Archives » Science Fiction

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga Book I. Angry Robot, 2014, 541 p.

 The Mirror Empire cover

In a series of planets with twin hour-glass suns and strange satellites named Para, Sina and Tira from which certain inhabitants can draw power when they are in the ascendant, an invasion from a parallel world is taking place. Transit between the worlds (which have differently coloured skies) is by means of something resembling a mirror but isn’t possible if the companion person is alive on the other side. The most powerful satellite, Oma, has not been ascendant for 2000 years but its influence is being felt more strongly.

Now, this parallel worlds and weird suns scenario could have been an intriguing SF setting but the author lost this reader’s sympathies when it turned out early on that the shedding of blood could also open gates between the worlds. Cue gratuitous bloodshed on a wide scale. I would submit this is laziness on the author’s part. Couldn’t we have had something a bit more inventive, a bit less sanguineous?

Add to this the fact that the characters have very little agency beyond advancing the plot, which itself takes a long time to get going, and you end up with a less than satisfying read. Oh, there is some jiggery-pokery about different gendering and women tend to be in power; but when they behave as powerful men would in our world is there any point?

Plus I really don’t see the point of Fantasy when its characters wield strange powers, even when they do have to endure for a while before growing into them. How does that illuminate the human condition?

It may be that I am committing the error of wishing to read the book that I might have desired Hurley to have written rather than the one she actually has, but when a book revels in so much gratuitous slaughter more or less for its own sake it’s time to call it off. I won’t be taking The Worldbreaker Saga any further.

Pedant’s corner:- Admittedly mine was an advance reading copy – I have my sources – but it was so full of typos, verb/noun disagreements, misspellings, missing words, repeated words, malapropisms (or near malapropisms which are perhaps better described as dyslexisms – scarified for sacrificed anyone?) awry punctuation and errors in lay-out etc that I gave up counting them after page 63. It may be she was under pressure to hand this in quickly but to my mind Hurley’s manuscript hasn’t been looked over critically enough before submission. And did no-one at Angry Robot seek to check it? Such things make the whole more difficult to read you know. I’m left harbouring a sense of disappointment with all concerned. And there was the use of drug as a past tense of drag which may be a niche USian habit but reads absolutely horribly.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2005, 137 p, plus iv p of introduction by Ian Watson.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne cover

This handsomely produced novella was published to coincide with the centenary of Verne’s death in 2005. In that sense I’ve come to it about ten years too late. Part pastiche of Verne, part typical Eric Brown fare, this is an entertaining diversion, in which Verne is wheeched by means of a time-portal off to the Upper Cretaceous and the far future in a time machine which has the unfortunate drawback of leeching power from the sun and so causing Earth to freeze. Here too are a megalomaniac dictator, along with his nubile antagonist, not to mention ant-like interstellar aliens and strange gadgets. These adventures spark in Verne ideas he will later incorporate into fiction. What’s not to like? While there may be no profound points here – but neither were there in Verne’s fictions – what there is is an engaging adventure story with nods to the work of one of SF’s founding fathers.

Pedant’s corner:- gasses (gases,) panatela (panatella,) “hoves” as a present tense (heaves,) had take its toll on his reason (taken.)

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

Review:-
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales

Apollo Quartet 3, Whippleshield Books, 2013, 71 p

 Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above cover

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is the third of Sales’s “Apollo Quartet” novellas wherein he mines the byways of the 1960s space programme but puts his own spin on it. This one is told in sections labelled “Up” and “Down” – the “Up” parts delineating the history of the US space programme in a timeline where the Korean War lasted for eleven years and, men being unavailable due to their military commitments, it was women who became astronauts; the “Down” describe a mission to retrieve from the Puerto Rico Trench the contents of a misplaced spy satellite recovery. (Deep-sea exploration is another of Sales’s areas of interest.) Additional sections named “Strange” and “Charm” tell of the information gained from the spy photographs and the response to it while “Top” and “Bottom” give a history of deep-sea exploration technology and women’s involvement in the space programme in our world.

As is usual with Sales the detail he includes is convincing but the human dimension is not lacking. His heroine, Geraldyne Cobb is well drawn.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2014, 266 p. Published in Finnish as Teemastarin Kirja (The Tea Master’s Daughter.)

 Memory of Water cover

In a far future Scandinavian Union run by the military dictatorship of New Qiao, the seas have long since risen, fresh water is a scarce resource, water crime a capital offence, insect hoods have to be worn outdoors and travelling is difficult. Noria Kaitio is the daughter of a tea master, the latest in a long line. Despite being female she is apprenticed to him. Her life is changed when her father reveals to her the secret spring which allows his tea to be the best his clients have tasted – anywhere. The implications of this follow Noria throughout the novel and it is a mark of Itäranta’s handling of the story that our sympathies for Noria’s fate are not lessened by its inevitability. In parts I was reminded of Margaret Elphinstone’s The Incomer – mostly by the more or less rural setting – but I have seen comparisons with the writing of Ursula Le Guin and in its evocation of a quiet life carried out quietly Memory of Water does bear some similarities with that great Mistress’s work. There are no epic scenes here, no large confrontation between Noria and the soldiers, but the details of a small life are beautifully rendered.

A plot complication occurs in the plastic graves (rubbish dumps) wherein can be found all sorts of oldtech, most of it useless, other parts salvageable. Noria’s friend Sanja has an ability to tweak broken artifacts into workability. Their joint discovery of a set of discs that tells the story of an expedition into the Lost Lands and sheds light on the Twilight Century that is now long gone history propels them into a scheme that promises escape and yields the only consolation the book provides.

The story tells us that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that’s ever happened in this world. And the nearest the story has to a “baddie” says when asked why he behaves the way he does, “Because if this is all there is, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.”

For a first novel, this is very accomplished, especially as Itäranta is a Finn. She apparently wrote Memory of Water simultaneously in English and Finnish.

Pedant’s Corner – most of these may be due to the fact that English is not Itäranta’s first language:- I followed Sanja to a circuitous route, Mhz for MHz, Xinjing might have burned to ground, it was only a matter of time when my suspicions would be confirmed.

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2009, 651 p.

Wolf Hall cover

In ways the first few scenes of this reminded me of Science Fiction. It bore the same necessity to introduce a different milieu. Here they describe Thomas Cromwell’s early life as the son of a brutal blacksmith. The book then jumps in time to chronicle his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, from whom he learned his craft, and his subsequent rise to the position of Henry VIII’s go to man.

Aside:- There is a peculiar fascination for certain inhabitants of these islands endlessly to dissect Tudor times. A few years ago a theory occurred to me to explain this. It is that under the Tudors was the last time in which England was just England (and Wales.) After Elizabeth Tudor’s death the monarch – and one hundred years later the Parliament – had to be shared with the Scots and nothing was quite the same again. Of course the decisive shift from Catholicism also took place on the Tudors’ watch, the beginnings of which are in the background to Wolf Hall.

The character of Thomas Cromwell has not been as exhaustively mined as those of say Thomas More or the main players in Henry’s divorce. As with Cromwell, Wolsey here gets a more sympathetic hearing than I have seen elsewhere.

The narration of Wolf Hall is in third person, closely focused on Cromwell. It uses the pronoun “he” copiously – in most cases meaning Cromwell. However, this occasionally leads to moments of confusion when other male characters are in a scene. It is an interesting decision by Mantel to use this form. Where a first person narration would have immersed us in his world view the formulation has the effect of distancing us from the man.

While well written with some very nicely turned sentences the book is probably too long, with too many characters. They are well differentiated to be sure, but not easy to keep track of. Phrases that particularly struck me were, “Perhaps it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that he thinks,” “You get on by being a subtle crook,” – all too true even yet – “The world is not run from border fortresses or Whitehall but in the counting houses, by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note,” “The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms,” and of the French wars, “The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.” To this last a Scot or Welshwoman/man might perhaps observe they didn’t even have to get off “their” island to manifest destructive tendencies.

A power of research must have gone into the book but it is worn lightly and convincingly. As to Wolf Hall itself, the seat of the Seymours, none of the action takes place there and it is mentioned in the text six times at most.

I gather the issues of length and the use of “he” are less problematic in the sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’ll get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- A “sprung,” j’aboube for j’adoube, “faces peers”

Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014

Interzone 254 cover

Marielena by Nina Allan1
Noah Wahid, an asylum seeker, while waiting for his permission to remain, spends the days in an endless round of impoverished futility and seeing the face of Marielena, the girl he left behind, in nearly everyone he meets. The story hinges on Noah’s encounter with a refugee from the future.

A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell2
The tale of how Evan came to be in sole charge of a two year old daughter he hadn’t known about. He’s taken programmers, which, in a very intrusive info dump, we are told are able to sculpt human wetware in accordance to user input parameters. Or are they just hallucinogens?

Bone Deep by S L Nickerson
A woman with a medical condition where her flesh is turning to bone can only access the treatment she needs by having sponsors’ logos tattooed onto her. (Don’t give the buggers ideas is what I say.)

Dark on a Darkling Earth by T R Napper
In a world of perpetual war where memory has to be stored on electronic cards or it is lost, an old man falls into the orbit of a group of soldiers.

The Faces Between Us by Julie C Day
Is set in an Oregon where ghosts live on in ashes and Larry and Amber try to find the way “through” by snorting them.

Songs Like Freight Trains by Sam J Miller
Christine no longer listens to music. Ariel, her friend from her teenage years taught her the trick of time travel via song. But Christine’s daughter yearns to dance.

1 Imposter. Narrator Noah tells us his vocal command of English is not good but uses words like annunciates. Pita bread is usually spelled pitta.
2 Cannoboloid (????) I suspect this should be cannabinoid.

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 303 p + iii p introduction. First published 1991.

 Sarah Canary cover

One night in 1873 a woman stumbles into a Chinese railway workers’ camp in North-West USA. This is bad news for the workers as the woman is white. But she is uncommunicative, appearing only able to make unintelligible sounds. (She is later dubbed Sarah Canary due to these bird-like noises.) Chin Ah Kin is delegated to take her away from the camp to the nearest town. They both end up in a lunatic asylum, before escaping in the company of fellow inmate B J. Their adventures take them over the Pacific North-West, Sarah is kidnapped and paraded on stage as the Wild Woman of Alaska and mistaken by Adelaide Dixon for a murderess from San Francisco. Dixon is a campaigner for women’s rights – especially in the sexual area. In the Pacific North-West of the 1870s this doesn’t go down particularly well. “Adelaide was afraid that if she ever once allowed herself to feel the full range of her sexual desires that this would be a need too great for any man.” She tells Chin that the issue of the civil war had been largely sexual. In the slave system one group of men (white) had absolute power over one group of women (black).

And what has all this got to do with Science Fiction? You may well ask. Apart from a mention of a self-repairing dress which also deflects bullets and the disappearance of Sarah Canary in something approaching an insectile metamorphosis there is nothing in the text that could not be read as straightforward realism. Moreover the two characters who make these observations could be classified as mad.

Graham Sleight’s introduction to this SF Masterworks edition suggests the book is a sort of First Contact novel and contends that the text’s frequent references to butterflies can only be understood if the novel is SF. If so the Contact is so nebulous as to be non-existent. But I suppose that if, as Arthur C Clarke had it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” then so must any advanced intelligences be unintelligible. Yet Sarah Canary does not behave like an advanced intelligence, she does not behave as intelligent at all. She might as well be an idiot. There is no attempt on her part to communicate with the other characters.

So read this as an adventure in the 1870s US, an illustration of misogyny and racism in that time and place. Or a feminist tract. Another interpretation is yielded at one point by Chin. “Sometimes one of the great dreamers passes among us… We dare not waken the dreamer. We, ourselves, are only her dreams.” And there is an explicit reference to Caspar Hauser.

Take your explanatory pick. Whatever, Sarah Canary is good, well-written stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- conspiritorial

Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014

Interzone 253 cover

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James van Pelt1
When the unnamed narrator was younger his father, now in the last stages of dementia, built a UFO detector. While tacking backwards and forwards to the care centre he remembers how much of an influence his father was on his tastes and interests. A tale of filial affection and loss. Apart from anything else you can only warm to a story illustrated with a picture of a red Fokker Triplane.

Flytrap by Andrew Hook 2
A story about what it means to be human. Or alien. Which is perhaps what we are.

The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson3
Felix Kapel is an expert in aromas whose trade is in decline due to the innovation of Teleroma – transmission of smells via the internet – until he purchases the legendary (to olfactorists) Golden Nose of the Habsburgs. Its use has an unfortunate side effect.

Beside the Dammed River by D J Cockburn (James White Award Winner)
In a part of Thailand parched by Chinese damming of the Mekong River one of ex-Professor of Engineering Narong’s waning days is lightened by the breakdown of a truck carrying an off-target mined asteroid out of Thailand illegally.

Chasmata by E Catherine Tobbler4
A tale of human inhabitants of Valles Marineris on Mars, who have children there and encounter Martians, or the ghosts of Martians, and rain that floods that huge chasm, or doesn’t. The narration constantly undermines itself with asides. I liked the term “moonslight.”

The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussof5
When their world was destroyed a man called Blankenship and his daughter Tibbi were mysteriously transported to “our” Seattle where the counterpart of his wife is married to someone else. (In a particularly USian response he goes to therapy sessions.)

1 Written in USian
2 bought for brought; “she speculated her future” is surely missing a preposition; human’s as the plural of human.
3 George III of England. (Of nowhere else, then?) Struggled to “breath” in. We achieve the things are hearts wish for.
4 Written in USian
5 Written in USian in which pay back for seems to mean reimburse whereas in English it means get revenge. (On a stereo, “Blankenship found a knob hat made the sound louder.”) (Eyes) “seemed to be starting off into the distance.”

free hit counter script