INTERFERENCE by Sue Burke

Interference
(Semiosis Book 2)
By Sue Burke
Tor Books — October 2019
ISBN: 9781250317841
— Hardcover — 320 pp.


One truth being demonstrated by the current global climate is that societies are always at risk for instability. This represents not just a facet of political, cultural constructs, but an inherent aspect of ecology, of biology. Through life, individuals increase in number, coming together into populations. Growing populations of one species associate with growing populations of other species. Limited space and resources breed competition both within and between the groups. Coexistence toward a common purpose only becomes possible through sacrifices in each group and a sharing of resources in ways that minimize the effects of competition. In biology that common purpose is a self-centered organismal drive to reproduce and pass on one’s own particular genetic makeup. Paradoxically, the greatest chance for attaining that selfish goal amid competing individuals and groups becomes through some measure of balance with others. Of cooperation.

But, that balanced cooperation is a tenuous balance. Whether biologically or socially, the scale may be tipped by resurgences in selfish natures that overcome rational regard for a bigger long-term picture of success. Sue Burke’s phenomenal Semiosis series is a fictionalized version of such concepts on both the level of ‘artificial’ societies of intelligent creatures and of natural biology. The novels recognize that the two levels are, in fact, intertwined.

The first novel in the series, Semiosis, chronicles the establishment of a human colony on a planet that the colonists name Pax. Fleeing conflicts and devastations on Earth, the humans arrive in the hopes of setting up a society founded on principals of cooperation and care. However, complications during their dangerous interstellar journey actually force them to land on an unintended destination, leaving them with the challenge of establishing Pax in a completely unknown land with limited resources.

Burke reveals the human developments on Pax in Semiosis through a broad sweep of time across generations, structuring her novel into relatively long chapters told from the unique point-of-view of one particular member of the Pax colonists and their descendants (mostly). Each chapter then provides a time jump, with some overlap of characters and societal memory that allow the reader to easily track the development of the human Pax culture. While some have criticized this structure, I found it essential and fascinating for the character-driven story.

The original colonists and their first descendants learn about their new habitat as any intelligent organism would: observation, trial-and-error, and attempts at controlled study. They arrive to a planet covered already with lush life, including plant, animal, and bacterial. (I don’t recall fungus, protists, or archaea specifically named, but I could be wrong, and I assume they too are there?) Though the life on Pax elicits visual familiarity to the colonists compared to Terrestrial species, it also clearly is different in bizarre, unpredictable, and – at times deadly – ways.

Semiosis really should be read prior to its sequel Interference, and I highly recommend you do so if you haven’t yet. However, it isn’t a particular spoiler to summarize some details of the first novel that are present in its promotion or reviews in general. The colonists discover that the species of Pax demonstrate unique characteristics both cellularly and behaviorally compared to those of Earth. The plants particularly demonstrate signs of intelligence beyond those of Terrestrial origin. Gradually, through the generations the colonists discover that one of the plant species, that they name rainbow bamboo, has intelligence and sentience to a degree that permits communication. The plant, in turn, recognizes the potential benefit the new human arrivals could bring to its biological success and makes efforts to ensure their survival. Eventually the plant takes a name, Stevland, in honor of one of the original colonists and becomes an integral part of the new Pax society. Eventually he also gets his own point-of-view chapter(s).

Through those first generations on Pax the colonists and Stevland must learn the process of cooperation for the needs of mutual survivorship and success among the other species of Pax, and also another potential alien threat. After their arrival, the humans discover beautiful architectural remnants of another civilization amid the jungle-like vegetation that surrounds their first settlement. Dubbing the creators of these ruins ‘the Glassmakers’, they wonder where they all went. As they learn communication with Stevland they learn more about these aliens – also colonists to the planet. Eventually, the Pax colony is faced with the return of these Glassmakers and the threat they may bring.

Interference continues the story of Pax’s development in a time after the climax of Semisois. Like the first novel, Interference consists of relatively long chapters from the point-of-view of different central characters. However, it differs in that the time-scale is far less epic. Instead the novel focuses on one particular time period and converging events that threaten the colony’s continued existence as a cooperative between humans, Stevland, Glassmakers, and surrounding native species.

However, before getting to Pax, the first chapter of Interference starts us back on Earth. Amid rapidly changing political situations on Earth and intra-system colonies, a group of individuals is chosen for a mission to seek out the Pax colony and reinitiate contact with any who have survived. Here then arrives the first ‘interference’ of this sequel: a group of Earthlings arriving into the ecosystem of the Pax community. Though humans biologically make up a part of that community, they are certainly no longer of Earth in culture. How will the Earthlings want to interact with their human counterparts? What will they make of Stevland or the Glassmakers. Likewise, how will those non-human parts of the Paxian community take the new human arrivals? Not only do readers get to see these questions unfold from the point-of-view on those on Pax, we also get point-of-view chapters from those coming from Earth, a mixed population themselves of factions and motivations.

Before these Earth representatives arrive, Stevland becomes concerned about another form of ‘interference’ building on Pax itself. Fires seem to be breaking out on the edge of the territory that his roots and associated biological network run. Land-coral attacks from the plains beyond are on the rise. At Stevland’s urging, the ruling council of Pax sends a party out to investigate what the threat may be.

The arrival of the humans from Earth largely puts a pause on this second plot concern, until the final pages as that land coral threat looms more large. In the meantime, members of the Earth and Pax communities wrestle with changes that their introduction brings, and secrets that they withhold from one another before trust can be established. The technology that the Earthlings bring also provides Stevland with new possibilities, including the discovery of other rainbow bamboo life on a separate continent of the planet. Stevland is not alone. Moreover, some of the newly arrived humans intend to return to Earth, giving Stevland the opportunity to spread his genes to another world.

Interference thereby continues themes of Semiosis, broadening first contact situations and raising the question again of who is ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ in biological communities. Who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Is it a problem for one species to make use of another for selfish reasons if that also provides some benefit to the other? Is Stevland an alien plant that will slowly take over worlds like in Little Shop of Horrors, or is it a relationship that actually will help humanity build itself up from internal squabbles into a stable (at least temporarily) community?

Burke’s choice to stick with the structure of Semiosis, but compressing the timescale of the novel, produces one giant chapter that dominates the bulk of the text. The flow of Interference comparably suffers, and so does the character development. Burke now tries to follow many characters and viewpoints within one time period, rather than focusing on one per temporal episode. We’re with a given character in Interference longer, but know them no better than the one who just had one chapter in Semiosis.

The separate, but intersecting, potential threats to Pax in Interference could have been better developed across the novel (especially the coral threat and its investigation) by making the book slightly longer. The ending felt a little rushed, especially with it also ushering more questions/possibilities for a future in the final chapter and epilogue.

When I first read Interference, all material I could find on it indicated that it was intended as a duology, and readers commented how this seemed odd given some thing were left unresolved, and that Interference ‘felt’ very much like a middle novel of a trilogy. I agreed somewhat, though felt uts resolution was fine, as the future of any community is always precarious and may go for the good or for the bad in terms of a particular species. Stories never end, after all, and the next chapter doesn’t HAVE to be told. Star Wars should have certainly taught us that by now. But, I now see that another book is planned by Burke for the future, and the series is now indicated as a trilogy on Goodreads. Whether this is a response to reader/authorial/editorial interest in another novel or not, I have no idea. But I do welcome it.

Even though I find more fault in Interference than I did in Semiosis in terms of its structure, it remains a strong example of biological speculation and first contact science fiction. One of the delights of this second volume is the chance to get to know the Glassmakers more before expanding the scope of Pax and Stevland’s reach even more. There may be faults in the biology at times in the Semiosis series, and writing for humans from a hypothetical alien intelligence point of view will always be fraught with some degree of anthropomorphism. But, it still provides a solidly imaginative narrative that entertains while also educating about broad ecological principles and addressing themes of life, politics, and society.

More on the Semiosis series can be found at Burke’s website. The third novel, Usurpation, is not planned for until 2024. Until then, Tor Books is releasing an unrelated novel by Burke this year, Immunity Index. Given that I’m a microbiologist I’m very excited to read this one, though I fear I might be harsher in reactions than I was to transgressions of botany in the Semiosis series! Regardless, I hope to have a review of Immunity Index out to coincide with its release in May.


THE DARK ABOVE by Jeremy Finley

The Dark Above
(William Chance & Lynn Roseworth Book 2)
By Jeremy Finley
St. Martin’s Press — July 2019
ISBN: 9781250147288
324 Pages — Hardcover


Sequel to “The Darkest Time of Night”, “The Dark Above” continues to answer questions from the first book while expanding the cast of characters and venturing further into the SF/paranormal. I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you haven’t read Finley’s debut novel. However, the two novels make for a satisfying whole and quick enough read, so starting now wouldn’t require much commitment beyond the norm.

For those who haven’t read “The Darkest Time of Night”, it begins with the disappearance of William, the seven-year-old grandson of a US Senator and his wife Lynn. With William at the time of his disappearance is his brother, who now in shock only speaks four words of what occurred in the woods between their house and their grandparent’s: “The lights took him.”

These words, along with circumstances and location of William’s vanishing lead Lynn to bittersweet and fearful memories from her past – taboos from her childhood growing up beside the woods, and work she did as a young wife as secretary for a secretive professor in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois. A past where she became involved with a group investigating reports of UFOs and alien abductions, stories that time and again spoke of beams of light.

Starting much like a conventional crime mystery / political thriller, “The Darkest Time of Night” soon reveals conspiracies and sci-fi elements strongly reminiscent of the The X-Files, a relation that the novel even references. “The Dark Above” continues that trend, with development of the SF themes into a further paranormal realm. In publicity and reviews, some have also referenced Stranger Things for comparison to this series. Yet, similarities to that more recent show go no further than use of ‘government conspiracy’ and characters with powers. Both also were in The X-Files though, and the tone of these novels remain closer to that than any of the real themes/setting of Stranger Things.

“The Dark Above” begins years following William’s recovery by his grandmother Lynn and her friend Roxy at the close of the first book. Now grown up, William still struggles to come to grips with his experiences, the missing memories, and the guarded, public revelations his grandmother has made amid remaining secrets and uncertainties. Failing to return to college, William has run off to escape media attention and find some distance from his family. But, he finds himself unable to run from nightmares, and knowing the dangers he represents according to what Lynn has learned.

Events soon expose William back to the world and into the sights of media, hostile government agents, UFO/alien conspiracy believers, and the clandestine group that his grandmother once worked for long ago. Other select individuals returned by the aliens begin to show signs of activation, unleashing global calamities. As William flees danger and tries to discern who he can trust, his connections to the others who have been changed by the aliens grows stronger, leading them together.

In the meantime, Lynn and Roxy want to find and help William, but Lynn’s daugher (William’s aunt), who has taken her father’s seat in the Senate places her in uneasy alliance with the government agencies who want to control William at any cost.

“The Dark Above” thus ends up reading like a Koontz-like thriller with fast moving action and intrigue alternating between the points-of-view of William, his grandmother, and his aunt. A key strength of the first novel was featuring a pair of elderly women as the main protagonists. While they are not lost here, the dominance of William in this half of the story removes that. Nonetheless, change can be nice, and the switch to a grown up William helps keep the schtick of Lynn/Roxy from getting worn.

The twists and turns as multiple groups hunt William works well, with him not clear if any of them are telling him the truth, lies, or somewhere in between. Things begin to slow, however, as William discovers the group that controlled Lynn’s work in the past. In one chapter, through a series of letters in the group’s possession, both William and the reader learn the facts behind the past, going back to his great-grandparents and Lynn’s childhood that briefly appeared in the prologue to the first book.

“The Dark Above” thus fills all the unresolved questions set up from the start of the book, and while it’s ending implies that more books could follow, it still nicely wraps the series up to satisfaction as a cohesive pair. I enjoyed, but didn’t particularly love “The Darkest Time of Night”. With the expanded cast and increased action/pace of “The Dark Above”, I actually prefer the sequel a little more. However, these novels really sit best together as a sum greater than their isolated parts.

The science part of the SF in the second novel becomes utterly ridiculous, so much that it might be better to call this fantasy with aliens. I was able to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the silliness of the plot and the attempts to ‘explain’ things paranormal by throwing in nonsensical statements about DNA and genetics. Partially this is because I’m used to doing this already as a fan of The X-Files. It’s also because there are other aspects to the novel I appreciate, such as its turn toward the apocalyptic genre, where the key people returned by the aliens serve as symbolic Four Horsemen.

Together, “The Darkest Time of Night” and “The Dark Above” end up being an amalgam of popcorn genres, from drive-in ’50’s UFO flicks to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Fans of these kinds of genre elements looking for a thriller with some engaging characters and surprises – even amid the very cliched realm of UFO/alien lit – should enjoy these.


LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE by Sarah Davis-Goff

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff
Flatiron Books — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250235220
288 Pages — Hardback


A friend and I have a disagreement each time The Road comes up in conversation. I find the novel overly sparse and dull, and its literary accolades frustrate me given that genre has done the same themes well for years (albeit also poorly). My friend explains that both the novel and movie resonate with him as a father, and I concede that’s a connection I wouldn’t have.

Last Ones Left Alive represents an opposite of The Road in a couple of respects. Davis-Goff employs a feminist focus where McCarthy wrote of masculinity, and she reverses the parent-child relationship and point-of-view so that it is the younger generation bearing the responsibility of care. For whatever reasons, although being male myself, I found Last Ones Left Alive‘s take on the post-apocalyptic setting and characters for more relatable and interesting.

Orpen has grown up living in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Ireland with her mother, Mam, and Mam’s partner Maeve. There are no reasons to travel off the island, and many reasons not to. Civilization has collapsed and zombie-like monsters called skrake prowl about, savage remnants of what used to be human. Mam and Maeve have raised Orpen to defend herself, but also to be extremely wary of both the unnatural skrake and natural dangers, including what the human male could present to a young woman.

Orpen has had no choice but to leave the island in search of survivors on the mainland, in the fabled Phoenix City, a bastion of peace protected by a class of warrior women called Banshees. As the novel begins, Orpen trudges on blistered feet, pushing Maeve in a wheel barrow, a dog at their side:

Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.

We are moving.

Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small- “scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.

We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.

I do, I tell him. But I can’t.

Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.

I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one stop at the top of my forehead.

We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.

pp. 2 – 3

Davis-Goff’s writing thus moves fluidly, a mixture of hopeful, imaginative descriptions punctuated with short, hard truths. She gives Orpen a voice of utter exhaustion, yet propped up from despair through resilience. Through the clouds of melancholy and fear poke shines of her faith and wonderment.

A short novel, Last Ones Left Alive has the feel of a perfect novella, though I don’t know its word count for where it technically falls. The pace starts off wonderfully, immersing the reader in Orpen’s world amid a struggle to figure out precisely what is going on. After a short time, action breaks out, and soon Orpen meets other humans. Things slow after the initial start, as Davis-Goff takes us both deeper into Orpen’s character and provides flashbacks into her life before on the island with Mam and Maeve. Falling onto the literary side of things, the novel is never really about action, and the skrake play minor roles in comparison to the focus on Orpen’s maturation and discoveries.

Last Ones Left Alive is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s self realization, but also evolving from what she has internalized from parental instruction to form her own perceptions of the world in its beauties and dangers. Her guardians and protectors lost, she rapidly learns to be this herself, for self and others.

Only one male character appears in Last Ones Left Alive, one of the people Orpen encounters while on her journey to Phoenix City. Based on what she has been taught of men, she nearly kills the man upon meeting him in order to protect herself, little different from if she ran into a skrake. However, the behaviors of the man soon show her the faultiness of a simple anti-male perspective. Unlike skrake, humanity is complex.

The novel ends with many questions unresolved, several possible futures for the fate of Orpen, secondary characters, and the role of the Banshees. While I was happy with the ending, I imagine some readers wanting more closure and answers could be disappointed. I do not know if a sequel is planned, but one could easily work. Though satisfied with where things sit, I would certainly not turn down more.


UNWELCOME BODIES by Jennifer Pelland

Unwelcome Bodies
By Jennifer Pelland
Apex Book Company — February 2008
ISBN: 9780978867683
247 Pages — Paperback


This impressive debut collection from a Nebula-nominated author features enough moments of stunning brilliance to make a reader yearn for more of Pelland’s imaginative writing. Over the last decade Apex published her novel, Machine, in 2012, but no further collections of her promising short work have appeared. Until that changes, if you are unfamiliar with the unsettling plots that she writes in a beautifully flowing prose, you should check out Unwelcome Bodies.

Each of the stories in the collection is accompanied by a short note discussing the seeds of its creation, usually a random ‘what-if?’ thought that Pelland runs with to develop into a character-driven story, often featuring a female protagonist. The collection dwells among the thematically dark, with a current of personal introspection running throughout. Characters struggle to discover themselves, to define themselves, set against worlds that highlight their imperfections, situations that entrap them with limitations.

The collection begins strongly, with two stories that subverted my expectations, after starting with plots that seemed familiar. “For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great” is an alternate history where mutations in HIV have enhanced its transmissibility and lethality, resulting in a strain that is almost guaranteed to pass through the air or general contact. The point of view of two women, who will soon come into contact, provide two societal reactions to the pandemic. Here, Pelland portrays the power of mortal fear and the actions that people can be driven to when faced with horrible disease. The story at first seems to be a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic story of disease, but Pelland takes it through interesting angles within the confines of her characters. She produces something horrific, but also with undertones of humanity and compassion. This quality ends up permeating all of her work here.

The second story in the collection, “Big Sister/Little Sister” ended up being one of my favorites. It shocks and disturbs, while also still leaving the reader with tremendous empathy for the tale’s protagonist, despite her abhorred actions. Not all of Pelland’s stories include monsters, but even here with the most evil, there is something there broken and sad that the reader can see in pity, and a realization that we all have a bit of similar injury in ourselves.

The third story, “Immortal Sin”, led me to begin worrying that Pelland’s horror (like Stephen King’s) would be largely drawn from very negative experiences with religion. (The first story on HIV features a religious cult.) Taken on its own, this tale is actually a great little work of theological musing, portraying a disturbed man with a simplistic view of absolution. The irony of the ending is fantastic. Thankfully the remainder of the tales did end up showing that Pelland was not relying on cliches of extreme religious fervor as her sole horror (or speculative) fuel.

Later stories in the collection demonstrate that Pelland has a wildly inventive mind, that while going toward the dark side of things, isn’t always going to produce something that one might classify as ‘horror’. With “Last Bus” she even provides a touch of sweetness. Speculative elements of science fiction also feature into several of the tales, particularly the world of “Brushstrokes”, a longer story featuring world building that could easily form the foundation for deeper exploration. Depicting a dystopic, caste-separated society of humans who have been taken from Earth, it focuses on a forbidden romance between two men of different castes.

“Captive Girl” and “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” might easily be episodes of The Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror, and both stories rank with my favorites in the collection. The first tells the story of a woman whose body has been cybernetically connected since childhood to serve as a monitoring system for possible alien attack. The story tackles issues such as disability, body image, power differentials in relationships, exploitation, and objectification all while telling a heartfelt tale of basic human emotions: needing to be loved, a desire to sacrifice or serve, devoted affection. These can be good, but taken to extremes they can step into the horrific. The second story – a novella – flips the disfigured ‘Elephant Man’ of history into a future Earth where he is traded a ‘normal’ body so that his can be used by the wealthy in a culture where disfigurement is a la mode, even a fetish. The irony in this tale is superb, and it paints a poignant picture of what society considers ‘beautiful’ through the ages, and the differences between what selfishness and human compassion might engender.

I could go on and write more about each specific story in the collection – or even more words about the ones already mentioned. But suffice it to say I loved the collection with the exception of “The Call”, which even the author seems to dismiss in her notes on the story, as an experiment on second-person written entirely in questions that she now never will have to want to do again.

Fans of horror, or even just simple fiction on the darker side will find much to love in Unwelcome Bodies. The stories almost all contain something uncanny and discomforting, yet Pelland uniformly portrays all of her characters with compassion, writing in a haunting prose that lingers sweetly through any fears.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019.

They are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

NEXHUMAN by Francesco Verso

Nexhuman
By Francesco Verso
Translated by Sally McCorry
Apex Book Company — August 2018
ISBN: 9781937009656
228 Pages — Paperback


The discarded detritus of human civilization has overwhelmed the near future Earth, submerging society in kipple junk that many turn to scavenging for survival. This dystopic landscape of garbage has triggered further ecological misbalance, cultivating new endemic pathogens to menace humanity. Coupled with technological advances in bodily transformation and the expansion of immersive artificial realities, people are left disconnected from the natural world, and emotionally from one another.

Teenage Peter Payne lives with his mother and elder brother Charlie, but spends his time out working for Charlie by scavenging among the kipple, and running with The Dead Bones, a gang led by Charlie. Although his elder brother’s presence dominates his life, Peter doesn’t look up to Charlie with much respect. Sibling rivalry and Charlie’s abuse of Peter for personal gain span years, back to a horrific accident that left Peter with artificial limbs.

Whereas Charlie and other members of The Dead Bones look to the broken world and respond with further cruelty, Peter’s temperament eyes the world seeing the flashes of beauty that still remain, including a young woman, named Alba, who treats Peter with smiles, conversation, and a yearned-for general kindness that is otherwise absent from his existence.

However, one day that small spot of beauty in Peter’s life is savagely torn apart when Peter witnesses The Dead Bones take Alva and rip her into pieces. Peter realizes that Alba is a nexhuman, an advanced artificial human body that has had a human consciousness uploaded. Charlie and his gang have taken the one spot of beauty in Peter’s life to use for violent, carnal thrills, and ultimately profit from the sale of Alba’s parts. Society doesn’t consider nexhumans as really alive, and thus there is no murder, but Peter cannot see how this brutality could be any less heinous.

Peter sets out to recover Alba’s parts with the dream of restoring her to consciousness and life, to then profess his love and devotion to her. However this obsession places him squarely against his brother, alienates him from his mother and friends, and puts him at risk of more bodily harm.

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman is thus a melange of Frankenstein and transhumanist cyberpunk, adopting the term kipple from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the short length of the novel is packed with grand ideas of biology, transhumanism, consummerism, and human interactions. Sally McCorry’s translation of Verso’s Italian into English flows lyrically and brightly even through passages of dark violence to contrast with the dim, dank rubbish of the novel’s setting.

As a piece of speculative fiction set in the near future, Nexhuman contains both scientific and technological details to enrich the story. As a microbiologist I was ecstatic to see microbes mentioned repeatedly, where changes in the microbial communities that form the base of all life end up effecting the human characters in significant ways. While praising this inclusion I have to also criticize the errors in some of those details though. The text sadly conflates different groups of microbes: protists, bacteria, viruses, etc. To what degree the confusion between a bacteria and a virus here (for example) is due to translation or in the original I’m uncertain. But even with those errors I’m glad the subject is there, with changes in other organisms highlighted alongside the changes in human biology that the Nexhuman setting provides.

The overarching theme of transcendence amidst global ecological changes sits central to all aspects of Nexhuman. The increasing separation of humanity from the natural world and traditional human relationships drives people further into existences of distance and artifice. The ultimate expression of this is, of course, the uploading of a mind into the nexhuman form to live past death. To overcome that defining natural relationship of mortal fate. How diverged from the human body can one be while remaining ‘human’? Can virtual relationships supplant the absence of physical ones? Can existence in the world still proceed when no longer balanced with the rest of ecology? Can we transcend the biological when that foundational ecology it is built upon breaks apart under the weight of human impact?

Verso writes his characters dealing with these questions in largely non-judgmental strokes, leaving it up to the reader to see a mixture of both the promisingly good and disturbingly bad in Peter, secondary characters, or the world of the novel in general. There is much nobility in Peter, yet his obsession over Alba is also disturbingly intense and possessive, bearing little consideration over whether she would actually be grateful for his help, have any romantic feelings for him, etc.

Peter’s relationship (or really non-relationship) with Alba thereby illustrates the separation that has occurred between people in Nexhuman. Individuals have a harder time understanding both the nature of themselves, and of the Other. Peter defines Alba solely through his own emotions and desires. A nexhuman woman who simply smiled and is kindly polite to him is now an object of sexual obsession, someone who he imagines with be beholden to him when he ‘saves’ her. The lack of emotional interaction between people has left everyone, even Peter, with an ability to look past selfish considerations. Though he occasionally wonders if Alba would stay with him or reject him were he able to restore her body to life, Peter never fully seems capable of looking at her realistically as someone apart from his desires.

The thematic depth and elegant prose of Nexhuman make it a powerful and throught-provoking read that will also entertain without requiring a large time commitment. I originally picked up a copy of this on Rachel Cordasco’s recommendation (Speculative Fiction in Translation), as a possible text to use in a Biology in Fiction course I teach. With all the discussion this book could provoke, I certainly intend to use it. I hope you’ll check it out too if you’re intrigued.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for one more review of an Apex title here later this month.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

Skiffy & Fanty BookTube Roundup

If you didn’t already know, I contribute reviews to the Hugo-nominated Skiffy & Fanty Show, and sometimes they even allow me to take part in their podcasts. The gang has recently started adding features to our YouTube channel, including BookTube recordings. If you like SciFi and Fantasy (yes, that is where the name comes from) and don’t already subscribe to the podcast and/or YouTube, what are you waiting for?

So far, I’ve only contributed two BookTube reviews, and I have one more to record. I tried to pick shorter books received, so two of these are novellas I had been sent from the Tor.com press. I hope more will eventually come, but in the mean-time I thought it would be worthwhile to also post short written reviews here on the three books I covered:


Vigilance
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor.com Publishing — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250209436
208 Pages — Paperback

I’ve wanted to start The Divine Cities trilogy from him (hearing nothing but great things about it), but bookstores always seem to have all but the first book. So, I was happy to see this in the mail and have a chance to read something else by him. On the other hand, I immediately was put off by the cover and title. Like Batman and MacGyver, I loathe guns, and didn’t feel particularly eager to delve into a story about gun violence, even if satirical and critical. However, once started I couldn’t put it down, drawn into this near-future America where reality TV, terrorist threats, and cultural/moral apathy merge into a frightening, violent landscape. Bennett’s writing is brutal and unsubtle in both action and politics, the setup at first seems so over-the-top to appear unbelievably absurd as any type of realistic extrapolation for the future. But as you continue through the story and consider where we are, and how that trajectory could continue into the future if unchecked, it begins to seem horrifyingly more plausible were people to continue to lose hope and fall into despair. Even with all of its darkness, the satire and absurdity of it also makes for some humor, albeit dark humor. Short, powerful, and well worth reading.


©1998 EyeWire, Inc.

The Revenant Express
(Newbury and Hobbes Investigations #5)
By George Mann
Tor Books — February 2019
ISBN: 9780765334091
256 Pages — Hardback

Making the mistake of just glancing at its size and cover, I opened this book expecting it to be a young adult novel. Scant pages in with the grisly description of a murder victim, I realized the error. A lack of – or misplaced – expectations did nothing to dim my enjoyment for this exciting adventure, even without reading any of the previous books in the series. It took me a little while to understand the timeline of events that start this book, and their placement relative to those from the prior book in the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations series. A fair amount of character quirks and development also became lost to me because I began this mid-story, and this book 5 of the series is in fact the conclusion to a book 4 cliff-hanger. Thus, even though I enjoyed the steampunk/horror/mystery/spy adventure mashup of this, if you aren’t a reader of this series, it probably would be best to start at its beginning. I liked the mashed-up elements, despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, and in large part the enjoyment came from the story’s engaging female characters. If I come upon the earlier books of this series I’d pick them up without hesitation to read more.


The Test
By Sylvain Neuvel
Tor.com Publishing — March 2019
ISBN: 9781250312839
112 Pages — Paperback

Another dystopic vision from Tor.com, Neuvel’s explores speculative technological advancements to probe human psychology and the themes of immigration, community, and family. While answering examination questions for British Citizenship, Idir’s nervous anticipation and hopefulness are blasted away when a team of terrorists enter the immigration office, take hostages, and begin executing people. What this story says about psychology, morals, fear, and power is a brilliant commentary on immigration, nationalism. At the same time the story serves as a cautionary one on the dangerous ways that technology could be turned. Reading The Test, you might think you can see where Neuvel is taking things, and how he will go about it, but you begin to suspect what in the story might be really happening or not, forcing you into the same position of uncertainty as the characters find themselves. A reviewer I follow on Goodreads, Emily May, calls this a Black Mirror episode in novella format, and having now finally seen the show, I’d 100% agree. In fact, this should just be adapted into an episode, it would pack one hell of a punch. But for now, go read this touching and disturbing masterpiece.

A LARGER REALITY, Edited by Libia Brenda

A Larger Reality:
Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins
Edited by Libia Brenda
Kickstarter — Cúmulo de Tesla — 2018
190 Pages — eBook


A bilingual anthology available for FREE download in English or Spanish, A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins (Una realidad más amplia: Historias desde la periferia bicultural) arrived via a Kickstarter campaign initiated by The Mexicanx Initiative, with help from Fireside Magazine.

Awhile back I discussed this collection with Trish Matson and Brandon O’Brien as part of the “Reading Rangers” series of short fiction review/discussion for Skiffy & Fanty. You can listen to the podcast here for all of our varied thoughts on it.

Edited by Libia Brenda, the collection has a diverse selection of stories that span speculative classifications from science fiction to fantasy to horror. Some are lighter adventures and some are more serious in tone, or more experimental in style. At least among the three of us in the “Reading Rangers” discussion, we differed on which we enjoyed most versus didn’t appreciate. But readers are likely to find several stories here of interest, and all give a unique Mexicanx perspective. Approximately half are translated from the Spanish for the English edition, with the remainder presumably translated from the English for the Spanish one.

The highlights for me were:

“Fences” by José Luis Zárate and translated by Joey Whitfield is a post-apocalyptic story that makes a great start to the collection by introducing a theme that pops up in other stories as well, the falsity of being restricted to or choosing between binary identity. Caught between two worlds both literally and figuratively, the protagonist of the story is a character that can be recognized by anyone who has lived abroad.  

“Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles is a science fiction military adventure featuring chupacabras that features indigenous characters in empowering roles. Reading it gives you feeling of watching an action movie.

 “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios features themes and a plot that aren’t unfamiliar, but Rios uses them to create a potent exploration of identity and subjectivity. I’m not a fan of things written in the second person, but somehow this still worked for me.

“Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas and translated by Adrian Demopolus is a fascinating work that features a loss of coherence in both the protagonist and the text. Dark and surreally weird, the story has many levels of interpretation and is one that bears rereading.

“Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro and translated by Ruth Clarke involves a young girl who brings her pet zombie to school. One of a couple more comedic stories in the collection, this was both funny and touching, revealing the insecurities of childhood and how adults so easily ignore what children are up to.

“It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal with translation by Jesse Ward, and “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete with translation by Megan Berkobien represent two of the more horrific stories in the collection. Many of Chimal’s stories deal with ambiguity, and here it is with what constitutes ‘monsters’ and how they are perceived and feared in society. Miravete’s story is a psychological horror of family secrets that is also quite disturbing.

“Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots”, written and translated by Andrea Chapela, with editing by Kelsi Vanada ends the collection with a poignant science fiction look at grief and memorials. Its bittersweet tone makes a nice palate cleanser after the stories that preceded.

As a contributor to Rachel Cordasco’s Speculative Fiction in Translation empire and champion of more translated fiction in general, I really appreciated the endeavor that this anthology represents. The high quality of the stories made it a success, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should go download a copy now. You can’t beat free.

CONTENTS:

  • “Fences” by José Luis Zárate (Translated from the Spanish by Joey Whitfield)
  • “Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles
  • “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios
  • “Matachín” by Felecia Caton Garcia
  • “Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas (Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Demopolus)
  • “The Binder” by Angela Lujan
  • “Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro (Translated from the Spanish by Ruth Clarke)
  • “Shoot” by Pepe Rojo
  • “It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal (Translated from the Spanish by Jesse Ward)
  • “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete (Translated from the Spanish by Megan Berkobien)
  • “Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots” by Andrea Chapela (Translated from the Spanish by the author, and edited by Kelsi Vanada)

THE AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER, by Lara Elena Donnelly


Amberlough, Armistice, & Amnesty
By Lara Elena Donnelly
Tor Books — 2017 – 2019
ISBN 9780765383822  — 416 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173560 — 400 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173621 — 384 Pages — Paperback
Source: Publisher


In 2017 Lara Elena Donnelly published her debut novel, Amberlough, set in the imaginary region of Gedda and written with the point-of-view of three protagonists living in Amberlough City. Cyril DePaul works at home and abroad as an intelligence agent for the Amberlough nation-state. But Cyril’s professional responsibilities conflict with his personal life: he has passionately fallen for Aristide Makricosta, a stripper/performer at the Busy Bee nightclub who also happens to be a criminal running a small-time smuggling operation. Cordelia Lehane is another stripper/performer at the Busy Bee who sometimes does smuggling runs for Aristide, but who mostly occupies herself with illicit drug sales and sleeping alternatively with the club’s owner or its resident comedian.
While on a sensitive mission in a neighboring nation-state, Cyril’s cover is blown amid the rise of a fascist political party called the One State Party. Cyril learns that members of the party, known as Ospies, also have plans for gaining control of Amberlough. With few options available to him, Cyril strikes a deal to save himself, and Aristide, from the rise of a regime opposed to homosexuality. As the conservative Ospies gain power in Amberlough, those at the central countercultural hub of the Busy Bee must also figure out how to survive the ramifications of Cyril’s decision and Ospie control.
The plot and setting of Amberlough take unmistakable historical inspiration from Germany’s Weimer Republic and the rise of the Nazi party. The wonderful art deco design for the covers of the novel and its sequels reinforce this period; the spirits of the characters do likewise. With such close parallels to reality, it’s at first baffling to understand why Donnelly chose to place her story in an invented universe. There is little to the novel that could otherwise define it as speculative fiction: no magic of fantasy, no steampunkesque tech of SF. Donnelly wouldn’t have even had to make Amberlough an alternate history, it could easily exist as straight-up mainstream historical literature. 
Divergence from history and the need for an invented world become clearer with the sequels. In 2018 and 2019 Tor Books released Armistice and Amnesty, respectively, to complete the trilogy. Despite ending in a bit of a cliffhanger, Amberlough does work thematically on its own. But deeper appreciation for what Donnelly has created comes from reading the trilogy as three parts of one singular work. In fact, the concept of three-in-one serves as a structural framework on multiple levels of the Amberlough Dossier trilogy. Donnelly divides each of the novels into three distinct parts that essentially 1) set the characters onto stage, 2) introduce/develop the challenge they face, and 3) usher in a denouement and conclusion. Each novel also features three point-of-view characters that together create a whole perspective of the plot.
As the series progresses following the Nazi-like rise of the Ospies in Amberlough, the plot and action don’t develop as one might expect, diverging from parallels to German history and the onset of a world war. The starts of Armistice and Amnesty are also marked by time jumps where significant developments in the characters and their socio-political situation have happened off-stage. This generates a thematic impression where Donnelly is not directly showing us how her characters are changing the world. Instead, they do a great deal off-stage and then she shows us how they respond to and survive the new situations they find themselves in as a result. For example, by the close of Amberlough the three protagonists (Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia) are forced to flee the Ospie rise or stay to face its oppression with imprisonment or worse. By the start of Armistice, Cordelia now leads in exile an armed opposition to the Ospies. Aristide has found safe haven abroad as an actor, but as much as he’d like, he cannot forget or completely walk away from what he has fled. Due to events in the first book, Cyril is absent from Armistice, but replaced by the point-of-view of his diplomat sister, Lilian, who is merely mentioned in the first book. Cordelia sits out from the trio of point-of-view characters in Amnesty, making Aristide the one constant throughout the trilogy.
Aristide represents a fitting character to serve as the series constant, not merely due to the alliteration of his name with the novels’ titles. Quite simply, he is the most fun. The Han Solo of the trilogy, he is the devilish rogue who secretly has a heart. The guy who feigns indifferent independence, but who has actually fallen in love and is willing to make sacrifices for those he cares about. Aristide is a performer through-and-through, a man who hides his true name and past, who puts on affectation off the stage, speaking with an intentional stutter and dressing with a fashion to appear far more frivolous than reality. As a reader you can’t but help being equally enthralled by Aristide as Cyril. Though all the characters grow between the three novels, Aristide is the one character whose growth mostly occurs on the pages, rather than primarily during the time that passes between the novels. 
With its time jumps and off-stage action, the plot of the Amberlough Dossier series is not the source of its strength or success. I honestly found this a bit of a disappointment, and while plowing through them I couldn’t quite figure out why I still found them to be enthralling page-turners. After thinking a bit, I realized that it was the characters that had captured my attention, it really was like a character-driven ‘literary’ novel that just happened to be in a made-up world. Each of the characters is gloriously imperfect and quirky in their own endearing ways. Despite their faults, they pull through and survive changing political landscapes and crises, or sacrifice themselves to allowing the others to survive. Donnelly achieves her idiosyncratic characters with her richly descriptive language, but also a knack at giving them their unique voices. Aside from the fictitious geo-political names, Donnelly also develops an endearingly distinctive slang that Cordelia, in particular, uses.
By the end of the series the only significant criticism that I still had remaining pertains to an absent sense of place in the novels. Donnelly invents this universe and Gedda and beyond, but the reader is largely left uncertain of where exactly events are taking place, how locations relate to one another, or how political changes that happen off-stage actually came to pass. This makes it difficult to really appreciate any of the world-building aspects of a series that otherwise has little in the realms of the speculative genre. Each novel also comes with an identical map of Gedda that has to be the most useless map I have ever seen in a SFF novel, particularly when events of Armistice largely take place elsewhere.
Nonetheless, like its characters the Amberlough Dossier series charms despite its imperfections. It says a lot about what common people can accomplish in a harsh world of setbacks despite being outsiders, counterculture to a system of power. It shows that those accomplishments become born of the small decisions that individuals make because of their relationship with and love for others, whether familial or romantic. And it shows that the consequences of those decisions can be both joyous and devastating, but in either way can be met with courage and compassion.

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

32283423.jpg
American War

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf — April 2017
ISBN 9780451493583 — 352 Pages — Hardcover


My latest review for Skiffy and Fanty is on Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Check out the complete review on the site, here.
My condensed review:
“A powerful & dark literary character study on the atrocities that war can breed in an individual, but fails in its speculative foundations and in its relevance to America.”

DEFYING DOOMSDAY, Edited by Tsana Dolichva & Holly Kench

Freshly posted yesterday, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

defyingdoomsday

 

“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge

This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality

Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Contents:

And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher tin exchange for an honest review.