Archives » Ian McDonald

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald

Everness Book II, Jo Fletcher Books, 2013, 374 p.

This second book in McDonald’s series of novels for young adults set in the Plenitude of Worlds starts off with Everett M Singh, an “alter” of our hero from Book I. M lives on the only Plenitude world which has encountered aliens, the Thryn Sentience. On M’s world the UK Prime Minister is a Mr Portillo. Everett M is knocked down by a car and remade with Thryn technology into a walking arsenal of weapons to be used by Plenitude Plenipotentiaries against the Everett from our world, E10. This Everett is the only person with a map of all the worlds, kept on his computer, Dr Quantum. He has become accepted as a crew member on the Airish airship Everness from E3, enabling them to evade immediate pursuit and jump to an Arctic waste. Each jump leave a trace, though, and they have been followed. Using the last of their power Everett jumps them back to E10 and French air space. A quick piece of thinking sees them recharge their systems from electric power lines and they jump once more to hover over White Hart Lane. (Everett supports Spurs.) He tries to rejoin his E10 family but is prevented by a nifty little battle with Everett M in Abbey Park Cemetery before retreating.

Everness then ventures to the embargoed world E1 where the voracious Nahn have destroyed nearly all organic life. Residual groups of humans hang on in some electromagnetically protected cities but it is on this world that Everett may find a device allowing him to trace all jumps and so track down his father, sent randomly into the Panoply in Book I. Meanwhile Everett M has to deal with the Nahn to get on with his mission. Book III neatly set up then.

Be My Enemy does not fall into the usual “second instalment of a trilogy” slump. The young adult novel requires a brisk pace and there is plenty incident here. It is all tackled with McDonald’s usual brio and is highly entertaining stuff yet with enough insight into human nature to make it well worth an older reader’s time never mind a young adult’s. Knowing references like the airship’s captain Anastasia Sixsmyth saying, “Make it so,” or her adopted daughter Sen breathing, “It’s full of stars,” on seeing a 3D computer graphic plus the observation by Everett M that “parallel universes always have airships” add pleasing grace notes.

The Everness crew, both Sixsmyths, Miles O’Rahilly Lafayette Sharkey and Scots engineer, Mchynlyth, all make their presences felt in various ways and even minor characters are fleshed out.

There were signs of tendering to the US market. We had meters for metres and no unrespectable – or respectable for that matter – Glaswegian ever said “ass” instead of “arse,” but I await Book III, Empress of the Sun, with keen anticipation.

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Everness Book 1. Jo Fletcher Books, 2013, 373p. Reviewed for Interzone 246, May-Jun 2013.

Tottenham Hotspur supporter, school team goalkeeper and fine Indian cook, Everett Singh witnesses the kidnap of his physicist father, Tejendra, just before they were due to meet on an access visit. He provides the police with mobile phone photos of the kidnap. When his dad’s boss, McCabe, turns up asking if Tejendra had left Everett anything, Everett knows something more profound is afoot. Moreover, when his pictures are returned they have been altered. And he is being followed to school and back. As we are immersed in Everett’s world his mistrust of the police and the strained relationship with Everett’s mother these encounters engender are portrayed well, though like all young protagonists Everett is perhaps just a touch too knowing.

Soon a mysterious folder marked “Infundibulum” and obviously left by his father appears on Dr Quantum, Everett’s laptop. Everett knows infundibulum means “bigger inside than out” – references to Doctor Who follow – and recognises the contents as a representation of the multiverse. His father named him after the creator of many worlds theory and he has always been able to think in up to seven dimensions. This facility allows Everett to tie the Infundibulum topologically into a map of the many worlds. Another of his father’s colleagues has given him clandestine information about the success of the many worlds project and footage of other universes from beyond the Heisenberg Gates. Ours is E10 in the Plenitude of Worlds but none of the others has a map, only Everett. This scenario may have been too much for most writers to pull off but McDonald’s exposition of the arcane details is lucid and he uses all this only as a jumping off point. The necessity for plot to rumble on, though, for action, marks this out as a YA novel. Indeed there are echoes of The Northern Lights – not the least of which is the increasing presence of a powerful villainess, Charlotte Villiers – which, given the target audience, is no bad comparison. Echoes of this kind are almost inevitable when the necessity of holding a young audience’s attention is taken into account. There is plenty to keep the adult reader going too, though.

Armed with his knowledge Everett contacts McCabe and is transported to where the many worlds project has its base near the Channel Tunnel. Diplomats from the Plenitude are present as Everett demonstrates the ability of his map to target contact with other worlds. One of them threatens him with a strange gun and he jumps through an open gate into E3, a world with no oil-based technology, where rugby is the main spectator sport – and where Everett only has himself to rely on. This is one of the (arguably necessary) perennial features of “children’s” fiction: the adventure can only begin if no parents are around to prevent it. The stories are usually the better for it.

Everett finds a library and researches his new environment, quickly working out that the Plenitude is probably keeping his dad in the Tyrone Tower.

Later, on the underground, Everett meets the wielder of a strange tarot deck, a young girl called Sen Sixsmyth, who tries to filch Dr Quantum, but Everett decides to befriend her. Sen turns out to be an Airish – crew of the airships which ply the skies of E3. Her home is the Everness, whose captain is her adoptive mother and whose crew includes a “Southern” gentleman addicted to quotations and a Scottish accented guy in charge of the engines. “Captain, I canna get full power when there’s no engine…” Due to his culinary skills Everett is accepted as a crew member and the real fun starts.

To communicate with each other the Airish use a version of Polari, in our world an argot of gay subculture. (This reference would surely go over the heads of most YA readers were an explanation and glossary not supplied at the end.) The Airish have their own customs and loyalties and not a few colourfully named individuals. Any discrimination Everett experiences on E3 is not due to his skin colour but that he is now Airish.

The details of this other world feel right even if they are a touch old-fashioned but it is a kind of steampunk scenario after all. Moreover it is one which McDonald clearly has enjoyed creating. Set pieces including Sen penetrating the Tyrone Tower, the inevitable pursuit by Charlotte Villiers and a battle between airships for arcane Airish reasons keep things moving nicely.

Being part 1 of the Everness series nothing is truly resolved by the end of Planesrunner but the dénouement and the setting up of the sequel have a logic of their own, consistent with what has led up to them.

Planesrunner is bona stuff. One might even say fantabulosa.

Interzone 246

This issue should be out now. It contains my review of Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner.

I’ll shortly be publishing here my review from Interzone 245 of John Scalzi’s Redshirts. It was ….. interesting.

Edited to add. I see Jim Steel has informed us the issue will be out in the next few days.

Planesrunner Update

Planesrunner cover

My review of Planesrunner by Ian McDonald has been delivered to Interzone.

A full month ahead of deadline as it happens.

It won’t see the light of day for a couple of months, though.

Locus 21st Century Poll

Following on from the Locus 20th century polls I posted about a few days ago this is their list for SF novels published from 2000 on.

1 Scalzi, John : Old Man’€™s War (2005)
2 Stephenson, Neal : Anathem (2008)
3* Bacigalupi, Paolo : The Windup Girl (2009)
4 Wilson, Robert Charles : Spin (2005)
5 Watts, Peter : Blindsight (2006)
6* Morgan, Richard : Altered Carbon (2002)
7 Collins, Suzanne : The Hunger Games (2008)
8 Gibson, William : Pattern Recognition (2003)
9* Miéville, China : The City & the City (2009)
10 Stross, Charles : Accelerando (2005)
11* Mitchell, David : Cloud Atlas (2004)
12* McDonald, Ian : River of Gods (2004)
13 McCarthy, Cormac : The Road (2006)
14* Harrison, M. John : Light (2002)
15= Willis, Connie : Black Out/All Clear (2010)
15=* Chabon, Michael : The Yiddish Policemen’€™s Union (2007)

7 out of 16. I’m obviously not keeping up with modern SF.

BSFA Awards Winners

Over at Science Fiction Awards Watch the results of this year’s BSFA Awards have been posted.

The novel award went to Ian McDonald for The Dervish House and the short story to Aliette de Bodard for The Shipmaker.

Congratulations to all the winners.

BSFA Awards

I’ve now read four of the five short-listed novels – the first time I’ve ever managed such a feat before the vote. While it is so much easier to find books in these internet days I did make a conscious effort this time. My reviews of these five are in the previous post plus here, here and here. It’s probably the one I’ve missed (Zoo City by Lauren Beukes) that will win now.

The nominations for Best Art are to my mind profoundly uninspiring except perhaps the spaceship by Andy Bigwood on the cover of Conflicts.

As to the short stories: the BSFA booklet has been devoured and here are my thoughts.

Flying In The Face Of God by Nina Allan.

The Kushnev drain is a(n unexplained) treatment that allows deep space expeditions to be undertaken more easily. Viewpoint character Anita, a film-maker whose mother was murdered in an anti-space-exploration terrorist attack when she was months old, is in love with Rachel, a recipient of the Kushnev drain who is about to set off into space. Rachel’s boyfriend, Serge, has moved on already.

The Science Fiction in this story is peripheral, being only the mentions of the Kushnev drain and space travel. Apart from that it’s … well, nothing much really.

At the level of the writing, an apparent change of viewpoint character in paragraph 1 (and 2) brought me to a shuddering stop in paragraph 3. Throughout, there is a high degree of info dumping. Tenses within the flashbacks are not precise enough making keeping track of things difficult. Anita’s grandmother features for no good plot reason that I could see. None of the characters displays much psychological depth.

As a result I found this story to be a bit incoherent. And nothing happens.

The Shipmaker by Aliette De Bodard

In a Chinese dominated future culture the shipmaker of the title is in charge of designing a spaceship – on principles that appear to relate to or derive from feng shui. The ship is to be piloted by a flesh and electronic hybrid Mind, gestated in the womb of a volunteer, the mechanics of which process are not laid out. The birth-mother turns up early and throws the delicately balanced design process into confusion. The culture is sketched efficiently and the characters’ problems are believable enough.

This is a proper story with forward movement and motivated characters but with an ending that is perhaps too glib.

The Things by Peter Watts

This story is told from the point of view of an alien, who has always heretofore been able to meld with and assimilate to other lifeforms, and is capable of warding off entropy. The creature’s offshoots have survived a crash and are trying to come to communion with the human members of an Antarctic expedition who come to realise its presence and resist it. Its gradual understanding of the singular nature of human existence, that we have brains – which it regards as a form of cancer – that we die; is well handled.

Again, this is a story, but due to its nature the humans it depicts are never more than names. The alien, however, is as real as you could wish. The last sentence is a little intense, though, not to say unsavoury.

Arrhythmia by Neil Williamson

In a Britain which is reminiscent of the early- to mid-20th century with concomitant working practices and social attitudes yet still has room for Top Of The Pops, Steve whiles away his days at the factory and yearns for the company of Sandra, who is sometimes assigned to work alongside him.

The factory runs to the tune of the Governor. Literally. The assembly line moves in time with piped music – as if Music While You Work was a control mechanism. In fact so suffused with music is this story it even begins with an anacrusis.

The key event is when Sandra gives Steve a copy of a vinyl single by the singer Arrythmia, whose iconoclastic attitude encourages rebelliousness.

As I almost said in my review of the anthology it came from, Music For Another World, this story could perhaps have been titled 1984: The Musical. Arrythmia doesn’t suffer too much by that comparison.

This Year’s BSFA Awards

This year’s BSFA Awards shortlist has been published.

Five novels have made it this year (I’ve read one) and four short stories (ditto,) five non-fiction pieces and six art works.

I didn’t make the list with Osmotic Pressure (I doubt I was nominated by anyone) but
I’ll look forward to reading the shorts I’ve missed so far: I assume the BSFA will send them out in a booklet as in the past two years. They’ll all likely be available on the web soon I should think – if not already.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

Gollancz, 2010. 472p.

After Africa (Chaga – aka Evolution‒s Shore -, Kirinya and Tendeleo’s Story,) India (River Of Gods, Cyberabad Days) and Brazil (Brasyl), in The Dervish House McDonald now turns his attention to Turkey: specifically Istanbul.

The novel is set several years after Turkey has finally gained EU membership and joined the Euro (perhaps a somewhat more remote possibility now than when McDonald was writing) in an era when children can control real, mobile, self assembling/disassembling transformers and adults routinely use nanotech to heighten awareness/response in much the way they do chemical drugs at present. The fruit of what may have been a prodigious quantity of geographical and historical research is injected more or less stealthily into the text.

The main plot is concerned with a terrorists group’€™s plans to distribute nano behaviour changing agents designed to engender a consciousness of mysticism, if not of the reality of God/Allah. The resultant, what would otherwise be magic realist visions of djinni and karin, is thereby given an SF rationale.

In the interlinked narratives of those who live in and around an old Dervish House in Adam Dede Square, and covering events occurring over only four days, there are subplots about contraband Iranian natural gas, corrupt financial institutions and insider dealings, the circumscription of non-Turkish minorities, tales of youthful betrayal and frustrated love, not to mention the discovery of an ancient mummy embalmed in honey, which last gives the author the opportunity to deploy a nice pun on the phrase honey trap. The usual eclectic McDonald conjunction of disparate ingredients, then, and somehow amid all this he manages to finagle football into the mix as early as page two. Fair enough, though; Turkey’s fans are notoriously passionate about the game.

While not quite reaching the heights of Brasyl or River Of Gods, The Dervish House still has more than enough to keep anyone turning the pages.

One typographical quibble: the formula for carbon dioxide ought to be rendered as CO2 rather than CO2, though. To a Chemist like me there is a world of difference between the two.

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