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Book Review – 2012 edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne

January 10, 2012 6 comments

2012 was the first anthology from Perth’s Twelfth Planet Press, and it was first published in 2008. Now that the dreaded year in question has rolled around, I thought it time to give this slender anthology of doomsday stories a try. The ToC contains some very familiar names, virtually a who’s who of Australian spec-fic writing. In fact, the only author with work collected here whom I hadn’t previously read is David Conyers, and I thought his story was one of the best in the volume. Each of the stories imagines various variations on the apocalypse (some natural disasters, some man made), set in what was then the near future and is now the immediate present: 2012.

Water is, as you’d expect, a precious commodity in many of these stories. Deborah Biancotti’s “Watertight Lies” is a claustrophobic account of an ill-fated descent into a subterranean cave. Gabrielle and Pete are on an important but dangerous mission, but there’s some funny business occurring on the surface, and it seems that the cave may in fact be a safer place to be after all. This is tightly written and well realised, like most of Biancotti’s work.

A story with a completely different feel is Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Fleshy”. Told in the form of an email, “Fleshy” features “a lump of bio-engineered flesh” (p14) created by Kelly’s boyfriend, Matt. A genetic experiment with potentially limitless possibilities, Fleshy shares rather too many similarities with his inventor for Kelly’s liking, especially given that Matt brings Fleshy home to stay with them. The situation reaches flashpoint when Fleshy takes a liking for Kelly herself, and it’s all downhill from there.

“Soft Viscosity” by David Conyers is the longest story in 2012 and it’s probably my personal favourite. Set in South America, it features Ecuadorian terrorists, an oil war, the machinations of the CIA, and more. Told from multiple points of view, the story weaves together disparate narratives that are all nevertheless infused with dark and gritty violence.  “Soft Viscosity” demonstrates a level of realism greater than in some of the other stories in this volume, and indeed in speculative fiction in general. There’s enough material for a novel in here, and yet Conyers packs it into twenty or so incendiary pages.

Dirk Flinhart’s “The Last Word” is a clever tale which revolves around an ex-couple, Lewis and Jane, who also happen to be involved in sensitive scientific research. Jane is close to a breakthrough in her quest to find a cure for melanoma, but she needs money, and that’s where Lewis comes in. Still smarting from their breakup, Lewis inflicts as much hardship as possible onto his ex in exchange for the funds, and he even hijacks her research for his own nefarious ends.

Kaaron Warren’s “Ghost Jail” is a fabulous story, which I’ve previously covered in my review of Dead Sea Fruit. It’s one of Warren’s most powerful works. Angela Slatter’s “I Love You Like Water” is another water scarcity tale, in which the  unfortunate poor or ill are harvested for their precious bodily fluids. Ben Peek’s “David Bowie” is slight but effective, riffing on Bowie’s song ‘Five Years.’ And Sean McMullen’s “Oblivion” contrasts a dying, bankrupt millionaire with his poorer but happier son.

All in all, 2012 is a strong collection, even if it is a little on the short side. None of the futures imagined are very cheery, and some of them seem likelier to occur than others in the coming year. You can purchase this collection from Twelfth Planet Press directly for a mere $10, and at that price it’s more than fair value. 2012 also offers as a good introduction to these writers, all of whom are well established in the Australian spec-fic community. You’ll be glad you did.

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Book Review – Above (Stephanie Campisi)/Below (Ben Peek)

February 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Above/Below is the latest novella double from Perth based Twelfth Planet Press, which has rapidly become one of Australia’s most important small presses dedicated to the publication of speculative fiction. In the tradition of the Ace Doubles and, later, the Tor Doubles, Twelfth Planet has helped to resurrect the oft-neglected art of novella writing. In an era of epic trilogies and ever increasing book lengths, the renaissance of shorter work is a welcome development indeed.

Above and Below, written by Stephanie Campisi and Ben Peek respectively, form halves of a greater whole. Just to be contrary, I read Below first, and I’m writing this part of my review before reading Above. In Below, we are introduced to the world of Dirt, a grotty, industrial zone that is home to those unfortunate souls tasked with mining the Shafts that fuel the cities of Loft in the sky above. This situation recalls that in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which the wretched Morlocks mine the earth’s bowels for the benefit of the delicate Eloi.

The action in Below mostly takes place in Dirt’s capital city, Naelur. Our protagonist, Eli Kurran, has recently lost his wife to the cancers that beleaguer every Dirt resident, and he is a broken man with only one thing left to live for: his daughter Lilia. Like every other resident  of Dirt over the age of twelve, Eli’s body is covered with Purifers that siphon out the toxins present in Dirt’s atmosphere, allowing him the opportunity to live (if he is lucky) to the grand old age of forty-eight or so.

The industrial zone of Dirt and the numerous floating cities of Loft co-exist in an uneasy state of peace until one of Loft’s cities crashes to Dirt below, with dire consequences for its residents. This precipitates a conflict that threatens to destroy Dirt, despite the best efforts of Loft woman Alithia Serin. Known as the ‘Dirt Woman’ to her countrypeople, Serin attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically. Tasked with helping her, Eli is drawn into the conflict despite his intentions to stay out of it.

Below is an easy, interesting read that explodes spectacularly into violence toward the end. Its author, Ben Peek, is an accomplished writer and he handles the material with assurance. And while Below concerns an imaginary world, like all good speculative fiction it holds up a mirror to our own planet. At Below‘s end, I am left comparing the situation with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, with Dirt a rough approximation of the Palestinian territories to Loft’s Israel.

As a bonus, there is an interview with the now-deceased Del Kurran at the end of Below, which helps to shed further light onto the situation. I love this sort of extra material.

In Above, we get the other side of the coin. On the floating Loftian city of Liera, the aptly-named Devian Lell is forced to consider a proposal he would not normally consider. After witnessing the fall of the city of Adur, as is explained in more detail in Below, Devian is selected by Fennigan Whit for a task that no one else would accept: to be a minder for the diplomat from Dirt, the sickly Chroll Dhormi. Devian himself is an unlucky soul in that he lives in the seedier part of the city, and that his occupation is one subject to a powerful taboo: he is a cleaner of the city’s filthy underside. Worse, Devian’s wife Ninae has fallen sick from some pestilence that may be the result of his own occupation. This makes him a prime candidate to undertake Loft’s dirtiest job: coming face to face with a man from Dirt.

Above is a little different to Below in that the action is less pronounced and more internalised. Campisi writes in a rich, literary style that complements the rarefied world of Loft perfectly. And yet here too there is a seamy underside. Devian Lell is forced to explore this underside through a brief relationship with the aforementioned Dhormi, who is described as a snakelike creature with oil almost literally exuding from his pores.  The power of taboo in Loft is so powerful that most of the upper world’s inhabitants do not know and will never ask how and why one of their cities came to crash to Dirt, and yet it is Devian’s job to get to the bottom of how and why this came to pass.

At the end of Above (and the end of the narrative for me) is another bonus piece, being an interview with a Loftian citizen even more unfortunate that Devian Lell. The piece, entitled “The Culture Show” is an interview with a murderer consigned to spending his days cleaning the city’s underside, a toxic and deadly occupation. Here we gain further insight into the hypocrisy of Loftian thinking, a dangerous combination of prudishness and a lack of empathy for those less fortunate. Here, also, are hints that Dirt and Loft may in fact be located on our own Earth after all, at some unspecified future time.

In summary, Above/Below is an admirable, entertaining and successful work that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Its authors, Ben Peek and Stephanie Campisi, have done more than produce excellent novellas in their own right (although they have done that too) – they have produced an elegant composite novel which can, as I think I have shown, be read in any order. Furthermore, the physical production of the book is world class, from the outstanding cover designs by Amanda Rainey (depicting, I believe, Perth’s skyline) to the sharp internals. Writers Peek and Campisi, as well as Twelfth Planet Press and its editor Alisa Krasnostein, can be proud of their efforts here.

Book Review – Sprawl, edited by Alisa Krasnostein

October 5, 2010 4 comments

Sprawl is the latest themed speculative fiction anthology from Twelfth Planet Press, a Perth-based indie publisher that has burst onto the scene in the past two or three years. The writers collected herein are a mixture of some of Australia’s more famous names in speculative fiction and an army of promising up and comers. The resultant anthology is quite spectacular.

I was very impressed by Sprawl, intended as a collection of suburban fantasy stories, on a number of levels. Firstly, the cover design by Amanda Rainey is superb. Based on the coastline and streets of Perth, the sprawling lines are both the names of the writers and lines from their stories. Krasnostein writes in her introduction that she “wanted to produce a strong volume of Australian short stories to take with me to the Worldcon [held in Melbourne in September 2010] and showcase our vibrant local scene.” On these or any terms, Sprawl must be adjudged a success.

To the stories themselves. I decided only to write about the ones I particularly engaged with, but handily that proviso covers about two thirds of Sprawl‘s contents. After the opening poem (“Parched” by Sean Williams), the first story is “Relentless Adaptations” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, a light-hearted romp set mostly in a book cafe complete with zombies for staff. Our protagonist is too sleep deprived by her infant child to care about the literary vandalism occurring around her (she orders a copy of Sherlock Holmes with lesbians). In the future, it seems, you can not only print novels on demand – you can tailor them to your tastes as well. Ulysses in modern slang, for example. This trend, which may have had its beginning in our own times with a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, reaches its end point when the characters of seminal works of literature appear to redress the balance.

Stephanie Campisi’s “How to Select a Durian at Footscray Market” is a lusciously written tale containing some of the best prose in this volume; it reminded me of the work of Simone Lazaroo in that it is centred on Malays living in Australia. Like the strange fruit of this story’s title, I suspect Campisi’s writing to be an acquired taste, but unlike durians, I’ve acquired the taste for Campisi’s writing after reading this story.

Peter M. Ball has had a couple of novellas out from Twelfth Planet Press of late, neither of which I’ve read, and here he offers us “One Saturday Night, with Angel.” This story definitely fits into the category of suburban fantasy in that it is set in an all-hours deli and concerns an actual angel. This is a punchy, distinctive piece that puts this author’s other work on my to-read list.

I was especially enamoured with Thoraiya Dyer’s “Yowie”, which begins: “There was dog shit on her shoe.” (p. 47) This is another tale of the difficulties of motherhood in an uncaring world, and the story combines realistic and fantastical elements most effectively. I’m not going to try to summarise the story’s rather complex plot here, but suffice to say that I think this one should be nominated for an award or two.

Similarly, I rather enjoyed reading Simon Brown’s “Sweep”, which reads a little more like memoir than fiction. Much closer to the realistic (but never mundane) end of the fantastical spectrum, this is nevertheless an extremely effective piece about how decisions made in childhood impact one in adulthood. This is a bit like an Australian ‘The Wonder Years’ and I mean that as a compliment.

Deborah Biancotti’s “No Going Home” is the kind of story you’ll want to read twice. I say this, having as yet read it only once, hence my vague understanding of the story’s twist. Don’t mind me though; this is coming from a guy who walked out of The Sixth Sense not having understood the ending. Harry is an elderly man who receives a visitation from a strange visitor who can’t remember her own name, let alone anything else. A number of other people find this young woman eerily familiar too.

Pete Kempshall’s ‘Signature Walk’ shared some similarities with Deborah Biancotti’s piece (which is hardly surprisingly given that this is a themed anthology). In it, a whinging pom by the name of Lara (I can say that, I’m one myself) is sent to a rundown house on the outskirts of Perth with a view to trying to sell it, only to get much more than she bargained for.  This starts off in engaging fashion and gets creepier as it goes.

Ben Peek’s “White Crocodile Jazz” reminds me of the work of one of my favourite writers, Harry Crews, of whom no one but me seems to have heard. This is a gritty piece quite different in tone from most of the stories in this anthology. In it, there’s a Snake Handler who gets the stuffing beaten out of him more than once, a Vietnamese midget by the name of Bob, a mute narrator, a Crocodile Woman, and more. The Crews novel this reminds me of most is The Gypsy’s Curse, which everyone should read directly after reading “White Crocodile Jazz.”

“Brisneyland by Night” by Angela Slatter is an intriguing and complex tale about the Weyrd, and more specifically a kinderfresser or child eater. Worse, it seems unscrupulous sorts are harvesting the tears of young children in the creation of some kind of elixir. Our protagonist, Verity Fassbinder, is half Weyrd and half Normal herself, and is thus mistrusted by both groups. She’s on the trail of some missing children, and her investigations force her to confront the heinous misdeeds of her own Weyrd father, the odious Grigor. I enjoyed reading this so much that I was genuinely disappointed to turn onto the last two pages.

I enjoyed most of the stories in this anthology, but the one I probably enjoyed the most was “All the Love in the World” by Cat Sparks. This is a post-apocalyptic tale but, importantly, Sparks has managed to avoid re-treading most if not all of the clichés of the genre. In doing so she has created something exciting indeed. The Crescent is a self-sufficient enclave that is home to a number of survivors of the unspecified calamity, and all is relatively well until our protagonist loses her lover Jon to the interloper Jeannie. When Jon falls sick, she leaves the enclave in search of antibiotics, with surprising results.

Sprawl‘s final story is “Her Gallant Needs” by Paul Haines, which is an engaging work on a number of levels. At first it resembles Simon Brown’s story in that it is about a seminal moment in one’s adolescent years, but the story takes on a decidedly fantastic and shocking twist toward the end. Set in New Zealand in the early eighties, “Her Gallant Needs” centres on an overweight child by the name of Samuel Goldstein. Both he and his mother are in possession of several things that brothers John and Richey desire, not least a then-new Atari 2600. Both get significantly more than they bargained for.