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Interzone 264 May-Jun 2016

Interzone 264 cover

Jonathan McAlmont1 discusses Claire Vaye Watkins’s Good Fame Citrus on the way to concluding that capitalism is similar to a cult. Nina Allan examines film adaptations of J G Ballard novels. In the Bookzone I review Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.
In the fiction:-
Starlings2 by Tyler Keevil is couched in the form of a recorded message from a mother to her child, Colum, who is one of the special children designed to leave an Earth doomed to a runaway greenhouse effect by the malfunction of the supposed remedy, the Hadron-Karensky Reactor, for a new start on another planet. Elegiac and
From the (almost) sublime to the hard to credit. Breadcrumbs3 by Malcolm Devlin posits an apartment block and a city suddenly overwhelmed by plant outgrowths and people beginning to change into animals. All of these could merely be the imaginings of viewpoint character Ellie, though.
James van Pelt’s Mars, Aphids, and Your Cheating Heart4 is told from the perspective of a God, who is addressed as “you.” Otherwise the only science-fictional elements it contains are mentions of an ice sheet on Pluto and the movement of a dust grain on Mars (with subsequent avalanche). The story is about a private eye who warms to the subject of his investigation.
Lifeboat5 by Rich Larson. Like many others before it the planet Lazy Susan is threatened with destruction by “synthetics”. A man who helps “rescue” inhabitants from these situations (for money) is faced with a dilemma over rescuing a woman carrying an unusual hybrid fœtus.
The Tower Princesses6 by Gwendolyn Kiste. The titular princesses – whose means of selection are obscure, the process is said to happen overnight – are caged (in materials of various sorts) and have to negotiate life within their restriction. Narrator Mary falls for one of them. The metaphor here is a little overstrained.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Watkins’ (Watkins’s,) “a group of activists are trying to convince” (is trying,) “the group positions itself on the edge of the dune sea and rearrange their vehicles” (“group” agrees with the first verb and not the second, “itself” is not in agreement with “their” so; rearranges its vehicles.) 2birth is used as a verb, anaesthiologist (that would be an anaesthetist, then.) Less respiratory problems (fewer,) “He told me ‘It doesn’t matter now’.” (That should be “He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter now.’”,) phased (fazed.) “He had not wept or showed any sign of emotions (nor shown.) 3”from the where she had lain” (no “the” required,) jimmy open (jemmy,) 4Written in USian – ladybug, sidewalk, skeptical, on the weekends, check (for cheque,) behavior – plus a “soundless avalanche” on Mars (Mars has an atmosphere; there will be sound,) “He must been shot” (must have been,) Tiggs’ (Tiggs’s,) cracks the entire length (cracks [along] its entire length.) 5Written in USian; “poofy” in the sense of voluminous (a usage I had never come across before. It’s not the first meaning that occurs to a Briton.) “That thing is not going to breach right.” (In the context of a birth; so “breech”?) ‘I’m smelling alkaline and vomit’ (alkaline is an adjective [cf acidic,] the noun is alkali.) 6Written in USian.

A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

Tor, 2015, 300 p. Reviewed for Interzone 260, Sep-Oct 2015.

The Borrowed Man cover

The author carved out a well-regarded space for himself in the 1980s and 90s as a purveyor of quality high fantasy as in the various books of the New, the Long and the Short Suns, essayed a novel take on the unreliable narrator in his Latro in the Mist novels, made the occasional foray into detective/murder stories such as Pandora by Holly Hollander, and has also published various stand-alone books each with his own distinctive stamp, but in his previous output hasn’t produced all that much in the way of straightforward SF. A Borrowed Man goes some way to altering that – but only some way – in that it has an impeccable Science Fictional premise in the shape of its narrator.

That narrator is Ern A Smithe, who is a reclone, having the consciousness of a long dead author housed in a new version of his body, as a resource on a shelf in a library. Not legally human, fixed so as not to sire children, he can be consulted or even borrowed, but if he is not, then he will eventually be discarded and burned. He thinks real humanity has retired. For this is a world much diminished in population, with inhabitants who advocate further reductions; and reclones stand out. In this future society people with disabilities are kept out of sight to avoid troubling the rest and what was the US is (to us) an unrecognisable set of fragment states. However, as well as the reclones, there is advanced tech aplenty, voice controlled cars and aircraft, robots of varying degrees of intelligence, but despite the ubiquity of screens, books still exist – and inter-library loans, for clones as well as books.

Smithe is checked out of Spice Grove Public Library by Colette Coldbrook, whose father and brother are dead and who is the heiress to the estate. Smithe’s original was the author of Murder on Mars, a book which formed the only contents of Conrad Coldbrook Snr’s safe and which holds a secret. Both the Coldbrook men have been murdered and Colette thinks Smithe might know what that secret is. He doesn’t, but he sets about finding out.

In what follows there is a degree of toing and froing across the country which, however, does not display many differences from at present; there are still for example bus stations and cross-country buses, on one of which Smithe takes up with a pair of misfits, Georges and Mahala, whose talents he makes use of.

The action keeps returning, though, to the Coldbrook house, where the murders took place. It is run by robots and has a mini nuclear reactor on one of the locked upper floors. There is also a door one step through which takes Smithe to an alien world, light years away, peopled by strange, stick-like creatures and with menacing things coming out of the sea. This shimmer of SF gloss, while it does contribute to the plot, seems at odds with the rest of the story which has much more in common with the hard-boiled thriller. For, if the streets Smithe walks down are not exactly mean, Wolfe has certainly not forgotten Chandler’s Law; the one about having a man come through the door with a gun, even if this gun does have a strange trumpet shape. Encounters with the police, and a confrontation with a man who is on his tail only heighten the film noir impression.

Frequently nowadays it can almost seem obligatory, but time was the SF detective story was a stunted beast; neither of the strands marrying well. In those terms A Borrowed Man just about falls on the right side of the line.

For an opening line, “Murder is not always such a terrible thing,” is quite arresting. It is a true enough indicator of what follows, especially in signposting the thriller nature of the book as a whole, but doesn’t quite deliver what it seems to promise, while still presaging Smithe’s sympathy for one of the murderers.

Notwithstanding the above, which can all be looked at as a species of excessive nit-picking, Wolfe writes like a dream. Smithe is an engaging and resourceful character and on the whole A Borrowed Man is immensely readable. It is all very cleverly done, and the plot is tied up without loose ends. As a detective story it works well and the SF elements are intriguing but while the “borrowed human” concept is an ingenious one it is not really fully developed, despite Smithe meeting, in various libraries, different copies of his one-time wife, poet Arabella Lee. There is, though, apparently a sequel in the works.

These comments did not appear in the published review:-
I’m not sure what to make of Smithe’s thought that, “Someone ought to do a study on how long a man can talk to a woman without having to lie.” And what strange mind set comes up with the thought, “We had no more business shooting them than a burglar has shooting the owner of the house that he is robbing”? How about no-one has any business shooting anyone? (Or burgling come to that.)

Pedant’s corner:- The USianism “throve”, hangar is quite often written as hanger, “none of the rest were” (none of the rest was,) no “open quote” mark when a chapter starts with a piece of dialogue, “I dropped it to floor” (to the floor,) boney for bony, “I’ll look for work when get there,” (when I get there,) were for where, “You known, I feel lighter here,” (You know,) “That the cleaning service,” (That’s the cleaning service.)

Interzone: Issues 266 and 267

 Europe in Winter cover
Interzone 266 cover

Interzone issue 266 arrived yesterday. Along with the usual fiction and comment pieces this one contains my review of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds.

My next review, to appear in Interzone 267, will be of Europe in Winter, the third in Dave Hutchinson’s “Fractured Europe” sequence. I posted about its predecessors Europe in Autumn here and Europe at Midnight here.

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.)

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.)

Bête by Adam Roberts.

Gollancz, 2014, 320 p. Reviewed for Interzone 255, Nov-Dec 2014.

Bête cover

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.

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