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And Another…

 Revenger cover

A proof copy of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds landed on my door mat last week.

It’s the latest book I’ve received from Interzone for review purposes.

I must confess it was a bit of a surprise as, though I had expressed interest in reviewing it, I thought I was in line for a different book altogether. No complaints though.

The review is due in before the end of the month and is scheduled to appear in issue 266 shortly thereafter.

I’ll need to get reading it then…..

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Corsair, 2015, 267 p. Reviewed for Interzone 259, Jul-Aug 2015.

The Freedom Maze cover

It is 1960 in New Orleans. Eleven year old Sophie Martineau is descended from the once grand Fairchilds and through her mother she has inherited the distinctive Fairchild nose. The family owned the Oak River plantation in Louisiana but has now fallen on harder times. Her mother is still fiercely proud of her heritage though, refers to the War of Northern Aggression, has inculcated in Sophie a suspicion of black men and feels herself to be a Southern Belle. Sophie’s failure to live up to her mother’s standards of dress, tidiness and deportment is, then, a source of friction. To add to Sophie’s woes, her parents are divorced and her father has married again. Her mother always harboured suspicions about her ex-husband’s background – muttering darkly about a “touch of the tar brush” – has now had to get a job and has also signed up to train in accounting. To allow time for this Sophie must go to the ancestral home to be looked after by her aunt and grandmother for the summer. The signs saying “coloreds only” at a stopover and references to Negroes “the polite term” remind (or perhaps inform – this is a YA novel) the reader of the legacies of slavery.

At Oak River the former Big House is disused and the maze is in some disrepair. Sophie’s only solace is a book of adventures featuring teenagers who travel back in time. Wishing to be anywhere else she explores the maze one day and hears a voice in her ear. This is a trickster she calls The Creature, which later surprises her swimming in a pool and tells her he “sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, was and will be, here and there.” At her request it manifests itself; as an odd looking podgy mammal with deer’s ears. After one more altercation with her visiting mother she tells the Creature she wants to travel in time herself. The Creature obliges. The bulk of the novel deals with the consequences as Sophie finds herself on the Fairchild estate in 1860, mistaken for a slave sent up from New Orleans by estate owner Charles’s brother Robert. The spoilt daughter of the estate, Elizabeth Fairchild, is immediately antagonistic towards her but her parents Mr and Mrs Charles Fairchild are less mistrustful and Sophie is given household duties to perform. In following these we are treated to a rather heavy-handedly written conversation about the likelihood of war with the North. Sophie swiftly falls ill and is allowed even lighter duties in order to recover. While in her delirium she hears a conversation between the Creature and a spirit called Papa Legba (who saves her from dying) about the dangers of travelling in time without preparation.

It must be said that, after initial incomprehension at not being recognised as white, Sophie slips very easily into the life of a slave, learning deference quickly and adopting slave speech patterns. It is in this context that the novel strikes a note that seems slightly off. Yes, the Fairchilds are “good” slave owners, though the overseer Mr Akins is not so reticent in this respect, but even if the prospect of a whipping is never far off the slaves’ conditions do not come over as being as grim as might be expected. Similarly the one whipping Sophie does eventually receive does not read as being as devastating. Sherman does highlight other gritty aspects of 1860 life, sanitary protection for instance is very rudimentary.

What plot there is kicks in when Elizabeth’s suitor Beaufort Waters casts his roving eye – not to mention hands – on the slave girl Antigua. It is here that the Creature’s purpose in bringing Sophie back in time is fulfilled. Sophie’s resourcefulness and the usefulness of a Fairchild nose are instrumental in the resolution of Antigua’s situation.

In all of this any fantastical elements are scant. The intervention by Papa Legba could be interpreted as an hallucination induced by Sophie’s illness and the time travel is merely a black box. There is nothing speculative about it, no mechanism for it. It just happens. Sherman merely uses it as a device to precipitate Sophie’s consciousness into the nineteenth century. Her purpose is to tell a story set in the slavery era and to seek to make it relevant to modern times. In this she succeeds well enough. In the end, though, there is as little sense of true jeopardy in Sophie’s sojourn in the past as there was in the stories she so enjoyed in 1960. And it does seem rather to belittle the subject matter to make an overt comparison between freedom from slavery and throwing off parental shackles.

The following did not appear in the review:-
Pedant’s corner: up and moved (upped and moved, surely?) there was horrified gasp (a horrified gasp,) you should look out after her better, Lolabelle morphs to LolaBelle and back again, mistress’ (mistress’s,) “who lived in all the way up in” (who lived all the way up in,) lookingglass (looking glass,) her effort must have showed (shown,) bit (bitten,) made up of several man (men,) Mama appeared the garden entrance.

Latest Interzone Stuff

 The Paper Menagerie cover
 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

On Monday morning Interzone’s issue 264 dropped through the letter box. This one contains two of my reviews, a normal length one of Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories and a shorter one of City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Meanwhile, waiting for me on my return from the continent was a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, review to be delivered by the end of the month.

Impulse by Dave Bara

Book One in The Lightship Chronicles. Del Rey, 2015, 384 p. Reviewed for Interzone 258, May-Jun 2015.

 Impulse cover

When the Carinthian crewed and commanded Lightship Impulse is attacked by a hyperdimensional displacement wave with the “flame of a thousand suns,” newly graduated Quantar navy officer Peter Cochrane’s commission on the Starbound is cancelled and he is reassigned to the Impulse. Carinthia and Quantar are former enemies now in alliance against the old Empire and, possibly, the mysterious Sri – whose biggest demerit is to have “no spiritual beliefs.” Cochrane is the last scion of an aristocratic Quantar family, and has secret orders to protect the Impulse as a Quantar asset. The night before taking up his assignment Cochrane encounters Carinthian Commander Dobrina Kierkopf. We know where this is going when the two fence. Literally.

The tonal qualities of all this are decidedly retro. Most of it would not have been out of place in SF written sixty years ago. In harmony with those times the prose barely rises even to the workmanlike, the characters are mainly out of central casting and it feels as if no military story cliché is left unvisited. Contrastingly there is a nod to more modern norms with the presence of female navy officers – senior ones at that – but the story’s sexual politics remain iffy. When one of Cochrane’s fellow graduates “patted a serving girl gently on the bottom,” she then, “turned and smiled back at him.” There is, too, a squeamishness round the subject of sexual encounters. Of a former relationship Cochrane tells us, “things had taken their natural course to greater intimacy.” The narration makes much of Impulse’s sumptuous interiors, wooden doors and library shelves stacked with leather-bound books, but then some of the books turn out to be virtual. While Cochrane is supposed to have been “the best” at the Academy, we are given little evidence of his ability; he seems more to muddle through.

Bara does try to differentiate his two allies linguistically, Quantars are roughly British, Carinthians presumably US. The word football is used in the British sense, there are references to bitter, arses and the interjection, “Bollocks!” but also the transatlantically confused phrase, “that goddamned Wesley’s a pillock.”

Bara’s Lightships’ propulsive system is the hyperdimensional Hoagland drive. In one of the continuity errors littering the text Cochrane tells us on setting foot on Impulse that he always knows he’s on a ship with a functioning Hoagland Field, but then later tells us when it gets switched on. Another occurs when Cochrane, having himself been left in command, seems to have forgotten the secret orders and leaves the Impulse in control of the ship’s Earth Historian. (Don’t ask.) Yet no blame attaches itself to him when the Impulse is duly hijacked through a jump gate – by the very man whom we were earlier shown Cochrane had to work hard to persuade to take over.

There is no real sense of a story arc. The pursuit of Impulse is diverted by a diplomatic interlude in the Levant system and the discovery of a Founder Relic. These are suddenly revealed to be objects of desire for which any other mission is to be sacrificed. Yet (spoiler) this one is let go to the enemy.

The info dumping is intrusive and ad hoc. Whenever a piece of equipment is required it is always handy and its utility immediately explained. It is difficult to resist the notion that Bara is making it all up as he goes along. He has also yet to learn the virtues of economy. Among others we have the extraneous, “with that we were off,” and, “‘Get me the vector marks to the target.’ I did as instructed,” plus the impossible, “before I knew it I was at my room.” Moreover, “One thing I was always told about open space EVA, don’t look down.” Down? In open space? And while I know what Bara means, does the construction, “She shook her head negatively,” actually make sense?

There is a liberal sprinkling of self-defeating techno-bollocks. An anti-graviton field “theoretically nullifies the effects of gravity within the field’s range, separating matter at the sub-atomic level.” How, pray, could the first part of this assertion possibly achieve the second? And, high-amped laser energy can be produced and projected by mixing chemicals? Not a chance.

The “sore thumb” intrusion of a paragraph on the joy of reading highlights Bara’s shortcomings. He’s not done enough of it. At least not widely. Notwithstanding the phrase “tactics of mistake” Bara’s inspiration seems less to be written antecedents and more the likes of Star Trek. Impulse shares that programme’s delusion that senior officers would routinely place themselves at risk by leaving their ships.

As thoughtless adventure stuff Impulse is fine. If that’s all you want from your SF.

The following comments did not appear in the review:-
Pedant’s corner:- Drink kills brain cells. Does it? Someone is subjected to a 50,000 volt stun gun attack and walks away! A sunk (sank,) ambiance (ambience,) practise as a noun, lasagna (lasagne,) shined (shone.)

For Interzone 265

 Extinction cover
 City of Blades cover

Extinction by Japanese author Kazuaki Takano has landed on my doormat. This is for review in Interzone; to appear in issue 265, Jul-Aug 2016. Mr Takano is another author new to me.

Attentive readers may have noticed I have not yet blogged about City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett which I read in February. This is because a shortish review will be published in Interzone’s issue 264 (May-Jun 2016) along with the more usual length review of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie.

Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life future edited by Martin Amos and Ra Page

Comma Press, 2014, 390 p. Reviewed for Interzone 257, Mar-Apr 2015.

 Beta Life cover

This anthology is an unusual endeavour in which each of the nineteen stories (all set in the year arbitrarily chosen by the editors, 2070) has an afterword written by a scientist researching in the field of the main topic the particular story covers. These collaborations arose from an initial meeting between authors and scientists at the 2013 European Conference on Artificial Life. The authors’ brief was to follow the research into the future, rather than reflect purely on current concerns.

The editors’ introduction to all this first suggests that, due to entropy, complexity and futurism don’t mix, the world becomes ever more complex and less capable of being encompassed by story, before arguing that the notion of the individual saves the day, the protagonist – against surrounding circumstance – is the essence of all stories, the short form of fiction being the most capable of encompassing putative futures.

Be that as it may (and it might misunderstand entropy,) a collection stands or falls on its components and must transcend the bittiness engendered by its varying subject matter. A themed collection even more so. The possibility of cohesion is complicated here by the scientists’ contributions. There is a further mental leap involved in travelling from fiction to fact and back again. The thread is occasionally broken and though the essays are themselves informative enough they do not necessarily illumine the stories they accompany. Each is referenced as in a scientific paper – though in footnotes, except in the one case which followed the more usual practice of an appendix. Then there was the odd editorial decision to have three stories in a row having scientists as parents being an important aspect of the narrative.

It is perhaps in the nature of the premise that ideas and themes may recur, so what in general does this brave new world of 2070 have in store for us? Well, if it’s not synthetic biology or enhanced means of social control then in the main, it would seem, it is robots – or to be more precise, robotic objects, small machines dedicated to particular tasks.

We start strongly with The Sayer of the Sooth1 by Martin Bedford where an inhabitant of 2070 looks back at, and criticises, a Science Fiction story written by his great-grandfather wherein lie-detecting technology is embedded in contact lenses. Robin Yassim-Kassab’s Swarm2 dwells on the possibilities for social control of nanobot sized AIs. Growing Skyscrapers3 by Adam Marek is a tale of the scientists behind the semi-organic buildings of the title and the people who live in the rogue results grown from stolen seeds.

The Loki Variations by Interzone’s own Andy Hedgecock envisages a new computer game so immersive it changes people’s attitudes to, for want of a better term, “the underclass” – and leads to revolution. In Everyone Says4 by Stuart Evers linking of brains to provide direct empathic experience has been monetised but induces dependency on the linker and imposes increasingly debilitating psychic drag on the linkee.

The seemingly ubiquitous Adam Roberts gives us A Swarm of Living Robjects Around Us5 wherein a man lies down and dies on entering his home despite (or is it because of?) the plethora of living robotic objects it houses. There is more than an echo of Ballard about the ending to this story – and not only due to its mention of a swimming pool. In Annie Kirby’s Luftpause people have been imbued with a prophylactic against a deadly disease with the consequence that they leave pheromone trails behind them – but there are still dissidents.

The main futurism of The Quivering Woods6 by Margaret Wilkinson is driverless cars – which frustrate the protagonist more than assist him. Appearing too are holographic simulations but everything is tied round a rather conventional story about infidelity. In Certain Measures7 by Sean O’Brien crowd “control” techniques have become so precise they can be used to engineer deaths to provide a political excuse for banning large scale protests. (In this case might we perhaps be forgiven for thinking this sort of thing has happened already?)

Julian Gough’s Blurred Lines8 has a long washed-up pop star so mired in degradation that he resorts to hiring out his brain (for use at times when he is asleep) to a mathematician. He does it as cheaply as possible so the safeguards are ignored. Given his condition it did feel a touch unlikely that he would then come to feel the way he does about his hirer, an elderly woman called Jane; or indeed anyone. Synthetic biology is all-pervasive in The Bactogarden9 by Sarah Schofield. Our protagonist uses it to repair buildings while her former schoolfriend earns much more by constructing customised restaurant dishes.

In Keynote10 by Zoe Lambert two scientists experiment using implants on their own children to create a group mind. The story is delivered by one of the children as if in a symposium lecture. Lucy Caldwell’s The Familiar has another pair of scientists form a company to build an eye-controlled flying dragon to give their handicapped son the experience of freedom. In Making Sandcastles by Claire Dean two more parents conspire to use their (unlicenced) Maker to change things in a society where use of such personal fabricators is reserved to the elite.

Dinesh Allirajah’s The Longhand Option11 features household robots as a commonplace, and a device called a Megastylus speeds – and draws – a writer’s thoughts onto the page. It doesn’t help with the writers’ block though. In Fully Human by K J Orr the discovery of mental organs has led to people opting for more logic rather than empathy and compassion.

Joanna Quinn’s The War of All Against All12 is very Cold War in feeling. A condemned man is used as a processor of metadata to try to locate those who have dropped out of the system. He tries to maintain his humanity even so. Bruno Wins!13 by Frank Cottrell-Boyce has a man create unfulfillable expectations of a new robot cleaning system. His dog equally inadvertently puts, not a spanner, but hair in the works. Lastly Toby Litt’s A Brief History of Transience is narrated by a disseminated consciousness which lingers through the decay of the house in which its original once lived.

Each of the stories in Beta-Life has its merits but some of the developments envisaged in the fiction seem likely to come about long before 2070 and others will perhaps never see fruition. But that was ever the condition of SF.

Pedant’s corner:- These comments did not appear in the published review:-

1The 2070 sections are told in an apostrophe-less style for possessives and contractions – dont, hes, Logans – but not consistently.
2 uses the horrible construction “X metres squared” instead of “X square metres”.
3 laying for lying
4 a character’s name morphs from David Collins to Robert Collins and back.
5 miniscule (minuscule)
6 punctuation is all over the place.
7 a car’s index number? her’s?????
8 Champion’s League (Champions)
9 smoothes (smooths,) borne from for born from.
10 multidimentional (multidimensional,) Lamdda calculus (Lambda,) sooth for soothe.
11 this for his
12 full-body dilapidation laser machines???? (I suspect depilation was meant,) Rhianna (the context suggested Rihanna)
13 “compliment” where “complement” made more sense.

The Paper Menagerie (and other stories)

 The Paper Menagerie and other stories cover

My latest review book for Interzone has arrived.

It is a book of stories by US author of Chinese descent, Ken Liu. The collection is called The Paper Menagerie and other stories. The review is to appear in Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

Despite his award winning status (US SF awards for short fiction tend to pass my attention by) I was not previously familiar with Liu’s work in his own right but he did translate Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem which I reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015, in conjunction with Cixin Liu’s follow-up The Dark Forest (though that was translated by Joel Martinsen.) That joint review will appear here in due course.

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.)

For Interzone 262

 Occupy Me cover

The latest book from Interzone for me to review arrived a few days ago.

It is Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan.

My thoughts on previous examples of Sullivan’s work can be seen here, here and here.

The review of this one ought to appear in Interzone 262.

Interzone Reviews

 The Three-Body Problem cover
 The Dark Forest cover

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.

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