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Category: Reviews

Landscape Of Dreams: Metronome by Oliver Langmead

Worldbuilding can be a dull affair. An attempt to survey a place that isn’t there can often result in writing that isn’t readable. For M. John Harrison [1], a work of fiction relying on worldbuilding does not invite readers to the text with the idea that reading is a game in itself; it does not ask a reader to interpret, but to merely see or share a single world. This approach in speculative fiction produces text that functions as an operation manual and is patronizing to the reader. Like Harrison, I tend to see a heavy-handed stress on worldbuilding as a red flag. Writers—even notable ones—all too often fall prey to writing pages of exposition that can end up having no bearing upon the story or character.

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Oliver Langmead takes a risky route in his sophomore novel Metronome (Unsung Stories, 2017). His protagonist, William Manderlay is an aging musician living in a retirement home, suffering from arthritis. He can no longer play his instrument, and his age prevents him from sailing the seas as he had done in his youth. Manderlay is now being haunted by nightmares, which to his friends are signs of decay and senility. Manderlay’s dreams are not his alone. They are somewhat ‘shared,’ meaning that within these dreams, there are doors that connect dreamers, leading to a communitarian process that has over time resulted in a civilization centred around the city of Babel. This civilization is inhabited by dreamers, their figments, nightmares and Sleepwalkers. The last of this lot are responsible for hunting nightmares and keeping safe the Dreamworld. Metronome’s plot starts when one of these Sleepwalkers goes rogue, leading to a chase, where Manderlay’s music works as a map to a place where something ancient and sinister resides. Read Landscape Of Dreams: Metronome by Oliver Langmead

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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (2016) opens with editor Ken Liu’s discussion of the limiting nature of comparative categories such as ‘Chinese science fiction’ or ‘science fiction written in English.’ I believe it is important, in any review of this anthology, to reiterate his assertion that the collection offers readers only a ‘thin slice’ of the Chinese science fiction landscape. As such, while the collection is an introduction for Anglophone readers, it is by no means emblematic of Chinese science fiction altogether, and it would be ill-advised to read it as such. Indeed, Liu is very transparent in explaining that the stories he chose were prioritised also by their accessibility to an Anglophone audience.

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What Invisible Planets offers us is thirteen fictional visions of our world(s)[1], imagined by seven contemporary Chinese authors, differing in genre, style and tone, and ranging from deeply moving to structurally playful, from existentially inquisitive to unsettling versions of possible near futures.
Read Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

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The East is a Setting: Issues of Place, Theme, and Tone in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Beyond

In recent years, India has become a somewhat unlikely site of a particular kind of speculative fiction novel. Mid-2014 saw the publication of Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road, featuring an Indian protagonist and a journey across a bridge that spanned the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa. One year later, we had Anthony Trevelyan’s The Weightless World, and a quest for an anti-gravity machine in the wilderness of Western India. 2016 saw Anil Menon’s Half of What I Say, a near-future dystopic novel centered upon the invention of “Super Wi-Fi” for connecting Indian villages to the high-speed web. What unites these novels – apart from their choice of India as a location – is a near-future setting, and a story of overconfident techno-utopianism, episodic violence and personal tragedy, against the backdrop of a certain kind of alien strangeness, the strangeness of India. While the choice of location might be a natural one for Menon, who is Indian, it was certainly a conscious decision on the part of Byrne and Trevelyan, neither of whose novels needed to be set in India (by “needed”, I mean that the core plot would work as well in a different location). Which, of course, raises the question: why India?

Interestingly, however, this sudden profusion of near-futuristic techno-dystopian speculative fiction was anticipated – and presaged – more than twelve years ago, in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. Although separated by a decade, elements of River of Gods resonate strongly in the three novels published over the last three years. Consequently, thinking of River of Gods alongside what came after it might illuminate the existence of a small – but steadily growing – corpus of 21st-century speculative fiction that locates itself – geographically, socially and even culturally – in India.

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River of Gods is a sprawling novel, set across the length and breadth of an India that has been balkanized into multiple feuding independent republics. Much of the action takes place across the nations of “Bharat,” “Awadh” and “Bengal,” which roughly correspond to the northern belt of present-day India, running from west to east. The novel combines two frighteningly plausible tropes of the near future: water wars between nations, and artificial intelligence reaching the point of singularity. McDonald’s “India,” which is a mélange of super-technology and superstition, great-game politics and street riots, spirituality and extreme violence, becomes – because of its lack of regulations upon A.I. development – the site of a showdown between A.I. that is desperate to attain autonomy, and humanity that is desperate to stop it. Read The East is a Setting: Issues of Place, Theme, and Tone in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Beyond

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