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Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Harper, 2015, 526 p plus 1 p Reading Group Questions, 6 p photos of Detroit taken during Beukes’s research and 7 p author interview.

 Broken Monsters cover

Detective Gabriella Stirling-Versado becomes OIC of a bizarre murder case (where half the body of a young teenage boy has been joined to half that of a deer) by virtue of being first on the scene. The story is narrated from several viewpoints each rendered in an urgent stripped down present tense. Some tension is lost by the fact that one of these is that of the murderer but there is no doubt throughout that Beukes is in control. All the viewpoints are compelling and Gabi’s relationship with her daughter, Layla is particularly neatly drawn as, in turn, is her friendship with schoolmate Cas. Along the way Beukes addresses issues of the prevalence, and misuse, of social media, and of sexual harassment.

The circumstances of the murder and the hints that chalk outlines of doors drawn on walls presage occult events notwithstanding, this is a straight enough police procedural thriller until the supernatural elements impinge in force at the climax. This for me was where the novel broke down. It is difficult to register my misgivings without spoilers but the details of the way in which those forces manifest and gain power were beyond my ability to sustain suspension of disbelief.

My main complaint, though, is that any hint of the supernatural is a cop-out. History has shown humans are cruel enough to each other. There is no necessity for an external force to make them so. Buekes can write well – brilliantly even – but I would contend that it is a failure of the imagination rather than its triumph to posit influences beyond humanity as causal factors in demented behaviours.

Pedant’s corner:- jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) “sounds fraught with meaning that don’t have anything to do with her” (with meaning that doesn’t – or; with meanings that don’t,) peering through the grill of an oversized hockey helmet (grille,) “where the skin of the worlds are permeable (the skin is – or; the skins are,) the lay of the land (lie,) a cluster of party people are standing (a cluster is,) the back of his hands are (the back is – or; the backs are,) lay low (lie.) He’s was trying to help. (He was,) and realises her and mistake (realises her mistake,) “she’s terrified that if she opens Gabi’s all her secrets will come flying out,” (opens Gabi’s what?) “A scattering of neon highlighter markers stand out,” (a scattering stands out.)
Plus points for “ten years’ time” though.

Interzone 262, Jan-Feb 2016

Interzone 262 cover

Jonathan McAlmont’s column rails against current SF’s inability to conceive of society freed from the shackles of the market and examines the Quatermass series in the light of how “humanity would rather destroy itself than deal with the ambiguities of change”. Nina Allan muses on the pressures of a writer to produce to order and how unlikely that is to suit every writing style. The Book Zone has an interview with Dave Hutchinson and I review Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan. The fiction has:-
The Water-Walls of Enceladus1 by Mercurio D Rivera. Lily has been infected by an alien virus contracted on an asteroid. Despite the pustules on her body she is still regarded as beautiful by the Wergen, who have given humans advanced technology in return for companionship. Hating other humans reactions to herself she has contracted for a mission on Enceladus with only Wergen for company, Wergen whom she has come to hate. A well enough told story but my sympathies were entirely with the Wergen.
Empty Planets2 by Rahul Kanakia. In a future dominated by The Machine, people can offset the dwindling of their habitats’ prospects by earning shares through performing services or making discoveries.
In Geologic3 by Ian Sales the author calls on his knowledge of deep-sea diving and space exploration to tell the tale of an expedition to the crushingly high atmospheric pressure planet 61 Virginis b and the enigmatic rock structure on its surface. This brought to mindSolaris, except it has a rock instead of an ocean.
Circa Diem by Carole Johnstone is set after an asteroid bypass has caused Earth’s rotation to slow. One group of remnants lives underground, another above, never meeting – until a man from below and a woman from above do.
In A Strange Loop4 by D R Napper a man has been selling his memories to accumulate money to try to rewoo his estranged wife. As a result he doesn’t remember having done so.
Dependent Assemblies5 by Philip A Suggars is set in an alternative late 19th century Buenos Aires run by a homophobic, racist dictator who controls a mysterious substance called lux which can bring inanimate matter to life but does odd things to living tissue. Two male lovers try to use lux to make children from metal and ceramics. Effectively done but a little cursory.

Pedant’s corner:- Stross’ (Stross’s,) Quatermass’ (x2, Quatermass’s.) “But all writers are not the same” (not all writers are the same.) 1Written in USian; one less freak (one fewer,) corner of their eyes (corners,) Enceladus orbited at its greatest distance from Saturn (was orbiting at,) plateaus (plateaux,) providing us a panoramic view (with a panoramic view,) off of, outside of, trying to acclimate myself (acclimatise,) full-fledged (fully-fledged) 2Written in USian; while I laid out on a rock (lay.) 3 Not written in USian but still employs “ass” for arse, “the pilot in their blister” (I dislike this use of the plural for an individual character.) 4leather-bounds books (leather-bound,) Irving held up hand (a hand,) 5 Rojas’ (Rojas’s,) in middle of the night (in the middle of the night,) off of, sat (seated,) were a group (was a group.)

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2015, 352 p.

 The Philosopher Kings cover

Twenty years on from the events of The Just City and its Last Debate following which Athene flew off in a huff taking all but two of the Worker robots with her, our Platonists are still trying to become their best selves but have split into five cities on Kallisti/Santorini/Thera/Atlantis and a further group headed by Kebes/Mathias who sailed off in the ship Goodness to found colonies in the Ægean. The remaining five cities indulge in raiding each other to purloin the city’s art works for themselves. The Philsopher Kings starts off with one of these in which the heroine of the previous book, Simmea, is killed by an arrow. Apollo, in his incarnation as Pytheas, could have prevented her death but she forestalled him. The rest of the novel is preoccupied with Apollo’s search for the reasons why she wanted him to remain in the project without her and a quest for revenge on Kebes whom Apollo thought might be responsible for Simmea’s death and discovers from her journal had as good as (as bad as?) raped her. This gives Walton the opportunity to take us on a sub-Homeric trip round the Mediterranean and to allow those of Apollo/Pytheas’s children who are on the voyage to be imbued with divine powers on the island of Delos. It turns out the Goodness group has started to practice a form of Christianity, centuries before Christ’s life. They rationalise this by saying he is their eternal saviour.

As in the first book the narrative is presented from three viewpoints. Those of Maia and Apollo follow on from it, but, Simmea being dead, the third thread here is as by her daughter by Apollo/Pytheas, Arete (whose name means excellence.) There is much talk of possibly changing history but The Philosopher Kings does not engage as fully with the issues of free will and equal significance as The Just City did.

(Spoiler) There is also a spectacular example of what I can only call a Zeus ex machina towards the end. Granted, in Walton’s scenario the Greek Gods are real but Zeus has heretofore been well offstage and his incorporation seemed a trifle gratuitous.

Maybe this book is suffering from middle-of-trilogy, marking-time syndrome. I’ll still look out for Necessity, the next in the sequence.

Pedant’s corner:- blacksmith (isn’t this technically an iron-worker? We’re in the Bronze Age here, though iron is mentioned in places. The general term for metal-worker is smith.) “Near enough the overhear us” (near enough to.) “The thing they most wanted to discover….. were” (The thing…..was.) A sculpture of a crucifixion describes nails through “his palms and feet”; I believe the Romans actually pinned the nails through the wrists and ankles. Arete’s narrative refers to this as a crucifix but she would not have known that word. We are only told later she can understand all languages. Kebes face (Kebes’s – which appears later.) “‘I don’t want to discuss standing it on the harbor.’” (‘I don’t want to discuss it standing on the harbor.’)

The Lordly Ones by Keith Roberts

Gollancz, 1986, 160 p.

This is a collection of seven stories by one of the best (if not the best) British SF writers of the late twentieth century.

The Lordly Ones cover

The Lordly Ones A man who was “a bit slow” in school finds a job as a lavatory attendant. A war or revolution (the Trouble) breaks out but he keeps the toilets spotless despite there being no infrastructure to sustain him.
Ariadne Potts Sedate bank clerk Henry Potts has a hobby of photographing the garden statuary of stately homes. One day he comes across a most fetching, exquisite nymph whom he wishes to come alive. She does; and then takes over his life. An almost perfect be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.
Sphairistike A subtly told story of our nameless narrator’s relationship to the man behind a tennis playing prodigy, who/which may or may not be an android.
The Checkout One of Roberts’s stories featuring Anita the witch. Here she is intrigued by a supermarket checkout girl whom she helps escape from her restrictions.
The Comfort Station riffs on the same scenario as The Lordly Ones with a woman disrupting the toilet attendant’s existence.
The Castle on the Hoop A ghost story. Or one about someone who can bend time.
Diva A woman singer becomes a world-wide sensation as her voice calms the troubled breasts of her audiences and sparks off outbreaks of peace, love and understanding. Narrated as by the gardener of the Laird of Ardkinross in Argyllshire where she gives her last performance before the powers that be prevail on her to stop. Even the cohorts of the local Minister whose “notices proclaimed the sinfulness of singing, dancing, musicmaking and almost anything else one cared to mention,” are placated. Both Scots and US speech are part represented phonetically, not always entirely convincingly. Note to those of a nervous disposition. The US President at one point says, “Uh ain’t never lynched a nigger yet.”

Pedant’s corner:- “I was suppose” (I was supposed,) “coming up smelling violets” (it’s usually smelling of violets,) “with six whole channels to fill” seems a quaint detail these days, awhile (a while,) “I can only – and your belief isn’t my concern – that I was…” (say that I was,) nobbly roots (knobbly,) James’ (James’s,) whisht (this Scottish imprecation to be quiet is nowadays usually spelled wheesht,) sometning’s afoot (something’s,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means from where,) will-he, nill-he (an unusual rendering of willy-nilly,) the Diva’s bodyguard has a Schmeisser sub-machine gun (in Britain??) Brahmans (usually written Brahmins.)

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

I’m on the Map!


Despite me not having a piece of fiction published for a few years – and only ever one novel – I’ve been included on this map of British SF and Fantasy writers. (If you click on the map it will lead you to its creator’s website, where copies can be purchased):-

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map

I’m humbled by this. Imagine me being on the same map as Alasdair Gray, Iain (M) Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Eric Brown, Arthur C Clarke, J G Ballard, George Orwell et al. Not to mention J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon.)

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

Picador, 2016, 150 p.

 This Census Taker cover

This is a novella from Miéville which is unlike anything of his I’ve read before. A boy sees his father kill his mother – or thinks he does. Knowing his father has previously killed animals (and two people) then thrown them into a chasm in a nearby cave the boy flees downhill to the nearby town and blurts out the news. The locals’ investigations lead to no conclusion as his father says his mother has merely gone away and left a note to say so. The frightened boy – the narrator of this tale written down in recollection many years later – is returned to his father’s care.

In this society there had been a series of disruptions, wars, some time in the past. As a result, people are sent to take stock, to count foreigners, of which the boy’s father is one. One such census taker arrives later to find out the truth of the incident. There is not much more to the story than that but a sense of eeriness pervades the book leading to a feeling that more has been revealed than has actually been said, which is a neat trick for a writer to pull off.

In this regard I was reminded of some of the work of Ursula Le Guin, especially her Chronicles of the Western Shore. The rural setting (though the technology here, even if it is remnant technology, is more advanced than in Le Guin’s stories) and the hint of menace in the surroundings – here more pronounced – are common to both. The sense of oddness, too, of dislocation. There were also some echoes of Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water, though I suppose tales of future dystopias will always have elements in common, and, oddly, of Andrew Crumey’s Pfitz.

Pedant’s corner:- no entries. Remarkable in this day and age. (Any day and age?) Congratulations to all concerned.

1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle

BCA, 2003, 603 p.

 1610: A Sundial in a Grave cover

Valentin Raoul Rochefort is a duellist, even though it is illegal, and a spy for the Duc de Sully, who in turn is right hand man to Henri IV of France. In order to protect his patron he is suborned by Henri’s wife Marie de Medici into procuring the King’s assassination. He means to fail by hiring an incompetent to carry out the killing but by chance the assassination succeeds and Rochefort is forced to flee. In attempting to make his escape he encounters a M. Dariole who had previously humiliated him in a duel. As a result of a further defeat (and a sexual humiliation) Rochefort and Dariole end up travelling together. The sparring between Rochefort and Dariole is of the verbal as well as the fencing kind. On a beach in Normandy they rescue a shipwrecked man, Tanaka Saburo, the only survivor of an embassy from the Shogun of the Japans to King James I (of England) and VI of Scotland. Saburo immediately sees M Dariole is in fact a woman. She is Arcadie Fleurimonde Henriette de Montargis de la Roncière, runaway from a premature marriage and much more at home as a sword wielder.

In London the three come under the influence of Robert Fludd – a historical figure here a practitioner of the Nolan Formulae learned from Giordano Bruno who can therefore calculate the future and who wishes (in order to create conditions so that humankind might prevent the impact of a destructive comet in 500 years’ time) to replace King James with his son Henry, Prince of Wales, and asks Rochefort to devise a plan to kill the King. The plan having been deliberately sabotaged with the help of another of Bruno’s disciples and spymaster Robert Cecil many further adventures ensue (including a trip to the Japans) before events are set on a more familiar keel with Prince Henry’s fatal swim in the Thames. We also meet in these pages Armand Jean du Plessis, to whose career our heroes give a boost.

We are presented all this as a found manuscript of Rochefort’s memoirs, partly burned and reconstructed via computer image-enhancement. It is perhaps too convenient that other accounts found in the same box, an extract from the cipher journal of Robert Fludd, two excerpts from Saburo’s report to the Shogun, an account of Roncière’s rape when captive by Fludd, fragments of a play by poet Aemilia Lanier, Roncière’s reflections from old age, so precisely fill in the gaps in Rochefort’s, though the “translator’s note” at the beginning states they are included for that purpose.

For all its glorying in the details of everyday life in the early 17th century (the black mud of Paris, the unwashed state of westerners, the fiddly business of clothing,) the minutiae of sword fighting – and the concomitant outpourings of blood and death – the toying with matters of history, the brushes with hermeticism, in the end this is a love story, peopled with eminently believable characters, replete with human passions, flaws, desires and misunderstandings.

Aside: I find it interesting that since 2000 Gentle has taken to setting her stories in the past (or alternative pasts Ash: A Secret History, Black Opera.) Is there something about the future or the present that she finds inimical to sweeping storytelling?

Pedant’s corner:- de Vernyes’ companion (de Vernyes’s,) laying (lying; also lay for lie, multiple instances,) sunk (sank; ditto,) swum (swam,) “I am not used to be manhandled” (being,) one instance of “amn’t I?” “No woman neither.” (The no is already a negation so “no woman either,”) “ought else” (aught, several instances,) Neopolitan (Neapolitan – which appeared later,) swum (swam,) one instance of Fontainebleu (Fontainebleau occurs elsewhere,) “cowardice on his own behalf” (on his part makes more sense,) Louis Capet (this is usually used to denote Louis XVI after his dethronement in the French Revolution – nearly 200 years after the events of this novel – but since all later French Kings were descended from the first Capetian, known as Hugh Capet, I suppose it may have been a common epithet,) I thought Bedlam might have been another possible anachronism but it seems the word did enter everyday speech in Jacobean times as a synonym for chaos, wernt (went,) Prince of Wales’ (Prince of Wales’s,) “All men do not travel in groups, with firearms” (Not all men travel in groups.)

Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Feb 2016 cover

The first issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. In his column Robert Silverberg remembers the pulp days. As to the fiction:-
The Grocer’s Wife [enhanced transcription] by Michael Libling.1 Andrew Phillips works for a government agency overseeing the mental deterioration of various subjects. His latest, a grocer named Thomas Bonner, gets to him, or rather the devotion of Bonner’s wife does. The deterioration process mimics Alzheimer’s but is induced by the government to drain the brains of its victims. Waffle about JFK and President Bush aside quite how and why the government should feel the need to do this remains obscure.
Bringing Them Back by Bruce McAllister. A man tries to bring back all the creatures lost to environmental stress and targeted viral outbreaks by drawing them onto paper. The story is complete with illustrations purporting to be these drawings. The last of them (he cannot bring himself to draw his wife) are of his children and himself.
In Equity by Sarah Gallien.2 An orphaned child goes to his latest placement interview with little hope of acceptance. His prospective adopters want him to be subject to unfettered medical trials in exchange for the best education.
Passion Summer by Nick Wolven.3 A Passion can be bought but is usually fleeting. Fourteen year-old Jeffrey decides to ask for a Passion for Passion itself.
Exceptional Forces by Sean McMullen narrates the tale of a Russian scientist who detected carrier wave background noise in the Andromeda galaxy (evidence of alien radio transmissions) and the contract killer sent to silence him. The story panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Monster of 1928 by Sandra McDonald is an unexceptional fantasy tale. The monster of the title is Tulu, the legend of the Everglades, encountered one night by narrator Louise.
The Charge and the Storm by An Owomoyela.4 On a colony formed by a starship community but dominated by the alien Su a group of humans seeks independence.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 skullduggery (skulduggery,) 2 sprung (sprang,) unpixilated (pixilated means bemused or intoxicated, context suggests unpixelated,) 3 gladiolas (gladioli,) Diedre (Deirdre,) 4 missing comma before a speech quote, to not die (not to die.)

The Jewel and her Lapidary by Fran Wilde, 2016, 90 p.

 The Jewel and her Lapidary cover

As revealed in cod extracts from a later guide book quoted at the beginning of each section of this novella the Jewelled Valley was once ruled by a royal family of “Jewels” who devised a technique to bind the powers of precious stones to influence minds and so tamed the gems. Each Jewel had a similarly bound servant, a Lapidary, who could hear and speak the stones.

The action of the book is set in the end-time of the Jewelled Court. Lin is the youngest daughter of the King, her Lapidary, Sima, the daughter of the King’s servant. Driven mad by the gems, Sima’s father has betrayed the Court and destroyed most of the jewels. Lin is the only member of the royal family to survive, the only person who can protect the people of the valley from the invading army of the Western Mountains. Sima sticks to her vows not to betray her Jewel.

Wilde’s control of her material is accomplished enough but for me it doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Gemstones with mind-controlling powers? That can be muted by being placed in a setting? But it is a fantasy. And short enough to read in one sitting.

Pedant’s corner:- if a Lapidary broke their vows (several instances. Lapidary is singular; so “his or her vows”.)

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