Blackfish City – Sam J Miller

Blackfish City by Sam J Miller (review copy from Orbit) is a thoughtful near-future thriller.  The floating city of Qaanaq in the Arctic has become a place of refuge in the aftermath of the Climate Wars that have ripped apart the world as we know it.  A huge cultural melting pot of refugees, it is a place where capitalism runs unfettered.  The majority of the wealth is held by a tiny group of people known as shareholders, while the vast majority of people scrape out a living however they can.  But the city is also plagued by a strange, incurable, degenerative disease known as ‘the breaks’ which is passed on by close physical contact.

Life in Qaanaq is disrupted by the arrival of a woman known as the orcamancer.  She appears to be one of a group of people thought to be extinct, who were nanobonded to animals and able to communicate with them.  She is silent – but violent – and the reason for her journey to Qaanaq is unclear.  Four of Qaanaq’s residents are drawn together to unravel the mystery of the orcamancer – Fill, a shareholder’s grandson who has contracted a particularly virulent form of the breaks; Ankit, a staffer for one of the local elected politicians; Soq, a young, gender-fluid messenger with ambitions; and Kaev, who makes his living as a beam fighter (one of Qaanaq’s sports).

There is a satisfying mystery at the heart of Blackfish City, which draws together the four viewpoint characters neatly with a nice, slow reveal.  The world-building is also extremely rich, with Miller having put a huge amount of work into his post-Climate Wars setting.  You can almost smell the fish sauce and hear the sound of the waves while you are reading.  But for all that, this is a book that struggles to rise above those things.  The plotting is extremely slow, particularly at the beginning of the novel.  While Blackfish City is rich and immersive as a reading experience, it fails to deliver much beyond a competent thriller in an innovative and well-constructed setting.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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On Politics in Speculative Fiction

I recently DNF-d a fantasy novel, in large part because of how poorly it dealt with the issue of politics within the author’s world.  Doing that got me reflecting on how politics is treated generally in speculative fiction, and how writers get it wrong so often.

The commonest trap I see – which is the one this author fell into – is where writers associate politics with villains.  It’s not something their noble hero/ine would dirty their hands with, because they are Pure and Noble and Fighting For Right.  Politics and the political becomes a lazy shorthand for self-interest and manipulative behaviour, which are qualities we like to associate with the bad guys.

That’s certainly one way of dealing with politics in fiction.  Done well, you get House of Cards (and here I am a hipster who prefers the original 1990 BBC version to the Netflix reboot).  Francis Urquhart back-stabs his way to power, but what makes it is the breaking of the fourth wall.  We can’t help but warm to Urquhart – his scathing critiques of his fellow politicians are incredibly funny and spot on.  The peek behind the curtain as he manipulates his way to power is what makes it such a joyous experience for the viewer: we are in on the game Urquhart is playing and therefore on the side of his rapacious ambition.

If you want to play an innocent into a situation like that, then you get something like my personal favourite, Borgen.  After a freak election result, Birgitte Nyborg finds herself as the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, and has to learn very quickly how to navigate the halls of power and get business done.  The vision and idealism that got her elected are not the skills she needs to run the country.  Principles are no use when the choice you are faced with is a pragmatic one between least-worst options.  Nyborg learns fast (the gloriously cut-throat episode about the constitutional status of Greenland, that ends with Nyborg effectively telling a politician he is dead to her, is a particular favourite), but at great personal cost to her family and her principles.  Or else you get Secret State.  The drama here comes from a man of integrity suddenly thrust into a position and world he was not expecting.  Tom Dawkins is the Deputy Prime Minister no-one expected would wield real power until the sudden death of the Prime Minister leaves him running the country.  The interesting conflict is the internal one: how far is Dawkins willing to compromise his integrity in order to tackle the corruption he has stumbled across?

And if you want to go full ingenue, then the joy comes from the player being played.  Step forward Les Liaisons Dangereuses, where Madame de Tourvel is the one to bring down the notorious rake the Vicomte de Valmont.  His bet with the Marquise de Merteuil to seduce Madame de Tourvel backfires when he falls in love with her.

Politics at its most fundamental is about people.  It’s about understanding what makes them tick, what they care about, and how to get things done.  Yes, that can be done in a manipulative way, to box people into corners and dispose of rivals.  But it can also be done with integrity, in a way that builds alliances and energy towards tackling a common goal.  The kind of approach seen in something like The West Wing, if you will.

It’s probably no accident that all of the examples I’ve given of the political done well fall outside of speculative fiction. Within the genre, it’s much harder to think of good writing about the sphere of politics.  (Though I would gleefully suggest that Joe Abercrombie‘s Sand dan Glokta is the Francis Urquhart of SFF.)  Which is a shame, because the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of conflicting aims and ambitions and the consequences of those choices.

Guy Gavriel Kay writes about the political incredibly well.  As I said in my review of The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan. Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances. Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced. In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.  As events take choices away from people, the powerful are forced down particular courses of action.  There are two particular moments in the book that underpin this for me – the first is when one of the Jaddite kings in the north realises that his indulgence of his wife’s strong religious faith has made it impossible for him not to declare a Crusade; the other is when ibn Khairan acknowledges that the events of the Day of the Moat forced his hand into the assassination of King Almalik.  In Kay’s novel, the powerful are all trying to act in their own best interests, but their interests are in conflict.

This is the approach taken in The Expanse, where the interests of Earth, Mars and the Belt collide.  War is never far away, and the discovery and development of the protomolecule is the disruptive element threatening a fragile balance.  Senior UN figure Chrisjen Avarsarala (who I want to be when I grow up) is forced to make hard choices to protect her own position and defuse conflict.  The path to her goal is never a straight one, but this is a woman who is undeniably using all her political skills in pursuit of the right aims, even if that is not something that she is always able to admit without compromising what she is trying to achieve.

Another writer who nails it is Michelle West.  The premise of her Sun Sword books is that demons are trying to take over the mortal world, and one of the only things that can defeat them is a magic sword that can only be wielded by someone from a particular lineage.  So, of course the demons conspire to have that entire ruling family wiped out in a coup.  Except for one remaining son, who is held hostage in a different country.  The discussions about whether or not, and on what terms, to go to war to restore this heir to his throne are beautifully written.  The cause at issue is not the demon world-domination plot, but the geo-politics of West’s world, and the risk-reward judgement about getting involved in a foreign coup.  The work done to carefully align big power blocks behind action needs painstaking work, and ultimately action only happens when they are directly affected themselves.  This is the right war, fought for the wrong reasons.

Of course, West’s Sun Sword books are at their heart about the Serra Diora di Marano, and her quest for revenge against the people who slaughtered her family.  The Serra Diora uses soft power and politics to her advantage.  She turns herself into a highly politicised weapon to bring down an entire country and its regime without shedding blood.  She uses cultural norms and symbolism in her favour to make herself the untouchable emblem of a nation.  And they are also books about Jewel Markess a’Terafin, who learns how to lead and make painful choices, transforming from a street child to a woman of power and influence.

Famously, Katherine Addison‘s The Goblin Emperor examines the question of whether it’s possible to rule with kindness and integrity.  Maia’s position is a fragile one, but like Birgitte Nyborg he seizes the opportunity unexpectedly thrust his way (though in his case the alternative is exile or assassination) and tries to rule in line with his principles.  He learns to pull the levers of power effectively, identifying the key influencers and opinion-formers within his Parliament, and structuring choices to lead to the outcome he is seeking to achieve.  The sequence where they debate and agree his choice of bride shows his growing skill and understanding of the shifting power dynamics of his kingdom.

But these books still feel like the exceptions.

Speculative fiction – and in particular epic fantasy – too often focuses on the cause.  It assumes that its inherent rightness is so obvious that all good and right-thinking people will throw their weight behind it.  Anyone who doesn’t must be a self-interested fool who deserves what’s coming to them.  But politics is how you get people on that right side.  It’s about creating shared visions and coalitions of the willing.  It’s about appealing to people’s better natures, their self-interest, their hopes and fears, and their images of themselves. To some that may feel like manipulation, but it’s just how you get things done.

An inspirational leader with a compelling cause can be a powerful thing, but it’s not enough by itself to effect change.  Assuming that it is – and ignoring the work that goes into persuading and influencing people towards a particular course of action, with all the messy deal-making that involves – may comfort our sense of idealism, but it is lazy writing.

One Way – S J Morden

S J Morden‘s One Way (review copy from Gollancz) is a serial killer murder mystery set on Mars – but with a strong socialist undercurrent running through it.

Xenosystems Operations has won a government contract to build a scientific research base on Mars.  Like every corporation, they are focused on the bottom line and their profit margin.  So they decide to crew the mission with convicted murderers taken from the prisons one of their sister companies own.  Cheap labour offered a deal, willing to take the risk of a one-way trip to Mars for some purposeful activity instead of a lifetime in solitary confinement.  Prisoners are hand-picked for relevant skills before they ended up in prison (construction, hydroponics, communications, medical skills etc).  They go through a gruelling final selection and training programme before the team is selected.

Frank Kittridge heads that team.  Imprisoned for the murder of his son’s drug dealer, he feels few regrets about the crime he committed, but wants to be a positive example for his son and the ex-wife that divorced him after his conviction.  With a background in construction he is perfectly placed to lead the team building the Mars base.  His nemesis is Brack, the prison guard sent with them to supervise the base construction and keep the team of prisoners in line throughout the build.  Brack is straight from the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman school of motivational leadership.  Brack offers Kittridge a chance to get home if he acts as his eyes and ears, reporting back on the rest of the team.

Kittridge’s team make it to Mars and start building the base.  But strange ‘accidents’ keep happening that end up killing the crew.  Funnily enough, each ‘accident’ happens just after that particular crew member has fulfilled their function, becoming surplus to requirements.  Kittridge realises there is a cold-blooded killer among them, and sets out to solve the mystery before the body count gets higher.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to solve this particular murder mystery.  One of the frustrations of One Way is just how predictable the plotting is, with relatively weak characterisation – barely enough to make one care about each victim of the killer.

What does lift One Way from the herd is the way that Kittridge’s story is intercut with material from Xenosystems Operations as they plan the mission and make choices about its design.  We see the very real consequences of decisions to trim costs: in one tense sequence in particular Kittridge barely makes it across the surface of Mars to retrieve equipment vital for the mission.  Where One Way is most compelling is in the way it shows the very real and very human consequences of those corporate decisions.  It acts as a strong warning about the risks of involving private corporations in high risk endeavours like space travel.  It comes as no surprise that the company has little regard for the human team it sends to Mars.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Planetfall – Emma Newman

Emma Newman‘s Planetfall (newly republished by Gollancz, who provided a review copy) is a brilliant SF psychological thriller.  Renata Ghali is an engineer on a high-tech extra-terrestrial colony founded by the visionary Lee Suh-Mi who brought together a group of colonists to flee Earth and travel to a new planet.  The colony is small, but stable, living around the base of an alien structure part plant, part animal and part city.  Suh-Mi is inside, communing with an alien civilisation, and the colonists have been awaiting her return for more than 20 years.  But the colony’s peace is over-turned when Suh-Mi’s grandson walks out of the grassland and into their lives, claiming to be the only survivor of a group of colonists believed to have crashed on landing.

Renata is a troubled protagonist, and the novel slowly reveals both her mental illness and the likely cause of it.  She suffers from anxiety, struggles to connect with other people and hoards goods.  She fell for Suh-Mi, her former flatmate, and followed her across the stars to escape a troubled relationship with her parents, and an increasingly dystopian Europe of scarcity, diminishing opportunity and encroachment on freedom.  The colony project is a grand vision of escape she can throw herself behind, running away from the challenges of Earth.  Newman’s depiction of Renata famously draws on some of her own personal history of anxiety, and is one of the best and most sympathetic portrayals of a complex and flawed character I’ve come across recently.

The reader quickly realises that all is not as it seems within the colony.  The Machiavellian and manipulative figure of Mack looms large within the novel.  Known as the Ringmaster, his job was to bring the colonists together and help broker their departure from Earth, using his charisma and influencing skills to create a shared vision and manage the people dynamics.  After landing, he has turned those skills to keeping the colony going while it awaits Suh-Mi’s return.  Superficially jovial, charming and caring, the reader soon realises there is a much more sinister undercurrent.

Newman is an accomplished novelist, though Planetfall is her first foray into SF.  The plot unravels with a beautiful balance of twists, reveals and insights that never once feels like Newman is artificially witholding information from the reader for plot purposes.  We travel with Renata as she revisits traumatic events of the past that she has tried to bury and forget.  And Newman gives us a brilliantly diverse cast of all races, genders and sexualities.

I am delighted that Gollancz has picked up this series of books, enabling Newman to finish writing and publishing the sequels.  This is exciting and fresh fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Paris Adrift – E J Swift

Time travel novels are relatively rare.  It’s too easy to get caught up in a knot of grandfather paradoxes and endless self-referential loops.  Plus Doctor Who has pretty much sewn up the market.  Time travel stories work best when the stories told are small, and personal.  That’s what E J Swift gives us with Paris, Adrift (review copy from Rebellion).

Hallie is a teenager escaping from a difficult family home by putting off university, travelling to Paris and working in a bar.  Nudged towards a bar called Millie’s by a mysterious stranger, she finds a new family in the transient community of Paris bar staff.  She also finds an anomaly in the keg room beneath the bar that enables her to travel through time.  Unbeknownst to Hallie, she’s been selected as the person most likely to be able to avert a dystopian, apocalyptic future by making small changes to the course of events.

Hallie’s story is a coming of age tale.  She grows in confidence and maturity as she comes to terms with her challenging family upbringing.  It’s a love song to that time in our life when we first move away from home and discover self-reliance.  Hallie has the chance to reinvent herself in Paris, connecting with a diverse group of likeable people, both in her contemporary Paris, and the city throughout time.

The world-building has a pleasing sense of mystery, with the anomaly left unexplained, and the plot moves along swiftly.  Paris, Adrift is an enjoyable story told with pace and skill.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

2018 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for fiction.  The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (review copy from Headline) is a thought-provoking post-apocalyptic tale about social media, climate change and identity.  It masterfully blends themes with a lightness of touch and real emotional punch.

In Clark Windo’s near-future, we are all permanently connected to each other through brain implants and the Feed: a lightning fast social media link that connects us all at the speed of thought.  Privacy is no more as people increasingly live their lives digitally, storing their knowledge, memories and experiences on servers and backing themselves up each day.  But that safe, complex world collapses suddenly when the Feed goes down, shortly after the assassination of the President.  The shock kills many, leaving only a few left, trying to eke out life in the ruins. 

Tom, Kate and their young daughter Bea are among their number, living in a small community on a farm. Relying on the Feed has left them with little or no knowledge of how to survive.  They don’t know how to grow food, cook, build or repair things.  But with the help of a couple of older people who remember life pre-Feed, they are trying to rebuild knowledge and a life.  Until Bea is kidnapped one day, triggering Tom and Kate to search for her.  A search that inevitably takes them on a journey of understanding that reveals the real cause of the collapse.  

Clark Windo plays with some of the tropes of genre fiction, giving them a contemporary update.  This is a novel that nods towards classic horror staples with a Survivors-style post-apocalyptic vibe and a distinctly literary fiction interiority.  The immediate aftermath of the Feed collapsing creates zombies unable to function and unused to having to speak.  And pervasive throughout the novel is a body-snatchers horror of a person’s implant being used to have them taken over by an alien consciousness.  In a post-collapse world without the intimacy of directly-shared thoughts and where the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a skill that has ossified, people are forced to ask themselves how they know who a person close to them really is.

Tom is particularly well-drawn.  As a son of the family responsible for the creation of the Feed technology, he has chosen to reject his place.  He is characterised by the desire to forget the past, to find ways to live on and to be self-sufficient.  The oblivion of forgetting and being forgotten is his first response to any trauma.  Yet he cherishes his memories of his relationship with Kate, clinging on to them through adversity.  
There is a climate change undertone to all this too.  The Feed consumes huge amounts of energy.  Our social media habits are putting increasing pressures on power supplies.  (All so we can share cat videos and photos of our lunch.)  Clark Windo asks if this is really worth the eventual price.  

Goodreads rating: 5*

Dogs of War – Adrian Tchaikovsky 

Fresh from Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us yet another fresh take on a classic.  Dogs of War (review copy from Head of Zeus) is a glorious updating of H G Wells classic The Island of Dr Moreau.  Told entirely from the viewpoint of bioengineered animal soldiers, this is a story of choices, ethics and overcoming our collecive limitations.

Rex is a dog soldier, and the leader of an experimental squad of similar bioengineered beings.  His squad-mates are Bees, an artificial intelligence distributed across a swarm of insects, Honey, a bear who is a heavy weapons specialist, and Dragon, a sniper lizard with chameleon-like powers to blend into the background.  The squad are under the direct control of their creator, Murray, with the control mechanisms plaing on Rex’s canine instincts to serve his human master, reinforced with a feedback chip that rewards and punishes.  

Rex’s squad are being trialled in a guerilla conflict in South America.  The use of bioengineered soldiers opens up new combat options, and the distance between commanding officer and battlefield changes judgements about risk and tactics.  It quickly becomes apparent that Murray has become involved in war crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons.  Rex’s squad are being used to cover up the evidence.  The issue is finally exposed when Rex’s unit become cut off from Murray’s command, and come to the aid of a village Murray is targeting to cover up a previous chemical attack.  Rex’s actions open up the question of Bioform autonomy, leading to a change in their legal status.
Dogs of War is a story of growth, change and evolution, as Rex and the other Bioforms transcend their limited beginnings.  Tchaikovsky’s strength as a writer shines through in the way he brings forward so much depth in a story told for the most part by a first person narrator with a very limited perspective.  Rex grows and changes over the novel, in large part as a result of his friendship with Honey, who forces him to stretch his thinking and understanding, first through making his own choices about right and wrong, and then as a leader of his Bioform people.  

For the most part this is an optimistic story about growth, change and the evolution of sentient beings.  But it is tempered with caution about the impact technological change canhave if not subject to proper regulation and control.  There is an element of body horror to Dogs of War, as Tchaikovsky shows us the potential of mis-using this technology in the novel’s climactic finale.

Most of all, it’s impossible not to warm to Rex and his squad-mates.  Good dog, Rex.

Goodreads rating: 5*