If the novel’s composition matched the author’s conception, Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time would constitute a major accomplishment in speculative fiction. Newland creates a radically different Earth, devises a complex world-beyond-the-world of astral projection, and then, in the novel’s second half, sends his overwhelmed protagonist on an odyssey into further worlds.
The Absolute Book arrives in the United States more than a year after its initial publication with New Zealand’s Victoria University Press. Although Elizabeth Knox’s books have always been critically acclaimed, most of her titles have never escaped the Antipodes. Happily for American readers, a rave review by Dan Kois, a Slate critic briefly resident in New Zealand inspired a bidding war for U.S. rights, and now any American can open The Absolute Book. As someone who has been looking forward to it since the Slate review, I’m happy to report that the novel was worth the wait.
I hadn’t expected to see a new Edward Carey novel for a few years yet, but here is The Swallowed Man, just two years after the publication of Little, his big book about the waning and waxing of Madame Tussaud’s fortunes in the French Revolution. That massive novel took fifteen years to write; to receive another book so soon is a pleasant surprise. Little was an epic about the obscure story behind a familiar name; The Swallowed Man, in contrast, is a compact retelling of a familiar story from an obscure perspective.
The Matter of Britain, the cycle of stories relating to King Arthur and his knights, is as capacious a set of legends as the world possesses, and so the tales have received a staggering range of interpretations. From Tennyson’s pious odes to Victorian Britain, through Mark Twain’s declaration of Yankee independence, from Wagner’s promotion of the German volk and Edwar Burne-Jones’s self-consciously old-fashioned paintings to T.H. White’s tragicomic elegies, King Arthur has accommodated every vision or concern that artists have attached to him. Perhaps each era gets the Arthur it requires.
Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone gives us an Arthur for the Brexit era: A tyrant in lieu of a king, brute violence in lieu of gallant feats, undisguised venality in lieu of chivalric ideals. This is the Matter of Britain become the Matter with Britain.
In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novella Finalists, and what makes each of them great.
The Cairo of P. Djèlí Clark’s novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is in a state of perpetual, and productive, flux. It is 1912, but in Clark’s world, “it had been some forty years since the wandering Soudanese genius—or madman, take your pick—had, through a mix of alchemy and machines, bored a hole into the Kaf.” The mysterious al-Jahiz—perhaps a time traveler, perhaps a prophet, perhaps a harbinger of doom—disappeared but left a world transformed. Djinn and other once-mythical beings openly walk the land and have contributed to an explosion of technological-magical growth. Egypt has become a great world power, while European colonialists have retreated to their homelands, expelled by magic and forced to reevaluate the “superstitions of the natives and Orientals” they once despised. No religion has sole dominion over magic, so religious tolerance laws have been enacted, though biases remain: Many still distrust the new adherents of the revived old religions. And, spurred in part by the role women played in the great anticolonial struggles, suffragette and feminist movements have begun agitating for equal rights. It’s a multiethnic, multicultural, and generally civil society, but, like all societies, not without its tensions and contradictions.
You might not expect a novel about the Thirty Years’ War to be entertaining, much less funny. Those three decades of massacre, starvation, plague, and pillage littered central Europe with eight million corpses; it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the European nations once again achieved such sheer horror. And yet, despite its grim subject and despite its jacket-copy endorsement from Michael Haneke, bleakest and most depressing of bleak and depressing German directors, Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel Tyll is a rollick and a delight.
She wrote Ice and then she died. She used prescription heroin for half of her life. She took the name she’s remembered by from one of her own early novels. If you’ve heard of Anna Kavan, and most likely you haven’t, chances are that these are the few things you know about her. Though she wrote more than a dozen novels and collections, though she was a journalist and a painter, Kavan is remembered for a single book and for the dramatic or disreputable portions of her biography.
This month, New York Review Books issues Machines in the Head, a volume of Kavan’s selected stories. It’s a slim book of weighty emotion that will leave readers perturbed. I admire it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.
John Crowley’s readers have great capacities for patience. Twenty years passed between the first volume of his Ægypt series in 1987 and its last entry in 2007; after his realistic historical novel Four Freedoms appeared in 2009, Crowley’s fans waited seven years for another major publication. With the 2016 publication of The Chemical Wedding, Crowley’s translation of an obscure seventeenth-century hermetic allegory, something changed. Whatever the cause — Perhaps the author’s retirement from teaching at Yale — Crowley has become prolific. A year after Wedding, he published Ka, a thick historical fantasy, alongside Totalitopia, a slim volume that combined fiction, essay, and criticism. And this month Crowley has released two thick hardbacks. The first, story collection And Go Like This, I reviewed a few weeks ago. Now Subterranean Press has released Reading Backwards: Essays & Reviews, 2015-2018.
Jurassic Park appeared in theaters in June of 1993, when I was five years old. I was dinosaur-obsessed to an intense degree; I played with toy tyrannosauruses, ate dinosaur-themed candy, and read dinosaur picture books. Somehow I contrived to learn the Latin names of various saurians; I figured it was good training for my inevitable career as a paleontologist. In pursuit of that future, I even dug up the backyard in search of dino bones. Given this level of obsession, I was heartbroken to learn that my parents would not let me go see the new dinosaur movie. I didn’t quite understand that Spielberg’s film was about people running from dinosaurs that wanted to eat them. Who needs menace and suspense when there were dinosaurs? I would have been perfectly happy watching a dinosaur movie where nothing went wrong and no one was imperilled. I just wanted to see dinosaurs in motion. It took more than twenty-five years for me to discover that the movie five-year-old Matt really wanted to see was Czech director Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time.
If pressed, I’m sure that Nina Allan would say that her new novel, The Dollmaker, takes place in the here and now. I don’t know that I would believe her. The book’s world looks like ours, complete with smartphones and Google Earth, but it’s a planet where trips are still planned by surveyor’s maps, where hotels are selected according to a printed almanac’s recommendations, and where long-distance relationships are conducted by page upon page of handwritten letters. Fairy tales are a motif. “What,” Allan asks her readers, “if a long, long time ago were today?”
The quality of John Crowley’s short stories is inversely proportional to their quantity. His two brief collections, Novelty and Antiquities, were combined and expanded into Novelties & Souvenirs in 2004; one collection, not unduly thick, collected thirty years of short fiction. The publication of a new collection by John Crowley is a rare occasion; I’m happy to report that his new one, And Go Like This, was worth the fifteen-year wait.
Paul Park’s A City Made of Words is the latest volume in PM Press’s Outspoken Authors line of short science fiction collections. We’re now twenty-three volumes into the series, each of which combines an interview with the author, a bibliography of varying completeness, and some combination of new and reprinted writing—and until I read this new book, I thought I knew how they worked. There were, on the one hand, the collections that might serve as introductions, books like Elizabeth Hand’s Fire or John Crowley’s Totalitopia, concise proofs of the author’s value. On the other hand I counted such books as Samuel Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic and Michael Moorcock’s Modem Times 2.0 as essential reading for the committed that would challenge, mystify, or scare off neophytes.
With A City Made of Words, Park eludes my categories. I can’t decide whether this book is a perfect entry to the author’s work, or written for committed Park readers only. I suspect that the author intends this. Let me explain.
The myth of Icarus isn’t about flight; it’s about falling. Daedalus’s callow son flaps too close to the sun; the glue of his wings melt, their feathers flutter away, and Icarus plummets seaward. He is the first to soar through the sky, but also the sky’s first victim. Personally, I wouldn’t name the first ship to traverse interstellar space after our fallen predecessor, but perhaps the people of the year 2163, as depicted in Czech director Jindřich Polák’s 1963 Ikarie XB 1, have conquered superstition. Or perhaps they’re tempting fate.
“She didn’t know that the dragons were coming for her.” With good reason: Dragons rarely intrude into American hospital wards, but it’s in that incongruous setting that Michael Swanwick begins his new novel, The Iron Dragon’s Mother. We meet Helen V. at the end of an interesting—she’s “gone scuba-diving in the Maldives [and] found herself inexplicably judging an air guitar competition in an unlicensed slum bar in Johannesburg [and] spent a summer trying to convert a rusty old Ferrari to run on vegetable oil because she’d fallen in love with a boy who wanted to save the world”—but ultimately unsatisfied life. She’s dying in a hospital with no visitors, little grace, and few consolations. She derives her scant pleasures from tormenting her caretakers with snark and allusion; they retaliate by delivering sermons or withholding morphine. She’s a lifelong walker-out and escaper-from; since she can’t leave the hospital, she’s immersed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which posits “an instant of freedom” at the very moment of death. She doesn’t believe, but she’s willing to try: “Crap and nonsense” it may be, but “still, escape is escape.”
And so Helen dies, and Helen leaps, and Helen finds herself in another person’s head in another person’s world.
When Chinese science fiction film The Wandering Earth appeared in U.S. theaters earlier this year, very few people saw it, but just about all of them liked it. Critics lamented that this movie, which grossed nearly as much as Avengers: Endgame worldwide, received only a few days’ booking in the more discerning arthouses and the most diverse big-city multiplexes. Now that The Wandering Earth has made its way to Netflix, it has a new chance to find a wider audience. Many lesser films have thrived on the streaming service—let’s hope Netflix helps this movie find the American viewership it deserves.
The Wandering Earth is adapted from a novella—though some say it’s more a long short story—by Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem. Since this particular work isn’t yet available in English translation, I can’t vouch for the faithfulness of the adaptation. I can merely express my admiration at Liu’s audacity in fitting such a large story into such a small space.
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