The Space Between The Stars – Anne Corlett

Every now and then a book comes along that confirms to you that it’s not that you’re struggling to get excited about reading.  It’s just that the books you’ve been reading recently, while perfectly competently written, have just been a bit meh.  Anne Corlett‘s The Space Between The Stars (review copy from Pan Macmillan) is one of those astonishing, game-changing books that reminds you what reading should be about.

Corlett’s novel is the story of a universe after a highly contagious virus has wiped out most of humanity.  A tiny number of survivors – each of them one in a million – are scattered across colony worlds across the universe.  They must deal with what has happened and find a way of moving forward. The story focuses on Jamie Allenby, who had fled to a remote outpost from the breakdown of her relationshp following a miscarriage. She wakes alone after the virus has burned itself out, and sets out on a journey home to the Northumberland coast.  Along the way she meets a failed priest, a religoius scientist, a ship’s captain and his gruff engineer, a prostitute and a boy with autism.  These become her unlikely travelling companions on her journey to Earth and a hoped-for reconciliation with her partner Daniel – if he has survived the virus.

So far so Station Eleven.  But what sets The Space Between The Stars apart is its focus on the personal.  The small stories of the survivors and how they deal with the consequences of what has happened: grief and anger are real and there are no easy ways forward.  Let me be clear: this is not a big, galaxy spanning story of rebuilding civilisation or a Survivors-style tale of people banding together for protection against feral raiders in the ruins of our world.  Civilisation has ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is a story about humanity in all its chaotic glory.  Don’t expect the relentlessly saccharine positivity of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet.  And that makes it a much better piece.  This is a book about how imperfectly we live together with one another.  It’s about the tension between our striving for privacy and independence, and our basic need for community and contact with one another.  It’s about the imperfect communications between us all.  It’s about the messy business of life and survival, and the way it does not fit neatly into the stories we tell one another, with their clarity of purpose and happy ever after endings.  Like the sea glass that Jamie collects on the beach, we are all unique: shaped and made beautiful by the pounding tides that rub us up against one another and the grit between us.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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Borne – Jeff VanderMeer

Borne is quintessential VanderMeer (review copy from 4th Estate).  It is a subtle, slippery, tricksy novel, expertly telling a small story against the backdrop of a big world.

Rachel is a scavenger, living in a post-apocalyptic world blighted by mutated, out of control products of bio-engineering from The Company.  Chief among them is Mord, a giant psychotic flying bear that terrorises the residents of the city.  Rachel picks out a living at the margins of society, finding enough recoverable materials to eke out an existence, or to trade for food, water and other goods.  She lives with her lover, Wick, a former Company bio-engineer who spends his time making and fixing products, trading on his expertise and skills.

One day Rachel finds a strange creature entangled in Mord’s fur.  It’s an amorphous lump resembling a sea anemone.  Rachel brings it home, and names it Borne.  As Borne consumes he learns and grows, becoming an integral part of Rachel and Wick’s family, as well as the cause of tension between them.  But Borne is also the key and the catalyst for Rachel and Wick to get to the heart of the Company’s secrets with a view to finding a way out of their marginal existence.

VanderMeer’s regular themes of environmental change and the indifference of nature to humanity are highly prevalent in Borne.  The landscape in which Rachel and Wick live is a product of humanity’s actions and the damage caused by industry and uncontrolled bio-engineering.  Humanity is no longer the apex predator, and the natural world is not something for it exploit in pursuit of a comfortable standard of living and convenience.  Humanity must instead scratch a living in amongst the pollution and scarcity that its actions have created.  Ultimately, it must learn to live in harmony with this changing world, rather than seeking to change it further or escape it.

But Borne is also a story about memory and communication and our relationships with one another.  The novel is characterised by moments of misunderstanding, and the gulfs created between people by their unique histories and the difference of meaning and interpretation those lead to.  Our memories are fallible and we conceal as much about ourselves as we reveal to one another, even those we are closest to.  But the way we relate to one another can have profound effects.  Rachel’s parenting and raising of Borne shapes his world-view.  The ultimate blank canvas, he absorbs his values and view of the world from her and those ultimately come to guide his actions.

Jeff VanderMeer is one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction and I’ve been following his career with interest, ever since I picked up City of Saints and Madmen many years ago.  Always with a literary touch, he reveals deep truths about people and our relationships with each other and the world we live in.  Borne is another jewel he has added to the crown of genre fiction.

Goodreads rating: 5*

All The Birds In The Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

There’s been a lot of buzz about the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky.  This seems to be largely driven by the author’s status as a recognisable ‘name’ in online pop culture journalism: she is one of the co-founders of io9.  The book has been nominated for the 2017 Best Novel award at the Hugos, and won the 2017 Nebula, so I was particularly interested to read it.

This is a charming novel about the relationship between Patricia and Laurence.  We first meet them both at school, where they band together as outsiders from the normal school culture.  He is a maths and science geek, she is a bookish and rather fey girl with a love of the outdoors who discovers a talent for magic.  The casual cruelties of school bullying and the expectations of their parents push Patricia and Laurence together, but their friendship suffers the tensions of a science v magic divide and they go their separate ways.  Of course, life throws them into one another’s paths once more as adults, where they find themselves on opposite sides of a debate about how to save the world from a global crisis induced by climate change and scarce resources.

Where this novel is strongest is in the exploration of Patricia and Laurence’s friendship.  The shared experience of growing up weird and misunderstood is a tough one.  It throws the two together and has lasting effects on their friendships and relationships throughout their lives.  To that extent it’s reminiscent of books like Jo Walton’s Among Others.  But the novel suffers from a thinly drawn supporting cast, and the doomsday device v magical apocalypse plotline is resolved unsatisfactorily, with a rather predictable ‘you need both’ conclusion.

All The Birds In The Sky is zeitgeisty, but ultimately pretty forgettable.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Gilded Cage – Vic James

“I hoped you were going to be here!” Vic James said as she rushed across the bar at Super-Relaxed Fantasy Club a few months ago. She gave me a big hug and pushed something very exciting into my hand: one of the very first ARCs of her debut novel, The Gilded Cage, which is out early next year and the first in her Dark Gifts trilogy. “I do hope you love it!” she said.  
And I did.  

The Gilded Cage is a dystopian sort-of-YA novel set in an alternative Britain whose path diverged from our own at the time of the Civil War. In The Gilded Cage, the country is ruled by an elite of magically gifted individuals known as Equals. Ordinary people’s lives are largely unaffected by their magical rulers, save that every person, once in their life has to serve a ten-year term of servitude to the Equals. That time is known as slavedays. During that time, a person loses all their rights and becomes a chattel. But once a person’s slavedays are complete, they gain additional rights and status in society.  

The Gilded Cage follows one family who choose to do their time together, as soon as their youngest child is old enough to serve. They hope that by doing it early, the children will benefit in later life. Abi, the oldest child arranges for them all to serve at Kyneston, the estate of the quintessential Equal family, the Jenners, whose ancestors played a key role in the Civil War and its aftermath, and were the architects of the current system

The experiences of the three children are very different. The capable Abi becomes an administrator for the Kyneston estate before finding herself a character in one of her favourite romance novels: the ‘normal’ girl who falls for one of the Equals. Her youngest sister Daisy, whose job it is to act as nursemaid and companion for a young half-Equal child, becomes the well-treated favourite of Kyneston’s heir. But it is the middle child, Luke, who has the more interesting journey. He becomes separated from the family and is sent to Millmoor, a brutal factory town in the north of England. Through Luke’s eyes we see the cruelty and exploitation on which the luxurious and moneyed society depends. Luke becomes increasingly drawn into an underground movement focused on exposing and overturning that system.  

What I love most about The Gilded Cage is how quintessentially English it is, particularly in its treatment of class and privilege. And by that I don’t mean it is some Downton Abbey-like rose-tinted view of the past where everyone knows their place and is happy about it. This is a novel that exposes the cruelty, unfairness and exploitation that underpins such privilege. Inherited wealth and power is as fickle as the magical powers of the Equals. But the novel is also steeped in the experience of the industrial revolution. The ‘satanic mills’ of Millmoor are brutal, but leavened with human kindness. And there are nods back to events like the Peterloo Massacre. Even the characters and places are gloriously English too. One of the characters (Lord Lytchett Matravers) is even named after a place near where I grew up, and I know (once Vic pointed it out to me) the endless estate wall that inspires Kyneston’s wall. 

The Gilded Cage is glorious. Best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Mine’s a Bourbon.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North

A new book from Claire North is always an exciting thing to see and read, and the lovely people at Orbit gave me a review copy through NetGalley.  And this is North’s best book yet.  In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North introduces Hope Arden, a woman who no-one can remember.  Mere seconds after she passes from sight, every memory of seeing or interacting with Hope disappears, even though physical and digital evidence such as photographs and emails remains.

Hope makes her life as a thief.  Her forgettability enables her to case targets without arousing suspicion and to get away after a robbery by simply hiding for a while.  The novel opens with Hope planning to steal a famous necklace from around the neck of a Middle Eastern princess, in the middle of a reception to launch a new app called Perfection, which promises rewards for self-improvement.  Following the theft Hope finds herself in the middle of a feud between the makers of Perfection and a woman known as Byron who wants to bring down the company.  Hope is hired to steal the source code for Perfection, in exchange for research and treatment that might finally make her memorable.

The examination of identity is a recurring theme in North’s work.  In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the title character gets to live his life over and over again, retaining the knowledge and skills of each lifetime.  In Touch, the being known as Kepler jumps from body to body, borrowing lives and leaving them changed.  But in The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North examines how we are defined by our relationships with others.

Hope’s life is an extremely lonely one.  Rejected by a family who don’t recognise her, she is forced to make her own way in life.  She has no friendships, living instead a series of first impressions from others.  She can get to know others, but she will always be a stranger to them.  Even the time Hope spends with Byron is dependent on Byron keeping thorough and detailed notes and recordings of all their conversations.  But even then, Byron’s interactions with Hope are necessarily informed by her own second-hand impressions.  But how truly can we know a person anyway?  North is externalising the fallibility of our own memories, which always give a partial (in both senses of the word) perspective on a person or events, filtered through a person’s own preconceptions.  And with Hope a person from an ethnic minority, there is a subtext here about the relative invisibility of some groups in society.

Perfection as an app also provides a biting commentary on contemporary celebrity culture and how much of our personal information we share with others and with corporations.  The app encourages people to aspire to and work towards an ideal.  The version of Perfection presented is based on a celebrity culture of carefully posed and filtered Instagram pictures and feel-good aphorisms that are ultimately pretty shallow.  Compliance with Perfection’s recommendations enables a person to earn points.  Points unlock rewards, from selected partners, and those who progress to the highest levels become an elite of beautiful and successful people living a Made In Chelsea-like existence of glamorous parties and holidays that is at its heart ultimately pretty unsubstantial.

But as a wise friend said once, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”  Perfection speaks to our world of big data, where corporations harvest information about us and our online habits, building profiles to sell us services and tailor the news that we see.  All in the name of profit, and with minimal regulation.  We consent to share our personal data for the quick thrill of an online personality quiz.  Perfection can’t be that far away.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope pulls off the perfect trick of being a taut, pacey thriller that critiques the contemporary world and explores the nature of identity.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Speak – Louisa Hall

Emotional intimacy, and the relationships that define us, are the themes of Louisa Hall‘s profound and insightful new novel Speak (Orbit, review copy through NetGalley).

Speak is a braided narrative, following several stories set in different time periods:

  • the diaries of Mary Bradford, emigrating to the New World in the 17th century.
  • the correspondence of Alan Turing as he seeks to create an artificial intelligence.
  • the letters of the Dettmans, an early AI pioneer and his wife.
  • the memoirs of Stephen Chinn, imprisoned for creating ‘babybots’ – dolls with a highly advanced AI that have triggered a strange syndrome in children that leaves them locked in their bodies, unable to move or communicate.
  • transcripts of conversations between a child, Gaby White, and Mary3, a highly developed AI.
  • one of the banned babybots.

Through each strand of the narrative we are forced to ask ourselves about the important relationships in our lives, and the closeness we have with those around us.  Mary Bradford treasures the deep bond and unconditional love she shared with her pet dog, feeling at best ambivalent about her new husband.  Turing forms a strange, confessional relationship through correspondence with the mother of a schoolfriend who died as a child.  Through the Dettmans we see the misconceptions we form about one another, even those we are closest to.  The bonds of their marriage start to fray once emotional intimacy is shared elsewhere.  Stephen Chinn discovers the secret of creating instant connections with others, but finds those relationships ultimately soulless and unrewarding.  The AIs he creates become a substitute for ‘real’ friends, isolating a generation of children from one another and their families.

There are parallels with contemporary internet culture.  The bonds we forge online can be profound ones.  Protected by a veneer of relative anonymity and physical distance from one another, we often feel comfortable sharing more of ourselves, and more deeply, than we might otherwise choose to do in face to face relationships.  We choose what faces we present to the world, and rarely more so than in the virtual world.

As technology develops Speak shows us that it becomes increasingly difficult to determine which relationships are more ‘real’ than any other.  Connections between people fragment, leaving them ever more isolated from one another, but paradoxically more dependent on a level of emotional intimacy previously difficult to achieve.

Speak is a profound meditation on how we relate to one another, and the authenticity of our relationships.

Goodreads rating: 5*.