Osama on the German 10 Best Crime Novels 2013

Delighted to find out today that Osama is on the list of the ten best crime novels of 2013 (besten Kriminalromane 2013) as selected by Zeit, after being on the KrimiZEIT-Bestenliste the past year.

The reviews in Germany have been really amazing throughout and, well, pardon the vanity, but here are some of them, since this seems like a good excuse!

“An extraordinarily thrilling book” Tobias Gohlis auf Nordwestradio zur KrimiZEIT-Bestenliste

“Very cunning, very artful … ingenious book” Tagesspiegel

“Subtly made alternative-history experiment” Deutschlandradio Kultur

“An exeptional fantasy novel” WDR 5, Bücher

“A wholehearted, intensive book that won the World Fantysy Award with reason” Bayern 2, Diwan

“A masterly game with good and bad spirits” Der Freitag

“A great bang in the present landscape of literature” lettra.tv

„Diesmal aber ist ein Buch erschienen, das so originell gedacht ist, dass es fast nicht genügt, das Buch zu loben. Man müsste sein Lob singen, so sehr ragt es heraus aus der Sommerproduktion von Kriminalliteratur … Eine Parallelwelt von einem Buch!“ Deutschlandfunk, Büchermarkt

“Das ausgezeichnete Buch von Lavie Tidhar ist mehr als ein Fantasy-Thriller, eine Alternativweltgeschichte oder eine Popnotiz zum Krieg gegen den Terrorismus. Es ist die Erinnerung, wie Bilder, neue Wörter, Nachrichten und Phantasien unser Weltbild seit 9/11 verändert haben!“ jetzt.suedeutsche.de

“Ein Roman, der Terrorismus als Medienspektakel erzählt, als moderne Story, die immer mit einer Explosion anfängt, und Löcher in das Gewebe der Realität reißt.“ WDR5, Bücher, Buch der Woche

“Ein komplexes, anspielungsreiches Buch, das als Thriller daher kommt, uns zugleich aber zum Nachdenken über unsere Vorstellung von “Terrorismus” bringt. Keine leichte Lektüre, aber eine lohnende!“ Literaturkalender der FAZ

“Der israelische Autor Lavie Tidhar hat seiner Fantasie freien Lauf gelassen und mit ‘Osama’ das wohl bislang ungewöhnlichste und gleichzeitig entspannteste Buch über die hochstilisierte Ikone des weltweiten Terrorismus geschrieben. Der Autor spielt virtuos mit Konventionen und Versatzstücken der diversen Genres. Es ist pures Lesevergnügen, wenn die von Tidhar geschaffene Parallelwelt mit der unseren aufeinanderprallt.“ Die Presse am Sonntag

“Was wäre wenn es den 11. September 2001 nie gegeben hätte, der Terrorist Osama bin Laden nur die Erfindung eines Schundroman Schreibers wäre? Lavie Tidhar, Gewinner des World Fantasy Award 2012, hat aus genau dieser Idee ein ungewöhnliches Buch gemacht.“ rbb, Inforadio

“Ein ziemlich einzigartiger Roman, der letztlich auch seine Leser an die Grenzen dessen bringt, was sie begreifen können – und somit ein gelungenes Abbild der Wirklichkeit zeichnet.” Funkhaus Europa

” ‘Osama’ ist ein sehr nachdenkliches Werk über das Wesen von Terrorismus und Politik. Und eine Erinnerung daran, dass “Geschichte” nicht umsonst sowohl “Historie” als auch “Erzählung” bedeuten kann – beides ist letztlich ein Konstrukt. Großartiges Buch!“ Der Standard

“Im erzählerischen Zentrum des Romans steckt der Schlüssel zu „Osama“. Hier zeigt sich, dass Tidhar nicht einfach nur eine spannende, humoristisch aufgeladene und vor Zitaten fast überlaufende Pulp-Geschichte geschrieben hat, sondern ein Erinnerungs-Buch, welches den inzwischen schon fast zu lautlosen Schatten verblassten Toten der Anschläge auf die US-Botschaften in Nairobi und Daressalam, auf die Londoner U-Bahn und schließlich auf das World Trade Center in New York noch einmal Stimme und Substanz verleiht.“ Phantastik-Couch, Online

“Osama ist ein mehr als doppelbödiger Thriller, der den Leser dazu zwingt, seine eigene Welt zu hinterfragen … Lavie Tidhar wurde 2012 ganz zu recht für Osama mit dem angesehenen World Fantasy Award ausgezeichnet.“ Junge Welt

“Langsam und bedächtig verschmilzt die Realität mit etwas anderem, einer surrealen Parallelwelt, in der Joe nicht nur auf Geister, oder – wie er sie nennt – „Irrwirren” trifft, sondern vor allem auch mit seiner eigenen Vergangenheit konfrontiert wird.” CULTurMAG

” … hervorragend erzählt, mit einem eigenartigen Kontrast zwischen Lakonik und häufiger fiebriger Action. Obwohl die Grenzen zwischen Realität und Illusion sich zunehmend verwischen, bleibt der Terror manifest in den eingestreuten Perspektiven von Opfern. Ein faszinierender, anspruchsvoller Thriller!“ Neue Luzerner Zeitung

“Ein feiner Roman . . .Eine Information am Ende von ‘Osama’, wenige nüchterne Zeilen nur, erklärt, wie sich die Reise- und Lebenswege des 1976 geborenen Lavie Tidhar mit fast gespenstischem Zufall immer wieder mit denen von El-Kaida-Attentätern gekreuzt haben. Vielleicht konnte er deswegen diesen bemerkenswerten Zwitter von einem Roman schreiben.” Frankfurter Rundschau

“”Osama” verfolgt den Terror weiter literarisch – zerpflückt ihn als grausam-pornografisches Klischee und versucht den namenlosen Opfern eine Stimme zu verleihen. Und das hebt den Roman heraus aus all den Vergleichen mit den Fantasy-Realitäten Dicks oder auch den zu Klischees geronnenen Nachahmern Hammetts. Herausgekommen ist eine aufwühlende Anklage gegen den Terror, eine Anklage, die sich verkleidet ins Kleid der Groschenromane und ihrer künstlichen Ästhetik. Faszinierend – und verstörend.“ Wasser-Prawda, online

“Mal wieder eines dieser wunderbaren Bücher, die sich absolut nicht kategorisieren lassen: Bei Titel und Cover denkt man: Achtung, Satire. Das trifft es aber nicht – denn obwohl Osama um die Absurdität unserer Welt geht, wird hier nichts überdreht oder zugespitzt. Eher noch mildert Lavie Tidhar die Schrecken der Wirklichkeit ab, indem er sie uns nur schemenhaft aus Sicht einer weit freundlicheren Parallelwelt zeigt. Heraus kommt ein Buch mit einem wunderschönen, traurigen Lächeln, das von den Opfern einer Welt handelt, die so verrückt ist, dass sie eigentlich Science Fiction sein sollte“ Fantasy- & SciFi-Buchladen Otherland

“Der israelische Autor Lavie Tidhar, 37, spielt im Fantasy-Roman virtuos mit dem Mix aus Realität und Fiktion – verwirrend, rätselhaft und undurchschaubar.“ Sonntagszeitung, Schweiz

“ein außergewöhnliches Beispiel in der Genreliteratur, das zeigt, dass man abseits von festgefahrenen Pfaden originelle Geschichten erzählen (oder als Leser entdecken) kann, die einem länger im Gedächtnis bleiben“ Bücherwelten

“Elegant verspannt Tidhar in seiner abgründigen Konstruktion Elemente des Noir-Thrillers in der Tradition von Raymond Chandler mit dem Science-Fiction-Genre der “alternate history”. Die Ebenen von Realität und Fiktion werden im Verlauf der Erzählung immer poröser. Tidhars präzise Detailschilderungen von Schatten und Lichtreflexen, Stadtlandschaften im Regen, obskuren Buchhandlungen und U-Bahn-Stationen erzeugen einen hypnotischen Sog und eine melancholische Atmosphäre der Verlorenheit … Dabei ist sein glänzend geschriebener Roman nicht nur eine Reflektion der medialen Faszinationskraft des Terrorismus, sondern zugleich eine eindringliche Trauerarbeit, die all der Opfer der zahlreichen Anschläge gedenkt, die als Schatten und Untote die Überlebenden heimsuchen.“ DLR Kultur (besprochen von Philipp Albers)

“Tidhar ist durch Zufall mehreren Terroranschlägen empfindlich nah gekommen …, das gibt diesem ohnehin grandiosen Buch den zusätzlichen Thrill.“ - Jan Drees auf 1LIVE, Plan B, Buch der Woche

“Ein wunderbar geschriebenes Buch, in dem sich Realität und Fiktion auf verblüffende Weise durchdringen.“ Der Bielefelder

„Gewagte und gelungene Attacke auf den Mythos Osamas und den Krieg gegen den Terror – ohne der schrecklichen Realität in die Phantasy auszuweichen.“ Buchjournal

“Ein komplexes, anspielungsreiches Buch, das als Thriller daher kommt, uns zugleich aber zum Nachdenken über unsere Vorstellung von “Terrorismus” bringt. Keine leichte Lektüre, aber eine lohnende!“ literaturkurier

“Der israelische Autor Lavie Tidhar überrascht uns mit einem außergewöhnlichen Thriller: “Osama” arbeitet mit zahllosen Anspielungen und Vexier-Momenten … Das eigenwillige und stilistisch raffinierte Buch, auf Englisch verfasst, hat Lavie Tidhar den World Fantasy Award 2012 eingetragen – was zumindest belegt, dass es in dieser Sparte nicht immer nur um Zauberlehrlinge, Vampire und ihren weiblichen Anhang gehen muss. Aber auch dem Kriminalroman, der allzu oft im sozialkritischen Realismus oder in regionaler Spaßigkeit dahindümpelt, können solche Experimente nur gut tun.“ WAZ print und online

“Tidhar hat einen berauschenden Politthriller geschrieben… Osama bin Laden als Pulp-Fiction-Ikone – darauf muss man erstmal kommen. Und diese abgedrehte Idee ist erst der Beginn einer Achterbahnfahrt durch Raum und Zeit, auf die uns Tidhar in seinem opiumgeschwängerten Politthriller schickt … ‘Osama’ sprengt in der Tat alle Genregrenze und ist der verrückteste Roman seit William Burroughs legendärem Drogenepos ‘Naked Lunch’… eine verstörende Elegie über die Fragilität einer Welt, in der es keine Gewissheiten mehr gibt und in der jeder zum Opfer werden kann.“ SonntagsZeitung

“überaus amüsanter Fantasy-Krimi“ Ultimo

“Tidhars präzise Detailschilderungen von Schatten und Lichtreflexen, Stadtlandschaften im Regen, obskuren Buchhandlungen und U-Bahn-Stationen erzeugen einen hypnotischen Sog.“Lüneburger Literaturkurier

“Kunstvoll verwebt Tidhar die beiden Ebenen seines Romans…’Osama’ hält den Spannungsbogen bis zur letzten Seite.“ Radio Zusa

“Stilistisch jederzeit überragend … Lavie Tidhar hat sicherlich den definitiven … Alternativweltroman für die Post-9/11-Ära vorgelegt.“ Geek!

“”Osama” hat nicht nur für Verschwörungstheoretiker einiges zu bieten und spielt sehr gekonnt mit den unterschiedlichen Realitäts-Ebenen.“ Zuckerkick

“Tidhar fängt das verwirrende Gefühl, dass Terrorismus und der „War on Terror“ etwas Unwirkliches sind, das ständig in unsere Welt einzubrechen droht, exakt ein … Osama ist eigentlich kein besonders politisches Buch, sondern ein trauerndes Buch über die Ungeheuerlichkeit dessen, dass aufgrund religiöser oder politischer Wahnvorstellungen Menschen sterben.“ jakob.blogsport.de

“Wirklich ein bemerkenswertes Buch, das ich innerhalb von zwei Tagen gelesen haben, ganz fasziniert von der melancholischen und geheimnisvollen Atmosphäre.“ Buchhandlung für Neukölln, Berlin

“Osama Bin Laden als Held eines Groschenhefts. Klingt bizarr und ist das Gedankenexperiment in einer Welt, in der Terrorismus nur in Büchern existiert.“Business Punk

“Tidhar spielt vielmehr mit Konventionen und Versatzstücken diverser Genres – und das virtuos.“ crimenoir

“Der Autor baut Spannung durch eine sehr präzise, aber langwährende Ortsbeschreibung auf. Lavie Tidhar zieht einen in einen Sog aus Erinnerungen, Träumen, Phantasien hinein, in denen klar wird, daß Osama bin Laden eine Erfindung des Autors ist.” Weltexpresso

“Egal, ob Parallelwelt oder Simulation, das Konzept einer Welt ohne Terror, in der Schundleser fasziniert werden von faktentrocken an den Anschlägen unserer Realität entlangerzählten Terrormärchen, ist interessant. So interessant, dass Tidhars „Osama“ sowohl den World Fantasy Award gewonnen hat als auch auf der KrimiZeit-Bestenliste gelandet ist.“ Stuttgarter Zeitung

“Unverschämt unterhaltsam und verstörend ist der sprachlich virtuose Roman von Lavie Tidhar . . . Ein eigenwilliges Buch, das lange nachwirkt.” Neue Westfälische

“Lavie Tidhar hat mit ‘Osama’ einen Thriller à la Raymond Chandler geschrieben. Mit Detailliebe beschreibt er äußerst genau eine Welt, in der Terrorismus nur in der Fantasie existiert.“ Klönschnack

“Lavie Tidhar denkt sich eine Was-wäre-wenn-Geschichte aus, in der die fürchterlichen Ereignisse der jüngsten Zeit dem Gehirn eines Sensationsschriftstellers entsprungen sind. Zeitgeschichte als abenteuerliches Denkspiel.” Salzburger Nachrichten

 

The British Newspapers on The Violent Century

The reviews keep coming in for The Violent Century, and they’re pretty good!

“A stunning masterpiece” – The Independent

“Tidhar synthesises the geeky and the political in a vision of world events that breaks new superhero ground … Using fantasy to reassert the awful reality of the 20th century is a smart piece of defamiliarisation.” – The Guardian

“A sophisticated, moving and gripping take on 20th century conflicts and our capacity for love and hate, honour and betrayal.” - The Daily Mail

“It’s the X-Men as written by John le Carré … A love story and meditation on heroism, this is an elegiac espionage adventure that demands a second reading.” – Metro

“Could keep anyone, regardless of the types of stories they regularly enjoy, interested and engaged. Tidhar has created a book that oozes excellence in both characterisation and storytelling.” - The Huffington Post

The Vampire of the Vanities: Greed and Glamour in Anno Dracula’s Johnny Alucard

Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and ArtemisShall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts?Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collageCold War Paranoia: Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of RainsThe Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons, and Al-Qaeda Zombies and American Vampires: On Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath.

The Vampire of the Vanities: Greed and Glamour in Anno Dracula’s Johnny Alucard

The nature of the Anno Dracula world is one of pastiche, remix and play. In that… vein, I thought it would be fun, for no particular reason to do this according to Bolano’s 2666. Therefore:

 1. The Part About The Reviewer

I can’t quite say when I first came across the Anno Dracula books. Somewhere in the basements of long-defunct Murder One in London, perhaps, or the old Forbidden Planet on New Oxford Street. Perhaps around the time PS Publishing began releasing books, one of which was Kim Newman’s Andy Warhol’s Dracula, itself a part of the long-awaited Johnny Alucard, and which dates my obsession with the AD world to somewhere around 1999.

Long-awaited indeed. Johnny Alucard is made up of bits of the AD world published mostly individually, including the brilliant Coppola’s Dracula, which opens the book. The series itself comprised the original Anno Dracula (1992); The Bloody Red Baron (1995) and Dracula Cha Cha Cha (or Judgement of Tears, in the U.S, 1998). The first book is set in the 1880s, the second in World War 1, the third in 1960s Italy. The fourth book takes the action almost to our present day, but mostly focuses on the 70s and 80s decades of the last century. The idea behind it is simple: Count Dracula did not die at the end of Dracula (1897) but survives, marries Queen Victoria, and ushers in a new era of vampirism. The resultant alternate history, populated by historical and characters from popular fiction (and pop culture), is then charted.

At the heart of the AD world are three women vampires: Geneviève Dieudonné, a French vampire “elder” trying to do good; Kate Reed, an idealistic Irish journalist (whose character was cut out of the final draft of Stoker’s Dracula); and Penelope Churchward, a somewhat stern character often at odds with the other two women. All three, meanwhile, form complex relationships with Charles Beauregard, a mortal man and British spy.

In coming to review Johnny Alucard, therefore – a book I have been waiting for since the original trilogy was concluded over a decade ago, and a book at least some of whose instalments I had read over the years – I find a challenge. Anno Dracula is, I think, an obvious influence on my own Bookman Histories books (particularly in the mix of real and fictional characters), and so I must try not to discuss the relative merits or otherwise of the novel but rather its theme; what it has to say.

And so with that caveat:

2. The Part About The Review

How does one come to review Johnny Alucard? It is a mosaic novel, composed of various pieces of short and longish fiction which have appeared sporadically over the years, cemented with some new linking material and some unpublished work. Does it work, indeed, as a novel? A fourth novel expanding on the original trilogy that began with Dracula’s rise to power and ends with his death, does it have anything new to say about the curious set-up its author had initially created? And can a novel of popular fiction have anything deep and meaningful to say beyond the joy of escapism?

Initially, one decision I had to make was, do I re-read all the (early) parts I have already read, or do I begin with the new? I opted to read it as a novel, from the beginning. After a new, short introductory section we go straight into Coppola’s Dracula, which re-imagines Dracula being filmed as Apocalypse Now in Transylvania, complete with the real-life actors and situations, and with the dialogue memorably changed. It is the sort of thing one could quote compulsively. Here is the opening shot of this re-imagined film:

A treeline at dusk. Tall, straight, Carpathian pines. The red of sunset bleeds into the dark of night. Great flapping sounds. Huge, dark shapes flit languidly between the trees, sinister, dangerous. A vast batwing brushes the treetops.

Jim Morrison’s voice wails in despair. ‘People Are Strange’.

Fire blossoms. Blue flame, pure as candle light. Black trees are consumed …

Fade to a face, hanging upside-down in the roiling fire.

Harker’s Voice: Wallachia … shit!

 

And so on.

One question that bothered me throughout the novel, which begins to re-imagine Stoker’s Dracula almost compulsively, recursively, like a man picking at scabs, is the relationship between reader, source, and remastered copy. One reason I react so strongly to Coppola’s Dracula is my own obsession with Apocalypse Now (see, for instance, my own The Last Osama) but when Newman, later on, remasters Orson Welles, does my lack of familiarity with the source affect the way I relate to its pastiche? This is where the novel needs must first work on its own, as a stand-alone narrative, before factoring in what it does with popular culture, which is re-imagine, re-mix and re-master it obsessively.

As I began to read, it seemed to me that the novel does hang together, as a novel, though I was initially struggling with the question of what to say.

Here is Kate Reed talking to Francis Coppola, early in the book:

‘He was the monster of monsters. All of the above.’

Francis laughed.

‘You’re thinking of Brando.’

‘After your movie, so will everybody else.’

He was pleased by the thought.

‘I guess they will.’

‘You’re bringing him back. Is that a good idea?’

‘It’s a bit late to raise that.’

‘Seriously, Francis. He’ll never be gone, never be forgotten. But your Dracula will be powerful. In the next valley, people are fighting over the tatters of the old, faded Dracula. What will your Technicolor, 70 mm, Dolby stereo Dracula mean?’

‘Meanings are for the critics.’

Indeed.

3. The Part About Dracula

In the first three books of the series, Dracula is seldom seen directly. He is the shadow, the influence over the world. Anno Dracula ends with a bloated, monstrous Dracula sitting on the throne of England. Charles and Geneviève enter the presence. Assassinating Dracula himself is futile, but they provide Queen Victoria with the means of committing suicide, thereby condemning Dracula (a prince consort, not heir to the throne) to defeat.

That scene is repeated, remixed and changed, in the culmination of Johnny Alucard, a novel which follows Dracula’s heir apparent, the young Johnny Pop or John Alucard as he travels from Transylvania to the New World. First to New York, where he hangs out with Sid Vicious and Andy Warhole, starts the trade in a new drug, Drac, made of vampire blood, survives an assassination attempt and finally arrives in Hollywood, where he becomes (what else) a movie producer. Vampires are glamorous; they enchant, they are the stuff of illusion, of magic; like films. The original Dracula is about sexuality, eroticism in the context of a Victorian society. In Johnny Alucard, Newman again and again tries to re-envision Dracula. There is Coppola’s Dracula. There is Warhol’s Dracula. There is Orson Welles Dracula. There is even Debbie Does Dracula, with Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler as Dracula.

If the original Dracula stands for sexual threat and fascination, this Dracula is a multitude of meanings, an image, a Mythago that keeps changing as, indeed, the vampire in popular culture keeps changing, keeps fascinating. And as I read deeper into the book, I began to sense a shape, flittering bat-like through the pages; a certain moral weight, a certain anger, even.

4. The Part About The Money

Stanley Fish, famously, argued that all texts have a “democracy of meaning.” What Newman, in his preoccupation with the meaning of Dracula as symbol, has been doing, is to try and pin down this myth-image while acknowledging that he can’t: not truly.

“In London, he’d been a monster. In Italy, he was a relic. The idea of Dracula, too huge to contain in a human shape, had exploded out through his eyes and mouth.” (p. 405)

What, I’d argue, informs Johnny Alucard far more than the other works referenced throughout its 400-something pages, is another work entirely. Tom Wolfe’s classic 1980s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is an indictment of money and the power of money; and it is what Newman is using to talk about our modern era. Dracula is money, the power that corrupts: “He’s a monster,” Kate says to Geneviève, “and we’re the only two left. He owns everyone else.” (ibid)

In the conclusion, which itself echoes and remixes that of Anno Dracula, the count is, literally, made of money. The blood sucker has become the banker, exerting his control by owning all around him. A screenwriter cheated by Alucard attacks him with a knife, echoing the 1888 encounter with the Dracula who ruled Victorian England and yet subverting it:

“Look,” [Kate] said, “he’s bleeding gold.”

Dracula’s shirt parted around the cut, exposing dead white skin. Coins dripped out, pattering onto the floor, spilling around his shoes. He must be wearing a money-vest. Shining gold rolled away from him. The Count laughed… from every gape in his suit, gold spurted, coins in an almost liquid flow… he extended his hands and stood, a fountain of money.” (p. 406)

And of course, the inevitable happens: the gathered guests, the cream and crop of Hollywood, cannot resist. They fall on the money, snatching at coins, scrabbling in the dirt at this new Dracula’s feet.

5. The Part About The Parts

Johnny Alucard is, Frankenstein monster-like, made up of many parts. Some work brilliantly on their own (Coppola’s Dracula) some are mere curiosities (the two appendices), one – “You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings” – seems to end, literally, in mid-air. The send up of charity concerts in A Concert for Transylvania is as good as expected – and so on. “Castle in the Desert”, which sees an ageing Philip Marlowe meeting Geneviève, does not work particularly well on its own, but becomes a pivotal moment in the context of Johnny Alucard, the novel, as Geneviève takes on Marlowe’s mantle spiritually, becoming the (vampire wo)man who must go down these mean streets, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. Some elements don’t work as well as one could hope for – when Newman tries to do natural dialogue (in the voice of an Old West man or black American a-la The Wire – which gets referenced halfway through the book), the effort comes across a little like parody, and Newman is unable to make it sound genuine in the way that Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of The Vanity, can – but then again, who can write dialogue like Tom Wolfe? And in the character of Holly, Newman creates an almost super-vampire who resembles too closely Mystique, the shapeshifting superhero from the X-Men, who is then defeated far too easily when the plot eventually calls for it.

But these are minor niggles. With a fifth Anno Dracula book announced, it will be interesting to see where the series heads. Will we once more see the Rise and Fall of Count Dracula? Or will the lead up into our own times merely see him, as seems likely, bailed out by the government?

I was surprised, to an extent, and pleased, to see all the parts coming together into the shambling corpse of a novel (to, again, swap vampires for Frankenstein). The sum is greater than its parts. In the final count, Johnny Alucard returns to moral gravity of The Bloody Red Baron but informed with the sense of lightness of Dracula Cha Cha Cha, and is a circus mirror inversion of Anno Dracula. It is at times a surprisingly angry novel, I think, a surprisingly moral novel which continues, despite the glut in the field, to do something new and fresh with its vampire tropes. I suspect there is a reason Twilight is so successful where Anno Dracula isn’t: Meyer’s vampires return to the core of Dracula, the original novel, which has always been, I think, a novel of romance. For Newman, though, the vampire is never just a vampire: like the zombie or the alien invader it is an often-worn metaphor: for sex, for money, for power, for abuse, for love. In Alucard, more than ever before with the Anno Dracula books, Newman is consistently exploring the image of the King of the Vampires to ask just why Stoker’s lurid Victorian novel continues to exert such a fascination today. And in that, I think, more than any other writer to grapple with the theme, he succeeds.

Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard, by Kim Newman. Titan Books, September 2013. 

Locus on Martian Sands

Feels more like early Kurt Vonnegut… both writers seem to channel the same prankster glee that covers deep despair. Martian Sands crackles with energy and life while poking at some big questions about the nature of reality.

Which is kinda nice!

Introducing Slacker Fantasy: David Tallerman’s Giant Thief And the Reluctance of Agency

David Tallerman. Giant Thief. Angry Robot Books 2012.

Giant Thief. The ambiguity begins with the title and spreads slowly through the text. Is it in fact a thief who is a giant, or a thief who literally steals a giant?

As it turns out, it is the second. Easie Damasco (note that first name) steals a giant and the means of controlling it. Damasco is a thief and, remarkably, he might almost be fantasy fiction’s first slacker hero. There is little magic in the faux-Medieval Spain setting, and that is an unusual choice, worth a comparison with K.J. Parker’s secondary-world-fantasies-without-magic novels.

But what’s interesting about this novel (the first in a loose trilogy) is the reluctance of agency.

The Western tradition of genre writing has certain demands. It requires plot – it requires action – it requires active, not passive, heroes.  And while Giant Thief fits into the recognisable mode of traditional Western fantasy it also… doesn’t.

I’ll call it Slacker Fantasy. I’m not quite sure what to call this novel. It might have the feel of sword and sorcery, but it has little interest in either sword or sorcery. It isn’t really a Biblical epic. It isn’t really epic in any sense of the word, certainly not Epic Fantasy with its multiple cast of characters and large scale fantasy-world (usually the size of Wales, admittedly) conflict.

There isn’t even much conflict as such in this book. There’s just Damasco, the thief, dragged along into events he has no control over and no real interest in. Even Bilbo Baggins set of to steal a treasure of his own volition. Easie, here, just wants to be left alone.

And this is interesting to me. This is not Thomas Covenant battling the question of reality, and it isn’t the everyman character who discovers a magical London or wherever and is dragged into its mysteries.

More than anything, what Giant Thief does with its reluctance of agency is resemble a host of slacker movies, featuring sympathetic but essentially passive characters. Dude, Where’s My Car? or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure seem to me to be the precursors to this tale of slacker fantasy.

I’ve been trying to think of other examples of this sort of book but I can’t (perhaps you can suggest some in the comments?). It seems to me that Tallerman is doing something deceptively clever in this book or, at any rate, something new to fantasy. The novel’s reluctant to engage with the essential mode of Western fantasy lends it a strange appeal, its very half-assedness a meta-comment on a genre filled with bloated tales of action men and wicked wizardliness. This is Fantasy Mundane, and I am curious as to what Tallerman is planning with a further two novels. Will he choose to embrace agency, to turn his endearing slacker hero into a proper man of action and the series into properly-accepted capital-F Fantasy? Or will he continue to turn his back on convention with more novels that fall, quite deliberately it seems, between acceptable modes of genre?

And will we see other examples of emergent slacker fantasy, or mundane fantasy (two separate and distinct terms, but both of which apply to this novel) , coming out in future?

I will be very curious to find out.

Al-Qaeda Zombies and American Vampires: On Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath

Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and ArtemisShall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts?Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collageCold War Paranoia: Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons.

Al-Qaeda Zombies and American Vampires: On Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath

The words “bug fuck crazy”, one sometimes feels, get bandied about too often by careless reviewers, yet I feel no hesitation in applying them to Christopher Farnsworth’s remarkably screwy series of thrillers featuring Cade, the titular President’s Vampire. These encompass Blood Oath, The President’s Vampire, and Red, White and Blood.

I came across Blood Oath by seeming accident. A friend handed me a pile of recent SF/F review copies for me to “catch up on what people are doing”. The truth is, I read little science fiction these days, and so this year I’m making something of a conscious effort to read more, somewhat to my regret. The pile included such glorious contributions to recent literature as an anthology titled ZOMBIES!, and then it had Blood Oath, which I opened on the train back out of idle curiosity before being struck, like a terrorist facing a squad of elite US assassins, by the sheer and awesome brilliance of Farnsworth’s conceit.

Let us begin with the cover. One could have hoped for a suitably lurid cover but Blood Oath is marketed as a thriller, so it has one of those dull, non-specific thrillerish covers. But then there’s the blurb!

 If Dan Brown wrote a vampire thriller, this would be it.”—Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America

Has ever a blurber damned more with faint praise?

If Dan Brown wrote a vampire thriller!

Thankfully, Farnsworth is not Dan Brown. Thankfully several billion people are not Dan Brown, but I still hold a grudge having been stuck on Eurostar from Paris with nothing to read but the second half of The Da Vinci Code. My general philosophy is, when in doubt, blame the French, but in this case the French are, dare I say it, blameless. But anyway. I’m sure they can be blamed for something.

And then you start reading the book.

Let me sum it up for you: Cade, the President’s vampire, must save the United States from an Al-Qaeda zombie attack.

Perpetrated by Dr. Frankenstein.

Who is an ex-Nazi.

And the best part? The very best part? There’s a moment in the book when Cade has to get from somewhere back to Washington in time to save the President. From the zombies. Who are made of the body parts of dead US Servicemen. I am not making this up! But he can’t make it back in time. It’s a three hour flight by conventional airplane.

So he rings up the US Air Force. And they send over a plane designed from alien technology recovered from the Roswell crash.

As you do!

It’s genius. It’s sheer, bloody genius, a gloriously screwy pulp novel about the War on Terror as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft’s deranged teenage neighbour, who was into corpse-robbing but ended up acquiring a typewriter instead.

Now, there are all kinds of pulps, and meta-pulps. One of my favourites has to be Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, a marvellous novel about a group of 1930s pulp hacks, including Walter Gibson, Lester Dent, H.P. Lovecraft (as a zombie!) and a young L. Ron Hubbard solving one of their own pulp mysteries in New York, all the while cranking out stories for the pulps (in one scene Dent’s typewriter breaks. Without breaking stride he reaches for another and we realise he has typewriters all stacked up in his room, for just such an eventuality).

Indeed, the Guardian‘s own Damien Walter has been trying to encourage a conversation recently on something he calls New Pulp (Neo Pulp? Pulp Nouveau?). It seems a bit redundant – how does new pulp differ from old pulp? Is it the quality of the paper? But, were we to look for appropriate candidates, none would come better qualified than Farnsworth, who is actually doing something very interesting in this series.

Blood Oath – and its sequels – are novels about American politics as filtered through a pulp lens. If my own novel, Osama, is a sort of metafiction – the War on Terror viewed as a pulp novel – then Farnsworth’s is the War on Terror as a literal pulp novel – as if Mike Longshott, the fictional pulp writer in Osama had sat down to write the novel instead.

One of the key elements of the series is the conspiracy within the American government and its institutions, a Shadow Company working, one suspects, for Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, whose tentacles reach everywhere and who direct American (and by extension, the world’s) history for their own nefarious purposes. There is a secret war within the war, a supernatural war waged by both the Americans and their enemies (we’ll talk more about Osama bin Laden in a moment).

In one way, of course, this reduces the current conflict to a crude and unrepresentative conflict of Good vs. Bad. But of course, that has already happened, as Bush’s famous speech on the “Axis of Evil” has long shown us. This is, rather – within the gloriously lurid pulp iconography of the text – also a subtle critique of the power of both institutions and individuals, an essentially paranoid view of the way power is both used and misused.

It is filled with numerously knowing and affectionate references to genre and pulp – to Lovecraft, to Charles Fort – but its genius is transposing those pulp elements into our own modern-day reality, our wars, our terrorists and freedom fighters, our fear of science (in the same of the monstrous Frankenstein) and our trust in military force. One cannot so much review Blood Oath than simply point and say OMG! at the sheer chutzpah of the conceit, but it works. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but somehow it does.

Farnsworth is one of several Hollywood screenwriters recently to move sideways into novels. Another is Ernest Cline, whose recent Ready Player One (also in that pile of books I got alongside Blood Oath) has been well received, and whose film Fanboys is an affectionate comedy about sci fi fans.

Both Blood Oath and RP1 share a sort of filmic writing style, an easy, accessible way of storytelling. Blood Oath reads very much like a thriller or a film script. It has short punchy chapters, a smooth and essentially invisible way with words that mean you must focus on the Story rather than on the way it is told. It does not offer depth in the way of its characters, or any beautiful passages you might want to hold on to with starry-eyed admiration as though you had just run into China Mieville in the men’s loos. The women characters in Blood Oath are weak: the girl vampire infatuated with Cade, the evil Shadow Company woman who blows Dr. Frankenstein in the hope of eternal life (no, really!), they follow a well-prescribed 1950s Narrative for Women. This is a Men’s Book.

Which is, of course, part of the point. This is Men’s Adventure updated to the new millennium, and one can make the suggestion – only half-seriously, admittedly – that Farnsworth is also making here a point about the role of women in American politics. Perhaps. But the other question is, does the book make a point at all? That, I’m afraid, is something for each reader to decide on their own.

I should also add that I’m aware of the problematics of women’s roles in my own writing, which is very much its own brand of Boys’ Own fiction updated. When one criticises one must apply it equally, however much it stings. Similarly, I’m painfully aware that the reviews posted so far have all focused on men’s writing. As I am currently reading both Danie Ware’s forthcoming Ecko Rising and E.J. Swift’s just-released Osiris, I hope to begin to redress the imbalance soon, but it is there nonetheless.

Incidentally, Ready Player One does make several points towards the end. With a sledge hammer. So perhaps a little less point-making does not go amiss. Not that I am always averse to making points with a sledge hammer. And I did enjoy RP1 a great deal, in the end.

Anyway, the main point to be made about the Cade series is that it is bat-shit crazy in the best possible way. When I mentioned my enthusiasm for Blood Oath, Jared from Pornokitsch went all glassy-eyed and said, “But… but… did you read the second book?”

“No!” I said. “Why?”

“Cade goed to Afghanistan!” Jared said. “And he fights Osama bin Laden!”

“Oh?”

“Who is a demon!”

“What?”

“And that’s just the first chapter!”

As I write this, I’m half-way through The President’s Vampire (the second volume in the series). And what I discovered to my utter joy is that Jared wasn’t kidding. Cade goes off to Afghanistan and kills Osama bin Laden, who is indeed, literally, a demon, and that is just the first chapter.

The second chapter has lizard men.

I cannot think of a higher recommendation than that.

Wunderwaffe

No sooner did I talk about Nazi steampunk than Ian Sales sent me his story “Wunderwaffe”, which seems to have come out directly from the pages of A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich.

Actually, I lie. Ian sent me the story earlier, as it is a precursor (of sorts) to his novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which I recently reviewed. The story was published in an e-book anthology called Vivisepulture, which is apparently Latin for ‘burying alive’. A fate, it must be said, that befalls many more stories than just “Wunderwaffe”.

Anyhow, when I pointed out to Ian that, like the vast majority of people in the world, I don’t have an e-reader, Ian, with remarkable adroity and aplomb, turned “Wunderwaffe” into Wunderwaffe – that is, he created a limited edition chapbook version of the story. I had assumed mine would be one of a kind but I am, in that, sorely disappointed: this is a limited edition of 12 signed and numbered copies, and I believe Ian may be planning to sell the other 11 (for all you collectors out there!).

Wunderwaffe, like Adrift on the Sea of Rains, features the mysterious Bell, a product of occult Nazi science based on a supposedly-real Nazi artefact of unknown purpose discovered at the end of the war.

In Adrift, the Bell acts as a device for moving between alternate realities. In Wunderwaffe, however, it turns out to be a time-travelling device. Gunter Erlichmann, a physicist and devout Nazi, is summoned to Adolf Hitler’s presence. In this world, we find out, the land of Ultima Thule was discovered by Nazi explorer Ernst Schafer, in the North Pole. The Thulans have advanced technology and assist the Nazis in the war.  “Months?” Hitler says, winning over this reader forever. “I need my flying saucers now!”

Hitler sends Erlichmann to check up on secret experiments carried out by a scientist called Rotwang. Erlichmann arrives to discover Rotwang working on the Bell. He sends through a slave, Maria, a woman from the concentration camps, having turned her first into a sort of metal monster. She disappears. Erlichmann follows her through – and finds himself in a futuristic city (not unlike Metropolis), which may have inadvertently been the source of Ultima Thule…

This has the same sense of ironic – and inevitable - denouement as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and Sales is having a lot of fun with his alternate world Nazis. If you read A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich you’ll find many of those elements present – the Black Sun and Ultima Thule being just two of them – but at the same time, like “Lexicon…”, Wunderwaffe is a comment on both pulp and the fetish elements of pulp, rather than a fetishized pulp story in itself. It is ironic, playful, and knowing.

At the same time, Wunderwaffe is less carefully written than Adrift. Where in the novella each sentence is carefully, delicately crafted, and its ending feels both inevitable and rather poignant, Wunderwaffe does feel at times like the self-same pulp stories it parodies. It feels hasty, less weighty than its successor.

At the moment, I am looking forward to the author’s second Apollo Quartet novella. I’d highly recommend getting the first one, and if you get a chance to pick up the limited edition chapbook of Wunderwaffe, I think it makes for a lovely little collector’s item.

Currently reading: Chris Wooding’s The Iron Jackal.

Books received: Samit Basu’s Turbulence; E.J. Swift’s Osiris; Lou Morgan’s Blood and Feathers.

The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons

Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and ArtemisShall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts? and Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage.

The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons

Two questions arise when I come to write of A Dance with Dragons, the latest instalment in the hugely-popular Song of Ice and Fire series.  The first is, is there really something new to add to a discussion that’s going on everywhere from newspapers to blogs? And the second, and to me the more interesting one – why A Dance with Dragons? Sitting on my shelves waiting to be read are such debut novels as E.J. Swift’s Osiris, James Smythe’s The Testimony, and Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique - not to mention the latest China Mieville, Railsea. Why, then, am I reading A Dance with Dragons?

Let me contextualize: I first learned of George R.R. Martin from an Isaac Asimov introduction to an anthology – a Hugo or Nebula Showcase perhaps? – in which he said he didn’t know much about this young writer but always thinks of him, due to the double-R middle initials, as George Rail Road Martin. I suspect the story was Martin’s Hugo Award winning story “A Song for Lya”, though I could be wrong. Certainly, up to Martin’s neverending story of dragons, he was the sort of American genre writer one is used to seeing about – of modest commercial success, of the usual bevy of genre-specific awards of little interest to anyone outside the field, and with a workman-like application. I next came across a volume of his long-running, shared-world anthology series Wild Cards, which usefully exhibited the same workman-like competency and of which the only story I vaguely recall is by William F. Wu.

In 2008 or thereabouts, however, I was living in Laos when I came across the first four volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire. The mythical fifth volume was still hotly anticipated at that time, and remained so for a further 3 years. Earlier, I had picked up an early collection of Martin’s – 1976′s A Song for Lya? or 1985′s Nightflyers? I confess I do not remember which. It struck me as a representative example of late 70s American SF – of moderate interest and a certain competence, but without the vibrancy of a Zelazny or a Delany, without their memorableness, if you will.

Yet I picked up A Game of Thrones that same year and, when I had finished it, promptly picked up the other three books, which were luckily floating about in Vientiane’s few second-hand bookshops at the time. I did that, moreover, with the knowledge that the series was not only incomplete but most likely never to be completed.

Which, it occurs to me, is kind of the point of the whole thing.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a fascinating exercise in soap opera. To all intents and purposes it is a soap opera – a rather magnificent one. The series is not interested in resolution, and to hope for one is to be misguided. It follows in minute details the lives – and deaths – of its primary characters, each of whom may, at any point, die or disappear and be replaced with new characters, who come on screen, perform their deeds and die or vanish only to be replaced by yet other actors.

The hope of resolution – of secrets learned, of mysteries revealed – may drive the plot, yet it is inherently banal. Take Bran’s journey. After thousands of pages, after a Lord-of-the-Rings-like quest complete with its own Ranger, Bran arrives – somewhere – to meet – someone (the Greenseer), to learn – something. Who knows? Who really cares? The point of Bran’s journey is his journey, which goes on, and on, and on, prompting us to turn the pages, to follow Bran’s life in the same way we follow the latest contestant on Big Brother.

It occurs to me I sound dismissive, which is not my intention at all. Martin is doing something very clever with the entire series, it seems to me. He has come under heavy criticism for the elements that make up the book – for the Fascist assumptions of the nature of Royal Blood, for the misogyny, the rapes (oh, the rapes!) – but I think to complain of these elements is also to miss the point.

What Martin is doing in this series is combining two things. Melodrama – gruesome murders, incestuous relationships, conspiracies, torture, starcrossed lovers and what have you – with the utter (and utterly fascinating) banality of a reality show. Reading the series exerts the same sort of hypnotic fascination as watching the Kardashians – with all the over-the-top elements of Days of our Lives. One readily expects that, were Cersei Lannister to die, it would only be to be replaced by her long-lost twin sister, or for Tyrion to turn around to Jon Snow only to proclaim, “I am your father, Jon!”

I find soaps fascinating. In Twin Peaks, David Lynch has effectively created a surreal sort of soap opera, complete with its own soap-within-a-soap, Invitation to Love, which both informs and comments on the events taking place in the primary show.  Soaps soothe us by allowing us to follow the lives of imaginary, yet compelling, other people, with the sure knowledge that there is no end in sight, that  everything is a cliff-hanger and yet each resolution merely keeps us in statis, never to achieve a sort of nirvanic escape-velocity, some profound resolution. James Joyce’s “The Dead” may offer us mundane boredom followed by a moment of transcendence. Soaps offer us transcendence in the mundane.

I was struck by this half-way through my reading, in 2008, of A Game of Thrones. Why do I keep on reading? I remember wondering. The prose is serviceable, plodding, lacking grace. It exists merely to tell us the story, and the story, like the sea (or, it seems to me at this moment, this blog post), goes ever on. I knew I was reading a soap – and I was happy, I realised, to continue to do so. I found it – in the same way I found the first few seasons of Big Brother – I found it soothing.

And I find it soothing still. Take, for instance, Tyrion’s journey from Westeros to Exotica-I-mean-whatever-that-other-continent-is-called. Tyrion arrives. He finds shelter with a merchant. He looks around the merchant’s house. He drinks wine. He thinks in Italics (have we lived and fought in vain? Christopher Priest asks, in one wondrous flourish on the nature of Italics thoughts). He goes on a journey on a barge. Nothing happens. Nothing at all. And yet I follow each minute detail, each bottle of wine drank and each thought italicised like a sharpened knife. Why not? Did Scott get Kourtney pregnant? Does he drink too much? What does Kourtney’s mum think of all this?

A Song of Ice and Fire must exist within its faux-European world to be effective, where Exotics live in a faux-Asian/faux-Middle Eastern continent, where royal blood is literally different to common blood, where Tyrion can endlessly ask “where do whores go?” as if it were a philosophically weighty question, a world of garish blood and guts and endless pillage and rape. Because it seems to me to argue against these elements is to miss the point of it all. These books provide escape, into a distorted mirror reality of our own, a place where bad things happen to both good and bad people who are not real. Our own world has an American invasion of a sovereign state that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead; it has an economic recession with profound effects on all of us; violent riots in Greece, a despotic dictator killing his own people in Syria, and a Queen celebrating her Jubilee in the UK in opulence while  homeless people sleep rough on the streets just outside her palace. It is a world where sexual abuse and rape are just as common as in Martin’s books, it is a world just as violent, just as unpleasant, and the books reflect our own inherent racism in their own way, too.

Yet it is also an escape from our world, to one where dragons roam and murder and rape happen to other people. When we read the books, we are safe.

And then there’s this: does the world of the books really believe in the right of kings? There are all kinds of small inexplicable things. What exactly is Stannis’s flaming sword? Where does that Roger Zelazny homage, the Red Woman’s Lord of Light, fit in? For that matter, what difference does it really make about the Others? Do they have a purpose at all, these zombies from across the Wall? Winter is coming, sure, but after winter comes spring, and so however bad a zombie invasion of Westeros is going to be surely it will, sooner or later, end? And does anyone on Exotica really care if zombies are going to overrun Westeros? They’re hardly likely to come across the water. And does anyone care who ends up on the Iron Throne? Already several kings have come and gone. Does the book lead anywhere? Who cares if Daenerys and her dragons make it across the British Channel to London-I-mean-King’s-Landing or wherever?

I can happily imagine a world in which A Song of Ice and Fire simply keeps on going, like the little engine that could. I can imagine a world in which Brandon Sanderson endlessly continues the story of these kings, queens, knights and soldiers well into the 22nd century or as long as there’s money to be made, whichever ends first. A world in which the children of Jon or Tyrion or whoever’s still alive continue to conspire and fight and think pointed thoughts in italics, where the new banner of the Lannisters simply asks “Where do whores go?” and it takes five chapters for someone just to go to the toilets. A world that stretches its tiny mysteries – the weirwood, the greenseer, dragons, Others, the Lord of Light – across many more volumes without ever answering for them.

And why not? They are not important and, if they’re answered, surely new mysteries will be introduced, new complications ensue, new families will rise and fall, and so on and so forth, amen.

Picking up A Dance with Dragons, I can barely remember what went before. Davos? That rings a bell. Stannis, yes… wasn’t there something with Stannis before? The Wall? I remember something happened there. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll just rejoin the story where we last picked off, and follow, happy to let my mind rest in this most magnificent re-enactment of The Kardashians-with-Dragons.

There are better books, and there are better writers, but sometimes a hot dog is better than a steak, and a budget holiday is still a holiday, and there’s a new season of Big Brother coming up. And like the promise of a hot dog served by the swimming pool of a 2 and a half-star hotel in Cyprus full of German tourists, A Song of Ice and Fire is irresistible.

Comics Heroes reviews Going To The Moon!

Comics Heroes have recently reviewed Going To The Moon, giving it five stars:

A tender, touching, merciless and heartbreaking book that does an awful lot to your emotions over its 38 exquisitely-rendered pages … it’s not just something to be admired by grown-up comics fans; it’s something that should be given to kids and those touched by Tourette’s, and held tight for its wisdom and clear-headed sentiment … Paul McCaffrey’s art is beyond superlatives; he meshes seamlessly with Tidhar’s words to remind us all what it is to be young and powerless and at the mercy of others, but that at the end, there’s always hope. A triumph.

Copies can be ordered directly from the publisher.

Cold War Paranoia: Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of Rains

Adrift on the Sea of Rains is a novella by British writer Ian Sales, self-published by the author under his new imprint Whippleshield Books.

Sales, active as a reviewer and blogger, has been publishing short stories for some time, mostly in small-press magazines and anthologies. This novella is his most substantial piece to be published to date. I have to admit I had not expected to like – let alone admire – this book.

Which is all the more reason I’m glad I read it: because Adrift on the Sea of Rains is very, very good indeed.

It comes in a minimalist, yet attractive, paperback (as well as a Kindle edition) with, moreover, a host of additional material which in itself adds to the narrative (and of which more later).

In Adrift…, the American moon mission did not end with Apollo 17. By the time the story takes place the United States has a space station in low earth orbit - Freedom – and a small moon base with a handful of men. The story follows Vance Peterson, the commanding officer of the lunar base, in a world where the United States and the Soviet Union are locked in an escalating no-longer-Cold War; and by the time the story opens, in fact, we learn that the long-dreaded nuclear war had finally broken out on Earth. The men on the moon base are trapped, looking at a no-longer-blue marble on the horizon, a dead Earth. They have enough food and air for a couple of years but, after that, they, too, will die.

Sales does a remarkable job maintaining the sense of isolation and alienation the astronauts experience on the moon. Told partly with flashbacks, we follow Peterson’s career path (could he be responsible in part for the start of the war?) as a pilot, and the sense of Cold War paranoia, of 1950s Mutually Assured Destruction, is expertly evoked.

But alongside the 1950s vibe, Sales introduces the central conceit of his novella: the Bell, a Nazi wunderwaffe, or Wonder Weapon, a mysterious device discovered after the Second World War and taken by the Americans to the moon, the better to be studied. The Bell, it turns out, is able to shift into parallel realities; and the men of the lunar base pin all their hopes on finding a world where the Earth was not destroyed in a nuclear war – their only possible escape. But when, in one of the novella’s most superb moments, a blue Earth reappears on the lunar horizon, their problems only just begin…

This is a slow, meticulous novella, lovingly and carefully crafted, combining incredibly realistic depictions of the day-to-day life of astronauts on the moon, their slow disintegration in the face of despair, with the sort of alternative history I’m a sucker for, and with the added bonus of Occult Nazi Science which shows Sales’ love for – and fascination with – the lunar landings, but also a sense of fun, of playfulness, which combine together – Hard SF and Pulp – into a bewitching story. The ending, when it comes, feels inevitable, and the whole thing punches way above its modest (20,000 word) size.

It is not entirely without fault. The numerous technical terms (given their own appendix at the end) could have been more smoothly integrated, perhaps, and the use of italics for the past sections could have been avoided. The appendices are amusing – particularly the time line which begins in our reality but slowly evolves, matter of factly and without comment – into a space programme that never was – yet a part of me wishes the novella would have been allowed to stand on on its own (though the extensive bibliography is certainly fascinating, and will send you to Google, if only to learn more about our world’s real-life fascination with the wunderwaffen).

Having read it, I really can’t rave about this novella enough. It is 1950s science fiction as could only be written by someone in the 21st century, a knowing, smart, ambitious story where hardly a word is out of place. I came to it ready to mock, and came away with admiration instead. This is probably the best piece of science fiction I’ve read so far this year, and would be a more than worthy nominee for a BSFA Award next year. I urge you to read it.