Micro-reviews (January 2020)
Posted by Paul Samael on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 Under: Book reviews
Myxocene, The Last and Spaceman of Bohemia
Myxocene by Troy Ernest Hill
“Myxocene” is a name that some have proposed for where we might end up if we continue to degrade the planet at current rates (the “myx” comes from the Greek “muxa”, meaning slime; adding “-ocene” on the end gets you “age of slime”). Anyway, that’s the jumping off point for this excellent and thought-provoking speculative thriller (which, by the way, is also self-published). Freelance journalist Sarah Bennett takes on some work for a scientist, Dr Keating, who is interested in how the environment around Chernobyl has responded to the nuclear disaster. She does so with an ulterior motive, hoping to find out more about his role in developing a drug which was supposed to help patients with mental health problems - but appears to have driven some of them to suicide. I won’t spoil the plot by elaborating much more than that, but what looks at first like it’s going to be a straightforward investigative eco- and/or medical thriller turns out to be about a lot more besides.
The neuroscience element was reminiscent of some of the issues that Ted Chiang has tackled in stories such as “Understand” and "Liking What You See". Personally, I think Troy Ernest Hill does an even better job than Chiang, particularly in his portrayal of subtle changes in the thought patterns of one of the characters in response to the drug and his focus on the delicate balance between our capacity for rational thought and our emotions. Nor is it the case that the book focuses on these ideas to the exclusion of more conventional novelistic material; on the contrary, the relationships between Sarah, her anxious pre-teen daughter, her evangelical Christian mother and her somewhat self-obsessed ex-partner are convincingly portrayed and entertainingly described (Sarah’s narration has a wry humour and she doesn’t take herself too seriously – which provides a pleasing counter-balance to some of the heavyweight concepts that the book deals with). Highly recommended. I can also recommend Troy Ernest Hill’s short story “The Nose”, which you can read for free here and which is reviewed here.
The Last by Hanna Jameson
I really enjoyed this but found it bizarre that it was being marketed as a crime thriller. I mean, yes, there is a murder mystery element – but the really big thing that has happened is that there’s been a major exchange of nuclear weapons, so it’s more about survival in the aftermath of that. According to the blurb though, you will want to read it because it’s a crime thriller - and not because you might be going, OMG, the world as we know it has ended in a nuclear war – how did that happen and how are the survivors going to get on? It's another example of publishers' unhealthy obsession with pigeon-holing books by genre. The reason for the somewhat peculiar marketing angle may be that (so far as I can see) Hanna Jameson has up until this book specialized in crime fiction. It’s possible her publishers were concerned about losing that fanbase, who they patronisingly assumed wouldn’t read anything other than murder mysteries and the like. Anyway, I think it’s fair to describe it as a thriller, but not really as crime fiction. Yes, the narrator tries to solve a murder at the remote Swiss hotel where the characters all end up being stranded, but that’s as much displacement activity as anything, trying to fill his days and blot out thoughts about the really terrible BIG THING that has happened. In terms of what it’s actually about, I’d say it had more in common with Station Eleven, which I reviewed here – it’s the sort of book that makes you think about all the things we take for granted about life in the early 21st century and how you would feel if they were suddenly taken away from you.
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
The Czech Republic decides to send an astronaut to investigate a mysterious dust cloud. Sounded a bit weird, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my experience. Plus, the reviews were generally pretty positive and it won an Arthur C Clarke award. So I thought I’d give it a try. I found the early (non-sci-fi) sections about the main character’s childhood after the fall of Communism quite compelling (he has to cope with being ostracised as a result of his father having been a high ranking official in the Czech equivalent of the Stasi). But the sci-fi element – which, sadly, takes up most of the book - just didn't work for me (and I speak as someone who likes sci-fi but isn’t averse to people taking the piss out of it either). The author makes use of various sci-fi tropes primarily (I think) to heighten the surreal/satirical quality of the narrative – and in that respect, the book reminded me a bit of some of Kurt Vonnegut's work. But after a while, I just stopped caring what happened to the central character - and there wasn't enough going on in terms of original ideas or plot to keep my interest (it was a real struggle to finish and I confess to skimming much of the last third of the book). I’m still scratching my head as to what so many reviewers saw in this book. I think the author has talent but should stop trying to be so self-consciously wacky and drop the sci-fi (leave that to others who know what they are doing with it).
In : Book reviews
Tags: myxocene "troy ernest hill" "the last" "hanna jameson" "spaceman of bohemia" "jaroslav kalfar"
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