Collection of Australian speculative fiction short stories
Last year I attended my first ever Conflux, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference. I was thrilled to present on three panels: From Paper to Screen, Sentient Flora and Fauna and Write What You Know. It was a great event and I got to see some incredible speakers including Shelley Parker-Chan. There was also a market which included a lot of secondhand books available, and this is one I picked up. I was looking for my next book in my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this was it.
“Encounters: an Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction” edited by Maxine McArthur and Donna Maree Hanson is a collection of 22 short stories ranging across science fiction, fantasy, horror and everything in between.
While overall the stories were pretty good, there were some standouts. Although I don’t often go for vampire stories, there was something about The Flatmate from Hell by Dirk Flintheart that was very enjoyable. Una, the One by Frankie Seymour was an interesting take on the question about whether or not it is ever possible to have environmental harmony with humans. Sleeping With Monsters by Michael Barry had quickfire twist after quickfire twist, challenging our assumptions at every turn. I also really liked Guarding the Mound by Kaaron Warren, which dealt with questions of legacy and the connection between past and future. Finally, I really liked Happy Faces for Happy Families by Gillian Polack which used time travel to unpack complex issues about childhood illness.
While there were quite a few stories I enjoyed, like any anthology, there are often going to be some that don’t resonate. I think that perhaps a clear theme might have made the anthology feel a bit more united. Also, there were a few moments where I had to remember that the book published in 2004, because some of the language, including around race, is a bit out of date.
An interesting and diverse collection of short stories.
Epic science fiction novel about faith, war and moral righteousness
Content warning: war, torture, abuse
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“The Genesis of Misery” by Neon Yang is a science fiction novel about Misery, a petty criminal from a backwater planet, who has found themselves in hot water again. Misery has the power to manipulate certain types of stones, but is all too aware that this means they will likely die of voidmadness like their mother did. In fact Misery has already begun hearing voices. However, when the voice starts giving more and more specific suggestions, Misery begins to listen and is catapulted from marauder to messiah. Misery’s abilities find themself immersed in an ideological war. Increasingly extremist, is Misery’s war truly righteous or have they become the villain?
This was a really interesting story with an incredible amount of character development. I think this book is a fascinating study on the progression of extremism and the corruptibility of people with power. At the beginning of the book, Misery is fiery, logical and caught up in the goal of escaping their troubled background. However, as she listens more to the voice and leans into her powers, her moral compass begins to shift towards a completely different direction. This is also a really compelling book on the morality of war, and Yang uses a really unique third person omniscient perspective. As a reader, you feel really immersed in Misery’s thoughts and in the beginning, you feel really aligned with Misery. With great subtlety and effectiveness, Yang makes us question our continued alliance with this protagonist. This book embeds the use of preferred pronouns, building on Yang’s previous work, and makes living your authentic self an unquestioned part of Misery’s society.
However, I think that at times the book struggled in terms of readibility. A lot of the worldbuilding felt like broad brushstrokes and apart from some of the nuance of the religious war, I came away from the book feeling like I didn’t have much of a sense of the setting whether it was planetside, in a spaceship or in a giant mecha.
A thought-provoking example of science fiction that didn’t always bring the reader along with it.
Award-winning science fiction novel about cross-cultural alien communication
Content warning: war, addiction, mental illness
I picked up a copy of this book many Lifeline Bookfairs ago for one very obvious reason: the book’s tinted edges. While possibly originally black, the edges have since faded to a purplish colour. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time and I was inspired to read it when it came up in the category of “7th most read genre in your all-time stats” of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge 2022.
“Embassytown” by China Mieville is a science fiction novel about a young woman called Avice who comes from the eponymous city on a planet at the edge of the known universe. The city serves as a trading post and protected place of diplomacy with the endemic alien species the Ariekei, referred to as the Hosts. After becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who manage to leave and travel through space, Avice returns to her childhood home with her partner: a passionate linguist who has a keen interest in the Hosts’ unique form of language. Diplomatic relations with the Hosts are conducted by a very select few humans called Ambassadors and while mutual understanding between humans and Ariekei is limited, Embassytown has enjoyed peace, stability and exchange of technologies for some time. That is, however, until a new Ambassador arrives from the Out.
This was an extremely clever and well-constructed novel and it is not a surprise in the slightest that it won a plethora of awards when it was published. Mieville’s premise is highly original and is an incredibly creative exploration of language, communication and diplomacy and how small misunderstandings can have catastrophic effects. Without giving too much away and detracting from the enjoyment of letting the reader’s understanding of the novel unfold, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding such as the expression of names as linguistic fractions, the buildings made from biomatter and the almost indecipherable concept of humans as similies that left me puzzling long after the book was over. Mieville leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the implications of Embassytown’s establishment and each decision thereafter, but manages to do so without ever being boring. In some way, as the reader, we are required to empathise with the difficulties in understanding another culture by initially being faced with an unfathomable society and gradually gaining understanding and context as the book progresses.
I think the only very slight disadvantage to this book is that while Mieville’s pacing is very carefully done so as not to either overwhelm or underwhelm the reader with information, some readers may feel the time it takes to find your fitting a bit too long.
An exceptionally intelligent piece of science fiction, I am really looking forward to reading more of Mieville’s work.
Speculative fiction novel about humanity’s skin changing colour
Content warning: racial violence
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“The Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid is a speculative fiction novel about a young white man called Anders. One morning, Anders wakes to find that his appearance is changed. He is no longer white. Confused and unsure what to do, he reaches out to his friend and lover Oona. As they slowly renegotiate their relationship, other people in society start experiencing changes in their appearance and skin colour until it becomes clear that society will never be the same again.
This was a deceptively simple book that explored race and racism in a novel way: what would happen if people who had lived their lives as white suddenly had to live their lives with a different racial appearance? Hamid uses a small but effective cast of characters to explore some of the subtle and not-so-subtle racist views that people harbour, and how those views must be grappled with in the new society he has created. Some of these issues play out in public displays of violence and conflict, while others play out in the privacy of family homes. Particularly effective were the interactions between Oona and her mother, whose refusal to accept the situation becomes untenable, and Anders and his father, who find a new understanding through this experience. However, I also thought that the otherwise banal setting of the gym where Anders works was where issues of discrimination, exploitation and tolerance were truly borne out.
I think the only thing that I found myself wanting was a bit more of an explanation of why this had happened. With a confidence that I can only admire, Hamid just sets the scene without any attempt to justify – scientifically or otherwise – what is causing people to change. I think I would have liked just the merest whiff of a theory to cling to.
A thought-provoking and original story that encourages the reader to really think about the social impacts of racism.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.
This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.
Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.
While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.
An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.
Fictional science fiction podcast set in a future where forests are memories
I recently moved house and I knew that a huge job was going to be getting the garden ready for the final inspection. In addition to running, I like to listen to podcasts when I’m gardening and I was in the mood for something outdoorsy. I was scrolling through different podcasts that were not too long, and I came across this one. I really enjoy radio plays and this one looked really interesting and unique.
“Forest 404” by Timothy X Atack is a fictional podcast set some centuries in the future about a young woman called Pan who works in a job sorting through sound recordings from the past. The recordings are from a time known as the Slow Times, before an event known as the Cataclysm that destroyed most of the data. Pan is very good at her job, and finds it easy to delete music and speeches and stories from another time to create valuable space for more data. However, one day Pan listens to a recording that changes everything. Something she has never heard before and something she cannot begin to fathom: a rainforest. Pan is mesmerised and listens to the recording over and over, but little does she know that making copies of the recording is not only illegal, it is extremely dangerous.
This was a really interesting project. There were 9 episodes of the story, 9 episodes of interviews with various experts about different scientific questions, and 9 different nature soundscapes. The story itself was really compelling. The voice actors were excellent and there was a palpable sense of tension and urgency. I really enjoyed the effortless diversity of this book as well, and the complexity of Pan’s relationship with Daria. However, the interviews and soundscapes were equally as engrossing. It was really relaxing listening to the soundscapes while working in the gardening, and because each episode is so short it never gets boring. The writing was really good, but the editing was also really good and the entire production was thoroughly immersive.
A really enjoyable podcast that is perfect for any sci-fi fans who enjoy the outdoors.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“Noor” by Nnedi Okorafor is an Africanfuturism science fiction novel about a young Igbo woman called AO who has a number of cybernetic augmentations to assist her due to her disabilities. AO works as a successful mechanic in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja however not everyone accepts her for who she is. When she retaliates after being harassed by a group of men in the market, she finds herself on the run. Joining forces with a young Fulani herdsman called DNA, they find themselves heading towards a perpetual sandstorm in the desert seeking refuge and answers. Between them, they discover a national conspiracy and the untapped abilities that are their only hope of stopping it.
This was a fast-paced book in a reimagined Nigera that examines pressing social issues through a science fiction lens. I really liked the way Okorafor handled the stigma surrounding disability, and the complex relationship AO has with her augmentations, where they came from and the cause of her disabilities. The book really tackles capitalism and the consequences of giving too many rights and too much power to corporations. AO is a really strong character with a streak of recklessness and a clear idea of what she wants. I thought DNA, with his softer yet still courageous personality, was a good counterpoint.
There were some rather surreal moments in the book, such as when AO and DNA met a white yogi in the middle of a sandstorm. I will be honest and say that I think there were a lot of commentaries about Nigerian society and politics that I did not have the background to fully appreciate, especially the herder-farmer conflicts. I think that Okorafor was nevertheless generous enough with her writing to help any reader understand the broad factors at play.
A multifaceted story at breakneck speed that tackles critical social issues through creative technology.
One of my favourite science fiction books is by this author, and I really like the design of this set. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get the price tag off the front cover which has spoiled the effect somewhat. I was going through my to-read shelf back in December looking for books for my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this one looked ideal. Although I’m familiar with the premise, it has inspired plenty of adaptations and other media, I hadn’t read this one before.
“The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham is a science fiction novel about a small English village called Midwich. One day, an invisible line encircles the town and everyone within it or who crosses it falls asleep. The next day, everyone wakes up more or less unharmed, except that all the women are pregnant. When they give birth, all the children are strangely similar with light blonde hair and golden eyes. As they grow up at an accelerated rate, the people in the village start to notice some even more unusual traits. With secret government organisations taking an interest, and increasingly serious incidents happening, questions begin to be asked not just about what to do about Midwich, but what to do about humanity.
This was a really interesting book that had an understated, very British, almost bureaucratic tone. A lot of the book is made up of conversations between different people in the town, especially between a young man called Richard and a well-known local author Gordon Zellaby. Richard is charged by a secretive Colonel to keep an eye on the situation, and over the years Richard reports what he sees. This narrative style creates room for a lot of subtle exploration of social issues such as motherhood, abortion and what it means to be human. I was surprised at how well the book has held up over time, and I also liked that despite being set in the UK, the book didn’t have a Western-centric perspective and considered the Earth as a whole which many science fiction books fail to do.
Although I understand why Wyndham chose this narrative style, at times it did feel like the pace was impeded and the text was very conversation heavy. However, the slow burn does lead to an explosive ending.
Classic science fiction novel about politics, scarcity and terraforming
Everyone is talking about this book at the moment because it has just been adapted into a film. I picked up a copy not long ago, and added it to my list of books to read before I see the adaptation. The film has just been released in Australia this month, so I decided to try to read it in time to be able to go (pandemic allowing, of course) and see it in cinemas.
“Dune” by Frank Herbert is a science fiction novel about a teenage boy called Paul who is the son of Duke Atreides and his Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica, who some consider a witch. When the Duke becomes steward of the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the whole House moves to this harsh new place that is lacking in water but wealthy in an addictive substance necessary for space navigation known colloquially as “spice”. However, being granted stewardship over Arrakis is not the boon it appears to be. The previous rulers, the Harkonnens, plan to overthrow the Duke and his House as a step towards a much bigger conspiracy for power. However, after undergoing a test with a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, Paul’s destiny suddenly appears to be much greater than inheriting his father’s title.
This is science fiction in its truest sense: imagining humanity in a different space and time and pushing people to their limits. The world-building is exceptional with thousands of years of history encompassing the rise and fall of religions, the rise and fall of artificial intelligence (AI) and waves of human migration through the known universe. Herbert weaves the impact of each of these factors into present day Dune and the complexities of cultures, factions and schools form the basis of Paul’s journey towards leadership. For the reader who gets a little lost in all the information, there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book that explains things in even more detail. I think one of my favourite parts of the book were the practicalities of having to survive on such a dry planet and how that informs the behaviour and beliefs of the local Freman people in every aspect of their lives from the clothes that they were to how they handle the bodies of the dead. Herbert draws considerably from Islamic influences when writing about Fremen culture, and there has been plenty of interesting discussion about the depth of this engagement and what has been lost in the adaptation. I also really liked Herbert’s ideas about terraforming and how a planet’s natural resources and ecosystems can be learned and exploited to create a habitat better suited to support humans.
However, good ideas does not a book make. This was a really difficult book to read from a narrative point of view. Instead of chapters, the book is split up in to sections separated by quotes ostensibly from a character in the future who is writing the history of Paul’s life on Arrakis. While these were quite good goalposts when decided how long to read for, this book just took so long to get through that I found I was just reading one small section at a time before putting it aside. Herbert’s approach to plotting was to build up and build up an event, imbuing it with lots of tension, and then have Paul effortlessly overcome the obstacle without any difficulty which was not very satisfying.
Many of the minor characters were difficult to distinguish from one another and to me they served more as chess pieces with idiosyncratic appearances rather than individualised people. I thought Hawat (master assassin) and Halleck (master of arms) were the same person (they weren’t). I also got confused between Hawat and Yueh (doctor). Duncan Idaho (swordmaster) disappeared and then reappeared confusingly later on without much explanation, and the one character who I really wanted to learn more about was Liet-Kynes, the planetologist, who was not around for nearly long enough. I did really like Jessica, and it was an interesting dynamic having a teen boy coming into his power being mentored by his mother, but her relevance seemed to fade towards the second half of the book. Herbert did not really dwell much on the trauma that loss and war had on his characters, and apart from Paul’s maturation into an adult, there wasn’t a great deal of character development.
This was a difficult and frustrating book with a fully-realised universe that contemplates everything from politics to culture to economics to ecology. There are many more books in this series and I do not intend to read any of them, but I think I would like to see whether the film adaptation can draw out some more story.
Surreal novel about human evolution and Korean society
Content warning: fatphobia
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert is a surreal novel about a young man called Mr Kong who works in a dull office job in Korea. One day, out of boredom, he discovers a locked cabinet and when he finally manages to unlock it becomes obsessed with reading the files of people with strange bodies and abilities known as “symptomers”. As Mr Kong becomes more and more involved in their difficult and sometimes annoying lives, he must decide what his ethical obligations are for this possible new species of human.
As I have mentioned on here previously, I am always very interested in biopunk and books that examine the possibilities of genetics and human evolution. Mr Kong spends a considerable amount of time musing on how the symptomers represent the next dominant species and one that will overtake humanity as we know it. I enjoyed the individual vignettes of the individuals who contact him, and Mr Kong’s rather exasperated role as a sort of social worker for these people trying to help solve their impossible situations. I felt that the writing (including Halbert’s translation) was very smooth and captured a sense of corporate absurdism which was both amusing and eminently relatable. I enjoyed Mr Kong’s character development, especially in relation to his ostracised colleague and examining fatphobia and neurodiversity in Korean society and workplaces.
I think where things fell down a bit for me was a lack of internal logic within Kim’s worldbuilding. While individually the case studies of symptomers were interesting, such as the man with a gingko tree growing out of his finger and a people who would disappear and reappear much later into the future, Kim’s explanations for how genetics could cause these things to happen were all but absent. He hints at experimental interference, but I guess for someone who is a bit of a science fiction aficionado, I think I was looking for at least a little bit of effort towards an explanation. Even something as convenient as a “chrono-impairment” genetic disorder or having a new X-gene. I appreciate that this book is less science fiction and more surrealism and social commentary, but I think a bit more consistency to try to link how someone with a lizard in their mouth could possibly be connected with someone who sleeps for years at a time would have helped. I think that ultimately it read more like a collection of short stories tied loosely together by Mr Kong’s observations about corporate culture and inclusivity, and thus lacked cohesion.
A creative and thought-provoking novel that was enjoyable to read even if it at times felt disjointed.