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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (bufo fastidiosus)

Alan Eats A Toad

In my capacity as President of SFFANZ (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand), I constantly receive requests to review self-published novels. Indeed, some people even want to send me their unpublished manuscripts under the delusion that SFFANZ can arrange to have the things published for them. Considering that these people think of themselves as writers, they show a disturbing lack of comprehension of the written word. I would have thought that the descriptions of SFFANZ on our website would have made it abundantly clear to the meanest intellect that we are not publishers and we are not affiliated with any publishers and we have no influence on any decisions made by publishers. It even says, in big bold letters on the front page of our site:

Please do NOT send us your manuscripts. SFFANZ is not a publisher.

But that makes no difference. The information just zooms past the eyeballs of these cretins without sinking in at all.

I consistently refuse to accept or review unpublished material. But my SFFANZ book reviewing colleagues and I do feel that we have some obligation, albeit a small one, to at least look at the self-published material. We refer to this as "...eating a live toad" and we take it in turn to consume these sometimes less than savoury meals...

Just occasionally the meal actually is truly tasty. One of the nominations for this year's Sir Julius Vogel Award for best novel slithered in, hopping and croaking at us. Rather to our surprise, that particular toad turned out to be a well-disguised handsome prince. But this is the exception - almost always the books are dire.

The less tasty toads all have several things in common. Invariably the books are the first volume of a trilogy or greater (nobody EVER writes stand alone novels any more) and the books are always very, very fat. In other words they look and feel exactly the same as the majority of books from commercial publishers. So why, you may ask, haven't the toads been published commercially?

I think there are several reasons. One very obvious one is that the books are often extremely derivative. They consist of page after turgid page of what some critics have called extruded fantasy product (or EFP for short) and show little or no trace of originality at all. When nothing distinguishes one book from another, when nothing leaps from the page to grab you, when characters, plot and sometimes even geography can be moved unchanged from book to book and author to author then whether or not you win the lottery and get a professional publishing contract becomes simply a matter of chance. And the chances of success are vanishingly small. Publishers spend all day sliding between tottering stacks of slush pile paper - well actually these days the piles are probably made of electrons rather than paper, but the same image applies. If nothing makes your book stand out from the rest, if your characters and your plots simply make the reader's eyes glaze over with boredom, then you are unlikely ever to be noticed by the wheelers and the dealers, the movers and the shakers of the publishing world.

And the very best way to not get noticed is to write what everybody else is writing.

Another reason why the toads taste so foul is that many of their authors can't write a simple declarative sentence to save their lives. Often the books are so large because every noun is qualified by six mutually exclusive adjectives and every verb is pinned quiveringly in place with endless adverbial lists. Metaphor and simile are strained to breaking point with grotesque images that add nothing whatsoever to the sense. One author described a lady attending a formal dance like this:

In the sea of dancing, she glided like a bird inches from the waves...

Since when was a formal dance like the sea? And what's the lady doing hovering just above the dance floor? Do the other dancers push her to one side if she gets in the way? Is she a frictionless bearing or does her mass impart too much inertia to make her easily moveable? If we assume a perfectly spherical dancer of uniform density could we derive some useful equations of motion...

Another very common besetting sin in toad after toad is that whenever a new character appears on stage the action stops and we get a six page potted biography of the character from the moment of his birth to the present. If we are really unlucky we'll also get ten pages on his ancestry, his family's social position, his hobbies and interests, the clubs he belongs to and the names of his pets. Then, once every backstory I is dotted and every backstory T is crossed, the action of the novel resumes, a door opens, another spear carrier walks in and... lather, rinse, repeat.

It is also quite clear that many of the toad authors have a tin ear for language and simply don't realise how strange and silly some of their sentences appear. One sure way to test out the language of the story and to zero in on the more egregious stupidities is to read it out loud. It is sometimes quite obvious that the toad writers have never, ever let a word of their stories slip past their lips into the real world.

One of our toads had two characters, brothers I believe, who were called OHRL and FAERL. If you say those words out loud, no matter where the emphasis in your voice falls, it soon becomes clear that the two names are homonyms for ALL FAIL. Somehow I don't think that these two brothers are going to succeed in their quest, do you?

Another toad of my acquaintance managed the incredible feat of giving every single character in the book exactly the same tone of voice and speech pattern. Elf, dwarf, troll or hideous, ravening fire-breathing monster, it made no difference - all of them spoke in the same way, with the same cadences and word choices. The dialogue was quite impossible to follow.

Furthermore, every single character in the book, no matter what their race, had the same moral imperatives, the same ethical view of the world, and the same political opinions. The only way you could tell the characters apart was when they went to a bar - they all liked different things to eat and drink. Aha! Could this be a character trait at long last? Well, no not exactly. The comestibles all had weird, made up alien names. So who knows what was slithering down which gullet? Not me...

Urban legend claims that you can get high by licking toads. Not with these toads you can't. With these you can only get very, very low.

But what about books that do eventually get published. Are there any toads in action here? Well sometimes yes there are...

Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel is called 2312. Guess what year the action takes place in?

Earth has been devastated by the ravages of climate change. However much of the Solar System has been colonised - Mars, Venus, the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and even the planet Mercury all have thriving colonies. The book opens on Mercury, in the city of Terminator which rolls on rails across the planet's surface to keep itself, and its inhabitants, out of the glare of the sun that hangs almost close enough to touch in the sky above. It's a delightful conceit, but I can't help but wonder at the extent of the catastrophe should the city's propulsion mechanisms ever break down...

Swan Er Hong is an artist, and a completely self-centred and extraordinarily unsympathetic and obnoxious character who is living on Mercury when we first meet her. I simply cannot see how, throughout the course of the novel, so many people prove to be so fond of her. I kept hoping that someone would throw her out of the airlock and leave her to the fate she so richly deserved. But nobody did...

Swan's grandmother Alex, a redoubtable politician, has died. Alex was occupied with some secret conspiracy and in her will, she asks Swan to deliver a message to a diplomat on Titan. The conspiracy is so secret that the message cannot be delivered electronically for fear of who might be eavesdropping.

And so the stage is set for a vast travelogue around the solar system. Interplanetary distances are absorbed by captured asteroids which have been hollowed out, to build a living space inside, and which have a mass driver attached to the back. Not only are there many quirky societies developing on the planets and moons, the crews and passengers in the asteroids are also uniquely bizarre.

The solar system is a huge and disparate culture which is literally too large to be described and absorbed in a conventional narrative. And so Robinson has chosen to revive the stylistic tricks used by John Dos Passos and John Brunner in their attempts to describe large, sprawling societies. And here Robinson fails completely to convince. One reason that Dos Passos and Brunner succeeded so brilliantly was that they interspersed their narrative with extracts from newspapers, radio programs and television shows (and if they were writing today, they'd probably show us bits of blog as well). These interstitial extracts had a bouncy and often dramatic life of their own which entertained as well as filling in the details of what Brunner referred to as "the happening world". But Robinson has surrounded his narrative with sections he calls "Extracts" (though he never tells us what they are extracted from). And these extracts are nothing but tedious infodumps with no life to them at all. I suspect that they are not extracts at all - they read as if they are literal transcriptions of Robinson's research notes and speculations. They bring the narrative to a resounding and deadly dull halt whenever they occur.

Not that the narrative is exactly fast moving in its own right. The story meanders through vast travelogues and long conversations where not much happens. Only when the conspiracy to regenerate the dying earth comes together towards the end of the book do things start to pick up. But before you get there, there is an awful lot of turgid speculation to put up with as Robinson lectures the reader about the politics, economics, social history and scientific progress of his worldbuilding.

Frankly, if he's that interested in worldbuilding (and he obviously is), he would probably have done better to write the book as a non-fiction treatise. As it is, it still comes across as a treatise, albeit with a dull story and an extraordinarily annoying viewpoint character wrapped around it.

The Long Earth is a new novel by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett. They are an unlikely pair of collaborators, but here they play on each other's strengths and the result is magnificent.

The circuit diagram for a mysterious device has been published on the internet. People everywhere (mainly children to begin with) build the gadget. And when they flip the switch, they are translated instantly to a parallel Earth. The gadget becomes known as a stepper and the action of moving to the parallel planet is, of course, stepping. Most people who step are nauseous when they arrive and need several minutes to recover. But some people can step without nausea. Indeed, some people can step without needing to use a stepper at all...

The Long Earth is the name given to the seemingly infinite number of parallel planets. All seem to be uninhabited save by animals and insects and it isn't long before human colonies begin to spring up on many of the Earths as people start to explore the infinite spaces available for them to grow in. But of course, all is not as it seems...

Baxter has a tendency to wax incoherent as he contemplates the infinite. But Pratchett is a calming influence on him and for once he makes sense. Meanwhile Pratchett is left to do what he does best. And what Pratchett does best this time is nuns. Sister Agnes is particularly delightful!

This is pure golden age, sense of wonder science fiction and it casts the authentic spell; it makes the spine tingle properly. Books like this are why we started to read science fiction in the first place and they are the reason why we keep returning to it in the hope (seldom fulfilled) that the thrill will be there again. Well this time the thrill is there. The Long Earth is just magnificent. And at least one sequel is planned...

I had high hopes for John Scalzi's new novel Redshirts. He has been promoting it on his blog and early reviews were encouraging, pointing out the humour and the sly digs at the SF canon that made up the main theme of the book. Unfortunately, while these things are undoubtedly there, to my mind they simply don't work and the book as a whole was disappointing.

The title derives from the often observed fact that, in the TV series Star Trek, the anonymous characters who accompanied Kirk and Spock et. al. as they explored this week's hazardous planet would invariably die. These characters were usually dressed in a red shirt...

Scalzi's novel concerns such red shirted people who make up the crew of the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, Far too many of them are dying in pointless, contrived and unlikely ways. Could something be going on?

Well yes of course it could, and Scalzi makes a bravely self-referential attempt to address it with style and humour. Unfortunately he doesn't succeed. He tries to extract deeply meaningful ideas from the redshirt cliche, but all that he succeeds in doing is addressing some rather obvious ideas in a rather unsophisticated way. This juvenile approach robs the book of all humour and turns it into a plodding tale which is far too full of Scalzi saying "Look at me, aren't I clever? Aren't I being ever so daringly meta?" when in fact he's being nothing of the kind.

Normally I'm a big fan of Scalzi's work. But this novel is just too contrived and far too obvious in its development. Anyone with half a brain will work out what's going on within a few pages. And after that it's all downhill.

After Mario Puzo died, a writer called Mark Winegardner wrote some rather dire continuations of the Godfather story. I thought that Ed Falco's The Family Corleone would be more of the same, but it had some good reviews, so I thought I'd give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised - it was a very good book which held me enthralled.

The book is based on a screenplay written by Mario Puzo. The screenplay was never produced, but it obviously contained sufficient material to inspire Falco to produce a novel that is an excellent companion piece to Puzo's original.

The story tells the tale of the early days of Vito Corleone's rise to power. Prohibition is still in force, but the writing is on the wall. Everyone knows that the Volstead Act will soon be repealed. The gangsters are looking for new ways of making a living. The Corleone family is small and not very important in the grand scheme of things. Vito's eldest son Santino, generally known as Sonny, is working in a garage. The other children are quite young and are still at school. However, unknown to Vito, Sonny is supplementing his income by robbing the booze wagons that are bringing in stock for one of the other Mafia dons. Sonny is selling the booze to Luca Brasi who is running an independent operation. Luca Brasi is able to get away with this because everyone is afraid of him - he has a fearsome reputation as a natural born psychopath.

Eventually, against his better judgement, Vito has to take Sonny into his Mafia family. Vito is also forced to move against one of the other families who are proving untrustworthy. War is declared and fought. The climax of the book sees Vito triumphant and firmly in control of what is now a large and powerful underworld organisation.

The general outline of the plot will not take anyone by surprise. Given the situation explored by Puzo's original novel (and the brilliant movies that were made from it) it is obvious what the story will be. But the genius lies in the details. Vito's brilliant tactical manoeuvring and the way he persuades Luca Brasi to accept him as a godfather are high points in the narrative. In many ways this is Luca Brasi's story - and it is a dark and terrifying one, definitely not for the squeamish. This is also Sonny's tale. He is a man with a temper and his inability to control it gets both him and his father into a lot of trouble. He grows as a man during the course of the story, but even in his maturity he is often unable to control himself - a trait that will have fatal consequences when the events of Puzo's own novel come to pass.

Falco's book tells us nothing new in terms of the destiny of the Corleone family, but it illuminates much that was previously dark and unknown. I was pleasantly surprised and I recommend the book unreservedly.

2312 is probably a toad. Redshirts is definitely a toad. The others are well worth kissing. Princes hide inside.

Kim Stanley Robinson 2312 Orbit
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett The Long Earth Doubleday
John Scalzi Redshirts Tor
Ed Falco The Family Corleone Grand Central
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