Part of AddAltMode’s Creepy Countdown series
When I’m not reading about robots, I do love a good horror story, so as part of our Creepy Countdown series, I’m going to recommend and discuss a few of my favourite creepy reads in the run up to Hallowe’en.
Author: Dan Simmons
Published: 2009 by Quercus
Now, horror literature is a genre that I think often works best in concentrated doses, ideally suited to short stories or – at a push – novellas, as it can be hard convincingly to sustain terror and suspense for the course of a long novel. Which isn’t to say that long reads can’t be scary, but it’s a different kind of scare: more about creating an atmosphere of mystery and doubt than conjuring jump scares and physical threat. It’s probably significant that most of my favourite 500-pages plus horror reads sit squarely in the genre of Victorian-inspired historical fiction. Why is that? Well, Those triple-decker-penning Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Coillins certainly knew a thing or two about how to pace a marathon read, and even works by modern writers that are set in the nineteenth-century can often get away with being very expansive, as the length feels authentic for this setting rather than just an authorial indulgence. Also, let’s face it, when it comes to creating an atmosphere of spookiness there is something unbeatable about a nineteenth-century milieu, especially an urban one. Perhaps it’s the obscuring smog for which Victorian cities were notorious; perhaps its the darker shadows cast by gaslight, or perhaps it’s the idea of London during this period as a city expanding and mechanising at a prodigious rate, all of which make it a perfect setting for mysteries and secrets.
In Drood, Dan Simmons draws on all of these ideas, as well as re-imagining the lives of two of the era’s foremost writers of spookily atmospheric fiction, the aforementioned Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Dickens’ ghost characters (particularly those from A Christmas Carol) have to be among the most famous of all pop-cultural spooks, while Collins’ The Woman in White and Armadale are classic spooky thrillers that would both feature on my list of all time favourite reads. So it’s a wonderful – if slightly crazed – conceit to follow these two men as they become embroiled in a mystery of their own. Simmons speculates (wildly but enjoyably) on the inspiration behind Dickens’ unfinished final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood in a plot which sees the two great authors battling demons of their own – both metaphorical and slightly less so. If that sounds silly, that’s because it is. Let’s be clear, Drood is a completely ridiculous and overwrought piece of faux-Victorian Gothic hokum. But it’s also unputdownably gripping, brilliantly plotted and tempers its crazed flights of dark fantasy with some impressively heavyweight literary and historical research. In short, although I freely admit this novel is mad, bad and dangerous to know, I adored it – and sustainedly adored it throughout all its mighty 800 pages. So this is one of my top picks for a Hallowe’en read. But Drood is a weighty tome indeed so if want to get it ticked off your reading list before the end of the month it’s probably best to start now. Here’s more on why you should…
Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Published: Orbit: 2010
Few debut novels come as laden with accolades as The Windup Girl, which won its author both a Hugo and a Nebula award. Does it live up to the hype? There is no doubt that Bacigalupi’s debut novel provides a memorable and intense reading experience. Satisfyingly, this is a novel all about the subject of energy which itself hums and thrums with a vibrancy that can feel both heavy and intoxicating. I picked up the book as part of my ongoing mission to explore the depiction of robots in as many novels as possible. So I was surprised to find that although Emiko – the artificial “windup” of the title – undoubtedly is the catalyst for most of the novel’s key events, her individual story here is somewhat less engaging than the wider experience of Bacigalupi’s world-building. The Windup Girl follows a number of different characters along what is in each case essentially a quest for survival, whether that be the survival of an individual, a company, a city, a nation, an ideology, or even the survival of a species. Yet the real energy source in the book, the power that kept me turning the pages, comes less from character than from setting. The plot may strain under the weight of a few too many coincidences but Bacigalupi’s dystopian world is intricate, memorable and worryingly credible.
Title: I, Robot
Author: Isaac Asimov
First Published: 1967
Just as its title suggests, this is another collection of (mostly) “Three Laws” robot stories from the creator of that seminal concept. The most famous collection of Asimov’s robot stories is, of course, I, Robot (which I review here), so you’d be forgiven for thinking of this anthology as very much the Mechanical Men B-Team. There’s some truth to that. The first tale here, “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” is an early work and does feel less polished than later tales, while another inclusion, “First Law,” is so brief that it’s really more of a sketch than a fully-formed short. But The Rest of The Robots is still well worth a look, not merely because it features a few tales that could sit happily alongside the finest I, Robot has to offer, but also for the way in which this collection provides fascinating background information about Asimov’s inspiration for writing and how the Three Laws notion evolved, as well as some insight into the author’s feelings on how his robots have been received.
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard
So here we go then, one of the swathe of massive movie resurrection pictures hitting our screens in the next few years. And in before The Force Awakens, in before Ghostbusters III, we have this – the very definition of a franchise “de-extinction.” Which is interesting, of course, because the Jurassic Park films have always questioned if science should do things just because it can, and whether some fossils really ought to be left in the ground.
Trevorrow’s Jurassic World is a ‘soft’ reboot of the franchise: its world-building remains playfully respectful of Spielberg’s influential 1993 original and largely ignores the two underwhelming sequels. The film also chooses to anticipate and grapple head-on with the questions of how a 90s cinema classic will fare in the post-3D, post-Imax, CGI for breakfast cinemascape of 2015. “Twenty years ago, de-extinction was up there with magic” notes Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the steely operations manager of Isla Nublar now a well-established theme resort which has managed to recover, expand and prosper since the unfortunate dino-rampage incidents of the original movie. But since then, the magic has mutated into the mundane, Claire continues: “now kids look at a stegosaurus like it’s an elephant at the zoo.” Plotwise, this is the rationale for the creation of Indominus Rex, a T-Rex spliced with DNA from various other creatures (Frankenstein’s shopping list is gradually revealed throughout the action as more of I-Rex’s capabilities come to light) who has been designed to be bigger, cooler, have “more teeth” and to wow the jaded smartphone generation. Clearly, this also raises a flag of cinematic intention for Jurassic World.
The creation of such a beast as I-Rex is problematic on so many levels, not mention the fact that it’s just downright, dumb, reckless idea. But as a new powered up dino rampage ensues (come on guys, that’s hardly a spoiler, what else did you expect to happen, this is a Jurassic Park film after all) viewers get to enough enjoyably tense action sequences to make us glad of that stupidity. My reaction to the ‘birth’ of I-Rex encapsulates my feelings on the film as a whole fairly neatly: there are some troubling issues, and it’s not something we really needed, but since it’s here I’m happy enough to enjoy the ride. And there is plenty to enjoy here although the plot’s own lesson that bigger isn’t always better is one that remains perhaps more pertinent than the producers would have hoped.
Title: I, Robot
Author: Isaac Asimov
First Published: 1950
It would just be wrong if I progressed very far with this Robo Reads feature – discussing books that deal with robots, AI and humanity’s relationship with technology – before reviewing this absolute classic of the genre. Over the years, certain highly influential stories generate tremendous cultural resonance: they get quoted and misquoted, and they inspire other books, films and games in all hues of homage, critique, pastiche and plagiarism. The best known tales of H.P. Lovecraft would be one example of this phenomenon, and I, Robot is certainly another. In both cases it’s easy to feel like you know the story even if you’ve never picked up the book. So finally reading the original texts can actually be quite an odd experience, simultaneously foreign and familiar, rather like meeting a long-lost relative for the first time: you may be instantly connected by a shared history, even a strong physical resemblance, but at the same time you’re also facing a complete stranger.
I thought I’d make a new feature – Robo Reads – and start sharing a few book reviews here on AddAltMode. I’m the sort of reader who likes to pick a theme and run with it as far as I can, and since I’m doing the ‘robot thing’ at the moment it seems a good time visit and revisit some robot and/or AI fiction in the months ahead. But Robo Reads is going to be a fairly loose heading. Indeed, there are no robots or AI at all in this first entry in our book reviews category, but Lock In does explore a lot of the same kinds of issues and tensions around the relationship between humans and technology that are often present in robot-focused fiction. Plus, it’s important to start a book reviews feature with a recommendation for a cracking read and this is certainly that…
Title: Lock In
Author: John Scalzi
Published: 2014 by Gollancz
No matter how futuristic (or otherwise) its setting, good sci-fi always shines a searching beam on our present. The first of Scalzi’s books I’ve read, Lock In is a fairly brisk read with lots of punchy dialogue. Plotwise, it takes the form of a police procedural / whodunnit and very consciously evokes many of typical tropes of this particularly trope-heavy genre. The protagonist, Chris Shane, is a rookie FBI agent newly paired with Vann, who may be a more experienced investigator but who is also a hard drinking loose cannon type who comes dragging the excess baggage of her own haunted past. As Chris summarises: “she’s a ticking time bomb ready to explode and I don’t want to be anywhere near her when she goes off… Straight from the cliché checklist. Got it.” This wry tone neatly encapsulates the crime fiction element of the book. Chris and Vann are investigating a murder and their journey to discovery certainly provides enough interest and danger to be enjoyable but there are no particular surprises or great reversals when it comes to figuring out the identity or motivations of the perpetrator. No, what brings real novelty and depth, and makes Lock In such a fascinating read, is the wider social context of its setting and world building which shines a near future sci-fi spotlight onto a number of important present day issues: disability and ableism; class; socialised healthcare and – most fascinatingly, I felt – our relationship with technology, particularly how technology could impact on perceptions of race, gender and selfhood.
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
The theme of artificial intelligence is one explored time and again in science fiction, and it’s a fascination that seems to be only increasing as such ideas move into the realm of science fact. Just look at how the recent driverless cars debate has ignited responses in the media stretching from impressed excitement to apocalyptic dread. Alex Garland’s tense, cerebral film evokes precisely this mix of wonder and unease, making for an engaging cinematic experience.