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Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Mar 2016 cover

The second issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. Robert Silverberg describes how Walter de la Mare’s story The Three Mulla-Mulgars, read in his youth and many times since, inspired him and fed into his fiction. James Patrick Kelly’s internet overview discusses the pros and cons of reading and writing a series of books.1 In the fiction:-
The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka.2 A data cruncher who can predict scandals goes to work for a politician. Then she is contacted by the people who really run things. Another story which panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Ship Whisperer by Julie Novakova. An expedition to a black dwarf (which shouldn’t exist) discovers a device that can alter the rate of change of time. The titular character can “talk” to quantum computers, enabling the story’s resolution.
A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time by Sunil Patel is a series of listicles. I believe it is supposed to be humorous. The author seems to have a particular thing about kale.
Project Empathy by Dominica Phetteplace is about trends, moving elsewhere then finding the norms are different, plus there are Watcher chips inside people’s heads.
Do Not Forget Me by Ray Nayler3 is a story in the Eastern tradition, of tales within the tale – four embedded narratives here – the central one being about a man who doesn’t age. There is nothing really noteworthy here though.
A Little Bigotry by R Neube.4 An ex-soldier down on her uppers is reduced to accepting a contract to be an escort to a former enemy. A fine enough story but reminiscent of Barry B Longyear’s Enemy Mine. Then again, I suppose the point about enemies being worthy of understanding always bears repeating.
New Earth by James Gunn.5 A colony ship from a more-or-less destroyed Erath has reached a new planetary home. Choices and dangers must be faced.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space by Dale Bailey6 is narrated by a woman who takes home an alien who came into the Walmart she works in. This at first unpromising – clichéd even – scenario is, though, only scaffolding over what eventually becomes an affecting tale of love, loss and redemption. I note the references by Bailey – via the narrator’s surname (Sheldon,) her dead daughter Alice and her comment on her status as an invisible woman – to the career of James Tiptree Jr.

Pedant’s corner:- In the editorial; definine (define,) chose (choose,) Lawrence Watt Evans tale (Evans’s,) 1 ambiance (ambience,) 2 she could feel it siding in her fingers (sliding makes more sense,) lobyists (lobbyists,) 3 lay about (lie about.) 4 license (licence,) maw used for mouth (maw means stomach,) accurst (accursed,) 5mentions trees that are not-quite-trees but one of the characters says multi-cellular life hasn’t evolved there. Trees are multi-cellular; the fern-like structures subsequently described would be also. 6Bug-Eyes’ (it’s singular; so Bug-Eyes’s,) Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) laying (lying; plus lay for lie,) breath in (breathe in.) In Paul di Filippo’s book reviews; stefnal to mean science-fictional, a usage I had not come across before, whereas sfnal I was familiar with.

The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2014, 238 p.

 The Quiet Woman cover

Writer Alice Stockton lives in a Hampshire which has suffered the fallout from a nuclear accident at Cap la Hague in France. Despite there being no obvious reason for it she has had her latest manuscript impounded by agents acting for the government. Her only local friend, a much older woman named Eleanor, has been found murdered. Alice’s story is narrated in the third person and interspersed at times with a first person narrative by Eleanor’s son Gordon Sinclair, who also goes under the name of Peter Hamilton. As Hamilton he works, at arm’s length from the government, in information management – de facto censorship. Hence the ability to prevent Alice’s manuscript being published and to demand any copies, electronic or otherwise, be destroyed.

There are early hints that the first person narration may be unreliable when the narrator’s car and torch cut out and he observes spinning cylinders make circles in the nearby crops before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. However this incident is only once referred to again and can be taken to be imagined or hallucinated. However potential unreliability is underscored by part of one of the two letters Eleanor wrote for Alice wherein she says, “I am by nature a concealer and disguiser, a natural fiction writer,” and (a book should have) “little facts that don’t add up, that misdirect the truth.” Then there is the very late scene which is described in both the first and third person narratives with substantial discrepancies between the two. Two of the first person chapters describe acts of extreme sexual violence on their narrator’s part. They also describe Sinclair’s mother (in the third person sections a relatively benign presence) as relating to him from an early age stories of her life before he was born with sexual details foregrounded. Again a reading of delusion on the narrator’s part seems in order.

Priest’s prose is immensely readable but there is something elusive about what purpose his book might serve. The total mismatch between Sinclair’s accounts of events and the seemingly more authoritative third person sections reinforce the reading that he is unhinged (at best.) Yet he is a powerful man – able to alter the official records pertaining to Alice’s life. Even in authoritarian systems surely someone would notice? Then there is Alice’s sudden conviction, without any evidence, that Sinclair is responsible for his mother’s death. And the bit about authors being paid merely for submitting manuscripts to the “European Repository of Human Knowledge” is just bizarre.

The quiet woman of the title is presumably Eleanor, she speaks to us only through those two letters to Alice which Priest vouchsafes us, yet as a result is paradoxically too quiet. This is only one of the aspects of the novel which are unbalanced. The Quiet Woman is not one of Priest’s major works but interesting enough, if a little frustrating.

Pedant’s corner:- “we hurried back along to promenade (along the promenade? Along to the promenade?) “one three sent to England one of three,) “she knew he that he wasn’t sure who she was” (miss that first “he”? or “he that”?) “How could she had forgotten?” (have,) one end quote where there had been no dialogue, an personal nature (a,) “Tom pushed the bolt of the door home” followed nine lines later, with no other mention of the bolt, “Alice pushed home the bolt on the door,” plus seven or eight instances of “time interval later”.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Corsair, 2015, 267 p. Reviewed for Interzone 259, Jul-Aug 2015.

The Freedom Maze cover

It is 1960 in New Orleans. Eleven year old Sophie Martineau is descended from the once grand Fairchilds and through her mother she has inherited the distinctive Fairchild nose. The family owned the Oak River plantation in Louisiana but has now fallen on harder times. Her mother is still fiercely proud of her heritage though, refers to the War of Northern Aggression, has inculcated in Sophie a suspicion of black men and feels herself to be a Southern Belle. Sophie’s failure to live up to her mother’s standards of dress, tidiness and deportment is, then, a source of friction. To add to Sophie’s woes, her parents are divorced and her father has married again. Her mother always harboured suspicions about her ex-husband’s background – muttering darkly about a “touch of the tar brush” – has now had to get a job and has also signed up to train in accounting. To allow time for this Sophie must go to the ancestral home to be looked after by her aunt and grandmother for the summer. The signs saying “coloreds only” at a stopover and references to Negroes “the polite term” remind (or perhaps inform – this is a YA novel) the reader of the legacies of slavery.

At Oak River the former Big House is disused and the maze is in some disrepair. Sophie’s only solace is a book of adventures featuring teenagers who travel back in time. Wishing to be anywhere else she explores the maze one day and hears a voice in her ear. This is a trickster she calls The Creature, which later surprises her swimming in a pool and tells her he “sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, was and will be, here and there.” At her request it manifests itself; as an odd looking podgy mammal with deer’s ears. After one more altercation with her visiting mother she tells the Creature she wants to travel in time herself. The Creature obliges. The bulk of the novel deals with the consequences as Sophie finds herself on the Fairchild estate in 1860, mistaken for a slave sent up from New Orleans by estate owner Charles’s brother Robert. The spoilt daughter of the estate, Elizabeth Fairchild, is immediately antagonistic towards her but her parents Mr and Mrs Charles Fairchild are less mistrustful and Sophie is given household duties to perform. In following these we are treated to a rather heavy-handedly written conversation about the likelihood of war with the North. Sophie swiftly falls ill and is allowed even lighter duties in order to recover. While in her delirium she hears a conversation between the Creature and a spirit called Papa Legba (who saves her from dying) about the dangers of travelling in time without preparation.

It must be said that, after initial incomprehension at not being recognised as white, Sophie slips very easily into the life of a slave, learning deference quickly and adopting slave speech patterns. It is in this context that the novel strikes a note that seems slightly off. Yes, the Fairchilds are “good” slave owners, though the overseer Mr Akins is not so reticent in this respect, but even if the prospect of a whipping is never far off the slaves’ conditions do not come over as being as grim as might be expected. Similarly the one whipping Sophie does eventually receive does not read as being as devastating. Sherman does highlight other gritty aspects of 1860 life, sanitary protection for instance is very rudimentary.

What plot there is kicks in when Elizabeth’s suitor Beaufort Waters casts his roving eye – not to mention hands – on the slave girl Antigua. It is here that the Creature’s purpose in bringing Sophie back in time is fulfilled. Sophie’s resourcefulness and the usefulness of a Fairchild nose are instrumental in the resolution of Antigua’s situation.

In all of this any fantastical elements are scant. The intervention by Papa Legba could be interpreted as an hallucination induced by Sophie’s illness and the time travel is merely a black box. There is nothing speculative about it, no mechanism for it. It just happens. Sherman merely uses it as a device to precipitate Sophie’s consciousness into the nineteenth century. Her purpose is to tell a story set in the slavery era and to seek to make it relevant to modern times. In this she succeeds well enough. In the end, though, there is as little sense of true jeopardy in Sophie’s sojourn in the past as there was in the stories she so enjoyed in 1960. And it does seem rather to belittle the subject matter to make an overt comparison between freedom from slavery and throwing off parental shackles.

The following did not appear in the review:-
Pedant’s corner: up and moved (upped and moved, surely?) there was horrified gasp (a horrified gasp,) you should look out after her better, Lolabelle morphs to LolaBelle and back again, mistress’ (mistress’s,) “who lived in all the way up in” (who lived all the way up in,) lookingglass (looking glass,) her effort must have showed (shown,) bit (bitten,) made up of several man (men,) Mama appeared the garden entrance.

The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer

Women’s Press, 1985, 152 p.

The Planet Dweller cover

Another Women’s Press SF novel I missed out on when first published. Its feminist credentials are established early. I can’t recall reading another Science Fiction novel which mentions hot flushes, certainly not in its first three words as this one does. The sufferer is Diana who also hears a voice in her head, saying, “Moosevan.” She lives near to a radio telescope where a Russian émigré named Yuri works. He has discovered certain patterns in the arrangement of the asteroids which suggests outside interference. The interactions among the characters here are well delineated, Yuri’s tendency to drunkenness and the local toff Daphne’s sense of entitlement being particularly well captured if a little clichéd. However, in chapter three the story takes a sudden lurch into a narrative which contains what I can only call cartoon aliens who have plans to set off a piece of equipment which will destroy a planet. The planet concerned surrounds the intelligence that is Moosevan (a planet dweller) and soon both Yuri and Diana are transported there where they encounter the Torrans who wish to disrupt the plans of the most dangerous species in the galaxy, the Mott, in their quest to possess new worlds.

The idea of an intelligence surrounded by a planet is certainly interesting but is not taken very far. The Planet Dweller is readable enough but in SF terms certainly belongs back in the 1980s or beyond. It is unfortunate that the SF element is its weakest part. The back cover of Palmer’s later novel The Watcher (which I bought at the same time) says “Another joyous send up of the SF genre,” so I assume The Planet Dweller is meant to be read in that vein. Humour in SF is a difficult trick to pull off. From the perspective of 2016 Palmer doesn’t achieve it here.

Pedant’s corner:- alchohol (alcohol,) scintar (as in “scintars and pulsars” which would suggest it’s a kind of star but I’ve never heard of it and can find no definition of one,) “a light shower of carbon dioxide particles floated gently down through the thin air” (CO2 is invisible [but maybe not to cartoon aliens,]) lackies (lackeys,) shute (chute,) court martials (courts martial,) any other species’ (species’s? it could have been species plural though, the text wasn’t exactly clear,) to see one if those creatures (one of those,) “though she was on the track of quark that would solve the riddle of the universe” (?? – Of a quark? Of quark as a type? )

Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Feb 2016 cover

The first issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. In his column Robert Silverberg remembers the pulp days. As to the fiction:-
The Grocer’s Wife [enhanced transcription] by Michael Libling.1 Andrew Phillips works for a government agency overseeing the mental deterioration of various subjects. His latest, a grocer named Thomas Bonner, gets to him, or rather the devotion of Bonner’s wife does. The deterioration process mimics Alzheimer’s but is induced by the government to drain the brains of its victims. Waffle about JFK and President Bush aside quite how and why the government should feel the need to do this remains obscure.
Bringing Them Back by Bruce McAllister. A man tries to bring back all the creatures lost to environmental stress and targeted viral outbreaks by drawing them onto paper. The story is complete with illustrations purporting to be these drawings. The last of them (he cannot bring himself to draw his wife) are of his children and himself.
In Equity by Sarah Gallien.2 An orphaned child goes to his latest placement interview with little hope of acceptance. His prospective adopters want him to be subject to unfettered medical trials in exchange for the best education.
Passion Summer by Nick Wolven.3 A Passion can be bought but is usually fleeting. Fourteen year-old Jeffrey decides to ask for a Passion for Passion itself.
Exceptional Forces by Sean McMullen narrates the tale of a Russian scientist who detected carrier wave background noise in the Andromeda galaxy (evidence of alien radio transmissions) and the contract killer sent to silence him. The story panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Monster of 1928 by Sandra McDonald is an unexceptional fantasy tale. The monster of the title is Tulu, the legend of the Everglades, encountered one night by narrator Louise.
The Charge and the Storm by An Owomoyela.4 On a colony formed by a starship community but dominated by the alien Su a group of humans seeks independence.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 skullduggery (skulduggery,) 2 sprung (sprang,) unpixilated (pixilated means bemused or intoxicated, context suggests unpixelated,) 3 gladiolas (gladioli,) Diedre (Deirdre,) 4 missing comma before a speech quote, to not die (not to die.)

The Just City by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2015, 368 p including iv p Thanks and Notes.

 The Just City cover

The God Apollo cannot understand why Daphne prayed to Artemis to turn her into a tree rather than mate with him. As a result he resolves to become mortal for a while in order to learn about volition and equal significance (ie according to others their right to self-determination.) His half-sister Athene suggests he go to Kallisti, the part of the Mediterranean island of Thera which will be destroyed when the volcano erupts, where some people are attempting to set up a society based on Plato’s Republic. Here, overseen by masters (Plato-loving scholars drawn from throughout human history – not all of whom are men, despite their title) are brought ten-year old children bought from slave markets to be moulded by Plato’s rules with the intent that they strive to be their best selves and so produce philosopher kings – people who truly understand the truth, agree on what it is, and pursue it – either of the children themselves, from whom the contents of the Republic are to be withheld until they are fifty, or their offspring. Robots from our future do all the work of maintenance and food production. All the children and most masters have their original names replaced, even Cicero. Into this so called Just City after five years comes Sokrates – the only master there who had not in some way requested it. He, of course, questions everything, including the robots.

The narrative is divided into three viewpoints: that of Apollo, incarnated on Kallisti as Pytheas; a slave girl, Simmea; and Maia, a woman born in nineteenth century Harrogate. Between the three this gives Walton the opportunity to discuss not only Plato’s ideas but also issues of free will, the rights of individuals and the nature of sentience. In the midst of this she has Sokrates inquire, “‘If you pursue happiness….. do you get closer to it or further away?’” and Athene, in human form as Septima, “‘most women might as well not exist for all the contribution most of us get to make to history.’”

When the children reach the age of sixteen a system of temporary marriages, whose participants should appear to be randomly selected for each other but really to ensure only the most fit reproduce, is instituted. Human nature being what it is, some couples pair up outside this system, against the rules, and sneak off to do what couples do. Simmea adheres strictly to the rules but Pythea, who is attracted by her mind (she is flat-faced, flat chested and buck-toothed) in the end wants her for himself, as does Kebes, who resents the whole process in Kallisti as being no better than the slavery the children were removed from.

Walton also portrays incidents which underline the thrust of her novel and the arguments it makes. Some of these are perhaps just a little too programmatic. For example, Maia is raped by Ikaros, though he doesn’t understand his actions as rape. Plato wrote that defective babies or those of defective parents should be exposed – a common practice in the classical world. Despite her misgivings, Maia does expose a hare-lipped child.

The Just City is interesting, thought-stirring stuff. Unfortunately, after a public dialogue between Sokrates and Athene, the novel stops rather than concludes. There is a sequel though, The Philosopher Kings, which I shall search out.

Pedant’s corner:- there were a whole host of reasons (there was a host,) the Tech Committee have decided (has decided,) a full stop at the end of a question, to extend this out to everyone (no “out”,) somebody who had never showed cowardice (shown,) said as got dressed (as he got dressed,) Creusa (Kreusa,) ‘we can fix it would be much better’ (fix it it would be,) had rarely seem him (seen,) the crowd were making (the crowd was.)
Walton employs k where c is usually written in English for Greek names, hence Patroklus and Sokrates, but still uses the c in the phrase Socratic dialogues, she also in her note on pronunciation at the end says “ch” is a hard sound as in Bach or loch; in my experience Scots do not pronounce loch – nor Bach come to that – in such a way.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Hodder, 2015, 416 p plus 10 p extract from a sequel, a 2 p reading group guide and a 2 p special note from the author.

 The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet cover

Rosemary Harper is fleeing from her past life, having paid more than handsomely for the privilege, not to mention for a new identity. She is taking up an administrative job on the Wayfarer, a spaceship whose function is to punch holes through space to create pathways for other ships to travel by. Despite Rosemary’s doubts about her abilities she is accepted readily by the multi-species crew – barring only one member (there always has to be one) – the algaeist (ship’s engineer basically) who is something of a loner and not too friendly with anyone.

The tonal qualities of the narration are a little odd. Terms like grounders for planet dwellers and spacers for those who travel between solar systems are somewhat unimaginative (and utterly retro,) while artigrav is a horrible coinage. Give it a specific name and thus derivation instead of a generic description. Other aspects of the narrative, too, are irritating. There are frequent discussions amongst the crew about food which seem interminable. Their swear word of choice is “Oh, stars.” Even in moments of crisis there are very few instances of stronger expletives – and two of these were by a non-crew member. Without exception information dumping immediately follows on the mention of something we haven’t encountered before. Rosemary’s supposedly carefully hidden secret she blurts out at the first hint of its possible revelation. The only thing resembling a plot is a commission for the Wayfarer to travel to the galactic core to forge a tunnel back to local space. I suppose it is this that constitutes the titular long way for the Wayfarer makes numerous stops on the journey to the core, is once invaded, and boarded by friendly aliens on another occasion. Throughout there is no sense of urgency about the impending mission, no keenness apparent to get to the job, nor any hint of penalty for delay. On the planet Cricket (sadly not named after the sport but the insect) some of the crew are forced by a swarm to utilise the shelters against such an occurrence but the chapter just ends and the next one starts back on board the ship with nothing more said about it.

The universe of Chambers’s novel has a variety of alien species and both strands of humanity are relative newcomers to, and very minor players in, galactic society. Exodans fled Earth some time back but those who remained also now have access to the galaxy. The Toremi at the core are the most interesting aspect of the book but disappear from the narrative within a few pages, merely providing the impetus for the crisis of yet another crew member.

This isn’t a novel. It’s a series of barely connected episodes. It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Chambers is so much in love with her universe she wants to show us every bit of it, regardless of whether her stops along the way follow any sort of logic rather than existing merely for the sake of themselves and to be shown off. Things happen merely to illustrate facets of Chambers’s vision. Sure, we get interspecies sex (two instances, two different couples) but I note in both cases there is no delving into the nitty gritty. We aren’t even invited to speculate on the mechanics. It is as if there is an assumption that these are universal; but they won’t be. Can’t be. (And where do pheromones fit in in this context?) There is no economy, no standing back, little evidence of the sacrifice of authorial darlings.

Yes, the title is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but it is a very long way indeed. (And a very short stay there.) Perhaps if Chambers had stuck to the back story of one or two of the Wayfarer’s crew this might have been less noticeable but she gives us them all. And, yes, the members of the crew all look out for each other – even in extremis, for the algaeist – but this isn’t enough to sustain interest. It only highlights the lack of story. Had there been an underlying theme, a point to the meanderings, a grappling with an issue or two then there might have been positives to be taken. As it is, this is a very light read indeed.

There is one of those naff “extract from” passages after the book’s conclusion, from its sequel A Close and Common Orbit, but I really can’t see where Chambers can go with this. She’s already told us the background to every single one of her ship’s characters. Look on the bright side though. A Close and Common Orbit might actually have a plot.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb; reptillian (reptilian.)
Otherwise:- ambiance (ambience,) acclimate (acclimatise,) liasing (liaising,) “we’re not kit out for it” (kitted,) unfased (unfazed,) “every shop had different lighting mechanisms to help distinguish themselves from the others” (to distinguish it from the others,) kaleidescope (kaleidoscope – the correct spelling also appeared later on,) “hands were shook” (shaken,) maw (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “curling inward at rigored angles” (? ) “’Our ship is less than an hour out from yours, but we could half it if you meet us in the middle,’” (halve; and spaceship trajectories just DO NOT WORK IN THIS WAY. They are not like cars; you cannot just change a spaceship’s course on a whim,) Jenks’ (Jenks’s, which did appear later,) theirself (themself surely?) automatons (automata,) Encaledus (Enceladus?) “The length of the elevator cables were …” (The length was.) “Her feathers were beginning to lay flat,” (to lie flat.) “She was on her feet before she knew it.” (That’s just impossible.)

Satellite 5 and New Books

 Secret Language cover
 Pelquin's Comet cover

At the weekend I was away again, this time in Glasgow for the Satellite 5 Science Fiction Convention.

I met up with a few old friends from the Scottish SF scene, was a member of a panel on the subject of Writing Space – How do SF writers an­d artist­s make their fu­tur­istic tech­nology be­liev­able? And does it really mat­ter i­f they don’t? (I don’t think I made an idiot of myself.)

I was also introduced briefly to the editor of Shoreline of Infinity, a new SF magazine/ezine and a potential home for stories.

Not to mention buying a copy of Neil Williamson’s latest story collection Secret Language published by NewCon Press, so hot off the presses it hasn’t been officially released yet.

And that nice man Ian Whates, publisher at NewCon, gave me a copy of his Pelquin’s Comet as his thank you for doing the proof-reading on it.

Latest Interzone Stuff

 The Paper Menagerie cover
 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

On Monday morning Interzone’s issue 264 dropped through the letter box. This one contains two of my reviews, a normal length one of Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories and a shorter one of City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Meanwhile, waiting for me on my return from the continent was a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, review to be delivered by the end of the month.

A Science Fiction Jigsaw

I picked this up in a sale in January. Great 1950s SF feel to the box cover:-

Jigsaw Box

The actual jigsaw inside the box was different to the illustration on the box, being a representation of the game you could play using the printed paper (and counters and die provided) inside without making up the jigsaw. Again a 1950s SF feel:-

Jigsaw

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