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Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

PS Publishing, 2008, 304 p.

 Song of Time cover

Love, sex and death.

Oh, I know within these pages there are dead people who are somehow still able to exist, an intelligent kitchen, a crystal field saturating the environment, artificial skin, the last snow melting from Kilimanjaro, computer screens with no visible supports, a nuclear war, the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing up, not to mention a symphony that continually rewrites itself, but these are all just background: at its core Song of Life charts the three literary biggies. And the greatest of these is love.

One day towards the back end of the twenty-first century Roushana Maitland finds a half-drowned man, possibly attempting to enter the country illegally and who does not remember who he is, on the Cornish beach just below her house. She drags him up to safety and shelter. His presence and her imminent transfiguration (not death, she has very recently undergone the procedure which will undo that) trigger memories of her life. Song of Time’s chapters alternate between depictions of her present day with the stranger in her house, whom she dubs Adam but who himself pronounces it Abaddon, and her memories of the unfolding century.

Roushana is of mixed heritage, Indian on her mother’s side, Irish on her father’s. Her brother Leo is a gifted musician but contracts WRFI, Wide Range Food Intolerance, perhaps brought about by an artificial virus targeted on the lactose tolerant, an adaptation mostly found in Westerners. Unable to withstand the debilitation this has caused him, he commits suicide, telling Roushana, It’s up to you now, Sis. She polishes her up to then not particularly good efforts on the violin and, with the later help of famous conductor Claude Vaudin who eventually becomes her husband, parlays them into fame and fortune. Her story is set against the background of a disintegrating world: racial tensions erupt in Britain, unspecified divisions occur elsewhere, a millenarian type of cult arises. In terms of terrorism and world politics this future is like our present, only more so. But technological progress still occurs. The environment becomes enmeshed in the “ever-spreading network of crystal” but no mechanism for the dead to still be around after death is elaborated beyond the “crystal seed of immortality whining its way” into Roushana’s skull.

It may seem counter-intuitive to have classical music as the driver for Roushana’s fame, but pop stardom would have been too clichéd, and a future classical revival of sorts is not too much of a stretch. There is in any case some genre crossing. Claude’s performances in clubs at times read more like those of a jazz musician.

Song of Time contains a profoundly imagined and realised world and Roushana’s voice is an engaging one. That there are doubts over the exact circumstances of Claude’s death ring entirely true, Leo’s continuing influence over her life being a source of jealousy to Claude.

MacLeod has a poignant story to tell, has a facility with language, a poet’s ear at times, scatters out in one book more ideas than many authors would use in a lifetime and the book itself is a lovely object. Roushana’s story is one I’ll remember for a long time. Looking back I see Song of Time won the literary-inclined Clarke Award. However, it didn’t make the nominee list for the BSFA Award for 2008. (The fact that the SF elements can be construed as only background may have told against it.) I have not read three of the four on that year’s list but nevertheless they’d have to be going some to be better novels than this.

I have a caveat, though.

Did anybody proof-read this thing?

Pedant’s corner:- “Pregnancy came as a shock to me…. The sheer alienness of the symptoms…” (But Roushana had been pregnant before – albeit then had an abortion.) Disks (discs,) programs (programmes) – I don’t care even if either of these two were to do with computers – practise (innumerable times as a noun, but the noun is “practice” which strangely also appears correctly at times,) the late 1950s in the search of (in the late 1950s in search of,) “They didn’t have say it” (have to say it,) into him arm (his,) the speed in which (with which,) lineney (lineny,) sung (sang,) would not longer (no longer,) with she as she was (with her as she was,) it was shade (a shade,) Doges’ Palace (Doge’s,) on diet (on a diet,) as goes inside (as he goes inside,) after I’ve I sat him down (either I’ve or I, but not both,) “You where I mean” (You know where I mean,) “For a just a while” (for just a while,) glowing n his (in his,) unfocussed (unfocused, ) “Pakkis” but later, “Paki-girl”, the “the village” (just “the village”,) sewerage (sewage,) lost contact Uncle Indra (lost contact with Uncle Indra,) reforming (re-forming,) I really do have sit down (have to sit down,) St Fimbarrus’ (St Fimbarrus’s,) we took at ride (a ride,) whilst still officially still at war (one still too many here, plus there was another “still” later in the same sentence,) how you were you supposed to deal (a “you” too many,) ignited =in (ignited in,) its commanding view sea (sea view.) Back the kitchen (Back in the kitchen,) Miles Davis’ (Miles Davis’s,) fames (??), has (had,) Blythe Monroe (on all other appearances it was Munro,) I was following what he saying (what he was saying,) in one of pots (one of the pots,) Christos’ (Christos’s) Cholera B (is later Cholera b,) of a return virtuality to paint (of a return from virtuality to paint,) pervious (previous.) Near beside them (Near them? Beside them?) Periphique (Peripherique,) sit ins (sit-ins,) burn-out (burned-out,) I knew that Claude was be out debating (“would be” or “was”, but not “was be”,) virtuality de monde (as I remember my French that’s du monde,) focussed (focused,) if she’s started (she’d,) the orchestra were (orchestra is singular; therefore the orchestra was.) Loose faith (Lose faith,) whether he of she (he or she,) Bezant’s Bay (in most instances it’s Bezant Bay,) one instance of its for it’s, complemented (complimented,) it they haven’t been paid enough (if,) one of periodic eruptions (one of the periodic eruptions,) the early half-life of the radiation had decreased considerably (the radiation level may decrease but the half-life most certainly doesn’t,) softy steaming greenery (softly?) were (where,) so I often with worked with, anything less that whole-heartedly (than,) wintery (wintry,) closer to him that when he was (than when he was,) after I’d laid down (lain,) the least emotion I felt was surprise (the last emotion) I can’t read you mind (your,) with its all lights (with all its lights,) it’s shrunken (shrunk.) The text implies Yellowstone is in Colorado but it is mostly in Wyoming with parts extending into Montana and Idaho.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 592 p

 The Book of Strange New Things cover

Despite having Dutch nationality, Michel Faber, by virtue of living in Scotland for 20 years and being published here, appears on the list of 100 Best Scottish books with his first novel, Under the Skin. That’s gone on my tbr list but I read this as it was one of the nominees for the Clarke Award this year.

Pastor Peter Leigh has been taken on by a mysterious company called USIC to become a missionary to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet Oasis. (This is a strange place with a day, and hence also a night, that each last 72 hours but, as described here, has a not very diverse ecology.) The selection process meant that Peter’s wife Beatrice – also interviewed by USIC – did not accompany him but they are able to write to each other via a communication device known as the Shoot.

Importing material from Earth to Oasis is very costly indeed and the base depends to a large extent on the Oasan crop, whiteflower, which (handily) can be converted to various Earth-like foods when harvested at different stages of its cycle. However the aliens (of whom we only hear of one group) have moved away from the USIC base and Peter has to spend over an Oasan day out of contact in order to further his mission. His immersion in this task leads to a gradual estrangement both from the humans at the base and from Bea.

The religious missionary to another planet concept may be new to mainstream readers of Faber’s work but Science Fiction readers have been on this sort of territory before; most notably with A Case of Conscience and The Sparrow, however here the crisis of conscience that interaction with aliens usually engenders in the missionary is undergone not by Peter but by Bea left at home on an Earth where various disasters – to the Maldives, Guatemala, Pakistan and a Britain falling apart economically and socially (along the way Tesco’s goes bust; I read this book a few weeks after my local Tesco’s closed) – are occurring and the couple’s cat Joshua comes to a sticky end.

Another unusual feature here is that the locals are actually avid to learn about Jesus and to hear from the King James Bible (the Book of Strange New Things as they call it.) The slow unravelling of their need for this good news holds what little SF tension the book provides. Faber is more interested in the aliens’ effect on Peter and the deterioration of his relationship with Bea. Faber renders the Oasans’ inability to pronounce the “s” “t” and “ch” sounds in English by using symbols (easily decipherable in context.) He then gives us Peter’s final speech to them almost entirely in these symbols but I wasn’t engrossed enough to try to decode them.

As a novel of how distance can undermine a relationship this is fine but, despite the aliens, it doesn’t really hit the SF buttons.

Pedant’s corner:- tourniquetted (tourniqueted?) imposter (impostor,) after a some hesitation, “glotch of submersion into the liquid-filled crib” (glotch seems to be a coinage, it doesn’t conform to the definition I found in the urban dictionary.) The text is full of Usianisms – lonesome, Styrofoam, Band-Aids, Caucasian, trunk, Cub Scout rather than just Cub, but uses British spellings, eg foetus. There is a reference to cameras with film in them (to be fair technology seems not to work well on Oasis) and to Georgia being in the Russian Federation as opposed to an independent state. I noted frequent instances of “seconds (or minutes) later” and a few of “within minutes/seconds.”

Clarke Award Winner

I see Emily St John Mandel has won the Clarke Award for her novel Station Eleven. Congratulations to her.

Having now read five out of the six nominees I can’t say I would disagree with the judges’ decision.

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.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2012, 404p. This is the novel that has recently won the Clarke Award.

Family (there is only one, hence no qualifying article is required) lives in Circle Valley on Eden, a planet with no external light source save that of the faint Starry Swirl in the sky. The forbidding mountainous surroundings are known as Snowy Dark and no-one has ever climbed over them – nor wanted to. From the founding pair Tommy and Angela, marooned when their companions took the Landing Veekle up to the damaged spaceship Defiant to try to get back to Earth and help, Family has grown to over 500 members. Respect for tradition and its Oldest keep Family’s way of life as it has always been. But life is a continuing struggle. John Redlantern has realised that someday the food will run out. The novel describes the consequences of his actions in breaking Family tradition.

This reworking of the Adam and Eve story could have been a disaster (it is one of the hoariest clichés in SF) and there is a certain inevitability about John’s behaviour; we know it must be so to drive the plot. We also know that someone will eventually climb over Snowy Dark.

However, Beckett has peopled his novel with some compelling characters – not only John Redlantern, but also Tina Spiketree and clever, clawfooted Jeff, who is given to saying, “We are here. We really are here.” (Apart from claw feet the main genetic consequence of the inbreeding unavoidable in Family’s situation is in severe hare-lips, “batfaces.”) Moreover at the conclusion the plot also delivers a twist so that we and the characters are forced to reappraise their situation. And a nice touch is the reworking of the old phrase about Tom, Dick and Harry into a Family profanity.

The main viewpoint narrators are John and Tina but others also have the odd chapter. The frustrations John and his fellow youngsters feel at the restrictions and boredom of the AnyVirsies and Strornies where Family’s past is mythologised (mentions of telly vision, kee boards and lecky-trickity serve only to confuse the youngsters) or where disputes are resolved, are well articulated and so is the point of view of the adults who cling to what they know. The young count in wombtimes rather than years and are upbraided for it. The transition of the matriarchal, consensual, more or less cohesive Family life where even the concept of rape is unknown – there is nevertheless a lot of relatively guilt free sex – to a more confrontational, male dominated future of strife, of events allowing the domineering to take over, is a key one.

Beckett’s story-telling brio overcomes any nagging doubts at the scenario. (There can be no photosynthesis here, so what kind of carbohydrates would be available? Would the local flora and fauna really be compatible with humans? Would they be comprised of the same amino acids as on Earth, allowing them to be eaten successfully? Would the necessary vitamins be present? Who is this story being told to? These have to be discounted, for without these conditions there would be no story for us to read – and the last applies to any work of fiction.)

While the characters frequently repeat adjectives for emphasis – cold, cold; dark, dark etc – the issues of inadequate proofreading which slightly marred the readability of Beckett’s previous novels Marcher and The Holy Machine are more notable by their absence here.

Whether read as Science Fiction or simply as fiction Dark Eden is good stuff, well worth its Clarke Award. I suspect it will stay with me a long time.

Chris Beckett

The Peacock Cloak cover

Chris has recently been placed on the short list for the Clarke Award for his novel Dark Eden which I was on the point of reading.

However, I have now received from Interzone his latest collection of short stories, The Peacock Cloak, so I may postpone embarking on Dark Eden for a while.

Another option would be to read the two books in tandem, which might be interesting.

Clarke Award Shortlist

Last year it was Chris Priest who incited controversy over the Clarke Award, this year it seems to be the judges themselves – for not including a book by a woman on their shortlist.

The contending books are:-

Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)*
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)*
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)*

I’ve read the last two of these and Dark Eden is on the TBR pile.

The overlap with this year’s BSFA Awards novel short list is strong (asterisked titles) but only 2312 is also up for the Hugo.

I’m a bit surprised that M John Harrison’s Empty Space didn’t make the list, it’s the sort of book that Clarke Award juries tend to like.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Sandstone Press, 2011, 240 p.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb cover

It’s nearly Clarke Award time again so I thought I’d sample last year’s winner.

While having some of the trappings of Science Fiction and a scenario which would appear to be genre The Testament of Jesse Lamb doesn’t read like SF. The experience is more like that of a literary novel, the treatment focuses on Jessie rather than on the Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) that is the SF element. While there is no sense of wonder here it is nevertheless easy to see why the Clarke judges might choose it. And the Clarke Award has a history of rewarding the “bordering on SF.”

The viral disease MDS – an apparently terrorist-disseminated sort of hybrid of AIDS and CJD for which no-one has claimed responsibility – has spread all over the world and means pregnancy is a sentence of death for the mother, whose brain spongifies over the nine months gestation. Despite there being those who think humanity should accept its fate various avenues are being tried to find a cure or remedy in an attempt to ensure live births but the main one focused on in the book has volunteers known as Sleeping Beauties kept in a coma throughout their pregnancies, incubating frozen embryos which have been vaccinated against MDS. But, of course, these hosts will die after the birth.

Narrator Jessie Lamb is a teenager with bickering parents and the usual adolescent angsts. Her fretting about whether her friend Baz likes her or not and her fears about his dealings with another girl called Rosa are well handled and utterly convincing. This feels like the memoirs of a teenager in a terrible time.

We first meet Jessie while she is being held captive, this segment being printed in a sparse sans-serif typeface. While incarcerated she starts to write down her backstory, the chapters of which are rendered in a more reader friendly font. The reasons for Jessie’s plight become apparent long before they are revealed in the narrative. Captivity segments and their typeface pop up irregularly throughout her story until the envoi.

The ramifications of MDS for society and the future are explored through Jessie’s father, a scientist at a Research Clinic, her Aunt Maddy, lovelorn and childless, and her relationships and interactions with her friends and those she meets.

The circumstance of Jessie’s father being a scientist at a clinic researching into MDS and its alleviation was a bit too pat. There was a sense of targets being set up only so they could be knocked down, tinged with more than a dose of anti-Science.

There was a “Scott” free. Isn’t that normally rendered with one “t”? (It is apparently from the old Norse skot, a tax, via Middle English scotfreo, exempt from royal tax.) Rogers also has a habit of writing “to not” rather than “not to.” And she renders email as e mail. Also strange in a book so otherwise steeped in Britishness is the use of the Usian “different than” at one point rather than the more usual “different from.”

Notwithstanding these quibbles, Jessie herself and her feelings, the awkwardnesses of adolescence, are beautifully conveyed. This is undeniably a superior read.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Orbit, 2011, 358p.

Set in the 2020s, Rule 34 is a sequel of sorts to Halting State, and features DI Liz Kavanaugh, career now shunted off course by events some years ago and in charge of the unit which trawls the Internet for cybercrime of various sorts. Most of the action takes place in Edinburgh, though there are diversions to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and the newly independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan. The notion of a sock puppet country is an amusing one, if alarming given the referendum due to take place in Scotland next year.

The novel has a succession of viewpoint characters, most of them rendered in the second person to lend a sense of immediacy and pace. Until things are drawn together towards the end these multiple viewpoints seem too many but of course they are connected. In a novel dominated by unseen presences how could it be otherwise? There is some musing on the possibilities of recognising artificial intelligence when it occurs and on the relative uselessness of the Turing Test.

This world of driverless vehicles is perhaps a little too implausible so near to the present but overhead surveillance drones are not and illegal fabbers in garden sheds is a nice touch. However the hazards of writing near future SF are illustrated here by the fact that DI Kavanaugh is a member of Lothian and Borders Police Force. All Scotland’s police areas are, at the moment, in 2013, in the process of being amalgamated into one.

The quote from Christopher Brookmyre on the cover is appropriate as Rule 34 inhabits a similar sort of milieu to Brookmyre’s œuvre, especially his Angelique De Xavia books, though Stross does not essay quite as much humour.

In a thriller it is plot that is important, and Stross gives us this in spades. Rule 34 was a Clarke Award nominee last year.

Clarke Award Stushie*

It seems Christopher Priest, whose BSFA Award listed novel The Islanders I am reading as we speak (or read, or converse, or whatever-the-hell-it-is-we-do-on-the-internet,) has attacked this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Go on. Read it. It’s an entertaining rant however unfortunately open to the charge of sour grapes at not himself being on the Clarke list it may be. (Priest tries to cover this angle by saying he would withdraw his novel from any consideration if the Clarke list were to be rethought as he proposes.)

I would insert the turbulent Priest joke here but someone used it decades ago in one of the BSFA’s journals and I actually think Priest has a point. Perhaps several.

My impression of the BSFA shortlist novels I have read is that last year wasn’t a particularly good one for SF novels – though my sample is admittedly small. And I agree that to have China Miéville win the Clarke Award for a fourth time would suggest that no-one else need bother writing SF (nor fantasy) as we could all then give up and go home.

I disagree, though, with his interim assessment of Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone. See my review here.

Charles Stross (whom Priest castigates in his piece) has linked to a comment thread engendered by Priest’s rant and has also seized upon the criticism as a marketing opportunity (see link to Stross’s post.)

Among other things Priest complains Stross writes “och-aye” dialogue. “Och-aye” dialogue. What’s wrong with that? People do not necessarily speak RP, or estuary, or USian, now or in the future. Get over it.

By the way, I used to receive a yearly invitation to the Clarke Award do but I could never go – it’s in London and I always had work that day and the next. Those invitations dried up some while ago now, though.

*Stushie is a Scottish word for contretemps.
stushie [ˈstʊʃɪ], stishie, stashie
n Scot
1. a commotion, rumpus, or row
2. a state of excitement or anxiety; a tizzy. Also spelled stooshie, stoushie.

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