And here is a little rarity - a story about a society at war, about how societies' structures and norms change in such circumstances, but especially about the price of taking up arms and of killing, and an unusual take on how to end war and bring about peace.
Unusual, maybe, but something I can greatly sympathise with - described and executed with the clarity and simplicity of mind of a child, and an impeccable logic.
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile by Aliette de Bodard is set in her Xuya Universe, in the future/SF branch, and was originally published by Subterranean Press. A lot of things remain unsaid, unexplained, and you don't need to know them to appreciate the story and its marvelous conclusion. You also don't need to be familiar with the other Xuya works to appreciate this, either (but I would suggest you start reading these should you like this short story!)
The image on the right comes from Pinterest and without original attribution - if anybody knows where it is from then please let me know, so I can add credit where credit it due!
This is a book of two parts - the first half of it is the re-release, but Urbane Publications, of the previously self-published novella Two Dogs at the One Dog Inn; whilst the 2nd half consists of a number of short stories. David John Griffin, the author of the book at hand, has published two novels now, and I would think the publisher’s decision to re-publish this book is both timely, and well deserved from the contents. Griffin describes himself as a “writer, graphic designer and app designer, who lives in a small town by the Thames in Kent, UK with his wife Susan and two dogs called Bullseye and Jimbo.“
Two Dogs at the One Dog Inn is, in first approximation, the story of Audrey Ackermann, an animal welfare volunteer, who investigates a report of interminable barking of dogs at the historic Coaching Inn of the title. Or, rather, it’s the story of what she found, and of her working through the trauma of what she found. The actual story is told, exclusively, as an exchange of email between Audrey (who comes across as rather overwrought at times) and her artificially cheerful supervisor Stella. This is interspersed (and, to quite an extent, enlivened) by diary entries and notes for a novel from a memory stick which Audrey found at the Inn; purportedly belonging to an SF writer named Gideon Hadley. This way of storytelling is, by its very nature, rather repetitive, and so is the personal content in the exchange which frames the telling of the actual story. The attachments from the found memory stick I considered fascinating, not just for their content, but also for the protagonists' utter disregards for any kind of privacy, and lack of any attempt to return something which should have been precious, if not even valuable, to its owner. Of course, having a writer (Griffin) writing about a writer (Audrey) going through the notes of a writer (Hadley) for a novel is every so slightly meta, but writing seems to be a favourite topic of writers, somehow. And to be fair, the language here changes depending of which writer things are purportedly from - especially Hadley is overly descriptive, and flowery. The email based structure is not new, either, and has in my opinion been executed better, or at least more entertaining and less repetitive in Matt Beaumont's novel 'e', for example. We also get overdone local placenames (“Legatemead”??? really?) and unnecessarily obfuscated terms (Cyclowiki? To boogle information?). But despite these weaknesses this is a fascinating, and well executed story, with an ending which surprised me (there had to be a twist, but I didn’t expect it to turn the way it did. neat). This is Magic Realism, mostly, but can read differently, too. A contemporary and kindred spirit to the likes of Claude Lalumière, or Karin Tidbeck
Do I need to introduce Doris Lessing? Ok, briefly, for those who don’t know - Lessing was born in 1919 in Persia, grew up in Rhodesia (both only exist in the History Books anymore - what’s this do to someone’s sense of origin and belonging?), and lived in London for most of her life, until her death last year. She has a substantial body of work to her name, and was awarded an equally substantial number and variety of Awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature. A literary heavyweight, known for her books on a wide variety of topics, styles, and approaches; including the rather marvellous “Children of Violence” series, and this here, her most openly “Science Fiction” (or Space Fiction, as she called it) series called Canopus in Argos: Archives. She frequently defended her decision to use the form of Science Fiction for writing some of her stories against snooty and disparaging literary critics, calling them out on being narrow-minded, and focused on the form instead of the content and the quality...
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (especially in this series she really went for rather long titles!) is the 4th book in the series. The series is mainly defined by being set in the same universe, and against the same back-drop of an interstellar civilisation (Canopus) who breeds, educates, uplifts other races and civilisations. Beyond this I think the individual books can very well be read out of sequence, or on their own - the reader might miss some background, some deeper understanding of the setting, but the book and the story it tells will work on its own.
The story of this rather slim volume ostensibly is relatively simple - it concerns a planet, only known as Planet 8 (it seems Canopus does not give all planets actual names), and the race of beings (in my mind they were humanoid, and rather human-like indeed) which live on and from it. Apparently the race was created from 4 others, with the aim of mixing it, after sufficient mental and societal advancement, with 2 other ones from the planet Rohanda (earlier books provide that this is Earth, or something very much like it) to achieve something new, special, a race able to raise to new levels.
Here’s a goodie for fans of African Speculative Fiction, or for those who are not yet, but are interested in the ever-increasing, and very distinct and interesting output coming out of this scene:
Red Origins is, in first approximation, a webcomic, but it has several parts to it, from music to animation to the comic pages.
“The show follows the young characters of Obi, Temi and John as they mystically get transported to 2070 Neo Africa. Upon arrival they mistakenly break a bronze taboo and are forced to join a Peacekeeping Magical Juju Force. In order to return home they must help stop a brewing war between Ancestral Africa and Neo Technological Africa. ” One interesting titbit is that Nnedi Okorafor, author of Lagoon and Binti (besides a lot more that’s also worth reading!) apparently got engaged as a ‘juju consultant’ by the project, so evidently has her seal of approval, too!
As a child, did you ever imagine having unusual and ever weirder superpowers just because they would come handy in your current situation, to resolve the quandary you got yourself in, so much better than what a Superman or the like could provide? Or were you an avid reader of the ever-proliferating (or so it seemed to me) superhero comics and stories and worlds, with ever more heroes and villains, with ever more contrived abilities and looks in a desperate attempt to somehow keep the never-ending churn of stories fresh? Or did you only trip over this on social media, with yet another share of ‘The 25 most useless superpowers’ or the like?
Either way, this is, I guess, where DC’s ‘Dial H for Hero’ started from - the ability to dial a one-shot superhero with one, maybe two specific powers from a phone dial. At least you didn’t have to keep them in the canon forever that way… But China Miéville, author of a substantial number of unusual, fascinating, and highly stylish books (Fantastic Fiction counts 11 novels, plus a number of collections and other formats) has had a fascination for these absurdist heroes for a long time, and has, as he explains, been talking to/at DC about exploring the universe behind the dial for a while:
“The DC people would smile politely. That would be that. Until, very suddenly, they said yes.”
And thus we now have this book, this graphic album, collecting 16 issues of Dial H plus one from Justice League. I’ve reviewed the Deluxe Edition, which comes as a Hardback with a fancy cover, an Afterword by China explaining some of the above in better (and more) words, Character Design sketches by Mateus Santolouco, and Interior Page pencils by Alberto Ponticelli. It’s a rather neat package, I felt.
Lauren Beukes is a South African journalist, director, and writer, who broke into the Mainstream with her time-travelling-serial-killer story The Shining Girls. Before that she worked as a journalist, scriptwriter, directed a documentary (about Gay Beauty Pageants), and published 3 novels - a non-fiction one called Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past, and two genre-titles (corporate-dystopia Moxyland, and a magic-crime-thriller called Zoo City) Her latest novel is set in Detroit, and called Broken Monsters. Slipping is a collection of her short writing - fiction, essays, and non-fiction. All stories here have been previously published - you will, like me, have come across some/most of these before if you’ve been following Lauren’s career through genre success to exploding into the Mainstream & beyond.
The scope of and approach to the content is as varied as you would expect from such a retrospective - it runs from (re)visits of the world of Moxyland in Branded, to general current/near-future social commentary in the likes of Confirm/Ignore or Pop Tarts. There is horror here, like in the very uneasy My Insect Skin; and classic SF like The Green with its Alien Pharma harvesting, or Unaccounted which mixes Alien contact with Guantanamo and its associated paranoia. And there is pure, unfettered, near-Dadaist fun like Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs. All that before we even get to the non-fiction part, which throws an interesting light on Lauren's background, her approach to writing, and her thinking as a mother in today's society. The quality of the writing is very high, though, I do not recall anything which felt weak, or like filler here. Yes, the stories are very different, but they are well written, engaging, and frequently thought-provoking.
The book is split into fiction and non-fiction work, and followed by a Glossary of South African terms/slang/key concepts, plus the copyright notices from the original publication of the stories between 2003 and 2014.