Red Spider White Web

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Red Spider White Web is not an easy read.  It is intense, relentless, dense and dark.  Misha’s prose is fragmented, jagged and/or sensuous, and poetic.  Her characters are hard, distorted, tormented.
For ten or twenty pages you will wonder where, who, why and almost certainly what the fuck?  And suddenly, if you’ve given it the effort, the rhythm takes over.Red Spider White Web is fast, dramatic, vivid and you are inside it, unable to leave without running with it.
Set in what appears to be a run down, polluted, ghettoised future-Japan, RSWW is cyberpunk taken to its most extreme form: a true post-industrial nightmare tribal wasteland.  Through this acid-corrupted landscape move two figures, unknowingly circling each other.  Kumo, our heroine of sorts, is a digital artist living off her wits in a squat.  Tommy is
cyborg, cyber-enhanced, metal-skulled, and a former preacher.  In this closed world of 15 minute tailored viral infections, and pirate drugs where synthesis trumps all, someone is killing artists.  Kumo’s friend Dori has disappeared too, but not to the killer, but into the faux-Disney reactionary enclave Mickey-san, and she lures fellow artist Motler after her.
To say more would miss the point, Red Spider White Web is a complex novel of broken or divergent strands. When we see through Tommy’s ‘eyes’ as his brain interprets this nightmare world, things get seriously scary

You have shed a leather skin. It hangs. Your face breaks the water and your eyes spin in smokey anger. You glare at each other in the thick night with fickle ripples and yellow fright between us.  The twin revolvers of her eyes are leveled at me and he flashes his mesh mask to signal that once again love conquers all.  Her full breasts are floating in front of you, but the night masks their features. His metallic vision burns images on your eyes. Ghost gators and spirit sharks slash at your calves as you lunge out of the water. Horror is engraved on his retinas. You are terrified. He closes his eyes and shouts angrily and deliberately. He is delirious with this end to monotony. You are covering her naked face and body as she steps back from my molten fury.

That disorienting, imagistic, furious paragraph is on the first page. Misha traps you or repulses you, no seduction.  Fight or flight.  Unlike most cyberpunk characters here are true indigenes, no middle-class whiteboy slumming, and their unfamiliarity disturbs, even as their tribal fetishry is superficially familiar.  Red Spider White Web is art, about art, dayglo slashes in dark corners and spilled acid etching chrome.  Kumo is vulnerable, but she fights off an assault. Tommy is seduced and learns that he has been used. Art is all, Kumo believes, and it is this glowing ember that lights our path through the relentless gloom, only to find a new light and personal acceptance. Artists are as important as art.  Greed, corruption, revenge, sordid details almost over-power honour but don’t.

I know many readers who will dislike Red Spider White Web, Misha, who may be more poet than novelist, pulls no punches, makes no concession to soft sensibility.  It is not entry level, it has no obvious entry, just a plummeting trapdoor immersion.  But for those who don’t fight it, this is an exciting, witty (like a darker version of Richard Kadrey’s Metrophage) short novel you won’t forget.

Fittingly, for a novel about art, the original Morrigan Books edition had gorgeous chapter headings by Don Coyote aka Ferret, and as much as anything Red Spider White Web reminds me of that artist’s disturbingly comic Phoenix Restaurant graphic novel.

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Cortez On Jupiter

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Ernest Hogan’s debut novel, published in 1990 as part of Ben Bova’s Discoveries series, is a remarkable piece of original SF that is radical in ways that perhaps haven’t really been acknowledged yet. 

Cortez On Jupiter is the story of graffiti artist Pablo Cortez’ career progression from Basquiat-esque guerrilla muralist in 2020s LA via a staggered Bester-like plot to a weightless take on Jackson Pollock on in orbit above the Great Red Spot.  Meanwhile a series of attempts to communicate with the alien Sirens of the Jovian atmosphere repeatedly have fatal consequences.  Fascinated, Pablo volunteers.
Initially framed as a documentary on Pablo’s career, told in flashback and transcripts, Cortez on Jupiter steers a course that manages to include explicit satire and old-fashioned sensawunda SF tinged with cyberpunk simultaneously. 
The Science Fiction Encyclopaedia
talks about Hogan’s ‘pleasing gonzo energy’ which most obviously manifests in Pablo’s rapid-fire Spanglish-with-Nahuatl dialogues.  Long, free-flowing sentences leap around worldbuilding impressionistically rather than through any attempted simulation of mimesis.  Pablo drops Aztec deities into his rambling seemingly allocating new mythic status to everything.

Paint stick in hand like an Aztec priest wielding a flint knife, or that cop swinging his baton on that cool starless night years ago in L.A. that crushed the buckle from my gas mask into my skull, leaving a cute little scarito in my scalp that I wore my hair extra short for months to show off. Or like in that time before time when space wasn’t separate from time or anything was separate from anything else and all was the goddess Coatlicue, She of the Serpent Skirt, but then she was the Cipactli monster: alligatoroid, fished, but more a great, quivering mass swimming in an endless sea that was also a sky, a mass with mucho, mucho hungry mouths that devoured everything, the monster, the sea, the monster, the sea, so the sea was the monster and vice versa — everything all mixed up like Siren zapware feedback — ay! Makes me want to be like the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca — I wonder which I am, culture giver or trickster?  Could I be both?  Why not?  I know how they felt when they decided, Hey, enough of this formless nadaness! Let’s tear this monster/paint blob apart! (p2-3)

It becomes clear later that Pablo is, as he suspected, both culture giver and trickster.  In particular the loner Pablo continually voices the trickster’s absence of respect for society, whether in small groups, through the justice systems, or in the Space Culture Project.  In the latter Pablo rails against the Director as “An icon-maker rather than an iconoclast.  No wonder we didn’t get along.” (p83)

One of SF’s favourite toys is the neologism, from raygun to cyberspace SF has modified language to tell its story but I struggle to think of any writer who has made language so distinctly his own the way Hogan does.  (He even creates the wonderful “nuevofangled cyberpsychoautonomoelectromagneticneuroextrasensorywhatchamacallit.” p210) The Spanglish vocabulary not only gives Pablo cultural depth but contributes in classic trickster fashion to subverting the otherwise standard First Contact story.  In his hands the toy is a weapon, reflected by the Picasso quote Pablo has tattooed: “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.” (p25)

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Writing in SFEye Hogan said of himself:

Growing up as a Chicano, I often found it easier to identify with aliens, mutants and other sci-fi thingies than with the white people who were supposed to be destined to conquer the galaxy.(Greasy Kid Stuff From Outer Space, SFEye 11, December 1992)

That outsider feeling has translated in Pablo into the man who can communicate with the Sirens when they have mentally destroyed others because of the artistic perspective and because of that identification more with the alien than society.  In Cortez on Jupiter Ernest Hogan challenges the Heinleinian vision of space conquest, the prevalent Manifest Destiny of Space Exploration that lingers on.  The ‘heroic’ first man to lose his mind to the Sirens is Phil Hagen. 

a typical nondescript astronaut — not even the fact that he was black and raised in Brazil made him much different from the sterilized whitebread spacemen of the mid-twentieth century. He was all hard-edge haircut and close shave all the way down to the convolutions of his brain. (p27)

That sounds like Starship Troopers‘ John Rico to me, and the last line of that paragraph reads: “I can’t even recall anything he ever said that interested me.”

Cortez On Jupiter takes a conventional mainstream SF idea or two as its plot, hence the SFE suggestion that Hogan isn’t doing anything radically original, but in warping language as Pablo does  “I really don’t care what language they’re from — I just use ‘em when they fit.” (p9) Ernest Hogan satirizes swathes of SF that went before. 
Historically, Hernan Cortez defeated the Aztecs in part through his relationship with a woman who interpreted for him.  Pablo is a very different Cortez, but his return from the Sirens is facilitated by fellow artist Willa translating his thoughts.   Multi-faceted synaesthetic communications assimilate Pablo and the Sirens where the establishment protocols all failed. Hogan convincingly offers SF a new, post-Anglo paradigm. Pablo’s linguistic exuberance and artistic questing highlight and challenge the media obsessions and the cultural establishments of today both real and as more commonly portrayed in SF.

Cortez on Jupiter is a frequently very funny novel but one with a serious heart.  His story may be closest to Alfred Bester, but his freewheeling hi-NRG word mashups and sharp wide-ranging satire owe as much to Ishmael Reed.   Twenty years on I still know no writer in SF consistently doing what Hogan does with language to document, shape and comment on colliding cultures. 

Although long out of print in paper, there is now a new ebook edition of Cortez On Jupiter.

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Page references are to 1991 UK edition Mandarin paperback.

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The Weaponry of Deceit

Speculations on Reality in The Wasp Factory

Note: this review contains detailed spoilers.

The artwork by Jim Burns that originally illustrated this piece in Vector.

The principal plot motivation in Iain Banks’s 1984 Gothic novel The Wasp Factory is the threatened return of the narrator’s brother, Eric Cauldhame, from the asylum in which he has been incarcerated for some years. This imminent invasion of the world Frank Cauldhame has created for himself precipitates a personal crisis in which his true nature is ultimately revealed. By the close of the book, however, Eric has not actually made a substantial appearance, an absence which provokes the question: does Eric really exist, or is he a product of the joint imaginations of Frank and his father Angus? If the former is the case, then the Gothic aspect of The Wasp Factory provides a framework for its meaning. If there is evidence that Eric is substantial, this meaning may still remain but its significance is potentially diluted.

The difficulty the reader has in determining the truth lies in the unreliability of Frank Cauldhame as narrator. Almost from the opening lines, Frank demonstrates a vivid and unusual imagination which drives his behaviour. Furthermore, we are quickly advised that Frank has received the majority of his education at the hands of his father, an eccentric whom Frank believes to be unreliable in the information he has provided. This doubling serves to internalise the novel, and Frank’s physical distancing from normal society emphasises this. Frank and his father live on an island, linked to a small Scottish town by a causeway. This separation is again doubled by Frank being obliged to pretend to be a visiting relative as his father never registered his birth. Legally and formally, Frank does not exist: ‘My story was that I was the orphaned son of my father’s long lost brother, and only staying on occasional extended holidays on the island’ (p. 72).

The Wasp Factory is a Gothic novel: the island and the big old house are analogous to the Gothic castle, and both Frank and his father are grotesques, lonely people whose lives are steered by a single ‘truth’ which has become obsession. Frank is also a physical grotesque: a male castrated when he was three-years-old, as a result of an attack by the family dog Old Saul. It is as a consequence of this demasculinisation that Frank has developed his obsession with war games and means of destruction. His life has become a paranoid fantasy, with the totemic sacrific poles designed as ‘an early warning system and deterrent rolled into one’ (p. 10) and the elaborate devices of Frank’s oracle, the Wasp Factory itself, as a framework of what Banks himself calls ‘incantatory ritual’ (Science Fiction Eye 6, p. 26). Frank has killed three people, all whilst as a child, his younger brother and two cousins by a variety of cruel and usual means. All of his games, and thus most of his actions in the book – with the exception of brief encounters with his father and drunken evenings with his sole friend, the dwarf Jamie – are overtly militaristic, and he views this explicitly as a substitute for his perceived loss of sexuality: ‘Both sexes can do one thing specially well; women can give birth and men can kill… I consider myself an honorary man. We strike out, push through, thrust and take. The fact that it is only an analogue of all this sexual terminology I am incapable of does not discourage me’ (p. 118).

If Frank is an unreliable narrator, what evidence do we have for Eric’s existence within the narrative? The novel is punctuated by a series of telephone conversations between Frank and Eric. Each of these calls is initiated by Eric, but it is telling that on each occasion Angus does not hear the ring of the phone, and implies that he believes Frank to have been phoning out. The calls themselves are characterised by games, paradoxes and confusion of identity. On the first occasion Frank asks Eric where he is, the reply is:
“Here! Where are you?”
“Here.”
“If we’re both here, why are we bothering with the phone?” (p. 17)

Later Eric claims to be Frank in a particularly labyrinthine conversation and Frank is persuaded to call himself ‘Eric’ (p. 98).

One of the reasons for Eric’s imprisonment was his habit of catching dogs from the town and setting fire to them. During his phone conversations with Frank he vehemently denies ever doing this, and becomes quite distraught and angry even at the mention of animals, whilst at the same time taunting Frank with the mention of eating hot dogs. It is, however, Frank who appears to have reason to hate dogs, though he claims that it is only Old Saul he despises:

‘Old Saul was the culprit, Old Saul had gone down in history and my personal mythology as the Castrator’ (p. 103). It is Frank who devises a flame-throwing device with which he devastates a colony of rabbits on the island (pp. 34-6), who incinerates his toy in a ‘War’ between the Aerosols and the Soldiers (p. 24), and who invents in the Wasp Factory a bizarre device in which a wasp is burnt alive. As Frank says when describing the town’s reaction to Eric: ‘[A]s was probably inevitable a lot of kids started to think that I was Eric, or that I got up to the same tricks’ (p. 52).

Frank’s father, Angus, is a contributor to Frank’s paranoia, and his obsession with games. For example, he has measured every item in the household and expects Frank to have memorised the figures (p. 11). He has apparently wilfully miseducated his child, telling him that ‘Fellatio was a character in Hamlet’ (p. 14) and other such tricks. In a further example of Gothic doubling, Angus too has his chemical experiments carried out in a locked laboratory. It is this unreliable figure who tells Frank that Eric has escaped, and it is stressed on several occasions that nobody else knows. Frank even tells Jamie that he is surprised that it hasn’t been on the news (p. 74).

Frank’s discovery of ‘his’ true nature comes when he finally achieves access to his father’s study, where he discover a supply of male hormones, tampons and Potassium Bromide. However, Frank immediately jumps to the conclusion that his father is really a woman. This displacement is in keeping with Frank’s attribution of the burning dogs to Eric, and to other incidents. Although he is supposedly four years older, it is nine-year-old Eric who cries when the children’s pet rabbits are burned with the first flame-throwers, but five-year-old Frank, who merely vows revenge on the perpetrator, and that for upsetting his brother rather than the death of his pets (p. 38). This leads to the first murder, that of Frank’s cousin Blyth. The subsequent murders reveal that on each occasion Eric is absent. When Blyth is killed he is sleeping, leaving Frank to play on his own. Eric is assisting his father whilst Frank keeps their youngest brother Paul out of the way, and thus when Paul dies. Esmeralda’s murder comes whilst Eric is on a school trip. Frank actually says: ‘I had decided I would try to murder Esmeralda before she… arrived for their holiday. Eric was away on a school cruise, so there would only be me and her’ (p. 88).

Frank also alleges that their father dressed Eric as a girl for the first three years of his life. Three was the age of Frances when attacked by Old Saul, and the point where ‘she’ becomes ‘he’ as Frank. Again Frank has displaced events onto another, possibly to avoid dealing with their consequences. Eric’s break-down also comes during a separation from Frank, when he goes away to become a doctor like his father. Two aspects of this are significant. Firstly the horrific incident which provokes Eric’s collapse involves a dying child with maggots in its skull (p. 142), which may be seen as a conflation of images which are all prevalent in Frank’s imagination – he has a collection of skulls including those of the pet rabbits and Old Saul, he has killed three small children, and at one point views distant sheep: ‘slow, like maggots, over the land, eating’ (p. 150). Secondly, this incident and its subsequent consequences occur at the age when Frank would ordinarily be undergoing puberty, at the point when a tomboy would start to become a girl.

If Eric does not exist outside of Frank’s imagination, then it is reasonable to consider that the murders are equally a product of his militaristic fantasies. Whether they happened or not is less important than the means of their alleged happening. The ingenuity with which Frank’s imagination devises means of killing people is surely a symbol of the author’s intent. Iain Banks has said in various interviews that The Wasp Factory is as attack on ‘the British male military establishment’ and Angus’s manipulation of Frank’s gender perception is a clear representation of that. Eric’s rôle is as fuel for Frank’s paranoid fantasy, the encroaching menace from across the mainland, and though it isn’t specified, from the east? Eric’s reality and the reality of his actions give Frank genuine cause for some of his actions and thus dilute Banks’s argument; but as a figment of Frank’s warped mind, he becomes a potent symbol for what Banks considers to be the malaise in the military mind.

In the Gothic novel such symbolism is common, and there are further examples in The Wasp Factory; I have already mentioned that the entire novel is set on an island and features a large, old house. Banks explains this: ‘Any time a castle appears in any book [of mine] in a way it stands for the individual. Frank is almost literally cut off… literally insular in his perceptions’ (SF Eye # 6, p. 26). This makes it clear that what happens on the island, to a very great extent, correlates to what is happening in Frank’s mind.

At the very end of the novel, however, Eric does almost make a physical appearance. Frank is out walking when he hears the sound of an animal in pain and then sees a dog on fire. He of course blames Eric, but this incident occurs just minutes after Frank himself has been playing with a fire at the tip and expressing dissatisfaction with the modest results (p. 150). Is this latest dog-burning more displacement by Frank? When he returns to the house he makes his discovery about his father, but his challenge to Angus is interrupted by an apocalyptic scene in which a shed is set alight, apparently by Eric. There are explosions, but Frank puts the fire out, just like he’d earlier boasted doing with another fire on the island. Afterwards Eric is once again missing, but Frank persuades his father to tell him the truth. The Wasp Factory closes with Frank, now aware of ‘his’ feminine nature, looking down on Eric, as he lies sleeping peacefully. ‘He feels no pain’ (p. 182). Frank’s demon, the artificial masculinity he has had forced upon him and which he himself has forced, is laid to rest and thus so is Eric.

It remains unclear whether Frank Cauldhame actually has a brother named Eric; although it seems not from the evidence of Frank’s own narrative that the acts attributed to Eric were in fact carried out or imagined by Frank. As Frank says in the final scene:
‘I was proud; a fierce and noble presence in my lands, a crippled warrior…
‘Now I find I was the fool all along’ (p. 183).

All quotes are from the 1985 Futura edition.

(This article originally appeared in Vector 191 dated January/February 1997.  Thanks to Vector’s then editor Andrew M Butler for editing and advice, to members of Acnestis who also commented on drafts, and to current Vector editor Shana Worthen for finding me a copy to reprint.  Thanks to Jim Burns for the artwork, the original of which is on my wall.  Thanks also to Iain Banks for refusing to say if my theory is right or wrong.)

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East of Acre Lane – Alex Wheatle

Alex Wheatle’s second novel, from 2001, is a vivid, brooding depiction of Brixton in early 1981 in the weeks leading up to the riots.
The posse at the heart of this novel are a bunch of unemployed black youths just trying to get by and doing the things teens do.  Mainly we follow Biscuit, as he hustles a little weed, frets about his sister, tries to get with his girl Carol and takes in the music and sights and smells of the ghetto. 
Although there is a growing sense of imminent tragedy as East of Acre Lane opens out, this is a warm funny novel.  Wheatle uses authentic dialogue that moves the action rapidly with a natural rhythm.
“Lincoln, go tell dat damn Robson fe stop jumping ‘pin de balloons den or I will jump ‘pon ‘im.”
That’s the sort of writing I often hate, it can be clichéd or worse a  patronising gimmick, a lazy characterisation device, and it can be hard to read.  Wheatle certainly throws in plenty of street vocabulary that isn’t immediately obvious (“rarted”?) but his flow carries it and the reader quickly learns to parse it.
Obviously racial issues run deep here, but there is equally a strong sense that Wheatle is documenting a general poor, unemployed, neglected underclass.  Biscuit’s white Irish  neighbour Frank is a prime example, but scenes where Carol and her friends discuss boyfriends could be from Alan Warner’s smalltown Scotland in The Sopranos. 
Biscuit is central here, a kind-hearted, decent young man hustling for petty cash, but his friends play their part in this ensemble.  Occasional lapses where authorial voice seems to observe things in a way the young, uneducated youth is unlikely to, are quickly overcome by the strengths of this novel.
I know at least one minor character here, Brenton, is central in a couple of other books, but the well-travelled, eccentric rasta mentor Jah Nelson deserves more chapters, and I think every reader will want to know how Biscuit gets on.  East of Acre Lane is the first Alex Wheatle novel I’ve read, it won’t be the last. 

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Post Everything – Luke Haines

Back in the 90s, the britpop wars saw every tabloid and their easily led readers arguing over who was best: Oasis or Blur.  Those who believed themselves cooler than that pointed out the ‘correct’ answer should be Pulp. The truly enlightened knew it was The Auteurs led by Luke Haines.
The story of The Auteurs and other things is told in Bad Vibes subtitled Britpop My Part In Its Downfall.  This is the sequel, covering 1997-2005 with the subtitle Outsider Rock’n’Roll, featuring the end of The Auteurs, the career of Black Box Recorder and solo projects.
As a songwriter Haines best work, of which there is plenty, resembles a southern blend of less pretentious, less narcissistic Jarvis Cocker meets wittier, more self-aware Mark E Smith in a Go-Betweens/70s glam pop tribute band with a thing for serial killers and terrorists.  No songwriter could have been more apt to create the soundtrack to a film of Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. As a writer he is waspish, knowingly misanthropic, bitchy without camp (he digresses at one point to explain the dangers of failed camp) yet occasionally tender or sympathetic.  He also talks to the late Biggie Smalls, and to a Talking Cat previously owned by Chris Blackwell, mostly as a device for self-deprecation and avoiding more disastrous than normal career choices.
Ah yes, disastrous career choices.  Naming a side-project Baader-Meinhof, calling your record company c**** in NME because he was disturbed by his A&R man’s dog, a National Theatre musical based on the life of Nicholas van Hoogstraten, etc. Tales told with relish by Haines who seems to realise his flirtation with success scares him and he sabotages it.  It’s a weird self-reflective schadenfreude.
That’s when record company incompetence doesn’t save him the trouble.  The recording of Black Box Recorder’s second album Facts of Life was funded by 4 different record companies providing money for demos. 
On one level Haines’ story is the typical midlist cycle of demos, promo gigs, poor support, being signed, dropped, re-signed, re-dropped ad nauseum.  On others its a gripping near car crash populated with vicious jibes at Haines’ alleged peers (a band from Manchester disparaged in Bad Vibes as The Rutles are here dismissed as Dumb and Dumber, Richard Ashcroft is deservedly slated, and Primal Scream… oh dear.)  Industry hangers on get the same treatment, and the only remorse is for innocent bystander “‘Philip’ from Rising Damp” who encounters a very drunk Haines in the street.

Funniest moments?  Haines and BBR compatriot John Moore getting drunk on absinthe before gatecrashing the Glenn Hoddle resignation Press conference, where Moore asked the question in everyone’s mind. “Glenn, are you thick?”
Or maybe:
my introduction to a man that all sentient beings could surely only ever think of as a nincompoop has been happily derailed.  I am wrong.  Out of the mists of the VIP area returns The Drummer Out of Supergrass. He has been successful in his quest, and walking behind him is the tiny, yet oddly puffed up figure of the extremely silly singer out of U2.  These situations never play out well.
There’s so much, much more of this.  The best prose encapsulation of Tony Blair, for instance, but read it yourselves. 
Luke Haines’ latest project is 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s was one of my albums of 2011.  Buy it, make him successful, more pissed off, and hopefully generate material for more volumes like Post Everything. 

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2012

I didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions as such, but I’ve been thinking about plans for this blog in coming months.

Firstly, I hope to post more frequently and in more depth.  I am pleased with several reviews already on here for their analysis and their readability, but I think I should and can improve on both those aspects.

As for what I post about, I have tentative plans for more music writing. Not album reviews as such, more personal, polemical or proselytical pieces. I know how much you like those.

I expect it to remain mostly books and related pieces though.  As usual trying to restore attention to neglected women authors of the past and present, particularly SF but never exclusively so.  In addition (and obviously overlapping at times) I want to read and discuss more writing by Authors of Colour or in translation.  I haven’t set a specific schedule as some reading challenges do, but amongst those I’m considering are NK Jemisin, Alex Wheatle, Minister Faust, Bernardine Evaristo, Joanna Sinisalo, Nalo Hopkinson, Tatyana Tolstaya and Ernest Hogan. Recommendations welcome as ever!

So far I haven’t seen announcements for quite so many *must buy immediately* titles in 2012 as last year, but it is early yet.  One I’ve just seen mentioned by the author on twitter is a second novel from Attica Locke whose debut Black Water Rising I loved a couple of years ago.  (Locke also fits that reading challenge.)  There is also a new Kim Stanley Robinson novel due, which is always great, and I’m really looking forward to Lucius Shepard’s Griaule collection too.

Other than that, watch this space.

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The Best Books of 2011

You know when you don’t think you’ve been keeping up to date, then you make a list? That was 2011. The year at least half a dozen of my favourite authors brought out new books I was desperate to read instantly. After a gap of over 20 years in one case, by the way, so that was a real thrill in itself.
It was, of course, a year when the whole women in SF thing blew up (again) and it seems that some men and even some women editors, bloggers and readers still don’t see a problem. My regular reader knows I’ve tried to point a few things out here and there and reviewed a few books I think you might like to know about here and at Sfmistressworks, but I noticed recently that my ideas for Christmas list was again uneven in its gender balance.
The point is that this year I have been looking back, filling in gaps where I had missed reading some of these women SF writers of the past. (Not just women, I spent chunks of 2011 reading or rereading the excellent but neglected short SF of Bob Shaw.) As a result this list might have omissions that surprise you, maybe I didn’t find time, or interest, to read the latest fan fave. Or maybe I did and it just wasn’t good enough.

So what was good enough?
15 Connemara A Little Gaelic Kingdom – Tim Robinson
Third of Robinson’s Connemara trilogy, a remarkable ‘deep map’ (to appropriate William Least-Heat Moon’s term for a work that delves into the social and historical geography alongside its physical detail.) In this volume Robinson intertwines folk tales, gossip and recorded data, taking from the Irish place names clues and guidance, to reveal for me the interdependence of the magical and the mundane in bringing life to a landscape.

14 The Islanders – Christopher Priest
In a way Priest does something similar to Robinson but with an entirely fictitious landscape. The Islanders is a little too aware of its own cleverness to succeed, but Priest is a writer whose failures entertain and frequently surpass lesser writers’ successes. A book perhaps to come back to.

13 Heart Of Iron – Ekaterina Sedia
Rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, Sedia’s alternate Russia where the Decembrists succeeded has many basic aspects that lift it above the herd. Not least is a proper awareness of the history she changes, so her steampunk trappings are rational not gimmicks.

12 Don’t Look Back – Laura Lippman
When she was a teen Eliza survived kidnapping by a serial killer, now 20 years later he writes to her from Death Row. A recurring theme in Lippman’s recent novels has been how we recall past trauma. Don’t Look Back examines not only Eliza and Walter’s versions, but also why they believe them, and why others believe them. Murder is rarely central to Lippman’s crime novels, in this case it is the nature of the punishment and the legacy of the crimes that she carefully examines.

11 City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
A debut novel set in a near future, unexplained Irish city, with its gangs and its lovers. SF fans may balk at Barry’s unwillingness to offer a global backstory, but his sketched city is the more real for its gaps.

10 A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
Another unexplained near future and past, cleverly revealed in a series of linked, overlapping or abutting vignettes, stories, scenes and character sketches.

9 Wind Angels & Other Stories – Leigh Kennedy

A mere 23 years or so after her last book, Kennedy is finally back in print with a varied selection of straight SF, dystopian fictions, fantasy and romance. Mostly understated, deceptively quiet, Kennedy frequently leaves her reader pondering the story, and always wanting more. Personal favourite? ‘Vulture Trucks’ is a fun Texan supernatural tale.

8 Mr. Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
In places Mr.Fox is perhaps the most charmingly romantic novel I read in 2011, the flirtation between Fox and Mary is so softly handled. The vignette structure means these are brief, which would often be frustrating, but between them are other equally effective scenes.
The writer whose fictional muse comes to life is not new, the way Oyeyemi exploits it is very good. Creativity, gender power relationships, and love are explored with wit in a thoughtful novel.

7 Regicide – Nicholas Royle
A slim, dark, brooding menace of true urban fiction reminiscent of M John Harrison’s 80s short fiction. Distorted streetscapes, apparently shifting rules that may actually obey a mysterious other logic and a gripping realist telling of a noir fantasy as his readers have come to expect from Royle. Of the three I’ve read to date his best so far.

6 The Bible Repairman & Other Stories – Tim Powers
Several intriguing, atmospheric tales of mostly Californian Urban Fantasy by the absolute master of that subgenre. And the highlight of this collection, a novella ‘A Time To Cast Away Stones’ which follows Edward Trelawny to Greece after the events of The Stress Of Her Regard. This year I read my fifth Trelawny biography, and as you’d expect, I cast a critical eye on Powers’ version, but his impeccable research won through, and his rich imaginations granted a remarkable man a new light in fantasy.

5 The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall
Reviewed here the third short story collection in this list is a stylistic tour de force and an emotional epic. Geographically varied but often emphatically northern, Hall’s work continues to impress.

4 Dark Tangos – Lewis Shiner

Amongst other things Shiner’s latest novel made me want to dance. In 200 pages he tells us all about Tango, about the death squads in 1970s Argentina, about the reconstruction of recent years and ties in a genuine, moving romance, meditation on the sins of our fathers (a recurrent Shiner theme), and post-breakup reconstruction. Throw in evocative depictions of Tango halls and explicit, brutal torture scenes and you have a powerful, realistic romantic political thriller.

3 God’s War – Kameron Hurley
Strange Horizons’ Niall Harrison made a big thing about this earlier in the year. When I finally got a copy just before Christmas I discovered how right he was.
God’s War hits the ground running and barely pauses from there on in. Fantasy that looks like SF, an immersion into a perpetual war on a curious planet settled by islamic types some of whom have powers, some of whom have weaponry. It’s about gene piracy, bounty hunters, tech magic, and personal history. I’ve read little like it at all.

2 The Uncertain Places – Lisa Goldstein
Reviewed here I make no apology for reasserting my belief that Goldstein deserves as much acclaim as the likes of Crowley, Powers and Gaiman. Re-telling fairytales in fantasy is common, reminding us why we need fairytales less so, and doing that within a clever, charming and joyful story quite rare.

And finally, if you follow me on Twitter or talked to me this year, then no surprise…

1 Redwood and Wildfire – Andrea Hairston

An alternative history of the early twentieth century, of life in the backwoods of Georgia and the growing city of Chicago. Alternative because Hairston’s rich, passionate love story reveals the lives of black Americans in every detail, from the opening scene lynching, to minstrel shows, pioneering black cinema, brothels and exploitative landlords, hoodoo and christianity.
I read Redwood & Wildfire three times in 9 months, each time seeing more in the story to, not bring it more to life so much as enhance the world beyond its pages. The obscure historical references that, once I learned some were true, gave the whole an air of realism on the one hand that supported the gentle, occasionally angry, magic.
On each read I shared the anger, fear, grief, laughter, love and loss that saturates this novel until they were my feelings.
Redwood & Wildfire incorporated so much so easily, in vivid depiction of The World’s Fair (visited by time travel), in powerfully demonstrating the ways black society works and fails alike, in beautifully handled episodes of non-conforming sexuality (not least the eponymous lovers, but also gay and seemingly polygamous characters) and in so much more, that it was unchallenged as the best book of 2011 and perhaps one of the very best of the century so far.

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