Archive for June, 2016

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A manic week of DIY has left no time to read, or do anything else beyond a bleary-eyed half hour brain drain in front of the TV. But, a relaxing Sunday meant that a quick journey into the weird world of dead letters was in order.

Cancer Dancer by Pat Cadigan is another quality short story, epitomising the feeling of this collection yet adding the very heavy hearted emotion of cancer diagnosis. The letter in this tale contains a cryptic message, an address and an odd bank-like swipe card. What starts out as a distraction from the crushing news of a cancer prognosis soon escalates.

As the protagonist begins to investigate the note she soon discovers that the letter’s original recipient has died and that his supposed daughter is aggressively keen to get her hands on that weird bank card. Her enquiries lead her to a strange building with an even stranger meaning behind it. Heartfelt and engaging, Cancer Dancer is a clever, cathartic tale.

I’ve been wanting to read more horror lately yet know little about where to start in the genre. Apart from the Stephen King and James Herbert stuff I enjoyed in my youth, I’ve been looking at who to read and Ramsey Campbell is clearly a good beginning.

The Wrong Game is meta-fiction at it’s finest. Referring to the editor of this anthology, Campbell relates how the letter he received, thinking it the prompt, was something else entirely. A spiralling sense of dread fuels the author’s investigation into the contents of the letter until a memory surfaces that sets in motion a visit to a creepy, abandoned hotel. Campbell acknowledges his own place in the story as fact and fiction merge and flow. However it is the gritty, grimy conclusion which gives this story it’s true worth.

During all the DIY, I’ve finally begun to unpack the tower of book boxes. There’s lots I’ve yet to read and some great new stuff I’ve been sent recently so expect more posts soon.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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After a Saturday filled with DIY and an obscene amount of burpees, today felt like the right time to delve back into Dead Letters: An Anthology of The Undelivered, The Missing, The Returned.

Joanne Harris’ In Memoriam seemingly starts off as a very literal interpretation of the brief for this collection, detailing the work of one man within the National Returns Centre (aka Dead Letter Office). However, by turns, each pinpointed by a slight yet significant memory, the story becomes increasingly weirder and creepier. The man in question finds a long lost letter addressed to him, containing a data stick. The consequences are unsettling as his memories unravel to reveal a frightening truth.

Ausland by Alison Moore is an odd, short piece of writing. It’s suggestive and speculative, told from the perspective of an elderly lady meeting her childhood friend after so many decades apart. Ausland touches on a fun idea yet does so from afar, from the point of view of someone who just glimpses a moment of a much larger picture. Quirky and clever, it’s an enjoyable and bite sized piece of work.

Wonders to Come by Christopher Fowler is a bizarre story that twists the notion of an alien invasion with a brilliant flourish. Unlike the other pieces I’ve read from this anthology, Fowler gives a mere sideways glance to the Royal Mail, eschewing it in favour of an encroaching and ultimately apocalyptic tale of an arrogation from outer space. An excellent piece of writing that evolves quietly from thriller to alien killer seamlessly, Wonders to Come is a masterful short story. Turning the idea of ‘visitors from space landing in a field’ to ‘weird entities infiltrate a state-of-the-art super hotel and kill everyone’ was inspired yet it is the writer’s ability to hook the interest from the outset that deserves attention.

This compilation of stories continues to entertain and I’ll be back to read more soon. Definitely worth checking out if you like creepy, strange and scary stories.

Review Copy
Published by Titan Books

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There’s world building and then there’s world building; Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit falls firmly in the latter category. It’s a stunning piece of creativity that melds futuristic ideas of technology and the feel of an epic space opera with the ephemeral and magical vibe of pure fantasy. Add in to that a complicated relationship to mathematics and ideas of game theory, you’ll be somewhere close to what Ninefox Gambit achieves. Yet, it does so much more.

Cheris, a Kel soldier, is made a pawn in the schemes of the ruling hegemony as it seeks to destroy the rot of heresy within one of it’s star system citadels. Shuos Jedao, a long dead, mad general, is a data ghost resurrected and implanted into such pawns to crush uprisings and rebellions. However, Cheris is a formidable mathematician and Jedao is far from insane. Together the pair are forced into a game of far-reaching politics and terrible consequences.

From the outset the application of unique symbols and signifiers, far from the normal tropes of sci-fi, give the novel a wondrous appeal that grips the imagination tighter and tighter as the story gathers pace. While on the surface Cheris and Jedao engage in a siege action against the heretics, where we get to learn more about the math based technology (a fascinating feature) and hierarchy of archetypes (like Kel and Shous) it is the underlying plot that slowly and ominously surfaces to produce such a memorable conclusion.

Yoon Ha Lee possesses an amazing talent for prose, adding a tumbling poetry to the stark rigidness of the society she has created. Yet her ability to weave the story and hide the twists and turns of her plot so effectively was refreshing. Ninefox Gambit is epic fantastic sci-fi at it’s best; it’s full of politics, space warfare, treachery and revenge. The book is an astounding work of creativity, sumptuous writing and thrilling story telling. As the opening of a proposed trilogy, Ninefox Gambit promises to be the start of an awesome series.

Review copy
Published by Solaris Books

Malcolm F. Cross, author of Dog Country, reviewed here, has very kindly taken the time to write an intriguing insight into the thinking behind his exceptional debut novel.

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Democracy by the dollar: Mercenaries, crowdfunded regime change as part of the service economy, and why I wrote about gengineered dog-soldiers in Azerbaijan.

January 2011. For the people on the ground, the Arab Spring was (and continues) to change the very fabric of their lives. It meant a lot more to them, and always will, but it changed my life too. I wasn’t a protestor, just watching it take over the news cycle. And it got me thinking. I wanted to do something about the brutality and the bravery I saw, something about the issues that had never affected me and the struggles I would never have to fight for. I wanted to make their story my own, and I couldn’t. Maybe, I realized, I shouldn’t.

But isn’t that the story that is mine? The story of the white westerner intervening where he (inevitably he, because this culture I’m part of has systematically failed its women) wasn’t wanted? In a place he didn’t — couldn’t — understand?

Whether it’s Vietnam, the Gulf, Bosnia, or Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Libya, Kenya, the Congo, Nigeria or even Ireland, the modern military policy of intervention away from home is a thorny one. One that can compellingly be argued has done more harm than good. Much of it is couched in terms of bringing about the downfall of dictatorial regimes, arguably all in an attempt to recapture the moral high ground of Hitler’s defeat in 1945. The search for that high ground has poured fuel into the engines of hatred, racism, and human suffering.

It’s a story that’s changing, however. Both for the better and the worse. The rise of the private military company, the sanitised way to refer to guns for hire, is impacting interventionism.

Look back to ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, explaining his part in the 1960s Congo Crisis by saying,

“Killing communists is like killing vermin. Killing African nationalists is like killing animals. I don’t like either of them. My men and I killed between five and ten thousand Congolese rebels during the twenty months I spent in the Congo.” – http://www.massviolence.org/chronology-of-the-democratic-republic-of-congo-zaire-1960-1997#outil_sommaire_1)

Now compare that to Tim Spicer, speaking about the 1997 Sandline Affair of Papua New Guinea,

“I’ve always said that in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone there was nothing wrong with what Sandline was doing because we were there at the request of the democratically elected governments. But it attracted a lot of attention and played into the hands of people who felt that this was not a good way of doing things. The idea was well before its time. There was a huge amount of suspicion, mistrust and poor connotation attached to the security business at that time.” – ( http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/may/20/comment.military )

There are those fighting to turn private military companies, PMCs, into a regulated industry. Open, honest, as dependable and morally upright as any national army. On the other hand, Blackwater Security has been rebranded twice, first as Xe Services, and then as Academi, after the well-publicised killings in 2007.

Somewhere between the rise of PMCs, the Arab Spring, and the shifting nature of capitalism, I found the story I wanted to turn into my debut novel, Dog Country.

It seemed so logical to me. It still does — not that I really think it’s a workable system. Libya’s people were begging for international aid, much as Syria’s are now, desperate to overthrow the dictator over their heads. And while poverty is a major problem in these nations, there’s still money. A fond assumption I have is that almost everyone has five dollars. It might be a huge sum, or a meagre one, but whether it’s saved over weeks or fished out of pocket change, a person has five dollars. There are more than five million people in Libya — twenty five million dollars buys a hell of a lot of military hardware.

I checked – Kickstarter prohibits crowdfunding for weapons, but it doesn’t prohibit funding people capable of holding weapons.

There are some funny ideas in this world — there are Libertarians who believe, genuinely, that the free market economy can function as a form of governance in and of itself. I don’t really agree, but what would a working free market government, rather than a failed one, actually look like?

Assuming a state had formed on that basis, its free-market security forces would naturally be willing to fight someone else’s wars. And, assuming no monopolies or profiteers — very unlikely, but let’s make that assumption — they could provide this service cheaply and efficiently.

So. Why not?

Why not crowdfund the revolution?

Why not write a story about the kind of person this capitalist culture might create as a product, and send them off to explore what this kind of interventionism might be like? After all, western culture and toxic masculinity push very hard at turning young men into people willing to do violence and eschew emotional intimacy. Given genetic engineering, why bother breaking young men into shape when it’s possible to build someone from scratch? Or skip some development time and start with a dog. After all, we’ve been genetically modifying dogs to make them into what we want for the entirety of human history.

The only question I had left was where I’d send my corporate-designed soldiers. I wound up going through a list of authoritarian regimes, and I picked one off the top — Azerbaijan. It was an arbitrary choice, one I’m not entirely comfortable with fictionalizing given the wealth of human rights abuses the Aliyev regime are perpetrating even now, but in a way that made it a good fit for the story I wanted to tell.

A story about western interventionism that didn’t whitewash away the damage interventionism can bring about, a story about people-powered revolutions. More importantly, a story about the experiences of those who leave their homes, travel around the world to a place they never knew existed, and fight in wars they have no reason to care about.

Because of interventionism, there is a generation of (mostly) men who now know what it is to be an alien stranger, not entirely wanted, far from home. Dog Country is, I hope, a story about finding a way to come home afterward.