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Lucius Shepard and Margo MacDonald

Due to my house move I missed commemorating at the times the demise of both Margo MacDonald, former SNP MP and independent MSP, and writer Lucius Shepard.

It says a lot for the esteem in which MacDonald was held by the wider public that she was able to gain a seat in the Scottish Parliament on the list system as an independent.

In recent years her campaign for the right to assisted dying (she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease) was carried out with a dignity which ensured that her views and comments commanded respect.

Luius Shepard’s fiction is elusive to pigeonhole, morphing from Science Fiction to fantasy and bordering on magic realism. He was always readable, though, and intelligent.

Margo MacDonald, 19/4/1943 – 4/4/2014, Lucius Shepard, 21/8/1943 – 18/3/2014. So it goes.

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2013, 352p. Reviewed for Interzone 248, Sep-Oct 2013.

Valente here has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale, or perhaps several. Lack of familiarity with this source material may obscure some of its nuances but fear not. In what could have been a dizzying whirl through the unfamiliar – we have to deal not only with the tale itself but with the typically Russian patronymics and diminutives – Valente’s writing, with the occasional exception, is fluid and expressive. Her powers of description and similes can be striking, but her Americanisms stand oddly against the novel’s setting.

The story signals its fantastical elements early on. In a house on a long, thin street during the time St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad – and the street also changed its name twice – Marya Morevna knows there is magic in the world when she sees a bird fall off a tree – “thump, bash!” – change into a man and ask for the girl in the window. Twice more the same thing happens. (As in fairy tales repetition is a key feature of the novel, though the repetitions may have minor changes.) Each manbird takes away one of her three sisters. She then befriends the domoviye (house imps) who hold soviets behind a door in the stove and tell her Papa Koschei is coming.

Marya regrets missing seeing her bird “thump, bash!” into a man. This is Koschei Bessmertny, Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of life, who nevertheless, in a mechanical vehicle that is also a horse, spirits her away to Buyan, a land where his previous lovers – all called Yelena or Vasilisa – sew soldiers onto cloth and breathe them into life.

In Buyan Koschei’s mother/sister/sometime wife Baba Yaga – relationships there are somewhat involuted – sets Marya tasks to assess her worthiness as a wife for Koschei. These include subduing Baba Yaga’s traditional method of travel, the mortar and pestle. A nice touch during one of these was the scene which is effectively Little Red Riding Hood in reverse. A character Marya befriends in Buyan expresses to her what is perhaps a very Russian sentiment but with universal application, “You will live as you live in any world; with difficulty and grief.” Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of death, turns up uninvited at the marriage and thereafter there will be war between the brothers.

Birds or eggs occur frequently in the text. Marya kills a firebird; in one of her tasks she fetches an egg she believes contains Koschei’s death; a friend turns into a bird; she spends some time in a place named Yaichka which turns out to be an egg; Alkanost, a firebird-like creature, imparts words of wisdom; she is told the world tries to make stories turn out differently – as perfect as an egg.

In a sudden temporal jump we find a human man, Ivan Nikolayevich, wandering into Marya’s life. In the interim she has become one of Koschei’s generals, but the war is going badly. (The war is always going badly.) Koschei is dismayed as Ivans habitually take his wives from him. Marya chides him for his attitude and takes Ivan as her lover, despite his confusion. She tells him, “What passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Whatever her title may be, Valente’s story is not deathless. Escaping the war in Buyan, Marya chooses to return with Ivan to her childhood home and is shocked that a house in Leningrad is painted with characters from her story. With all the fantastical events that have gone before and come after, though, the impact of the German siege of the city and its attendant horrors of starvation and suffering is lessened. The stripping of wallpaper to make bread, its paste to make butter, are not as horrific, not as devastating, as they could be; as they should be. We have not felt, not been shown, enough of the long, slow descent into abjection and desperation that survival there would have entailed. That Koschei has also turned up and is tethered in the basement only adds to the distancing effect.

An interlude in Yaichka features barely disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, the last Tsar and his family and a priest with whom his wife may (or not) have had a liaison. Two of these have dreams of a war between red and white ants. Russian history hangs heavily.

The human time span of the novel relates to that of the ascendancy of the “wizard in Moscow with the moustache.” There is the necessity to believe, “there has never been another (world)” – “can never be another.” An explicit message is that living under totalitarianism is like death; but a death where, “You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.” But, to use one of Valente’s repetitions, life is like that.

Addendum: The following did not appear in the published review.

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

Sunk count = 1; plus “off of,” “hung” for hanged, “all of who” – and stalactites might, but stalagmites can not, teeter above your head.

Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions by Kate Wilhelm

Readers Union Group of Book Clubs, 1979, 174 p

Somerset Dreams cover

I missed this book when it was published in the 1970s and picked it up recently in a charity book sale in St Andrews.

Wilhelm was one of the few women who had a relatively high profile in SF in the 1960s and 70s. She continues to be active as a writer.

The stories in this collection tend to straddle the boundary between SF and Fantasy but the emphasis is usually on the effects on the characters in the story of whatever strangeness is involved rather than on the speculative component itself.

Somerset Dreams
Anæsthetist Janet Matthews (Wilhelm uses the word anesthesiologist) who works in New York has returned to her home town of Somerset for her summer break. Since a dam was built in her late childhood Somerset has become a backwater cul-de-sac and most of the people who live there are ageing. A group of dream researchers headed by the unsympathetic Dr Staunton wishes to use the locals to test a theory that city dreams and rural dreams are of a different character. The locals are suspicious and Janet acts as a link between the town and the researchers. As time goes by it becomes apparent that the dreams in Somerset are of an unusual nature.

The Encounter
A man has to stay overnight in a snowbound bus station with wonky heating as the snowdrifts get higher against the door. The woman who is also there brings back memories of his marriage and his time in the Korean War.

Planet Story
An exploratory party is scouting out a new planet, very Earth-like but with no dominant predator. Two of the group have committed suicide and the rest suffer a fear that appears to have no cause.

Mrs Bagley Goes to Mars
Mrs Bagley, taken for granted by her family, announces one day she is going to Mars. (She may be imagining things.) Mars is not entirely to her liking and she informs the locals they have been misinformed. She tells them that female earthmen don’t defecate. They, “go to the little girl’s room, or the powder room, or ladies’ room. They freshen up, or wash their hands, or fix their make-up, but they never shit.” She opts for Ganymede instead.

Symbiosis
A girl grows up in Beacham, Indiana. Her mother dies when she is young and her best friend’s mother, Mrs McInally, takes her under her wing. The friendship fractures as Mrs McInally becomes ill.

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis
Presciently (the story was first published in 1976) this features a compulsive survival game show – slogan This is Your Crisis! – which has people with various kinds of psychiatric need trekking through Alaska (the week before it might have been the Andes) to win one million dollars. The split screens it looks best on are huge and take fifteen years to pay off. Viewers Lottie and Butcher bicker all the way through the programme, which lasts a whole weekend, distracting them from their lives.

The Hounds
A woman whose husband has lost his job at the age of 49 and subsequently moved the family to the farm he buys finds herself the object of fascination of two mysterious dogs who will let no-one else near them.

State of Grace
The things in her tree are destroying the narrator’s marriage as her husband Howard knows there is something there but can’t actually see them. Nor can anyone else he hires to find them. And when he tries to cut it down with a chainsaw he hallucinates cutting his leg off.

Incubus by Nick Gifford

Puffin, 2005, 225 p.

Danny Smith’s secret is that his father is a multiple murderer. His mother has taken the family to a new home far from those who know their background. His reticence about himself is tested by Cassie Lomax, a bright classmate who finds him interesting. As the book unfolds Danny’s worst fear, that the voices in his head that drove his father to murder would manifest in his own, comes to pass. These belong to a family kobold, a Hinzelmännchen called Hodeken, legacy of Danny’s German grandparents – they amended their surname from Schmidt when they came to England. The weirdnesses build up only gradually as the book follows Danny’s burgeoning relationship with Cassie (both of these developing in a chat room) and his struggle against the kobold’s influence, during which the story ranges from modern England to Berlin (both of the Second World War and of the erection of the Wall in 1961) as Danny learns more about his family’s past.

Writing for young adults is not easy but Gifford handles all this very well, with clear lucid prose and a pleasing level of complication with the adults around Danny. He also finesses the necessity of information dumping about kobolds by having Cassie and Danny perform internet searches.

Caveat:- I know I have a bee in my bonnet about this sort of thing but it jarred that at one point the kobold says, “aren’t I?” Kobolds are Germanic. Rather than “aren’t I?” Hodeken would surely have thought, “nicht wahr?” – which would have made the rough translation “isn’t that so?” a better choice.

Signs of Life by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1997, 246 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

Mick Rose (nicknamed China,) nearly fifty, is picked up by much younger waitress Isobel Avens in the café at “the busy little toy aerodrome they have outside the town” of Stratford-on-Avon while he is on a delivery run. He and his mate, Choe Ashton, (pronounced as in Joey) operate a courier business transporting hazardous/biological materials. Within a month or two Isobel has moved to London to live with Mick/China. The novel charts the ups and downs of Mick/China’s relationships with the other two. Rose is the most grounded of the three, Choe has sociopathic tendencies and Isobel wants to fly – not in an aeroplane, but literally. China’s friendship with Choe begins to breakdown when they meet US citizen Ed Cesniak on a trip to Prague, that with Isobel when she does a delivery for him and meets a medical researcher.

The book is in essence a love story but a love story skewed by Harrison’s perennial leanings towards the strange. While starting realistically enough – one might almost say banally; but Harrison’s writing is never banal – by the end we have by degrees shelved over into SF or fantasy territory by way of recombinant DNA, gene alteration and other weird bits along the way. This last is to give a false impression of the book as it reads for the most part as a straightforward mainstream novel, almost Banksian at times but still unmistakably Harrisonian and very good.

The Book of the Night by Rhoda Lerman

Women’s Press, 1986, 269 p.

Book of the Night cover

A young girl, Celeste, disguised as a boy called CuRoi, is brought by her father to the monastic community on Iona to live her life as a monk. It is Celeste’s viewpoint that carries the novel’s main narrative but this is interspersed with occasional sections told by Generous, one of the monks. Both voices, though, to the syntactically archaic at times have a tendency.

The book also plays tricks with time. Part of the ancillary plot deals with the confrontation between Roman and Celtic Christianity in the 8th century but there are references to the First and Second World Wars, quantum foam, radio, a ferry named the Princess George and the Beatles.

It is not only time that is malleable. So too is matter. Partway through the novel Celeste turns into a cow. A talking, feeling cow, true, but still a cow, with horns, hoofs etc.

The text is also replete with word play. Dense, allusive passages such as, “Michael, Molchu, Mocc-el, Moloch, Melech, King of the Universe, Enoch, eunuch,” or, “an Irish sailor I am, Noe, of the great craft Argo. Noah, Jonah, Iona, I sail with the argot and puns of the Naught to the God Lug of the deluge,” are not uncommon. There is frequent reference to jumping over the moon, animals running away with spoons etc. Indeed Celeste’s last written words, in the book’s final epigram, are, “Hey, diddle diddle.”

But when, “Words collapse, sink, intensify, grow dense. Categories disintegrate. Language trembles. Words remain but the webs of their meanings drift away,” a reader has a devil of a job keeping up.

The idea behind the story, apparently derived from those of Ilya Prigogine (though his Wikipedia entry does not appear to provide support for it) is that matter itself is malleable. The novel’s preamble asserts that, “self-organisation ….. is a property of matter … as if matter has mind, as if the thrust of evolution is will.” In this context the changing of a girl into a cow would not be remarkable. It is doubtful, to me at least, if it is warranted. While it is true that an organism represents a decrease in entropy (at least locally) this is a long way from meaning that the process can be directed.

In this context (and notwithstanding the Women’s Press Science Fiction imprint) the transformation of Celeste into a cow seems to me to belong in the realm of Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

Black Opera by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2012, 680 p.

The book starts atmospherically with a prologue scene set around the eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Tambora in 1815, which provided the loudest sound in recorded history – an explosion so great that 1200 miles away it was thought to be artillery and threw so much ash into the atmosphere it resulted in “the Year without a Summer” in 1816. Perhaps the first sign that this is not a straight historical novel is that a party of “The Prince’s Men” is on hand – on an ocean-going steamboat.

The novel proper focuses on Conrad Scalese, a rationalist atheist who writes libretti for a living. His latest work has had a triumphant premier but lightning has struck the theatre where it was performed. The local (Neapolitan) Inquisition interprets this as a sign of God’s anger at the opera’s blasphemy and arrives to take him in for questioning. He is saved by the local police chief who conveys him to a meeting with the King of the Two Sicilies who assesses Conrad’s suitability to write the libretto for an opera which the King desires in order to counter a Black Opera which The Prince’s Men plan to perform in a few months’ time. The Black Opera is the secular equivalent of a black mass. Not only will it cause the eruption of Vesuvius, Stromboli, Ætna and other volcanic regions in between, thus devastating the Two Sicilies, it will summon up Il Principe, the God whom the creator God left in charge of Earth. Other intrusions of the supernatural into the narrative have Conrad’s father appearing as a ghost and people known as the Returned Dead – not zombies but fully functioning humans except for lacking the need to breathe.

The premise – that volcanic eruptions can be triggered by singing – is of course unremittingly silly but must be accepted for purposes of story. Invocation of gods or devils by incantation is time-honoured in fiction so their summoning by singing is not too much further of a stretch (but still too much for me.)

Gentle’s characterisation and plotting are excellent, though. The web of relationships around Conrad and the betrayals inherent in the set-up – the Prince’s Men are even more dangerous than the Cammora of Naples or the società onorata of Sicily – are finely detailed. Gentle’s knowledge of, or research on, opera seems solidly based to a non-buff. The collaborative nature of a first production, not only composer and librettist but also the singers, was well depicted.

As befits an altered history of the nineteenth century, the victor of Austerlitz and Borodino, the Emperor of the North, also makes two passing appearances.

Conrad’s sweet-bitterness towards his former love is pithily expressed, “It’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” and the perennial complaint, “why a sister and a sweetheart will invariably combine their forces to persecute the relevant male,” is aired.

Despite any negativity above Black Opera is never less than readable; even the supernatural stuff.

Pedants’ complaints:- “Sung” count: 1. Livestock is a singular noun. Plus we had a who’s for whose, lay for lie, a beaus for beaux and one, “I can’t explained.” Despite her Italian setting and liberal use of Italian phrases, Gentle employed librettos and palazzos as plurals rather than the Italian libretti/palazzi. (Both forms are, though, acceptable in English.)

10 Great Books You Didn’t Know Were Science Fiction or Fantasy

So it says here.

The ten are:-

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Stories by Karen Russell
Smilla’s Sense of Snow* by Peter Høeg
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
Golden Days by Carolyn See

I’ll perhaps look out for some of these now.

*I have read this as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and as I recall the SF elements were the least convincing thing about it.

The others I haven’t read at all – but I’ve seen the film of The Tin Drum and would have no problem with its inclusion in this list. I have read another by Bulgakov – though a glimpse of the cover of Heart of a Dog in the link would suggest that it is fantastical – and a short story by Kobo Abe.

The link shows Stories by Karen Russell variously involve girls raised by wolves, and vampires so where is the difficulty in categorisation there?

Deathless Interzone

My latest review book for Interzone is Deathless by Catherynne M Valente.

Ms Valente is new to me but the blurb seems interesting as it promises a combination of fairy tale (Fantasy elements then) and Russian History.

Spin by Nina Allan

TTA Press, 2013, 92 p.

Novella no. 2 from TTA Press, publishers of Interzone and Black Static.

This is a strange atmospheric piece, very well written.* It is set in a Greece where iPads and emails are in everyday use and holographic people are difficult to discern from real ones but triremes roam the seas and Carthage has fought a war with Corinth within the past 100 years.

When narrator Layla Vargas was young her mother was executed in a bizarre way for having unnatural powers. Layla has now grown and set out for a new life in Atoll City. On the bus on the way she meets an old woman who will influence her future. Layla’s uncommon ability to sew tapestries attracts the attention of a woman whose son has a strange disease and who wishes Layla to cure him. Layla is reluctant to be thought unusual.

Despite the SF trappings there is throughout the feel of fantasy and the dénouement is firmly fantastical. It was refreshing to read a piece in that vein not firmly rooted in mediævality.

The writing is measured and beautifully modulated, the characters rounded and believable. The story concluded a bit like a popped balloon though, all the intrigue that had been carefully built up thereafter more or less dribbling away. It was as if Allan had come up against her word limit and had to find a way to stop. That’s a pity as there was scope here for more exploration of the scenario and greater length. Allan knows what she is doing though and does it well.

*It is a pity, however, that in a novella entitled Spin there is a “span” count of 1.

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