Underground Reading: Malice by John Gwynne
Friday Five: 5 Superhero Movies I'd Like to See

Review Round-Up: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Warships

Leckie_AncillaryJusticeAnn Leckie's Ancillary Justice (2013) is the sort of book that the Clarke Award wishes it had last year. It is a big ol' bastard of a space opera, with Banksian AI warships and space battles and intergalactic colonisation and such. It has that "sense of wonder" that (apparently) defines SF. But, good lord, Ms. Leckie's also snuck in a character or two! It seems that one of those AI warships has - somehow - been trapped in the body of a human being (a sort of thawed human robo-zombie thing). How'd it get there? What is it doing? What the hell is going on?

These (and other) questions are answered through the course of Ancillary Justice, which combines the aforementioned big ol' bastard space operatics with sterling character development (you'll never feel quite so attached to an empathy-free, personality-free computer program ever again!), political chicanery, a good ol' fashioned whoddunit and - as if that weren't enough - some cunningly progressive gender politics. When you're seeing the world through the eyes of a billion tons of space-faring metal, the intricacies of gender - how we define it, what it means and all the culturally-imposed baggage thereof - tend to be forgotten. 

Of all of this, only the sprawling galactic empire 'stuff' left me a bit unimpressed - but without that familiar backdrop, we wouldn't see exactly how clever, contemporary and utterly impressive Ancillary Justice is.

This is a book that will please the traditional SF crowd with the drama and impress the faux-literary types with the socially-savvy undercurrents: be prepared to see Ancillary Justice bandied around a lot come awards season. (As it should be.) 

(Ok, lest that come across as too slavishly fanboy - the title really bugs me. I'm not wild about the Wings of Fury style cover either. That said, I think both are nods to the book's hard SF themes, and I'm more on the faux-literary side. I'll live.)

Meanwhile, sixty years ago...

Up a Winding StairH. Vernor Dixon is one of my favourite Gold Medal authors (Killer in Silk - worth tracking down), and when Prologue reprinted a stack of his work as ebooks, I pounced. Generously, Dixon can be compared to Jim Thompson - except while Thompson dealt with the down-and-out, Dixon focused on high society. Up a Winding Stair was first published in 1953, and is sort of "essence of Dixon": a close examination of flawed people, juggling spiritual redemption and worldly ambition.

Clark is a professional jerk: a handsome and ruthless con artist that makes a living fleecing people on the golf course. He's landed on his feet in Pebble Beach - getting a year house-sitting a mansion.

By pretending he's renting the place, Clark comes off as exactly the sort of successful playboy that his role requires, and, before long, he's settled down to the profitable business of winning bets, seducing heiresses and blackmailing the maid into sex. Life is good. At least, for Clark. In fact, with one well-timed push, he makes all of his dreams come true: he winds up with a rich wife, a beautiful mistress and a loaded bank account. Everything's coming up Clarke... or is it?

Up a Winding Stair is a bit too tidy - there's a proper first act gun and rather predictable landscape of emotional hills and valleys. That said, Clark's a proper asshole, and, even as we see that - unclouded and untainted by any sort of mitigating factor - Mr. Dixon still makes him empathetic. Clark's given one temptation after another. Initially he keeps doing the 'wrong thing' as a matter of routine, and all we can do is appreciate his cunning. But as The Winding Stair goes on, Clark starts making his choices more actively, with more consideration. As well as appreciating his survival instinct, we start to see a certain reticence to his actions... is Clark becoming a better, more selfless person? We have until the very end of the book to learn for sure. 

Overall, not Mr. Dixon's best effort, but still a nice little vintage noir about a (mostly) nasty person doing (genuinely) nasty things. (And how awful is that cover?!)

Troubled DaughtersAnd, speaking of vintage noir - Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman, might be the best anthology I've read this year. Ms. Weinman has collected fourteen tales of "domestic suspense" from female authors, 1920 - 1970. These are exactly the sort of wonderfully gloomy, delightfully grim tales of domestic noir that I love so much.

This is an era that captures a sort of underlying American angst: the growing pains of the suburbs, racial and class tension, the domestic impact of the overseas wars, the growth of companies and corporate ambitions... 

Lest the "domestic suspense" bit sound off-putting, these tales aren't literary "kitchen sink" tales - Troubled Daughters kicks off with arson and concludes with, er, granny-knifing (and not the way it seems). The authors do ingenious things with narration as well, with every possible trick of distraction, trickery and general unreliability. This is an anthology where nothing can be trusted, not even the aforementioned grannies.

A few particularly brilliant stories to note:

  • Margaret Millar's "The People Across the Canyon" is actually a bit of fantastic fiction that may have snuck under cover of darkness, but, as an example of the suburban Weird - it is creepy as hell. Reminds me a bit of Bradbury's "Zero Hour" - when children's fantasies develop lives of their own...
  • Shirley Jackson's "Louisa, Please Come Home" is another one about fantasy, but in this case, the 'dream' doesn't belong to Louisa (who achieves her goal quite early in the book). The story of a runaway and her strangely delusional family, "Louisa" is an excellent example of Ms. Jackson's ability to capture social pressures, and battle between appearance and reality.
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis' short "Lost Generation" took me two reads to realise exactly how horrifying it was. (Very.)
  • Joyce Harrington's "The Purple Shroud" is also incredibly chilling - a murder executed meticulously and cold-heartedly, yet, despite that, the reader can't help but sympathetise with the killer.

...but honestly, none of the 14 disappointed. A few of the names - Patricia Highsmith, Charlotte Armstrong, Shirley Jackson, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding - were familiar, but most of these, I'm sad to say, were new to me. Happily, Ms. Weinman also includes suggested reading lists for each of the authors, so I know where to go next - plus, a website!