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 The Paper Menagerie cover
 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

On Monday morning Interzone’s issue 264 dropped through the letter box. This one contains two of my reviews, a normal length one of Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories and a shorter one of City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Meanwhile, waiting for me on my return from the continent was a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, review to be delivered by the end of the month.

A Science Fiction Jigsaw

I picked this up in a sale in January. Great 1950s SF feel to the box cover:-

Jigsaw Box

The actual jigsaw inside the box was different to the illustration on the box, being a representation of the game you could play using the printed paper (and counters and die provided) inside without making up the jigsaw. Again a 1950s SF feel:-

Jigsaw

Impulse by Dave Bara

Book One in The Lightship Chronicles. Del Rey, 2015, 384 p. Reviewed for Interzone 258, May-Jun 2015.

 Impulse cover

When the Carinthian crewed and commanded Lightship Impulse is attacked by a hyperdimensional displacement wave with the “flame of a thousand suns,” newly graduated Quantar navy officer Peter Cochrane’s commission on the Starbound is cancelled and he is reassigned to the Impulse. Carinthia and Quantar are former enemies now in alliance against the old Empire and, possibly, the mysterious Sri – whose biggest demerit is to have “no spiritual beliefs.” Cochrane is the last scion of an aristocratic Quantar family, and has secret orders to protect the Impulse as a Quantar asset. The night before taking up his assignment Cochrane encounters Carinthian Commander Dobrina Kierkopf. We know where this is going when the two fence. Literally.

The tonal qualities of all this are decidedly retro. Most of it would not have been out of place in SF written sixty years ago. In harmony with those times the prose barely rises even to the workmanlike, the characters are mainly out of central casting and it feels as if no military story cliché is left unvisited. Contrastingly there is a nod to more modern norms with the presence of female navy officers – senior ones at that – but the story’s sexual politics remain iffy. When one of Cochrane’s fellow graduates “patted a serving girl gently on the bottom,” she then, “turned and smiled back at him.” There is, too, a squeamishness round the subject of sexual encounters. Of a former relationship Cochrane tells us, “things had taken their natural course to greater intimacy.” The narration makes much of Impulse’s sumptuous interiors, wooden doors and library shelves stacked with leather-bound books, but then some of the books turn out to be virtual. While Cochrane is supposed to have been “the best” at the Academy, we are given little evidence of his ability; he seems more to muddle through.

Bara does try to differentiate his two allies linguistically, Quantars are roughly British, Carinthians presumably US. The word football is used in the British sense, there are references to bitter, arses and the interjection, “Bollocks!” but also the transatlantically confused phrase, “that goddamned Wesley’s a pillock.”

Bara’s Lightships’ propulsive system is the hyperdimensional Hoagland drive. In one of the continuity errors littering the text Cochrane tells us on setting foot on Impulse that he always knows he’s on a ship with a functioning Hoagland Field, but then later tells us when it gets switched on. Another occurs when Cochrane, having himself been left in command, seems to have forgotten the secret orders and leaves the Impulse in control of the ship’s Earth Historian. (Don’t ask.) Yet no blame attaches itself to him when the Impulse is duly hijacked through a jump gate – by the very man whom we were earlier shown Cochrane had to work hard to persuade to take over.

There is no real sense of a story arc. The pursuit of Impulse is diverted by a diplomatic interlude in the Levant system and the discovery of a Founder Relic. These are suddenly revealed to be objects of desire for which any other mission is to be sacrificed. Yet (spoiler) this one is let go to the enemy.

The info dumping is intrusive and ad hoc. Whenever a piece of equipment is required it is always handy and its utility immediately explained. It is difficult to resist the notion that Bara is making it all up as he goes along. He has also yet to learn the virtues of economy. Among others we have the extraneous, “with that we were off,” and, “‘Get me the vector marks to the target.’ I did as instructed,” plus the impossible, “before I knew it I was at my room.” Moreover, “One thing I was always told about open space EVA, don’t look down.” Down? In open space? And while I know what Bara means, does the construction, “She shook her head negatively,” actually make sense?

There is a liberal sprinkling of self-defeating techno-bollocks. An anti-graviton field “theoretically nullifies the effects of gravity within the field’s range, separating matter at the sub-atomic level.” How, pray, could the first part of this assertion possibly achieve the second? And, high-amped laser energy can be produced and projected by mixing chemicals? Not a chance.

The “sore thumb” intrusion of a paragraph on the joy of reading highlights Bara’s shortcomings. He’s not done enough of it. At least not widely. Notwithstanding the phrase “tactics of mistake” Bara’s inspiration seems less to be written antecedents and more the likes of Star Trek. Impulse shares that programme’s delusion that senior officers would routinely place themselves at risk by leaving their ships.

As thoughtless adventure stuff Impulse is fine. If that’s all you want from your SF.

The following comments did not appear in the review:-
Pedant’s corner:- Drink kills brain cells. Does it? Someone is subjected to a 50,000 volt stun gun attack and walks away! A sunk (sank,) ambiance (ambience,) practise as a noun, lasagna (lasagne,) shined (shone.)

Arthur C Clarke Awards

These things come thick and fast this time of year…

This year’s Clarke Award short list is:-

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

Of the two I’ve read so far (for my reviews see links) I’d go for Europe at Midnight.
Of the others the Becky Chambers was on my intended reading list already.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Women’s Press SF, 1979, 154 p, plus xviii p introduction by Ann Lane and i p notes. First published in 1915.

Herland cover

This is one of the earliest pieces of feminist Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine what a society without men might look like. In its form it is perhaps rooted in its time; on an expedition three men from the US hear rumours of a land of only women somewhere in the upper reaches of “a great river” – a land which no-one has ever seen but was said to be “dangerous, deadly” for any man to go there; and from which no man had ever returned – in other words a similar scenario to “Lost World”s of dinosaurs. That this is merely an authorial device to entice the men (and the reader) into Herland is revealed when they in fact travel by aeroplane into that mythical place, cut off by earthquake in the long ago, and find no danger but rather an initial sequestration along with a tolerant acceptance mediated by a kind of amusement.

As tends to be the way of these things all is couched as a remembrance by one of the three men, Vandyck Jennings, tracking his progress from a belief that there must be men somewhere in Herland and that social organisation without men must necessarily be lacking to an understanding of the dynamics and motivations of this strange country. But there are no men. The women in Herland reproduce parthenogenetically (how this happened is rather skipped over, being more like a miraculous occurrence than a demonstrable process but there would have been no Herland without it.) Social relations in Herland are such that violence and criminality do not occur. In effect they have been bred out. Roles – including childcare and education, though the latter is something of a life-long endeavour – are performed by those who have an aptitude for them and who specialise in that field. The contrast with the outside world is stark, especially in regard to the valuation of each member of society.

Initially the three are bemused by the appearance of their captors, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy,” and – a telling aside – “‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow.”

The three do eventually form relationships with inhabitants of Herland (somewhat oddly the three women whom they first encountered on arrival) but with the difference in societal norms things do not go smoothly. Of the three intruders Terry O Nicolson is the one who thinks women like to be mastered. “His idea was to take. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!” This conflict drives the novel’s conclusion and his banishment.

In his explanations of his world to those in Herland, Vandyck realises that, “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder,” and religion’s “common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behaviour, mostly taboos to please or placate.” His lead his companion Ellador to envisage sex as Vandyck describes its place in the outside world not, as with animals, for the one purpose of procreation but as specialised to a “higher, purer nobler use”.

Books such as this cannot be subjected to the usual reviewing criteria. The central focus of a novel about a utopia is that of the nature of the society described and how it differs from, and reflects on, ours. The idea is the substance of the novel. Though illumination of the human condition is not, such considerations as plot and character are secondary. Not that there is no character development in Herland: two of the three male adventurers who venture into this world come to their own terms with it. Nicolson the macho man of course does not. (Arguably he cannot, and without his following his instincts the events which led to Jennings providing us with this account would not have occurred.)

It might be argued that Herland is not Science Fiction. But if Science Fiction is the literature of ideas (often a reason for why some SF fails to produce rounded characterisation, but the SF background can be as much of a character as any humans in the story) then Herland definitely counts. Whatever, one hundred years on from its first publication Herland can still be read with facility. It still stands up. It still marks a contrast between what our society is and what it might aspire to.

Pedant’s corner:- lay of the land (lie of the land,) laying low (lying low: there was a “lie low” later,) sewed up (sewn up,) there were a handful (there was a handful,) “‘Don’t talk to be about wives!’” (me makes more sense.)

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

Solaris, 2013, 347 p.

 Dream London  cover

London is changing, expanding upwards and outwards, shape-shifting. In this strange new city salamanders munch beetles, the Thames is miles wide, blue monkeys roam the treetops and roofs, and a woman can say, ‘I didn’t used to be a virgin,’ without sounding ridiculous. The inhabitants too are changing, “Dream London did something to the people here. It brutalised the men …. It was softening the women.” On its ever widening two rivers, the Thames and the Roding, sail- and steamboats ply the waters, one of the only means of access. The rail systems are a mix of steam and electric power. As well as drifting into the past technologically this London seems to have the sexual and social politics of the 1950s or earlier, “the women had to hope that some man would look after them” or were “on their knees as whores or cleaners.” In addition “‘Dream London likes its Asians to dress like this’ – ie “ethnically” – ‘and run curry houses,’” and smoking is endemic once more. Not the least of its oddities is an area known as The Spiral where you can look over the edge of a precipice to see a tower growing up from another city to meet it. Like a black hole Dream London is impossible to escape. Journeys to do so twist and turn and lead back to their starting points.

Unfortunately our narrator Captain James Wedderburn is something of an exploitative sexist and minor drug pusher. (Not to mention a bit of a fraud. In his army career he never made it beyond Sergeant.) At several points he is taken to task for exploiting his workers but still remains a relatively unsympathetic character even after he gets the chance to write down his new persona on a parchment on the Contract Floor of the Angel Tower and (SPOILER) doesn’t sell his – or rather his friend’s – soul. Captain Wedderburn by his own estimation is tall and good looking. “He has messy dark hair, a knowing grin and a tendency to talk about himself in the third person.” At first he is torn between two factions wishing to enlist his aid, neither of whom he is particularly keen to serve. These are the mysterious Cartel, which is backed by foreign governments keen to see the end of Dream London and willing to do almost anything to achieve this, and Daddio Clarke and his Maicon Wailers – whose henchmen have eyes in their tongues and count in their number big, burly Quantifiers and a particularly foul-mouthed six year-old girl called Honey Peppers.

In the early chapters Wedderburn is handed a scroll containing his fortune, a scroll whose predictions start to be borne out. “ I lived in a city where the buildings changed every night, where people had eyes in their tongues, where women turned into whores over three weeks. Was a scroll that told my fortune so fantastic?” There is also a nod to prior art with its mention of a slow glass camera – called a shawscope. A picture taken by this means shows London’s parks to be strong areas of indeterminacy.

In Wedderburn’s excursion to the Angel Tower on the Cartel’s behalf we discover that Dream London’s mathematics has no prime numbers. On the Tower’s Counting Floor Wedderburn comes to recognise the order one, red, two, blue, a feeling of setting out on a journey, three, a feeling of fulfilment, yellow, four, five, orange, six, cyan, seven, eight, green, nine, purple, ten, eleven, indigo, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, ochre, fifteen, olive, sixteen, chocolate, seventeen; which sequence also serves as Dream London’s chapter numbers. (Despite this, later we are told there are 98 squares in Snakes and Ladders Square, numbered from 2 to 99.) He later visits the tower’s Writing Room, where the changes are inscribed onto paper. (This bears similarities to the written city in Andrew Crumey’s Pfitz.)

This is an outright fantasy you would think, yet Rudolf Donati whose body has been separated into its component parts but is still alive (it make sense when you read it) says, “‘Dream London isn’t a fantasy, Jim, its science fiction.’” [I think I spot a riff on Star Trek here.] “‘What you see here, Captain, is what you get when science is explained by artists! Something which looks beautiful, but doesn’t make any sense.’” Cynthia, a woman Wedderburn meets on a train, was a member of a team who had been ‘looking for sub-atomic particles, but we were doing it using pen and paper. We wanted to describe things smaller than atoms. Things so small that you can know where they are, or where they’re going, but not both at the same time,’ which is of course a statement of the Uncertainty Principle. Ballantyne has found an elegant way to illustrate this fictionally in his account of Wedderburn’s train journey through London, never quite getting to where he wants to go.

The again all this could be an allegory of how life in the real London in our world has been transformed by oligarchs and financial interests. Wedderburn says, “‘when people talk about choices, it’s usually the people who are in charge who are setting the alternatives,’” and “‘all those people who earn a living off the sweat of someone else’s brow. Dream London bought and sold them all.’” Anna, the daughter of one of Wedderburn’s friends and despite her peripherality the most interesting character in the novel – at least until she fades somewhat towards its end – tells him, “The only thing Dream London fears is that we might ever join together to fight it. It wants us to turn in on ourselves, rather than having us reach out to each other.” Wedderburn’s friendly stalker, Miss Elizabeth Baines – to whom he was revealed in a fortune parchment to be her future husband – says, “‘Dream London wants every man to do nothing. To be weak-willed and selfish. What it doesn’t want is people who do what’s right despite getting paid no notice,’” and another friend Amit, “‘There were always enough people in London to resist its influence, if only they chose to do so.’” Note that “London”, rather than Dream London.

Towards the novel’s climax Wedderburn begins to feel hope when he hears, “The sound of so many people doing the same thing. Of people united to a common cause, and not expressing themselves freely.” This apotheosis of togetherness is a brass band, the culmination of a series of references throughout the book to music and musicians.

Misgivings about Wedderburn’s occupation and attitudes aside Ballantyne writes well and has had an intriguing vision. Though to have your narrator say of his escape from a dilemma, “I’ll skip how I did it though,” (on page 201) – even if he later reveals he did not in fact escape – is something of a hostage to fortune.

Wedderburn’s most serious revelation though is that, “I was nothing more than misdirection, a sideshow … the magician’s assistant drawing the eye whilst the real work took place elsewhere.” With Dream London Ballantyne certainly draws the eye.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘If the Cartel succeed’” (succeeds; but this was in dialogue.) “‘This was a half-hearted threat if ever I heard of one’” (if ever I heard one,) a brace of pheasants (the phrase is usually a brace of pheasant,) wharfs (wharves?) “to ensure that traveller’s return” (context implies travellers, plural,) “seeing her around her before” (around here,) Hieronymous Bosch (Hieronymus.) “There were a number of suits hanging” (there was a number of suits,) Miss Baines’ face (Miss Baines’s,) he didn’t give me chance to speak (a chance,) sat (seated; or sitting,) 839th (previously and subsequently all such ordinal numbers were superscripted, as in 839th,) “and a random selection of numbers were” (a random selection was,) Honey Peppers’ (Honey Peppers’s, several instances,) “as about authentic as” (about as authentic as,) your your, less (fewer; but it was in dialogue,) Moules’ (Moules’s.) “The sign … was written in a particularly curly font. It read ‘ . , .’” (contained no text in curly font; there was nothing on the page but ‘. , .’ A joke about Dream London?) “as soon as saw the place” (as soon as I saw the place,) “Never let it be said the Captain James Wedderburn” (said that Captain…,) lay low (lie low.) A group of drummers were playing (a group was: several instances of a group were,) a large crowd were waiting (a crowd was,) stood in a pool of light (standing,) a missing end quote, out back (is USian: at the back,) “‘It’s every man for themselves in the new world’” (it was dialogue but even so it should be every man for himself; as it was on the next line,) “I could use a man like you” (USian: I could do with,) “‘I stared at building’” (the building,) Baines’ (Baines’s,) much a of a problem (much of a problem,) then the screaming begin (began,) “‘their minds can’t find your way back to their bodies’” (their way back,) I had strode (stridden,) Honey Pepper (Honey Peppers,) the drummer sounded taps (taps is a US military signal, not a British one, and it’s a bugle call, not a drum roll,) “Miss Elizabeth Baines’shouse” (I note the different use of the apostrophe here compared to Baines’ above, and the lack of a space between Baines’s and house,) unphased (unfazed.)

For Interzone 265

 Extinction cover
 City of Blades cover

Extinction by Japanese author Kazuaki Takano has landed on my doormat. This is for review in Interzone; to appear in issue 265, Jul-Aug 2016. Mr Takano is another author new to me.

Attentive readers may have noticed I have not yet blogged about City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett which I read in February. This is because a shortish review will be published in Interzone’s issue 264 (May-Jun 2016) along with the more usual length review of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie.

Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

Everness Book III, Jo Fletcher, 2014, 397 p.

 Empress of the Sun cover

The airship Everness has jumped, more or less blind, through a Heisenberg Gate into a parallel world. Unfortunately it seems Everett Singh has made a mistake in his calculations as it is in immediate danger of crashing. “Yellow lights flashed. Horns blared. Balls* rang, klaxons shrieked.” The damage sustained means the airship and its Airish crew will be marooned for a while on a strange two-thirds gravity world peopled with lizard-like creatures. It is only when Everett recognises that the sun is descending straight downwards, not in an arc, that he realises the source of his miscalculation; they have jumped to a discworld, constructed from all the material orbiting its sun. Here the Chicxulub meteor never hit Earth and the dinosaurs have had millions of years to evolve and reconfigure the system. These inhabitants, who call themselves Jiju, are warlike, though, and periodically almost wipe themselves out. They are still knowledgeable and powerful enough to manipulate the sun: it moves through a hole in the middle of the disc, so that it illuminates either side of the world sequentially. Only Everett, in an explicit reference to Terry Pratchett, thinks of it as a discworld. To the Plenitude of Worlds it’s known the Wheelworld, but such are the dangers of the Jiju, contact has been avoided. Till now.

Everness’s crew is instrumental in allowing a Jiju, Kakakakaxa, to win her battle with her sister to be heir to their mother, the Empress of the Sun. In a fateful step Everett feels he has no option but to surrender his Infundibulum, which controls the Heisenberg Gates, to the Empress.

Meanwhile the deliciously vicious Charlotte Villiers is still scheming to procure Everett’s Infundibulum so that she will have dominance over the Plenitude of Worlds and elsewhere the Thryn Sentience-enhanced Everett M Singh from Book II tries to eliminate the traces of the Nahn he has brought to Earth 10 from E1, all the while pretending to be the original Everett, befriending Everett’s friend Ryun and forming an attachment to classmate Noomi. It is only in this third of the Everness series that McDonald begins to address the sexual politics and uncertainties of adolescence that have been latent in his scenario, but it’s done with sensitivity and as ever with YA fiction this does not interrupt the copious action to any great degree. There is too a cautionary note about how easy it is to be misled by superheroes. “… the real problems aren’t like that. You can’t solve them by hitting them. The real supervillains were ….. people in suits who met in rooms and decided things. ” We also get a sly nod to McDonald’s background with the phrase, “‘The Sunlords’ adversity may be the Airish opportunity.’”

What gives the Everness series a unique flavour is the Palari argot the Airish use, a light note amongst all the world-threatening plot happenings. I note both Everett and Everett M come to dislike the extremes they have been forced to by the exigencies of their situation, what those actions have turned them into, what they reveal about themselves, which is a timely metaphor for the journey into adulthood.

In not one, but two codas (which together suggest more books in this sequence may be forthcoming) we are shown what seems to be the source of Charlotte Villiers’s motivations and that Everett’s father Tejendra is alive and well somewhere in the Panoply of Worlds. I had thought the Everness books would end with this third instalment but if there were to be more to look forward to they wouldn’t come amiss.

Pedant’s corner:- * Balls rang (that must have been painful! Context suggests “Bells”,) “you certainly don’t want us enemies” (us as enemies,) wain (a Scots word for child) is usually spelled wean, “she had never struck ball like that before” (struck a ball.) “The two of them haunted the dead-ball line, directly behind Everett M in his net” (strictly speaking the dead-ball line is in front of the net,) “what the crew were running from” (the crew was running.) “They were only machine” (they were only machines,) “Mrs Abrahams the principle” (x 2, principal,) “But for you I would be me dead in the crechewood” (it would be me dead in the crechewood; or I would be dead in the crechewood,) Victorian terrace houses (the designation is usually terraced houses,) “was a endless droop” (an endless droop.) “Have you see anything of this Earth, …” (seen.)
Once again no doubt due to its main intended market there were USianisms:- hoods (as in cars; we say bonnets,) ass (though arse is used at least once,) diskworld.

Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life future edited by Martin Amos and Ra Page

Comma Press, 2014, 390 p. Reviewed for Interzone 257, Mar-Apr 2015.

 Beta Life cover

This anthology is an unusual endeavour in which each of the nineteen stories (all set in the year arbitrarily chosen by the editors, 2070) has an afterword written by a scientist researching in the field of the main topic the particular story covers. These collaborations arose from an initial meeting between authors and scientists at the 2013 European Conference on Artificial Life. The authors’ brief was to follow the research into the future, rather than reflect purely on current concerns.

The editors’ introduction to all this first suggests that, due to entropy, complexity and futurism don’t mix, the world becomes ever more complex and less capable of being encompassed by story, before arguing that the notion of the individual saves the day, the protagonist – against surrounding circumstance – is the essence of all stories, the short form of fiction being the most capable of encompassing putative futures.

Be that as it may (and it might misunderstand entropy,) a collection stands or falls on its components and must transcend the bittiness engendered by its varying subject matter. A themed collection even more so. The possibility of cohesion is complicated here by the scientists’ contributions. There is a further mental leap involved in travelling from fiction to fact and back again. The thread is occasionally broken and though the essays are themselves informative enough they do not necessarily illumine the stories they accompany. Each is referenced as in a scientific paper – though in footnotes, except in the one case which followed the more usual practice of an appendix. Then there was the odd editorial decision to have three stories in a row having scientists as parents being an important aspect of the narrative.

It is perhaps in the nature of the premise that ideas and themes may recur, so what in general does this brave new world of 2070 have in store for us? Well, if it’s not synthetic biology or enhanced means of social control then in the main, it would seem, it is robots – or to be more precise, robotic objects, small machines dedicated to particular tasks.

We start strongly with The Sayer of the Sooth1 by Martin Bedford where an inhabitant of 2070 looks back at, and criticises, a Science Fiction story written by his great-grandfather wherein lie-detecting technology is embedded in contact lenses. Robin Yassim-Kassab’s Swarm2 dwells on the possibilities for social control of nanobot sized AIs. Growing Skyscrapers3 by Adam Marek is a tale of the scientists behind the semi-organic buildings of the title and the people who live in the rogue results grown from stolen seeds.

The Loki Variations by Interzone’s own Andy Hedgecock envisages a new computer game so immersive it changes people’s attitudes to, for want of a better term, “the underclass” – and leads to revolution. In Everyone Says4 by Stuart Evers linking of brains to provide direct empathic experience has been monetised but induces dependency on the linker and imposes increasingly debilitating psychic drag on the linkee.

The seemingly ubiquitous Adam Roberts gives us A Swarm of Living Robjects Around Us5 wherein a man lies down and dies on entering his home despite (or is it because of?) the plethora of living robotic objects it houses. There is more than an echo of Ballard about the ending to this story – and not only due to its mention of a swimming pool. In Annie Kirby’s Luftpause people have been imbued with a prophylactic against a deadly disease with the consequence that they leave pheromone trails behind them – but there are still dissidents.

The main futurism of The Quivering Woods6 by Margaret Wilkinson is driverless cars – which frustrate the protagonist more than assist him. Appearing too are holographic simulations but everything is tied round a rather conventional story about infidelity. In Certain Measures7 by Sean O’Brien crowd “control” techniques have become so precise they can be used to engineer deaths to provide a political excuse for banning large scale protests. (In this case might we perhaps be forgiven for thinking this sort of thing has happened already?)

Julian Gough’s Blurred Lines8 has a long washed-up pop star so mired in degradation that he resorts to hiring out his brain (for use at times when he is asleep) to a mathematician. He does it as cheaply as possible so the safeguards are ignored. Given his condition it did feel a touch unlikely that he would then come to feel the way he does about his hirer, an elderly woman called Jane; or indeed anyone. Synthetic biology is all-pervasive in The Bactogarden9 by Sarah Schofield. Our protagonist uses it to repair buildings while her former schoolfriend earns much more by constructing customised restaurant dishes.

In Keynote10 by Zoe Lambert two scientists experiment using implants on their own children to create a group mind. The story is delivered by one of the children as if in a symposium lecture. Lucy Caldwell’s The Familiar has another pair of scientists form a company to build an eye-controlled flying dragon to give their handicapped son the experience of freedom. In Making Sandcastles by Claire Dean two more parents conspire to use their (unlicenced) Maker to change things in a society where use of such personal fabricators is reserved to the elite.

Dinesh Allirajah’s The Longhand Option11 features household robots as a commonplace, and a device called a Megastylus speeds – and draws – a writer’s thoughts onto the page. It doesn’t help with the writers’ block though. In Fully Human by K J Orr the discovery of mental organs has led to people opting for more logic rather than empathy and compassion.

Joanna Quinn’s The War of All Against All12 is very Cold War in feeling. A condemned man is used as a processor of metadata to try to locate those who have dropped out of the system. He tries to maintain his humanity even so. Bruno Wins!13 by Frank Cottrell-Boyce has a man create unfulfillable expectations of a new robot cleaning system. His dog equally inadvertently puts, not a spanner, but hair in the works. Lastly Toby Litt’s A Brief History of Transience is narrated by a disseminated consciousness which lingers through the decay of the house in which its original once lived.

Each of the stories in Beta-Life has its merits but some of the developments envisaged in the fiction seem likely to come about long before 2070 and others will perhaps never see fruition. But that was ever the condition of SF.

Pedant’s corner:- These comments did not appear in the published review:-

1The 2070 sections are told in an apostrophe-less style for possessives and contractions – dont, hes, Logans – but not consistently.
2 uses the horrible construction “X metres squared” instead of “X square metres”.
3 laying for lying
4 a character’s name morphs from David Collins to Robert Collins and back.
5 miniscule (minuscule)
6 punctuation is all over the place.
7 a car’s index number? her’s?????
8 Champion’s League (Champions)
9 smoothes (smooths,) borne from for born from.
10 multidimentional (multidimensional,) Lamdda calculus (Lambda,) sooth for soothe.
11 this for his
12 full-body dilapidation laser machines???? (I suspect depilation was meant,) Rhianna (the context suggested Rihanna)
13 “compliment” where “complement” made more sense.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Harvill Secker, 2015, 303 p.

 The Gracekeepers cover

The sea has risen; the only land left is islands. Between the island dwellers (landlockers) and seafarers (damplings) there is antipathy, with the latter only allowed to set foot on land if they carry bells on their limbs. There are two main story strands. One concerns Callanish, a Gracekeeper. An aquatic equivalent of an undertaker, she lives in exile tending to graces, caged birds which are used in the ritual when a dampling has died and is “Rested”. Callanish’s preoccupation is to keep her webbed hands and feet out of sight of anyone as in this world such deformations can be a death sentence.

The other strand takes place mainly aboard a travelling – seaborne – circus where the young adult North has a bear as a companion. Their act is the circus’s star attraction. The ringmaster, Red Gold, owns and rules the circus. The main ship, Excalibur, trails the acts’ coracles behind it in a long chain. Excalibur’s sail doubles as a Big Top and its deck as circus ring. The main tension here is that Red Gold wants North and his son Ainsel to marry and live in a house on land. North hates the land and is moreover secretly pregnant – by a sea-swimmer she thinks of by names she’d only heard in stories “selkie, nereid, mermaid”. Red Gold’s young(ish) wife, Avalon, though, wants the house for herself.

Narration duties are carried by several of the characters’ viewpoints, Callanish, her mother (once), North, Ainsel, Avalon and a couple of the circus members, though only Callanish and North have multiple sections.

Despite North’s companion there is no evidence elsewhere in the book of bears being extant in this world. Neither does it seem plausible that any could exist on the scraps of land which are described. Food is scarce enough for the members of the circus. How much more so for a bear? North’s bear may be the last of its kind, of course, but surely we ought to have been told that. There is, too, a mention of ice and icebergs in the north. If the sea has risen so much ought not all such ice to have melted?

In the Avalon narration we find that on meeting Red Gold she lighted on that name because his boat was called Excalibur. No other reference to Arthurian legend is made, it seems of no importance to the people of this world; so what is the point of this? It can only be there as a nudge to the reader.

One of the clowns’ acts is to dress as old-fashioned bankers and throw paper money into the crowd. (we have previously been told paper is an exceedingly scarce commodity.) It seems the landlockers blame greed for causing the inundation of their precious land. This again seems too much of a reference to early twenty-first century concerns. Beyond the usual sorts of payments involving coinage there are no other references to financial transactions in the book so this note seemed off-key to me. For the world to have degenerated so far would have taken time; time enough for bankers’ excesses to have slid from prominence.

The back cover gives us a blurb from Ursula Le Guin, ‘A highly original fantasy, set in a haunting sea-world both familiar and mysterious.’ Maybe it was the bear that swung it for her. (Le Guin’s Earthsea does of course have a lot of water.)

Aspects of The Gracekeepers struck me too as familiar, particularly the circus (compare Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road, and slightly less so Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven which involved a travelling – non-circus – entertainment in a post-apocalyptic world,) Red Gold’s seigniory, the fascinated antagonism of landlockers for damplings, the repressive revivalist religious sect; but then again it’s hard to construct completely novel scenarios.

Pedant’s corner:- “all that was clear were the fine lines” (was the fine lines,) the violins reached a crescendo (a crescendo rises to a climax; it is a process, not a culmination,) “the crowd held their breath” (its breath,) “forced her mouth into smile” (into a smile.) “Water poured through the gap, knocking Melia and Whitby on to their backs in the freezing water,” (Water… water; a bit clumsy. “The sea poured through the gap”?) “she did not know if any of those things were Whitby” (was Whitby,) “selkie, nereid, mermaids” (okay, North is using generic terms but nereids and mermaids are both female, so couldn’t have made her pregnant) “opened its maw” (a maw is a stomach; how can a stomach open?) “wanted to avoid to performing” (to avoid performing,) “might all have up and left” (upped and left,) “her hate burned so strong” (strongly, that would be.)
Credit for “lain” though.

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