Tangle’s Game – Stewart Hotston

Tangle’s Game by Stewart Hotston (review copy from Rebellion) starts extremely strongly, with the experience of a mixed race woman detained at an airport for questioning.  Subjected to racist abuse and sexual harassment, Amanda Back, a successful banker, doesn’t know why she has been detained.  It is only when she is finally released and makes her way home that she finds out that her ex-boyfriend Tangle has involved her in a complex plot about blockchain and AI by sending her an encrypted USB key containing datafiles that are being sought by governments across the world.

On the one hand, Tangle’s Game is a very prescient novel that extends current issues in society.  Technological development is mixed up with global geo-politics and attempts by one nation state to undermine others.  Its conclusions and their impact on Amanda feel startlingly plausible.  And Hotston is to be applauded for his characterisation of Tangle as a charismatic but selfish and self-obsessed man.  Another, lazier writer would have romanticised Amanda’s toxic ex-boyfriend and tried to redeem him.

But this is a flawed novel.  The authorial voice is far too prominent for me, with a didactic tone that is determined to tell you how to interpret the events of the book and the issues it portrays.  This kind of “tell, not show” is intrusive, and throws me out of books.  The novel also relies on too many early coincidences – the arrival of two hired mercenaries in Amanda’s flat, and the presence of a helpful AI.  Neither is fully explained and feels clumsily done in order to move the plot along.  And while the story flows competently if predictably from thereon in, it’s hard to care about any of the characters.

Goodreads rating: 2*

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Celebrity Werewolf – Andrew Wallace

Imagine, if you will, if David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick got together to tell a story of human progress in the face of competing drivers.  Don’t be fooled by the title, or by the light, witty prose – Celebrity Werewolf by Andrew Wallace (NewCon Press) is a book with a lot to say.

Gig Danvers, the titular Celebrity Werewolf, pops into existence without warning one day.  He has no memory of his past or why he is here, but after a series of heroic acts he captures the public imagination.  Gig is “a lover, not a biter”, not your typical, violent werewolf.  Together with scientist Becky and businesswoman Helen, Gig sets out to make the world a better place with inventions based on his own biology.  But his efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the world are repeatedly undermined by arch-rival Gavin Dergs.

This is a conflict between two competing views of the world.  Gavin is about profit, control and a narrow view of who should benefit.  By contrast, Gig is a humanitarian wanting to share his discoveries with everyone.  He advocates an inclusive approach based on love and compassion.  Yet he finds himself outflanked by Gavin at nearly every turn.

This is a love song to human progress, and the need for radical change to address the real problems facing humanity at the moment.  In order to develop, we must change and be willing to embrace the new and different, and overturn the old and existing orders.  We need to reconcile the duality of left and right, profit and public service, love and cynicism if we are to have any chance of succeeding in the longer term.

Wallace amps up the strangeness as the book progresses.  His creativity is fresh and exciting, particularly in the way he breaks down traditional sub-genre boundaries to tell this story.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Not For Use In Navigation – Iona Datt Sharma

One of the joys of reviewing books is coming across exciting, new writing.  Iona Datt Sharma was kind enough to send me a review copy of their short story collection Not For Use in Navigation.  It is full of wit, staggeringly subtle insight and exquisite prose. These are stories that foreground queer and genderfluid people, and focus on liminal spaces.

At EasterCon I was on a panel with Charlie Stross.  We were talking about how rarely stories deal with those behind the scenes people who in real life make change happen.  Charlie’s point was that in a Joseph Campbell-based tradition of story-telling, we want to read about heroes.  That mode of story-telling doesn’t lend itself well to ensemble casts or the acknowledgement of the necessity of collaborative effort.  But Datt Sharma puts that to the lie.  Every person is the hero of their own story, and Datt Sharma tells stories that elevate the mundane and use it to illustrate the profound.

The collection opens with Light, Like A Candle Flame.  This is the story of a woman whose job it is to persuade colonists on a new world that they all need to agree to build a sewage treatment plant, because their current arrangements will not support the growing colony.   Not the most exciting of topics, but in Datt Sharma’s hands this becomes a meditation on leaving home, the tension between past and future and how human beings living in communities work out how they live together.

The bathos is most present in Alnwick, the story of a civil servant working on the UK’s space programme.  Disturbed from a party by an accident that has left many people badly injured, Meg has to deal with the immediate aftermath and ensure the planned space launch will go ahead as intended.  I felt deeply seen by this novel.  Meg does radical work at the cutting edges of technological development, but is seen by her girlfriend Deepika’s activist friends as boring and conventional.  Meg’s story is the heroism of hard work and complex problem solving, and a competent woman doing her job well.  The image of her briefing her Minister in a party dress and snow boots sums this up for me: glamour mixed with practicality.  Meg is the ultimate public servant, quietly doing radical world-changing work that those around her underestimate.

These themes continue in Flightcraft.  Talitha Cawthorne is a flight engineer scarred by the experience of war.  Trying to find a path for her future, Talitha finds herself drawn to a nearby airbase, and the friendship of a civilian flight engineer called Cat.  Talitha was someone forced to do things that others might find unethical during the war, but in the name of saving others.  These are hard and difficult choices that are not ones that most people have the ability to make.  Flightcraft asks who are we to judge from a position of partial knowledge when we are the unwitting beneficiaries.

The collection also includes a novella called Quarter Days.  It follows two magical practitioners, and their new apprentice, who are caught up in the reaction to a railway disaster.  One of them, Ned, is held responsible for the accident because he was one of those that worked on the railway signalling equipment.  But the investigation into the incident begins to show their may be another cause.  This is a story about the impact of migration on a city.    Datt Sharma doesn’t shy away from the bigotry and Othering of those migrant communities, but this is a story about how those people can enrich a place in unforeseen ways by what they bring with them from their homelands.

Interspersed throughout the collection are stories of Akbar and Birbal.  These are reimagined versions of popular folk stories about Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor of India and his friend and principal adviser Raja Birbal.  Akbar struggles to be a good ruler, and it is often Birbal’s cleverness that helps him solve problems, grow and learn.  Datt Sharma’s genderflipped Akbar and Birbal are transported to a space-faring empire.  But the core heart of the stories remains – a strong friendship between two individuals who are not afraid to speak truth to one another.

This is a brilliant collection of fiction that deserves a wide audience.  Datt Sharma is a writer to watch.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Paul Darrow

I lost a friend today.

Long ago, hormonal 14 year old me watched repeats of her beloved Blakes 7 on UK Gold and idly dreamed of Avon being in her bedroom.  Little did 14 year old me imagine that would one day happen.  But 14 year old me could also never have imagined that there would be seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.

Lots will be – and is – being written about Paul Darrow’s acting career and his contribution to the cultural life of the world.  But I want to talk about the man I was privileged enough to get to know and spend some time with.

Paul holding court over lunch, the first day I met him.

 

I first met Paul in October 2012, at a small lunch in aid of charity that I’d seen advertised somewhere online.  I was at a moment in my life where I wanted to meet some new people and mix up my social life.  I took a day off work and went to Hastings for the day, not sure what to expect.  I found an engaging, intelligent man full of enthusiasm for life who was brilliant company and the polar opposite of every cold-hearted, calculating bastard he ever played on screen.  Lunch extended into a slow wander through the autumn sunshine.  Conversation turned to an event he (and Jacqueline Pearce) were due to be at the following day at Kennington Cinema Museum.  As we parted he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Paul and I outside a Hastings restaurant

So I duly presented myself at the Cinema Museum the following day.  And I found myself sucked into Paul’s entourage.  We spent a lot of time hanging out on the smoking terrace – with Jacqueline Pearce – and generally running round the Cinema Museum giggling (we were hiding from someone Paul was trying to avoid).  I laughed so much my ribs were aching.

Three months later I found myself in a small hotel, deep in the countryside.  There were about 10 of us, and after a fantastic dinner we played Trivial Pursuit in teams.  Paul’s team won.  He was always very competitive, and picked the pink questions at every opportunity.  (A category where he always had an unfair advantage, I feel.)

l-r Michael Keating (Vila), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), me, Paul Darrow (Avon), Steven Pacey (Tarrant)

 

That set a pattern for the last six years.  It was like a long lost uncle had suddenly arrived in my life.  But an uncle determined to drag me to the pub and tell me stories about all the exciting things he’d been doing while long and lost. Fascinating insights into the acting profession from repertory to working for the BBC and ITV, and film, told with real pride about his craft.  Behind the scenes stories from on set.  History told with an instinct for drama.  And underneath it all, a childlike enthusiasm for life, often expressed through filthy jokes, impressions and a mischievous sense of humour – all with impeccable comic timing.

Giggling with l-r Stephen Greif (Travis), Michael Keating (Vila), me and Paul Darrow (Avon)

This long lost uncle introduced me to an entire extended family of cousins I’d never have known otherwise.  I met and made some amazing friends through Paul.  Fascinating people I would never have met otherwise.  And a circle of remarkably un-fannish people at that.  Paul drew around him those that were interesting, engaging and good company.  And we all cared for him deeply.

Behind the Liberator control console with l-r Michael Keating (Vila), me, Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Glynis Barber (Soolin), Stephen Greif (Travis) and Paul Darrow (Avon)

If there is one thing I learned from the time I spent with him, it was the joy that can come from time spent in good company with no particular plan in mind.  He turned hanging out into an artform of existing in the moment.

They say you should never meet your heroes.  Take the chance.  You may find your life is impossibly enriched by doing it.

Paul and I late one night. Or was it early one morning?

EasterCon 2019, Or The Fear Of Over-Exposure

Last weekend I was at Ytterbium, the 70th annual British science fiction convention.  It’s run each year by a committee of volunteers, and is a huge endeavour that attracts around 1,000 people.  It’s my fifth year attending, since my first, Dysprosium in 2015.  And it was far and away the best EasterCon I’ve been to in those five years.  So much so that it’s taken me nearly a week to get over my concrash enough to consider writing a con report.

Me with Gareth L Powell after he won with BSFA Best Novel Award for Embers of War

Over the last five years my personal involvement in SFF communities has increased significantly, as has my confidence in these spaces.  Reflecting back to Dysprosium, I spent a lot of my time feeling like an unwelcome outsider.  I was a Muggle at Hogwarts and none of the cool kids would give me the time of day.  Now, I know far more people in the community, and have found/built my little subset of the tribe to hang out with.

Me (l) with friend Ida (r)

Building that community has taken time.  I have one friend who has that fierce brand of confidence that means that she can walk into any room, be the centre of attention, and emerge feted.  That is not me.  I joke that I grow on people more slowly, much like mould, until I become part of the furniture.  A wise friend always remarks on my networking ability.  Professionally, part of my job is to know lots of people and understand the connections between them.  I have slowly learned that not everyone works that way, and I’ve also learned that it’s something I unconsciously bring into my personal life.  But I’m not always good at deepening those connections beyond the superficial, however much I might want to sometimes.  (Fierce, confident friend had to have a few goes at it before I finally twigged what she was doing.  Two bottles of wine and the sharing of many confidences one evening, and the rest is history.  Wise friend invited me for tea and cake with astonishing clarity, and then patiently and explicitly explained to me over said tea and cake that it was because she liked me and was interested in deepening our friendship.  The rest is history.)  And I forget – unless reminded – that the flip side of being the person who knows lots of people is that I’m a person known by lots of people.  I struggle with that, largely because inside my head I think of myself as pretty boring in comparison to all the amazing and interesting people I know.

All of that made this a bit of an interesting EasterCon for me.  This was a weekend where it felt like I was everywhere.  Being on six programme items was, by any measure, a lot.  And it led to the surreal experience of having people keep coming up to me to talk about them.  Plus having lots of the organising team loudly calling me a hero and trying to buy me lots of gin on Sunday night, after I stepped into the breach at short notice earlier that day (see below).  I’m not used to that kind of attention.  Really, I’m not.  I’d already gone into the weekend worried about being over-exposed.  I’m not a famous writer or fan.  I don’t work in publishing.  I’m just me, who sometimes dresses up as characters from Doctor Who and runs a relatively low-traffic book review blog.  So this is a weekend that has messed with my head and my self-perception quite a bit.

Six programme items.  I was on three of them because I’d suggested them.  But the rest were down to accident, the programme scheduling gods, or not moving quickly enough.

SF-ing Clue. L-R me, Helena McCallum, Tony Keen, Tiffani Angus, Tlanti.

SF-ing Clue.  In homage to a popular radio comedy show, this was a team-based panel game, done as a con warm up event on Thursday night.  It had been deliberately set up with an all-woman set of contestants, to help counter the idea that men have the monopoly on doing funny things at conventions.  In line with its inspiration there was a premium on puns and witty wordplay.  We had only 48 hours to prep the rounds, which was harder than you might think.  They included the Umbridge English Dictionary (giving existing words SFnal definitions, such as “Revoke: to turn back into a Klingon”) and YA Film Club (“To Kill A Mockingjay”).  I won’t be giving up the day job.  And the moral of this story is never to agree to do something in the pub when you’ve had a lot of wine after a long day.

Planning For The Apocalypse.  I’d suggested this because it seems that my friends and I have fairly well developed apocalypse plans, and it’s a regular topic of discussion.  I’d had in mind a kind of Choose Your Own Apocalypse type thing, but I had not envisaged the chaotic, surreal hour that followed.  Someone described it as three feminists on a panel with Alan Partridge.  Someone else wondered if it was a scripted radio play.  Regardless, it defies description or summary.  You had to be there.  All I can say is that Tiffani and Helen, my fellow panellists, are goddesses of deadpan humour and witty comebacks.  I was mostly corpseing with laughter.

The Art of Reviewing.  Much less eventful.  And a chance to meet and spend some time with the wonderful Maureen Spellar of Strange Horizons and fantastic book-tuber Claire Rousseau.  We got into the democratisation of what ‘good’ is, and the role of reviewers as influencers.  Claire and I spent a lot of time talking about how lovely Runalong Womble is.

Conflict Without Violence panel. L-R John Scalzi, Aliette de Bodard, Juliet Kemp, Brian Atterbury, me

Conflict Without Violence.  This was the panel I’d been most anxious about all weekend.  It was my first time moderating.  I was doing it in the big room, with John Scalzi `(one of the Guests of Honour) and Aliette de Bodard, two writers I really admire, plus Juliet Kemp and Brian Attterbury, a professor specialising in SFF literature.  And on a serious topic too – the prevalence of stories about physical violence in SFF, when there are so many different ways of telling stories and resolving conflict.  Much of it is a blur, but I think we explored the topic fairly well.

I walked out that room congratulating myself and feeling in desperate need of a cup of tea and the chance to decompress.  I bumped into one of the organisers, who was in a massive panic because the moderator for one of the panel items had pulled out at the last minute.  Stuff happens to us all, but there is something inexcusable about letting down volunteer organisers at short notice and without good reason.  It creates a horrible mess for them to have to sort out.  I’ve been in that organiser’s position, and there’s no way I could leave them with a crisis on their hands.  So …

The 2019 Hugo Award Shortlist.  I ended up moderating this with 10 minutes notice.  10 minutes.  That was long enough to Google the shortlist, try to work out what areas to focus the panel on, introduce myself to the panellists and take it from there.  I think I got away with it.  But a badly prepared moderator is not a good thing, and bad moderation can ruin a panel, however good the panellists are.  I’m incredibly grateful to an understanding audience and the panellists for their tolerance, and for enabling us to have a great discussion.

Me looking exhausted and very hungover (l), Charlie Stross, Kate Towner (r)

Administering Fantasy Worlds.  My final panel on Monday lunchtime was a struggle.  I was exhausted and panelling is Hard Work.  But I poured my remaining spoons into it.  This was a re-run of a panel a few of us had done at Nine Worlds last August, looking at governance and bureaucracy as world-building issues in SFF.  My friend Kate (an accountant) moderated, and did a fantastic job helping us to cover a lot of ground.  The other panelists were Wendy Bradley (retired tax inspector) and author Charlie Stross.  Kate and I have been fans of Charlie’s for years, so were having to suppress our inner fangirls whilst talking about the lack of proper procurement frameworks for laser guns, or the logistical challenges of handling taxes paid in live chickens.

me (l) with Ida (r)

The programme as a whole was excellent, and the organisers should be congratulated for that in particular.  Diversity was built in right from the start, with none of those awful “Women in SFF”-type panels that compartmentalise people who aren’t straight, white, able-bodied men into discussions only about their protected characteristics.  The team did an amazing job in building thoughtful panels of knowledgeable people that brought different perspectives to issues.  Big name authors were mixed up with debuts and subject experts, leading to rich discussions.  Inclusion was built into the event from the ground up, in panelist/moderator guidance, with the use of pronoun badges, and badges to signify access needs, including invisible ones.  It feels like the best parts of events like Nine Worlds were taken account of.  It’s in marked contrast to previous years and ha set an incredibly high standard for next year’s EasterCon.  I hope next year’s organising team have been paying attention and deliver the same standards.

Andrew Wallace performing from Celebrity Werewolf

Other stand out items were a performance by SF author, songwriter and comedian Mitch Benn, who performed his new song Zombie Jesus Chocolate Day.  Rapid-Fire Info Shots was a gloriously chaotic mix of three-minute segments by willing volunteers on subjects as diverse as why Captain Benjamin Sisko is the leader we need right now; how to draw the perfect demon summoning circle; and the problem with Lembas bread.  All while having (vegan) marshmallows thrown at them.  I also saw author friends read from their work, and went to their book launches.  I’m sad I missed so many other great items for scheduling or energy level reasons – including a couple of brilliant-looking Doctor Who items.

me (r) with Magnus (l)

But the best part of the weekend was the bar-con.  I met and hung out with loads of amazing people, some of whom I’ve known in passing for a while, but got to know better over the weekend.  One friend made a special trip to come down for the Sunday night.  There was dancing.  There was gin.  There were many hugs.  Nights were late.  Feet were sore.  Heads were sore the following morning.  The craic was mighty.

Roll on Dublin in August.  Roll on EasterCon next year.

 

Witchsign – Den Patrick

There are certain things you should expect from a Den Patrick book: principled, if hot-headed, young men taking up arms against tyranny and oppression, brilliantly written sibling relationships, and a load of brilliant adventurous fun.  Witchsign (Harper Voyager) has all of these in spades.  The elevator pitch for this book is simple: what if Harry Potter went to evil Hogwarts, but it turned out they’d made a mistake and he was a Muggle?

Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn are teenagers living in a small town called Cinderfell, which is pretty much at the end of the world.  Their father is a blacksmith, and their mother left many years before.  They aren’t well off, and spend a lot of their time scraping to make ends meet.  But their lives are disrupted when the mysterious masked Vigilants from the neighbouring and conquering Solmindre Empire arrive.  Each year Vigilants come to test young people for Witchsign.  Those with it are taken away on board ship and never heard of again.  Steiner is found to have Witchsign, and is taken away.  But it’s a mix up – he was protecting Kjellrunn, who it turns out has blossoming magical powers.  Steiner is taken away, but not to his death as he feared – instead he finds that children with Witchsign are taken by the Vigilants to a mysterious island housing a a magical school.  Kjellrunn and her father are left behind to cope with the fear and stigma of Witchsign having been discovered in their family.

One of the things I love about Den’s writing is that his protagonists aren’t your traditional royal heirs with magic powers/weapons/special destinies.  Steiner is an ordinary young man who sees that something is wrong and decides to do something about it.  He protects the weak and the vulnerable, stands up to bullies, and encourages people to work together to overcome obstacles.  Although hot-headed and rash at times, it’s because he cares about the wrongs he sees in the world around him, and wants to do something about it.  And his relationship with Kjellrunn is beautifully drawn.  He is a fiercely protective older brother, who nonetheless will bicker with his sister over trivia.

Above all, Witchsign is a thrilling adventure story full of escapades, heroics, adventure, magic and dragons.  It sets the scene perfectly for the second book in the series, as Steiner and his friends set out to overthrow the Solmindre Empire because of the suffering it has caused.  But it’s written with contemporary sensibilities about corrupt governments, the abuse of power and bigotry.

And Kjellrunn’s reaction to being told to smile once too often by a foreign soldier?  That had me punching the air in delight.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: June Bride Shawlette

J has probably been the hardest project in this A to Z of shawls.  For some reason I really didn’t connect with the pattern I chose.  On the face of it, the June Bride Shawlette was exactly the palate-cleanser I needed after Ishneich – a simple, single colour, lace shawlette from a single ball of laceweight yarn, and with a bit of challenge from nupps in laceweight.

But, oh, I struggled.

I just couldn’t get excited by this project, and I actively avoided picking it up.  Which is ridiculous for such a tiny project.

And tiny it is.  A little wisp of a scarflette, that I definitely wouldn’t call a shawlette.  Just enough to wrap round your neck, and that’s about it.  Compare it to some of my other FOs shown on the same chair, in the same position, and you can see how tiny it is.

But on the other hand – nupps!  In laceweight!  Yes, I cheated and used a crochet hook to form them on the RS row.  But that’s another new skill mastered, and I found them much easier in laceweight than I did in 4ply.  So that’s a thing!

The pattern is by Lidia Tsymba.  The yarn was a single skein of Debbie Bliss Rialto Lace (a solid, commercially dyed pure merino laceweight) that I picked up for about £3 in a John Lewis sale.

I was glad to finish this one.  If only because it meant I could move on and start something else. Ah well.