GUEST POST Not My Country: 5 Things I Learned About Worldbuilding from Traveling Abroad by Kameron Hurley

If you’re at all interested in serious, progressive sff, then you will probably have heard a lot about The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley lately; it’s the kind of convention-defying, mind-opening fantasy that all fans should be reading. Kameron won double Hugos this year, and I don’t doubt that The Mirror Empire will get her nominated for several awards again next year. She’s currently on one of her incredibly prolific blog tours following the launch of her novel from Angry Robot, and has been kind enough to make another stop at Violin in a Void. Welcome back Kameron!


The Mirror Empire

The best writing advice I ever got was to read outside the science fiction and fantasy genre and travel. There’s nothing like getting out of your everyday surroundings and plopping yourself into someplace difference to see just how much cultural baggage you’re carrying around. Here are the top five things I learned about how to build better fantastic worlds – simply by traveling around more in this one.

    • Knowing a thing and experiencing a thing are different, and you’ll have a whole new view of the world when you experience all those things you think you know. There were all sorts of things I knew, intellectually, about race and poverty and sexism and my place in the world. But getting out into the world and seeing those things in action changed the way I felt about them. It’s all very well to say one understands poverty and chronic illness, too, but until I had experience with those things in my personal life, they were still just concepts, like watching something that happened to someone else on TV. Traveling gave me a chance to see and experience different ways of living. Some good, some bad, all very different from mine. When it comes to building fictional worlds, it’s easier to build believable ones when you’ve had some inkling of wider experience beyond what’s in a book.


    • People are much better than we think. Our obsession with the evil of the world, with mass murder and serial killers and genocide, often gives a lopsided view of the world. If all we see presented are people being awful to each other, we’ll start to think that’s all people ever are. But the reality is that even the places that I went where not everyone was fabulous, the majority of people still were. Often in the most surprising places. Your world may be the grimmest of the grimmest darkiest dark, but without a ray of hope, without kindness, without a measure of good, none of us would survive very long. I discovered that adding hope and humor to my stories went a long way to making them more livable, and, frankly, more realistic.


    • Caution is fine, but saying “yes” will lead to far more opportunities. I got a lot of well-meaning folks cautioning me a lot when I did most of my traveling, alone, in my 20’s. Everyone sees a young woman traveling alone, and the only time we ever see that portrayed in the media is usually when some young woman goes missing. These things happen, yes, and it’s a real concern. But the truth is that these sorts of stories and cautions also work to hold women back from fully experiencing life in a way that men are not. I recognized early that traveling would come with risk, but so would sitting still. This experience, being a young woman traveling alone, led me to ask how dangerous the world was – or was perceived to be – for folks in my fantastic worlds, too. It turns out that building an escapist and fantastic world, for me, could be doing something as revolutionary as building a world where it was possible for a young woman to travel alone unquestioned. Madness!


    • Language is awesome, and you should learn to speak as many of them as you can. I spent some time traveling through Switzerland, taking a train ride across this country where one minute everyone is speaking French, and the next… German. In Durban, South Africa, I could hear three or four different languages and six different accents every single day, easily. Growing up in northwestern U.S., I led a pretty insulated life. The only other language I ever heard until my teens was French, and only because my grandmother and aunts spoke it. Once I had to start navigating the world outside my little slice of it, I wished I’d learned more of it, and two or three more languages besides. Language is rich, fun, complex – and adding this to your worldbuilding, instead of relying on a “common tongue” or monolithic language or magic translator, can add an incredible amount of depth to your work.


  • We’re all more alike than we are different. I talk a lot about difference in my work, and how we don’t show the full measure of diversity in the world – let alone diversity of the imagination, of what could be – in our fiction. But what interests me most is what stays the same when we change everything else, from what we eat to how we organize ourselves. When we pull everything else away, it turns out we all want to feel loved, to love, to feel that our lives matter. How we express that differs, but what makes us human across time, across cultures, is just as interesting as what makes us uniquely ourselves. And it’s that part of our humanity, our capacity for love, for kindness, for empathy, that I never want to forget in my fiction, either.


About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschie Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscape PodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

We Are All Completely FineTitle: We Are All Completely Fine
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror
Rating: 7/10

Daryl Gregory’s novella is only 192 pages long, and I finished it all in a rather enjoyable rainy Sunday morning. It’s horror, but it’s fairly light horror. It’s got monsters and suffering and appalling torture, but it’s also got lots of humour and hope.

It begins with six unusual people coming together for group therapy. Harrison became famous as ‘The Monster Detective’, a hero who inspired a series of novels. Stan became equally famous after being imprisoned by a family of cannibals who ate his limbs (and his friends). Barbara claims that someone known as the Scrimshander cut her open and peeled back her flesh to carve messages on her bones. Greta’s body is covered in dense, intricately carved scars. Martin refuses to ever take off his sunglasses, but sees things others don’t.

Each of these patients are sole survivors, marked by scars inside and out. They’ve all faced monsters, but Dr. Jan Sayer is the only therapist who has not dismissed their experiences as delusion. She’s brought them together, hoping that their knowledge of a monstrous other world will enable them to help each other live in the normal one.

I requested this book because the blurb suggested that it could be a fantastic character study, and the novella certainly delivers on that point. For the first half or so, there isn’t much of a plot. The characters just tell their stories and we get brief glances into their current lives. And it works very, very well.

Gregory’s writing is excellent, masterfully detailing the characters – Harrison’s awkward tendency to overthink everything; the polite, well-groomed appearance that covers Barbara’s tortured past; the way Martin immediately develops an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the group. For a while Greta is noticeable only because of her persistent silence, while Stan, on the other hand, dominates every session with indulgent monologues about his suffering.

Whether I liked these characters I can’t quite say, but I was instantly invested in hearing their stories, understanding who they were, and how the hidden world of demons and monsters had shaped them. We Are All Completely Fine is, first and foremost, a character-driven story and it works brilliantly as such.

But there is a plot and, unfortunately, when this starts to develop about halfway through, the novella begins to falter. This is partly because it’s not a great plot. Although it ties the characters individual stories together quite neatly and gives us a bit of action, it’s just so… dull. Like something from a B-grade horror movie.

A second problem is that the plot comes to dominate the story when it’s actually the weakest element. The characters, who were strong enough to drive a narrative on their own, fade into the background of a plot that’s not nearly as interesting as they were. I still enjoyed reading about them, especially as Martin comes out of his shell and Stan’s old-man grumpiness lends a  wonderful dose of humour, but it just wasn’t the same.

The novel starts out feeling fresh and well-crafted, and then degenerates into something totally forgettable. I was left with the odd feeling of being very pleased and terribly disappointed at the same time. Since it’s so short though, I’d say it’s worth giving it a shot.

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural EnhancementsTitle: The Supernatural Enhancements
Author: Edgar Cantero
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: gothic, mystery, adventure
Rating: 6/10

Our protagonist – known only as “A.” – inherits a huge mansion from an American “second-cousin twice-removed”. A. had never even heard of Ambrose Wells until after the man committed suicide by throwing himself from his bedroom window at the age of 50. Incidentally, Ambrose’s father threw himself from the same window, at the same age.

Now A. finds himself incredibly rich, having gotten Axton House and all its contents. He moves in, along with his ‘companion’ Niamh (pronounced “Neve”; it’s gaelic), a mute teenage punk with blue and violet dreadlocks. Since A. is only 23 he figures he’s got 27 years before Axton House can drive him to suicide, and he and Niamh enthusiastically face the building’s many mysteries – the strange deaths of its previous owners, rumours that the House is haunted, the disappearance of the butler who worked there all his life, the coded messages left by Ambrose Wells, a secret society that met at the House. It’s a House with “supernatural enhancements” (an Edith Wharton quote). Soon, A. starts having disturbingly vivid dreams and nightmares, always featuring the same people, images and events, and these gradually start to affect his health and sanity. There is also an unexplained break-in at the House, after which Niamh gets a dog who she prudently names Help.

A. and Niamh go to great lengths to record their experiences. A. keeps a diary, a dream journal, and regularly writes letters to an Aunt Liza, detailing everything that happens to them and the steps they’re taking to solve the mystery. Because she’s mute, Niamh communicates using a notebook, and in her spare time she fills in the other speakers’ parts of the conversation, so that she’s basically got a written record of all her conversations. She also buys a voice recorder and video camera, and – when the situation in the House gets more threatening – she sets up surveillance cameras everywhere. These documents, as well as transcriptions of notable audio and video recordings, are what make up the narrative of The Supernatural Enhancements.

The blurb claims that “[w]hat begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in Cantero’s wholly original modern-day adventure”, and this is one of the few occasions where I’d say the blurb is spot-on.

At first the book has a creepy tone, when A. starts to see the rumoured ghost in the bathroom. However, the ghost turns out to be a relatively minor issue, an entry point to grander schemes. As A. and Niamh investigate, the creepy ghost story gives way to mystery and adventure with a bit of action and quite a lot of danger.

What makes the book “wholly original” is, I think, the strangeness of the story that unfolds, a kind of charming metafictional humour (more on that in a bit), and partly the way virtually everything about this book adds to its mystery – the plot, the setting, the characters, the narrative structure, the writing style. I’ve already explained as much of the plot as I can without starting to spoil it. The size and grandeur of Axton House alone gives it an air of mystery, but A. also notes that the house seems to exist in a different time:

when you’re near enough to touch it with your fingertip, it just feels old. Not respectable old, but godforsaken old. Like a sepia-colored photograph, or Roman ruins that miraculously avoided tourist guides. This house ages differently. It’s like those bungalows that endure decades, but are awake only three months a year in summer, so that they live one year, but age four. This happens to Axton House and the things within, “all of its contents.” They stand on the brink of the twenty-first century, but their age pulls them back. Maybe that’s why everything in it is or seems anachronistic; a newspaper in it is outdated; any accessory falls out of fashion; Ambrose Wells lived in 1995 looking like a gentleman from 1910s London. I am starting to feel it myself—like time is running faster than me, and I have to catch up. Like I’m stuck on the bank of a river while the space-time continuum keeps flowing. Like I’m being forgotten from the universe.

A. and Niamh are rather mysterious themselves. We don’t know what A. was studying when he left university in Europe for the States, or where exactly he’s from, although apparently Niamh’s English is better than his. We don’t know exactly why he’s only referred to as “A.” while Niamh gets a name rather than just a letter. We’re told that Niamh comes from Dublin and that she’s had a shit childhood, but little else. It’s not even clear what their relationship is. They sleep in the same bed, but for safety rather than intimacy.

Then there’s the fact that the story is composed only of documents – A.’s diary, his dream journal, Niamh’s notebook, letters to Aunt Liza, transcripts of audio and video recordings, excerpts from academic journals, and news articles. Who compiled this and why? Do these accounts differ from ‘reality’? What would we be reading if we got an omniscient third-person POV? Also, why does A. write so many letters to Aunt Liza? She almost never replies, and it’s not stated whether she is A.’s aunt or Niamh’s, although both seem to have a good relationship with her.

The writing style or voice is also very odd – a somewhat pretentious old-fashioned style used by A. and whoever did the audio and video transcripts. The story is set in 1995, but A. writes like a character from a 19th century gothic novel. This is not a flaw – Cantero does it self-consciously, as a kind of joke that happens to put you in the right frame of mind for a gothic mystery in a giant haunted house. Niamh actually laughs at A.’s prose too, declaring his opening paragraphs to be the “[w]orst beginning ever written and saying he reads too much Lovecraft (he’s not that bad, and he’s quite funny, but you get the point). A. himself mentions several times that this whole story is a bit overdramatic, but it’s clear that this is the point – it’s entertaining.

I have to say though, that the writing style doesn’t always work for me. Some parts of the book were enjoyable to read, while other bits were tedious. The scenes composed mostly of dialogue read very quickly and clearly, even when characters are infodumping. A.’s letters are good too, focused but also amusing. His diary is ok. I found his dream journal tedious, but I generally find dream sequences a pain to read.

The occasions when I completely disliked the writing style were in some of the passages of description provided for the video recordings. The style is very similar to A.’s and sometimes it gets far too lavish for the content. It tends to draw your attention away from the action, and can be very boring to read. Here are some examples:

An extremely indecisive second lingers by, pondering whether to elapse or not, and finally does.

Droning brightness saturates all whites in the image, swelling in a luminous aura like icy embers.

An autumn carpet of white and sepia paper sheets lies over the gallery like war propaganda from an enemy fighter.                              

This style is ok when it’s just a line or two, but for the longer descriptive passages I would have preferred clear, simple prose to allow the action to take centre stage. If Cantero is trying to imply that A. wrote this, with his signature verbosity, then purple prose makes sense, but it still hurts the story. Other pieces of writing dragged the story down too. The academic articles were a bit dull, and there were some very long, dense explanations of code-breaking that I eventually gave up on and just skimmed through.

On the whole, I thought the book was… ok.  It could be playful, exciting and tense, but at other times it dragged or just lost my interest. I liked A., Niamh and their utterly adorable dog Help, but it can be difficult to keep track of other characters. The big reveals didn’t resonate with me much, although I enjoyed the climax and the way Cantero leaves you with fresh questions to ponder at the end. If you’re looking for a gothic adventure, thrilling but not too dark, you might enjoy this.

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.