The dog-gone days are over

Caucasian Ovcharka pup
The fact that ovcharkas kinda looks like bears is a total coincidence, I’m sure (Photo by Harold Meerveld over at Flickr)

I never especially liked dogs. The operative word being “especially”, lest you think me some kind of monster, like people normally do when someone says they don’t like (or hate) our canine friends. No, I like dogs just fine, and I’ve understood why people love them, or need them, or both. Deep down, though, the point of dogs has been lost to me. Maybe it’s what comes with not growing up around them, I don’t know.

If you’re like me, you might find “This Chance Planet” a useful corrective to any deep-seated, dog-related confoundment or apathy. Slightly dry for an endorsement, I know, but I’m still a bit taken in by the laconic, none-more-Russian affect Elizabeth Bear adopts here, both in her prose and her storytelling. It turns out to be a remarkably effective way into my dog-skeptic heart, this utterly pragmatic magical realism, delivered with a shrug — or, in Bear’s own words, a huff, “like an irritated dog”. As if to say, “of course we matter. How utterly dense of you not to get it until now”.

Many years ago, I read something Warren Ellis wrote in the back of one of his comics, about how dogs were the one species which wouldn’t have any adverse impact on the earth’s ecosystems, were they to be removed. Since then, in my most cynical, heart-frozen moments, I’ve returned to that thought as an unspoken argument about how we would be better off if such an extinction event were to happen. Reading “This Chance Planet” made me wonder if Ellis’ factoid might not actually be a twisted argument for why we should treasure the dog’s presence at our side. Us biologically worthless creatures need to stick together, after all.

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What is that tune he’s always whistling?

160730“Why funny animals?” The inevitable question. It’s the kind of question asked by people with no imagination. Or people who believe that imagination is best put to use creating the kind of fiction to which it appears no imagination was applied at all.

If you’re interested in the answer to that question — my imaginary askers wouldn’t care one way or the other, their point already having been made — it’s neatly contained within the pages of Daniel Polansky‘s The Builders. This novella doesn’t have the satirical bite of Meet The Feebles or [insert your favourite piss-take of anthropomorphic cuddliness here]. Polansky’s gunfighters are whiskered, not grizzled, but it’s not a switch designed to make any particularly poignant or ironic point. In the afterword, he acknowledges the story’s genesis as a joke, but judging by the finished product, Polansky must have realised the potential for something greater along the way.

Plenty of stories like this exist just because of cuteness, or because of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thrill of putting animals in people clothes and let them do SERIOUS HUMAN STUFF. I know for a fact that my strawmen from the first paragraph would need no more reason to dismiss these kinds of stories out of hand. Weird, that; how a expression’s mere potential for the facile and inane is enough to render it utterly worthless (in strawmen eyes).

As I was saying, though, you don’t need to look any further than The Builders to find a sterling example of why we have used animal avatars in our storytelling since the days of cave paintings: It’s a shortcut to character. Seeing ourselves in animals is, strangely, one of the most human things there is, and Polansky plays on this — along with our knowledge of western and heist tropes — quite shamelessly. What’s so remarkable about The Builders, though, is that its characters never feel like stereotypes. They’re as distinctive and instantly engaging as if they had been essayed by expert animators, or an exquisitely cast ensemble of actors. More so, in fact, than the vast majority of other stories in the Seven Samurai/The Wild Bunch/Ocean’s Eleven mold.

The characters aren’t the only remarkable thing here, either; his prose and structure both have a giddy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-getting-away-with-this-sh*t energy to them. In fact, I’m tempted to say that Polansky at times exhibits the same kind of formal artfulness that elevates Quentin Tarantino’s films from genre potboilers to art. The thrill provoked by chronology scrambles and playful chapter transitions reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time. And all of it, somehow, made sharper and fresher by those funny animals.

It felt right (hey!)

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I know, it’s a very pretty bedspread. I’ll give your regards to my mother’s decorator.

And we’re back! I haven’t stopped writing completely, but life and stuff conspired to leave all those words in my drafts folder for the time being. I don’t feel great about that, since one of my biggest goals for starting this blog was keeping at the writing and the publishing of said writing. I have a tendency to start these things and get absolutely despondent when I fall off the pace, and can’t keep writing and posting regularly. Which leads to despondency, avoidance and all that good stuff. So I’m going to let myself off the hook, and be glad that I’m back at it.


 

It’s going to go right down to the wire, this whole “read all the finalists in the biggest Hugo categories in order to vote for the 2016 awards” thing. I knew all along it was going to, but it certainly wasn’t helped by the need (“need”, I should say) to get through all three of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary books in addition to the four other novel finalists. Ancillary Mercy is the one that’s nominated, but passing judgment without having read the preceding two would have been unfair, and I suspect, difficult. Also, the completist in me (who is, to be honest, most of me) simply wouldn’t allow it.

So I think I might be able to finish the novel, novella and novelette categories before the deadline on Sunday, but that might be as far as I get. We’ll see.

In many ways, this whole exercise is a bit stupid, but I’m still thoroughly grateful that I put myself through it. The four novel finalists I’ve read so far have all been varying shades of excellent, and given how much I’ve loved Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, I have a hard time believing Mercy will be a disappointment. Bar one, all of these authors have been new acquaintances, and I feel lucky to have made all of these new acquaintances. Excepting Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, there’s a big chance I never would have read any of them, and even that one I harbored some serious prejudices towards (more of which in a later post, now that I’m writing again). I know there are people who would quibble with the inclusion of the third book in a trilogy, or a pure entertainment like Butcher’s, but to a newcomer like myself, it feels like this novel category, at least, has done the Hugo awards proud. It’s a lovely mix of fantasy and science fiction, hard and soft, entertainment and art, YA and, err… OA (?) — often all in the same book.

My motivation for reading all these finalists was to push myself out of my comfort zone, reading-wise, and also to contribute in a voting process I felt was politically significant (at least on a smaller scale). We’ll see how the vote turns out in the end, but the reading has been a rousing success, at least. Even if you’re too late to contribute to the voting, I encourage you to read these novel finalists. In fact, if you do, and don’t find any of them to your liking, I’ll buy you a book. Or a beer. Whichever you prefer.

That’s no moon

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I have no idea if my clumsy attempt at scale indication comes across, so in case not, you’ll just have to trust me that it’s big. And because it’s relatively well bound, it’s heavy.

Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is a strange experience, both physically and mentally.

 

When it turned out that Kindle’s conversion mechanism didn’t take kindly to the pdf file provided in the Hugo voter’s packet, I had to procure a paper copy from my local (and fortunately well-stocked) library.

Because I’m heading to my parents for the better part of a month after the weekend, I really don’t want to have to schlep a kilo’s worth of (literally) dead wood with me. So I decided to try and finish the thing, all 862 pages of it, before leaving. Had I known the crick I’d develop near my right shoulder blade for holding this cursed behemoth for hours on end would hurt this much, I would have just spent the 13 dollars on the dang ebook. Unless that crick turns into a chronic malady, I’m still sort of glad I didn’t, though.

See, the bulk of Seveneves is set in and around a fictionalised version of the International Space Station, and the endpapers of Harper Collins’ hardcover features some very helpful illustrations of said installation. I’m not saying I was going to be hopelessly lost without them, but given the considerable demands made on my imagination by Stephenson’s scientific explanations and scene setting, I’m grateful for any visual aids I can get. Yes, I know pictures of the ISS (or “Izzy”, as Seveneves‘ astronauts call it) are readily available online, but “fictionalised” in this case means “significantly different-looking from the real thing”. This might seem strange coming from a lifelong reader of comics, but I normally find illustrations in novels to be distracting, even useless (this goes double for front covers depicting the characters within). In this case, though, I would have given a non-zero sum of money for a few more like the ones on those endpapers.

Which brings us to the “mentally” part of my lede. My recent confessional about my troubled relationship with reading science fiction seems to have quieted some of those demons, but I still really have to set my mind to reading this thing. It’s another case where that pre-vacation deadline has had some unexpectedly positive side effects. The relative complexity of the aforementioned science-y bits, and my propensity for zoning out when confronted with difficult reading, has me spending well over my regular average speed of 50 pages an hour. I’ve settled at around 70 minutes for 50 pages, which means the whole thing will probably end up taking me in the neighbourhood of twenty hours.

Given how much I have to work both to understand much of it, and to stop my attention from drifting, deciding — and having the luxury — to finish Seveneves in a short span of time is ideal. Stephenson keeps piling concept upon concept, and having the previous concept fresh in mind when he does is a huge boon.


Even in the very trivial field of online book discussions, I realise ruminations about the experiential side of reading seems even more trivial than more text-oriented analysis. I do think we readers should make more space in our discussions for this kind of thing, though. To me, awareness of what we ourselves bring to the text, and of how environmental and situational conditions colour our experience, is a crucial part of the act of criticism, whether you’re an amateur or a professional. I’m not saying that such self-awareness should be front and center of everyone’s style. But if honesty of opinion is admirable, doesn’t it follow that being honest with ourselves and others about where that opinion comes from, should be as well?

Diamond trees in his pockets

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If I keep letting myself get distracted like this, I don’t have a hope in hell of finishing my jaunt through the 2016 Hugo categories before the voting deadline. In my defense, the Android Instapaper app makes it impossible to tell exactly how long a piece of text is before I start it. So when, as an amuse bouche between bouts of novel-reading, I tapped on Usman Malik’s novella The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, I had no idea it was going to quite so substantial a read. If I’m to believe its entry in Amazon’s Kindle store, it’s only supposed to be the equivalent of 32 paper pages. Which, just by gut feel, is an underestimate by about a factor of two.

Admittedly, I also felt a bit displaced and distracted by my reading conditions last night; sat in a gradually darkening room, windows open, incessant rain hissing away every other sound. just so taken in by the story and the circumstances I was reading in. Yes, a summer night darkness can take me by surprise, but that’s what you get for growing up well north of the arctic circle. The otherworldly environment left me primed for the way Malik starts The Pauper Prince, lulling both his protagonist Salman and the reader. Anyone who’s ever been read to as a child — or indeed, read a story where a child is being told a story — will feel they know where this is heading. All expectations are quite rudely dispelled before that familiar story-within-the-story has even gotten started, though.

Instead of a bedtime fable, what follows is Salman’s attempt to solve his quarter-life crisis by exploring his roots. It’s not an unfamiliar narrative to children of immigrants, or to those of us with tenuous connections to our families. Malik isn’t content to make this only about heritage, though. Salman’s crisis is tied not only into a strained relationship with his parents, but also with his career and a long-term relationship teetering on the edge between “’till death do us part” and “the one that got away”. It’s a spot-on depiction of that perfect storm which happens when a person reaches that point where they’ve finally lost sight of adolescence, and every choice they make takes on an air of finality.

By pivoting from the fantastic into the mundane and back into the fantastic again, Malik is able to imbue both strains with a sharp tang of the unexpected. The final turn is not so much back into a fable, as it is a metaphysical (or mythological, depending on how you squint) flight of fancy. He uses the titular spirit to talk both about the origin of sentience and of the uneasy relationship many a believer has with fate and determinism. All this done in an increasingly rapturous fashion, which I have to admit I had trouble following at times. Not because it was unnecessarily complex, but rather because — like with the harder kinds of science fiction — the parts of my brain needed to understand these things are woefully out of shape.

If all the above waffle doesn’t sound enticing, the simplest way I can sell The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn goes thus: Even though Malik breaks with the trope early on, no matter how far afield his tale strays, it retains the feeling it evokes right at the start. Being small, sat on a lap, lost in a story.


Novellas, man. They’re flipping awesome. Also, even if this can be read for free at Tor.com, I encourage you to fork out the digital purchase price (less than two of your American dollars in the Kindle store). That way, you get a formatted ebook. And if that means nothing to you, you’re still supporting the author and his publisher.

Now nothin’s how it used to be

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Almost there… al.most.therrrre.

Still on The Fifth Season, so this is going to be another in progress kind of post. It’s really rolling for me now, though, so I’m probably going to finish it today. Man, how I wish I didn’t fall out of the habit of reading when I started secondary education. Up until puberty, I used to read a couple of books a week, sometimes more. Since then, though, my reading has been periodical and sporadic, which has resulted in a paltry reading speed of fifty pages an hour on average. Depending on how much I’m struggling with the prose, it might be more, or less.

Like I said, though, this particular book has finally started to roll for me. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having cracked a book’s prose style, world and characters, and the thing feels like it starts reading itself. Whoof, that particular high is one of the best reasons there is for seeking out a variety of genres and voices. There really is nothing like it in the world. Even if you’re not fluent enough to read for pleasure in languages other than your own, you can still find styles so foreign that they can provide something akin to that experience, and it’s pretty dang amazing.

Now, actively seeking out challenging material might seem completely contrary to the speed and ease of reading I started out lamenting here. In the long run, though, I think as catholic a book diet as possible might help immensely — if not with speed, than at the very least with the ease and enjoyment of the experience.

I keep returning to this idea, don’t I? It might be time to do some research; the sociology of literature and sociological criticism is a pretty big part of my current curriculum, after all. But let’s finish The Fifth Season first, yeah?


Writing music: the Gunn-Truscinski Trio’s reissued Ocean Parkway twofer.

You know not the meaning of the word

A third of the way in, and The Fifth Season is getting its hooks deeper into me. I’m not all the way convinced yet that N.K. Jemisin is going to pull off the X-Men riff she’s working — i.e., powered beings depended on to save a world that hates and fears them — but judging by the strength of the writing so far, I’m not going to bet against her.

The X-Men have been championed as a metaphor for the baseless persecution of the other ever since Kirby and Lee created them back in the sixties. No matter which persecuted group you try to view through the X-prism, the metaphor has never borne very close scrutiny, but then again it arguably hasn’t needed to. But even if we might be waiting in vain for it to ever grow up, the superhero genre is growing older, and through the staggering popularity of the movies based on the comics, its concepts and ideas are reaching more and more people. Which means more and more people are thinking and talking about this stuff.

And if you really start thinking about the X-Men as metaphor, the first thing that starts to stick in your craw might be the fact that unlike just about every other persecuted group there actually is a legitimate reason for Marvel’s mutants to be persecuted. Superpowers are inherently dangerous, and even if you do realise that great power comes with great responsibility, you still might end up hurting someone. In the real world, it is nigh-on impossible to get rid of the notion that the persecuted actually deserve the prejudice, hate, discrimination and violence directed towards them (you won’t have to look very far on Twitter or Facebook this very minute to find someone using arguments like that about race in the U.S., for instance). Might not the X-Men be doing more harm than good as a parable if the stories — however inadvertently — strengthen our cultural impulse to blame the victim?

So N.K. Jemisin isn’t making things easy for herself in diving right into the same type of metaphor. Still, she is as unflinching in her depiction of the institutional bigotry put in place to deal with what this fictional society sees as walking WMDs, as she is in portraying the reasons for the fear that feeds the bigotry, and it gives me hope that she’s going somewhere really special with The Fifth Season and the rest of her Broken Earth trilogy. Somewhere the corporate storytellers of the X-Men have rarely dared to go in over fifty years of comics.

That’s all we’ve got

(Note: I got myself stuck between two arguments here, but even though I’m not too happy with how the piece ended up, I’m posting it anyway. I’m figuring out how to balance my ruthless self-criticism and low self-esteem with the necessary self-critique I need to become a better writer. The former has kept me from writing for too long, though, so I’ll need to err on the wrong side of being crap while I adjust and learn. Bear with me!)

Four days of blogging now. It’s been a while since I used WordPress, and I appreciatethe social features they’ve added since last time I used the interface. For instance, though I haven’t made any real effort yet to search out blogs I like, I’ve still had a few bloggers and readers pop by with likes and comments. I’m green enough that I don’t know much about how these lovely people found their way to my embryonic site, but it’s humbling and lovely to see them go out of their way to interact with my stuff out of the blue.

Among these kind bloggers was one of the proprietors of the rather swanky-looking group blog Thrice Read. While acquainting myself with their archive, the post “‘Fake Readers’” by Jenn caught my eye. In it, she discusses a debate that arose recently in the wake of a video by youtuber and critic Steve Donoghue.

The video was the latest in a series were Donoghue gives his perspective on the last week’s goings on of Booktube, the community of book vloggers and other makers of reading-related videos on YT. What begins as a snarky, but not totally unfounded critique of vloggers who let themselves be co-opted into marketing tools for major publishers, abruptly shifts into a broadside against what Donoghue describes as “fake readers”. His claim is that this subset of Booktube, with their professional-level photography and editing (and wearing-of-make-up) “do not read. They don’t feel at all the same thing about books that [a] normal reader feels”. Though not anywhere close to being the worst or most hostile version of this argument I’ve seen, it’s still depressingly familiar.

Smarter people than myself – like Jenn, or Josephine Knight of Josie’s Book Corner, or editor legend Jay Rachel Edidin – have argued against the notion of Fake Readers or Fake Geek Girls better than I ever could. So I won’t go too deep on this, but I will say that no matter how well-intentioned Donoghue’s argument was, it matters little when he presents it in a way that puts down and dismisses people for having other aesthetical preferences, tastes (or genitals) than his own.

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Now, yesterday I started reading the next finalist for the Hugo 2016 novel category, N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season, which quickly prompted thoughts like these: “Now this is what I’m talking about! Prose with resistance! A book for grown-ups! The kind that belongs in an awards category”. And so on. In case you’re wondering, those are my prejudices talking (what Terry Pratchett would call my “first thoughts”). I’d like to think myself capable of swatting them down when they rear their pesky little heads, but as you see, they’re still ugly. Which made me think of Jenn’s post. Didn’t my first thoughts sound a lot like Donoghue’s?

Yes, the idea that there is a “real” literature — and that such literature should always have difficult, more-or-less-modernist prose — is deeply ingrained in me. Ever since those ideas took root, I’ve felt a need to internally justify reading and enjoying books that don’t fit that criterion. I’ve more or less gotten over my shame about reading genre literature (because everything is genre), but on some level, I still feel that books which don’t make me work are somehow lesser. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is an amazing piece of craft (along with being rollicking entertainment). But… it’s just that… it’s so easy to read. A quality deeply unnerving to my inner snob.

The key is in that word, though: craft. Craft is what makes a book worthy of awards, of wider recognition. The clear-cut (G.O.A.T.) storytelling practised by Austen or Dickens didn’t suddenly become invalid because Woolf and Joyce happened to come along in the interim. It was kept alive and honed by generations of genre writers. Conversely, the Hugo controversies of the last two years have made clear (among other, more serious issues) that those of us who love and champion straight-forward storytelling need to remember that the existence and prominence of more challenging work isn’t a threat to us and “our” books. Avant garde and entertainment co-exist, informing and complementing each other, because that what culture does and have always done. We should be wary of using our preferences for the one or the other to form hierarchies and barriers against other people.

Like Jenn says:

“Throughout my experience in the bookish social media world I have found the community to be welcoming, caring, and engaging. I have grown to see the community as a great collaboration of people of all races, genders, sexuality, nationalities, and social classes discussing a common interest. I believe this is why Donoghue’s words struck such a cord in the community. We are better than this. The diversity of the bookish community is what makes it amazing. It is also a great way to become exposed to literature one may otherwise never read.”

Secret destroyers

Being a review of the very book pictured below, finalist for the novella category of the 2016 Hugo Awards.

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Technological implants aren’t science fiction any longer; they’ve been a reality since before the turn of the century. The concept itself still lingers in sf’s idea space, though. The very thought of a subdermal foreign object evokes the retrofuturism of cyberpunk, or some other no-hope near-future. Which is why Alastair Reynolds can build an entire novella around the image of an identification implant shaped as a bullet, and not risk bringing to mind the RFID chips we tag our pets with, or something equally quotidian.

Even though this space opera branches out far and wide from the grubby war-is-hell opening scene introducing the so-called slow bullets, the story’s pivotal moments are still tied to this concept. Reynolds handles the motif gracefully, keeping our attentions trained on the grander, more urgent plot developments (of which there are plenty), but still making sure that his projectiles are worming their way under our skin.

Along the way, there are moments of both queasy-making cosmic horror and genuinely touching humanist uplift, but Reynolds is careful not to let either distract from the pragmatic, no-nonsense tone of his stranded cast. Their plight is about as existential as you can get while still retaining believability, but like in any other crisis, the here and now is more than enough for these people, even if their lives are crashing down around them.

Aside from the aforementioned outlier moments, I was ready to chalk Slow Bullets up as a solid, well-crafted B+ piece of entertainment. The more I think about it, though, the more ingenious its construction seems to me, its science fictional ideas not just window dressing, but powerful motifs to reflect the themes of the story.

In the last few years, controversy has arisen around the supposed loss of the aspirational in sf literature. To me, Reynolds provides a stirring response here: more often than not, there’s nothing noble in progress, nothing heroic or pretty in the kind of situations that best highlight the perseverance and indomitability of the human spirit. But even when we’re at our lowest and most petty, there’s still something life-affirming and beautiful about how we refuse to give up.


Some housekeeping related to my journey through the Hugo finalist field:
Still waiting for that paper copy of Uprooted, so I can finish it. Because of reasons related to how the nomination process was manipulated for the Short Story category, I might skip that specific read-through, which should free up some time. Maybe I’ll reread and write up the story I’ve decided to vote for (really enjoyable, by the way!) as the deadline approaches. Anyroad, I think I’ll just get stuck into one of the other novels next, as they’ll take the longest to finish.

Johnny looks up at the stars

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The Hourglass Nebula (photo courtesy of FreeImages.co.uk)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of science fiction. Not the familiar trappings, though, not the rockets, rayguns and aliens, but the ideas. The ideas, and to a slightly lesser degree, the difficulty (I’ll get to that in a bit).

 

I’m as a much of a sucker for a good space opera as the next nerd, but once you start getting into the harder types of science fiction, to me the experience takes on the taint of horror. The highly coveted sense of wonder the genre is supposed to strive towards is for me indistinguishable from the liminality at the core of the most frightening horror fiction. This might sound hilarious to you, but just considering the unknowable vastness of space will more often than not fill me with the kind of existential dread one might expect to be overwhelmed by should you poke at the implications of your own mortality in a dark moment.

So you might have gleaned that I’m not that much of a horror guy either, though my aversion to that genre feels a bit more honest and garden-variety. “Oh, you’re squeamish about horror? So’s every other human being”. As I hinted at with the “hilarious” aside, being afraid of sf is less easy to admit, or even explain. Now, I’ll be heading into some self-analysis here, so be forewarned. But it’s my blog and I’ll navel-gaze if I wanna.

My fear of science fiction is a complex thing, inextricably linked with my shame of not being smart enough to understand the science part of it all. Not only am I frightened by the infinite, I’m also averse to reading this stuff because I’m afraid I won’t understand it, afraid of the frustration I know I’ll feel when I don’t understand. I realise everyone can feel existential anxiety, but this fear of knowing and testing my own limits seems to me a very personal one. Not easily admitted, but central to the depression and anxiety that’s made my adult life (16 years and counting) an exercise in hiding from people and pain .

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It’s not like I flinch away, incapacitated by the sight of the words “Stephen Baxter” on the cover of a book or anything like that. My fears just means that I’ve never read much science fiction, that’s all. Both because of fear, and because I haven’t developed an affinity for it. It’s one of the milder, consequence-light results of my avoidance.

– – – –

Thus, my opinions on the sf nominees in this competition won’t be the most well-informed. Even so, I enjoyed Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets quite a bit. It’s not the hardest of hard sf — meaning that at no point during reading it did I feel like a moron — but Reynolds still takes a few well-aimed prods at my preconceptions and prejudices. At one point, the story even veers into what I’d argue to be cosmic Lovecraftian horror, although it turns out to be a detour designed to bring a sense of scale, ineffability and, yes, abject horror to the rest of the tale.

Even so, I don’t feel worse off for this foray into the to-me horrible territory of harder sf. I wish I wasn’t as familiar… wait, strike that, I wish I was more familiar with this feeling of my fears and aversions being totally unfounded, but that’s depression and anxiety for you. With an outside perspective, its behaviours are the most petty, foolish things imaginable. But there, in the moment, so utterly resistant to reason.

I would apologise for oversharing, but if you’ve read this, I’d wager your interest for the inner workings of the minds of strangers is above average. You’re welcome.

I’ll write up an actual review of Slow Bullets for my Goodreads page, and post that as tomorrow’s entry.