Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

Crux by Ramez Naam

CruxTitle: Crux
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 August 2012; this edition published 2 April 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
7/10

Contains spoilers for book 1, Nexus. If you haven’t read it, you can check out my review here.

In book 1 of Ramez Naam’s posthumanist sf series, the key question was how best to introduce Nexus to the world. Do you give it to everyone or reserve it for an educated elite?

Kaden Lane made the democratic choice and uploaded the code for all to access. Now it’s out there, it’s open-source, and people are discovering all the fascinating possibilities of being able to connect your mind with others’. Unfortunately, it presents just as much opportunity for abuse, so Nexus gets used as a coercion tool for things like theft, slavery, murder and rape. All it takes is a programmer with the right tools to hack someone’s brain.

Kade is painfully aware of this. In Nexus, he proved himself to be a man who thinks carefully about the consequences of his actions and takes responsibility for them. Knowing that his work is being used to for such terrible crimes kills him, so he spends his days monitoring the use of Nexus, identifying abusers, and hacking their minds to stop them.

This is possible because he and his partners, Ilya and Rangan, wrote a “back door” into the Nexus 5 code before the ERD stole it from them. Kade has since changed the passwords, so the ERD continues to hunt him down. They want to eradicate the use of Nexus in the general population, while using the technology for their own purposes. The back door is the crux on which the story rests. It’s a good thing only because it’s used by someone as golden-hearted and dedicated as Kade, but will he always use it in the right way, for the right reasons? And who is he – or anyone – to decide what “right” is? It’s a simple question when, for example, Kade hacks a mind to stop a rape, but the prospect of the ERD hacking minds for the sake of state security is terrifying.

So Kade is on the run in Thailand, along with his friend Feng, the Chinese ex-solider who worked as Su-Yong Shu’s bodyguard. Su-Yong Shu was killed at the end of Nexus, but now exists as an uploaded consciousness, vastly intelligent but going insane without the sensory input of a body. She’s kept isolated on a server deep underground while her husband Chen tries to torture her into giving him one last scientific breakthrough before she self-destructs. Ling, Su-Yong’s eight-year-old posthuman daughter/clone is desperate to rescue her mother, but she cannot access the server and, in a moment of intense frustration, she reaches out with her mind and cripples Shanghai with what looks like a massive cyber attack.

Meanwhile, Sam Cataranes is hiding out in Thailand as Sunee Martin after abandoning the ERD in favour of the posthuman movement. Now Sam’s working with Nexus kids and discovering their boundless potential.

Such potential is also of interest to Shiva Prasad, a billionaire philanthropist who has worked hard to solve the world’s environmental problems but came to the conclusion that it’s now impossible for humanity to solve the problems it created. He wants to use Nexus to create a hive mind intelligent enough to find the necessary solutions, but for that he needs Kade and the back door.

Meanwhile, back in the US, ERD’s Neuroscience Director, Martin Holtzmann, faces a personal and moral dilemma. He took Nexus at the end of book 1, but he’s using it in secret because it’s illegal and he works for the organisation that’s trying to prevent the public from using it. It gets worse when he’s put in charge of experimenting on autistic Nexus children in an attempt to find a “cure”. The work disgusts him – not only is he fighting a technology he’s embraced, but he’s torturing children to do it. To cope with the stress, he uses Nexus to create an app that tweaks his body chemistry and releases opiates into his system. Unsurprisingly, he ends up with a drug addition.

The pressure to “cure” children with Nexus comes partly after a group calling themselves the Post-human Liberation Front (PLF) tries to assassinate the US President by hacking a Secret Service agent (another way of abusing Nexus – forcing people to work as soldiers and assassins, or simply hacking into their minds to spy). The PLF targets anti-Nexus political figures, but in doing so it exacerbates people’s fears of posthumans.

 

Crux is exactly like Nexus in that it speculates about the potential of an evolutionary technology while considering its moral implications and using all that to fuel an action-packed plot. It’s smart and entertaining, and Naam does a pretty good job of handling a large cast of POV characters. The narrative hops around a lot, but that didn’t really bother me.

That said, I felt like I was reading a lesser version of Nexus. The speculation I enjoyed so much in the first book feels pretty standard now. It’s all still pretty cool, but the book is so full of ideas that many of them get little more than a mention.

The overall positivity regarding Nexus also makes the book feel a bit light on substance, and this is something that bothered me in the first novel too. While I love that the series is optimistic about new technology rather than basing the plot on what goes wrong with it, that optimism occasionally eschews a more complex debate. It can also get annoying. Sometimes the novel feels like it’s just gushing about how super awesome Nexus is without developing much in terms of plot or character. Granted, Nexus is awesome, but raving about it isn’t necessarily good for the story.

It also tends towards melodrama. I felt like Crux was constantly using children to tug at my heartstrings, manipulating me in favour of Nexus, while turning me against the evil detractors and their (often justifiable) fears. Nexus can “cure” autism, allows parents to communicate with their babies in the womb, and lets adults experience the beautiful wonder of children’s minds. It helps children learn faster by absorbing knowledge from other children and generally just makes them sweet and fascinating and delightful. Anyone who opposes the use of Nexus or threatens the children in some other way is very easily converted into a villain simply because we all have to think of the children. And, well, yes we should, but I’m not fond of this particular cheap writing tactic.

We do see some of the bad sides of Nexus though (besides the coercion), and it gives you something to think about. Martin Holtzmann develops a drug addiction without even having actual drugs (that could be a novel in itself). The autistic Nexus children see those without Nexus as not being real people, and instantly ostracize a child who doesn’t have it. A class – or species – conflict is definitely coming. Ling takes out an entire city because of a tantrum. The novel, perhaps a bit too conveniently, avoids dwelling on the amount of death and destruction she so easily causes, thereby glossing over the consequences of having Nexus in a young or unstable mind. Nexus children won’t necessarily be as wholesomely wonderful as the ones Sam takes care of, but the novel almost always portrays them that way, with Ling as an anomaly.

Then again, maybe I’m asking too much of Crux. It’s still a strong, smart sf thriller and I’m kind of taking the things that make it cooler and asking, why couldn’t you tell me more about this? And yes, it gets melodramatic and some of its moral debates are simplistic, but no more so than loads of similar stories that I love. It didn’t do much to expand on the posthuman issue set up in Nexus, but that doesn’t make the topic any less interesting. So, if you liked Nexus, it’s worth seeing where Crux takes the story.

 

Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground hbTitle: Under Ground
Author:
S.L. Grey
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 July 2015 (UK); August 2015 (SA and Commonwealth
Genre: 
horror, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

The world freaks out over a deadly new super-virus, and when the first confirmed cases hit the US, five families rush to their condos in The Sanctum – a luxury survival bunker situated fifty feet underground in rural Maine. The Sanctum is designed to be self-sustaining, stylish and comfortable. Besides offering fresh food, clean air and water, sanitation and maximum security, it also has a gym, medical bay and recreation room, as well as TV and internet access so the residents can stay in contact with the outside world (and watch the apocalypse go down) for as long as possible.

In theory it’s a brilliant idea. For the owner, Greg Fuller, it sounds like a fantastic way to make a ton of cash off the rich and paranoid. For the few with the cash to buy in, it’s not only a good bet for survival but an opportunity to avoid the apocalypse altogether.

But it also means getting locked up with paranoid strangers in a confined, sterile space (where everything is obviously going to go to shit), and a lot depends on who those people are and how they handle the situation. James and Victoria Maddox are a pair of yuppies with marriage issues who rock up in designer clothes, carting Cristal and crates of gourmet dog food for their shih tzu. Cait, an au pair, is supposed to fly home to Joburg, but all the flights get cancelled and her boss, Tyson, basically kidnaps her by dragging her along to The Sanctum without even telling her where they’re going. It’s a blessing for Tyson’s daughter Sarita, at least: her mother died recently and Cait’s been caring for her while her father becomes increasingly distant. Jae is a gamer who, besides having to deal with lagging wifi, is worried about his mother’s health problems and the fact that his father almost never leaves the house. And then there are the Guthries – the racist, fanatically religious, gun-toting rednecks…

Of course everyone arrives at a frightening, high-pressure time, and their paranoia is particularly apparent when the final family arrives late with a sickly old woman whose presence sparks fears of infection. And once they’re settled, it becomes obvious that the owner, Greg, has been cutting corners and The Sanctum isn’t quite the haven they paid for.

Then a body is found, and everyone faces the prospect of being locked in a bunker with a murderer who could pick them off one by one.

I really like the way the novel uses this fairly simple premise of a locked-rom mystery to explore all the complex ways in which the characters and their relationships shift or shatter under the pressure. It’s why I asked Louis Greenberg for a guest post on the characters he and Sarah Lotz chose for The Sanctum, and it’s something I wanted to expand on in this review.

As always in these sorts of stories, you’ve got a couple of decent, sane people who mostly get along and try their best to handle a difficult situation. There’s one in each family and they are our POV characters (the chapters alternate between them). There are a few weak people who, to the cold-hearted, will look like a liability. There are a couple of idiots and assholes who whine or put others at risk with their histrionics. And then there’s the real trouble – the Guthries.

They represent a whole package of threats – racial violence, religious fanaticism, sexual assault, physical violence. Father, Cam and son, Brett were not happy about having to hand over all their guns after arrival, and everyone wonders if they’re still hiding a few. They treat the dilemma like a combat situation, arming themselves with knives and standing guard as if they were soldiers. Brett unabashedly refers to Jae as “the chink” (he’s half Korean) and stares at Cait with such naked lust that she’s afraid of running into him alone. At one point, as she furiously debates whether or not it’s safe to use the swimming pool, she reflects on how she’s never had the luxury of worrying about monsters because real men like Brett have always been the bigger threat. Bonnie Guthrie went into some kind of Christian overdrive after Cam stole her inheritance to buy into The Sanctum (he doesn’t take kindly to criticism from women, so now she just prays more), and she’s worried about the unholy influences the neighbours might have on her daughter Gina (the only decent person among them).

The Guthries are the worst of neighbours and the most hateful of characters (except for Gina), but that also makes them crucial to the plot, simply because they’re so provocative. It’s not just about the rednecks vs the rest though; the novel really digs into the way all sorts of tension plays out between the characters. There’s the sexual tension of a budding relationship, a secret affair, and the desperate sex borne of fear and loneliness. Wealthier characters lord it over others, or are assumed to. Bullies like Brett and Cam might be obvious threats, but it gives their victims suspicious motives for retaliation too.

In this claustrophobic space where survival suddenly depends on the relationships you have with the people around you, all the little details of human interaction have ripple effects – an act of kindness, a rude word, a glance that lasts too long. What I enjoyed most about the novel is the way this all plays out while conditions in The Sanctum get progressively worse. It’s not quite what I’d call horror (although it definitely would be if I were actually locked up there), but it’s exactly the kind of psychological thriller I love to get wrapped up in.

I never guessed who the murderer was though, and that’s another plus. Mystery novels have to work pretty hard to keep their secrets hidden, and this one managed to surprise me. I think the ending might divide readers, but I liked that it made me stop to think about the book and go back to look for the details I’d missed.

So, overall, Under Ground is a gripping, well-written thriller from S.L. Grey. These guys know how to write characters and make them suffer in all the right ways.

Nexus by Ramez Naam

NexusTitle: Nexus
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 16 December 2012; my edition published 3 March 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Nexus is a nanotechnology that allows users to link their minds. Kaden Lane and his friends have managed to modify and upgrade it, so that it connects more nodes and allows the brain to run software. Nexus is considered a drug, probably because it’s taken in liquid form and tends to get used for pleasure or abuse in the way drugs typically are, but that isn’t really what it is. It’s a nano-machine that can be permanently integrated after just one dose. And by using it, people can become transhuman or even posthuman.

And that’s where the trouble lies. The American government of 2040 is strictly opposed to posthumans, and deems them non-human and highly dangerous. The Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD) sends agent Samantha Cataranes to infiltrate Kade’s group of scientists and Nexus users, and when they’re caught hosting a Nexus party, almost all of them get arrested. Kade is blackmailed into helping the ERD to save his friends from going to jail. He knows the organisation will steal the Nexus tech for their covert operations, but he feels responsible for the consequences of what he’s created, particularly the fact that his friends’ lives could be ruined because of it. The ERD also convince him that he will be doing the world a favour by spying on Su-Yong Shu, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who they suspect has been upgraded to posthuman status and is trying to change the world in ways they won’t accept.

Along with Sam, Kade is sent to a conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to meet Su-Yong Shu. Ironically, he needs Nexus and other transhuman tech to enable him to do this – software to numb his emotions and keep him calm and a combat program to help him defend himself with a minimum of training. It’s even more of a moral quandary for Sam: she’s a government agent fighting transhumanism and posthumanism, but to do that she’s had to become a posthuman supersoldier. She’s driven by childhood experiences that have made her hate this sort of tech, but when she uses Nexus she’s immediately seduced by it. After all, its most noble feature is a beautiful one – connecting people, sharing everything, understanding everyone. By using Nexus, she might be able to come to terms with her past.

It’s this feature that motivates Watson Cole to protect Kade and Nexus no matter the cost. Cole, another supersoldier, committed a great deal of violence on behalf of his government. With Nexus, he connected with his and other victims of political violence and realised the horrors of what he’d done. Even though it still gives him nightmares, Nexus ultimately made him a better person, and he believes it will make a better world, if it’s in the hands of people like Kade.

Obviously there are downsides too. Nexus is mind-hacking tech. A similar drug was used for sex slavery. The ERD is worried about armies of brainwashed supersoldiers and tries to convince Kade to help them by showing him evidence of people who have been hacked and used as assassins. It’s uses are revolutionary, evolutionary and terrifying, and the novel is built on the question of whether or not it should be used at all. Nexus is essentially an ethical debate embedded in what happens to be a pretty good thriller.

Sam’s character is more or less at the entry point of the debate: she has to decide if she’s for or against Nexus, for or against transhumanism and posthumanism for the world. Kade is obviously pro-Nexus, so for him it’s a question of how to use it – give it to everyone, or to an elite? What is the best way of fostering all the benefits of Nexus, while curbing its dangers?

It’s a fascinating discussion, although that’s mostly because of all the possibilities it explores, not because there’s a truly difficult ethical tussle. It’s pretty clear where Naam’s allegiance lies, and the story steers us neatly in that direction with the right placement of good/noble characters vs unscrupulous bastards and government drones. We’re way past the point of asking whether humanity should upgrade itself; it’s just a question of how to do that in the most ethical way possible.

And I guess it’s also an easy question because, in my case, Naam is preaching to the converted. I’m more interested in the stories where things like AI, nanotech or cybernetic enhancements challenge our conceptions of personhood, and create dynamic ways of existing. I’m less interested in stories where these technologies turn out to be more danger than they’re worth. I like sci fi that’s positive about the future, not afraid to face its challenges.

Which isn’t to say that Nexus and its physical enhancements are shown to usher in a utopia. Naam has written a rallying cry for posthumanism, but doesn’t avoid showing us how dangerous it can be. Early in the story, Kade and his friends capture Sam after her Nexus training fails to stand up to the upgraded drug and she accidentally reveals her true identity through the mind-link. Rangan, one of the developers, uses Nexus to restrain Sam by hacking her mind. Sam rightly points out that what they’ve got here is a coercion technology; they have the power to read her mind and force her to do whatever they want. They can control her body while she is helpless to resist. Kade makes a feeble attempt at a counterargument, stating that this is just a safety precaution and they plan to put in safeguards to prevent people from using Nexus for mind control. The naïveté of this is glaring – Nexus will almost certainly be used in horrific ways and as noble as Kade may be, he will never be able to prevent it. Quite often he’s forced to face up to the unintended consequences of his creation, and because he’s a good guy he grapples with the ethics of it.

All this is deftly intertwined with some pretty awesome action and high-tech espionage, so there’s plenty of entertainment to accompany all the food for thought. Nexus is the kind of sci fi you should be playing close attention to, not only because it makes for such a good read, but because we will eventually be caught up in these debates for ourselves and our societies.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

Two Serpents Rise read-along: Final

Two Serpents RiseIt’s the final week of the the Two Serpents Rise read-along! Things suddenly got very brutal and bloody, although that’s exactly what you’d expect when you’re reading a book based on Aztec mythology. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but I did have a few issues with the way certain things turned out. Luckily, our host, Lynn from Little Lion Lynnet’s, set some questions that let me get to grips with what happened. Please let me know what you thought in the comments.

This section naturally covers all the final events of the book, so don’t even look at the questions if you want to avoid spoilers!

____________________

1. I think we all pegged Mal as being involved with whatever is going wrong in Dresediel Lex after the way Book 3 ended last week. How do you feel about discovering how deep that involvement goes?

The massacre at Bay Station was a shock; I didn’t expect that she’d go right back there and slaughter everyone. It was an entertaining kind of shock, but it bothers me. Caleb showed Qet to her as a surprise; she didn’t seem to know the god was still alive, where he was, or how to get there. Did she just decide to kill him, cut off the water supply and send the city into a rioting panic on the spur of the moment? If Caleb hadn’t shown her Qet, what would she have done? Surely she should have been busy doing it, preparing for the rise of the serpents, not going on a pre-apocalypse date with Caleb.

And it’s not like she just decided to cut off the water supply in addition to whatever else she was planning – it was an essential step that crippled RKC and left the Red King unable to fight back.

Plot holes aside, I’m not quite sure how I feel about Mal’s role. It was no surprise that she was the villain and I loved that she was, but I expected her to be a more sympathetic. Instead she ends up being the psycho vengeance monster who can’t be reasoned with and has to die. At one point it’s stated outright that this is what motivates her:

She was rage, dying, and born again she was vengeance.

 

I find that a bit simplistic, given the scope of her plan and the nobility of her commitment to saving the world. Maybe it’s a way of making it easier for the reader to side with Caleb and accept Mal’s demise? She’s at least a bit more complex than Denovo in the first book, but I would have liked the narrative to be more sympathetic towards Mal and made the reader feel genuinely dreadful that either she or Caleb had to lose. Personally, I didn’t really feel bad about it even though I mostly agreed with what she was trying to do.

She’s not that different from Caleb, Temoc or Kopil though. Each of them is so set in their convictions that they can’t be swayed, except perhaps for Caleb and Kopil, at the very end. Was Mal’s decision to take down RKC so different from Kopil’s decision to fight the gods or Temoc’s terrorist activities? Is her hatred for RKC any different from Caleb’s hatred of the gods? And, as it turns out, her ideas are actually great, which is why Caleb adopts them at the end. She was doing the right thing, just in the wrong way.

I was thinking a while back about how “mal” in French means “wrong” or “immoral”, and you see it in English words like “malfunction”, “maladroit”, “malpractice”. In the South African language Afrikaans, “mal” literally means “mad” or “crazy”, referring to both anger and insanity. At the time I thought maybe it was a bit too obvious if Mal were a psycho villain, but… yeah.

 

2. Caleb and Temoc have to work together to save Dresediel Lex (and the world) from certain destruction. Do you think they make a good team?

No, not really. I mean they did a decent job of working together for a while, but neither of them can compromise for the other. Caleb refuses to sacrifice even one person to safe Dresediel Lex, even if the sacrifice is willing. Temoc agrees to Caleb’s plan, but this turns out to be a ruse to allow him to sacrifice Teo. Temoc also refuses to use an optera because it goes against his religious principles, which is a bit ludicrous given that he’d just tried to convince Caleb to kill someone. And then they end up beating the crap out of each other… They can work together, but they’re a terrible team.

 

3. What do you think of the narrative’s overall treatment of Teo? Especially in light of her role in the finale?

This is actually something that’s been bothering me very slightly throughout the book, although I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it or if it was worth discussing, so I didn’t say anything. I immediately liked Teo, but I got the sense that she was there to be a helper of some sort – for the reader, for Caleb, for the plot. The first thing she does in the book is explain a key aspect of Caleb’s character – that he’s become afraid to take risks and his life is a bit dull. Then she pops up whenever he needs to talk, providing an opportunity for conversations that the reader needs to hear. She’s Caleb’s best friend and she works at RKC, so Caleb is free to discuss pretty much anything with her.

She has other traits that seem to exist for their own sake, making her a fuller character, but then these things all end up being what makes her the perfect sacrifice for Temoc – lesbian (so never had sex with a man, supposedly), noble blood, feisty, brave, committed. On the one hand, I loved that twist and thought it was quite clever. I totally didn’t see it coming, and it was all so neat in a way I quite like. On the other hand, Teo ended up being used for the narrative’s convenience, again. I like it, but I don’t like it. Is it efficient writing, or is Teo used as a plot device? I don’t know.

But what the fuck is up with this virgin sacrifice crap? I get the stupid purity thing, but how is Teo more “innocent” because she’s never had sex with a man? Even if she’s really never had sex with a man (something Temoc just assumed) I don’t consider her a virgin, and I hardly think she would call herself one. And surely it’s the physical and emotional intimacy of sex that changes you, not the physical act of penetration by a penis? Does Temoc know anything about lesbian sex? Anyway, the whole thing is a crock of bullshit.

 

4. In the epilogue Caleb seems to have found a way to compromise between the ways of his father and the new world brought about by the God Wars. Do you think he’ll succeed in his goals?

Yeah, I think he will, given that he has Kopil’s support. Also, it might have some major benefits other than sustainability, like opening the oceans to travel and industry again. Caleb mentioned that, without the gods, the sea was just too dangerous for fishing, but with his new scheme he might be able to fix that.

 

Overall, I didn’t like this as much as the first book. It’s not bad, and I’d keep reading the series, but i wouldn’t get terribly excited about it.

 

LOLs
Things get pretty serious at the end, but I had a few little laughs:

– “You did not tell me you were seeing anyone.” [Temoc, when Caleb tells him that his girlfriend is the villain. The absurdity of this man expecting Caleb to keep him up to date on his personal life :D]

– “I apologize for hitting you.” Temoc bowed his head. “I do not relish striking women.” “Thank you,” Teo said with a cold edge, “for your condescending, sexist apology.” [Yay Teo!]

– Temoc, Priest of All Gods, sipped water from a blue coffee mug emblazoned with the words “World’s Best Daughter” above a picture of a goddess suckling a serpent. [This city is weird.]

– “The trouble with atheism,” Temoc said, “is that it offers a limited range of curses.” [A lot less guilt though.]

The Feminine Future edited by Mike Ashley

The Feminine FutureTitle: The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
Editor: Mike Ashley
Published: 18 March 2015
Publisher: Dover Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, short stories
Rating: 4/10

As editor Mike Ashley notes in his introduction, it’s often assumed that women only recently started writing science fiction, despite the fact that Frankenstein, one of the first works regarded as sf, was written by a woman. The Feminine Future attempts to dispel that misconception with a collection of sf short stories by women, published between 1873 and 1930.

You probably won’t know most of the authors (I’d only heard of Edith Nesbit), but there are some historic names here. Clare Winger Harris was the first woman to contribute to the first sf magazine, Amazing Stories, and several of the other authors here made regular contributions to the early pulp magazines.

Many of these women were among the first to explore new ideas. Edna W. Underwood was inspired by the increased use of anaesthetics when she wrote “The Painter of Dead Women”, where drugs are used to preserve the human body in a comatose state. The light-hearted “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” by Elizabeth W. Bellamy was published at a time when many new inventions were being patented and, like other stories of that period, it takes a humorous approach to “madcap inventions that go awry”. In “The Ray of Displacement”, Harriet Prescott Spofford uses ideas about atomic theory to imagine a device that dissipates matter, allowing an individual to walk through walls. “The Artificial Man by Clare Winger Harris is one of the first stories about an augmented human or cyborg.

Historic details aside though, it’s worth noting that this is not, in fact, a feminist anthology. Only a few of the stories are gender-conscious or have feminist themes. Most of them have male protagonists. Some of them don’t even have female characters. I’m not trying to suggest that female writers have a duty to write feminist fiction – they don’t – but if that’s what you’re looking for, be warned that you’re not going to get it.

The stories that are openly feminist tend to take a simplistic approach to gender. In “A Divided Republic – An Allegory of the Future” by Lilli Devereux, women get so fed up with men that they set up their own society. With no one to either nag them or take care of them, the men go out and get drunk whenever they want, never shave, and live in filth. On the women’s side, there’s no drinking, everything is pretty and well organised, but it’s a tad boring.

“Friend Island” by Francis Stevens also suggests that women are rather delicate in some ways, even when they’re in power. In the world of the story, it’s long been established that women are superior to men. A lowly little man boldly goes to a tea shop where female engineers and pilots like to hang out, and, ignoring the stares, buys an old sailoress a cup of tea and a plate of macaroons in the hope of hearing some of her stories. She tells him about the time she was stranded on a sentient island. She could tell, from the island’s behaviour, that it was a “lady” which is why her volcano erupted when a man came to the island and swore too much. Ladies, apparently, cannot abide swearing. Even when they’re islands. And, again, women just naturally choose tea over alcohol. How cute.

There’s another matriarchal society in “Via the Hewitt Ray” by M.F. Rupert, and I sort of liked this one for being adventurous, but with some serious reservations. A man travels to another dimension and, when he fails to return, his daughter, a pilot, goes to rescue him. She finds herself in a world with three vastly different societies, including a technologically advanced city of women who keep a few docile men around for reproduction and pleasure. One of the men gets sentenced to electroshock therapy and sterilisation for his insubordination, but the heroine saves him by asking if she can take him home for experiments. The women are in conflict with a more highly evolved race, and it’s decided that they’ll use the father’s tech to wipe out this super-intelligent race. The heroine gleefully helps them with this impromptu genocide and goes in, blasting enemies with a ray gun. She doesn’t feel bad because these people are so highly evolved that they’ve got giant heads to contain their giant brains and are therefore quite ugly. Later, she goes home with her sexy man-slave, and when he behaves too timidly, as he’s been taught, she yells at him and tells him to be a man, that men are superior to women (a lie to boost his confidence), and that he needs to bully any woman who disagrees with him. She then claims that she doesn’t mind being considered inferior by the “right man”. Overall, “Via the Hewitt Ray” was one of the most ridiculous stories I’ve ever read, topped only by other stories in this anthology.

And this brings me to the main reason I didn’t like this – it’s pulp fiction. And, as it turns out, I really don’t like pulp fiction. While it was interesting to see some of the early expressions of feminism in sf, no matter how absurd, there was little else about the anthology that interested me. The title suggests that these stories are gender-conscious, but it’s really more like a general collection of early pulp sf by women.

This gives it some distinctive and – depending on your tastes – unpleasant characteristics. For the most part, it’s all just silly. Obviously, it’s also dated. The writing is often stiff and formal (to my ear, at least) with many tedious infodumps, so some stories could be a real chore to read. Kooky science is to be expected, but there’s also a weird lack of rationality to the characters and plots.

It’s no surprise that the stories are conservative too, and I’m not just talking about the assumption that ladies don’t swear or drink. The Christian god is frequently invoked as a certainty, something that I never see go unquestioned in contemporary fiction. The religion remains benign, but some of the other conservative content is pretty offensive, usually because it involves the assumption that some people are naturally inferior to others. Sexism is rampant, even in the more progressive stories. One story is casually ableist: “The Artificial Man” by Clare Winger Harris, about a man whose lost limbs and other body parts are replaced by augments, is based on the premise that the title character is mentally and spiritually corrupted every time he loses part of his original body.

Racism rears its ugly head. Edith Nesbit’s story, “The Third Drug” begins with a man being attacked by “Apaches” – a term for muggers or gangsters, based on European assumptions about Native American Indians. “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves not only refers to a “black man-ape” but also uses the word “kaffir”, a South African racial slur so offensive that its use is actionable in this country. I really felt that the editor should have written a footnote to accompany these slurs rather than allowing them to pass without remark. Or better yet, pick stories without racial slurs.

Then, as I mentioned there’s the genocide of the ugly smart people in “Via the Hewitt Ray”, which is not even the only thoughtless mass killing in the anthology. In “Creatures of the Light” by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (quite possibly the most absurd story in an anthology of absurd stories), the main character (sort of accidentally) wipes out an entire community, babies and children included, and doesn’t give this a second thought except to keep an eye out for survivors on the way back to the airship that will take him home. This story also includes an attempt at eugenic marriage, which the main character quite happily agrees to when he sees a picture of the beautiful woman who has been promised to him.

Did I like any of these stories? Well the first one, “When Time Turned” by Ethel Watts Mumford is quite touching. It’s about a man who experiences his life twice – once normally, and then in reverse, watching passively as his life rewinds. The idea is similar to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but was written twenty years earlier.

I also liked the end of “The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood, when the protagonist – a stunningly beautiful socialite – effortlessly escapes a serial killer through her athletic skill and endurance. Similarly, “The Ray of Displacement” by Harriet Prescott Spofford ends with a wonderful moral complication that I enjoyed more than the rest of the tale. I experienced most of the other stories in this way – I liked one or two aspects, but not the whole thing.

So yeah, if you already like pulp sf, this would be a good anthology for you, especially if you want to know more about women writers in the genre. But if, like me, you’re more interested in the feminist angle but aren’t a fan of pulp, you might not like it either.