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Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

PS Publishing, 2008, 304 p.

 Song of Time cover

Love, sex and death.

Oh, I know within these pages there are dead people who are somehow still able to exist, an intelligent kitchen, a crystal field saturating the environment, artificial skin, the last snow melting from Kilimanjaro, computer screens with no visible supports, a nuclear war, the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing up, not to mention a symphony that continually rewrites itself, but these are all just background: at its core Song of Life charts the three literary biggies. And the greatest of these is love.

One day towards the back end of the twenty-first century Roushana Maitland finds a half-drowned man, possibly attempting to enter the country illegally and who does not remember who he is, on the Cornish beach just below her house. She drags him up to safety and shelter. His presence and her imminent transfiguration (not death, she has very recently undergone the procedure which will undo that) trigger memories of her life. Song of Time’s chapters alternate between depictions of her present day with the stranger in her house, whom she dubs Adam but who himself pronounces it Abaddon, and her memories of the unfolding century.

Roushana is of mixed heritage, Indian on her mother’s side, Irish on her father’s. Her brother Leo is a gifted musician but contracts WRFI, Wide Range Food Intolerance, perhaps brought about by an artificial virus targeted on the lactose tolerant, an adaptation mostly found in Westerners. Unable to withstand the debilitation this has caused him, he commits suicide, telling Roushana, It’s up to you now, Sis. She polishes her up to then not particularly good efforts on the violin and, with the later help of famous conductor Claude Vaudin who eventually becomes her husband, parlays them into fame and fortune. Her story is set against the background of a disintegrating world: racial tensions erupt in Britain, unspecified divisions occur elsewhere, a millenarian type of cult arises. In terms of terrorism and world politics this future is like our present, only more so. But technological progress still occurs. The environment becomes enmeshed in the “ever-spreading network of crystal” but no mechanism for the dead to still be around after death is elaborated beyond the “crystal seed of immortality whining its way” into Roushana’s skull.

It may seem counter-intuitive to have classical music as the driver for Roushana’s fame, but pop stardom would have been too clichéd, and a future classical revival of sorts is not too much of a stretch. There is in any case some genre crossing. Claude’s performances in clubs at times read more like those of a jazz musician.

Song of Time contains a profoundly imagined and realised world and Roushana’s voice is an engaging one. That there are doubts over the exact circumstances of Claude’s death ring entirely true, Leo’s continuing influence over her life being a source of jealousy to Claude.

MacLeod has a poignant story to tell, has a facility with language, a poet’s ear at times, scatters out in one book more ideas than many authors would use in a lifetime and the book itself is a lovely object. Roushana’s story is one I’ll remember for a long time. Looking back I see Song of Time won the literary-inclined Clarke Award. However, it didn’t make the nominee list for the BSFA Award for 2008. (The fact that the SF elements can be construed as only background may have told against it.) I have not read three of the four on that year’s list but nevertheless they’d have to be going some to be better novels than this.

I have a caveat, though.

Did anybody proof-read this thing?

Pedant’s corner:- “Pregnancy came as a shock to me…. The sheer alienness of the symptoms…” (But Roushana had been pregnant before – albeit then had an abortion.) Disks (discs,) programs (programmes) – I don’t care even if either of these two were to do with computers – practise (innumerable times as a noun, but the noun is “practice” which strangely also appears correctly at times,) the late 1950s in the search of (in the late 1950s in search of,) “They didn’t have say it” (have to say it,) into him arm (his,) the speed in which (with which,) lineney (lineny,) sung (sang,) would not longer (no longer,) with she as she was (with her as she was,) it was shade (a shade,) Doges’ Palace (Doge’s,) on diet (on a diet,) as goes inside (as he goes inside,) after I’ve I sat him down (either I’ve or I, but not both,) “You where I mean” (You know where I mean,) “For a just a while” (for just a while,) glowing n his (in his,) unfocussed (unfocused, ) “Pakkis” but later, “Paki-girl”, the “the village” (just “the village”,) sewerage (sewage,) lost contact Uncle Indra (lost contact with Uncle Indra,) reforming (re-forming,) I really do have sit down (have to sit down,) St Fimbarrus’ (St Fimbarrus’s,) we took at ride (a ride,) whilst still officially still at war (one still too many here, plus there was another “still” later in the same sentence,) how you were you supposed to deal (a “you” too many,) ignited =in (ignited in,) its commanding view sea (sea view.) Back the kitchen (Back in the kitchen,) Miles Davis’ (Miles Davis’s,) fames (??), has (had,) Blythe Monroe (on all other appearances it was Munro,) I was following what he saying (what he was saying,) in one of pots (one of the pots,) Christos’ (Christos’s) Cholera B (is later Cholera b,) of a return virtuality to paint (of a return from virtuality to paint,) pervious (previous.) Near beside them (Near them? Beside them?) Periphique (Peripherique,) sit ins (sit-ins,) burn-out (burned-out,) I knew that Claude was be out debating (“would be” or “was”, but not “was be”,) virtuality de monde (as I remember my French that’s du monde,) focussed (focused,) if she’s started (she’d,) the orchestra were (orchestra is singular; therefore the orchestra was.) Loose faith (Lose faith,) whether he of she (he or she,) Bezant’s Bay (in most instances it’s Bezant Bay,) one instance of its for it’s, complemented (complimented,) it they haven’t been paid enough (if,) one of periodic eruptions (one of the periodic eruptions,) the early half-life of the radiation had decreased considerably (the radiation level may decrease but the half-life most certainly doesn’t,) softy steaming greenery (softly?) were (where,) so I often with worked with, anything less that whole-heartedly (than,) wintery (wintry,) closer to him that when he was (than when he was,) after I’d laid down (lain,) the least emotion I felt was surprise (the last emotion) I can’t read you mind (your,) with its all lights (with all its lights,) it’s shrunken (shrunk.) The text implies Yellowstone is in Colorado but it is mostly in Wyoming with parts extending into Montana and Idaho.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2014, 360 p.

 Ancillary Sword cover

Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, is still at war with herself through the intermediacy of the countless bodies her persona inhabits. As in Leckie’s previous novel, Ancillary Justice, our narrator is Breq, the sole surviving part of the ship AI Justice of Torren, one of its auxiliaries, now promoted by one faction of the Lord of the Radch to Fleet Captain in charge of the ship Mercy of Kalr and despatched to the Athoek system to protect it from incursion by the Lord’s other faction and a possible threat from the Presger, aliens bound by treaty to the Radch and therefore to all humans. Due to the civil war all gates between systems have been closed – only military ships can jump between worlds. At Athoek, Breq finds various local rivalries, evidence of illicit trade through a “Ghost Gate” of bodies in suspended animation – the type of bodies used for auxiliaries – and indentured labourers who are all but slaves. Had I not read Ancillary Justice this might have been well enough but, given the background of war between the Radch, it all seems to be a bit of a sideshow. Then again, there are human stories to be found in the byways of any conflict and it is possible Breq is being placed to take part in a wider resolution. It does, though, give Leckie the opportunity to explore more of the Radch and its culture(s).

Leckie’s use of the female pronoun to describe all her characters is not problematical here except in one instance where a character’s sibling is referred to as a brother on entering the story. If the pronoun is gender neutral would not the word sister always be used? That males exist within Leckie’s universe is shown in a scene of attempted comedy when Breq arrives at Athoek Station to find its walls bedecked with paper penises, in a festival deriving from a misunderstanding during the Radch takeover of Athoek.

Ancillary Sword won the BSFA Award for best novel published last year. (I’ve now read all but one of the nominees.) It’s good, but I wouldn’t have voted it first.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian so among others we get the horrible “off of”. None were (none = “not one” and so requires “was” as its verb,) metric tons (tonnes then,) waked (wakened,) pry the gun (prise?) There are, too, 15 added pages containing an extract of a book written by another author altogether. This is utterly pointless.

The Clarke Award for 2014

Hot from the BSFA website, here’s the shortlist:-

The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber (Canongate)
Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North (Orbit)
Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

I’ve read four of these! I’m delighted to see both Emmi Itäranta and Emily St John Mandel (who missed out on BSFA Award nominations) on this list.

BSFA Awards for 2014 Announced

The winners were announced yesterday at Eastercon and are:-

Best Novel: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction: The Honey Trap by Ruth E. J. Booth, La Femme (Newcon Press)

Best Non-Fiction: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War by Edward James

Best Art: “The Wasp Factory” after Iain Banks by Tessa Farmer

Congratulations to all. Commiserations to all the runners-up.

Currently Reading

That part of my sidebar which also provides the title of this post is at the moment inaccurate.

I read the BSFA Awards booklet as soon as it arrived in order to meet the voting deadline and took time out from Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century to do so. I’ve finished the booklet now (see the review on my previous post) and I’m nearing the end of Traveller of the Century.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2014

This year’s booklet plopped on the doormat on Monday. Just in time for me to fill in the online voting form on Tuesday, one day before the deadline!

BSFA Awards Booklet 2014

The non-fiction items this year were:-
”Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens” by Jonathan Mcalmont, a discussion of two online magazines

”Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of the Great War” edited by Edward James. A record of research the author has done on the lives and war experiences of SF and fantasy writers during the Great War.

“Call and Response” by Paul Kincaid. The introduction to Kincaid’s book about criticism is reprinted.

”Greg Egan” by Karen Burnham. An examination of some of Egan’s themes.

The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium” various authors. Contributions to the symposium first published in Strange Horizons. See http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20140728/1britsf-a.shtml

As to the fiction:-

The Honey Trap by Ruth E J Booth. La Femme, NewCon Press.
Bees are extinct. An industrialised fruit grower (whose plants are pollinated by hand) is tempted by the sweetest apple he has ever tasted – despite its ugly appearance and the scruffiness of its grower.

The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade. The Book Smugglers, Nov 2014
Karitoki tries to make friends with a Pania, one of a set of (genetically engineered?) creatures sworn to protect whales, dolphins and seals, by cooking mussels for it. Its taste is for fresh, not cooked, food.

Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Immersion Press, 2014
Set in a Hong Kong where demons and gods interact with humans, but the story also contains excursions to heaven. One of the gods requires the help of the human Julienne to release her sister from imprisonment. This story had too many fantasy incursions for my taste and whether the pay-off was worth the inordinate length is debatable.

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

The latest from the BSFA Awards list – 6 out of 8 read now – but probably the last.

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

 Europe in Autumn cover

For a long time there was a dearth of detective stories in SF. This may have been because of the necessity that such a story work as both SF and crime novel, creating a gap which writers couldn’t seem to bridge. However any such lack has long since been filled. I don’t recall, though, many outright spy story/SF crossovers. Thrillers, yes (but they are a different beast again.) Yet here we have Europe in Autumn, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Cold War era spy story. This may be due to the fact that, a brief excursion to London apart, it is set mainly in Eastern Europe, areas which were formerly in Warsaw Pact countries. There is too a constant hint of menace, of surveillance, of people with hidden agendas, pervading it. All of which Hutchinson handles with aplomb.

After the devastation of the Xian Flu Europe has fissured into innumerable small statelets, “Sanjaks. Margravates. Principalities. Länder.” One of these polities is a trans-European railway line running from Portugal to Siberia, but never more than ten kilometres wide. In this Europe borders, razor wire, visas and bureaucracy abound; travelling is not simple. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Kraków who is one day “invited” to join Les Coureurs des Bois, an organisation dedicated to smuggling mail, packages and sometimes people across the numerous borders. His training ends in a disastrous foray into the railway’s territory. Later “situations” also turn out less than well and he begins to wonder why.

This set-up is intriguing. A Europe returned to a pre-Napoleonic patchwork – only much worse; some of the polities extend to no more than a couple of blocks of flats. It’s certainly surprising. One thing I never expected to read was a piece of SF explicitly discussing the merits or otherwise of the Schengen Agreement. How all this sticks together, plus the relevance of maps of non-existent places, is all revealed in a tightly plotted, highly readable thriller style narrative. In parts Europe in Autumn reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – was there something in the air the year before last? – there are extremely faint echoes, growing stronger towards the book’s end, of Transition, plus parallels with The City and the City and similarities with PƒITZ.

Europe in Autumn is a good book – even a very good book – but I’m not entirely sure about its place on the BSFA Award ballot. It has SF trappings to be sure, invisibility suits amongst them, but, in essence, it’s a spy novel.

The phrase “he wardrove around the city” was a new one on me but I’m grateful for it.

Pedant’s corner:- Hutchinson has too much of a fondness for the phrase “tipped his/her/my head to one side,” to indicate a character’s desire for more information, clarification or knowledge of evasion. Also: we had “a raise” (but elsewhere Hutchison also uses the British formulation a pay “rise,”) “I don’t think anybody understands the offside trap any more,” (OK this was a piece of spy speak but shouldn’t it still have been offside law? The offside trap is an effort to employ the law in a team’s favour,) tokomaks (tokamaks,) “for the first time in many years feeling anything approaching sympathy for his father,” (shouldn’t that be something rather than anything?) watched them them go, “Here he was, sitting here quite comfortably,” Minster for Minister.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Picador, 2015, 339 p, including 2 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Questions for Discussion.

 Station Eleven cover

Well, it’s a long time since I’ve read a good disaster novel. (Or any disaster novel at all really.) Not that this is a disaster novel per se as it spends a good bit of time on pre-apocalypse matters. The third person narrative varies between the viewpoints of actor Arthur Leander, his first wife Miranda, his friend Clark, former paparazzo turned paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary and Kirsten Raymonde, a child, then later an adult, actor.

Arthur Leander collapses on stage of a heart attack on the night the Georgian Flu comes to Toronto. Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and tries to aid him but fails to prevent his death. Before the performance Leander had given Kirsten two “issues” of a sumptuously produced limited edition comic book, the Station Eleven of the title. Kirsten values these through the years of travail ahead; for the Georgian Flu turns out to be particularly virulent, causing death within hours, hence civilisation swiftly falls apart. The few survivors eke out their existence as best they can.

The narration flits between pre- and post-apocalypse detailing Leander’s life story; Kirsten’s wanderings in Year Twenty with The Travelling Symphony – despite the name they perform Shakespeare plays as well as music – with its slogan (derived from Star Trek: Voyager) Because survival is insufficient; Clark’s pre-disaster memories of Leander and his post-apocalypse life in Severn City Airport, Michigan, where he sets up a Museum of Civilisation; Miranda’s experiences with Leander; along with Jeevan’s memories of his life. (There is no reason to suppose that Mandel has ever read it – in all probability she hasn’t – but the Travelling Symphony elements reminded me a bit of Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road. Mandel is a much better writer than Niven, though, and her story more complex.)

This is a very good book indeed, suffused with sadness but still affirming life. The characters all ring true to life – plus of course the inevitable death(s) – and there is a glimmer of hope for the future at the end. A curiosity was that only the odd pages are numbered and that only if they didn’t coincide with a chapter heading. Even though it has more of a mainstream feel had I read this before the cut-off date I would certainly have nominated it for the BSFA Award – the book was first published in 2014 – but sadly I was a month late.

Yet, even in a book as good as this there are entries for Pedant’s Corner:-
“The line of jets, streaked now with rust.” (Only iron – or steel – can form rust. Aeroplanes aren’t made from iron. If they were they’d not get off the ground. Iron is much more dense than the aluminium jets are made from.) “He’d laid awake” (lain.) In one chapter – a supposed transcription of an interview with Kirsten by the editor of the New Petoskey News – King Lear and New York Times are underlined. Is this due to the pre-word processing convention that submitted manuscripts contained underlining where italics were to be used in the final copy – italics being beyond normal manual typewriters – and these instances were missed in the transcription?

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Hodder, 2014, 310 p, including 4 p Glossary of Nigerian pidgin, 1 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Reading Group Questions.

Another from the BSFA Awards list. 5 out of 8 read now.

 Lagoon cover

A sonic boom sounds out over Lagos lagoon. Very shortly thereafter three people whose names begin with “A” are taken up by a fist of sea-water and submerged. Some time later they are returned to the beach, as is a creature with the appearance of a woman but who is in fact an alien; an alien who can shift shape. One of our “A”s, Adaora, is a biologist with a lab in her basement and examines the alien, whom she names Ayodele. “Her” cellular structure is totally unlike that of life on Earth, mainly in that it doesn’t have cells, only very small, apparently metal-like, spheres “not fixed together as our cells are.” But Okorafor isn’t interested in this. Her focus is on the effect of the intrusion on Lagos and on its people and on manifestations of Nigerian folk tales/myths. We find out not much more about the aliens than that, apart from being able to read minds and having healing powers, as Ayodele tells the President, “We are technology,” and “we just want a home.”

The other two “A”s, the soldier Agu and the Ghanaian rapper Anthony Dey Craze, and Adaora turn out to have special powers, Agu has extreme strength in his punch, Dey Craze can project sound and Adaora a force field. Adaora’s husband, Chris, who is under the influence of the (nominally) Christian bishop who calls himself Father Oke, already thought Adaora was a witch. In light of this to my mind it undermines the implied criticism of self-serving “charismatic” preachers embedded in Okorafor’s treatment of Oke to have any hint of the supernatural attaching to Adaora.

Ayodele tells Adaora’s two children, “Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It’s your greatest flaw.”

The Lagos setting is welcome (too often stories of alien invasion focus on the US or Britain) but the move deep into fantasy territory broke my suspension of disbelief. Okorafor’s descriptions are effective but the action scenes can be cursory. By and large the characters are well differentiated, though a few are drawn from the stock cabinet, and we do see a cross-section of Lagos society, some of whom speak in pidgin. This can be understood easily enough (SF readers are used to unfamiliar words and phrases) but the appended glossary will help anyone who struggles.

Lagoon is written in USian (Okorafor is a professor of creative writing at the University of Buffalo, SUNY) so we get dove for dived, upside the head, if worse came to worst, most everyone, asses; which all seemed to me odd usages for a former British colony only 55 years from independence.

Pedant’s corner:- “even before he’d sunken his claws into Chris” (sunk,) “also a bad sign were the two army trucks” (a sign is singular,) “low and behold” (lo,) “to not turn away”. This last is not quite cancelled out by knowing where “not” ought to be placed in “not all was well.”

Wolves by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2014, 295 p.

This is the first in my attempt to catch up with this year’s BSFA Awards nominations for best novel. I’ve now read half of them. With two more at hand I’m on track for 6 out of the 8.

 Wolves cover

Wolves is a strange beast, part SF, part mystery, part love story, but never really completely any one of them. Conrad is working in advertising when school friend Michel’s phone call to him to come to meet his girlfriend and view their pet project – building a boat to see them safe through what they divine as the impending apocalypse – throws him into their orbit. How this is all linked to Conrad’s past, his mother’s death and dysfunctional relationship with his father, Ben, is worked out in stages and flashbacks to Conrad’s teenage years. Ben was involved in devising a system of artificial sight for blinded soldiers. Later, Conrad’s company develops augmented reality technology – “with tricks of mathematics and optics, we augment reality, smothering surfaces in warm, spicy notes of brand belonging” – eventually to the point where it can overlay the real world, without its experiencer even carrying/wearing a processing device. As Conrad tells us later, in another context, “the mind cannot retain vanished geographies, and we find ourselves adapting to this new terrain.”

In perhaps the crucial sentences in the book Ralf, the ideas man behind the AR technology, says to his financial backer when queried about what he calls the model, the brain’s importance in perception, “Your model, my model, of what the world is like. We only have models, Mr Vaux. From the little data granted us, we extrapolate a model of the world. This, we call ‘reality’.”

I’m very dubious about Conrad’s contentions that, “When we fall in love with someone, we fall in love first with their world,” and, “Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy,” but less so with, “Confusing the two loves is easier still.” He also says, “Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy.”

Despite the trappings – and the nomination – the book doesn’t really feel at all like SF. The novel’s sensibility throughout is mainstream. Augmented Reality isn’t truly embedded in the story and reads more like an add-on. The book could actually be stripped of its futuristic components and the plot still work as well. The text also mentions Science Fiction, generally thought to be unwise in a work within the genre. However, one thing that can be taken from Wolves is that whatever happens, human relationships will still be as muddled and messy as ever.

Pedant’s corner:- clitoriclectomy (clitoridectomy or clitorectomy,) pretentions (pretensions – though the latter spelling is used later,) queuing (queueing?) populous (populace,) “I rack my head for anecdotes,” (wrack?) stoved in (staved in surely?)
Plus points, though, for “lie of the land.”

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