BOOK REVIEW — The Zeno Effect by Andrew Tudor

The Zeno Effect by Andrew Tudor
Published by Matador
Publication date: 14 January 2019

As a fan of intelligent speculative fiction in general (*more on that later) including well-written apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, I was happy to be provided with a copy of The Zeno Effect for review via NetGalley. My expectations weren’t high after looking at the summary of the existing reviews, but on reading the reviews thoroughly, I realised that what disappointed some of those readers, actually increased my desire to read the book. It seemed to me they were looking for an action thriller and instead found the book to be a more considered, perhaps to them slower, investigation of what would happen if, in a hypothetical future, a divided England and Scotland were at the centre of a world-altering pandemic. Reading the author’s bio and discovering he taught at the Universities of Essex and York, and was the Head of the Sociology Department at York, I was further encouraged—after all, how much of what would happen in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic scenario would be down to functioning of human society? In my opinion, quite a lot.                                                                                             

Happily, I can report I was not disappointed. The Zeno Effect started out as a dramatic political thriller along the lines of Le Carré (with maybe a hint of Graham Greene)—with the crossing paths of scientists, politicians, spies, and a journalist caught up in the maelstrom of a dangerous virus released into the wild—and evolved through into a dramatic apocalyptic thriller which, though more modern, reminded me of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, and P.D. James’ Children of Men. Some of these influences were seemingly conscious as both Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Earth Abides were actually mentioned in the narrative. 

As always, I like to write my reviews for the prospective reader and therefore do not like to go into plot details for fear of spoilers, but I will say that The Zeno Effect is intelligently written and not at all boring or lacking in plot. I started reading this at bedtime, expecting to be up for a half an hour or so, and before I realised, it had been two hours. I finished the book the following day; the story was obviously compelling. It did make me wonder about the initial middling reviews I’d read and, as I said previously, I think their lack of enthusiasm really may have stemmed from the book being different from their expectations. Looking back at my first impressions of the book now, it occurs to me this may have something to do with the cover art. I’m not a book designer, but in my opinion, it seems to follow the design conventions for mysteries and light thrillers and the large red Z was more than a little reminiscent of the covers for World War Z. For those who were consciously or subconsciously influenced by the cover to choose the book, perhaps there may have been an element of disappointment when they discovered the book to be different (more, in my opinion) than what they were expecting. They say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and I’d say, especially in this case, that is exceptionally good advice. 

*When I say I appreciate intelligent genre fiction, I mean books that are as crafted in writing and construction as any story would be within the literary genre. There are variations within any genre, but I think this is amplified in speculative fiction and science fiction where we have authors like Margaret Atwood, Cixin Liu, George Orwell, and Alastair Reynolds sitting like gems amongst the penny-laden coffers of zombie, vampire, and prepper fiction. (Though I readily admit that there are exceptions even within those subcategories). Given how difficult it is to find this kind of quality in such an eclectic and prolific genre, I am happy to have found a new book to add to my library and a new author to keep an eye on in the future. If you’re into intelligent speculative fiction, I’d recommend you give The Zeno Effect a read. 

BOOK REVIEW – If This Goes On (anthology), edited by Cat Rambo

This anthology of 30 science fiction stories is a self-proclaimed rally cry to Americans to stand up against their current administration’s ethics and policies. Though it never mentions Donald Trump by name, it does reference ‘45’, as in the 45th president of the United States, and it is glaringly obvious that the editor feels Trump is a problem. Although I’m not an American, am Canadian and British, living in the UK, I do follow American politics quite carefully and can’t help but agree, but this said, to me, one of the strengths of science fiction is its ability to address current cultural or political issues by taking the reader out of their frame of context and, by doing so, allowing them to form fresh opinions unhindered by preconceptions. In this way, the genre often has the power to reach people who would otherwise be defensive to the point of being unable to contemplate an opposing standpoint. Given this, it seems a shame that while the stories in this collection could have done this, could’ve reached the people whose minds need broadening the most, the editor’s notes that follow every story were so vitriolic and obvious in their agenda that it leaves the book with a restricted audience, essentially preaching to the choir. To be honest, though I agree with the editor’s concerns and frustrations, even I found her comments off-putting due to the overwhelming sense of bitterness. In the preface, she mentions this project is born of rage and hope, but it seems that, barring one or two comments towards the end of the book, the rage is prevalent and the hope is, if not lost, then at least not evident. 

The stories themselves were for the most part a joy, addressing current issues—social media, mental health, gun crime, population control and many more—in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner. I enjoyed the range of styles and themes, like opening a wrapped box with contents unknown, this collection gave me the feeling that each story held endless possibilities. One of the highlights for me was “Three Data Units’ by Kitty-Lydia Dye, which was seemingly about artificial intelligence, identity, and the relationships amongst humans and artificial intelligences, though through its world building, was so much more, also commenting on the evolution or devolution of society. It seemed to me a modern fairytale, both beautiful and sad. Another story that stuck with me was “Making Happy” by Zandra Renwick; on a superficial level, the world the author constructed was so different from our own, with pixelated sidewalks and internal screens, but if you stripped back the dressings, you were left with something that uncannily was the world we live in, with all the traps of social media and the echo chambers we inhabit. 

As it stands, I’d recommend the anthology to anyone with liberal leanings who has an interest in speculative fiction. With either a change in tone or elimination of the editorial notes, or perhaps even a restructuring of the book so the notes were at the very end of the book where they wouldn’t detract from the immersive nature of the fiction, I would also happily recommend it to people who weren’t already politically aligned with the message of the book. 

If This Goes On is published by Pavrus Press LLC and will be released 05 March, 2019. 

I was provided with an advance copy via NetGalley. 

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW – The Wall by John Lanchester

Set in the not too distant future, The Wall takes place in a dystopian version of the UK where the populace is conscripted into service on the The National Coastal Defence Structure, colloquially known as ‘The Wall’. It takes current-day issues—climate change, immigration/asylum, nationalism—and presents them to us through a protagonist whose world is just different enough from ours that you can understand how he grew up to accept the defects of his world without question. In this, Lanchester works the magic of speculative fiction, giving us the cautionary tale, allowing us to glimpse a slightly skewed reflection of our world, showing us that this could well be the bottom of the slippery slope we are descending. It’s an entirely readable and enjoyable addition the the dystopian genre, but it lacks the subtlety and complexity that comes with the best of speculative fiction and the characters could have been more fully realised. The protagonist was developed enough to create a sense of empathy, but while the supporting characters were identifiable as individuals, for the most part, I had no sense of what propelled them and that made them seem somewhat lightly sketched.

I listened to this as an audiobook and was impressed by Will Poulter’s narration. It’s the first book I’ve heard him read and I wouldn’t hesitate to listen to another.

All in all not a bad addition to my audible library and I’d recommend it if you’re looking for an entertaining dystopian listen, just best not to go into it expecting ground-breaking new ideas or predictions for our future.

BOOK REVIEW – Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

In hindsight this seems like a meandering tale that beautifully takes its own time, but while reading it, I was pulled along and I couldn’t put it down; I finished it in one sitting. It draws you in and, in the way of the best books, makes you understand something you find counter-intuitive. All the characters seem real, have little idiosyncrasies that make them come alive, and Kawakami manages this with ease where so many other authors strive for it, but their characters come across as contrived, like caricatures. 

I’d recommend this if you’re a fan of Japanese literature, but equally I think it would make the perfect introduction; it has some of the oddness you often find in Japanese stories, but it’s done with a light touch so the reader never flounders or feels as though they are missing anything for lack of cultural knowledge. 

A solid 5/5 for me and I am looking forward to reading the other works of Hiromi Kawakami.

The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book. As with all of Kay’s writing, every sentence is a joy to read, somehow seems effortless and light, but, yet, because of the precision and eloquence, you can’t help but acknowledge it must’ve been created with great care. I think I first read this about 20 years ago and every time, I am impressed by how he’s managed to weave nuanced themes such as the struggle between self and cultural/religious identity into such a compelling narrative. It’s the kind of book you could give to anyone and they’d be able to enjoy it simply for an entertaining and moving tale, but also, if they were so inclined, for the quality and beauty of the writing and all that lays beneath. 

Though it is something of alternate historical fiction with a touch of fantasy, it really is a book I have and continue to recommend to people who generally don’t read within these genres. 

Interestingly, when I went to post this review this on Amazon.co.uk, I came across a very old review of mine. I’ll include it here so you can see, another decade on, my opinion still hasn’t changed:

 

8 July 2009

‘A great story, powerful, beautiful, and written with eloquence. I read it for the first time about ten years ago and it immediately became my favourite book. The story and characters stuck with me; I found myself thinking about modern situations and history in changed ways. I just finished a re-read – it stills resonates. I recommend it and Guy Gavriel Kay’s other works whole-heartedly.’

Last Song Before Night

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Meyer

It’s such a treat to find a beautifully written and crafted fantasy book. I loved reading fantasy when I was growing up, but have found, as the years have gone by, that it’s become very difficult to find a book in the genre that appeals to the adult me. I tried this one after hearing about it on Twitter and I’m so glad I did – it’s entirely compelling and is written with subtlety and sophistication. So many fantasy books seem to be treated by their authors as a vehicle for conveying their world, this couldn’t be farther from the case here – this is a Story in its truest sense and is filled with complex characters that drew me in from the start (and then never let me go!)

Definitely keeping my eye out for Ilana C. Myer’s next book; if you haven’t tried this one yet, I recommend you do and would go as far as to say you don’t need to be a fan of fantasy to enjoy it