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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.

Approaching Omega by Eric Brown

Telos, 2005, 118 p.

Approaching Omega cover

To escape an Earth that is falling apart, several thousand people have been selected to journey in cold sleep to find another habitable planet. The ship’s automated systems are to wake them either on detecting a suitable candidate or when an accident has occurred.

A prelude chapter sets up the situation and foreshadows a possible problem with the ship’s drive. The main body of the book deals with the aftermath of damage to the ship and the controlling AI’s response. This turns the tale into one of action adventure. While Brown’s usual focus on human relationships is not absent it is lessened here in comparison to other works of his. A coda re-establishes this aspect, though.

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 that 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.

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