What Lot’s Wife Saw

What Lot’s Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou, translated from the Greek by Yiannis Panas (Black & White Publishing, 2013).

What Lot's Wife Saw, 2013

In 1952, Horace Gold suggested I write a robot novel. I demurred, saying I could only handle robots in short stories. He said, “Nonsense, write a novel about an overpopulated world in which robots are taking human jobs.”

“No,” I said. “Too depressing.”

“Make it a mystery,” he said, “with a detective and a robot sidekick who will take over if the detective muffs the case.”

That was the germ of The Caves of Steel, which was a good science fiction novel and, at the same time, a straightforward mystery. It was the first time (in my opinion) that anyone had brought the two genres into quite so perfect a fusion.” (I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994)

In 2007, when What Lot’s Wife Saw was published in Greece, I was living on a South Pacific Island, dependant on those few books kind people sent me, one of which was Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy (1951). I was somewhat surprised, but also pleased, to discover it held up fairly well for me from my long-ago reading of it and, perhaps emboldened by the discovery, determined later on to re-read Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1954).

What surprised me was not that Caves was a not-very-good-book (it’s not), or that I found myself unable to finish it at last (this was last December, incidentally). But somewhere in the back of my mind, I had taken Asimov’s own view of the book as a given. That this was a mystery. That it was also science fiction. And that it worked as such.

“Perhaps reality is but a mass delusion,” muses Phileas Book, Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s unlikely detective, in the opening sentence of What Lot’s Wife Saw. And perhaps I was equally delusional, because the sad reality is that The Caves of Steel, read as a mystery, is utterly dreadful in its execution. More specifically, Elijah Bailey’s method of investigation is to simply, at various points in the novel, randomly decide (have a sudden epiphany) on the identity of the murderer; to then go and accuse the suspect based on neither evidence nor detection; to be proven wrong; and to then repeat the process.

As an SF novel, then, it is perhaps interesting. As a mystery, it is a complete failure.

What Ioanna Bourazopoulou does, in contrast, is something rather superb. The novel depicts a world in which much of the Mediterranean countries are now underwater, submerged in a flood of Biblical proportions; in which the Dead Sea is now the centre of production of a mysterious Salt, used as a recreational drug by the survivors. Centred in the Dead Sea is a remote Colony and production centre for the salt, managed by a corporation based distantly in Paris. Phileas Book, our reluctant detective, is a compiler of unique crossword puzzles, made up of letters people have sent to each other. Book is brought in by the mysterious corporation, the Seventy-Five, in order to solve just such a puzzle: the six letters of the Colony’s once-distinguished inner core of functionaries as they confront a fantastical murder and the slow deterioration of the Colony by consequence.

Much of the story is given to these letters: these 5 men and 1 woman who, as we are told earlier on, have a talent to deceive. Each is a former criminal, who has assumed a new identity in the Colony (an identity now shredding). A Judge, a Doctor, a Priest, the Governor’s Wife, the Captain of the Guards and the Governor’s Personal Secretary. Not given her own letters is Bianca, the only child born in the Colony, now a young woman with an obsession for Book’s crossword puzzles.

The death of the Governor leads the six to gruesomely, and hilariously, dismember the corpse; and the arrival of a mysterious, seemingly-impossible new governor, who demands his presence be kept a secret, plunges the six into existential despair. Impossible things happen – a black ship arrives, but only the six can see it. The new governor seems intent on destroying the Colony. What’s true? Who’s lying? And who can you trust?

The story is laden with Biblical images; with allegory; it alternates between the six characters, then moves back to Book, in Paris, for a short duration. And it is left till the very end for us to realise that we had been played all along. That Bourazopoulou has told us, from the very beginning, what we are about to read, but we paid no heed; that the clues are all there: and that this is, and has been, an elaborate Golden Age murder mystery of a sort Agatha Christie would have approved of and would make Adam Roberts sigh with envy.

It is a dazzling magic trick of a novel; a compulsively readable account of a world changed and of a people diminished, and of the struggle to regain humanity in the face of disaster; it is unsentimental and in turns grotesque, bizarre and confounding, but it plays fair with its central mystery and yet weaves its muti-genre path so deftly that we never notice.

It deserves applause.



Guest of Honour at Polcon, August 2013

Glad to say I will be going to Polcon, the Polish annual science fiction convention, in Warsaw, 29 August-1 September as one of the “Special Guests”, alongside John Clute and Lucius Shepard.

This will tie in with the release of the Polish edition of Osama published in time for the convention, and in collaboration with the new Polish electronic magazine edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by my friend Konrad Walewski.

I’m delighted about the news – the last time I’ve been to Poland was – God knows, the early 90s? – so I’m looking forward to it!

T.J. McIntyre Reviews Osama

Over at Skull Salad Reviews, T.J. McIntyre reviews Osama:

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit Lavie’s someone I know and interact with online. I received an electronic review copy straight from the author himself. That said, Tidhar’s new novel, Osama (PS Publishing, 2011), is a difficult novel to review without spoilers. I will do my best here. But let me just say upfront that I loved, loved this book! Sometimes when getting a book from a friend or acquaintance, there’s a hesitance to review it because of the risk of hurting feelings. There was no need to hesitate reviewing this one.

On a superficial level, at least through roughly two-thirds of the novel, the story is pretty simple to explain. It is about a private investigator named Joe living in an alternative present where 9/11 and The War on Terrorism are the stuff of pulp novels. Osama bin Laden is a popular character in a series of cheap paperback thrillers detailing the lives of terrorists by an author named Mike Longshott. When removed from reality, the exploits of the terrorists make for entertaining reads in this alternative history. There are even conventions dedicated to Longshott and his Osama novels. People dress up like Osama and terrorists at these conventions and have roundtable discussions concerning the social relevance of these novels, much like at a Trekkie convention. The fictional acts of terrorism are all entertainment, nothing to fear.

Joe’s story itself reads much like a paperback thriller. He’s a hard-drinking, smoking private investigator searching through the seedy underworlds of Europe. Joe is hired to track down Longshott and travels around the world looking to uncover this author. In the process, he starts to learn a thing or two about himself.

The last third of the book is full of revelations. Our reality and Joe’s alternate reality collide and the text grows increasingly slipstream and surreal. I won’t say anymore about plot because I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone. The less one knows going into this novel, the more they will enjoy it, I believe.

Ultimately, this is a novel about identity, a novel which reflects a reality of the modern age in which we live. We choose our identities in many aspects of modern life – whether it be through a pen name as a writer, the personas we take on in differing social situations, or through online handles and avatars. As one character states in the novel:

“‘You have to choose what to be. When you’ve been stripped of everything; a
name, a face, a love – you could be anything. You could even choose to be

A wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking book – My six pack rating: 6 out of 6 Trader Joe’s Vienna Style Lager

Colin Harvey reviews Osama

Colin Harvey reviews Osama:

Osama is written in an elliptical tone reminiscent of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories; Tidhar describes the minutae of coffee, cigarettes and clothes, but omits exposition, instead creating a narrative tension through the reader’s need to puzzle out the background; as Joe wonders what the World Trade Centre is, Tidhar starts to explain his alternate world, but slowly, slowly, and always by allusion. Rather like the protagonist, the reader is left with the sense that “The…writer was leaving…a trail of crumbs to follow” (p.120).

As the novel progresses, it becomes ever more Dickian, as Joe slips between realities, alongside the refugee ‘ghosts’ that he glimpses from the corner of his eye. In the novel’s clearest homage to The Man in the High Castle, Joe undergoes a reality slip that echoes Mr. Tagomi’s, visiting what appears to be ‘our’ London

. . .

Osama is an unsettling, oddly poignant look at what might have been, a world that is not necessarily better –because human nature precludes that- but simply different; it shows Tidhar’s originality and growing accomplishment in one of the best novels of the year so far. – read the full review!

SF Signal Mind Meld, plus Podcast Interview

A couple of things recently – I participate in the latest SF Signal Mind Meld, on women SF writers, where I get to gush a bit about all the writers in the Apex Book of World SF, and talk about the influence of Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) and C.L. Moore on my own work.

And I was interviewed by Mur Lafferty for the Angry Robot podcast – where I ramble on about Camera Obscura and being a secret agent… erm.

New story should be up at Chizine soon. I’ll post as soon as it goes up!