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Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 210 p (+ v page introduction by Ursula Le Guin.) © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 1972. Translated from the Russian Piknik na obochine by Olena Bormashenko.

This novel is apparently the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based. Not that I’ve ever seen it, I don’t go out of my way to view SF in its moving picture formats, either in film or television.

 Roadside Picnic cover

Aliens have come – and gone; their landing sites spaced over the Earth in a perfect curve. Each of those Zones is deserted, a repository of hell slime, death lamps, shriekers, black sparks, lobster eyes, rattling napkins and strange containers known as empties; not to mention the elusive Golden Sphere, said to grant human wishes. Stalkers illegally brave the dangers to retrieve Zone artefacts for the money they will bring. Scientific institutes study these to try to find uses for them – or even what they are. The scientists studying it are more scared than the rest of the populace because they understand how much they don’t understand. As one of the characters points out, such attempts to gain insight suffer from the flawed assumption that an alien race would be psychologically human. We don’t know what intelligence is; it can’t be defined. In the same conversation the possibility is raised of the stuff in the zone being just detritus, left behind after the aliens merely stopped for a picnic.

Yet the Zone has effects beyond itself. Despite there being no detectable radiation nor mutagens in the Zones, Stalker’s children have weird mutations, emigrants from the areas that became the Zones seem to cause disasters of various sorts in their new locations; corpses are reanimated, the dead return to their homes.

The book follows the evolution of stalking over a few years from an individual – or perhaps team – pursuit to remote probing by robots mainly through the experiences of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker in Harmont, which seems to be in the USA (a father aspires for his son to be President one day.) In our first foray into the Zone the descriptions of its outer edge are eerily premonitory of Chernobyl, its strangeness also prefigures the event site in M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In the concluding section Schuhart muses while finally seeking out the Golden Sphere, “What man is born for I have no idea.”

There is a temptation either – as according to Ursula Le Guin’s introduction many US SF writers did – to consider any Soviet era fiction to be ideologically based or else to see it as critiquing the system in which it originated. (US writers of course could not possibly be subject to either of these strictures themselves.)

In an afterword Boris Strugatsky says of the brothers’ battles with Soviet editors that (the editors) thought language had to be as colourless, smooth and glassy as possible and certainly not coarse; that SF had to be fantastic and have nothing to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; the reader must be protected from reality. Unsurprisingly you might think, I’m with the Strugatskys on this one.

Roadside Picnic, even forty years after its conception, still stands out as a compelling piece of written SF, well worth its inclusion as a Masterwork. As I hinted earlier its influence can be traced down through the years but merely imagining this scenario as written by a US practitioner of the genre – where a military sensibility may have prevailed instead – underscores its subtlety.

The otherwise excellent translation is into a robust USian: fair enough given its apparent setting but a few infelicities intruded:- “had probably stuck his freckled mug inside, frowned, and went off.” “(His face) hurt. His nose was swollen but his eyebrows and eyebrows were intact.” A “lighting” bolt.

The Race by Nina Allan

NewCon Press, 2014, 251 p

The Race cover

This seems to be marketed as a novel but is in fact a set of four tenuously connected novellas the succeeding ones of which cast doubt – or light depending on your viewpoint – on the events of at least one of the previous ones. Three are first person narrations, the third (appropriately) is in third person.

The book starts with Jenna, whose title character narrates a tale of smartdogs – greyhounds upgraded (initially illegally) with some human DNA – and the handlers who can communicate with them telepathically via a chip inserted in the brain. The setting is the town of Sapphire, hard by an ecologically damaged area off Romney Marsh. The plot kicks off when Jenna’s brother Del’s daughter Luz Maree is kidnapped, ostensibly for money which Del hopes to procure by running his smartdog Limlasker in the season’s big dog race the Delawarr Triple, but in reality because she can interact with the dogs without an implant. In this segment Allan employs the phrase “going to the dogs” perfectly straight, but on its first appearance I initially read it as “in decline.”

Christy is set in a recognisable “real-life” Hastings but we are invited to believe the town of Sapphire which we met in Jenna is an invention of the eponymous narrator, who retreats into the stories of her imagined world – subsequently achieving publication with them – when her overbearing brother Derrick, a nasty piece of work, damages her life too many times. One of his girlfriends disappears, another called Linda enlists Christy’s help to leave Derrick for her former boyfriend Alex. Derrick reacts violently. The parallels between Christy’s life and Jenna’s are plain. Too much so. Having even a fictional writer write about stuff so obviously inspired by her own life stretches credulity too far. Fair enough in the general case (and then only if a writer’s sources are invisible to the ordinary reader) but here the artifice undermines the effect of Jenna as a story. One of the overlaps between these first two stories is a focus on gloves but this does not carry over into the final pair.

In the third person narration, Alex, again set in our universe, it seems Christy’s fears about what may have happened to Linda are unfounded as, years later, Alex tells her he saw Linda some time after the violent incident. (But the reader may think he was mistaken. The writing is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for either possibility.)

By contrast with the first and last in the book, both these middle two novellas are apparently set resolutely in the real world. Unfortunately the outcome of this is to dilute the effect of the other two stories. I know it is Allan’s intention to make us question the narration and the reality of the everyday – each novella has a scene where other worlds intrude on the milieu, parallel worlds are explicitly mentioned at times – but what it means is we cannot trust any of them. The connections we make slip away.

The last story, Maree, also has smartdogs, but they are off-stage (except for Maree remembering one called Limlasker.) This world has some familiar town names – Inverness, Faslane, Madrid – but also invented ones, Asterwych, Charlemagne, Lilyat and the countries of Crimond, Thalia, Farris and Espinol. Our narrator, one of those who can communicate with smartdogs without implants, is about to make the dangerous sea voyage from Crimond to Thalia to become part of a research project to help decipher the language of a strange set of signals from space. We discover Maree was taken from her parents when young. Her Dad was named Derek and he has a sister called … Christy. The set piece here is an encounter with Atlantic whales – not our familiar species, but strange creatures, aloof from and disdainful of humans. Like the dog race in Jenna, though, this apparent centrality is only background to the story. It is as if the SF in The Race isn’t SF. That’s fine, in fact I’m all for it – but don’t rub our noses in it.

Throughout all four sections of the “novel” information dumping, although necessary, is a bit intrusive and the foreshadowing verges on heavy-handed.

Despite all of the book, bar Maree’s sea voyage, being set in Britain (or, in the case of Crimond, an altered Britain) various USianisms spatter the text – veterinarian, semester, jerking off, sneakers, airplane (though aeroplane is employed more often,) outside of, wedding band, a raise – which I’m afraid detract from the verisimilitude. At times there was some awkward syntax, “a vegetable I’ve never tasted before called aubergine.” “The house was on Emmanuel Road, a solid Victorian terrace with a weathered front door.” The terrace has a front door? And it may be Allan has a problem with endings. Except for Maree, they seemed rushed. I noticed a similar tendency in the same author’s Spin.

As a whole The Race is a hall of mirrors, of distorting mirrors. Nothing is reliable; even its unreliability. It might even be said to be less than the sum of its parts. Which is a pity as Allan can write well and empathically.

Pedant’s corner:-
A “span,” brooch spelled as broach, double English (in a primary school?) “I think that was he was counting on,” “We lived of frozen fish fingers…” “pretending they was invisible,” “that 1 now knew,” “Tim had has name down for Oxford,” “I decided I to Laton Road,” “Recounted the final days an old piano teacher dying in Aberystwyth,” “accustomed Maclane’s presence,” “Faslane shrinks and dwindles, … first a … smudge on the horizon, then disappearing altogether. We are still in the mouth of the loch, not in the open sea at all yet.” Faslane has “disappeared” but we’re still in the mouth of the loch, not the open sea? (Aside: the Faslane I know is near the mouth of the loch it stands on – it’s a small loch – and disappears very quickly; when the necessary turn on leaving the loch is performed.) “The pattern templates were …. carefully folded and each once sealed within a white paper packet.”

Rites of Passage by Eric Brown

Infinity Plus Books, 2014, 188 p.

Rites of Passage cover

This is a collection of four of Brown’s novella length works three of which have appeared previously.

Bartholomew Burns and the Brain Invaders is a steampunk story featuring Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, our eponymous hero Burns, mudlark Tommy Newton and a scene at the Great Exhibition. In it we have no less than three sets of aliens, one of which is about to invade Earth by taking over the brains of people in power. Put so baldly it seems daft, and in many ways it is, but it is effective as light entertainment. As Brown says in his introduction to the collection the background here is not as compelling as it might be but he has created scope for more adventures from Burns in the future where that deficiency, if it is one, can be remedied.

Guardians of the Phoenix was later expanded by Brown into a novel. This original version became roughly the third quarter of the novel and, to my mind, the story works better at this shorter length, being more tightly focused.

Sunworld is set on a constructed space habitat where the inhabitants have long forgotten their origin. Yarrek Merwell dreams of being an architect but his extremely religious parents force him into joining the Inquisition. His encounter with the Church’s head leads to revelations that overturn his ideas of himself and his place in the world. Yet again in a Brown story religion looms large.

The story original to this collection is Beneath the Ancient Sun but its setting – an Earth dried up, with little fresh water – could be that of Guardians of the Phoenix only many centuries further on. A handful of humans struggles to survive, eking out their meagre reserves of water and telling stories to inspire the youngsters. For his Initiation rite Par chooses to emulate the legendary journey of Old Old Old Marla to the high mountain peaks. His girlfriend Nohma and her former lover Kenda accompany him. This story and Guardians of the Phoenix are the most satisfactory of the four novellas here. The other two seem more sketchy, as if they required greater length to be fully effective. Brown has left plenty scope for that, though, if he decides to return to the scenarios.

Live It Up 20: It Won’t Be Easy (Without You)

This is a curiosity. The theme from the 1987 TV series Star Cops. Written and performed by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues.

Star Cops Theme – It Won’t Be Easy (Without You)

This is how the opening credits looked.

On The Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon’s Children 2 Gollancz, 2013, 483 p
Reviewed for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

In Blue Remembered Earth, the previous volume in Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children sequence, the Akinya family was instrumental in the development of the Chibesa-drive engine which drastically increased the maximum speed of space travel. On the Steel Breeze is set a very long generation or so after the events of the previous book and the family is now much less powerful. Chibesa physics has allowed hollowed out asteroids dubbed holoships to be sent out in strings – Reynolds nods to history by using the term caravans – to various promising destinations in the stars. These holoships are each large enough to be able to house herds of elephants as well as the emigrating humans. Life prolongation techniques are so far advanced that withdrawal of such treatment is used as a punishment for crimes – a generation’s life span is now measured in several hundred years. Chiku Akinya, great-granddaughter of Eunice Akinya the begetter of the Chibesa drive, has an unusual triple identity. A process called Quorum Binding has stamped Chiku’s personality and memories on three indistinguishable bodies (her original and two clones) which are able to communicate almost telepathically deeply. Chiku Red set out after Eunice Akinya’s ship; Chiku Green is on the holoship Zanzibar, en route to Crucible, the extra-Solar planet with the enigmatic structure known as the mandala, discovered by the telescopic array Ocular; Chiku Yellow stayed on Earth. The novel intertwines the fortunes of the three Chikus. Making a reappearance is the artilect of Eunice – an AI in human form, as close an approximation to the human original as possible – which Chiku’s mother developed in the earlier novel. “She” is in a hidden chamber on Zanzibar tending a set of enhanced, “talking” elephants known as Trantors.

Much of the initial action takes place on Zanzibar, in whose caravan experiments to develop post-Chibesa physics have been proscribed. Travertine (who for some reason has a set of personal pronouns, ve, ver, vis, all to verself) has caused hundreds of deaths by an illegal but vital experiment. The holoships have been accelerated too much to be slowed down effectively enough by their Chibesa engines. The caravan’s politics, though, are set against the necessary research.

Back on Earth Chiku Yellow, with the aid of the merfolk of the United Aquatic Nations who reunite her consciousness with the returned Chiku Red’s, acts on a communication from Chiku Green to seek out a woman who can facilitate contact with their founder, Arethusa, who in turn may have knowledge that not all is as it seems on Crucible. This necessitates a journey to the surface of Venus (and, later, Mars and Hyperion.) Here the plot, as in Blue Remembered Earth, comes dangerously close to pulling the characters around the Solar System to show off the author’s research or to provide a set piece drama. The inevitable disaster with the space elevator connecting to Venus’s surface demonstrates the Chikus have a dangerous enemy. This is the “machine distributed consciousness” called Arachne which oversees the data produced by Ocular and has infiltrated the aug, the controlling agency of the Surveilled World familiar from Blue Remembered Earth. The secret Arachne is protecting is the presence in orbit round Crucible of over twenty enigmatic pine cone-like spaceships dubbed Watchkeepers.

Plot aplenty to be going on with then, and the above merely sketches the set-up. The playing out of the politics of Zanzibar’s caravan, involving the clandestine construction and launch of a scout ship to reconnoitre Crucible, the repression and conflict which ensues, the true situation on Crucible, fill out the story. The scout party’s meeting with Arachne’s avatar on Crucible verges on fantasy territory, though. While any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, in Science Fiction some degree of explicability is generally thought desirable.

Despite the space travelling elephants (and the light aeroplane able to fly within their hidden chamber in the holoship,) the mandala and the Watchkeepers, Reynolds doesn’t quite hit the sense of wonder button squarely with this one. The scale fails to register. (That may just have been a jaded reviewer’s perception, though.)

Yet with his holoships Reynolds has – much as he did in Pushing Ice – re-imagined the generation starship trope, albeit with less of a focus on the ships’ passengers than in novels of yore. Also in the mix, though such is the detail of Reynolds’s future that they have not yet been explored in any detail, is a Big Dumb Object in the shape of the mandala and a kind of first contact (the Watchkeepers.)

An example of the possibility of avoiding what the Watchkeepers apparently think is the inevitable conflict between organisms and artilects, Eunice poses the question of what it actually means to be human – highlighting a typically human tale of stupidities, betrayals, love and duty.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Omitted “a”, a for an, doubled “the”s, “had”s and “was”es, “assesment” “compliated” a “breaking” mechanism for slowing down, an “I have strode,” “on my behalf” instead of “on my part” plus the interesting coinage “programmemes.”

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

Review, the Guardian, Saturday, 16/8/14

I usually read all the stuff about fiction in the Guardian’s Saturday Review as well as some of the non-fiction reviews.

Last week’s contained three items of particular interest to me.

The cover piece, Steven Pinker’s An Anti-stickler’s Manifesto was about ten “grammar rules” he thinks it’s okay to break sometimes. He says that some of them aren’t actually rules at all and others aren’t rules in English. You may be surprised to read that by and large I agree with him. But I do believe it is important to know what the rules are. This is in order that when you break them it is for a purpose.

Then there was an article about Martin Amis. In this Amis was quoted as saying, “Prose is foremost, and ‘if the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form.'” Secondary interests? Psychological insight is a secondary interest? Story is a secondary interest? Characterisation is a secondary interest? Is this last not what certain purveyors of genre (no names, no pack drill) are pilloried for not providing?

The final piece was an interview with George R R Martin, in London for the Science Fiction Worldcon after first appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

This Year’s Hugo Awards

These were announced at the SF Worldcon in London.

(I know I really ought to have gone but it was in Docklands rather than London proper and I don’t even like London much. Perhaps I’m tired of life.)

The winners for fiction were:-

Best novel: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Best novella: Equoid by Charles Stross

Best novelette: The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Best short story: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

Of these I’ve read only the novel winner but congratulations to all.

Robin Williams

I was so sad to hear of the death of Robin Williams.

I first remember him from, of course, the US TV series Mork and Mindy where Williams played Mork, an alien sent to Earth from the planet Ork in order to observe its customs. He reported back to his superior, Orson, at the end of each episode which allowed fun to be poked at our human peculiarities. The programme wasn’t SF, it just borrowed one of the tropes for comedy purposes. His manicness was apparent even then. He blazed through that show like a meteor.

The first film I saw him in was The World According to Garp, where his serious acting talents were displayed. In Good Morning Vietnam and Mrs Doubtfire he showed a talent for acting in all its variety. By the mid nineties though I had pretty much stopped going to see films nor did I have time to watch them on TV so I haven’t seen much else of his.

He brought a lot of joy with his comedic abilities. It’s regrettable that gifts such as his so often come with a downside. A downside that seems to have cost him his life. So it goes.

Mork signs off.

Robin McLaurin Williams: 21/7/1951 – 11/8/2014. Na-Nu Na-Nu.

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2012, 373 p.

 Jack Glass cover

Well, this is a tricksy one. The prologue informs us we are about to read about three murders, a prison story, a regular (regular? I think Roberts meant traditional rather than occurring at intervals) whodunnit and a locked room mystery – or perhaps each is all three at once – and tells us who committed them, yet still promises surprises. The coda provides a rationale (in as much as any fiction can) for the fact that we’re reading this at all. All three stories are set in a Solar System run under the strict Lex Ulanova; a set of laws instituted by the ruling Ulanovs in the wake of the Merchant Wars.

The first section, titled In the Box, has seven criminals interned in an asteroid, with limited means and apparatus, eating only ghunk they can grow themselves from the surrounding rock and a pitiful light source; forced to work out their term of eleven years, effectively mining it for the Gongsi corporation which has the contract for their imprisonment. It’s also about economics; the decreasing value of humans as a resource. The tensions are neatly delineated as the story slowly morphs from a wide overview to the viewpoint of Jac, who has urgent reasons to escape his confinement.

From prison to the overclass. The second story, The FTL Murders, concerns Diana and Eva, heirs apparent to the Argent MOHfamily, second in importance to the Ulanovs. Eva, older by a few years, is on her sixth Ph D, investigating the phenomenon of Champagne Supernovæ – a name which Roberts endows with bitter irony with the connections he makes. Diana’s hobby is solving murder mysteries, which she sets to in real life when one of their servants is killed soon after they descend to Earth from their normal space habitat. This gives Roberts the chance to reference various fictional detectives but is mere background to his ongoing story arc, where even the idea of a faster than light technology is enough to threaten the Ulanovs.

The third instalment, The Impossible Gun, takes us briefly into the Sump, the agglomeration of shanty globes scattered across the Solar System where the Sumpolloi live lives of brute insensitivity again eating mainly ghunk, before it settles on a very definitely locked–room mystery. Jack Glass is on the verge of being taken into custody when Bar-le-duc, the detective chasing him, is killed in sudden inexplicable fashion. No spoiler here, or if there is it is Roberts’s, as the chapter title for this scene is The End of Bar-le-duc. The death, though, does blow a hole in the logic of Glass’s later fixation with the RACdroid which witnessed his immediately prior agreement to be being arrested.

There is one neat apercu, “Death is another name for doubt. Death is what inflects the immoral certainty of the universe’s processes with uncertainty,” and an interesting comparison, “The median point between the mass of a proton and the mass of the entire universe is the mass of the average human female.” We are also told of a torture technique called vacuumboarding. For goodness sake don’t give the buggers ideas!

The structures of the second and third stories are awkward, too much playing of fictional games for the sake of it, though Roberts does show the maturation of Diana, as her life of privilege is blown apart and she has to grow up fast, very well. Whether the overall novel lives up to the aspirations set out for it in the prologue or in Roberts’s apparent intention to write a novel which merged Golden Age SF with Golden Age detective fiction is doubtful.

In the acknowledgements Roberts mentions Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Doroth L Sayers and Michael Innes as influences (via his mother to whom the book is dedicated.) The essence of the traditional detective story is cosiness. Jack Glass is far from cosy, however.

I’m at a loss as to why this won the BSFA Award for best novel of 2012. To my mind there were better books on the short list.

Pedant’s corner: Span count 2, Roberts uses schute where chute would be perfectly adequate and we had “let along” for “let alone” plus the sentence, “Sunlight epilected between trees.” I can’t find epilected in any dictionary.

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