Saturday, 29 January 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Angry Robot Books: I feel like I’ve been living and breathing Angry Robot for the past few months, as I’ve just carried out a research project on their digital activities for my MA. Just when I thought I was ready to hand it in, they do something new. I could hardly keep up, which is, of course, exactly why I chose them. They’ve just introduced their ‘Ask the Robot’ feature (by my deadline too, thanks guys), which they’ve set up on a site called Formspring that I’ve only just learned about, but which now knows more about me than my closest friends (‘Can Formspring access all your personal details? Formspring LOVES birthdays, when’s yours and don't you think your Diet Coke dependency is getting out of hand?). Basically you can ask Angry Robot anything and they’ll answer it. All answers will also get copied to their Twitter feed, which cunningly means you’ll want to follow them there too. OK, so you get the odd ‘If a woodchuck could (and would) chuck wood, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck?’ question (‘2’, in case you were wondering). But also this offers the chance for readers to get under their robotic exterior and see how they’re wired. I have 4,500 garbled words and a pie chart that say quite, quite well. Incidentally, that's 4,500 words that would have benefited staggeringly from this feature. First post from user Disgruntled MA Student: 'Dear Angry Robot, why wasn't this feature in place a couple of months back when I needed it the most?'

Lauren Beukes: author of the amazing Moxyland and Zoo City, the Angry Robot writer has just been told by the Hugo Awards committee that she’s eligible for the 2011 Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Voting closes on March 26th and you can vote if you’re a Renovation member, or by joining. If you can afford the membership fee, or you’re already a proud card-carrying member, what are you waiting for? The awards will be presented at the Hugo Ceremony, at the annual World Science Fiction Convention (run by the World Science Fiction Society, who also sponsor the Hugos) on 17th – 21st August, in Reno, Nevada. There are 15 categories in total, not including the Campbell. Also, the award is shaped like a delightful rocket.

Orbit: I was quite distressed earlier as I couldn’t access their site. Am I addicted? *Drinks caffeine to calm nerves* Anyway, Orbit UK have just announced their acquisition of three new titles of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files (mentioned two posts in a row, it must be a record). The series' crazy-amazing mix of Urban Fantasy and crime noir (as Orbit dubs them) make for genuinely unique books, whilst still managing to contain the usual UF tropes. I’m not sure any cover artist’s work excites me quite as much as Chris McGrath’s designs for this series. Maybe it’s his addition of a stylish hat for the character of Harry Dresden (one he notoriously never dons in the text itself), but Orbit UK’s covers have always been a poorer comparison. Until now. As if they’ve noted my anguish, Orbit UK have melded McGrath’s designs for Penguin/Roc USA, with Little, Brown designer Peter Cotton’s and created these absolute beauties. The latest File, Ghost Story is due out July 26th, a whole four months later than normal. Still, the wait is always worth it. Side note: I am absolutely gutted that I missed their competition to win all of the new covers (and the books too, obviously). And I call myself a rabid fan.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Night Shade Books USA: have released a trailer for their new Urban Fantasy title God’s War by Kameron Hurley. Wiping their hands of the usual Urban Fantasy tropes (yet still dubbing God’s War an Urban Fantasy), they’re declaring this title to be absent of back tattoos, vampires, telepathic werewolves, moonlit heavy petting and tight leather pants. I find it extremely hard to believe that this can be an Urban Fantasy without the presence of clothing seldom seen out of soft porn.

Nothing to do with publishing but I love it anyway. Although, personally, this song could also be ‘I’m watching TV’, ‘I’m eating breakfast’ or ‘I’m reasonably tired’.

Gollancz: are promoting Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London at the moment and have posted this great interview with the author at Forbidden Planet on their Facebook page. It’s also their book of the month on their website. I’ve been hugely excited about this book since I saw it featured in The Bookseller a while back. Aaronovitch describes it as ‘magic cops’, with a dash of the Sweeny and Gaiman’s Neverwhere (LOVE). I have an oddly particular taste in Urban Fantasy and this ticks all the boxes for me: set in a city, preferably Chicago or London: TICK. The police are involved in investigating supernatural crimes: TICK. And keeping them quiet from the public: TICK. Magic is needed to solve murders: TICK. It involves wizards: TICK. Vampires: TICK. Gods: TICK. And, bonus ticks for the unexpected yet delightful addition of Londoners turning into violent mannequins: TICK. Incidentally, barring the mannequins (yet), this is the same checklist that Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files gets full marks in. I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve mentioned him.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I was excited about this Sci Fi debut and winner of five major international SF awards, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (that’s pronounced BATCH-i-ga-LOOP-ee, fact fans). So excited, in fact, that I prematurely placed it as one of my top 5 SFF books of 2010 (not actually published in 2010). I was a few chapters in at that point and was feeling optimistic, plus the book felt good and heavy and the frankly beautiful cover said it was ‘The Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel’ so all signs were pointing towards it being a winner.

It was released by Night Shade Books in the US and Orbit in the UK. I read Orbit’s paperback, published in December 2010, although in a burst of marketing-prowess, the publisher released the eBook shortly before the print version.

It’s set in 23rd century Thailand, in a world where Europe and America have succumbed to the calorie wars and ‘genehack’ plagues created by bioengineering companies, global warming has caused the oceans to rise and temperatures to soar and engineered seedbanks contain the world’s failing food supply. It’s Steampunk meets Science Fiction. Factories are powered by kink-springs, goods are flown over by dirigibles and cars are things of the past. Thailand is ruled by a child queen, but governed by two rival generals, Pracha, of the Environment Ministry, and Akkarat, of the Trade ministry.

The present tense narrative is split between several key players.

Anderson Lake is farang, an American who is working undercover in Thailand as the manager of a kink-spring factory, whose real purpose is to discover the whereabouts of the government’s seedbank on behalf of his employers, the calorie company AgriGen.

Hock Seng, one of the city’s unwelcome yellow cards - Chinese refugees and survivors of the horrific Malaysian purges - is employed by Lake and wants his factory blueprints, and, always, to survive another day.

Emiko is the eponymous character. Outlawed in Thailand, she’s a beautiful, genetically engineered Japanese windup who’s been designed to serve and obey but was abandoned in the city by her master. Emiko is now forced to work in the sex industry, spending her nights being repeatedly raped for other peoples’ pleasure, but also dreaming of escaping to the rumoured safe haven for ‘New People’.

Captain Jaidee and Lieutenant Kanya are White Shirts, vehemently enforcing the Environment Ministry’s brutal regime on all illegally sourced goods in the city. But Kanya’s loyalties aren’t what they seem.

Beginning with an enraged rampage from one of Lake’s factory megodonts – vast, genetically modified elephants – a domino effect of events occur within the confines of the city’s walls, inevitably leading to tumultuous consequences. Each of the main characters represents a division within the city of Krung Thep. Thai, Chinese, Japanese, the farang Westerners, the engineered windup. Each fraction hates the other with extreme prejudice and sweeping generalisations. This serves to both highlight the ridiculousness of racial intolerance and deprives you of a character you can emotionally invest in.

It’s an environmental social commentary. Man-made plagues have already wiped out much of the earth’s population and narrowed its food supplies, but still prejudices divide the remaining peoples so they are constantly at threat of turning on each other, when another plague or global warming-related disaster is always just around the corner.

Here’s why part of me is in awe of this book: it's unique, and brooding, and well-constructed. The present tense narrative has presumably been chosen to reveal the short-sightedness of the characters, as well as the uncertainty of their future as they all sit on the cusp of some cataclysmic event, waiting for monsoon season, waiting for an excuse to fight, waiting for another plague. They are living in a crucible of tension. The pace and tension are excellently built to the point where even the weather is against the characters, slowly bringing them to the boil amongst the nuances of political plotting. As a reader you feel like you’re watching a series of simmering pans to see which one boils over first. In the end it doesn’t matter, because Bacigalupi has engineered the narrative so expertly that it runs like clockwork, each part working against another towards the same grim conclusion.

And yet, despite my admiration for Bacigalupi’s talent, I can’t bring myself to love this book, because I couldn’t find any joy in it. The plot was excellently executed, but the characters left me cold. Each one has a necessarily dark past that is alluded to, but you still barely feel like you’ve scratched their surface. The characters are all products of their tragic lives, and their current situations are so dire it’s hard to gain any sense of hope, or really feel enough for one of them that you want them to survive their hardships. The only truly relatable character – again, this speaks volumes for Bacigalupi’s overriding message and gift – is the windup girl, Emiko, but her genes force her to go around in circles, never finding the escape she desires. Her rape scenes are harrowing – and even though they are a justifiable point in the plot, they resound through the text and set its bleak tone.

This is why I’m so torn over this book: I can see the writing talent and intent behind the desolate design - no one would want this future - but I also want to be able to root for at least one character, and instead as readers you’re constantly held at arm’s length.

The book is described as ‘hard science (fiction) and magical realism’ by io9, who absolutely loved it. Perhaps as a Fantasy fan, rather than a Sci Fi fan, I’m not the target audience. But Orbit are all for targeting ‘the widest possible readership’, it says so on their site. However, I clearly am of the ‘everything should be sunbeams and rainbows’ perspective, so I’d still encourage you to try this for yourself before accepting anyone else’s verdict, especially mine. I’d love to hear what you thought. Here's a free sample chapter. I do spoil you.


Friday, 14 January 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

I haven’t written a post for ages because of several factors. It was Christmas. I was in a food-induced stupor. It was my birthday (not particularly relevant but I was determined to eat my weight in tiny little cakes and it was very time consuming). A further food-induced stupor followed. My assignments were due in for my MA. I started a new job. So. After all of those excuses, I’m finally back behind the computer and fighting the food haze in order to fill a genteel black hole.

So what have I missed whilst preoccupied with cake?

i09: these guys, whoever they are, have released The Power List, filled with people who ‘rocked science fiction and fantasy in 2010’. These 20 listed individuals have been helping to cajole SFF out of its niche and into the glaring spotlight of the public eye, which is exactly what my dissertation is focussed on (or will be, one day). Even better, rather than simply striving to reach a mass market, they’ve only made the genre richer for the rest of us. Some of those involved in drumming up the geek chic in 2010 are: Steven Moffat who demonstrated that it was possible to do a worthy remake of Sherlock Holmes without resorting to Dick Van Dykian dialects. Oh, and pulled off a freaking ace new series of Doctor Who. Orbit author Paolo Bacigalupi (pronounced Batch-i-ga-loop-ee according to Paulo), whose novel The Windup Girl has won the Hugo and Nebula awards, is on there for proving that ‘hard SF can still be relevant and popular’. I’m experiencing a love-confusion relationship with it at the moment, as I’m not a major fan of SF (barring Douglas Adams, obviously), but it’s engaging and like nothing I’ve ever read before. Also the cover is gorgeous and, while this might sound odd, the book has a weighty feel to it that makes it so satisfying to hold and read. Also it smells great. Review to follow. Another score for Orbit as Publishing Director Tim Holman has been setting up the imprint’s New York branch. Even Sandra Bullock gets a nod for playing self-consciously kooky crossword writer (she wears red boots!) in All About Steve. No wait, for being in SFF movie Gravity directed by Alfonso Cuarón. After Steve she knows the only possible way is up. Head on over to i09 for the full list. Now.

Voyager: the blog has been a bit quiet over Christmas, but they did receive some honey off author Janny Wurts, which is nice. Also, I’m heading down there for a week at the beginning of February as part of my MA, something I’m a little (read: ridiculously) excited about. I really just wanted to share that.

Orbit: on the Orbit blog Robert Jackson Bennett (author of Mr Shivers, reviewed here) wrote this hugely interesting piece ‘On the Death of Geek Culture’, in response to Patton Oswalt’s ‘Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.’ The essence of the latter is Oswalt saying that everyone can be an expert (ie, a geek) on an aspect of niche culture so no one is. The niche has become the norm. Oswalt wants a return to the niche, pre internet, pre YouTube fan-bashing of classics, pre wiki-bloody-pedia (god, I love that thing). Bennett’s response is interesting because his arguably unique stance, as a Horror/thriller author, is that this would be a Bad Thing. Geek culture is cultural agoraphobia. It’s under the bed sheets with the torch and comic. It’s secular, insular and it’s well and truly down the rabbit hole. I can see both of their points. But Oswalt seems to want a return to a pre-nostalgia driven society so he can be, well, nostalgic (but original). And Bennett is suggesting that SFF and geek culture can be used as escapism, rather than a momentary retreat, which is a bit too dismissive of what is a wide-ranging passion for so many people. Or maybe I can’t agree with him because I don’t feel like I’m ‘trapped in a prison of artifice and quirk’, geek culture isn’t an excuse not to step out of my comfort zone because there is nothing comforting about reading a book with a dragon on the front of it in the middle of a crowd of commuters reading Hilary Mantel. Or maybe that's just my geek-shame speaking. Maybe it's time to push the boundaries and try something new. Like reading Science Fiction instead of purely Fantasy, that would be totally wild.

Angry Robot Books: ever the savvy publisher, this relative newbie in the SFF world is always ready to innovate and do things just differently enough to get noticed. For the entire month of March, the imprint will be accepting unsolicited manuscripts. They’ve hired a team of readers to wade through what will inevitably be an absolute mountain of novels composed of wannabes, no-hopers and, just maybe, a diamond in the rough that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day. Contain yourselves long enough to pen that bestseller/Angry Robot desk ornament.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

best of the best: top Fantasy books of 2010

Some of these books have not strictly been released in 2010 (read: were definitely not released in 2010 – Fantasy Book News, I’m looking at you with Brian Sanderson’s 2005 Elantris on the list), but I don’t make the rules so these are – loosely – what a (random) selection of SFF sites and bloggers have listed as their top five books of 2010 (regardless of whether they have actually been released in 2010). Following in the spirit of things (i.e. disregarding the publication date entirely), I have added my own ‘best science fiction and fantasy books of 2010 (not necessarily released in 2010)’ to the list. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the data to fit nicely into a chart (preferably pie), but here it is in startling boring tabular form. I’ve highlighted recurring books in the same colour, although none occur in the same position in more than one list, so as an experiment this probably failed. So here’s what we learn from an exercise that took a startling long time to carry out: favourite books are relative, Tor dominate USA-side, Orbit and Gollancz are pretty much equal (in a small selection of unrelated best-of lists, one of which I realised after is purely a nominee list but I decided to keep it in anyway for data analysis/padding), I’d like to read Stephen Donaldson’s Against All Things Ending by Gollancz as it looks fabulous and if you are going to colour code a table in order to highlight recurring themes it’s probably best not to do this in a table that already has colours in it. Enjoy!

Website 1 2 3 4 5 Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan (Orbit) Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks (Orbit) Against All Things Ending by Stephen Donaldson (Gollancz) The Ambassador's Mission by Trudi Canavan (Orbit) The Evolutionary Void by Peter F. Hamilton (MacMillan) Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris (Ace Books) Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan (Tor) Changes by Jim Butcher (Roc) Silver Borne by Patricia Briggs (Ace) Bullet by Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley)
Fantasy Book Critic Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks (Orbit) The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Viking) The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor) The Folding Knife by K. J. Parker (Orbit) Aurorarama Jean-Christophe Valtat (Melville House Publishing)
Publishers' Weekly The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum (Orbit) Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit) The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit) Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (Daw) A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter by Peter Straub (Pegasus Books)
Good Reads (Nominees - winners announced soon) The Way of Kings by Brian Sanderson (Gollancz) Kraken by China Miéville (Pan) The Black Prism by Brent Weeks (Orbit) The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett (Harper Voyager)
Kirkus Reviews The Bird of the River by Kage Baker (Tor) Bearers of the Black Staff by Terry Brooks (Orbit) Side Jobs by Jim Butcher (Orbit) The Palace of Impossible Dreams by Jennifer Fallon (Tor) Shadows in the Cave by Caleb Fox (Tor)
Fantasy Book News Lamentation by Ken Scholes (Tor) The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz/ Orbit USA) Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor) Daemon by Daniel Suarez (Quercus) Elantris by Brian Sanderson (Tor) Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker (Tor) The Passage by Justin Cronin (Orion UK) Planetary: Spacetime Archaeology by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday (DC Comics) Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz) Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett (Harper Voyager) The Way of Kings by Brian Sanderson (Gollancz) Spellwright by Blake Charlton (HarperVoyager) The Black Prism by Brent Weeks (Orbit) Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz/ Orbit USA)
Me Changes by Jim Butcher (Orbit) Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot Books) Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Corgi) The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobbs (HarperVoyager) The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit)