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Sacrifice on Spica III by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet II, PS Publishing, 2014, 81 p.

 Sacrifice on Spica III cover

Still in search of his wife and daughter, Matt Hendrick has arrived on Kallithea, a planet with an eccentric orbit around its two primaries which leads to a five year long winter, but before he even steps off the Telemass platform Hendrick is sidetracked by a chance meeting with Ed Miller, a former colleague in the Amsterdam Police, into tracking down Katerina Nordstrom, wanted for the murder of her lover back on Earth. Nordstrom just happens to have been Hendrick’s first real love, when he was a tyro detective twenty years ago. Also on the trip are Acolytes of the Ice, members of a bizarre cult inspired by Kallithea’s native culture, whereby devotees give themselves up to death in the freezing wastes.

A weird religion, past traumas, a private life tangled up with the mission at hand, are all typical Brown tropes. Once again it is the changes he rings on the ingredients that provide the impulse to keep reading. The details of the immolation cult are strange and Brown renders them well.

In the context of the Telemass Quartet it is perhaps a drawback that Hendrick’s personal quest is a sideshow to this novella’s plot, though. It causes him to take his eye off the greater ball and so his wife and daughter evade him. No spoiler really as of course this serves Brown’s purposes, as Telemass III and IV are still to come.

Pedant’s corner:- as its swung away (it,) epicentre, “I wouldn’t have through Kat” (thought,) the beneficent gaze His Holiness (gaze of His,) what as right (what was right) and a fair few instances of “time interval” later.

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.

 Ash cover

The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.

It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.

Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.

All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.

So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.

That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.

The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.

I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.

Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)

Tanith Lee

I saw in today’s Guardian Tanith Lee’s obituary.

Despite her prolificity, I don’t recall reading much of her work (SF, Fantasy and Horror in the main) but her name was familiar to me. I may have noticed at the time that she wrote two episodes of Blake’s 7 but it wasn’t something I had at my front of my mind.

She was notable as being the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel (for her book Death’s Master.)

Tanith Lee: 19/09/1947 – 24/5/2015. So it goes.

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Tachyon Publications, 2015, 194 p

 Slow Bullets cover

This novella starts just after an armistice in a long war waged partly on religious differences. Each side had its sacred Book, “And I’m sure there is tremendous grace and power in these words. Tremendous wisdom and humanity – as well as ignorance and superstition and foolhardiness,” but Scur was not an ardent believer and her mother, very fond of the enemy’s official war poet, introduced her to the poem “Morning Flowers.” Just before the armistice Scur was captured by an enemy patrol and tortured by a war criminal called Orvin who left her for dead. Yet she mysteriously wakes up on the skipship Caprice along with soldiers of both sides, the ship’s crew and civilians of various sorts.

But things are awry. The skip has gone wrong, they are a thousand years in the future and the ship’s memory is malfunctioning. Not only that but sometime in the intervening years aliens dubbed The Sickening passed through human space. They could change physics, turning down the brightness of suns. No remnant of the civilisation the awakened people on the ship can remember is left.

While Scur’s desire for retribution on Orvin partly drives the story along so also does the rest of the ship’s company’s attempts to discard their differences and to preserve humanity’s knowledge. The slow bullets of the title contain information about their bearers, including personal memories, but can be overwritten. As such they are necessary to the story’s resolution, as is “Morning Flowers.”

The novella length doesn’t really give Reynolds much chance to develop character, most of the inhabitants are there to carry the plot along, but the justice Scur metes out to Orvin is not what we might expect and there is an elegiac tone to the ending.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 592 p

 The Book of Strange New Things cover

Despite having Dutch nationality, Michel Faber, by virtue of living in Scotland for 20 years and being published here, appears on the list of 100 Best Scottish books with his first novel, Under the Skin. That’s gone on my tbr list but I read this as it was one of the nominees for the Clarke Award this year.

Pastor Peter Leigh has been taken on by a mysterious company called USIC to become a missionary to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet Oasis. (This is a strange place with a day, and hence also a night, that each last 72 hours but, as described here, has a not very diverse ecology.) The selection process meant that Peter’s wife Beatrice – also interviewed by USIC – did not accompany him but they are able to write to each other via a communication device known as the Shoot.

Importing material from Earth to Oasis is very costly indeed and the base depends to a large extent on the Oasan crop, whiteflower, which (handily) can be converted to various Earth-like foods when harvested at different stages of its cycle. However the aliens (of whom we only hear of one group) have moved away from the USIC base and Peter has to spend over an Oasan day out of contact in order to further his mission. His immersion in this task leads to a gradual estrangement both from the humans at the base and from Bea.

The religious missionary to another planet concept may be new to mainstream readers of Faber’s work but Science Fiction readers have been on this sort of territory before; most notably with A Case of Conscience and The Sparrow, however here the crisis of conscience that interaction with aliens usually engenders in the missionary is undergone not by Peter but by Bea left at home on an Earth where various disasters – to the Maldives, Guatemala, Pakistan and a Britain falling apart economically and socially (along the way Tesco’s goes bust; I read this book a few weeks after my local Tesco’s closed) – are occurring and the couple’s cat Joshua comes to a sticky end.

Another unusual feature here is that the locals are actually avid to learn about Jesus and to hear from the King James Bible (the Book of Strange New Things as they call it.) The slow unravelling of their need for this good news holds what little SF tension the book provides. Faber is more interested in the aliens’ effect on Peter and the deterioration of his relationship with Bea. Faber renders the Oasans’ inability to pronounce the “s” “t” and “ch” sounds in English by using symbols (easily decipherable in context.) He then gives us Peter’s final speech to them almost entirely in these symbols but I wasn’t engrossed enough to try to decode them.

As a novel of how distance can undermine a relationship this is fine but, despite the aliens, it doesn’t really hit the SF buttons.

Pedant’s corner:- tourniquetted (tourniqueted?) imposter (impostor,) after a some hesitation, “glotch of submersion into the liquid-filled crib” (glotch seems to be a coinage, it doesn’t conform to the definition I found in the urban dictionary.) The text is full of Usianisms – lonesome, Styrofoam, Band-Aids, Caucasian, trunk, Cub Scout rather than just Cub, but uses British spellings, eg foetus. There is a reference to cameras with film in them (to be fair technology seems not to work well on Oasis) and to Georgia being in the Russian Federation as opposed to an independent state. I noted frequent instances of “seconds (or minutes) later” and a few of “within minutes/seconds.”

Clarke Award Winner

I see Emily St John Mandel has won the Clarke Award for her novel Station Eleven. Congratulations to her.

Having now read five out of the six nominees I can’t say I would disagree with the judges’ decision.

Queen of the States by Josephine Saxton

Women’s Press, 1986, 182 p

Queen of the States cover

After her car mysteriously conks out one day, Magdalen Hayward wakes up in a strange room to find she has been abducted by aliens who have no concept of time, know next to nothing about humans but can “speak” directly into her head through a meaning transmitter and conjure furniture, fixtures, fittings and fabulous food out of thin air. Neither do they understand gender so she tells them ramblingly that, “Maleness (is) the power to be superior without effort, thousands of years of conditioning having given them (men) that.” The aliens tell Magdalen she has “seven concentric selves, all interlocking, making forty nine states of being, each with seven levels of intensity and each in contact with the forty nine states plus contact with the original seven at all times and places, and a central consciousness which can freely move about to any point in the network. To us this is a very limited experience of consciousness.” Magdalen also has dreams in which she is a patient in a mental hospital where she claims to be Queen of the United States. About her mental states she tells a doctor, “I move about from one existence to another, on several planes at the same time.”

All this is reminiscent of Marge Piercy’s A Woman Out of Time and as in that novel tends to undermine the possibility of this being a work of SF. When a teacher in the mental hospital tells Magdalen she is “writing a science fiction novel… I had thought of doing it from the point of view of a mental hospital patient, so that people could have a choice of realities,” this disjunction is compounded rather than defrayed. (As well as appearing in that quote there were several other references to science fiction. It’s almost as if Saxton is trying to convince us of something.)

To Magdalen the true situation makes no difference. “If this was a delusion it did not matter: it was convincing enough to be real, therefore was real.” Her husband Clive believes Magdalen is not mad, simply in a different state of consciousness from himself. She is, of course, queen of the states.

When the aliens ruminate upon providing Magdalen with a male companion the narrative shifts from Magdalen’s viewpoint and we start to inhabit other people’s consciousnesses; Magdalen’s psychiatrist Abel Murgatroyd, Clive, his mistress Miriam Goldsmith, Royston Hartwell (a dreadlocked psychiatric student,) Louis Sakoian (a man Magdalen met in the US) – all of whom except Royston and Sakoian are disturbed in one way or another. Miriam dreams she is Magdalen, whom she knows thinks that, “There must be a better state of being than this.”

Escaped from her confines and on a motorway, the aliens return to Magdalen and tell her that any possible male companions vibrations’ are “unsuitable for you at present.” But she already knew that. Meanwhile vehicles coast to a halt all round where she is stopped. Towards the novel’s conclusion she disdains the thought of taking up with Louis and thinks, “I’m on my own planet, out to lunch, and I like it by myself.”

Is this an SF novel? The chronicle of a disturbed mind? Take your pick.

Pedant’s corner:- gasolene, terrrified, “The can create things” (they can…) smidgeon, avocadoes (avocados? Inserting an e in the plural of words ending in “o” is not a universal rule.)

Battlefield of Prestonpans

Recently I have been travelling quite frequently up and down the A1 from Edinburgh to Dunbar, mainly to visit Eric Brown.

I had always wondered what the prominent hill with the flag on it just off the road a few miles east of Edinburgh was. A few weeks ago detouring into Prestonpans on the return I found out. Coincidentally I was reading Violet Jacobs’s Flemington at the time.

On the B 1361 into Prestonpans there was a sign pointing to the Battlefield of Prestonpans, 1745, the first battle of the Jacobite Rebellion of that year. I had previously thought the battlefield would lie somewhat closer to the Firth.

The prominent hill is the battlefield viewpoint, a converted coal bing, seen here from its foot.

The flag flying at the summit is Bonnie Prince Charlie’s battle standard.

There is a cairn at the side of the B 1361 erected in memory of the dead of the battle:-

According to the information boards on the Battlefield Viewpoint this is the site of the 1745 battle:-

This is the approximate Jacobite position at the battle’s start. It has a golf range on it now.

The battle itself was over in about fifteen minutes. Most of the relatively inexperienced Hanoverian force fled at the first charge of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders. This left the more hardened government troops sandwiched between the rebel wings. After suffering heavy casualties they gave way. Their commander Sir John Cope led some stragglers down a lane which to this day is named Johnnie Cope’s Road, but couldn’t get them to fight and left the field.

The song Hey Johnnie Cope Are Ye Wakin’ Yet? was written – by Adam Skirving, a namesake of the good lady – to commemorate the Jacobite victory.

This version, by the Corries, is preceded by an account of the first singing of the fourth verse of the UK National Anthem – the one which is no longer officially recognised.

Starhaven by Robert Silverberg

In The Chalice of Death, Planet Stories, 2012, 90 p. First published as Starhaven, 1958, as by Ivar Jorgensen.

Starhaven cover

Another of Silverberg’s early potboilers. Here Johnny Mantell, former researcher at Klingsan Defence Systems but for seven years a beachcomber on the planet Mulciber, has to flee justice when a tourist picks a fight with him and dies. He steals a spaceship and heads for Starhaven, “a sanctuary for people like us, who couldn’t make the grade or fit in with organised society. Drifters and crooks and has-beens can go to Starhaven.” This criminal’s planet was built and is ruled with an iron hand by Ben Thurdan. The premise is that all the criminal tendencies cancel each other out and so a sort of law prevails. Starhaven’s constitution is simple, “Expect the same treatment that you hand out to others,” and “ You’ll do whatever Ben Thurdan tells you to do without, argument, question, or hesitation.”

On arrival Mantell is subjected to a psychprobe, which reveals him to have an unusual level of will but also to be guilty of the murder of which he remembers himself innocent. Soon after, Mantell begins to be struck by episodes in which he is not quite himself. Thurdan employs him to build a personal defence screen to prevent assassination. Meanwhile Mantell is much taken by Thurdan’s assistant Myra and also gradually finds himself drawn into a plot to remove Thurdan from power.

Of its time and far from Silverberg’s 60s heights. I only read it for completist reasons.

Pedant’s corner:- one count of Thurban for Thurdan, several of quotation marks missing, “Only there was a pink blur waiting for him in this one.” ???? “He ducked, swept it under his mighty fumbling paws,” – I have no idea what the antecedent of that “it” might have been. I note here that Silverberg, too, could employ “time interval” later.

Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet 1, P S Publishing, 2014, 88 p

 Famadihana on Fomalhaut-IV cover

This is the first of four novellas presumably centred round the beam-me-across-space technology Brown has dubbed Telemass and which, as I recall, made its first appearance in the author’s Meridian Days many moons ago.

Here, Matt Hendrick, a detective from Amsterdam, arrives by Telemass on the planet Avoel (Fomalhaut-IV) to seek his wife and the daughter she took with her when she left him. Once there he becomes embroiled with Tiana Tiandra, a woman whose girlfriend Lalla has also disappeared into the interior. The events of the novella are related to the goings-on of a strange cult inspired by the indigenous Avoeli who have a ritual similar to the famadihana of Madagascar from where most of the humans on Avoel originally derived. This involves the apparently dead being brought back to life. The story is mostly told in third person but small fragments from Tiana’s viewpoint are rendered in italics.

Brown does this sort of thing so well. His readers will be familiar with a protagonist not in a relationship at the story’s start or else getting over a failed one, a religion with a degree of bizzarrerie, a lost spouse or family member, strange aliens and may even expect a love interest to be encountered along the way. The entertainment comes with the twists he applies to these building blocks. In this novella the Avoel are perhaps a little too undeveloped, Hendrick’s relationship with Tiana is a bit precipitate and the resolution also feels a trifle rushed. Yet the whole thing is engaging, if perhaps lacking some of the warmth of Brown’s previous quartet for PS, Starship Seasons. But we’re only one story in. Time enough.

Pedant’s corner:- is a valued members of my congregation (member,) attempting to keep the irritation from her voice” (his voice makes more sense,) peered around it mass (its mass,) bears a passing a passing resemblance, not to hate met (me,) “He heard her breathing at her side (his.) And a fair sprinkling of instances of “time interval” later.

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