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Brit Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

The Laundry Files Pits Computational Demonologists Against Nihilism

In a previous post on Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, I noted that one of the strengths of the books is that they are “aggressively contemporary treatises that stand against nihilism and in support of communal resistance, support, and human will.” By this I mean that the series is grounded in our political and cultural moment—for example, smartphones and CCTV and the rise of right-wing extremism across the globe—but also ups the ante exponentially in its addition of cosmic, incomprehensible threats that cross dimensions and realities to devour us all.

In the face of this scale of destruction, with an unwitting populace on one hand and a gridlocked government on the other, the protagonists must reject defeatist beliefs and band together to steal their victories, Pyrrhic though they might sometimes be. Because, in truth, nihilism is the creeping force that underlies the horror of the stars coming aligned in the Laundry Files universe. While the various color-coded case plans for different potential apocalypses are monstrous enough on their lonesome, the rejection of principle and ethics on the basis that it’s all meaningless anyway is the true danger.

[Onward.]

Already Home: Telling the Map by Christopher Rowe

Telling the Map, the first full collection from multiple award nominee Christopher Rowe, features nine previously published stories spanning from 2003 to 2015 as well as an original novella, “The Border State.” These stories are, for the most part, all set in the near- or near-enough-future, exploring a post-Scarcity collapse and restructure of our recognizable social order through a variety of lenses.

However, there is one other consistent thread running through the entirety of the collection, and that is setting. In Telling the Map, Rowe has rendered Kentucky over and over again with a lush, loving, bone-deep accuracy—one that startled and thrilled me so thoroughly, as a fellow native son, that I had to read the book through twice to begin to form a critical opinion.

It’s an objectively good collection of pieces, but it’s also a collection that sang to me in particular.

[A review.]

An Exercise in Governmental Restructuring: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Another eagerly-awaited installment in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, The Delirium Brief returns us to Bob Howard’s point of view in a direct continuation of the events of The Nightmare Stacks. With the previously-clandestine Laundry, the British occult secret services, made public due to the invasion of a nasty species of elves, Bob and our familiar cast of characters must take on a unique threat: governmental interference and restructuring.

Faced with the lethal consequences of poor government intervention on their institution, the agents of the Laundry must make a drastic decision—to go rogue and consider “the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself,” as the flap copy says. Other pieces on the board are also moving, including a servant of the Sleeper in the Pyramid previously presumed dead and the American equivalent agency going off the reservation. Howard also has his personal life to contend with, given that he’s become the Eater of Souls and his estranged wife Mo has suffered a great deal of field trauma of her own.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Green Sky at Night, Hacker’s Delight: The Function of Tropes in The Laundry Files

The Atrocity Archives was initially published in 2004, meaning Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series has been going strong for thirteen years. Currently consisting of eight novels and a handful of spinoff novellas and short stories, the series has maintained a freshness that is often lacking in long-running properties—and that is largely due to Stross’s tongue-in-cheek critical appropriation of common genre tropes as fodder for the novels.

Speculative fiction is without fail a referential genre: concerned with the past and future, of course, but also with the sly nudge and wink of one “insider” to another. That tendency is regularly uncritical or self-involved, but with his deliberate, sometimes-savage usage of tropes in the Laundry Files, Stross manipulates and expands the function of the intertextual reference for an action oriented series. The result is a delightful medley of clever commentary and engaging plot that never fails to keep me interested on all fronts.

[Onward.]

The Shape of the Word/World: Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Amatka is the debut novel of Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, a concise, elegant exploration of language and creation in the tradition of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin. Tidbeck is the previous winner of the Crawford Award and has also been shortlisted for other honors, including the World Fantasy Award. In her first full length novel she sets up a fantastic secondary world, at once surreal and disturbingly concrete, where words are the seat of power—and Vanja, our protagonist, is at the center of a radical shift in that language.

Vanja has crossed from her colony to another, the titular Amatka, for the purpose of researching hygiene products to best assist her company with the expansion of a private trade market. However, she is drawn in two directions once she arrives: a romantic relationship with her assigned housemate for the stay, Nina, and a prickling awareness that something has gone awry with the structure of Amatka’s colony. As Vanja seeks to tie together the threads of the commune’s cover-ups and manipulations, she stumbles on a far greater forbidden knowledge.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Self-Conscious Stories: Tender by Sofia Samatar

Tender is a book-length collection of short fiction from Sofia Samatar, a brilliant Somali-American writer whose work has been nominated for several genre awards over the past few years. Samatar is also the winner of both the John W. Campbell and Crawford Awards—so, suffice to say she is doing consistently fantastic work, and Tender gathers much of that work together in one place for the first time.

Divided into two sections, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” this collection includes two original stories as well as eighteen reprints. “An Account of the Land of Witches” and “Fallow” are the two fresh publications here, both in the landscapes section of the book. The reprints range from 2012 to now in terms of their initial appearances, and also span a wide range of publications.

[A review.]

A Collaborative, Global, Intersectional Art Project: Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar, and Anita Roy) is a collection of collaborative works between Australian and Indian creators—artists and writers both—inspired by feminist principles and the global struggle of girls in patriarchy. As the introduction notes, brutal crimes against young women in late 2012 in both countries sparked protest and activism; the world took notice, too. The anthology was born out of these conversations about “the fate of all young women,” and as the title emphasizes, it is about “impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone.”

The notable thing about this collection for young readers isn’t just that it came out of feminist principles, but also that it’s doing something I don’t see often at all: pairing up creators from different fields and cultures to create collaborative stories based on the theme. It creates a unique tone in the anthology, wherein it seems clear that everyone is experimenting and playing off of one another. In a sense, it reads more like an art project than a short story collection.

[A review.]

On the Cosmic Scale: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

There are pieces on the board: the Signalman, an agent for a blackbudget American service; a cult ranch-house at the Salton Sea that houses horrors from another world; a lost film about an alien princess; a timeless and frightening agent from another service with her own motivations; the New Horizons probe skating past the orbit of Pluto and encountering something alien. These singular events and people all feed into the start—or end—of something immense and devastating for the human species.

I have been continually impressed with the Tor.com novella imprint, as it offers a unique and necessary venue for quality long-form fiction that doesn’t exist elsewhere—and Agents of Dreamland is no exception to that rule. The novella form allows Kiernan to construct a discomfiting narrative that skips like a stone across water, sketching out a brief but provocative landscape of fright and inevitability for our planet up against Lovecraftian cosmic horrors. It’s long enough to develop intense investment but short enough to leave unanswered and unanswerable questions about the future it implies.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Birth, Death, Rebirth: The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars are Legion, recently released from Saga Press, is a stand-alone novel from the same woman who brought us The Bel Dame Apocrypha and The Geek Feminist Revolution. Set in a scattered belt of dying world-ships referred to as the Legion by the people who have access to the surfaces of the world, the novel mixes the trappings of quest narratives and space opera. Zan, our protagonist, awakes injured and with no memories—finding herself in the control of a group of women who claim to be her family, but seem to treat her more like a conscript.

She is told she must gain control of the Mokshi, a travelling world-ship that repels all invaders, to save the world of her so-called family. However, other ruling families in the Legion are also seeking to gain control of it and therefore bring salvage and life to their own decaying homes. Through a sprawling set of intrigues, Zan must discover her own past and determine the path to a future that she can survive.

[Read more]

Queer/Historical Magic: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

In contemporary San Francisco, an elderly woman spends her final afternoon alive retrieving an old and fragile piece of art from storage and selling it to an unscrupulous rare books dealer for mysterious reasons. Then, cut back to the nightlife of 1940s San Francisco, the same woman is party to the introduction of Emily—a young woman who has escaped from family censure—and Haskel, a bisexual artist who paints for the pulps. Emily and Haskel hit it off, as part of a small circle of likeminded women, and their romance takes them to the corners of the Magic City of the World’s Fair, but also to the edge of real magic.

Passing Strange is a queer historical novella with a healthy dose of magical realism—a combination sure to enrapture a specific audience, of which I am certainly one. Klages renders the reality of life for queer women in the ’40s with a matter of fact and honest level of detail. While the novella doesn’t flinch from the difficulties of oppression and abuse, as a whole it has a remarkably uplifting tone: these are women who have made lives together and will continue on into the future, in whatever ways they can.

[A review.]

Feminist Fiction in Translation: Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff is a first-person young adult novel, presented as a record written by the titular character. When Jai, a young woman fleeing her father, arrives at the Red Abbey for shelter, she brings on her heels the danger of the outside world. The abbey is a female-only space filled with learning, home and hearth; it exists to protect and preserve women’s rights and rites. Maresi must discover, through trial and danger, who she is and what path she is called to serve—and protect her home in the process.

The novel (which is first in a series) won the highest honor for young adult fiction in Finland, the Finlandia Junior Award, in 2014. Since then, the Red Abbey Chronicles have been translated across the globe—in Chinese, German, French, and more. Amulet Press has picked them up for publication in the US beginning in early 2017.

[A review.]

Comes in Twelves: Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson—best known for her award winning queer books including Written on the Body and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—has collected a set of twelve stories, paired with twelve anecdotes and recipes, inspired by the Christmas season. Christmas Days is attractive and color-printed, a blue and silver treat, and reflects the holiday spirit quite admirably.

It isn’t often one sees a Christmas book of this sort from someone other than, for example, a cooking television celebrity. It’s somehow immensely weird and pleasant to pick up one that is about queer families, aging, and making home from the exact same sort of genre but obviously quite different—given our narrator.

[A review.]

Whatever Walked There, Walked Alone: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

December 14, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s birth. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at some of her most memorable novels and short fiction.

The Haunting of Hill House is perhaps the most-researched, most-written-about of Jackson’s longform works. Published in 1959, the novel follows four people—Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora, and our protagonist Eleanor—as they attempt to summer at Hill House for the purpose of doing research on its reported supernatural phenomena. Eleanor is a sheltered but damaged woman; she spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother, recently deceased, while her sister married and started a family of her own. Even as the novel begins, she’s still under the thumb of her sister and her brother-in-law, living off of a cot in their home. The trip offers her an opportunity to escape, to become something—except the house that awaits is a monstrous place.

Stephen King, in the introduction to the edition of the book that sits on my shelf, notes that “it seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” It’s hard to debate the claim that this is a deeply significant text in the field: it’s a certain thing that critics and readers alike have found themselves caught up in Jackson’s novel for decades, anxious in the grip of Hill House’s bad geometry and the complex currents of gender, sexuality, and isolation that run underneath.

[Read more]

Space Sublime: Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The latest original anthology from Jonathan Strahan, Bridging Infinity revolves around “engineering problems” with grandiose solutions: it’s quite literally the science fiction of ideas, envisioned by some of our contemporary short fiction writers. As Strahan notes, early pulp science fiction “was founded on a belief that problems are solvable,” and this anthology seeks to explore the “engineering sublime,” the sense of wonder, that the genre offers in terms of envisioning huge solutions to equally huge problems.

With this introduction, one might expect the stories—all from writers whose names are quite familiar; not a one of these contributors is anything less than well-known—to be entirely thought experiments. Some are, to be sure, but still others take sideways approaches to the concept of the sublime in the technical: the engineering solutions are awesome in the traditional sense of the word, but the stories are often about the people creating those solutions and their human lives as well.

[A review.]

Nights in Mexico City: Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexico City does not allow vampires within its borders—but that doesn’t necessarily keep them out. Atl, a vampire whose lineage traces back to the Aztecs, finds her way into the city while on the run from the rival gang of European vampires who executed her family. Domingo, a young man who makes his living sifting garbage for a rag-and-bone man, meets her and her genetically modified Doberman on a train. She’s desperate enough to make him an offer: payment for blood. She has no intention of drawing him in to her life, but they prove to be better matched than either initially suspected.

Certain Dark Things is Moreno-Garcia’s second novel, following the well-received Signal to Noise (2015). An urban fantasy set in a lovingly crafted Mexico City, the novel is a refreshing take on the tropes of the genre: the female protagonist is supported by a tender, fairly innocent, dedicated man, and the romantic tension is complicated significantly by their being from different species. Furthermore, it isn’t anglocentric in its approach to mythology and the supernatural.

[A review.]