Angry Robot is a new science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint from Harper Collins. Their first two books launch this week, with the next two arriving in August and, as a friend of mine is the assistant editor on the line I was lucky enough to be sent review copies of their first four titles; Moxyland, Slights, Book of Secrets and Nekropolis.
With the web now all but ubiquitous and Twitter beginning to crest into something genuinely fascinating, it seems eminently appropriate that one of Angry Robot’s first books is a remarkably tech savvy thriller with a very different perspective. Moxyland is set in Capetown, ten years into a future where connectivity and online communications has become something close to currency in its own right and being offline is tantamount to being an outcast. Toby, a slacker who toys with the underworld finds his life intertwined with Kendra, a woman so desperate to be accepted she’s become a sponsorbaby, a nanotech enhanced living advert. At the same time, Lerato, a corporate programmer who is as bored as she is brilliant and Tendeka, a revolutionary trying to bring down the corporate culture choking her hometown take actions that will bring them into the orbits of Toby, Kendra, and each other.
The genuinely difficult thing about near future science fiction is to make it both convincing and different. Don’t do enough and it becomes a contemporary thriller, do too much and it becomes dystopian science fiction. On top of that, the ghost of Blade Runner hovers like Banquo over the proceedings, daring authors to tilt at the definitive Cyberpunk windmill.
Moxyland avoids all those pitfalls due to three very simple, highly effective elements of the book. The setting is the first and most important, Cape Town becoming a vibrant, fascinating, evolving city that shares DNA with Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles and Akira‘s Neo Tokyo but is still a unique entity in its own right.
Secondly, the book is cheerfully pragmatic, the characters all flawed, normal people with the same concerns we have, albeit projected ten years into the future. These aren’t Cyberpunk stereotypes, strutting around, flexing their cybernetic angst muscles but normal, flawed, slightly desperate people. Finally, there’s the book’s cheerful, maniacal invention, taking in everything from the sponsorbabies to art with genetic structures and sculpted attack dogs. It’s a resolutely normal, resolutely different, fascinating world that Lauren Beukes has incredible fun showing to her readers. As debut books for both the author and the line go, this is as good as it can get.
Slights by Kaaron Warren is the latest in a series of novels which are slowly but surely rebuilding the horror genre as a rich, inventive field. Stephanie kills people. She’s very, very good at it and the fact she does it has never bothered her until now. Because Stephanie’s mother is dead, Stephanie almost died in the same accident and when she did, she went to a room fillled with all the people she’s ever killed. They bite and scratch and claw at her but she survives, only to become more and more obsessed with the room, the people in it and what it feels like to die instead of kill.
Slights is about as horrific as its possible to get, a novel that trawls the depths of human depravity to explore what happens at the edge of human understanding. Waaron has a keen ear for prose and dialogue and a very strong sense of the normal, making the horrific events of the book all the more unsettling. Where Moxyland drops you in at the deep end and allows you to swim to the edges, Slights holds your head under water until you almost black out, lets you up, then does it again. This is kitchen sink horror, pragmatic and savage, brutal and human all at once. This is a story the Man in Black would be happy to tell and I can think of no better praise than that.
Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets heads up the second pair of releases, scheduled for the 6th of August. Spencer Finch is a reporter searching for a book that everyone from cat burglars to monks seems to want. It’s a difficult case, a rabbit hole that he finds himself running headlong down and that appears to have something to do with a chest of golden age pulp magazines left to him by his grandfather. Something terrible is bound up in the book of secrets, and whether he likes it or not, Spencer’s life is intimately connected with it.
Expanded from Voices of Thunder, one of Roberson’s earliest novels, Book of Secrets incorporates many of the author’s favourite tropes. The love for golden age pulp is here as is the idea that books hold power, that ideas have weight and shape and form. It’s a fascinating book, paced at breakneck speed with a hard nosed first person narrative and some great offhand jokes. A lost Greek play is referred to as ‘No Mr Nice God’, armies of masked vigilantes parade across the page and the true history of mankind is revealed. Which isn’t bad going for a journalist who just wants to file a story.
The real star here is Roberson’s easy going prose, that carries some big ideas along with elegance and grace and places the story in a unique hinterland somewhere between steampunk and action thriller, weaving Spencer’s life into ancient Greek literature and the pulp stories written by his grandfather. It’s arguably the most commercial of the four books but that isn’t to say that it’s the least. This is a smart, literate thriller written by an author whose love for the form is clear.
There are a million stories in the dead city in the pit, a million lives and unlives powered by deceit and passion. Some of them get in trouble, some of them need help and some of them find Matt Richter, a private eye who is already dead himself.
Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner, does similar work to Roberson’s Book of Secrets in so far as it crosses genres. However, here the two genres are supernatural thriller and hard boiled crime, Matt Richter’s unlife owing as much to Raymond Chandler as it does to Mary Shelley. This is, after all, hell and Matt is not so much the Chandlerian ideal as a man trying to do in unlife what he tried to do in life; the right thing, no matter the cost. It’s a tough sell, bringing these two genres together, but Waggoner’s dark city of ash and bone is the perfect connective tissue for the story, raising it above cliché and into realms of surprisingly dark horror. This is the first in a series of three stories and I’m fascinated to see where Waggoner goes next.
A quartet of disaffected twenty and thirtysomethings, a serial killer who wants to die, a journalist on the trail of pulp history and a private eye deader than most murder victims. Four unique protagonists for four unique books, all of which bring something new to the table be it author, perspective or style. This is a great start for the imprint, a quartet of unique, fascinating voices that make a powerful statement about the imprint’s intentions as much as tell good stories in their own right. This robot should be angry for a long time to come and that does nothing but bode well for genre fiction.