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Montgomery Scott

There is a plaque in Linlithgow which commemorates the birth of Starfleet Master Engineer Montgomery Scott, aka Scotty from Star Trek.

Here’s a photo of it.

You’ll note he was born in 2222.

Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014

Interzone 254 cover

Marielena by Nina Allan1
Noah Wahid, an asylum seeker, while waiting for his permission to remain, spends the days in an endless round of impoverished futility and seeing the face of Marielena, the girl he left behind, in nearly everyone he meets. The story hinges on Noah’s encounter with a refugee from the future.

A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell2
The tale of how Evan came to be in sole charge of a two year old daughter he hadn’t known about. He’s taken programmers, which, in a very intrusive info dump, we are told are able to sculpt human wetware in accordance to user input parameters. Or are they just hallucinogens?

Bone Deep by S L Nickerson
A woman with a medical condition where her flesh is turning to bone can only access the treatment she needs by having sponsors’ logos tattooed onto her. (Don’t give the buggers ideas is what I say.)

Dark on a Darkling Earth by T R Napper
In a world of perpetual war where memory has to be stored on electronic cards or it is lost, an old man falls into the orbit of a group of soldiers.

The Faces Between Us by Julie C Day
Is set in an Oregon where ghosts live on in ashes and Larry and Amber try to find the way “through” by snorting them.

Songs Like Freight Trains by Sam J Miller
Christine no longer listens to music. Ariel, her friend from her teenage years taught her the trick of time travel via song. But Christine’s daughter yearns to dance.

1 Imposter. Narrator Noah tells us his vocal command of English is not good but uses words like annunciates. Pita bread is usually spelled pitta.
2 Cannoboloid (????) I suspect this should be cannabinoid.

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 303 p + iii p introduction. First published 1991.

 Sarah Canary cover

One night in 1873 a woman stumbles into a Chinese railway workers’ camp in North-West USA. This is bad news for the workers as the woman is white. But she is uncommunicative, appearing only able to make unintelligible sounds. (She is later dubbed Sarah Canary due to these bird-like noises.) Chin Ah Kin is delegated to take her away from the camp to the nearest town. They both end up in a lunatic asylum, before escaping in the company of fellow inmate B J. Their adventures take them over the Pacific North-West, Sarah is kidnapped and paraded on stage as the Wild Woman of Alaska and mistaken by Adelaide Dixon for a murderess from San Francisco. Dixon is a campaigner for women’s rights – especially in the sexual area. In the Pacific North-West of the 1870s this doesn’t go down particularly well. “Adelaide was afraid that if she ever once allowed herself to feel the full range of her sexual desires that this would be a need too great for any man.” She tells Chin that the issue of the civil war had been largely sexual. In the slave system one group of men (white) had absolute power over one group of women (black).

And what has all this got to do with Science Fiction? You may well ask. Apart from a mention of a self-repairing dress which also deflects bullets and the disappearance of Sarah Canary in something approaching an insectile metamorphosis there is nothing in the text that could not be read as straightforward realism. Moreover the two characters who make these observations could be classified as mad.

Graham Sleight’s introduction to this SF Masterworks edition suggests the book is a sort of First Contact novel and contends that the text’s frequent references to butterflies can only be understood if the novel is SF. If so the Contact is so nebulous as to be non-existent. But I suppose that if, as Arthur C Clarke had it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” then so must any advanced intelligences be unintelligible. Yet Sarah Canary does not behave like an advanced intelligence, she does not behave as intelligent at all. She might as well be an idiot. There is no attempt on her part to communicate with the other characters.

So read this as an adventure in the 1870s US, an illustration of misogyny and racism in that time and place. Or a feminist tract. Another interpretation is yielded at one point by Chin. “Sometimes one of the great dreamers passes among us… We dare not waken the dreamer. We, ourselves, are only her dreams.” And there is an explicit reference to Caspar Hauser.

Take your explanatory pick. Whatever, Sarah Canary is good, well-written stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- conspiritorial

Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014

Interzone 253 cover

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James van Pelt1
When the unnamed narrator was younger his father, now in the last stages of dementia, built a UFO detector. While tacking backwards and forwards to the care centre he remembers how much of an influence his father was on his tastes and interests. A tale of filial affection and loss. Apart from anything else you can only warm to a story illustrated with a picture of a red Fokker Triplane.

Flytrap by Andrew Hook 2
A story about what it means to be human. Or alien. Which is perhaps what we are.

The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson3
Felix Kapel is an expert in aromas whose trade is in decline due to the innovation of Teleroma – transmission of smells via the internet – until he purchases the legendary (to olfactorists) Golden Nose of the Habsburgs. Its use has an unfortunate side effect.

Beside the Dammed River by D J Cockburn (James White Award Winner)
In a part of Thailand parched by Chinese damming of the Mekong River one of ex-Professor of Engineering Narong’s waning days is lightened by the breakdown of a truck carrying an off-target mined asteroid out of Thailand illegally.

Chasmata by E Catherine Tobbler4
A tale of human inhabitants of Valles Marineris on Mars, who have children there and encounter Martians, or the ghosts of Martians, and rain that floods that huge chasm, or doesn’t. The narration constantly undermines itself with asides. I liked the term “moonslight.”

The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussof5
When their world was destroyed a man called Blankenship and his daughter Tibbi were mysteriously transported to “our” Seattle where the counterpart of his wife is married to someone else. (In a particularly USian response he goes to therapy sessions.)

1 Written in USian
2 bought for brought; “she speculated her future” is surely missing a preposition; human’s as the plural of human.
3 George III of England. (Of nowhere else, then?) Struggled to “breath” in. We achieve the things are hearts wish for.
4 Written in USian
5 Written in USian in which pay back for seems to mean reimburse whereas in English it means get revenge. (On a stereo, “Blankenship found a knob hat made the sound louder.”) (Eyes) “seemed to be starting off into the distance.”

Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

This book is dedicated to Jack and Katrina Stephen. Those of you who know me will realise how pleased that makes me.

 Jani and the Greater Game cover

Janisha Chatterjee, daughter of an Indian Father and (deceased) English mother, is on her way back from England – where she is training in medicine – to her father’s deathbed when the airship in which she is travelling is brought down by Russian artillery fire. For this is India in 1925, and the Great Game is still afoot. Even though the Great War of our era does not seem to have happened the Russia contesting with the British Empire is Communist. China is also involved though only in the background here.

The Greater Game of the title concerns the prisoner on the airship, a creature known as a Morn, who saves Jani from the Russians mopping up after the attack. He gives her a coin and her entanglement in the plot follows. Other viewpoint characters are Durga Das, a priest of Kali, who is searching out the coin for reasons of his own, and Lieutenant Alfie Littlebody of the British Army, tasked by his superiors to spy upon Jani.

Echoes of Brown’s Bengal Station trilogy are never far away, this is India after all. But this is also steampunk. The wonder material Annapurnite not only powers superfast trains and airships but also weapons to keep the Russians and Chinese at bay; in a James Bond film-like touch Littlebody is given a photon blade and a Visual Camouflage Amplifier, both of which come in handy. There is also a mind-reading device. Oh and a Mechanical Man and even bigger mechanical elephant. And this is before we get beyond steampunk to the parallel worlds and the threat to humanity from the Khell.

The pleasure of this is in the journey. The author piles on the jeopardy and the intrigue and handles the politics of the British presence in India well – from both sides. Despite the steampunk trappings this comes out as a very Eric Brown type of story, if not quite reaching the heights of his The Kings of Eternity then less pulpy then the Bengal Station series. If Littlebody is a bit of a twit and Jani’s childhood companion Anand perhaps too cloying, Jani is engaging enough. And there is ample scope for a sequel (which I understand is in the works.) I’ll look forward to it.

East of Laughter by R A Lafferty

Morrigan, 1988, 176 p.

East of Laughter cover

How do you describe the indescribable? This is Lafferty in all his bonkers glory.

The novel starts with a focus on one Atrox Fabulinus’s “one hundred and one tests to tell whether you’re dreaming” and in chapters one to three we are also introduced, by way of lists, to the Group of Twelve (who actually number fifteen.) Fabulinus (the Roman Rabelais) is one of the seven giants who scribble the world into being and also one of the pillars on whom the world rests. The twelve decide they are. (Dreaming, that is.) “To be real is to be unique. To be unreal is to be common. There is only one chance in all infinity of it (the world) being real. But there are a billion billion and ongoing billions of chances of it being unreal.”

Along with Fabulinus the Group of Twelve comprises Hilary Ardri, Jane Chantal Ardri, Leo Parisi, Perpetua Parisi, Gorgonius Pantera, Monika Pantera, John Barkley Towntower, Solomon Izzersted, Denis Lollardy, Caesar Oceano, Laughter-Lynn Casement, Mary Brandy Manx, Hieronymous Talking-Crow, Countess Maude Grogley. (Some of them are spares.) To call them characters would be to stretch the word beyond breaking point. You don’t read Lafferty for characters. Nor for plot – though there is one; involving the murders of successive members of the group and of others’ elevation to Scribbling Giant. They also roam the world day to day (chapter by chapter) taking in Frisia, Dublin (East of Laughter is apparently Lastoir de Gaire in Dublin,) East Sussex, the Isle of Man, Lecco in Italy and a castle in Germany. And there are eight days in the week for some and nine days – the ninth slotted into gaps in the other days – for a select few.

To give a flavour of the writing a (partially shortened) piece of dialogue runs, “Yes, to all appearances the atoms are empty boxes….. They lack detail…. They contain only rough schematics of even rougher schematics..” This situation is then compared to buying an expensive car and receiving only a child’s drawing of a car. The dialogue continues, “But this isn’t the way I remember them! I remember them as totally detailed…. Great God of the Atoms, you have short-changed me! Oh mend your ways! The atoms of the apparent universe are completely unworthy of you.”

Pedant’s Corner:- Skirried? Past tense of skirr? That ought to be skirred surely? Apparently skirried is in a Thackeray story. Aquafer, titonium.

Ursula Le Guin and Tomorrow’s Worlds

There was an interview with Ursula Le Guin in the Guardian which also appeared in print in yesterday’s edition. It didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but opined she is underrated as a modern US writer – to which I can only agree.

Also yesterday I watched the first episode of Tomorrow’s Worlds, a BBC 2 series on the history of Science Fiction, in which Le Guin made an appearance. To my mind the programme focused too much on visual media (film and television) and did not give enough attention to the written form. Then again, it’s difficult to show clips from books. It was nevertheless good to see the genre given some critically approving TV exposure. Or critical TV exposure at all come to that.

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.”

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