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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.

More from Interzone

The Freedom Maze cover
The Borrowed Man cover

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.

The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano.

Gollancz, 2014, 270 p. Reviewed for Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014.

 The Seventh Miss Hatfield cover

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?)

Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea

Titan, 2014, 336 p. Reviewed for Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014.

Koko Takes a Holiday cover

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.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Orbit, 2014, 407 p. Reviewed for Interzone 252, May-Jun 2014.

There is a potential problem with the central premise of novels broadly comparable to this. It is one which also besets any work of fiction set either in virtual reality or a computer game. To wit: if a character cannot die – or can be resurrected after death – where, then, is the jeopardy? Why ought readers invest time and energy in sympathy or empathy; why should they care? Here that problem is encapsulated by the title (and for the reviewer is exacerbated by the accompanying promotional material.) We know before the outset that Harry August has at least fifteen lives. Why, then, for example, should the grubby circumstances of his conception and initial upbringing matter to us? However, “North” – the publishers emphasise that the author is pseudonymous but has experience – neatly sidesteps the issue by beginning “her” story at the end of Harry’s eleventh life, thus making it clear that any single life journey is not of itself crucial. And the jeopardy is not to Harry alone, but to human existence. “The world is ending.”

This idiosyncratic book reads at various points as if the author could not quite decide what sort of beast it actually is, first like a literary novel, then a thriller, a historical tract, a spy story and a tale of revenge – all the while riffing on Alternative History. And, yes, it does veer (rather suddenly) into more straightforward Science Fiction about halfway through, then morphs back again before returning to SF for its dénouement. As befits a tale of someone with more than fifteen lives the narrative is not linear but skitters about, incorporating vignettes from Harry’s existences, encounters with others of his kind. Yet it does manage to come together as a more or less coherent whole.

Harry is one of the kalachakra, an ouroboran, humans whose consciousness and memories of previous lives recycle back to birth after their death. In subsequent lives these memories begin to resurface after infancy. Before the lives accumulate this can lead to madness, later there can be advantages. Perhaps even worse for Harry, he is what the kalachakra call a mnemonic: he forgets nothing. Kalachakra are few enough at any one time but are scattered throughout history, sometimes leaving messages in stone to their successors. No explanation is given for their unusual attribute; their reincarnations just happen. Their knowledge of past lives ensures that no new one is a carbon copy of a previous existence. The Cronus Club, an organisation kalachakra have set up to succour their kind, can help remove them from the boredom of a re-lived childhood. And it turns out that the circumstances of Harry’s birth do matter. Kalachkra can be excised from the world, if they are prevented from being born. Harry’s obscure origins are a shield against any such calamity.

In each of his lives the broad sweep of history is similar but it is not emphasised in the text, except where the differences are obvious, that the detail means subsequent lives cannot be lived in the original but instead take place in parallel worlds. In a stance reminiscent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, the Cronus Club tries to ensure that kalachakra do not interfere with the course of history. Such activity has led to cataclysm at least once before.

Harry’s parallel existences have allowed him to learn many languages. His various employments take him all over the world, mainly in iterations of the 1950s, the primes of his lives, to a research establishment in the Soviet Union, the China of the Great Leap Forward, and to the USA. In one of these lives Harry is a physicist and meets the charismatic Vincent Rankis, subsequently becoming involved in Rankis’s project to build a quantum mirror – a device which will bestow a God’s perspective on the world.

While the writing is effective and for the most part reads smoothly, out of kilter phrases such as, among others, “a skill as much valued in the incompetence than the mastery,” (about punting on the Cam) might suggest that English is not actually “North”’s first language. There is also a lack of fine tuning in the last chapter where the readership to whom the narrative is addressed shifts from where it had lain up to then, the general (you and me,) to the specific. In addition the resolution comes a little too easily and strikes against the established character of Harry’s antagonist.

This book may well become an award nominee but for all its apparent ground-breaking aspirations and apocalyptic overtones The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is in the end a rather conventional tale. But, then, in all of literature, there are said to be only seven distinct plots.

The following entries to Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-

Again I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may be amended in the actual book but we had Ecstacy for Ecstasy, periphery nervous system for peripheral nervous system, neckless for necklace, a human stimuli, solice for solace, “her success (in finding a very few) cannot be underestimated” (overestimated, surely?) “did not less to see the end of his dream,” (live) “where he had began,” “at which all intercourse seeks” (ceases,) “azures of wisdom,” “I had never fully understand the..,” “the sense of unity that all these hardships create,” (creates) “illustrating the momentous dead,” “passer-bys,” “we do not need hide much deeper than in plain sight,” “the single most existing time of our lives,” “points of origins,” “we would not with to inconvenience you,” “would have bought the Cronus Club tumbling down on their creator’s head,” “an vastly more effective spy,” “dot.com,” “he has been a present through my life” (presence,) “chaffed” (chafed,) “knowing full well that all these things …. it would be enough,” [not to mention that use of mnemonic.]

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

Headline, 2014, 538p. Reviewed for Interzone 251, Mar-Apr 2014.

The Citadel contains within its labyrinthine caverns not only the trapped remains of the old gods (bar one) but a supposed treasure trove. By reputation no-one escapes from it alive yet it still attracts adventurers and has guards who must be bribed to allow entry. Sell-swords Wydrin of Crosshaven (the Copper Cat) and Sebastian Carverson, disgraced former Knight of Ynnsmouth, are engaged by the mutilated Lord Aaron Frith of Blackwood to penetrate its secrets. They agree somewhat off-handedly considering the apparent dangers. Amid adventures which in part are curiously reminiscent of the 1980s children’s adventure game TV show Knightmare and Indiana Jones films they succeed up to a point. Sebastian suffers a mortal wound but Frith is restored to fitness – and beyond – by immersing himself in the lake underneath the Citadel. In the process Frith acquires magical powers by which he involuntarily transports our three heroes to Blackwood in an instant when they are threatened by the old god Y’ruen, a dragon, which their foray into the Citadel has raised from its confinement. Frith’s new powers allow him to heal the wounds of both Sebastian and Wydrin.

In the Blackwood village of Pinehold, they encounter the source of Frith’s misfortunes, Fane, who is torturing the inhabitants to find the secret of the Frith family vault. While wearing a peculiar glowing helmet – which channels the influence of the demon Bezcavar, the Prince of Wounds, an enthusiastic harvester of pain – Fane is immune from harm. His equally cruel henchmen, the Children of the Fog, Enri and Roki, wear enchanted gauntlets to manifest copies of themselves which confuse and confound any opponents. With help from an old woman, Holley, and her magical glass spheres our heroes escape, cross an invisible bridge to the vault, find in it little but maps and return to free Pinehold from its oppressors. Meantime Y’ruen and her indistinguishable brood army – whose members have numbers but no names (though some of them have developed an interest in words and their own individuality) – is devastating the land of Relios.

The three then split up to pursue their own projects before being reunited for the final scenes. Wydrin returns to Crosshaven, Sebastian goes to fight the brood army. On the Hollow Isle of Whittenfarne, Frith meets Jolnir, who turns out to be O’rin, the untrapped god, and, without much protest or questioning, bestows on Frith the power to control his magic. As a by-product Frith realises that the maps describe a weapon.

This is Williams’s first novel and I’m afraid that shows. We start with a torture scene – never auspicious – from the viewpoint of a character who is not even mentioned again for about a hundred pages and is encountered in the narrative just once more – and that after she has already been killed. Chapter two introduces the Citadel and some of its menaces. Sebastian’s erstwhile friend Gallo is killed. Only in Chapter three do we meet our heroes, the two sell-swords, in a tavern, awaiting their client, the tortured party from Chapter one, Aaron Frith, whose escape from torture is dealt with exceedingly sketchily. (Not quite “with one bound he was free” – but near enough.) Descriptions of fights are leaden, we have changes of viewpoint within scenes, suggestions by a character of what to do next are followed by the sentence, “And so they did.” At various points a touch of economy with the prose would not have gone amiss. For example, who else would a cluster of people be in proximity to but each other?

There is also a curious prudishness to the proceedings. None of the characters really swears. (Williams tells us they do but no expletives save two “bloody”s appear in direct speech.) They might as well be neuter for all the sexuality we are shown. The one time even the faintest possibility of sex arises the subject is treated with absurd coyness and the opportunity is snuffed out abruptly. We infer early on, and later are told – but without description – that Sebastian is gay. He doesn’t manifest it in the text. (But he does carry a large broadsword.) Wydrin, I suspect, is intended to be a spiky young woman but instead appears rather foolhardy and unreasonably cocky. All are hauled hither and yon by the necessities of the plot. Gallo’s reappearance as one of the walking dead is a case in point. None of them come across as having agency of their own.

For all these reasons The Copper Promise fails to breathe. There is no sense in it of a life beyond the page, and little but death on it.

The following comments did not appear in Interzone.
I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may have been amended for final publication but (among others) there was a “sunk” count of 5, 1 span, 1 sprung, a “scrapped” for scraped, an “octopi,” one instance of vocal “chords,” “every bone felt as though they had shattered,” – one of innumerable failures of verbs to agree in number with their subject nouns; in especial an army is singular – “over take” for overtake, “very almost completely normal,” “it’s” for “its,” the “lay” of things (which wasn’t a song,) “lengths they would go to deceive each other,” “fit” for fitted etc, etc.

Interzones 254, 255 and 256

The Seventh Miss Hatfield cover
 Irregularity cover

Interzone 254 has been out for a while and includes of course my review of The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano. Jim Steel’s blog has a BIG picture of the cover. It’s a special Nina Allan issue. See here and here for my thoughts on her longer works.

My latest review book is Irregularity, a collection of short stories based around the Age of Reason. Since that has arrived I suppose it won’t be long until Interzone 255 hits the doormat.

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