|Cover photo by Nicholas Royle|
Nightjar Press, April 2021
Available as: PB, 16pp
|Cover photo by Nicholas Royle|
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Catalyst gate, via #NetGalley.
Catalyst Gate is the third book in The Protectorate trilogy (after Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector). The Protectorate is absolutely the kind of trilogy you need to read in order and if you haven't read the others, and you want to understand whether to read the trilogy, you need to go back to my earlier reviews and not read on here because spoilers. (Hint: you should read the trilogy).
If you've been following The Protectorate you will almost certainly want to read the third part, so part of me wonders what I'm actually doing in this review. I often have this with trilogies, and my answer is basically (1) How well is the author closing off her sequence - does this book stand comparison well with the others? (2) How good is the trilogy overall?
Taking these questions in order, my answer to the first would be, VERY WELL. There are a lot of moving parts in The Protectorate. The story follows Sanda, a commander of the Fleet who's been through all kinds of weird stuff; experimented on by a hostile power; deceived by the first incarnation of the AI known as Bero into believing that her world has been smashed and that she has been marooned in deep space for decades; romanced by plausible rogue, spy-for-hire and, potentially, artificial lifeform, Tomas; framed for an assassination and hunted by her own side; and much more besides. It follows Sanda's brother Biran, a rising politician and Keeper in The Protectorate, who has discovered that its history and politics and a lot less pure that he believed. There was also the group of gutter rats who, for most of the first two books, were coping with the consequences of their disastrous heist-gone-wrong, as a result of which their leader Jules has become the loosest of loose cannons, allying with the alien entity known as Rainer.
In this third book O'Keefe deftly takes forward all these main protagonists (and more). She still has plenty to say about them all - we aren't just going through the motions - even as Rainier's endgame approaches. There are further surprises, and a series of calculated risks taken by all involved. Things kick off very quickly at the beginning of the book - there is no lengthy recap, but O'Keefe still manages to keep the reader in the frame about backstory and motivations so that the story develops organically and everyone feels "real". Yes, there were a few (a very few) exceptions, when I asked myself "why did he/ she do that?" but I feel that is inevitable in any sequence of this length.
As well as the characters, we are still learning more about this universe and its history. This is far-future SF, following humanity long after it has left Earth, and it turns out there are secrets to be told about that whole history. Topically they're bound up with the originals of "Prime Inventive", which I had always seen as a society but which is actually the descendant of a private company - the one which happened to win out in the contest to explore space. Firmly believing that nothing good can come from over-mighty corporations, I wasn't surprised to learn there'd been dirty work at the crossroads and that it involved the alien tech whose origin and purpose has been a prominent theme through this trilogy. And yes, we finally discover more about that too.
I am, I think, moving on to my question (2) above and my answer is that while each part of this trilogy has been very good indeed, the whole has a kind of commonality and progression which makes it more than the sum of the three parts. Seen together, these books present questions - and warnings - about our stewardship not only of this planet but of the wider Universe, about loyalty, the nature of humanity and the corruptions of politics. In some ways the most human characters we meet here are composed of bits and bytes or of naneites; or are unregarded outsiders or junior players. The gilded priesthood of the Keepers shows a tendency to guile and self-interest rather than the common good, making it ten times harder to deal with the threat of Rainier and that's not an aberration but totally in keeping with the history and politics of Prime. In contrast, Sanda and her Fleeties, the rogues and criminals of the Grotta, Bero and Tomas, have a sense of humility and fragility that fires their suffering into strength and integrity. As O'Keefe writes of Sanda, 'Those pressures collided against the woman... compressed her, made her as hard and immovable as the deep ice...'
O'Keefe integrates these themes and makes her three novels into a single, coherent whole, no easy task in such a vast story, creating an absorbing and convincing world with compelling characters whose stories are told with humour and grit. I'd unreservedly recommend the sequence, if you've been waiting to see how it would turn out, and Catalyst Gate as its culmination.
For more information about Catalyst Gate, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance review copy of Notes from the Burning Age to read and consider for review.
Before I start this review I should probably declare a bias - I adore Claire North's books and I've been loving her novels exploring individuals with weird abilities, or curses. Notes from the Burning Age is a little different, featuring ordinary people albeit in a weird future, but I still came to it expecting brilliance and I wasn't disappointed.
Fiction reflecting and commenting on the environmental catastrophe being visited right now on the planet has never been more important... or harder to do. Given the scale of what is happening, there is a sense in which all future, or near future, set fiction must be climate/ environmental fiction. But authors face challenges. Make it unremittingly gloomy, and readers might stay away. But implying it's a trivial problem, easily solved, would be reckless and unrealistic.
In Notes from the Burning Age, North finds an ingenious solution. The book is set some way in the future - hundreds of years - in an era when people can look back to our "burning age" and judge it. From that perspective, they can report the catastrophe, but without living it. We can also see that, despite losses, humankind has found ways to mitigate its impact on the planet, limitations to prevent a repeat of the disaster. The book is full of fascinating detail about these, from dependence on bicycles and electric vehicles and use of solar, wind and tidal power, to building techniques using reasons instead of cement to a system of religion and ethics intended to stress interdependence with nature. This is propagated by the Medj priesthood, who 'bowed to each tree in turn and made libations to the kakuy whose gift they were receiving'.
This elusive concept of the kakuy is key to the civilization depicted here. Perhaps gods, perhaps demons, perhaps innate spirits of the forests, the mountains, the seas, the kakuy may be a pious myth, a real and ferocious force that rose in anger when humans defaced the earth, or a personification of the chaos and harm that came from that defacement. The Medj teaching is focussed on not rousing them again - if gods, they are gods who have no regard for Mankind, regarding us an irritant at best. Ancient religions flourish alongside this cult - at one point a character is rescued and sheltered by a Jewish community, and the domes on ancient mosques and churches still stand over the city of Isdanbul - but they are peripheral.
Ven, the main character in Notes from the Burning Age, is a disgraced former member of the Medj, but hedges his bets about the kakuy. Others, ambitious men (mostly) who chafe under the limitations imposed following the Burning, do not believe, or actively despise the idea. Humanity is paramount, they insist, and only harm can come from denying that essential fact. The book, then, looks both back - at our burning age - and forward - at a potential future one, as humanity, like a dog returning to its vomit, forgets lessons learned and plots harm again. We see this as environmental destruction, seemingly undertaken to demonstrate human mastery, gathers pace. The story, from one perspective, is therefore a set of notes from the "future" burning age, to ours.
Located in Central Europe, the story depicts a loose federation of seven provinces supposedly united under a Council to ensure that "heresies" (the use of destructive, historic technologies) stay suppressed. It isn't clear whether similar conditions obtain elsewhere - there are brief mentions of the 'Anglaes islands' and their 'purity laws' and of an 'Amerika' with 'militia forts'. The the province of Maze is however flexing its strength, overturning the laws adopted for safety and to prevent the kakuy rising. Ven is close to that process, having fetched up as personal assistant to Georg Mestri, the power behind the Brotherhood, a social and political force dedicated to human potential (and to founding an empire with Maze at its head).
Despite his background in the Medj, Ven comes to admire Georg, for whom he translates ancient documents, stolen by the Brotherhood, describing banned technologies (and including a lot of other rubbish scoured from ancient hard drives - Ven's background has given him some skill in recognising what might be useful). More "notes", this time from our "burning age" to the future one. From this position Ven's able to describe the rapid slide of Maze into militaristic dictatorship and then war, and the progress of espionage between the two sides, espionage that may make the difference in an otherwise uneven war. The book has plenty of excitement, with a mole hunt going on, conflicted loyalties, and a lot at risk on either side. That makes it a pacey and exciting read, even as North refuses to skimp detail of the environmental damage done in our time, and which is starting up again. Her descriptions of shrines made from ancient, sea-washed plastics, of part-ancient, part reconstructed buildings or of simply Medj shrines, and always arresting and often beautiful.
Hovering over everything in Notes from the Burning Age are moral choices, the foremost of which is perhaps, how much damage must one accept to preserve peace? In this book the environmentally sensitive way of life of the other provinces is threatened by Maze's revanchism. Will the other provinces receive enough warning? If they do, will they be willing too act? Indeed, how can they act when they believe that warfare will wake the kakuy and bring ruin again? Again, placing the action in the future makes the story more palatable since it isn't finger-pointing at us, here, now - even if in reality we face similar dilemmas.
Notes from the Burning Age shows how these choices are inescapable, and perhaps, that there are no good options. It's chock full of ideas, and North is able to paint even her villains as sympathetic (in a certain light) and her heroes as distinctly tarnished, ambiguous types. The dialogue is often brilliant (it always is in this author's books, but even so, here it's superb) with several layers of subtext to the conversations, and the action-y parts of the book (of which there are many) have the urgency and pace of a thriller.
In short, I think Notes from the Burning Age is a joy to read, and shows North evolving as an author to address difficult themes as well as serving up a rollicking good story. I would strongly recommend it.
For more information about Notes From The Burning Age see the publisher's website here or any of the stops on the tour poster below.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of a strange and brilliant light to read and consider for review.
Sometimes, to see plainly, to understand just how strange things have becomes, you have to step back a bit.
That, I think, is what Eli Lee does in her riveting SF(ish) novel about the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and its effect on society - or perhaps, society's effect on society, because nothing is inevitable, it all depends what WE do.
The book is set in a recognisably modern world with laptops, the Internet, cars, trains, coaches - and poverty. Teenagers meet for parties in the sanddunes and do slightly naughty things. There are coffeeshops and trades unions, venture capital startups, conglomerates, and meditation retreats in the mountains.
But it is not OUR world. The geography, place names (Dhont, Mejira) and countries are clearly different, as is the history (which is alluded to but never explained - this book is very good at involving its readers without a great deal of exposition). There is no made-up language but Lee coolly uses comprehensible but not familiar English words such as 'unancestral' to hint at unseen depths, at concepts and structures shaping the visible narrative. Most tangibly, the different cultures we meet here have their own cuisines, with meals - both traditional and intercultural - described in, frankly, delicious detail. Overall, the effect is to distance the reader slightly from the locations and action, so that we question what is being shown and think about what is happening (and what we're taking for granted).
In Lee's imagined society, we are on the cusp of AI automating most of the work hitherto carried out by humans. The focus is on a chain of coffee shops, Slurpees, where "auts" are being introduced to replace human staff - early on we meet Lal, who is about to transfer from her job as manager of one such shop to a more senior position in the company, where she will be helping to plan future automation. This transformation is proceeding, at pace, without much thought being given by Government or there conglomerates to the consequences - that is, how people will make a living. Things are, I'd say, closer to the edge than in our world - but it's a matter of degree.
As the story moves on, Rose, one of Lal's team, takes on the managership. More concerned than Lal at what is happening, she attends protest meetings, falling in with the surprisingly uncharismatic Alek who leads the group but doesn't seem to regard the members as having much to contribute apart from their numbers. He might be a radical and agitator, but he's making the same mistake as the big corporations in discounting the input of actual humans, reducing even the activity of process to an assembly-line of placards. (Perhaps they could get auts in to do that, too?)
Alek knows what he thinks the solution is - something he calls 'source gain', what we'd describe as universal basic income, an entitlement for all to part of the fruits of automation, enabling a minimal, tolerable lifestyle. Rose seems less committed and more questioning of this concept - late in the book she lights on the idea of ownership, by the people, of the means of production (the auts). So, yes, there's Socialism in this alternate world - and indeed we get a good description of the alienation of the workers from their labour. But there are other ideas in the mix, too - wider elements in the protest movement are taking direct action, smashing the auts.
I thought that Rose's and Alek's protest meetings might be highlighting the dangers of an unstable society becoming more authoritarian, as they seem to occur clandestinely in a remote abandoned warehouse - but this is not really followed up and on the whole I don't think a strange and brilliant light is meant as a novel of political action. It's rather one where the wider forces in society are played out between a few characters and within their families. This comes across most strongly in the third central character, Janetta, who completes the picture by giving an insider's view on the progress of AI itself.
Janetta is a PhD student at a prestigious university (contrasted with the local college which was all Rose could afford to attend, despite having higher aspirations) worked on making AI empathetic, considered a key step to developing conscious artificial intelligence. She's also going through emotional turmoil, having split up with her girlfriend. Lee has a twist of fate link Janetta up with the founder of one of the top AI start-ups, so allowing a dialogue between Janetta's approach to the AI problem, informed by her loss of Malin, and Taly's more functional attitude.
The relationships between the three women, their wider families and the workplace, played out over job changes (a particular grim description of Lal's arrival at a dream corporate campus, the antithesis of all her hopes and dreams), holidays and meet-ups, creates a fascinating tapestry of life which, yes, serves to illustrate the dilemmas and risks of the new technology but at the same time is simply riveting to follow. The process of automation is marked by the progressive elimination of people from Slurpees, while Lal's supposedly favoured management position becomes more and more dehumanising and Janetta finds her progress frustrated by relationship entanglements and doubts over the ethics of what it's doing.
In what is actually quite a short book, Lee gives the reader a massive amount to ponder as well as delivering a brilliantly written and absorbing story about some very real people.
I would unreservedly recommend a strange and brilliant light.
For more information about a strange and brilliant light, see this blogpost by the author, explaining the inspiration behind the book.
|Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio|
|Illustration by Fang Xinyu, |
design by Pablo Defending
I'm grateful to Corylus Books for an advance copy of Little Rebel to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.
It's said you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I think the magnificently dark cover for Little Rebel captures its mood perfectly.
Who, exactly, is to blame for a tragedy, an outrage? The terrorist who pulls the trigger? Those who support, who radicalise, who encourage? Culture warriors who see an opportunity to gain by setting up the Other as threatening, dangerous? Bystanders who don't really care but just want to get on with their complicated lives and don't read the signs? All of us for our prejudices and our little, thoughtless slights?
Leroy's novella sets up all these, and more, in an unnamed port city in Western France. It's a tense place, ruled over by a far-Right administration which has installed cronies in the Police ('Sergeant Richard Garcia, who sees himself these days as a defender of the West against the Great Replacement') yet also with a radical Islamic faction and plenty of simply disaffected youth. Add to that Alizé Lavaux, a jaded author of Young Adult fiction, so very hungover and so very desperate for a smoke, Flavien Dubourg, a twenty seven year old teacher who's still a virgin but fantasises about Alizé, the elusive Little Rebel, a bartender who's about to have a Very Bad Night, and... well, you get a powerful mix.
One of the things I loved about this book was the way it frankly portrays life as messy, as knotted. Leroy is completely cold-blooded - he'll introduce somebody sympathetically and then have them die with little warning. (Or, sometimes, the other way round). Then he'll zoom forward ten, twenty years and show the consequences, what became of the survivors. Both victims and perpetrators are allowed to have rich, complicated, perplexing lives - lives extending into the lives of others, and reflected back in them. It's quite a feat to do that at all, let along in such a short book (I think it took me an hour to read Little Rebel).
There is also the terse, slightly noir-ish tenor to the book, leavened as it by a sense of the absurd and the fatalistic: this is what's going to happen, what can you do? That's accentuated by, as I said, the book's bouncing forward to tell us what eventually happens or, in the authorial voice, assuring the reader that, no, character X won't survive and their story was only there to make a point - about life, about people, about that unnamed city.
It is, as I have said, a short read, but one with some vividly drawn characters and which gives an equally vivid picture of a particular time and place. And it's shot through with dark humour. I'd recommend.
You can buy Little Rebel from Amazon here. To find out more about the book, see the stops on the tour poster below.