The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction Volume One Ed. O.D. Ekpeki
Reviewed by Fiona Moore
African science fiction, fantasy and related genres are currently experiencing a long-overdue rise in visibility to global audiences. This is reflected in the publication of the first Year’s Best collection from the continent and its diaspora. The contents of this volume are of sufficiently high quality and breadth to encourage one to hope that this will be the first of many.
Review from BSFA Review 16 - Download your copy here.
Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds
Reviewed by Ben Jeapes
Eighteen years since the last novel set directly in the Revelation Space storyline. Memories blur; you have vague ideas of what went before but that's all. This is fine because the narrator has deliberately buried his own memories and has to do a lot of recovering.
Twenty-Five to Life by R.W.W. Greene
(Angry Robot, 2021)
Reviewed by Phil Nicholls
The background to Twenty-Five to Life is standard cyberpunk fare: the environment is trashed, sea levels have risen and the weather fluctuates wildly. The US Government has traded the bulk of the Midwest with China to cancel a balance of trade deficit, Texas declared independence from the Union and large parts of the South are dedicated refugee camps.
Love. An Archaeology by Fabio Fernandes
(Luna Press, 2021)
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
There are several absolute stand out stories in Love. An Archaeology and not a single dud. This is simply a wonderful collection. The shortest stories, at a couple of pages, still have room to be playful, to deliver a central image and to leave the feeling that they are just the tip of the iceberg. At a greater length, Fernandes has a tendency to break up his narrative into smaller chunks, sometimes creating tension through the ordering of elements or simply leaving gaps for the reader to fill. Several stories begin by foreshadowing the death of the protagonist, whilst one has a rather dark murderer. Half of the longer stories are told in the first person, creating even more room for an unreliable narrator.
The Dreaming City (60th Anniversary Edition) by Michael Moorcock
(Jayde Design, 2021)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
In the June 1961 edition of Science Fantasy magazine a story appeared which would change the shape of modern fantasy. On the suggestion of the magazine’s editor John “Ted” Carnell, Moorcock, who had already submitted a few sf stories to him, wrote a fantasy tale “as far from Conan or hobbit holes as I could make it.” This was the first appearance of the doomed albino Elric and his hell-blade “Stormbringer”.
Artifact Space by Miles Cameron
This is a hefty book, published as a 568-page trade paperback. Cameron has written a mighty story to match this hardback-sized tome.
Orphan Marca Nbaro achieves her dream of enlisting as a midshipper on the greatship Athens through the use of forged papers. Once aboard the vast Athens, she experiences all the joys and perils of being a junior officer in the Directorate of Human Corporations fleet. While learning her duties it becomes clear that someone is destroying the DHC greatships. Nbaro must fight to escape the legacy of her past and the current dangers to the Athens.
Congratulations to all the winners.
Birds of Paradise by Oliver K. Langmead
(Titan Books, 2021)
Reviewed by Jamie Mollart
Adam, the first man, still walks the earth, having lived multiple lives and now he resides in a 21st century America that is oblivious to him. He’s a forgotten man, present at key moments in history, but pivotal in none. The animals of Eden have taken human form and Eve is nowhere to be seen. Parts of Eden are cropping up on Earth, and with the help of Magpie, Crow, Owl, Pig and Butterfly, he sets about retrieving them.
I began reading with a real sense of excitement, this is an awesome concept, which will draw inevitable comparison to Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’. It’s a big comparison to make and one only the very best of books will be able to live up to.
So, does Birds of Paradise?
Yes and no.
It’s a strange book, effectively two novels in one. One half is gentle and contemplative, a dreamlike consideration on the place of humankind on the planet and our relationship with nature. It’s considered, clever and crafted with beautifully poetic language.
The other half is a violent thriller as Adam and the animals make battle with a vicious millionaire for the lost Eden, and doesn’t work as well for me.
In many ways it’s a shame it’s compared to American Gods as it doesn’t have the emotional depth and complexity of Gaiman’s masterwork. It’s an interesting concept which ultimately is not played out in a completely satisfying way because of the dual nature of the plot. Reading it I got the sense he wanted to write something considered and slow burn but brought elements of heist and thriller in to liven the pace up, leaving the feeling of a longer book trimmed down.
Where it works it really works; the discussion on the human relationship with nature and our place in the world is wonderful, based as it is around ‘Genesis, 1:28: And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
But the road trip to find the missing parts of Eden lacks tension and character motivations; the animals, while conceptually strong, are too one dimensional and feel like a missed opportunity. This is exacerbated by a lack of real danger or a tangible enemy threat. On paper Sinclair should be a worthy adversary - a malicious old man who believes he is entitled to Eden because of his wealth and position - but despite all of his money, troops and hunting dogs, you never get the sense he could actually hurt Adam or the animals.
Where the novel really shines is in its ideas. There’s joyous invention at play here beyond the overall concept of the novel. Rook’s law firm called Corvid and Corvid; Magpie frittering away Rooks money; Butterly and Pig taking a barge holiday together; the greenhouse built by Sinclair, to house the stolen parts of Eden; the violence of Owl; the list could go on. This is a high concept novel bristling with ideas, and this is its strength.
On the flip side I struggled with is how unlikeable Adam is. He’s nasty, brutish and simple, which given he was the beginning of our horrible race may well be the point, but it makes it difficult to care about him. Eve being present would probably have softened his persona somewhat, but she is overly conspicuous from the novel, giving it a hard centre which is difficult to sympathise with.
Ultimately, I loved and was frustrated by this novel in equal measures. When I think back of it is with a sense of potentiality rather than actuality – in the same way Adam thinks of the race he sired.
Review from BSFA Review 15 - Download your copy here.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
(Pan Macmillan, 2021)
Reviewed by Anne F. Wilson
Jessamyn Teoh is a normal Malaysian Chinese American girl. Her parents don’t go on about spirits and ghosts (or “good brothers”). So it comes as a shock to her to find, on the eve of their departure for Penang, that she is being haunted by the ghost of her mother’s mother, Ah Ma.
Jess is nineteen and has lived for the whole of her life in the United States. A Harvard graduate, after seven months she still doesn’t have a job. Jess’s father is in remission from cancer and their finances are precarious, so they are going home to the relatives in Malaysia, where Jess’s father’s brother-in-law has arranged a job for him. Faute de mieux, Jess is going with them.
Jess, however, is resilient and she has plans. Her girlfriend, Sharanya, is preparing to study for a PhD in Singapore and all Jess has to do is find a job and follow her there. Unfortunately, Ah Ma also has plans, and they involve Jess.
In life, Ah Ma had been the medium of a Goddess, the eponymous Black Water Sister. Now the Goddess’s temple is being threatened by development and Jess is landed with the task of stopping this. Worse, the developer, Dato’Ng Chee Hin, the fifth richest man in Malaysia, is a samseng or gangster. Having made his billions, he is now acting like an honest businessman and has government connections, but he still has underworld resources to call on, gangs of thugs with parangs and guns.
The story bounces along as Jess tries to deal with her dead grandmother and the goddess whose medium she is. In Ah Ma the author has created an authentic character through use of her voice in Jess’s head – tough, disillusioned, bossy, with a smoker’s rasp. From Ah Ma Jess finds out about her family history and learns how to negotiate with gods and ghosts. Unfortunately, she finds herself unable to tell Sharanya about what is going on, which cripples their long-distance relationship. Ah Ma also discovers that Jess is gay, a thing that she has not been able to bring herself to tell her parents.
The charm of the novel lies in its Malaysian setting. The author was born and raised in Malaysia, and she translates the environment for the reader with energy and affection. She deftly uses dialect to draw the reader into the story. Jess’s aunt lives in a two-storey “bungalow” with marble floors and teak furniture. In the course of the novel Jess visits shophouses and food stalls, gentrified coffee shops, airconditioned high rise office buildings and (of course) temples as she tries to exorcise her spirits. Through Ah Ma’s memories we also see glimpses of the jungle and the rubber plantation where she scraped a living.
Jess’s relatives are entirely believable: curious, kind, voluble in Manglish (Malaysian English; Jess’s Hokkien is merely adequate, except when she is taken over by Ah Ma) and paying attention when it suits them. Manglish is an addictively economical language – after reading I found myself asking my husband “What time you want eat?” Family members are referred to by their relationships rather than their names – Kor Kor is father’s sister, her husband is Kor Tiao, Ah Ma is grandmother, Ah Ku is mother’s brother.
While this is delightful and charming, Cho also describes frightening violence, both when humans interact with gods and spirits, but also when Jess comes face to face with Dato’Ng’s thugs. The scene where she and Ah Ma confront him in his office is gripping and is followed by truly believable and frightening violence. With her own courage and self-reliance, Jess manages to find a satisfying resolution to her ghostly problems. Now all she has to do is sort out her personal life.
Future Crimes: Mysteries and Detection Through Time and Space Edited by Mike Ashley
(British Library Publishing, 2021)
Reviewed by L.J. Hurst
Future Crimes is editor Mike Ashley’s tenth collection in the Science Fiction Classics series, following others on Mars, space monsters and catastrophes. Half of the authors here were American, and the rest British, though the British had mostly to find American outlets for their work.
The volume is subtitled “Mysteries and Detection through Time and Space”, with the paradoxes of time-travel opening and closing the volume. It begins with Anthony Boucher’s “Elsewhen” (1943) and closes with Miriam Allen deFord’s “The Absolutely Perfect Murder” (1965). Both owe a lot to other genres, particularly stories of suspense. We know that a murder is going to take place, even though the probable murderer seems a crackpot with his claim to have invented a time machine, and his consequent obvious attempts at manipulating an alibi based on a known time. Boucher and deFord’s professionalism, of course, comes from their ability to let the biter be bit in very different ways.
The stories by the three best-known authors come from a later period than most of the others: Isaac Asimov’s “Mirror Image” (1972), P D James’ “Murder, 1986” (1970), and Anne McCaffrey’s “Apple” (1969). “Mirror Image” is a late robot story (Asimov’s second robot detective novel The Naked Sun had appeared as long before as 1956), which revolves around academic jealousy, and does not require a robot for its solution at all. It does, though, tie in with Asimov’s only straight detective novel, A Whiff of Death (1958), which gives a grim portrait of American universities of the time.
“Puzzle for Spacemen” (1955) by John Brunner, “Death of a Telepath” (1959) by George Chailey, and “Nonentity” (1955) by E.C. Tubb all feature deaths in the depths of space which have to be investigated as potential murder, and then in identifying a potential murderer. Though two were published before and the third after the launch of Sputnik one can feel the greyness of the ‘50s even while the authors imagined spacecraft crossing – or marooned in – vast interstellar distances. There is no sense of the optimism of the alleged new Elizabethan era in these stories. Ted Tubb’s “Nonentity” shares some themes with the classic “Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, while Mike Ashley compares “Death of a Telepath” to Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Oddly, the solution of John Brunner’s puzzle could be found in a pre-WW1 Dr Thorndyke detective story (both depend on analysing the constituents of dust particles). Reference to pre-war brings us to Jacques Futrelle’s “The Flying Eye”, first published in 1912, months after he had died on the Titanic. Futrelle is best known for his Professor SFX “Thinking Machine” Van Dusen stories, which are frequently reprinted in Rivals of Sherlock Holmes volumes, but Mike Ashley has discovered one of a new series begun by Futrelle, featuring Paul Darraq, who investigates physical anomalies. The story – which begins with an apparently near-invisible sky octopus dragging people into the ether – is resolved with a technical explanation of aerial invisibility (which the USAAF is likely still working on, though Futrelle credits his hosts at the British Admiralty) combined with an equally likely degree of military incompetence. Eric Frank Russell’s “Legwork” (1956) reworks Dragnet and other police procedurals of the period to hunt for an alien visitor casing the Earth for future exploitation.
Mike Ashley recommends The Measure of Malice, a Crime Classic anthology, as a partner to this volume, as it contains “scientific detective stories which have not dated”. There is always going to be an overlap between the development of science, as in these stories, and the development of logic which occurred in detective stories: I think he is right. With an interesting Introduction, and author details, and bibliography, Future Crimes shows that editor Ashley has done his legwork.
67, James St.
Stoke on Trent,