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Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2012, 373 p.

 Jack Glass cover

Well, this is a tricksy one. The prologue informs us we are about to read about three murders, a prison story, a regular (regular? I think Roberts meant traditional rather than occurring at intervals) whodunnit and a locked room mystery – or perhaps each is all three at once – and tells us who committed them, yet still promises surprises. The coda provides a rationale (in as much as any fiction can) for the fact that we’re reading this at all. All three stories are set in a Solar System run under the strict Lex Ulanova; a set of laws instituted by the ruling Ulanovs in the wake of the Merchant Wars.

The first section, titled In the Box, has seven criminals interned in an asteroid, with limited means and apparatus, eating only ghunk they can grow themselves from the surrounding rock and a pitiful light source; forced to work out their term of eleven years, effectively mining it for the Gongsi corporation which has the contract for their imprisonment. It’s also about economics; the decreasing value of humans as a resource. The tensions are neatly delineated as the story slowly morphs from a wide overview to the viewpoint of Jac, who has urgent reasons to escape his confinement.

From prison to the overclass. The second story, The FTL Murders, concerns Diana and Eva, heirs apparent to the Argent MOHfamily, second in importance to the Ulanovs. Eva, older by a few years, is on her sixth Ph D, investigating the phenomenon of Champagne Supernovæ – a name which Roberts endows with bitter irony with the connections he makes. Diana’s hobby is solving murder mysteries, which she sets to in real life when one of their servants is killed soon after they descend to Earth from their normal space habitat. This gives Roberts the chance to reference various fictional detectives but is mere background to his ongoing story arc, where even the idea of a faster than light technology is enough to threaten the Ulanovs.

The third instalment, The Impossible Gun, takes us briefly into the Sump, the agglomeration of shanty globes scattered across the Solar System where the Sumpolloi live lives of brute insensitivity again eating mainly ghunk, before it settles on a very definitely locked–room mystery. Jack Glass is on the verge of being taken into custody when Bar-le-duc, the detective chasing him, is killed in sudden inexplicable fashion. No spoiler here, or if there is it is Roberts’s, as the chapter title for this scene is The End of Bar-le-duc. The death, though, does blow a hole in the logic of Glass’s later fixation with the RACdroid which witnessed his immediately prior agreement to be being arrested.

There is one neat apercu, “Death is another name for doubt. Death is what inflects the immoral certainty of the universe’s processes with uncertainty,” and an interesting comparison, “The median point between the mass of a proton and the mass of the entire universe is the mass of the average human female.” We are also told of a torture technique called vacuumboarding. For goodness sake don’t give the buggers ideas!

The structures of the second and third stories are awkward, too much playing of fictional games for the sake of it, though Roberts does show the maturation of Diana, as her life of privilege is blown apart and she has to grow up fast, very well. Whether the overall novel lives up to the aspirations set out for it in the prologue or in Roberts’s apparent intention to write a novel which merged Golden Age SF with Golden Age detective fiction is doubtful.

In the acknowledgements Roberts mentions Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Doroth L Sayers and Michael Innes as influences (via his mother to whom the book is dedicated.) The essence of the traditional detective story is cosiness. Jack Glass is far from cosy, however.

I’m at a loss as to why this won the BSFA Award for best novel of 2012. To my mind there were better books on the short list.

Pedant’s corner: Span count 2, Roberts uses schute where chute would be perfectly adequate and we had “let along” for “let alone” plus the sentence, “Sunlight epilected between trees.” I can’t find epilected in any dictionary.

Clarke Award 2014

I see Ancillary Justice has won this year’s Clarke Award.

Not having read three of the contenders I can’t really comment beyond saying the winner’s author, Ann Leckie, has clearly hit some sort of nerve as her book has also (jointly) won the BSFA Award and for good measure is on the Hugo Award ballot paper too.

BSFA Awards

This year’s awards were announced at Eastercon.

Unfortunately I had to miss the ceremony due to my appearance on a panel the hour beforehand and the necessity to eat thereafter.

The winners were:-

Best Non-Fiction: Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer.

Best Art: cover of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-Fi.

Best Short Fiction: Spin by Nina Allan

Best Novel: tie between Gareth L. Powell for Ack Ack Macaque and Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice.

I voted for three of the four fiction winners.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2013

A welcome innovation this year was the inclusion in the booklet of pieces to do with the Award for non-fiction. The nominees here were:-

“Sleeps with Monsters” by Liz Bourke. Two extracts from Bourke’s blog for tor.com are included. One is about fantasy, the other gaming.

“Going Forth by Night” by John J Johnston. A discussion on the history of Mummies in literature from the introduction to Unearthed, an anthology published in partnership with The Egypt Exploration Society.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. The Awards booklet contained an extract from the book’s first chapter.

As usual the booklet contains all the nominees for the short story award.

I have already reviewed Spin by Nina Allan, TTA Press.

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, Strange Horizons, January 2013.

A girl who works in a restaurant has a host of selkie stories which she says always end in the same way, except she will never tell one. Of course; she does. A story about the faces we present to the world, the masks we hide behind and how we yearn to be our true selves.

Saga’s Children by E J Swift, The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium, (Jurassic London)

Saga was the most famous astronaut in the Solar System before, and after, she took off into the unknown from the surface of Ceres and was never heard from again. (There is an explosion here due to “unstable gases released by drilling.” No mention of the necessary oxygen though.) The lives of her three children, who up till a few days before that moment had not realised they had siblings, are irreparably marked by her single-mindedness.

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, no 113, Jan 2013.
A tale of infatuation and betrayal with indeterminate gendered folk, and houses that are alive in a city of canals. More fantasy than SF.

Hmmm. I would say that two and a half out of these four stories are more fantastical in nature than SF.

The winners will be announced on Sunday evening during Eastercon.

Clarke Award 2014

The list for this year’s Clarke Award is:-

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)

The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)

Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)

Unusually (I think) I’ve read – or nearly finished – three of these; the same three that appear on the BSFA Award ballot. I’ve linked to my reviews of two of them. I’ll be publishing a review of The Adjacent soon.

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2013, 375 p.

Another BSFA Award ballot book. I didn’t have to go far to find this one. I managed to pick up from one of my local libraries.

Gajananvihari Pilot is part of a family which operates as space salvagers in the decades after an event precipitated by Sri Hong-Owen and known as the Bright Moment. One day their ship, a Mobius ring called Pabuji’s Gift, is hijacked by pirates. Hari escapes with the head of Dr Gagarian, which is supposed to contain files relating to the work he and Aakash, Hari’s father, had been doing to try to understand and replicate the physics of the Bright Moment. The plot revolves around Hari’s search to seek out those responsible for the hijack and to revenge himself on them.

Like the two other books of McAuley’s Quiet War sequence which I have read there is a lot of attention paid to his history of the future. Again, though, the characters seem almost incidental.

The book is riddled with references to SF works of the past including the titles of each of the six sections which make up the novel. This homage may explain its appearance on the BSFA Award ballot.

New Review

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August cover

My next book review for Interzone will be The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.

The accompanying blurb for this (and the link above) states, “Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels. This book is completely different from any of them.”

Hmmm.

I’ve got a BSFA Award nominee to read before that, though. Busy, busy.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 386 p.

I bought this since I suspected it might be on the BSFA Award ballot: and it is. (Only three of this year’s nominees still to read now.)

Breq is a fragment of an Artificial Intelligence, the spaceship Justice of Torren, of which she was once an ancillary of the ship’s Esk level. Ancillaries are bodies captured by the Radchaai in their territorial expansions, implanted with augmentations and enslaved to a ship’s consciousness as military units, in companies named decades, which are themselves subsidiaries of hundreds. (An organisational parallel with Roman armies is obvious.) The book deals with the prelude to and aftermath of Breq’s (or Justice of Torren one Esk’s) sudden isolation from her hundred and ship. She goes on a self-imposed mission to seek out a weapon invisible to Radch technology and then use it against the Lord of the Radch. For most of the book Breq’s story is related in alternating chapters describing respectively the search and the events which led up to her separation from Justice of Torren. Once the two strands unite the narrative is straightforwardly linear. Leckie’s depiction of the multiple consciousness Breq inhabits before her severance is effective but authorially she seemed more at ease when the necessity to deal with it was removed.

One curiosity is that, despite some early asides on problems with languages in which gender assignation is important – and the same person is referred to as he or she at different points – all the characters in Ancillary Justice seem to be female, or at least they read as though they are. This is refreshing even though the usual actions, betrayals etc with which Breq deals are perhaps no different from stories featuring male characters – and it doesn’t affect the tale one whit.

Included at the rear were “Extras” – an “about the author,” an interview with her and a totally unnecessary extract from a book by someone else entirely. Here we find that further stories in this universe are to be forthcoming. I found myself curiously disappointed with this as, while there are unresolved elements, it did not strike me that further exploration of the scenario would be as intriguing as this book is.

Ancillary Justice is the better of the two candidate novels for this year’s BSFA Award I have read up to now. By far.

Pedant’s corner: we had publically for publicly, gasses for gases and a character saying, “one point eleven meters.” It was not the USianism of that meters which grated – there were USianisms throughout despite the British publication imprint. You might as well pronounce the number 231156 as twenty-three eleven fifty-six – which would be all but meaningless. The number 1.11 ought to be transliterated as one point one one. Eleven is a number larger than one: by definition numbers after a decimal point are smaller than one. No number after a decimal point should be described other than by its successive single digits. A writer of SF ought to know such things.

BSFA Awards List

The lists for this year have been announced.

The novels are:-

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

I’ve read one of these already and have another, Ancillary Justice, on the tbr pile.

The short fiction:-

Spin by Nina Allan (TTA Press)

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)

Saga’s Children by E. J. Swift (The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium)

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

I have so far read Spin.

The Separation by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2004, 405 p

This is an altered history of a superior sort which won the BSFA Award for 2002 and the Clarke Award in 2003. It focuses on the lives of twin brothers, Jack and Joe Sawyer, who both have the same middle initial and so can be easily confused for one another. The twins won a bronze medal in the coxswainless pairs at the Berlin Olympics. Their medals were presented to them by Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, who plays a large part in the novel. Both Joe’s and Jack’s written (or transcribed) memories carry the burden of the narrative.

While in Berlin the twins stay at the home of some Jews their parents were friendly with. When they leave they smuggle the couple’s daughter, Birgit, out of Germany in the boot of their car. She soon marries Joe. After war comes in 1939 Jack joins the RAF and subsequently pilots bombing raids over Germany, while Joe is a conscientious objector and undertakes work for the Red Cross. Given the attitudes they presented while in Germany both these developments are surprising.

There is a framing device (which is not returned to so it’s more like a set-up device) where Stuart Gratton, a historian searching for his next subject, has happened upon the twins’ existence. This is a curious sort of prelude as it serves to unbalance the narrative somewhat. It is set in a world where the British war with Germany ended on May 10th 1941 (the day in our world when Hess landed in Scotland and was taken prisoner). An untrammelled Germany then overpowers the USSR, the USA is embroiled in a war in China – where it defeats Mao – and there is a subsequent Cold War with Germany. Yet the notebooks Gratton receives from Jack Sawyer’s daughter describe memories from our world. In these notes Jack is asked by Churchill to meet the imprisoned Hess and concludes the prisoner is a look-alike. That within the body of the novel The Separation Gratton does not comment on these discrepancies compared to the history of his world struck me as odd. That there may be a possible connection between Gratton and the twins is something we have to infer for ourselves.

Possibly due to his conscientious objection Joe is set upon and suffers head injuries. Thereafter he experiences “lucid imaginings” – premonitions, hallucinations, experiences from other realities – which provide a rationale of sorts for the altered history. The hint of unreliability hangs heavy over all of this though.

There is not one separation here but several. A possibility, not of one altered reality, but quite a few. Whether the real Hess took off for Britain (claims that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and held in Spandau Prison was not real have been refuted) whether he was shot down by his own side, the twins’ estrangement due to them both loving Birgit, the peace talks and armistice, Joe’s “imaginings,” Gratton’s from the twins.

I’m not entirely sure that in the end the novel as a whole coheres but Priest’s writing is always enough to make the journey through one of his books worthwhile.

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