Sarah Canary By Karen Joy Fowler

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As one of the characters, B.J. Voisard, might describe it, this story is exactly like the quest for the grail, except it takes place in late 19th century America instead of medieval England, and instead of a grail there’s a  mysterious woman with an unknown past who can’t speak, and instead of valiant knights there are a Chinese migrant, a suffragette, and an escapee from an insane asylum on quests to help her. Otherwise, it’s the exact same story.

The book is rich in detail and meticulously researched. The SF elements are more of an open question and it isn’t heavy on plot. The writing is excellent but the characters, quirky and memorable, make the book, particularly for me, the aforementioned B.J. Voisard. If you don’t find them engaging, this book really isn’t for you.

 

 

City By Clifford D. Simak

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This is a series of eight interlinked stories that deal with different generations of the Webster family and their robot servant Jenkins over thousands of years. Beginning the abandonment of the cities due to technological advances, it moves on to exploration of the solar system, the uplift of dogs and other species, the development of mutant humans, and so on. Preceding each story is a note written by intelligent dogs trying to give their canine reader some context about these strange, incanine (hey, made up a word) tales.

The notes get a bit stale after a while but the stories themselves are very imaginative and often tongue and cheek. While they are self-contained, each builds on its predecessors. I thought there are some interesting parallels (particularly in the first story) with the way modern technology can isolate us. However, perhaps due to the amount packed into them relative to their length, they can feel a bit rushed and even naive. Often concepts aren’t explored in any real depth.

The Websters themselves are often little more than names. Even Jenkins only comes into his own in the later stories. The dogs make their appearance in the third tale and they often play a secondary role to the robot and their masters.

The fifth story, Paradise, was my favorite because it tied a lot of elements together from the previous stories in a clever way while I liked the fourth story, Desertion, least because  I found its premise unconvincing.

February Update: If the Devil is in the detail, then editing can be like an exorcism.

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Finishing the 2nd draft of novel codenamed Spaghetti 1 at about 70k words, I immediately started on the 3rd draft. This draft will work through the detail of the story. I have the skeleton but it needs to be fleshed out in a lot of places. The organs are there, but some are too small or too big or in the wrong place.

This draft is also about making decisions. I must expunge the narrative scars of ideas that went nowhere. The 2nd draft had a level of ambiguity. For example, two mutually exclusive ideas might have been allow to coexist, I have to now choose, one way or the other. Where there are conundrums in the narrative, I have to solve them as I go along, even if it means taking a few steps backward at times. And of course, any decision can set off an avalanche of new ones. And new ideas are coming, better ideas than before, that must be accommodated in the story as if they had always been part of it.

And every detail needs to be carefully indexed so I don’t have to wade through pages of  text later, getting that horrible drowning feeling, to confirm I’m not contradicting myself. From dress to character, from motive to tea preference, everything must be made consistent.

It’s slow. It can be tedious. But is it worth it? Yes. It’s fantastic to see the story take shape, the characters come alive, and the blur come into focus.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe By D.G. Compton

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Katherine Mortenhoe has a terminal illness at an age that is extremely rare in her time. This makes her fodder for a voyeuristic reality television show determined to track the final weeks of her life in humiliating detail. Roddie, whose eyes have been replaced with cameras, is the man charged with this task.

Written in the mid-seventies, this book is haled for its prescience. It certainly is insightful, if bleak. Even the humor that peppers it is grim. Most of the characters are unlikable except for Roddie’s ex-wife, Tracey.  Neither Katherine or Roddie are particularly likable well into the book, but they grew on me as they grew on each other.

The narrative view point moves between Roddie’s first person and the third person of the other characters (predominantly Katherine). Most of these shifts are highlighted by section break but towards the end, a couple of these are missing, presumably in error.

The ending puzzled me. Mulling it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is less about Katherine than Roddie’s rediscovery of his humanity through his relationship with her. He’s the only first person viewpoint, he has the first word and the last. At the start, he wants to build a ‘continuous’ (complete and objective) picture of her, but he (and the reader) are only given glimpses of the connective tissue that binds all the versions of her into a cohesive whole (symbolized for example by the different versions of her name other characters are in the habit of using). In that sense, the original title of the novel, The Sleepless Eye, is more apt.

Greybeard By Brian Aldiss

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The world is going out with a whimper instead of a bang. The entire human race is pretty much sterile due to a nuclear accident. More large animals, except reindeer have suffered the same fate, while other small animals thrive to the point of being a threat. Civilization despairs and collapses, but after a period of barbarity, the apocalypse mellows into something more genteel if still dangerous. The eponymous hero, Algy Timberlane, and his wife Martha flee the village they have sheltered in for several years on a quest to find something better.

They wander through a chaotic world, encountering a host of eccentric characters including the ‘physician’ Dr Jingadangelow. Many deny the end of the world, putting their faith in ludicrous superstitions. Others turn the surviving remnants of past institutions. But the overall mood is one of resignation.

As can be guessed from this, Greybread’s journey is more than physical. It’s a quest for meaning in an increasingly meaningless world. In a sense, it is the opposite of most apocalyptic stories I’ve read. Most are really about a new beginning, a fresh start, but this one is about facing the end of everything. Ignoring that emotional journey reduces the novel into a series of random incidents.

The flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the disaster, working chronologically backward, were of variable interest but ultimately fed into this theme. I found the account of the events leading to Algy’s father’s suicide particularly moving.

The ending, though subtly foreshadowed throughout the book, was a bit abrupt. (I can’t say any more without spoiling it.) Nonetheless, I enjoyed it.

 

Of Men And Monsters By William Tenn

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Humankind has been reduced to intelligent vermin in an Earth ruled by giant alien monsters. Humans live in small communities in burrows in the walls of the invaders’ homes, living on whatever morsels of food and material they can steal. The Human species, subjected to evolutionary pressure, has fragmented and diverged, sometimes radically. Rituals have kept Eric the Only and his tribe alive but now they are about to reach the end of their usefulness. Eric is forced repeatedly to reevaluate his understanding of his world while he struggles to survive against human and monster alike.

In general terms, the concept is reminiscent of the film Fantastic Planet but there’s no attempt at rapprochement between the humans and their persecutors. The monsters are too alien and too dominant for that, the humans reduced to irritating pests that must be subjected to periodic extermination. At the first glance, this novel feels very pulpy, but scratching the surface reveals hidden subtlety. Little details are left unexplained for the reader to ponder. It contains some interesting observations on our knowledge of the world and our blind acceptance of dogma.

Often, the novel has its tongue firmly in its cheek, but it can be quite brutal too. I thought the ending of the story was very apt.

No Escape is now FREE!

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My new fantasy short story, No Escape, is now free on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other stores.

A desperate warrior carries a baby girl across a foreign desert. Although truth and honor are tattooed on his cheeks, Tharo has abandoned both virtues in his quest to protect his charge. But it’s only a matter of time before he fails her. Another man stalks them, a hunter no prey can escape, the dreaded Souldiviner.