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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (biblius solitarius)

Only some book reviews this month. I'm very busy moving house...

Harry Harrison's autobiography Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! was the last thing he wrote before he died. He didn't actually finish it – the book is in two parts. The first is a “proper” autobiography and the second consists of a series of essays about some of his novels which he intended eventually to incorporate into the body of the book. Unfortunately he died before he could finish that task. Wisely, I think, the editors decided to publish the essays as they stood rather than simply shoehorning them into the text.

Harry was fiercely proud to be an American, but he spent most of his life living outside America. In many ways, it's his defining characteristic, and much of the book talks about his experiences of the lifestyles in the various places where he made his many homes. So why did he do it? An anecdote that he tells sums up his reasons well. He lived for a time in Denmark, which has a government-run health system much along the lines of the British NHS and the health system here in NZ. An American acquaintance swore at Harry and called him a communist because he used (and argued strongly in favour of) that health system. After all, everyone knows that the American Health System is the best in the world, and socialized medicine is evil! Anyone who doesn't believe that is a traitor. Harry loved being American, but he hated American attitudes about the world that existed outside of America's borders.

I knew Harry quite well. I shared many a beer with him at British conventions and I looked after him when he was a guest at a New Zealand convention. I was familiar with many of the anecdotes in the book because I've heard him talk about them before both in casual conversation and in formal speeches. That doesn't make them any less interesting or valid of course. He is hilariously informative about the stupidity and inefficiency of the average military mind. He served during WW II and he claims (perhaps with some justification) that Bill The Galactic Hero is simple reportage. He is also particularly good (and particularly bitter) when he writes about the mess that Hollywood made when they filmed his novel Make Room! Make Room! as Soylent Green.

I enjoyed Harry's autobiography. I'm only sad that there will be no more books from his typewriter.

On his web site, John Scalzi has a regular column called “The Big Idea” where writers talk about the ideas that lie behind their new novels. Often the writers who contribute to “The Big Idea” are new writers talking about their very first novel. One such writer is called Rajan Khanna and his novel is called Falling Sky.

I must confess that if I'd just come across the blurb I wouldn't have touched the book with a barge pole. The surface of the earth is populated entirely by zombies – people who have been infected by a terrible virus that has destroyed their minds and turned them into animals. Rather like Ebola before it, the virus is transmitted in bodily fluids. Those unaffected by the virus live their lives in cities in the sky and they travel between them in airships, never touching the surface of the earth for fear of being infected should they encounter one of the ferals.

Yawn! There's nothing whatsoever about that description to attract me to the novel. Nevertheless Khanna's discussion of his book on Scalzi's web page showed that in fact there was much more to the book than the usual typical zombie apocalypse rubbish suggested by the summary. He'd thought quite deeply about how his postulated society might work and the hints he dropped about the story and the characters were intriguing. It was clear that there was nothing simple-minded about his approach to the novel. Somewhat against my better judgement, I decided to give it a try...

...and I was hooked. It's a wonderfully exciting story with fully developed characters and not a hint of cliché anywhere. The plot is full of surprising twists and turns – Khanna never takes the easy way out of tight corner. The story grabs hold of you and it simply won't let go. The novel is complete in itself (thank goodness) but there is also a grand story arc that isn't resolved and which will obviously be explored further in later novels. I for one will definitely be buying those later novels as and when they appear.

Stephen King has a new novel. It's called Revival and it may well be the best thing he's ever written. We first meet the narrator Jamie as a six year old boy. He makes the acquaintance of the new priest who has just moved to the district and he quickly becomes friends with the priest and his family. The priest has a hobby – he is exploring the properties of electricity and he claims to have discovered something he calls secret electricity, the power that lies behind the ordinary electricity known to scientists and engineers. He builds fascinating gadgets...

The priest's wife and son are killed in a tragic accident and soon the priest leaves the community. Jamie never forgets him though, and many years later, after a life as a rock guitarist, and addicted to heroin, he comes across the priest again in a carnival. The man is making pocket money by performing electrically powered magic tricks. He recognises Jamie and uses the power of secret electricity to cure his heroin addiction. For a time Jamie plays gofer to the priest's carnival show but he becomes more and more uncomfortable in the role and eventually leaves.

Years pass. Jamie's life seems to be inextricably entwined with the priest's and more and more disturbing things are revealed about the secret electricity. The cures may actually be more than the seem and the secret electricity has horrors buried within it. The climax of the story is truly shocking.

What this novel proves (yet again) is that King is a master of his craft and he can take the hoariest of ideas and breath fresh life into it. One very accurate way of describing Revival is to say that it is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein crossed with H. P. Lovecraft's Chthulhu stories. In interviews, King has also claimed Arthur Machen as an influence. In lesser hands, that would have turned into a boring mess. But King succeeds magnificently and Revival is a novel that I simply couldn't put down. It's just brilliant.

Mira Grant, the thinly pseudonymous Seanan McGuire, has written a closely connected trilogy of Zombie novels and a stand alone novella which is set in the same universe. The trilogy is known as the Newsflesh trilogy and in many ways it is best considered as a single, long novel rather than as three separate books.

By their very nature, I think that novels of the zombie apocalypse are somewhat limited in their plot possibilities. The apocalypse happens, zombies shamble around eating people and the people try and defend themselves. All too quickly it becomes formulaic – battle after battle, gore and grue and shambling monsters. However the Newsflesh books have received much praise and have been nominated for many awards. This made me curious. What on earth could Mira Grant have done to break out of the standardised zombie apocalypse mode? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot...

The basic premise is that two different groups of scientists have manufactured two sets of viruses. One of them is a cure for the common cold and the other is a cure for cancer. Unfortunately, when the two viruses combine in the body they have an unfortunate side effect – the body becomes a zombie! Ooops...

Everyone in the world has a low grade viral infection, but not all of them necessarily turn into zombies. There are several trigger events that can amplify the virus and induce zombiehood – if you die, you become a zombie. If you are bitten by a zombie, you become a zombie. All the usual mechanisms apply.

Life goes on in the non-zombie world. The internet connects the world together and bloggers have become the new journalists. The connecting theme of the trilogy concerns the investigations and the reports produced by one of the world's best blogging teams.

The surface story is really rather silly. There's a massive conspiracy to keep the world infected for the benefit of a shadowy group of political power players and only the blogging team can expose them and save the world! The author presents the investigation competently and, if you like exciting stories and lots of fights and clever explorations of the implications of a zombie apocalypse, you'll enjoy the books a lot.

But it's what's going on under the surface that turns these books into something really rather interesting and rather clever. They are best read as an extended metaphor that dramatises and explores the implications of the rather frightening political trends that are taking place in the real world as governments vainly attempt to do something about a perceived terrorist threat.

Current political propaganda would have us believe that there is are monumental (and somewhat shadowy) terrorist organisations bent on destroying our way of life. They are so effective in their terror tactics that they cannot be fought in any meaningful way without sacrificing the basic freedoms that we have, in the past, fought real wars to defend. And so more and more of the details of our lives are constrained as the governments implement more and more controls over our lives in the name of security. Mass surveillance, lack of privacy, imprisonment without trial and (perhaps most intrusive of all) the utterly useless security theatre of airport checkpoints. When humanity is threatened, human rights are sacrificed.

In the world of Mira Grant's novels, the zombies represent these real-world terrorist threats (at least as defined by the propaganda) – zombies have no logic driving them, they cannot be argued with, their natures cannot be changed and they are everywhere, waiting to pop up a moment's notice and start feeding. The only way to combat them is for the government to control the minutiae of everyday life. Everyone is constantly subjected to blood tests designed to prove that they are not (yet) zombies. They are under constant observation (for their own safety, of course) and should they fail to toe the line they are ruthlessly killed. The paranoia goes all the way up the corridors of power and it will come as no surprise to the reader that those at the top of the tree are simultaneously the most frightened, and also the most eager to hang on to their increasingly powerful offices. What's that saying about absolute power corrupting the powerful?

As a metaphor, the Newsflesh world works in very clever ways. In a sense, these are extremely subversive novels that say a lot of nasty things about the way that governments (and particularly the American government) work. It is clear that Mira Grant has little patience with the sillier manifestations of security theatre – one of the characters is British and she uses him to provide an outside point of view as a person who can legitimately criticise the more extreme aspects of what he sees in America. Furthermore, in the stand alone novella How Green This Land, How Blue the Sea she takes the action to Australia where the same things that threaten America have been dealt with much more sensibly, and where governmental interference in the lives of the citizens is minimal in comparison to America.

Zombie apocalypse novels don't have to be the trivial nonsense that they all too often are. Mira Grant has proved that they can carry a lot of weight on the back of their rather simple-minded premise. The surface story of Newsflesh is indeed as silly as you might expect it to be, but the structure under the surface is firmly constructed and ultimately the books are a satisfying and somewhat worrying read.

Ben Aaronovitch's new novel Foxglove Summer is the fifth novel chronicling the supernatural adventures of policeman Peter Grant. Probably you need to have read the previous novels in the series in order to fully appreciate this one. And I'll guarantee that if you have read the previous novels, you'll fall on this one with glad cries of glee. Be assured, the standard hasn't slipped at all – it's as wise and as witty and as cleverly plotted as all the rest of the books.

The previous novel ended with an enormous plot reversal that left the reader gasping. While this plot point is certainly acknowledged in the new book and there is a very small sub-thread that uses it, the novel as a whole branches off into completely new directions. In terms of plot, it is by no means the mixture as before, I find this a very healthy feature...

For the first time, the story moves out of London and Peter is left largely alone to solve the mysteries he is presented with. His colleagues remain in London and while they do have roles to play, they are kept very much in the background. However he isn't completely alone – Beverley (one of the most interesting and mischievous of the rivers) is always by his side and continues to get him into trouble.

Two girls have gone missing and there may well be magical implications which is how Peter gets involved in the case. An encounter with a carnivorous unicorn suggests that indeed there is something suspicious going on. Peter has some thoughts on this:

'There’s weird shit,’ I said. ‘And we deal with the weird shit, but normally it turns out that there’s a perfectly rational explanation.’ Which is often that a wizard did it.

Go on – read the book. You know you want to.

Harry Harrison Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! Tor
Rajan Khanna Falling Sky Pyr
Stephen King Revival Scribner
Mira Grant Feed Orbit
Mira Grant Deadline Orbit
Mira Grant Blackout Orbit
Mira Grant How Green This Land, How Blue the Sea Orbit
Ben Aaronovitch Foxglove Summer Gollancz
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