Story notes, Interzone #281

Cyberstar, Val Nolan. Humanity has expanded across much of the solar system, and – wouldn’t you know it – our societies are riven by state violence and deep-rooted inequality. One strange and at times horrifying religion is sending out its missionaries, promising something different and recruiting those it needs for its cause. One such is our protagonist, a laid-off engineer, who at the story’s outset is having his eyes removed by his brothers and sisters. Making good use of its protagonist’s shifting worldview, this story quickly establishes an evocative and exotically familiar setting, feels scientifically grounded despite its wild invention, and delivers in style with its conclusion.

And You Shall Sing to me a Deeper Song, Maria Haskins. Our protagonist is a Singer, an orphan built into a war machine designed to disable ‘bots with song. The war against the bots is done and won, and she may be the last of the Singers. In victory the Singers’ leaders have chosen to dispose of them as, one assumes, a potential threat. The Singer encounters a rogue village living apart from said rulers and, despite mutual suspicion, stays with them. Affairs degenerate and we read of the Singer’s song. The story is entertaining and well written but, as surely as leaders betray followers and enacted vengeance is just, delivered no surprises.

Coriander for the Hidden, Nicholas Kaufmann. This initially seems to be a mildly wacky take on biblical myth and the hypocrisy of the Garden of Eden, told from an angel’s perspective – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – but briskly moves on from this familiar set up to the angel questioning the monstrous tasks that an Old Testament God demands of His host. Angel Suriel’s solution to the moral quandaries it faces is devious and nicely reflected in the structure of the story.

Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again, Sarah Brooks. People are dying, and when they die a black butterfly escapes their body. Butterfly-catchers and black markets emerge: are people simply unable to let go of those they love, or is this a darker phenomenon? This moody, sad story feels like a winding-down of anything that once mattered to people, and whilst personal bonds seem more potent against that backdrop they are not untroubled. A potent short story receptive to intriguing interpretations.

‘Scapes Made Diamond, Shauna O’Meara. A tale told from the point of view of two men, once employed by an extractive corporation as handlers of the psychic alien beasts that produce the drug allowing humankind to spread across the stars. They have returned to bid farewell to the dying matriarch of those imprisoned creatures, and the projected visions and memories of “True” drag into the light an ugly story of exploitation, mass murder and loss, studded with fleeting pinpricks of kindness and hope. There are no simple and morally comforting resolutions here.

Story notes, Interzone #280

The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright, Alison Wilgus. A quite wonderful story, written with warmth and confidence, about the sister of the famous Wright brothers and her time-skipping efforts to save them from death. Most of the story adheres to the recorded history of the Wright siblings, although in its final section it goes further in an attempt to save Wilbur from his early death by typhoid fever, and Katherine and Orville’s long estrangement in the years that followed.

The Fukinaga Special Chip Job, Tim Chawaga. A sort of Invisible Cities, driven not by a storyteller in an imperial court but by a craphound hunting down the incredibly valuable last extant bags of the snack which choked a city. The invention is a lot of fun and the characters colourful, although no one is likeable enough to root for and the conclusion lacks a satisfying crunch.

This Buddhafield is not your Buddhafield, William Squirrel. A maid takes on a full-time job with room and board at an unknown trillionnaire’s space mansion, cleaning and maintaining it. She works there for years, sending money home and never seeing a soul. The world moves on without her. A story of tragedy, for the pointless waste of a human life, but also of contentment, for the maid was at peace with her life throughout. I struggle to imagine how many real people who would see themselves consumed in this way without any complaint or expression of regret – though we know little of where the maid came from.

For the Wicked, Only Weeds Will Grow, G. V. Anderson. An alien nursing home where the elderly of many disparate species come to die with dignity and peace, aided by the gaseous alien caretakers elsewhere abused for their ability to dispense what are basically opiates. Into this comes a cantankerous old human, alienated and bitter, who must be cared for by a gasbag who struggles internally with his own kind’s prospects for survival and reproduction. They both find peace, in their own ways, and it is for the reader to decide who might be considered wicked.

Seven Stops Along the Graffiti Road, David Cleden. Divided into several sections, this story is structurally a little forced – each section is not truly distinct and they flow into one another – but it’s driven by an intriguing concept, and characters possess psychological depth even if their origins and purpose is a mystery, even to themselves. In a way, this is a story about coping with loss, and how such coping mechanisms can protect us.

Terminalia, Sean McMullen. A Victorian period piece with the main conceit being that immortality has been made possible by the creation of mechanical bodies. This innovation has been appropriated by the aristocracy, a state of affairs not everyone wishes to see continue. A doctor who has made groundbreaking progress in resuscitation and electro-cardiac shock is pulled into these plots around the frontiers of death. A fun story and entertainingly written, it doesn’t dwell overly much on the Victorian setting. The call to arms at its conclusion feels melodramatic in contrast to the preceding rhetorical restraint.

Story notes: Interzone #279

I’ve resolved to try and read a short story every day, and I’m starting with a backlog of recent issues of Interzone magazine. Here are a few thoughts on the stories in issue #279. 

Soldiers Things, Tim Lees. A portrayal of the trauma of combat and of a consequent loss of identity. A soldier returns home where he is welcomed as a hero. Yet he is also one of the few who seem to have survived, and has been released into a community that does not understand him, and which, bitterly, he himself no longer understands. What is the protagonist’s identity? What was his past? He contradicts himself, and these contradictions drive this story.

Doomed Youth, Fiona Moore. I really liked this one. It essentially takes the concept of Them! (the 50s giant ant movie) but normalises it as something that people in the US have simply been living with for years. Racial tension pervades the story, and its denouement marries the conceit and theme perfectly. I could also believe that this story actually began with the pun.

The Path to War, Louise Hughes. A story about how the stories we want are not necessarily what storytellers will tell us. Are they then stories that we need? Or is to suggest that an overstatement of the importance of storytellers and stories – in stark contrast to a thrown knife? Is the role of the storyteller in the gathering, not the telling?

Heart of an Awl, Eliza Ruslander. An odd story about a widow, her deceased husband, and the artificial intelligence of their car which has been transferred into his body. We follow their efforts to live together and attempts to understand one another. I wouldn’t say this is about the American love affair with the car, but one can’t help thinking of it. This story is more about grieving, and processing the loss of something or someone integral to one’s life. Coping mechanisms can sometimes seem strange to outsiders, whereas those experiencing them may consider them a perfectly rational step.

Zero Day, Sheldon J. Pacotti. A story set during the outset of full-scale cyber warfare between great powers. The protagonist is a minor cyber warrior with the US military on leave when the war begins. He stubbornly continues attempting to get drunk and get laid, making use of his training and tech in pursuit of this, even as things fall apart about him. I like how this story revolves around what actually matters most to its protagonist, those base human desires persisting even in the face of new methods of conflict and threat.

Birnam Platoon, Natalia Theodoridou. A story told through fragmented narration interspersed with snippets of courtroom exchanges, concerning the plant-based super soldiers that were supposed to win a war and bring peace. At first they are a resounding success, but more and more the Birnam soldiers question how they are bringing about that peace. A bitter tale of the cyclical violence and cruelty of war, and humanity’s capacity for both.

The Martian & Artemis (kinda)

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, hardly needs signal-boosting. His breakthrough novel was not an immediate hit in 2011, but a self-published novel that sells 35,000 copies when it arrives on Kindle, then is picked up by a major publisher, and then is made into one of 2015’s biggest science fiction films is undoubtedly a huge success story.

The novel also offers up a good story. For such a popular novel there’s a surprising amount of engineering, science and mathematics present, albeit most of it asking little of the reader save to accept that astronaut/botanist/engineer Mark Watney has solved a problem. It’s interesting that this might also be one of the most commercially successful novels with hard SF characteristics in many years. Not being an avid tracker of genre book sales I’ve no idea if I’m correct in thinking that, but if it is true then the reason why is likely the book’s other main strength: its protagonist’s good humour and wit. He’s a sort of lovable goofball type, except competent and intelligent rather than indolent and fundamentally dickish.

The book also works well because, for the most part, its structure is a chain of loops: Watney identifies a problem that threatens his survival, he works out how to solve the problem, he attempts the solution, he corrects for what went wrong, he enjoys brief triumph before the next problem rears its head. As the lone astronaut on all of Mars, with limited resources and tools available to him, there are spadefuls of rugged individualism and pioneer spirit heaped into this, though happily he seeks to escape rather than dominate. One man and his brain against the world. It’s an effective source of conflict and its grounding in convincing technical language plausibly makes the SFnal elements more accessible.

This is all tempered by Watney’s personality. Because the bulk of the novel is presented as his own diary entries, and for the first third he doesn’t really believe he will survive, it often feels like he’s writing for himself. He’s sometimes genuinely funny and has a keen eye for the absurdity inherent in, say, planning three years of survival rations based on potatoes grown in his own shit.

I read Weir’s Artemis – a 2017 novel – a few years ago and it shares some characteristics. Wise-cracking, smart-alec first-person point of view, an environment hostile to human life, lots of near-future tech that’s as ‘real’ as possible, and a plot with plenty of twists and challenges requiring engineering solutions. I was less enthused by its vision of a moon colony: essentially a microcosm of dog-eat-dog capitalism, with the protagonist  a sort of roving gig economy worker handling odd jobs to supplement her main income via smuggling. It was fun, but all the same I found the uncritical reproduction of Earthbound Western economies and class divisions, and its tech messianic macguffin, tiresome.

The Martian works better because it’s outside all of that. One man, one planet, one goal: survive. Although the book does not devote much time to philosophical themes, at the end of the book Watney muses on humanity’s innate drive to help one another. It’s noble and resonates with the book’s themes. At the end of Artemis, protagonist Jazz works out how to engage in insider training to make bank from the story’s events. It resonates with the book’s themes, and we celebrate our protagonist’s achievement of her goal – independence – but the goal is selfish and the method ignoble. How much better to escape the Red Planet and be united with friends, with all humanity cheering you on.

Galactic Patrol, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith

I’m a fan of space opera. Have been since I was a starry-eyed teen reading whatever SF I could find in my local second-hand bookshops. This inevitably included Golden Age works – van Vogt, Asimov, Pohl, E.F. Russel and more – with yellowing pages and, at least in my memory, instantly recognisable covers, usually by Chris Foss. Often via the same shops I also read various works of ‘new space opera’: Banks, Hamilton, Greenland, Sheffield, MacLeod and many others.

Coming to both epochs of space opera mixed together in one great melange meant that I had little grasp of how the latter reacted to the former, refracted through the lens of the intervening New Wave and the differing politics of generations and cultures. To me it was all science fiction. Yet whilst I liked much of what I read I enjoyed the new space opera more. A personal reaction, of course, and one reflected on two decades later. I’m just laying the groundwork for a little context, because around that same time I read an E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith book and I thought it was shit.

‘Doc’ Smith is usually regarded as the granddaddy of space opera, and his influence on a lot of works I have loved shouldn’t be understated. I didn’t know this at the time, of course. I just thought that the book I read was terrible. The story as I poorly recall it began with a couple of male engineers and their girlfriends hopping in a spaceship to pursue adventure and science, and culminated with galaxy-smashing energies being flung back and forth in an absurd game of one-upmanship between protagonists and antagonists.

Since I moved to Finland I’ve gotten to know in person a friend I’ve known online for over fifteen years. We’ve spent a lot of time over the years enthusing and arguing about science fiction. A few months back we got onto the subject of the ‘Doc’, and he persuaded me to give Smith another go. He loaned me a familiarly yellowed Panther SF copy of Galactic Patrol, the first actual book in Smith’s most famous Lensman series.

I didn’t like it much.

I get its place in SF history. I truly do. There’s something admirable, in a manner of nostalgia for an era that passed long before my parents were born, in its romance of engineers cracking problems and saving the galaxy. There’s adventure by the plenty, and it’s entertaining enough and briskly told. The concept of the Lensman is one I can see repeated, reflected and re-imagined in scores of other stories. There are nice things you might say about Galactic Patrol, and ten times as many observations you might make about its influence.

In 2019, though, it’s a rather ridiculous novel.

In chapter one we encounter the concept of the Lensmen themselves: highly trained, rigorously conditioned, a million winnowed down to a hundred, all to find specimens who are physically and mentally adept to the most extreme degrees, and most importantly incorruptible. It’s a cute but fundamentally authoritarian moral fantasy, and a discomforting one in an era of militarised police, surging state violence, and the valorisation of the police and military in an era when the inherent institutional flaws of such organisations have never been more clear.

1937 isn’t 2019. Yeah, reader, I get it. Also, it’s a pulp: it’s an adventure story written for starry-eyed kids. But here I am, a grown man reading this in 2019. Honestly, the first thing that came to mind as I read that first chapter were the Judges of Mega City, the peacekeepers, judges, juries and executioners rolled into one, only in a significantly more dystopian and morally compromised context, and one where Judges routinely fail to adhere to similar high standards of incorruptibility. A satire of authoritarian moral fantasy.

There are plenty of other absurdities, all equally easy to wave aside as a product of time and place, but equally irritating. Technological development is a matter only of breaking open an idea; once devised or reverse-engineered, design and fabrication is a simple matter. Forgiveable in a book written before the invention of transistors, before electronic computers, when many complex machines still used primarily large, manually-machined parts? Maybe; I can’t judge that. But I can say this is less of an engineer’s fantasy than a fantasy of the obsolescence of the engineer, where concept transitions smoothly into mass fabrication without a hiccup. The starship as Spitfire or Hurricane, cobbled together out of scrap iron from the home front.

All bar one character is a man. That includes those who are physically described as inutterably alien; mentally, they comport themselves and speak of a muchness. Even those who communicate solely via thought do so in a chummy I-say what-what boy’s-own-adventure diction. (Of course, this can be explained away as the Lens of a Lensman translating into the wearer’s own diction and vernacular, although you see it too in the rare moments where a viewpoint character is not hero Kim Kinnison.)

One character is a woman. She is of course beautiful, and smart, and does her part with spirit when called upon. To describe her as flat is perhaps to misrepresent other characters in a story where all, really, are flat actors playing out their parts.

There’s of course a sexism – it’s a book written in 1937 by an American man – that pervades every moment where women are present or described and, too, the void of their absence othertimes, though when overt it passes beyond grating and into hilarity. With three quarters of the book behind us, the one female character is introduced and almost immediately Kim’s commanding officer and the doctor for whom she works as a nurse spend several pages yapping about the quality of her skeleton and how to best prevent her and Kim falling for each other, at least just yet – though in the future it would be good, actually, for really their stock ought not go to waste. Gross, hilarious, stupid, and probably one of the most entertaining moments in my reading experience.

There’s also a spectacular moment near the climax, which you might see as a non-reflexive example of the colonial attitudes of the book’s origins. Our dear hero Kim visits a planet where his comrades battle endlessly against drug manufacturers and runners, ending their lives for the crime of distributing drugs. Kim discovers that he can communicate with a local lifeform, and almost immediately conscripts it to assist him in his mission by getting it and a group of its fellows helplessly addicted to sugar. This is done with absolutely no sense of irony whatsoever. How’s that war on drugs going, Lensmen?

So, yeah: Galactic Patrol. Important piece of SF history. Amusing curio. Terrible in so, so many ways.

Spiderlight, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I posted a rambling half-rant about Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. A few months after writing the first draft of that rant I conveniently read Spiderlight, a standalone novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky, who last year firmly established himself in my mind as an author I really like. Now, Spiderlight isn’t an exceptionally interesting novel. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it a lot, and clearly Tchaikovsky had fun writing it. But it’s not a major novel of his by any stretch of the imagination.

I do however want to point at Spiderlight and say: hey, here’s a subversive fantasy novel that has a really clear idea of what it is setting out to do. It establishes a very archetypal fantasy setting and plot in the Dungeons & Dragons vein, with Light and Dark pitted against one another, and then steadily undermines that juxtaposition by presenting hypocrisies and omissions in that metanarrative. It crescendos with a similar reveal to The First Law trilogy, presenting a singular individual driving the engine of history and suffering. And then it resolves that revelation, folding it into the theme it has meticulously explored. All that in about a sixth of the wordcount of First Law.

I’m not saying Spiderlight is a better novel. It reads very much like someone’s mildly satirical AD&D campaign, right down to the mismatched party of six (priest, mage, warrior, ranger, thief, monstrous spiderling) and on-the-nose sendup of fantasy tropes. It doesn’t set out to do anything nearly as ambitious as Abercrombie’s reputation-making trilogy. It’s pure fantasy fun. But it is driven by an absolute clarity about what it intends to achieve, and it does so with a satisfying conclusion that is consistent with what came before.

(I hope to write more about Tchaikovsky soon. Dogs of War and Children of Time were two of the most memorable science fiction novels I read in 2018, and I devoured this year’s Children of Ruin within days of release. He really is rather good.)

The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie

I blitzed through this entire trilogy in about five days. That’s preposterously fast. I was reading the ebook editions so it was only after the fact that I learned these are not slim volumes. Collectively we’re talking over 600,000 words of fiction. Oops? I feel bad for my partner, who did remark that she’d barely spoken to me over the weekend.

That first volume, though. Reading it for the first time I could understand how this 2006 novel came at fantasy readers out of leftfield and helped fix the concept of ‘grimdark fantasy’ in literary genre culture (or at least its corollary marketing categories). The novel still feels fresh in its playfulness and the warmth it has for certain characters, for all that they’re shitty people by and large.

The second volume I liked largely for the memorable Glokta story arc, with the siege of Dagoska providing a decent change of scene, and the entertaining shambles that is the war in Angland and its key cast. The third slice of this book – an ultimately pointless quest – serves to set up later ideas and contextualise a few setpieces, but little more. Middle novels in trilogies are awkward; fine. I was still onboard.

Then there’s the third volume.

~cracks knuckles~

My issues with The Last Argument of Kings are less with the book’s own merits – though I think it’s weaker than its predecessors – and more to do with how, having voraciously chewed my way through so much story, I was left with little sense of closure. Now, a lack of narrative closure is no bad thing. Closure can be a cheap out. Many stories, many themes demand an absence of closure, or a tension between possibilities. And I do believe Last Argument‘s lack of closure to be the result of deliberate choices based on specific themes, but I also believe the execution of those choices is frustratingly fumbled.

(Obligatory spoiler warning for some books that are between ten and fifteen years old.)

The real story, it turns out – and the seeds for this were planted in the second book, largely in that pointless macguffin quest – is not what we thought we were reading at all. Our heroes, love them or hate them, are little more than puppets. Someone else is pulling all the strings.

A central problem with this conceit is that the trilogy ends with the false threat routed and the real threat merely revealed. The entire trilogy is preamble to a greater story. This is not a cheap, tacked-on cliffhanger finale that tempts you onward only at the very end: this is woven throughout the preceding six hundred thousand words of fiction. All that investment and the payoff is: you’re not done yet!

Pondering this failure of narrative closure, I wondered if Abercrombie intended to make a point somewhat along these lines: that history is a wheel upon which human backs are forever broken, that events don’t get wrapped up neatly because real life doesn’t have such a thing as tidy conclusions. This feels in keeping with these novels as written. But in this trilogy history is not the wheel on which backs are broken. No, the wheel is the bastard Bayuz, a near-immortal mage and kingmaking power behind the throne who has been shaping the course of nations for centuries. That is a man. It is not the uncaring passage of time. It is not the machinations of nations or the shifting of metanarratives that care not for the individual. It is not the oppressive weight of history. It is not the desolate, ironic hubris of long-dead Ozymandias. It is one living man, one whose influence and control derives from fantastical longevity and power with no comparison in untidy reality.

The point I am clumsily trying to make is that if you are going to subvert the tropes of epic fantasy – like the fate of nations in the hands of a small band of heroes valiantly battling great evils – then you ought to commit to your subversion. This trilogy is mired in shades of grey, unflinching in its portrayal of human weakness and cruelty, and openly highlights how once-great powers collapse as they give over to decadence and stagnation. And yet at the end of it all, we find that the engine driving the world’s suffering is in fact one near-immortal autocrat. Evil laugh, twirl of moustache, and be sure to pick up the next books to learn what happens!

All storytelling is artifice. It’s a series of narrative decisions made by the storyteller, with plot and character constructed around whatever they want to explore. While there is no way I can know what Abercrombie was going for, all I can see looking back at the First Law trilogy is how this unresolved conceptual conflict at its heart of The First Law trilogy fails it. This holds whether you consider these books an attempt to represent in fiction the messy, non-compartmentalised nature of human history, or in simple terms of narrative closure. Put another way, if I read a fiction trilogy I like to imagine that it will conclude its central story in some meaningful way, rather than puncture its own themes by revealing it was all a dream.

Fir Lodge, Sean McMahon

Like a lot of snfal concepts the time travel conceit has been knocking around for, uh, some time now. It’s perhaps older than most, having been popularised by Wells almost 120 years ago. Even the space opera genre is forty years its junior. 

So how do you make something that has been done, time and time again, across pretty much every medium you might imagine, feel fresh? One way to answer that question is to look at pop culture, the entertainment realm of a globalised mass consumerist social sphere, which in its pathologic aversion to risk must continually devise ways to sell us the same stories we flocked to before. Pop culture in 2019 regurgitates itself endlessly, outpacing parody and much satire: another new Spiderman trilogy, PC Music, JK Rowling’s twitter account as retcon feed, another remake of an 80s franchise that nobody asked for because it’s safer than ‘a new IP’, an endless procession of copy-pasted retro-futurist aesthetics. 

Pop culture permeates our existence, and the way it eats itself and is continually reborn is not solely the preserve of creators and corporate owners. The products of popular culture also command our attention and propagate in the form of memes. Images structure jokes by way of their source and are shared online at lightning speed. Quotes become soundbites, their deployment a game between those in the know. Pseudoprivate languages form within communities and between friends, a series of shared signifiers of personal significance, but which might as easily be recognised by an outsider as leave a loved one bemused. Contemporary popular culture is, after all, a battleground; not of ideology but of franchises warring for attention, for eyeballs, for ad dollars and disposable income. 

All of which is a rather long-winded way to acknowledge the many complicated ways in which pop culture permeates and structures society and social interaction in 2019. And this is done to contextualise a simple statement: if you find yourself irritated by the idea of pop culture references liberally distributed throughout a text, for no other reason than a protagonist really, really defines themselves by pop culture, Fir Lodge may not be for you. 

For me, this voice honestly resonates with me. Full disclosure: Fir Lodge‘s author and I went to school together, shared ill-advised teenage adventures together, watched movies and got drunk and pined over girls together. We shared some few of our formative years, and so I see a little of the private language we shared reflected in protagonist Hal’s particular obsessions and personality. And okay, McMahon hasn’t found a way to insert the phrase “I’m gonna be a naughty Vampire God” into his first novel – which will haunt me to my grave – but what he has done in my biased reading is make of Hal an unashamed and charming pop-culture sponge. You don’t have to squeeze hard for that pop culture to seep out, and it’s also been so thoroughly absorbed that it structures his problem-solving approaches too. Hal benefits from a foil in the form of partner-in-crime Kara, who is mildly exasperated and performatively unimpressed by Hal’s quirks for much of their time together. 

That’s a lot about pop culture given that I’m writing about a time travel story. I feel it’s necessary. Although Fir Lodge says little directly on the subject, the way Hal and a few others in his friend circle share and reflect pop culture so deeply in their personalities rings true to me. It’s an unironic presentation of contemporary Western culture that for better or worse feels closer to my lived experience as a child born in the 1980s than a lot of fiction manages. This left me reflecting on the way consumerism infiltrates our lives so deeply. The political adult in me sees in this the way capital’s ideomemes sink deep roots into our psyches, our imaginations just another frontier for late capitalism to conquer so as to establish a revenue stream. The kid in me sees stories that inflame our imaginations, that enrich our lives and help us understand how to navigate and tolerate living amid the ceaseless discharge of hellworld capitalism (hey, it’s 2019 after all and innocence is long dead). Stories and fond memories that we love, and love to share. Both interpretations can be true. 

Seriously, though, if pop culture references vex you, steer clear. There’s a costume party where people come as Ghostbusters, The Mask (you know, from The Mask) and in a Facejacker costume; not one chapter goes by where Hal can’t be found quoting something – even if it’s a two-word line like “punch it!” – and it’s usually a sci-fi movie. TVtropes contributors would have a fucking field day with this book. On the other hand, if a bunch of what you just read above strikes you as pseudo-academic twaddle, don’t sweat it: that’s me reading the novel, not the novel itself. And congratulations on sticking with me. I’m gonna talk about the novel now.

The time travel element – which is gonna get short shrift in this review I’m afraid, as I just have less to bring to the table here – runs with the conceit that time gets reset at the end of every period. It’s more Run Lola Run than Groundhog Day, as Hal and Kara learn that by making minute changes to the past they can affect the future. This often goes wrong in violent, hilarious, stupid and tragic ways, and a lot of the fun of Fir Lodge’s storytelling is in seeing how these two characters – one basically raised by movie wolves – test and define the rules of their environment. Each restart also resets everything, which gives protagonists and author room to breathe with their experimentation. 

There is an antagonist against whom Hal and Kara must also test themselves. The most fun element of the antagonist for me was an early fake out moment that evoked a genuine laugh; the character itself gets little opportunity to demonstrate depth beyond central casting psycho, but I can live with that. He’s an important piece of Fir Lodge but the novel wouldn’t particularly benefit from delving into his motivations. 

The novel is overlong at 550 pages and a good quantity could’ve been trimmed away without losing much; part of that could have come from an over-large supporting cast most of whom don’t get much to do at all. Despite the flab it’s a brisk and breezy read, with competent pacing once it hits its stride almost 90 pages in. I will concede that the substantial time devoted to set-up pays some dividends once the story gets stuck into its restarts, but it’s a fair investment to ask of a reader before the story really gets going. 

Making that investment of time is certainly helped by the occasionally bristling energy and genuine warmth of the narrative here, and an easy humour that feels natural. The story’s structure works nicely around the idea that its protagonists accept and are knowingly working out the rules of their predicament, based on the same information available to the reader, and twists and revelations are doled out such that the story never loses its forward momentum, even if Hal and Kara themselves sometimes do. 

As I’ve made clear, I’m hugely biased and you won’t get any pretence toward objectivity from me. Still, the criticisms and warning are as honest as the praise, and to get even more honest I’m just plain proud of my buddy and his first novel. And yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

The Meg, Steve Alten

A part of me is inescapably, incorrigibly fond of aquatic monster stories. It’s the same part of me that’s drawn to cinematic creature features. Coupled with childhood affection for gigantic dinosaurs and childhood exposure to endless photos from my parents’ scuba diving trips, this fondness is why I enjoy literary junk food like Peter Benchley’s The Beast, a follow-up to Jaws starring a gigantic man-eating squid, and Deep Rising, an extremely 1990s action-horror flick starring a bunch of scenery-chewing stereotypes and a panoply of gigantic man-eating tentacle monsters. 

This melange of bad taste lead me to a copy of Steve Alten’s The Meg, the 1997 novel behind, uhhh, Last Summer’s Soonest To Be Forgotten Cheap Blockbuster. And holy crap, it’s bad. 

That’s obvious, right? It’s a book about a giant prehistoric shark that somehow survives into the present day, and is set loose – by the hubris of man! – on an unsuspecting humanity. I don’t particularly want to tell you how bad it is. This is writing that aims for Crichton and Benchley but fumbles its grip, drops the harpoon gun and falls in the sea. The prose isn’t enjoyably crap; it’s just turgid, clumsy, pedestrian, and from the first moments with its cast of unlikable middle-class Americans and Naval archetypes you know what you’re in for. It’s fine. Most of them are going to get eaten. 

What really stuck in my mind and craw, like a minisub slipping down the gullet of a megalodon, are Alten’s efforts to capture the slippery personalities of those creatures far stranger to him than prehistoric fish. That’s right: women! Rarely have I read a book that so perfectly articulates a certain worldview: one directed toward the emotionally violent, needy, unpredictable, manipulative personality voids that are biology’s love interests.

The Meg has two female characters. One of them is the jilted protagonist’s wife, of course, who’s literally trying to ruin his credibility in the press, and of course has a character arc that inexorably terminates in near-simultaneous reconciliation and sharkbait. The other is the feisty young daughter of the protagonist’s rich Japanese pal, whose personality oscillates hilariously between pretty much every emotional extreme, but consistently directed towards the Barry Sue non-entity we’re supposed to be rooting for. (I can’t recall his name, but it can’t possibly be as funny as the protagonist of Benchley’s The Beast, who is named Whip Darling. Whip Darling!)

Obviously, the Barry Sue and the emotional oscilloscope get together at the end, because what’s creepy about a middle-aged American Naval divorcee getting together with a much younger Asian woman? Their moment of romantic union is every bit as sudden, forced and unconvincing as the obligatory passionate kiss in the Any Summer’s Soonest To Be Forgotten Cheap Blockbuster this book clearly always wanted to be. 

Apparently there are about half a dozen entries in The Meg book series, all about Megalodons coming back to eat everything. One of these was bundled with my ebook, titled The Meg: Origins, and it recounts the protagonist’s backstory. The one from the novel you’ve just read. As a metaphor for pointlessness it is rich. I did not read Origins, given that everything of possible substance in both plot and character development is revealed by the 50th page in the preceding novel, and indeed was quite obvious from the outset anyway (of course he saw a Megalodon down there, in that terrible incident seven years ago!). 

I rate The Meg 0 out of 5 nitrous-fuelled minisubs bursting out of giant sharks, and recommend this 1997 review in the LA Times instead, in which a shark expert appalled to be credited by The Meg’s author as a research source dissects the novel’s appalling science. You might also enjoy the novelist’s petulant response, and the hilariously scathing response to that from the only true hero here: an annoyed marine biologist. 

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge

In the first chapter of her book Eddo-Lodge recounts a story from 1919, seven months after the end of the First World War. In Liverpool, where post-war employment opportunities were scarce, a hundred black factory workers lost their jobs without warning. White workers refused to work with them. The same month “a Caribbean man was stabbed in the face by two white men after an argument over a cigarette”. Street fights and police raids of black homes followed, culminating in the tragic death of a twenty-four-year-old seaman called Charles Wootton. A white mob threw him into the water and, as he attempted to swim to safety, he was pelted by bricks until he sank. In the following days, white mobs marched the streets of Liverpool. 

Later in that same chapter we read of Guy Bailey, a nineteen-year-old Jamaican man. In 1963 a local youth worker arranged a job interview for him with the Bristol bus service, having first confirmed that jobs were available and that Bailey possessed the necessary qualifications. On arrival, as Bailey recounted in a BBC interview almost fifty years later, he heard the Bristol Omnibus Company’s receptionist tell the manager “your two o’clock appointment is here. But he’s black.” The manager’s response was “Tell him we have no vacancies here.” 

What makes Bailey’s story more remarkable – in that it stands out from a long, grinding history of such racism – is what followed. A local group had helped arrange that interview, and after its denial they arranged a press conference, and gathered support and sympathy from local students, politicians and press. Despite this, Guy’s experience and the group who championed his cause were ignored by the Transport and General Workers’ Union as well as the bus company itself. These two groups, ostensibly defined by a dynamic which pitted them against one another, were united by racism. Eddo-Lodge writes: “Racism had infected worker solidarity, with a union representative at the time insisting that more black workers would be taking away jobs for prospective white employees”. 

The campaign continued for several months and included a boycott of the bus service by the city’s West Indian community. On August 27th, 1963 – the day before Martin Luther’s famous “I have a dream speech” halfway across the world – five hundred employees of the bus service met and agreed to discontinue their unofficial colour bar. This was rapidly affirmed by the bus service’s general manager. It was a victory, but one over antagonist organisations which have not, to this day, apologised for what Bailey experienced. 


The first chapter of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is titled ‘Histories’. It begins with the author’s admission that “most of my knowledge of black history was American history. This was an inadequate education in a country where increasing generations of black and brown people continue to consider themselves British (including me).” The stories of Wootton’s lynching and the 1963 Bristol bus strike are not widely known. And another result of widespread British ignorance of our country’s history of racism is that it lends itself to exceptionalist thinking. 

One example of this is the British notion that Britain’s record on the slave trade is better than most countries, whether because it led the way on abolition or still more spurious reasons. Another is the idea that – perhaps because historical Civil Rights movements in the USA were so prominent, perhaps because the post-Emancipation Proclamation horror stories of racist violence and murder in the US are quite widely taught, or perhaps a variety of other historical and contemporary reasons – that racism in the twentieth century has been largely an American problem in the Anglophone world. Yet another is the prominence of “colourblind” thinking that, in presupposing a ‘post-racial’ society, blinds itself to actually existing racism (an illustrative example of this outside the Anglophone world can be found in’s interview with Selim Nadi of the French Parti des Indigènes de la République). 

To put it concisely, by “eclipsing the black British story so much … we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.” So in part this book attempts to be a corrective to such high-handed and superficial grasps of history. We begin with an exploration of black British history because that is where Eddo-Lodge herself began. And as good readings of history inevitably do, they guide our understanding deeper into new avenues of thought. We see how racism does not manifest from thin air, and is rather “in the very core of how the state is set up”. 


In the chapters following ‘Histories’ Eddo-Lodge patiently unpacks, in clear and precise language, other concepts and areas of thought that are significant in holding an informed understanding of what race means in Britain today. 

‘The System’ explores the systemic nature of racism in Britain. First the lived reality of this is illustrated with the Stephen Lawrence case and the Macpherson Report’s acknowledgement of the “institutional racism” of the London Metropolitan Police. Then the basic concept of what is meant by “structural racism”, and what it means to those who are subject to it, is outlined. An important breakthrough in any grasp of what racism is lies in grasping this concept, without which the foundations for receiving more sophisticated ideas are weak. ‘What is White Privilege?’ also attempts to define an idea that can be conceptually difficult for white people to grasp: “It’s so difficult to describe an absence …. an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost”. This chapter covers the history of the term, compares it to other ‘invisible’ privileges, and provides personal anecdotes that illustrate the everyday nature of white privilege and its implications in social interaction and discourse. We are given insight into the experience of mixed-race people and how some people have been let down by the “colour-blind” worldviews of their parents. 

‘Fear of a Black Planet’ tackles organised British racism in the form of the National Front, UKIP, the BNP and sundry other short-lived groups. This might be regarded as an easier argument to make, but Eddo-Lodge uses their rhetoric and the fear that motivates or under-girds it to turn the mirror on mainstream organisations, businesses, culture and politics. This includes those who have internalised an identity as socially liberal and anti-racist, but who nonetheless can behave in defensive or reactionary ways when challenged on (often unknowingly) racist statements, opinions or actions. 

‘The Feminism Question’ addresses the importance of intersection between race and feminism in activism, theory and culture, beginning with how the white feminist perspective can be so easily centred and the ways in which this public discourse can be so easily poisoned by a lack of intersectional thought and reflection. Again, both personal experience and broader examples support the patiently articulated argument. This is followed by ‘Race and Class’, an answer to the question “what about class?” that “follows me everywhere I go. In it is an implication that it’s class, not race, that is the true battle to be fought in Britain – and that we have to choose between one or the other. I totally reject this assumption.” Eddo-Lodge breaks down the myth of the “white working class”, arguing strongly against this construction as neither representative of nor beneficial to the people who actually constitute the contemporary British working class, tying it back to the fears described in ‘Fear of a Black Planet’. 


The book’s conclusion begins with a student asking when we get to the end point. They mean when racism is dealt with and is no longer a problem. The real conclusion is that there is no such ending, only a constant engagement, for the self a perpetual trying driven by learning and empathy, and for the community constant work to understand and deconstruct “warped power relations”. It’s not an easy or comforting answer, but it is the only honest one. 

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a valuable read whether you are only beginning to learn how to question yourself and how to engage critically with the power structures that surround you, or whether you already consider yourself on that journey. That it is moving and thoughtful as well as valuable only makes my recommendation of it more firm.