Category Archives: Noir

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Moxyland by Lauren BeukesReview: Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot, 2010)

Set in South Africa a mere few decades hence, Moxyland is an intoxicating tale of greed, rebellion, betrayal, hedonism and hope, all wrapped up in a smothering blanket of state control and corporate oppression. This future world is a bleak, dismal place. Despite the promises of ever-advancing technology and growing economies the gap between rich and poor constantly widens. Big business controls the planet, plastering every surface with advertising and holding the population to ransom through a Kafkan legal system, all the while aided and abetted by a government which views the majority of its citizens as near-worthless commodities.

The action follows four distinct narratives, each interlinked with the others and all spiralling towards the same inevitable conclusion. First up is Toby, an egotistical drop-out living on the cash advances of his estranged mother, blowing every penny on designer clothes and drugs and documenting every step for his blog.  His friend Tendenka is an activist, alarmed at the increasingly fascist nature of his adopted country and leading ever-more daring actions against the powers-that-be at the behest of the mysterious *skyward. Occasionaly aiding and abetting Tendenka through her access to certain corporate ivory towers is Lareto, a ruthless and ambitious corporate executive who views others a mere stepping stones on her journey to power. Finally we have Kendra a young artist who has transformed her entire body into a corporate billboard – nanotech implants give her flesh a green hue and render her addicted to her sponsor’s soft drink with the bonus of enhancing her natural physical abilities.

Moxyland drags these four characters together as Tendenka’s protests against the government advance from simply reprogramming billboards to sabotaging art exhibitions and beyond. His earnestness in acheiving his aims is matched only by his lack of comprehension of the potential outcomes. The threat de jour is disconnection, with offenders being cut off from any services requiring identification, i.e. nearly everything. Prior to outright disconnection comes ‘pacification’, with the police forces able to deliver massive and extended electrical charges to any miscreants via their mobile phones. But Tendenka doesn’t understand just how far the authorities will go to preserve order and protect their corporate backers. To Toby this is all a joke, something to pass the time until he decides which (if any) direction to take with his pleasure-soaked life. Kendra is dragged into all this by Toby, becoming the unwitting target of his affections. Lareto sits safely above the other three. Safe from such threats as disconnection she maneuvers her way through the world of business politics, dispensing favours to old friend Toby at Tendenka’s request. Which is of course the request of *skyward. And just who is *skyward anyway?

The debut novel of Lauren Beukes, whose wonderful The Shining Girls I reviewed at the Mountains Of Instead, Moxyland is a beautifully nihilistic portrayal of a world gone wrong. With its roots sunk firmly in the cyberpunk genre its gritty streets festooned with technological marvels bring to mind the very best of the genre, from Gibson to Dick to Stephenson. The concept of a future inhabited by a select few haves lording it over the legions of have-nots is well-worn but it’s seldom brought to life as vividly as Beukes manages. You can almost feel the grime under your fingerprints as you read thanks to her obsessive attention to detail and wonderful talent for fleshing out characters.

There is a true warmth at the heart of this novel, which may seem a surprise as it is drenched in despair, violence and deprivation from the outset. Make no mistake, there are no happy endings in Moxyland. This is no fairy tale and Beukes pulls no punches in delivering her warnings about the dangers of creeping corporate powers. And the great tragedy of Moxyland is that despite the oppressive environment which they inhabit, the eventual outcome is the result of her characters’ own flaws. Hubris, greed, naivete, narcissism – they all pile on top of each other until the whole world comes crashing down.

It’s no mean feat to craft an addictive page-turner from such apparently hopeless premises. However, and remember that this is a debut, Lauren Beukes has managed to do it. Moxyland is an effortless read, yet one which constantly forces you to think, to reassess your opinions and to challenge your ideas. It’s bloody lovely. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to soak it all in again.

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Filed under Cyberpunk, Dystopian, Noir, Science Fiction

The Electric Church

The Electric Church by Jeff SomersReview: The Electric Church by Jeff Somers (Orbit, 2007)

“After hours of Pick’s gin, the world was made of soft rubber; everything was hard to accomplish but nothing hurt too badly, so what the fuck.”

50’s noir detective vibes drip off the pages of The Electric Church, Jeff Somers’ riveting first novel and first entry in the saga of Avery Cates, gunner extraordinaire, and his struggle against The System. The scene above in Pickering’s gin-joint conjures up images of Bogart hunched over a bar as readily as Han blasting Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Mashing up flatfoot fiction with near-future dystopian sci-fi is bold move, so does he pull it off? First, let’s dial it back a notch.

The date is a few decades from now following a global upheaval known as The Unification. That’s right, one-world government arrived and it was sure bloody. Rather than freeing the people from their shackles the result of the ultimate centralisation of power has been to turn the world in Escape From New York on a planetary scale. The 1% lucky enough to possess monetary wealth live decadent lives, lording it up in their high castles and occasionally donning filthy disguise for the thrill of slumming it with the poor. Of which there are many. The rules are simple in this world: you’re either rich, a cop or less than zero.

For the latter, the 99%, life is brutish and short with lifespans over a few decades drawing admiration or disbelief. However you can always count on religion, Marx’s famed opiate, to prey on the desperate when times are dark. Enter The Electric Church, whose mission is to grant eternal life in this world to its followers – after all, even an eternity alive may not be enough to repent for our heinous sins. How exactly is this achieved? Simple – remove the brain and implant it in a cybernetic body, replete with sinister Auton-esque mask and unnecessarily violent attachments. These Electric Monks divide their time between proselytising on street corners and ushering the converted to their new existences, feared and mocked by the populace in equal doses yet protected by the ironclad religious protection act.

One dissatisfied denizen of the transformed New York in which the novel opens is Avery Cates, hired gun and prematurely jaded rebel with a penchant for the old, honourable ways of doing things. After a hit gone wrong Cates finds himself on the run from the vicious System Pigs, now a wanted cop-killer with his name on every bulletin board. He seems a sure thing for cashing in his chips at the ripe old age of 27 until an offer appears from an unlikely source. The head of the System Pigs own Internal Affairs bureau – the head honcho, the big cheese – will grant him immunity, a clean slate and an insane amount of money if he’ll assassinate Dennis Squalor, head of The Electric Church. It’s suicide, plain and simple, but he has no choice. The System Pigs will find him and proceed to tear him limb from limb, probably while alive, in repayment for killing their comrades. So Cates sets about assembling a team to help him sneak and fight their way past a global army of robots to the inner sanctum of the most heavily protected man on the planet. That’s an awful lot of shit to be flying around near such oversized fans…

If the set-up sounds equally insane and implausible then you’re absolutely correct and let me assure you – that’s part of the fun. The Electric Church is an oil-burning page-turner playing like a pulp novel yet with a serious literary bent. Jeff Somers obviously spent some large portion of his life wolfing down Hammett, Chandler and their lesser-known ilk and portrays bustling, seedy dives and wandering, down-on-their-luck loners with a natural ease. Cates is such a grim, sardonic anti-hero that he often seems in danger of falling into caricature before saving himself with his stark insights into the rigged nature of the game he’s forced to play.The team of broken, conniving rejects he rounds up as his crack team and the decaying world they inhabit all contribute to the atmosphere of hopelessness which all must overcome.

The Electric Monks themselves are a cornerstone of the novel. They’re what you would expect to come charging at you if William Gibson wrote an episode of Doctor Who; identikit automatons, serene on the surface but harbouring hidden power, endlessly repeating their insane litanies until they time comes to excavate your skull. A week after finishing The Electric Church I still find their frozen rictus grins lurking at the corner of my nightmares, their fearsomeness abated only by the deliciously snarky subtext that inside every religious drone was once a sane person, finally driven mad by the pressure of the nonsensical dogma pumped into their skulls.

As the first in a series The Electric Church does a solid job of setting up the background for the novels to come, bringing the major players in this shattered world into view while keeping enough hidden to encourage further exploration. As a stand-alone novel it’s equally worthy of attention, perfectly blending sci-fi and noir set-pieces with the most reluctant and resigned of hero figures It’s a fast read and none too taxing on the intellect but totally engaging throughout and leaves you feeling satisfied rather than as if you’d just visited sci-fi McDonald’s. Chalk me up for part two…

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The Fat Years

The Fat Years by Chan KoonChungReview: The Fat Years by Chan KoonChung (Doubleday, 2011)

The People’s Republic of China, some time in the near future: the population, particularly in urban areas, is happier than ever. Despite a global economic recession China has flourished. Embracing the best of capitalism while avoiding its excess, the country has forged a new path for itself as the sole global superpower. The affluent and cultured middle classes discuss the latest works of literature in bustling coffee shops while the sounds of industry and creativity reverberate through the streets. These truly are the fat years, a golden age for a country reborn.

Old Chen is a knowledgeable member of the intellectual elite, a respected author whose opinions on matters literary and political are sought and valued. Like the rest of the population he rarely questions just how this state of affairs popped into existence. Not until and old flame, Little Xi, suddenly re-materialises in his life to raise a niggling problem. Why is it that the nation seems to have collectively forgotten an entire month just prior to China’s phoenix-like ascendancy? A whole month gone, without mention and without trace, simply vanished into some communal memory sink.

The discovery leads Chen to instigate a hunt for the truth, leading down all kinds of unfriendly alleys and even to kidnap of government officials. The truth behind The Fat Years must come out at all costs. His quest leaves no-one untouched, from prostitutes to politicians, academics to artists. Chen’s mission to uncover the truth becomes a driving obsession which inevitably throws up a deal of human turbulence in its wake.

Sitting in Taiwan while writing this it is easy to sympathise with Chan KoonChung and what he is trying to achieve in The Fat Years. It’s impossible to live in China’s tiny southern neighbour, constantly under the watchful and militaristic eye of the harsh, authoritarian empire next door, without forming strong opinions on Chinese policies both international and domestic. Ever since Mao’s revolution the PRC has been famed for censorship of political ideas, draconian measures to prevent discord, Stalin-esque revision of history and attempts to hide the very existence of the outside world from its largely suffering populace. Indeed The Fat Years itself is banned in China, although something of an underground success among subversive groups and high society alike.

To an outsider it can easily appear that the ranks of the Chinese rich, disconnected from their rural roots by an ever-widening wealth gap, have been brainwashed when it comes to how their success was achieved. Seemingly blind to their country’s political oppression, terrible human rights record, opposition to intellectual honesty and rejection of any notion of equality, they continue about their daily business oblivious to the world around them. Or do they? Is this true blindness or willful ignorance, a refusal to face unpleasant cognitive dissonance? And is it better to live such a comfortable yet fundamentally dishonest existence or to face the truth no matter how harsh it may be?

This question lies at the core of The Fat Years and Chan answers it in no uncertain terms. Through a series of encounters – political, sexual, intellectual – he lays bare his contempt for those who seek to remain unaware of the world at large. He makes no attempt to sugar-coat the fact that the revelation of truth is unpleasant, tiring and thankless. You can expect no reward for following his path and dealing with life as it really is but it’s the only way to be true to yourself and to others.

For my part I thoroughly enjoyed Chen’s journey and as a staunch opponent of China’s political system (did you guess?) I found myself supporting him every step of the way. The Fat Years is a book of wonderful ideas, the only problem being that some of them are lost in translation. As a student of Mandarin I appreciate how difficult it can be to transliterate from this complex and difficult language and make no mistake, Michael Duke does a wonderful job at times, eliciting some beautiful turns of phrase from his source material. Inevitable though, sometimes the flow of the prose falters and seems a little stilted. Serendipitously this can work in the book’s favour, generating a little unease at the perfect moment, but other times it can be distracting. That minor gripe aside, The Fat Years is a book to be savoured by any residents of this part of the world, those with an interest in eastern politics or simply anyone with a hankering after a dystopian tale with a different background.

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Gun Machine

Gun Machine by Warren EllisReview: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis (Mulholland, 2013)

Detectives Tallow and Rosato, partners in the NYPD, are having a normal day sifting through the grotesque offences which the city serves them. Rosato is the trademark tough, no-nonsense cop replete with senses and reactions honed by years of experience although bearing a knee weakened by his wife’s insistence on taking up jogging to alleviate his mid-years spread. Tallow, well, not so much. A dedicated loner, he’s reached the mid-career malaise typical of so many on the force and is playing everything by the numbers and no more. Their next call tears the partnership apart.

By the end of the day Rosato is in a body bag, minus portions of his skull and brain. Tallow manages to take down the perpetrator, an overweight, shotgun-wielding maniac threatening to break down his landlord’s door due to an eviction notice and taking his frustration out on Rosato’s head instead. Following the shooting, Tallow winds up forcibly entering one of the apartments in the walk-up and what he discovers inside triggers a hallucinatory cat and mouse chase through the city that never sleeps.

The seemingly innocent yet improbably fortified door conceals the titular Gun Machine, an incredibly elaborate arrangement of handguns dating back hundreds of years and covering every surface. No sooner has Tallow been put on recuperative leave after the death of his partner than he finds himself reinstated. The arsenal is no ordinary collection of guns and he has unwittingly handed his lieutenant a nightmare. Every single weapon in the cache is implicated in a crime, it’s a virtual diary of hundreds of homicides, all preserved and tucked away in what should have been an impenetrable lair. Each and every one of the cases is now reopened and Tallow, weary and stressed from his partner’s death, has been saddled with the task of solving them – a mission impossible intended to be a final nail in the coffin of his career.

Mustering hidden reserves of strength and character, Tallow resolves not to thrown in the towel and commits himself body and soul to the task at hand. With help from his newfound accomplices at the CTU, Tali and Bat, he starts digging and uncovers a terrible secret. A seemingly supernatural killer, reaching out across the ages and plying his trade with impunity across Tallow’s home turf. Soon the investigation implicates some very high-up players in the city and Tallow finds himself fighting a battle on three fronts – against the killer, his conspirators and his own department.

Gun Machine is Warren Ellis’s second novel following the gleefully twisted Crooked Little Vein. Perhaps most famous for the rightful acclaimed Transmetropolitan comic series, Ellis is very comfortable fishing through the sewers of urban life. His fascination with all matters dark, especially those emanating from the human soul, comes through loud and clear in this volume. Tallow is a borderline depressive, distrusting of all human company and whose radio station of choice is the police band airing a non-stop litany of violence and degradation on New York’s streets. There is no character in this book who doesn’t have something to hide, whether a twisted vice or a collection of blood-drenched skeletons in their closet. Even the city itself becomes a dark, brooding presence ready to swallow anyone who takes a wrong turn.

It’s not all gloom and doom though. Ellis garnishes every gruesome act with enough caustic wit to dissolve any darkness before it becomes too oppressive. The double-team of Bat and Talia (a textbook sarcastic nerd and his overbearing lesbian boss) provides welcome doses of hilarious light relief in addition to the one-liners which pepper the book. Even while sapping all hope from, his characters Ellis manages to somehow retain a grim smile, teasing every bit of crooked joy he can out of their predicaments.

Gun Machine is an impressive book on many levels. As a police procedural novel it manages to avoid the well-worn cliches of the genre without straining incredulity to breaking point. At the same time it manages to be an investigation of the dark side of human nature and the sickness of modern life. And yet more, it is a redemption story of sorts, telling the tale of a man sent to the brink by fate and his own actions, yet grasping for a second chance while beset by foes on all sides. The vicious invective injected into the storyline is an added bonus, giving it a lively, wicked character where many other books of its kind fall flat. This is already shaping up to be one of the books of the year for me and it’s just a matter of time before I pick it up again for another run-through.

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Crosslink – The Dog Stars/Blackbirds

Forgot to link to a couple of reviews I did for The Mountains Of Instead recently.

First up is Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, a very touching post-apocalyptic tale which threatens to cast you into a pit of depression but instead ends on a wonderfully uplifting note. Ostensibly the story is about Hig, a former pilot who is one of the few survivors of a virulent plague which decimated mankind, leaving only a few groups of stragglers behind. He struggles through his day to day existence with the company of his ageing beagle, Jasper, and survivalist gun nut Bangley. Every day is spent dwelling on the past, the loss of his wife and the dim prospect of continuing like this until a pointless end. However, further tragedy soon leads him to re-evaluate his lot and start making changes. You can read the full review here.

Second we have an entirely different beast, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. This is the tale of Miriam Black, a woman drifting from town to town across the USA, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. Miriam is no murderer, rather she is cursed with the ability to see the precise manner and time of anyone’s death simply by making skin contact. Full of self-loathing and anger, she follows those she knows are about to die, waiting like a vulture in the background before relieving them of their now-superfluous cash. Unfortunately this kind of power cannot remain secret for long and soon she is pursued by some rather dark elements who seek to use it for their own ends. Check it out here.

Been quiet this week because it’s Chinese New Year so I’ve been playing gigs, visiting my girlfriend’s family and diving – I saw a cuttlefish family! Whoop! Normal service will resume as of tomorrow if I can shift my ass back into gear. Coming up between here and The Mountains Of Instead will be The Hydrogen Sonata, 2312, Looking For Alaska, How To Survive In A Science Fictional Universe, The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart and more. See you soon…

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Crosslink – The Last Policeman

The Mountains Of Instead have published my review for Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman. It’s an engrossing read about a small-town detective who can’t shake his suspicion that the latest in a string of suicides was actually a murder. The gritty, noir thriller follows his investigation and could be just another cop story except for the reason behind the suicides. An asteroid is on a collision course with earth and is going to wipe out all life within six months. Check out the review here:

The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters

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