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City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, 400 p

Borrowed from another but returned to a threatened library.

 City of Stairs cover

The Continental city of Bulikov has been under the rule of former colony Saypur since the Great War in which the Continent’s gods were killed by the last Kaj of Saypur. The war ended with the cataclysmic Blink which somehow altered Bulikov’s topography. Buildings are at odd angles, stairways rise to nowhere. On the Continent all references to the defeated gods are banned by the Worldly Regulations. Yet Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui has been allowed unfettered access to sources about the Divines. Locals have long been stirred into resentment by the Regulations but more recently by Pangyui’s researches. His murder brings Ashara Komayd, descendant of the Kaj and a Saypuri intelligence operative (but under cover as a Cultural Ambassador,) to Bulikov to investigate it, accompanied by her tall bodyguard, Sigrud, in exile from the Dreyling north. Shara (as she is called) feels her longstanding interest in the Continental gods and their miracles makes her most suitable for the task. Her boss, Vinya Komayd, who is also her aunt, appears to be less sure.

City of Stairs is a tale of intrigue, politics, religion, fanaticism, terrorism and betrayals. In it can be read parallels to our world but in the end it remains its own idiosyncratic one. However, the story still deals with the sorts of motivations which activate humans in any time or place. At times an uneasy mix of detective story, intellectual puzzle and thriller it also has the occasional lurch into action adventure. Shara is an engaging enough heroine, if a little bookish, but her recollected reaction to the revelation in her youth of the true nature of her then lover, Vohannes Votrov, seems a little cold-blooded. And Sigrud (of whom a blurb on the cover says, “My God, ….you guys are going to love Sigrud,” – No. Sorry -) is just a cartoon figure, impossibly accomplished in combat skills. Other characters – fanatics apart – are agreeably delineated, though.

The details of the world are nicely nuanced; for example the jurisdiction of each god was geographical. The story hinges on the existence of remaining Divine artefacts which may or may not still be potent and have since the war been kept in the Unmentionable Warehouse (unmentionable because of course due to the Regulations no-one can talk about it.)

While each chapter (except the last two) ends with an extract from the Book of one of the gods or an excerpt from Efrem Pangyui’s writings there is also some not well-integrated info dumping. And despite the title stairs feature very infrequently in the book.

Bennet allows Votrov to voice the pleas for compassion, “I am sorrowful that my fellow countrymen feel that being human is something to repress, something ugly, something nasty,” and, “This incredibly damaging idea that to be human and to love and to risk making mistakes is wrong.”

A bit baggy, but City of Stairs is worth a look if you like your adventure SF/fantasy tinged with agreeable characterisation.

Pedant’s corner:- the … coat kisses the tops of immense black books (boots, I would suggest,) Ahanas’ (Ahanas’s,) none of them know (none is singular, so none knows; later on we have none strike [strikes],) the both of them (both of them, or, at a pinch, the pair of them; not, the both of them,) smoothes (smooths.) “One of the … problems … were the many, many (one of the problems was, even if it was many, many ) Vohannes’ (Vohannes’s,) “quite terribly” is used twice within two lines, “every single inch …. are engraved” (every inch is engraved ,) “more viscera slips out” (more viscera slip out – viscera is a plural noun; the singular is viscus,) “a gathering crescendo” (don’t all crescendos gather?) “a creature of an aquatic nature… swam upstream … .and begin” (began,) soldiers tumble black shrieking (back makes more sense.)

Interzone 257 Mar-Apr 2015

Interzone 257 cover

We kick off with Alastair Reynolds and A Murmuration1 wherein a researcher into the flocking behaviour of starlings begins to be able to control their movements. This leads to conflict with the referee of the scientific paper on the research. Moreover, the birds start to behave contrarily.
In Songbird2 by Fadzlishah Johanabas, due to addiction to electronic devices people can no longer process emotions apart from a few women who can synthesise the emotions when they sing.
Brainwhales Are Stoners, Too3 by Rich Larson sees a teenage girl and the boy she fancies break into the ThinkTank where a brainwhale is confined, wired up, drugged to do computations.
The Worshipful Company of Milliners4 by Tendai Huchu. In a dilapidated factory in Harare a group of half-human, half-cat milliners – invisible to true humans – make equally invisible hats for authors to wear. Full membership of the sisterhood is only granted when the author becomes successful.
Aliya Whiteley’s Blossoms Falling Down is set on a generation starship where different cultures are housed on different decks with occasional tourism between them. The navigator is struck by his visit to a Japanese “Haiku Room”.

1 “The cameras should be aimed into the middle of the perimeter, and elevated sufficiently to catch the murmuration’s epicentre.” (Epicentre used, apparently correctly, as meaning “off-centre”. Remarkable.)
2 written in USian, lay (lie,) the liquid in the cylinders in front of me glow green (glows,) staunch (stanch.) Clear seems to be used as a synonym for colourless.
3 less (fewer,) snuck (sneaked,) a “I’m fine” look (an “I’m fine” look.)
4 sprung (sprang,) epaulets (epaulettes,) “‘almost as though you’re recycled no reincarnated,’” is surely missing punctuation of some sort.

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 359 p.

The Enchantress of Florence cover

A foreigner turns up to the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, at Fatehpur Sikri with a claim to be related to him and a tale to tell to justify it. The foreigner has called himself variously Uccello di Firenze, Mogor dell’ Amore (the Mughal of love) and Niccolò Vespucci. So begins this typical piece of Rushdian flamboyance.

Containing elements of fable, fairy tale and Rushdie’s usual dose of magic realism (among other things Akbar has managed to conjure up for himself an imaginary – and therefore perfect – wife) there is nevertheless something about the treatment that does not quite hit the mark. Rushdie has always been fond of digression, word games and allusions (in this case, for example, take the mercenaries Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan) but it has to be said; in amongst the showing here, there is a lot of telling. As if to underline this there is a list of works consulted for research given in a bibliography.

Yet, as the author notes, “The untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.” That is what fiction is for after all. But then again, “Those sceptics who by virtue of their sour temperament resist a supernatural account of events may prefer more conventional explanations.” Indeed.

It might seem, too, that in a novel entitled The Enchantress of Florence that the woman concerned could be expected to appear in the narrative somewhat earlier than two-thirds of the way through but while this is her story it is also the story of Akbar, of the Florence of the Medici (and the monk Giralomo,) and of three friends from that city, Antonino Argalia, last of the condottieri, Niccolò – ‘il Machia’ – Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli) and Agostino Vespucci (cousin to Amerigo.) It is also the tale of why the Mughal court had to leave Fatehpur Sikri.

The enchantress is Qara Köz, “Lady Black Eyes,” Akbar’s Great Aunt, sister of Babar the first Mughal, eliminated from the family history when she rejected a return from capture. Her enchantments seem to lie in the ability to entrance men, if only for a while. Her destiny is to pass through the hands of a warlord, to the Safavid Shah Ismail, to Antonino Argalia and finally to the New World with Agostino Vespucci. She has a companion, her mirror in all respects (bar one.) Yet she is an absence in the book, an emptiness around which Rushdie weaves his tale of folly, wisdom, hope and loss. Akbar is at the heart of it, a ruler wise to his surroundings and to the machinations of the power hungry. There is a barbed inversion of insular Western conceptions when Akbar muses that, “The lands of the West were exotic and surreal to a degree incomprehensible to the humdrum people of the East.”

A noteworthy aspect of this edition is that it is endowed with beautiful endpapers picturing at the front a detail from The Building of Fatehpur Sikri Palace from the Akbamama and at the rear from the Carta della Catena showing a panorama of Florence.

Pedant’s corner:- A 16th century Scottish pirate may well have been carrying letters of marque or even diplomatic credentials from Queen Elizabeth (of England) but I doubt he would treasure a locket containing her portrait. Equally he may have boasted of climbing all Scotland’s Munros but not in those terms. They were not named as such for a further three centuries. “I’d keeped her locked up” (keep,) rowboat.

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.

 Ash cover

The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.

It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.

Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.

All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.

So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.

That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.

The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.

I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.

Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)

Tanith Lee

I saw in today’s Guardian Tanith Lee’s obituary.

Despite her prolificity, I don’t recall reading much of her work (SF, Fantasy and Horror in the main) but her name was familiar to me. I may have noticed at the time that she wrote two episodes of Blake’s 7 but it wasn’t something I had at my front of my mind.

She was notable as being the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel (for her book Death’s Master.)

Tanith Lee: 19/09/1947 – 24/5/2015. So it goes.

The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano.

Gollancz, 2014, 270 p. Reviewed for Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014.

 The Seventh Miss Hatfield cover

In 1954 an eleven year old girl named Cynthia carries a wrongly delivered parcel to its correct destination across the road. There she meets Miss Hatfield, who has a collection of portraits and antiques plus a strange clock with unusual intervals marking its dial. Miss Hatfield gives Cynthia a glass of lemonade into which she has poured the last drop of liquid from a vial. Within a few pages – bare minutes of conversation, and no change of scene – Cynthia has become a fully grown woman. The physics of this transformation, the chemistry required, its energetics, are all not so much skimmed over or ignored as seemingly unconsidered. The process is only a means for Caltabiano to propel her narrator into the story she wishes to tell. It does of course also signal Cynthia’s altered reality.

Miss Hatfield tells Cynthia the fateful drop was the last remnant of a bottle filled from a mysterious lake stumbled upon by Juan Ponce de León on his first voyage to Florida. The liquid confers immortality on its drinkers. The Misses Hatfield have been employing it to recruit new versions of themselves ever since it came into their hands. Moreover they use the strange clock – which an early Miss Hatfield just happened upon – to navigate time. Miss Hatfield informs her new protégée time is not a river, but a lake; existing all at once. Quite why a clock would then be a suitable device to use to sail on it is odd. Moreover, how it actually manages to achieve this feat is never divulged. Again, it just happens.

Cynthia accepts the actions of Miss Hatfield, plus her subsequent demands to go to 1904 to steal a portrait, indeed begins to think of herself as Rebecca Hatfield, the seventh such, amazingly readily. In no time at all, corsetted and long-skirted, she is rushing off through carless streets to the house of Charles Beauford, who fortuitously takes her for his niece Margaret. There she meets his son Henley who, despite knowing she cannot be his cousin, plays along with the deception. The seventh Miss Hatfield has something of a charmed life, it seems.

This is fine as far as it goes but here the story gets bogged down as Caltabiano’s over-arching fantasy becomes somewhat lost amid the details of the burgeoning relationship between Henley and his “cousin.” True, every so often the new Miss Hatfield (she forgets her past life all too easily) remembers she is supposed to be stealing the painting and also experiences a growing sense of wrongness associated with being out of time but this is all diluted by the routines of daily life in a well-to-do Edwardian household and a preponderance of “playful” dialogue. Even the appearance of the Porter sisters, Christine and Eliza (the first of whom and Henley are effectively promised to each other, the second is by far the most interesting character in the book) does not give Rebecca a quick way back to her own time – or later. Cynthia/Rebecca/Margaret also has a very modern idea of servants’ individuality and sense of self but is annoyingly gauche. Her discovery of what the reader sees as links between the Misses Hatfield and the elder Mr Beauford does not give her pause about her sponsor’s motives.

The book is adorned with a cleverly designed Escheresque cover and the accompanying promotional blurb makes much of Caltabiano’s youth. That earns no free pass here; but Caltabiano can write – even if she occasionally employs awkward sentence constructions and lacks quite the necessary feel for the detail of late nineteenth/early twentieth century speech and mores. In their trip to the country, Henley drives the automobile himself. Families like his had chauffeurs for such tasks. And I doubt that, once the car had broken down, an unmarried man and woman at that time (cousins or not) would be allowed to sleep in the same space – even if it was a barn.

There are other details which niggled. Except in the most unusual circumstances would her assumed persona as Mr Beauford’s sister’s daughter still have his surname? The sixth Miss Hatfield refers to being shown a photo sometime in the early 1840s. So early? Eliza mentions that ever since reading Jules Verne she has wondered about the possibility of time travel. (Oh dear. Unless this is an altered universe in which Verne actually wrote any such stories.) The women take part at a burial. In 1904?

Caltabiano’s story of time-crossed love is never entirely convincing, the book’s resolution a touch rushed, the supposed poignancy of the epilogue not fully earned by the preceding pages and the speculative content comes down to trappings. There are two more novels to come, though.

Pedant’s corner:- goodnight for good night, Tu scies nunquam finem. (Since in Latin verbs are placed at the end of a sentence should this not be Nunquam finem scies?)

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Harper Perennial, 2007, 210 p

 Magic for Beginners cover

This is a book of short stories by Link, who has won multiple awards for her fiction.

The Faery Handbag. Made by Genevieve’s grandmother from an old dog skin, the eponymous bag opens three ways. One is just a normal bag, another leads to a capacious land where centuries elapse while only a single night has passed outside the bag, a third contains the bag’s guardian (the dog whose skin it was made from – and who is not a happy bunny.) Told with such confidence that it even warns the reader not to believe a word of it and also comments on the art of storywriting, “It’s hard work telling everything in the right order,” Link’s skill here is to make sense of nonsense, logic out of the bizarre.

The Hortlak. Eric works with Batu at an All-Night Convenience Store. Eric likes Charley, a woman who drives past regularly with dogs about to be put down but he never talks to her and is jealous of the fact that Batu is teaching her Turkish. The store is close to Canada and has some Canadian customers but is also frequented by zombies from the Ausible Chasm just across the road. The blend of the mundane (the store and the talk of changing the face of retail) and the bizarre (the zombies and the ghosts of dogs Batu says haunt Charley’s car, which are nevertheless treated matter-of-factly) gives the story its frisson. And the Hortlak of the title? I have no idea. It’s never mentioned.

The Cannon. Couched as a question and answer dialogue this is about emm…. a cannon – from which people are shot into the air to fly for miles without apparently suffering any injuries.

Stone Animals. A couple and their two children move into a new house whose entrance is flanked by stone rabbits. As the lawn gradually fills with rabbits they come to feel everything is haunted.

Catskin. A tale of witches, and how they get their children, of revenge, of sewing people into catskins so that they take on the attributes of a cat, and which may, just may, have been written to enable a pun on the word pussy.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans. A former jailbird who thinks a lot about zombies, icebergs and art gatecrashes a party and takes the girl of the house into his confidence.

The Great Divorce. A man who is married to a dead woman – “It has only been in the last two decades that the living have been in the habit of marrying the dead, and it is still not common practice” – and has three dead children with her, wants a divorce, “Divorcing the dead is still less common.” He consults a medium – mediums know what the dead are like.

Magic for Beginners. A tale about Jeremy Mars, one of a group of teenagers who are avid fans of a magnificently bonkers and elusively scheduled TV show called The Library, but who themselves appear in episodes of the show. The story is beautifully written; about burgeoning sexuality, embarrassing parents, the highs and lows of friendship (and the characterisation is very good) but it doesn’t really go anywhere. (Except Las Vegas, where Jeremy’s mum has inherited a wedding chapel and a phone booth.) Contains the questionable assertion, “That’s the trouble about being a writer. You know how every story goes.”

Lull contains a tale within a tale within the tale, about a poker playing group, time running backwards and a cheerleader and the Devil.

Link is without doubt a stylist, but that style is unusual, full of meanderings and discursions, and never far from a core of disorientation. Oddness is the keynote of almost every sentence. Individually the stories would be intriguing and striking but one after the other they add up to a niggle about how Link’s world corresponds to the real one.

Pedant’s corner:- Bajadoz (Bajadoz?) sucessful (successful,) if you had to chose one (choose.)

Terry Pratchett

It’s sad to hear of the death of prolific SF/fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Alzheimer’s Disease is a terrible affliction. It is for anyone; not just those whose working lives depend to a large extent on memory. His passing is a great loss to the overall SF/fantasy genre.

Pratchett’s greatest creation was of course Discworld, whose genesis owes more to fantasy than to SF.

Looking through my shelves I found I have more of his books than I had remembered, 9 novels in total, of which 6 are Discworld books. This is perhaps because I never much took to Discworld and didn’t really find the novels amusing. I think I laughed only once when reading a Pratchett book and that was for an atrocious pun (of which I admit I am fond.) Reading Equal Rites in particular I felt there was a serious novel in there struggling to get out and that the treatment somewhat detracted from the book’s possible import. I fully understand that Pratchett’s later work may have fulfilled the hopes that I had for Equal Rites when I was reading it but by then I had moved on to other things. According to Fantastic Fiction there are 40 Discworld novels. Too many to catch up with I fear.

Terrence David John Pratchett: 28/4/1948 – 12/03/2015. So it goes.

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.”

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