I’ll try again later: Empty Space by M. John Harrison

Empty Space by M John HarrisonTitle: Empty Space
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #3
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published: 
First published 1 January 2012; my edition published 5 March 2013
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

This isn’t so much a review as an admission of defeat and a comment on difficult books. After reading Empty Space, I don’t feel able to write any kind of useful review. I couldn’t even tell you if I liked it or not. The question is irrelevant, because I simply don’t get it, and I think I would have to do more reading before I can.

Before requesting a copy of Empty Space, I tweeted Night Shade Books to ask if it was necessary to read the first two books in the series – Light and Nova Swing. I’d read the former, but not the latter. They said this was fine. I respectfully disagree. Loudly and vehemently. From what I’ve read about them, it seems that Light and Nova Swing are fairly disparate. They’re set in the same universe, but tell two very different stories. Empty Space functions as a sequel to both, sharing characters and locations, and tying up loose ends. I re-read Light just before reading Empty Space, and found them to be closely linked. In comparison, I felt alienated from the aspects of the plot related to Nova Swing.

So to better understand this novel, I think I would have to read Nova Swing first. Then I’d have to re-read Empty Space. I had a similar experience with Light – it bewildered me the first time around; after the second reading I liked it more and felt like I’d understood it.

So what can I say about Empty Space in the meantime? Well, I can give you a bit of plot. Anna Kearney, Michael’s fragile ex-wife from Light, becomes a POV character in Empty Space. After Michael’s disappearance from a beach in America, Anna “fucked the first kind of person she found” who happened to be Tim Waterman (he made a brief appearance as her lover in Light). She married him after falling pregnant with their daughter Marnie. When we see Anna, it is almost 30 years after the events of book one and she is an old woman in her 60s or 70s, no longer suffering from anorexia but most definitely deranged, to Marnie’s great concern. She avoids visiting her therapist, takes long walks to snoop around other people’s homes, and does loopy things like swimming naked down a river in the middle of the night.

She also has experiences that sound completely crazy, but given the bizarre nature of the universe in this series, what she sees is most likely real (whatever that means). She keeps turning around to find that her summerhouse is on fire, except that the flames look fake, like something she saw on a tarot card, and after a while they disappear without having damaged anything. Her cat brings in glowing organ-shaped things from the garden. She has weird dreams that are no doubt more than just her subconscious at play. Notably, Anna is still carrying around an external hard drive that Michael gave to her before he disappeared. On it is the work he and Brian Tate were doing – the groundbreaking mathematics that enabled space travel and made the future storylines possible. Anna, however, has forgotten the significance of the hard drive.

Like Light, Empty Space has two narrative strands several centuries in the future. In one, the crew of the space freighter Nova Swing pick up a creepy, illegal alien artefact. In the third narrative, an unnamed policewoman known only as the assistant is investigating two decidedly weird murders. The victims’ bodies are found floating in midair, and as the novel progresses they rise higher while fading slowly into invisibility. The assistant used to work with a detective, but he’s dead now, existing only as a ghost hovering aimlessly in her office. The assistant is heavily gene-tailored and if she was once human she can’t even remember that time. With her heightened senses and abilities, she’s practically a weapon or a machine, and most people prefer to avoid her. Nevertheless, there’s one guy who keeps coming to see her, and somehow walks through walls to do so. His interest in her is based on the fact that someone – or something – keeps asking for her.

This person or thing is ‘Pearl’, an entity common to all three storylines. It is something between a bizarre phenomenon and an ancient, inexplicable artefact. When Pearl appears she/it says “My name is Pearlent and I come from the future”. She appears as a woman in grey, in a state of falling. Her existence remains incomprehensible to me, but as a character or plot device, she connects the storylines and brings a sense of closure to the series.

Empty Space shares many of the characteristics of Light – a tendency to connect characters, stories and timelines with little details; strange people who do strange things; incomprehensible alien technology; an abundance of violence and horror wrapped up in literary sf. There’s still a strong sense of the pain and terror involved in space travel and discovery, but with less optimism. Aliens exist, but you never see them. And of course there are cats, hundreds of cats. The future world feels more like the current one than it did in Light, perhaps because of the policewoman’s plot.

But I do not know what the fucking point is.

I usually knew what was happening in Empty Space but most of the time I didn’t know what to make of it. I could not have given you a reason why a particular scene was in the book or articulated the way in which it fit into the whole. Why does Anna’s cat bring her glowing neon organ-shaped things? Why do three characters dream of a vulva appearing in the wall? Why does the crew of the Nova Swing pick up a ‘mortsafe’ containing the fused, ghostly bodies of a child, his mother, and the nanny who started a weird sexual relationship with him?

I’m not writing a proper review because I can’t offer you any coherent understanding of the book beyond a prolonged plot summary. It might be brilliant. It might be a bunch of random crap cobbled together in a way that gives the illusion of brilliance. It could be anything in between. I can’t really say.

I am not despondent though. I felt the same way about Light when I first read it, but it was way better the second time. I also did myself a huge disservice by not reading Nova Swing. I could have skipped this blog post, but I felt like making a point about difficult books and re-reading. With a few exceptions, I try not to give up on books. Sometimes it’s obvious that a book is very bad or simply something that I won’t be interested in. Otherwise, I give it the benefit of the doubt, and assume I wasn’t ready to read it or that I was in the wrong mood for it. I choose to read books because I think they have something to offer me, and I’m willing to stick it out until the end to see if they deliver.

And in cases like this one, I feel that reading a book once just isn’t enough. That’s just the way some books are, and the fact that they’re difficult doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarding or entertaining. Some things simply take more time and effort than others. I’ll shelve Empty Space for now, and give it a second chance in the future.

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March Round-Up

Overall, March was a decent reading month for me. I would have liked to read a bit more, but at least it was a big improvement on February. I’ve managed to shake my Skyrim addiction, at least for now, so I can give my books the attention they deserve.

The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine is actually a leftover from February, but since I didn’t really include in that round-up, I’m putting it in now. I must warn you – it’s terrible. I hated reading it, but at least that means you can avoid the mistake of reading it too.

Luckily, that disaster was followed by the rather good Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale – a thriller/adventure set in the old American South. I loved the Southern wit in the writing, and the sense of horror that permeated the story.

Next up was The Antithesis: Book 3α by Terra Whiteman, the fourth book in her series about the war between heaven and hell. I usually lose interest in series, even when I like them, but this one has managed to keep me hooked. Look out for an interview with the author and a giveaway some time soon!

I found some comic relief in Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez. It’s an utterly ludicrous mystery adventure featuring an super-intelligent octopus from Neptune who was once an interstellar warlord but has now settled down as Emperor of Earth. Now there’s a sinister disembodied brain trying to kill him… Good light fun for sci fi fans 🙂

My leisure read for the month was another sf comedy –  Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt. In the early days of this blog I wrote a short post about how we’re always saying how we want to read something by this or that author, but we never get around to it. I wrote that after reading the first few chapters of Blonde Bombshell in a bookshop and finding it both hilarious and engrossing. At the time, Tom Holt was one of those authors I’d been meaning to read for ages, but I didn’t buy the book because it was too expensive. I later found a copy at a sale. I’ve read a few of his books since – they’re good reads, if not great. Blonde Bombshell was the same. Not as good as I expected, based on those first few chapters, and there were some huge plot holes, but it was still a nice break from reviewing.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo was a review book I received from Pan Macmillan last year. I’d enjoyed DeLillo’s White Noise at varsity, so I thought I might like more. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this one at all, although I appreciated some of the subtlety of the writing.

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente is the kind of book I always dream of reading. It was just unbelievably beautiful. I’d hoped to post the review last week already, but I haven’t finished it, thanks to a combination of laziness and finding it difficult to write reviews of the books I really love. It also meant I broke the Tuesday/Thursday review schedule I’d managed to stick to for the rest of the month 😦 There’s so much I want to talk about, so many passages I want to quote, that the review is way too long. I’ll post it once it’s refined and slimmed down. For now, just know that it’s an exquisite piece of mythical fiction.

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg is a 1994 publication that’s been re-published as an eBook this year. It’s a historical murder mystery based, in part, on an actual friendship between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is on a USA tour, lecturing on spiritualism and psychic abilities. During that time, a New York murderer is killing people in an imitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories. The victims are all linked to Houdini in some way, and Poe’s ghost starts appearing to Doyle. An interesting idea for a literary thriller, but sadly it’s not a very good book.This, and one or two other books, have made me think that maybe I should avoid books that are being re-published, because there may be a good reason they fell into obscurity. Review to follow soon.

April needs to be a really productive reading and reviewing month, as I’ll be going away for two weeks in May and won’t be blogging much then, if at all. I’ve just finished Germline by T.C. McCarthy, which I hope to review next week. On top of my tbr pile is Westlake Soul by Rio Youers, some weird fiction about a superhero in a coma, and Faustus Resurrectus by Thomas Morrissey, an urban occult thriller.

Now, time to get to work…

Up for Review: New from NetGalley

Check out these awesome eARCs I received via NetGalley:

Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell, from Dorchester Publishing

Something called Charlotte’s name that night.  Her sister and her cousins, comfortable in their sleeping bags, didn’t hear it, but it lured Charlotte to the edge of the cliff, to a secret trapdoor buried beneath dirt and grass.  Beyond the trapdoor lay only darkness-and two unblinking eyes.  Charlotte told herself it was only a dream.  But something escaped when the door was opened, something that tainted all of them.  And now, ten years later, it is drawing them back to that cliff, forcing them to once again peer beyond the trapdoor, to confront what waits for them in the darkness.

Thieving Fear was originally published in 2008, and was re-released by Dorchester on 15 November 2011

The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi, from Mulholland Books

Six severed arms are discovered, arranged in a mysterious circle and buried in a clearing in the woods. Five of them appear to belong to missing girls between the ages of eight and eighteen. The sixth is yet to be identified. Worse still, the girls’ bodies, alive or dead, are nowhere to be found.

Lead investigators Mila Vasquez, a celebrated profiler, and Goran Gavila, an eerily prescient criminologist, dive into the case. They’re confident they’ve got the right suspect in their sights until they discover no link between him and any of the kidnappings except the first. The evidence in the case of the second missing child points in a vastly different direction, creating more questions than it answers.

Vasquez and Gavila begin to wonder if they’ve been brought in to take the fall in a near-hopeless case. Is it all coincidence? Or is a copycat criminal at work? Obsessed with a case that becomes more tangled and intense as they unravel the layers of evil, Gavila and Vasquez find that their lives are increasingly in each other’s hands.

The Whisperer, described as a thought-provoking, intelligent literary thriller, has already become a bestseller across Europe. It’s won 5 international literary prizes and has been translated into several languaged. It was originally published in 2009. Mulholland Books is releasing their edition on 5 January 2012

Enormity by W.G. Marshall from Night Shade Books

Enormity is the strange tale of an American working in Korea, a lonely young man named Manny Lopes, who is not only physically small (in his own words, he’s a “Creole shrimp”), but his work, his failed marriage, his race, all conspire to make him feel puny and insignificant—the proverbial ninety-eight-pound weakling.

Then one day an accident happens, a quantum explosion, and suddenly Manny awakens to discover that he is big—really big. In fact, Manny is enormous, a mile-high colossus! Now there’s no stopping him: he’s a one-man weapon of mass destruction. Yet he means well.

Enormity takes some odd turns, featuring characters like surfing gangbangers, elderly terrorists, and a North Korean assassin who thinks she’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. There’s also sex, violence, and action galore, with the army throwing everything it has against the rampaging colossus that is Manny Lopes. But there’s only one weapon that has any chance at all of stopping him: his wife.

Enormity will be released on 7 February 2011

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett, from Orbit Books

George Carole ran away from home to join the Vaudeville circuit. Sixteen years old, uncommonly gifted at the piano, he falls in with a strange troupe — even for Vaudeville.

Under the watchful eye of the enigmatic figure of Silenus, George comes to realize that the members of the troupe are more than they appear to be. And their travels have a purpose that runs deeper than entertainment.

George must uncover the mysteries of Silenus’s Company before it is too late. He is already entangled in their web of secrets and if he doesn’t learn where they are taking him, he may never find his way out.

The Troupe will be released on 21 February 2012. In the meantime you can read the first chapter and check out the official website for the novel.

I’m hoping to review Thieving Fear  and The Whisperer soon. Reviews for Enormity and The Troupe will be posted closer to their release dates.

Thanks so much to the publishers and NetGalley for these ARCs – you guys rock!

The Book Ferret: Genre in the Mainstream at Tor.com

Tor.com has lots of great features, and here’s one I particularly like – Genre in the Mainstream:

“Genre in the Mainstream” is a regular blog series which highlights authors and novels who employ genre elements in stories that are generally considered mainstream literary fiction. We’re not claiming these writers for the science fiction and fantasy camps, but rather asserting that if you like genre fiction, you’ll probably like these mainstream literary writers, as well.

I like weird fiction and I find that when a novel intertwines elements of science fiction, fantasy and/or horror into what might otherwise be considered ‘normal’ fiction, the result doesn’t fit easily into any category and turns out to be a lot weirder than anything you’d typically find in science fiction, fantasy or horror. I think it’s the way the unfamiliar, the unknown or the downright bizarre co-exists with the usual that makes it so unsettling and enjoyable. Have you seen the movie Donnie Darko? That’s an example of the kind of experience I’m talking about.

The novels that deliver it aren’t particularly easy to find, but here writer Ryan Britt is producing a fantastic reading list in an excellent series of reviews. Included in the books he’s covered so far are Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read), Blindness by Jose Saramago, and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Check it out 🙂

 

The Book Ferret is a Violin in a Void feature that will showcase interesting book-related finds – gadgets, websites, book stores, events, cover art, quotes, new releases, etc.; anything bookworms would enjoy hearing about.

If you’d like to do your own Book Ferret post, grab the picture, link it back here, and let me know about it in the comments. I’ll be sure to mention your post in my next Book Ferret.

Review: Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner

Title: Nekropolis
Author: Tim Waggoner
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication date: August 2009 (UK & Australia); October 2010 (US & Canada)
My Rating: 4/10

Buy it at The Book Depository

The tale is classic detective noir – the beautiful blonde damsel is in distress and needs the help of the smart, hardass detective with personal issues and a repertoire of bad and very bad jokes. But the damsel is a vampire/human halfbreed, the detective is a zombie, and it’s all set in Nekropolis, a city in “a distant dark dimension” where all the evil creatures came to live when they got tired of being hunted and hated by the inhospitable humans of Earth.

As Nekropolis zombies go, Matt Richter is unique. He doesn’t eat brains, and he still possesses a mind and will of his own. He makes a living doing “favours” for people (for some reason he won’t admit to being a detective) so he’s made a lot of friends and a few dangerous enemies in Nekropolis.

Unfortunately, the spells preserving his dead body aren’t working like they used to, so if he doesn’t find a solution soon, he’s going to decay. Which is why he agrees to help Devona, the gorgeous half-vampire in a skin-tight dress. Her father is one of the powerful Darklords who rule Nekropolis, and Matt hopes that by helping Devona find the artefact that was stolen from her father’s collection, she can persuade him to restore Matt’s corpse.

The clock is ticking, not only because of Matt’s dilemma, but because today is the Descension, Nekropolis’s most sacred holiday, commemorating the day the Darkfolk came to Nekropolis. The streets are full of partying monsters and at the end of the day the Darklords will perform a magical ceremony to recharge the “shadowsun” Umbriel. Chances are the thief who stole the artefact will use it at the ceremony, so Matt and Devona have to solve the case before the night is through.

So, there are 3 strands to this plot

  1. The Mystery – who stole the priceless artefact called the Dawnstone and why?
  2. The Drama – will Matt find a solution for his rapid decay or will he soon be dead for good?
  3. The Romance – Matt’s developing feelings for Devona, but can a vampire love a zombie?

All three of these are boring.

The mystery is as straightforward as they come. The clue found at the scene of the crime allows Devona to guess immediately and correctly who the culprit is, so the next step is to track him down. Doing so reveals that this is not a simple case of theft but a conspiracy to claim power in Nekropolis, so Matt and Devona go from one place to the next in a dreadfully linear fashion to find out what the hell’s going on. There are no twists, no big surprises. Various dangers bare their teeth along the way, but it’s the kind of book where you know the main characters will be fine, so there’s no real tension. In most cases, Matt saves them by pulling something useful but unlikely out of his pocket, like a tub of expensive French glue with glitter in it.

Not that they come out of the fights unscathed. That might kill the drama. So not only is Matt threatened with permanent decay, he’s acquiring a collection of injuries that make him look progressively more disgusting.

Devona however, is lovingly concerned rather than repulsed, and she and Matt progress from never having met each other, to flirting, affection, “I’ve never felt like this before”, irrational jealousy and finally expressions of undying love, all in the single evening during which the plot takes place. Already it’s more nauseating than Nekropolis’s revolting assortment of monsters, but let’s not forget that Matt is a zombie. Call me provincial, but necrophilia is a big no-no in my book.

Anyway, the plot – why is it so boring? Because Nekropolis is not so much a story as a tour of the world and its creatures. Some of Matt and Devona’s encounters do little or nothing to forward the plot, serving instead to show off one of Waggoner’s inventive Darkfolk. And they’re worth a look – insectoid demons, genetically modified ‘lykes’ (lycans), Chihuahua/piranha crossbred vermin, a brothel owner whose gender changes every few minutes to name a fraction.

Also on display is Nekropolis’s ‘flesh-tech’ – organic technology such as the Mind’s Eye (a giant eye that relays transmissions straight to your brain, acting as a TV set), the handvox (a cellphone with an ear and a mouth) and laptops that “breathe, gurgle, and moan – especially when doing difficult tasks – and have even been known to burst blood vessels if asked to perform too many functions at the same time”.

But it’s overkill. There are too many characters, too many creatures, too many details, and it’s all compounded by the chaotic Descension Day celebrations which push the fantasy into dysfunctional overdrive. What initially seemed intense and interesting quickly became mundane. I also began to wonder how a society made up entirely of evil creatures could hold itself together.

On two occasions I felt as if I’d had reached the climax of the novel, but there were still plenty of places and creatures to see before I could get to the end. Consequently read the first half of the novel fairly quickly, and then took about a week to get through the rest although it’s a pretty easy read. If only Waggoner hadn’t been so overzealous with his world-building a put more of his effort and imagination into the story, this could have been really fun.

A sequel – Dead Streets – was published last year March in the UK and Australia, and is due to be released in the USA and Canada in March 2011.  And despite what I’ve said about Nekropolis, I’d read it. Why? Nekropolis had potential. It’s humorous in that bad joke kind of way, it’s gross in the morbidly fascinating way you keep poking at something that makes you go Eww! and I like detective characters like Matt – the hardass with a heart of gold. The world of Nekropolis is one I want to explore, just not at the expense of the story. So, Tim Waggoner, I’ll give you one more shot.

 

Buy Nekropolis at The Book Depository

After Dark by Haruki Murkami

After Dark My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I unwittingly picked the ideal time to read this novel – alone, late at night, when I simply didn’t feel like going to bed. Being awake while surround by the silence of sleep and darkness perfectly complemented this surreal, hypnotic read. It’s my first Haruki Murakami novel, and a guarantee that I’ll be reading more.

The story is driven mostly by dialogue and observation, not plot, but despite the consequent slow pace, After Dark held my attention and before I knew it I was almost done with the novel. It’s composed of three intertwined stories that take place over one night, each unfolding as it connects with another. It begins with Mari, a 19-year old student reading alone in a busy diner just before midnight. She is joined by Takahashi, a musician who remembers Mari from a holiday several years ago. As Takahashi chats to Mari, we are able to learn about her sister Eri, who we then find deep asleep in her room.

The narrative continues to develop in this manner, exploring the connections between people and events, moving to a new character only once a link to them has been established. As a result of her conversation with Takahashi, Mari meets Kaoru, the manager of a love motel where a Chinese prostitute has just been beaten up in one of the rooms. This incident links us to Shirikawa, a businessman working through the night. The office Shirikawa is working in reappears when we return to Eri – the office is seen on her TV screen in the novel’s most surreal and perplexing scenes.

These interconnections are the lifeblood of the narrative, and in addition there are myriad threads of detail delicately weaving things together, some of which the characters themselves find significant. Takahashi can’t recall Mari’s name, but he does remember that it differs from Eri’s name by a single syllable. Mari notes with some tenderness that the beaten Chinese prostitute is the same age as she is. Eri and Shirikawa are both using sleep to escape their troubles, while Korogi, one of the staff members at the love motel, wishes she could do the same.

All these connections fit neatly into an idea expressed at the beginning – that the city is a “single collective entity, created by many intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm” (3). Takahashi later echoes this concept with a theory that all systems are like living organisms.

The organisms are given life by the information passing through them, as are people. The information circulating through us is made up of memory: “people’s memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn’t matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They’re all just fuel” (168-169). In a literary parallel, the novel itself is given life by the very stories it is telling. Or rather, the stories are being observed instead of written or read. The novel is framed as if there were no author and no reader, just an invisible “we” watching people and events. This is one of its most interesting aspects. Murakami experiments with narrative, using a present-tense “we” and breaking down the barrier between author and reader leaving only passive observers of reality. After Dark begins when ‘our’ “[e]yes mark the shape of the city”, and ‘we’ sweep in from above “like a high-flying bird” before “[o]ur line of sight chooses an area of concentrated brightness and, focusing there, silently descends to it” (3). We enter a restaurant, where we could focus on anyone, but Mari, reading alone, “very naturally” (5) captures our attention and provides the entry point for the stories to follow. It gives the novel an organic, unplanned feel. In fact, the viewer/narrator doesn’t seem to have any real intentions other than to see what’s going on in the city on this particular evening. ‘We’ are “pure point of view” (108), unable to have any effect on the scene we’re watching because we’re not actually there: “We are invisible, anonymous intruders. We look. We listen. We note odours. But we are not physically present in the place, and we leave behind no traces… We observe, but we do not intervene” (27). All that we can do is “gather data, and, if possible, judge” (108).

After Dark is a book pretending that it hasn’t been written and isn’t being read. It’s an experience in observation and the author is as powerless as the reader to influence anything; both are on equal footing as the viewer/narrator. Lacking omnipotence, it should also be noted that we are not omniscient – we are only privy to those details we can perceive with our eyes and ears as the viewer/narrator. For example, we don’t know what book Mari is reading because we can’t see the title and Mari never says what it is, but we can guess from her expression while reading that it’s relatively complex. Takahashi doesn’t tell Mari his name, so it remains unknown until it’s mentioned later.

Because of our limitations as viewer/narrator, much of the story remains a mystery. What the characters don’t know and thus don’t talk about, we cannot know either. And because it does not always make sense for them to explain their actions or discuss their feelings, we left to draw our own conclusions from what we are able to observe. It’s clear from Shirikawa’s actions and a conversation with his wife that he’s avoiding his family, but because he never voices his reasons for this, they remain unclear. Nor do we ever find out what exactly is going on during the strange events in Eri’s room or why she has chosen to sleep for so long because she is unable to offer any explanation.

This might be frustrating for some, but for me part of the pleasure of reading After Dark lies in the details themselves, in poring over fragments of information or finding the connections between people, places and events. Consequently, I suggest you avoid this if you want action or drama, if you demand closure, or if your preference is for stories that you don’t need to think too much about – it will be a complete waste of a great book.

The lack of conclusion means you probably won’t feel blown away, but it might leave you feeling blissfully calm and contemplative, making this a rare beauty of a novel.

Angry Robot – publishers of “SF, F and WTF?!”

If you tend to get strange looks when you tell people about the book you’re reading, if you’ve ever finished a particularly good, completely crazy novel only to have your shoulders slump  with the realisation that it’ll be hard to find another book like that, if you wish more authors ignored genre boundaries, then check out Angry Robot, a small British-based publisher of genre fiction, “dedicated to the best in modern adult science fiction, fantasy and everything inbetween”.

Of course, there are plenty of larger, more prestigious genre-fiction publishers out there, but what makes Angry Robot worth a longer look, other than their attention-grabbing name, is that they’re not simply interested in the genres known for defying the mainstream.  Sci fi, fantasy and horror have developed their own mainstreams, the comfortable ruts of conventional plots and tropes that, while still entertaining, might be lacking in imagination for those who read this stuff all the time. That’s why Angry Robot is looking for “[n]ew heroes and new settings, or maybe just reinventing the wheel, we’re not fussed – if there’s an energy in a book that gets us jumping up and down, we’re all over it.” They’re offering something unconventional to those who already read what’s considered unconventional – “a couple of surprises even for us jaded old read-it-alls”. Genre-crossover is their specialty, and in general they want books that can give readers a “[h]eightened experience – an intensity, extremity or just a way of treating plot or situation in a way we’ve not come across before”.

I wish there was a specific word for that kind of reading experience, because I’d use it all the time. Or, if this publisher lives up to its ambitions, I could just say something like “I want to read something that Angry Robot would publish”.

The first Angry Robot books to draw my attention were their editions of Moxyland and Zoo City by South African author Lauren Beukes. Moxyland is a cyberpunk novel set in Cape Town, Zoo City an urban fantasy set in Joburg and they’re both so slick and punky I wouldn’t hesitate to mention Beukes in the same breath as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. Unfortunately Lauren Beukes was the only name I recognised in Angry Robot’s list of authors, but because their mission is to publish the best of “SF, F and WTF?!” I decided to stop being so picky and let them do the introductions.

I encountered talents such Aliette de Bodard, author of Servant of the Underworld, a dark fantasy novel based in Aztec culture, and the first in a series entitled Obsidian and Blood. The second book, Harbinger of the Storm, will be released in January next year. Other potential gems include The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar, a metafictional steampunk novel, and City of Dreams and Nightmare by Ian Whates, an urban fantasy set in a vertical city.

You can browse Angry Robot’s titles on their website, read samples from their publications and shop at their eBook store where you can buy DRM-free titles. Their books, in both hardcopy and eBook format, are also available on Book Depository. Which reminds me of another thing that’s so cool about them – their books are very reasonably priced. A few titles, including Servant of the Undead, are also available as eBooks, which Book Depository is currently selling for $3.06 – R22 for South Africans. [Edit: Unfortunately my attempt at buying an Angry Robot eBook from Book Depository was unsuccessful. The download didn’t work, the order was cancelled, and the eBooks have now been removed from the inventory. However, you can still buy them from Angry Robot or Amazon].

And last, but particularly exciting is the fact that Angry Robot is looking for recruits for their robot army, to spread the word about awesome new books, authors and events. So if you have a website or blog about books and genre fiction in particular, sign up and, if recruited, you can get free books, interviews and features, as well as Angry Robot news for your website, before it gets distributed to the general media. And of course there’s the simple satisfaction of making sure that the best in weird imagination is getting the exposure it deserves.