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The Just City by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2015, 368 p including iv p Thanks and Notes.

 The Just City cover

The God Apollo cannot understand why Daphne prayed to Artemis to turn her into a tree rather than mate with him. As a result he resolves to become mortal for a while in order to learn about volition and equal significance (ie according to others their right to self-determination.) His half-sister Athene suggests he go to Kallisti, the part of the Mediterranean island of Thera which will be destroyed when the volcano erupts, where some people are attempting to set up a society based on Plato’s Republic. Here, overseen by masters (Plato-loving scholars drawn from throughout human history – not all of whom are men, despite their title) are brought ten-year old children bought from slave markets to be moulded by Plato’s rules with the intent that they strive to be their best selves and so produce philosopher kings – people who truly understand the truth, agree on what it is, and pursue it – either of the children themselves, from whom the contents of the Republic are to be withheld until they are fifty, or their offspring. Robots from our future do all the work of maintenance and food production. All the children and most masters have their original names replaced, even Cicero. Into this so called Just City after five years comes Sokrates – the only master there who had not in some way requested it. He, of course, questions everything, including the robots.

The narrative is divided into three viewpoints: that of Apollo, incarnated on Kallisti as Pytheas; a slave girl, Simmea; and Maia, a woman born in nineteenth century Harrogate. Between the three this gives Walton the opportunity to discuss not only Plato’s ideas but also issues of free will, the rights of individuals and the nature of sentience. In the midst of this she has Sokrates inquire, “‘If you pursue happiness….. do you get closer to it or further away?’” and Athene, in human form as Septima, “‘most women might as well not exist for all the contribution most of us get to make to history.’”

When the children reach the age of sixteen a system of temporary marriages, whose participants should appear to be randomly selected for each other but really to ensure only the most fit reproduce, is instituted. Human nature being what it is, some couples pair up outside this system, against the rules, and sneak off to do what couples do. Simmea adheres strictly to the rules but Pythea, who is attracted by her mind (she is flat-faced, flat chested and buck-toothed) in the end wants her for himself, as does Kebes, who resents the whole process in Kallisti as being no better than the slavery the children were removed from.

Walton also portrays incidents which underline the thrust of her novel and the arguments it makes. Some of these are perhaps just a little too programmatic. For example, Maia is raped by Ikaros, though he doesn’t understand his actions as rape. Plato wrote that defective babies or those of defective parents should be exposed – a common practice in the classical world. Despite her misgivings, Maia does expose a hare-lipped child.

The Just City is interesting, thought-stirring stuff. Unfortunately, after a public dialogue between Sokrates and Athene, the novel stops rather than concludes. There is a sequel though, The Philosopher Kings, which I shall search out.

Pedant’s corner:- there were a whole host of reasons (there was a host,) the Tech Committee have decided (has decided,) a full stop at the end of a question, to extend this out to everyone (no “out”,) somebody who had never showed cowardice (shown,) said as got dressed (as he got dressed,) Creusa (Kreusa,) ‘we can fix it would be much better’ (fix it it would be,) had rarely seem him (seen,) the crowd were making (the crowd was.)
Walton employs k where c is usually written in English for Greek names, hence Patroklus and Sokrates, but still uses the c in the phrase Socratic dialogues, she also in her note on pronunciation at the end says “ch” is a hard sound as in Bach or loch; in my experience Scots do not pronounce loch – nor Bach come to that – in such a way.

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

Solaris, 2013, 347 p.

 Dream London  cover

London is changing, expanding upwards and outwards, shape-shifting. In this strange new city salamanders munch beetles, the Thames is miles wide, blue monkeys roam the treetops and roofs, and a woman can say, ‘I didn’t used to be a virgin,’ without sounding ridiculous. The inhabitants too are changing, “Dream London did something to the people here. It brutalised the men …. It was softening the women.” On its ever widening two rivers, the Thames and the Roding, sail- and steamboats ply the waters, one of the only means of access. The rail systems are a mix of steam and electric power. As well as drifting into the past technologically this London seems to have the sexual and social politics of the 1950s or earlier, “the women had to hope that some man would look after them” or were “on their knees as whores or cleaners.” In addition “‘Dream London likes its Asians to dress like this’ – ie “ethnically” – ‘and run curry houses,’” and smoking is endemic once more. Not the least of its oddities is an area known as The Spiral where you can look over the edge of a precipice to see a tower growing up from another city to meet it. Like a black hole Dream London is impossible to escape. Journeys to do so twist and turn and lead back to their starting points.

Unfortunately our narrator Captain James Wedderburn is something of an exploitative sexist and minor drug pusher. (Not to mention a bit of a fraud. In his army career he never made it beyond Sergeant.) At several points he is taken to task for exploiting his workers but still remains a relatively unsympathetic character even after he gets the chance to write down his new persona on a parchment on the Contract Floor of the Angel Tower and (SPOILER) doesn’t sell his – or rather his friend’s – soul. Captain Wedderburn by his own estimation is tall and good looking. “He has messy dark hair, a knowing grin and a tendency to talk about himself in the third person.” At first he is torn between two factions wishing to enlist his aid, neither of whom he is particularly keen to serve. These are the mysterious Cartel, which is backed by foreign governments keen to see the end of Dream London and willing to do almost anything to achieve this, and Daddio Clarke and his Maicon Wailers – whose henchmen have eyes in their tongues and count in their number big, burly Quantifiers and a particularly foul-mouthed six year-old girl called Honey Peppers.

In the early chapters Wedderburn is handed a scroll containing his fortune, a scroll whose predictions start to be borne out. “ I lived in a city where the buildings changed every night, where people had eyes in their tongues, where women turned into whores over three weeks. Was a scroll that told my fortune so fantastic?” There is also a nod to prior art with its mention of a slow glass camera – called a shawscope. A picture taken by this means shows London’s parks to be strong areas of indeterminacy.

In Wedderburn’s excursion to the Angel Tower on the Cartel’s behalf we discover that Dream London’s mathematics has no prime numbers. On the Tower’s Counting Floor Wedderburn comes to recognise the order one, red, two, blue, a feeling of setting out on a journey, three, a feeling of fulfilment, yellow, four, five, orange, six, cyan, seven, eight, green, nine, purple, ten, eleven, indigo, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, ochre, fifteen, olive, sixteen, chocolate, seventeen; which sequence also serves as Dream London’s chapter numbers. (Despite this, later we are told there are 98 squares in Snakes and Ladders Square, numbered from 2 to 99.) He later visits the tower’s Writing Room, where the changes are inscribed onto paper. (This bears similarities to the written city in Andrew Crumey’s Pfitz.)

This is an outright fantasy you would think, yet Rudolf Donati whose body has been separated into its component parts but is still alive (it make sense when you read it) says, “‘Dream London isn’t a fantasy, Jim, its science fiction.’” [I think I spot a riff on Star Trek here.] “‘What you see here, Captain, is what you get when science is explained by artists! Something which looks beautiful, but doesn’t make any sense.’” Cynthia, a woman Wedderburn meets on a train, was a member of a team who had been ‘looking for sub-atomic particles, but we were doing it using pen and paper. We wanted to describe things smaller than atoms. Things so small that you can know where they are, or where they’re going, but not both at the same time,’ which is of course a statement of the Uncertainty Principle. Ballantyne has found an elegant way to illustrate this fictionally in his account of Wedderburn’s train journey through London, never quite getting to where he wants to go.

The again all this could be an allegory of how life in the real London in our world has been transformed by oligarchs and financial interests. Wedderburn says, “‘when people talk about choices, it’s usually the people who are in charge who are setting the alternatives,’” and “‘all those people who earn a living off the sweat of someone else’s brow. Dream London bought and sold them all.’” Anna, the daughter of one of Wedderburn’s friends and despite her peripherality the most interesting character in the novel – at least until she fades somewhat towards its end – tells him, “The only thing Dream London fears is that we might ever join together to fight it. It wants us to turn in on ourselves, rather than having us reach out to each other.” Wedderburn’s friendly stalker, Miss Elizabeth Baines – to whom he was revealed in a fortune parchment to be her future husband – says, “‘Dream London wants every man to do nothing. To be weak-willed and selfish. What it doesn’t want is people who do what’s right despite getting paid no notice,’” and another friend Amit, “‘There were always enough people in London to resist its influence, if only they chose to do so.’” Note that “London”, rather than Dream London.

Towards the novel’s climax Wedderburn begins to feel hope when he hears, “The sound of so many people doing the same thing. Of people united to a common cause, and not expressing themselves freely.” This apotheosis of togetherness is a brass band, the culmination of a series of references throughout the book to music and musicians.

Misgivings about Wedderburn’s occupation and attitudes aside Ballantyne writes well and has had an intriguing vision. Though to have your narrator say of his escape from a dilemma, “I’ll skip how I did it though,” (on page 201) – even if he later reveals he did not in fact escape – is something of a hostage to fortune.

Wedderburn’s most serious revelation though is that, “I was nothing more than misdirection, a sideshow … the magician’s assistant drawing the eye whilst the real work took place elsewhere.” With Dream London Ballantyne certainly draws the eye.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘If the Cartel succeed’” (succeeds; but this was in dialogue.) “‘This was a half-hearted threat if ever I heard of one’” (if ever I heard one,) a brace of pheasants (the phrase is usually a brace of pheasant,) wharfs (wharves?) “to ensure that traveller’s return” (context implies travellers, plural,) “seeing her around her before” (around here,) Hieronymous Bosch (Hieronymus.) “There were a number of suits hanging” (there was a number of suits,) Miss Baines’ face (Miss Baines’s,) he didn’t give me chance to speak (a chance,) sat (seated; or sitting,) 839th (previously and subsequently all such ordinal numbers were superscripted, as in 839th,) “and a random selection of numbers were” (a random selection was,) Honey Peppers’ (Honey Peppers’s, several instances,) “as about authentic as” (about as authentic as,) your your, less (fewer; but it was in dialogue,) Moules’ (Moules’s.) “The sign … was written in a particularly curly font. It read ‘ . , .’” (contained no text in curly font; there was nothing on the page but ‘. , .’ A joke about Dream London?) “as soon as saw the place” (as soon as I saw the place,) “Never let it be said the Captain James Wedderburn” (said that Captain…,) lay low (lie low.) A group of drummers were playing (a group was: several instances of a group were,) a large crowd were waiting (a crowd was,) stood in a pool of light (standing,) a missing end quote, out back (is USian: at the back,) “‘It’s every man for themselves in the new world’” (it was dialogue but even so it should be every man for himself; as it was on the next line,) “I could use a man like you” (USian: I could do with,) “‘I stared at building’” (the building,) Baines’ (Baines’s,) much a of a problem (much of a problem,) then the screaming begin (began,) “‘their minds can’t find your way back to their bodies’” (their way back,) I had strode (stridden,) Honey Pepper (Honey Peppers,) the drummer sounded taps (taps is a US military signal, not a British one, and it’s a bugle call, not a drum roll,) “Miss Elizabeth Baines’shouse” (I note the different use of the apostrophe here compared to Baines’ above, and the lack of a space between Baines’s and house,) unphased (unfazed.)

The Jewel and her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Tor.com, 2016, 90 p.

 The Jewel and her Lapidary cover

As revealed in cod extracts from a later guide book quoted at the beginning of each section of this novella the Jewelled Valley was once ruled by a royal family of “Jewels” who devised a technique to bind the powers of precious stones to influence minds and so tamed the gems. Each Jewel had a similarly bound servant, a Lapidary, who could hear and speak the stones.

The action of the book is set in the end-time of the Jewelled Court. Lin is the youngest daughter of the King, her Lapidary, Sima, the daughter of the King’s servant. Driven mad by the gems, Sima’s father has betrayed the Court and destroyed most of the jewels. Lin is the only member of the royal family to survive, the only person who can protect the people of the valley from the invading army of the Western Mountains. Sima sticks to her vows not to betray her Jewel.

Wilde’s control of her material is accomplished enough but for me it doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Gemstones with mind-controlling powers? That can be muted by being placed in a setting? But it is a fantasy. And short enough to read in one sitting.

Pedant’s corner:- if a Lapidary broke their vows (several instances. Lapidary is singular; so “his or her vows”.)

Socialist Science Fiction

There’s an interseting post over at Ian Sales’s blog where he calls, somewhat mischievously, for nominations for a socialist SF award for which he has come up with the name Sputnik Award. He is looking for works published in 2015 in the first instance (though it strikes me there could be fun looking through the archives to allocate awards retrospectively for previous years.)

Ian did link to a list provided by China Miéville of fifty works of SF/Fantasy every socialist should read. Not all of them are socialist; e.g. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is incliuded on the grounds you should know your enemy.

Now I love a list, so here it is. As usual the works asterisked I have read (in the case of the Gormenghast trilogy two thirds of it and The Iron Heel perhaps as a young lad.)

Iain M. Banks—Use of Weapons* (1990)

Edward Bellamy—Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888)

Alexander Bogdanov—The Red Star: A Utopia (1908; trans. 1984)

Emma Bull & Steven Brust—Freedom & Necessity (1997)

Mikhail Bulgakov—The Master and Margarita* (1938; trans. 1967)

Katherine Burdekin (aka “Murray Constantine”)—Swastika Night* (1937)

Octavia Butler—Survivor (1978)

Julio Cortázar—“House Taken Over” (1963?)

Philip K. Dick—A Scanner Darkly* (1977)

Thomas Disch—The Priest (1994)

Gordon Eklund—All Times Possible(1974)

Max Ernst—Une Semaine de Bonté (1934)

Claude Farrère—Useless Hands (1920; trans. 1926)

Anatole France—The White Stone (1905; trans. 1910)

Jane Gaskell—Strange Evil (1957)

Mary Gentle—Rats and Gargoyles* (1990)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman—“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)

Lisa Goldstein—The Dream Years (1985)

Stefan Grabiński—The Dark Domain (1918–22; trans. and collected 1993)

George Griffith—The Angel of Revolution (1893)

Imil Habibi—The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (1974; trans. 1982)

M. John Harrison—Viriconium Nights* (1984)

Ursula K. Le Guin—The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia* (1974)

Jack London—Iron Heel*? (1907)

Ken MacLeod—The Star Fraction* (1996)

Gregory Maguire—Wicked (1995)

J. Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)—Gay Hunter* (1934, reissued 1989)

Michael Moorcock—Hawkmoon (1967–77, reprinted in one edition 1992)

William Morris—News From Nowhere (1888)

Toni Morrison—Beloved (1987)

Mervyn Peake—The Gormenghast Novels* (1946–59)

Marge Piercy—Woman on the Edge of Time* (1976)

Philip Pullman—Northern Lights* (1995)

Ayn Rand—Atlas Shrugged (1957)

Mack Reynolds—Lagrange Five (1979)

Keith Roberts—Pavane* (1968)

Kim Stanley Robinson—The Mars Trilogy* (1992–96)

Mary Shelley—Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818)

Lucius Shepard—Life During Wartime* (1987)

Norman Spinrad—The Iron Dream* (1972)

Eugene Sue—The Wandering Jew (1845)

Michael Swanwick—The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)

Jonathan Swift—Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

Alexei Tolstoy—Aelita (1922; trans. 1957)

Ian Watson—Slow Birds* (1985)

H.G. Wells—The Island of Dr Moreau* (1896)

E. L. White—“Lukundoo” (1927)

Oscar Wilde—The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888)

Gene Wolfe—The Fifth Head of Cerberus* (1972)

Yevgeny Zamyatin—We* (1920; trans. 1924)

20 out of 50. I’ve some way to go. But a lot of these are vintage and possibly not very easy to come by.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Harvill Secker, 2015, 303 p.

 The Gracekeepers cover

The sea has risen; the only land left is islands. Between the island dwellers (landlockers) and seafarers (damplings) there is antipathy, with the latter only allowed to set foot on land if they carry bells on their limbs. There are two main story strands. One concerns Callanish, a Gracekeeper. An aquatic equivalent of an undertaker, she lives in exile tending to graces, caged birds which are used in the ritual when a dampling has died and is “Rested”. Callanish’s preoccupation is to keep her webbed hands and feet out of sight of anyone as in this world such deformations can be a death sentence.

The other strand takes place mainly aboard a travelling – seaborne – circus where the young adult North has a bear as a companion. Their act is the circus’s star attraction. The ringmaster, Red Gold, owns and rules the circus. The main ship, Excalibur, trails the acts’ coracles behind it in a long chain. Excalibur’s sail doubles as a Big Top and its deck as circus ring. The main tension here is that Red Gold wants North and his son Ainsel to marry and live in a house on land. North hates the land and is moreover secretly pregnant – by a sea-swimmer she thinks of by names she’d only heard in stories “selkie, nereid, mermaid”. Red Gold’s young(ish) wife, Avalon, though, wants the house for herself.

Narration duties are carried by several of the characters’ viewpoints, Callanish, her mother (once), North, Ainsel, Avalon and a couple of the circus members, though only Callanish and North have multiple sections.

Despite North’s companion there is no evidence elsewhere in the book of bears being extant in this world. Neither does it seem plausible that any could exist on the scraps of land which are described. Food is scarce enough for the members of the circus. How much more so for a bear? North’s bear may be the last of its kind, of course, but surely we ought to have been told that. There is, too, a mention of ice and icebergs in the north. If the sea has risen so much ought not all such ice to have melted?

In the Avalon narration we find that on meeting Red Gold she lighted on that name because his boat was called Excalibur. No other reference to Arthurian legend is made, it seems of no importance to the people of this world; so what is the point of this? It can only be there as a nudge to the reader.

One of the clowns’ acts is to dress as old-fashioned bankers and throw paper money into the crowd. (we have previously been told paper is an exceedingly scarce commodity.) It seems the landlockers blame greed for causing the inundation of their precious land. This again seems too much of a reference to early twenty-first century concerns. Beyond the usual sorts of payments involving coinage there are no other references to financial transactions in the book so this note seemed off-key to me. For the world to have degenerated so far would have taken time; time enough for bankers’ excesses to have slid from prominence.

The back cover gives us a blurb from Ursula Le Guin, ‘A highly original fantasy, set in a haunting sea-world both familiar and mysterious.’ Maybe it was the bear that swung it for her. (Le Guin’s Earthsea does of course have a lot of water.)

Aspects of The Gracekeepers struck me too as familiar, particularly the circus (compare Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road, and slightly less so Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven which involved a travelling – non-circus – entertainment in a post-apocalyptic world,) Red Gold’s seigniory, the fascinated antagonism of landlockers for damplings, the repressive revivalist religious sect; but then again it’s hard to construct completely novel scenarios.

Pedant’s corner:- “all that was clear were the fine lines” (was the fine lines,) the violins reached a crescendo (a crescendo rises to a climax; it is a process, not a culmination,) “the crowd held their breath” (its breath,) “forced her mouth into smile” (into a smile.) “Water poured through the gap, knocking Melia and Whitby on to their backs in the freezing water,” (Water… water; a bit clumsy. “The sea poured through the gap”?) “she did not know if any of those things were Whitby” (was Whitby,) “selkie, nereid, mermaids” (okay, North is using generic terms but nereids and mermaids are both female, so couldn’t have made her pregnant) “opened its maw” (a maw is a stomach; how can a stomach open?) “wanted to avoid to performing” (to avoid performing,) “might all have up and left” (upped and left,) “her hate burned so strong” (strongly, that would be.)
Credit for “lain” though.

BSFA Award Winners for 2015

The awards were announced on Saturday night at Mancunicon, this year’s Eastercon. See some pictures of the presentations here.

The fiction categories featured a double win for Aliette de Bodard.

Best Novel:
Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings

Best Short Story:

Aliette de Bodard, Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight

Best Non-Fiction:
Adam Roberts, Rave and Let Die: The SF and Fantasy of 2014

Best Artwork:-
Jim Burns, cover of Pelquin’s Comet.

Rosie Oliver’s reflections are here.

Like her I felt that the novel award winner lay too far to the fantasy side of the SF/Fantasy divide to be considered for an SF award. Others obviously saw things differently.

Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

Gollancz, 2015, 512p.

Glorious Angels cover

The last of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel.

The city of Glimshard is ruled by an Empress, a young Empress relatively new to the post. She is telepathically linked to other Empresses some of whom rule other cities. She can also influence the minds of those nearby her. Off to the north a war is being fought against creatures known as Karoo which have both animal and human characteristics and are referred to as bioplastic. The arrival in Glimshard of a Karoo known as Tzaban has piqued the interest of locals. Despite his warning that unless the Empire retreats from its course its forces will inevitably be defeated by the Karoo he is involved in training troops there.

The narrative viewpoint shifts between various characters but the tale is mainly carried by Tralane Huntingore who, despite references to witchlight, mage-bolts etc, is to all intents and purposes a scientist, with a laboratory in her house. We first meet her searching out crystals which have properties suitable for use in recovered machines of various sorts, among them a mysterious pair of goggles and a gun which diffuses entropy. Under the Empress’s orders Tralane is accompanied by Tzaban through a portal to the site of an artefact containing – or being – a prize everyone in power on this world bar the Karoo seems to seek to control.

The text feels oddly balanced, though. Towards the beginning Robson expends a lot of time in describing Glimshard society; there is in particular a scene illustrating an aspect of its sexual mores which doesn’t really illustrate character nor advance the plot. It may be that by that point in the book the norms in Glimshard have not been sufficiently established. Yet it is a strength that Robson eschews any egregious information dumping. Though it is important to this world that women/females are the powers behind it that fact is almost incidental to the narrative and never overtly stressed except for Karoo queens being all powerful with no male able to withstand their influence. The latter parts of the book, though, almost feel like a different novel entirely as plot gallops in and sweeps all before it. Something which may be an invention by Robson (I don’t recall reading of anything similar before, but then my reading of fantasy lags way behind that of SF) is that Karoo assimilate knowledge by eating each other – or humans.

The “magic” is treated matter of factly, in effect as if it were technology: apart from the influencing of minds by the Empresses and the Karoo’s knowledge-gaining attributes it may in fact be technology in our terms. The goggles show a certain star in the sky to be a manufactured object. This points to a science-fictional reading of the text (as does the revelation of the nature of the artefact the fighting was about.) Both suggest a sequel may be forthcoming.

Glorious Angels is good enough to be worthwhile reading; but an award contender? Not for me, I’m afraid.

Pedant’s corner:- The first section uses plural pronouns to describe a certain individual. Granted Robson wishes the person’s identity to be unknown until the viewpoint character finds out who it is – but as I have just demonstrated, what is wrong with using the gender neutral it or its in this context? (It would perhaps have been too far for Robson’s intentions for this scene for her to (re)invent a universal non gender-specific pronoun such as “hir” or “hem”.) Parillus’ (Parillus’s, x 2) “she badly didn’t want to lose the goggles,” (I know what Robson means but the construction is awkward,) betted (bet; several instances,) a missing full stop, (more than once,) Isabeu (Isabeau,) ass (x 2; though arse is used elsewhere,) “one who is making the most of themselves” (himself,) Empress’ (numerous instances; though once we had Empress’s,) ‘“He’s an asshole”’ (arsehole is so much more expressive,) “she laid back” (lay back,) Zarazin (Zharazin,) “where she had laid” (lain,) are are, (one are is enough,) “the Sorority” is treated as a plural noun rather than a singular one, “how many far better woman had surely been here before her” (women,) “either side of the processional carpets were filled with people” (both sides were – or, either side was – filled,) “recognised a lot of faces from the University crowd seated or talking together” (okay, faces is a synecdoche here but the sentence reads very oddly,) dais’ (dais’s,) denoument (denouement,) had known and laid in wait (lain in wait,) “was not without precedence” (precedent,) “This was the minimum cruise height for the landscape, any less ran the risk of damaging structures, and more was profligate, a waste of energy” (optimum cruise height, then,) “his intent distaste of the sound” (intense distaste of?) “she couldn’t hold it in longer” (any longer,) “None were unable to stand against them” (the sense was the complete opposite, ie “none were able to stand against them”,) lay up (lie up,) “where the science team were still working” (the team was,) harness’ (harness’s,) sprung (sprang.)

BSFA Awards 2015 Booklet

BSFA Awards 2015 cover

First, congratulations to the BSFA for getting this out in time in time for it to be read before the presentation of the awards at Eastercon. Easter is remarkably early this year. About as early as it can possibly be. (See previous post.)
And not only does the booklet contain the listed short stories but also the non-fiction nominees (or extracts therefrom) and as usual the nominated artworks.

As to the short fiction:-

Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight by Aliette de Bodard.1
An interstellar Empire has crop-growing space stations and long-lived mindships. Parents’ memories are usually downloaded to their children but those of crop researcher Professor Duy Uyen are allocated to her research group’s next leader. Her daughter, who became a mindship, will nevertheless remember her forever.

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell.2
A supermarket chain wants to build an outlet in a town where the borders with the other worlds are weak. This would result in the borders being breached. The witches of the title (not all of whom are witches) are three women who band together to preserve the status quo (in all its aspects.)

No Rez by Jeff Noon.3
Unlike in its original publication (in Interzone 260) the text here is not laid out transversely (perhaps robbing the story of some of its visual impact.) The tale is nevertheless rendered in a variety of typefaces. In its world, pixels are the be-all and end-all. Our narrator stumbles across a dead body with a box that renders everything in high rez. Heavies then come after him to get the box back.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.4
Binti is the first of her Himba kind to be invited to Oomza Uni, the first to leave Earth. Her tribal habit was to cover themselves in otjize, a mixture of plant extract and red clay. On the trip the space ship is invaded by Meduse with whom the otherwise dominant humans, the Khoush, are at war. Only Binti’s edna – a general name for a piece of old tech whose use no-one remembers – protects her. Otijze turns out to be useful to the Meduse, as does Binti herself.

Ride the Blue Horse by Gareth L Powell.5
In a post-apocalypse US two men scavenging amongst a huge collection of shipping containers for sellable goodies from the old days uncover a 1960s Ford Mustang. The freedom of the road beckons.

In the non-fiction6 Nina Allan called for the possibility of a woman Doctor (Who) not to be dismissed and for that programme to be less self-referential, the book of Letters to Tiptree acknowledges the legacy of Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr,) James McCalmont worries about the future of impartial reviewing, Adam Roberts surveys the SF and Fantasy of 2014 (and skewers Puppygate for its baleful effect on the Hugo Awards,) while Jeff VanderMeer tells of his trials while writing his three novels that were published in one year.

Pedant’s corner:-
1 “had fallen out before, on more trivial things” (over more trivial things,) “treason to much as think this” (to as much as think this,) “the only thing in existence were the laboratory and the living quarters” (“and” – therefore the only things in existence were,) designed to accept an unbalance (imbalance,) it’s mother’s hands that lie her down into the cradle” (lay her down [in?] the cradle,) ‘“When I hear you were back into service”’ (in service.)
2 This is set in Gloucestershire so the need to use the USianism “gotten” totally escapes me. Also “I could have used” for “I could have done with”. I know it was originally published on a US website but that’s no excuse. After all Cornell does have one character say “summat” as in summat terrible. Sprung (sprang,) focussed (focused,) “instead that she setting up the shop” (was setting up the shop,) “someone she vaguely new” (knew.)
3 “She always get the best streams” (gets,) “too many people, to many viewpoints, all on me” (context suggests “too many viewpoints”.)
4 “too old for anyone to know it functions” (its functions,) CO2 (CO2,) sunk (sank, x 3,) conducter (conductor,) ‘“The only thing I have killed are small animals”’ (things, then,) “all I could see were a tangle of undulating tentacles and undulating domes” (all I could see was…,) “Or the cool gasses” (gases) “Okwu promised would not harm my flesh even though I could not breathe it” (breathe them,) miniscule (minuscule,) museum specimen of such prestige are highly prized” (specimens,) ojtize (otjize,) clear is used to mean colourless rather than transparent.
5 Written in USian. “I caught a whiff of carbon monoxide.” (Carbon monoxide is odourless I’m afraid. A whiff of partially burnt petrol, maybe.) Plus: if the narrator and his companion don’t know how to drive a car (and nor has anybody for decades) how does he know which is first (gear) and what a clutch is?
6 There were typos etc (noun/verb disagreements in particular) in most of the non-fiction but I haven’t bothered enumerating them.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

Gollancz, 2015, 408 p. One of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel.

 The House of Shattered Wings cover

The Fallen are impossible. Their bones are far too lacking in density to bear their bodies’ weights, no backbone could possibly support the wings necessary for flight. (Those wings, useless after falling, are then removed. Only the Fallen, Morningstar, founder of House Silverspires, ever wore wings on Earth; but his were artificial and a species of weaponry.) But the Fallen have magic. Their breath and their rendered body parts can be rendered into magic residues. Each individual Fallen has no idea of the reason for having been expelled from heaven, knowing only that no return is possible.

Paris is dominated by Houses, whose heads may be Fallen or human. The Houses have been in uneasy balance since the aftermath of the Great War between them, which the text has beginning in 1914, evoking resonances with our own world, but this is the only date given in the book and the Houses’ war clearly has no parallel with a lengthy stalemate. The balance is upset by the falling of an angel (that is the only word to describe these beings) into the remains of Notre Dame Cathedral where gang members are scavenging. Their attempts to extract magic residues from her body are interrupted by Selene, after Morningstar’s disappearance head of House Silverspires by default, who names the angel Isabelle and takes her into Silverspires as a member and one of the gang, Philippe, an Annamese exile from the Court of the Jade Emperor, as a prisoner of the House. But during the scavenging they had come upon an artefact which contains dark magic intended to undo House Silverspires.

Religion exists in this Paris and appears to be familiarly Christian (and Roman Catholic at that: well, in France it would be) but how this squares with the existence in the human realm of Fallen from Heaven de Bodard keeps from us. Similarly the Fallen have motivations and desires which do not seem different, if at all, to those of humans (whether inside the story or outwith it in our own world.) We spend a lot of early time with Philippe, who is immortal (an unexplained circumstance but seemingly something to do with his Annamese inheritance) but also inhabit the views of Selene, Isabelle and of Silverspires’s alchemist, Madeleine. Crucially though de Bodard hasn’t done enough to engage our sympathies with House Silverspires and its threatened demise in an act of revenge by a former House member, Nightingale, who was betrayed by Morningstar to appease Asmodeus, head of House Hawthorn. It also wasn’t clear from the text whence Nightingale derives the power to do all this. The eventual resolution of Silverspires’s immediate troubles lies within the logic of the world though. There is, too, a running motif about possible resurrection of personalities which is left unresolved, perhaps for future volumes.

The House of Shattered Wings is not one for me, I’m afraid. I’m puzzled as to why people would consider it among the year’s best. It’s more fantasy than SF anyway.

Pedant’s corner:- written in USian, “boats to Asia almost inexistent” (in this sort of context it’s usually “non-existent”,) “his hand loosely wrapped around his handle” (its handle,) maw (de Bodard uses this to mean mouth; it actually means stomach,) ‘“You didn’t use to be”’ (didn’t used to; which appears seven lines below!) Silverspires’ (Silverpires’s, several instances,) ‘“to leave him into my care”’ (in my care,) the sentence, “The fact that she couldn’t have looked more innocent if she’d tried – and God knew Claire was no innocent,” is missing a main clause, “that no-one and nothing was coming to save him” (the “and” means there ought really to be a plural verb here,) “but nothing would leap into the broken mess of his hands – but there was only” (two “buts”?) octopi (the English plural is octopuses, the Greek is octopodes,) “set them at each other’s throat” (there’s only one throat between them?) “Closer, though, it didn’t quite look as impressive” (it didn’t look quite as impressive,) “Apart from that, it looked like a usual plant” (it looked like a normal plant,) ‘“You’re going to chastise me for lacking to do my duty”’ (failing to do my duty; or, being lacking in my duty,) ‘“You knew the rules and flaunted them”’ (that would be flouted, flaunting is something else entirely,) “the shop” (Les Halles) “ had been nuked in the war, and an upstart House had settled in the wreckage, making grandiloquent claims of restoring the art deco building to its former glory,” (nuked? And it can be restored? Any nuke would have destroyed the whole of Paris – and beyond – never mind Les Halles,) overlaid (overlain,) twinging (I had to think about this a second or so before I thought “twingeing”,) smidgeon (smidgen/smidgin.)

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

Hodder & Stoughton, 2015, 239 p. ISBN 9781473617940

 The Book of Phoenix cover

Phoenix is an ABO, an accelerated biological organism, a speciMen. Only two years old, she appears to be forty. Not only that but she is a weapon, forged in LifeGen’s Tower 7; she glows and heats up, destroying all around her. But she rises from the ashes to live again; and grows wings. Later she learns how to slip through time. The only two men she has loved are dead at the hands of her creators. The novel is essentially the story of how she exacts her revenge on those who made her and other speciMen. There is slightly more to it than this though. The tale, a prequel to Who Fears Death, a book I’ve not yet read, is bookended by sections describing how Phoenix’s story was first of all found and, secondly, parlayed into something else, the myth that I assume Who Fears Death is built around.

It did feel to me though to be more of a fantasy than a work of SF.

Pedant’s corner:- rung (rang,) “soothed my skin to no end” (‘to no end’ means without effect; ‘no end’, in the sense of ‘greatly’, was what was intended,) the phenomena (the context suggested phenomenon,) to not get too close (not to get,) sunk (sank; numerous instances – though sank did appear once.) ‘My light shined’ (shone; there were countless instances of ‘shined’ used in this way but only one ‘shone’,) sprung (sprang,) Ok (OK; or Okay [or okay in the middle of a sentence,]) round and about (round about,) albatross’ (albatross’s,) publically (publicly,) to not age (not to age; there were other counts of ‘to not’,) outside of (outside x3,) miniscule (minuscule,) manipulating and flying’ through (an apostrofly has done its work in there, http://www.theguardian.com/comment/story/0,,801364,00.html) ‘saw me as many Arabs saw African slaves over millennium’ (millennia? – or the millennium?) ‘They could monitor control … of who got to read the files’ (monitor control? of? Monitor or control – minus the ‘of’ would surely suffice,) off of (off; just off,) Henrietta Lacks’ (Lacks’s,) plus more than a handful of instances of “’time interval’ later”.

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