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You may have noticed on my “currently reading” sidebar a few days ago the cover of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This was the book which only made it onto the final ballot for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel as a result of Puppygate yet won the award – a first for Chinese Science Fiction.
Shortly to appear on that sidebar is the sequel to that novel, The Dark Forest, also for review in Interzone – a combined review over the two books. (I see that cover has the translator’s name as Joel Martinson. In the text it’s spelled Martinsen.)
These are the first two books in a trilogy properly known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past but popularly known in China as The Three-Body Problem.
My copy of Interzone 260 with its review of Gene Wolfe’s A Borrowed Man came through the letter box a week or so ago.
Posted in My Interzone Reviews at 12:00 pm on 5 September 2015
You may have noticed from my sidebar that I am currently reading James Lovegrove’s “Sherlock Holmes The Thinking Engine“. This is for a review to appear in Interzone 261.
Gollancz, 2014, 320 p. Reviewed for Interzone 255, Nov-Dec 2014.
We know from the epigraph, “You? Better. You? Bête” – attributed to Pete Townshend but given Roberts’s own slant – that we are in for a tale full of word play and allusion; everything from Led Zeppelin lyrics to the riddle of the Sphinx, with nods to previous SF (at one point there is the shout, “Butlerian Jihad!”) as well as Animal Farm.
The novel begins with dairy farmer Graham Penhaligon, who has also trained to butcher his own livestock, having a verbal disagreement with a “canny” cow which does not wish to be slaughtered. This is shortly before such Loquacious Beasts (as the Act has it) are to be legally protected. The encounter makes Graham famous, after a fashion. The advent of speaking animals had come with green activists, “creeping around farms in the dead of night, injecting chips into the craniums (sic) of farm animals.” These bêtes at first spouted authentic sounding phrases, responses of animal rights propaganda, but quickly the chips, by now AIs, develop into something more integrated with their hosts.
It is tempting to find faint echoes in this set-up of Wells’s Dr Moreau but the comparison is too stretched to be truly viable. No vivisection is involved; the chips only have to be ingested to make their way into the host’s brain. Graham reflects that Moore’s Law made this sort of augmentation inevitable but he never believes that the animals are really expressing themselves; it is the computers in their heads doing so. Soon enough bêtes become legal citizens competing with humans for jobs. Along with the almost simultaneous development of synthetic Vitameat, one of the ramifications is that Graham’s farm is no longer viable.
He resorts to a nomadic existence, taking the odd slaughtering job, living (poorly) off the land, his peregrinations bringing him into irregular but recurring contact with Anne Grigson, with whom he falls in love. She has a canny cat, Cincinnatus, which loves its mistress but also exhibits a peculiar interest in Graham.
Graham is prickly from the outset. “Don’t call me Graham,” he tells the argumentative cow – and nearly everyone else whom he meets thereafter. He is especially so with the bêtes he encounters. These internet enabled, wifi-ed animals recognise him instantly, but there is always a hint of menace in it. A shambling incoherent human appears to know Graham but has been chipped; with “higher” animals schizophrenia is the unerring result of such a merger. Dogs, cows, horses are much more suitable.
This scenario gives Roberts scope to comment on humanity’s collective relationship with the biosphere, sometimes through his minor characters, ‘“Animals have feelings and thoughts – it’s just that only now have they been able to bring them out,”’ otherwise through Graham’s thoughts, “Speciesism is more deeply entrenched within us than sexism, and that is deep enough,” “Nature: it’s not nice, it was never nice. Niceness is what we humans built to insulate ourselves from – all that.” Cincinnatus provides the barbed observation, “Misrecognition. It’s what humans are best at.”
At times Bête takes on some of the characteristics of the post-disaster stories associated with British SF of the fifties and early sixties. Also stalking the land and causing AIDS-like panic is the disease, Sclerotic Charagmitis, where mucous membranes scar over, leading to death. The countryside is abandoned to the animals, people huddle together in the larger towns, the regime becomes repressive, but shuts off the wifi too late. There are tales of inter-species war in the north, animals immolated on pyres by the army. In his isolation, Graham does not witness any of this, though.
He makes much of language and his relish of it and notes his is a very English tale. Language is a field, he tells us, and farmers are used to working with fields. A strange aspect of the narrative, though, is its frequent use of archaisms. “And you have brought it me,” wroth, thrice. Sadly, this last appeared only twice.
But Anne dies from cancer, and Graham reflects that the loss of love brings resentment, bitterness, anger, envy. Fair enough, but I don’t quite buy his contention that, for adults, crying is always a performance, intended for an audience. The crux of the novel comes at Graham’s delayed meeting with the leader of the bêtes in the south, an AI in the brain of a very old ewe known (in a piece of somewhat heavy-handed symbolism) as The Lamb, which makes him an offer.
While the essential motor of the plot is that this is a love story, Graham’s relationship with Anne does not come over like a grand passion. Everything is a touch too intellectual; described, not experienced. Bête is good stuff, though, probably enough to ensure Roberts’s usual award nomination.
The following did not appear in the final review.:-
There is reference to a film scene which, though it can be parsed, will only make immediate sense if you’ve actually seen the film. The proof copy I read was absolutely littered with typos, easily averaging one a page. The best of these was “imagining I was in the gondolier of some balloon.” That “gondolier” conveys quite a different image from the one that “gondola” would. We also had “ruptures of the Achilles tension” and riveta for Ryvita. Plus:- lay for lie, apothegms for apophthegms, liquorish (the sweet stuff; not anything to do with alcohol,) and a span.
The latest issue of Interzone (we’re up to 259 now) landed on the mat this week. This contains my review of Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, left, plus a host of fiction including this year’s James White Award winner. Arriving on the same day and mine to review by 15th Aug for Interzone 260 was A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe, the blurb for which is intriguing. I got an “Advanced Reading Copy” (as the industry calls the uncorrected proof) so the cover was somewhat different from the one shown right.
Gollancz, 2014, 270 p. Reviewed for Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014.
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?)
Posted in My Interzone Reviews at 7:39 pm on 5 May 2015
My latest book for review has arrived via Interzone.
Again it is from an author new to me.
It’s called The Freedom Maze and is by Delia Sherman.
The publisher’s blurb for it can be found here.
Titan, 2014, 336 p. Reviewed for Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014.
Koko Martstellar, a former mercenary for big corporations, is now running a brothel and bar on the artificially constructed pleasure archipelago the Sixty Islands, a complex under the auspices of the Custom Pleasure Bureau. When she kills two customers who have stepped out of line it triggers her former superior, Portia Delacompte, Vice President of the Bureau, who has undergone Selective Memory Treatment to allow her to attain membership of that organisation’s board, to seek her arrest, which Koko violently resists. Koko had assumed Delacompte’s patronage would protect her but she now has to flee to the Second Free Zone, a collection of sky barges and arks in low Earth orbit. There follows a pretty standard tale of flight, pursuit by bounty hunters and indiscriminate mayhem.
Crucially, to this reader at any rate, Koko’s predicament was not enough to justify her actions hence from the outset her outlook on life does not engage sympathy.
On the barge Alaungpaya in the Zone Koko meets and teams up with Jedidiah Flynn, an ex-cop, who has been forced to resign as he is suffering from a disease known as Depressus, whose victims, supposedly to avoid them disrupting daily life by random acts of suicide, are required to immolate themselves in a ritual known as Embrace. On Alaungpaya, they throw themselves off the ship to death. All other activities on the ship stop for the process. (Logan’s Run anyone?)
An authorial interjection after the info dump on Depressus gives a flavour of the overall narrative tone, “Ah Depressus. Quite the bitch but it sure does thin the herd.” This is only one example of many off-key notes scattered throughout the book beginning with the infantilised “boywhores” of Koko’s brothel who – for no good reason, except perhaps authorial contempt – speak in pidgin.
The story is set in the 2500s but Shea’s imagined future doesn’t really feel all that futuristic. It does though resemble what might be imagined as a gun-lover’s ideal universe. Flynn reflects on “the added benefit of having a gun on you is people tend to give you a wide berth and show you some respect.” (Of that contention only the wide berth bit might be true.) Delacompte has “nearly forgotten the sublime buoyancy of taking a human life – the confident rush of power,” and in this unpleasant vision of a future shorn of anything akin to politeness or consideration for others, the mercenaries and the bounty hunters drawn from their former ranks take trophies from their victims in a particularly vile manner.
The story is mostly told in short chapters in the present tense. This ought to impart a sense of immediacy but in Shea’s hands falls curiously flat. The one incident which is rendered in past tense is narrated in third person despite supposedly being told by Koko to Flynn. Koko’s expressed revulsion at the crime Delacompte committed is unbelievable here, being totally contrary to the attitudes she has shown up to the point that crime is revealed to the reader.
Most of the info dumping is expressed through supposed newsfeed extracts or adverts for the Sixty Islands and elsewhere is crudely executed. Lazy or unconvincing passages abound. “Luckily for Koko, the building’s architectural design included great bulging bars on each terrace, presenting her with easy leaps between floors.” “Frantically, Delacompte windmills her arms in an effort to forward the last of her momentum. It seems almost to the very last second that she has completely miscalculated her impromptu gymnastics and she’ll now plummet backwards to an ungracious and stupid death. However, her balance steadies and her weight shifts forward. Her hands reach out and grab hold of a coarse edge of sectioned seam in front of her eyes. Delacompte lets out a titter of relief.” (The discerning reader might just titter.) Not one, but two chapters begin, redundantly, with “meanwhile”. And Flynn’s Depressus evaporates rather easily.
Quite what is the purpose of this story is obscure. It fails to illustrate human nature, beyond revelling in that of the conscienceless, murderous psychopath, and seems designed to bolster the thesis that the only means to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But our putative heroine Koko is not one of the good guys; violence is her first resort, not her last. If it is meant as entertainment Koko ought to have a more cogent reason for her actions than merely that she has the means to achieve them. Nor can it be taken as satire. Shea’s tone is too approving for that. This whole farrago reads as nothing but an extended piece of weapons porn.
The following entries for Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-
“lay low” for lie low x 2, “sublimal” for subliminal, “coporate” for corporate, “sizzle” for fizz, “smoothes” for smooths, “caloric” for calorific, “hocks” instead of hawks phlegm, meaningless for meaninglessness, legs akimbo – legs can not be akimbo – “copasetic” for copacetic, veritable.
My review of Beta-Life for Interzone 257 was sent off at the end of January. The issue should be out soonish.
Now arrived for review for Interzone 258 is Impulse by Dave Bara. Book one of “The Lightship Chronicles” apparently. Mr Bara is new to me. There’s an Ancillary Justice/Sword feel to that cover – which is a fair amount to live up to.
Posted in My Interzone Reviews at 12:00 pm on 11 January 2015
My latest review book for Interzone is Beta Life: stories from an A-life future, an anthology dealing with the impact on society of new technologies in computing, which plopped onto my doormat on Hogmanay. My allotted word count this time is 1100, up from 800.
Interzone 256, with my review of Irregularity, another anthology (inspired by the history of Science,) ought to be out soon.