Writing

Free Festive Fiction 2019 – From the Archives!

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I had planned a festive short story to go out on my site today but various real-life things – a new job for starters – have put paid to those plans, which is a shame. The work in progress I’ve been nibbling at is still coming for sure and I am very excited by it – it’s still untitled, annoyingly, but can be described thusly as a spooky sea shanty, riffing a little, and intentionally so, on a classic sci-fi story from way back when.

I am, however, giving something for Christmas this year – I have made available a ~6,000-word short story I wrote in 2018 as part of my university course, Pandora’s Box. I hope it makes adequate festive reading! (Link at the bottom of the post or in the navigation!)

It’s a good story to revisit – written as part of my Narrative Techniques in Popular Fiction module that I recall enjoying quite a lot. This story was borne out of a great discussion we had in class about science fiction where an extrapolation of a real-world topic or concern.

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The concern I took to extrapolate was one I am legitimately concerned about – government collection of vast amounts of personal data, and the nefarious means by which this data could be used. There’s also a hint of extrapolation against nationalising of private industry. Here’s my premise notes from my University notebook:

The story is set on New Year’s eve, a year after the radical PANDORA group swept to power promising that, after an unfortunate industrial accident that they use to highlight the “callous profiteering” of the gene-modding industry, the “immoral” practise of “buying” genetic enhancements (or screening for flaws and correcting them) to create the ideal human body would be outlawed and the technology used to ostensibly “better humanity”.  This event is called the “nationalisation”.

 Over the course of the preceding year, under the surface, PANDORA uses this technology to screen the population for their perceived enemies who start to disappear after the gene clinics are used to surreptitiously build a gigantic genetic database on the entire population.

How does the story link in?

A breakaway group, Nexus, is rebelling against these practises finagles their way into acquiring the master genetic database code and is able to stop the powers that be from continuing to screen the population. However, confronted with such a pandora’s box of information and possibilities, the tables turn with the breakaway group inevitable becoming just as bad as the revolutionaries before them.

 This piece did well when assessed – scoring 67 marks, 3 marks off a First – and it was another one of my University pieces that garnered comments that it could work as the beginnings of a novel. I’ve pondered it myself, it’s certainly a setting and a premise I think holds legs!

READ THE STORY IN FULL HERE

Looking forward to writing lots more in 2020 – and wishing all of my readers happy holidays!

reading, Reviews

Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.