reviews

Review: A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias

DarklingPresenting another SF novel review! I just tore through 2014’s A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias in a handful of days, and very much enjoyed it. Here’s an Amazon link if you want to read the blurb, or other reviews, otherwise read on to find out what I thought of it!

This standalone alien contact novel is a fast-moving and fun read. It takes place on an icy moon called Ilmatar (which is very much like Europa) in a far off star-system, where a gruesome first contact accident leads to a multi-species diplomatic incident.

I can’t help but think of this as Vernor-Vinge-lite, in a good way. In half the page-count of a sprawling novel like A Deepness in the Sky or A Fire Upon the Deep, Cambias tells a story similar to both (but far less complex) about human and alien interaction on a distant planet. However, instead of orbiting above the alien planet like in Deepness, the humans in this novel are in undersea scientific habitats like those in Michael Crichton’s Sphere and other novels with a similar setting. There, the humans are conducting research on the biota of Ilmatar, while being careful not to overstep interplanetary contact laws. Policing those laws are another alien race, the Sholen, who act as the main antagonists in the novel, but who aren’t necessarily the “baddies”. The narrative is told from the perspective of all three races, and I found I sympathised with all the main characters equally.

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Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Miéville — My thoughts on every story (Part 3)

threemoments_storybystory3AKA: The post with the actual book review in it! Skip to the bottom if you just want to read that.

I’ve polished off the final 9 stories of Three Moments of an Explosion sooner than I thought I would. The creativity on display throughout this collection has kept me coming back for more. So now it’s time of the final part of my story-by-story thoughts, and at the end of the post, my overall review of the collection. Be sure you’ve read parts one and two before you delve into these last stories!

Read on for short descriptions and thoughts about each individual story. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil any endings. (NB: page counts are for the UK hardback edition)

“Keep”

(39 pages) This lengthy story concerns a curious kind of apocalypse: circular moats begin to appear spontaneously around people who stay still too long. Even stranger, there are reports of sounds from within the moats. It makes for gripping reading, following the crumble of civilisation due to the moats. There may also be a metaphor somewhere in there about the human need to distance oneself from others. Once again though, Miéville chooses to end the tale on a premature climax, favouring a poignant-but-perplexing final image over an actual resolution. It’s beginning to become a problem with stories in this book.

“A Second Slice Manifesto”

(4 pages) This is an exceptionally clever little piece, which describes a strange new art movement just plausible enough to exist. Artists take existing paintings and produce new works that act as “slices” through the scene: producing anatomical cross-sections of the people therein, in the manner of CT scans (search for such scans in Google Images and you’ll immediately know what I mean). Not satisfied, Miéville takes this concept and adds a really creepy twist. I won’t be able to look at certain paintings in the same way again.

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Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Miéville — My thoughts on every story (Part 2)

threemoments_storybystory2And now here’s the second part of my story-by-story thoughts on Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories! If you haven’t yet, read part one first.

For this post I’m tackling the next 9 stories of the book, which will just leave 9 more for the final part of this series. I hope people are getting some enjoyment out of reading my thoughts while they wait for the official release of this book! Or, perhaps people are coming here after they’ve read the book themselves, to see what other people thought.

Read on for short descriptions and thoughts about each individual story. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil any endings. (NB: page counts are for the UK hardback edition)

“Säcken”

(31 pages) Jesus christ. A terrifying horror story, up there with the creepiest work by Laird Barron, with notes of Koji Suzuki’s Ring as well. Two women go on a retreat to a lake-house in rural Germany, where a piece of local history comes back to haunt one of the women. It’s shit-your-pants scary! I still feel uneasy just thinking about it. This story is probably the most horrific thing Miéville has ever written — the slow build-up of dread, the imagery, everything is crafted to make sure you don’t sleep after you read it.

“Syllabus”

(3 pages) A much needed bit of humour following the last story, this is an absurdist work which takes the form of the outline for a three-week university course. There’s no real point beyond a playful poke at academia and a bunch of jokes strung together, including some funny riffs on time travel, alien visitation, and government privatisation.

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Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Miéville — My thoughts on every story (Part 1)

threemoments_storybystory1Presenting the first part of my story-by-story thoughts on China Miéville’s brand new collection, Three Moments of an Explosion!

This post will focus on the first 10 stories of the collection. Check back soon for two more posts, covering the rest of the stories in the book. There are 28 stories in total, making this a very meaty collection!

At the end of the third post I’ll give an overall verdict about the book, and which stories I liked the best. After that, I may go back and revisit Miéville’s first collection, Looking for Jake. And there are a handful of uncollected stories I could always track down and review as well!

Read on for short descriptions and thoughts about each individual story. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil any endings. (NB: page counts are for the UK hardback edition)

“Three Moments of an Explosion”

(2 pages) This is a cool little piece of flash fiction using three speculative fiction ideas to explore the relatively mundane scenario of a building demolition. I like the way Miéville combines satirical SF in the vein of his earlier short story “‘Tis the Season”, with interesting counterculture, oddball physics, and supernatural elements. A crazy idea that shows off the author’s incredible mind. As for why the story is used as the title of the entire collection — who knows? It’s just a cool, evocative title I guess.

“Polynia”

(21 pages) That “icebergs over London” story which most Miéville fans have probably read online by now. A simple weird fiction premise, mixed with some elegiac musings on climate change, that Miéville does a lot with. It’s fantastically written, told from an interesting perspective (a pre-teen hooligan), has beautiful imagery, and it creeps me out just thinking about it. While it ends without explaining very much, preserving the weirdness makes the story all the more indelible in my mind.

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My 2015 reading, part two… More reviews and thoughts!

2015_2Now that we’re at the year’s halfway point, once again it’s about time I collect my thoughts and mini-reviews about all the books I’ve read recently. Here’s the first of my 2015 posts. In this post and all future ones I’ll exclude the books that aren’t directly genre-related (which in this case is just one, the entertaining but pulpy World War II thriller, Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean).

So, it’s been half a year and my reading rate has been absolutely atrocious. I won’t go into reasons, but it’s partly things out of my control, and partly being too easily consumed by video games and TV shows when I do get free time.

My goal for 2015 was to read at least 40 books, and so far I’m just on 13 ones finished (with a few in progress). I think I might revise my goal down to 30 and really try to prioritise ones I’ve owned and wanted to read for a long time, instead of getting sucked in by new releases.

Some of the reviews below are more just collections of thoughts about the book rather than coherent reviews, and often I’m cribbing from what I wrote on Goodreads when I finished each book. But I think I give an impression of what appealed to me about each book.

So read on for books featuring fantasy (of the dark, comedic, and “cozy” flavours), futures both optimistic and pessimistic, human-alien relationships, and more!

FINISHED IN FEBRUARY

20007633The Gunslinger by Stephen King – ★★★★½

I think this is my third time reading The Gunslinger, but I’ve never made it all the way through the whole Dark Tower septology before. This time I want to complete the series.

I forgot to write a review when I finished this back in February, and now I don’t have much to say about it, other than it’s a great first book broken into a handful of novellas, each weirder and unveiling more about the world than the last. I particularly love the journey Roland takes through the mountains with Jake, and the remnants of long-dead civilisation that they find there. Haunting.

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Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

25201920I haven’t done a book review for a while here, and I was planning my next post to be a round up of a number of books I’ve read lately, like the last one. But I just finished a book that was so good that I felt it deserved its own review.

First, here’s the jacket copy of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Amazon link) by Becky Chambers:

When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.

But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.

Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years… if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.

But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

This is the kind of book I’ve been waiting to read for years. It’s a slice-of-life space opera set on board a working class ship with a varied and well-drawn crew. The stakes aren’t very high, which is to say the plot isn’t anything galaxy shattering. It’s more just a number of small adventures as the Wayfarer‘s crew travels towards the galaxy’s centre on a job. To compare this book to one of its probable inspirations, this is more like a collection of Firefly episodes than the movie Serenity. Each little sub-story (usually taking up one or two chapters) allows a different character to have their moment in the spotlight, and we learn a great deal about the characters’ stories and motivations along the way. By the end of the book I felt at home with the crew as I did with the Serenity or Normandy‘s crew. I look forward to reading many more stories about the Wayfarer and its people.

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My 2015 reading, so far… Reviews and mid-book thoughts!

I don’t get around to writing many full-length book reviews for this blog. But this year, I’ve decided that I’m at least going to write semi-regularly about what I’m reading, and what I’ve read so far.

My pace was abysmal in 2014, and it’s slightly better in the first month and a bit of 2015 — but I still catch my attention wandering a lot whenever I sit down to read almost anything. I’m sure I have some kind of attention span issue, and the fact that I’m currently reading 5 books simultaneously is testament to that possibility. I’ll list those books shortly, but first I’ll talk about what I’ve successfully finished since the year began.

(Note: I thought about listing comics and graphic novels in this post as well, but I might save them for separate posts.)

BOOKS I’VE FINISHED

pandoras-star-by-peter-f-hamiltonPandora’s Star by Peter F Hamilton – ★★★★

First up this year I finished this absolute monster of a tome. I actually started it in October last year, and it took me that long to get through the 1100+ pages. But it was pretty good! The real star of the book was the incredibly detailed world, which Hamilton attended to with the eye of a documentarian. It’s a fundamentally fantastical future universe (what with FTL and wormholes, not to mention the magic elf-like aliens) but thanks to Hamilton’s skill it feels plausible, and that’s an amazing achievement.

There were tons of characters too, and I can’t honestly say I was equally enthralled in all the different plotlines. When some characters showed up and took center stage for 50 pages or more, I could barely scrape through to the next chapter. But other characters’ stories were absolutely compelling, and I tore through those sections. I’ve seen a lot of dislike out there for Ozzie’s chapters, but his adventures were some of the best parts for me.

I’m really looking forward to Judas Unchained and the end of the saga, but before I begin that journey, I need to get some shorter SF novels under my belt.

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Space horror: five recent works

sh_banner

Space horror is one of my favourite subgenres of science fiction. Outer space, being so vast, cold and unknowable, is a rich setting for some really scary stories. Hollywood has exploited this idea for ages, producing such creepy films as Event HorizonPandorumSunshine, and of course the incredible Alien series — although we all know the latter is a mixed bag quality-wise. Count me in as one person, by the way, who actually enjoyed Prometheus as a horror film, even though it was ridiculous as a SF film. Anyway, I digress.

Sadly, there have not been too many space horror novels. Over on Goodreads I created the “Space horror” list which I’ve been adding to (as have others) for a few years, any time I hear about something space-horror-ish. While Goodreads’ lists are prone to spamming by self-published authors (who are the bane of Goodreads and of the writing industry in general), I think the list has evolved into a generally good survey of the space horror genre. But it’s not a huge list overall.

I haven’t read all of the books on the list — in fact I’ve barely read any. However, since finishing The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher I thought I’d do a little post reviewing five recent works in this subgenre. I write this in the hopes that someone out there might find it useful when they’re searching for a novel with the vibe of the great space horror movies I listed.

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Dial H review — #5: Disconnected

dialh05WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

Now, after that prologue interlude, we come to issue #5, the end of the Abyss arc at last. At the end of issue #4, Nelson, The Squid and Manteau found themselves in a face-off with Ex Nihilo, now wielding her own dial (and currently “wearing” a hero made up of Swiss army knives). Her alliance with The Squid has broken down and she’s having a hard time trying to control Abyss, but she’s still as mad and determined as before. Not only do Nelson and Manteau have to worry about her, they also now have to try and stop an apocalypse. And at the end of this issue, another threat to the safety of our heroes will become apparent. Let’s dive into this action-packed conclusion!

Cliffhanger resolution! The Squid distracts Ex Nihilo long enough for Nelson and Manteau get away, but the price is dire: he’s attacked once more with null-ness, which accelerates the eating away of his body. Damn, he can’t get a break. Back at her apartment, Manteau begins repairing their last dial again, while Nelson keeps track of news about Abyss. Manteau also introduces herself properly to Nelson: her real name is Roxie Hodder, and she’s a telephone engineer who became interested in the crossover between occultism and her trade. Somehow (in an attic somewhere? It’s not really elaborated upon) she found a long-abandoned dial, and became Manteau. That’s not the end of her backstory though — we’ll hear some more in the next issue, in fact.

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The Miéville Rarities — The Apology Chapbook (featuring “The 9th Technique”)

imageChina Miéville has ten fiction books currently in print (by his main publishers in the UK and US), as well as two paperback collections of the complete run of Dial H comics. Aside from these though, there are quite a few lesser known Miéville works floating around, waiting to be sought out by his devoted fans. Some of these works are relatively easy to come by in one anthology or another, while other pieces are much rarer. I’ll be writing a series of posts about the uncollected works of Miéville — small review-like pieces detailing the content of these short works, where they can be found, and whether they’re worth tracking down.

First up is The Apology Chapbook, a small and slim paperback released to attendees of the World Fantasy Convention in 2013, where Miéville was scheduled to appear as MC, but had to pull out. This chapbook is his apology and consolation gift for his absence. I didn’t personally attend the convention, but Jared from the geek blog Pornokitsch very kindly contacted me on Twitter and offered to send me a copy. I’m very grateful to Jared for this!

The chapbook contains a quick note of acknowledgements from Miéville, a short story, seven pieces of microfiction, and two illustrations. Read on for info about all of this content!

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Dial H review — #0: Sundial H For Hero

dialh00WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

Well, this is a bit weird. In September 2012, DC Comics decided to do prequels for all of its New 52 comics; they called this “0 Month”. And so, we got a Dial H prequel with entirely different characters. To be honest, the issue came at a bit of an unwelcome time, right after the penultimate issue of Dial H‘s first story arc, and so readers had to wait an extra month to see the conclusion of the main story.

The trade paperback collection (Dial H Vol. 1: Into You) rectified this by putting issue #0 at the end of the book, after issue #6 (itself a sort-of standalone story, albeit still featuring Nelson and Manteaul). I guess it would make sense to review the issues in the order they were later collected, but I’ve already committed myself to reviewing them in original publication order, and #0 happens to be the only issue I have at hand right now. So, here we go!

First, ignore the dial thing on the front cover: it doesn’t feature anywhere in the actual issue. The power-bestowing object of this story is a massive stone sundial that must be moved (with great effort) so that the sundial’s noon shadow, over four consecutive days, points to four particular symbols… It’s HERO, the sundial is spelling HERO, okay? Just go with it.

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Dial H review — #4: Into You

dialh04WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

After the cliffhanger ending of the last issue, issue #4 of Dial H takes us directly back to the room where Ex Nihilo and The Squid have summoned Abyss. We’re nearing the end of this story arc, but in the penultimate issue of the Squid/Abyss storyline, we’ll get some excellent villain back story, and an unexpected new alliance will form. There are also moments of both humour and peril for the protagonists. We’re starting to see the dramatic heights the series is capable of reaching. All in all, I love this issue!

The Squid, after being banished by King and Grant in Adventure Comics #490, spent decades falling through the void between universes, until suddenly getting trapped back in our reality by Ex Nihilo’s magic/science. Nihilo has been obsessed with “nullomancy” since she was a teenager, when she had heard about the The Squid & Abyss’s first visit to Earth. Now she has finally brought Abyss back, but finds she can’t really control it like she planned. Abyss seems unbindable and unstoppable — although Manteau manages to scare it off for a while with, strangely, a thrown chair. Before it disappears from the room, it fires beams of nothingness through its old comanion The Squid, leaving gaping holes in his body.

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Dial H review — #3: Come Here! I Need You!

dialh03WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

Issue #3 of Dial H brings us to the midpoint of the series’ initial 5-issue story arc, by raising the stakes: Manteau and Nelson cotton on to what Ex Nihilo and The Squid are after, and catch up with them right as a bigger threat suddenly emerges. We also get some tantalising details of back-story, including some links to the 1980s iteration of the series, Dial H For Hero.

The issue begins with Manteau rescuing Nelson from Vernon and his men, and they get away with the alley phonebooth’s dial, although it ends up broken in the process. Manteau knows how to repair it though, and she also reveals she has a dial of her own, which explains why each time we see her she has a slightly different form. Manteau retains her identity however by never acknowledging her dialled heroes’ names, and by wearing the same mask and cape every time.

Nelson is having a harder time with the heroes he dials: he gets stuck with their memories afterwards, and in one gloriously illustrated panel we see a fight from the real Boy Chimney’s history, as he and the rest of “Team House” (a ridiculous concept for a superhero team, and something that feels like it’s straight out of Un Lun Dun) fight the “Rake Dragon”. Note the first appearance of Open-Window Man, who’ll come back as a major character much later. I completely forgot about this scene until this re-read, so it was a huge surprise to see the blue-suited hero so early on!

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Dial H review — #2: Connection Lost

dialh02WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

It’s the second issue of Dial H! I think this one is a big improvement over the first. We see more heroes and meet more characters, Nelson is a lot more likeable, and the villains’ villainous doings are far less obtuse than in the first issue.

As we pick up the story, Nelson is trying the dial a lot and doing some heroic acts, while at the same time trying to figure out what happened with his friend Darren. We really start to feel some sympathy for Nelson, because it’s clear he’s using the hero dial not just to help people, but also as an escape from his awful life.

Darren’s been working for Vernon (and thus for XN), by breaking into the homes of recent coma victims. It seems like there are lots of these mysterious comas occurring lately, almost an epidemic (which reminds me of the dream-sickness in Perdido Street Station). To figure things out more, Nelson uses a hero form to get into one of the coma victims’ apartment, where he hopes to see what Vernon’s thugs are after. But instead he has his first run-in with Manteau, who nearly kills him.

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Dial H review — #1: What’s the 411?

dialh01WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

Welcome to my first Dial H issue review! Dial H is the first mainstream comic project by China Miéville, and despite getting cancelled and subsequently rushing to a bit of an unsatisfying ending, it’s still a clever little miniseries which unfolds from a superhero dark comedy into a dimension-hopping science fiction story.

I’m going to write a post on each of the 15 main issues, plus issue #0 and the special “coda” issue which was released as part of the Justice League series. I’m starting with #1, and proceeding in their order of publication, so issue #0 will come between #4 and #5.

So anyway, issue #1, “What’s the 411?”, introduces our new hero Nelson Jent, a man who’s gotten to a rather self-destructive point in life. He’s without a job, his girlfriend has left, he’s overweight, a heavy smoker, and has already had one heart attack. Nelson lives in Littleville, which as I ascertain from googling, is the setting of the earlier Dial H for Hero comics as well.

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Review: Aliens: Recent Encounters (ed. Alex Dally MacFarlane)

aliens_cover IMPORTANT NOTE: The first edition of this book (ISBN 9781607013914), at least, is missing the second half of “Seasons of the Ansarac” by Ursula Le Guin. You can read the missing part of this story here.

Aliens — realistically developed, biologically plausible, sentient species — are my absolute favourite element of science fiction. My dream anthology would be a hard-SF-only collection of stories about aliens: their biology, culture, and interactions with humans. Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013), edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane, mixes both hard and soft SF with a smattering of magical realism and mythology, so not every story was to my taste. However, it is still an excellent anthology, thematically strong, while providing lots of variety.

This is a reprint anthology containing 32 short stories, all originally published between 2000 and 2012 (hence the book’s subtitle). The editor has done a good job of representing a number of nationalities with her author choices, and the gender balance is good too, with 21 stories by women, 10 by men, and one “neutrois” (neutral-gendered) author. There are a few really big names (i.e.: all the ones on the front cover) but a whole bunch of relative unknowns as well.

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Story-by-story thoughts: Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds

dnNot really a proper review for this one, but you still get my thoughts on each & every story!

A nice collection for the Reynolds completionist, which includes a bunch of very good stories, and a bunch of okay ones. Not exactly as required-reading as Zima Blue and Other Stories was, but this collection has its share of must-reads.

One thing missing was notes from Reynolds himself after each story, which Zima Blue (and, I think, Galactic North) had. That would have made this collection just a little sweeter.

STORY-BY-STORY THOUGHTS

NB: Asterisks (*) before titles indicate the stories I thought were best of the lot.

Nunivak Snowflakes – Messages from the future sent in rains of fish; intelligent spacetime inhabiting the mechanical arm of a Inupiat teenager; a lone Canadian spy trying to keep ahead of several world superpowers. This is a wonderfully weird story, a wholly unique idea, and the first piece Reynolds ever published (at the age of 24!). Great start to this collection.

Monkey Suit – A nice little piece, with a sci-fi spin on the idea of the unfinished business of the recently departed. It doesn’t really add much to the Revelation Space universe though, so I was a tad disappointed.

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Review & story-by-story thoughts: Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds

zb(Feel free to skip the review text and go straight to my story-by-story thoughts)

A while back I was toying with the silly notion that an author’s short story collection is a bit like an album, and that the stories within are individual songs: varying in length, style and quality. While reading the collection Zima Blue by my favourite SF author Alastair Reynolds, I started to think about a concept album based on the collection, with songs having the same titles and coming in the same order as they are in the book, with each song reflecting somewhat the tone and content of each story. Yeah I know, what a wank. I couldn’t shake the idea though.

So I was thinking about what kind of album Zima Blue would sound like, and — maybe because they’re my favourite band, and their otherworldly lyrics and production have earned them the label “space-rock” — I thought it might end up a bit like a Muse album: bombastic, spacey, dark, catchy. And British. As I read each story I tried to think what kind of song it would be.

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Embassytown by China Miéville: “A quirk of psyche and phonetics”

(This review is spoiler-free!)

Fans of the eloquent and endlessly imaginative China Miéville have been blessed by his recent annual output, with the third book in three years coming out this May. After the previous genre-benders which melded murder mystery with metaphysical weirdness (2009’s The City & the City), and urban fantasy with theological satire (last year’s Kraken), the latest novel Embassytown once again mashes together incongruent elements of fiction to create something beautiful, bleak and terrifying. Embassytown combines planetary science-fiction with colonial novel, lingual exploration with zombie apocalypse.

It is megahours in our universe’s future (all lengths of time are given in hours and multiples of, due to the difficulty of standardising day and year length over thousands of colonised planets), and the nation of Bremen has established a colony on the far-off planet Arieka: Embassytown, a human ghetto-cum-bureaucratic facility smackdab in the middle of the indigenous species’ only city. The natives are the Ariekei, known to humans as the Hosts—and gracious hosts they are, as they provide food and wondrous biotechnology for the settlers, asking virtually nothing in exchange. However, there is a bit of a communication hurdle as the Hosts’ method of speech is physiologically impossible for humans to copy. That is until a breakthrough occurs, and specially trained-and-altered humans known as Ambassadors are finally able to speak to the Hosts. Things go peachily for a time, until the Bremen capitol, unprecedented, sends a new Ambassador to join the embassy’s Staff. This Ambassador is different in a remarkable way to all those who have come before, and the effect on the Hosts is unexpected and disastrous. Horror ensues in typical Miéville fashion.

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