Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold, Reviewed

Cryoburn is the latest Miles Vorkosigan novel, the thirteenth in a series stretching back a quarter of a century.

Miles is now an Imperial Auditor with responsibility for investigating a company specializing in cryogenic storage that are planning on opening branches on Komarr.

Miles becomes suspicious and travels to Kibou-daini, a world dominated by a populace who want to evade death by going into suspended hibernation, then further skewed by the cryo-corps thawing some of their sleepers early, effectively creating a generation of temporally displaced refugees.

Cryoburnl opens with Miles hiding from a gang of would-be kidnappers, when he is then helped by a young boy hiding among the displaced, whose mother disappeared some eighteen months earlier.

When Miles is reunited with his team, he learns that the cryogenic corporations are involved in a web of corruption that extends to the economic conquest of Komarr.

Lois McMaster Bujold writes deceptively simple  fiction; the characters are likeable, the settings are well depicted, just different enough to be exotic, without ever being so alien that the reader is baffled or put off. the plot issues resolve  smoothly, before looping into the next problem. While it’s tempting to classify Cryoburn as a middle-ranking Vorkosigan novel, it’s worth remembering that she’s already won three Hugos, and Cryoburn has a couple of points that raise it above the norm; one is Jin, who as a supporting character is first rate, and the whole society of Kibou, which Bujold never really exploits to the full, but which is nonetheless fascinating.

All in all, Cryoburn is another excellent read from one of today’s most popular writers.



• August 12th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0


Cover for Damage Time by Chris Moore

You can tell the authors at conventions. You just have to listen in.  While the fans are likely as not to be talking what brilliant book they’ve read, or what film they’ve seen; the writers will be talking about money.*

Because their incomes can be so precarious, and like any other profession information is like oxygen, writers obsess about their sales. Especially since the information is often up to three to six months late.  A publisher once said jokingly to me “Sometimes I think we shouldn’t let you lot have sales information; you only ask more questions.” (I think he was joking)

About nine months ago amazon made weekly sales information on print books available to authors. The data doesn’t include all sales, but it’s useful guidance, as long as one bears in mind that it can be anything from five to one hundred per cent of the total.

What it does is highlight trends. I have no idea what causes this one, but over the first three months of the year, amazon was selling anything between fifty and a hundred copies a week of my two Angry Robot novels.  And surprisingly, over the first three months, it was Damage Time that was the bigger seller, albeit only marginally – fifty-five per cent to Winter Song’s forty-five per cent. I say surprisingly because I had assumed that Winter Song would be the bigger seller.

But over the last three months the sales have fallen to about half of what they were in the first quarter. I have no idea what’s caused that, because I’m still blogging, which I think is the main influence on sales, but sometimes things just happen. And it’s Winter Song that’s held up better -as I originally thought it would- with the year to date sales for that title now running at fifty-five per cent.

As a friend once said at Unilever, “We know that half of all our advertising spend is wasted – we just don’t know which half.”

And if a company the size of Unilever doesn’t know, with all its power, what chance does a simple author have?

* That’s a wild generalization, of course. The fans are likely as not to be asking writers how they too can become writers, while the writers also talk about what brilliant book they’ve read, or what film they’ve seen..

• August 10th, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0

End Games

People are always talking about the openings of stories. It’s an often quoted truism -especially by me!- that the first dozen lines of a story are critical. They are the unsolicited writer’s escape from the slush pile, or the path to a sometimes bewildered rejection. For the story that has been sold, a poor opening is a potential return to be To Be Read pile, from which there may be no return.

Perhaps as a reflection of that, half of the workshops that ran at alt.fiction were about beginnings, openings, settings, and establishing characters. It’s as though if you get the beginning right, the ending will take care of itself.

But if the beginning is important, how much more important is the ending? If the story works, it’s what the reader remembers. Think of Paul Atreides’ mother standing beside Chani and uttering the line, “history will call us wives,” or –no, better you go and read Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” or John Varley’s “Air Raid,”  or Gardner Dozois’ “Morning Child” — because I’d hate to ruin the ending.

Because to get to the ending, you have to go through the story. The ending isn’t something a writer just tags on the end; it flows organically out of the story, and should tie the threads together and leave the reader with a sense of completion. Context is everything, because the ending isn’t just about the ending. Maybe that’s why the topic is often ignored.

How the writer gets there, of course, is a journey that has as many routes as there are writers. That’s for another time.

we’ll talk more about this later.


• August 3rd, 2011 • Posted in Writing • 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

Embassytown by China Mieville, Reviewed

China Mieville has built a whole career on writing novels that blur genres. Embassytown, his first unequivocal venture into SF, takes the reader to a city on the edge of the universe.

Avice Banner Cho is an immerser, a traveller on the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her homeworld. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie.

Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language to the Hosts, and connect the two communities. Then an alien learns haltingly to lie, and is killed by both sides. Hard on the heels of that devekopment, an unimaginable new arrival comes to Embassytown. And when this new Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that’s impossible.

Mieville examines in some detail concepts behind language, in an attempt to create some truly alien aliens – this is something that writers such as Benford have spent years grappling with – and manages to do so without infodumping, using a text packed with neologisms that are just about comprehensible, such as autom and artminds – although floaking eluded me. It’s as if we can only understand one another through a mutual misunderstanding. (p.114) 

Mieville dissects both the limitations of language, and the potentialities inherent in something we take for granted, such as a lie. ‘They were yanking it around,’ Bren said. ‘It was impossible for it not to know what they meant; they were shoving it and pointing the same way. They made it obey them. Maybe you need violence for language to take.’

‘Bren,’ I said. ‘That’s crap. We were all running the same way. We were all trying to get out. We had the same intentions. That’s how it knew what we were doing.’

He shook his head. ‘Language` is the continuation of coercion by other means.’ ‘Bullshit. It’s co-operation.’ Both theories explained what had happened plausibly. I resisted, because it felt trite , saying that they weren’t as contradictory as they sounded. (p.454)  

Mieville’s  characters live in this future, rather than tell us about it, in the same way that major novelists such as Beryl Bainbridge have their characters inhabit the past, rather than lecture their readers, or contemporary novelists just get on with life. Who has time to stop and explain an iPod or a netbook to a stranger?

He demonstrates through such actions such as children’s games (who can run furthest into the alien atmosphere, leave a mark and return) and behaviour at parties (checking on acquaintances bios online) just how it feels to live on this world.

I haven’t felt such a sense of how different -but still [just] comprehensible the future will be since reading Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels almost two decades ago.

The downside for some readers is that it demands far greater concentration to understand what is going on, something that many will not care for. But for those prepared to make the effort, Embassytown is well worth the investment. It also nails any idea that writing fantasy has been a soft option for a writer who couldn’t cope with writing proper SF.  It’ll be on the Nebula Ballot at the end of this year, or a major injustice will have been done.

• July 8th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Treasure Trove

I mentioned a week or so ago that I’d found several copies of my anthology Killers in the loft. I also found two copies of my novel Lightning Days, which went out of print about two years ago.

Lightning Days was published in 2006 by Swimming Kangaroo Books, and is still one of my favourites amongst my own work. I have no illusions – it’s not perfect, but it takes risks that I wouldn’t countenance today.

It posits a whole range of alternate histories, one major one of which is where the Neanderthals didn’t die out, but instead learned to cross into other alternaties.

If you’re interested in buying one of the two copies I have left, drop me a line via the contact form. DO NOT post in the comments section.

I’ll be back on Friday with the weekly review.

• July 5th, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0

The Future In Blogs

I like to see what other writers are doing on their blogs. Three of my favourite blogs all deal to some extent with the future. (There’s a surprise, I hear you mutter – you’re a science fiction writer.)

Actually,  SF is often as much to do with the present, and much though I love the genre I’m not really a scientist.

But Gareth L Powell has a clear view of what may come, and in thi

s excellent post he deals with the implications of a future that looks increasingly influenced  by Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Meanwhile, Madeline Ashby is working on various projects involving the futures in media, and is also blogging for Tor about the differences between her fiction and her futurism work.

Charlie Stross is perhaps the pre-eminent blogger in this area and generates more ideas in a couple of weeks than some writers do in a year. Here he blogs about obsolete threats to the world, while here he posts about potential new ones.

• July 4th, 2011 • Posted in Writing • 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