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Speculative Fiction Reviews since 2012


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Science Fiction and Fantasy as ‘home’ genres

I was asked recently about what I read and what I write. Oddly enough I found this very difficult. I was in America, and I was talking to a lady who I knew would read R.A. Salvatore or the Belgariad into my response of ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy.’ Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the Belgariad (mostly) (we’ll ignore R.A. Salvatore) but this misrepresents me. If I respond with that answer, the assumption that immediately comes into others’ heads is that that is all I read.

The actuality of life is that I read it more than most, yes, but it’s not the be all and end all of my life. Looking back at my reading over 2014, 25 of the 53 books, or just under half of those that I read, were SFF. The rest covered an entire spectrum of reading: LitFic (The Goldfinch; Salvage the Bones; All the Birds, Singing), Historical Fiction (The Silk Tree), ‘Women’s’ Fiction (Anybody Out There?), ungenred YA (The Bunker Diary, We Were Liars, The Fault in our Stars), non-fiction (The Psychopath Test; Do No Harm) etc. etc. etc. Saying I read SFF is no more true than saying I read any of those other genres above. It is simply that I read more SFF than I do other genres.

This is before I even start to consider the vagaries of genre description. Is The Road by Cormac McCarthy Science Fiction, or Literary Fiction, to the average Joe? To describe it as Science Fiction still feels belittling when Mrs. Bloggs above will compare it with Heinlein, but that’s what it is. What about No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe? Marketed and written as a literary thriller, it’s distinctly SFnal in its outlook and its plot. How about the masterful The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough? A novella on the power of grief, as the main character watches her father die a slow, painful death, it also heavily features a – possibly metaphorical – black unicorn. Does this make it Fantasy? Or does it remain a short LitFic book?

With this confusion in mind, and with the knowledge that less than half of what I read is Science Fiction or Fantasy – and half of that again are books like those above, genre-fluid, or using SFFnal themes to advance something that isn’t ‘core’ SFF, I’ve come to a new descriptor.

Science Fiction and Fantasy is my home genre.

It’s where I’m most comfortable. It’s the community in which I immerse myself. It’s the place where I know the people, I know the books, I know what’s hot and what’s not, what people are talking about and what the latest controversy is.

It’s not all I read.

In much the same way that, three or four years ago, I would have said that heavy metal is my home genre for music I worry for myself when it comes to SFF. I don’t follow heavy metal in the same way now. I have blurred – I listen to indie, to electronica, to old school east coast hip hop, to original soundtracks, to indie rock – I have no home anymore. I am an omnivorous wanderer through the musical plains, stopping to take in whatever takes my fancy. I have lost touch with that community, such that it is. I still listen to Heavy Metal. I still get the latest albums from the bands I love. But I listen to so much more, so many different things, that I can’t truly say it is my ‘home’ genre anymore.

Likewise, I’m slowly moving outwards from ‘core’ SFF. I’m exploring far more literary fictions, and far more SFF with a literary bent. In 2011, 42 of the 56 books I read were SFF. In 2012, almost all of the extra-curricular reading I did was SFF. But slowly it has declined. Slowly, SFF has become less vital and more homely.

Perversely, this has made me enjoy SFF far more. I rarely read ‘core’ genre any more, and when I do it is both escapism and falling back into the arms of an old friend. It is enjoyment beyond the usual: I tend to pick up ‘core’ genre far more on recommendations and reviews than previously based on reputation. For this reason I enjoyed The Traitor’s Blade and The Copper Promise – debut ‘core’ fantasies – or Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples’ Saga – ‘core’ SF, albeit in graphic novel form – in a way more so than I did Brandon Sanderson or Hannu Rajaniemi in 2011 when I picked them up on reputation. Or I’ll follow an author: Tom Pollock, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch – more ‘core’ fantasy works. As I said above, the majority of the SFF I read is on the border, is mixed-genre. Adam Roberts, Sarah Pinborough, Ben Aaronovitch, Clare North, Jeff Vandermeer – all people I first read this year, all on the borderline of multiple genres. Lavie Tidhar, Frances Hardinge, China Mieville, James Smythe – all people I’ll consistently read, and will continue with every book they produce, all (to a certain degree) borderline cases.

As my SFF focus decreases, I become more discerning before I turn that first page. I rely more on reviews, on hype (from the right people), on what others have said, to direct my reading experience in that genre. It is this new way of choosing books that is also increasing my consumption of books ‘outside’ SFF. If someone or some place that I trust recommends say All the Birds, Singing (in this case, the New York Times and Jeff Vandermeer) I’m far more likely to read it. If Jared Shurin or Adam Roberts or Mahvesh Murad or Niall Harrison post a glowing review of something, I’m far more likely to read it. If Twitter is aflame with the latest literary sensation (I’m looking at you, The Miniaturist), I’m far more like to read it. If it’s published by Hodder, by Picador, by HarperCollins’ Blue Door I’m far more likely to read it.

As my immersion in books and publishing continues, I thinks SFF will remain my ‘home’. But I also think that the percentage it occupies against the rest of my reading will decline.

And this is not a bad thing.


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2015

Over the course of the last six months or so while I’ve been away from this blog, I’ve had some major life changes, and some major realisations. It’s 1am now, on the first day of a New Year. I am, to coin a phrase, fucking knackered. I’ve had 8 hours sleep in the last 3 days, spent 42 hours travelling, am jetlagged to buggery and it seems like the right time to reflect. Continue reading


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80 Days

In the last couple of days, I’ve been arrested in Berlin, kissed a man in New Orleans, joined a small Russian invasion force of India, been captured by pirates, cultists and mutineering sailors, and travelled around the world twice. 80 Days is a smartphone game developed by Inkle based on the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. As Passpartout, ever-loyal valet to Phineas Fogg, you must choose the destinations and methods of completing Fogg’s wager

The game plays out as a choose-your-own-adventure. Text scrolls along the the screen and you are given an option. There is no way of telling which option is better, will lead to what. Instead, you select your response and more text fills in. Maybe it is simply teasing the captain of the West Africa Squadron for his admiration of the Captain of the airship you are flying on, or perhaps it is helping a ‘toymaker’ in Northern India rebel against the British. Whatever the stakes, there is a story to be told – and as you are directly affected in the achieving, or not, of your goal, then you care.

The script is excellent. Passpartout – you – are sufficiently world-weary and bitter to be amusing, and yet hold absolute loyalty to your master. The world is a Steampunk one, with airships and mechanical elephants and voodoo birds, but nonetheless is fully realised. It holds to the late 18th Century attitudes, quietly judges them and invites you to join in.

There’s other parts to the game to – money is made buying and selling things in the market, there is a health costfor Fogg associated with travelling, but these are sideshows. I’m here for the story, and boy what a story. Over 500,000 words of script, random, every changing, always exciting, For a commute, 80 Days is perfect. For a couple of quid, you’d be stupid not to buy it.


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Today

Well, this morning was a slap in the face.

I mean, seriously, Robin Williams? He’s a bundle of fun, a ball if energy, always bouncing from place to place, always over the top, centre of attention, awkward and erudite and blessed with being funny.

Then I thought about it a bit more, about why this morning I didn’t want to get up, why I spent my morning watching clips of Aladdin and his stand up and laughing and the crying and the laughing again. Robin Williams has always reminded me of me. Yes I’m not funny, but the rest? Me.

It’s hard to admit publicly sometimes that you’re scared of yourself. I was going to post today about Nine Worlds, about how much fun I had. About how included I felt, about how proud I was to have helped, in my own small way. About Macarenas and Sharknados and people who make me smile.

I’ll save that for tomorrow.

Often, if you see me and I act the fool, if I bounce around and am overloud and I underthink – it’s an act. It’s not a conscious act, but it’s an act. I’m fucking terrified of how people perceive me. I know I’m naturally socially stupid at time – I have aspergers, at least mildly. So I play it up. I dressed in a ridiculous Sharknado costume at nine worlds, at least in part to show off: when people responded I was ecstatic, but until I wore it, and people enjoyed it, I built it up beforehand to try and make the inevitable failure (in my head) more palatable. If people knew I was trying they wouldn’t judge, wouldn’t comment negatively.

I recognise this as one of the biggest parts of my depression. Fear. I want to write. I make no secret of it. I’m not bad at it, but I’m terrified of it, so I do it … pretty much never. I lie. I make up reasons why I haven’t done things, when the reality is I’m scared if failing, of being judged, of my personal fears becoming public fears becoming public condemnation. And then I’m caught out and I’ve made it worse.

I read my twitter stream this morning, and I saw a lot of discussion of depression. Bringing that up is fantastic. Something as terrible as suicide shouldn’t be the thing to do it.

I walked to the tube this morning, to go to work, and all I wanted to do was go back to bed and cry. I wrote this on my phone, between home and work, and had to stop twice, three times, as my eyesight blurred, and I had to control myself. I see a lot of myself in Robin Williams persona. I see the precipice I find myself walking along sometimes. I’m lucky. I have people who care. They don’t understand, often, but they care. When I’m feeling shit, I’ll take it out on them and slowly, slowly, I’ll come around to the root of it and the switch will flip and they will hold me or make me tea, or just let me rant and uglycry and it will make it a little bit better.

I don’t make any supposition on the cause of today’s news. I don’t think anyone can know. I’ve seen depression first hand in others – my mum, my best friend – and in myself. It’s a shit thing. Truly, unbearably shit. I scare myself thinking sometimes: not just the big what-if, but the small things like what I was talking about above. The social failures, the falsities, the days when I watch my empty email inbox and flip between it and the OCD spreadsheet I’ve got of all the jobs I’ve applied for since graduating, and think ‘What the fuck do I have to do, it must be me’ even as the rational voice tells me it’s just the market and the industry and Jesus Christ you’re doing a fucking internship right now someone must like you. Even then, when you find out it’s because someone in front of you dropped out you question yourself again, and again, and again, until you find yourself questioning whether your suitable capable worthy worth-fucking-while, and it expands from job to life itself and you just want to sit down and cry.

That’s jobs. I do the same with love, with friends, with the things I enjoy: refereeing, writing, reading, my friends, my girlfriend, those people at Nine Worlds who in my heart are my friends and I worry are not, am I doing enough here, there, am I annoying, am I overbearing, am I am I am I

And now I’m nearly at work. And I’ll put on my happy face. I’ll smile, crack bad jokes, ask too many questions, try too hard. I hope I’ll make people slightly happier. But inside? Inside will sometimes suck.


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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

So you know when you hear about a book, like, literally everywhere, and you’re, like, “OMG I have to get this, it must be amazing?” Yes, I’m look at you, The Miniaturist. There are two results off this. The first is that I get to read some historical fiction. I don’t mix well with historical fiction, unless it’s massively bigged up. Frankly, it’s because I know little-to-nothing about it. Hilary Mantel and Bernard Cornwall as a kid is the limit of my knowledge. And I know that Henry is going to dissolve the monasteries, damn it, and that the British win at Agincourt. However, because it’s massively bigged up, when it isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread, I’m so much more disappointed than I should be. I’ve read reviews calling Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist a masterpiece. Lest the hype be getting to you, rest assured, it’s not. But, I’m not being harsh, I promise. What The Miniaturist is is one of the best debuts I’ve read in recent years, and, what’s more, a really good entry into historical literature.

Like many good stories, we start with change: in this case, Petronella “Nella” Oortman, with a good name and no money, has become Petronella Brandt, married to a wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She enters his cold house, with his cold sister and strange servants: one a black man (black! He’s fascinating to Nella, so exotic, with his hair “like wool”) and the other a cocksure girl who’s perhaps a little too familiar. Brandt doesn’t touch her. Instead, he locks himself away with his maps and charts and sales, and Nella is left confused, lost in a world so different from her country life, without even the surety of sex and a child that she expects even as she fears it. Continue reading


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Holes at the Arcola Theatre

American band Explosions in the Sky’s second album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, had the unfortunate release date, given their name, of September 4th 2001. I imagine that buying that CD in shops a couple of weeks after release would have garnered you a lot of funny looks. Similarly, Holes, a new play at the Arcola Theatre, must be ruing its dates, and the quirks of fate around it.

I went to see Holes (of no relation to the book) a couple of Wednesdays ago (the 16th July). At a basic level, Holes follows the four survivors of a plane crash – suspected to be caused by either a bomb or being shot down – as they struggle to survive on a tropical island. MH17 came down the day after. The play is funny, extremely funny for the first act; Tom Basden’s script is a funny and biting satire of consumerism and popular culture. But, I can’t imagine myself laughing as hard, or taking as much pleasure in the first act, had I been to see it a day or two later. Yes, the plane crash framing device is both implausible and slightly hackneyed, but it works well for the small cast to attack consumer society. At one point, Gus (a resplendent Mathew Baynton) and Erin (Sharon Singh, in her first professional role), try and find what books are left on the island. They only find copies of Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars, and, oddly, Jamie’s Fifteen Minute Meals. A proliferation of reading has died, they are saying, and with it individuality. Continue reading

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