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In Between Reading

Amongst all the library books I’ve been borrowing recently in an attempt to delay or even abort the threatened closures I’ve also been reading stories from back issues of Interzone and two SF mags the good lady’s blog friend, Peggy, gave me as a present when she came over in May for her dream holiday in Scotland.

These will be popping up on my “currently reading” sidebar from time to time over the next couple of weeks (Iz 255 is there at time of writing.) I’ll be posting about them in due course.

Meanwhile all those books I have actually bought and are languishing on the tbr pile on my shelves are of necessity taking a backseat.

Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson

Canongate Classics, 1995, 303 p, plus xvi p introduction by Roderick Watson.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

Shorter Scottish Fiction cover

This is a collection of shorter works by Stevenson each of which has either a Scottish setting or theme (perhaps both.)

In The Plague Cellar a minister is summoned by letter to a meeting with a seemingly slightly deranged Mr Ravenswood who tells him, “to save our Church from its present wretched state,” he must enter a cellar in which all who have trespassed contract the plague. Ravenswood breaks down the door and goes in. Thrawn Janet* is a typically Scottish tale of possession by the devil and of the minister who witnesses it. The thrawn Janet of the title is his disfigured housekeeper, the subject of the haunting. The Body Snatcher* is the tale of Fettes, employed to take in the grisly charges of the body-snatchers and hand over payment for them, and of Dr Wolfe McFarlane who encourages his complicity in the most illegal aspects of the work. The Misadventures of John Nicholson include being robbed of a considerable sum of his father’s company’s money, fleeing to the US, coming back and as a result being suspected of theft, then stumbling upon a dead body. Despite this his story has – for a Stevenson tale – an unusually happy ending. This story contains the phrase, “Stupider men than he are now sprawling in Parliament.” Some things never change. The Pavilion on the Links is the setting for a tale of a dishonest banker, his daughter, the two men who wish to marry her and the Italians who seek revenge for their financial losses. The landscape round the pavilion and the building itself are described in detail, as is the Scottish habit. The following story The Merry Men is atmospheric, and very Scottish, a gothic tale of madness and shipwrecks; again chock full of descriptions of land- and sea-scapes, the Merry Men of the title being the fifty feet high breakers that boom and dance together off the not-quite island of Aros between the forty-six reefs and the land. Of a negro our narrator says, “I had almost forgotten, and wholly forgiven him, his uncanny colour,” a sentiment somewhat jarring to the modern sensibility. Despite being set in London, Markheim features that most traditional of encounters in Scottish fiction a meeting with the devil. Here it causes Markheim to examine his conscience.

The last section of the book has its own title, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” (and its own epigram) and contains the story everyone thinks they know; on its own one of the100 best Scottish Books. However, the story title page omits the definite article and the title is given as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.* Once more the tale is set in London but as it uses the döppelganger trope could hardly be more Scottish. Except Hyde and Jekyll are not true döppelgangers, as they vary in appearance and stature. The story is seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, lawyer to Dr Jekyll who has made a strange provision in his will in favour of Mr Hyde. I can’t make up my mind whether this remove heightens or dilutes the effect Stevenson tried to imbue. Strange Case is an examination of the dualities within us all and a timeless warning about inability to control desire as well as an illustration of the perennial attraction of the dark side of human nature to the Scottish writer.

In the stories marked * there is displayed what was once described to me as a tendency to the throat-clearing preamble.

The figure in the cover art – a detail from Lord Advocate Prestongrange by N C Wyeth – to my mind bears a resemblance to the actor Charles Dance.

Pedant’s corner:- Some such as carpetted, exhibitted, noctious are noted in the text. These occurred in The Plague Cellar which was apparently an apprentice work which Stevenson disowned. Everyone … were (was,) augery x2 (augury,) inflamable (inflammable,) conscience’ (conscience’s,) wth (with.) And, in the introduction:- or (of.)

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

Oxford World Classics, 1998, 353 p, plus 22 p notes, ix p introduction, 7 p bibliography of works by or about Smollett and 2 p chronology of his life. (Edited by Lewis M Knapp and revised by Paul-Gabriel Boucé.)

Another from the 100 best Scottish Books. Also, I borrowed it from a threatened library.

Smollet was born at Dalquhurn, in Renton, which is only two miles from Dumbarton. Since he was educated in the town that just about makes him a fellow Son of the Rock.

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker cover

I found this difficult to get into at first, perhaps because of its epistolary structure. In an innovation by Smollett (previous epistolary novels had consisted of letters “written” by one character) we are given the missives of several; Matthew Bramble, his sister Tabitha, his niece and nephew Lydia and Jery Melford and the lady’s maid Winifred Jenkins: but not, you will perhaps have noticed, any by the eponymous Humphry Clinker, a destitute who turns up around page 80, gets employed as a footman and thereafter performs the company various services. Coupled with the orotundities of 18th century language (the book was first published in 1771) this means the threads are slow to gel. Tabitha’s letters are full of misspellings as are Win Jenkins’s, with in her case the addition of multiple malapropisms.

The structure means that some incidents are rendered from more than one viewpoint – which is not in itself a problem but tends to impede the flow of narrative. It does though give Smollet ample scope to anatomise the society of the latter half of the 18th century and to poke fun at various aspects both of it and of human nature. Tabitha Bramble sets her sights on any available male, Lydia Melford’s sympathies are engaged with a man thought unsuitable by her family, Bramble dislikes the closeness of city life, decries the insanitary aspects of taking the waters at Bath and the adulteration of food.

Smollet does not forego the opportunity to guy his English readers. One character tells Mr Bramble that “the English language was spoken with more propriety at Edinburgh than in London,” that the Scots language was true, genuine old English since it had retained the guttural sounds, that the English render simple vowels as diphthongs and moreover they mumble and run their words together. (The same passage says that wright, write, right and rite were each pronounced differently by Scots in Smollet’s time. No longer – except perhaps for those who still say “a’ richt”.) On the understandings within the two countries we have, “What between want of curiosity, and traditional sarcasms, the people at the other end of the island know as little of Scotland as of Japan.” This is still largely true but the reverse never was and remains so. Later, Mr Bramble is informed in no uncertain terms that, far from Scotland benefitting from the Union, much the greater advantage was derived by England.

We also here the authentic voice of the traditionalist in the sentiment, “Woe be to that nation where the multitude is at liberty to follow their own inclinations!”

Pedant’s corner:- the intentional misspellings, malapropisms and differences in the language over two and a half centuries make any such listing otiose.

No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

A Story of the Glasgow Slums. Corgi, 1978? 320 p.

 No Mean City cover

I had avoided reading this ever since I became aware of its existence as I had gained the impression it was an overly sensationalist account of life in the poorer parts of Glasgow in the 1920s but when it appeared in the list of 100 best Scottish Books I decided to take out a copy from one of the local libraries that is under threat of closure.

It is the story of Johnnie Stark, who manages to get himself a reputation as the Razor King of the Gorbals and thereafter has to live up to it. There are four main viewpoint characters, Stark, Lizzie Ramsay (the girl who marries him,) his brother Peter and his schoolmate, Bobbie Hurley. Peter’s and Bobbie’s stories seem to be forgotten about for long periods and their relevance is slight; though they are dragooned into the final scene.

Stark’s inevitable eventual demise is presented as a consequence of mental deterioration through drink and too many gang fights but his fate would have been to be overtaken in any case. It is the natural order of things that the younger succeed the older.

As a reading experience the book leaves a lot to be desired. The writing can only be described as poor. Certain words or phrases are placed in quotation marks for no good reason – does anyone reading a book set in Scotland not know what a “hoose” is? “Canny get a man” is surely self-explanatory and “single end” not unusual while “inferiority” is totally unremarkable. Others have their meanings explained in parenthesis immediately after their appearance eg kert (coal-waggon.) If a meaning cannot be explained by context (which would be the ideal) by all means provide a glossary but this practice of putting the wagon after the kert is irritating. (It is possible that I may be more irritated than most, since in Science Fiction, part of my regular reading matter for decades, the use of unfamiliar words – sometimes for unfamiliar concepts – is all-but obligatory and I am therefore used to it.)

Some writers show, others tell: it is infrequent that they lecture. At times this read like a treatise in anthropology, a condescending treatise at that. To describe the characters as “slummies” betrays a self-congratulatory attitude on the part of the authors, “a guid conceit o’ themselves” as we Scots have it. This assumption of moral superiority by the narrator ….. grates. Authors’ characters deserve some sort of sympathy from their creator(s).

These issues are perhaps explained by the book’s genesis. A McArthur was an unemployed man (the book uses the oxymoron unemployed worker) and H Kingsley North a London journalist obviously unused to the different art of writing a novel.

It might be thought that the minimum requirement for being included in any list of best books would be that a novel not be just socially relevant and illustrative of its times but also had some degree of literary quality. No Mean City has none. In saying this I realise that I am in danger of being called a literary snob (as the puff for the novel on the 100 best Scottish books webpages would have it.) Very well; but I would still maintain this does not belong on that list of “best”.

Pedant’s corner:- coal-waggon (I prefer wagon,) appraisement (appraisal?) how the hell with this yin do him any? (how the hell will this yin….)

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.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Folio Society, 2003, 270 p, including 7 p introduction by Albert French. Illustrated by Aafke Brouwer.

To Kill a Mockingbird cover

Like most other book readers I had noted with interest the discovery and imminent publication of the pre/se/quel of To Kill a Mockingbird yet while I had seen the film I hadn’t actually read the book. In the week of Go Set a Watchman’s publication I thought it was about time to remedy that deficiency so picked up the good lady’s sumptuous Folio Society edition of the novel.

And it is as good as its reputation has it. Memorable characters; not only Atticus, Jem and Scout herself but also Mrs Dubose, Dolphus Raymond, the maid Calpurnia and the perfect absence – until his eventual intervention in the plot – of Boo Radley. Of the three most common preoccupations of literature the narrator’s supposed age of course means that there is no sex here – and there is not much love either, except of the familial kind – but there is death. The dynamics of life in the Finch household are determined by the lack of Scout’s and Jem’s mother; Calpurnia acts in loco parentis but cannot have similar authority.

It is only in retrospect that the novel can be seen as dominated by the subject of racial attitudes and prejudice; up to the intrusion of the court case it is a portrayal of a reasonably idyllic childhood (schooling traumas and running the gauntlet of the Radley place excepted) and while in the context of Tom Robinson’s trial the subject of rape is mentioned, there is actually none described in the book. In many ways this is a perfectly straightforward coming of age/gaining of wisdom story, it is the instrument by which the knowledge is gained that makes it unusual and memorable; backed up by the quality of the writing. I did feel, though, that there was a slight longueur between the trial and the dénouement, an expository tone.

Atticus is the perfect father for a girl with tomboy tendencies, arguably too perfect in his, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” though his definition, apropos Mrs Dubose, of real courage as, “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what,” bears repetition – even if he is prepared to ignore her racism. An eight year-old may still be young enough to idealise her father but it must be remembered that the narrator isn’t actually (the almost-nine-year-old) Scout, but an older version remembering her younger self.

The language is of its time, the words negroes and nigger occurring frequently but the phrase “the smell of clean negro” made me wonder how that differed from the smell of clean anybody else. (I suppose the smell of not-clean negro is much the same as of not-clean anybody else too.)

Lee hits on a truth when she has Scout observe that in the negroes’ church, “I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen,” – make that all religions – and her eight year-old has the true wisdom of a child when she tells us that, “one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is a fine first novel by anyone’s standards and addresses important issues yet when I put it down I reflected on how little books such as this matter. The text implied progress in that Tom Robinson’s conviction took hours rather than minutes yet the subject matter was still relevant when the novel was published twenty four years after the time in which the events it portrays were set. In the introduction to this edition’s first printing Albert French recalls travelling into the South in 1963 to train as a marine and feeling threatened as a result, but as an old man, nearly forty years after that, in 1996, says, “The crosses still burn and racism still haunts America.” Nigh on twenty years still further on, the problem remains.

Pedant’s corner:- As a Folio Society edition the printing is mostly in British English (eg coloured rather than colored) but furore was given without its final “e” and there was “waked up in the morning”.

The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Harvill, 1994 320 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat, Na Drini cuprija, by Lovett F Edwards. First published by Prosveta Publishing Company, Belgrade, 1945.

 The Bridge Over the Drina cover

Not many novelists could get away with an introductory passage describing a bridge. As if to show that there are no real rules for writing fiction this book begins in exactly this way. But when your title names just such a structure I don’t suppose you have much alternative. Then again while nominally a novel The Bridge Over the Drina, in spanning the centuries, cannot be anything like conventional and the book is more like a series of short stories, mythical or legendary accounts, or even anecdotes, linked only by the events in them taking place in, on or near the bridge. The legends include children buried amongst the bridge’s stones, the negro (though he was Arabic this is the word used in the town and so in the translation) half of whose body was entombed in the bridge as the result of an accident during its construction, whose ghost still inhabits it and the sight of which means death. Among the stories are those of the man impaled for impeding its construction, the severed heads mounted on its parapet after executions, another man’s ear being nailed to a wooden beam fixed to the central portion. The book is also a history of the bridge’s times and its location in Bosnia, with all that entails. Very few examples of violence are given on the page but we are treated to a description of the grisly mechanics of impalement (that curiously Balkan form of execution.)

The eleven spans of white stone are at Višegrad, erected during the height of Turkish power in the region at the behest of the Vezir Mehmed Pasha, who in his youth had been part of the blood tribute wherein sons of Christians living in the Ottoman Empire were taken away to serve as janissaries in the Sultan’s armies or as his administrators, some of whom rose to great power and wealth. (Vezir, rather than the more common vizier, is the spelling adopted here.) The town is inhabited by a mix of Christians and Turks or Muslims – these two terms tend to be used interchangeably though the latter is spelled Moslem throughout. Later in the story (and the bridge’s life) some Jews make up part of the town’s fabric. At the heart of the bridge is a kapia, made from two terraces dangling out on either side to provide a space twice the bridge’s normal width, which acts as a playground for children and a meeting- and market- place for adults. On the kapia “generation upon generation learnt not to mourn overmuch what the troubled waters had borne away. …. Life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet none the less it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina’.” The bridge is the “link between East and West, … one of the great and good works of man, which do not know what it means to change and grow old, and which, or so it seemed, do not share the fate of the transient things of this world.”

While various insurrections pass they mostly leave the town untouched. Things go along for centuries in more or less the time-honoured fashion with little but the usual human foibles to disturb the townspeople but after the granting of the Austrian protectorate Christians became more like the incomers in dress and behaviour, part of the mutual changes between the Austrians and the inhabitants. With the arrival of the twentieth century things change even more, the pace of life quickens, politics and news come into the people’s lives. On the saving in journey time the railway has brought, a Muslim man opines it is, “not important how much time a man saved, but what he did with it when he had saved it. If you are going to hell, then it is better that you should go slowly.” A notice pinned on the bridge preceding the annexation crisis of 1908 is greeted by the same Muslim with the pronouncement that, “Whenever a government feels the need of promising peace and prosperity to its citizens by means of a proclamation, it is time to be on guard and expect the opposite.” He later reflects that, “Lands and provinces, and, with them, living men and their habitations passed from hand to hand like small change,” and “the Turkish candle was burned out.”

In the aftermath of the crisis the bridge is mined by the Austrian authorities. After the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 the Turkish frontier moves from 8 to over 600 miles away. Events were, “looked on in the town with diametrically opposed feelings by the Serbs and the Moslems: only in their intensity and depth were they perhaps equal….. Those desires which for hundreds of years had flown before the slow pace of history could no longer keep pace with it but outdistanced it. …. All that had lain quiescent in men, as ancient as that bridge and equally dumb and motionless, now suddenly came alive and began to influence their everyday life, their general mood and the personal fate of every individual.”

Of the ear incident Andrić tells us, “In moments of general excitement something has to be done, something big and unusual.” Elsewhere we have, “Moments of social upset and great inevitable change usually throw up just such men, unbalanced and incomplete, to turn things inside out or lead them astray. That is one of the signs of times of disorder,” and “Hard times cannot pass without misfortune for someone.” In the Bosnian context, “The dark background of consciousness… preparing for later far-off times unsuspected changes and catastrophes without which, it seems, peoples cannot exist and above all the peoples of this land.” More generally, in an observation attributed to the Osmanlis, “There are three things which cannot be hidden: love, a cough and poverty.”

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand precipitates the final crisis of the book. “That wild beast, which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free….. permission was tacitly granted for acts of violence and plunder, even for murder, if they were carried out in the name of higher interests, according to established rules, and against a limited number of men of a particular type and belief.” Serbs are again, as in Turkish times, potential enemies of the state. One of them, held hostage to the safety of the bridge thinks, “He had worked, saved, worried and made money. He had taken care not to hurt a fly, been civil to all and looked only straight ahead of him, keeping silent. And here was where it had led him: to sit between two soldiers like the lowest of brigands and wait until some shell or infernal machine should damage the bridge and, for that reason, to have his throat cut or be shot.” Reading this book is a reminder that in Bosnia the people seem always to live in interesting times.

The back page blurb states that The Bridge Over the Drina won Andrić the Nobel Prize for Literature. While under the impression that said prize was given for a body of work rather than a single novel the book certainly contains nearly all of human life: sex is only implied; but there is love – and death aplenty. It is a compendious account of what it means to live in disputed territory.

Pedant’s corner:- I haven’t seen troublous before but on looking it up it does have a slightly different meaning to troublesome, “like the eyes in their head” (heads,) scelerotic (sclerotic,) span (spun,) “waiting for the peasant woman and buying from them” (that would be women, then,) beggers (beggars,) beserk (berserk,) concorn (?) “behave as if was sober”, (as if he was sober,) handsomer (more handsome, surely?) “which will have have”, gage (gauge,) Skoplje (Skopje?) on pension (this seems more awkward than “on a pension” would,) “beetles than can be seen” (that,) “nor would see America” (nor would she see America,) “so that they could see only their heads and shoulders” (so that he could see only their heads and shoulders,) “on the slope … lay Alihodja and breathed out his life” (this reads very awkwardly.)

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

Canongate Classics, 2005, 178 p plus vi pages introduction by Edwin Morgan. First published 1933.

Another from the list of 100 best Scottish Books. It is best to avoid Edwin Morgan’s introduction, as I did, till after reading the main text.

 The Gowk Storm cover

Despite its first appearance being in the 1930s there is a Victorian quality to this novel; not so much Dickensian as Hardy-like, or, given the author’s interest in those sisters (among other non-fiction works she wrote Haworth Harvest: The Lives of The Brontës) perhaps Brontëesque.

The narrator, Lisbet Lockhart, is one of three sisters, daughters of the manse in a rural parish. Their father is withdrawn and mother unobservant but there is a Nannie who is full of old Scots sayings. It is she who provides the meaning of gowk storm – strictly an unseasonal fall of snow in spring, an occurrence which actually is not too rare in Scotland even now – as, “Something o’ ill chance that micht fa’ to ony o’ us and that willna bide.”

To complete her education Lisbet’s father arranges for her to have Latin lessons with the local dominie, Mr MacDonald, after his normal schoolday is finished. Her eldest sister, Julia, makes excuses to come along with her. The attraction between Julia and MacDonald is kept secret but Mr Lockhart comes across them while they are sheltering from a storm. It is revealed the dominie is a Roman Catholic and the girls’ father hastens to ensure he is removed from his post. Julia is distraught, especially when MacDonald departs the village without a word to her and leaving all his possessions behind. Suddenly he is said to have been doing all manner of uncanny things though nobody had said ill of him till they discovered he was a Catholic. He is later rumoured to have joined a monastery. This part of the book highlights the sectarian prejudices which have blighted Scotland for centuries and have still not died out. For Julia this turns out to be only a passing disappointment as she accepts the proposal of (the much older and widowed) Mr Strathern just over a year later. As Nannie says, if in a later context, “It a’ passes, if ye only bide lang enow.” The focus then shifts to Emily Lockhart and her embroilment with Stephen Wingate, who is already engaged to Emily’s best friend, Christine. This entanglement is not a passing storm and provides the novel’s emotional impact.

The tight viewpoint employed by Morrison means that some of the characters – Wingate, Nicholas Strathern (who almost out of the blue professes a liking for Lisbet and is kissing her a short walk to the gate later,) even Mrs Lockhart – are less fleshed-out than would be ideal. The same cannot be said for the egregious Mr Boyd, the locum for Mr Lockhart when he is taken ill.

Before I read this I also read a prescription for good beginnings of stories one of which was to avoid exposition. “Nothing makes readers close a book faster than a long opening paragraph describing a mountain range.” Both the Prologue of The Gowk Storm and Chapter One of Book One begin with descriptions of landscape. Neither is particularly detrimental to reader engagement. In “classic” books written by Scots and set in Scotland it is rather a feature that a feeling for the landscape, as well as for its inhabitants, pervades them. Here Morrison has Lisbet muse that “Perhaps the shadows of things were like the lives of people…. The changeless thing of which we go so unaware from cradle to grave.” In the novel’s elegiac Epilogue a curlew’s call has “All the world’s sorrow, and all the world’s pain, and none of its regret.”

Not every ill chance fails to bide.

Pedant’s corner:- liteary (literary: this was in the biographical info prior to the title page,) span, Scotch for Scots (this must have been okay in 1933,) a vivid green fungi (did this mean fungi of a vivid green?) before he axed her (the only other time I’ve ever seen “axed” for “asked” is in “urban” speak,) over and river (over the river?) And in the introduction: observent (observant,) unsuitableness (unsuitability surely?)

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

PS Publishing, 2008, 304 p.

 Song of Time cover

Love, sex and death.

Oh, I know within these pages there are dead people who are somehow still able to exist, an intelligent kitchen, a crystal field saturating the environment, artificial skin, the last snow melting from Kilimanjaro, computer screens with no visible supports, a nuclear war, the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing up, not to mention a symphony that continually rewrites itself, but these are all just background: at its core Song of Life charts the three literary biggies. And the greatest of these is love.

One day towards the back end of the twenty-first century Roushana Maitland finds a half-drowned man, possibly attempting to enter the country illegally and who does not remember who he is, on the Cornish beach just below her house. She drags him up to safety and shelter. His presence and her imminent transfiguration (not death, she has very recently undergone the procedure which will undo that) trigger memories of her life. Song of Time’s chapters alternate between depictions of her present day with the stranger in her house, whom she dubs Adam but who himself pronounces it Abaddon, and her memories of the unfolding century.

Roushana is of mixed heritage, Indian on her mother’s side, Irish on her father’s. Her brother Leo is a gifted musician but contracts WRFI, Wide Range Food Intolerance, perhaps brought about by an artificial virus targeted on the lactose tolerant, an adaptation mostly found in Westerners. Unable to withstand the debilitation this has caused him, he commits suicide, telling Roushana, It’s up to you now, Sis. She polishes her up to then not particularly good efforts on the violin and, with the later help of famous conductor Claude Vaudin who eventually becomes her husband, parlays them into fame and fortune. Her story is set against the background of a disintegrating world: racial tensions erupt in Britain, unspecified divisions occur elsewhere, a millenarian type of cult arises. In terms of terrorism and world politics this future is like our present, only more so. But technological progress still occurs. The environment becomes enmeshed in the “ever-spreading network of crystal” but no mechanism for the dead to still be around after death is elaborated beyond the “crystal seed of immortality whining its way” into Roushana’s skull.

It may seem counter-intuitive to have classical music as the driver for Roushana’s fame, but pop stardom would have been too clichéd, and a future classical revival of sorts is not too much of a stretch. There is in any case some genre crossing. Claude’s performances in clubs at times read more like those of a jazz musician.

Song of Time contains a profoundly imagined and realised world and Roushana’s voice is an engaging one. That there are doubts over the exact circumstances of Claude’s death ring entirely true, Leo’s continuing influence over her life being a source of jealousy to Claude.

MacLeod has a poignant story to tell, has a facility with language, a poet’s ear at times, scatters out in one book more ideas than many authors would use in a lifetime and the book itself is a lovely object. Roushana’s story is one I’ll remember for a long time. Looking back I see Song of Time won the literary-inclined Clarke Award. However, it didn’t make the nominee list for the BSFA Award for 2008. (The fact that the SF elements can be construed as only background may have told against it.) I have not read three of the four on that year’s list but nevertheless they’d have to be going some to be better novels than this.

I have a caveat, though.

Did anybody proof-read this thing?

Pedant’s corner:- “Pregnancy came as a shock to me…. The sheer alienness of the symptoms…” (But Roushana had been pregnant before – albeit then had an abortion.) Disks (discs,) programs (programmes) – I don’t care even if either of these two were to do with computers – practise (innumerable times as a noun, but the noun is “practice” which strangely also appears correctly at times,) the late 1950s in the search of (in the late 1950s in search of,) “They didn’t have say it” (have to say it,) into him arm (his,) the speed in which (with which,) lineney (lineny,) sung (sang,) would not longer (no longer,) with she as she was (with her as she was,) it was shade (a shade,) Doges’ Palace (Doge’s,) on diet (on a diet,) as goes inside (as he goes inside,) after I’ve I sat him down (either I’ve or I, but not both,) “You where I mean” (You know where I mean,) “For a just a while” (for just a while,) glowing n his (in his,) unfocussed (unfocused, ) “Pakkis” but later, “Paki-girl”, the “the village” (just “the village”,) sewerage (sewage,) lost contact Uncle Indra (lost contact with Uncle Indra,) reforming (re-forming,) I really do have sit down (have to sit down,) St Fimbarrus’ (St Fimbarrus’s,) we took at ride (a ride,) whilst still officially still at war (one still too many here, plus there was another “still” later in the same sentence,) how you were you supposed to deal (a “you” too many,) ignited =in (ignited in,) its commanding view sea (sea view.) Back the kitchen (Back in the kitchen,) Miles Davis’ (Miles Davis’s,) fames (??), has (had,) Blythe Monroe (on all other appearances it was Munro,) I was following what he saying (what he was saying,) in one of pots (one of the pots,) Christos’ (Christos’s) Cholera B (is later Cholera b,) of a return virtuality to paint (of a return from virtuality to paint,) pervious (previous.) Near beside them (Near them? Beside them?) Periphique (Peripherique,) sit ins (sit-ins,) burn-out (burned-out,) I knew that Claude was be out debating (“would be” or “was”, but not “was be”,) virtuality de monde (as I remember my French that’s du monde,) focussed (focused,) if she’s started (she’d,) the orchestra were (orchestra is singular; therefore the orchestra was.) Loose faith (Lose faith,) whether he of she (he or she,) Bezant’s Bay (in most instances it’s Bezant Bay,) one instance of its for it’s, complemented (complimented,) it they haven’t been paid enough (if,) one of periodic eruptions (one of the periodic eruptions,) the early half-life of the radiation had decreased considerably (the radiation level may decrease but the half-life most certainly doesn’t,) softy steaming greenery (softly?) were (where,) so I often with worked with, anything less that whole-heartedly (than,) wintery (wintry,) closer to him that when he was (than when he was,) after I’d laid down (lain,) the least emotion I felt was surprise (the last emotion) I can’t read you mind (your,) with its all lights (with all its lights,) it’s shrunken (shrunk.) The text implies Yellowstone is in Colorado but it is mostly in Wyoming with parts extending into Montana and Idaho.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2014, 360 p.

 Ancillary Sword cover

Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, is still at war with herself through the intermediacy of the countless bodies her persona inhabits. As in Leckie’s previous novel, Ancillary Justice, our narrator is Breq, the sole surviving part of the ship AI Justice of Torren, one of its auxiliaries, now promoted by one faction of the Lord of the Radch to Fleet Captain in charge of the ship Mercy of Kalr and despatched to the Athoek system to protect it from incursion by the Lord’s other faction and a possible threat from the Presger, aliens bound by treaty to the Radch and therefore to all humans. Due to the civil war all gates between systems have been closed – only military ships can jump between worlds. At Athoek, Breq finds various local rivalries, evidence of illicit trade through a “Ghost Gate” of bodies in suspended animation – the type of bodies used for auxiliaries – and indentured labourers who are all but slaves. Had I not read Ancillary Justice this might have been well enough but, given the background of war between the Radch, it all seems to be a bit of a sideshow. Then again, there are human stories to be found in the byways of any conflict and it is possible Breq is being placed to take part in a wider resolution. It does, though, give Leckie the opportunity to explore more of the Radch and its culture(s).

Leckie’s use of the female pronoun to describe all her characters is not problematical here except in one instance where a character’s sibling is referred to as a brother on entering the story. If the pronoun is gender neutral would not the word sister always be used? That males exist within Leckie’s universe is shown in a scene of attempted comedy when Breq arrives at Athoek Station to find its walls bedecked with paper penises, in a festival deriving from a misunderstanding during the Radch takeover of Athoek.

Ancillary Sword won the BSFA Award for best novel published last year. (I’ve now read all but one of the nominees.) It’s good, but I wouldn’t have voted it first.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian so among others we get the horrible “off of”. None were (none = “not one” and so requires “was” as its verb,) metric tons (tonnes then,) waked (wakened,) pry the gun (prise?) There are, too, 15 added pages containing an extract of a book written by another author altogether. This is utterly pointless.

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