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The Well at the World’s End by Neil M Gunn

Polygon, 2008, 333 p. First published 1951.

 The Well at the World’s End cover

The book starts off at a well, which appears to be dry but whose water is so transparent it is invisible. This strange encounter reminds Peter Munro and his wife Fand of an old Gaelic legend of the well in the land beyond ours, the Land of Youth. Munro sets off on a quest to see if anything remains of this well at the world’s end, to go through the human boundary (which may be an illusion.)

The novel treats of two of the triumvirate of literature’s perennial concerns – love and death, but not the third, sex – and in part reads like a series of short stories bound together as a travelogue. On his journey Munro sees The Wild Man, meets a shepherd, hears of a practical joke played out in a supposedly haunted house, is knocked out by illicit whisky distillers, witnesses a woman reinvigorating her marriage in a traditional way, facilitates young love and encounters rivalries (and a reconciliation) in neighbouring seaside towns.

While the book skirts round fantasy territory, things appearing out of mists etc, the overall treatment is realistic. The denouement brings the whole round in a circle and reintroduces fantasy overtones, inviting the reader to identify Munro with the Wild Man he glimpsed earlier but in one sense wriggles out of the conclusion which that entails.

Memorable phrases included, “A man should get away from everything occasionally, even from his wife,” “There are two things the Gael likes naked and one of them is whisky,” “We don’t drink alcohol for its reality. We drink it for the effect it creates, the illusion it engenders,” “A nod’s as good as a blink when there’s a blind salmon on the back doorstep,” and the reflection, “Every village in the Highlands, every crofting area to the farthest Western Isle, had kin in the ends of the earth, and long before world wars were the fashion.”

The text employs those impeccably Scottish words kist (spelled as cist,) widdershins and deisil (sunwards) and has Munro muse on the fact that alcohol is known as water of life in several languages, uisgebeatha, eau de vie, aqua vitae, but the Sasunnach (not having a water of life of his own) struggled to pronounce uisge and so deemed it whisky. At one point Gunn touches on the phenomenon of dual personality which has echoed through Scottish literature down the years since the Act of Union when he has Munro reflect, “as though in oneself were two quite different men, who were yet the same man.” Even without these indicators the book could not be mistaken for anything other than emblematically Scottish, though.

I confess I had to look up the phrase “agenbite of inwit,” which I had never seen before.

Pedant’s corner:- Sasunnach is an unusual spelling. “Shore up” was used in the sense of “rise up.” There was a barely brew (barley,) an unpredictible, doppleganger, genuiness and a failure of subject to verb agreement in “his knees, his whole body, was trembling finely.”

Interzone 250, Jan–Feb 2014.

TTA Press

Interzone 250 cover

Interzone 253 plopped onto my doormat two weeks or so ago (complete with my review of Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea) so I thought I’d better get round to catching up with earlier issues starting with the commendable landmark number 250. Oddly the fiction in this issue seemed nearly all to be written in USian.

The Damaged by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Though the author calls them robots, PlayMatez are androids, constructed from bioengineered human muscle and a patented silicone/skin blend. Our narrator is a woman who works for the manufacturer, placing wires in the bodies. She is interested in the 1% of PlayMatez who are damaged, and why that is so. So far, so atmospheric. The USian, though, I found jarring and, technically, the shift in tense of the narration in the final paragraph compared to the first makes the story incoherent. Oh, and blood tastes of iron, not copper.

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place by David Tallerman
A man in a bickering relationship encounters strangers passing through the town. One of them tells him the world he is living in is a back-up. This story is accompanied by a great illustration of an Art Deco Diner.

The Labyrinth of Thorns by C Allegra Hawksmoor
Told in a rather distancing second person singular – a hard trick to pull off; and I’m not sure Hawksmoor does, quite – and set in a city parts of which extend out over the Atlantic, the narrator, you, has been infected with a memory by the Collective to see if you can be trusted.
Smoke doesn’t “melt” into air – even figuratively – and off of is a solecism at the best of times but it certainly ought not to be rendered as of off.

Beneath the Willow Branches by Caroline M Joachim
Takeshi is a surgeon. The story starts with him retrieving his wife’s memory unit (somewhere out of time, along its z-axis) from its attachment to her brain. She has become lost in time, looping through the same two weeks. He goes back himself to try to save her.
We’ll pass over different than as it is US usage but the text included hope for finding instead of hope of finding. And lay(ing) down for lie (lying) down – twice. Grrr. But lay down was used correctly as a past tense.

Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa
A man accompanying his wife on her work-related trip to Moscow sees strange towers appearing in the skyline – with even stranger creatures inside them.
Miniscule (sigh) but the grammatically correct though contortedly awkward, “And whom with?”

Lilacs and Daffodils by Rebecca Campbell
A story about memory, knowledge – or the lack of it – and loss. Except that it references the Quatermass serials I’m struggling to see the fantasy or SF content, though.

Wake up, Phil by Georgina Bruce
Laura Harrison is a low-level worker for Serberus, which is in mortal competition with Callitrix, both of whose armies fight against each other in the colonies elsewhere in the Solar System. Except she also lives with Martin in the late sixties and their neighbour is Phil; writer Phil, Sci-Fi Phil. Realities overlap and entwine in this totalitarian nightmare which can also be read as an homage to one of SF’s greats.

Grunts! by Mary Gentle: a fantasy with attitude

Corgi, 1993, 480 p.

Grunts! cover

This is a kind of mash-up fantasy/SF cross-breed featuring dragons, trolls, orcs, Undead, kobolds, Men (male Men and female Men,) dwarves, elves and halflings, Lords of Light and Dark, taverns, whores, thieves, aristocrats and of course magic, but also Raybans, M16s, AK47s, Huey helicopters, APCs and T54 Battle Tanks. Oh, and space travelling Hive-Mind Bugs who grow weapons not only from their own bodies but also spaceships from sea serpents. And for a final flourish, portals between worlds.

The fun starts after the Last Battle between Good and Evil, when the defeated Dark Lord’s loyal orcs are looking for something to do, come across a hoard of hi-tech weapons and transform themselves into a force to be reckoned with; marines in a word.

Well, I say fun, but it takes a precious long time for Grunts to distinguish itself sufficiently from any other militaristically inclined, mayhem-scarred, blood-soaked SF or mediævally tinged fantasy to make the reading not a chore. It does so eventually – for me, about two thirds of the way through – and is larded with a fair number of good jokes, some elaborately set up, which lighten things a bit, the journalist named Perdita Del Verro being a case in point.

Despite its inherent absurdity Gentle does make it all work after a fashion and clearly she had fun in the writing (it is far removed from her usual serious style) but it goes on too long and I question its utility.

Grunts is meant to be light-hearted and a swipe at the mind-set that glories in war and weaponry but like one of its antecedents, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (an altered world fantasy supposedly written by an Adolf Hitler who never became a successful German politician,) has to indulge in the same attitudes as it is satirising. I doubt anyone who enjoys the source material will have his – or her – mind changed by reading something like this, no matter how much fun it has poked at it.

We See a Different Frontier: a post-colonial speculative fiction anthology edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

Futurefire.net, 2013, 213 p. Reviewed for Interzone 249, Nov-Dec 2013.

By and large the language of Science Fiction has always been English, its explorations of other worlds in the main tending to describe their exploitation. In literature (as in life) humans have generally gone off planet to seek things, either knowledge or possessions – and damn any natives. Long past time for a corrective? A “straight, white, cis, male” might feel loth to comment.

The Arrangement of Their Parts by Shweta Naryan is a partly fabular tale of clockwork animals taken to pieces by an Englishman and the Artificer Diva who stands up to him.

The delightfully titled but pulpy Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus by Ernest Hogan tells how with the help of Nicola Tesla’s death ray Alejandro Sahagún replaces Pancho Villa and sets out to recover his sweetheart, abducted by Hollywood producers. While a slight tale this nevertheless rightly fingers Hollywood as the centre of cultural colonialism.

Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Aliens in iridescent spacehips have taken over Earth. Our (unnamed) narrator, a former street scavenger, wonders why his cell-mate – the once privileged Leonardo – would want to escape what he regards as a cosseted life.

In J Y Yang’s Old Domes Jing-Li is a cullmaster, charged with despatching guardians – the personifications of buildings – before their renovation. The guardian of Singapore’s Supreme Court is unwilling to go quietly.

Fabio Fernandes’s The Gambiarra Method reads a bit like a 1950s magazine story. Time travel is discovered in 2077. By accident. In anti-gravitational lifts with an attached post-virtual environment. The mechanism is investigated using the Gambiarra method – how to do things with whatever is at hand.

Riya in A Bridge of Words by Dinesh Rao has spent most of her life in Krashnigar, the former colonial power. She is now involved in a project to decipher the tattoos of the Thuri, one of the two sects of her ancestral homeland. Over this world hangs a mysterious red spaceship broadcasting an unchanging coded message.

Droplet by Rahul Kanakia. Subhir has lived in India after his parents took him there from his childhood home in California to avoid the ever worsening drought conditions. On his return to the US he finds out what really happened.

In Joyce Chng’s Lotus most of the Earth is covered in water after an event called the Washing. Landers fight fiercely to hold on to their territories while boaters roam the Waterways, exchanging and bartering. Boater Cecily and her partner Si one day come upon a source of precious drinkable water and food, giving them a moral dilemma.

Lavie Tidhar’s Dark Continents* envisages several different ways in which the past two centuries of Jewish history could have worked themselves out. These include forging a disputed homeland in Africa, intervention in the US Civil War and a peaceful integration into Palestine.

A Heap of Broken Things* by Sonny Moraine features a planet lit by two suns, where human colonists carried out a massacre a generation before. A local tour guide is confronted with that inheritance.

Sandra McDonald’s Fleet* is set a generation after the Night of Fire when solar megaflares destroyed all electronic communication. The people of a Pacific island forge their future in isolation.

Remembering Turinam by N A Ratnyake. A scholar from a defeated people whose language and culture have been oppressed, all but forgotten, returns to his capital city to speak with his grandfather, the last remaining witness to the old days.

Sofia Samatar’s I Stole the DC’s Eyeglass is the story of Pai-te and her sister Minisare who has a spirit-eye and builds a beast of iron as a gesture of “defiance honour, dawn, tomorrow.”

Vector by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. In a US dominated Thailand where no-one has dark hair anymore, nor speaks Thai, a woman’s body has been turned into a viral weapon, both disease and vector, to undo the changes.

In Gabriel Murray’s Forests of the Night* the illegitimate son of the ex-colonial Captain Lyons, brought to Yorkshire to act as his father’s valet, dreams of the tiger that is stalking the local neighbourhood.

What Really Happened in Ficandula by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. A cultural misunderstanding leads to deaths and reprisals the memories of which are kept alive by the female descendants of the colonised as they themselves head for a new planet.

This collection illustrates how language, or its suppression, has been a primary tool of colonialism on Earth. There is irony, then, that, as Ekaterina Sedia’s afterword notes, all these stories were written in US English. (Double irony when the word “veterinarian” is depicted as being employed by a Yorkshireman.) Yet the theme of resistance, the keeping of traditions, shines through. Under the circumstances resistance becomes necessary.

As with most anthologies the standard can be uneven, but each story works as speculative fiction; and four (asterisked in this blog post) are very good indeed.

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.

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