Monday, 1 September 2014

Guest Post | "Interconnection and Telling Myths" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

When Niall asked me to pick a blog topic and suggested, as one option, why I kept coming back to the mythological grounding of Scale-Bright and its related stories, I jumped at the chance: it seems like a perfect way to combine that particular subject and the more general one of writing interconnected short stories that share a world or characters.

I have it on good genre authority—mainly Rachel Swirsky and Niall Harrison—that interconnected short stories are far from uncommon; Aliette de Bodard is famous for it with her Xuya stories, which share a space opera universe best known for its sentient ship AIs and complex families, and the novella On a Red Station, Drifting in the same setting. We know Ann Leckie’s Radchaai mostly from Ancillary Justice, but there are also short stories like They Sink and Are Vanished Away’ and ‘Night’s Slow Poison’. Richard Parks has his Lord Yamada stories and the novel Yamada Monogatari. Lavie Tidhar has built up his Central Station over the years. E. Catherine Tobler has her Unreal Circus, Jason Sanford his Plague Birds while Mike Allen has phantasmagoria SF Hierophants stories and poetry. That’s just to name a handful! It seems to me that the drive to establish a sense of continuity is shared by many writers; sometimes we come up with a world, or a set of characters, we can’t entirely let go after just one story.

But another draw for me is that while reconfigurations of folktales and myths are plentiful, the type of what gets retold tends to be particular. Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and so on are the frequent choices. I wanted to pick a story outside that range. It’s far from obscure; the story of the archer Houyi and the legend of the White Snake are staples—but to some the fact that I gender-flipped Houyi can go entirely unnoticed! So it’s interesting to try this out, introducing tales that are new to some readers while being deeply familiar with others. I’ve observed that retellings tend to give sly nods to readers who know the original—through motif, iconic moments—and that’s part of the delight; I do it too, though I also like to think that I’ve drawn these stories in a manner that can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with them as well. And once I did one part of this, the rest demanded their turn. ‘Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon’ came first, focusing on Chang’e and Houyi; it led me to research Xihe, the mother of the suns Houyi (somewhat inconsiderately) brings down, and then I wanted to give her a story too—one mostly of my own invention, taking elements from the original material and reconfiguring them to varying degrees. I couldn’t stop there though; at the time I wanted to do so much more with these characters, but ran into the issue that Houyi and Chang’e had already finished their arc, if you will. They’d overcome most of their obstacles, achieved narrative closure, and it’s time to relegate them to secondary roles.

I needed a new character, a new focus, and a new story. Bringing all of this to our time seemed like a fine way to do it, and making the main character a many-times removed grandniece of Chang’e’s gives them a crucial family connection. Then I lit on the concept of tying it into a different myth—which offers its own (relatively) young, hot-headed figure in the Green Snake as foil to the young, uncertain woman I’ve made the lead of Scale-Bright. Things ballooned and before I knew it, I had in my hand an entire novella. It couldn’t be squeezed back into a short story anymore.

It’s not all smooth as this is not my culture, but I hope that I’ve put in thought and research, though if concerns are raised I would be more than happy to attend to them. Part of my goal was relentless fidelity in specific aspects. I never include glossaries in my work, as it’s important to me that words are understood through their contexts organically. The characters speak more than one Chinese—readers who know will recognize the markers around that. There are terms in the novella I leave untranslated and undefined, and while that might make the reading experience challenging to some, in that regard I’m of the Junot Díaz school of thought: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao comes without a glossary, so I like to think I’m safe, or at least in good company!

And it’s satisfying, as well, to fulfill the obligation to characters who’ve taken root in your head. To make them complete, while simultaneously sharing something you love—a body of myth that resonates with me, recast slightly in a way I hope will resonate with others too. That, to me, is one of the best things of this business: sharing what you care about, what matters to you, and writing from a place of joy.

***

Benjanun Sriduangkaew is "a writer of SF, F, and other things in the between" whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, GigaNotoSaurusTor.com and a number of anthologies such as Solaris Rising 3, Phantasm Japan and The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures. A 2014 Campbell Award finalist for Best New Writer, her debut novella Scale-Bright is out now from Immersion Press. Find out more about it and its author at A Bee Writes.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Book Review | The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs


In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it—from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.

In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

For Fisk and Shoe—two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other—their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky.

And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.

***

A grimdark fantasy about mercenaries protecting precious cargo as it's transported through treacherous territory, The Incorruptibles gives Red Country a run for its money, if not its funny, but what sets it apart from Joe Abercrombie's wild west diversion is its unexpected perspective.

Fisk and Shoe have been partners in crime for a lifetime. One is a pious man, the other "damned as surely as the sun rises." Why? Because "he loves the Hellfire. He loves his gun. He's a hard, unyielding man, with a long memory and impervious to regret. But there's kindness, too, under all that." (p.67) Sounds like an anti-hero to me!

Surprisingly, John Hornor Jacobs' new novel is more interested in the man of God—or rather Ia—than it is in the man of action I expected to find front and centre of the alt historical events The Incorruptibles documents.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Book Review | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami


Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance all of their names contained a colour. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning 'red pine', and Oumi, 'blue sea', while the girls' names were Shirane, 'white root', and Kurono, 'black field'. Tazaki was the only last name with no colour in it.

One day Tsukuru Tazaki's friends announced that they didn't want to see him, or talk to him, ever again.

Since that day Tsukuru has been floating through life, unable to form intimate connections with anyone. But then he meets Sara, who tells him that the time has come to find out what happened all those years ago.

***

"From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying." (p.1)

So begins Haruki Murkami's first novel since the bloat of the book many expected to be his magnum opus. Happily, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is essentially the inverse of IQ84. It's short and sweet where that last was extended in its dejection; gently suggestive rather than frustratingly overbearing; and though the ending is a bit of bait and switch, it's one which feels fitting, unlike IQ84's dubious denouement.

If you were worried, as I was, that Murakami may have had his day, then rest assured: his new novel represents a timely reminder of the reasons you fell for his fiction in the first place.

As with almost every book to bear the international bestseller's brand, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage immerses readers in the mindset of a single, emotionally crippled character; a man approaching middle age, in this case, whose major malfunction is made plain from the first page, as he reflects on his lowest moments:
There was an actual event that had led him to this place—this he knew all too well—but why should death have such a hold on him, enveloping him in its embrace for nearly half a year? Envelop—the word expressed it precisely. Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, Tsukuru had fallen into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void. (p.2)
But before this death, this darkness... life, and light. Light composed of the colours of his four best friends, with whom his life was intimately intertwined:
The two boys' last names were Akamatsu—which means 'red pine'—and Oumi—'blue sea'; the girls' family names were Shirane—'white root'—and Kurono—'black field'. Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this made his feel a little bit left out. (p.6) 
Not half as left out as he felt when, one day, they "announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn't dare ask." (p.3)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage takes place decades after this rejection.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Scotsman Abroad | Gone Goodreading

I'm sure this sounds counter-intuitive coming from a blogger, but social media and me, we... we have a somewhat strained relationship. It's true that I tweet; it's true, too, that that's been as much as I can manage—and sometimes, I'm crap at managing that. I'll either be tweeting all the time or not at all.

I'm just bad at balance.

Over the years, though, I've come to realise that community is crucial. Especially for a blogger based somewhere as out there—relative to the likes of London—as the boondocks of Scotland. So a week or so ago, an invite inspired me to give in to Goodreads. I signed up for an account, sent a few (hundred) friend requests and set about filling a bookshelf or two.


To my surprise, it's been a bunch of fun so far. I particularly enjoy having a place to put my immediate reactions to texts as they develop, and I figured a few of you might do too. So if you're interested in reading my ramblings about the books I'm reading right now—books you won't see reviews of on The Speculative Scotsman for some time, typically—feel free to friend me, folks: on Goodreads, or indeed on Twitter, Xbox Live, PSN, Steam and so on.

My username is always niallalot.

Perhaps one day I'll tell you why...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Book Review | Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre


The setting: a faded, lonely guesthouse on the Essex coast. Outside, it's dark, and very foggy. Inside there's no phone or internet reception, no connection with the outside world.

Enter Ariel Panek, a promising young academic en route from the USA to an important convention in Amsterdam. With his plane grounded by fog at Stanstead, he has been booked in for the night at the guesthouse. Discombobulated and jetlagged, he falls in with a family who appear to be commemorating an event.

But this is no ordinary celebration. And this is no ordinary family.

As evening becomes night, Panek realises that he has become caught in an insidious web of other people's secrets and lies, a Sartrian hell from which for him there may be no escape.

***

I haven't been so relieved to finish reading a novel in recent years than I was Breakfast with the Borgias

This from someone who's had to review some utter rubbish: books which tested my patience from the first page. Here, however, we have a completely different beast. Coming as it does from the Man Booker Prize winning author of Vernon God Little, it's no surprise that Breakfast with the Borgias is brilliantly written; that its themes are thoughtful, its execution deft; that its gregarious cast of characters come alive even as its slight story excites.

The trouble? The tension. It's almost intolerable. Especially in the first section, DBC Pierre's inaugural Hammer Horror is intensely stressful, like a bad blind date you can't escape.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Guest Post | "Om-Nom-Omnigenre" by Tom Pollock

"Oh really, how cool, you wrote a book?"

"Yes. Well, a trilogy actually."

"Oh cool, what genre is it?"

"YA. YA Urban Fantasy. YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia. YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia Post-Apocalypse."

"YA Urban...?"

"YA Urban Fantasy Dystopia Post-Apocalypse?"

"More or less."

At that point the conversation usually dries up. My interlocutor necks the rest of their wine, and suddenly remembers they have somewhere else important to be, but I swear it’s true. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy, my series about a teenaged graffiti artist and her poet best friend pulled into a world of runaway train ghosts, living reflections and crane fingered demolition gods, really is of all these genres, and maybe more.

Genre, you see, is a taxonomy, a periodic table for literature, but the truth is, almost all books are compounds, not individual elements. But while which genres to file a particular story under is ultimately up to the reader, it’s the writer who gets to choose the tropes they’ll use to judge it.

But how to choose? Tropes are just story elements—all that marks them out as special is the frequency with which we use them. For me, the first element in any story is the theme. Theme is just a fancy word for ‘what the story’s about,’ and my themes... they kind of snowballed.

The first thing I knew about the trilogy, you see, was that I wanted to tell a story about growing up, so YA made sense. The City’s Son was about two girls pulled into a magical world hidden beneath the skin of everyday London. This is an Urban Fantasy trope so tropey that it barely even registers—it’s practically definitional of the genre—but it’s also as neat a metaphor for one’s first, faltering steps into adulthood as I can think of: a world at once strange and familiar, exciting and frightening, that you’ve lived in every day of your life but never really seen until now.

In the second novel—The Glass Republic—our scarred protagonist is pulled into an aesthetic dictatorship, a parallel city inside reflections where the full measure of your worth is judged by your face, and the standards of beauty are set by a proud and ruthless Mirrorstocracy. Again, the core idea of a repressive regime is hardly original, but the resonance of a teen testing themselves against the rules and limits of their new world, and deciding how much they will shape those limits and how far they’ll allow them to shape them... for me that was the perfect second act.


And the final apocalyptic act? Bringing the world-that-is-London to the brink of destruction by an urban plague: streets running at 1000 degree fevers, windows and doors vanishing to leave citizens sealed up in brick, solid roads turning in an instant to a liquid so thin you can’t swim in it, just sink and let it fill your nostrils? 

All that is because when you’ve grown up—really grown up—you can never go home again.

Maybe that’s why I think of being grown-up (past tense) as a synonym for death.

Anyway, that’s how one series gets to be in (at least) four sub genres. So I’ll throw it over to you, dear internet friend, what’s your favourite genre: horror? Police procedural? Romance? And much more importantly—what do those genres say to you?

***

Inventor of monsters and hugger of bears, Tom Pollock writes fantasy, and writes about fantasy. Say hey to him on twitter @tomhpollock or by way of his website.