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Murder by the Book by Eric Brown

Crème de la Crime, 2013, 218 p.

After a myriad of SF books and stories this is the author’s first foray into straight detective fiction. I don’t read very much in the crime genre but this one worked for me. Partly that was the result of the old-fashioned, and welcome, feel of the story, which can be read as an homage to the golden age of detective fiction.

We are in the 1950s. Donald Langham is a writer of detective stories with a good relationship with his patrician agent, the florid of speech Charles Elder, and an unstated affection for Elder’s more than competent secretary Maria Dupré, the daughter of a French diplomat. The murders of the title have started before the narrative does but we do not learn this till later. The first crime we read about is the blackmailing of Elder for gross indecency with a rent boy. Before he settled down to writing Langham had previous experience of detecting so he offers to investigate and find the blackmailer. Things do not go easily and it is not long before Maria has to make a contribution to the endeavour. Meanwhile it emerges that writers of detective stories are dying or being murdered in ways that nag at Langham’s mind. The plot bowls along, with plenty twists and turns and the narrative incorporates both the camaraderie and the resentments of crime writers.

Keen observers of Brown’s previous works will notice certain resonances in the text, especially in the nascent and building relationship between Langham and Maria, which at times has more than a feel of Brown’s “Starship Seasons” quartet of novellas, among others.

In an article in the Guardian Review on Saturday 8th March John Banville identified an “unacknowledged but vital ingredient of a really satisfying whodunnit: cosiness.” In setting his book in the 1950s Brown has caught that cosiness perfectly. It is, after all, the function of the detective story to set the world to rights.

There is at least one more Langham and Dupré novel to come. I’m looking forward to it.

Satan’s Reach by Eric Brown

Abbadon Books, 2013, 284 p.

This is the second novel set in Brown’s “Weird Space” universe. Den Harper, a telepath who has absconded from the authoritarian Expansion to trade among the spaceways of the much less regimented, almost lawless, Satan’s Reach, visits the planet Ajanta to sell a steamship engine. There he becomes embroiled with the fortunes of singer Zeela Antarivo whom he saves from a fate worse than death at the hands of the local aliens who enslave humans by means of a drug ubiquitous on Ajanta. The Ajantans regard Zeela as their property and thereafter chase the pair all across the Reach.

Meanwhile, bounty hunter Sharl Janaker is tasked by an Expansion General to return Harper to their employ in order to deal with the threat of the Weird, aliens whose lurking presence in human minds can only be uncovered by telepathy. She is accompanied by Helsh Kreller, one of the Expansion’s old enemies the Vetch, but now in alliance to counteract the Weird. Kreller has reasons of his own to recover the spaceship Harper stole when he absconded.

Spoiler alert! I thought the twist involving Kreller towards the end of the book didn’t quite square with the underlying narrative thrust of the two Weird Space books so far.

A lot of the adventures here are reminiscent of Brown’s stories of Salvageman Ed, which I read during the summer. Like that collection Satan’s Reach is not the most profound of Brown’s books. It’s good entertainment though.

Parallax View by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown

Illustrations by Dominic E Harman. Sarob Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2000, 175 p

Parallax View cover

This is a collection of short stories, one each written by the individual authors, the remaining six in collaboration. Most of them I have read before on their first appearance.

In his introduction Stephen Baxter says “Science Fiction is the literature of our age….. one way of dealing with [future] shock… the only modern literature which deals seriously with the universe… as a protagonist,” but “the best Science Fiction is, was and always will be about the impact of the universe on the human soul.” All the stories herein illustrate that last point admirably.

Appassionata by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
In a time of little musical innovation a famous but lonely young pianist is contracted to help a composer improve his work. Unknown to her the composer’s personality has been imprinted with a simulation of Beethoven’s.

Sugar and Spice by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
A very human tale of loss, revenge and betrayal via the connection between two works of art related to each other through the nursery rhyme suggested by the story’s title.

A Prayer for the Dead by Eric Brown
This is possibly the best of Brown’s stories set on Tartarus, a tale of young love, tragedy and loss, and an enigmatic alien.

The Flight of the Oh Carollian by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
Julius Frayn is an hereditary fluxmaster capable of guiding ships along the Songlines through time and space generated by the callers of Cynthera. His son Sylvian has not inherited the trait. This one has “had rode” for “had ridden.”

Jurassic and the Great Tree by Keith Brooke
Jurassic is a disposable body inhabited by three personalities hired by an entrepreneur to investigate the reclusive humans called Burul’Chasi whose land he wishes to exploit. The Great Tree is the huge interlocking organism which dominates the Burul’Chasi’s territory. Contains the phrase, “The only Terran life…. are….”

Mind’s Eye by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
In a setting reminiscent of Brown’s Bengal Station but apparently not offshore, a girl from the lower levels comes up to Sundeck where she is befriended by a telepath on a mission.

Under Antares by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
Mackendrick is a former Planetary Overseer on Shannon’s Break, second planet of Antares. Six and a half years after his wife’s death as result of an entanglement with the local aliens, the Shandikar, he is called in as blood-tied-speaker when his son trespasses on one of the Shandikar’s holy sites. Dealing with both enigmatic aliens and religious practices, this story bears Brown’s hallmarks.

The Denebian Cycle by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
An exploration group on Deneb 5 is forced to trek north when their lander and food are destroyed in a forest fire caused by a lightning storm. The local vegetation is all but inedible. Eventually they come upon a stash of food left by the semi-sentient natives and then the natives themselves. Those familiar with John Wyndham’s Survival will not be surprised by the ending. Here there were three instances of the seconds/minutes later formulation, a persona non gratis, (which should be grata,) lay instead of laid as a perfect tense, and the authors felt it necessary to qualify “flayed” with the words “- skinned alive.”

Overall, though, a very good, very readable collection.

Berwick Rangers 1-3 Dumbarton

Scottish Cup Round 4, Shielfield Park, 30/11/13

Well, that’s my Shielfield duck broken. The only other time I’d been there was in a late September, we’d just been relegated to the bottom division – then designated 2 (out of three) – the season before, had started poorly but Berwick were worse and had not yet won. It blew a howling gale and they beat us 1-0.

I had previously seen us beat Berwick away though, but not at Sheilfield. There was some dispute over the terms Berwick had for using the ground so they were temporarily playing home games at Cliftonhill. We won thta easily and also promotion that season as I recall.

Anyway, to the game. I picked up Eric Brown on the way down in order for him to experience his first taste of Scottish football. He lives in Dunbar now (or close to it.)

The first half produced only one chance but three goals.

For the third game in a row now I’ve seen us lose a goal to a belting strike. This was an exquisitely struck and placed free-kick but Jamie Ewings’s positioning seemed off from before the ball was hit. He was too far over to get to a well-taken shot and every team nowadays has a player that can do those.

We hadn’t managed to create anything either when a cross was handled by a defender in the box. Brian Prunty hit the penalty low and hard enough to beat Berwick’s tall keeper. Shortly before half-time came the chance and beautifully worked it was too, Mitch Megginson despatching the end of a fine move.

Berwick had been trying to knock us off our stride and first half it worked. We had lots of possession but couldn’t get space in their half. Second half we were on top again and another great passing move (Eric was impressed) was finished off by Scott Linton for what I think is his first for the club.

Berwick had two more efforts on goal, one that was scuffed and one bender from way out that Jamie Ewings got a good hand on. They looked spent and devoid of ideas after our third went in, resorting to the long range stuff.

Kevin Smith hit the post with a header, I actually saw Colin Nish – on as sub for Brian Prunty – get the ball in the net but there was a hand ball in there somewhere, he later got a header on target but also on the keeper and Jordan Kirkpatrick forced a fine save very late on.

Comfortable enough in the end, I suppose.

Now. When was the last time we were in the last 16 of the Cup? Heady days.

Salvage by Eric Brown

Infinity Plus Books, 2013, 244 p

My copy of Salvage is fruit of my recent visit to see the author. He is a very nice lad.

The book is the collected stories of Salvageman Ed, pilot of an old tub called A Long Way From Home in a universe with interstellar travel, AIs in human form and where there have been female popes. Brown’s recurring theme of religion appears frequently, as do enigmatic aliens and betrayals of various sorts.

Most of the tales are light-hearted action adventure stories with pulpy overtones but a few explore what it means to be human and what love is. An afterword reveals the second last of the full stories was the first to be written.

When Brown does stuff like this it is always entertaining. Don’t expect depth all the time though.

Dissimulation Procedure. On Sinclair’s Landfall, under the yellow-blue light of Procyon, Ed is approached by a beautiful young woman, Ella, wanting a job as a co-pilot. Ed’s shipmate Karrie is suspicious of the newcomer who is not, of course, what she seems. The story sets up sequels nicely.

The Soul of the Machine. Using Ella’s knowledge of the Hayakawa Organisation, whose property as an AI she is, the salvage crew set off for Dzuba and an abandoned wreck. In their pursuit is a Watson Interceptor of the Organisation, which is duly defeated.

Three’s a Crowd. Ella picks up a distress signal. The stranded ship contains a strange gestalt alien up to no good.

The Manexan Exodus. Karrie persuades Ed to take a trip to Menaxa where, she says, her brother Jens is trying to find out how the inhabitants vanished. It doesn’t end well.

To All Appearances. Lured to the planet Bokotar by an AI disguised as a Denebian, Ed is saved from death in a strange religious ceremony by Ella’s consciousness downloaded into a spider-drone. Ella’s disposal of the drone afterwards reinforces her non-humanity.

Cold Testing is a sort of 12,000 mile service for spaceships done on a planet with temperatures “fifty degrees below.” While A Long Way From Home is undergoing the procedure AI Ella decides to do a cold test on herself.

Salvaging Pride. The ship travels to an ice moon of a planet circulating Epsilon Centauri to salvage a hundred year old wreck. The wreck surprisingly contains the cryogenically suspended body of a Schlocken – one of the inhabitants of the Epsilon Centauri system who are at war with the humans of nearby Acrab. The situation is resolved unexpectedly.

Incident on Oblomov. A quick maintenance job on Oblomov, a planet where the Second Son of God is hauled out of cryonic suspension every twenty years to give his latest pronouncement, is interrupted when the totalitarian government requisitions the ship. Ella’s AI capabilities come in useful.

Laying the Ghost. A woman in an AI enhanced warware suit asks to be taken to the planet Serimion where she was born and her parents were killed in an invasion by the Kha. She is a strange entity indeed.

Salvage Rites. Ed comes across his salvage life’s dream, the returned St Benedictus, sent out by a sceptical Vatican centuries before to seek out the source of coded tachyon vectors that spoke of God-like beings who’d seeded the galaxy with life. The returnees have found God, of a sort. Ella sacrifices herself to protect the crew from contamination.

End Game. Two copies of her personality that Ella left in the smartcore of A Long Way From Home are given to Ed so he can choose one to upload into another body. The Hayakawa Organisation intercepts the process. Ed buys Ella’s freedom.

Coda. Ed and Ella meet one last time.

Starship Spring by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2012, 69 p

The fourth novella in Brown’s Starship sequence, this one finds David Conway six years on from the events of Starship Winter, happily married to Hannah van Harben and with a five year-old daughter, Ella. His artist friend Matt’s latest show has been funded by a patron, Dr Petronious, an alien art collector, on condition that he takes a holiday at the resort of Tamara Falls (which lies in a region of Chalcedony where the mysterious locals, the Ashentay, mostly keep themselves to themselves) with his group from Magenta Bay. A visit to an otherwise restricted archæological site has been included in the deal. Dr Petronious has also provided an alien artefact, a metal cone made into a necklace, to be gifted to Ella.

How all this locks together and links into Chalcedony’s Golden Column, which allows interstellar travel to take place by means of jumps, is delivered in Brown’s usual effective way. As is common with Brown, there are enigmatic aliens and strange quasi-religious ceremonies, though the climax here is more reminiscent of his Bengal Station trilogy than the previous Starship novellas.

The series has, I believe, now been collected as Starship Seasons and is well worth searching out.

(Misprints corner:- 7 typos – mainly word/letter omissions or interpolations.)

Helix Wars by Eric Brown

Solaris, 2012, 384 p.

Jeff Ellis is a shuttle pilot who travels between the many worlds of the Helix. On a flight to Phandra his craft is shot down by the Sporelli who are invading from the neighbouring world on the spiral. His life is saved by a Phandran healer, Calla, but they are taken prisoner by the Sporelli. Meanwhile the Mahkan, Kranda, has set out to rescue Ellis from the Sporelli in order to fulfil the debt of honour she incurred when Ellis previously saved her life. She does so but the Sporelli have taken Calla in order to utilise her healing powers on their injured. Thereafter we are involved with the search for Calla as Ellis feels he is now in her debt. Elsewhere, on the Helix world of New Earth, Ellis’s more-or-less estranged wife, Maria, has begun an affair with her boss.

The Helix is one of those familiar SF tropes, a Big Dumb Object. In his first novel set there, Helix, Brown did not explore the structure nor its mechanics to any great degree. That omission is remedied here. The technology of its Builders, which allows its inner exploration, is – as Clarke’s Law has it – indistinguishable from magic, perhaps from the point of view of the story conveniently so. But then if you’ve got a tool kit why not use it? The novel reads like a kind of mashup of the BDO tale and a shoot-em-up.

Brown is incapable of writing a book which does not feature human dilemmas, however. In Helix Wars these seem to sit awkwardly with the more straightforward video game type elements even if the extended interplay between Kranda and Ellis on the morality of the use of force raises the tone.

Brown’s more character driven novels are much more satisfactory. Unless you’re into shoot-em-ups I’d advise you to savour his “Starship” sequence or The Kings of Eternity instead.

Aside:- Helix Wars has a cover which, had Eric not been a mate, would have made me disinclined ever to pick the book up.

The War Memorial, Cockenzie, East Lothian.

On Friday we took a trip over to see SF writer Eric Brown and his family in East Lothian.

On the way back we meandered along the coast a bit. I came across a War Memorial on the way into Cockenzie. (I didn’t bother photographing Cockenzie’s most prominent feature, its now disused coal-fired Power Station, whose twin chimneys can easily be seen from across the Forth.)

Cockenzie War Memorial is an elegant simple cross.

Cockenzie War Memorial

It has beautiful surroundings of a large lawn-filled space with flower beds around the memorial itself.

Setting of Cockenzie War Memorial

Edited to add: the Scottish War Memorials website gives this as Cockenzie and Port Seton War Memorial.

Blue Shifting by Eric Brown

Pan, 1995, 264p.

Blue Shifting contains short stories and novellas from Brown’s early career, two of them are original to the collection. Looking back at them it is striking how many of his recurring themes and tropes mark these tales. The typical Brown character is a misfit of some kind or a man awkward with women; a common plot driver is of people’s pasts hounding their presents; the typical setting is an artist’s colony or else somewhere secluded, usually on a far-flung planet.

The Death of Cassandra Quebec
Eva Hovanda, a minor artist, attends the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the sole true work of art by Nathaniel Maltravers (a commemoration of the death of his wife) and rediscovers her wiped memories of the event.

Piloting
On Nea Kikhládes, a world of augmented and even Supra Sapient humans, the Primitivist artist Benedict Wellard is preparing his final piece. The pilot he has requested to animate the fifteen years dead body of his daughter plays an unexpected role. This story is slightly flawed by the fact that Brown withholds a crucial item of information until the denouement.

The Art of Acceptance
An oddly affecting love story – or two – set in Brown’s Engineman universe but firmly on Earth. A tale of cloning, disfigurement and, two other familiar Brown tropes, a private detective and Eastern influence. Despite the title, no artists though.

The Disciples of Apollo
A man suffering from a terminal condition known as The Syndrome goes (after selling his classical record collection! Nothing dates so fast as the future) to a hospice where those so afflicted wait to die. He eventually, and for the first time, finds love.

Elegy Perpetuum
An artist who contends that an enduring work of art is worth more than an individual’s life is faced with a fateful decision.

The Song of Summer
A middle-aged man returns to the scene of his youth and his first, lost, only, love.

Epsilon Dreams
A well-plotted tale set on Altair II in a time when the penalty for murder is memory wiping and Encoded Identity Inserts allow personalities to be transferred to other bodies after death. Brown brings both these elements together in another story of emotional shipwreck.

Blue Shifting
At 5 am every day, surrounded by a blue radiance, Gregory Janner mysteriously shifts location from continent to continent. Eventually he falls in with a group of others similarly afflicted. This story did contain the rather pleasing typo of a “billowed” command, but also the more oxymoronic construction, “markedly unremarkable.”

In all these stories, as with those of a major influence on Brown’s work, Michael G Coney, well reflected in this book, the focus is always on human motivation, on how much of an emotional driver both love and loss are. This is SF with a human heart.

Goodbye 2012

I don’€™t usually do end of year round-ups – mostly because most folk write theirs before Christmas and that offends my sensibilities. The year ends on 31st Dec, not before.
Whatever, I looked through all the fiction books I read this year and found twelve that stood out. In order of reading they were:-

PfITZ by Andrew Crumey
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown
the Tiger’€™s Wife by Téa Obreht
And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Galileo’€™s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
D’€™Alembert’€™s Principle by Andrew Crumey

That’s four by women and eight by men, which is a pretty high strike rate for the distaff side compared to my fiction reading as a whole, 12:45 -€“ is that shockingly low or a reflection of publishing? Four were SF, eight not; though that ratio alters if you count the fantastical – the Lord, the Obreht, the Bulgakov, and the Crumeys which feature stories from a city made up within one of the two. Only the Robertson and the Pamuk lie wholly within the realm of the naturalistic.

I don’€™t propose to rank the twelve in any way.

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