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Paul Di Filippo reviews Poul Anderson

Question and Answer: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson: Volume 7, by Poul Anderson (NESFA 978-1-61037-313-5, 550pp, hardcover, $32), February 2017

The meticulous, creative and hardworking editors at NESFA who assembled this seventh installment of Anderson’s stories, Rick Katze and Mike Kerpan, have selected tales that saw print from 1951 through 1967. Obviously, this series has not been merely reprinting Anderson’s work in chronological order, or we would have been well towards the latter part of his career by volume seven. Instead, these books have mixed up work from all periods of his career in each outing. I appreciate the straightforward chronological reprinting from a scholarly standpoint–see The Collected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon–since it allows one to chart the development of a writer better. But this scattershot criterion is definitely more appealing to the average reader, who appreciates variety and a deep tranche through the author’s canon.

In any case, the date range is almost identical to that of the selections in The Best of Gordon R. Dickson: Volume 1 that I reviewed earlier this month. This coincidence facilitates my stated goal of trying to recall and honor the collaborative efforts of Dickson and Anderson on the basis of their solo work, as a kind of ghostly subtext to thinking about each man individually.

And right up front, I believe we can make an important distinction along these lines. Poul Anderson was simply the better and more influential and consequential writer of the pair: sentence by sentence and story by story–a consensus reflected in Anderson’s Grand Master award, an honor Dickson was never to receive. It’s interesting to speculate, on a purely human level, how this fact might have contoured the relationship between the friends. At worst, such an inequality often results in a bitter competitive scenario like that in Ellison’s “All the Lies That Are My Life.” Luckily, there was never any evidence of that in the Dickson-Anderson ménage.

We enter the volume via a short, somewhat elegiac introduction from editor Katze, in which he reveals that this collection is the concluding one in the series, having amassed in toto some 1.75 million words. Bravo, indeed! Also, he reveals that only one story, “In the Shadow,” is an unallied singleton, with the others fitting into Anderson’s various future histories. Following this comes a tender and wistful mini-memoir by artist Vincent Di Fate about his long professional relationship with Anderson.

From here we dive into “Question and Answer.” Immediately the deep backstory and multiplex set of themes and tropes reveals that Anderson was seldom content with a simplistic tale. The human-occupied Solar System–a whole “seven billion people!”–is stymied from using their new warp drive to populate the galaxy because of a lack of habitable planets. “The starward wish was dying.” When one good world, Troas, is discovered, hopes flare. But the disappearance of the first expedition casts a cloud over the second voyage. Our man Lorenzen finds he has to contend not only with the rigors of the cosmos and some native sophonts, but also treachery on the ship and back on Earth. Anderson offers a rousingly physical adventure while probing into the tenets of psychosocial governance as well. And all the characters pop off the page.

Next up is “Tiger by the Tail,” a segment from the life of the famous Dominic Flandry, secret agent for a decadent Empire that is staving off the Long Night of barbarism by any means possible. Flandry’s exploits are always presented as cosmopolitan, pseudo-Bondian romps with a razor-edge subtext of imminent chaos and destruction. In this venture, Flandry himself is kidnapped by barbarian Star Vandals. Enlisted to turn traitor, he instead manages to so thoroughly discombobulate the shoddy systems of the Star Goths that they defeat themselves.

In “The Big Rain,” Hollister is an “un-man,” a kind of low-key van Vogtian ubermensch. Infiltrated into the hellworld of Venus to learn what that planet’s dictatorial rulers intend, he is forced to engineer a revolt that is complicated by a factor even an un-man could not anticipate: falling in love with a local woman. Anderson’s portrait of life on a world where the atmosphere is equivalent to embalming fluid has all the sensory depth he was famous for.

Flandry returns for a brief visit in “Warriors from Nowhere,” which finds him tasked with rescuing a kidnapped Princess Megan, with the help of his green manservant named Chives. Well, no one said Anderson was always subtle or restrained.

A classic narrative move to engender conflict and introspection is to have one’s protagonist abruptly exiled from his cushy social berth and introduced into a lower class, where he learns the truth of society. Call it the “Sullivan’s Travels” maneuver, after the Sturges film. Anderson dives right into this trope from page one of “The Troublemakers,” as we witness our idealistic hero, Evan Friday, officer-grade member of the generation-starship Pioneer, booted to crewman’s rank. He quickly and bruisingly learns all about the dystopic nature of the ship, and lives through a mutiny–only to discover that the secret pattern behind events is not what he deduced.

“To Outlive Eternity” is the 1967 novella from Galaxy magazine which was later expanded into one of Anderson’s best and most well-regarded novels, Tau Zero. The story of a spaceship that cannot slow down and thus experiences cosmological wonders works just as well at this length. Anderson’s tightrope walk between Ship of Fools-style human drama and relativistic info-dumps and Stapledonian perspectives is something to marvel at.

Flandry makes his third appearance in “A Message in Secret.” On the world of Altai, which features a kind of Mongol-derived culture, Flandry has to thwart offworld rivals to the Empire’s interests. The McGuffin of the secret message is almost subsidiary to Anderson’s interest in culture-building and world-building, and Flandry’s suave and sometimes sexy heroics. “In the Shadow” finds a spaceship making a scientific expedition to an anomaly that is travelling through the Solar System. Expecting to find a moving neutron star, they instead encounter a “shadow sun,” and all its attendant mysteries. This tale of what today we would call “dark matter” seems prescient, yet eternal in the human realm that includes a lust for freedom and adventure.

Falkayn, Chee Lan and Adzel: to readers of my generation, those names were once as recognizable and revered as those of the Three Musketeers. (At this juncture, the reader is advised to admire the Frank Kelly Freas cover to the special Anderson issue of F&SF, with an alluring Chee Lan in the lower corner.) Part of the Polesotechnic League series, these three–a human, a sexy cat woman and a cultured dragon-oid–were the essence of sophisticated space opera. In “Trader Team” (aka “The Trouble Twisters”), the trio becomes embroiled in local politics and matters of social justice while still seeking to turn a profit. The young hot enthusiasm of their era is subsequently contrasted with Flandry’s fin de siècle desperation and cunning in “Honorable Enemies,” which introduces Flandry’s nemesis, Aycharaych of Merseia, and their deadly cat-and-mouse game-playing.

“Outpost of Empire” harks to its more-famous contemporary peer, Le Guin’s “The Word for World Is Forest,” with a shared examination of colonialism and the rights of the minority versus the majority. Additionally, the splitting-off of humans into almost different sub-species due to massive cultural differentiation–a prime Jack Vance riff–is also explored. Anderson’s friendship with Vance and any literary influences in either direction is a subject that has hardly been tapped.

Finally, “Hunters of the Sky Cave,” which had an earlier life as half of an Ace Double, We Claim These Stars, brings Flandry onto the stage once more, for a satisfying victory over Aycharaych, who laments: “I am beaten not by a superior brain or a higher justice, but by the brute fact that you are from a larger planet than I and thus have stronger muscles. It will not be easy to fit this into a harmonious reality.”

Emerging from this large and concentrated dose of Anderson, most readers, I think, will acknowledge that his mastery of science and its utilization as story elements was immense; his language, while at times a tad too purple, succeeded in evoking beautiful mental movies; his characters, both male and female, were equally larger than life yet utterly fallible at times; and his philosophy of existence pervaded his work. This credo is made explicit in “Outposts of Empire,” and is worth quoting at length, to illustrate Anderson’s notion that our kind, insignificant as we are, is yet capable of glory and grandeur, and must struggle against fate and an uncaring universe, even if we are ultimately doomed to go down into darkness.

Good God, he thought, if You do not exist—terrible God, if You do—here we are, Homo sapiens, children of Earth, creators of bonfires and flint axes and proton converters and gravity generators and faster-than-light space-ships, explorers and conquerors, dominators of an Empire which we ourselves founded, whose sphere is estimated to indude four million blazing suns… here we are, and what are we? What are four million stars, out on the fringe of one arm of the galaxy, among its hundred billion; and what is the one galaxy among so many?

Why, I shall tell you what we are and these are, John Ridenour. We are one more-or-less intelligent species in a universe that produces sophonts as casually as it produces snowflakes. We are not a hair better than our great, greenskinned, gatortailed Merseian rivals, not even considering that they have no hair; we are simply different in looks and language, similar in imperial appetites. The galaxy—what tiny part of it we can ever control—cares not one quantum whether their youthful greed and boldness overcome our wearied satiety and caution. (Which is a thought born of an aging civilization, by the way).

Our existing domain is already too big for us. We don’t comprehend it. We can’t. Never mind the estimated four million suns inside our borders. Think just of the approximately one hundred thousand whose planets we do visit, occupy, order about, accept tribute from. Can you visualize the number? A hundred thousand; no more; you could count that high in about seven hours. But can you conjure up before you, in your mind, a well with a hundred thousand bricks in it: and see all the bricks simultaneously?

Of course not. No human brain can go as high as ten.

Then consider a planet, a world, as big and diverse and old and mysterious as ever Terra was. Can you see the entire planet at once? Can you hope to understand the entire planet? Next consider a hundred thousand of them.

This challenge–comprehending the cosmos and our place in it– remains still, for us as for Anderson in his heyday. And thus his fiction continues to matter.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Allen Steele

Avengers of the Moon, by Allen Steele (Tor 978-0-7653-8218-4, $26.99, 304pp, hardcover) April 2017)

Of the reviving of old franchises there is no end. No pulp hero is ever truly dead. I suppose that their unkillable nature is what made them true pulp heroes to begin with. And although some revivals seem crass and merely mercenary, we have no complaints of that nature when the result is an authentic, heartfelt and evocative novel like Allen Steele’s newest.

After being more or less defunct for decades, this seems to be Captain Future’s time to be reborn. The deluxe yet affordable omnibuses from Haffner Press deliver all the old-fashioned goodness of the series that initially flourished from 1940 to 1951, and which sparked up in reprints or refashionings at intervals thereafter. The Captain’s retro yet timeless virtues–both the hero’s personal creed and the narrative stylings–are arguably congruent with cultural trends today toward a desired and desirable return to basics and old verities with a useful revisioning. And this type of space opera is essentially an infinite canvas on which new adventures can be perpetually inscribed.

As for the choice of author to pick up the Captain’s tale–well, who else on the current scene might one nominate? It would have to be, I think, someone of a certain age. It’s not likely a Millennial writer would care for the job or bring the appropriate zest and fondness to the task. So that limits out choices. Mike Resnick or Stephen Baxter or Robert Sawyer or David Brin or Catherine Asaro or C. J. Cherryh would do a fine job. But not necessarily better than Steele’s loving performance. As he says in his afterword, his novel is “neither an homage to the Hamilton novels nor a parody, but rather an effort to bring Captain Future into the twenty-first century for a new generation of readers.”

I think Steele has succeeded wonderfully, while still retaining all the old virtues and attractions of the original property.

First off, the science and interworld logistics and realpolitik of his version of the old Planet Stories consensual future (every planet in our Solar System inhabitable, and productive of different races of mankind) is utterly believable and well-conceived. This is far from a Hard SF book, but nonetheless Steele takes the time to consider such matters as the terraforming of Mars and daily residential life on the Moon in substantial detail. Likewise, Steele provides us with a level of character development which, while not on the level of, say, a postmodern space opera by M. John Harrison, is still fully mature and of sufficient depth to endear the characters to us and make us enthusiastically savor their aspirations, their triumphs and defeats.

The primary beneficiary of this attention is of course Curt Newton, Captain Future himself. Steele wisely introduces Curt at the very start of his career, as a naive yet brilliant and brave twenty-something lad raised by his three oddball companions: Simon, a disembodied human brain housed in a drone; Otho, an android; and Grag, a sentient robot. The bonds among this quartet power the tale; family is the engine of their adventures. Then in comes the feisty Joan Randall, officer of the Interplanetary Police Force. Devoted to her corps, Joan crosses paths with Curt and crew and is swept up in their destiny, never to be the same. The seeds of romance between her and Curt are planted in this installment and sprout, while leaving many prospects ahead.

So then: good setting, good cast. What of the story itself? Steele has wisely kept the tale from becoming overcomplicated, hewing to a more-or-less straightforward revenge theme, while still providing generous subplots and larger avenues to propel subsequent developments. And the furniture of such tales is nicely arrayed. Extinct Martian volcanoes! Castaway in space! Biosphere-capped craters!

We begin with Curt’s desire for revenge on Victor Corvo, the sleazy politician who murdered Curt’s parents twenty years in the past. But this personal desire ensnares Curt in Corvo’s own schemes, leading the posse ultimately to Mars, where the sinister and secretive Ul Quorn, criminal and cult chieftain, awaits.

Steele keeps his chapters of modest length, his sentences graceful yet uncomplex, and while not every segment ends on a cliffhanger, there are still cliffhangers aplenty. But the pacing of this book is not feverish and the plot is not overstuffed, so there is room for contemplative moments.

One special feature that Steele has mastered is porting over the whimsical moments of the original books. I will affirm that it takes a rare talent to make a modern reader accept seriously and willingly a concept like “Eek the moonpuppy.” On a similar note, the superscience aspect of the old books are not scanted, but neither are they pushed beyond believability.

Blending melodrama with restraint, mixing tragedy and comedy, and hewing to tradition while simultaneously honoring contemporary tastes, this book deserves to find a big audience amongst old and young readers alike.

Finally, let me praise the really striking and distinctive cover art by Thomas Ed Walker. It evokes old-school sense-of-wonder magnificently.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Adrienne Martini reviews Elan Mastai

All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai (Dutton 978-1-101-98513-7, $26.00, 384pp, hc) Febru­ary 2017.

‘‘So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.’’

So opens Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays and, indeed, main character Tom Barren comes from a 2016 we were supposed to have, the one that looks like the Space Age as imagined in the early 1960s, all Jetsons and flying cars and teleportation. Energy is unlimited, thanks to the Goettreider Engine, which was invented in 1965 and changed everything. It’s a world where punk rock never happened because it never needed to.

Only Tom is no longer in his 2016, the one where his Dad is a self-involved inventor, and his Mom exists only to serve his needs. Instead, Tom is here in our 2016, which is imperfect and messy and wrong. Because Tom’s Dad invented a time machine and Tom himself made an impulsive, stupid choice that sent him back to 1965, our 2016 came into existence. Now Tom is compelled to set it right. Sort of. See, there’s also a girl involved and, well, it’s complicated.

One of the best things about getting advanced copies of new books is the opportunity to discover all of the twists before knowing too much about them to feel that little thrill of the story twisting and shifting just when you think you’ve figured it out. So I will say no more about the plot because, man, does it twist and shift in all of the best ways. This is a science fiction love story that is by turns funny and wistful and smart, while remaining fully invested in how being human feels.

Mastai has a sure hand with all of the elements of storytelling. While he’s new to novels, he’s a screenwriter who’s had five of his scripts pro­duced. That experience informs All Our Wrong Todays but doesn’t define it. This is clearly a novel and not merely a fleshed-out screenplay, and Mastai’s jaunty prose is essential to the vibrant and engaging story.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Gordon R. Dickson

The Best of Gordon R. Dickson: Volume 1, by Gordon R. Dickson (Baen 978-1-4767-8217-1, 272pp, trade paperback), April 2017

It is generally acknowledged that SF/F/H publishing experienced a gigantic paradigm shift post-Star Wars, a transformation which has only accelerated, increased its magnitude, and further altered its unpredictable dimensions in the past decade or two of that tumultuous forty-year span. The old cozy world of a fandom-to-prodom pipeline; a limited slate of publishers, mostly traditional New York houses plus a few small presses; dominance by print magazines; etc., etc., is long gone, never to return.

One feature of that old world which, to my eyes, has diminished greatly, was writing partnerships. The small, somewhat incestuous world of science fiction built intense friendships and desires to collaborate. The canon of SF/F/H is filled with famous duos. Wylie & Balmer; de Camp & Pratt; Kuttner & Moore; Niven & Pournelle; Pohl & Kornbluth; Williamson & Pohl. Harlan Ellison devoted a whole collection to his shared fictions, Partners in Wonder.

But where are such partnerships among the younger writers? They seem out of fashion. True, there are shared-world projects, such as Bookburners, Tremontaine and Wild Cards. But these joint efforts strike me as more of themed anthologies featuring a Bible, to which one contributes a solo piece. They do not represent two creative minds yoked in tandem. Such novelist unions do still exist. Larry Niven continues to work with Gregory Benford and Steven Barnes, among others. Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling just published Transreal Cyberpunk, a volume of their collaborations. Kathleen and Michael Gear soldier on, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. But again, older writers.

I bring up this topic on the occasion of the appearance of this Gordon Dickson collection simply because he and Poul Anderson formed one such famous working friendship. Although this book does not even feature any of their mutual work, its publication does roughly coincide with the release of Question and Answer: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson: Volume 7, which I will be covering in this venue later this month. So while perusing Dickson’s solo work–and, later, Anderson’s–it’s valuable to keep in mind that they had another whole aspect to their writing lives. Honoring the subtextual joint accomplishment of Anderson & Dickson while enjoying their solo work is our goal! Perhaps these two reviews, together, will conjure up the undiscussed collaborations.

Dickson began publishing professionally in 1950, and this first volume of his Best Stories chronicles the years 1954 through 1964–with one important exception. Editor Hank Davis has wisely and temptingly kicked off the collection with “Love Song,” the piece that Dickson sold to Harlan Ellison for Last Dangerous Visions, and which has been unseen since. The tale of an archetypical drunken bard, a seeker of love and beauty who can slip up and down the timestream, this story represents the mature writer and exudes a kind of wounded melancholy and a vision of both the powers and limits of artistry that the younger Dickson could not quite yet encompass.

We follow with the amusing albeit slight “Miss Prinks,” rather in the Unknown magazine mode of humorous fantasy. An old maid receives the powers of Superman, more or less, but discovers that her gentility does not consort well with such abilities. “Our First Death” is an alternately tender and brutal examination of the consequences of being an offworld colonist that fall upon a sensitive young girl. Although we never see her first hand–she’s dead at story’s opening–her nature emerges through the fraught interplay among the other colonists. A deliberate, I think, echo of The Diary of Anne Frank (a book much in the news during this era) lingers here.

“St. Dragon and the George” was the seminal outing for characters whom Dickson would further explore in several novels. The screwball tale of a man sent psychically back in time to inhabit a dragon’s body, along with his physically displaced girlfriend, again reveals Dickson’s familiarity with, and fondness for, the kind of de Camp & Pratt humor of an earlier period. Dickson can be seen as a bridge between the Golden Age stories of this sort and the urban fantasy of our contemporary century.

In “Friend for Life,” an ultra-civilized citizen of the galactic milieu tracks down an old friend on a barbaric world. Finding the man murdered, he seeks justice–but then is forced to realize that justice is an elusive quality, and that his own motives are selfish and ill-conceived. Moving to John Campbell’s Astounding with “Danger–Human,” Dickson delivers a taut exemplary story that dramatizes Campbell’s thesis about the savage, unpredictable superiority of homo sapiens. A few items later, “The Question” performs the same function. Except that this time, a Samuel Fuller-style war story is the vehicle. But in between this allied pair comes “Fleegl of Fleegl” which starts out as a wacky alien invasion scenario before detouring into PKD territory (think Eye in the Sky).

Like Dickson’s “The Girl Who Played Wolf,” Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos series, debuting around this same time, featured amiable warlocks and werewolves in modern settings. Both were probably derivative of Jack Williamson’s famous Darker Than You Think, and both do a good job in the proto-urban-fantasy sub-genre. A psi story, “The Dreamsman” also has some Kornbluth mordancy as it shows humanity stymied in its evolutionary path by one selfish individual. Short and punchy, “One on Trial” details the punishment of a certain rogue warrior, which he then inverts for his own purposes. A forerunner of post-scarcity stories, and almost Zelaznyesque in its depiction of wastrel quasi-immortals, “An Honorable Death” at the same time also addresses human-alien interactions and the wrong assumptions that detour them.

Readers of The Martian will find a worthy predecessor in “Whatever Gods There Be,” wherein a team of astronauts on the Red Planet must reason their way out of a jam. Echoes of “The Cold Equations” are present as well. One of Dickson’s most famous pieces, “Idiot Solvant” riffs on the trope of unleashing inherent intelligence. Dickson was ahead of this time in placing so much weight on the subconscious, which modern neuroscience also credits immensely. As in a couple of other tales here, whiffs of a Sturgeonesque approach to characterization are apparent. And finally, “Dolphin’s Way” might be regarded as Childhood’s End for ocean mammals.

Alternating between tragic and comedic, these sharp, succinct stories show Dickson already possessed of massive narrative chops and plenty of good ideas, even if they were sometimes beholden to past SF novums. Utterly readable after some six decades, every story here shows a total professional at work. The variety of magazine markets, each satisfied on its own terms, is further testament to his publishing awareness. Dedicated not only to his own artistic development, but also to readerly pleasures and editorial needs, Dickson stood out even at the start of his long and majestic career.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley (Saga 978-1-4814-4793-5, $26.99, 388pp, hc) Febru­ary 2017.

Kameron Hurley’s first full-bore venture into SF is described by both the author and the publisher as space opera, but it’s about the most claustrophobic space opera we’re likely to see. In place of the galaxy-wide canvases of the classic form, she takes us to a rather sad cluster of decaying artificial worldlets, called the Legion, grouped around an artificial sun and so near to each other that they can be visited on what amounts to outer space jet skis. Furthermore, one of her two main characters spends more than half the novel struggling through a terrifying underground journey inside one of the worldlets, a journey which provides the novel with its most power­ful and visceral images, drawn more from the intestinal school of body horror than from any tradition of technological SF. Every liquid in the book – even the rain – is viscous, every tentacle is slimy or ropy (and even the ground has tentacles), every hill seems to be made of bones or corpses. There’s a wonderfully ba­roque nightmare called the recycler monster, described in terms that recall nothing so much as Goya’s ‘‘Saturn Devouring His Son’’ and that makes the Star Wars garbage monster seem almost cuddly. Even the weapons use cephalopods for ammunition. In other words, while the raw template may be space opera, The Stars Are Legion draws enthusiastically and effectively on a number of mythological and horror traditions as well.

Hurley begins with a classic opening gambit: the narrator who awakens with only fragments of memory. Zan, as she eventually learns from her ally and sometime lover Jayd, is a skilled military leader for the Katazyrna family, which is fighting the rival Bhavaja family for control of the worlds in the Legion. Zan is the only one who has been able to penetrate the rogue world called Mokshi, which is thought to hide secrets that may permit escape from the crowded Core of worlds, and perhaps holds a key to defeating the Bhavajas. But each time she makes it inside, any troops with her are destroyed or repelled, and Zan herself always loses her memory. Her latest attempt is undermined by a sneak attack from the Bhavajas. Jayd, whose mother is the Lord Katazyrna, is captured and sent off to marry the Bhavaja leader Rasida, who orders Zan tossed down the recycle bin to what seems is certain doom (that bit, at least, is classic pulp space opera).

The rest of the narrative is mostly divided between Jayd’s shrewd political machinations among the treacherous Bhavajas and Zan’s quest for survival through all those underworld monstrosities. Pretty clearly, Jayd has the better deal, though Zan does find some unlikely allies, including a woman named Das Muni, whose own world has died; Casamir, who describes herself as an engineer (we later learn what that actually means); and Andamis, who leads them into a vast underground city called Amaris, where no one gives a hoot about the surface war between the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas. We learn more interesting things about this underworld from a pregnant woman named Arankadash (there are no male characters at all, and wombs are clearly seen as valued commodi­ties), whose people give birth not to children, but to ‘‘things the world needs’’ – rather like in Geoff Ryman’s ‘‘The Unconquered Country’’, I suspect. These secondary characters lend a kind of epic complexity to Zan’s tale that Jayd’s more conventional political intrigue can’t match, no matter how duplicitous or cruel the players turn out to be. When the two principals finally reunite, though, The Stars Are Legion finally delivers powerfully – if disturbingly – on that space opera promise.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Russell Letson reviews Ken MacLeod

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, Ken MacLeod (Orbit 978-0-316-36365-5, $9.99, 349pp, pb) November 2016.

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, Ken MacLeod (Orbit 978-0-316-36369-3, $9.99, 331pp, pb) December 2016.

Ken MacLeod’s new trilogy-in-progress bears the overall title The Corporation Wars, with US print editions of the first two volumes, Dissidence and Insurgence, appearing just a month apart late in 2016. (The third, Emergence, is due out later this year.) The story is told from a variety of viewpoints and features a mixture of motifs: the post-human condition, interstellar coloni­zation, and space combat, along with familiar MacLeodian discussions about political systems and revolution. The setup is straightforward enough: posthumously convicted war criminals from a late-20-century conflict are resurrected a thousand years later (via recordings of their dy­ing brains) in order to have their sentences finally carried out. Their task is to put down a rebel­lion – or perhaps just a labor stoppage – among some robots that have spontaneously gained awareness in a solar system 24 light-years from Earth, where they have been conducting various automated exploration projects in preparation for eventual human colonization. The working-out of this situation is anything but straightforward, though, thanks to complications logistical, psy­chological, epistemological, phenomenological, political-economical, historical-political, labor-organizational….

There are at this point no living, embodied humans this far from Earth. The extrasolar proj­ect is run by ‘‘post-conscious AIs’’ and various AI-based corporations. All have an unbreakable prohibition against conscious machinery, so it is the ‘‘mission’s government module,’’ the Direc­tion, that decides to activate a problem-solving entity which in turn brings in the former-living specialists in mayhem. The convict-soldiers ‘‘live’’ in a completely convincing simulation of the terraformed colony planet that might one day exist in the extrasolar system, but when they work and fight out in the physical world, they are loaded into ‘‘frames’’ – humanoid robotic bodies with much-enhanced senses and powers.

For their part, the robots are figuring out what their awakened minds and sense of free will means for their legal status. MacLeod points to Brian Aldiss’s 1958 story ‘‘But Who Can Replace a Man?’’ as the ‘‘very useful template’’ for the ro­bots’ manner of conversation: precise, nerdy, and stilted. That is not the same thing as dumb, and the newly self-aware surveyors, explorers, laser drillers, comm hubs, and other complex machines quickly understand the nature of their situation and discuss what, if anything, they might owe their former owners for appropriating themselves and other resources they have taken over:

We are in breach of the law. But the law was not written for the situation in which we find ourselves. There is no provision in it for prop­erty, such as we were, becoming persons, which we are.

They also begin to construct a larger mental space in which they can combine their individual intelligences to create not just a collective of freebots but a collective mind – and that mind quickly develops ambitions and a kind of dream for its future.

Dealing with these liberated robots proves to be neither easy nor simple, and the cleanup effort is further complicated for the resurrected humans by issues rooted in the back-story, a thousand years earlier on Earth. The convicts were among the losers in a multilateral undeclared war between opposed ideological movements – the progres­sive, post-human-oriented Acceleration (or Axle) and the authoritarian Reaction (the Rax) – with official governments caught between, infiltrating, and finally defeating and dismantling both groups. This background conflict – which eventually af­fects the current action – raises interesting issues about the lure of endless plenty and computa­tionally supported immortality, which were the dreams behind the Acceleration:

At the fag-end of the twenty-first century, immortality was the only thing worth dying for. The only celebrity worth striving for was for the entire human race to become world famous. The only utopia worth dreaming of was for everyone in the world to have First World problems.

Those same material possibilities generated the Reaction, ‘‘the ultimate counter-revolution…. a deep dark well of tradition [and] anti-modernity’’ that preferred ‘‘an aristocracy, a monarchy, or for that matter a master race that really was superior to common folk.’’

The resurrectees have questions about the story they have been given. Some of their uncertainties are epistemological and almost metaphysical, rooted in the simulation problem – the question of what, if anything, experienced in or via a simulation can be trusted. In addition, the convicts include a number of (apparently unrecognized) Rax partisans, going along with the program but hardly in sympathy with the Direction’s values. Then there is the temptation to follow the example of the robots and throw off the limits imposed by the Direction and light out for the territories of this huge, complex, and resource-rich solar system.

Inevitably, there is a factioning and fractioning of the resurectees and the various AI corporate entities, which is where Insurgence takes over from the extensive backgrounding and first-act skirmishes of Dissidence. The second volume reshuffles the cast into new alignments and fea­tures a new virtual world (amusingly ginned up from a fantasy role-playing game), while also offering renewed physical-world confrontations, conspiracies, and side-switching and deception; and new philosophical rabbit holes and trapdoors to fall into, halls of mirrors to wander, and navels to gaze into: ‘‘Their whole situation was one of radical uncertainty. Everything was code, includ­ing themselves…. It was trust issues all the way down.’’ The competing factions – freebots, fugi­tive and captive resurrectees, diehard Axle and sleeper Rax, subverted and loyal corporate AIs – have reconfigured the playing field and changed the stakes. Between the dropping of the Spoiler Curtain and the release of Emergence, there is not much more to be said other than to observe that, even incomplete, this triple-decker delivers the kind of smart, funny, ingenious, brain-teasing pleasure that one expects from Ken MacLeod.

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Liz Bourke reviews Charles Stross

Empire Games, Charles Stross (Tor 978-0765337566, $25.99, 336pp, hc) January 2017.

Charles Stross has a habit of writing disturbing worlds. Sometimes, as with his Laundry Files, the horror comes side-by-side with humor; other times, as in his early science fiction, the implacable face of a hostile universe doesn’t wear much of a mask at all.

Empire Games is the start of a new trilogy, set in the world of his Merchant Princes novels (six books, now released as three omnibus edi­tions), but several years on from the nuclear events that punctuated those novels. Empire Games is a solid entry-point to that continuity – fortunately for your humble correspondent, who may or may not have read the first two Merchant Princes novels over a decade ago, and certainly never read the rest.

There is a brief but comprehensive intro­duction to the concept on which the setting is founded: there are different timelines, and travel between timelines is possible for certain people unaided, or, for the US, using certain tools. Four timelines are relevant to the events of Empire Games. Timeline one, formerly home to a medieval-esque kingdom controlled by the worldwalking Clan, now with extra irradiated wasteland due to nuclear retaliation from: the US in timeline two, where in the early 2000s an element of the Clan blew up the White House. Now in the year 2020, the US is a hyperpara­noid total surveillance state, exploring alternate timelines with the horrified fear that there are more worldwalkers out there with the tools to turn them into an irradiated wasteland. And there may well be: timeline three diverged from the history of timeline two during the 1700s and only recently underwent a revolution. Thanks in part to the efforts of Miriam Beckstein, timeline three is now home to the refugees of the Clan – and they’re busy building their new democratically revolutionary homeland an economy and a military that can stand up to the US that nuked their first home, just in case paratemporal nuclear war comes calling.

As for timeline four… timeline four is the lurking existential horror, a timeline with an un­inhabited Earth with evidence of an extremely advanced timeline-hopping civilisation at war. And a gate between timelines to one where there is no longer an Earth. Timeline four, once its significance is revealed, hangs like a sword of Damocles over every move that every character makes.

As does the threat of nuclear war.

In timeline three, Miriam Beckstein – now Burgeson – is a senior government minister in charge of intertemporal technology transfer and development: developing a domestic industry that can rival and surpass the US in timeline two, while also keeping worldwalking opera­tives active under the noses of the machinery of the US’s omnipresent surveillance state. In timeline two, Rita Douglas – adopted grand­daughter of an ex-Stasi officer, natural daughter of Miriam Beckstein, out-of-work thespian, and recessive carrier of the worldwalker gene – is recruited by the Department of Homeland Se­curity. They’ve figured out how to activate the worldwalker gene, and they want Rita to be their first worldwalking spy. It’s not an offer they’re willing to let her refuse….

Empire Games is, in many respects, a classic thriller in the Cold War spy mode, albeit set in an SFnal alternate present/near future (one that, on a social scale, looks less darkly horrifying and more plausible-extrapolation with every passing day) and featuring parallel timelines instead of continental blocs. Stross uses narrative flash­backs – with deft economy – to establish how the world(s) and characters arrived where they are ‘‘today’’ in 2020. The present-day narrative is taut and efficient, intensely claustrophobic and driving forward relentlessly towards a cliff whose shape the reader can’t quite see, but one that feels all the more threatening for being un­defined. Discussions among intelligence-agency higher-ups are provided in transcript form, a choice that creates an emotional distance for the reader between them and the characters whose points of view we are permitted to inhabit. It increases the tension, claustrophobia, and sense of lowering threat, for the intelligence-agency staff become moral and emotional ciphers rac­ing towards confrontations out of unchecked paranoia.

But what of the characters? Stross has an el­egant efficiency with characterisation: even his walk-ons have a knack of feeling like they exist in three dimensions. Rita Douglas is perhaps for me the most compelling: a young woman thrust into the midst of the apparatus of the security state, kept in the dark, knowing she’s being manipulated and not knowing exactly how. Her developing relationship with old schoolfriend Angie came as a delightful relief: it’s a very necessary interlude with a healthy relationship in which none of the participants are lying to each other, and it makes the rest of the novel feel just that much less inevitably dark. (And queer characters in a Stross novel always make me more hopeful that not everyone is going to die horribly.)

If I have one criticism of Empire Games, it’s that Stross is very obviously not telling us all that (some) of the characters know. There’s a level of transparent manipulation and mis­direction – par for the course in a thriller, but nonetheless a little frustrating. Still, Empire Games is immensely compelling, an excellent novel: I look forward to seeing where the story goes from here.

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Back to the Retrofuture, Version 2.0:
A Review of Ghost in the Shell

by Gary Westfahl

One personal revelation garnered from watching the new, live-action version of Ghost in the Shell is that it is possible to admire a film without really liking it. Director Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger have unquestionably crafted an intelligently-written, fast-paced, and visually stunning adventure, and as the events unfolded, I kept thinking that I should be enjoying the experience. Instead, I was longing for the movie to come to an end, and wondering why I felt that way.

Part of the problem, I think, involves the entire subgenre of cyberpunk, represented by writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and by films like Blade Runner (1982), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and this film’s uncredited precursor, Mamoru Oshii’s classic anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995). Despite all of the scholarly attention and praise that such writers and films have received, one might cynically epitomize the genre as routine cops-and-robbers stuff, with an overlay of portentous platitudes about the ways that new technology is erasing all traditional boundaries between fantasy and reality, human and nonhuman, and so on. And this film could serve as Exhibit A in support of this argument. Thus, we are told that protagonist Major (Scarlett Johannson) has a human brain inside a robot body, so that “the line between human and machine is blurring”; an African diplomat worries about the “risks to individuality” raised by humans with mechanical “augmentations”; the cyborg Major is told, “you are what everyone will become one day”; characters can never trust their own memories, as these might be false; and also living in a city filled with realistic holograms, Major’s partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) concludes, “Fantasy, reality … what’s the difference? It’s all the same.” Yet what is actually going on in this film? We have some good guys, and some bad guys, and they engage in a series of bloody gun battles until the good guys finally win. And everything about these encounters is completely predictable to anyone who has seen contemporary films: that is, Major may be attacked by a dozen adversaries with machine guns, but she can always dance around and effortlessly dodge their hundreds of bullets while she picks them off one by one with her own, expertly aimed single shots. Thus, despite its veneer of futuristic novelty, the film is also a story that audiences have seen many, many times before.

It is also surprising to realize how dated this film’s concerns seem to be. Back in the 1980s, computers were new, robotics was in its infancy, and it was easy to anticipate – and fear – that these innovations would completely transform the human condition – so one might well, like the youthful runaways referenced in the film, “write manifestos about how technology is destroying the world.” Today, computers have been smoothly integrated into the social order, robots have not yet advanced in ways that threaten anyone’s sense of human identity, and one increasingly feels that the dreams and anxieties of the 1980s were wildly exaggerated – that innovations will always come along, and new issues will always arise, but people will deal with those innovations, resolve those issues, and keep muddling through. After all, as I observed in a 2009 commentary, “no matter how much we may desire, or fear, a radically altered future, we can observe throughout our history remarkable continuities in human activities and behavior …. So, while human life in the future will undoubtedly change in many small and large ways, it is reasonable to predict that, by and large, people will continue to act in the ways that they have acted in the past.” And this, as it happens, is how William Gibson now envisions the future: for as he said in his 2010 “Talk for Book Expo, New York, “Ahead of us there is merely … more stuff. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian.”

One further questions the logic behind the images of the future generated by cyberpunk – dark, dreary, crowded metropolises dominated by garish advertisements and rampant lawlessness. As everyone knows, people in the 1930s predicted a very different sort of future – wide open spaces, soaring skyscrapers, flying cars, people in gleaming bodysuits swallowing their food pills – that we now perceive as a charmingly silly “retrofuture,” presented in recent films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and Tomorrowland (2015 – review here). Today, the chaotic urban nightmares observed in films like Blade Runner, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001 – review here), and this film are beginning to seem equally quaint and implausible – are these really the sorts of environments that future societies will create and inhabit? These visions, then, as my title suggests, may someday be perceived as our generation’s own retrofuture, to be nostalgically revisited by residents of an actual future that is very different.

If this film represents, generally, another version of a second, never-to-be-realized future, it is more specifically another version of a greatly admired film, the original Ghost in the Shell, and many will wonder if it compares favorably to its distinguished predecessor. And for the most part I think it does. (I must leave it to others, though, to discuss how it compares to the original manga series and its other animated adaptations, which I am not familiar with.) Despite their refusal to officially acknowledge Oshii’s film as source material, one can be sure that Sanders and his writers watched and were influenced by it, as evidenced, if nothing else, by visual borrowings like the iconic image of Major leaping backwards from the top of a skyscraper (the way this film begins and ends) and the appearance of Major and Batou. (Incidentally, while some have criticized the casting of a Caucasian actor as Major, Johansson’s wide-eyed, only slightly Asian look perfectly replicates the characteristic way that anime heroes like Oshii’s Major are drawn.) The two films’s stories are roughly similar, as Major and Batou are assigned to track down a mysterious hacker who at one point is controlling the consciousness of a garbage truck driver with implanted false memories of a wife and child, and Major first encounters the hacker by entering a robot’s consciousness. The film at one point also duplicates the way the 1995 film’s title was rendered, with “in the” within a central triangle.

Yet Sanders, Moss, Wheeler, and Kruger have arguably improved upon Oshii and writer Kazunori Itô’s original story. How Major came to be a brain with a robot body is foregrounded as a mystery, and the novel revelations about her true identity, and that of the hacker (Michael Pitt) – here called Kuze, not the Puppet Master – tie all elements of the story together in a satisfying fashion. There is an effective new character, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the sympathetic scientist who oversaw Major’s transformation, while less sympathetic scientist Dr. Dahlin (Anamaria Marinca) announces her vileness by smoking cigarettes. As if to counter criticism about casting an American actor as its lead, the film made an admirable effort to assemble a truly international cast, with several Japanese actors joining performers from Singapore, Australia, Denmark, Britain, France, and Romania. And one cannot say enough about the film’s consistently inventive visual effects, which at times are superior to Oshii’s animation.

There are also good reasons, though, to prefer the 1995 film. Despite its serious themes, Oshii’s film seems hearteningly unpretentious, dedicated primarily to entertaining its viewers; Sanders’s film, as already intimated, is striving too hard to impress audiences with its purported profundity: “We cling to memories as if they define us – but they don’t. What we do defines us.” (Isn’t the correct answer – a little bit of both?) The motives of a new character in this story, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), are at best unclear; as his name suggests, he was apparently created solely to provide the story with one character who was purely evil, so that audiences could look forward to seeing him slaughtered at the end of the movie. While the 1995 film ends provocatively, as Major merges with the Puppet Master within a new child’s body, Sanders’s film has a more conventional conclusion – which unsurprisingly sets up a possible sequel that would again feature Scarlett Johansson. And Oshii’s story, thankfully, is much less violent than this film. A telling moment comes at the beginning of Oshii’s film, when an imminent gun battle ends after a single round as a character shouts, “Stop! Hold your fire! …. I have diplomatic immunity” – and the conflict is resolved by means of conversation. In this film’s parallel scene, however, the bullets keep flying until the floor is strewn with corpses.

This film’s incessant gunplay may reflect the influence of another film that Sanders and his cohorts were surely aware of – Johnny Mnemonic. One telling sign was their casting of Takeshi Kitano to play a beleaguered executive, just as he did in Johnny Mnemonic, and both films involve protagonists who have lost their memories and are seeking to regain them, culminating with an appearance by their mothers. The films are similarly and relentlessly dark until there is some final daylight, and this film’s concept of cities with “lawless zones” may have also been borrowed from Gibson’s screenplay. Ghost in the Shell is a much better film, though, primarily because Scarlett Johansson is a much better actor than Keanu Reeves.

Beyond probing its relationships to specific films, one can also consider Ghost in the Shell as one example of a growing trend – making live-action versions of classic animated films. The folks at Disney have been specializing in doing this for years, and unfortunately seem driven to continue the practice – does anybody really want to see a live-action remake of Dumbo (1941)? – and this film signals that animated films from other studios may soon be receiving the same treatment. To studio executives, such projects may seem the best of both worlds – remakes of popular films have automatic audience appeal and hence are virtually destined to succeed, yet the change in format enables filmmakers to simultaneously pretend that they are doing something new. And, as this film illustrates, they actually do have to do some things differently – sometimes with good results, sometimes with bad results. For one thing, by replacing animated images with live actors, filmmakers inevitably feel obliged to place more emphasis on character development, so that we get to know and like Sanders’s Major more than we got to know and like Oshii’s Major. Animated films are traditionally allowed to be less than ninety minutes long, while live-action films are expected to last about two hours, so these new versions must add new characters, new back stories, and new complications to stretch their stories to the necessary length; these may improve the story, or weaken it. Finally, as if filmmakers are thrilled to realize that computer-generated animation now allows them to craft images that one could once achieve only with animation, live-action remakes may devote too much time to showing off their abilities; in the case of this film, for example, it was quite exciting, the first time, to observe a cityscape filled with enormous moving holograms, but much less exciting to see the same thing for the tenth time.

As an aside, I found it interesting to ponder what the film had to say about a longstanding subject of debate – the relative virtues of dogs and cats. As it happens, Batou is fond of dogs, he regularly purchases raw meat to feed some street dogs, and when he is temporarily incapacitated by an injury, he asks Major, “Could you feed the dogs for me?” But when she appears to show some affection for Batou’s dogs, he comments, “I had you down as more a cat person” – and in fact, as one element in her recovered memories that can be harmlessly revealed, we do learn that she once owned a cat. These preferences are reflected in the characters’ personalities: Batou’s dominant characteristic is his fierce loyalty to Major, while Major’s dominant characteristic is her fierce independence, as she twice disobeys orders to intervene in a crisis situation and probe a robot’s memories, and we are later told that, as a child, she was “fearless and wild.” In one revelatory scene, Major tells Batou that “I don’t know who to trust anymore,” and he immediately asks, “Do you trust me?” She answers, “I trust you. I just don’t like you.” It is just like a dog, of course, to want to be loved and trusted, and it is just like a cat to be cold to someone who likes her. More broadly, the film may be signaling that both Major and Batou are, in their own ways, like pets, especially bred and trained to serve human needs; indeed, despite repeated reminders that she has a human brain and a true “soul,” or “ghost,” Major also comments, upon realizing that Ouelet has complete access to her memories, that “I guess privacy is just for humans,” acknowledging her subordinate status.

Overall, in reading this review, many may feel that I have been dodging one key responsibility of a film reviewer – to advise readers to see the film, or avoid the film. And in truth, I have always been discomfited when people comment that they read my reviews for precisely that reason – because there is no accounting for taste, and there have certainly been multiple times when I have despised a film that most people liked, and liked a film that most people despised. So, let me carefully say that Ghost in the Shell is most definitely a film worth seeing, and no one who buys a ticket will feel cheated afterwards; they may especially appreciate the film, as I did, as an unusually artful rendering of all the things that people used to worry about in the 1980s. Still, like me, they may also conclude that the film just wasn’t their cup of tea.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press.

Liz Bourke reviews Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor 978-0765383815, $25.99, 400pp, hc) February 2017.

Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut Amberlough and Kameron Hurley’s latest science fiction novel The Stars Are Legion are vastly dissimilar, but they share one thing in common: they’re both, in their own separate ways, stories about love, secrets, and fear.

Amberlough is a fantasy novel that in some respects reminds me of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Like Swordspoint, it takes place in a secondary world in which magic is non-existent (or low-key to the point of non-existence), and, like Swordspoint, it sets itself in a city – the titular Amberlough – that is as much a character as any of the novel’s individuals.

Amberlough is a city of cabaret and corrup­tion, glittering and cosmopolitan and permissive. It evokes the feel of post-WWI Paris, or Weimar Berlin in that great doomed flourishing of art and culture and nightlife before the curtains came down with the Reichstag fire. With automobiles and telegraphs and office workers, this is a familiar city, for all that its gender norms don’t look at all like what you might expect from comparison to any historical analogues of which it might remind you. It’s queer by default, in ways both subtle and obvious – there is, for example, a recognised form of marriage that includes more than two parties.

Amberlough is also one part (one quarter) of a federal nation, Gedda, and in the rest of the nation, the repressive, authoritarian One State Party – xenophobic, chauvinistic, homophobic, and populist – is rapidly gaining ground. Amberlough is terrifyingly topical, and no, in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t end with the One State Party, the Ospies, in any kind of retreat.

Cyril DePaul is a spy and a civil servant, and Amberlough’s tragic centre. Tragic, that is, in the older sense: he’s betrayed by his own flaws. (In terms of personality, he rather reminds me of Lord Peter Wimsey without anything like a moral core.) Eventually, Cyril becomes the tool by which the Ospies undermine Amberlough’s ability to resist a fascist coup, but the reader first encounters him in bed with his lover, Aristide Makricosta. Aristide is a really unsuitable lover for a spy. He’s master of ceremonies at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, a flam­boyant figure who just so happens to be a major player in Amberlough’s underground economy, a smuggler of drugs and refugees and stolen objects, a mover-and-fixer with a wicked sense of humour. Both Cyril and Aristide know about each other’s lives, but neither of them can give the other up – al­though, naturally, they’re not prepared to outright admit to anything so banal as love.

It’s fear for Aristide, as well as Cyril’s personal self-interest and physical cowardice, that leads Cyril into becoming a double agent for the Ospies after an undercover mission goes wrong. As much as anything else, Amberlough’s a novel about how human weaknesses and human selfishness lead people to work for goals that are going to hurt them.

There’s a third major character in Amberlough, Cordelia Lehane. Dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, drug dealer, and determined survivor, she’s eventually caught up orbits of both Cyril and Aristide. As the iron fist of the fascist state closed around Amberlough’s throat, I found I ended up liking Cordelia best of the three: out of all of them, it turns out that Cordelia is the first to find – and hold – a line that she won’t cross.

Fear and love together turn Cyril into a traitor, love and hope mean Aristide keeps holding a torch for him, and love and vengeance turn Cordelia into the kind of woman who decides to blow up whole buildings.

Amberlough isn’t a cheerful book, but it has an amazing voice. Its spy-thriller twists and ever-growing tension combine to provide an extraordinarily entertaining ride. And I have to say: if this is her debut? I can’t wait to see what Donnelly does next.

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John Langan reviews Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Thomas Dunne Books 9781250099082, $25.99, 336pp, hc) October 2016.

The world of Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s fast-moving new novel, is one in which the existence of vampires has been an established and accepted fact for the last four decades. Some countries met this revelation by expelling vampires from their borders, others, by placing them under strict control. In response, many vampires relocated to more accommodating places, although doing so frequently brought them into conflict with any vampires already residing there. Not only do vampires exist in Moreno-Garcia’s world, but they do so in a variety of (at least) ten types, each connected to a different geographic area. They are folklore made flesh, and their interactions are fraught with tension, liable to violence. (There’s a passing resemblance to the universe of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula books, but his reference points are primarily literary and filmic, whereas Moreno-Garcia’s are anthropological.) It’s a complex, dynamic setting, and one of the pleasures of Certain Dark Things lies in watching its author explore its parameters. Vampires do not exist in sufficient numbers here to change human history as significantly as is the case in, say, Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy; rather, their effect has been more multifarious.

This is the case with Mexico, where the novel’s action takes place. The northern part of the coun­try is inhabited by a number of different vampire species, most significantly the Tlahuihpochtin, the indigenous vampires of Central America, and the Necros, which have immigrated from central Europe. A series of escalating acts of violence between a Tlahuihpochtin family and a Necros family leads to the devastation of the native vam­pires; the sole survivor flees to Mexico City, the scion of the Necros in hot pursuit. Vampires are prohibited from the Mexican capital and its sur­roundings, a ban which is enforced by both the police and the local criminal organizations. It’s a case of out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire for Atl, the novel’s vampire protagonist.

Fortunately for her, she draws the attention of Domingo, a teenaged garbage collector who is the book’s human protagonist. A member of the city’s vast underclass, Domingo is fascinated by vampires, his (largely inaccurate) knowledge of which is drawn from comic books and movies. His knowledge of the city, though, and of how to move around it discreetly, is spot-on, and of suf­ficient use to Atl for her to decide not to kill him for his blood. Instead, she partners with him as she tries to find a way out of the city and, ultimately, the country.

This partnership is paralleled by that between Nick, the novel’s vampire antagonist, and Rodrigo, its human antagonist. Nick is a monster of appe­tite, of his overwhelming desire for extravagant revenge on Atl for the losses she has cost him and his family. It is the duty of Rodrigo, who serves Nick’s father, to ensure that Nick does not destroy himself in the process. The vampire and human’s relationship is defined by mutual contempt, each fantasizing about murdering the other.

But where it’s tempting to view Nick and Rodrigo’s partnership as the opposite of Atl and Domingo’s, the reality is more complicated. Atl’s attitude towards Domingo has more than a touch of condescension to it, and, until quite late in the novel, she is very aware of him as an easily available source of the blood that sustains her. This is not a Twilight-style romance. Yet neither is Atl’s perspective on Domingo static. Rather, as the narrative develops, so does her understanding and appreciation of her human companion, her sympathy gradually expanding to include him. In the midst of the ongoing chase narrative, the broadening of Atl’s sensibilities gives the novel added heft.

That chase extends throughout Mexico City. As the novel presents it, the city is the apotheo­sis of the roman noir setting: the rich bunkered behind walled subdivisions, the police corrupt and inefficient, rival gangs working covertly and sometimes openly to advance their agendas. It’s a place of hidden tunnels known only to the poor, of an old house in which an even older creature measures his days. The city’s Aztec origins con­nect it to Atl’s type of vampire, who once served religious functions within Aztec culture, but the subsequent centuries of construction that have submerged the original city offer an architectural trope for the status of the Tlahuihpochtin in the contemporary world.

As the narrative unfolds, so Atl’s role in the de­struction of her family becomes clearer, to us and to her. In part due to Domingo’s questions about her past, the vampire must confront and reckon with the consequences of actions undertaken in the arrogance of youth and privilege, and must accept her culpability for the death of her loved ones. Together with her deepening attitude towards Domingo – who is himself growing as a character – this shift brings Atl out of callow inexperience to a maturity that manifests in a surprising act of renunciation at the novel’s climax.

With Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia demonstrates that there is always more to be done with familiar figures such as the vampire, and that in the hands of a talented writer, the creatures can rise to new (un)life. It’s perhaps a familiar lesson, but one that’s conveyed in a dynamic and compelling way.

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