’s just ok, that it’s definitely not the next Harry Potter but hopefully the same market will buy it. As a reader, I know you need to tell me these things. I can see through them and make my own decisions.

But don’t fucking lie to me about the entire fucking plot because it’s going to piss me the fuck off.

Much like the blurb of Parasites Like Us. It is, perhaps, the most egregious example of a misleading blurb that I have ever come across. Here it is:

After trashing his cherry ’72 Corvette, illegally breaking into an ancient burial site, and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn, Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse. Hank, a professor of anthropology back in the days when there were still co-eds to ogle and now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth, decides to record the last days of human civilization for whomever – or whatever – might replace us.

This is what’s wrong with it:

 – The blurb describes events that occur so late in the novel that it’s basically a spoiler. However, I can understand why these things are in the blurb because almost nothing else interesting happens.

 – Hank trashes his car over a third of the way into the novel rather than near the beginning as the blurb implies.

 – The car is yellow, not cherry-red. This is of no consequence whatsoever, but seriously, could the blurb writer not even get that right? Did he or she even read the book? [Thanks H. Anthe Davis for pointing out in the comments that "cherry" in this context actually means "pristine" not "red" so I was unfair to criticise the blurb on this point. A pity it's such a minor point that has no power to help matters at all.]

 – “snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn”: Actually, what they find is 12 000-year old maize. And Hank’s grad student Eggers, for god knows what reason, decides to make popcorn with some of it. So the maize is old, but not the popcorn per se. Also, the blurb makes it sound like Hank is the only one to eat it, but he isn’t.

 – “Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse”. It’s not fair to say that Hank unleashed the apocalypse. The skeleton holds something that unleashes the apocalypse, but Hank and his grad students can’t be blamed for finding and excavating what would have been a famous, groundbreaking piece of evidence. Their methods are unbelievably shoddy and, given more time, they might have unleashed the apocalypse, but instead someone else does it by thoughtlessly smashing an object found on the skeleton.

 – “now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth”. “Now”? This suggests that most of this book takes place after the apocalypse. But while Hank indeed is writing it after the apocalypse, the actual event only begins in the final quarter of the book, and it’s a bit longer before everyone dies off leaving the final few. Also, there is no confirmation that everyone else on the planet is dead, or even that everyone in the country is dead. Admittedly, the fact that Hank thinks he’s one of only twelve remaining humans might be an indication of what an arrogant and stupid person he is.

Personally, I would describe the book as a story about an academic in mid-life crisis. He had five minutes of fame from a book that no one reads anymore. He pines for his absent mother and dead stepmother. He lusts after his grad student, Trudy. He’s uncomfortable with his father’s hedonistic nature. It just so happens that he’s writing about all this after surviving the apocalypse, but aside from a few comments on the way life has changed, this is not particularly important until the apocalypse actually arrives much later.

Hank and his grad students, Eggers and Trudy, specialise in the Clovis, a people who inhabited North America 12 000 years ago and consumed everything in sight, destroying themselves and driving 35 animal species to extinction. When Eggers finds a Clovis burial site, the three of them decide to excavate it illegally, hoping to keep the glory for themselves and protect the skeleton from being bulldozed by a local construction project before they can acquire the proper permits.

However, for his thesis, Eggers is spending a year living like a Clovis man. So he walks around in filthy stinking animal skins from the abbatoir, eats squirrels and bugs, never brushes his teeth, etc. Basically, he tries to live using only what a Clovis man would have had. So when he finds the Clovis skeleton, he insists on excavating it WITHOUT MODERN TECHNOLOGY. They scrape at the bones with bits of antler and Eggers makes up his own system of measurement because he can’t use the metric system. Trudy and Hank play along, but then sneak away a few bones when Eggers goes to pee. I am no archaeologist, but this makes me cringe.

However, it gives you an idea of the absurdity of this book. All the characters behave in weird, inexplicable ways. It’s intentionally absurd (I assume) but not in a funny/entertaining/illuminating kind of way, like you’d expect from comedy or satire. More like a “what the fuck is wrong with these stupid people and why am I reading about them” kind of way.

I would say this of Hank more than anyone else. Hank is an insufferably ridiculous, self-important little shit. He believes he is writing this story for the future generations of human beings, and he says stuff like:

“I am the past. “

“A new day had dawned in science, and though I didn’t understand it yet, I was the Adam of anthropology.”

“forget not that you are all descended from me, that I myself am the source of your laws”

He calls women’s breasts “num-nums” and chases after a busty Russian botanist trying desperately to prove to her that he’s not “a buffoon of a man, a scientific huckleberry”. But he really is just so unbelievably lame, as the author keeps emphasising this to the point where it becomes utter torture to read. Hank doesn’t tell a story so much as blather on about all his personal crap. Half the time I don’t know why this moron does the things he does but I can’t say that I ever cared.

The only remotely interesting thing he brings to the text is a comparison between the Clovis and contemporary humanity – both destroyers of their environments, with the implication that humanity will end up as dead as the Clovis, thanks to their own stupidity. On the other hand – criticising humanity’s over-consumption in apocalyptic fiction? Not exactly a fresh perspective.

It needs to be stated that I didn’t hate this book just because of the blurb. It’s just terribly boring. And very very silly, but not in the way I expected. I’d say that the blurb is written to attract one kind of audience while the book caters to a completely different one. If you like absurd novels about academics in mid-life crisis, this might be a great book for you, spiced up with a bit of spec fic. If you wanted a quirky book about the apocalypse, you might be left wondering why you’re reading about an absurd academic and his stupid mid-life crisis instead. Obviously, I’m in the latter group. Worst book I’ve read this year.