Notes on The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Girl with all the Gifts

I read this a while ago and I don’t need to review it, but I’ve got all these notes on the novel that I wanted to share. You can read them individually. I have not included outright spoilers until the very last point, but a lot of what I have to say hints at the ending. With that in mind you may not want to read this unless you’ve read the book or watched the movie (although I don’t know if the movie has a different ending. Which would suck. I like this one).

The story: Melanie is a ten-year-old girl held prisoner in a high-security research facility after the world has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns humans into ‘rotting cannibals’ (104). Melanie is a child prodigy, but the only life she knows is one where armed soldiers strap her to a chair and wheel her into a classroom on a daily basis. She tries to be sweet and friendly to everyone, but sometimes it’s hard and some people scare her. She’s never seen anything outside of this underground prison and she doesn’t realise that it’s because she and the other kids with her are hybrids who have been infected with the fungus but somehow retained their intelligence and capacity for normal human interaction. They’re being studied in the hope of finding a cure, but when the facility is attacked, Melanie escapes with her teacher Miss Justineau, the head research scientist, and two soldiers.


It has been a strange, awkward experience to find myself in love with a zombie novel. I’d relegated the genre to pure entertainment and did not expect the depth of feeling or admiration for craft that I found in The Girl with all the Gifts. I expected only to be thrilled, not moved and intellectually engaged too. The characters are remarkably well-written and you care for them every step of the way as they grapple with the idea of who and what they are in an apocalypse. I love the way their motivations clash and converge to drive the story forward. Melanie, in particular, isn’t an ordinary narrator but a post-human child in existential crisis, discovering a dying world world at the same time as she realises she’s one of the creatures who ended it. Her point of view is fresh and fascinating.


Zombies are humanity’s death sentence. They’re almost always inescapable and they never just affect the protagonists; they affect the whole world. Even if a cure is found, the way infection spreads so easily, rapidly and violently always seems to suggest that it’s over no matter what. One infected person hidden away somewhere can easily start the process all over again. They’re an extinction event for intelligent life.

The Girl with all the Gifts shifts that narrative. It points out the ways in which life on Earth is already vile and we’re never going to do anything to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves and the planet. Zombies – or ‘hungries’, in this case – might be monsters, but we’re worse. What drove this point home is how despicable people in the novel can be, compared to the hungries. When everything goes to shit, it’s not because of hungries (although they’re obviously part of it) but because of the Junkers:

Survivalists who’ve forgotten how to do anything else besides survive. Parasites and scavengers […]. They don’t build, or preserve. They just stay alive. And their ruthlessly patriarchal structures reduce women to pack animals or breeding stock.

If that’s humanity’s last, best hope, then despair might actually be preferable. (216)

Then there are people like Dr Caldwell, whose dedication to finding a cure makes her just as abominable as the hungries. And Private Gallagher secretly wants to stay at the research facility because his family are violent drunks:

Private Kieran Gallagher knows all about monsters, because he comes from a family in which monsters predominate. Or maybe it’s just that his family was more given than most to letting its monsters come out and sniff the air.

The key that let them out was always the same: bootleg vodka […]

His father, and his brother Steve, and his cousin Jackie looked like normal human beings and even sometimes acted like them, but most of the time they veered between two extremes: reckless violence when they were drinking, and comatose somnolence when the drink wore off. (150)

Note how much their behaviour resembles the hungries’ in the way they’re either violent or inert. And as a result, Gallagher has to ask: which is he more afraid of? Dying out here, or going home? They’ve both got their terrors, about equally vivid in his mind. (151)

If anything, the fungus is a cure for the problem of humanity. And now that the human population no longer has the numbers to be harmful, society is stagnant, as Miss Justineau notes about the research facility where the story begins: ‘This isn’t life. It’s something that’s playing out in its own self-contained subroutine’ (26).

Life only goes on, forcing its way back in, when the hungries break through the perimeter fence. Ironically, it’s only through them that anything good can happen. They set the plot in motion and revitalise life, rather than ending it (well, figuratively; there’s obviously a massive bodycount).


That said, the story still hinges on Melanie staying alive, and that doesn’t happen because of the hungries – it happens because of Miss Justineau. And she saves Melanie because she thinks of her as a human being. She disregards what everyone else has told her about the kids, defies all the warnings, and acts based on what she sees: intelligence, kindness, enthusiasm, wonder, love.

Dr Caldwell, on the other hand, ‘only sees what’s at the bottom of her test tubes’ (293) and she’d destroy the world in her effort to save it.


Melanie isn’t just a person but the best kind of person. Besides the fact that, like most hybrids, she’s stronger and faster than humans, she is ‘the girl with all the gifts’ because she has all the gifts that humanity prides itself on: love, compassion, curiosity, self-reflection, intelligence, a longing to engage with the world. And she wants to spread that around. What matters is that her love and optimism are infectious, not her bite, and she longs to learn and connect. She even devises a secret language to use with the other kids (although she doesn’t have a chance to teach it to them). The novel frequently reflects on language, words, meaning and communication. These things are the basis of civilisation and of civilised existence. At which Melanie excels but humans have failed.


Melanie can still be monstrous though; the book doesn’t try to make her cute. However, she’s never violent without reflection or remorse, and she’s usually only violent when defending the people she cares about. Of course she’s got an overwhelming need to consume flesh, but, 1. This is economical, because she can survive on very little and doesn’t even need water, and 2. The way she deals with this is important. Unlike hungries, she can control her urges, and unlike many humans she makes an effort to do so because she respects and cares about other people. When she goes on the run with Miss Justineau, Parks, Dr Caldwell and Gallagher, and realises what she is, she’s deeply concerned about hurting one of them. Especially Miss Justineau. Even Dr Caldwell. So she tries her hardest not to. And eventually she learns to manage her impulses. She doesn’t just give up because it’s ‘uncontrollable’ or because it’s ‘in her nature’. She deals with it so that she doesn’t hurt anyone by losing control. And that’s what makes her better than human.


One of my favourite character quotes is for Dr Caldwell, the novel’s antagonist: ‘In a world of rust, she comes up stainless steel’ (49). Which sounds cool, but also emphasises her cold, clinical nature. If Melanie is a compelling protagonist because she loves life and strives to connect with others, and Miss Justineau is a hero because she sees and responds to the children’s humanity, Caldwell is the antagonist because she can’t see Melanie and the other hungry kids as people and refuses to communicate with them as such. After failing to dissect Melanie, Caldwell wants to keep her alive only as a research specimen that Caldwell feels she owns. In this, Caldwell represents so much of what’s wrong with the humans. That tendency to dehumanise. To see others in terms of function and exploit them as such. To use people as a means to a goal. To refuse communication. Which is what Caldwell has done, in her search for a cure:

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road. (359)

This sounds a bit like a criticism of relentless scientific pursuit, given that Caldwell is the scientist in the group, but I think it’s more about Caldwell’s narrow-minded cruelty in the pursuit of a single goal. A goal she cannot re-evaluate when faced with the reality of the children. Early on in the novel, she dissects two hungry children without anaesthetic (it doesn’t work on them), cutting their vocal cords so they can’t make a noise. And the children remain alive after they’ve been cut up in ways that would kill a human.

It’s telling that when the hungries attack, Caldwell is injured and literally begins the journey that takes up the rest of the novel with blood on her hands. Her own blood. And those wounds are painful and incapacitating, as if to get blood on your hands is inevitably to hurt yourself.

Despite all this, Caldwell isn’t a perfectly horrible villain. You can understand where she’s coming from and even admire her work ethic, and I like that her character is rounded in that way. Pure evil is infuriating to read.


Caldwell gets criticised for playing god, and God – the biblical version – gets mentioned a lot. Zeus and a few others come up too. They’re all criticised for their cruelty, stupidity or negligence. Notably, Melanie idolises Miss Justineau as a god-like figure too, and it’s easy to understand why, but we get to see Justineau as the flawed and fallible human she is. Suggesting that our gods, if they exist at all, were never what we wanted them to be.


This quote, about Miss Justineau’s decision to protect Melanie:

some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl, ‘I’m here for you,’ the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. (66)

I like this because it shows us how Miss Justineau wasn’t just automatically a strong hero figure who was always going to be there for Melanie because it was the right thing to do. She is not static. If she hadn’t said anything, she might have let Caroline Caldwell kill Melanie simply because it’s easier and safer to do nothing. But by voicing that idea of compassion and morality, she makes herself into the person she needs to be for the story to continue.

I like this one too:

she’s turned her back on something inside herself, and Melanie is the sign of that – the anti-Isaac she snatched from the fire to prove to God that he doesn’t always get to call the shots.

Fuck you Caroline. (116)

And I like that Justineau isn’t always resolute about her actions:

Why? Why did she do that? (25)

 

If she hadn’t talked to the kids about death that day. If she hadn’t read them ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and if they hadn’t asked what being dead was like, then she wouldn’t have stroked Melanie’s hair and none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t have made a promise she couldn’t keep and couldn’t walk away from. She could be as selfish as she’s always been, and forgive herself the way everybody else does, and wake up every day as clean as if she’d just been born. (152)


The book isn’t all violence and existentialist crises. I was delighted by this little moment from Sergeant Parks:

Parks lights the range with a spark struck from a tinderbox – an honest-to-God tinderbox; that has to be centuries old – produced from his pocket with something suspiciously like a flourish. (202)

It’s the last bit that makes it perfect: ‘something suspiciously like a flourish’. Parks is never just that hardheaded soldier type who only sees the world in terms of military objectives (a character type I can’t stand), even though that’s the impression he’s given to Justineau. Here we see the characters taking a much-needed break (giving us a breather too), and we get this hint of how much we might like Parks if we saw him in another life. That’s good writing – giving us the sense that these characters are people beyond the story we see them in.


One last point, and it has a SPOILER for the ending:

In the book, Melanie is blonde, blue-eyed and ‘bone-white’ (26). For the 2016 movie they cast a black actor (Sennia Nanua), which I would argue is essential, and not only because the aesthetic of such unnervingly pale skin would certainly have jarred with the likeability of her character. It’s necessary because Melanie becomes the leader of a group of hungry children and begins the process of teaching them a formalised language. You can assume that once this group is sufficiently organised, she’s going to find other kids. And since she’d be one of very, very few educated hungry kids, if there are any others in the world at all, she may be the only one forming an educated society. Melanie is, essentially, the architect of a new world. And for that reason, it’s very, very important that she not look … Aryan.

Or even white. Of course, race probably would not matter in whatever world they build, but it’s still significant for readers and viewers now.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why they chose a white actress (Gemma Arterton) to play Miss Justineau, who is black in the book. A case of the producers worrying about having too many black leads on screen? Oh the horror …

Advertisements

Interview: Matthew MacDevette, author of Blacker than White

 

Matt and I met online just over a year ago when he hired me to edit his apocalyptic fantasy novel, Blacker than White, in which a female Lucifer goes to war with Heaven when Jehovah decides it’s time for Judgement Day and the angels descend to slaughter humanity. She takes a hapless but brave Oxford post-grad along with her to help circumvent the inconvenient pact she made not to spill too much angelic blood.

The project was an incredible piece  of luck: here I was at the beginning of a career shift, assuming it’d be a long time before I built enough of a reputation to get the kind of book I wanted to edit, when the kind of book I wanted to edit fell into my lap. And it was good – well-written, funny, full of action, packed with quirky worldbuilding, and driven by tenacious but damaged characters. I got to discuss some of my favourite topics with Matt: gender in fantasy fiction, the mythology of heaven and hell (and his unique take on it), and the creation of fantasy societies.

Now that the novel has gone out into the world, I asked for an interview. Welcome to Violin in a Void Matt 🙂

 


Matthew-MacDevette-2So, why write a story about the Devil?

When I first heard about The Fall as a child, my main thought was, “yay God for winning”, but as I got older it changed to, “hang on, I kind of get where Lucifer is coming from”. The Devil embodies much of what we despise, yes, but also much of what we’ve come to value, like independent thought, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds and defiance of unyielding authority. She – I’m just going with ‘she’ – is also much more relatable than the Bible’s heroes. Bundle all of that with what she went through – getting violently cast from her home into a barren wasteland for all eternity – and you get a deeply interesting character. Dangerous? Yes. Scary? At times. Funny? Perhaps. A little twisted? Absolutely. But interesting. So I wanted to write her, but not like she’s usually portrayed: as the ‘ultimate evil’, a slick dealmaker, a farcical fool or, more recently, a trying-to-make-it-in-the-world regular(ish) guy. I wanted to write her as a person that, like any of us, has complex feelings and thoughts shaped by her own particular history. That, I figured, would make for one hell of a story.

Why represent Lucifer as a woman? What differs from the way we usually see the character portrayed?

Two main reasons. First, novelty. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Lucifer portrayed seriously as a woman. If you’ve just thought, “but what about Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled?”, slap yourself across the face. Second, misogyny. Our heroes tell us a lot about who we want to be. So much of what is idolised in monotheistic religion is male. Men men men, everywhere you bloody look, doing all sorts of great things. The women? Never mind, they’re over there tempting the men or cleaning for the men or just waiting in the background supposedly yelling, “I’m your receptacle for childbirth … I sure hope it’s a BOY!” The whole idea of femininity in the Bible – and elsewhere – is muddied. Screw that. Most powerful characters are male, but half the world is not. By portraying this powerful character as a woman, the story can explore a lot of interesting issues related to that. Exactly how, you ask? No spoilers!

Alexei and Lucifer both have to deal with intense grief, and Lucifer has a history of psychological dysfunction that not only affects her personal life but entire worlds and societies. How did these themes find their way into the story? What was your approach to writing about trauma and mental illness?

I think that being a little messed up is part of living a full and beautiful life, not a step away from it. I wanted to honour that through the characters. With Lucifer, I tried to get to the heart of what it must have felt like to be cast from Heaven – from her home, from her family – and depict it as intimately as possible. I was intrigued by the idea of her experiences literally changing the landscape of her world, and her trying to navigate that to safer ground, because I think that’s often how it feels for us. As for my approach, well … a lot of it was inspired by what I was going through at the time. I wrote the bulk of the novel a few months after the end of a seven-year relationship. That, together with ideas informed by the loss of my father when I was 18, means that it’s probably not the sunniest book you’ll ever read. But hey, it’s not a book of mourning – quite the opposite. While loss is a big theme, so is the reckless affirmation of life despite all the misery it throws at you. So I guess my approach is to do the trauma justice without giving it the whole courtroom.

Blacker-than-WhiteThe story gets pretty brutal at times, but there’s a fair bit of humour in there too. What kind of role would you say humour plays in horror and dark fantasy? How do you balance the two?

An important role! I struggle with stories that take themselves seriously ALL THE TIME. Just because you’re writing about suffering or death or loss doesn’t mean you have to portray your world or characters as only defined by those things. Because I don’t think the world is defined by those things. Humour reminds you that characters have internal lives separate from whatever terrible events are unfolding around them, and that even in tragic moments we can steal moments of joy. It’s an act of defiance in a world that wants you dead. Also, it’s a way to make your readers extra sad. By keeping them entertained and giving them an emotional reprieve from harsh things, they have energy to feel even more devastated when the next terrible event comes around. As for balance, I always appreciate it when authors: 1) aren’t so goofy that their story loses credibility; 2) stick to jokes their characters would actually make; and 3) use more than one kind of funny – it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be snark.

What does the title Blacker than White refer to exactly?

A few different versions of ‘it’s not as simple as we think it is’. In the most general sense, the play on the phrase ‘black and white’ is meant as a rejection of the idea that things are either one way or another – good or evil, hero or villain, virtue or sin. We are all different things at different times to different people. It’s dull and dangerous to pretend otherwise, and yet too many influential people do. It also refers specifically to the characters of God and the Devil – regardless of who you choose to cast as the hero, neither is truly innocent.

Heaven and Hell both conform to and subvert conventional ideas about them. Hell can be terrifying but it’s got a university. Heaven is beautiful, but its orderly splendour is disturbing. Can you tell us a bit about your worldbuilding for these settings?

The idea of Heaven has always bothered me – a place of eternal peace with no suffering, no death, no conflict, no disorder. It seems incredibly boring. It also seems like somewhere where it would be difficult to be truly human, since I’m not sure you can be human in a place where you’re leaving so much of your ‘earthly nature’ behind and being flattened into one kind of ‘good’. So I wanted to ask the question, ‘what would this paradise we claim to value really look like, and would we still want it if we found out?’. The idea with Hell was similar, in that the usual representations seemed boring – I’m burning and screaming and generally not having a good time for all eternity, sure, but what else? I was intrigued by the idea of Hell-as-a-state-of-being rather than Hell-as-a-place. I also wanted to explore the society of the Fallen angels. What would they be like? How would they have organised? How would they relate to a strange new world? How would they recover after the violence of the Fall?

Besides travelling to Heaven and Hell, the characters traverse multiple locations on Earth, and even make a stop in the little town of Paarl in the Western Cape winelands of South Africa. Why Paarl?

Ah, Paarl. I did my undergrad at the University of Stellenbosch, and I remember travelling with friends to places around there. Paarl was one of them. I have fond memories of those times and of some of the old farmhouses we visited and drank too much wine in. There is also something Afrikaans woven in. The friends I mentioned are Afrikaans, the Cape is very Afrikaans, and I’m partly Afrikaans. So for me the winelands are a mix of friendship, landscape and language that I call to mind when I think ‘South Africa’.

Apparently Blacker Than White took over four years from start to publication. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Well, I think I first had the beginnings of the idea in 2008 or 2009, but I didn’t write the first words until late 2011 when I moved to Oxford to do my master’s (hence the opening scenes). I wasn’t aaaallllll that diligent during 2012 – too busy waiting for the Rapture, as one does – but I did manage a first draft in March 2013. In April, I started work at the international development consultancy I remain at to this day, and it’s been pretty intense ever since. Fast forward to 2015, when I hired an editor who had the audacity to suggest actual changes to the story that were quite time consuming (Lauren Smith … heard of her?), and here we are.

Any thoughts on self-publishing?

It’s tricky! I tried a few agents in the UK and US before deciding that I’d rather spend the time building a kind of start-up out of it. At the time, I figured I could outsource the core functions of a publishing house, keep all the content I suspected some folks would find too controversial, and have some fun. I expected it to take a lot of work, but it’s turned out to be more than I anticipated – I didn’t expect to have to recreate the ebook approximately three billion times to get the formatting right, for example, and marketing continues to be a bit of a black box. I’d say if you want to do it, be prepared to be more business/project manager than writer for a long, long while. It’s true that you don’t need publishing houses to get your work into readers’ hands any more, but the value they add takes a lot of time, effort and problem-solving to replace. My internal jury’s out at the moment – I’ll update you in a few months!

What’s next? Will you return to any of the worlds or characters from Blacker than White?

I don’t plan to write a sequel. I wanted to write this as an open-and-closed story, and to do what I wanted to do with it I kind of had to. That being said, the world is still alive in my mind and I often find myself wondering and wandering around bits of it. So I may return to it, one day, but if I do it would be to tell a very different story that isn’t dependent on Blacker than White. In the meantime, ‘next’ for me is more stories! Always more stories. This is actually the second novel I’ve written; the idea of rewriting the other one – it needs some work – still tickles my fingers. I’m a bit of a split personality – I love economic/social development work but I’m also compelled to create stories in my head and write them down – and I’m still trying to find a way to balance the different parts of myself. But there will be more. A lot more.


Matthew was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but when he was two and a half decided that he needed a change from small(ish) town life. So he moved to George, which is even smaller. No one said he was a very clever toddler. He studied in Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Oxford before moving to Johannesburg in 2013, where he’s happily remained.

He works for a consultancy focused on international development, thinks that we all have more in common than what sets us apart, and is deeply passionate about Africa’s potential.

Blacker than White is his first novel.

Where to find Matthew:
Twitter: @mattmacdev
Email: matt@blackerthanwhite.net
Facebook: Blacker than White
Buy Blacker than White on Amazon

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.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustTitle: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Author: Claire North (pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who also writes as Kate Griffin)
Published: 8 April 2014
Publisher: Redhook Books
Source: own copy
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 9/10

As I go through my notes and highlights for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August I realise that this is *the* best book I read last year. It’s elegant and beautiful and pensive, which is not something I can often say of books that also happen to be fantastic thrillers. I kind of want to read it again right now, but I’ll settle for writing a review that I hope can convey what a wonderful book this is.

At the end of his eleventh life, Harry August is about to slip into his usual cosy, morphine-induced suicide when a little girl arrives to tell him that the world is ending. Both he and the girl are kalachakra – those who journey repeatedly through their own lives. When they die they return to the time and place of their birth and live again, with all the memories of the lives that came before. Because Harry is about to die and travel back to his birth in 1919, he can send the message about the impending apocalypse back through time, as later generations of their kin have been doing.

Harry’s first question is, why does it matter that the world is ending? Everything dies, after all. But the problem is not only that the world is ending, but that it is ending faster – it happens earlier and earlier every time. The fact of this suggests that one of the kalachakra is causing it by using their knowledge of the future to change the past. And as the apocalypse moves back in time it permanently kills kalachakra along the way, because if they ever fail to be born once, they are never born again.

It’s only about halfway through the book that we see Harry start to deal with this issue because for him it poses a complex ethical dilemma that the reader can only understand by first learning the story of his previous lives. So Harry takes us back to his very first birth and on through the lives that follow.

This is a fascinating and engaging story in itself specifically because Harry carries the increasing weight and knowledge of all his previous lives with him (it’s partly this factor that makes the novel superior to Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which is based on a similar concept). In addition he is something known as a mnemonic – a kalachakra who remembers everything with perfect clarity. This has several advantages, one of which is that it makes Harry an excellent narrator who can capture the essence of what it means to kalachakra.

Naturally, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s an extremely difficult thing to deal with at first; in his second life he goes mad with the memories of the previous one, and commits suicide at age seven. In his third life he turns to religion for answers and, finding none, turns to science in his fourth life. There’s no rush – he has centuries to ponder existence. With his knowledge of the future and his accumulated education, it’s easy to become wealthy in later lives, but that doesn’t save him from having to live through childhood over and over again. It also raises some uniquely disturbing problems. How, for example, does the mind deal with pain and trauma in this scenario? When you cannot forget anything, and you have centuries of experience from which the most horrific moments never fade?

In addition to these sorts of psychological conundrums, Harry is faced with a multitude of ethical questions. What should he do with his knowledge of the future? Should he help people, or is it dangerous to interfere? Could he change history or is he ultimately powerless? But if he can’t or shouldn’t change the world, then what is the point of him, and of the kalachakra?

These questions plague Harry for much of the book. He gets some insight when he joins The Cronus Club, a global network of kalachakra whose main purpose is to use their abilities to generate enough wealth to support new and existing members (e.g. extracting young kalachakra so they don’t have to waste decades pretending to be kids). The Club is very strongly opposed to changing history because doing so ended the world once before. Harry initially agrees, arguing that “[c]omplexity should be your excuse for inaction” (52). But as Harry goes from one life to the next, he becomes unsure – what does any of this mean if they never choose to act, to change things?

These ideas aren’t just food for thought – they are integral to the second part of the novel, as are Harry’s experiences (some of which are pretty harrowing). Having told the most important parts of his life story, Harry then moves on to the pacier business of investigating the impending apocalypse, and the novel goes from being a kind of philosophical historical sf to a literary sf thriller. Although Harry is, in most ways, a pretty ordinary guy, being able to educate yourself for centuries and use knowledge of the future to get rich means that he has considerable skills and resources for mounting an investigation. He also happens to live at the right time in history to do something, and being a mnemonic gives him a unique advantage that determines the way things play out.

Now, one thing I love is that Harry doesn’t simply decide to save the world because that’s what you do. He can act, but he needs to decide if he will, and how. At this point it’s abundantly clear that life has very different meaning for kalachakra. Pain is significant but death is not because it just leads to rebirth. They don’t generally care about the deaths of normal, linear people, because those people will all be back again in the next cycle of their lives, even if the world is totally destroyed. They take the permanent deaths of kalachakra very seriously because the kalachakra are special, but for centuries Harry has been questioning their importance, their meaning. And when the importance of the kalachakra is called into question, we return to the question Harry posed at the very beginning – why does it matter that the world is ending? If it’s ending because one of the kalachakra has chosen to act on their knowledge and experience, is that necessarily a bad thing? The kalachakra are essentially immortals but they’re just cycling through the same lives. Are they seriously going to sit around preserving the status quo forever?

Harry wrestles with these issues as he investigates the accelerating apocalypse, and it all comes to bear on his decisions when he finds out what’s going on. This is the best thing about this book – the way Harry’s lives build on one another to drive his decisions and thus the story. The author takes the idea of the kalachakra and delves into the depths of what it means to her main character. The narrative is suitably non-linear, so that we get a sense of how Harry experiences time – all those lives piled up, cross-referencing each other across centuries. Then she puts him into a dire plot in which the things we’ve learnt about him are crucial to the understanding the choices he makes and the eventual outcome.

And it’s magnificent. Everything comes together beautifully. The slow and thoughtful first half transitions into a page-turning thriller. Harry comes up against an opponent who becomes both a friend an an enemy, someone he admires as much as he fears, and who forces him to grapple with all the questions he’s been asking about himself and the kalachakra. It’s such an accomplished novel – superbly written, poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, utterly absorbing. I want to relive Harry’s lives again, and again.

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's KinTitle: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 4/10

Four months ago, an alien ship parked in Earth’s orbit. Contact was made, and while the aliens remained reticent, they assured humanity that they were there on a mission of peace. Two months later the UN granted the aliens – known as Denebs – permission to set up an Embassy in New York Harbor.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner has just published an important paper on mitochondrial DNA, and because of her discovery she is invited to the Embassy to meet the aliens when they finally decide to share their reasons for visiting. A deadly spore cloud wiped out the populations of two of their colony planets, and in ten months that spore cloud will hit Earth, before heading for the Denebs’ home planet. What the Denebs want is to work together with Earth’s scientists to find a vaccine for the spores, which will otherwise cause everyone to die a horrible death. Although their technology is mostly superior, their medical technology is less advanced, so they need the help of local scientists.

Marianne is invited to join the researchers at the Embassy. With three grown children and a grandchild on the way, she feels deeply invested in saving humanity. Nevertheless, she has some very conflictual relationships with her children. Elizabeth, who works in Border Patrol, is an isolationist and doesn’t want aliens on Earth any more than she wants immigrants in America. Ryan, a botanist considers the aliens an invasive species. Both of them believe the aliens are actually conspiring to do something sinister. Noah, the youngest, doesn’t seem to care, but then again he’s the kind of person who considers topics like politics, religion and isolationism to be inconsequential. Noah is primarily concerned with sustaining his addiction to sugarcane, a drug that allows him to feel like a different person every time he takes it.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read with a clear story and ideas. It feels like sf for beginners. It’s got some hard science, but whether or not you understand it the basic concepts are easy to grasp and it’s easy to understand what they mean for the narrative. It’s got some great, thought-provoking ideas. The characters’ motives are very clear where necessary. It makes family and motherhood an integral part of a story about aliens and an impending apocalypse, dispelling the stereotype that non-fans have of sf, that it’s all about tech/science/aliens/rayguns etc. rather than human relationships.

It’s all very simple and very neat but it’s actually what made me dislike Yesterday’s Kin. Simplicity can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also mean rudimentary or unrefined, and I feel that this book belongs in the latter category.

There is a lot of clunky infodumping. It’s set in New York and barely looks outward, even though the plot is of international concern and the aliens’ presence is public knowledge. Although the aliens have some interesting aspects, and we get some idea of their monocultural way of living, they’re pretty flat and dull. They refer to their planet, very prosaically, as “World”.

The human characters are more vivid at least, but there’s still something perfunctory about them. Each of them has one or two definitive characteristics: Ryan and Elizabeth are combative xenophobes, Noah is a drug addict desperate to be anyone but himself, Marianne is a scientist and mother, her friend Evan is a cheerful and encouraging gay man. I think the problem is that these attributes fail to make the characters seem like real people. They’re little more than tools shaped to serve the purposes of the plot as opposed to well-rounded individuals. As a result, their personal conflicts feel like cheap melodrama, especially all Marianne’s prosaic blathering about motherhood.

Then there are a couple of characters whose only purpose seems to be to die tragically. The book treats this as something serious, and Marianne expresses grief, but it’s hard to care when the characters were so lifeless to begin with.

An additional problem is a twist in the plot that I saw coming from such a long way off that it seemed like I spent half the book waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up. It’s not something that you’d only notice from your privileged perspective as a reader – plenty of characters are privy to the enough information to at least ask the right questions. It’s ridiculous then, that a bunch of award-winning, world-class scientists don’t notice it.

Consequently, the ending is anticlimactic, with a bunch of trite criticisms about the nature of humanity and American society to wrap up the themes running throughout the book. Quite frankly, the whole point of the book seems to be to provide a vehicle for those criticisms. While I’m inclined to agree with them, it does absolutely nothing to make this uninspired story enjoyable. This really shouldn’t have been my first Kress.

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what’s wrong with it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am the past. “

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

PandemoniumTitle: Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse
Editors:
Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin 
Publisher: 
Jurassic London
Published:
 October 2011
Genre: 
short stories, science fiction fantasy horror
Source: 
review copy from author Sam Wilson
Rating:
 
7/10

I debated reviewing Pandemonium. I received a review copy in November 2011, but it’s only now that I read the whole thing cover to cover. When I finished, I learned that Pandemonium was a limited edition. Very limited: it was available for just over a year and now it’s out of print in both paper and digital formats. Questioning the merits of reviewing a book that no one can buy, I figured I could perhaps help someone decide whether or not to take it off the tbr pile, borrow a copy from a library or friend, or perhaps check out some of the stories if they appear elsewhere. And of course there might be another print run. So, on with the end of the world!

The apocalypse is, of course, the theme of this anthology, but it’s also inspired by the  work of John Martin an English Romantic painter famous for grandiose apocalyptic visions based on his intimate knowledge of the Old Testament and related mythology (such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost). The cover of Pandemonium features the painting Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, which is also the title of one of the most harrowing stories in the collection. I’d seen The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium  in the Louvre last year, and the anthology encouraged me to check out more of Martin’s work online. And I must say – it’s impressive stuff. It’s epic. And I love the idea of an sff and horror anthology based on those paintings.

Admittedly, it doesn’t encourage a great deal of variation in apocalyptic visions. With John Martin and his art in mind, many of the stories use Christian mythology, so there are plenty of angels, demons, and worlds ending in fire. But while a few stories are a bit dreary, others offer creative twists or alternative visions. Many don’t actually seem to take much inspiration from the paintings, but I guess it’s an anthology based on the apocalypse, not an anthology based on John Martin.

The collection starts out very strong. The first story, “The Architect of Hell” by David Bryher, is still one of my favourites. It’s written as a series of hilarious letters from the demon Mulciber (the architect of the demon city Pandemonium in Paradise Lost) to John Martin himself, asking John to design Pandemonium for him. Mulciber lost all his creative abilities when God threw him out of heaven and Lucifer’s going to be really angry if Mulciber can’t deliver.The story is clearly based on the golden city in The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium and is actually a surprisingly bright start to the anthology: it’s quirky, funny and ends on a note that’s doubly apocalyptic but hopeful too. Also, the apocalypse – or rather post-apocalypse – depicted in the story is the fallen angels’, not the humans’.

There’s actually plenty of humour here; perhaps the best way to deal with the end of the world. The second story, “Chislehurst Messiah” by Lauren Beukes is a kind of black comedy horror set in an affluent English suburb. A snooty upper middle class bastard plays a Facebook game while his wife dies horribly, and he thinks about how this is an easier way of getting her money than divorcing her. The world is ending, but his thoughts remain ridiculously selfish and narrow-minded:

He needed to get to the gym; his abs were turning into jelly. Too much stale bruschetta and salty snack foods. But the one in the building’s basement stank like an abbatoir and the Stairmaster was practically alive with maggots. (25)

High on the uppers he stole from one a neighbouring apartment, he imagines that he could be the Messiah for the supposedly aimless lower-class “chavs” who are  running riot in England as society falls apart.

“OMG GTFO” by S.L. Grey is another satire, with a narrative composed of emails, interview transcripts, Twitter feeds, and so on. It describes a world descending into chaos as politicians, celebrities and other prominent figures are randomly possessed by dead people who describe visions of hell. But is it a vision of hell itself or hell on earth? The humour comes from the kind of speech you get on Twitter and in emails, the rubbish that spews from the mouths of air-headed celebrities, and the little ironies that emerge as the world degrades. It’s a great story.

There’s an amusing case of denial in “Another Abyss” by Magnus Anderson which features another snooty upper middle class English character. Leticia’s husband Geoff has just been promoted, and she’s hosting a dinner party to celebrate and gloat. She’s extremely upset that the damn apocalypse is ruining the evening with a blood-red sky (forcing her to close the curtains more than is respectable) and lava pouring down the lawn. Leticia is someone who’d be bragging about the cost her antique violin while Rome burned. The burning world-scenario is a common one in this anthology, but like the better stories that use it, Anderson makes it the background of a character-based tale rather than taking the more boring route of putting cliched apocalyptic destruction at the forefront.

“The End of the World” by Den Patrick is not as elegantly humorous as the previous four, with character names like Bumblefuck, Rigorprick, Spittleshite and Candy. But it’s tongue-in cheek, and surprisingly cute – the demon Spittleshite has fallen for a human named Candy and as a result he’s not especially keen about the apocalypse that’s about to begin. The story can be silly and crude, but it’s also hopeful (well, sort of) and quite fun.

Being an agnostic, I enjoyed the irreverent nature of all the stories that address Christian beliefs, which are typically are revealed to be useless or deceptive while the truth is rather disturbing. It helps to have a sense of humour when the apocalypse comes, but being a Christian seems pretty pointless.

Of these stories, “Evacuation” by Tom Pollock is the most beautiful and touching; instantly one of my favourites here. The evacuation in the title is the evacuation of Earth by the angels. The archangel Michael goes to find the last two humans, who have been held back by Michael’s lover, the angel Zaphkiel. The stories segues back and forth between the present story on the burning earth and the history of their relationship in heaven, bringing up issues of the war with Lucifer, and doubt in God.

“The Day or the Hour” by Jonathan Oliver sees Reverend Paul Smith questioning his faith when he finds himself among “the chosen” who have who have “been called to fight the forces of Satan” (164) in the final battle between good and evil. Commanded by cold, arrogant angels, Paul doesn’t feel divine love and inspiration. He feels like canon fodder in someone else’s war.

Like “Another Abyss”, “The Harvest” by Chrysanthy Balis is a story of denial, although in this case it’s extreme religious belief distorting the characters’ perception. Paul and Pepper are fully aware that their world is ending, but they’re delighted, believing that the Rapture is here at last, and soon they’ll be taken up to heaven. They decide that it’s best to wait for God in their expensive “neo-Italianate home” (203) full of earthly comforts, watching the drama unfold on their “75” Panasonice LED flat screen” (204), favouring the Christian Broadasting Network where they “could get the real news”. They’re full of self-righteous, contradictory bullshit, but also some rather funny ideas about what will happen:

“Paul, what about Schultzie [the dog]? […] If we hold onto him real tight maybe he’ll get Raptured along with us?”

“Anything’s possible under the Lord honey,” (203)

“What if He doesn’t come for us?”

Paul had turned stern and taken her by the shoulders. “It’s not possible, do you hear me? We’re plugged in to Jesus. And the Bible says that it’s by His grace alone that we’re saved. Now, if that’s not true then nothing is.” (205)

Jesus is coming to conquer Satan at last, and God’s going to create a New Jerusalem for us to live in.”

“Would we be able to get a house like this one?”

“Sure! […] “But with a bigger pool!”(205)

“What if the Rapture begins but the angels can’t find us because we’re inside?”(206)

All these questions come from Paul’s wife Pepper, a rather daft ideal of femininity. Her daffy character makes sense in the context of the story, but she reminds me of one problem with this anthology: there aren’t many women in it. Of the eighteen stories, only five have female protagonists, and there are only six female authors. Most of the male-protagonist stories don’t have major female characters. The apocalypse, it seems, is considered to be a mostly male affair.

This is particularly noticeable in one of my two least favourite stories, [Pandemonium] by Andy Remic (the actual title is written in a script that my computer won’t copy). The story has some of the least interesting characters. There are three men – a nerd, a hulking goon, and a ferrety goon. Then there’s a hot blonde woman, whose job it is to whine, hang on the hulking goon’s arm, and look hot. But that’s not the only reason I disliked this story. It’s a rather unimaginative portrayal of the basic fires-of-hell-on-earth scenario. Several of the stories use it, but I found Remic’s to be the least engaging, with too much cheap gore. It was the first story I disliked, and marked the point where the anthology took a dip – the middle is rather middling.

“At the Sign of the Black Dove” by Lou Morgan is my other least favourite. It appears to be about a group of people drinking themselves into oblivion and waking up to find that the world is ending. Worst hangover ever? Meh.

“Closer” by Osgood Vance takes place in a world about to die, where most people have already been claimed by heaven or hell. The remainder are essentially the most average people on earth in terms of both skill and morality. I actually really liked this concept, but Vance uses it to tell a story about a baseball match – a group of Americans’ last stab at a bit of joy before they are all consumed by darkness. It makes sense – if you think about being average in terms of skill, then sport would be one of the things you’d think about – but I’ve never been interested in baseball and the story isn’t kind to non-fans, with its name-dropping and technical details about scoring.

There are three stories which weren’t bad, or even average, but just didn’t do anything for me – “The Last Man” by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (although, notably, ‘the last man’ is a female cyborg), “The Immaculate Particle” by Charlie Human and “Postapocalypse” by Sam Wilson. Each of them actually have interesting ideas – the cyborg, vanishing city blocks in “The Immaculate Particle” and apocalypse via postmodern thought in “Postapocalypse” but for reasons that are probably entirely subjective none of these stories left much of an impression.

In contrast, there are a couple of stories I wanted to single out for being more creative than others. They’re not necessarily better, but I liked the ways they differed from the norm. “The Architect of Hell” and “OMG GTFO” both use alternative narrative forms – letters in the former (not groundbreaking, I know, but it stood out) and media excerpts in the latter.

“Sadak In Search of the Waters of the Oblivion” by Archie Black disturbed me more than the visions of hell and burning. It’s set in a world ravaged by climate change where the earth hasn’t died (some landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful) but is horrifically hostile to humans. A research team heads out on an expedition, only to find themselves constantly assaulted by insects and micro-organisms, wading through a swamp and forced to sleep in it so they never get dry. Bugs nest in the flesh of the humans, horses and dogs in the team, their bodies rot while they’re still alive and the pain drives them mad. It’s heartbreaking and utterly revolting; if predictions of starvation isn’t enough to scare people into taking climate change seriously, then this would.

“Deluge” by Kim-Lakin Smith, inspired by the painting The Eve of the Deluge also features a post apocalyptic world ravaged by climate change, but in this case they’re about to experience a second apocalypse – a flood. Eve, the daughter of a pirate philosopher and a ‘weather witch’ in her own right, realises that the flood is coming, and tries to warn her society, a city built on a dried-up ocean floor. But, as with Noah, no one believes her. It’s only by turning to the pirate aspects of her heritage that she’s able to find salvation.

“A Private Viewing” by Scott K. Andrews is the only story besides “The Architect of Hell” that actually uses John Martin’s artwork in the plot. This story is not about the apocalypse itself, but suggests that the paintings themselves are apocalyptic forces inspiring unrest or madness. In the novel a man is forced to sit and stare at one of the paintings for hours every night and it gradually unhinges his mind.

After my interest had waned midway, I was hoping that the editors had saved a really great story to end the anthology. I wasn’t disappointed. “Not the End of the World” by Sarah McDougall is a poignant story set in Germany in WW2; or at least it seems to be. It follows a small group of tenants living in a house where ghosts from the war occasionally appear. It’s sad, but brave and hopeful; an elegant note on which to close the book.

Overall Pandemonium is a strong collection; I wished I’d read it earlier so I could review it while it was still in print. On the other hand, this also seems to be the year of the short story for me. seldom paid them much attention in the past but suddenly I’m reading or listening to at least one every weekday. It’s given me fresh appreciation for this form of fiction, so in that sense maybe it’s good that I waited until now to read this. It’s a pity that it’s out of print, but get a copy if you can, or see if you can find some of the stories elsewhere. They’re all quite short (except for the last) and most of them are worth the diversion.