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Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 210 p (+ v page introduction by Ursula Le Guin.) © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 1972. Translated from the Russian Piknik na obochine by Olena Bormashenko.

This novel is apparently the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based. Not that I’ve ever seen it, I don’t go out of my way to view SF in its moving picture formats, either in film or television.

 Roadside Picnic cover

Aliens have come – and gone; their landing sites spaced over the Earth in a perfect curve. Each of those Zones is deserted, a repository of hell slime, death lamps, shriekers, black sparks, lobster eyes, rattling napkins and strange containers known as empties; not to mention the elusive Golden Sphere, said to grant human wishes. Stalkers illegally brave the dangers to retrieve Zone artefacts for the money they will bring. Scientific institutes study these to try to find uses for them – or even what they are. The scientists studying it are more scared than the rest of the populace because they understand how much they don’t understand. As one of the characters points out, such attempts to gain insight suffer from the flawed assumption that an alien race would be psychologically human. We don’t know what intelligence is; it can’t be defined. In the same conversation the possibility is raised of the stuff in the zone being just detritus, left behind after the aliens merely stopped for a picnic.

Yet the Zone has effects beyond itself. Despite there being no detectable radiation nor mutagens in the Zones, Stalker’s children have weird mutations, emigrants from the areas that became the Zones seem to cause disasters of various sorts in their new locations; corpses are reanimated, the dead return to their homes.

The book follows the evolution of stalking over a few years from an individual – or perhaps team – pursuit to remote probing by robots mainly through the experiences of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker in Harmont, which seems to be in the USA (a father aspires for his son to be President one day.) In our first foray into the Zone the descriptions of its outer edge are eerily premonitory of Chernobyl, its strangeness also prefigures the event site in M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In the concluding section Schuhart muses while finally seeking out the Golden Sphere, “What man is born for I have no idea.”

There is a temptation either – as according to Ursula Le Guin’s introduction many US SF writers did – to consider any Soviet era fiction to be ideologically based or else to see it as critiquing the system in which it originated. (US writers of course could not possibly be subject to either of these strictures themselves.)

In an afterword Boris Strugatsky says of the brothers’ battles with Soviet editors that (the editors) thought language had to be as colourless, smooth and glassy as possible and certainly not coarse; that SF had to be fantastic and have nothing to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; the reader must be protected from reality. Unsurprisingly you might think, I’m with the Strugatskys on this one.

Roadside Picnic, even forty years after its conception, still stands out as a compelling piece of written SF, well worth its inclusion as a Masterwork. As I hinted earlier its influence can be traced down through the years but merely imagining this scenario as written by a US practitioner of the genre – where a military sensibility may have prevailed instead – underscores its subtlety.

The otherwise excellent translation is into a robust USian: fair enough given its apparent setting but a few infelicities intruded:- “had probably stuck his freckled mug inside, frowned, and went off.” “(His face) hurt. His nose was swollen but his eyebrows and eyebrows were intact.” A “lighting” bolt.

Rising Sun by Robert Conroy

Baen Books, 2012, 343 p.

I spotted this when the good lady was returning Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel to the local library. As a sucker for altered histories I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Rising Sun cover

The set up here is that Japan won the Battle of Midway. Hawaii is withering on the vine, Japanese forces have invaded Alaska, raided the Panama Canal and occasionally bombard the US west coast. The sole substantial US aircraft carrier remaining is the Saratoga.

The novel focuses mainly on US Navy officer Tim Dane (who speaks and reads Japanese as a result of a pre-war visit there) though other characters – particularly his nurse girlfriend, Amanda Mallard – are given viewpoint scenes. The plot involves the lack of knowledge the Japanese have of the Saratoga’s whereabouts. A sub-plot involving a German saboteur, Wilhelm Braun, a former official in their embassy in Mexico, folds into the main narrative towards the end. We are given two token sympathetic Japanese characters (one belatedly sympathetic) and one German, Johann Klaas; but neither are all the USians in the book noble, good and true.

The scenario doesn’t really tell us anything new about the Pacific War nor illuminate history to any great degree. Effectively we spend the book waiting on the inevitable (given the author’s nationality and the publisher’s address) US victory.

I must say that for me Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s tactics in the final battle of the book did not quite ring true; but had it been otherwise the novel would have had to continue well beyond its 343 pages.

This is the sort of thing that Harry Turtledove seems to perform effortlessly. Conroy’s prose is as efficient and his characterisation may (I would put it no higher) be slightly better but the immersion in the milieu feels less deep. I doubt I’ll read any more by him.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are several instances of omitted or repeated words. Britain is named as “England” (though the adjective used for the UK’s forces is “British.”) In a scene involving Johann Klaas, his name is mistakenly given as Braun in one sentence.

The Race by Nina Allan

NewCon Press, 2014, 251 p

The Race cover

This seems to be marketed as a novel but is in fact a set of four tenuously connected novellas the succeeding ones of which cast doubt – or light depending on your viewpoint – on the events of at least one of the previous ones. Three are first person narrations, the third (appropriately) is in third person.

The book starts with Jenna, whose title character narrates a tale of smartdogs – greyhounds upgraded (initially illegally) with some human DNA – and the handlers who can communicate with them telepathically via a chip inserted in the brain. The setting is the town of Sapphire, hard by an ecologically damaged area off Romney Marsh. The plot kicks off when Jenna’s brother Del’s daughter Luz Maree is kidnapped, ostensibly for money which Del hopes to procure by running his smartdog Limlasker in the season’s big dog race the Delawarr Triple, but in reality because she can interact with the dogs without an implant. In this segment Allan employs the phrase “going to the dogs” perfectly straight, but on its first appearance I initially read it as “in decline.”

Christy is set in a recognisable “real-life” Hastings but we are invited to believe the town of Sapphire which we met in Jenna is an invention of the eponymous narrator, who retreats into the stories of her imagined world – subsequently achieving publication with them – when her overbearing brother Derrick, a nasty piece of work, damages her life too many times. One of his girlfriends disappears, another called Linda enlists Christy’s help to leave Derrick for her former boyfriend Alex. Derrick reacts violently. The parallels between Christy’s life and Jenna’s are plain. Too much so. Having even a fictional writer write about stuff so obviously inspired by her own life stretches credulity too far. Fair enough in the general case (and then only if a writer’s sources are invisible to the ordinary reader) but here the artifice undermines the effect of Jenna as a story. One of the overlaps between these first two stories is a focus on gloves but this does not carry over into the final pair.

In the third person narration, Alex, again set in our universe, it seems Christy’s fears about what may have happened to Linda are unfounded as, years later, Alex tells her he saw Linda some time after the violent incident. (But the reader may think he was mistaken. The writing is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for either possibility.)

By contrast with the first and last in the book, both these middle two novellas are apparently set resolutely in the real world. Unfortunately the outcome of this is to dilute the effect of the other two stories. I know it is Allan’s intention to make us question the narration and the reality of the everyday – each novella has a scene where other worlds intrude on the milieu, parallel worlds are explicitly mentioned at times – but what it means is we cannot trust any of them. The connections we make slip away.

The last story, Maree, also has smartdogs, but they are off-stage (except for Maree remembering one called Limlasker.) This world has some familiar town names – Inverness, Faslane, Madrid – but also invented ones, Asterwych, Charlemagne, Lilyat and the countries of Crimond, Thalia, Farris and Espinol. Our narrator, one of those who can communicate with smartdogs without implants, is about to make the dangerous sea voyage from Crimond to Thalia to become part of a research project to help decipher the language of a strange set of signals from space. We discover Maree was taken from her parents when young. Her Dad was named Derek and he has a sister called … Christy. The set piece here is an encounter with Atlantic whales – not our familiar species, but strange creatures, aloof from and disdainful of humans. Like the dog race in Jenna, though, this apparent centrality is only background to the story. It is as if the SF in The Race isn’t SF. That’s fine, in fact I’m all for it – but don’t rub our noses in it.

Throughout all four sections of the “novel” information dumping, although necessary, is a bit intrusive and the foreshadowing verges on heavy-handed.

Despite all of the book, bar Maree’s sea voyage, being set in Britain (or, in the case of Crimond, an altered Britain) various USianisms spatter the text – veterinarian, semester, jerking off, sneakers, airplane (though aeroplane is employed more often,) outside of, wedding band, a raise – which I’m afraid detract from the verisimilitude. At times there was some awkward syntax, “a vegetable I’ve never tasted before called aubergine.” “The house was on Emmanuel Road, a solid Victorian terrace with a weathered front door.” The terrace has a front door? And it may be Allan has a problem with endings. Except for Maree, they seemed rushed. I noticed a similar tendency in the same author’s Spin.

As a whole The Race is a hall of mirrors, of distorting mirrors. Nothing is reliable; even its unreliability. It might even be said to be less than the sum of its parts. Which is a pity as Allan can write well and empathically.

Pedant’s corner:-
A “span,” brooch spelled as broach, double English (in a primary school?) “I think that was he was counting on,” “We lived of frozen fish fingers…” “pretending they was invisible,” “that 1 now knew,” “Tim had has name down for Oxford,” “I decided I to Laton Road,” “Recounted the final days an old piano teacher dying in Aberystwyth,” “accustomed Maclane’s presence,” “Faslane shrinks and dwindles, … first a … smudge on the horizon, then disappearing altogether. We are still in the mouth of the loch, not in the open sea at all yet.” Faslane has “disappeared” but we’re still in the mouth of the loch, not the open sea? (Aside: the Faslane I know is near the mouth of the loch it stands on – it’s a small loch – and disappears very quickly; when the necessary turn on leaving the loch is performed.) “The pattern templates were …. carefully folded and each once sealed within a white paper packet.”

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

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 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.

Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

In search of the perfect dram

Century, 2003, 368 p.

I bought this mainly for completeness. I’ve read all of Banks’s fiction and so his only non-fiction book kind of rounds things off. It also qualifies for the Read Scotland Challenge.

Raw Spirit cover

It is strange to be writing about this in the wake of the referendum. While the book is ostensibly about whisky it is in reality a hymn to Scotland, in particular its landscape, its “Great Wee Roads” and its inhabitants, not forgetting the West Highlands’ voracious midges and prodigious rainfall. Banks’s liking for fast cars can’t be missed and the numerous inns and hotels he frequented as well as the distilleries and their visitor centres (there is, it seems a whisky “experience” look) will be grateful for the exposure. Had the book been solely about whisky I would not have been the best person to appreciate it as I have never taken to the stuff.

That said, the history and processes of whisky production are described in extremely accessible terms. While Banks attempts descriptions of the single malts he samples in the course of his travels (for which he had no shortage of willing companions) this is perhaps an impossible task – in the way that descriptions of music are often lacking – but the word “peaty” does appear quite often.

Parts of Raw Spirit read like Banks’s non-SF fiction. The verbal interplay between the author and his friends is just like the conversations encountered in say Espedair Street, The Crow Road or Complicity, the asides and digressions – his journeys were undertaken and the book written around the time of the (second, the illegal) Iraq War, occasioning familiar Banksian rants – typical of his mainstream work.

As a book Raw Spirit is barely ten years old yet so much has changed since it was published. Banks himself is sadly no more, as are the Inverleven Distillery at Dumbarton and (not so sadly) the Forth Road and Skye Bridge tolls. The landscape, the Great Wee Roads, the whisky, though, remain – at least those bottles as yet unconsumed.

A delightful addition to the Banksian œuvre.

Live It Up 20: It Won’t Be Easy (Without You)

This is a curiosity. The theme from the 1987 TV series Star Cops. Written and performed by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues.

Star Cops Theme – It Won’t Be Easy (Without You)

This is how the opening credits looked.

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.

On The Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon’s Children 2 Gollancz, 2013, 483 p
Reviewed for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

In Blue Remembered Earth, the previous volume in Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children sequence, the Akinya family was instrumental in the development of the Chibesa-drive engine which drastically increased the maximum speed of space travel. On the Steel Breeze is set a very long generation or so after the events of the previous book and the family is now much less powerful. Chibesa physics has allowed hollowed out asteroids dubbed holoships to be sent out in strings – Reynolds nods to history by using the term caravans – to various promising destinations in the stars. These holoships are each large enough to be able to house herds of elephants as well as the emigrating humans. Life prolongation techniques are so far advanced that withdrawal of such treatment is used as a punishment for crimes – a generation’s life span is now measured in several hundred years. Chiku Akinya, great-granddaughter of Eunice Akinya the begetter of the Chibesa drive, has an unusual triple identity. A process called Quorum Binding has stamped Chiku’s personality and memories on three indistinguishable bodies (her original and two clones) which are able to communicate almost telepathically deeply. Chiku Red set out after Eunice Akinya’s ship; Chiku Green is on the holoship Zanzibar, en route to Crucible, the extra-Solar planet with the enigmatic structure known as the mandala, discovered by the telescopic array Ocular; Chiku Yellow stayed on Earth. The novel intertwines the fortunes of the three Chikus. Making a reappearance is the artilect of Eunice – an AI in human form, as close an approximation to the human original as possible – which Chiku’s mother developed in the earlier novel. “She” is in a hidden chamber on Zanzibar tending a set of enhanced, “talking” elephants known as Trantors.

Much of the initial action takes place on Zanzibar, in whose caravan experiments to develop post-Chibesa physics have been proscribed. Travertine (who for some reason has a set of personal pronouns, ve, ver, vis, all to verself) has caused hundreds of deaths by an illegal but vital experiment. The holoships have been accelerated too much to be slowed down effectively enough by their Chibesa engines. The caravan’s politics, though, are set against the necessary research.

Back on Earth Chiku Yellow, with the aid of the merfolk of the United Aquatic Nations who reunite her consciousness with the returned Chiku Red’s, acts on a communication from Chiku Green to seek out a woman who can facilitate contact with their founder, Arethusa, who in turn may have knowledge that not all is as it seems on Crucible. This necessitates a journey to the surface of Venus (and, later, Mars and Hyperion.) Here the plot, as in Blue Remembered Earth, comes dangerously close to pulling the characters around the Solar System to show off the author’s research or to provide a set piece drama. The inevitable disaster with the space elevator connecting to Venus’s surface demonstrates the Chikus have a dangerous enemy. This is the “machine distributed consciousness” called Arachne which oversees the data produced by Ocular and has infiltrated the aug, the controlling agency of the Surveilled World familiar from Blue Remembered Earth. The secret Arachne is protecting is the presence in orbit round Crucible of over twenty enigmatic pine cone-like spaceships dubbed Watchkeepers.

Plot aplenty to be going on with then, and the above merely sketches the set-up. The playing out of the politics of Zanzibar’s caravan, involving the clandestine construction and launch of a scout ship to reconnoitre Crucible, the repression and conflict which ensues, the true situation on Crucible, fill out the story. The scout party’s meeting with Arachne’s avatar on Crucible verges on fantasy territory, though. While any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, in Science Fiction some degree of explicability is generally thought desirable.

Despite the space travelling elephants (and the light aeroplane able to fly within their hidden chamber in the holoship,) the mandala and the Watchkeepers, Reynolds doesn’t quite hit the sense of wonder button squarely with this one. The scale fails to register. (That may just have been a jaded reviewer’s perception, though.)

Yet with his holoships Reynolds has – much as he did in Pushing Ice – re-imagined the generation starship trope, albeit with less of a focus on the ships’ passengers than in novels of yore. Also in the mix, though such is the detail of Reynolds’s future that they have not yet been explored in any detail, is a Big Dumb Object in the shape of the mandala and a kind of first contact (the Watchkeepers.)

An example of the possibility of avoiding what the Watchkeepers apparently think is the inevitable conflict between organisms and artilects, Eunice poses the question of what it actually means to be human – highlighting a typically human tale of stupidities, betrayals, love and duty.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Omitted “a”, a for an, doubled “the”s, “had”s and “was”es, “assesment” “compliated” a “breaking” mechanism for slowing down, an “I have strode,” “on my behalf” instead of “on my part” plus the interesting coinage “programmemes.”

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