Review: The Shaman’s Appetites

The Shaman’s Appetites: The Works and Obscure Life of Uriah Bromley, ?-? by Graham C. Macallan

London: Faber and Faber, 488 pp., £16.00 (paper), pub. May 2019

It is one of the cruel turns of English literature that, despite the high reputation he still enjoys among scientists and connoisseurs of science fiction, Uriah Bromley is largely neglected by today’s reading public. In part, he is a victim of his own success: so many of his literary inventions, dazzling in the early nineteenth century, have passed into the world as scientific commonplaces or science fiction clichés, and the visionary, to modern eyes sated with wonder, may now feel derivative. But Bromley’s lack of renown can also be traced to the troubling mystery that precipitated his flight from England, losing him his home, friends, and livelihood. A genius can thrive in spite of scandal — witness Bromley’s contemporary Shelley — but he has to die tragically young to do it. He can’t just disappear, unpunished and unmourned.

This new biography of Bromley, the first since Mowbray Wolfe’s disturbing 1931 work The Fraughting Soul, contains no new revelations and can feel at times uninspired — a word no one would ever use for Bromley’s own oeuvre. But as a corrective to Wolfe’s bizarre phantasmagoria, it serves as a useful re-introduction to the works of the author most informed readers would consider the father of science fiction. Macallan, a professor of British literature at St. Andrews, hews to the known facts of Bromley’s life (such as they are) and undertakes a close analysis of his work, eschewing Wolfe’s mad drug-addled pilgrimages of the imagination for a more sober approach.

Nothing is known of Bromley’s family origins or early life. Contemporaries described him as being a stout man in his forties with strong, heavy-wristed arms and a protuberant belly. He had pale eyes and wore his receding, white-blond hair in a ponytail along with chops and a horseshoe moustache. The look was not eccentric for the time, though much else about Bromley was. His friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge described his accent as ‘Cheshire speech paved with pebbles’ — but Bromley knew even less than the average Englishman about Cheshire. Indeed, he often seemed to lack the most basic knowledge of everyday life: in an 1806 letter to the explorer and naturalist Joseph Banks, Coleridge describes watching Bromley, on a rare visit to the Coleridges in Keswick, fruitlessly attempt to brew tea — ‘At last it was necessary that he enlist Derwent [Coleridge’s six-year-old son] to help him, so completely harrow’d was he by the Tea-Kettle.’ (Coleridge ascribed this to Bromley’s dreaminess, which is a bit rich coming from the opium addict who wrote ‘Kubla Khan.’)

In regards to social class, Bromley was a difficult man to pin down. He struck those he met as intelligent and educated beyond what was then expected of the labouring class, but he was also clearly no gentleman: he had no Latin or Greek, key signifiers of a gentlemanly education at the time. (In her diary — about which more later — his housemaid Elisabeth Tallis writes of him sitting at his desk with a child’s Latin primer, mumbling earnestly.) What seemed most obvious to contemporaries was his nautical background. He bore several tattoos on his arms and chest, classing him beyond question as a man of the sea. Upon meeting him and discovering both his evident seafaring experience and his interest in science, Banks, in his role as President of the Royal Society, tried unsuccessfully to recruit him for one of the many exploratory voyages the Society regularly dispatched to the four corners of the world. Bromley was by this time the author of two novels, ‘scientific romances’ as they would later come to be known, that made him a literary sensation, and he proved understandably reluctant to leave the writing desk in his Surrey cottage for the years such an expedition would take.

Those novels, The Black Velocities and Hawkmoon, both published in 1806, were the first instances of what we would now call ‘space opera.’ Macallan deftly lays the background for these and others of Bromley’s works, sifting through his influences while providing the reader with a solid history of the age. In England, the Industrial Revolution was underway, expanding the promise and perils of technology; also underway were the Napoleonic wars, an epic, all-consuming conflict across land and sea that begged for portrayal on a wider canvas. News of exploration in Africa and the polar regions had captured the English imagination, while Gothic novels such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho were scandalising and enthralling the reading public with their dark undercurrents of lust, perversion, and supernatural obsession. The extent of these influences is easily seen in The Black Velocities, where Bromley portrays ‘iron-hulled star frigates’ battling in deep space, pistols and cannons that fire ‘phased light’, and cavalry careening through forests on electricity-powered jet mounts. Tyrants in sinister black armour lock young princesses up in oubliettes in interstellar ‘star keeps’ where hovering automata inject them with truth serums. Dark family secrets abound — unknown siblings, dubious parentage — and exotic mono-biome worlds are the norm: ice planets, desert planets, wooded moons.

Today it’s hard to credit how novel such elements were to readers of the time. There had been stories dealing with travel to other worlds — Voltaire’s ‘Micromégas’ for example–but the means were usually some sort of astral projection, and the end was often satire. Bromley’s intent was altogether different: he sought to kindle what has come to be known, at times disparagingly, as a ‘sense of wonder’ in his readers; he sought to evoke nothing less than the full splendour and mystery of the stars. His ambition was a timely one. It was, after all, only twenty-five years since the German expatriate William Herschel, living in Bath, had discovered the planet Uranus using his own home-made telescopes — the first discovery of a planet not visible to the naked eye. Herschel was at the time an avid believer in life on our own moon, having spotted what he believed were towns in the moon’s craters and forests in the Mare Humorum, possibly inspiring the forest moon in The Black Velocities.

Coleridge, among others, disagreed with Herschel, writing in his notebook of the 1790s of the ‘Moon at present uninhabited owing to its little or no atmosphere but may in Time — An atheistic Romance might be formed…’ Such debates likely contributed to Bromley’s second novel Hawkmoon; or, The Hood of the Austringer. Unlike The Black Velocities, which takes place in a distant galaxy in the distant past, the setting this time is our own solar system in the twenty-eighth century. Bromley’s heroine, the ‘astronette’ Keziah Ussington, leads the Jovian Confederacy in a war of liberation against the ‘Core Dominion’ (Venus, Mars and the Earth). In the aftermath Keziah, a sort of cross between George Washington and Mary Wollstonecraft, builds a new society on the rubble of the old:

‘There will be no place for Privilege now, but that all have it; no place for rank, or ownership of one’s fellow man. We have conquer’d Scarcity — so shall we conquer Inequity.’ As she spoke, Keziah laid her phase-rifle on the palace floor near where the green marmoreal slabs had fissured above the deep Abyss; at which act her Aureoton troop in their shining gold armour leapt forward to contrive a circle of bristling defense all ’round her. The Core Monarch, his visage grim as he sat upon the Throne of Eons, watch’d this living War-Halo surround Keziah but said nothing to counter her words. Even now from a spar of his battlements swung hungry the noose.

While we can see here another possible cause for Bromley’s modern lack of readers — the prose style of the time has not always aged well — there is a vigour and a fecundity of invention in his writing that would shame many modern SF authors. And the portrayal of Keziah Ussington is bold for its time: ambitious and resourceful and full of grit, she is a match for any man in the novel, and the world she seeks to build is truly radical in its anarchic, utopian vision. This utopian aspiration struck a chord with many intellectuals who had grown disillusioned when the promise of the French Revolution curdled into the Reign of Terror. William Godwin and Percy Shelley were both enamoured of the novel; Shelley, courting Godwin’s daughter Mary, would address her in letters as ‘My merciless Keziah.’

More stories and novels followed, and it can be shocking to scan them and see how essential Bromley was in creating science fiction as a genre. Having mastered the space opera, he moved on to other realms; he was a writer of many firsts, a ‘progenitor of the Fantastic‘ as Mary Shelley, no slouch herself, once called him:

  • ‘An Incident at Goswell Wood’ – the first alien abduction story
  • Noctis Equi – the first ‘zombie apocalypse’ story (Bromley calls them ‘the Unsouled’)
  • ‘Birds of a Scale’ – the first mention of the idea of genes and genetic engineering
  • The Somnium Variations – the first virtual reality story
  • Oberon’s Grief – the first tale of cybernetic organisms (‘Obots’)
  • ‘The Wreck of the Photius‘ – the first story to discuss black holes
  • ‘At Newton’s Throat’ – the story that predicted relativity’s time dilation effect
  • ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ – the first ‘time machine’ story

And he didn’t just create the genre of science fiction; with his passion for neologisms, he created much of our current scientific language as well. So much sheer terminology poured from his quill: black hole, gene, terraforming, nano, quantum, obot, software, wetware, hyperdrive, wormhole, technician, scientist, and spacetime, among a hundred others.

There were hints, though, of a darker side. Bromley’s last story is obviously problematic: ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ portrays a time traveller who uses his knowledge and advanced technology to create a prehistoric empire. All well and good; but Bromley’s time traveller, Dr. Hekataeos, conquers the Stone Age world with a vast army of suicidally fanatical pubescent girls. What starts out as a sort of Thermopylae as written by Lewis Carroll quickly becomes obsessively, pruriently detailed. As Macallan observes, Bromley was by this time clearly struggling with some sort of compulsion, and wisely chose not to publish the story in his lifetime. It remained unpublished until its inclusion, by Mowbray Wolfe, as an appendix to his biography The Fraughting Soul.

Perhaps ‘biography’ should be in quotes. The Fraughting Soul is, like its author, a strange and troubling piece of work. Mowbray Wolfe had compulsions of his own, and before his murder in a Buenos Aires garret in 1949 he had accrued an intercontinental dossier of offences and arrests fit to shock the most flamboyant social rebel. (That may sound like hyperbole, but this reviewer’s gag reflex is simply too robust to list Wolfe’s transgressions here; Wikipedia, in this instance, must suffice.) He was a true believer: an ardent utopianist of alternately fascist and anarchist convictions, depending on which mix of drugs he was addicted to on any given day, he pursued his vision of socio-pharmacological transcendence to its furthest, most perverse limits, eventually joining Jutta Pfeil-Holtmann’s ‘Aluf’ cult in the Peruvian rain forest and taking part in the Ucayali Horrors (the basis for Jean Arimao’s 1971 film Aux murènes).

So Wolfe was mad; he was also brilliant. He held much of Milton and Shelley, and all of Shakespeare, in his memory. His books on Shelley, Blake, and William Morris are classic examples of politically acute literary interpretation, and his exegesis of Uriah Bromley’s works is subtle, inspired, and free of cant. His conclusions about Bromley the man, however, simply don’t bear scrutiny. The last third of The Fraughting Soul degenerates into speculations drenched in demented paranoia — time travel experiments, condemned prisoners from the twenty-first century used as scientific guinea pigs, etc. As an imaginative work it’s fascinating, in a morbid way: the reader is obviously encountering the mind of a sick genius unfiltered (Wolfe was also heavily addicted to opium at this time). It can be no surprise that this strange, psychedelic book was published privately.

It’s inevitable that Macallan must wrest what he can from Wolfe’s bizarre text, however grudgingly. Even after almost a century of new bibliographic and research techniques there has been very little to add to our knowledge of Bromley’s life; unusually for the time, he left behind no letters or manuscripts, no diary, and of course no will. We know that during his productive period he never left England, rarely venturing more than five miles from the cottage at Farnham where altogether he wrote eight novels and nineteen short stories. And we know that when he wasn’t writing, he was usually fly fishing on the river Wey, often in the company of the pioneering chemist Humphry Davy — who, inspired by Bromley, would try his hand at science fiction as well.

It is really only in the writings of others, like Davy and Coleridge, that we get even a sketchy portrait. Normally not a talkative man, Bromley would open up in conversation under the influence of ‘the Bang and the dam Smack‘ as Coleridge called hashish and opium. He could thrill with his theories about planetary formation or steelmaking or bioluminescence. Discussing Herschel’s recent discovery of ‘calorific rays’ (infrared radiation) with Davy, Bromley speculated about the possibility of using such rays to, in Davy’s words, ‘detect and track anything one could imagine by the interval of their reflection — a flock of birds, a fleet of ships, &c. — even clouds and even electrical charges.’ Davy later credited Bromley’s theories as one of the inspirations for his and Faraday’s 1817 discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Naturally Macallan makes use of the most troubling document of all: the Tallis diary, discovered by Mowbray Wolfe in 1927 among the personal effects of a ‘Mr. H–‘ of Essex. As one would expect, there have been doubts about the diary’s authenticity — it was not unknown for a servant woman of the time to be literate but it was also not terribly common, and Wolfe’s refusal to reveal the name of the estate from which he procured the diary makes the task of tracing its provenance impossible.

Elisabeth Tallis, the daughter of a Farnham ironmonger, worked as Bromley’s housemaid from 1808 until his disappearance eleven years later. Her diary is a rather mundane affair (there is much anguish over a romance with a local stable-boy) until March of 1819, when she records Bromley ‘acting most strange’ following the disappearance of two Farnham children, Sally and Mary Wells. Previously a taciturn though kind man in her account, he now grew more and more agitated, keeping Tallis up late to attend to him as he sat before the parlor fire talking to himself in an anxious undertone. Then, in late March, he woke her up late one night to share with her what she described as ‘a spate of Ramblings that alarm’d me greatly’:

Mr. Bromley told me that he had travel’d farther than any man had ever travel’d before. He told me ‘You see these impulses were my Downfall but also my Salvation. They brought me here and they are the reason I’m here.’ When I asked him what impulses he meant and how they could have led him to Farnham and how they could be his Salvation he said that I was a ‘silly girl’ but that I had nothing to fear from him. I told him that indeed he had given me never [sic] no cause to fear him and had always been kind to me and a most generous employer. Then he said that there were ‘awful, terrible things’ he had done but those were in the past ‘or rather not the past‘ he said and seem’d set to weep right there in my small room. ‘I cannot deny that I have had these impulses but I would not imperil all I have now, I would not do it’ and he said he would always keep them in check. ‘I will not be lock’d up again’ he said as he left my room and afterward I sat in the darkness not knowing what to think and I still do not know.

This can of course be interpreted in many ways. Tallis herself links the change in Bromley’s manner to the children’s disappearance, and Wolfe seems willing to accept the connection. Given the content of ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ the disinterested observer could well wonder whether Bromley was guilty of something.

Anxious both for her position and her safety, Elisabeth Tallis revealed Bromley’s agitation to her sister and brother-in-law. This led to inquiries; then, on April 8, 1819, Bromley departed his Farnham cottage in the middle of the night, and never returned. He had withdrawn all his funds from his London bank a few days before. On his writing desk, he left open his edition of Shakespeare’s collected works at Act One of The Tempest, with the following passage hastily circled:

Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed and
The fraughting souls within her.

Macallan attempts to trace Bromley through passenger manifests or further writings in America or Europe; but, even now, his fate remains unknown.

Which brings us to Uriah Bromley’s legacy, here on the two-hundredth anniversary of his disappearance. There’s no question that his tales served as inspiration for scientists and engineers of the last two centuries. Davy and Faraday both credited him often, if discreetly, as did James Clerk Maxwell and George Sutton. In 1910, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the physicist Stanley Oakes-Ibbotson quoted in his journal the final line of the story ‘The Wreck of the Photius‘: ‘Poised there on the sprung bourne of a new Age, they wept in distress at what they had wrought.’

Macallan goes further — literally, crediting Bromley even with our expansion into the solar system: the colony on Mars; the outposts on the Jovian moons; the mission now en route to Saturn’s moon Titan. Even the startling discovery nine years ago of entanglement ‘signal-seeding’ by the unknown 51 Pegasi civilization can, in Macallan’s view, be ascribed, albeit indirectly, to the influence of Bromley’s works. It is a debatable conclusion; one can’t credit Bromley with the revolutions that were already afoot when he published his works. But it would be hard to argue with Professor Macallan’s larger point: it is long past time for Uriah Bromley to receive the wider recognition due him not only as a groundbreaking author of science fiction, but as a prophet of the coming age as well.

February Reading

The goal this year (well one of the goals, it’s not like it’s my only aim in life) is to reduce the number of books on my shelves that I haven’t read. Clearly this means I have to read more books than I buy, and so far I’m on the credit side. This year I’ve only bought three books, all at my buddy Tom’s independent bookstore Phinney Books: Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Neuromancer (which I already read twenty years ago, so it doesn’t count against me).

This all applies only to physical books. I’ve bought six e-books in 2015:

(It only just occurred to me now that, since Priest and Allan are partners, two of these purchases contribute to their household income.) E-books don’t stare at me accusingly from the bookshelves, so no matter how eager I am to get to some of these they might have to wait a while.

I did read a different Christopher Priest novel this month though: The Prestige. As a longtime fan of both Priest and the film version of the book, I suspected that I would find a way to be disappointed by this one, and I was right. prestigeTold mostly through the journals of two dueling magicians in the late Victorian age, with a framing device of a meeting between two of their descendents, the novel feels strangely arid. Priest’s books always have a certain reserve, but in the Dream Archipelago books that reserve reacts against the lush setting and passionate characters to create a powerful tension. In The Prestige the reserve feels sterile — the Victorian age is barely evoked and the relationships as portrayed feel arbitrary. It doesn’t help that it was the source material for a truly compelling film, with vivid performances and some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen.

The book’s last scenes are creepy and unsettling in a very satisfying way, though. In keeping with the structure of a magic trick (I can’t count the number of times my son and I have quoted the movie’s “Every magic trick consists of three parts…” speech at each other, pronouncing three as free in our crappiest Michael Caine impersonations) both book and film lead you to believe you’re experiencing one sort of story only to reveal a sort of surprise genre-shift in the last act. What’s interesting is that the book turns towards horror while the film swerves into science fiction.

Next up are a pair of books with a common subject but diverging approaches: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Andy Weir’s The Martian. red_marsI enjoyed Red Mars. Some of the characterization feels old-fashioned and maybe even a bit square (along with the names — Americans born in the 1990s with names like Frank, Phyllis and Gene? Really?) but the intrigues and challenges the colonists face are involving, and the intent to portray as realistically as possible humanity’s first interplanetary colonization is necessary and noble. Robinson really commits to his project here, and there’s enough narrative force to keep me interested in the prospect of reading the later two books of the trilogy.

The Martian succeeds in spite of itself. The characters are bland, the dialogue juvenile, and the protrayal of the Martian setting almost entirely non-existent. Really the story of how it got published (blog posts to e-book to national bestseller to upcoming film) feels like a major part of its charm. But I will say the climax is marvelous, a seat-of-the-pants can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong rescue attempt that’s compelling even though you’re pretty sure the guy’s going to get out all right. Also in its favor: my son, who’s more of a hard-science enthusiast than me, really loved it. But I don’t have a lot more to say about it.

I started David Grann’s The Lost City of Z but found it a bit thin, surprising given a) all the positive reviews it received, and b) the subject matter of lost civilizations and disappeared explorers. Grann’s weirdly dismissive summary of the Victorian Age was what finally led me to put the book down for good — I guess between this and The Prestige, poor depictions of the Victorian Age had me in a bit of a huff this month.

I burned through Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This was a breakout novel in 2013 about a woman who continually relives her life — honestly you’ve probably read about it everywhere else. life_after_lifeAgain and again while reading it I was reminded, in tone and feel, of William Boyd’s 2002 book Any Human Heart; and like that book it’s full of novelistic pleasures. The variations on Ursula’s early life are fluently done — they never feel onerously repetitive, and Atkinson finds ways to deepen our familiarity with the characters on each run-through, each time observing different events in Ursula’s life, or following events from a different character’s point of view. In particular the portrayal of Ursula’s marriage to Derek Oliphant, in one of her more harrowing lives, is fantastic. Derek-as-sudden-monster maybe feels a bit overdone — do we have to have him dump the poorly poached egg on Ursula’s head? — but the marriage is quickly, skillfully sketched and feels like a whole novel’s worth of story.

In the afterword, Atkinson states that “if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English…not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.” It’s a telling statement — the book is laced with clichés of Englishness, bluebells and buttercups and the Blitz, etc. Often it feels a bit derivative, as if Ursula were reliving scenes not from her own life but from various English novels. Here, for instance, is a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach:

Mr. Winton — Archibald — had set up his easel on the sand and was attempting to render a seascape in watery marine smears of blue and green…He thought he might try to put some figures in his painting, it would give a bit of life and “movement,” something his night-school teacher (he took an art class) had encouraged him to introduce into his work.

And here’s a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room:

Charles Steele in the Panama hat suspended his paint-brush…He struck the canvas a hasty violet-black dab. For the landscape needed it. It was too pale — greys flowing into lavenders, and one star or a white gull suspended just so — too pale as usual. The critics would say it was too pale, for he was an unknown man exhibiting obscurely, a favourite with his landladies’ children, wearing a cross on his watch chain, and much gratified if his landladies liked his pictures — which they often did.

The echoes begin to haunt the reader the way Ursula’s past lives haunt her, a literary déja vu. There’s also a bit of business about killing-Hitler-before-it’s-too-late that feels like a distraction — though it’s lovely to read that Ursula lives on Elisabethstrasse when she’s in Munich, a rather short street in the Schwabing neighborhood that we crossed all the time when we lived there.

Last was M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it’s a little opaque and obsessed with the fallenness of the world around us, its disrepair and dismal scuzz. course_of_the_heartHere, though, that fallenness serves the purpose of highlighting the Gnostic impulse at the heart of the story. The characters, having briefly accessed a higher (or at any rate, other) realm in a brief rite in their college days, suffer from the echoes of this act through the rest of their lives — echoes both supernatural and psychological. The narrator’s friends Lucas and Pam remain haunted, uncertain people, adrift amid the squalor of 1980s Northern England, while the narrator himself seems to escape the consequences until, well, he doesn’t.

I’d been eager to read this novel ever since I first encountered excerpts of it in Harrison’s story collection Things That Never Happen, and it didn’t disappoint. Harrison’s books have been a consistent joy in my reading life for the past two years — and I still have Viriconium out there waiting for me, equally promising and threatening, like the Pleroma in The Course of the Heart. Wonderful.

November Reading

A pretty typical reading month here, with some SF and some English Lit.

Some months seem like they go on forever — it feels like several months ago that I read Acceptance, the third and final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a solid ending to the series. VanderMeer maintains the story’s integrity throughout, providing enough sense of the source and scope of the Area X anomaly to satisfy the reader without waving his authorial arms around.

The trilogy could be about anything — write an intelligent-sounding sentence and it would probably sound like a viable thematic statement. acceptance“The unknowable future and the way it transforms how we see the past” — I just made that up on the fly but it seems credible and I could probably back it up with something from the text. This is not me faulting the trilogy for thematic nebulousness. A really good novel, a novel with depth, should be “about” a lot of things. VanderMeer touches on the shortcomings of the scientific method, the chasm between modern masculine vs. feminine approaches to the world, the limits of knowability, and human dissociation from nature. It’s possible I’m just riffing here but honestly all of this gets a look-in at some point.

The story itself loses some of its horror and intensity, however. Annihilation was a fleet, terrifying beast of a book, a truly unsettling reading experience. The second book, Authority, was different, a portrayal of men and women trying to get a handle on horror using the frankly inadequate tools of systems analysis and project management; and the streak of satire served as a really effective counterpoint to the disorienting immediacy of the first book. Acceptance, though, suffers a bit from loose-end-itis; its strongest line is the story of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper in pre-anomaly Area X who had previously been a minor off-stage character. The material about previously-explored characters — the psychologist/director, the biologist/Ghost Bird, Control — occasionally feels like it’s marking time. And VanderMeer’s style, crisp and evocative in the first two books, has started to calcify a bit by the time we reach Acceptance. What was vivid and haunting in Annihilation has hardened into mannerism; but VanderMeer is testing the limits of his talent here, almost certainly growing it in the process. No shame in that.

From the unsettling shores of Area X to some unsettling islands: I read a few stories from a collection of Christopher Priest’s “Dream Archipelago” stories. dream-archipelagoOf the six stories, I’d read three of them previously in the collection An Infinite Summer. The three new ones were all strong entries. The shortest and least satisfying was “The Equatorial Moment,” a vignette of military jet crews experiencing the time vortex that looms over the islands. The other two revisited two horror-infused elements of Priest’s The Islanders, with the return of the repulsive insect species known as the thryme in “The Cremation” and a journey back to the tower-haunted island of Seevl in “The Miraculous Cairn.” In each tale, the horror element serves to charge an intriguing story of sexual misunderstanding. Great, great additions to Priest’s ongoing project.

Next was the first volume of Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, Early Visions: 1772-1804. coleridgeColeridge has long been one of my cultural heroes, a troubled visionary whose poetic gifts were betrayed by his own internal weather. I would have liked a deeper dive into the fantasy/supernatural poetry here (most of Coleridge’s signature poems were written in the years covered by this volume, before he turned to criticism and the Biographia Literaria). Really only the conversational poems such as “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode” get what feels like a thorough treatment, while the more outré stuff like “Kubla Khan” and the Ancient Mariner get slighted — along with the incredibly influential “Christabel,” though possibly that will get more space in the second volume once it’s finally published in 1820.

In any case, I reckon Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner get plenty of attention elsewhere — John Livingston Lowes’s 1927 study The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination is a maniacally comprehensive and entertaining investigation into the reading and experiences that influenced those two poems. Holmes, meanwhile, does a fine job of portraying Coleridge the man in all his dreamy, mercurial imperfections.

Titus Andronicus is considered the least of Shakespeare’s plays, tituswidely derided for the almost Grand Guignol graphic violence: amid the rape and the murder and feeding of kids to their parents there are at least three hands chopped off (the image here is of Livinia, post-handectomy and -tonguectomy, from a 2006 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). I read it because I flipped open my Oxford Shakespeare and came across the “Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves/And set them upright at their dear friends’ door” speech from Aaron, the moor who serves as the villain. Nothing else in the play really matches that speech’s outlandish malevolence, but it’s still a fun read. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry for Titus Andronicus mentions a 1970 Finnish TV adaptation:

In 1970, Finnish TV channel Yle TV1 screened an adaptation of the play written and directed by Jukka Sipilä, starring Leo Lastumäki as Titus, Iris-Lilja Lassila as Tamora, Eugene Holman as Aaron and Maija Leino as Lavinia.

Eugene Holman! I’m assuming there weren’t two black Eugene Holmans in Finland in 1970, so presumably this is the same Eugene Holman who spent a few days introducing us American students to the Finnish language back in 1987. It’s hard to imagine the mild-mannered linguist taking on the role. Anyway, small world.

I read a few entries from a Penguin collection of Borges essays orlando(“Literary Pleasure” in particular was good) and the first fifty pages of Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones (which I lost interest in — I didn’t buy the Stone Age setting at all). And I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I’ve been meaning to read it for years; I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a sort of Bloomsbury/Highlander mash-up. So I was surprised to find it disappointing — the tone is too arch and the style too clotty for real pleasure in reading, at least until it reaches Woolf’s own era when her natural fluency of perception and detail returns. There’s a great moment of cognitive dissonance in this section:

Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying — but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.

What a lovely description of the SFnal impulse, and a great way to end the month’s reading.

Echopraxia and Emergence; or, Haunted by Slime Mold

Yesterday I finished reading Peter Watts’s Echopraxia which, along with his short “The Colonel,” expands the universe of his previous novel Blindsight (technically it’s a “sidequel,” not a sequel, to that novel). Like Blindsight, it’s a pretty great read, telling the story of Daniel Brüks, a baseline-human biologist pulled seemingly by chance into a journey toward the sun with a crew of hive-minders, a vampire, an army colonel, a socially challenged pilot, and a lot of psychological baggage.

A quick nitpick: Watts really overuses italics. He should really trust his own talent and not feel compelled to juice every few lines of dialogue or description with it:

He’s asleep?” Brüks looked back at the ceiling; Moore was spinning more quickly now, head out, legs spread in a V, the strap winding tighter between man and metal. In the next instant he was airborne again.

“Sure.” Lianna’s dreads bobbed gently in the wake of her nod. “What, you stay awake when you exercise? You don’t find it, um, boring?”

Strip out the italics, and that passage — and really every passage with italics in the book, aside from those with vessel names and thought excerpts — will feel more estranging, not less; and estrangement is certainly the goal here.

There are also a few missteps that are surprising from an actual biologist — he includes the line “Valerie waited, patient and empty, less than two meters from his jugular,” when it’s the carotid artery, not the jugular vein, that’s the scarily vulnerable blood vessel in the neck. This is the sort of detail Watts normally thrives on getting right so it’s a surprising flub.

Lastly, Watts misstates the nature of entropy, which always drives me crazy:

Life didn’t throw entropy into reverse — nothing did — but it put on the brakes, even as it spewed chaos out the other end.

Gah! This is the pop-culture misapprehension of entropy at its most flagrant. Taking low-entropy energy and spewing out high-entropy energy is not “putting the brakes” on entropy. It’s entropy! Entropy doing what entropy does! echopraxia-peter-watts-richard-andersonSaying that life is somehow edging around entropy’s strictly policed perimeter is just giving ammo to creationists.

I mention this stuff at the start here because everything else about the novel, from the fantastic Richard Anderson cover to the haunting, perfect, unexpected ending, is dynamite. Watts actually doubles down on his high-risk high-concept Pleistocene vampire conceit (see what I did there? See how annoying it is? God now I can’t stop) with the addition of scientifically created zombies of several flavors, and the result is tremendously unsettling. Watts takes his near-future setting seriously, and he always puts in the thought to figure out a scientifically plausible rationale for even the most outré ideas (and the reading time — the quantity of primary sources he references is always impressive, even when some of it is from the late 21st Century).

He also seems to be putting conscious effort into improving his literary style and his plotting. Some of the stories in Beyond the Rift were awkwardly written, but Blindsight saw a real improvement and Echopraxia has felicitous phrasing and just-right word choices on every page. Watts’s similes are often especially evocative: “Spacesuits hung there like flensed silver skins…” or “The bow of the ship began to topple, slow and majestic as a falling redwood” or:

He soared through an ocean of stars, dimensionless pinpoints: abstract, unchanging, unreal. One of them broke the rules as he watched, a pixel unfolding into higher dimensions like some quantum flower blooming in time-lapse.

This is fine writing. But what really draws readers to a Peter Watts novel is the diamond-hard SF concept work. Echopraxia, like Blindsight, is overflowing with bold speculations — this time about Darwinian competition, and the nature of the universe’s basic substrate, and the definition of intelligence, and spaceship design, and a dozen others tossed off just for the thrill of it, any one of which most SF writers would gladly build a whole novel around.

Watts’s ending this time is heaps stronger than the frenetic action piled up at the end of Blindsight. Here we get an eerie, deceptive détente between two species with no reason to trust each other, followed by another eerie détente between two species with no reason to trust each other, and it’s a powerfully unsettling resolution, fraught with horror.

Stray observations:

  • Looking over my review here, it’s a little unfairly front-loaded with nitpicks, mostly about italics. So I’ll say now, in italics and in boldface as well, this book is a fantastic read.
  • One of the most interesting, and ultimately horrifying, elements of the story is the slime mold-like substance discovered on a vast solar cell station by the crew of the Crown of Thorns (Watts still has a bit of a hang-up about religion, though the polemics are a bit more subtle here than in Beyond the Rift). As I said, I finished Echopraxia yesterday; today I started Steven Johnson’s book Emergence, a pop-sci exploration of the nature of emergent systems, and the introduction is all about slime molds. Watts gets into some emergence theory in his novel — the neurons not understanding the brain, that sort of thing — and it makes me wonder if he’s read Johnson’s book, which was published in 2001.
  • I mentioned that Richard Anderson’s cover is terrific, but so is the cover image for “The Colonel” at I really dig Anderson’s elusively sketchy illustration style.
  • Watts took part in a really enlightening Q&A over at Reddit’s SF Book Club, specifically about Echopraxia. Worth checking out, he seems like a gracious and funny guy.
  • Based on the description of the vampire Valerie, I feel pretty certain this Helmut Newton photo of Sigourney Weaver circa Alien 3 is a dead ringer (pun intended).


Mansfield and the Art of Reviewing

Katherine Mansfield’s perfect diagnosis of forgettable fiction:

Her standards hang on intangible qualities — strangeness, passion, a divergence from the worn path even at the expense of simple enjoyment. “Readable, yes, eminently readable,” she says of F. Brett Young’s The Young Physician –“readable to a fault. If only Mr. Young could forget the impatient public and let himself be carried away into places where he thinks they do not care to follow!” Hugh Walpole’s The Captives is faulted for that finest of distinctions: “we feel that it is determination rather than inspiration, strength of will rather than the artist’s compulsion, which has produced [it].”

Despite the cavalry/Calvary mix-up — one of my chief annoyances in life, really — this look at Mansfield’s book reviews is full of interesting insights, not just about Mansfield (whose Letters and Journals I’ve been dipping into for a few months now) but about book reviewing as well:

It can be a little bit staggering wandering through the book graveyard of this collection, encountering title after title that no living soul has ever heard of, much less read — Stephen McKenna’s Lady Lilith, Horace W. C. Newte’s The Extra Lady, J. C. Snaith’s The Adventurous LadyLady Trent’s Daughter, by Isabel Clarke, and those are just the ladies. Yet there’s a bracing reminder for the critic as well, that reviews are destined to be entombed alongside those books like so much pharaonic paraphernalia unless they save themselves by containing something brilliant or beautiful — unless they can stand alone as works of art.

It’s a worthwhile point (and incidentally Horace W.C. Newte is hands down the best name ever). One of several reasons I’ve been writing fewer reviews on this site is that I see what other bloggers can do when writing about a book, and I feel a bit inadequate. Why spend an afternoon crafting a review of Use of Weapons (which I just read, and had complicated but basically positive feelings about — Banks sure had a weakness for the pointless plot twist) when other writers delve so expertly into its virtues and faults?

I think there’s a distinction to be made between criticism on the one hand and reviews on the other. Certainly it’s not an airtight distinction; but generally criticism takes apart a book or film and looks at how it works: how its themes resonate, how effectively the style and content are integrated, problems of execution. Reviews, meanwhile, basically answer the question: “Is this book or film worth the time I would invest in it?” (Obviously, the distinction wouldn’t apply to the visual arts, since you invest no real time at looking at a painting or sculpture — “Don’t even commit five seconds to gazing upon William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World! It’s schlock!” — though certainly it could apply to an art exhibit, since there’s a time investment there).

I think the work of Nussbaum or Robinson would fall in the criticism column of my little rubric, whereas I’m not sure if I’m writing criticism or reviews. The questions I’m interested in are generally more about the book’s effect on the reader — either intellectual or emotional, though I tend to feel that that’s a false distinction. How does the book’s structure create a narrative resonance for the reader? Does the climax fit in stylistically with the rest of the book and spring naturally from the characters? Is the language fresh and evocative? What are the problems of execution? (Now that I’m writing this, I think both Nussbaum and Robinson, and a dozen others, do this as well. They’re all-rounders, I guess.)

ready-player-oneI recently read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I could imagine a critique that looks at the larger questions posed by this book’s existence, questions that weren’t the ones the author is necessarily interested in: questions about cheap nostalgia, fan wankery, the art of catering to the reader’s prejudices. Those are interesting questions and they certainly occurred to me while I was reading it. But what interested me more, what really engaged my critical faculties, was the question of the gormless lack of tension through the latter half of the narrative. Why did Cline whisk away Wade and his friends to the safety and comfort of the videogame magnate’s estate for the book’s climax, rather than ratchet up the tension? Why slacken the urgency? Why, after the wonderful, horrible turn of events that led to the destruction of Wade’s marvelously imagined RV-stack neighborhood, do we spend the rest of the book meandering from one silly plot token to the next?

These are worthwhile questions, but only insofar as they relate to the actual reading experience. Why do we read? Nostalgia is one reason — certainly it must be the reason Ready Player One was so popular, as the narrative itself is utterly artless (in both senses of the word, I suppose). But I read because I’m hoping for a complicated kind of enjoyment — not just nostalgia, or in-jokes, or “characters I like.” I’m not looking for, and am indeed usually uninterested in, a formal challenge à la Robbe-Grillet. What I really value is a sense, as the book goes on, that I’m being surprised, even skillfully and subtly manipulated, by the turn of the plot. I want the sense that my basic yearnings from actual life — that the evil be punished and the good prevail, that people act in sensible and comprehensible ways, that tensions resolve themselves — are being frustrated in some sort of paradoxically satisfying way that feels organically grown, rather than consciously jury-rigged for critical approval.

At this point I’m looking around quizzically wondering “Wait, where did this post start, again?” I realize I’m rambling a bit but I want to touch on one other reason I’m not reviewing much here. It’s related to another point Sacks makes in discussing Mansfield’s review work:

This is the truth so often ignored in the perpetual debate over the ethics of negative reviewing: Book reviews are a genre of literature. Just as you can’t dictate to novelists how likable they should make their characters or how happy their endings ought to be, you can’t insist on lip-service praise without consigning a reviewer to irrelevancy.

This is something I realized quite early on in this blog’s existence. In person, I can be quite scathing about books I think are bad (including one or two I’ve written myself). But I’m very reluctant to be too negative in print. It’s not just about books: I might be the only person on the internet who has never written something nasty to someone in a comments thread, even anonymously. I find it impossible — not because I’m a shining beacon of benevolence, because I’m emphatically not. I just have a hard time committing cruelty to print, possibly because it feels so insidiously effortless when you’re not doing it to someone’s face.

On this blog I’ve written two negative reviews — one on China Miéville’s Kraken, and one that was quicker and more ambivalent on Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief — and I had to grit my teeth to do it. I did it because it feels necessary to point out something that’s not worth someone’s while. I think Kraken is, by any standards, an awful book (Rajaniemi’s book had good qualities and I could certainly see where someone would like it, whereas someone enjoying and admiring Kraken seems frankly incomprehensible to me).

Again: this is bad

Again: this is bad

The thing is, though, me giving a negative review of Miéville is absolutely not going to hurt Miéville at all. Really, he’s going to be just fine. But when I recently read a favorably-reviewed debut SF novel that was epically awful, in a lot of ways that would’ve been interesting to write about, I just couldn’t do it. The author is young, and I would’ve felt shitty about putting such a negative assessment out there for Google to index.

And maybe there’s an element there of wanting to be liked — or, more accurately, not wanting to be disliked. I really admire Adam Roberts; I haven’t yet read any of his fiction, but his criticism is fearless, and the thought of writing the kind of brutal takedown he recently wrote of Ramez Naam’s Nexus, when he could in fact meet Naam at some point, seems crazy to me. That is the sort of socially awkward moment I devote a fair amount of time to avoiding.

So, given that I’m reluctant to write negative reviews, what is the point of writing them at all? There’s certainly value in pointing folks to works that are less well-known, like Maureen F. McHugh’s After the Apocalypse; so for now that’s my focus. Debut authors can’t use my negative reviews, and Iain Banks doesn’t need my on-balance positive review of Use of Weapons (even when he was alive he didn’t need it) but maybe a deserving author like McHugh will benefit from it.

Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago

An Infinite Summer was a fortuitous find at Twice Sold Tales. I knew there were collections of Christopher Priest’s stories floating around, of course, but I hadn’t got around to pursuing them, despite how much I admired his earlier books The Space Machine and A Dream of Wessex. Reading An Infinite Summer quickly led me to Priest’s 2011 novel The Islanders, just released last month in the US by Titan Books; I’ve been half-living in the Dream Archipelago ever since.

infinite-summerThere are five stories in the collection. “An Infinite Summer” and “Palely Loitering” both explore time travel. The title story follows a young man cast out of his own era in Edwardian England just when his dreams of happiness are about to be fulfilled, while “Palely Loitering” is a novella about a curiously retro future. Both of these stories are excellent and enjoyable; but the real attractions here are the three other pieces, all set in the Dream Archipelago.

A vast, world-girdling chain of tens of thousands of islands on a sort of shadow-Earth, bracketed by two warring nations at one pole and an icy, battle-scarred wasteland at the other, the Dream Archipelago is a conception Priest has been revisiting since the ’70s. As with most of his work, it’s a milieu that doesn’t quite claim a tight niche in fantasy or science fiction or slipstream or horror, though there are certainly elements of each.

One of the main things that distinguishes the Dream Archipelago from much modern SF and fantasy is its reluctance to engage in worldbuilding. It seems strange to claim that a book like The Islanders, expressly conceived as the exploration of an imaginary world, has disregarded the worldbuilding convention that so many genre readers crave. But for Priest a setting portrayed so coherently, adhering to a dogma that demands such close attention to internal consistency, would be airless and artless.

For example, we see him mirror contemporary technology throughout the stories — there are cars and planes and radio, and by the time he writes The Islanders there are drones and the internet and email and DNA profiling. But there are also anachronisms: writers who spill ink from inkjars and smoke cheroots, miniaturized surveillance bots. And there are lacunae: unknown regions, blank spots on the map (or, as Priest avers: “No maps are allowed. Not even to me.“).

The concept of a modern age of air travel and instant communication that still permits unexplored regions seems inconsistent; but like any great artist Priest will always sacrifice the consistent for the evocative. It is dream logic for a dream archipelago, and like dreams it may be inconsistent but also incredibly haunting.

So we get a piece of intense body horror like “Whores,” or an eerie tale of obsession like “The Watched,” or a lovely study of moral choice like “The Negation.” As Priest points out in his brief, charming introduction:

The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. I should like to issue a small warning here (knowing, as I do, what the stories are about): each story in the Dream Archipelago is entirely self-contained.

This is true, as far as it goes: any of these stories, and for that matter The Islanders, could be enjoyed without reading any of the others. But one of the many pleasures of reading The Islanders is the elliptical references to those earlier stories. While it’s a bit disappointing to find only passing mention of the island of Tumo or further exploration of the Qataari, for example (both featured in “The Watched”), Priest sketches in some historical context for the horrifying events of “Whores” and provides a melancholy resolution to “The Negation.”

islandersWritten in Priest’s usual lucid, measured style, The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer of selected islands, with longer stories interspersed throughout. The gazetteer entries allude to quirks of geography or custom, while the stories explore the mysteries and injustices and horrors of the islands, and the effects of the endless war in which the islanders do their best to stay neutral.

There are through-lines, of course, connecting threads woven through the novel: the dreaded thryme of Aubrac Grande, an insect species that inflicts a horrible, lingering death on anyone it infects; the unravelling of the mystery surrounding a performer’s murder on the remote island of Goorn; the intertwining lives and loves of artists like Dryd Bathurst and Jordenn Yo and writers like Chaster Kammeston and Moylita Kaine. There is a tale of intrigue as a woman working for a covert mapping agency on Meequa seeks to learn the fate of her lover on the mysterious neighboring island of Tremm. And there is a marvellously eerie novella, an expert blend of psychological horror and Cthulhuesque weirdness, set on the isles of Goorn and Seevl.

It’s these intrigues and unresolvable weirdnesses that prevent the world of the Dream Archipelago from collapsing to a mere analogue of our own world, and that make a persuasive case for uncertainty and mystery in a hyperconnected, Google-mapped age.

Stray observations:

  • The garish and surreal cover of my 1979 US edition of An Infinite Summer (see above) surely must have made Priest shudder, but it’s actually an accurate representation of elements from two unrelated stories in the collection.
  • Priest has a lovely essay on his site about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Guardian review of The Islanders, pointing out that she probably didn’t recognize that the character of the writer Moylita Kaine was in fact drawn from his brief acquaintance with Le Guin herself. He also mentions that Kaine’s novel The Affirmation (a title that Priest recycled for one of his other novels featuring the Dream Archipelago) as described in “The Negation,” is modelled on The Magus by John Fowles. The Magus is also clearly the inspiration for “The Watched” — it’s no surprise to learn that it’s one of Priest’s favorite books.
  • Halfway through writing this I realized I was listening to the soundtrack of The Prestige (which we re-watched last week). Must be Christopher Priest month here in the Smith household.

Review – “After the Apocalypse”

More great stuff from Small Beer Press. I ordered Maureen F. McHugh’s short story collection After the Apocalypse after reading the title story in a “Year’s Best SF” anthology. It’s one of those stories that uses its last lines to masterfully re-jigger the whole emotional structure of the story — not in any sort of trick-ending way, but just through solid, unflinching commitment to the portrayal of a certain kind of horrifying character.

With cover foxing baked right in!

With cover foxing baked right in!

McHugh’s stories are all set after hard times have fallen. There aren’t any actual apocalypses here, unless they’re the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper kind. Entropy is an over-used — and usually misused — concept when applied to societies (you could probably blame Pynchon) and McHugh doesn’t use it herself. But the stories here are mostly about what happens to a closed system that’s accustomed to exporting its chaos when that chaos gets harder to export. We can’t offshore our waste heat forever — inevitably, it will find its way back to us in the form of bird flu or spongiform encephalopathy or economic collapse.

Even before the societal trauma, McHugh’s protagonists are pretty much all hard luck cases, victims of a bad economy or a relationship gone wrong or simple class divisions. But what differentiates these stories from the typical New Yorker-type story of lower middle-class ennui is that, for the most part, the protagonists try to claw some sense of agency from their lives — even if that impulse leads them to destructive, or self-destructive, acts.

The included stories are:

“The Naturalist” — A convict in a zombie-plagued Cleveland used as an Escape from New York-type penitentiary city finds himself conducting fieldwork on the undead. Clever twist on zombies, and a great use of physical detail. McHugh does a good job making a sympathetic character out of someone committing monstrous acts.

“Special Economics” — A pair of young women, working indentured jobs at a biotech firm in Shanghai, use their gumption to try and find a way out of their servitude. The view of modern China felt refreshingly unpatronizing.

Useless Things” — The best story in the collection, to my mind. A woman living alone in New Mexico after massive economic collapse scrambles to keep her life from deteriorating. Nothing terribly shocking happens here but it’s a haunting story. Like Kij Johnson’s story “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” this one skillfully uses pet dogs as a means of raising the emotional stakes in a subtle way. Every relationship here felt real.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” — Written as a feature story in a newspaper, this one investigates a teenager who disappeared after dirty bombs were set off in Baltimore.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” — A collection of programmers try to figure out if the health-care software system they run is developing into an AI. Some really good characterization in this one.

“Going to France” — A magical-realist story of a woman who gives aid to some folks flying to France, and the brief jolt they give to her life. Somewhat slight, but still interesting.

“Honeymoon” — A woman leaves behind an annulled marriage in Lancaster, PA for a hospital job in Cleveland, where she takes part in a disastrous medical study. This one’s very reminiscent of the stories in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s collection Greasy Lake.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” — A resentful teenage girl deals with the deteriorating mind and messy relationships of her mother. Solid story — even more harrowing than the portrayal of spongiform encephalopathy is the (truly sympathetic) portrayal of a hoarder.

“After the Apocalypse” — A mother and daughter make their way north to Canada as the US falls into anarchy, sort of a negative exposure of McCarthy’s The Road. I’ll be curious to see how bad the moms in McHugh’s previous short story collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, are in comparison to the one portrayed here.

There really isn’t a dud here, which is rare for a collection of short stories.

Review – Beyond the Rift

The Canadian biologist and SF writer Peter Watts, in the somewhat sour and defensive afterword to his selection of short stories Beyond the Rift, comments ruefully on the terms he finds often applied to his work: dark, paranoid, dystopian. (Sour isn’t there yet although I guess I’ve just added it to the list.) But, as he points out, “There’s wonder here, too: a diaphanous life-form big enough to envelop a star; mermaids soaring through luminous nightscapes on the ocean floor; a misguided Thing whose evolutionary biology redeems Lamarck.”

The best stories in this selection are the ones that give scope to that sense of wonder. When Watts focuses on the near future, or the earthbound, or the topical, his characters are often one-dimensional ciphers; and there’s always an undercurrent of aggrieved resentment, of sour disappointment in how inevitably awful humanity’s behavior will be. beyond-the-riftBut when he gets out into deep space or deep water his stories, paradoxically, get a chance to breathe; taking time with the setting, and the mechanics of surviving in it, he lets his characters out from under his judgement, and once they’re free they consistently surprise the reader and themselves.

So the standouts here are the stories set in space (“The Island” and “Ambassador”) or in the undersea milieu of Watts’s Rifters trilogy (“Home” and his first published story, “A Niche”). I’d previously read the Hugo-winning “The Island,” about a mother-and-son team of wormhole builders who come upon an intelligent Dyson swarm, and found the downbeat ending to be a gratifying, surprising tonic. “The Ambassador” is less expansive but similar in tone, while “A Niche” is an expertly paced and constructed story, with the kind of ending that makes you laugh in delight at how well the author has set it up and how little you saw it coming.

The characters in these four stories are all edgily, uneasily posthuman, brutally bioengineered for the harsh environments they explore. Their existence is more or less a torment to them, sometimes due to neglect of the human sensibility trapped within the engineering and sometimes due simply to past trauma (there’s a substantial amount of past trauma in Watts’s work, often child abuse).

The Things,” meanwhile, possibly the best-known of the stories here, is a retelling of John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing from the alien’s point of view. It’s clever and enjoyable, a thorough exploration of a truly alien mindset. And it does a great job of making the alien sympathetic — but honestly don’t be fooled:


That is not a life-form you should be rooting for.

Other stories are less effective. Watts, the son of a Baptist minister, doesn’t like Christianity — in the afterword he calls it believing in “an invisible sky fairy who sends you to Space Disneyland when you die,” and the atheist clichés there give you a sense of his not-terribly-nuanced thinking on the subject. So “A Word for Heathens,” and “Hillcrest v. Velikovsky” spend some time on that. There’s a handful of stories that extrapolate modern technology to pretty modest results (“The Eyes of God,” “Mayfly,” “Flesh Made Word,” etc.). A different reader may get more from these ones than I did, as I tend to find this sort of story the most inessential sub-genre in SF.

“Nimbus” is about, uh, angry clouds.

These stories, as well as a few forgettable others, may spring from Watts’s frustration with modern humanity but they don’t play to his strengths. And I suspect he knows this: it’s probably not a coincidence that his novels take place in the same settings as his strongest short stories. So far, of the novels, I’ve only read the truly magnificent Blindsight, but the whilequel/sidequel Echopraxia, due to hit the shelves in August, is already one of my most anticipated reads of 2014; and based on “A Niche” I’m pretty eager to get to his Rifters trilogy.