Reading: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

The multi-award winning (Hugo Award 2014, Nebula 2013, British Science Fiction Association 2014, Arthur C. Clarke 2014, etc.) Ancillary Justice was American writer’s first novel, and the second book I read in 2018.

The basic setup is a soldier, Breq, who used to be part of the spaceship Justice of Toren (as an ancillary human body controlled by an artificial intelligence) on a quest for revenge. It’s the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, with Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy being released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, but can certainly be read standalone. Continue reading Reading: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Reading Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’

Octavia Butler - Bloodchild

The first book I finished in 2018 was Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild and other stories, the 2005 second edition. It contains five previously published stories, two essays, then two unpublished stories, as well as short afterwords for each piece, written by Butler.

I bought this book at my local independent bookseller, Better Read Than Dead, after I turned up ten minutes early to meet someone who was fifteen minutes late, so I needed something to do. I’ve wanted to read something by Octavia Butler for a while, and for the last month have been checking speculative fiction sections in bookstores, with not a lot of success. That day I hit the jackpot. Continue reading Reading Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’

Three Stevie Nicks songs

I came late to Fleetwood Mac. Of course I knew a lot of their songs, but I didn’t actively sit down and listen to their work until around five years ago. Now I’m a fan of pretty much everything the 1975-87 lineup produced. The Stevie Nicks songs are my favourites though. Continue reading Three Stevie Nicks songs

Remainder: a book I didn’t enjoy (but you should still probably read it)

Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005) is the story of an unnamed man who is severely injured in an unspecified accident. After he has painstakingly retaught himself to walk and move, he receives a payout of so much money that he can practically choose to do whatever he wants. Continue reading Remainder: a book I didn’t enjoy (but you should still probably read it)

Reading: The Dispossessed

The first Ursula Le Guin book I picked up was A Wizard of Earthsea. I was 10 at the time and obsessed with fantasy.

I would have read through to the end: dropping books that didn’t grab me in the first 50 pages was a habit I took on much later. But I do remember not enjoying it and not going on to the other books in The Earthsea Cycle.

The problem was probably that it was completely unlike the other fantasy books I was reading. Sure, it had wizards and dragons, but the book is a far-cry from Tolkien’s The Hobbit or Feists’ Magicianboth staples of my childhood.

Three decades later I now reread the Earthsea books every few years, while the simpler fantasy adventures I devoured as a child have made their way to second hand dustbins.

Le Guin is a writer that connects strongly with my adult self. In an age where the world seems oversaturated with meaningless pulp, her words often inspire me to keep going.

As she said in her acceptance speech for the 2014 National Book Award: ‘Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.’

I’ve also happily discovered her science fiction work, most recently The Dispossessed. The book is part of The Hainish Cycle, set in a future where a benevolent humanoid race achieve interstellar travel and begin attempting to connect other planets into a League of All Worlds.

She uses this premise to examine ideas and concepts that we take for granted. In The Left Hand of Darkness for example, published in 1969, a male envoy from the Hainish travels to a world where everyone is ambisexual, spending most of the time asexual and then, on a roughly monthly basis, adopts either male or female sexual attributes depending on individual context at the time.

AnarresAndUrras-300In The Dispossessed the main character is an academic from an anarchist society, who travels to a property-based world full of harsh divisions in wealth, race and gender. Le Guin uses the contrast to examine both how a society without possessions would work and also get under the skin of the capitalist world we live in.

Hearing the premise, it would be easy to dismiss The Dispossessed as high concept, but by centring the perspective so closely on the main character Shevek, Le Guin is able to examine how the different systems play out on an individual level.

Shevek is at odds with both worlds he traverses. The contrast with Urras, which he is sent to, is obvious. Shevek enters a wealth-based highly patriarchal society and approaches it as someone who has never owned anything, coming from a world where gender is essentially just a biological marker.

The wealth-based world of Urras is itself divided into several states, which are structured in ways which echo the way are world is, largely drawing on what appear to be her observations of the United States and Soviet Union.

In his home world of Annares, Shevek comes into conflict with the system and hierarchies that have developed around a system that is not supposed to have hierarchies. His approach to conflict is almost passive: ‘His gentleness was uncompromising; because he would not compete for dominance he was indomitable.’

As with much of Le Guin’s work, there is no central moral. The novel itself is an examination of ideas and it’s left to the reader to take them where we will. Forty years after its publication, the themes, ideas and concepts Le Guin explores in The Dispossessed remain as relevant as ever.

A representative of our future Earth makes an appearance towards the end, lamenting how we turned our planet into a barren desert. ‘You Odonians chose a desert, we Terrans made a desert…’ the emissary of Earth says to Shevek when he escapes the infighting on Urras for a moment.

Le Guin’s examinations of politics and society through fiction over the years seem to have firmed her own views. In 2014 she used her National Book Award speech to label online bookselling giant Amazon as a ‘profiteer’.

‘We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable,’ she said, before moving on to challenge the rest of us: ‘So did the divine right of kings.’

Annihilation (Book Review)

A review I published last week at Fantastica of Annihilation, the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s  The Southern Reach Trilogy. The only thing I’d read of his before was a very Borgesian chapter in City of Saints and Madman, so I went into it expecting a very ‘conscious’ reading experience, rather than what I would call more passive escapism.

You can read the review online in its original context here. Continue reading Annihilation (Book Review)

Reading: Sea hearts, by Margo Lanagan

Originally published here on 15 August 2015 at

‘The secrets gusted about the streets with the leaves and litter, thick enough in the air to choke me.’

This one sentence is a good indication of both the style and the substance of Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts, published in the US and UK as The Brides of Rollrock Island. There’s something very claustrophobic about the book, which is filled with secrets and the language is beautifully constructed. Continue reading Reading: Sea hearts, by Margo Lanagan

Ryan Adams: Manic Pixie Dream Boy (Review)

Ryan Adams – Enmore Theatre. 24 July 2015 

There’s a safe masculinity to Ryan Adams. 14 years after his first album he’s still writing enjoyable catchy love songs with plenty of guitar. The music is infused with the foundations of the Doors, Led Zeppelin (yes I know they’re not American) and Creedence Clearwater Revival, which has evolved into the post-grunge wave of American Rock that rejected Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Stone Temple Pilot’s dark struggles for identity in favour of ham-fisted (yet highly addictive) expressions of love. This is the Americana of The Heightsthe Goo Goo Dolls and Five For Fighting. There’s no doubt Adams does it well. In a genre of one hit wonders he’s gone the distance.

Continue reading Ryan Adams: Manic Pixie Dream Boy (Review)