Thursday, 27 March 2014

Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise

I tend to look for­ward to each new novel by Ro­bert Char­les Wil­son with the ex­pec­ta­ti­on of, at the very least, in­tel­li­gent en­ter­tain­ment. I still rate Spin a true mas­ter­work of sf, and while its two fol­low-​up no­vels weren‘t bril­li­ant, I still liked Axis for its ro­man­tic sense of ad­ven­ture and Vor­tex for its sheer con­cep­tu­al gran­deur. And Ju­li­an Com­stock might have been fla­wed, but it is ne­ver­the­l­ess enor­mous­ly fun to read.
Howe­ver, Burning Pa­ra­di­se puts a se­rious dent in my op­ti­mism about Wil­son’s no­vels. It is not per se a bad novel – it’s well-​paced, with an ori­gi­nal and en­ga­ging sfnal idea and ser­vice­able main cha­rac­ters. But at the same time, it am­pli­fies ever­y­thing that is bland, fa­ci­le and pre­dic­ta­ble about Wil­son’s wri­ting. It feels like a book that, in an at­tempt to plea­se, takes all the easy ways out of its in­te­res­ting di­lem­mas, while ad­ding some half-​hear­ted, pulpy hor­ror ele­ments as stand-​ins for grit.
So what is Burning Pa­ra­di­se about? Its al­ter­na­te his­to­ry con­cept is ac­tual­ly pret­ty cool: around the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the ti­me­line of earth in this novel starts to di­ver­ge si­gni­fi­cant­ly from ours. Wars and major po­li­ti­cal cri­ses have been aver­ted by a world­wi­de cul­tu­re of de-​esca­la­ti­on and, often en­ough, by sheer co­in­ci­dence. In 2014, the year the novel is set in, peop­le on earth ce­le­bra­te the 100th an­ni­versa­ry of the Great Ar­mis­ti­ce that ended the last real war. The world still has its share of smal­ler mi­li­ta­ry con­flicts, but they al­ways seem to fizz­le out.
Ano­ther major dif­fe­rence bet­ween our world and the world of Burning Pa­ra­di­se is the so-​cal­led ra­dio-​pro­pa­ga­ti­ve layer around earth that am­pli­fies and pro­pa­ga­tes all radio si­gnals, so that they can be re­cei­ved all around the world.
What most peop­le don‘t know is that the ra­dio-​pro­pa­ga­ti­ve layer is in fact a li­fe­form that en­ve­lops earth and in­flu­en­ces hu­ma­ni­ty by subt­ly al­te­ring its radio trans­mis­si­ons. As it seems, only a small in­ter­na­tio­nal group of sci­en­tists and in­tel­lec­tu­als cal­ling its­elf „the Cor­re­spon­dence So­cie­ty“ is aware of this. These peop­le, most of them aca­de­mics who have found their re­se­arch into cer­tain fields mis­te­rous­ly blo­cked and chose to in­ves­ti­ga­te, have been play­ing at con­spi­ra­cy for a few deca­des. Cal­ling the li­fe­form „the hy­per­co­l­ony“, they are con­vin­ced that it is a kind of hive en­t­i­ty wi­thout true in­tel­li­gence or con­scious­ness – but with the evol­ved abi­li­ty to ma­ni­pu­la­te in­tel­li­gent spe­cies and mi­mick their lan­gua­ge and even their ap­pearan­ce. The Cor­re­s­pon­cence So­cie­ty is con­vin­ced that the cen­tu­ry of re­la­ti­ve peace that hu­ma­ni­ty has en­joy­ed has been en­gi­nee­red by the hy­per­co­l­ony to fur­ther its own ends – wha­te­ver they may be. Most mem­bers of the so­cie­ty were happy doing their re­se­arch and ke­eping their mouths shut, never mes­sing with the hy­per­co­l­ony its­elf. That chan­ged in 2007: so-​cal­led sims, soulless, hu­man-​look­ing things crea­ted by the hy­per­co­l­ony, tar­get and eli­mi­na­te most of the lea­ding minds of the So­cie­ty. The rest go into hiding, most of them just ke­eping their head down. But for some of them, it’s war from now on – hu­ma­nities first real war in a long time.
We get all of this backsto­ry re­la­tive­ly early in the book, which is a smart move. In­s­tead of try­ing to build sus­pen­se by teasing the big re­veal, Wil­son re­veals pret­ty much ever­y­thing at the be­gin­ning and then goes on to ex­plo­re the con­cept. Or so I ex­pec­ted, but there’s ac­tual­ly very litt­le ex­plo­ra­ti­on hap­pe­ning.
The first big dis­app­point­ment is how litt­le Wil­son makes of his al­ter­na­te his­to­ry sce­na­rio – apart from what we hear from the news and the ap­pa­rent (and lo­gi­cal) lack of ad­van­ced com­pu­ter and space flight tech­no­lo­gy, this world doesn‘t seem very re­mo­ved from our own. Its ge­ne­ral cul­tu­re is pret­ty si­mi­lar – which is a hard pill to swal­low, if we ima­gi­ne that the most de­fi­ning event of the 20th cen­tu­ry, World War 2, never took place. To be fair, we spend most of the time with prot­ago­nists who are on the run and try to avoid con­tact with pret­ty much ever­yo­ne outside of their cir­cle of co-​con­spi­ra­tors, so as re­a­ders, we might never learn about most of the chan­ges; howe­ver, it looks as if Wil­son had de­li­be­ra­te­ly set out to con­struct a nar­ra­ti­ve that al­lo­wed him to show us as litt­le as pos­si­ble of this al­ter­na­te earth, and that begs the ques­ti­on why he de­ci­ded to make this an AH novel in the first place.
There are other ele­ments of the novel that truly stretch credu­li­ty. For ex­amp­le, it seems pret­ty stran­ge that all mem­bers of the cor­re­s­pon­cence so­cie­ty are ab­so­lu­te­ly con­vin­ced that the cen­tu­ry of re­la­ti­ve peace on earth is the hy­per­co­l­ony’s work. These are aca­de­mics and hu­ma­nists – should not at least some of them con­s­i­der the pos­si­bi­li­ty that human cul­tu­re has sim­ply evol­ved bey­ond big-​sca­le mi­li­ta­ry con­flicts? That re­a­son has fi­nal­ly won? There is, after all, very litt­le com­pel­ling evi­dence about how ex­act­ly the hy­per­co­l­ony chan­ged human his­to­ry. Should the exact na­tu­re of its in­flu­ence not at least be a mat­ter of de­ba­te? If I found out about an alien en­t­i­ty ma­ni­pu­la­ting hu­ma­ni­ty, I would cer­tain­ly not jump to the con­clu­si­on that that must be the ex­pla­na­ti­on for the cur­rent era of peace and sta­bi­li­ty. Psy­cho­lo­gi­cal­ly, this would only make sense for so­me­o­ne who knows how the ac­tu­al his­to­ry of the 20th cen­tu­ry play­ed out.
Then there is the no­ti­on of the non-​in­tel­li­gence of the hy­per­co­l­ony, that also seems to be shared by ever­yo­ne in the Cor­re­spon­dence So­cie­ty, even though it is based sim­ply on the ana­lo­gy of the in­sect state. This might have brought up some in­te­res­ting ques­ti­ons about how we de­fi­ne con­scious­ness, and how we can know if so­me­thing has a con­scious­ness, if not from its be­ha­viour. After all, the hy­per­co­l­ony-​crea­ted, hu­man-​look­ing sims do act like hu­mans most of the time;. We are told time and again that this is an act, a lie, and not even that – it is mi­micry, a stra­te­gy that has de­ve­lo­ped through evo­lu­ti­on, wi­thout a con­scious mind be­hind it. And su­re­ly, as soon as the sims are dis­co­ver­ed, they drop the act and be­ha­ve as per­fect sol­diers of the hy­per­co­l­ony, with no emo­ti­ons, no soul and no re­gard for their own life.
While the sims as in­di­vi­du­als are time and again con­vin­cingly re­vea­led to be in­hu­man, they still act as if there was an in­tel­li­gence be­hind their ac­tions, using them as flesh pup­pets. Howe­ver, even that pos­si­bi­li­ty is time and again de­nied by all point-​of-​view cha­rac­ters of the novel. Ever­yo­ne seems to be ab­so­lu­te­ly con­vin­ced that only mi­micry is at work.
But how be­lieva­ble is the no­ti­on that the hy­per­co­l­ony is non-​in­tel­li­gent, that it is only mi­mi­cking con­scious­ness to in­ter­act mor
e ef­fi­ci­ent­ly with hu­ma­ni­ty? If, for ex­amp­le, the hy­per­co­lo­nies use of lan­gua­ge is sim­ply a mat­ter of evo­lu­tio­na­ry ad­ap­ta­ti­on, should the trial and error in­vol­ved not have led to the dis­co­very of the hy­per­co­l­ony by hu­mans long ago? Is it even ima­ginable that so­me­thing like the use of lan­gua­ge can be „le­ar­ned“ by bio­lo­gi­cal mi­micry – wi­t­hin the li­fe­time of any given human lan­gua­ge – wi­thout the wor­kings of a mind that ac­tual­ly can un­der­stand and re­flect on its sym­bo­li­cal di­men­si­on? Can lan­gua­ge be suc­cess­ful­ly „mi­mi­cked“ in that way?
The whole con­cept seems so flim­sy that I half-​ex­pec­ted the whole story the Cor­re­s­pon­cence So­cie­ty tells its­elf to fly apart at some point in the novel. How come that no one has ever in­ves­ti­ga­ted the sims, who have been pre­sent on earth at least for deca­des and are not only si­gni­fi­cant­ly dif­fe­rent from hu­mans on a bio­lo­gi­cal level, but also have to be born by un­knowing human mo­thers? Su­re­ly, there is so­me­thing like pre-​na­tal ul­tra-​sound check­ups in this world, so a child with green goo in­s­tead of a brain should kind of stick out even be­fo­re birth.
While we do find out that the So­cie­ty doesn‘t know the full pic­tu­re, ever­y­thing it does suspect about the hy­per­co­l­ony turns out to be true. I did prai­se Wil­son for gi­ving us all the re­le­vant in­for­ma­ti­on about his novum right in the be­gin­ning, and I‘m not say­ing that I ex­pec­ted some big re­veal; but I would have ex­pec­ted him to ex­plo­re the am­bi­va­len­ces of his con­cept.
To be fair, there is ano­ther con­cep­tu­al thread in the novel that turns out to be less about the dif­fi­cul­ties in de­fi­ning the na­tu­re of con­scious­ness and more about the iro­nies of war and free­dom. It is made pret­ty clear that some mem­bers of the cor­re­spon­dence so­cie­ty ac­tual­ly long for war with the hy­per­co­l­ony, or maybe just for any war, and that they re­sent the hy­per­co­l­ony for pul­ling hu­ma­nities teeth. In the end, the most bel­li­co­se So­cie­ty mem­ber turns out to be the one who has been most ma­ni­pu­la­ted by the hy­per­co­l­ony; and the main mes­sa­ge of the book seems to be that the best sol­diers among the So­cie­ty are ex­act­ly like the sims they des­pi­se: They are calm, ruth­less and sel­fless in their ac­tions, like mem­bers of a hi­ve-​iden­ti­ty that care in no way for their in­di­vi­du­al sur­vi­val. So the irony would be that hu­ma­nities fight to be free from the hy­per­co­l­ony will lead only to hu­ma­ni­ty be­co­ming more like the hy­per­co­l­ony – in­s­tead of being „prey­ed“ upon in a most be­ne­vo­lent way by a mind­less alien in­sect-​god, it will bru­tal­ly and equal­ly mind­less­ly prey upon its­elf. I app­re­cia­te this mes­sa­ge as a de­con­struc­tion of sol­dier­ly vir­tu­es; howe­ver, it is de­li­ver­ed pret­ty hea­vy-​han­ded­ly, and, again, so­re­ly lacks com­ple­xi­ty.
Maybe I‘m co­ming down a litt­le hard on this book, since, on top of it all, I re­al­ly find its half­way ap­pro­ving de­pic­tion of con­spi­ra­cy theo­ries ra­ther mis­gui­ded; while it is true that Burning Pa­ra­di­se sa­ti­ri­zes the self-​im­portant con­spi­ra­cy theo­rist who con­s­i­ders him­s­elf at war, it also vin­di­ca­tes the nar­cis­sis­tic mind­set of con­spi­ra­cy theo­rists in ge­ne­ral, wi­thout cas­ting any doubt on the no­ti­on of par­ta­king in some secret know­ledge. This is a po­li­ti­cal ob­jec­tion against Wil­son’s novel that not ever­yo­ne will share.
I haven‘t lost a word about any of the cha­rac­ters in Burning Pa­ra­di­se; the re­a­son being that, while they are all ser­vice­able and act more or less be­liev­a­b­ly, there is not­hing very in­te­res­ting about them. There’s teen­age love and es­tran­ged love, there’s anger and there are hi­d­den qua­li­ties that may not be qua­li­ties after all; all of this is de­pic­ted pret­ty well and should at least be en­ga­ging on a human level, but it just didn‘t click with me. In the end, the only thing Burning Pa­ra­di­se re­al­ly has going for it is sus­pen­se – it gets into the thick of it pret­ty much from page one and doesn‘t let up. But I‘ve re­al­ly come to ex­pect more from Wil­son.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Laird Barron, the Croning

Laird Barron's two story collections The Imago Sequence and Occultation have made him my favourite horror author next to Lovecraft; However, I hesitated to read his first full-length novel, The Croning, for a while; I felt that in some of Barron's last few stories some of the recurring motives were wearing thin, and I wasn't quite sure if the mythology he has established could carry the weight of a whole novel.

The Croning put these fears at rest (while awakening a few older, darker ones); it is a brillant novel, perhaps Barron's best work to date, even though it is not as relentless as most of his short fiction. It has a much slower pace, but not in the sense that the narrative is stretched out - The Croning is a relatively short novel of about 250 pages -, but in the sense that it really is the story of a sinister truth unfolding over the course of more than 60 years. I think what Barron sets out here to reformulate a fundamental concept of cosmic horror - the notion that the universe is alien to us, and that a true understanding of its alienness can only come at the expense of our humanity - on a very personal level. Lovecraft with his technique of suggesting the unspeakable by a sort of frenetic loquaciousness couldn't do that.

 [From here on, beware of spoilers]

The Croning's narrative about the not quite normal, but basically good life of it's protagonist Don Miller, which is peppered with events that hint at abject terror that he either forgots or dismisses - until, in the very end, they coalesce to a fearful picture that undermines everything he ever believed and trusted in. The main storyline concerns octogenarian Don and his wife Michelle, happily married, who live in a house that has belonged to Michelle's family for generations and in which Don has never felt quite at home. Several flashbacks show both of them in their younger, wilder years and suggest that secrecy and violence have played a bigger role in their life than the older Don remembers.
Using a protagonist with a unreliable memory to construct a narrativeabout fearful revelations might seem like a cop-out, but Barron utilizes this device in a very effective and above all, believable way. His short stories are full of moments in which relatively normal situations tilt sideways, and suddenly everything seems to slide towards the abyss of the abject - and, as opposed to Lovecraft, Barron is usually highly economic in describing such moments. Take, for example, a passage from The Croning where Don, who is already slightly off kilter, enters an extremely shady drinking den somewehre in Mexico:

"A yellow dog missing an eye snapped at him, all rotten teeth and lolling tongue, and tore of a chunk of his leg, putting action to the crowd's voiceless intent. People laughed and guitars and horns kicked back to life. He had paid the cover charge of flesh."

The passage manages not only to suggest the danger of sickness and death that are implicit in something that can happen to any of us on the street, namely being bitten by a dog; it also implies that this mortal assault is an exemplification of the hostility of the world around Don, and even in a way part of a ritual.
Due to the hallucinatory character of such moments, it is easy for Don to dismiss the revelation of a hostile universe implicit in them. And while we as readers can easily identify with this dismissal, we also know that we are reading a horror novel and that such moments are in fact relevations of the true nature of the book's reality.
The Croning hops from one of these moments to the next and thereby paints a picture of the dark, repressed underside of Don's life. It skirts the border between the conscious and the unconscious, never quite revealing what is really going on down there in the regions of his life he cannot access. However, a Lovecraftian inversion of psychoanalysis is at work here, for the unconscious is not the internal realm of the protagonist, but the external, objective truth of the universe he is living in. The darkness is outside of Don, while the idea that it is only inside, that it is just an expression of his childish fears (he suffers from an irrational fear of the dark, for example) is the soothing lie he tells himself.

The Croning is also a story about childhood; even as an octogenarian, Don seems very much like a child who is protected, but also dominated by his wife Michelle, who clearly knows more about the dark secrets of his past he can't quite access. His awakening to the dark truth behind the strange occurances throughout his life is also a kind of awakening to the realm of harsh reality. In his mid-eighties, Don is still a child who finally has to learn that one day, he will die; That one day, everyone has to die. It is "the beautiful thing that awaits us all", because death in The Croning is also highly sexualized (the imagery of Don's revelation in the end is basically that of a perverse returning to the womb - a ziggurat with a vaginal abyss that swallos a degenerated humankind). Don is offered a chance to cheat death, but only at the price of sacrificing his "inner child" - which, in the inverted psychoanalytic logic of the novel, is of course an external child. One way of the other, accepting the truth of death means that, in a way, you have already died; your only choice is to cynically embrace this truth or to impotently deny it (there is no option to come to terms with death peacefully in The Croning, for it is, after all, a horror novel).

Finally, The Croning might also be called a misgynist novel, as its horror relies heavily not only on vaginal imagery, but also on the archetype of the witch and on the notion of female sexual power. This is obviously a very conscious decision by the author, and I'm not sure if I would level this as a critque against the book; in the end, the motive of a male protagonist living in a world that is dominated by a dark power conceptualised as female, who not only threatens to obliterate the protagonist but also deeply and sincerely loves him (albeit in a quite horrific way) is just so damn effective. After all, most horror fiction is dependant on gendered archetypes, and The Croning at least knows what it does by employing them to their best effect.

In the revealing dialogue towards the end of the book, Barron admits a certain triteness within the concept of cosmic horror, an inherent inability to live up to its promise; it shows how well he knows what he does, and maybe he knows it a little too well, because without this confession, the immediate effect of the novel might have been even more powerful. However, it is also an invitation to re-think the concepts of cosmic horror. I think this thorough re-thinking is what Barron has been doing since The Imago Sequence.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Award for Marusek translation, 2312

Together with Jasper Nicolaisen, I received the Kurd Lasswitz SF Award for our German translation of several Stories from David Marusek's collection Getting to Know You (published by Golkonda, German publisher of, among others, Ted Chiang, Paolo Bacigalupi, Joe Lansdale, K.J. Parker and Samuel R. Delany). These are great and beautifully written stories, and tranlating them was highly rewarding in itself - among the stories I translated was "We were out of our minds with joy", and it's one of my favourite short stories, period. It's wonderful not only to see our work reognized this way, but to see that we have been able to convey our enthusiasm for Marusek's writing.

Beyond that, translating Marusek also has been a door-opener - at the moment, I'm translating Kim Stanley Robinson' 2312 into German for Heyne. So basically, I'm getting paid for reading (and corresponding with) one of my favourite authors! That one will be followed by Brom's new novel Krampus, and if his The Child Thief is anything to go by, I'll have a blast translating it.

If life keeps treating me so well, I'll probably get spoiled ...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

K.J. Parker, Purple and Black - German translation

My German translation of K.J. Parkers excellent novella "Purple & Black" has just been published as a beautiful paperback edition by Golkonda press, German publisher of authors like David Marusek, Ted Chiang and Joe Lansdale. I hope I was able to do justice to Parker's sense of humor, wit and complexity. I can honestly say that I never before had so much fun translating a book. Who knows, if the fun is reflected in sales, Golkonda might publish another book by Parker (maybe even one of the meatier novels - The Company, for example) - I would certainly be looking forward to it!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

German authors: Markolf Hoffmann

This is the first of (hopefully) many articles about some of my favourite authors writing in German; most of them haven't been translated into English (yet), so if you don't speak German an feel that you absolutely have to read one of the books im writing about, you'll just have to find a publisher who's willing to translate them!

Further entries will (probably) be about Walter Moers, Gero Reimann, Karla Schmidt, Marcus Hammerschmitt and Jasper Nicolaisen.

I would like to say that I am a longtime fan of Markolf Hoffmanns books, but I actually only discovered him two or three years ago. His first Quadrilogy of fantasy novels is Das Zeitalter der Wandlung (The Age of Transformation), which comes across as one of many pseudo-medieval fantasies about a Chosen One who has to save the world from an Invasion of fearsome lizard creatures, but quickly becomes a complex tale about politics (think Game of Thrones), about the authoritarian core of the myth of the chosen (think China Mieville), about the malleability of mythological truth and about the double-edged human capacity to dominate nature. Even though The Age of Transformation is flawed (it is a first novel, or a first four novels, after all), I would still rate it the best work of post-tolkienesque High Fantasy written in the German language. Due to a somewhat troubled publishing history, however, the later volumes went pretty much unnoticed. It probably didn't help these are "difficult" books with complex and not always smpathetic main characters.

A few years ago, I got to know Markolf Hoffmann and 2011, I had the opportunity to publish a collection of his fantasy short fiction, Das Flüstern zwischen den Zweigen (The Whispering Between the Twigs). Most of these stories are about the problematic relationship between man and nature, and at the same time quite romantic as they are critical of pastoral romanticism. They are post-Tolkien in the truest sense, respectfully picking up Tolkiens ecological argument and turning it from it's head to it's feet. Their protagonists tend to end up in pretty gruesome moral dilemmas. Most of the stories are set in pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds with subtle, but noticeable elements of magic, with something bizarre bubbling up here and there and a good helping of dark and occassionally grisly humor. The best comparision might be Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Hoffmann's new novel, Ines öffnet die Tür (Ines Opens the Door), is a YA book about a girl that inherits a secret room from her grandmother, the door of which, unseen by others, follows her everywhere. Once appropriated, the room grants certain types of wishes. However, not only is it situated within an impenetrable fog which is said to hide dangerous secrets, there's also an old magician who has been collecting rooms like this for centuries and who is now on Ines heels ...
Ines öffnet die Tür is an old-fashioned YA-book: There is an element of suspense, but it does not have the frantic pace or over-the-top violence and action elements of The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go (the latter of which I consider one of the best YA books in recent years). There also is a teenage romance, but it has nothing in common with the hystericism of Twilight - it is firmly situated within the mundane world and has nothing to do with Ines' discovery of the magical room beyond the door, and when romance and magic finally intermingle, it means nothing but trouble and disappointment. The romance aspect is handled quite believable, because first love plays an important role in the life of 13-years old Ines, but certainly not the most important role. Her relationship to her parents, the sudden disappearance of her grandmother, her best friend Sonja - in the end, all of this means much more to Ines than one good-looking guy.
While all of this gives Hoffmann's characters a pleasant sense of authenticity and believability, it also makes the book feel a little tame. The story and the mystery of Ines öffnet die Tür are well thought-through, the characters easy to grasp and yet not flat, and there is a good dose of quirky humor, but in the end, it feels as if Hoffmann was holding back. Maybe there will be a sequel (the ending would allow for it) that delivers that little something that seems to be missing.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Nomination for German SF Award

My story 'Auslese', published last year in the anthology Die Audienz, is among the 12 stories nominated for the DSFP (German Science Fiction Award). The DSFP is one of the two major SF awards in Germany, the other one being the KLP (Kurd Lasswitz Award). Also nominated are a number of stories from the excellent Anthology Hinterland edited by Karla Schmidt.
Auslese has previously been translated into Hungarian, so I guess I did something right with that story ...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Alchemist, The Executioness and The Letdown

I was stoked with anticipation for Paolo Bacigalupi's foray into fantasy, the novella The Alchemist. Not only did I love most of his short fiction (strangely enough with the exception of „The Calorie Man“) and his novel The Windup Girl. Also, The Alchemist was to be published by Subterranean Press, and therefore became associated in my mind with another fantasy novella from that publisher, the excellent Purple and Black by K.J. Parker. It didn't hurt that The Alchemist comes paired with The Executioness, a novella by Tobias S. Buckell, an author I'd been planning to check out for some time.

As it turned out, neither of the two novellas did anything for me – I found both of them pretty uninspired and conventional, even irritating. While, on the surface, they seem to be ambitious and eager to broaden the scope of the fantasy genre, if you scratch that surface, you'll find little but well-worn tropes beneath it. That's not to say that either of the two novellas is bad – the stories are both more or less well-told and well-constructed. They are just not very good, and certainly not what one would have expected by an author like Bacigalupi (I can't say anything about Buckell, because I haven't read anything else by him yet), and they are certainly not on par with fantasy works by authors like R. Scott Bakker, K.J. Parker or Jeff VanderMeer.

Here's the specifics on what bugged me about the novellas:

Paolo Bacigalupi - The Alchemist

In a world were each use of magic feeds the deadly bramble encroaching on the land, the executioner's axe awaits all unsanctioned sorcerers. But Jeoz, the title character of the novella, has found a non-magical way to kill the hardy bramble by using alchemy. However, when he presents his invention to the lords of the city of Khaim, they decide to put it to use in a perverse way …

The concept behind the world devised by Buckell and Bacigalupi actually has merit (although it is vaguely reminiscent of the Dungeons&Dragons RPG setting Dark Sun), especially insofar as neither of them is using it to shove any platitudes along the lines of „magic (i.e. Technology) is bald because it disturbs the balance of nature“ down the reader's throats. Instead we get the next-best platitude, namely that inventors may have the best intentions, but they can't control the use that powermongers will put their inventions to. There's nothing wrong about this concept, but it is pretty tiresome if it is presented as shocking twist about halfway into a story, when you actually can see it coming from page one.

There's a more interesting conflict in The Alchemist, about taking part in some greater evil by committing small and necessary sins, and about the injustice of of punishing the small sinner when the great sinner is the one dealing out the punishment. However, Bacigalupi makes little of this concepts except trying to convince us that the people in power are evil and sadistic.

All this would be forgiveable, if The Alechemist was not an exceedingly melodramatic novella. Bacigalupi gives Jeoz a terminally ill but heart-warmingly couragous littel daughter, whose suffering is clearly a blunt device to choke the reader up, but provides no sense of the ugly reality of sickness and fear of death. Add the fact that Jeoz, while commiting a few small sins, is clearly a blameless man pushed around by evil powermongers, and the character of his loyal housekeeper who also happens to love him unconditionally, and you have to ask yourself how so much mawkishness can come from the author of The Windup Girl.

As a fantasy reader, I feel vaguely insulted by The Alchemist. It feels as if Bacugalupi is slumming, as if he thinks that in fantasy, he can get away with lazy characterisations, half-baked world-building and cheap melodramatics. I'm pretty sure that I'm overreacting and that that was not Bacigalupi's intention at all, but at the very least I have to say that The Alchemist is by far his weakest work yet.

Tobias S. Buckell - The Executioness

My reaction to the second novella set in the same world as The Alchemist wasn't that strong. The Executioness is an ironic take on classical fantasy notions of heroism, but it's notions about the nature of heroism as something imposed from the outside are pretty conventional. Tana, the protagonist, is a simple women who dons the axe and the cloak of her father, an executioner, and leaves her home to save her children who have been abducted by raiders. Reluctantly, she takes on the role of a symbol of courage in the fight against an enemy who kidnaps children to reeducate them, even though she accomplishes most of her heroic deeds by accident. Buckell goes through the standard motions of de- and reconstructing heroism - Tana is not a great warrior at all, but it is her reluctance to accept her role that marks her as a true hero of the people. In the end, she finds out that the enemy might not be that wicked after all and that being a symbol might put her in a position that keeps her from fulfilling her personal goals. It's all pretty much by the numbers and occasionally preachy. What's worse is that, while the foreword implies that Buckell was trying to write a vaguely feminist fantasy novella by choosing a middle-aged female protagonist, there's actually a pretty disturbing kind of sexism at work in it, implying that while men fight for money and glory, women fight for their families.

Finally, Buckell's prose style is serviceable but just not very interesting or engaging. In the end, The Executioness is only slightly more successful than The Alechemist because it aims a little lower.

By the way, Subterranean Press made up for these two novellas by publishing K.J. Parkers new novella Blue & Gold, which is thematically similar to The Alchemist, but much more complex, surprising, engaging, funny and well-written. Maybe part of the reason that I'm coming down so hard on Bacigalupi and Buckell is that I've read a lot of Parker's stuff in the last few weeks (The Folding Knife, The Hammer, Blue & Gold and "Amor Vincit Omnia"). It's hard to top Parker when it comes to writing about scientific genius, accidental heroism and good intentions paving the road to hell. Bacigalupi and Buckell are obviously not up to it, at least not when they're writing fantasy.