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Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Tor, 2012, 416 p.

 Boneshaker cover

In 1863 Dr Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine undermined Seattle and let loose an invisible gas dubbed the Blight, whose effects are (slowly) deadly. As a result Seattle’s old city centre has had a two hundred feet high wall built around it. Sixteen years later (and incidentally with the War between the States still raging back east – which makes this an altered history: then again I suppose all steampunk is) his son, Zeke, convinced his father is innocent, sets off into the forbidden area to prove it. His mother, daughter of hero Maynard Wilkes, goes after him, scrounging a ride on an airship. (Ah, the glories of steampunk.) Inside the city various adventures befall them both before they (separately) encounter the mysterious technical wizard who effectively rules the walled city, Dr Minnericht.

Despite the Blight being described as invisible Priest has the air inside Seattle’s walls as brownish-yellow in colour. Some of the people who succumb to the Blight come back to animation as zombie-like things called rotters which roam the streets of the walled city in search of live human flesh which apparently they like to feed on. (I gather this is typical of zombies more generally.) The logic of this escapes me. Granted, Priest’s rotters will need an energy source, but why would this need to be meat and how, given that their own flesh has decayed, would they digest it anyway?

The scenes inside the walled city ought to conjure up a feeling of claustrophobia but somehow, despite constant references to the discomfort of facemasks and the necessity to replace their filters, doesn’t. The chapters featuring Zeke understandably read like a YA novel as does the pace of events. At times the atmosphere is reminiscent of Phillip Pulman’s His Dark Materials but these characters are much less memorable. I’m glad I’ve sampled Priest’s work but I don’t think I’ll seek out more.

Pedant’s corner:- amuck (I prefer amok,) if you had mask (a mask,) from whence (whence already means from where,) off of, sprung for sprang, but least they weren’t bleeding (at least.) stunk for stank (x 2,) shined for shone (x 2,) who was seemed on the verge, wadded it into ball, lay of the land.

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

The latest from the BSFA Awards list – 6 out of 8 read now – but probably the last.

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

 Europe in Autumn cover

For a long time there was a dearth of detective stories in SF. This may have been because of the necessity that such a story work as both SF and crime novel, creating a gap which writers couldn’t seem to bridge. However any such lack has long since been filled. I don’t recall, though, many outright spy story/SF crossovers. Thrillers, yes (but they are a different beast again.) Yet here we have Europe in Autumn, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Cold War era spy story. This may be due to the fact that, a brief excursion to London apart, it is set mainly in Eastern Europe, areas which were formerly in Warsaw Pact countries. There is too a constant hint of menace, of surveillance, of people with hidden agendas, pervading it. All of which Hutchinson handles with aplomb.

After the devastation of the Xian Flu Europe has fissured into innumerable small statelets, “Sanjaks. Margravates. Principalities. Länder.” One of these polities is a trans-European railway line running from Portugal to Siberia, but never more than ten kilometres wide. In this Europe borders, razor wire, visas and bureaucracy abound; travelling is not simple. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Kraków who is one day “invited” to join Les Coureurs des Bois, an organisation dedicated to smuggling mail, packages and sometimes people across the numerous borders. His training ends in a disastrous foray into the railway’s territory. Later “situations” also turn out less than well and he begins to wonder why.

This set-up is intriguing. A Europe returned to a pre-Napoleonic patchwork – only much worse; some of the polities extend to no more than a couple of blocks of flats. It’s certainly surprising. One thing I never expected to read was a piece of SF explicitly discussing the merits or otherwise of the Schengen Agreement. How all this sticks together, plus the relevance of maps of non-existent places, is all revealed in a tightly plotted, highly readable thriller style narrative. In parts Europe in Autumn reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – was there something in the air the year before last? – there are extremely faint echoes, growing stronger towards the book’s end, of Transition, plus parallels with The City and the City and similarities with PƒITZ.

Europe in Autumn is a good book – even a very good book – but I’m not entirely sure about its place on the BSFA Award ballot. It has SF trappings to be sure, invisibility suits amongst them, but, in essence, it’s a spy novel.

The phrase “he wardrove around the city” was a new one on me but I’m grateful for it.

Pedant’s corner:- Hutchinson has too much of a fondness for the phrase “tipped his/her/my head to one side,” to indicate a character’s desire for more information, clarification or knowledge of evasion. Also: we had “a raise” (but elsewhere Hutchison also uses the British formulation a pay “rise,”) “I don’t think anybody understands the offside trap any more,” (OK this was a piece of spy speak but shouldn’t it still have been offside law? The offside trap is an effort to employ the law in a team’s favour,) tokomaks (tokamaks,) “for the first time in many years feeling anything approaching sympathy for his father,” (shouldn’t that be something rather than anything?) watched them them go, “Here he was, sitting here quite comfortably,” Minster for Minister.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Picador, 2015, 339 p, including 2 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Questions for Discussion.

 Station Eleven cover

Well, it’s a long time since I’ve read a good disaster novel. (Or any disaster novel at all really.) Not that this is a disaster novel per se as it spends a good bit of time on pre-apocalypse matters. The third person narrative varies between the viewpoints of actor Arthur Leander, his first wife Miranda, his friend Clark, former paparazzo turned paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary and Kirsten Raymonde, a child, then later an adult, actor.

Arthur Leander collapses on stage of a heart attack on the night the Georgian Flu comes to Toronto. Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and tries to aid him but fails to prevent his death. Before the performance Leander had given Kirsten two “issues” of a sumptuously produced limited edition comic book, the Station Eleven of the title. Kirsten values these through the years of travail ahead; for the Georgian Flu turns out to be particularly virulent, causing death within hours, hence civilisation swiftly falls apart. The few survivors eke out their existence as best they can.

The narration flits between pre- and post-apocalypse detailing Leander’s life story; Kirsten’s wanderings in Year Twenty with The Travelling Symphony – despite the name they perform Shakespeare plays as well as music – with its slogan (derived from Star Trek: Voyager) Because survival is insufficient; Clark’s pre-disaster memories of Leander and his post-apocalypse life in Severn City Airport, Michigan, where he sets up a Museum of Civilisation; Miranda’s experiences with Leander; along with Jeevan’s memories of his life. (There is no reason to suppose that Mandel has ever read it – in all probability she hasn’t – but the Travelling Symphony elements reminded me a bit of Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road. Mandel is a much better writer than Niven, though, and her story more complex.)

This is a very good book indeed, suffused with sadness but still affirming life. The characters all ring true to life – plus of course the inevitable death(s) – and there is a glimmer of hope for the future at the end. A curiosity was that only the odd pages are numbered and that only if they didn’t coincide with a chapter heading. Even though it has more of a mainstream feel had I read this before the cut-off date I would certainly have nominated it for the BSFA Award – the book was first published in 2014 – but sadly I was a month late.

Yet, even in a book as good as this there are entries for Pedant’s Corner:-
“The line of jets, streaked now with rust.” (Only iron – or steel – can form rust. Aeroplanes aren’t made from iron. If they were they’d not get off the ground. Iron is much more dense than the aluminium jets are made from.) “He’d laid awake” (lain.) In one chapter – a supposed transcription of an interview with Kirsten by the editor of the New Petoskey News – King Lear and New York Times are underlined. Is this due to the pre-word processing convention that submitted manuscripts contained underlining where italics were to be used in the final copy – italics being beyond normal manual typewriters – and these instances were missed in the transcription?

Terry Pratchett

It’s sad to hear of the death of prolific SF/fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Alzheimer’s Disease is a terrible affliction. It is for anyone; not just those whose working lives depend to a large extent on memory. His passing is a great loss to the overall SF/fantasy genre.

Pratchett’s greatest creation was of course Discworld, whose genesis owes more to fantasy than to SF.

Looking through my shelves I found I have more of his books than I had remembered, 9 novels in total, of which 6 are Discworld books. This is perhaps because I never much took to Discworld and didn’t really find the novels amusing. I think I laughed only once when reading a Pratchett book and that was for an atrocious pun (of which I admit I am fond.) Reading Equal Rites in particular I felt there was a serious novel in there struggling to get out and that the treatment somewhat detracted from the book’s possible import. I fully understand that Pratchett’s later work may have fulfilled the hopes that I had for Equal Rites when I was reading it but by then I had moved on to other things. According to Fantastic Fiction there are 40 Discworld novels. Too many to catch up with I fear.

Terrence David John Pratchett: 28/4/1948 – 12/03/2015. So it goes.

Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea

Titan, 2014, 336 p. Reviewed for Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014.

Koko Takes a Holiday cover

Koko Martstellar, a former mercenary for big corporations, is now running a brothel and bar on the artificially constructed pleasure archipelago the Sixty Islands, a complex under the auspices of the Custom Pleasure Bureau. When she kills two customers who have stepped out of line it triggers her former superior, Portia Delacompte, Vice President of the Bureau, who has undergone Selective Memory Treatment to allow her to attain membership of that organisation’s board, to seek her arrest, which Koko violently resists. Koko had assumed Delacompte’s patronage would protect her but she now has to flee to the Second Free Zone, a collection of sky barges and arks in low Earth orbit. There follows a pretty standard tale of flight, pursuit by bounty hunters and indiscriminate mayhem.

Crucially, to this reader at any rate, Koko’s predicament was not enough to justify her actions hence from the outset her outlook on life does not engage sympathy.

On the barge Alaungpaya in the Zone Koko meets and teams up with Jedidiah Flynn, an ex-cop, who has been forced to resign as he is suffering from a disease known as Depressus, whose victims, supposedly to avoid them disrupting daily life by random acts of suicide, are required to immolate themselves in a ritual known as Embrace. On Alaungpaya, they throw themselves off the ship to death. All other activities on the ship stop for the process. (Logan’s Run anyone?)

An authorial interjection after the info dump on Depressus gives a flavour of the overall narrative tone, “Ah Depressus. Quite the bitch but it sure does thin the herd.” This is only one example of many off-key notes scattered throughout the book beginning with the infantilised “boywhores” of Koko’s brothel who – for no good reason, except perhaps authorial contempt – speak in pidgin.

The story is set in the 2500s but Shea’s imagined future doesn’t really feel all that futuristic. It does though resemble what might be imagined as a gun-lover’s ideal universe. Flynn reflects on “the added benefit of having a gun on you is people tend to give you a wide berth and show you some respect.” (Of that contention only the wide berth bit might be true.) Delacompte has “nearly forgotten the sublime buoyancy of taking a human life – the confident rush of power,” and in this unpleasant vision of a future shorn of anything akin to politeness or consideration for others, the mercenaries and the bounty hunters drawn from their former ranks take trophies from their victims in a particularly vile manner.

The story is mostly told in short chapters in the present tense. This ought to impart a sense of immediacy but in Shea’s hands falls curiously flat. The one incident which is rendered in past tense is narrated in third person despite supposedly being told by Koko to Flynn. Koko’s expressed revulsion at the crime Delacompte committed is unbelievable here, being totally contrary to the attitudes she has shown up to the point that crime is revealed to the reader.
Most of the info dumping is expressed through supposed newsfeed extracts or adverts for the Sixty Islands and elsewhere is crudely executed. Lazy or unconvincing passages abound. “Luckily for Koko, the building’s architectural design included great bulging bars on each terrace, presenting her with easy leaps between floors.” “Frantically, Delacompte windmills her arms in an effort to forward the last of her momentum. It seems almost to the very last second that she has completely miscalculated her impromptu gymnastics and she’ll now plummet backwards to an ungracious and stupid death. However, her balance steadies and her weight shifts forward. Her hands reach out and grab hold of a coarse edge of sectioned seam in front of her eyes. Delacompte lets out a titter of relief.” (The discerning reader might just titter.) Not one, but two chapters begin, redundantly, with “meanwhile”. And Flynn’s Depressus evaporates rather easily.

Quite what is the purpose of this story is obscure. It fails to illustrate human nature, beyond revelling in that of the conscienceless, murderous psychopath, and seems designed to bolster the thesis that the only means to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But our putative heroine Koko is not one of the good guys; violence is her first resort, not her last. If it is meant as entertainment Koko ought to have a more cogent reason for her actions than merely that she has the means to achieve them. Nor can it be taken as satire. Shea’s tone is too approving for that. This whole farrago reads as nothing but an extended piece of weapons porn.

The following entries for Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-
“lay low” for lie low x 2, “sublimal” for subliminal, “coporate” for corporate, “sizzle” for fizz, “smoothes” for smooths, “caloric” for calorific, “hocks” instead of hawks phlegm, meaningless for meaninglessness, legs akimbo – legs can not be akimbo – “copasetic” for copacetic, veritable.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Hodder, 2014, 310 p, including 4 p Glossary of Nigerian pidgin, 1 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Reading Group Questions.

Another from the BSFA Awards list. 5 out of 8 read now.

 Lagoon cover

A sonic boom sounds out over Lagos lagoon. Very shortly thereafter three people whose names begin with “A” are taken up by a fist of sea-water and submerged. Some time later they are returned to the beach, as is a creature with the appearance of a woman but who is in fact an alien; an alien who can shift shape. One of our “A”s, Adaora, is a biologist with a lab in her basement and examines the alien, whom she names Ayodele. “Her” cellular structure is totally unlike that of life on Earth, mainly in that it doesn’t have cells, only very small, apparently metal-like, spheres “not fixed together as our cells are.” But Okorafor isn’t interested in this. Her focus is on the effect of the intrusion on Lagos and on its people and on manifestations of Nigerian folk tales/myths. We find out not much more about the aliens than that, apart from being able to read minds and having healing powers, as Ayodele tells the President, “We are technology,” and “we just want a home.”

The other two “A”s, the soldier Agu and the Ghanaian rapper Anthony Dey Craze, and Adaora turn out to have special powers, Agu has extreme strength in his punch, Dey Craze can project sound and Adaora a force field. Adaora’s husband, Chris, who is under the influence of the (nominally) Christian bishop who calls himself Father Oke, already thought Adaora was a witch. In light of this to my mind it undermines the implied criticism of self-serving “charismatic” preachers embedded in Okorafor’s treatment of Oke to have any hint of the supernatural attaching to Adaora.

Ayodele tells Adaora’s two children, “Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It’s your greatest flaw.”

The Lagos setting is welcome (too often stories of alien invasion focus on the US or Britain) but the move deep into fantasy territory broke my suspension of disbelief. Okorafor’s descriptions are effective but the action scenes can be cursory. By and large the characters are well differentiated, though a few are drawn from the stock cabinet, and we do see a cross-section of Lagos society, some of whom speak in pidgin. This can be understood easily enough (SF readers are used to unfamiliar words and phrases) but the appended glossary will help anyone who struggles.

Lagoon is written in USian (Okorafor is a professor of creative writing at the University of Buffalo, SUNY) so we get dove for dived, upside the head, if worse came to worst, most everyone, asses; which all seemed to me odd usages for a former British colony only 55 years from independence.

Pedant’s corner:- “even before he’d sunken his claws into Chris” (sunk,) “also a bad sign were the two army trucks” (a sign is singular,) “low and behold” (lo,) “to not turn away”. This last is not quite cancelled out by knowing where “not” ought to be placed in “not all was well.”

Wolves by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2014, 295 p.

This is the first in my attempt to catch up with this year’s BSFA Awards nominations for best novel. I’ve now read half of them. With two more at hand I’m on track for 6 out of the 8.

 Wolves cover

Wolves is a strange beast, part SF, part mystery, part love story, but never really completely any one of them. Conrad is working in advertising when school friend Michel’s phone call to him to come to meet his girlfriend and view their pet project – building a boat to see them safe through what they divine as the impending apocalypse – throws him into their orbit. How this is all linked to Conrad’s past, his mother’s death and dysfunctional relationship with his father, Ben, is worked out in stages and flashbacks to Conrad’s teenage years. Ben was involved in devising a system of artificial sight for blinded soldiers. Later, Conrad’s company develops augmented reality technology – “with tricks of mathematics and optics, we augment reality, smothering surfaces in warm, spicy notes of brand belonging” – eventually to the point where it can overlay the real world, without its experiencer even carrying/wearing a processing device. As Conrad tells us later, in another context, “the mind cannot retain vanished geographies, and we find ourselves adapting to this new terrain.”

In perhaps the crucial sentences in the book Ralf, the ideas man behind the AR technology, says to his financial backer when queried about what he calls the model, the brain’s importance in perception, “Your model, my model, of what the world is like. We only have models, Mr Vaux. From the little data granted us, we extrapolate a model of the world. This, we call ‘reality’.”

I’m very dubious about Conrad’s contentions that, “When we fall in love with someone, we fall in love first with their world,” and, “Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy,” but less so with, “Confusing the two loves is easier still.” He also says, “Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy.”

Despite the trappings – and the nomination – the book doesn’t really feel at all like SF. The novel’s sensibility throughout is mainstream. Augmented Reality isn’t truly embedded in the story and reads more like an add-on. The book could actually be stripped of its futuristic components and the plot still work as well. The text also mentions Science Fiction, generally thought to be unwise in a work within the genre. However, one thing that can be taken from Wolves is that whatever happens, human relationships will still be as muddled and messy as ever.

Pedant’s corner:- clitoriclectomy (clitoridectomy or clitorectomy,) pretentions (pretensions – though the latter spelling is used later,) queuing (queueing?) populous (populace,) “I rack my head for anecdotes,” (wrack?) stoved in (staved in surely?)
Plus points, though, for “lie of the land.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

For Interzone 258

 Beta Life cover
 Impulse cover

My review of Beta-Life for Interzone 257 was sent off at the end of January. The issue should be out soonish.

Now arrived for review for Interzone 258 is Impulse by Dave Bara. Book one of “The Lightship Chronicles” apparently. Mr Bara is new to me. There’s an Ancillary Justice/Sword feel to that cover – which is a fair amount to live up to.

The Chalice of Death by Robert Silverberg

In “The Chalice of Death,” Planet Stories, 2012, 91 p. First published as Lest We Forget Thee, Earth, 1958, as by Calvin M Knox.

Lest We Forget Thee Earth cover
 The Chalice of Death cover

This book is (dis)graced by one of the most execrable covers (right) it is possible to imagine. I felt ashamed buying it. Still, I suppose it reflects the times in which the story was first published – though the original Ace Double cover (left) is more restrained. Silverberg is of course one of my SF immortals and the book contains two other early works of his which I shall get round to later. Not that his early stuff is necessarily of great quality; he fairly churned it out. It was only when he came back to the field in the late 1960s that his genius shone through. It is to him, specifically his The Man in the Maze, that my continuing reading of SF beyond that date is due.

In The Chalice of Death, Earth, once the centre of a great galactic empire, has been lost in the mists of time but nevertheless Earthmen act as advisors to the rulers on many of the planets. Hallam Navarre acts as one such to Joroiran VII on the planet Jorus. His rival advisor, the Lyrellan Kausirn, takes advantage of a minor slip to lever Navarre away from influence. As a result Navarre is sent by Joroirdan to locate the eponymous chalice, in the hope it will grant eternal life to the ruler. Since it doesn’t exist that represents a problem. Navarre and his companions, one a half-breed Earthman, the other, Helna Wistin a (female) advisor to the ruler of Kariad, nevertheless find Earth within a chapter or so and a vault there where survivors from the time of supremacy have been kept in suspended animation over the millenia. They hatch a plot to revive Earth’s fortunes and the remainder of the story follows that process.

On even the most cursory examination most of this falls apart. Since we only meet two actual full blood Earthmen (which is the generic term adopted throughout) it is difficult to see how the race has managed to propagate itself over the years – still less for individuals to accede to their positions as advisors. The slightly unsavoury assumption that Earthmen (it’s got me at it now) are intrinsically better than the universe’s other inhabitants was also unexceptional back in the 1950s. And it was amusing to find Navarre using a slide rule for a calculation. But none of this is the point. This is pulp adventure stuff and can only be read as such. No pretentions to characterisation need apply; nor any consideration of literary merit. I read it as a would-be Silverberg completist, without high expectation. I wasn’t disappointed. Nothing could dim my memories of Silverberg’s glory period.

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