Black Static 23 Reviewed

Black Static for June / July 2011 contains the usual reviews and commentary, while the stories are mostly by returning regulars.

V. H. Leslie appears for the second time in three issues, and already looks to be the magazine’s most prominent newcomer of the year. In ‘Time Keeping’ Howard believes that he keeps time running smoothly. It’s a demanding time-consuming job, so when he meets Helen, Howard couldn’t shake the feeling of danger. Leslie has an elegant, assured style, and while the story may need more than one reading, the (initially) opaque timeline does eventually come clear, and the reader learns what the danger is. Recommended.

 

‘Hail’ by Daniel Kaysen is an extremely busy story –there is much more plot than is usual with Black Static stories, which tend to concentrate on atmosphere- but it’s no less effective for all that. The narrator picks up a girl while sheltering under an awning from the rain, and she asks him directly if he wants to go back to her flat. When she has want she wants, she throws him out, from which point the more the nameless protagonist tries to escape his fate, the more tightly he is caught in its web of inevitability. Highly Recommended.

 

From the moment the protagonist (and therefore the reader) gradually awakens to the sound of the underground, it’s clear that Carole Johnstone’s ‘Electric Dreams’ is something special. Eli is a young man accepting food and shelter, and occasionally –perhaps enough to just get him by- money in return for hearing what people need; whether he can work miracles, is a god, or  previous events are just coincidence, Eli’s supplicants believe that he can

kill the wife’s lover

put the office rival out of action (“You won’t kill him, will you?”)

cure a woman’s mother of end-stage breast cancer

save the rats on the Underground.

Now Eli has to decide whether it’s time to change again. To start again. Two years was a long time –the longest yet- and success bred notoriety. It’s a top-notch story, one of the best in recent months.

World Horror Convention

Robert Davies won the 2011 World Horror Convention / Black Static short story contest, and from its opening line of When Jackson Cade woke and felt his right lung missing, he knew the Harvesters had come again, ‘The Harvesting of Jackson Cade’ makes it clear why. There are a couple of irritating non sequiteurs early on, but the story of physical disintegration at the hands (or should that be at the mandibles?) of the nightmarish Harvesters is unrelenting. Recommended.

Joel Lane ends the fiction for this issue with ‘For Their Own Ends,’ in which Barry awakes from a heart attack in a private hospital to find that patient care has taken a back seat to ‘market awareness.’ Lane’s prose is as precise as ever, allowing him to generate that frisson of fear with the most apparently innocent of phrases: a young man took Barry’s left hand and felt his pulse, then jabbed a needle into the vein of his wrist. Without speaking, he attached the syringe to a drip stand holding a bag of crimson fluid. Highly Recommended.

 

Comment

As always the fiction is enhanced by the quality of the non-fiction embracing it. Stephen Volk’s ‘Coffinmaker’s Blues’ looks at [moving] the debate about so-called “evil” away from the realm of religion and moral philosophy into the realm of science. Christopher Fowler is interested in how Spanish cinema seems to be adopting the mantle of the main maker of horror movies with the power to move audiences. Finally, Mike O’Driscoll studies the work of political philosopher John Grey, whose latest book is a brilliant dissection of our continuing desire to console ourselves with delusions, either in the form of a secular afterlife, or through the deification of humanity by means of “the abolition of death.”

 

Reviews

Peter Tenant interviews new horror star Tom Fletcher and reviews his novels, The Leaping and The Thing On The Shore, both Cumbrian-set contemporary horror novels. Other Case Notes feature chapbooks from Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell and Gary McMahon, plus three anthologies; Dark Minds Press offer the eponymous Dark Minds, The End of the Line is published by Solaris, while Tor provide an American perspective in Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow’s Haunted Legends.

 

Finally, Tony Lee reviews DVDs and Blu-Rays, such as Natalie Portman’s appearance in Black Swan, and the Stanley Kubrick boxed set Visionary Filmmaker Collection, as well as a reissue of the classic Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price. It’s a good way to round out another excellent issue.

• August 5th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Eric Brown’s Guardians of the Phoenix, Reviewed

The Earth is a barren wasteland; North America and Middle have been razed by nuclear strikes, the oceans have evaporated, and the earth is a barren desert dotted only occasionally by a few shallow oases.

For ten years, Paul has scrabbled for survival among the sand-shrouded ruins of the once-great city of Paris. He is one of thefew  desperate humans still surviving. Some scrape a living in the remains of shattered cities; others resort to murder and cannibalism to survive.

When Paul is rescued from one such group of killers, he joins his benefactors in their journey south in search of water. Guardians of the Phoenix tells the story of the last survivors, their desperate fight for survival and their last hope to save the world.

Brown is a traditional storyteller, concentrating on the virtues of storytelling and characterization. His heroes are comparatively decent people, if compromised, while his villains show no regard for life. In that respect Guardians of the Phoenix carries on a long tradition of British SF as typified by John Wyndham and Edmund Cooper, of scratching an existence from a world-changing disaster.

Brian W. Aldiss once disparagingly referred to such novels as “cozy catastrophes” but there is nothing  cozy about the lives that the characters lead – it’s probably the most relentlessly relentless scrutiny of life after climate change that’s been written. For that alone Guardians of the Phoenix deserves commendation.

• July 29th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, by Andrez Bergen, Reviewed

Cut to Melbourne, Australia–the most glamorous city in the world.It also happens to be the only one left standing… meet your narrator, a certain Floyd Maquina, a likable chap with one hell of a story to share.

Cue guns, intrigue, kidnappings, conspiracy and all sorts of general mayhem that make for cracking good headlines. Does Floyd stop the bad guys? Does he get the girl? Does he make Humphrey Bogart proud? Grab some popcorn and read on.

Notice the instruction to grab some popcorn. Andrez Bergen’s debut novel is a book drenched in film imagery.  From the title, which is taken from the 1956 film That Certain Feeling, in which villain George Sanders utters “Get that tobacco-stained mountain goat out of here,” through a multitude of references, to George Lucas, Marlon Brando, anime and Doctor Who, the reader is left in no doubt what floats Bergen’s boat.

The concept of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat is either reassuringly familiar or cliched, depending on one’s perspective;

Sometime in the future the world is drowning in acid rain and near-perpetual darkness. The Seekers are a sort of militia holding back a rising tide of Deviants. Anyone who commits a crime is labelled a Deviant; anyone who falls ill is relocated, and classified in the same way.  Floyd’s wife has lived fro three years with cancer, and the only way he can pay for her care is to work as a Seeker.

There’s not a lot of Novum in  the world of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat - indeed, the background doesn’t bear close examination;  “Where the heck do they get the grapes to make this? Or the sunlight to grow the grapes?” (p.131) Sadly, no one has the time or inclination to answer the question.

But on the plus side, Floyd Maquina has a distinctive voice, and a likeable character, and i’m a sucker for both. New publisher Oregon-based Another Sky Press have put together an impressive-looking package, and I hope that this quirky novel brings them every success.

 

• July 22nd, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

F&SF August 2011, Reviewed

The August 2011 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is heavier than usual on the science fictional part, with around half the stories -including most of the longer ones- being SF.  

 

‘Bronsky’s Dates With Death’ by Peter David is the story of an old man who can’t stop talking about death. Bronsky is the ultimate salesman, because he’s perfectly sincere. Just as he’s sold beauty products, vacuum cleaners and anything else that a man can sell, so he sells people the idea that he’s reconciled to death by never stopping talking about it. Initially irritating, then laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately poignant. Recommended.

 

Peter S. Beagle’s ‘The Way It Works Out And All’ is a tribute to the late Avram Davidson, and like its hero, the story meanders like few other writers can manage. As evidence of the authors’ skill, take the word “Overneath” which Beagle uses to portray the magical realm through which Davidson shortcuts in his globe trotting – just that one word sums up all the strangeness of the realm, while the story itself is charming, and the circumlocutory style reminiscent of Lafferty at his best, as well as Davidson. Outstanding.

 

In Rob Chilson’s ‘Less Stately Mansions’ the last member of the Mannheim family continues farming the land in the face of glacier advances, buy-out offers from Earth’s now-independent colonies, and  greedy grandchildren scheduling a competency hearing. Infused with the spirit of Clifford D. Simak, it strikes a suitably timeless agrarian feel. Recommended.

 

In ‘The Ants of Flanders’ by Robert Reed, our world faces the strangest alien invasion since Gardner Dozois’ classic ‘Chains of the Sea.’ But the tone is entirely different, and with Bloch, the six-foot-five sixteen year-old “mental defective” who feels no fear, Reed has written perhaps his most engaging protagonist. As well as terror in the face of the apocalypse, Reed writes of wonder and joy in one of the best novellas of the year; Their driver was barely three weeks older than Bloch and barely half his size, nothing could be more astonishing than the extraordinary luck that had put him in this wondrous place. “I can’t fucking believe this,” said the driver, lifting up on the brake and letting them roll forward. “I’m having the adventure of a lifetime. That’s what this craziness is.”

 

Joan Aiken’s ‘Hair’ is a splendidly Gothic piece about the widower of a young woman who has burnt out and died too young. It manages to unsettle without ever actually offering any overt threat. Outstanding.

 

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Witch Of Corinth’ is one of F & SF’s regular excursion’s into historical fantasy, but by depicting the setting in no small detail and combining it with a mystery and a true historical event –the fall of Corinth- it’s a considerably above average of the sub-genre. Recommended.

 

‘Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons And Other Things’ by Richard Bowes is a curious Arthurian tale filtered through a science-fictional perspective.

 

Michael Alexander’s ‘Someone Like You’ isn’t quite up to the standard’s of last year’s ‘Ware of the Worlds,’ or ‘Advances in Modern Chemotherapy,’ but it’s still one of the better time travel stories with a new take on The Grandfather Paradox.

 

In ‘The Ramshead Algorithm’ by KJ Kabza an inter-reality traveller based on earth comes into contact with his family when his father decides to rip out the hedge which is the basis for his being able to slip between planes.

 

With Book Reviews by Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand and Films reviewed by Lucius Shepard,    science from Paul Doherty And Pat Murphy, and humour from Paul Di Filippo, it’s another enjoyable issue, at times edging the sublime.

• July 15th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Osama by Lavie Tidhar, Reviewed

Lavie Tidhar’s new novel depicts a world in which 9/11 never happened, and in which the date is notable only for the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s government in Chile.

 Joe is an expatriate PI living in Laos, where he passes much of the time drinking Laotian coffee and reading a series of cheap pulp novels titled Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. The novels depict as fiction a series of attacks familiar to us as real events, including the attack on US Embassies in East Africa, 7/7, Shoe Bomber Richard Read, and of course, 9/11.

One day a mysterious woman turns up in Joe’s office and commissions him to find Mike Longshott, the author of the Osama series. Joe flies to Paris in search of Papa D, Longshott’s publisher, and from there to London, New York and Afghanistan.

Osama is written in an elliptical tone reminiscent of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories; Tidhar describes the minutae of coffee, cigarettes and clothes, but omits exposition, instead creating a narrative tension through the reader’s need to puzzle out the background; as Joe wonders what the World Trade Centre is, Tidhar starts to explain his alternate world, but slowly, slowly, and always by allusion. Rather like the protagonist, the reader is left with the sense that “The…writer was leaving…a trail of crumbs to follow” (p.120).  

As the novel progresses, it becomes ever more Dickian, as Joe slips between realities, alongside the refugee ‘ghosts’ that he glimpses from the corner of his eye. In the novel’s clearest homage to The Man in the High Castle, Joe undergoes a reality slip that echoes Mr. Tagomi’s, visiting what appears to be ‘our’ London:

[Joe] passed a group of silent dancers: they had gathered by the corner of the street and were dancing with no sound, with no order. They all had the same white wires coming down from their ears…When he came to Shaftesbury Avenue he saw a double-decker bus but it too was wrong, with no pole and open platform at the back, the only way in was through the doors in the front and they were closed and the bus wasn’t stopping. (p.170)

Gradually Tidhar reveals  that this is not simply a world where 9/11 never happened, but rather that it didn’t happen because of an earlier JonBar point. This gradual reveal will have those who prefer straightforward exposition grinding their teeth in frustration, but the novel is worth persevering with.

Lavie Tidhar has been publishing –initially in obscure venues such as Jupiter and Nenonymous- since 2003, but in the last couple of years he has started to become a regular in the major online markets and various Year’s Best SF, while his career has gained momentum with the publication of The Bookman and Camera Obscura.

Osama is an unsettling, oddly poignant look at what might have been, a world that is not necessarily better –because human nature precludes that- but simply different; it shows Tidhar’s originality and growing accomplishment in one of the best novels of the year so far.

• June 24th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

The Feline Queen, Reviewed

Joanne Hall is the author of the Hierath trilogy of fantasy novels, which has attracted a small but loyal following. Her first collection, The Feline Queen, has just been published by Wolfsinger Books.

            Subtitled Tales of Myth and Magic, The Feline Queen is made up of nine short stories published in small press magazines between 2005 and 2008, together with three original stories. The opener, ‘Candlefire’ establishes several recurring themes; a woman accused of witchcraft and threatened by a brutal husband and seeks help from the local witch, who uses cunning to defeat the villain. The villains in these stories are almost always male and use physical brutality as a weapon against women who are unable to adequately fight back, although ‘The Witch On The Wall’ runs counter to this trend (but even here, the witch’s ‘evil’ is explained). In the second story, ‘The Last of A Million Wishes,’ a fairy is trapped by a spoilt young boy who tortures her until she is rescued by her friend in a satisfying twist.

            It’s interesting to see Hall ring the changes on the various archetypes that she uses; the title story is one of two featuring Hoff the Barbarian, a muscle-bound ox of a man who has more cunning than intelligence, but who is amiably entertaining when meeting a lost tribe of amazonian warriors. Better though is ‘The Caves of Otrecht’ in which he undertakes a quest with other warriors, all of whom claim to be ‘the chosen one. The ending is clever and unexpected.

            All but two of the stories are set in a sort of archetypal fantasy kingdom, two of which (at least) share the same setting; ‘The Ship-Breaker’s Daughter’ features a young-girl with a siren-like voice who must choose whether to obey her tyrannical father and cost men their lives, or revolt. In ‘Ismay’s Run,’ runners pass messages from town to town, but Ismay, who loves to run, finds herself betrothed to a local lord.  

            These recurring themes are distilled in ‘The Company of Women,’ the last –and longest- story in the book, in which a quasi-immortal liberates battered women from their oppression and founds an independent and isolated community away from male oppression. But when they try to free the women from a major temple, the violence escalates and threatens to spiral out of control.

            It’s a fine way to conclude a short but effective collection in which fantasy is used to mirror and magnify contemporary concerns, and should establish Jo Hall’s reputation.

Cover art by Andy Bigwood.

• June 17th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

The Hammer by KJ Parker, Reviewed

KJ Parker’s twelfth novel in thirteen years is detailed, slow-building but ultimately utterly compelling.

Gignomai (known as within the family as Gig) met’Oc, youngest son of the illustrious met’Oc family, is a loner in a family as skewed as anything created by Mervyn Peake. But Parker’s land is more like an early Australia, complete with savages who seem unable to see the settlers, and Gignomai seems at first read a much more ordinary youth.

The Hammer of the title refers to a device that Gignomai begins to build seven years after something happens at home – what it was is only made clear toward the end of the book, but it’s sufficient to cause the young man to run away repeatedly from home, and to bend his whole personality toward exerting a terrible justice.

In this vast, almost empty land, where a lone settlement and outlying farms are overshadowed by the plateau on which the met’Oc mansion rests, the met’Oc live by their own laws, refusing to accept that they no longer live in ‘civilization.’ 

The Hammer is a slow burning book that is laden down with the weight of detail of making things – of swords, carpentry and primitive heavy industry. It is also, with one exception, almost entirely devoid of the Fantastic, save for one important point that could be defined as SF or Fantasy. That the novel is classed as the latter is the rural -but certainly not bucolic setting- and the publisher’s classification.

KJ Parker is perhaps the most self-effacing writer since James Tiptree Jr. entered the field in the late 1960s – even Parker’s gender is unclear, although French publisher Bragelonne’s website implies that Parker the author is female. Without a single piece of short fiction published until 2009, Parker didn’t even have the traditional medium within speculative fiction for building a following – the novels have had to build a base on their own.

What is known about Parker is that she has previously worked in the law and as a journalist; nowadays she “makes things out of wood and metal,” and this fascination with craftsmanship runs right through her prose. The book is so full of the minutiae of manufacturing that initially it threatens to sink the story (though it does give it a refreshing solidity), a handicap that it gradually overcomes. In some ways The Hammer resembles a narrative avalanche; slow to start, almost unstoppable as it roars toward its climax.

• June 10th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Interzone 234 Reviewed

An all-regular cast of contributors this issue; Jon Ingold, Lavie Tidhar and Suzanne Palmer start the fiction rolling, and then multiple poll winner Jason Sanford, and Hugo-winner Will McIntosh.

Fiction

Jon Ingold’s “Sleepers” opens the proceedings with echoes of the Apollo space programme, only this time the world is in the aftermath of the first interstellar expedition to Centauri; did humanity retreat in the face of adverse local conditions, or are the mythical Centaurons real? Ingold leaves it to the reader to decide and instead concentrates on the relationship between the narrator, a priest, and the aged Jean-Luc.

I smiled the same steady smile I’d been wearing since I first took the chair across from his. My hands were folded around my beads: I usually found them to be a great comfort in the face of such decrepitude, but with Jean-Luc I pushed them around more for patience.

Recommended.

If the Ingold is elegaic, then “In the Season of the Mango Rains” by Lavie Tidhar is positively bleak. But it also harks back to an earlier age of SF, as the narrator’s lover –unable to cope with her own mortality- retreats to what the Christians call Limbo…Frozen, perfect, you’ve beaten the river…Waking, you’ll open eyes on a dying red sun, look around you at a dying Earth. SF commonly reflects humanity’s insignificance within the universe, but it’s rare to so feature our own individual mortality. Short of Effinger’s “One” it’s as unrelenting a story as I’ve read; there’s none of the usual plot comfort to be drawn from genre, but as those quotes imply, there’s a harsh beauty to be found in Tidhar’s prose as consolation. Recommended.

Suzanne Palmer

It was eight days this time, eight days pacing my cubbyhome listening to my neighbor bang around in his, like rats in bottles, waiting for the next job. When it came it was like someone had jabbed me with a knife; I jumped up and was out the door, readypack over my shoulder and flashing assignment pad in hand, before the job could pass on to someone else. If I was lucky, it’d be a multi-week assignment and I could afford to get some real food before returning home.

“The Ceiling is Sky” by Suzanne Palmer extrapolates the uncertainty of our current workplaces almost ad absurdam, as characters lie, scheme and cheat to land a contract. Nonetheless, despite the one-dimensional milieu and the crudity of villainess Tala’s depiction, the story works well, and the settings are satisfyingly otherworldly.

 Jason Sanford

Jason Sanford’s latest appearance, “Her Scientifiction, Far Future, Medieval Fantasy” appears in the same issue as it’s announced that he’s topped the Reader’s Poll for a third consecutive year, and it’s easy to see why. Sanford skillfully blends disparate genres and concepts alike as the heroine of a fantasy world within an AI must overcome her limitations without alienating the audience who get to participate in setting her quest.

From Krisja’s viewpoint, it looked like her father’s knights fought valiantly against the invaders from, well, from somewhere outside the kingdom. Where exactly, Kris couldn’t say. But then so few invaders announced their origins. It simply killed the romance, claiming to be a Sir Lancelot hero when you really hailed from a Scranton or Sheboygan nowhere.

It’s a timely exploration of audience participation, given this recent article, but much more than that, it’s a terrific cross-genre story. Highly Recommended.

Will McIntosh

Few writers do Quirky Charm with one-word titles quite as well as Will McIntosh: “Bridesicle” deservedly won last year’s Short Story Hugo, but even better was “Unlikely,” which passed by almost unnoticed beneath the radar. In his latest, “Incompatible” — Leia says to Byron, whom she’s just met;

“Imagine the most terrifying thing you can. The thing that crawls in your worst nightmares, that leaves children screaming in the night because their too-open minds haven’t learned to block it out yet, and they can’t even describe it to their parents sitting at the edge of their bed, because there are no words for it, it just is.”  

What precisely are the black dots that Leia sees whenever she strays too far from Power Places? The answer is unexpected, not least because McIntosh lays a number of red herrings: Outstanding.

 McIntosh provides a great end to an above average issue of an above average magazine, while cover artist Richard Wagner wraps it all up in “Relics,” a suitably cross-genre cover that’s absolutely wonderful.

• June 3rd, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Updates

News of new reviews, interviews and A Sekrit Project.

This morning seems a good time to round up some on-going stuff, some of which I’ve mentioned in passing recently.

First up, I’ve guest-blogged over at Alathea Kontis’ Genre Chick Interview, which was fun; there are some clues within as to when the interview took place, for the mildly curious.

Secondly, Ian Whates’ anthology Further Conflicts has received its first review, and Warpcore SF had some kind things to say about ‘Occupation,’ my contribution.

Finally, still on the subject of reviews and interviews, I’ve received my first commission from a ‘general’ (as opposed to genre) magazine to interview a fellow writer. Unfortunately, I can’t yet identify them, partly because I’m not sure of the etiquette of announcing thecommission, but also for fear of jinxing it. Let’s just say that I’m absolutely ecstatic at actually getting my first journalism commission! (I’ll reveal all nearer the time – honest)

Until next time.

C

• May 26th, 2011 • Posted in News • Comments: 0

Terra Damnata, by James Cooper

Terra Damnata is the first book-length work by James Cooper, whose dark, disturbing stories of dysfunctional families have been ornamenting Black Static for the last three years.

Arthur Woodbury is the archetypal Everyman living in a suburb with a wife and daughter in the comfortable suburb of an unnamed city, his car a Volvo, a bottle of sherry in the house for visitors.

But there is a darker side to Arthur. He has a serious gambling problem, and is in debt to local casino owner Norman Foley, whose ‘enforcer’ Randall has a nasty reputation for violence. Worse, Arthur and Beth’s daughter Cherise has just been killed as the novel opens.

And one rain-swept night a rich businessman arrives offering a fortune in exchange for the right to buy Cherise’s body. Although Arthur is appalled at the idea, he realizes that the money offers a way out of his debts….

Most of Cooper’s regular themes recur; the Woodbury family are dysfunctional through tragedy, and while the purpose for which businessman Gerald Appleton wants the cadaver is eventually revealed to be part of Chinese society, for much of the book it seems decidedly creepy. As is often the case with Cooper’s work, he leaves his setting unnamed and background undelineated, as if preferring to let archetypes give the story their own imagery.

It’s an approach that carries risk; at times Arthur and other protagonists seem underdrawn, their motivations skimmed over, but Cooper is a stylish writer and imparts enough traction to the story to get away with it. With its character’s old-fashioned names and close focus, it’s a novella that is very British, and strangely redolent of 1950s thrillers with actors like Stanley Baker and Laurence Harvey.

Terra Damnata marks an important step in Cooper’s career; it is a novella from PS Publishing rather than a full-length novel, but it will hopefully lead to progressively longer works, and with a gorgeously macabre cover by Les Edwards, it is a fine book in its own right.

• May 25th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0