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Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Gollancz, 2014, 307 p

 Wolfhound Century cover

Investigator Vissarion Lom is bobbling along in the regional city of Podchornok seeking out dissidents when he is summoned to the capital city Mirgorod and there tasked with catching a terrorist. The setting is clearly based on Russia, characters have patronymics, the currency is the rouble, distances are measured in versts, the iconography of the cover is Soviet. A secret service head called Lavrentina (Chazia) adds to the impression. But it is a strangely altered Russia, named Vlast, ruled not by a Tsar nor a General Secretary, but by a Novozhd, and perpetually at war with a polity called the Archipelago. Moreover, an Archangel lies imprisoned in the countryside potentially threatening the future but first it has to ensure that the Pollandore, the vestige of an older voice which can undo the Archangel’s vision and is capable of altering reality, is destroyed. Lom has a piece of angel flesh embedded in his forehead “like a blank third eye”, giving him powers to move the air. There are giants.

It is a curious mix. The flavour of the novel is a bit like reading Joseph Conrad, the feel of the society it depicts like late Tsarist era Russia, but there are sub-machine guns. I found the thriller aspect of it to be too conventional, the circles of contact of Lom’s suspects too restricted and their connections too easily uncovered by him but it is an unusual fantasy scenario, all the more welcome for not being based on a mediæval template.

To be sure there is occasional “fine writing” but I’m afraid I lose patience when extra-human powers come into things, although such content may be true to its Russian inspiration. A more major complaint is that the novel didn’t end. An immediate threat was dealt with but the Archangel and the Pollandore were still extant. And quite why it is entitled Wolfhound Century remained obscure. If I see its sequel in one of my local libraries I might pick it up; otherwise, no.

Pedant’s corner:- “He should have waited. Showed his papers.” (Shown,) “his cap pulled down tight down over his forehead (only one down required,) and and (only one and required,) miniscule (minuscule.) “Its not on any map” (It’s,) dikes (USian? dykes,) “broken staithes and groynes” (staithes?) “with the trunk on it back” (its back,) a missing full stop.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

In the omnibus At the Back of the North Wind/The Princess and the Goblin/The Princess and Curdie, published by Octopus, 1979, 166 p (for The Princess and the Goblin.)

George MacDonald Omnibus cover

As a fairy tale (its first three words are “There was once”) this is not my usual fare. I only read it as it was in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books. The title seems a little askew as there was not one goblin in the story but many, who live under a mountain near to the castle where the Princess (who has the very unprincessly name of Irene) lives. She is to be kept away from the forest and hill at night in case she encounters the goblins but her nurse, Lootie, mistakes the time one day and the pair would have been at their mercy but for the intervention of a miner’s son, Curdie. A lot of the tale is in fact Curdie’s as he later ventures into the mines and discovers what the goblins are up to, but several sequences involve the princess’s meetings with a strange old woman claiming to be her great-great grandmother (though on the second meeting she has become young) spinning away in the upper floors of the castle, invisible threads which, Theseus-like, aid the princess and Curdie in the plot’s working-out.

To twenty-first century eyes the demonisation of the goblins stands out. I suppose they are some sort of sexual metaphor – the princess has to be protected from nastiness – and the King is presented as far too noble. Still; it is a fairy tale. A certain degree of simplicity is to be expected.

The king spends most of the time absent, on kingly duties, and I note there is no mother, no queen, to be seen. A perennial trope of the children’s tale is such a separation from parents.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quote, rhymster (rhymester,) horid (horrid,) “The cobs dropped persecuting me and look dazed” (looked,) “they came to the conclusion it had been slain in the mines, and had crept out there to die” (slain implies death; so how could it then have crept out to die?) balnkets (blankets.)

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!

Literally.

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.)

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