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The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

Irregularity. Edited by Jared Shurin.

Jurassic London, 2014, 303 p. Reviewed for Interzone 256, Jan-Feb 2015.

 Irregularity cover

Irregularity is an anthology of short stories inspired by the history of Science from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries (the back cover invokes the Age of Reason) and intended to coincide with an exhibition, Ships, Clocks and Stars, The Quest for Longitude, at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

To emphasise the “olde” feel the book is printed in a reconstruction of a seventeenth century typeface – though we are spared that italic-f-shape once used for the letter “s”. It has an unusual dedication, “To failure,” plus five internal illustrations adapted from paintings in the Museum’s collection.

The Prologue, Irregularity by Nick Harkaway, which sets the tone, has a woman bequeathed a library in which she finds a book which bears a cover described as similar (to all intents and purposes identical) to the one we are reading, not only relating her life story up to that point but also seeming to tell her future.
In the Afterword, Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring broadly define Science as the search for nature’s laws in order to codify them and ask what happens when things don’t fit. (Answering that last question is actually the most important scientific endeavour.) Irregularity’s contents are about just such attempts to understand the world.

As a coda, positioned after the afterword and which could easily be missed by a less than careful reader, an “email” to the editor comments on the impossibility of a book that loops back on itself.
The authors have interpreted their remit widely, the stories ranging from Science Fiction through Fantasy to Horror. Some could fall under the rubric of steampunk or alternative history. The literary antecedents being what they are it is perhaps not surprising that the majority lean towards the form of journal or diary extracts and epistolary accounts.

And so we have the inevitable pastiche of Samuel Pepys, M Suddain’s The Darkness, set in a steampunk 17th century with radio, telemessages and air defence antenna arrays, where the French are experimenting with Darke Materials, Restoration London has Tunnelcars and Skycars and a Black Fire of nothingness has begun to eat the city.

Of course, encountering well-known names is one of the pleasures of an anthology like this and there are plenty more to conjure with. Two for the price of one in Adam Roberts’s The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle, a piece of Robertsian playfulness in which Boyle has had access to modern physics (even discoursing with Brian May, whom Boyle says Newton resembles) and wishes to preserve the more human cosmogony which Newton’s work will displace. Chock full of allusion – including an extended riff on the “operatic” section of Bohemian Rhapsody – this story might just possibly be too knowing for its own good. Charles Darwin appears in Claire North’s The Voyage of the Basset where we follow him on his second sea voyage, utilising his knowledge of the lycaenidae to ensure nothing can mar the glory of Queen Victoria’s coronation. Ada Lovelace helps produce steam-driven animatronic dinosaurs in Simon Guerrier’s An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought, while Fairchild’s Folly by Tiffani Angus muses on the possible classification of love within a taxonomy via the epistolary relationship between Carl Linnaeus and Thomas Fairchild, who crossed a sweet william with a carnation to produce a sterile plant dubbed Fairchild’s mule. In Kim Curran’s A Woman out of Time unnamed creatures relate how they prevented Émilie du Chatelet from disseminating modern Physics too early. A Game Proposition by Rose Biggin has four women get together once every month to play a game which decides the fate of ships, incidentally giving William Dampier the knowledge to compile his atlas of the trade winds.

The most chilling tale is perhaps Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation, wherein a book-keeper is sent out from London to the island of San Domingue to investigate irregularities in the returns from the plantations there and comes upon the secrets of circulation as discovered by “the wizard Sangatte”.

Elsewhere; in Linnaean era Stockholm a young girl has dreams of the future, inspired by spiders; a maker of maritime clocks, in competition with Harrison for the Longitude prize, uses a variety of gruesome fluids to fine tune his escapement; a taxonomist travels to Southern Africa to seek out unusual beasts and finds the egg of a creature variously called gumma, gauma, gomerah, ghimmra, sjeemera; a found manuscript story with not one, but two introductions, suggests a reason for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after London’s Great Fire on a realigned axis; an artist and his apprentice, commissioned to depict an anatomy lesson, witness the subject’s heart beating after death.

The stories work well in their own terms, but in totality are rather relentlessly “olde worlde”.

The following comments did not appear in the review:-
In my edition one of the stories was not in the order given on the Contents page.
Span count 1, sunk 1, as you no doubt you anticipated (one “you” is enough,) off of (x 2,) rolled a dice (a die,) court-marshalled (court-martialled,), the committee force me to seethe (forced,) at prices that seems almost scandalous (seemed,) her voice is a echo (an echo,) baster gang (?) a missing “it” (x 2,) two references to “three years” since the Great Fire of London (in diary entries dated 1667,) now used now (one “now” is enough,) can secret a substance (secrete,) they toppled the lids of those wooden prisons and relased their cargo (released,) I might find pick my way back through the canes back to the house (no find?) in sight of one of another (one “of” is enough,) walleyed with lust (wall-eyed,) inside of (inside,) to humour and old man (an old man.)

Top Ten Space Operas

Another list.

According to Wikipedia “Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.”

Partly as a comment on the sub-genre and also as an attempt to subvert it I provided my own novel A Son of the Rock with the tagline “A Space Libretto” mainly because – while it roamed the spaceways and deployed technology – advanced abilities and weapons were largely, if not completely, absent.

As to Space Opera itself, Gareth Powell has posted a list of what he considers a Top Ten of Space Operas on his website. It leans heavily towards relatively recent works.

As you can see I’ve read all but three of them.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Space by Stephen Baxter
Excession by Iain M. Banks

A Double Shadow by Frederick Turner

Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979, 252 p.

A Double Shadow cover

I picked this up at the same time as The Infinite Cage. It’s of similar vintage.

A Double Shadow is Turner’s only SF novel. He was (is?) mainly a poet.

The book is a strange one, discursive and at times dense, quite often telling rather than showing, to the detriment of characterisation. The main body of the novel is set on a terraformed Mars, with its smaller moon Phobos turned into an auxiliary sun. Here, humanity is divided into Normal humans and the Bloods or Cocks among whom there are three sexes (one hermaphroditic.) The set-up before this is strange, though, being a foreword narrated by a man during the time in which the terraforming is taking place who tells us he is the author of the subsequent novel – into which he occasionally interjects his authorial presence.

The internal novel has characters with names like Chrysanthemum, Narcissus, Hermes and Cleopatra but these do not seem to signify anything. As to the plot, at a theatre performance Narcissus is insulted by some remarks about his performance that he and others hear Michael has made to his wife Snow. The upshot is that a “status war” is declared between the two, where they have to go around gathering support to undermine the other’s position. To this end Michael and Snow climb Olympus Mons (here called Nix Olympica, as it used to be before Mariner 9 showed it was a volcano) while Narcissus and Cleopatra cruise the Martian canals. There is a thesis to be written about the attraction SF writers have for both of these endeavours – especially the canals. That notion seems to have become so embedded into the human collective psyche that it must have expression on every possible occasion.*

In the volcano’s caldera Michael and Snow meet the goddesses who rule Mars in the sense of umpires. One of these, Aphrodite, intervenes in the status war to tragic effect.

The final climactic Cockfight is almost literal – the antagonists strap on wings and spurs and hack at each other – and occurs in the Great Canyon of Coprates, more usually known nowadays as Valles Marineris.

File this one under historical curiosity.

*Mea culpa. My first published story The Face of the Waters centred on the construction of such canals and the possibility of climbing the volcano. When I questioned him (apropos his “Plenty” books) on this general need for there to be canals on Mars Colin Greenland said, “It’s the best bit.”

Best of 2012

Vector, Spring 2013

Last week the latest edition of Vector, the review journal of the BSFA, dropped through the letter box.

The spring issue is traditionally the one where its reviewers say which books most impressed them in the previous year.

I was a bit surprised, then, to find Ian Sales including my novel A Son of the Rock in his list. It was after all published in 1997.

He says it’s, “the sort of character-led, considered and very British SF which rarely seems to be published these days.”

That’s going straight onto the “Praise for A Son of the Rock” part of the Buy My Book page in my sidebar.

I know Ian only read the book recently – he reviewed it here, in a post published in January this year, but his review wasn’t overly extravagant.

I am therefore now extremely chuffed.

Politics in SF

There was an interesting article by Adam Roberts in yesterday’s Guardian Review about the two contrasting political strands in SF.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find it on the Guardian website – neither by searching for Adam Roberts nor for, “Who owns the political soul of SF” (Yes, the article’s title did have a missing question mark.) It is probably there somewhere, though.

By and large the article focused on the differing attitudes to the “other,” taking as its exemplars of either breed, Iain M Banks and Robert A Heinlein. (Ever since I worked out his political allegiances – see below – I always perversely liked to think of him as Roberta Heinlein as I’m sure that would have annoyed him.)

The gist of Roberts’s piece was that lefty SF tends to be inclusive and heterogeneous on encountering the alien, whereas right wingers reach for the ammunition. (I paraphrase, but not much.)

Aside:-
I remember well reading Heinlein’s short story The Roads Must Roll wherein as the principal mode of travel people are conveyed by moving walkways. Those who work on the system throw a spanner in the works. Heinlein overstates the case by making this sabotage rather than something more peaceful and, as the story’s title suggests, comes down firmly on the side of the owners and users. Despite Heinlein’s intentions, while I was reading it my sympathies were fully on the side of the workers who to my mind were being exploited. I realised then that as far as Heinlein would be concerned there was something wrong with me, I was less than human. My dignity (and those of honest toilers) did not compare with his dignity.

In my own novel A Son of the Rock the narrator, Alan, shockingly encounters the “other” in the shape of an old man. At first frightened, he eventually embraces the strangeness and makes it his own

Clearly, in Roberts’s dichotomy, Alan was (will be? – it is SF after all) – and I am – a leftist.

Sorry about that.

Patrick Moore

So sad to hear the news of the death of Patrick Moore.

I watched the latest episode of The Sky At Night only a week or so ago and he did look frail. It has been obvious for many years now that Chris Lintott was being lined up to take over the presentation duties but Patrick will be sorely missed.

He was one of Britsh TV’s glorious eccentrics – who else in the modern world wore a monocle? – and as well as his scientific credentials he could play a mean xylophone.

His long and productive life was overshadowed by sadness as his fiancée was killed during WW2 by a German bomb and he didn’t wish to settle for what he would have considered “second best.”

As a child I may have been aware of him as a late-night TV presenter (his record for continuously hosting a show will surely never be surpassed) but I certainly remember reading his Science Fiction – from that Children’s Section at Dumbarton Library accessed down the external stairs – where, along with the SF of Captain W E Johns (yes, the author of Biggles; whose WW1 adventures led me to other books coming from the same hands) I gained my introduction to the genre. Blame the pair of them.

Patrick must almost single-handedly have contributed to several generations of British astronomers taking up their trade and won a new set of admirers when he appeared on GamesMaster which is where my own sons came to know him well.

I have a particular debt to him myself as I drew on one of his astronomy books, which contained a reasonably detailed map of Mars that I found fascinating and invaluable, for the background of my first published story, The Face of the Waters.

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, CBE, FRS, FRAS: 4/3/1923-9/12/2012. So it goes.

The Company He Keeps edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers:- update

PS Publishing, 2010. 394 p.

I have progressed halfway through this collection (in which appears my own story Osmotic Pressure) but have laid it down temporarily as I have more time to devote to longer works when I am on holiday. I will review it in full later.

Narration: 1st vs 3rd person

In Saturday’€™s Guardian Margaret Drabble made a comment that she gave up first person narration after three novels because she came to think it a lazy form.

This is (or was) apparently a general view among the literati, that third person narration was more literary, more legitimate, that first person was less worthy, but it’€™s not one I ever shared.

I declare an interest here. Most (if not all) of my published works have been in the first person.

I do make one claim to distinction, though. I am one of the very few people to have written a piece of fiction in the first person plural. That story was This Is The Road, in the anthology New Worlds 3, Gollancz, 1993 – nominated for the BSFA award 1994 – which was also published in translation as “Le Chemin D’Eternité,” in Cyberdreams 7. The only other instance I recall of the use of “we” in a narrative sense was in one of Primo Levi‘s books (for shame, I forget which) about his experiences in the concentration camps.

Granted, third person gives insight into the inner life of all the characters and enables us to know them in the round but all we are told is vouchsafed to us by the author, who by definition knows everything about the character. That can present a problem, for it means that the author has to choose not so much what to tell us but instead what to leave out, or else overburden us with information.

Consider now the first person narrative. Except for the viewpoint character, everything we as readers know about all the other characters in the book is not what is known to the author – who is still omniscient I need hardly add – but merely what is known to the narrator. Everything the reader needs to learn has to be revealed by the narrator’s interactions with, or observations of, the other characters and cannot be told to us directly. To my mind, far from being lazy, that is a much harder act to bring off successfully than merely entering a character’€™s head whenever convenient. This difficulty is perhaps heightened when the chosen first person narrator is unreliable.

In this regard, I would submit that the use of multiple viewpoints each of whom is a first person narrator, while providing a more complex narrative, is a form of cheating.

From her last sentence (see above link) Drabble seems to have altered her view. “It’s the straight true line that’s hard.”

Welcome (back) to the club.

Osmotic Pressure

Osmotic Pressure is the story I had published recently. Along with everyone else in Postcripts 22/23 I’ve been reviewed. Since Postcripts 22/23 contains a lot of stories you have to scroll down a fair way to find the bit dealing with “Osmotic Pressure” which ends with, “It’s a good story in terms of character development.”

I sense a “but” after that sentence. I’m happy with it, however. Character development ought to happen in a story. I like to think it’s what I do with my fiction. A strength if you will.

I also recently received my latest mailing from the BSFA which contained their review magazine Vector, wherein was relayed the information that nominations for the BSFA Award are now open.

This is as good a place as any to remind people that Osmotic Pressure is eligible in the short story category.

There is apparently a new rule this year that you ought not to nominate yourself. Would people do such a thing? Tut, tut.

But….

Should any members of the BSFA feel so inclined they know what to do.

Nominations close on 14/1/11.

I’ll shortly start reading some eligible novels with the awards in mind.

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