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The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Pushkin Press, 2014, 345 p. Translated from the Finnish Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta by Atena Kustannus.

 The Rabbit Back Literature Society cover

After a diagnosis of defective ovaries and a broken engagement Ella Milana has returned to her childhood home of Rabbit Back to take up a post as a substitute teacher. On reading a pupil’s essay where his description of the contents does not match her recollections she discovers on inspecting his copy that odd things are happening to the contents of books in the town. They are becoming plastic, events occur in them that ought not to be there. The local librarian, Ingrid Katz, takes the offending items to destroy them.

Rabbit Back is the home of Finnish literature, author Laura White many years ago having used her fame to recruit a group of talented children – all of whom are now successful in their own right – into the Rabbit Back Literature Society whose membership is one short of its maximum number. Ella’s own literary efforts are rewarded by publication in Rabbit Tracks, a local publication, and attract Laura White’s attention. She is offered that tenth position.

On the night of her inauguration White – in full view of the assembled guests – disappears from her own living room in a whirl of snow never to be seen again and Ella discovers there was an earlier tenth member, which intrigues her – especially when she finds he died in an accident. Membership of the Society is accompanied by a system of challenge known as The Game whereby each member can demand the truth of any question about another member; a reciprocal process known as spilling and the source of many of their stories. Through The Game Ella tries to find out about the original tenth member and what happened to him.

During one of these sessions a fellow member says to her, “‘Where would we be if anything at all could turn up in books?’” that under one reality there’s always another, “And another one under that.” In addition, “Sometimes reality shrivels up and blisters around Laura White” who, incidentally, believed that bacteria on books could alter their contents. Another tells her that everybody knows that “no healthy person would take up writing novels… literature… is mental derangement run through a printing press.”

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a sideways look at the whodunnit, with the aura of fantasy and more than a whiff of literary game-playing to it. Enjoyable stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- tasteless (distasteful, x 2,) she tried to smile broader than before (more broadly,) as an Laura White-trained author (a Laura White-trained,) “‘I had a true natural talent in handling the ball’” (in football it’s playing the ball – unless you’re a goalkeeper; the speaker wasn’t,) out of bounds (similarly, the term is out of play,) spread out broader (again; more broadly,) the jackets on your novels (of your novels is a more natural phrase,) it didn’t even phase me (faze,) overtime (over time.)

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Gollancz, 2014, 307 p

 Wolfhound Century cover

Investigator Vissarion Lom is bobbling along in the regional city of Podchornok seeking out dissidents when he is summoned to the capital city Mirgorod and there tasked with catching a terrorist. The setting is clearly based on Russia, characters have patronymics, the currency is the rouble, distances are measured in versts, the iconography of the cover is Soviet. A secret service head called Lavrentina (Chazia) adds to the impression. But it is a strangely altered Russia, named Vlast, ruled not by a Tsar nor a General Secretary, but by a Novozhd, and perpetually at war with a polity called the Archipelago. Moreover, an Archangel lies imprisoned in the countryside potentially threatening the future but first it has to ensure that the Pollandore, the vestige of an older voice which can undo the Archangel’s vision and is capable of altering reality, is destroyed. Lom has a piece of angel flesh embedded in his forehead “like a blank third eye”, giving him powers to move the air. There are giants.

It is a curious mix. The flavour of the novel is a bit like reading Joseph Conrad, the feel of the society it depicts like late Tsarist era Russia, but there are sub-machine guns. I found the thriller aspect of it to be too conventional, the circles of contact of Lom’s suspects too restricted and their connections too easily uncovered by him but it is an unusual fantasy scenario, all the more welcome for not being based on a mediæval template.

To be sure there is occasional “fine writing” but I’m afraid I lose patience when extra-human powers come into things, although such content may be true to its Russian inspiration. A more major complaint is that the novel didn’t end. An immediate threat was dealt with but the Archangel and the Pollandore were still extant. And quite why it is entitled Wolfhound Century remained obscure. If I see its sequel in one of my local libraries I might pick it up; otherwise, no.

Pedant’s corner:- “He should have waited. Showed his papers.” (Shown,) “his cap pulled down tight down over his forehead (only one down required,) and and (only one and required,) miniscule (minuscule.) “Its not on any map” (It’s,) dikes (USian? dykes,) “broken staithes and groynes” (staithes?) “with the trunk on it back” (its back,) a missing full stop.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

In the omnibus At the Back of the North Wind/The Princess and the Goblin/The Princess and Curdie, published by Octopus, 1979, 166 p (for The Princess and the Goblin.)

George MacDonald Omnibus cover

As a fairy tale (its first three words are “There was once”) this is not my usual fare. I only read it as it was in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books. The title seems a little askew as there was not one goblin in the story but many, who live under a mountain near to the castle where the Princess (who has the very unprincessly name of Irene) lives. She is to be kept away from the forest and hill at night in case she encounters the goblins but her nurse, Lootie, mistakes the time one day and the pair would have been at their mercy but for the intervention of a miner’s son, Curdie. A lot of the tale is in fact Curdie’s as he later ventures into the mines and discovers what the goblins are up to, but several sequences involve the princess’s meetings with a strange old woman claiming to be her great-great grandmother (though on the second meeting she has become young) spinning away in the upper floors of the castle, invisible threads which, Theseus-like, aid the princess and Curdie in the plot’s working-out.

To twenty-first century eyes the demonisation of the goblins stands out. I suppose they are some sort of sexual metaphor – the princess has to be protected from nastiness – and the King is presented as far too noble. Still; it is a fairy tale. A certain degree of simplicity is to be expected.

The king spends most of the time absent, on kingly duties, and I note there is no mother, no queen, to be seen. A perennial trope of the children’s tale is such a separation from parents.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quote, rhymster (rhymester,) horid (horrid,) “The cobs dropped persecuting me and look dazed” (looked,) “they came to the conclusion it had been slain in the mines, and had crept out there to die” (slain implies death; so how could it then have crept out to die?) balnkets (blankets.)

Asimov’s Aug 2016

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Aug 2016 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial1 remembers her introduction to SF via the women superheroes found in comic books and the inspiration she took from them; inspiration she hopes her own daughters will also find. Robert Silverberg’s Reflections2 discusses the software of magic (spells) with regard to ancient Egyptian papyri. Paul Di Filippo’s On Books3 is complimentary about all the books reviewed but especially a reprint of Judith Merril’s critical essays on SF and China Miéville’s This Census Taker (which I reviewed here.)
In the fiction:-
Wakers4 by Sean Monaghan is set on a colonisation starship which has suffered damage to its operating AI and veered off course. Only one crew member at a time is woken to keep things going, passing on the duty at the end of their stint. The latest waker has an idea to change the ship’s fate.
In Toppers5 by Jason Sandford New York has been separated from the rest of the world. Only the tallest skyscrapers provide secure refuges above the mists. Our (unnamed) female protagonist has to walk through the mists to get supplies.
The title of The Mutants Men Don’t See by James Alan Garner of course refers to a celebrated SF story by James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon.) Here a repressed Flash Gene may be activated by some kind of shock during puberty and changes its carrier into a superhero. Menopausal Ellie Lee fears her son will try to force such a change by endangering his life and sets put to protect him. It becomes obvious very early on where this is going. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold a candle to Tiptree.
The “Kit” in Kit: Some Assembly Required6 by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is Christopher Marlowe or, rather, a simulacrum of Marlowe in a computer network. Kit achieves sentience. The slightly clichéd identity of his human “creator” is all that lets this tale down. The best story I’ve read in Asimov’s so far.
Patience Lake7 by Matthew Claxton sees a former cyborg soldier, damaged in an attack and surplus to requirements, hitch-hiking to Saskatchewan and taking odd jobs to try to meet his maintenance costs. But his spare parts could make him valuable himself.
In Kairos8 by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst, a research project has come up with a way to stop telomeres unravelling and hence halt ageing. Our narrator is married to the technology’s discoverer and suffers a crisis of conscience, apparently due to the legacy of her previous marriage. The story depicts scientists as blinkered and philistine. Well, not all of them are ignorant of the humanities.
The title of Sandra McDonald’s President John F Kennedy, Astronaut9 is a trifle misleading as the story is more about the search in an ice-cap melted, flooded future world for an obelisk found by said astronaut but whose existence was subsequently concealed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1(she) learned marital arts (that would be a good thing I suppose but I think martial arts was what was meant,) no pinic (no picnic,) 2 H G Wells’ (H G Wells’s,) 3Karel apek (for some reason misses the capital letter of his surname, Čapek,) 4 “A Masters from .. but on the next line her master’s thesis (if one Masters is capitalised I would think the other ought to be,) 5 lays (lies,) 6loathe (loth or loath; loathe is something else entirely,) 7thirty clicks outside (four lines later; “the last few dozen klicks”,) augur (auger –used previously,) 8“none of them know, none of them have any idea” (none knows, none has any idea,) “so he did he” (has one “he” too many,) 9 blond hair (blonde,) gravitation distortion (gravitational,) “where whales still roamed and tropical reefs covered with dazzling life” (were covered?) “to imagine what must have been like” (what it must have been like,) “great-great-great forbearer” (forebear.)

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Harper, 2015, 526 p plus 1 p Reading Group Questions, 6 p photos of Detroit taken during Beukes’s research and 7 p author interview.

 Broken Monsters cover

Detective Gabriella Stirling-Versado becomes OIC of a bizarre murder case (where half the body of a young teenage boy has been joined to half that of a deer) by virtue of being first on the scene. The story is narrated from several viewpoints each rendered in an urgent stripped down present tense. Some tension is lost by the fact that one of these is that of the murderer but there is no doubt throughout that Beukes is in control. All the viewpoints are compelling and Gabi’s relationship with her daughter, Layla is particularly neatly drawn as, in turn, is her friendship with schoolmate Cas. Along the way Beukes addresses issues of the prevalence, and misuse, of social media, and of sexual harassment.

The circumstances of the murder and the hints that chalk outlines of doors drawn on walls presage occult events notwithstanding, this is a straight enough police procedural thriller until the supernatural elements impinge in force at the climax. This for me was where the novel broke down. It is difficult to register my misgivings without spoilers but the details of the way in which those forces manifest and gain power were beyond my ability to sustain suspension of disbelief.

My main complaint, though, is that any hint of the supernatural is a cop-out. History has shown humans are cruel enough to each other. There is no necessity for an external force to make them so. Buekes can write well – brilliantly even – but I would contend that it is a failure of the imagination rather than its triumph to posit influences beyond humanity as causal factors in demented behaviours.

Pedant’s corner:- jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) “sounds fraught with meaning that don’t have anything to do with her” (with meaning that doesn’t – or; with meanings that don’t,) peering through the grill of an oversized hockey helmet (grille,) “where the skin of the worlds are permeable (the skin is – or; the skins are,) the lay of the land (lie,) a cluster of party people are standing (a cluster is,) the back of his hands are (the back is – or; the backs are,) lay low (lie.) He’s was trying to help. (He was,) and realises her and mistake (realises her mistake,) “she’s terrified that if she opens Gabi’s all her secrets will come flying out,” (opens Gabi’s what?) “A scattering of neon highlighter markers stand out,” (a scattering stands out.)
Plus points for “ten years’ time” though.

Interzone 262, Jan-Feb 2016

Interzone 262 cover

Jonathan McAlmont’s column rails against current SF’s inability to conceive of society freed from the shackles of the market and examines the Quatermass series in the light of how “humanity would rather destroy itself than deal with the ambiguities of change”. Nina Allan muses on the pressures of a writer to produce to order and how unlikely that is to suit every writing style. The Book Zone has an interview with Dave Hutchinson and I review Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan. The fiction has:-
The Water-Walls of Enceladus1 by Mercurio D Rivera. Lily has been infected by an alien virus contracted on an asteroid. Despite the pustules on her body she is still regarded as beautiful by the Wergen, who have given humans advanced technology in return for companionship. Hating other humans reactions to herself she has contracted for a mission on Enceladus with only Wergen for company, Wergen whom she has come to hate. A well enough told story but my sympathies were entirely with the Wergen.
Empty Planets2 by Rahul Kanakia. In a future dominated by The Machine, people can offset the dwindling of their habitats’ prospects by earning shares through performing services or making discoveries.
In Geologic3 by Ian Sales the author calls on his knowledge of deep-sea diving and space exploration to tell the tale of an expedition to the crushingly high atmospheric pressure planet 61 Virginis b and the enigmatic rock structure on its surface. This brought to mindSolaris, except it has a rock instead of an ocean.
Circa Diem by Carole Johnstone is set after an asteroid bypass has caused Earth’s rotation to slow. One group of remnants lives underground, another above, never meeting – until a man from below and a woman from above do.
In A Strange Loop4 by D R Napper a man has been selling his memories to accumulate money to try to rewoo his estranged wife. As a result he doesn’t remember having done so.
Dependent Assemblies5 by Philip A Suggars is set in an alternative late 19th century Buenos Aires run by a homophobic, racist dictator who controls a mysterious substance called lux which can bring inanimate matter to life but does odd things to living tissue. Two male lovers try to use lux to make children from metal and ceramics. Effectively done but a little cursory.

Pedant’s corner:- Stross’ (Stross’s,) Quatermass’ (x2, Quatermass’s.) “But all writers are not the same” (not all writers are the same.) 1Written in USian; one less freak (one fewer,) corner of their eyes (corners,) Enceladus orbited at its greatest distance from Saturn (was orbiting at,) plateaus (plateaux,) providing us a panoramic view (with a panoramic view,) off of, outside of, trying to acclimate myself (acclimatise,) full-fledged (fully-fledged) 2Written in USian; while I laid out on a rock (lay.) 3 Not written in USian but still employs “ass” for arse, “the pilot in their blister” (I dislike this use of the plural for an individual character.) 4leather-bounds books (leather-bound,) Irving held up hand (a hand,) 5 Rojas’ (Rojas’s,) in middle of the night (in the middle of the night,) off of, sat (seated,) were a group (was a group.)

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2015, 352 p.

 The Philosopher Kings cover

Twenty years on from the events of The Just City and its Last Debate following which Athene flew off in a huff taking all but two of the Worker robots with her, our Platonists are still trying to become their best selves but have split into five cities on Kallisti/Santorini/Thera/Atlantis and a further group headed by Kebes/Mathias who sailed off in the ship Goodness to found colonies in the Ægean. The remaining five cities indulge in raiding each other to purloin the city’s art works for themselves. The Philsopher Kings starts off with one of these in which the heroine of the previous book, Simmea, is killed by an arrow. Apollo, in his incarnation as Pytheas, could have prevented her death but she forestalled him. The rest of the novel is preoccupied with Apollo’s search for the reasons why she wanted him to remain in the project without her and a quest for revenge on Kebes whom Apollo thought might be responsible for Simmea’s death and discovers from her journal had as good as (as bad as?) raped her. This gives Walton the opportunity to take us on a sub-Homeric trip round the Mediterranean and to allow those of Apollo/Pytheas’s children who are on the voyage to be imbued with divine powers on the island of Delos. It turns out the Goodness group has started to practice a form of Christianity, centuries before Christ’s life. They rationalise this by saying he is their eternal saviour.

As in the first book the narrative is presented from three viewpoints. Those of Maia and Apollo follow on from it, but, Simmea being dead, the third thread here is as by her daughter by Apollo/Pytheas, Arete (whose name means excellence.) There is much talk of possibly changing history but The Philosopher Kings does not engage as fully with the issues of free will and equal significance as The Just City did.

(Spoiler) There is also a spectacular example of what I can only call a Zeus ex machina towards the end. Granted, in Walton’s scenario the Greek Gods are real but Zeus has heretofore been well offstage and his incorporation seemed a trifle gratuitous.

Maybe this book is suffering from middle-of-trilogy, marking-time syndrome. I’ll still look out for Necessity, the next in the sequence.

Pedant’s corner:- blacksmith (isn’t this technically an iron-worker? We’re in the Bronze Age here, though iron is mentioned in places. The general term for metal-worker is smith.) “Near enough the overhear us” (near enough to.) “The thing they most wanted to discover….. were” (The thing…..was.) A sculpture of a crucifixion describes nails through “his palms and feet”; I believe the Romans actually pinned the nails through the wrists and ankles. Arete’s narrative refers to this as a crucifix but she would not have known that word. We are only told later she can understand all languages. Kebes face (Kebes’s – which appears later.) “‘I don’t want to discuss standing it on the harbor.’” (‘I don’t want to discuss it standing on the harbor.’)

The Lordly Ones by Keith Roberts

Gollancz, 1986, 160 p.

This is a collection of seven stories by one of the best (if not the best) British SF writers of the late twentieth century.

The Lordly Ones cover

The Lordly Ones A man who was “a bit slow” in school finds a job as a lavatory attendant. A war or revolution (the Trouble) breaks out but he keeps the toilets spotless despite there being no infrastructure to sustain him.
Ariadne Potts Sedate bank clerk Henry Potts has a hobby of photographing the garden statuary of stately homes. One day he comes across a most fetching, exquisite nymph whom he wishes to come alive. She does; and then takes over his life. An almost perfect be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.
Sphairistike A subtly told story of our nameless narrator’s relationship to the man behind a tennis playing prodigy, who/which may or may not be an android.
The Checkout One of Roberts’s stories featuring Anita the witch. Here she is intrigued by a supermarket checkout girl whom she helps escape from her restrictions.
The Comfort Station riffs on the same scenario as The Lordly Ones with a woman disrupting the toilet attendant’s existence.
The Castle on the Hoop A ghost story. Or one about someone who can bend time.
Diva A woman singer becomes a world-wide sensation as her voice calms the troubled breasts of her audiences and sparks off outbreaks of peace, love and understanding. Narrated as by the gardener of the Laird of Ardkinross in Argyllshire where she gives her last performance before the powers that be prevail on her to stop. Even the cohorts of the local Minister whose “notices proclaimed the sinfulness of singing, dancing, musicmaking and almost anything else one cared to mention,” are placated. Both Scots and US speech are part represented phonetically, not always entirely convincingly. Note to those of a nervous disposition. The US President at one point says, “Uh ain’t never lynched a nigger yet.”

Pedant’s corner:- “I was suppose” (I was supposed,) “coming up smelling violets” (it’s usually smelling of violets,) “with six whole channels to fill” seems a quaint detail these days, awhile (a while,) “I can only – and your belief isn’t my concern – that I was…” (say that I was,) nobbly roots (knobbly,) James’ (James’s,) whisht (this Scottish imprecation to be quiet is nowadays usually spelled wheesht,) sometning’s afoot (something’s,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means from where,) will-he, nill-he (an unusual rendering of willy-nilly,) the Diva’s bodyguard has a Schmeisser sub-machine gun (in Britain??) Brahmans (usually written Brahmins.)

Asimov’s Science Fiction, Double Issue April-May 2016

Dell Magazines, 192 p.

Asimov's Apr-May 2016 cover

The third issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. In the guest editorial Charlie Jane Anders takes issue with the myth that novels and short stories can’t be written equally well by the same author. In his column Robert Silverberg muses on the possibility that there was not one Trojan War but several, not one Homer but many, writing down their accounts over centuries before it was all drawn into one after Greek script evolved from Phœnician. In the fiction:-
Matilda by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.1 Matilda is a single ship. She likes being piloted by Devi. The feeling is not mutual. Yet in conflict against the CeaWayLaVi they must act in concert.
Three Paintings by James van Pelt. An artist worried about going stale conceives a plan to be backed up, cut himself off from the world, paint and then kill himself, be restored, paint again, kill his new self, and repeat the cycle once more. His commercial partner gets greedy.
In The Days of Hamelin by Robert Reed2 children between the ages of five and eighteen start to die of ruptured arteries. For obvious reasons the virus responsible comes to be known as Hamelin. The few child survivors evolve a mordant philosophy.
The Return of Black Murray by Alexander Jablokov3 sees three former high school friends return to the scene of an incident from their senior year. Black Murray is a giant moray eel; or its simulation. The payoff here does not justify the story’s length.
Starless Night by Robert R Chase is a tale of the response of Earth colonies to invasion from Sagittarius.
Project Synergy by Dominica Phetteplace4 is another of the author’s stories featuring Watcher chips. Here the chip wants to acquire a body of its own, which is highly illegal.
Flame Trees by T R Napper.5 The titular trees are a nostalgic trigger for a war veteran whose memories are about to be wiped for committing an act of violence.
A Flight From the Ages by Derek Künsken6 spans the lifetime of the universe. In 3113 AD a weapon starts to dissolve space-time. Over succeeding multi-millennia efforts are made to escape its expanding wave-front and make the universe into a Klein bottle – all mediated through the experiences of AIs. Very dry indeed.
Of the Beast in the Belly by C W Johnson.7 The belly is that of an arcthant. Nawiz and, Janum, the man she is chasing for revenge purposes, have been swallowed by the huge sea creature. Inside its array of increasingly acidic stomachs exist a number of different societies, scraping a living from the (part) digested contents.
In Woman in the Reeds by Esther M Friesner8 the woman has been feigning madness to avoid the attentions of Pharaoh’s slave overseers and collecting the bones of dead children from the Nile in order to gain the power to restore her own dead son. She refuses the demands of the god Set to hand over a baby she finds floating in a bulrush basket.
Lazy Dog Out by Suzanne Palmer.9 The Lazy Dog is Khifi’s salvage ship. Khifi gets implicated in a plot to take over her habitat and uses the ship to frustrate it. There is an incident here of summary justice (which in my view is never acceptable – even for the supposed good guys. When you think clearly about it, summary justice is no justice at all.)

Pedant’s corner:- 1overlaying (overlying,) 2US spelling of practice and practicing for the verb practise (plus points though for “hanged himself”,) 3vortexes (vortices,) according the Pete (according to Pete,) “The girls squealed satisfyingly and moved closer to me and Myron” (? This would have been difficult. They were in separate boats,) 4terrariums (terraria,) “The long skirt of her skirt grazes the floor” (how about “her long skirt grazes the floor”??) “Often times” (oftentimes is USian I know but isn’t it usually one word?) 5bowls green (USian? we would say bowling green,) 6Poluphemos’ (Poluphemos’s,) Ulixes’ (Ulixes’s,) even less processing sources (even fewer,) 7a pack of sea-jackals were attacking (a pack was,) “with out of his large hands” (with one of his large hands,) Nawiz laid down (lay down,) maw was used here several times: fine; the story takes place inside stomachs, 8Osiris’ (Osiris’s,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) 9locii (loci, or even locuses,) Candles’ (x 3; Candles is one if the characters, so Candles’s – which was used once!) “cut the freighter’s main engines, flipped on the brakers.” (Space-ships have brakes? Which can work when the main engines have shut off?) maw (it’s a stomach; not a mouth,) “behind them in a semicircle was Redrum, Jonjon and Inchbug” (behind them were.)

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

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