Perth fiction: not just surviving but thriving

Anything could carry disease: a handshake, a coin, a kiss. At least coins and tokens could be boiled.

The first details I heard of Survival, the debut novella of my one-time journalistic colleague Rachel Watts, acted like the most tantalising kind of teaser movie trailer.

First, it was sci-fi, set in a flooded city. Flooded cities are my jam. I’ve always been captivated by the idea of rowing from roof to roof. Grim real-world cyclones and hurricanes aside, I just freaking love it.

Second, it was young adult sci-fi! I’ve always believed YA fiction vitally important. The tone and the quality must be perfect if you’re going to get through to a teenager. A good young adult book means an exceptional book, period. Some of the most formative books of my entire life, those I regularly revisit, are young adult. Lockie Leonard. The Great Gatenby. John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles. Too many to mention, and others whose titles I’ve long forgotten but whose memories I remember vividly.

So when my advance copy arrived I turned to Survival with anticipation and found only more killer elements.

Post-apocalyptic? Check. Natural disasters? Check. Giant squid? Be still, my beating heart. If there is one sci-fi trope I love above all else it is a kraken. John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes is one of my favourites.

The story is set in a post-climate change world. Governments and economies have collapsed. The Scylla Corporation, the world’s only remaining multinational, rules with an iron fist. Cities are flooded, though people continue to live in them as best they can.

In one such city live two young women. One, a bartender, is living day to day, hand to mouth, grieving the mysterious disappearance of her activist sister.

The other is a number-cruncher who lives in the secure Scylla complex, whose ordered world crumbles the day she finds evidence of something horrifying in Corporation medical research data.

The two, though vastly different, meet by chance and find themselves aligned in their pursuit of the truth.

The book feels a little Children of Men, a little Resident Evil, even a little like the final book in Mervyn Peake’s incredible Gormenghast trilogy, the book of the castle sinking into a rising river.

Watts has done her research. Her flooded world is fully and powerfully imagined: the poverty of half-submerged suburbs, the economies that struggle to adapt and stay afloat, and the shining beacon of a ruling corporation that overlooks it all with chilling indifference.

The pictures appear in your mind fully formed: disease-ridden coins, dropped in jars of bleach at market stalls. The filth that rises in the streets when unbearable humidity condenses into torrential rains. The food seller’s daughter with both feet amputated after an infection. The fishermen who trade in squid that has become the most plentiful resource in a warped ocean ecosystem. The silent presence of a rumoured giant squid, that bears witness to a clandestine meeting in a stadium that the new world has transformed into a giant fishbowl.

In a state in which our own new tricked-out stadium has just opened, in a country in which action on climate change is at stalemate, this dystopian vision is particularly chilling.

I loved the idea of this book from the start because it had so many of the best hallmarks of a genre I love. But there is no hint of the formulaic here. Watts’ streetscapes are completely original and her voice, steely and edgy, is her own.

This debut indicates a promising new voice in Western Australian fiction and happily she’s not short of ideas: the bonus content is four of the author’s previously published stories, gems that indicate a fertile imagination. So: watch this space.

Watts’ novella is available from tomorrow at Crow Books and other select stockists.

And if Perth fiction is your jam, check out some more new releases: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan, if you like family sagas and Australian historical fiction; Dustfall by Michelle Johnston if you like your literature with a side of medical thriller; and You Belong Here by Laurie Steed, a beautiful piece of contemporary literary fiction. All in stores now.

 

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The 10 books you must read in 2018

My records show I read 52 books during the second half of 2017 as Stu and I travelled the USA and Canada. That’s two books a week – not bad, considering what else we packed into 26 weeks. I’ve picked the top handful, the books that changed or moved me the most, to make this reading list for 2018, should you choose to accept it. It starts in March, given I got to this post rather later than I planned!

March: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

Read in San Francisco.

Not so much a novel as popular philosophy novelised, a story examining modern love – not something natural, but something that occurs now, as it always has, within a particular social context. Alain de Botton has noticed that after the old “how’d you meet?” chestnut, no one ever seems to want to know what happened next – after the marriage. He talks about boredom, compromise, fighting, cheating. Childcare, and eventually parent care. The erosion of ideals of passion, perfection, grand romance. And then – what remains. He explores all the evidence that a lover can’t be everything, perform every function and fulfil our every need – and yet how we still expect them to be. This is a conversation society must have – indeed is always having, almost unconsciously and circuitously. De Botton gives it meaning and usefulness via a beguiling and very readable parable. Should be required reading for all adults.

April: The Ellie Chronicles, John Marsden

Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Read in Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

The follow-up trilogy to John Marsden’s groundbreaking Tomorrow series, these books are riveting. I know I have now listed a trilogy as one book, but hey, they’re short. Together they make up one large book and they’re smarter than plenty of so-called adult novels. As well as satisfying the hunger to find out what happened to Ellie and her friends, they’ll remind you how blunt and delicate and evocative and honest John Marsden’s writing is. I’m so grateful this wonderful man gives us what we so badly need: our own country on the page. You can practically smell the eucalyptus wafting up from the page, yet above all these are stories of people: their loves and losses, grief and courage, the weird bonds that remain when everything else in a life changes beyond recognition.

May: The L.A. Quartet series, James Ellroy

Read in a poky room in LA.

I’m cheating again. This is actually four books. Four big, gloriously fat, difficult books. I had already read The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. While away I completed The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. James Ellroy is known for his razor-sharp prose, hard and dense and staggering. It’s unlike any other author’s writing, ever, and you can’t really say you know crime literature or even American literature without knowing Ellroy. Be careful, though – this is the most violent stuff I’ve ever read (or seen onscreen, for that matter). It’s not for the fainthearted. It requires time and commitment and focus. It’s worth every minute. And I recognise that realistically you’re only going to finish the first one in May. That’s OK. Just make a start.

 

 

June: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Echo Park, LA - a good place for reading

Read in Echo Park, L.A.

For fans of clever, classic sci-fi. So clever I confess to skim-reading some parts I just couldn’t understand (Stephenson is actually a scientist). But above all it’s a rip-roaring story. Nell is a smart but disadvantaged child in a supremely uncaring dystopia. She gets one chance to break free from her origins when she comes into possession of a stolen “book”, the world’s most precious technological creation: a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. What she learns inside will change history as much as it changes her. This book is top-shelf. There’s a reason Neal Stephenson is as rare as hen’s teeth in secondhand bookstores. He is the real deal.

July: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

New Orleans

Read in New Orleans.

Modern literature from one of the world’s best. A family saga, an examination of modern Judaism, a visionary contemplation of the fragile peace between fraught nations, a deeply intimate look inside a crumbling marriage. A funny, sad, page-turning read, the kind you can’t put down even when your eyes get sore and you’re afraid to find out what happens. Do it for book club. Give it to anyone. Sink your teeth in. A solid bet.

August: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Our first AirBnB, in Bangor, Maine

Read here in Bangor, Maine.

I seemed to read a lot of books about marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly given the opportunity to navel-gaze for six months in tiny rooms with the love of my life. The other emerging theme turned out, to my surprise, to be war and Judaism. Synchronicity perhaps, as we looked at so many museums of world history, with the Holocaust staining it all like red paint thrown across a canvas. In this vein I also read the older but still incredible The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and the Victor E Frankl classic Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, All the Light we Cannot See, won the 2014 Pulitzer after taking the author ten years. I understood why it took so long. The quality and quantity of detail, its careful arrangement, the love and work that went into these parallel stories of a young blind French girl and a young German boy soldier in WWII glimmers from every page. An absorbing, original, readable, beautiful book to bring you to your knees.

September: The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

Read throughout the east coast and finished somewhere around here, North Carolina.

Still flying off the shelves after 26 years in print. It’s a workbook above all else, an inspiring, amusing and practical book on loosening the pent-up creative artist inside every human – that artist most of us lock up sometime after childhood, and before adulthood. This is perhaps one of the most illuminating books I have ever read. It’s changed the way I see the world, the way I interpret every event. It ensured I not only left NYC having completed my manuscript edit, but that I spent the final few months of our trip churning out the manuscript of a second novel. And it ensured I spent all the intervening time jotting notes for the third. If you’ve ever buried a secret love of drawing, writing, painting, performing, or silently felt longing to write a screenplay or movie or play or just MAKE something, and that little ache just always stays in your heart… read this.

October: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Read by the window in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

You’ve had your Alain de Botton primer and you’re ready for Lesson 2. For anyone interested in marriage, fidelity, sex and passion, healthy relationships and just the art and science of human communication, both are required reading. Esther Perel is a rock-star in the field. She has been interviewed on the Tim Ferriss Show and recommended by Dan Savage of the Savage Lovecast. A holistic, fascinating and vitally refreshing look at the poetry, politics and power of sex and the role it plays in modern relationships, it really changed my perspective. Our subsequent discussions on the topics it introduced deepened our understanding of each other and of society, and without doubt strengthened the foundations of our marriage.

 

 

November: On Writing, Stephen King 

Read on NYC subways. Lots of them.

I owe this writer so much for his inspiration and practical advice, as well as the hours of sheer pleasure of devouring everything he’s ever written. He has taught me not only that writing can be fun but that it should be fun. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make money. No, you don’t have to be a tortured soul or a starving artist or an alcoholic or suicidal or a drug addict to make good art. This, like all his books, is just a bloody good read. Part memoir, part deconstruction of process and part solid advice, it’s a must-read for all fans. In fact Gerald Winters, owner of the King bookstore in Bangor, Maine, told me the vast majority of King fans, writers or not, name this their favourite of all his works.

December: Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

 

Read near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, upstate NY

Don’t hold the title against her. The publisher probably made her do it. Tara Brach, also featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, is an American meditation teacher. Don’t hold that against her either. Hell, just swallow all your judgy superior thoughts and excuses about why you don’t meditate for a minute, all right? This book is wise and powerful and compassionate. It’s a thoughtful examination of the role suffering plays in human lives. It offers an – dare I say it? –  enlightened understanding of the experience of being a thinking, feeling, loving, living, feeling, hurting person. It addresses that gap you feel deep inside yourself, the one that usually makes you go and get another glass of wine or handful of crisps rather than thinking about what’s bothering you. Reading this book made me do that thinking and it reverberates through my consciousness daily.

 

OK, now it’s December, you don’t have time for any more reading. Go do your Christmas shopping.

Rogue 1: The best Star Wars movie since Star Wars

Well, you know what I mean.
Disclaimer: this post is written by someone who came to Star Wars late in life and does not have ingrained knowledge or fandom, just normal fandom. 
Woot!

Woot!

The previous instalment in this franchise, The Force Awakens, while good – and a big relief even for me – seemed like the bar was set at “just don’t fuck it up” and that’s what they achieved … a return to Star Wars of old.
Finally, Rogue 1 breaks new ground. The feel of it can can best be described as a war movie, with a vintage look that blends it nicely with the original trilogy, while mixing in modern CGI and special effects.
The characters are stronger overall than they were in The Force Awakens, with no disrespect to Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, who were a highlight. Bonus points are awarded here for a strong female lead and another excellent droid in K-2SO.
This movie stands alone beautifully, but also weaves its storyline seamlessly into that of A New Hope, along the way addressing a plot hole nerds have been complaining about for years.
And I mean seamlessly!  The end of this movie was so well done our entire theatre actually burst into spontaneous applause as it ended. And you can’t really give better feedback than that.

Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

Get under it: Stephen King’s 900-page Under the Dome in five days

Stephen King - Under the Dome

Yerp. It’s big.

The only way you can finish a 900-page book in this amount of time is with the divine aid of the Holy Trinity.

  1. holidays from work
  2. spouse stays at work (so as not to distract you)
  3. book must be freaking awesome

This happy set of circumstances allowed me to arise from the couch On the Fifth Day cramped and red-eyed, but with a glad heart.

The book is about a giant clear dome that slams down, without warning, one fine day over the entirety of a small town in Maine, King’s home town. It tracks the town’s various inhabitants, who are largely under the thumb of a local politician, and observes how they deal with the sudden imprisonment. Poorly, it turns out – spectacularly poorly. And let’s not forget this is America, so they all have guns.

Chaos unfolds, with an outnumbered band of sane citizens trying to protect themselves and their families as they hope for rescue. But as a baffled US Government runs out of options, they must look inside their own hearts and minds  for the answer.

Stephen King has said he had the idea for this book as a young writer but it was essentially too complex, too big, too difficult to write. So he kept it in the back of his mind until he was the kind of writer who could afford to get a researcher to figure out all the scientific ins and outs of what would happen if a giant dome cut off a town from the outside world.

The result is rigorous, fascinating sci-fi with delicious flourishes of the kind of horror only Stephen King can provide (remember the closing scene of Pet Sematary, anyone? Or the opening scene of IT?)

The cast of characters is truly enormous and no amount of commissioned research can help King there – it’s his skill as a novelist, honed over many years, that lets him unfold these simultaneous storylines with dexterity and relentless tension.

This is the most exciting book I’ve read in ages; essentially, after I got out of the Dome, I wanted back in.

That’s why I watched the TV series. Well, two episodes of it. In fact, I was so into this story I began watching the TV adaptation before I had even finished the print version.

It may be that I am being overly judgmental because I was fresh from the book. After all, King and Steven Spielberg are both involved in the production. It should be good. But I stopped after Episode Two. It just doesn’t get the job done. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.

Just get under the real thing! If you’ve never read King before I there’s no time like the present. Don’t be put off if you don’t like genre fiction (in which case you’re an idiot anyway). The best genre fiction transcends genre, and this gargantuan tale of power, corruption and compassion is a gift from a master storyteller at the top of his game.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 11: The Amphora Project (William Kotzwinkle, 2005)

Books remaining: 15. Weeks left to read them: 28 (I laugh in the face of danger). 

As a pubescent, I read Kotzwinkle’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a novelisation of the legendary 1982 Steven Spielberg film and thought the book just about better than the movie. Don’t throw rocks at me. The book was excellent.

Hence when I came across an original Kotzwinkle several years ago I snapped it up and, true to form, didn’t read it. Until now.

The Amphora Project

The Amphora Project

This is the story of Amphora, the immortality machine, and the humans who foolishly try to use it to achieve eternal life, at a time in which the Earth has long stopped being habitable, and people have long stopped accepting the idea of going quietly into that good night. When it becomes clear that Amphora is unstable and threatening the very existence of the race trying to use it, a band of fugitives makes one final attempt to destroy the device.

Lovers of a good robot, look no further – little Upquark, who converts himself into a suitcase in times of stress, is drawn haplessly into the battle and is hands-down what most endeared this story to me.

Upquark stared about in wonder. There was sand in his rollers, but excitement in his emotional card. Highly unusual circumstances were unfolding, for which he had no reference. He’d tossed and turned for hours in Ren’s ship, analysing for hours the terrible sequence of events he and his friends had undergone, and then, quite on its own, a train of nondeductive inference had begun, culminating in a picture of himself as a dangerous outlaw with a high metallic luster. Now he tried out a menacing gesture with his grippers, but no one seemed to notice. Perhaps he required Pugnacity Firmware.

Special mention, too, goes to the ‘junkernauts’, hazardous monoliths formed of obsolete, lunatic and half-broken robots determined to go on functioning in whatever capacity possible, with the result that they join to form these enormous oddities that sail about the galaxy, spectacularly destroying everything in their paths.

With its invention, whimsy and vivid stable of lovable, repulsive, weird and sexy characters, this would in fact itself have made a great movie. As a book it was a little hard to get, and stay, immersed in.

Though I put this down to lack of time to ‘get a run at it’, I find myself questioning this conventional wisdom. Surely the lack of ability to ‘get into’ books is not all because we all now have woefully short attention spans and even less free time.

When I feel truly captivated by a book I make the time, constantly rushing off for five minutes more to poke my nose into it, deciding to let this or that task slide so I might polish it off. Perhaps if we are so time-poor and have so much competing for our attention we should only keep reading any book if we feel that pull, and never let anything less suffice. (Though had this been my philosophy always there would doubtless be no chance I ever would have finished, for example, Mrs Dalloway  – a bit painful, sure, but undoubtedly worth it). But as a general rule…

I vaguely knew Kotzwinkle’s work, sure, so picking up the book was justified. But as you keep reading a book that is not compelling you, what else is going unread? Right now because of this project, I am not reading Peter Carey’s Amnesia. I’m not reading Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought or Don Watson’s The Bush or letting the Matriarch pass on her latest book club book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves or sharing the Ministry’s new obsession with Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp thrillers.

Did I enjoy The Amphora Project? Yes. Would I recommend it to a sci-fi lover? Yes. Was it worth feeling cut off from the new book world for? Not really. Welcome to my learning curve.

Slowly I am realising I don’t actually want to read every single one of the hundreds of unread books I own, though I feel like saying it quietly in case they hear me. It is not that they have no value. It is just that I am realising the value they have to me, and to who I am, lessened over the years I carted them around.

Now what I value is freshness and space, clarity and time. A load of books is not proof of personality or taste and nor should it be. If an object is in my home, I should get joy from touching it and seeing it, not a vague sense of guilt and overwhelm.

There are only so many rainy days I will have in my life.

This is why from now in on How to Cure a Bibliomaniac that for each letter I do as the second half of the alphabet approaches – if I pick one book above the rest, with the internet as my witness, I will get rid of the others if I’m not serious about reading them.

And I’m not going to keep this book either.

This post was inspired by The Minimalists.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 8: Light (M. John Harrison, 2002)

Books remaining: 18. Weeks left to read them: 35 (could be worse).

There will always be more in the universe. The will always be more after that.

Cover of M. John Harrison's Light

Earth, 1999: mathematician and murderer Michael Kearney is tantalised by the truth of a universe that remains just beyond his understanding, and terrified by the approach of a monster he cannot escape.

The Kefahuchi Tract, 2400: White Cat pilot Seria Mau Genlicher casually destroys the humans who cross her path as she trolls through space. She is trying to uncover the function of a mysterious package that just might alter her future, by releasing her from the fallout of a fateful decision.

Meanwhile, twink and tank addict Ed Chianese is on the run from the evil Cray sisters, hopping from planet to planet to escape his debts – and the memory of a childhood mistake that haunts him.

They weave through a galaxy drenched in a kind of dirty eroticism, populated with cultivars, unafraid of death because they can always come back; rickshaw girls pumped with testosterone and built to run forever; eight-year-old gun punks and their accountants; flame-haired, masturbation-addled New Men; Earth Military Corporation stooges; clones, fetches, shadow operators and the gene tailor, Uncle Zip. Little cats weave their way through everything.

The lights had gone on in those ridiculous glass towers which spring up wherever the human male does business. The streets of the port below were filled with a warm pleasant smoky twilight, through which all intelligent life in Carmody was drifting, along Moneytown and the Corniche, towards the stream of the noodle bars on Free Key Avenue. Cultivars and high-end chimerae of every size and type – huge and tusked or dwarfed and tinted, with cocks the size of an elephant’s, the wings of dragonflies or swans, bare chests patched according to fashion with live tattoos of treasure maps – swaggered the pavements, eyeing one another’s smart piercings. Rickshaw girls, calves and quadriceps modified to have the long-twitch muscle fibre of a mare and the ATP transport protocols of a speeding cheetah, sprinted here and there between them, comforted by opium, strung out on cafe electrique. Shadow boys were everywhere, of course, faster than you could see, flickering in corners, materialising in alleys, whispering their ceaseless invitation: we can get you what you want.

I particularly love the shadow operators, who spend the book trying to care for Seria Mau, their scornful boss, while being soundly rejected.

The shadow operators mopped and mowed. They hung in corners, whispering and clasping their hands in a kind of bony delight.

What were they? They were algorithms with a life of their own. You found them in vacuum ships like the White Cat, in cities, wherever people were. They did the work. Had they always been there in the galaxy, waiting for human beings to take residence? Aliens who had uploaded themselves into empty space? Ancient computer programmes, dispossessed by their own hardware, to roam about, half lost, half useful, hoping for someone to look after? In just a few hundred years they had got inside the machinery of things. Nothing worked without them  

They could even run on biological tissue, as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives. They could, if they wanted, they sometimes whispered to Seria Mau, run on valves.

It’s not all flashes and bangs. An idea is nothing without its communication and Harrison is a writer who makes you see his ideas for yourself. Pictures arrive in your mind. You know what his cities look like, feel like – just another sulphur dioxide town, a town without hope full of the black mist of engines – while inhabitants are similarly detailed.

It squatted in front of the tank where Seria Mau lived, leaking realistically from the joints of its several yellowish legs, stridulating every so often for no reason she could see. Its bony-looking head had more palps, mosaic eyes and ropes of mucous than she preferred to look at. It wasn’t something you could ignore.

Despite the proliferation of decidedly inhuman creatures, the ever-present threads of fear, escape, hope and redemption make this a very human story. The scale and detail of Harrison’s creation, the complexity of his plot and the beauty and wit of his prose fill me with admiration.

It reminds me of China Mieville, but with more, well, space. It’s bloody good sci-fi/literature, a book I hesitate to categorize for fear of diminishing its importance.

I’ll pass it on – perhaps I can find a roomful of first-year uni students and force them to study it. In a win for the Project, too, while choosing the H book, I realised with a happy lack of guilt that I was Just Never going to read Hugo’s Les Miserables and gave both volumes to an op-shop in a spasm of decisiveness. Don’t gasp in horror, they were those $5 Wordsworth Classics paperbacks they used to sell at Collins. Good for a kid who wants to read EVERYTHING, as I was, but ugly and not worth as collectors’ items if you’ve got no immediate intention to read them.

Hurrah!