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Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

The latest from the BSFA Awards list – 6 out of 8 read now – but probably the last.

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

 Europe in Autumn cover

For a long time there was a dearth of detective stories in SF. This may have been because of the necessity that such a story work as both SF and crime novel, creating a gap which writers couldn’t seem to bridge. However any such lack has long since been filled. I don’t recall, though, many outright spy story/SF crossovers. Thrillers, yes (but they are a different beast again.) Yet here we have Europe in Autumn, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Cold War era spy story. This may be due to the fact that, a brief excursion to London apart, it is set mainly in Eastern Europe, areas which were formerly in Warsaw Pact countries. There is too a constant hint of menace, of surveillance, of people with hidden agendas, pervading it. All of which Hutchinson handles with aplomb.

After the devastation of the Xian Flu Europe has fissured into innumerable small statelets, “Sanjaks. Margravates. Principalities. Länder.” One of these polities is a trans-European railway line running from Portugal to Siberia, but never more than ten kilometres wide. In this Europe borders, razor wire, visas and bureaucracy abound; travelling is not simple. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Kraków who is one day “invited” to join Les Coureurs des Bois, an organisation dedicated to smuggling mail, packages and sometimes people across the numerous borders. His training ends in a disastrous foray into the railway’s territory. Later “situations” also turn out less than well and he begins to wonder why.

This set-up is intriguing. A Europe returned to a pre-Napoleonic patchwork – only much worse; some of the polities extend to no more than a couple of blocks of flats. It’s certainly surprising. One thing I never expected to read was a piece of SF explicitly discussing the merits or otherwise of the Schengen Agreement. How all this sticks together, plus the relevance of maps of non-existent places, is all revealed in a tightly plotted, highly readable thriller style narrative. In parts Europe in Autumn reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – was there something in the air the year before last? – there are extremely faint echoes, growing stronger towards the book’s end, of Transition, plus parallels with The City and the City and similarities with PƒITZ.

Europe in Autumn is a good book – even a very good book – but I’m not entirely sure about its place on the BSFA Award ballot. It has SF trappings to be sure, invisibility suits amongst them, but, in essence, it’s a spy novel.

The phrase “he wardrove around the city” was a new one on me but I’m grateful for it.

Pedant’s corner:- Hutchinson has too much of a fondness for the phrase “tipped his/her/my head to one side,” to indicate a character’s desire for more information, clarification or knowledge of evasion. Also: we had “a raise” (but elsewhere Hutchison also uses the British formulation a pay “rise,”) “I don’t think anybody understands the offside trap any more,” (OK this was a piece of spy speak but shouldn’t it still have been offside law? The offside trap is an effort to employ the law in a team’s favour,) tokomaks (tokamaks,) “for the first time in many years feeling anything approaching sympathy for his father,” (shouldn’t that be something rather than anything?) watched them them go, “Here he was, sitting here quite comfortably,” Minster for Minister.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Picador, 2015, 339 p, including 2 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Questions for Discussion.

 Station Eleven cover

Well, it’s a long time since I’ve read a good disaster novel. (Or any disaster novel at all really.) Not that this is a disaster novel per se as it spends a good bit of time on pre-apocalypse matters. The third person narrative varies between the viewpoints of actor Arthur Leander, his first wife Miranda, his friend Clark, former paparazzo turned paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary and Kirsten Raymonde, a child, then later an adult, actor.

Arthur Leander collapses on stage of a heart attack on the night the Georgian Flu comes to Toronto. Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and tries to aid him but fails to prevent his death. Before the performance Leander had given Kirsten two “issues” of a sumptuously produced limited edition comic book, the Station Eleven of the title. Kirsten values these through the years of travail ahead; for the Georgian Flu turns out to be particularly virulent, causing death within hours, hence civilisation swiftly falls apart. The few survivors eke out their existence as best they can.

The narration flits between pre- and post-apocalypse detailing Leander’s life story; Kirsten’s wanderings in Year Twenty with The Travelling Symphony – despite the name they perform Shakespeare plays as well as music – with its slogan (derived from Star Trek: Voyager) Because survival is insufficient; Clark’s pre-disaster memories of Leander and his post-apocalypse life in Severn City Airport, Michigan, where he sets up a Museum of Civilisation; Miranda’s experiences with Leander; along with Jeevan’s memories of his life. (There is no reason to suppose that Mandel has ever read it – in all probability she hasn’t – but the Travelling Symphony elements reminded me a bit of Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road. Mandel is a much better writer than Niven, though, and her story more complex.)

This is a very good book indeed, suffused with sadness but still affirming life. The characters all ring true to life – plus of course the inevitable death(s) – and there is a glimmer of hope for the future at the end. A curiosity was that only the odd pages are numbered and that only if they didn’t coincide with a chapter heading. Even though it has more of a mainstream feel had I read this before the cut-off date I would certainly have nominated it for the BSFA Award – the book was first published in 2014 – but sadly I was a month late.

Yet, even in a book as good as this there are entries for Pedant’s Corner:-
“The line of jets, streaked now with rust.” (Only iron – or steel – can form rust. Aeroplanes aren’t made from iron. If they were they’d not get off the ground. Iron is much more dense than the aluminium jets are made from.) “He’d laid awake” (lain.) In one chapter – a supposed transcription of an interview with Kirsten by the editor of the New Petoskey News – King Lear and New York Times are underlined. Is this due to the pre-word processing convention that submitted manuscripts contained underlining where italics were to be used in the final copy – italics being beyond normal manual typewriters – and these instances were missed in the transcription?

Wolves by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2014, 295 p.

This is the first in my attempt to catch up with this year’s BSFA Awards nominations for best novel. I’ve now read half of them. With two more at hand I’m on track for 6 out of the 8.

 Wolves cover

Wolves is a strange beast, part SF, part mystery, part love story, but never really completely any one of them. Conrad is working in advertising when school friend Michel’s phone call to him to come to meet his girlfriend and view their pet project – building a boat to see them safe through what they divine as the impending apocalypse – throws him into their orbit. How this is all linked to Conrad’s past, his mother’s death and dysfunctional relationship with his father, Ben, is worked out in stages and flashbacks to Conrad’s teenage years. Ben was involved in devising a system of artificial sight for blinded soldiers. Later, Conrad’s company develops augmented reality technology – “with tricks of mathematics and optics, we augment reality, smothering surfaces in warm, spicy notes of brand belonging” – eventually to the point where it can overlay the real world, without its experiencer even carrying/wearing a processing device. As Conrad tells us later, in another context, “the mind cannot retain vanished geographies, and we find ourselves adapting to this new terrain.”

In perhaps the crucial sentences in the book Ralf, the ideas man behind the AR technology, says to his financial backer when queried about what he calls the model, the brain’s importance in perception, “Your model, my model, of what the world is like. We only have models, Mr Vaux. From the little data granted us, we extrapolate a model of the world. This, we call ‘reality’.”

I’m very dubious about Conrad’s contentions that, “When we fall in love with someone, we fall in love first with their world,” and, “Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy,” but less so with, “Confusing the two loves is easier still.” He also says, “Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy.”

Despite the trappings – and the nomination – the book doesn’t really feel at all like SF. The novel’s sensibility throughout is mainstream. Augmented Reality isn’t truly embedded in the story and reads more like an add-on. The book could actually be stripped of its futuristic components and the plot still work as well. The text also mentions Science Fiction, generally thought to be unwise in a work within the genre. However, one thing that can be taken from Wolves is that whatever happens, human relationships will still be as muddled and messy as ever.

Pedant’s corner:- clitoriclectomy (clitoridectomy or clitorectomy,) pretentions (pretensions – though the latter spelling is used later,) queuing (queueing?) populous (populace,) “I rack my head for anecdotes,” (wrack?) stoved in (staved in surely?)
Plus points, though, for “lie of the land.”

Clarke Award 2014

I see Ancillary Justice has won this year’s Clarke Award.

Not having read three of the contenders I can’t really comment beyond saying the winner’s author, Ann Leckie, has clearly hit some sort of nerve as her book has also (jointly) won the BSFA Award and for good measure is on the Hugo Award ballot paper too.

BSFA Awards

This year’s awards were announced at Eastercon.

Unfortunately I had to miss the ceremony due to my appearance on a panel the hour beforehand and the necessity to eat thereafter.

The winners were:-

Best Non-Fiction: Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer.

Best Art: cover of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-Fi.

Best Short Fiction: Spin by Nina Allan

Best Novel: tie between Gareth L. Powell for Ack Ack Macaque and Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice.

I voted for three of the four fiction winners.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2013

A welcome innovation this year was the inclusion in the booklet of pieces to do with the Award for non-fiction. The nominees here were:-

“Sleeps with Monsters” by Liz Bourke. Two extracts from Bourke’s blog for tor.com are included. One is about fantasy, the other gaming.

“Going Forth by Night” by John J Johnston. A discussion on the history of Mummies in literature from the introduction to Unearthed, an anthology published in partnership with The Egypt Exploration Society.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. The Awards booklet contained an extract from the book’s first chapter.

As usual the booklet contains all the nominees for the short story award.

I have already reviewed Spin by Nina Allan, TTA Press.

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, Strange Horizons, January 2013.

A girl who works in a restaurant has a host of selkie stories which she says always end in the same way, except she will never tell one. Of course; she does. A story about the faces we present to the world, the masks we hide behind and how we yearn to be our true selves.

Saga’s Children by E J Swift, The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium, (Jurassic London)

Saga was the most famous astronaut in the Solar System before, and after, she took off into the unknown from the surface of Ceres and was never heard from again. (There is an explosion here due to “unstable gases released by drilling.” No mention of the necessary oxygen though.) The lives of her three children, who up till a few days before that moment had not realised they had siblings, are irreparably marked by her single-mindedness.

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, no 113, Jan 2013.
A tale of infatuation and betrayal with indeterminate gendered folk, and houses that are alive in a city of canals. More fantasy than SF.

Hmmm. I would say that two and a half out of these four stories are more fantastical in nature than SF.

The winners will be announced on Sunday evening during Eastercon.

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2013, 375 p.

Another BSFA Award ballot book. I didn’t have to go far to find this one. I managed to pick up from one of my local libraries.

Gajananvihari Pilot is part of a family which operates as space salvagers in the decades after an event precipitated by Sri Hong-Owen and known as the Bright Moment. One day their ship, a Mobius ring called Pabuji’s Gift, is hijacked by pirates. Hari escapes with the head of Dr Gagarian, which is supposed to contain files relating to the work he and Aakash, Hari’s father, had been doing to try to understand and replicate the physics of the Bright Moment. The plot revolves around Hari’s search to seek out those responsible for the hijack and to revenge himself on them.

Like the two other books of McAuley’s Quiet War sequence which I have read there is a lot of attention paid to his history of the future. Again, though, the characters seem almost incidental.

The book is riddled with references to SF works of the past including the titles of each of the six sections which make up the novel. This homage may explain its appearance on the BSFA Award ballot.

New Review

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August cover

My next book review for Interzone will be The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.

The accompanying blurb for this (and the link above) states, “Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels. This book is completely different from any of them.”

Hmmm.

I’ve got a BSFA Award nominee to read before that, though. Busy, busy.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 386 p.

I bought this since I suspected it might be on the BSFA Award ballot: and it is. (Only three of this year’s nominees still to read now.)

Breq is a fragment of an Artificial Intelligence, the spaceship Justice of Torren, of which she was once an ancillary of the ship’s Esk level. Ancillaries are bodies captured by the Radchaai in their territorial expansions, implanted with augmentations and enslaved to a ship’s consciousness as military units, in companies named decades, which are themselves subsidiaries of hundreds. (An organisational parallel with Roman armies is obvious.) The book deals with the prelude to and aftermath of Breq’s (or Justice of Torren one Esk’s) sudden isolation from her hundred and ship. She goes on a self-imposed mission to seek out a weapon invisible to Radch technology and then use it against the Lord of the Radch. For most of the book Breq’s story is related in alternating chapters describing respectively the search and the events which led up to her separation from Justice of Torren. Once the two strands unite the narrative is straightforwardly linear. Leckie’s depiction of the multiple consciousness Breq inhabits before her severance is effective but authorially she seemed more at ease when the necessity to deal with it was removed.

One curiosity is that, despite some early asides on problems with languages in which gender assignation is important – and the same person is referred to as he or she at different points – all the characters in Ancillary Justice seem to be female, or at least they read as though they are. This is refreshing even though the usual actions, betrayals etc with which Breq deals are perhaps no different from stories featuring male characters – and it doesn’t affect the tale one whit.

Included at the rear were “Extras” – an “about the author,” an interview with her and a totally unnecessary extract from a book by someone else entirely. Here we find that further stories in this universe are to be forthcoming. I found myself curiously disappointed with this as, while there are unresolved elements, it did not strike me that further exploration of the scenario would be as intriguing as this book is.

Ancillary Justice is the better of the two candidate novels for this year’s BSFA Award I have read up to now. By far.

Pedant’s corner: we had publically for publicly, gasses for gases and a character saying, “one point eleven meters.” It was not the USianism of that meters which grated – there were USianisms throughout despite the British publication imprint. You might as well pronounce the number 231156 as twenty-three eleven fifty-six – which would be all but meaningless. The number 1.11 ought to be transliterated as one point one one. Eleven is a number larger than one: by definition numbers after a decimal point are smaller than one. No number after a decimal point should be described other than by its successive single digits. A writer of SF ought to know such things.

BSFA Awards List

The lists for this year have been announced.

The novels are:-

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

I’ve read one of these already and have another, Ancillary Justice, on the tbr pile.

The short fiction:-

Spin by Nina Allan (TTA Press)

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)

Saga’s Children by E. J. Swift (The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium)

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

I have so far read Spin.

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