Subliminal Visions and Secret Manuscripts: Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum


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Sometimes it can help to begin with the text behind the text. Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum is a surreal puzzle box of a novel, presented as a series of found documents spanning both the recent past and the near future—but its first few lines come via a quartet of epigraphs, encompassing everything from the fiction of Kōbō Abe to the history of South Africa. Triangulum doesn’t lack for ambition and, as it gathers momentum, it conveys a sense of approaching dread, of events both historical and metaphysical approaching some horrific end point. This is a paranoid novel about the end of the world; this is also a novel about the power and ambiguity of apocalyptic narratives.

Triangulum opens in 2043, with a Foreword by Dr. Naomi Buthelezi. An acclaimed writer (with Hugo and Nebula wins to her credit), she is recruited by her colleague at the University of Cape Town, Dr. ...

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A Most Subtle Counterfactual: Paul Kerschen’s The Warm South


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This year, not even half over, has brought with it a number of novels in which alternate timelines play a crucial role. K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived followed the lives of a group of refugees from an alternate Earth and their efforts to, in part, figure out exactly where their Earth’s timeline diverged from our own. Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me posits that a world in which Alan Turing had not died in the 1950s would be one in which certain technological advances, from the internet to artificial humans, would be a part of the world by the 1980s. In both of these novels, like many alternate histories, the changes to the world are seismic; it’s easy to pinpoint just where things changed.

Paul Kerschen’s novel The Warm South also tells the story of a world in which something occurred differently than it did on our own. But ...

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Moral Quandaries and Misdirection: Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me


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Ian McEwan’s fiction frequently grapples with grand moral issues and explores the grey areas that can arise when imperfect people—or, you know, people—attempt to solve problems that may not have a perfect solution. Ian McEwan’s fiction has also been known to possess an unnerving or even uncanny streak: his novel Black Dogs stops just short of venturing into the horrific, for instance. So it’s less bizarre than it initially seems for him to be venturing into the realm of science fiction.

Machines Like Me is a curious work, though. At times it reads like two shorter novels woven together, linked up by the couple at its center. One of these narratives is overtly science fictional, while the other ventures into the same unsettling moral territory as some of McEwan’s best fiction. But it’s also set in an alternate timeline, an early 1980s Great Britain where the timeline shifted from ...

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Infinite Pathways and a Sense of Menace: Liz Harmer’s The Amateurs


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Sometimes, you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Case in point: before you read a word of Liz Harmer’s novel The Amateurs, you’ll encounter a comprehensive-looking table of contents. The novel, it tells you, is divided into three parts: “The Amateurs,” “The Professionals,” and “The Travellers,” each with distinctly-named chapters and a brief interlude. If you’re prone to reverse-engineering novels from their tables of contents, and I’m sure some of you are, you’ll find plenty to ponder here.

Sometimes, you have no idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Case in point: the situation faced by the world of Harmer’s novel. When the book begins, it’s the aftermath of an event that’s decimated the Earth’s population. Initially the novel centers around a small community in a Canadian city: specifically, one which is “down to forty-two, not including pets” as the novel opens. This isn’t the result ...

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Where Futurism Meets the Liminal: The Short Fiction of Sarah Pinsker


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The stories found within Sarah Pinsker’s collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea are a wide-ranging bunch. There’s a meticulously-constructed examination of life and culture on a generation ship; a tale of a young mariner endeavoring to outwit a group of sirens; and a neatly metafictional mystery involving a gathering of the Sarah Pinskers of various parallel Earths, including one who, just like the author, is a Nebula Award-winning writer.. But this book isn’t simply a showcase of its author’s range—although that’s certainly (and memorably) on display. Instead, it illustrates another aspect of her work: the ability to juxtapose meticulous worldbuilding with a thoughtful exploration of ambiguity.

The story “Wind Will Rove” neatly illustrates this. It’s set on a generation ship where, years earlier, an angry crew member deleted all records of arts and culture that arose on Earth. As such, the examples of earlier works are now ...

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Fugue States in a Fragmented London: Lord by João Gilberto Noll


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What happens when a profound alienation from the world takes a turn for the surreal? While it’s not explicitly a tale of the fantastic, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled avoids realism as it tells the story of a musician whose circumstances are in a state of constant flux; add a mysterious device or two and you’d have a prime Philip K. Dick-style narrative on your hands. Michael McDowell’s Toplin eschews the outright supernaturalism of some of his other works but abounds with plenty of horror nonetheless.

The last few years have seen an abundance of work by the late Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll being translated into English: first Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel, and now Lord. (Adam Morris translated the preceding two novels; Edgar Garbelotto handled translation duties for Lord.) All three novels tell tales of profound alienation from the outside world. The narrator of ...

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The Conundrums of Ecstatic Time Travel: Tentacle by Rita Indiana


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Time travel occurs in contexts both science fictional and fantastical. Stories centered around it can explore the bizarre paradoxes that it generates, or lose the reader in the thrills or dangers that can arise from journeying into the past or future. To say that there are certain tropes that surround time travel would be a massive understatement, and yet: I’m not sure there’s ever been a story of moving through time quite like Rita Indiana’s heady and surreal novel Tentacle.

The novel opens in the Dominican Republic–specifically, Santo Domingo in the near future, where environmental devastation abounds alongside economic inequality. Protagonist Acilde works a series of jobs, including sex work, while saving money to pay for a futuristic drug that’s taken the place of gender affirmation surgery. (Indiana refers to Acilde by female pronouns before she takes this, and by male pronouns afterwards.) So far, this all seems familiar: ...

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Stories Within Stories Within Nightmares: Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood


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In The Night Wood Dale Bailey

There’s a point midway through Dale Bailey’s novel In the Night Wood wherein protagonist Charles Hayden ventures out to the forest around the English manor where he and his wife Erin have relocated following a tragedy on the other side of the Atlantic. In his exploration, Charles discovers a part of the forest that seems somewhat different from the rest: some of that can be chalked up to a sense of fundamental wrongness, and some of that can be be ascribed to a difference in temperature. But the sense of two places bordering one another, similar but with fundamentally different properties underlying their very nature, is a convenient metaphor for this novel as well, which is both a story about literary obsession and a story whose twists and turns may well lure in literary obsessives.

At the center of In the Night Wood is a fictional book, also titled ...

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When Toxic Masculinity Goes Bionic: The Rebirth of David R. Bunch’s Moderan


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For some writers, mechanical or otherwise technological changes to the human body are a way to examine the gulf between self-image and reality, or a means by which the nature of humanity itself can be discussed. The stories that make up David R. Bunch’s Moderan, first published in the 1960s and ’70s, take a somewhat different approach—one that reaches a much more pessimistic conclusion about the future of humanity, while also resonating uncomfortably with our own age of toxic masculinity run rampant. An earlier version of this collection was published in 1971; this new edition adds additional stories (as “Apocrypha From After the End”) and feels all too contemporary—both in its psychology and its vision of a ravaged planet.

Bunch’s book describes, in great detail, life in a future in which mechanical parts (known as “new metal,” which may temporarily confuse any Limp Bizkit superfans reading this) have taken ...

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A Demon-Haunted Life: The Unusual Literary History of Patient X


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David Peace’s literary career began with the Red Riding Quartet: four literary novels set in a specific period of time and a specific place, with a stylized and haunted prose approach that signified a penchant for the works of James Ellroy. In the years since then, Peace’s fiction has expanded in scope: he’s continued to tell crime stories, but he’s also brought his approach to fiction to bear on a number of different projects.

Chief among them are his pair of novels about soccer, The Damned United and Red or Dead. In these books, especially the latter, Peace uses language and structure to echo the rhythms and nuances of the game at the heart of the real-life subjects of the novels. It’s an unconventional approach to storytelling, but it’s one that fits its subjects well. All of which is to say that Peace’s latest novel, Patient X: The Case-Book of ...

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The Anti-Nostalgia League: Ling Ma’s Severance


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So frequently, stories set after a catastrophic event that disrupts or destroys society concern themselves with a re-establishment of the status quo. It might be in rebuilding that which came before; it might come through the quest for some lost home, in the slim hope that some sliver of the past might be preserved. In those stories, nostalgia in the face of terror may be the only thing that keeps humanity alive.

Ling Ma’s Severance is not one of those stories. It’s a novel that sneaks up on you from all sides: it’s an affecting portrayal of loss, a precise fictional evocation of group dynamics, and a sharp character study of its protagonist, Candace Chen. It also features one of the most hauntingly plausible end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve encountered in recent fiction, one which folds in enough hints of the real to be particularly unsettling. “The End begins before you are ...

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Ghosts of Future Wastelands: Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Latchkey


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What do you call a ghost story that doesn’t feel remotely like a ghost story? Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel Archivist Wasp brought together a host of seemingly disparate elements that would normally clash and turned them into a bizarre and compelling coming of age story abounding with surreal adventures in a postapocalyptic landscape. At the heart of it was a young woman then known as Wasp, who embarked on a journey to strange landscapes both tactile and metaphysical, assisted by the nameless ghost of a soldier.

Kornher-Stace’s take on ghosts departs from conventional portrayals of revenants and spectres. Some are largely dissipated, almost cartoonish shells of the people they once were. Others are as tactile as the humans with whom they interact: the ghost featured prominently in Archivist Wasp is a prominent example. The highly advanced ghosts also wear clothing, possess weapons, and can interact with the physical world in the ...

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Surreal SFF That Explores Humanity Through Language and Memory


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The nature of identity is at the heart of an abundance of speculative fiction. It can be one of the best ways of exploring what makes a person unique and what sits at the heart of a particular person’s identity. In some fiction, this can be approached via heated philosophical discussion or rich metaphors; in the realm of science fiction and speculative fiction, these questions can be approached far more literally.

This year has brought with it a trio of books—two new, one in a new edition—that use surreal and speculative takes on memory and language to explore fundamental questions about the nature of humanity. The imagery and language in these books sizzles with uncanny takes on the nature of life and consciousness, but as far from the mundane as they go, their concerns remain deeply rooted in primal anxieties. Who are we? What makes us us? Is there a ...

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Surreal SFF That Explores Humanity Through Language and Memory


This post is by Tobias Carroll from Tor.com Frontpage Partial - Blog and Story Content


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




The nature of identity is at the heart of an abundance of speculative fiction. It can be one of the best ways of exploring what makes a person unique and what sits at the heart of a particular person’s identity. In some fiction, this can be approached via heated philosophical discussion or rich metaphors; in the realm of science fiction and speculative fiction, these questions can be approached far more literally.

This year has brought with it a trio of books—two new, one in a new edition—that use surreal and speculative takes on memory and language to explore fundamental questions about the nature of humanity. The imagery and language in these books sizzles with uncanny takes on the nature of life and consciousness, but as far from the mundane as they go, their concerns remain deeply rooted in primal anxieties. Who are we? What makes us us? Is there a ...

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Beyond the Psychedelic: Taty Went West Heads for Parts Unknown


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Taty Went West book review Nikhil Singh

Sometimes a narrative begins in a familiar place: with someone embarking on a journey, for instance. Nikhil Singh’s novel Taty Went West is like that—the first sentence of the second chapter seems to usher the reader into familiar territory. “The piggy bank bought her a bus ticket to nowhere fast,” Singh writes, tapping into a longstanding tradition of young people venturing out into parts unknown. (As if to make this more explicit, Singh includes a nod to the Beat Generation later in the novel.) Taty is a young woman frustrated by suburban life, tuned in to her favorite songs on her Walkman. She’s in search of something bigger, a larger and more compelling world. This is a familiar story, right?

It’s not a familiar story. That bus ticket’s bought in the second chapter. The one before that sets up an altogether stranger milieu, and one that hints at the ...

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The Uncanny Melancholies of Rita Bullwinkel


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Belly Up Rita Bullwinkel book review

What happens when tales of the paranormal and supernatural are shot through with an air of melancholy? Rita Bullwinkel’s new collection Belly Up does a fine job of answering that question. Bullwinkel covers a lot of stylistic territory here—some of these stories deal with the uncanny, while others fall in a more realistic vein—but the emotional consistency that carries through the book helps it to achieve a welcome unity. Alternately, consider these variations on a theme regarding mortality and isolation: timeless themes, rendered in an unpredictable manner.

A sense of mortality is ever-present in most of these stories. “Phylum” is told in a succession of paragraphs, many of them beginning with the phrase “I was the type of man who…” or “I was the type of woman who…” The note on which it ends, however, takes these two archetypal figures past their death and past the scattering of their remains. ...

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Fishing for Love: The Mysteries of The Pisces


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How does our knowledge of genre play into our expectations of a narrative? Imagine the same book under two different conditions. This is a novel in which the supernatural element doesn’t make itself known until halfway through. Add a “fantasy” tag on the back cover, and that delayed release might feel like effective management of narrative tension; have that tag be something more neutral, and the shift out of outright realism can feel more like a shock.

I once got into a heated debate concerning the speculative elements of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with someone who hadn’t expected them to be present, and who was frustrated by the novel’s shift into a more science fictional realm. Going back even further, there’s the Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Till Dawn, which appears to be a tense crime drama until 75% of the way through, at which point it ...

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Space, Time, and the Posthumanist Life: On Rachel Armstrong’s Origamy


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How do you translate the transcendental into words on a page? Is there a way for enterprising writers to convey the way that a highly evolved being might move through time and space in a way that those of us who are merely human might comprehend? Sometimes prose can be at a disadvantage: consider the hallucinatory climax of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the more reality-bending moments of the comic book The Invisibles. In her debut novel Origamy, Rachel Armstrong endeavors to do exactly this: writing from the perspective of someone who manipulates space and time the way that a potential reader might drive a car, bake a loaf of bread, or mold clay.

Mobius, the novel’s narrator, is part of “a culture of spacetime weavers,” as her mother Shelley tells her in one early interaction. What that amounts to in practical terms is an extended ...

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Pulp Adventure Meets Metafiction (or Vice Versa): Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat


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Go back a few decades in the realm of pulp storytelling, and they abound: stories of adventurers far from home, investigating ancient structures and discovering mysterious events there. There are entire subgenres dedicated to this, and the form has endured. While it’s not nearly as prevalent as it was in the early and mid-20th century, plenty of its DNA shows up in the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider franchises. But the narrative template of a (generally white and male) hero uncovering lost cultures or artifacts from somewhere in Africa, Asia, or South America is one that hasn’t aged particularly well, and for good reason.

Embracing this narrative unconditionally can mean embracing a whole lot of racist, sexist, and/or colonialist baggage—not the greatest of storytelling decisions. More recent tales of adventure in distant lands have sought to correct this: a whole essay could be written about the arc of the Uncharted ...

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A Subtle Apocalypse: Simon Jacobs’s Palaces


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What happens when the end of the world sneaks up on you? Many a narrative of civilization in ruins cites an inciting event—a war, a natural disaster, a pandemic—as the root cause of devastation. These are narratives where characters can point to a date on a calendar and say, “There. That was when everything changed.” But life isn’t always like that: sometimes change can come without any warning. Sometimes there are no portents of war; sometimes there are no gradually increasing reports of a strange medical condition. Sometimes something terrible just happens, and a society is forever changed.

The beginning of Simon Jacobs’s Palaces is, as the openings of many novels are, an introduction to the style in which the book will be told and an explanation of its milieu. Here, though, it’s something else: the first part is a brief interlude that feels more like the end of ...

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