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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.

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.

Psycho Shop by Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny

Vintage, 1998, 207 p.

Psycho Shop cover

Both these authors have a venerable Science Fiction pedigree. Bester was an undoubted star of the 1950s with Zelazny coming to prominence in the next decade. In their respective primes they rarely if ever disappointed. In his introduction to the book Greg Bear refers to them both as SF jazz greats, whirling in like golden dust-devils, blowing new tunes in new styles and tempos. He also explains how the book came to exist, Zelazny being offered the opportunity to complete one of Bester’s unfinished stories. (By Psycho Shop’s publication date both authors were deceased. So it goes.)

The premise is suitably mind boggling, involving as it does a tethered black hole, a channel between universes which can change people’s mental attributes. A black hole which has been stolen from the future.

Alf Noir (who is really Paul Jensen but we don’t know that till later) is on assignment from Rigadoon magazine to investigate the Black Place of the Soul-Changer in Rome, and the mysterious man called Adam Maser associated with it. While Alf is there a certain Edgar Poe turns up to utilise the device. He is told an L v Beethoven, and a Lucy Borgia have also. One of the clients is from a culture where everyone’s speech is inflected. Not all in the same way but in this case every fourth word. Another has a $hoping li$t utilising chemical symbols. Elsewhere in the book we meet Bertrand Russell and Mother Shipton, who scries by aggression.

In parts this reads like the wilder imaginings of R A Lafferty whom Bear surprisingly does not mention in his introduction. A character’s alias is Etaoin Shrdlu – the most common letters in written English. In one chapter the text employs diagrams and drawings. Clones hang in a cupboard ready to be popped into at a moment’s notice.

Bizarrely – or not, as this is a Bester/Zelazny book – poetry is referenced several times. In his persona as Alf, another character refers to Noir/Jensen as the sacred river. And the whole thing hangs on a canto by Ezra Pound.

Noir/Jensen can be considered as a variation on the Francis Sandow of Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead and To Die in Italbar but Psycho Shop is really a magnificently bonkers one–off. No spoiler really as the joy here is the journey but the black hole is revealed as a means to smuggle information past the Big Crunch and the new Bang.

Great stuff but not one for those unused to SF, though.

Pedant’s corner. Unfortunately the text is prone to USianisms. In 1940s London they meet an RAF major. In the RAF there is no such rank. They do however have Squadron Leaders. The said major also claims to be “shipping out.” That would be being posted.

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Scholastic, 2002, 295 p.

Mortal Engines cover

For a thousand years cities have been mobile, traversing the dried up land in search of smaller urban entities to consume. This system is known as Municipal Darwinism and apparently has a set of rules. (There are, though, pirate towns which disregard these.) There is, too, an Anti-Traction League, settled towns safe in Asia behind an impregnable wall. The League has agents who work against the Traction towns.

Reeves has some fun with his premise. Panzerstadt-Bayreuth is a wonderful name for a predatory city, as is Tunbridge Wheels for a smaller ambulatory town. The text is also peppered with adapted phrases such as, “a rolling town gathers no moss,” with a curious emphasis on Hull; “like a bat out of Hull,” “Bloody Hull!”

Tom Natsworthy is a lowly member of the Guild of Historians in London, in thrall to the principles of Municipal Darwinism. His encounter with his – and London’s – hero, Chief Historian Valentine, draws him into a series of adventures after he witnesses an attempt on Valentine’s life by a mutilated young girl, Hester Shaw. In the aftermath both he and Hester are thrown out of London – Hester by her own hand, Tom at another’s – on the so-called Hunting Ground, forced together by this circumstance. In typical children’s book fashion both Hester and Tom are children (young adults here) who have lost their parents. By contrast the other main narrative focus in the book – apart from Valentine – is his daughter Katherine; but she has lost her mother.

Told in a mixture of past and present tenses, the book tracks the evolution of Tom’s and Katherine’s awareness of Valentine’s character (Hester was never in doubt) and even the principles of Municipal Darwinism itself – all among a welter of airships, men resurrected as machines, bullying pirates with pretensions to civility, and rediscovered weapons. As with many a Young Adult novel the pace is relentless, the pages incident packed.

Throw aside any notions of doubt about how a predatory system such as the Municipal Darwinism portrayed here could last for a hundred – never mind a thousand – years and also any quibbles about the level of characterisation (London’s Mayor, Magnus Crome, is a little one dimensional,) the piling on of incident and an occasional lack of subtlety. Broad brush strokes are arguably necessary in YA fiction. Mortal Engines is totally engaging, while still carrying the monitory subtext that appearance and demeanour are no clue to underlying character.

Pedants corner: Reeves has the resurrected man named the Shrike tune his ultra-red sensors. This turns out to be a heat-seeing system. That would be infra-red, below red, then; ultra-red, beyond or above red, is just plain green (in terms of primary colours) – or at a pinch, orange.

Odin’s Son by Susan Price

Simon and Schuster, 2008, 243 p.

Odin’s Son cover

This “Young Adult” book was in the book sale section at my local library. The good lady suggested I read it to see “what is getting published now.” It wasn’t till I’d finished it I realised it was the third in a trilogy. (To avoid spoilers I hadn’t looked at the back cover blurb.)

The trilogy aspect perhaps accounts for the lack of explanation in Odin’s Son of the system of indenture which underpins part of the narrative. The indentured, known as bonders, are legally sub-human, and – on Earth – are treated as if they were in fact actually less endowed with feeling and sentiment. (This is, of course, the way the privileged always behave towards the less fortunate.)

The book is mainly set on Mars where a religion based on the Norse Gods is in a subordinate position to that of the ancient Greeks. A now-dead bonder woman called Odinstoy had been smuggled up from Earth by another bonder, Affroditey Millington, but their status is in legal limbo. Odinstoy claimed her son, dubbed Odin’s Gift, was fathered by Odin – hence the title – and the story unravels both his fortunes and his true origins. The head of the “Greek” religion has the curious name of Zeuslove Thatcher. Is this to signal he is the baddy?

Remarkably, for 100 pages the novel was unmarked by typos or infelicities of any sort – then we had icanthus for acanthus and things began to run downhill. Price seems to think there is an asteroid belt between Earth and Mars. There may be some asteroids in such orbits, but the belt is usually considered to lie between Mars and Jupiter. An ascension by space elevator is said to be accompanied by “no G-forces, no thrill. Other ships were descending on the other side of the El, and their weight lifted (them) upwards.” From ground level the feeling would be exactly that of ascending by any sort of lift mechanism – most of which are counterbalanced in a comparable manner. Flint is “formed from the skeletons of sea-creatures dissolved in sea water.” If they’ve dissolved they’re no longer skeletons. And material precipitating out from sea water into the spaces the skeletons left is more likely.

While the characterisation can be thin at times (Zeuslove Thatcher) others are drawn more fully – but at least one plot thread is left dangling. Whether Odin’s Son represents a satisfactory conclusion to the trilogy I can’t say but for the most part it worked on its own terms and a late development nibbled at the edge of questioning what it means to be human.

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