Lavie Tidhar

Interzone #249 (Nov/Dec 2013) – A Review

interzone #249It’s hard to describe the relief of seeing the first copy of Interzone waiting on the doormat of the new flat. It sounds silly, but I was somewhat worried that the change of address wouldn’t have taken effect, and my copy would have ended up back in Reading — or worse, consumed by the monster that Royal Mail is becoming.

But no, such fears are apparently unfounded, and here it is. Received, enjoyed and regurgitated in review form for your enjoyment.

It is easy to forget that Interzone, as well as being the UK’s foremost science-fiction magazine, is also a venue for top class fantasy. And this issue is a timely reminder of that — coming immediately on the heels of this year’s British Fantasy Awards. Of the six stories, I would say that fully three of them could best be described as fantasy rather than true SF.

Which is no bad thing at all. As you’ll see below, the variation of genres does nothing to dampen either potency or enjoyment.

Read on…

Interzone #246 – A Review

interzone #246Interzone time again! Emerging form a sea of top quality science-fiction, I slump over to the blog to tap out my review, fingers humming with words ingested and brain rolling with ideas masticated.

Yes, I realise that I missed out #245 in my mission to promote what is (in this blogger’s humble opinion) the finest print SF magazine currently active, but I’m going to chalk that one up to the stresses and distractions of the big move.

But I’m back now, so let’s get to work reviewing!

Read on…

Interzone #244 (Jan/Feb 2013) – A Review

interzone #244It’s that time again. Another issue of Interzone, having landed on my doormat, has been consumed alonside a variety of beverages, digested, and thoroughly enjoyed. And now it falls to me to relate my opinions on its contents to you, dear readers.

As on previous occasions, I will be keeping my reviewer’s gaze levelled at the fiction content, with an additional reason this time around — as (both) my regulars will know, I have recently joined the esteemed ranks of the Interzone review team. So, as well as it being confusingly self-referential to review reviews, it would be potentially disrespectful to review my colleague’s reviews, and downright weird to review my own.

  • “The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar. It hardly seems to be a real Interzone these days without a Tidhar story, so it’s fitting to open the issue with it. Tidhar is one of the best writers working in the genre today, and “The Book Seller” is excellently exemplary of that. With a flare for odd characters and quirky prose, he tells the story of a bibliophile in a VR world, bound up in the worlds of his stories as he helps a woman dangerous to everyone but him try to solve her own mystery. It’s fun, thoughtful and really rather sweet.
  • “Build Guide” by Helen Jackson takes us to a near-future orbital construction site, and deals with themes of corruption vs. honesty, safety vs the quick buck, and a host of issues with rather uncomfortable present-day parallels. In terms of SF as social commentary, it’s bang on the money. The sort of thing which, really, more people should be reading.
  • “The Genoa Passage” by George Zebrowski was something of an odd one. I could have seen it being written by Lavie Tidhar, actually. A strange little story, about an escape passage used by Nazis fleeing after the end of the Second World War — except alternate versions are repeating their flight over and over. It’s a story centred around revenge, and what it really means and gains. It’s every bit as dark and haunting as it should be, and written with an abstract precision which is hard to find, and harder to do.
  • “iRobot” by Guy Haley is one of the best stories I’ve read in a very, very long time. And if that seems like hyperbole, it deserves every word. A very short piece, it is a simple but rich description of a ruined city in a dead world, where a slowly dying robot futily acts out its protocols. It reminded me of Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandius”. It was creepingly beautiful, at the same time as being desperately sad, and said so much with so few words. I wish I could write as well as Guy Haley does here.
  • “Sky Leap — Earth Flame” by Jim Hawkins is the longest piece in the magazine, though it took a little while to get going. Two “siblings” are mentally paired with an artificial brain in a high-stakes scientific mission. It blends themes of coming-of-age with ideas of purpose in a meaningless universe — with excellently realised characters, both human and otherwise.
  • “A Flag Still Flies Over Sabor City” by Tracie Welser closes the short stories of issue #244, and is probably the most abstract of the lot. A manual worker in an oppressively authoritarian world drifts in and out of reality with the aid of drugs and what seems like PTSD. What the reader gets is a slightly surreal comment on humanity, and what it bravery really means.

I feel a little self-conscious when I give a good verdict to all of the stories in an issue, but these really all deserve it. There was not one here which I did not enjoy, and not one which I would not heartily recommend. Guy Haley’s story in particular blew me away. It is definitely one of the truest examples of the short story as art form that I can remember reading.

“Osama” by Lavie Tidhar – A Review

"Osama" by Lavie Tidhar

(PS Publishing, 280pp, Hardback, £19.99)

It’s incredibly fitting that, as we mark the tenth anniversary of 11th September 2001, Lavie Tidhar’s new novel Osama looks back at the profound effect that it had on the course of history, and what the world might have been like if it didn’t happen.

I’ll start by saying that I enjoyed this novel a lot. Characteristically for Tidhar, it has no qualms about taking on difficult subjects, and manages to set them to an entertaining story.

Osama is set in a world where 9/11, and a number of other terrorist attacks, happened only within the pages of a series of pulp novels, written by mysterious author by the name of Mike Longshott. Enter a private detective, Joe, hired by a mysterious woman to hunt down the author across the world.

The story puts a 50s pulp detective novel  spin on classic alternate history sci-fi, and it’s clear from the off that Tidhar has not only read, but understood and been touched by Phillip K. Dick’s seminal alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle. This is particularly noticeable, and particularly effective, in a scene where Joe takes a drug-induced wander through our London.

As a background to the high ideas and exciting storyline, we are taken on a tour of international locales, from Laos, to London, New York and Afghanistan. The beautiful descriptions hint very strongly of someone who has seen such cities and landscapes with his own eyes- a writer as well travelled as his characters.

There will be people who don’t like this novel. Probably a sizable number of them. Many will think it inappropriate to make Bin Laden the hero of the novels-within-a-novel. Or think that it is too soon to fictionalise an incident which saw 3,000 people dead. They miss the point of Osama. It manages to examine the role of the atrocity in both the direction of recent history, and in our thinking and identities.

Lavie Tidhar is one of my favourite authors, and one of the rising stars of modern science fiction. His fiction is consistently fresh and entertaining, without being vapid. Osama does not disappoint. It is an at times madcap race across a plausible world that could have been, filled with fascinating characters and sometime disturbing images.

If good fiction should aim to entertain, inform and make the reader think, then Tidhar seems to have the formula down. Osama could well be the must-read of 9/11’s tenth anniversary year.

Blowing off the Cobwebs

It’s been a strange week-and-a-bit, since graduation and election day brought my the two most time consuming projects to a (temporary) end. I’ve suddenly found myself with a whole lot more free time to fill, which has been a bit startling.

There is, of course, the endless parade of job applications to fill out and send off, but the job hunt is rather depressing at the moment, so I’m not going to dignify it by dwelling on it.

Instead, it’s been a time to return to writing. I made something of an effort to resume scribbling after the conclusion of my exams, but the sudden appearance of the by-election on the horizon demanded much of my attention. Now I try to sink back into the routine of knocking out a story or two every few weeks, I’m finding I’m a little rusty.

It’s not so much a lack of ideas, which seem to come to me in deluges whenever I sit down, but rather a lack of confidence. I get a few hundred words into a story and start doubting it. The writing isn’t up to scratch, the characters are flat, the plot is uninteresting. Self-consciousness takes hold of me like a teenage girl looking in the mirror, and the story ends up abandoned before it’s gotten going.

And I’m sick of it.

So this weekend, and the next couple of days, are about breaking that cycle. Thusfar I’ve edited my way through two stories, submitted one of them (the other is waiting for the verdict of my ever-dependable beta reader), and am pushing my way through another- involving a ball, an assassin, and an interplanetary socialist civilisation. I’ve also been reading a lot; continuing with Lavie Tidhar’s excellent Osama (review to follow), supplemented with dips into China Mieville’s brilliantly weird  Kraken, as well as episodes of Escape Pod and PseudoPod.

The combination seems to be working. Aside from a minor distraction yesterday involving capital punishment, and a little break this morning to poke a stick into the vipers’ nest that is John Redwood’s blog, I’ve been almost entirely focused on writing. And I’m remembering why I love it.

All these ideas which have been floating around my head, finally being given an outlet. Watching them take shape- admittedly, a shape which will need various dings hammered out of them- is something beautiful. It’s what got me interested in creative writing in Year 2 (aged 6), and it hasn’t changed.

So hopefully, in a matter of days I’ll be back to pumping out stories at my former pace. I might even knock out a piece of flash to post on here.

“Camera Obscura” by Lavie Tidhar – A Review

"Camera Obscura" by Lavie Tidhar

(Angry Robot Books, 394pp, paperback, £7.99)

So I’m going to start this review with a confession. I have yet to read Lavie Tidhar’s first novel, The Bookman. It’s been on my to-read list pretty much since it was released, but this past year that list has been distressingly static. After finishing Camera Obscura, however, it has jumped to the top of said list.

Fortunately for series-order anarchists like myself, whilst Camera Obscura is set in the same world as The Bookman it doesn’t seem to be a direct sequel. What it is, however, is an outstanding novel that appreciates full how to entertain and intrigue, and yet not shirk the big issues the story raises. Which is really what I’d expect of Lavie, to be honest.

The story follows Milady de Winter, an agent of the mysterious Quiet Council, as she investigates a murder and is catapulted into a wide-ranging conspiracy that takes her across the world,  meeting a cavalcade of friends and foes, all pursuing an item which could mean the end of humanity. Which doesn’t get across an iota of the excitement in the story. There are many points I enjoyed about Camera Obscura, but for brevity’s (and decorum’s) sake, I’m going to focus on a few major points and try not to gush hopelessly over it.

The first is something I’ve already hinted at. The sheer pace of the story is something to be marvelled at in itself. Short chapters, to-the-point sentences, and the fact that Poor de Winter is tossed around like a metaphorical rag doll. There scarcely seems a chapter that she isn’t running for her life, or being knocked/drugged unconscious.

The storytelling here will keep you on the edge of your seat (now there’s a cliché for you) and you should be well prepared for the ten minute dip into you planned to turn into hours. It happened to me, and it’s both at once wonderful and intensely annoying. I emerged from the final page of Camera Obscura exhausted by the experience, but with a definite smile on my face. It’s fast, and relentlessly fun.

The second point, is the wonderful range of characters. They’re interconnected with the world Tidhar crafts really; familiar people and places, from history and fiction, worked into a rich and seamless fantasy. I particularly liked the lizard Queen Victoria, and Tom Thumb with his shop in Paris. He even works in a reference to Doctor Moreau, which hints at further things to come. And the main character of Milday de Winter was one whose boots are so easy to slip into that her trials and tribulations mattered deeply to me as the reader.

If I have to criticise something, then I’d have to say that the ending feels extremely abrupt. To race through a plot, foot down on the accelerator, and then to come to the finish line so abruptly was a little jarring. The climax comes only a few pages before the end, so it has a sense of suddenness, but also a sense of more story (and stories) to come. Hopefully that isn’t just wishful thinking.

As you’ll no doubt have gathered, I enjoyed Camera Obscura very much. It was an incredibly fun read, expertly written and immersive on an almost dangerous level. It’s a widely held belief in the circles of genre fiction that Lavie is well on his way to being one of the new monsters of science fiction. This novel is as good an example of why as you’re likely to find.

The Immersion Book of SF – A Review

(Immersion Press, 123pp, £7.99 pb)

The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala

The Immersion Book of SF is more or less exactly what it says on the tin. A collection of science-fiction short stories, from Immersion Press. Simple, right? If you haven’t heard of Immersion Press, that’s not really surprising as they only have two books currently released, but judging from this particular offering their state of unknown won’t last.

The cover is the first clue. “Features Tanith Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Chris Butler, Gareth Owens and more” it declares. And more? Christ, you’ve already got some of the premier writers of speculative fiction, including two authors featured in the latest issue of  Interzone (Tidhar and de Bodard).

The collection kicks off with “Golden“, by Al Robertson, which at first read struck me as an odd choice for an opener. It’s a very good story, but a little bit complex, and at times confusing, dealing with an alternate reality crossing over in modern-day London. The stark contrast between the tedious humdrum of the protagonist’s world, and the excitement of the world he is allowed tantalising glimpses into works very well, opening up another universe of imagination.

Tanith Lee’s “Tan“, is a comparatively shorter and more humorous piece. It centres around, predictably, tanning and UFO appearances, and despite its brevity managed to have a certain air of significance to it, mixing entertainment and food for thought as good sci-fi should.

Have Guitar, Will Travel” by Chris Butler is another longer tale, providing a fascinating blend of lost romance, neural hacking, and music piracy. It sounds on paper like a strange combination, but it was so well written and the characters so believable that I’d have to crown it as one of my favourites in the collection.

The Time Traveller’s Son” from Jason Erik Lundberg is another shorter piece, and another very good story. It tells a story across a lifetime, of an absentee father and the lie (perhaps) he told to his son, to lessen the heartbreak of his absence. It does well creating an air of uncertainty about what the real truth is, and paints a rather moving piece of fiction.

Colin P. Davies’ “Dolls” was an interesting premise, about little girls in an almost-dystopia future trapped in perpetual child pageants. It’s very premise is a little disturbing, the protagonist’s frustration at not being able to grow up is very resonant, and the relationship with her father a fascinating examination. I wish that the world could have been a little more fleshed out, but all in all it was a very good story, fully deserving of its place next to the others.

The next story, Anne Stringer’s “Grave Robbers“, I’m afraid to say was one of my least favourite in the anthology. I should clarify that by no means was it bad, it just didn’t capture me in the same way that some of the others did. It follows the titular grave robbers, who make a strange discovery at a grave which begins to pull them apart. It’s a tale of obsession, but it doesn’t really explain enough. There’s no real reason given for the obsession, and to my mind there was little to mark it out as sci-fi rather than horror or fantasy.

With “Father’s Last Ride” from Aliette de Bodard, however, the anthology gets back on track. A daughter’s journey of discovery into her late father’s life is emotionally written, in a beautifully imagined world of electromagnetically-grazing alien jellyfish.

Gord Sellar’s “The Broken Pathway” is another of my favourites. It bases itself on oriental mythology, in particular acupuncture, and has such a rich level of culture that makes it instantly intriguing and (yes, yes, I know) immersive. Following a pair of monks in their investigation into strange iron spikes appearing in the mountainside, this story is definitely worth a lot.

Eric James Stone’s “Bird-Dropping and Sunday” is another light-hearted story, in the form of a telling of as an ancient fable about a young boy with an odd name. I’m sorry to say that it didn’t do a lot for me, though I can see how others might well enjoy it a lot. It also seemed to suffer the complaint of not really being sci-fi, as much as other genres (in this case, fantasy).

To follow that, “Mango Dictionary and the Dragon Queen of Constant Evolution” by Gareth Owens was another story outmatched by its greater brothers and sisters. A tale about a world terrorised by a woman-spaceship symbiosis (à la Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang series, or TV series Farscape), there was nothing bad about it, but so much that was supposed to be odd and quirky just struck me as nonsense.

The final story, and clear headliner, was “Lode Stars” by veteran sci-fi writer Lavie Tidhar. Predictably, this was my favourite offering. Tidhar’s story of a far-future religious society, devoted to a trio of black holes as the eyes of God, was a wonderful patchwork of fiction. It had clear hard sci-fi elements, along with religious conspiracy and genuine mystery. I wouldn’t have expected any less from Tidhar, but it bears saying nonetheless that this was a superb story.

So there you have it. Do I recommend this story? Absolutely. I may have sounded critical of some of the stories, but the lowest standard it reaches is still in clear competition with the products of much bigger publishing houses. And that is every bit a credit to the editor as well as the author’s; Mr Rafala has put together a blinding collection here. As a small press publisher, Immersion Press are punching well above their weight, and I am genuinely excited to watch their progress from here.

The Post Man Cometh…

The Qur'an, translated to English by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem

It’s finally arrived. My copy of the Qur’an, ordered the other week, has finally arrived.

Ironically, it dropped through the door of my girlfriend’s house, after I forgot to check the address on my Waterstones order and just assumed it would be coming to my house. Fortunately, I was there this morning when it arrived, so all was well in the end.

For those of you who are curious, the version I’ve purchased is the Oxford World’s Classics version, translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem. I’m not educated about the different translations (bar what I’ve already read in the introduction), so if anyone better informed about me wants to give me pointers or comments on this, they will be very much welcomed.

So far, I’ve only read the introduction, and even that has been truly fascinating. It’s already but to bed several negative stereotypes of the Islamic faith, which I actually already thought were products of right-wing conservative ignorance. I feel like I’m learning, and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the text itself.

This started out of my annoyance at Pastor Terry Jones’ intention to burn the Qur’an in protest against the Ground Zero Mosque (not at ground zero, not a mosque). But actually, during the wait for it to arrive, another beast of ignorance has raised its head. Some of you will be familiar with Elizabeth Moon. Some of you will be familiar with her remarkably ignorant and offensive rant about Islam in the US. For those of you who aren’t, I’d heartily recommend reading this article about it, as well as following Lavie Tidhar’s Twitter feed.

Bigoted comments like those Moon made are not alright. They feed the hatred and misunderstanding that warmongering groups on both sides exploit to their own ends and agendas. This is why I am reading the Qur’an. Because I don’t believe that half the crap said by right-wing western fearmongers, or Islamic extremists is true, is actually in there. I don’t think that Islam is any more of a hateful and violent religion than any other religion.

To anyone else who shares this suspicion, I invite you to join me. I’ll be posting occasional blog entries updating all of you on what I’m finding with my readings, and this is an open invitation for anyone to join in. I welcome any and all comments and discussions, from Muslims and non-Muslims, as long as you don’t try to transform my exercise against hate as a way of extending it.

Our Daily Bread

This is a plug. But don’t worry, it’s a plug of something cool, useful, and well worth five minutes of your time to read this.

A new, daily fix for those of us sci-fi addicts.

Yesterday, Daily Science Fiction launched, with their maiden email. It’s an incredibly simple idea that they’re based on, but a brilliantly good one. Basically, every weekday they are going to send out an email containing a piece of short science fiction. Like I said, a good idea, especially for those of us to whom sci-fi literature is like crack.

I’ve been subscribed to this for a while, and admit I was sceptical about it initially. But it’s taken off  now, and judging from the list of pieces to come in September, there are some big names there. In particular, Lavie Tidhar and Colin Harvey grabbed my eye, and if you don’t know who they are, then it’s all the more reason to sign up.

But the best thing here, really, is that it’s free. Yes, free. They’ll send you stories, good quality by the look of them, each morning to enjoy with your breakfast croissant and orange juice. And they won’t charge you a penny for the pleasure.

So if you’re interested, take yourself along to Daily Science Fiction and sign yourself up. Today’s story is “Mark and Shelly’s,” by Steven R. Stewart, and Fridays is “Butterfly and the Blight at the Heart of the World,” by Lavie Tidhar.