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Passing for Human by Jody Scott

Women’s Press, 1986, 192 p. First published in 1977.

Passing For Human cover

From the publisher and the title of this book it can be inferred that this is a satire. While men may be its principal targets, “Male bodies are incomplete, because of that stunted Y chromosome, hence males lack intuition (which merely means they’re less intelligent, having a closed-off awareness)” and “There should be no lightness in the male life: only a bossy arrogant machismo,” the human race as a whole is found wanting, with all its primitive instincts, sex-obsession and reprehensible customs. “They commit advertising on each other. And as you know advertising is a crime against nature.” Sadly, though, Passing for Human has dated badly since its first publication.

Consider the plot. Dolphin-like creatures from the planet Rysemus are nearing completion of a Rapid transit system, The Mousehole, in the vicinity of Earth. This project might be put in jeopardy by the actions of the Sajorian, Scaulzo, aka the “Prince of Darkness” for, despite his machinations, humans feel well disposed towards him and are said to be easy prey to his evil ends.

The Rysemians have on their ship, Vonderra, a supply of bodies identical in every respect to their originals; bodies into which they can transfer at will. Our main protagonist, Benaroya, appears variously in the book as Brenda Starr, Emma Peel and Virginia Woolf. (I note here that two of these are actually fictional in our real world.) Other Rysemians inhabit the bodies of Abraham Lincoln, George S Patton, Heidi’s grandfather and countless Richard Nixons.

To a modern reading there are several problems with all of this. One is that, despite Rysemians having telepathic powers, none of the human characters ever rises above the caricature, not even Adrian Resnick who is being kept in captivity by Scaulzo and whose consciousness we roam for a while. The other is the pulpy nature of the plot and the treatment – which comes over more like a piece of pulp SF from the 50s or earlier. Both these elements lend the book a cartoonish quality at odds with any claim to seriousness. Moreover, I know the tale is supposed to be picaresque but there is still a certain lack of internal logic when Rysemians excoriate humans for experimenting on and killing animals but have no qualms about contemplating the extinction of humanity as a punishment, have indeed carried out just that sentence on the main life form of the planet Hogue. Yet what grated most was that for a piece pointing out supposed cultural peculiarities the text seems blithely unaware of its own cultural specificity. An Italian refers to a limey, another says “way to go babe” (I also wondered if 7-Up was available in Italy in the 1970s,) there is a comparison to over-civilized field goal kickers and Benaroya’s interminable interjections, “Jeeps! Holy Moses! Holy croakers! Wowzereeno, holy mackerel,” are unmistakably USian. Her reactions are supposed to be a result of culture shock but these authorial tics encapsulate an attitude arising from within (one of) the culture(s) she is supposed to be shocked by.

File under historical curiosity.

Pedant’s corner:- a thick-molecule “water” planet (what on – or indeed off – Earth is a thick-molecule?) deoderant (deodorant,) “can you imagine this is Scaulzo’s hands?” (in Scaulzo’s hands,) Earthie’s (Earthies,) sprung (sprang,) shizophrenic (schizophrenic,) skelton (skeleton,) a gargoyles’s head (gargoyle’s,) envison (envision,) the the (one the is enough,) as done (has done,) Sojorian (Sajorian,) a cluster of crones were (a cluster was,) knawed (gnawed,) aureoles (areolae,) humilation (humiliation,) comfty (comfy.)

Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

Solaris, 2015, 304 p.

 Europe at Midnight cover

The Campus is an enclosed society which has just undergone a revolution but any attempts to escape its confines fail on the many lethal obstacles preventing it. Its latest head of intelligence jokingly calls himself Rupert of Hentzau and has set about instituting a fair justice system. Meanwhile, in a world recognisably ours (if in the future,) a man is stabbed on a late-night bus and claims asylum.

Back in the Campus “Rupert” misjudges a situation and provokes a counter-revolution. Araminta Delahunty, who had kayaked into his life one day, provides his outlet. She is from our world, seeking her brother who had managed to travel out of it, and shows “Rupert” the way to England. A connection to the stabbed man is soon established.

This is the set-up to Hutchinson’s tangled tale of parallel worlds, a development of the scenario he laid out in Europe in Autumn with its Europe splintered into a patchwork of variously sized polities (with borders of different degrees of rigidity) where the number of entries to the Eurovision Song Contest can exceed 600 – and the voting takes three days. At one point in the book “Rupert” (I can’t remember Hutchinson revealing his character’s “real” name) muses, “I had the impression that the English would have quite liked to be in Europe so long as they were running it.” Well, yes.

Unlike in Europe in Autumn in this book we also spend some time in The Community, the parallel world constructed in the maps produced by the Whitton-Whyte family where the county of Ernshire and its chief town Stanhurst are connected to a Ukipper’s wet dream of a greater England stretching from Iberia to the area Moscow occupies in ours – and which is much more menacing in this novel than its predecessor.

Again Hutchinson has managed to produce a Cold War type spy story within a Science Fiction scenario but this novel has more of the whiff of SF about it than did Europe in Autumn. The book has literary quality too; his characters are eminently believable and the action sequences well handled.

Notwithstanding this, the novel’s structure is perhaps a little askew. It may have been a slight mistake to begin with the scenes in the Campus as these were very well delivered and contained the book’s most intriguing character, Araminta – user of those very non-Science Fictional words muppet, berk and cockwomble – but for plot reasons we no longer return there after “Rupert” leaves it. To be fair the other settings are as convincing but throughout I found myself pining for the Campus.

Overall it’s excellent fare though.

Pedant’s corner:- poison chalice (poisoned chalice,) presently (to mean “soon” – this read oddly to me as Scots use presently to mean “at the moment”,) two full stops at one sentence end (this may have been meant as a diæresis but three dots is surely the minimum for that,) the Board were starting (the Board was starting?) the team were using (the team was using,) the team are working (is working,) math (maths,) [these past two appeared in dialogue so are excusable; just.] Each sub-section within the chapters of the book was prefaced by a number: one of these numbers appeared at the very bottom of a left hand page; which looked most odd.

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Robinson, 2013, 572 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Twenty-First Century Science Fiction cover

The book cover and spine has 21st Century but the title page Twenty-First Century. The editors choices were made from those writers whose rise to prominence came after 1999 – in a world where they say SF is no longer marginal but a part of the cultural landscape. So to the stories.

In Vandana Singh’s Infinities Abdul Karim is fascinated by mathematics. Visions of beings he calls farishte and sees out of the corners of his eyes lead him to ponder the variety of mathematical infinities and the intersection between transcendental numbers and primes. But life wears him down and his glimpse of the connections does not mesh with the troubles of a divided India. Rogue Farm by Charles Stross is set in a depopulated future and features trees which can store nitrate (effectively making them rockets/bombs) and collective farms composed of several people melded into some sort of tank-like vehicle. I know it was originally published in a US magazine but it’s located in Cumbria yet not only the prose but also the dialogue – with a few exceptions – was written in USian. The exceptions were some unconvincing “ayup”s and a sudden splattering of “Northern” speech in the second last paragraph.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Gambler sees an exiled Laotian struggle to get enough click-bait on his news stories, Neal Asher’s Strood features more or less beneficent invading aliens and their pets, which have unusual eating habits. In Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky, Adriana seeks love from and marries a robot called Lucian. Things go wrong when she lets Lucian have free will and their adopted daughter begins to believe she’s a robot. “The Tale of the Wicked” by John Scalzi is an updated version of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories when the brains of two spaceships in a hot pursuit start to communicate. Bread and Bombs by M Rickert is a post-apocalypse, post twin towers, tale where no-one travels by air, indeed any sighting of an aeroplane is accompanied by fear, and outsiders are treated with suspicion.

Taking its inspiration from a Biblical text and the Uncertainty Principle, Tony Ballantyne’s The Waters of Meribah is set in a universe shrunk to only tens of miles across where a group of scientists is engaged in a bizarre experiment to create an alien in order to break out again. Tk’Tk’Tk by David D Levine features the experiences of a hereditary salesman on a planet inhabited by excessively polite aliens. He comes to an epiphany, as you do. Genevieve Valentine’s The Nearest Thing is the closest to a human an artificial entity can get but the process is neither morally nor emotionally simple for its software designer. In Ian Creasey’s Erosion the comparison evoked by its title is perhaps a touch over-egged in his tale of an augmented human about to leave for the stars out for a last hike along the North Yorkshire coast. Marissa Lingen’s The Calculus Plague tells of the beginnings of transfer of memories by viral infection. One of our Bastards is Missing by Paul Cornell is set in a future where early eighteenth century Great Powers have lasted into the space age, the balance of power is kept steady but they still plot against each other.

A damaged war machine, the last of its platoon, roams the seashore in Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, collecting material to make memorial necklaces for the fallen. Finistera by David Moles is set on a giant planet with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere where floating creatures as large as mountains form homes for people and exploitable resources for the less scrupulous. In Mary Robinette Kowal’s Evil Robot Monkey an augmented chimpanzee wants only to make pottery; but humans – especially schoolchildren – remain humans. The junior of The Education of Junior Number Twelve by Madeline Ashby is the twelfth offspring of a kind of self-replicating android, designed so as not to allow harm to humans. They make perfect lovers though. Even if humans themselves remain as messed up as ever. Toy Planes by Tobias S Buckell sees a Caribbean island join the space-faring nations. Ken Liu’s The Algorithms of Love is curiously reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon in its tale of a designer of truly interactive dolls coming to believe she herself, and all humans, are merely reacting to inbuilt instructions. The Albian Message by Oliver Morton speculates on just exactly what is contained in a pyramid left by aliens in the Trojan Asteroids hundreds of millions of years ago while Karl Schroeder’s To Hie From Far Cilenia supposes layers of “cities” – or at least organised groupings of people – only existing in a kind of online virtual reality parallel to the real world. Brenda Cooper’s Savant Songs is about the search by a brilliant (but socially awkward) female physicist for her counterparts in the multiverse of worlds. Ikiryoh by Liz Williams is reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas in that the eponymous child is the repository of all the darkness that would otherwise be present in the goddess who rules. The Prophet of Flores by Ted Kosmatka is set in a world where Darwinism was disproved in the 1950s by dating techniques. Yet on the Indonesian island of Flores unusual bones have been discovered in a cave. The protagonist’s conclusion sticks neatly to the logic of his world.

According to Catherynne M Valente’s How to Become a Mars Overlord each solar system has its own Red Planet and the author provides a stepwise guide to its overlordship but the piece overall is less of a story than a disquisition. In Daryl Gregory’s Second Person, Present Tense Therese has taken an overdose of a drug called Zen, which alters her persona. Her parents don’t accept this. Third Day Lights by Alaya Dawn Johnson features a shape-shifting demon and a human looking for the afterlife of the afterlife. James L Cambias’s Balancing Accounts has a robotic/AI protagonist plying a living for its owners by trading in the Saturn system. An unusual cargo brings problems. A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee is another disquisitive story about various different cultures’ star drives. Hannu Rajaniemi’s His Master’s Voice stars a dog (and, yes, it’s called Nipper) seeking the return of its master who has been “condemned to the slow zone for three hundred and fourteen years” for illegally producing copies of himself and, since Rajaniemi sojourned for a while in Edinburgh, could just perhaps have been inspired (a bit) by the tale of Greyfriars Bobby. Plotters and Shooters by Kage Baker is set on a space station dedicated to spotting and destroying Earth threatening asteroids. The station’s hierarchies are disrupted by a new arrival. In The Island by Peter Watts a never-ending mission to seed the universe with jump gates threatens the existence of a millimetre thin organism surrounding its sun like a gossamer Dyson sphere. Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction by Jo Walton is set in a world where not only did the New Deal fail but the Second World War did not occur as we know it. By 1960 the US is becoming fascistic. Cory Doctorow’s Chicken Little posits a future where the rich are utterly cut-off from even the wealthy but a drug called Clarity can enable true assessment of risk to take place.

On the whole, strong stuff. There is enough here to suggest that SF is a vigorous culture still.

Pedant’s corner:- “the cluster of competing stories are growing” (the cluster is growing,) metastized (metastasised – I have also substituted s for the USian z,) remittance (remission,) minutia (minutiae,) her sisters’ ability to overcome her fear of their father (their fear?) rung (rang,) “I hate to come out of that jump (I’d hate to,) none of the …. have (none has,) a they as an antecedent to an it, and the killed (and killed,) the architecture of the brains are different (the architecture is different,) a yearning gap (the context suggests yawning gap,) “where his regiment were dining” (his regiment was dining,) a Queen Mother is addressed as “Your Royal Highness,” (I suspect that would still be, “Your Majesty,”) “the Queen Mother’s Office are asking” (is asking,) “the unit are still in the fold” (is still in the fold,) the start quote mark is omitted at a story’s beginning, stripped off (stripped of,) Becqurel Reindeer (they are radioactive, so I presume Becquerel,) borne (born,) Hitchens’ (Hitchens’s – which is used later,) jewelery (the USian is jewelry, in British English it’s jewellery,) the total affect (the noun is effect,) goddess’ (goddess’s, which is used 12 lines later!) equilibriums (equilibria,) Deluvian Flood Theory (Diluvian? – which means flood, so is this Flood Flood Theory?) “Hands were shook” (shaken,) a phenomena (phenomena is plural; one of them is a phenomenon,) “It’s the circulating domain of their receptors that are different” (is different,) sunk (sank,) rarified (rarefied,) talk to the them (no “the”,) none of us get (gets,) aureoles (context suggests areolae,) “that whole series were built” (that series was built,) “a great deal of time to attempting” (no need for the “to”,) “The chained aurora borealis flicker and vanish,” (if its one aurora borealis that should be “flickers and vanishes”; otherwise it’s aurorae boreales.) “We sweeped over the dark waves,” (I think that really ought to be “swept”,) hemi sphere (hemisphere,) the Van Oort belt (a confusion of Oort Cloud with Van Allen Belt?) infered (even USian surely has inferred?) borne of parents (born of; definitely born of.)

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Gollancz, 2015, 384 p.

 Luna: New Moon cover

Luna has been colonised. Its mineral resources mean vast wealth can be generated, or extracted. But Earth’s Moon has a thousand ways to kill; the slightest misplaced action, the merest moment of slackness make her the harshest of mistresses. And then there are the humans who have made their homes there….

Shoulder-sitting digital familiars connect the inhabitants to the data net. The Four Elementals – air, water, carbon, data – tick away on the chib in everyone’s eye. When the indicators run low the poor or jobless have to sell their piss for credit. Each breath is a hostage; unless you have a contract. Even the rich owe their carbon and water to the Lunar Development Corporation when they die.

Lunar life is stratified. Literally. The rich live in the depths, the poor in the Bairro Alto – with little to shield them from the intense solar radiation impacting the regolith above. Society runs on contracts; there is no criminal law. Courts are there to resolve disputes but in the last resort these can be settled in trial by combat. Life revolves around the Five Dragons, the big corporations whose activities dominate Lunar society. Some are focused on immediate objectives, others play the long game. While there are gritty places on this Luna we don’t see much of them. Most of the plot is concerned with the Corta family which runs the youngest Dragon, Corta Hélio, miners of helium-3 from the Lunar regolith (the resource which keeps the lights on down on Earth,) and their rivalries and friendships with the other Dragons. Set-piece descriptions of such mining and extraction processes seem well researched.

The premises on which McDonald builds his story are followed through to the end. Along the way he reminds us that humans need their darknesses. I particularly appreciated the concept of some of Luna’s inhabitants being affected by the Full Earth. McDonald might have called these individuals terratics but eschewed the term. The interactions and motivations of his characters are always convincing.

Some of Luna’s history is filled in via back-story but I’m not totally sure the logic of this cut-throat future stands close examination. As a metaphor, though, it’s fine. I doubt, however, that the character list at the book’s beginning is entirely necessary; I omitted it and didn’t feel its loss. The appended glossary of words borrowed from Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Yoruba, Spanish, Arabic and Akan – this Luna is a polyglot place – did come in handy at times even if SF fans don’t really need such things. The story-telling is, as ever with McDonald, accomplished.

Luna is apparently the first of a duo of books. While leaving scope for a follow-up it did not seem unfinished.

PS: Did anyone else notice a connection between Boa Vista, Queen of the South, Estádio da Luz and CSK St Ekaterina?

Pedant’s corner:- I read an uncorrected proof copy. I did notice quite a few literals. I assume the proof-read will spot and get rid of the occasional mistypings, missing prepositions or articles, the accidentally repeated words (been been) the sometimes repeated information, any incidental switching of verb for gerund, the periodic disagreements between subject and verb.
The spelling of Prospekt wavered (c sometimes for k) and since there was also a Tereshkova Prospekt, Gargarin Prospekt should surely have read Gagarin. Despite most of the text being in British English (colour, manoeuvre) we unfortunately had ass for arse and math for maths. O2 and CO2 appeared for O2 and CO2, haemotomas (haematomas,) ambiance (ambience,) colloquiums (colloquia,) Marna (Marina,) over spilling (overspilling,) each of us has a differed mechanism for dealing with it (different?)
Congrats, though for “not all … are.”

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2015, 340 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ancillary Mercy cover

Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai, once an ancillary of the AI spaceship Justice of Torren, the only surviving fragment thereof, starts this third in Leckie’s Imperial Radch sequence effectively in charge of Athoek Station, trying to do the opposite of what her enemy, Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, would in similar circumstances. Things are complicated here by the arrival of Translator Zeiat from the alien Presger, whose incomprehensions and misunderstandings of human customs provide moments of humour – as does the ancillary Sphene, a remnant of a ship survived from a long ago war with the Radch. What in Ancillary Sword had seemed the apparent sideshow of Athoek Station becomes here the setting for the unfolding of Breq’s wishes as ships under the command of that half of the Lord of the Radch which hates Breq come through the gate from an adjacent system.

As in the previous two Radch books the narrative viewpoint is firmly fixed with Breq. This makes the transition to (recorded) viewpoints of Lieutenants Seivarden and Tisarwat when Breq is injured and cannot go on the final mission herself a piece of authorial legerdemain that seems a little clumsy: but it also highlights how much Leckie’s mode of story-telling, taking in the experiences of all those connected to ship as seen by Breq, had been assimilated (easily) by the reader.

This gives Leckie the opportunity to examine what effects such dissemination of consciousness might have on those who experience it and on what it means to be human, or, indeed, a Significant Being, more generally. Within the book Leckie also addresses the impossibility of endings. Whether this presages further Radch instalments, only time will tell. Breq doubtless has her ardent admirers who would be delighted with more of this universe. The wider conflict to which Breq’s story is a minor component remains unresolved at the end; yet her (its?) actions have the potential to change relations with the Presger.

I must say the emphasis on tea-drinking gets stranger and stranger the more these books progress. Were it not for this (or perhaps because of it? – within the book it is an Imperial/Radch custom – ) I might have idly wondered whether the trilogy may have been a thinly disguised rewriting of the American War of Independence – though the word Radch may hint at a different historical inspiration.

No matter. Leckie can write, has psychological insights and focuses more on personal relations and feelings than the average Space Opera author. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

Pedant’s corner:- As in Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, Leckie uses the feminine form of personal pronoun throughout but the utility of this choice seems to be undermined by the one instance where she employs “him”. Like with the two previous books, appended at the rear are 25 pages from a novel by another author entirely.
At the beginning of Ancillary Mercy – no doubt for the benefit of those who haven’t read Justice and Sword – several things were mentioned twice – I submit unnecessarily.
Then we had “Translator Zeiat scoffed ‘She would,’” (it doesn’t seem like a scoff to me,) off of (USian but still awful,) complacence (complacency.)

Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon

Luath Press, 2004, 128 p. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Borrowed from a threatened library.

Me and ma Gal cover

This story of a day in the life of two boys aged eight and nine, told informally in normal text, italics and with CAPITALS for shouting and emphasis is narrated by (as he puts it) Derruck Daniel Riley and features his friendship and adventures with Steven – withaVnotaPH – Gallacher, the Gal of the title.

Dillon occupies the mind of his narrator brilliantly. I especially enjoyed Daniel’s denunciations of being told off for playing near the burn, physically chastised and verbally berated I TOLD YOU THAT WOULD HAPPEN despite such warnings never having been issued. And when Gal asks Daniel his oldest memory his question degenerates very quickly into Can you ever member sookin yer Maws diddies?

That Dillon manages to encapsulate many aspects of working class (Catholic) Scottish life while using the voice of a child and also incorporates more than a hint of existential danger with the looming presence of serial Killer Strangler Joe is a testament to his skill. Yet the focus of the child’s viewpoint never wavers. Impressive stuff, if a little on the short side.

Pedant’s corner:- The writing is in a West of Scotland dialect with the accompanying spellings (abyuse for example,) but there are some inconsistencies. Span is frequent but spun also appears. I also noted though (thought,) that we we’re movin ahead (that we’re movin,) and “You could see the wall were the nest was from where we were” (that first “were” should be “where”.)

Mistaken by Annie S Swan

BiblioBazaar, 2009, 100 p. Returned to a threatened library.

Mistaken cover

This is an odd little book. The oddness begins with its printing. I picked it up in a Fife Library and discovered it seemed to be photocopied. The publishers BiblioBazaar make a virtue of reproducing the original texts (in this case from 1883) as they found them – with whatever minor errors of blurring, indistinct pictures, missing or marked pages that may entail.

The oddness doesn’t stop with the reproduction though, as the novel itself (well it’s more of a novella) strikes a really strange note. It’s as if Mistaken is a religious tract that discourages the following of religious instincts. The “heroine” Margaret Wayland is a proselytiser spreading the word among the “arabs of Hackney” but the author would have us believe the true heroine is her mother, Mrs Wayland, who has devoted herself selflessly to the family and has been brought to sickness by it. Margaret’s brother and fiancé both want her to forego her missionary efforts and run the house instead to relieve the mother’s burden. Her indulgent father has educated her – perhaps beyond his means – and is at first unwilling to demand she takes her mother’s place.

The book – under the guise of honouring your father and mother – seems to be arguing that education of a woman is unwise as it leads to her thinking thoughts of her own and perhaps escaping male control. Not very sisterly. But Swan was a Victorian and makes Margaret bend to her authorial dictat.

Apart from this emphasis on religion (can there be an apart from that?) the only connection to Scotland in the book is that Mrs Wayland is sent to the isle of Bute for a rest cure and falls in love with the place.

Pedant’s corner:- Missing end quote on the title page, knit as a past tense, arabs of Hackney (presumably street arabs,) an opening quotation mark where none was required.

The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2015, 560 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Dark Defiles cover

Firstly I must say I am not the intended target for this sort of stuff. I did enjoy and admire Morgan’s earlier novels but they were solidly SF, with no tinge of fantasy. While there are again hints in the text that the setting of The Dark Defiles may be rooted in the real world – albeit unimaginably long ago in the book’s timeline – and machines that seem to be AIs which would make this a fantasy/SF cross, my misgivings about the second in Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes series (which I reviewed here) are reinforced in this last of the trilogy. Yes, the main characters are rounded and resourceful and the politicking believable but the narrative focuses almost unremittingly on violence. And our hero has magic powers. I also found that the Dark Lords – and the even darker lords in this one – appear too late to convince entirely that they are worthy opponents.

Still, Morgan can undoubtedly write and his world is well-imagined, dense and detailed but this hand, that could have been a strength, is to my mind overplayed. Background is delivered so minutely that it often gets in the way of story, indeed at one point info dumping about some minor characters is actually expressed as a list. Apart from the externals – not only do we have gods to contend with but there are incidental lizard folk to be fought against and also here be dragons (well, one dragon) – like in so many fantasy tales the society against which this is portrayed is mediæval in form. Then again, without this, it is difficult to see how so many sword fights could be fitted in to 500 plus pages.

The book’s structure is both standard and unusual. We start with three viewpoint characters and follow them to the end (whatever that end is for each of them) but their tales bifurcate early as Ringil Eskiath is separated from Archeth Indamaninarmal and Egar Dragonbane; and never become one again. This is in contrast to most narratives and is a brave decision by Morgan. Yet, despite the cover saying “It ends here….” the ending does leave scope for more.

People do seem to relish this sort of thing; but I enjoyed Morgan’s SF better. I hope he returns to it for his next project.

Pedant’s corner:- didn’t use to be (used,) a missing full stop at the end of a line of dialogue, like a herdsmen (herdsman,) hingeing (the normal English spelling of this is hinging, but Morgan has spent part of his life in Scotland where the verb to “hing” means something entirely different hence hingeing would be my preference: hinging is used later though,) careful not apportion (not to apportion,) judgement of those beings (judgement of is for a case, for beings it would be judgement on,) to breath it (breathe,) sprung (sprang – which appears elsewhere,) bid it goodbye (bade it goodbye,) “are going make” (are going to make,) do the math (maths, if you please, x 2) “He’s going pull” (going to pull,) “the Talons of the Sun” (twice this phrase is given a singular verb, surely talons are plural?) gestures him join (to join.) This is a remarkably low strike count of literals for over 500 pages of densely printed text.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Penguin, 2007, 159 p. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Borrowed from a threatened library.

The 39 Steps cover

This is another story which, like Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde” being familiar from film and television, people perhaps think they know.

In it, Richard Hannay begins as a bored ex-patriate in London who perhaps should have been careful what he wished for. His upstairs neighbour, who calls himself Franklin P Scudder, a man who refers to “the Jew” being behind the conspiracy he regales Hannay with, begs for shelter in Hannay’s flat for a few days till he can thwart said conspiracy. But of course Hannay returns to the flat one day to find Scudder dead and so has to flee under suspicion of murder. The majority of the novel then consists in Hannay being chased around southern Scotland in what is now Dumfries and Galloway getting into and out of various scrapes and predicaments which are sometimes evaded too handily, meanwhile solving the puzzle of the thirty-nine steps and disrupting the plans of his adversaries of the Black Stone. It all rattles along at a glorious pace without much pause for thought and incidentally allows descriptions of the landscape he flees through; a common Scottish authorial trait.

Unlike all three film adaptations I have seen – and the most recent TV one – there is not a woman companion in sight. Barring a wifie who provides shelter to Hannay one night there aren’t any women at all. It does, though, have the merit of being able to be read quickly.

I can only think that this creeps into that 100 best list for historical reasons. It has no literary pretensions. Buchan himself, in his preface (addressed to Thomas Arthur Nelson) refers to it as “the type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel,’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’”.

Once again the prose shows itself to be of its time: as in John Macnab, there are several unflattering mentions of Jews not in particular but as a type, and a “you’re a white man”, plus also here a Greek is referred to as a dago.

I note, too, a “minutes later” count of six or seven.

Pedant’s corner:- There were several editions at the library (they’re running a Buchan competition.) I chose this one because I liked the 1930s style of its cover. Yet the book was first published in 1915. Moreover the biplane is wrong. The text several times emphasises that Hannay is being chased by a monoplane. Buluwayo (Bulawayo,) Liepsic (context suggested Liepzig,) jiffey (jiffy,) – were these words spelled that way in the 1910s? – rung (rang,) whiskys (whiskies,) Karolides’ (Karolides’s.)

The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2015, 318 p. Translated from the French Les Feux de L-automne by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1957. Returned to a threatened library.

 The Fires of Autumn cover

The Fires of Autumn begins in the bosom of the modestly comfortable Brun family, in that pre-First Word War state of well-being that is soon to be shattered. Thérèse Brun marries her doctor cousin Martial but he is killed when a shell hits his first-aid post. Bernard Jacquelain joins up as soon as he can but the war drives any delusions from him. “The world is despicable. Men are stupid, cowardly, vain, ignorant…. I learned lessons in the war that I will never forget.” His attitude to women is coloured by his experiences, “Everyone said (women) had become easy since the war started. But he thought they had always been like that. It was in their nature: man was made to kill and woman to…” His sentence is not finished. After the war he begins an affair with Renée, wife of Raymond Détang, who in turn brings him into the world of commerce and connections. He also sets his eye on Thérèse but she is still of the old pre-war ways of thought, lamenting, “Men don’t chase after women who turn them down. There are too many other women, and they are far too easy.” Still, Bernard gives up the high life and settles down with her to a life of domesticity and three children. But, for him, boredom soon sets in. When ten years later he encounters Renée again they restart the affair and he re-enters Raymond’s world of corruption and greed. When that all eventually falls apart he finds, “Connections were all powerful in times of success, but weakest when it came to failure,” by which time his son, Yves, thinks of his father as “part of an evil set that out of spinelessness, blindness or deliberate treason is causing the downfall of France.” Here, Némirovsky writes that when it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then can recognise the enemy and be horrified. In this context Bernard’s complicity in the shady deals whose consequence comes back to haunt him is perhaps a little too pat.

Though they are actually incidental to the narrative, The Fires of Autumn is a brilliant evocation of the effects of the Great War on France and the French and of the forming of the seeds of that country’s demise in World War 2. And those fires of autumn? In one of Thérèse’s dreams her grandmother tells her, “The fires of autumn purify the land; they prepare it for new growth. These great fires have not yet burned in your life. But they will.”

Pedant’s corner:- idoform (iodoform, x2,) once there was a Barnard for Bernard, Peach Melba is described as a “layer of smooth, warm chocolate” that “ covers a kind of hard stone of ice,” – that’s not like any Peach Melba I’ve ever seen, there is an opening quotation mark where no piece of dialogue follows, all powerful (all-powerful?)

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