Kicking the dust of the YLG Conference from my heels last Friday, I high-tailed it down to Bristol, where BristolCon was taking shape at the Doubletree Hotel. It’s the third year I’ve attended BristolCon, and this time I was to be Guest of Honour – which is a considerable honour, when you consider how many fine writers there are in or around the Bristol SF scene.
One of them is Emma Newman, whose Split Worlds series of urban/fairy fantasy stories I can highly recommend (and I’m not usually a fan of urban fantasy or fairies). She interviewed me as part of my Guest-of-Honour-ing duties, and we talked about some of the things that had influenced me, including favourite films like Excalibur and Brazil, and my own long and inglorious career as a no-budget movie director, which started when I was 12 and first got hold of a cine camera and sputtered on until about 1990, when I thought of a story so overambitious that even I knew it wasn’t worth trying to film it myself, so I wrote it down instead and it became Mortal Engines.
Unfortunately the lighting at the Doubletree always scuppers my attempts to take photographs, and this year I was so busy that I forgot to take any anyway, but here’s a snap that Ian Cairns posted on Twitter, showing me in full flow. As you can see, Emma even provided tea (future interviewers please take note!).
Two packed programmes of panel discussions and readings run throughout the day at BristolCon, which means there’s always something you want to see (and it’s usually on at the same time as something else you want to see). I managed to be in the audience for a couple of good debates, including one called ‘How to Poo in a Fantasy Universe’, which wasn’t quite as scatalogical as it sounds and was really about how such earthy details can help to make a made-up world feel more real.
It was all still going on in the bar when I went off to bed around midnight, and the tireless committee (well I assume they were tired, but they never seem to let it show) were already making plans for BristolCon 2014, at which Emma Newman and Jon Courtenay Grimwood are to be the Guests of Honour. I hope to be there too! Many thanks to Jo, MEG, Roz, Heather, Claire and the team for inviting me this year, and for running such a fabulous and friendly convention
The Trowbdridge Arts Festival will be kicking off this weekend with a Science Fiction and Fantasy day on Saturday (15th September), which will include readings and talks by what can only be described as a glittering galaxy of stars, including Jonathan L Howard and Moira Young. Further details on the festival website.
Sadly I can’t get to Trowbridge, but I’ll definitely be in Bristol on October 20th for BristolCon – where I’m looking forward to meeting all these lovely people. Membership is £20 in advance, or £25 on the door. I’ll definitely be going (I had a great time last year) and I’ll write a longer post about it when I know what I’ll be doing there.
*I probably mean ‘Science Fiction in the Bristol Unitary Authority’, but that doesn’t alliterate.
For the last few years I’ve been keeping my occasional book and film reviews separate from my personal stuff and news about my own books, by publishing them on my other blog, The Solitary Bee. But this blog gets so many more hits than the Bee that it’s a bit unfair to the authors I review to hide them away there, so in future I’ll be posting reviews here as well. If you haven’t read my reviews of recent books by Tim Maughan, Gareth L Powell, Kim Lakin-Smith, Deadly Knitshade, and Dave Shelton, you can find them all here.
Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard
I’ve sometimes been heard to say that science fiction will be the Next Big Thing in YA fiction, or at least that it ought to be. There have certainly been an awful lot of more-or-less SF-ish ‘dystopian’ novels recently, but most of them don’t seem very interested in actual science, so it’s nice to welcome one which is:
The first volume of a projected trilogy, Jonathan L Howard’sKatya’s World is set on a distant planet called Russalka which has been inhabited by colonists of mostly Russian ancestry. Since Russalka has no land, only an endless, storm-swept ocean, the inhabitants mostly live in pressurised environments beneath the sea. The prologue explains how and why this came to happen, and how the colony came to be first abandoned by, and then involved in a war with, its one-time masters on Earth.
The prologue is, unfortunately, the book’s major weak point. Oh, how the heart sinks when a SF novel kicks off with a whole chapter-length chunk of exposition! And it’s largely unnecessary in this case, because all the information it contains could easily have been revealed as and when we need to know it, in the course of the action. In fact, I’d be ready to bet that that’s how it was originally intended to be revealed: the prologue reads like something tacked on at the behest of an editor who thought young readers might be confused if everything wasn’t neatly explained up front. But don’t worry: as soon as it’s out of the way and the actual story gets going, Katya’s World exerts a grip which won’t let up till the final page.
Russalka is a greasy, grimy, ‘used future’, reminiscent in some ways of films like Alien, in which mankind has somehow developed interstellar travel and anti-gravity devices but continues to build claustrophobic submarines with technology pretty close to our own, and to indulge in familiar forms of inhumanity and political oppression. It’s full of shadowy cabins, dank corridors and the dim glow of computer screens, and although Jonathan L Howard doesn’t waste many words describing his settings it’s all very atmospheric.
The wider backdrop is interesting too: an uneasy political situation in the aftermath of war, with growing tensions between the submarine cities and the surface-dwelling Yagizban Enclaves. Into this mix come swimming a mysterious and hugely powerful war machine, the Leviathan, left over from the conflict with Earth and connected in some sinister way with Kane, the political prisoner whom young Katya Kuriakova and her uncle are ordered to transport aboard their civilian cargo submarine.
Needless to say, their apparently simple voyage goes quickly and desperately wrong, and before long Katya is involved with traitors, pirates, and terrifying artificial intelligences. There are quite a few chases, firefights and escapes, and several well-described submarine battles. There is plenty of awesome technology both under and above the sea, presumably all based on plausible science (I confess I can’t imagine how the anti-gravity machines are supposed to work, but what do I know?) and a lot of the action is built neatly out of the way submarines actually operate. There’s even a floating city called FP1, for people who like really obscure movie references.
Most importantly, the characters are engaging. All these submarines would quickly grow dull if we didn’t care about the people they contain, but Katya is a strong and likeable heroine, convincingly frightened for much of the time, but quick-thinking and intelligent enough to come up with sound solutions to most of the problems which the plot hurls at her. Kane is an intriguing figure, too – is he a villain or not? – and the rest of the cast (mostly pirates, submariners and gruff military types) are nicely rounded out, so that the good ones have their bad points and the bad ones are never wholly bad: even the charmless Officer Sukhalev gets a chance to shine.
And at the end there is an actual ending, which is always a worry when you start the first book of a trilogy. Plenty of loose ends remain a-dangling, ready to be gathered up in the next book, but this story concludes with a proper, spectacular climax rather than a cliff-hanger. It’s a highly effective, thought-provoking YA novel, and it left me looking forward to the next volume.