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Interzone 252, May-Jun 2014

Interzone 252 cover

The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson1
Possibly the unexpected results of a Large Hadron Collider type experiment, bubbles from elsewhere or elsewhen are intersecting the Earth, excising parts of it when they disappear. The narrator navigates the ruins of Glasgow, looking for provisions, hoping for the chance to be reunited with the lover he lost to one of the bubbles years before. An unusual apocalypse this, made more so by the familiarity (to me) of its setting.

The Mortuaries by Katharine E K Duckett2
Another apocalypse, this one based on global warming. The remaining human population lives on a gloopy foodstuff named noot. The titular mortuaries are more like mausolea. A man called Brixton invented a process which could embalm bodies and keep them fresh. Viewpoint character Tem grows up not fully understanding the world around him until he visits the “bad” mortuary. The pieces of the story didn’t quite cohere. In this world of shortage would there still be enough resources for the upkeep of the mortuaries – not to mention cars and motorbikes for people to flee the doomed last coastal city?

Diving into the Wreck by Val Nolan3
A story about the discovery of the lost Apollo 11 lunar ascent module, Eagle, crashed somewhere on the Moon, and of the necessity for mystery. I wasn’t quite convinced by the (unnamed) narrator’s final decision but this is a fine tale of what it – sometimes – means to be human.

Two Truths and a Lie by Oliver Buckram4
This describes a doomed love affair – one of whose participants may be an alien – couched as a series of short paragraphs each followed by three propositions of which the story’s title and preamble invite us to believe only two are true.

A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey5
Ghosts are appearing in everyone’s houses. Ghosts which sometimes have the attributes of birds. This causes complications in the marriage of Lauren who is contemplating a lesbian affair with Jo. The ghosts interfere in both their lives.

Sleepers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam6
Strange white creatures with hooves have started to appear randomly. An insomniac woman whose father is in hospital seeks one out to see if it perhaps a version of him. While the present tense narration is perhaps justified by the ending it seemed to strike a false note in the second paragraph.

1 sheered for sheared and “cookie jar.” Cookie jar? Unlikely from a Glaswegian I’d have thought.
2 Written in USian
3 A wyne of hay may be a misprint for wayne. There was also the sentence, “Here so the long culmination of selenological time.” What????
4 I had to look up “s’mores.” It’s some sort of USian confection.
5 Ditto “toonie” – a Canadian two-dollar coin.
6 Written in USian

Blood of the Martyrs by Naomi Mitchison

Constable & Co Ltd, 1939 500 p.

Naomi Mitchison has an extensive bibliography. Some of her output dealt with Scottish themes, others with sexuality. Blood of the Martyrs is a historical novel set in Imperial Rome during the reign of Nero.

Blood of the Martyrs cover

The first eight chapters relate the life histories of the members of the small Christian group whose story the book tells. Thereafter most of the novel takes place in the household of Senator Flavius Crispus, where Beric, a Briton, son of King Caradoc (Caratacus,) is treated as one of the family. He is not a Roman citizen, however, and is effectively being trained up for a return to Britain to help maintain Roman rule. His infatuation with Crispus’s daughter Flavia spitefully spurned by that spoilt young woman, he falls in with the Christians among the house’s slaves. As we are in the run-up to the Great Fire, things are obviously not going to turn out especially well. In passing we meet Paul of Tarsus, imprisoned in the Mamertine jail, and Luke, designated here a provincial doctor. We also matter-of-factly encounter the harshness of life in those days for all but the pampered rich – and even they were not secure from imperial displeasure.

The discussions among Crispus’s Senator friends – the Empire was built on money and the need to avoid Carthage making it, but that was also the Republic’s ruination – their political intrigue, the imperial dynamic which insists on enemies, the attraction of early Christianity for the downtrodden, are all well-handled. The book flows easily, the discussions of doctrine are not abstruse – a rich man couldn’t stay so as a Christian; if he lived like one as he wouldn’t want to keep his wealth – and at one point a character observes that Paul’s epistolic suggestions to a particular Church over a particular problem will one day be taken as a general rule. (each Church here is described as having its own autonomy and is run by a deacon, male or female according to who is most respected,) another fears that the rich and powerful might try to co-opt the Churches.

The novel is very easy to read and appears to be well researched. There are however several mentions of fireworks – generally considered to be a later Chinese invention. Others for pedant’s corner: there was an “Aren’t I?” – I doubt Romans spoke so ungrammatically – a “sunk,” “less” rights, by and bye (my dictionary has that without the e,) smoothe (ditto: says it’s rare) and “you’d have woke up that morning.” Interestingly, Mitchison deploys the word ruthful and the phrase “you usen’t to be interested in such things.”

Rites of Passage by Eric Brown

Infinity Plus Books, 2014, 188 p.

Rites of Passage cover

This is a collection of four of Brown’s novella length works three of which have appeared previously.

Bartholomew Burns and the Brain Invaders is a steampunk story featuring Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, our eponymous hero Burns, mudlark Tommy Newton and a scene at the Great Exhibition. In it we have no less than three sets of aliens, one of which is about to invade Earth by taking over the brains of people in power. Put so baldly it seems daft, and in many ways it is, but it is effective as light entertainment. As Brown says in his introduction to the collection the background here is not as compelling as it might be but he has created scope for more adventures from Burns in the future where that deficiency, if it is one, can be remedied.

Guardians of the Phoenix was later expanded by Brown into a novel. This original version became roughly the third quarter of the novel and, to my mind, the story works better at this shorter length, being more tightly focused.

Sunworld is set on a constructed space habitat where the inhabitants have long forgotten their origin. Yarrek Merwell dreams of being an architect but his extremely religious parents force him into joining the Inquisition. His encounter with the Church’s head leads to revelations that overturn his ideas of himself and his place in the world. Yet again in a Brown story religion looms large.

The story original to this collection is Beneath the Ancient Sun but its setting – an Earth dried up, with little fresh water – could be that of Guardians of the Phoenix only many centuries further on. A handful of humans struggles to survive, eking out their meagre reserves of water and telling stories to inspire the youngsters. For his Initiation rite Par chooses to emulate the legendary journey of Old Old Old Marla to the high mountain peaks. His girlfriend Nohma and her former lover Kenda accompany him. This story and Guardians of the Phoenix are the most satisfactory of the four novellas here. The other two seem more sketchy, as if they required greater length to be fully effective. Brown has left plenty scope for that, though, if he decides to return to the scenarios.

The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

Hamish Hamilton, 2013, 259 p.

 The Professor of Truth cover

James Robertson has published a series of novels dealing with Scottish themes, The Fanatic conjoins a present day tale with one set in Covenanting times, the testament of Gideon Mack has a modern day Kirk Minister meet the devil, Joseph Knight examines the (in danger of being forgotten) colonial and slave-owning legacy, while And the Land Lay Still deals with the rise of the Scottish independence movement in the late twentieth century. Scottish themes also abound in Robertson’s short fiction, of which I have read these and these.

The Professor of Truth marks a slight digression. While not dealing explicitly with Scottish subject matter – though its narrator is an Englishman living in Scotland – it takes an oblique look at an incident from recent Scottish history.

Alan Tealing is a lecturer in English literature in a university “of no great age located in a part of Scotland that positively groans under the accumulation of history.” Many years before the events of the novel his wife and daughter were killed when, while over the Scottish Borders, a bomb exploded in the aeroplane in which they were travelling to her parental home in the US. During the course of the trial of the men accused of the act, held in a foreign country, Tealing, despite wishing the reverse, becomes convinced of their innocence. His life since has been dominated by his search for the truth of what happened. This brings him into conflict with not only the authorities, but also the families of other bereaved, of his dead wife, and even his own mother, father and sister.

The inspiration for this scenario is not hard to discern but Robertson is at pains to avoid specifics. The place for the supposed “ingestion” of the bomb onto the aircraft is only ever referred to as “the island,” the town the destroyed plane descended on is never named, likewise the country the accused came from. (The incident also occurs around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas and the names of the accused are amended.)

The trigger for Robertson’s story is the appearance at Tealing’s house, one snowy day, of “Ted Nilsen,” a dying man attached to one of the US agencies which dealt with the aftermath of the bombing. Their discussions of the “narrative” of the atrocity, a narrative which evolved over time from a revenge attack by a terrorist cell in Germany funded by a Middle Eastern country which itself had had a plane downed (in an error of confusion) by US action even earlier, to a newer, less important to avoid annoying, Nearer Eastern country, are well laid out.

Tealing’s early life, his meeting with his wife, his learning of the tragedy, his trip to the Borders to try to find out if his wife and child are still alive, his subsequent disillusionment with the trial and lack of engagement with the world – barely ameliorated by a sporadic relationship with a colleague – are described in alternate chapters to his discussions with Nilsen. In his academic life, Tealing has a sense of being fraudulent, as, while he can discourse at length about them, he remembers almost nothing of all the books he has read. This fear of being found out in one’s inadequacies is a very Scottish trait, however. For Tealing, “Too many people write books. Far, far too many people write novels.” In his search for truth he consults a lawyer who tells him a courtroom is not a search for truth, it’s a venue for a fight between two sides. Justice may be done, truth may come out, but that isn’t the point.

All this is superb, but when “Nilsen” leaves the house, the book takes a less cerebral turn. Tealing travels to Australia, in bush fire season, to try to talk with the witness who was essential to the conviction (and who was subsequently well rewarded and given a new identity for his efforts.)

Aside. The details of the fluctuating “narrative” and the payment to the witness will be no shock to those who took a close interest in the real-life model for the bombing.

In Australia Tealing first encounters the witness’s Vietnamese wife – who has a tragic back-history of her own but agrees (perhaps a touch too willingly for suspension of disbelief) to facilitate the necessary meeting. The morphing of the story into one where a bush fire becomes an immediate threat was odd – though it gives Tealing the opportunity he had craved to engage with the witness. These bush fire scenes were reminiscent of something else I’ve read – almost Ballardian in tone.

Tealing and the witness (who now goes under the name of Parr) are never on the same level. Finding out Tealing’s occupation Parr says to him books are, “Like noise on paper,” and their discussion make Tealing remember one of “Nilsen”’s questions to him, “Were you even alive before the bomb went off?” which is an epiphany of sorts.

Pedant’s corner. In a book written by a Scot and published in the UK why is “medieval” spelt the US way?

Was by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 2005, 456p. First published 1992.

Was cover

As I posted in my review of the same author’s Air (or Have Not Have) I didn’t much take to Ryman’s earlier (short) works. I remember Colin Greenland at an Eastercon pointing this book out and saying, “You’ll have read this.” I shook my head and said I had a blind spot where Ryman was concerned. He seemed taken aback. When I saw this recently in a second–hand bookshop I thought I might give it a whirl.

Following her mother’s death a young girl called Dorothy, along with her dog, goes to live with her Aunty Em in Kansas. Any similarity to a well-known film (and slightly lesser known book) is entirely intended. Was is suffused with references to them. But this is no mere retread. Ryman takes the opportunity to illuminate life in late nineteenth century Kansas and so contrast his realistic approach to the smoothed out film version.

Dorothy Gael’s life in her new home is harsh – and unremitting. She does not get transported by a tornado to a more colourful world. Moreover, there are enough wicked witches in our own to suffice for anyone – and not only witches. Dorothy’s lack of understanding of her new environment only exacerbates her estrangement. The main focus of the book is on Dorothy’s experiences but there are chapters setting out Judy Garland’s life as viewed by herself as a child, by her make-up artist on The Wizard of Oz and by her mother after her success, with quotes at chapter heads from various sources commenting on the making of the film, the book on which it was based or the history of Kansas. Topping and tailing it all is the tale of a 1980s (HIV positive) actor trying to find traces of Dorothy Gael in historical documents.

Ryman’s imagining of Dorothy’s story has her surviving into the 1950s where, as a troublesome inmate of a home, she is befriended by a young man who goes on to a successful career in counselling (and one of whose later clients is the actor.) Dorothy tells him, “People are the only thing that can make you feel lonely,” and that Was is “a place you can step in and out of. It’s always there.”

Yet Fantasy comes to the book late. For the most part the tone is resolutely realistic and until very near the end any intrusion of the strange can be taken as imagination or illusion.

In what is perhaps a touch of overkill Ryman has The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s author, L Frank Baum, encounter Dorothy while employed as a supply (Ryman uses the term substitute) teacher – but it does precipitate a further deterioration of Dorothy’s young life. After this, “Dorothy needed magic….. She began to have another fantasy… walking backwards through the years… back home… away from Is into the land of Was.”

As a re-examination of, a commentary on, the mythology of Oz, this is a fine work. It’s also a damn good read.

Ryman’s afterword, where he discourses on the relative utilities of realism and fantasy, of the necessary distinction between history and fantasy, is also worth a look.

Pedant’s corner. Apart from the USian in which the whole book was produced, it was page 246 before I came across an irritant – laying instead of lying, which occurred once more. Unusually, I didn’t spot any typos. This may be because the book is a reprint.

The Book of Souls by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 441 p including a short story, The Final Reel, which is rather abrupt.

The Book of Souls cover

This is the second of Oswald’s Inspector MacLean novels which he first electronically self-published before gaining a book contract at Penguin.

In a disturbing echo of the “Christmas Killer” murders whose perpetrator Inspector Tony McLean was instrumental in catching several years before, a succession of women is being found naked, with their throats cut, staked out under bridges over running water. A local journalist with a new book on the previous killings is suggesting the police got the wrong man, McLean’s superior Inspector Duguid keeps taking officers away from his investigation and McLean himself is forced to endure counselling. In addition to the murders McLean has a series of mysterious fires destroying old industrial premises around Edinburgh on his caseload.

The book is certainly readable if with some workmanlike prose at times – but then I’m not overly familiar with the modern crime novel so this may be what’s expected. I also felt that Oswald over-eggs the pudding a bit with the identity of the last potential murder victim.

As with Oswald’s first McLean book, Natural Causes, there is a tinge of the supernatural to the proceedings. The Liber animorum, the Book of Souls of the title, is said to weigh souls – and take over those found wanting. (My hang-up I know, but as an explanation for human depravity I have always found the supernatural a total cop-out.)

Pedant’s corner:-
One count of “sunk” for “sank”. “Ploiped” appears to be a coinage of Oswald’s but may only be a typo for “plopped.” “A half a dozen” has one “a” too many. “Happy Christmas.” (Where I’m from the greeting is “Merry Christmas.”) A judge bangs a gavel – not in a British court I’m afraid.

The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi

Gollancz, 2014, 292 p.

 The Causal Angel cover

The third in Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy – see my reviews of The Quantum Thief and The Fractal PrinceThe Causal Angel also features the characters Mieli and Matjek Chen from the previous novels, the latter now as a young boy. Reversing their previous roles, here Jean is attempting to save Mieli, who is in the hands of the transhuman Zoku. The action ranges all over the Solar System – much of which has already been trashed or else is destroyed in the process. Any attempt at plot summary would be wasted.

While The Causal Angel shares a present tense narrative with the earlier books it felt too distancing here and the frequent shifts of viewpoint make the tale less intimate than, in particular, The Quantum Thief. Except in a few cases – most notably the necessity of Planck locks for life as we know it to exist – Rajaniemi still makes absolutely no concessions to the reader with regard to explanation. While quantum entanglement is more or less obvious and the overlapping of branes is easy enough to visualise, the concept of an ekpyrotic cannon does depend a little more on a knowledge of Physics.

Not a read for the faint-hearted or the technophobic.

Pedant’s irritants:-
The text mentions an aurora borealis near Saturn’s south pole, That would be an aurora australis, then; or just an aurora. The spelling of Iapetus warps back and forth to Iapetos.

The Well at the World’s End by Neil M Gunn

Polygon, 2008, 333 p. First published 1951.

 The Well at the World’s End cover

The book starts off at a well, which appears to be dry but whose water is so transparent it is invisible. This strange encounter reminds Peter Munro and his wife Fand of an old Gaelic legend of the well in the land beyond ours, the Land of Youth. Munro sets off on a quest to see if anything remains of this well at the world’s end, to go through the human boundary (which may be an illusion.)

The novel treats of two of the triumvirate of literature’s perennial concerns – love and death, but not the third, sex – and in part reads like a series of short stories bound together as a travelogue. On his journey Munro sees The Wild Man, meets a shepherd, hears of a practical joke played out in a supposedly haunted house, is knocked out by illicit whisky distillers, witnesses a woman reinvigorating her marriage in a traditional way, facilitates young love and encounters rivalries (and a reconciliation) in neighbouring seaside towns.

While the book skirts round fantasy territory, things appearing out of mists etc, the overall treatment is realistic. The denouement brings the whole round in a circle and reintroduces fantasy overtones, inviting the reader to identify Munro with the Wild Man he glimpsed earlier but in one sense wriggles out of the conclusion which that entails.

Memorable phrases included, “A man should get away from everything occasionally, even from his wife,” “There are two things the Gael likes naked and one of them is whisky,” “We don’t drink alcohol for its reality. We drink it for the effect it creates, the illusion it engenders,” “A nod’s as good as a blink when there’s a blind salmon on the back doorstep,” and the reflection, “Every village in the Highlands, every crofting area to the farthest Western Isle, had kin in the ends of the earth, and long before world wars were the fashion.”

The text employs those impeccably Scottish words kist (spelled as cist,) widdershins and deisil (sunwards) and has Munro muse on the fact that alcohol is known as water of life in several languages, uisgebeatha, eau de vie, aqua vitae, but the Sasunnach (not having a water of life of his own) struggled to pronounce uisge and so deemed it whisky. At one point Gunn touches on the phenomenon of dual personality which has echoed through Scottish literature down the years since the Act of Union when he has Munro reflect, “as though in oneself were two quite different men, who were yet the same man.” Even without these indicators the book could not be mistaken for anything other than emblematically Scottish, though.

I confess I had to look up the phrase “agenbite of inwit,” which I had never seen before.

Pedant’s corner:- Sasunnach is an unusual spelling. “Shore up” was used in the sense of “rise up.” There was a barely brew (barley,) an unpredictible, doppleganger, genuiness and a failure of subject to verb agreement in “his knees, his whole body, was trembling finely.”

Interzone 251, Mar–Apr 2014

Interzone 251 cover

Ghost Story by John Grant1
An interesting take on the ghost – or possibly parallel worlds – story. Nick is happily married to Dverna when he receives a phone call from the daughter of family friends who says she is pregnant and he’s the father. Except both Dverna and he know he can’t be.

Ashes by Karl Bunker2
In a world where AIs have allowed all sorts of useful developments but also the technology that drove the Dust Wars the very few humans who remain live in scattered enclaves without contact for fear they’ll kill each other. The AIs are prone to winking out of existence. Narrator Neil, accompanied by an AI, sets out to bury the ashes of a former girlfriend.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa3
Another post-apocalypse tale. An old man inhabits a wrecked room. He is frightened of the mummers who roam outside. One day a surgeon knocks on the door.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer4
Set on a mining asteroid run by a woman-hating theocracy which holds its workers in bondage till they pay off their debts and/or fines for misbehaviour. Fari is unique, a female miner – but she is the best – and has her own reasons for paying back credits. Things come to a head when a new Rep takes over.

A Doll is not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser5
Yopu, a robot dumpling seller, is kidnapped by activists for non-human rights (one of whom is a dogboy.) Yopu is given a bigger vocabulary and a mission.

This is How You Die by Gareth L Powell6
A very short story narrated in the second person about the effects of, and a personal response to, a devastating flu-like pandemic.

Pedant’s corner:
1 It’s androgynous not genous and any Scot I know uses either bairns or weans to describe children, but not both.
2 The two info dumping sections are intrusive and the story is written in USian.
3 Had been “sawed” apart, fit for fitted, the surgeon made no “more” to interfere (misprint for move.)
4 Written in USian.
5 Written in USian plus two instances of failure of agreement between subject and verb, epicenter, and a “lay” for lie.
6 “wet orange leaves” is ambiguous. Well, I had to read it twice to get Powell’s meaning.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Picador, 1998, 280 p.

Kay is mainly a poet but has published three novels, of which this was the second.

Trumpet cover

Trumpet starts in the aftermath of the death of famous jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. His wife, Millicent, has travelled to Torr, a remote Scottish location, to escape press attention following the revelation of the couple’s secret. The story is told from various viewpoints starting with Millicent’s memories of their relationship. We are with the doctor who examines the body, see their adopted son Colman’s reaction to the news, the sensitive registrar’s concern for the proprieties, the indecision of the funeral director who prepares the corpse, the glee of the journalist, Sophie Stones, who interviews Colman for a projected book, are given a feel for Joss’s engrossment in the music, shown the memories of Moody’s drummer who will not hear a word said against him, of the cleaner who “did” for the Moodys, and finally meet Joss’s elderly mother, whose ongoing existence he had kept from his family.

As the book goes on we return intermittently to Millicent’s, Colman’s and Sophie’s viewpoints, charting Colman’s journey from initial disbelief to a gradual coming to terms with his upbringing.

There are several aperçus (not that you have to agree with all of them,) “Sex is always better if you argue before,” “Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence,” “When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive,” and lots of Scotticisms to savour; tattie scones, square sausage, Irn Bru (as irn bru), shortbread, black bun, chapping the door and the wonderful to see in a literary context, “His brain is mince.” (Mince = rubbish or useless.)

I confess not to have read any of Kay’s poetry but her ability as a novelist is without question.

Pedant’s corner:
In Millicent’s narratives – windowscreen for windscreen, reeking havoc, grizzly for grisly, Greyfriars bobby (Bobby,) asterix for asterisk – but these may be the character’s spelling choices. What may be a continuity error, “I’ve never locked the door and I’m not starting now,” where a few pages before on arrival at Torr she had locked the door can be attributed to Millie’s disorientation.
Similarly in Colman’s viewpoint we had mowed for mown, regigged for rejigged and Barr’s irn bru. It’s a proper noun, so Irn Bru.
“There has been some sympathetic murmurings.” (have) “Something about the eyes that draw you.” The subject of the verb here is “something” not “eyes.” That would be something draws you, then.
The registrar office should have been a register one – and capitalised – and were there branches of Menzies in London railway stations back in the day?
Twice we had ass for arse and twice asshole for arsehole and there was the strange construction, “She sat put with the girl.”

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