“We suppose she is dead, though none of us can be sure. She is not here, though she is not there, either, so far as anyone can tell. What transpired that awful autumn on those far Venusian shores? What happened to her? Did she share the horrid fate of the ruined village, the very one she sought to uncover and explain? We cannot know. We know only that we will see her no more, and that, my loyal readers, must break every heart in two.”
Severin is the adored only daughter of the famous movie director Percival Unck, who has inherited his love film. It’s the early 20th Century Jazz Age, the golden age of moviemaking, but whereas her father’s style is to tell stories with artifice and melodrama, Severin prefers a pared-back, literal style of documentary. But this story is set in an alternate solar system where all the planets are inhabited and full of strange fauna, Hollywood is based on the moon, and diving colony on Venus has just disappeared in a cataclysmic event. Severin sets out with her crew to make a documentary about it, and never returns.
What’s the world like, the world that I’m missing? Do stars still cluster in the bare branches of trees? Are my little bots still dead in the desert? Or, as I sometimes dream during endless lights-out, have they escaped and gathered their forces? I see them when I can’t fall asleep: millions upon millions of beautiful babies, marching out of the desert, coming to take vengeance for having been banished.
It’s a fantasy, of course. Those bots aren’t coming back. They won’t rescue me from this prison. This is my world now, ringed with barbed wire.
Speak is presented as a collection of documents: letters from Alan Turing; the diaries of young Puritan colonist Mary Bradford; letters from AI pioneer Karl Dettman to his estranged wife; the prison journal of programmer Stephen Chinn (excerpted above). Together, these words form the core memories of MARY3, a chatbot program whose algorithm has been outlawed for being too human. The narrative is framed by a few pages of MARY3’s own words, her reflections as her robotic body is carted into the desert, there to be abandoned until her batteries die.
A late entry but The Power has shot into the top spot in my favourite books of the year.
Wow! What a treat! I’ve been flicking through the pages and can’t wait to dive in. I see you’ve included some scenes with male soldiers, male police officers and ‘boy crime gangs’, just as you said you would, you saucy boy! I don’t have to tell you how much I enjoy that sort of thing. I’m sure you remember. I’m practically on the edge of my seat.
Anyway! Looking forward to this! I think I’d rather enjoy this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about. Surely a kinder, more caring, and — dare I say it? — more sexy world than the one we live in.
One day, soon, teenage girls develop the ability to fire electricity from their hands, and the world changes overnight. We follow four characters trying to make sense of this new world: Roxy, the daughter of a London crime family; Tunde, a young boy who becomes a YouTube journalist documenting the phenomenon; Margot, a politician who works out how to use the situation to her advantage; and finally Allie, who can control her power better than anyone and who, as Mother Eve, will use it to forge a new religion for their age.
I was waiting in the wings backstage at the Menagerie Hotel and Casino, preparing the equipment or my first stage illusion. Straitjacket, check. Oversized timer and mood music speakers, check. And — most important — transparent coffin, check. As I lay straitjacketed inside it, I’d press a button that would expel all the air in the coffin with a dramatic puff for my audience’s benefit, and then I’d pull off a daring escape.
The coffin might sound morbid, but I wasn’t planning to die in it. I was planning to live.
Forget college or a normal future. I wanted to be a magician: The Miraculous Moira.
Moira Mitchell has only ever wanted one thing: to follow in her father’s footsteps as a stage illusionist. Far from being supportive of her dreams, however, her dad discourages and eventually forbids her from studying magic, insisting that his community is no place for a woman. Determined to make a name for herself regardless, Moira trains in secret, developing ever more daring escapes, and eventually running away to audition for a role with a travelling circus.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“Saffron,” she said, clearly surprised by the question. “Saffron Coulter.”
“Well, Saffron Coulter, let me give you some unsolicited advice,” said Gwen, because having already come this far, she might as well go that little bit further — then faltered at the realisation that there wasn’t much she could say. She didn’t know what else was going on in Saffron’s life, and the boy’s harassment of her wasn’t going to stop just because Gwen had literally twisted his arm. What could she possibly say that might make a difference?
“Yeah?” said Saffron, expectantly. “What?”
Gwen sighed. “Life is hard. Some days we get our asses kicked, but apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know. Keep fighting.”
It was, Gwen thought, a shitty speech — Pix would probably laugh until she cried — but the girl, Saffron, lit up as though she’d never heard anything better.
“Thank you,” she said again — quieter than before, but also stronger.
Teenager Saffron Coulter is at the end of her patience. A persistent victim of constant sexual harassment at her indifferent school, she would love a way out, if only she could find one. So when, by chance, she meets Gwen Vere, a rare adult who sees her predicament and acknowledges that it’s wrong, she’s desperate to talk to her more. Unfortunately, Gwen happens to be a worldwalker, in the process of entering a portal to another world when Saffron finally finds her again. In a split-second decision, Saffron follows her.
Series note: Bessie Bell and the Goblin King is the third Aylfenhame novel, but although the stories are intertwined, and it was nice to see that some well established characters have a role to play here, these are books that work equally well out of sequence.
Horses loomed abruptly out of the mist: a matched pair, black as night. Bess tensed, her heart pounding wildly as the equipage barrelled down upon her. The horses snorted and neighed in surprise at finding an obstacle in their path, and one of them shied. Bess heard a male voice cursing. She waited until the last possible instant before leaping aside, heart palpitating with terror — and hope, that her foolish gambit had been enough.
For a moment it looked as though the carriage would not stop, and Bess’s spirits sank. It bowled on, sweeping past her in a flurry of wind and the scent of sweating horse, and was swallowed up by the
mist once more.
But the sound of hoofbeats slowed, and then stopped abruptly. It was not the gradual fading of the horses disappearing into the fog, and Bess’s hopes rose again. She clutched a shaking Derritharn to herself and stepped back into the road, hurrying after the coach.
When she grew nearer to the vehicle, she was able to see at once that it was not a mail-coach after all, nor anything nearly so large — or so promising. It was a gentleman’s carriage, the kind that seated but one or two, and the driver was the sole occupant. Oddly, there was no sign of the lanterns she had seen in the distance.
Bessie is a servant in a grand Lincolnshire manor house; the days are long and hard, but though her life is difficult, it isn’t intolerable… until the day she fends off a sexual assault from the master of the house and finds herself dismissed and evicted for her trouble. Thrown out in the middle of the night, without money or references, Bess has nothing to rely on except her wits and strength of character.
For the final instalment of my transhumanist theme, I’ve picked selections from a Malaysian anthology. Cyberpunk: Malaysia is edited by Zen Cho (whose debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I read last year and really loved) and features fourteen futuristic narratives.
This book also has inside the front cover my all-time favourite publisher’s note, a thoughtful comment on the practice of italicizing for loanwords:
We will not use italics for non-American/non-English terms […] Nasi lemak and kongkek are some of the pleasures of Malaysian life that should be celebrated without apology; italics are a form of apology.
I’d never thought of italics as being particularly apologetic, before, yet I absolutely see their point. By highlighting certain words, you mark them out from the rest of the sentence, offering the reader an excuse to skip over the perhaps-unfamiliar spelling or assume that they don’t need to understand what’s being referred to.
To return to the point, then: this is a great anthology with a wide range of stories, most of which have a strongly dystopian flavour, taking social inequalities and magnifying them through the lens of technological enhancements. More than a few of the stories consider the intersection of humanity and technology, giving rise to some fascinating juxtapositions; here are three examples by female authors.
The Winged Histories is the companion novel to A Stranger in Olondria by the same author, but it is not necessary to read that before reading this book. However, be warned (and I speak from experience), you may love The Winged Histories so much that you’ll want to go back and read A Stranger in Olondria next!
The swordmaiden will discover the secrets of men. She will discover that men at war are not as men at peace. She will discover a unforeseen comradeship. Take care: this comradeship is a Dueman shield. It does not extend all the way to the ground.
The swordmaiden will discover that her forebears are few. There was Maris, and there was Galeron of Nain, and there was the False Countess of Kestenya.
The swordmaiden will hear rumours of others, but she will not find them.
Her greatest battle will be waged against oblivion.
Four women tell their history from both sides of a brutal rebellion. Tav, a soldier, wants freedom for her country of Kestenya, but she’s from a royal family and has little in common with the nomadic people who live on the plains. Tialon is the last priestess of a new religion, left bereft on the death of her father. Seren, a poet, wants love but does not want to get married. And Siski, a princess and socialite, is hiding a devastating secret. All four of them write their stories, but history will not remember all of their voices.
Series note: Saints Astray is the sequel to Santa Olivia, but I picked it up on a whim and enjoyed it without having read the first one.
The world was a very, very big place.
That was Loup’s first impression as the sun rose over northern Mexico. By the time it had cleared the horizon and begun to cast strong light over the landscape, they’d been driving for an hour. Still, the road stretched before them, empty and endless.
And except for Pilar, fast asleep with her head on Loup’s shoulder, everything and everyone in the world Loup had ever loved was behind her, behind the vast concrete wall that sealed off the U.S. border and sealed in a town once known as Santa Olivia, known in Loup’s lifetime only as Outpost — Outpost 12.
The thought made an empty space in Loup’s heart. In the light of day, the thrill of their daring escape through the excavated smugglers’ tunnel had worn off. If she were capable of feeling fear, she was fairly sure she’d be feeling it now.
In the not too distant future, following a flu pandemic that ravaged the planet, humanity is gradually putting itself back together. War between the U.S. and Mexico has led to strengthening of the border defences, and the virtual abandonment of towns within a demilitarized zone between the two countries.
Growing up against this backdrop, Loup is one of a small band of genetically engineered humans with preternatural speed, impressive agility, and an inability to feel fear. Her father was deployed as a weapon by the U.S. government, who consider Loup and her kind as items of property; Loup herself has grown up an orphan in the U.S. government-controlled compound of Outpost. Saints Astray picks up the story just after Loup and Pilar have made their escape, and follows them into their new life beyond the fence.
“Are you certain you don’t know her?”
The question makes no sense. I look at the girl again, just to be certain, although I do not need to. She has closed her eyes and her breathing is turning even. Her muscles twitch slightly. She does not open her eyes.
“Of course I’m certain,” I say.
Weaver stares at me, then at Alva again.
“Why do you ask such a thing?” she says.
Alva steps right next to the girl. She does not react when Alva takes her hand ad gently coaxes open the fingers closed in a loose fist.
“Because of this,” Alva says, and turns the palm upwards. The light from the glow-glass falls on it. Bright marks begin to glow on the skin, the letters forming a word I recognize immediately.
Eliana. My name.
Eliana is one of the lucky ones on the island. She lives and works as a weaver at the top of the central hill in the House of Webs, and the regular floods that plague the lower streets are not her concern. But if anyone were to discover her secret — that she is cursed with the nightmares that everyone fears — her life of privilege would be over and she would be made a slave.