Review of Doughnut by Tom Holt

Doughnut by Tom HoltTitle: Doughnut
Author: Tom Holt
Published: 05 March 2013
Publisher:
 Orbit
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, humour
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Theo Burnstein is, to put it mildly, down on his luck.

“You blew up—”

“A mountain, yes.” He shrugged. “And the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, and very nearly Switzerland. Like I said, one mistake. I moved the decimal point one place left instead of one place right. Could’ve happened to anyone.”

Once a respected and fantastically wealthy physicist, Theo now counts himself lucky when he finds a cardboard box to make his nights on the streets a bit cosier. Following his career-ending catastrophe, Theo’s fourth wife divorced him and took everything he owned with her. He would have been fine if he hadn’t lost his $20-million inheritance when the investment company went bust, and then lost all his friends, who apparently liked his money more than they liked him. Things kept going downhill from there, and he found himself completely unemployable, not only because the world in general now hates him, but also because the accident turned his hand invisible in a quirk of quantum physics, and employers find that creepy. Eventually he finds a job carting guts in a slaughterhouse, where his boss kindly allows him to sleep until he finds a place to stay.

Theo is saved by his ludicrous downward spiral by the death of his good friend and teacher Pieter van Goyen. Pieter leaves gives him $5000, and the seemingly useless contents of a safe deposit box – a small bottle, a manila envelope, a powder compact and an apple. He also tells him where to find a job – a massive and decidedly weird hotel that always claims that they are fully booked even though there are only two people staying there. With almost nothing to do all day, Theo eventually discovers the purpose of his strange inheritance – they are the means for entering and navigating custom-made alternate realities. It’s meant to be a dream come true, but Theo loathes every moment as he tumbles into worlds he cannot control and is almost killed by aliens or cute, shotgun-toting Disney animals. The only way he can return to the real world, is to find a doughnut and look through the hole in the centre.

Why did Pieter leave all this to him? And what are the strange people at the hotel up to? Why does it seem like someone wants him to do a set of calculations that may destroy the universe? Theo puts his scientific mind to the problem, and tries not to get killed in the process.

 

Like all of the Tom Holt novels I’ve read, Doughnut is thoroughly kooky and a bit chaotic. And like all the other Tom Holt novels I’ve read, it’s not really laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s amusing with a few clever moments – a decent option if you’re looking for light or humorous speculative fiction. One of the reasons I keep reading Holt, even though his novels are never quite as exciting as I’d like them to be, is that he writes about so many different things that he’s become a bit of a go-to author when I need to finish a reading challenge about, for example, werewolves or Norse mythology. And his plots always sound like a lot of fun.

Doughnut brings together sci fi and fantasy by combining quantum physics with alternative realities that draw on genre tropes. The first world Theo finds himself in is straight out of an epic fantasy novel. Another is a western, then a western with aliens. There’s a peaceful post-apocalyptic world where everyone lives in the sky on glass platforms. There’s even a reality where Theo is the Pope.

It’s fun and it’s entwined with the mystery of why this is all happening, but it’s not as good as it could be. The middle of the novel drags a bit because Theo is trapped in the hotel with no escape except for the other worlds, which are accessed through an empty bottle. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t really help him figure out what’s going on. The other people in the hotel could certainly enlighten Theo and the reader, but they don’t want to. As a result, the plot doesn’t move much for a good portion of the book. It takes Theo a while to gather a few scraps of useful information about the conspiracy he’s caught up in. Towards the end he suddenly figures everything out in one bright moment, after which he explains it all in a few conversations and quickly wraps up the story. It’s rather clumsy.

Still, I enjoyed it as a light read. The odd little worlds Theo ends up in are amusing, and I highlighted a couple of funny or snarky lines. The lack of information about what’s really going isn’t irritating in the way that I normally find these unecessarily prolonged mysteries to be. Like many of the Holt protagonists I’ve come across, Theo is nerdy and likeable, a bit of a loser in some ways but smart enough (a genius, in his case) to figure everything out at the end and give us a satisfying conclusion. The other characters tend to be forgettable, but I liked Theo’s insane sister Janine, who keeps trying to call him despite the fact that she’s got a restraining order legally forbidding Theo to ever call her back.

So, all in all, it’s nice if not great, and I’ll continue reading Tom Holt.

Review of Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M John HarrisonTitle: Light
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #1
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published:
 
2002
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Bantam Spectra
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
own copy

The cover of my edition of Light is covered with flattering quotes. More can be found on the inside pages. Many come from sources I admire – Iain M. Banks, Michael Marshall Smith, China Miéville, the Guardian. They praise Harrison’s skill and vision as a writer, the complex literary nature of Light, and it’s brutal, energetic brilliance as space opera. The novel won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, was nominated for the BSFA, and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke. I was dazzled before I even started reading, and baffled afterwards. Elegant, violent and wildly imaginative, Light is literary genre fiction, bringing together quantum physics, a strange new world, bizarre characters, and all the complex relationships that exist between them. It is a particularly challenging read, and it’s only after my second attempt that I feel I have a decent understanding of the novel.

The story is divided into three strands, one set in 1999, and two set the post-Earth future of 2400. In 1999, Michael Kearney – a visionary physicist and a serial killer – has spent decades running from the Shrander, a mysterious entity with a horse’s skull for a head. Michael kills to keep the thing at bay, but because it’s his brilliant mind that attracted it in the first place, it will never leave him in peace. It seems like it’s been a while since he’s managed to do anything productive, although he and his partner Brian Tate are currently involved in a research project that has recently produced only enigmatic results. Tate can’t get Michael to hang around long enough to do any work – he keeps running from the Shrander, with his anorexic and psychologically frail ex-wife Anna trailing after him.

We know that Michael and Tate’s research will be groundbreaking though – in 2400, Tate-Kearney transformations are commonly used in space travel. In this future, humanity is scattered across planets surrounding the Kefahuchi Tract, a space-time anomaly, a “singularity without an event horizon”. For over 65 millennia, the K-tract has beguiled every race that came across it. One race even “steered whole solar systems into position” (7) just to have a closer look at the Tract. It’s a phenomenon that takes no heed of causality, and where explorers can find ancient artefacts that can’t be understood and alien tech that defies all known possibilities.

Seria Mau Genlicher zips around the Tract thanks to the alien tech of her K-ship, The White Cat – an absurdly powerful vessel bristling with weapons and capable of shooting into orbit at Mach 50. It’s run by sentient mathematics and algorithms with a life of their own. Seria Mau allowed her body to be mostly destroyed so she could be plugged into the ship, where she floats in a tank of nutrient-rich chemicals. She’s just acquired an inexplicable artefact that brings the authorities hurtling after her, but which promises opportunities humanity has been dreaming about.

Planet-side in the city of New Venusport is Ed Chianese, once a famous explorer, now a washed up ‘twink’. Like Seria Mau he spends all his time in a tank, except he’s addicted to playing out clichéd old-Earth scenarios in virtual reality. But Ed is in debt to some very bloodthirsty people and gets forced out into the real world when they come looking for him. He runs all the way into a strange new life as a visionary in a circus.

These plot strands seem disparate and in fact the three main characters will never speak to each other. It’s only at the end that you can fully understand how they’re connected. But one of the beautiful things about this book – assuming you’re like me and enjoy this sort of thing – is the way the stories are delicately connected by images and details. Some of are very fine, just a thread tacked across chapters. Ed runs from his pursuers into the confusing warrens where the alien “New Men” live; Anna’s apartment is described as a warren where you never know where you are, and Michael’s decidedly weird friend Valentine Sprake has the same pale skin and shock of ginger hair as the New Men. Anna and Michael walk past melting tarmac; in the next chapter, Seria Mau’s dreams and nightmares “leaked up inside her like warm tar” (65).

It’s much easier to notice the recurring images, details and phrases. I mentioned the Tate-Kearney transformations and the fact that both Seria Mau and Ed start out in tanks. Cats are everywhere. Seria Mau named her ship The White Cat after the white oriental cat Michael bought for the lab, and whose strange interest in their computer screens is the first sign that the two physicists have stumbled onto something otherworldly. Michael stole a strange pair of dice from the Shrander 20 years ago; in 2400 similar dice are used for a game. Michael uses the dice to plot journeys, seeing a connection between prophecy and mathematics (he is also obsessed with the Tarot. Odd, for a physicist, but that’s the kind of guy he is). In 2400, there is a brief mention of an admiral who “abandoned the Tate-Kearney transformations and simply threw dice to decide his moves”. This kind of thing can actually work because it seems that, out in space, physics doesn’t have laws so much as guidelines:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was in a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, but assuming anything. (136)

Beaches frequently appear as metaphors for liminal states or places. It was staring at the pebbles on a beach that child-Michael first began to understand the world as he does. The “ragged margins of the Tract” (7) are known as The Beach, and one of the characters muses, “We’ve got to leave the beach some day. All of us. Grow up. Leave the Beach, dive into the sea” (139). By which I think he means that humanity needs to move on to the next stage of discovery.

The book links Michael and Tate’s discoveries with future ones, and these are typically represented by light, specifically a tangible, flowing light that appears as tears or foaming liquid. “Sparks in everything” – this phrase is thought or uttered multiple times. It’s beautiful, but discovery isn’t romanticised in this book – it’s terrifying, painful, and dangerous. Michael can’t handle it – his knowledge attracts the Shrander and is essentially a source of pure horror that his turned him into murderer and rendered him useless. Seria Mau underwent appalling physical adjustments and risked death – as a 13-year-old child – to become a K-ship captain. Ed is the only one who offers us the classic, thrilling image of the space explorer, but he’s currently planet-bound, sticking his head into a tank to tell the future.

But it isn’t all bad. Discovery is endless. In a universe where physics is so pliable, nothing can ever be fully understood and anything is possible. Another refrain is “there was always more; there was always more after that. Discovery and exploration often take on a notably sexual tone as well, or is somehow associated with sex and sexual relationships. The climax of the novel (excuse the pun) is described in overtly sexual terms. Seria Mau is introduced as “trolling for customers” (7), suggestive of a prostitute, although what she’s offering is horrific, high-tech death rather than pleasure. We later learn that she became a K-captain partly to escape her home, where her father wanted her to “become the mother” in the wake of her mother’s death.

Michael and Anna both seems to use sex as a means of temporarily escaping their personal problems, although Michael, for some reason, never wants to penetrate women – a symbol of his fear perhaps? Ed Chianese, the explorer however, has a string of unusual sexual relationships. The first is with a character in his virtual reality. The second is with an alien. The final one is with Annie Glyph, a rickshaw girl. Rickshaw girls are essentially human carthorses, genetically tailored to massive and powerfully muscled.

With all the weird sex in the novel, the issue of bodies comes up frequently. Seria Mau initially doesn’t want one, and when she uses an avatar for face-to-face meetings she goes as a white cat. She meets with a gene tailor named Uncle Zip, who surrounds himself with clones – versions of himself who are younger, thinner, and sometimes female. Anna, an anorexic and twice-failed suicide, looks just as fragile as her mental state. Annie Glyph comes across as her parallel and her opposite – a huge, powerful woman who dwarfs the man she sleeps with. Sex and gender finds all sorts of new permutations in this novel – I can see why it won the Tiptree award.

There’s quite a bit of science, reminding me that I really need to get better acquainted with quantum physics if I want to continue reading this sort of thing. I still don’t quite understand what a singularity is, nevermind a “singularity without an event horizon”. But although I feel like a full appreciation of the novel is out of my reach, the technical details aren’t alienating. Harrison turns the science into poetry and I learned to just enjoy the words without fussing over the physics.

The tech is pretty cool either way. K-ships are just spectacular, and The White Cat is the best of them. The shadow operators were one of my favourite things about the novel – living algorithms who usually appear as “women biting their knuckles in regret” (186) and fuss over humans with personalities to match. The White Cat’s shadow operators long to craft a pretty little body for Seria Mau and dress her up in white lace. Planet-side are all sorts of genetically tailored ‘cultivars’ – gun kiddies, over-muscled punks with tusks, rickshaw girls. There’s a cultivar called Mona (also written as ‘Moaner’) – an over-sexed female body that has become popular with women.

I could continue discussing the little details. Light is just that kind of book – short but incredibly complex. I find it to be a lot like the K-tract – beguiling even when I don’t understand it. I’m glad I re-read it, and I’d like to do so again one day, after I get a copy of Nova Swing so I can experience the trilogy as a whole (I just read book 3, Empty Space; more on that in my next review). It’s certainly not for everyone, and even now I don’t want to rate because I’m not sure what to make of it. But I’m happy to be inexplicably captivated.

Review of Enormity by W.G. Marshall

Title: Enormity
Author: W.G. Marshall
Published: 7 February 2012
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre:  science fiction
Source: review copy from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 8/10

What a great book.

Many Lopes is a lonely, miserable American working a government job in Korea. He hasn’t seen his wife in two years, and she finally gives up on their long-distance relationship and leaves him. Manny chose to work in Korea partly to experience another culture, but as a dark-skinned American he tends to be treated as either a celebrity of a freak by the locals, who are fascinated (and sometimes disgusted) by black people. To add to the list of things that make Manny feel like crap, he’s a puny 5 feet 3 inches tall – a “creole shrimp” as he suggests. But that’s about to change…

Also in Korea is Fred Isaacson, a particularly loopy religious fanatic who believes it is his personal mandate to pave the way for Yahweh’s return. Apparently the Lord has chosen the Korean people as the instruments of Armageddon, so Isaacson tries to sell them some experimental quantum technology – a “Little Big Bang” contained in a metal egg. But the deal goes wrong and results in several accidental quantum explosions – one of which turns poor diminutive Manny into a 6000-foot tall colossus. Manny is so massive he doesn’t even realise what’s happened. At his size (he’s far, far bigger than the figure on the cover), humans are microscopic and the landscape looks alien. For the people on the ground however, every one of Manny’s steps causes catastrophic damage. The army does everything they can, first to stop him, but then to use him as a weapon of mass destruction. Manny isn’t really susceptible to that kind of manipulation, but the Americans gain leverage over him when a second giant is discovered – a North Korean assassin.

Enormity surprised me. The giant-man plot sounds like something out of a dodgy old sci fi movie. I figured the only way to pull this off was as a parody, and the whacky blurb seems to suggest that that’s what it is. But while Enormity does have some wonderful bits of oddball humour and is pretty bizarre in general, it’s actually fairly serious. I have to admire W.G. Marshall for taking a pulpy idea and crafting a vividly written, multi-layered and compelling novel out of it.

There’s so much to appreciate here: a glimpse into Korean culture, loads of action, good pacing and plenty of well-crafted characters. The novel shows great depth of character in Manny in particular. He’s an instantly likeable, memorable and slightly tragic figure – a generally nice guy suffering feelings of loneliness and insignificance in a culture he’s trying to explore but that inevitably alienates him. Then he becomes the extreme physical opposite of the person he’s always been, giving him a sense of power he’s never experienced. However, his power also fills him with horror and remorse – he can barely move without causing death and destruction. At the same time, he’s even lonelier than before, since the rest of the human race might as well be an alien species to him. And he knows that he’s going to die soon, because he has no sustainable source of food. Thus, Manny’s unbelievable height gives his a new perspective on life, not only physically, but existentially.

For the reader, Manny’s size also means the novel is also really, really gross at times. The human body at that scale is fucking disgusting. What looks like a layer of dirty snow on Manny’s head turns out to be dandruff. When a military team sets up a communication base inside his ear, they secure the tent in “resinous brown outcroppings of earwax”. An open sore on his forehead is described as

“a crater about twenty feet across; a grisly sump overflowing with lava-like congealing blood. Steam-heat wafted from the hole as if from a volcanic vent. Thirty-foot-tall eyebrow hairs leaned splintered and smouldering away from the breech, and sticky blood cells had been blown everywhere by the wind, resembling gelatinous red condoms.”

And then there are the bacteria from Manny’s body, which are now more like giant flesh-eating bugs:

living jellied beads like masses of frog eggs, squirming and spreading infestation with busy, burrowing tendrils. Queen could see them splitting in two, multiplying as he watched, taking over the victims’ whole bodies like a sticky caul of tapioca. Hideous, flesh-eating tapioca.

The grossness, however, is a necessary part of the story’s speculation. Marshall’s giants are very realistic and it makes sense, therefore, to have giant bacteria and strands of hair as thick as tree trunks. There are other details as well. The increased size of Manny’s brain means that nerve impulses have further to travel and thus he experiences everything much more slowly. To speak to him, speech has to be slowed down and transmitted at a low frequency; if not, it will just sound like indecipherable twittering to him. And of course the book details the catastrophic destruction Manny causes: the air around his moving body is like a powerful storm; the reverberations of his voice can blow up the aircraft shooting at him; flakes of his skin are like shrapnel. It all serves to make the idea of this giant and the story as a whole very very real for the reader.

Some might ask about the technical issue according to which something that size should be crushed under its own weight, but the novel quietly dismisses this with the excuse that “that there’s something about their molecular structure that makes them incredibly robust— it’s as if they don’t quite follow the ordinary rules of physics”. Which is perfectly acceptable to me.

Equally plausible and yet almost as shocking as the existence of such a giant are Marshall’s speculations about the political reactions to it. From the very beginning the situation is complicated by questions of who is responsible, or more importantly, who will be blamed. Once the American military finds a way of communicating with Manny, the president and his cabinet immediately start thinking about how to use him to destroy all the countries and military bases that the USA considers a threat. And of course the North Korean giant is being used in a similar manner. The reader gets to explore some of the political and social turmoil between Koreans and the Japanese, within North Korea, and between America and rest of the world, all of which forms basis for way the giants are manipulated.

There are lots more little things I could talk about, but I wouldn’t want to spoil this book for anyone. I’d put it in the hands of any sci fi fan as quirky gem of top-quality genre fiction. Enormity  is being released on 7 February by Night Shade Books. Get it.

Buy a copy of Enormity at The Book Depository