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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.”

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

Review, the Guardian, Saturday, 16/8/14

I usually read all the stuff about fiction in the Guardian’s Saturday Review as well as some of the non-fiction reviews.

Last week’s contained three items of particular interest to me.

The cover piece, Steven Pinker’s An Anti-stickler’s Manifesto was about ten “grammar rules” he thinks it’s okay to break sometimes. He says that some of them aren’t actually rules at all and others aren’t rules in English. You may be surprised to read that by and large I agree with him. But I do believe it is important to know what the rules are. This is in order that when you break them it is for a purpose.

Then there was an article about Martin Amis. In this Amis was quoted as saying, “Prose is foremost, and ‘if the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form.’” Secondary interests? Psychological insight is a secondary interest? Story is a secondary interest? Characterisation is a secondary interest? Is this last not what certain purveyors of genre (no names, no pack drill) are pilloried for not providing?

The final piece was an interview with George R R Martin, in London for the Science Fiction Worldcon after first appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

This Year’s Hugo Awards

These were announced at the SF Worldcon in London.

(I know I really ought to have gone but it was in Docklands rather than London proper and I don’t even like London much. Perhaps I’m tired of life.)

The winners for fiction were:-

Best novel: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Best novella: Equoid by Charles Stross

Best novelette: The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Best short story: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

Of these I’ve read only the novel winner but congratulations to all.

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2012, 373 p.

 Jack Glass cover

Well, this is a tricksy one. The prologue informs us we are about to read about three murders, a prison story, a regular (regular? I think Roberts meant traditional rather than occurring at intervals) whodunnit and a locked room mystery – or perhaps each is all three at once – and tells us who committed them, yet still promises surprises. The coda provides a rationale (in as much as any fiction can) for the fact that we’re reading this at all. All three stories are set in a Solar System run under the strict Lex Ulanova; a set of laws instituted by the ruling Ulanovs in the wake of the Merchant Wars.

The first section, titled In the Box, has seven criminals interned in an asteroid, with limited means and apparatus, eating only ghunk they can grow themselves from the surrounding rock and a pitiful light source; forced to work out their term of eleven years, effectively mining it for the Gongsi corporation which has the contract for their imprisonment. It’s also about economics; the decreasing value of humans as a resource. The tensions are neatly delineated as the story slowly morphs from a wide overview to the viewpoint of Jac, who has urgent reasons to escape his confinement.

From prison to the overclass. The second story, The FTL Murders, concerns Diana and Eva, heirs apparent to the Argent MOHfamily, second in importance to the Ulanovs. Eva, older by a few years, is on her sixth Ph D, investigating the phenomenon of Champagne Supernovæ – a name which Roberts endows with bitter irony with the connections he makes. Diana’s hobby is solving murder mysteries, which she sets to in real life when one of their servants is killed soon after they descend to Earth from their normal space habitat. This gives Roberts the chance to reference various fictional detectives but is mere background to his ongoing story arc, where even the idea of a faster than light technology is enough to threaten the Ulanovs.

The third instalment, The Impossible Gun, takes us briefly into the Sump, the agglomeration of shanty globes scattered across the Solar System where the Sumpolloi live lives of brute insensitivity again eating mainly ghunk, before it settles on a very definitely locked–room mystery. Jack Glass is on the verge of being taken into custody when Bar-le-duc, the detective chasing him, is killed in sudden inexplicable fashion. No spoiler here, or if there is it is Roberts’s, as the chapter title for this scene is The End of Bar-le-duc. The death, though, does blow a hole in the logic of Glass’s later fixation with the RACdroid which witnessed his immediately prior agreement to be being arrested.

There is one neat apercu, “Death is another name for doubt. Death is what inflects the immoral certainty of the universe’s processes with uncertainty,” and an interesting comparison, “The median point between the mass of a proton and the mass of the entire universe is the mass of the average human female.” We are also told of a torture technique called vacuumboarding. For goodness sake don’t give the buggers ideas!

The structures of the second and third stories are awkward, too much playing of fictional games for the sake of it, though Roberts does show the maturation of Diana, as her life of privilege is blown apart and she has to grow up fast, very well. Whether the overall novel lives up to the aspirations set out for it in the prologue or in Roberts’s apparent intention to write a novel which merged Golden Age SF with Golden Age detective fiction is doubtful.

In the acknowledgements Roberts mentions Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Doroth L Sayers and Michael Innes as influences (via his mother to whom the book is dedicated.) The essence of the traditional detective story is cosiness. Jack Glass is far from cosy, however.

I’m at a loss as to why this won the BSFA Award for best novel of 2012. To my mind there were better books on the short list.

Pedant’s corner: Span count 2, Roberts uses schute where chute would be perfectly adequate and we had “let along” for “let alone” plus the sentence, “Sunlight epilected between trees.” I can’t find epilected in any dictionary.

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