Sweet Dreams – Tricia Sullivan

I’ve had lucid dreams.  Dreams where you know you are dreaming, and can alter the events, rewinding and replaying for a different outcome.  Charlie does that for a living in Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan (review copy from Gollancz).  She is a dreamhacker: paid to go into other people’s dreams to help them overcome phobias and anxiety.  It’s not a job with a big client list, and it doesn’t pay well, but it fits well round the narcolepsy Charlie was left with as a side-effect of a drug trial she participated in while penniless at university.

One of Charlie’s few clients is a famous musician who is suffering from extreme nightmares that are beginning to affect her career.  She is visited each night by The Creeper – a mysterious masked figure determined to cause harm.  When the musician dies one night, Charlie finds herself under investigation for the death, but also the the Creeper’s next target.  Desperate to deal with the Creeper and clear her name, Charlie finds herself uncovering a conspiracy.

Sweet Dreams is a great near-future thriller, looking at themes about the integration of technology in our lives, its increasing sophistication, and how we choose to approach it.

Goodreads rating: 3*

 

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FO: Alonzo

I’ve been enjoying my A-Z of shawls so much, I’ve decided to start one for socks as well.  But just to make things a little more challenging, I’m going to try to stick to patterns by one designer: Rachel Coopey.  Her sock patterns are beautifully written, a joy to knit and always very clever designs.  Looking at Ravelry, I’m good right up to until I get to Q, with a choice of patterns to make.  At the rate I knit socks, who knows – maybe she will have designed a pattern beginning with Q by the time I get there.

First up, is Alonzo, a beautifully textured pattern with Bavarian twisted stitches.  It’s just complex enough to keep you interested while you’re knitting, but without being so complex tht you can’t concentrate on anything else.  This is exactly the kind of knitting you can take out and about, or do while watching the television.

I love how the faux cables and twisted stitches build up the pattern, and how it grows and evolves.

It’s just such a shame that the dark winter days make it so difficult to properly photograph the colour of this yarn as well as I’d like.  It’s a rich, mallard green, called Apollo, with a beautiful intensity of colour.  It’s from a dyer called A Little Bit Sheepish, and is one of those skeins where the colour just called me from across the aisle at a yarn festival.  It’s a mix of 75% Bluefaced Leicester and 25% nylon.  The stitch definition is amazing, it takes dye beautifully, it has a generous 425 metres per 100g and it should make some hard-wearing socks.

Gnomon – Nick Harkaway

Every novel by Nick Harkaway is different, and Gnomon (review copy from William Heinemann) is probably his most ambitious book yet.  This is a complex, multi-layered book that braids together a series of narratives to tell a story about society and our trust in its underlying structures.  Mielikki Neith is the key to piecing all this together.

Neith is the foremost Investigator for The System, the all-seeing and all-knowing system that governs society.  Part panopticon, part the ultimate in participatory direct democracy, it promises government by the people and in their best interests.  It’s the natural evolution of our current world, where we set out the details of our private lives in social media, and monitor our health and bodies with devices like Fitbits.  People today are choosing to self-monitor and share that data with large corporations, without ever questioning whether the offered benefits are worth the potential erosion of privacy.  Harkaway’s System is a society founded on the idea that if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear.  And this is a system that works, for the most part.

Neith is tasked with investigating Diana Hunter.  Hunter is one of the few who has lived a life seeking to opt out of the all-pervasive surveillance of the System.  She has lived quietly on the margins of society, until one day her behaviour is flagged as worthy of concern.  She is brought in for questioning, which in the case of the Sytem means a full brain scan under laboratory conditions.  But Diana Hunter dies under interrogation.  Her brain print is given to Neith as part of the investigation, to find out what she was up to and why she died.

The scan reveals a series of hyper-real narratives that Hunter has used to block the interrogation by masking her own thoughts and memories.  Constantine Kyriakos, the wunderkind banker who escapes a shark attack.  Berihun Bekele, a once-feted pop artist who survived Haile Selassie’s fall in Ethiopia and is retained by his grand-daughter to design a computer game which bears a startling resemblance to elements of the System.  Athenaïs Karthagonensis, a medieval scholar and wise woman mourning her dead son.  Although each story is distinct, they are linked both thematically and in points of detail.  These are arechetypal stories of gods and monsters, drawing on the oldest myths and stories from human civilisation.

Catabasis and apocatastasis are the two recurring themes in Gnomon, featuring in all of the narratives Harkaway sets before us.  They are the primal roots of so many of our stories.  Catabasis: the journey into darkness on a quest for an object, a loved one, or meaning.  Apocatastasis: the ending of a cycle that acts as a reconstitution of the world, often enabling its rebirth in a new direction.

This is not a perfect book.  It’s choppy in parts, and slow to get going.  Like one of Bekele’s painting series you need to stand back and view the whole by layering its component parts.  Harkaway is clearly conscious of the complex task he is putting before the reader, and at times is, if anything, a little too eager to lead the reader by the hand, laying out the trail of breadcrumbs to help understand what he is trying to say.  And there could have been a much easier story to tell.  Harkaway could have used his setting for a lazy polemic about the surveillance society.  But Gnomon reaches for much deeper truths about ourselves, about society, and about the impact of technology upon us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Continuing the theme of interesting novellas by established authors, Solaris have just published a limited edition novella by Clarke Award-winning novelist Adrian TchaikovskyIronclads is the story of a mission behind enemy lines to track down the missing son from a high-profile, corporate family.  A mission into a war-torn Sweden populated with genetically-engineered warriors, drones and robots.

Tchaikovsky’s setting is a near-future Europe.  Ravaged by climate change, the world has been changed significantly.  But this is also a post-Brexit Europe, where the UK is in thrall to the USA, and corporate interests dominate.  US cultural imperialism now dominates, and the UK is a beach head in a war between US corporations and those of Europe.  Any pretence that warfare is driven by politics and the nation state has vanished – these are wars between corporations, fought over markets, opportunities and technologies.  Those corporations are owned by the super-rich, in a world where there is an ever-starker gap between rich and poor.  In this new feudalism, the poor enlist in the armed forces because they have few other options, but the officer class is drawn from the new corporate aristocracy.

This is a story that draws heavily on both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and its famous film adaptation, Apocalypse Now.  Conrad’s meditation on imperialism and racism is given a fresh, contemporary twist by Tchaikovsky, that brings its relevance bang up to date.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Acadie – Dave Hutchinson

Tor are leading the way in reviving the novella as a form of short fiction.  They are investing in publishing shorter fiction by prominent writers.  The novella seems primed to fit a particular evolutionary niche – perfect for a time-poor on-the-go lifestyle, something that can be fittted into a commute or an afternoon in a coffee shop.  I’m not normally a fan of short fiction – I find it doesn’t usually allow the writer to tell a story with enough depth and character development to be able to grab me.  But with a little bit more length, the novella gives a bit more breathing room.  It seems perfect for speculative fiction, creating a playground for ideas.

Dave Hutchinson‘s Acadie (review copy from Tor) is one of that new breed of novellas.  It’s a clever story focused on a group of people called The Colony.  They are living on the fringes, having fled from the majority of humanity.  The Colony’s desire to pursue body and genetic modification puts it at odds with the rest of humanity, but for the Colony it presents an opportunity to equip its members to live in the very different environments of deep space.

The story opens as Duke, the current President of the Colony, wakes the morning after his birthday party, to discover that the location of the Colony appears to have been discovered by the Earth authorities, who have been pursuing them for a long time.  As President, it’s his job to pack up the Colony and move it to a new location.

This is a great story with a sting right at the very end, which makes it difficult to talk about without spoiling the story.  The allusions and references to Kafka’s Metamorphosis are particularly delightful.  It’s well worth investing a couple of hours of your time.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Evenstar

I promised you something special for E.  So here is Evenstar.

This circular shawl was an epic knit.  It took around seven months from cast on to cast off, though I did pick up and deal with other projects in the meantime.  It measures around 5 feet in diameter, took 1500 metres of yarn and 3,000 beads.

I cast on while watching Frozen on Christmas Day 2016.  I remember it vividly because Elsa singing “Let It Go” was not the most helpful things while I was trying to manage Emily Ocker’s Circular Cast On.  You need an extra hand or two for that at the best of times.

The pattern is by Susan Pandorf, part of a series of patterns themed around the Lord of the Rings.  I’ve loved it ever since I first set eyes on it, but didn’t have the skill at the time to do it.  Now, several years on, I felt ready to tackle it.

One of the tricky elements of this shawl is the ‘Evenstar stitch’, which is designed to resemble Arwen’s pendant from the books and films.  It’s a tricky stitch involving making seven stitches out of three.  Susan recommends practicing this stitch separately, before starting the shawl proper.  Learning from my nupp experience (it’s a similar technique), I used a crochet hook for this bit.

Because of the beads and the size of the shawl, I wanted a yarn with some strength to it.  I used Posh Yarn‘s Natasha Heavy Lace in a colourway called Peace Spreads Her Tranquil Blanket.  It’s a 50/50 mix of silk and camel.  I used three skeins overall – two for the body, and one for the knitted on edging.

The beaded knitted on edging was the hardest bit of this project.  It’s a great way of finishing a project, particularly for avoiding a long cast off, but, oh, was it dull.  The twenty row pattern repeat is just a bit too long to properly memorise, and it seemed to go on forever.

But it was worth every repetitive hour for a piece as stunning as this one.

The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts has a reputation for clever, ideas-dense speculative fiction.  His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders (review copy from Gollancz).  The novel is a near-future murder mystery and thriller that opens with a classic locked room mystery: a body is found in the boot of a car fresh off a manufacturing line that is covered by CCTV from start to finish.  A private detective called Alma is retained to investigate.  The investigation leads Alma to become involved in a much wider conspiracy.

Roberts’s setting is a near-future Reading, but one where those who can, and can afford to, live and work in the Shine: virtual worlds that are limited only by a person’s imagination.  Rather than being seduced by the technology, Roberts focused on its implications, particularly for current models of governance based on geography and the nation-state.  What does it mean when the population have no need to travel for work, and can escape the constraints of physical geography into spaces limited only by their imaginations and processing power?  Current pillars of society begin to slowly erode, compete with one another and eat themselves.

Alma is one of the few who doesn’t live in the Shine.  She is at the other extreme – tied to one physical spot with only a limited ability to roam.  Her partner is house-bound and the victim of a virus that is gene-bound to Alma.  Every four hours Alma must be at home to treat her, or her partner will die.  It’s a punishing schedule at the best of times, but one that becomes even more difficult when one is on the run from the law.

As if all of this wasn’t quite enough, Roberts adds a layer of Alfred Hitchcock film references on the top, all updated for his near-future setting.  And no Hitchcock film would be complete without a cameo appearance from the great man himself.

The Real-Town Murders is a great thriller, but it suffers slightly from almost being almost too clever for its own good at times.

Goodreads rating: 4*