D’Arc, by Robert Repino

D'Arc, by Robert Repino

This sequel to Mort(e) picks up right where we left off and then propels itself forward. It feels like a few different genre novels married to each other: A western, a murder mystery, and an action/adventure story. I’ve always enjoyed that approach in speculative fiction. You take something fantasy or scifi, and write a story in that world from a different genre.

I thought it did a great job building up a mystery, while expanding on the mythology and worldbuilding quite nicely. In some ways it’s also a coming of age novel; a moral tale about choosing your own path, and writing your own story.

Robert RepinoRepino’s writing is extremely clean and tight. It reads effortlessly, and never gets in the way. Simple declarative sentences lay it all out for the reader. When the story really starts to get going, it’s almost like the writing entirely disappears, and you’re just… in it. I have to applaud him for that. I’m not even sure how one accomplishes something like that, but it’s impressive.

There was some fun closure for secondary and tertiary characters from the first novel, particularly Wawa. I really loved her arc in this. She was one of the better developed characters in Mort(e), so it was nice to see her get something good to chew on again in this one.

The last third, and the conclusion to the story didn’t really work for me. Early on there were a few big questions that were set up, and a great antagonist built through his own POV chapters, but those questions were mostly sidestepped, and the antagonist just fizzled out. I suspect that there will be more novels that may resolve my questions, and in fact, there was quite a bit of setup for what may be coming next. I have to admit it sounds very interesting. The world really is ripe for more stories.

All in all, it’s a fun continuation of the story that began in Mort(e), but it feels much less it’s own thing, and more an interstitial chapter in a continuing saga; something that needed to happen before the next part can occur. I’m still very excited for that next part though!

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

I’m notoriously picky, and it’s hard to find something that checks every one of my boxes: worldbuilding, prose, characters, and story. Usually I’ll find something that hits 2 or 3 of them; a great story, written well, but with weak worldbuilding or characters. Or a top notch world, with vivid characters, but only serviceably written. Void Star nails them all. It’s true literary Speculative Fiction, and a rare find.

It not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Zachary MasonInstead we have three main POVs, which build the narrative like three avalanches, accelerating as they accumulate, eventually converging violently and spiraling out in interesting and unexpected directions. The chapters are very short, often only five or six pages, seventy-seven chapters total in just under four hundred pages, which makes it really approachable. I would often sit down with not much time, intent on only reading a chapter or two, but the short chapters gave it a forward momentum that made it difficult to put down. The conclusion satisfies immensely, and I have a strong feeling that it’s even better on subsequent readings. If I didn’t have a few novels and novellas I still need to read before the Hugo vote this year, I would reread this one right now. I’m considering it a strong contender for the Hugo or Nebula awards next year. I do think it’s a little better suited for the Nebula though, as that award usually embodies novels with terrific prose.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jumpstart your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

The worldbuilding is so thorough: favelas that are nearly alive with their continually evolving construction by drone, layers of society and culture, poverty and wealth all clashing at their intersections, powerful corporations pulling strings, artificial intelligences that are as distant from us as we are to bacteria. It’s near(ish) far future, but the tech isn’t all state of the art. It’s presented in a much more realistic way; the way things have always been. You might have some tech that is cutting edge (your phone, or tablet, etc), but you still interact with other bits of technology that are nearing their obsolescence (maybe you drive an old carbureted pickup truck, or an antique motorcycle, maybe you use an ancient fax machine at work). In this world there is tech that is still far in the future for us, but to the characters using it, it’s a bit obsolete. This small detail makes all the difference in my suspension of disbelief as a reader, and makes this world that much more comprehensively thought out and impressive.

I love novels that tell a huge, satisfying science fiction story in a relatable world like this. Highly recommended.


The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

There is something tragically romantic about lighthouses: The structures themselves stand watchful and solitary, a beacon of warning and assistance to those at sea. The broad scope of protection proffered by one individual toward so many others. It makes the profession of lighthouse keeper appear selfless, but in my mind it’s more symbiotic than that. I imagine a lighthouse keeper as someone who strives to be useful, but requires isolation the way others require companionship. Introspective in a world that forces continual socialization; the job facilitating a way for them to achieve fulfillment while maintaining the functional distance they inherently need. I imagine them as superheroes in a way. Working alone in the dark for the betterment of humanity, but if they’re really being truthful, they do it for themselves more than anyone else. I’m obviously taking a lot of liberties here, but it’s how I’ve always imagined that world and those who inhabit it.

As far as I understand, modernity has mostly removed the need for lighthouse keepers, relocating that profession to an era of the past. This only adds another layer to the romance and tragedy for me. Basically, this is a long winded explanation of why I am inexorably drawn to stories featuring lighthouses, or lighthouse keepers, and what a story this one was.

We have two main points of view nested within each other: A third person narrative of a lighthouse keeper on a particularly cold night, reading a parcels worth of letters written by his somnambulant predecessor, each detailing a dream experienced during his sleepwalk events. These personal accounts are where the bulk of the story is contained, and in my opinion, where it really shines. The third person interludes between the dreams felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. I wanted something more introspective from these sections. However, I do believe the context in which they reside would change on a subsequent reading, so that may be a rash judgement on my part as a reader.

Lars Boye JerlachThe story itself has some strong elements of Paul Auster’s style of storytelling. Mystery upon mystery. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of Haruki Murakami’s fantastical realism. In his dreams, the somnambulist momentarily inhabits the bodies of others (or sometimes Poe’s raven Nevermore). Some of these characters are historically known to him, others are known to the lighthouse keeper reading the somnambulist’s accounts, and others still, aren’t known by either (but should be apparent to the reader of this book itself). There are a few fun surprises here as you become aware of who is being inhabited, and the way that these characters relate to each other. The somnambulist is unsure whether his dreams are genuine experiences, premonitions, or merely dreams. It’s really a clever story structure; each additional dream sequence adding to the mystery and intrigue as the story unfolds toward its conclusion.

The writing style took some time to become accustomed to. The whole book is double line spaced, there are almost no first line indentations, and the author has an on-again/off-again relationship with paragraphs. It feels like a stylistic choice, and I’ve seen it before, but I’m still unsure of the reasoning.

The Somnambulist’s Dreams is postmodern literature with a capital P. Which I’m all about, but have to be in the right kind of mood to properly enjoy. When it comes to postmodernist writing like this that is more ontological, paradoxical, etc, I find it often helps me if I know that that is what I’m getting myself into from the start. The gorgeous cover artwork and synopsis communicate this quite nicely. Every thread may not pull itself together into a pretty little bow in the end, but that’s part of the appeal; it’s the journey, not so much the destination with this kind of novel. I enjoyed this for the type of presence it cultivated while being read, not so much the definitive conclusion or ending that a traditional story builds toward. That’s not to say that The Somnambulist’s Dreams doesn’t conclude in a satisfactory way, it does. It’s just that it’s a bit of paradox in itself, which to me can be infinitely more interesting when it’s handled with grace like this.

The Survivors, by Nick Farmer

The Survivors, by Nick Farmer

“Do I miss it? I dunno, man, maybe. I feel like everything before the sleep was a lie, and now I’ve woken up, in more ways than one. But being awake is scary.”

The Survivors is a clever viral outbreak story that takes a unique, layered point of view on survival of the fittest. On the surface there’s a straightforward tale of post-apocalyptic existence at play, but there is also a lot between the lines about transhumanism, genetic modification, living rather than just being alive, fear motivating division motivating hatred, etc. It’s a great story, and the novelette form is the perfect length for it to unfold in.

Personally, the thing I love about short fiction is that when the word count is only so long, instead of filling in every last detail, writers have the freedom to tell a smaller, more human story, while hinting toward the greater fictional universe. This lets the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps and personalize their experience, effectively meeting the text halfway. I think this serves to kickstart our sense of wonder, which is the root of speculative fiction, and why short fiction has always been SF’s bread and butter. It’s that “What if…” that gets the ball rolling, and helps us to imagine. In The Survivors, the main “what if” questions are: What if the infected were the survivors, while still representing a mortal danger to the uninfected? What if it were preferable to be infected? What if there were desirable side effects? This novelette is a jumping off point for those kinds of questions.

Nick FarmerPart of the fun of post apocalypse stories, is the fantasy that everything could change in an instant. All of the daily drags, work, responsibilities, etc could evaporate and you could live a more exciting, adventurous life full of danger and genuine struggle. I think that a lot of us are so removed from the reality of living to survive, that we almost crave it. For most of us in the western world, what we call work barely resembles anything physically demanding. We sit in front of screens, and move pixels around, which somehow corresponds to a paycheck, but it’s all virtual; we aren’t really doing anything. I think this can sometimes leave us rather unfulfilled physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally. In turn, we crave some adventure, or maybe just something more “real”, something that ties into our mammalian core, and what’s more real than the struggle to survive? This is probably why we go camping, or hiking, why we ride motorcycles, or partake in other risky activities. It’s also most likely why we tend to love apocalyptic fiction in all its varieties. It’s a thrill to read.

Something else I want to touch on is the absolutely gorgeous graphic design both outside and inside this book. Each chapter heading has a visual progression that changes as you get closer to the conclusion. Little details like this really make a physical copy a worthwhile thing in an age of easy digital books.

Farmer first came to my attention through his work as the creator of the Belter conlang for The Expanse TV series. If you’re not familiar with Belter, it’s a creole language created specifically for the Syfy adaptation of the book series by James S.A. Corey. It has a surprisingly rich history built into every word and phrase. He has been very active in the online community of fans who latched onto Belter, often answering questions, adding to the Belter lexicon, and correcting usage from his twitter account. There was obviously a remarkable amount of thought and creativity that went into the creation of Belter, and I’d suggest looking into some of the podcasts and videos featuring Nick explaining the process. It’s fascinating stuff.

When I heard that he was writing fiction, I had high hopes that his output would be as good as his conlang creation. So I’m very glad to see that Farmer is not only gifted as a linguist, but is also showing quite a bit of talent and promise as a writer. His prose is clean and straightforward, the pacing smooth, and it’s a well structured story. I’ll definitely be picking up his future writing.

The world has changed. So have the Survivors.

When Daniel wakes up from a disease he never knew he had, he finds a nearly empty New York City, inhabited by a small number of people, who, like him, were infected, yet lived. They are biologically immortal, yet as carriers of the deadliest pathogen in human history, they are feared and reviled by their uninfected neighbors. Under constant threat of attack, Daniel and this new community are looking for answers about what happened, and why.

 

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

A disturbing/enthralling allegory – class struggle, self deception, and the animalistic brutality concealed just below the surface of human civilization.

I knew of Ballard from the new-wave SF of the late 60s / early 70s, particularly Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions compilations, wherein he’s described – by Ellison in his story introduction – as one of the few mainstream lit crossovers coming from the world of speculative fiction. He is an eloquently gifted writer, straightforward but poetically descriptive at the same time.

J.G. BallardHigh-Rise is one of those few short novels that could be the topic of a very concise thesis, that ultimately clocks a longer page count than its source material. There is a simple story of ascent/descent at play, but quite a bit of expressive analogy hiding between the lines. There are three main characters, each representing a differing class; lower, middle and upper. This isn’t immediately apparent, but becomes clear through their differing motivations and desires as society in the High-Rise begins to break down. Each of their stories play out to their logical, disturbing conclusions.