(Crossposted from Goodreads)
I really need to post more reviews of books I’ve read, don’t I? I’m reading them far faster than I can review them. But I’m going to try to do more.
To start with, here’s the sequel to last year’s Tales Of The City, and so I have to add my obligatory disclaimer:
I am not only friendly with the editor of this book, but also with some of the writers in it and the publisher. I have a novel coming out from this publisher at some point late this year or early next, and both the editor of the book and one of the authors in it have bought stories off me for forthcoming anthologies. It would not be right for me to review this book without mentioning that.
But it also wouldn’t be right for me to do it without pointing out that I *became* friendly with them because I admire their work and share something of their aesthetic, so I personally believe that rather than my friendship with these people causing my enjoyment of their work, rather my enjoyment of the work affects the friendship.
For those who don’t know, the City Of The Saved is a fictional environment, established in The Book of the War and Of the City of the Saved…, in which every human being from the first Australopithicene to the last posthuman demigod has been resurrected after the end of the universe. Not only that, but the technology exists to ‘resurrect’ fictional characters as well, so there’s a detective agency staffed entirely by different versions of Sherlock Holmes, for example.
As a setting it’s quite brilliant, and I loved Of The City Of The Saved… , but that was largely because Philip Purser-Hallard himself is such an excellent writer. What surprised me was last year when Tales of the City came out and showed that the City is an extraordinarily good playground for a whole variety of different types of storytelling, not just Purser-Hallard’s eschatological SF, but everything from Regency pastiche to dark horror (and that was just in one story).
More Tales Of The City is, if anything, better than that first volume. Possibly I think that because while the earlier collection was loosely based on the theme of Greek myth, this is a collection of stories that are, in one way or another, mysteries, and I prefer that genre, but either way, this is an astonishingly good, varied collection.
I won’t talk about everything in it, but just briefly discuss two stories I particularly enjoyed. The first is Double Trouble At The Parasites On The Proletariat Club by Simon Bucher-Jones. This is a Wodehouse pastiche, and anyone who’s ever read one of these knows they’re notoriously hard to do — Wodehouse was the greatest prose stylist in the English language, which pretty much by definition none of his imitators are. This means it’s very, very easy indeed for even a writer as good as Alan Moore to fall flat on his face and come across looking like an idiot.
Bucher-Jones has, happily, come up with a rather ingenious solution to this problem, which is to have his narrator be an idiot who is attempting to pattern his life on Wodehouse’s characters — thus the character is *meant* to be narrating in Wodehouse-pastiche rather than in Wodehouse’s actual voice. This allows him to play with Wodehouse’s style without having to match it exactly, and the result is a rather lovely mystery-farce which hinges on a character note from some of Wodehouse’s early work.
The other stand-out story is The Mystery Of The Rose by Richard Wright, who’s not a writer I’d noticed before, though he has stories in some Iris Wildthyme collections. It’s another literary pastiche, and an astonishing tour de force, as he does Raymond Chandler and William Shakespeare simultaneously. Here, a recreated version of Shakespeare’s Richard III (as played by Ian McKellen), now working as a private detective, is hired by Elizabeth Woodville to discover if the real Richard III actually killed her children. He narrates the entire thing in first person, of course:
The patter of my speech confirms the truth –
my author’s revered voice is known to all.
A son of York, the plotting king, the fiend,
Richard third, the deformed, dethroned, deceased.
Yet never walked I through the world you knew.
Pentameter crossed not that monarch’s lips:
his northern tongue could scarce concoct such verse.
A Remake I, a story given flesh.
A fictive being pinned to humanity’s
understanding of itself so surely
that I have earned a place at the end of Time.
And the introspection of the Chandleresque mystery works perfectly with the Shakespearean soliloquising, as Wright tells a story of power, guilt, morality, free will and responsibility. It’s a rare pastiche that manages to evoke two very different authors simultaneously and bring their similarities into focus, while still remaining a worthwhile and inventive story in its own right.
While I’m not going to review every story in that much detail, the other four stories in the book all rise to this level as well, as does Purser-Hallard’s linking material. I can’t imagine an SF/F reader who wouldn’t enjoy this collection.
Full disclosure before I start this — I am friendly with the author and the publisher, and I also potentially have a book coming out from this publisher. I don’t think that this has biased my opinions in any way — I became friendly with them because we shared a lot of tastes, so it’s unsurprising that I would then enjoy this book — but it’s only fair to point out up-front.
I’ve been putting off reviewing this one for quite some time, because as I’ve said before I’ve not been thinking very well for the last few months due to ill-health, and this is a book that deserves a more considered, thoughtful response than perhaps I am able to give. However, I’m still not fully well, and don’t know how long I would have to wait otherwise, so this is my best assessment given my limited faculties.
Against Nature is a fascinating, difficult book, that makes no concessions to the reader but is all the better for it. It’s dense, allusive, and expects its reader to think — but it gives plenty to think about. This is Faction Paradox in big, important, thoughtful mode, rather than light adventure mode — think Newtons Sleep or, especially, This Town Will Never Let Us Go rather than Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia. I’ve read it twice, and I still haven’t got all of it, but that’s a good thing — this is a book that absolutely rewards rereading.
I loved it.
I’m mistletoe, Todd thought, I was living on that tree, and now I’m cut off, just moving forward until I sputter out. He wondered if this life might present him with other obvious symbols for his consideration, truths revealed in the everyday details. It felt a little like this whole world was all for his benefit, so maybe.
Against Nature is about sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice, about dying-and-resurrected gods (and ones that die without resurrection), about what it means to be cut off from one’s culture and one’s past. It’s a book that could only have been written by someone profoundly disconnected from his own culture — and it’s no surprise that between writing the early drafts of this, and its final publication, Lawrence emigrated to the US.
The same injustice had befallen Europe a few centuries earlier, barbarians at the gates and so on, swords turning out to be mightier than pens despite the proverb. It was always the stupid idea that caught on, the story that even the village idiot could follow without giving himself a headache. Human history was a ratings war, and people would always choose the flashing lights, special effects, and generic hero pleading you don’t have to do this! over things of value.
One of the ways in which Lawrence creates this effect has been misunderstood by several of the readers, particularly on some Doctor Who forums (Faction Paradox still has a residual connection to what Lawrence refers to as Magic Doctor Who Man Telly Adventure Time). The book is set in multiple times, in multiple locations, with multiple cultures. Two of those cultures — the Great Houses and the medieval Mexica people (the people we think of, wrongly, as “the Aztecs”) are ones which are very, very different from the likely cultures of any of the readers, not only in behaviour and attitudes, but in language.
Lawrence throws us in at the deep end, cutting rapidly, every two or three pages, between wildly different locations and time periods, with stories that parallel and comment upon each other, but do not link up until near the end. Each of these different cultures is presented to us without comment or explanation, so our first glimpse of the Great Houses’ culture comes with:
The blinkers were fashioned from the clothing of the deceased, specifically a pressure suit once belonging to Herrare, the material cut to form a collar of hide curving around the eyes in the manner of goggles. Emioushameddhoran vel-Xianthellipse adjusted the knotted strips of fabric which kept the blinkers in place and took a moment to inspect herself in the cheval glass
while the Mexica strand of the story starts:
It was the day Ome Ozmatli of the trecena Ce Izcuintli as reckoned by the Tonalpohualli calendar of the Mexica — Two Monkey, presiding Deities being Xochipilli, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl. This was hardly an auspicious combination by which to embark upon travel, but there being only nine days left before the occasion of the impending New Fire Ceremony, Momacani was left with little choice.
The cultures involved are ones which Lawrence has an expert understanding of — he has been studying the Mexica people for decades, and has been involved in Faction Paradox fandom (for want of a better word) for almost as long. The result is that he can write about these cultures fluently, from the perspective of someone who lives there, because he does, at least internally.
Several readers complained about the fact that they had to keep track of unfamiliar names like Emioushameddhoran and terms like Ce Izcuintli, and there is no question that this does make the book many times more difficult to read than it otherwise would be. But this seems to me to be entirely intentional — the reader experiences a miniature culture shock every two to five pages, and has to assimilate everything with no background. One is as rootless as Todd, the closest thing to an audience-identification figure in this book.
But I’m making this sound like it’s a hard slog, something to read out of a sense of duty, and it’s anything but. It’s a clever, thoughtful, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking book, and will almost certainly prove the best novel I read this year.
In other news, I’ve decided to start putting my book reviews on Goodreads, since Amazon don’t want authors posting book reviews on their site. I’ve had the account a couple of years, but only just started using it. Add me here if you want. Or not.
I was about to post a short review of Lawrence Burton’s excellent Faction Paradox novel and Phil Purser-Hallard’s equally excellent Senor 105 novella (a post which will go up tomorrow or Monday instead), when I went to the Obverse Books website to get links to put in the post, and saw this.
Obverse are putting out, next year, an anthology of Faction Paradox short stories, and it’s to be written entirely by women. From the FAQ:
Are unpublished women writers welcome?
Extremely! I’ll be setting up an (optional) online workshop so that the anthology’s contributors can read and give feedback on each others’ work.
If you have not previously been published, please include the first thousand words of your story with your pitch.
Why an all-woman anthology?
The majority of the writers published by Obverse so far have been men. This anthology is an attempt to circumvent whatever barriers are preventing Obverse from connecting with a larger number of talented women.
I’m a transwoman. Can I pitch?
Absolutely! You too, genderqueer folks.
What do I need to know about Faction Paradox to write for this anthology?
Other than what’s in this document – pretty much nothing! I’ll provide Faction-related content in the form of small stories that fit between each story in the anthology, featuring Tefen and Triphis and their competition. However, if you are familiar with the series, feel free to use its mythology in your pitch.
If you would like to know more, Lawrence Miles’ introduction to his creation is online at:
What genres and styles of short story can I pitch?
Each story needs a strong science fiction or fantasy element. We might see the Earth conquered by extraterrestrials, machines, memes, ghosts, mermaids, intelligent cosmic rays, mutant dogs, gods from a parallel dimension… the more original and weird your invasion force, the better. (Please avoid these heavily used fantasy creatures: vampires, werewolves, fairies, dragons, and zombies.)
However, the stories can present that SF/fantasy element within any genre: romance, horror, comedy, espionage, adventure, police procedural, technothriller, historical intrigue, psychological drama, you name it.
Any setting on Earth is appropriate, and any time, past, present, or future. The well-researched use of non-Western settings, culture, and mythology is encouraged. Characters of colour, characters with disabilities, and characters with alternative sexualities are also welcome. Adult content is fine, but please avoid sexual violence and child sexual abuse.
The stories can be told from the point of view of the subjugated humans – victims, collateral damage, resistance, collaborators, dupes, ordinary people just trying to get on with their lives – or from the POV of the conquerors; but each story will show some of the consequences of colonisation for the human race.
Now, I think this would be a perfect anthology for several of the women I know to submit to. Note especially that *you do not need to know much about Faction Paradox* in order to submit. I also think that this is something that should be supported wholeheartedly — Obverse are a company that put out great work, and it’s always good to see people consciously trying to fix an imbalance.
I’ve not mentioned this before, because the book’s not even finished yet, so there’s every possibility they’ll turn down the finished manuscript and make me look foolish, but the novel I’ve been working on is for Obverse, and I also have a short story in contention for a possible future anthology they’re putting out. I say this just to let people know that I’ve had dealings with two different Obverse editors as a writer, and they are very, very easy people to work with.
Tiredblogging: The Anchoring Of The Thread (or, Towards A Grand Unified Theory Of Time-Travel In Doctor Who)
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a week now, and been putting it off until I’m less tired. But then I realised that if I hadn’t been less tired in a week, I probably wouldn’t be any time soon. So, here’s my Grand Unified Theory Of Time In Doctor Who, as written by someone who had to take four goes to type the word time because he’s so tired.
I’d been thinking about this for a while (and talked about bits of it with Plok while he was here), but this blog post by Eliezer Yudkowsky, about causality and time travel, gave me the final key. You might want to read that before we go ahead. I’ll wait.
OK, so one of the big things in Doctor Who since Moffat took over is the way that time can be changed, pretty much willy-nilly, when in the old series the rule was, more or less, “you can’t change history, not one line!”
Now, there are various explanations that can be used of this, not least the one I use, which is “they’re two different series with only the loosest possible connection.”
But suppose you want to reconcile them. The usual fanwank explanation is “the Time War” — and I’m going to use that, too. But that doesn’t actually *explain* anything. So I’m going to try.
And I think it can be done.
First, we assume that the uni/multiverse is — or started as — something like the timeless universe of Julian Barbour, or the ultimate ensemble of Max Tegmark. A timeless configuration space of every existing possibility, all equally existent. Every instant of time, existing simultaneously.
In one of these instants, exists an intelligent race. They’re known by various names, such as the Great Houses, but we can call them the Time Lords, because along with them comes the existence of time.
You see, time isn’t something that exists in itself. Time is just another word for the increase in entropy between different states in the configuration space. But since we can (as far as we know) draw a line between any two states, why should entropy increase?
Well, probabilistically, it’s simple. If you take any random point in a configuration space — whatever the point — and make a random perturbation to it, the result will, in the huge majority of cases, have more entropy than the original position. So a random walk among configurations will lead to an increase in entropy.
But we’re not talking about a random walk — we’re talking about a lawlike universe. And if you draw a line between the start and end points, why does it have to have that direction? Why not say that the end is the start and the start is the end?
Well, you can — but not in a universe containing intelligence. Intelligence is, fundamentally, the creation of an isomorphism between one structure (e.g. a brain) and another (e.g. a universe) such that the first can predict the second.
In order to do this, information has to pass from the universe to the brain — and by doing so, entropy in the universe has to increase proportionally.
So in any universe which contains intelligence, that intelligence, at any given point, will have knowledge of a universe which has slightly less entropy than the one in which it’s existing, and so perceive entropy as always increasing. Hence — arrow of time.
So with our Time Lords comes an arrow of time.
Now, what do we know of the Time Lords? Firstly, that they put all of history in place with the Anchoring Of The Thread (see the Book Of The War) and secondly that they could travel through time.
As Yudkowsky points out, if you’re looking at the standard formulation of causality, using Directed Acyclic Graphs, as formulated by Judea Pearl, then you can *either* have cause and effect, *or* you can have a consistent, single-history universe which contains time travel, but you can’t have both.
So, assuming for the moment that current understanding is more-or-less correct, and the universe can be understood or modelled as a computation, then we have a rough idea of what sort of process the Anchoring Of The Thread must have been — a brute-force sweep through all possible events, noting the ones that fit the consistent history the Time Lords wanted, which were then forced together — possibly just by the Time Lords’ perception — into one history. This allowed consistent time travel throughout their history, without the possibility of paradox (or of wiping themselves out of history) but with the disadvantage that there was actually no such thing as cause-and-effect — effects *appeared* to follow causes, but that’s only because they’d been put in that position by the Time Lords.
(It’s possible that Time Lords themselves (and their companions when in a TARDIS?) had the ability to alter the universe on the fly with their perceptions. If so this would mean that time-travellers were the only beings in the universe with true free will — and would explain the changes to time-travellers’ biodata (a concept often mistranslated as ‘DNA’ in the new series). It’s also possible that the computation that put history in place had something to do with the calculations of Logopolis.)
Then comes the Time War. The Time Lords are destroyed. They’re no longer there to perceive the universe, and without their computation to keep it in place, there can’t be a consistent timeline any longer.
However, there *are* still intelligences — humans, Daleks and so on — and at least some of them have time machines. This means that time must still exist. Without the influence of the Time Lords, that means that we have a universe where the past and future are both malleable — but where effects have causes, and thus actions have consequences.
So because the Time Lords have been destroyed, free will has been given to the inhabitants of the universe. They’re no longer just puppets acting out a script planned by superpowerful gods, but people whose actions *matter*. Given the Doctor’s known attitude toward free will, the question is possibly not so much why he destroyed the Time Lords (if, indeed, it was ‘really’ him who did so), as why he didn’t do it much earlier.
And as a side-note, the fact that the universe no longer runs to a fixed plan with an intelligence behind it might go some way to explaining the incoherence of many post-Time War stories…
I hope that makes some kind of sense, or at least the right kind of nonsense. I can’t actually see right now, I’m so tired, so it may not. There’ll be another Who post, on Kinda, on the Mindless Ones tomorrow or Friday, and a Beach Boys post this weekend.
I don’t have much time for blog posting at the moment, but I couldn’t let the release of the latest Faction Paradox short story collection go without at least a short review.
(Ob. disclaimer — I know several of the authors in this collection, as well as the publisher, in a friendly-on-Twitter-and-Facebook kind of way. However, I got to know these people, in most part, because of my admiration for their work, and so I don’t believe that me knowing them is biasing me towards liking their work more. But it’s better to say these things upfront.)
That this is a book geared to my tastes should be obvious from the very title. I love the Faction Paradox books anyway, but this is named after a song by XTC, one of my favourite bands. The table of contents confirms that the high expectations are justified — we have new stories by four of the authors of The Book Of The War, Philip Purser-Hallard, Simon Bucher-Jones, Jonathan Dennis and Kelly Hale, all of whom are writers whose other works I’ve enjoyed as well. There are also stories by Elizabeth Evershed and Helen Angove, two of the new writers from Purser-Hallard’s Tales Of The City whose stories I singled out for special praise when I reviewed that, and there’s actually a story by Aditya Bidikar, who first became interested in Faction Paradox after reading one of my blog posts about it.
Overall, the tone here is darker than previous Faction works. While the earlier Faction and Faction-related books are very much on the borderline between SF and Fantasy, with an admixture of historical adventure, here the stories are often little horror miniatures, of a type that would not seem too out of place in the old Pan Books Of Horror Stories — creepy little tales with a black sense of humour. Which, of course, fits the Faction milieu perfectly.
I won’t look at every story in the collection individually — there are some about which I have less to say than others — but all are worth reading. But I’ll talk a little about the ones that I actually have things to say about:
Raleigh Dreaming by Elizabeth Evershed is so different from the other story of hers I’ve read (The Socratic Problem) that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same writer. Some motifs reappear — famous people from wildly different historical time-periods coming together, for example — but the prose style here is very different, cleverly managing to suggest the 16th century patterns of speech of its narrator without ever slipping into archaism. And the method of time travel involved is a lovely little touch (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it — always a danger when talking about short stories much more than novels — but it’s funny, clever, and perfectly appropriate). A worthy opener.
Wing Finger by Helen Angove reminded me quite a bit of Lawrence Miles’ Grass in its central idea, but Angove takes the idea in a very different direction. The redemption of the narrator, who is a zealot, a coward and a fool until it counts, is beautifully done, and Angove does a wonderful job of pastiching Regency-era prose styles.
Squatter’s Rights by Juliet Kemp is one of the creepiest short horror stories I’ve read in a long time, especially because the trap in it sounds so seductive at first.
After The Velvet Eon by Simon Bucher-Jones is the story here that, more than any of the others, needed to be told as a Faction Paradox story. Probably the best-structured of the stories, this is time-travel, emotional storytelling and folk-tale combined in a way that Steven Moffat wishes he could. There’s a love of language here that’s characteristic of Bucher-Jones’ work, too — “St Vermis’ Star”, for example, is just a wonderful touch.
Remake/Remodel by Jonathan Dennis sees the welcome return of Faction Hollywood, one of my favourite things from The Book Of The War. A creepy/funny story about desperation for stardom, the film industry and changing tastes in superheroes, as well as about conceptual entities.
Dharmayuddha by Aditya Bidikar is the story I’d have written if I knew anything about Hindu philosophy. I mean that literally — I was scared by some of the ways this parallels something I’ve been writing, and it sparked off all sorts of ideas that had already been sort-of lurking in my brain. This story manages to meld the Hindu idea of the Yugas perfectly with something that’s been hinted at in various Faction books, and expands the mythology beautifully.
A Star’s View Of Caroline by Sarah Hadley is… problematic for me, in that the criteria I judge it by may not be the criteria other people do. As a Faction Paradox story it works very well, although there is an element in the character PJ of a sort of fetishising of learning disabilities that one sometimes finds and which I’m not entirely comfortable with. But it tells the kind of story one hopes for in a Faction Paradox story — one involving the way our thoughts affect the world, the way the media affect our thoughts, and how those things all affect what is possible — very well.
The problem is that it’s set in what seems to be a generic skiffy post-apocalyptic background, but it’s one which will be very familiar to viewers of a certain TV show. And the story’s conclusion, which is enormously powerful, draws much of its power from association with two scenes from old black-and-white episodes of that show, one from 1964 and one from 1965. And I have no idea how someone who hasn’t seen those nearly-fifty-year-old black-and-white episodes of an old science fiction programme will react.
Now in some ways, this is a good thing — there is nothing in the story that requires you to have seen, or even to have heard of, those old stories. It works as a self-contained story, as far as I can tell, and the resonances with those other stories only add to its power. But it does mean that I can’t judge how well this would read to someone who hadn’t seen them.
And De Umbris Idearum by Philip Purser-Hallard is the story I would have *liked* to have written out of all these. It’s the first time, I think, that Purser-Hallard has ventured out of his own section of the Faction ‘mythos’ — the City Of The Saved, which he created and has written several stories and a novel about — and written something based on some of the other ideas from the Faction books. Here he takes on the Remote and Remakes, two ideas I’ve been wanting to see more exploration of, and uses them to tell a multiply-nested story of three priests, from three different time periods, which revolves around a theological conundrum about the nature of original sin. Whether intentionally or not, it ties together several themes from other stories in the collection very cleverly (the interference with the Earth’s scientific development in Wing-Finger is similar to some of the events here, the story is structured like the Russian dolls from Office Politics, and so on), while dealing with many of Purser-Hallard’s own usual themes.
Those eight stories only make up a little over half the book — the other six stories all have things to recommend them as well. This is a very, very impressive collection, and you should all buy it. It’s available from Obverse Books as a hardback or an ebook