Monday, 23 April 2012

Review: Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood



The second of my ongoing exploration of post apocalypse fiction, Year of the Flood is by Margaret Atwood and depicts a much more modern apocalypse than Greybeard did.  This is fitting, the fears of the early 21st century  are very different to those of the 1960s, viruses, cults and dirty bombs have won in our imaginations whereas the idea of nuclear weapons and experiments seems almost prosaic (unless you live in Kashmir at a guess).

Atwood embraces this fact to present a world where capitalism has spun out of control, its almost cyberpunk in its intensity and in the politics she presents, and where things are fracturing at an alarming rate.  To fall through the gaps in society is to fall into a world of crime, cults and vice where nothing is safe, not even food (a chain called Secretburger makes mystery meat fast food, and its suggested that humans may be making their way into the food chain).  She creates interesting cults to show how desperate things have got but focuses on one group, God's Gardeners who are a strange church that straddle the line between scientists and believers.  Atwood manages to make their doctrines interesting and at times compelling and it's clear from the very beginning that they're preparing for an apocalypse, a "waterless flood" as its put.

The story itself concentrates on two women who have been part of the church and retraces their lives through the Gardeners' rise to power (and their slow fall from unified group to schism and ultimately violence) to the point where the apocalypse comes and its aftermath.  She approaches the stories from two different directions: Toby, a person on the edge of falling who's saved by the cult and the other character, Ren, who travels in the opposite direction, starting with the Gardeners who ends up in a sex club, albeit of the most exclusive variety.  Both take detours through the world of the corporations, which allows us to see how unreal and cut off from reality their workers are, hemmed in by 'news' (aka propaganda) and the sort of material comforts that allow people to put on their own blinders and ignore difficult questions.  There seems to be comment on civilisation here, that in being civilised we stop asking the right questions and start to filter our input in such a way as to avoid reality.  The idea that civilisation deadens us is perhaps also behind the idea of Painball, which in some ways is the most generic idea in the novel, the idea of extreme violence being used for entertainment, whilst not without historical precedences, is a staple of science fiction to the extent that it's even penetrated Young Adult books (the Hunger Games).

Returning to the world, the author presents human control of science and nature (and the hubris that comes with it): the corporations can work miracle, creating such creatures as Liobams, part sheep part lion and using pigs to grow human organs including brain cells.  At the same time one of the protagonists, when she has to go into hiding she's altered in so many ways that her appearance is utterly changed.

Interestingly the apocalypse in Year of the Flood is intentional, a new race has been prepared to inherit the Earth, this is no cock up but cover up and it's an interesting idea but to an extent I feel its the part that stretches credibility.  Even a small group would surely have been caught if they were planning an apocalypse (though that said surely a small group of terrorists would have been picked up before they could hijack several planes and crash them into significant American buildings, so perhaps I'm wrong).

All in all, a good book and one that's intelligently and compellingly written.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Review: Greybeard by Brian Aldiss



The first of my post apocalypse reading, Brian Aldiss' Greybeard is set in a devastated England where nuclear experiments in near space coated the world in radiation and rendered the vast majority of mammalian life sterile.  Whilst creatures that nest within the earth have been unaffected, and are prospering in the increasingly wild world the last generation of humanity lives in, anything that lives above ground is in danger of becoming extinct, surprise is expressed by the main characters that they find sheep of all things for instance.

By the time we join the story as readers the damage has been done, society has fragmented into tiny settlements in a world where roads have gone and the next village along the river is viewed with suspicion; horizons shrinking as old age with its terrible burdens sets in.  Aldiss doesn't shrink from his vision of the world, the elderly are shown to be just as grasping and tyrannical as the young can be, as delusional and demented.  Despite the widely known symptoms of the "Accident" phantom pregnancies are common even amongst women who are too old to have children anyway and the lack of children is constant regret for the protagonists, apart from possibly the title character.  At the same time the natural world is shown as bolder, more troublesome, as man's grip slips threats emerge; much significance is given over to the danger of packs of stoats, which sounds laughable until you remember that as a man in his mid fifties Greybeard is considered young, and the image of an octogenarian trying to fend off a horde of animal is one that only stirs fear and pity.

The main plot details Greybeard,  Martha, his wife, and a few other people, most of them men, setting off on a lunatic quest to boat down the Thames, partly to escape the terrible place the village, Sparcot,  has become and partly because they have a desire to see what the conditions are like elsewhere.  This journey is interlocked with flashbacks to events that detail many of the characters lives at points before they arrive at Sparcot and its here that we see most of the effort Aldiss has put into the shaping his world and characters, though most of the character development focuses on Greybeard and Martha.

He unflinchingly details what happens to society, the transition from gentle decline to more vigorously trying to destroy itself through war and authoritarianism; whilst being helped along by disease, especially cholera.  The idea of cholera ravaging through somewhere as genteel as Oxford is somehow quite terrifying.  The effect of there being no children on businesses and the economy is a repeated point, Greybeard's father ran a soft toy manufacturers and dies in a car accident  soon after learning that the markets collapsed because there were no children, whilst in another flashback we learn that another character's father jumps out of a high window because there are no teenagers to buy his company's records.  No children means no one to sell products to, which means the economy falters, the whole world falling apart in a cascade of dominoes.

The flashbacks detail the efforts made to try and secure a future for the species and to record society's final days, in a gesture that seems at once altruistic and narcissistic.  Greybeard ends up working for the amusingly acronymed DOUCH(E), which I assume didn't have the meaning as an insult it does today back in 1964, the organisation that attempts to do this recording work and we see how it affects him; which is to say,  badly.  Greybeard after the collapse of society seems a happier, more collected figure than he does during the last days of so called civilisation, as do many of the other characters.

Aldiss' use of language is beautiful in places, there are references to 'hollow cheeked street's and  a 'beggarly greedy graveyard' in the early stages of the book and other parts of the language caught my eye as I read through.  My only complaint about the book is that despite the collapse of society, the lack of children and therefore the destruction of their traditional role, the women don't seem to actually do anything beyond occupy the position of traditional wives, but I put this down to the time the book was written rather than anything else.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Review: Crown of the Blood and Dangerous Waters

First, apologies for the length of time between posts, things have been busy here and trying to get my first novel sorted has taken up a lot of my time up (it's getting there and I hope to meet my end of April deadline for the first draft).

I picked up these books last year, at FantasyCon (I think) and having read them I thought I'd throw a review together. Let's get on with it shall we?

Gav Thorpe's Crown of the Blood is a big, swords and sandals style epic with a sword and sorcery feel to it. It tracks the rebellion of a general from a big Roman style empire that has grown to dominate most of the continent its on. The protagonist, Ullsaard has risen through the ranks from a mere legionary to be one of the most gifted generals the empire has and feels that he's being slighted by an assignment to conquer a desert backwater. He colludes with another, similarly disgruntled character, the second in line to the throne who, despite the fact his elder brother is sick and may not live much longer is being told by his father that he cannot inherit the throne. Together the two men hatch a plan to rebel against the King (quite why the empire has a King and not an Emperor or a Caesar is one of the things that bugs me about the book). The rebellion goes ahead well enough, but at the last moment they're forced to flee, heading north to an obvious Britain analogue which is Ullsaard's home.

I liked the book up to about that point, or at least I liked the main plot line. It seemed original and the world building was good. It's a shame that after a strong opening Thorpe seemed to blunder into cliché, with it being revealed that (dun dun durr) our hero is in fact the bastard son of the current King, who had been saved from the evil machinations of the empire's priesthood by the man who he sees as a father figure. I honestly believe that the story would have been stronger if Ullsaard had had no blood ties to the royal family at all and it would have made the twist at the end less obvious (where we learn why the royal family is so obsessed with the bloodline and primogeniture).

The other thing I disliked was the secondary plot, which explores the rise to power of another man, Anglhan, a slave trader (or debt guardian as the book refers to him as) out in the barbarian territories that for some reason the Empire has not yet conquered - something that Thorpe doesn't explain, but seems to be saving for the next book. Whilst it serves as an interesting parallel to Ullsaard's rise to power, his being forged on victory on the battlefield and via the loyalty of his men and family; whilst Anglhan's is based on guile and just generally being untrustworthy but too useful to ignore or kill, it also makes the story feel bogged down and heavy, and generally longer than it should be.

In general, despite the alternative trappings this still feels very much like a traditional fantasy story, there's nothing very new here which is a shame because I feel the ancient world style setting should perhaps have allowed for some sort of innovation in terms of plot (for instance there was no need for Ullsaard to be related to the royal family, he could just as easily been a general who usurps the throne and founds his own dynasty and the story would have worked). In many ways it feels like there were many missed opportunities and the book could have been so much more.

Turning to Juliet McKenna's Dangerous Waters we find almost the reverse situation. This is a novel that is trying to do something different, which seems to be Ms McKenna's shtick a lot of the time, her previous series, the Lescari Revolution which has inveigled its way onto my reading list on the basis of Dangerous Waters and her appearances on the Fantasy panels at FantasyCon, tracks the rebellion in a fantasy world, with the common people finally growing sick and tired of the way their country is run.

Here the attempt to look at things differently comes in the form of the question "why shouldn't wizards go to war?" and the opening is quite confusing. It starts off referencing things from another series, probably the Lescari Revolution as our heroine, Jilseth, goes hunting for a rogue mage, Minilas, who has broken the wizard isle's famous oath of non-intervention and betrayed his employer to a group of corsairs who have been harrying the coast of, Caladhria, one of the world's kingdoms. What makes it slightly frustrating is that she never finds him, he dies in another book as far as I can tell, which makes me wonder slightly what the point of including him at all is, to be honest.

That aside, this establishes an interesting situation, where the mages are trying to hide the crime from the outside world, to prevent Minilas being used a weapon to blackmail them into intervening elsewhere, whilst at the same time being petitioned by the various barons and feeling like they have a debt to discharge to a noblewoman Lady Zurenne, who Minilas left widowed and traumatised by his behaviour.

Throw in two more strands, one where a disgraced soldier, Corrain, enslaved as an oarsman on a corsair ship, swears vengeance and escapes with the twin determination to spread the word of Minilas' betrayal and bring a wizard to defeat the corsairs, and another where a captured slave starts to prove his worth to the corsairs, and you end up with a situation that feels interesting, even if the politics of the wizard's island, Hadrumal, drag a little no matter how much back biting and skullduggery seems to go on. I suspect that the later volumes of the trilogy will bring this into sharper focus and make it feel more relevant than a simple argument about how far the mages should go to fit into the world.

I won't spoil how the novel ends, apart from to say that it's clear that the novel's conclusion will throw the question of whether wizards should go to war more firmly into the light. The interesting to me, is that the book is shorter than Crown of the Blood and yet feels like more is achieved during the pages and like nothing is wasted. Perhaps its because the events feel more concise and you can see how events contribute to the books denouement on all sides.

What unites these novels for me is there treatment of female characters, Crown of the Blood explicitly casts women into role of second class citizens (there seems to be a convention where one man can marry several women, as long as they're sisters and part of Ullsaard's interaction with one of his wives comes across as effectively being a form of rape). Their only path to power seems to be through manipulating men. Whilst this realistic, I suppose, it also left a bad taste in my mouth and it feels like an opportunity lost. What's worse is that this is just the accepted status quo, whilst Dangerous Waters takes a different tack, much to my relief.

Here, again, we find that women are second class citizens (though to be fair its suggested the Caladhria is a little backward in this regard), but because the protagonists are for the most part women we can feel how restricted their world is, how they are bound by conventions and traditions in the place of Lady Zurenne and by the feeling of indebtedness to male superiors (and perhaps a desire to please the archmage) in Jilseth's personal plotline. The difference is that by the end of the book you feel that things are starting to change for the characters, which was a relief as I really found the powerlessness of the women very hard to take, especially when it came things like Lady Zurenne not knowing how to defend her own home, which seemed rather ahistorical to me (but its been a while since I studied medieval history so perhaps I'm daydreaming the stuff about women running sieges during the Stephen and Matilda war).

Over all I felt that Dangerous Waters was the stronger novel, it seemed tighter and like there was less waste. Crown of the Blood felt like it had regurgitated old plot points, chiefly for the sake of it.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Portrait

Portrait

See her reflection in the water

Child of invention, divinity’s daughter

The widest eyes, the palest skin

She’s wilfully starved and painfully thing

Dark moons ride beneath her eyes

And the land between her thighs

Is undiscovered, a mystery


In her eyes lies a sorrow

In the shadow of their hollows

Lonely and wild she rides

And in her, all her hopes hide

Beneath old dust sheets in her mind

All her dreams are lost inside

And struggle to be free


Spider fingers and scorpion tongue

Express her hate of this iron lung

Of a world that she lives in

Prefers the worlds she keeps within

Only emerging to feast at dusk

Full of vampires, wolves and lusts

The measure of her dreams


The graveyard truly is her home

Amongst the memories and bones

At midnight that’s where she’ll be

With a book and a sprig of rosemary

Like Ophelia cold and dead

She’ll weep, tears so sweetly shed

For everything that’s real


And hiding there at midnight

Standing in the cold half light

She seems so very frail

Her passion was to no avail

No solace here for her heart

Her world slowly pulled apart

Until it bled away