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Starhaven by Robert Silverberg

In The Chalice of Death, Planet Stories, 2012, 90 p. First published as Starhaven, 1958, as by Ivar Jorgensen.

Starhaven cover

Another of Silverberg’s early potboilers. Here Johnny Mantell, former researcher at Klingsan Defence Systems but for seven years a beachcomber on the planet Mulciber, has to flee justice when a tourist picks a fight with him and dies. He steals a spaceship and heads for Starhaven, “a sanctuary for people like us, who couldn’t make the grade or fit in with organised society. Drifters and crooks and has-beens can go to Starhaven.” This criminal’s planet was built and is ruled with an iron hand by Ben Thurdan. The premise is that all the criminal tendencies cancel each other out and so a sort of law prevails. Starhaven’s constitution is simple, “Expect the same treatment that you hand out to others,” and “ You’ll do whatever Ben Thurdan tells you to do without, argument, question, or hesitation.”

On arrival Mantell is subjected to a psychprobe, which reveals him to have an unusual level of will but also to be guilty of the murder of which he remembers himself innocent. Soon after, Mantell begins to be struck by episodes in which he is not quite himself. Thurdan employs him to build a personal defence screen to prevent assassination. Meanwhile Mantell is much taken by Thurdan’s assistant Myra and also gradually finds himself drawn into a plot to remove Thurdan from power.

Of its time and far from Silverberg’s 60s heights. I only read it for completist reasons.

Pedant’s corner:- one count of Thurban for Thurdan, several of quotation marks missing, “Only there was a pink blur waiting for him in this one.” ???? “He ducked, swept it under his mighty fumbling paws,” – I have no idea what the antecedent of that “it” might have been. I note here that Silverberg, too, could employ “time interval” later.

Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet 1, P S Publishing, 2014, 88 p

 Famadihana on Fomalhaut-IV cover

This is the first of four novellas presumably centred round the beam-me-across-space technology Brown has dubbed Telemass and which, as I recall, made its first appearance in the author’s Meridian Days many moons ago.

Here, Matt Hendrick, a detective from Amsterdam, arrives by Telemass on the planet Avoel (Fomalhaut-IV) to seek his wife and the daughter she took with her when she left him. Once there he becomes embroiled with Tiana Tiandra, a woman whose girlfriend Lalla has also disappeared into the interior. The events of the novella are related to the goings-on of a strange cult inspired by the indigenous Avoeli who have a ritual similar to the famadihana of Madagascar from where most of the humans on Avoel originally derived. This involves the apparently dead being brought back to life. The story is mostly told in third person but small fragments from Tiana’s viewpoint are rendered in italics.

Brown does this sort of thing so well. His readers will be familiar with a protagonist not in a relationship at the story’s start or else getting over a failed one, a religion with a degree of bizzarrerie, a lost spouse or family member, strange aliens and may even expect a love interest to be encountered along the way. The entertainment comes with the twists he applies to these building blocks. In this novella the Avoel are perhaps a little too undeveloped, Hendrick’s relationship with Tiana is a bit precipitate and the resolution also feels a trifle rushed. Yet the whole thing is engaging, if perhaps lacking some of the warmth of Brown’s previous quartet for PS, Starship Seasons. But we’re only one story in. Time enough.

Pedant’s corner:- is a valued members of my congregation (member,) attempting to keep the irritation from her voice” (his voice makes more sense,) peered around it mass (its mass,) bears a passing a passing resemblance, not to hate met (me,) “He heard her breathing at her side (his.) And a fair sprinkling of instances of “time interval” later.

The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1991, 288 p

The Wall Around Eden cover

It’s the little things that niggle. One of the families in this book is Quaker, of the strict variety. And they address others as “thee” (except in the possessive when they use “thy”.) This is fine, but…. Bar once, they never use the form “thou” – and in the nominative case they ought to. I found this omission intensely irritating (though I’ll admit that “thou” would require, for example, the verb form “seest” as in “thou seest” rather than the author’s “thee sees.”) Do strict Quakers in the US actually use “thee” in this way? In any case Slonczewski and her characters are clearly aware that the “thou” form exists as in that one instance Daniel Scattergood uses it in the punning phrase “an I for a thou” when he and Isabel Garcia-Chase are exchanging images with an alien artefact. It also occurs in, “She had watched it for too long not to think of it as thou” when Isabel has an apparently wounded keeper at her mercy. Very annoying.

Then too, Slonczewski has her characters reference various works of Science Fiction which, although it provides a means of explaining the topographical relationship of the alien Pylons which link various human settlements together with a central core, comes over more as her demonstrating an awareness of the genre rather than something organic to her creations.

But to the tale. It’s set in the aftermath of an atomic war in which aliens called Keepers may or may not have had some part but where most of humanity and other life failed to survive the ensuing nuclear winter. Those who did now live in domed cities created by the aliens. These have an impenetrable barrier (the wall around Eden of the title) to the outside and also a walled off Pylon at their centre, plus flying aliens (or alien artifacts) called angelbees – who see infra-red – roaming the air inside the domes. There are very few of these environments – none in Europe – the main one is in Sydney, Australia, but ours is in Gwynwood, USA. Courtesy of the aliens the domed cities are kept in touch with each other by a teleportation technology.

Sunlight can penetrate the wall around Gwynwood but snow cannot; nor can animals – the outside is littered with the bones of the dying, humans among them, attracted there by its warmth and light in the days of nuclear winter – but there is weather inside (not to mention bluejays, mice and squirrels.) Despite references to the growing of crops and fruit – and their contamination with radiation via the groundwater – Gwynwood seems rather too small to create that internal weather, and to be self-sufficient. Yes, imports come in from Sydney but these seem to be mostly technological or medical. I did wonder how even the small number who live there managed to survive. Their existence is summed up by one of them remembering Chief Seattle, on being taken to the reservation, “It is the end of living and the beginning of survival.”

No matter; the main story is of Isabel’s quest to escape Gwynwood, join the Underground and eject the aliens from Earth. Somewhere along the way it turns into a yoyage of discovery about the nature of the Keepers and their purposes. Slonczewski does the discovery stuff very well and the central message – unusually for a post disaster novel – is of hope but I was left wanting more.

Pedant’s corner:- there was a “sprung” count of one (but sprang was used elsewhere,) the now very unPC, “We’ll watch the poofs at Les Girls.” “But King George (III) was a tyrant” is a very USian sentiment. We had crèche (for nativity scene,) rhinoceri (the word ending is plain wrong; its root isn’t from Latin, the English plural is rhinoceroses anyway,) calling an in unimaginable variety (in an,) polyhedrons (it’s from Greek so the plural is polyhedra,) shined (shone,) could have mowed us down (mown.)

A Different Top Ten Space Operas

In response to Gareth Powell’s list Ian Sales has posted his own. Typically of Ian his choices are idiosyncratic. I note he sneaks in more than ten too.

My strike rate here is much lower.

Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Valérian and Laureline, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (1967 – present)
The Children of Anthi and Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985 – 1990)
Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families, Phillip Mann (1986 – 1987)
Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience and Hour of Judgement, Susan R Matthews (1997 – 1999)
The Prodigal Sun, The Dying Light and A Dark Imbalance, Sean Williams & Shane Dix (1999 – 2001)
The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, Scott Westerfeld (2003)
Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2014

This year’s booklet plopped on the doormat on Monday. Just in time for me to fill in the online voting form on Tuesday, one day before the deadline!

BSFA Awards Booklet 2014

The non-fiction items this year were:-
”Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens” by Jonathan Mcalmont, a discussion of two online magazines

”Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of the Great War” edited by Edward James. A record of research the author has done on the lives and war experiences of SF and fantasy writers during the Great War.

“Call and Response” by Paul Kincaid. The introduction to Kincaid’s book about criticism is reprinted.

”Greg Egan” by Karen Burnham. An examination of some of Egan’s themes.

The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium” various authors. Contributions to the symposium first published in Strange Horizons. See http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20140728/1britsf-a.shtml

As to the fiction:-

The Honey Trap by Ruth E J Booth. La Femme, NewCon Press.
Bees are extinct. An industrialised fruit grower (whose plants are pollinated by hand) is tempted by the sweetest apple he has ever tasted – despite its ugly appearance and the scruffiness of its grower.

The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade. The Book Smugglers, Nov 2014
Karitoki tries to make friends with a Pania, one of a set of (genetically engineered?) creatures sworn to protect whales, dolphins and seals, by cooking mussels for it. Its taste is for fresh, not cooked, food.

Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Immersion Press, 2014
Set in a Hong Kong where demons and gods interact with humans, but the story also contains excursions to heaven. One of the gods requires the help of the human Julienne to release her sister from imprisonment. This story had too many fantasy incursions for my taste and whether the pay-off was worth the inordinate length is debatable.

Top Ten Space Operas

Another list.

According to Wikipedia “Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.”

Partly as a comment on the sub-genre and also as an attempt to subvert it I provided my own novel A Son of the Rock with the tagline “A Space Libretto” mainly because – while it roamed the spaceways and deployed technology – advanced abilities and weapons were largely, if not completely, absent.

As to Space Opera itself, Gareth Powell has posted a list of what he considers a Top Ten of Space Operas on his website. It leans heavily towards relatively recent works.

As you can see I’ve read all but three of them.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Space by Stephen Baxter
Excession by Iain M. Banks

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Tor, 2012, 416 p.

 Boneshaker cover

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

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

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

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

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

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

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

 Europe in Autumn cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

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

 Station Eleven cover

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

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

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