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Satellite 4 (Eastercon)

This year’s Eastercon – the annual British Science Fiction Convention – is being held under the name Satellite 4 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Glasgow from 18th to 21st April.

It’s a while since the event has been in Scotland so I’ve not attended for a few years. I’ll be going this year though.

In fact I’m even going to be on two panels. My schedule is below.

Eastercon is a great way to meet people whom you haven’t seen since last the last Eastercon you graced with your presence, and others you’ve not met before. It has always served to enthuse me about SF again.

Good practice in editing and reviewing
Sunday 18:00 – 19:00

Has steampunk gone off the boil?
Monday 13:00 – 14:00

Lucius Shepard and Margo MacDonald

Due to my house move I missed commemorating at the times the demise of both Margo MacDonald, former SNP MP and independent MSP, and writer Lucius Shepard.

It says a lot for the esteem in which MacDonald was held by the wider public that she was able to gain a seat in the Scottish Parliament on the list system as an independent.

In recent years her campaign for the right to assisted dying (she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease) was carried out with a dignity which ensured that her views and comments commanded respect.

Luius Shepard’s fiction is elusive to pigeonhole, morphing from Science Fiction to fantasy and bordering on magic realism. He was always readable, though, and intelligent.

Margo MacDonald, 19/4/1943 – 4/4/2014, Lucius Shepard, 21/8/1943 – 18/3/2014. So it goes.

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2013, 352p. Reviewed for Interzone 248, Sep-Oct 2013.

Valente here has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale, or perhaps several. Lack of familiarity with this source material may obscure some of its nuances but fear not. In what could have been a dizzying whirl through the unfamiliar – we have to deal not only with the tale itself but with the typically Russian patronymics and diminutives – Valente’s writing, with the occasional exception, is fluid and expressive. Her powers of description and similes can be striking, but her Americanisms stand oddly against the novel’s setting.

The story signals its fantastical elements early on. In a house on a long, thin street during the time St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad – and the street also changed its name twice – Marya Morevna knows there is magic in the world when she sees a bird fall off a tree – “thump, bash!” – change into a man and ask for the girl in the window. Twice more the same thing happens. (As in fairy tales repetition is a key feature of the novel, though the repetitions may have minor changes.) Each manbird takes away one of her three sisters. She then befriends the domoviye (house imps) who hold soviets behind a door in the stove and tell her Papa Koschei is coming.

Marya regrets missing seeing her bird “thump, bash!” into a man. This is Koschei Bessmertny, Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of life, who nevertheless, in a mechanical vehicle that is also a horse, spirits her away to Buyan, a land where his previous lovers – all called Yelena or Vasilisa – sew soldiers onto cloth and breathe them into life.

In Buyan Koschei’s mother/sister/sometime wife Baba Yaga – relationships there are somewhat involuted – sets Marya tasks to assess her worthiness as a wife for Koschei. These include subduing Baba Yaga’s traditional method of travel, the mortar and pestle. A nice touch during one of these was the scene which is effectively Little Red Riding Hood in reverse. A character Marya befriends in Buyan expresses to her what is perhaps a very Russian sentiment but with universal application, “You will live as you live in any world; with difficulty and grief.” Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of death, turns up uninvited at the marriage and thereafter there will be war between the brothers.

Birds or eggs occur frequently in the text. Marya kills a firebird; in one of her tasks she fetches an egg she believes contains Koschei’s death; a friend turns into a bird; she spends some time in a place named Yaichka which turns out to be an egg; Alkanost, a firebird-like creature, imparts words of wisdom; she is told the world tries to make stories turn out differently – as perfect as an egg.

In a sudden temporal jump we find a human man, Ivan Nikolayevich, wandering into Marya’s life. In the interim she has become one of Koschei’s generals, but the war is going badly. (The war is always going badly.) Koschei is dismayed as Ivans habitually take his wives from him. Marya chides him for his attitude and takes Ivan as her lover, despite his confusion. She tells him, “What passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Whatever her title may be, Valente’s story is not deathless. Escaping the war in Buyan, Marya chooses to return with Ivan to her childhood home and is shocked that a house in Leningrad is painted with characters from her story. With all the fantastical events that have gone before and come after, though, the impact of the German siege of the city and its attendant horrors of starvation and suffering is lessened. The stripping of wallpaper to make bread, its paste to make butter, are not as horrific, not as devastating, as they could be; as they should be. We have not felt, not been shown, enough of the long, slow descent into abjection and desperation that survival there would have entailed. That Koschei has also turned up and is tethered in the basement only adds to the distancing effect.

An interlude in Yaichka features barely disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, the last Tsar and his family and a priest with whom his wife may (or not) have had a liaison. Two of these have dreams of a war between red and white ants. Russian history hangs heavily.

The human time span of the novel relates to that of the ascendancy of the “wizard in Moscow with the moustache.” There is the necessity to believe, “there has never been another (world)” – “can never be another.” An explicit message is that living under totalitarianism is like death; but a death where, “You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.” But, to use one of Valente’s repetitions, life is like that.

Addendum: The following did not appear in the published review.

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

Sunk count = 1; plus “off of,” “hung” for hanged, “all of who” – and stalactites might, but stalagmites can not, teeter above your head.

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2013, 375 p.

Another BSFA Award ballot book. I didn’t have to go far to find this one. I managed to pick up from one of my local libraries.

Gajananvihari Pilot is part of a family which operates as space salvagers in the decades after an event precipitated by Sri Hong-Owen and known as the Bright Moment. One day their ship, a Mobius ring called Pabuji’s Gift, is hijacked by pirates. Hari escapes with the head of Dr Gagarian, which is supposed to contain files relating to the work he and Aakash, Hari’s father, had been doing to try to understand and replicate the physics of the Bright Moment. The plot revolves around Hari’s search to seek out those responsible for the hijack and to revenge himself on them.

Like the two other books of McAuley’s Quiet War sequence which I have read there is a lot of attention paid to his history of the future. Again, though, the characters seem almost incidental.

The book is riddled with references to SF works of the past including the titles of each of the six sections which make up the novel. This homage may explain its appearance on the BSFA Award ballot.

New Review

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August cover

My next book review for Interzone will be The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.

The accompanying blurb for this (and the link above) states, “Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels. This book is completely different from any of them.”

Hmmm.

I’ve got a BSFA Award nominee to read before that, though. Busy, busy.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 386 p.

I bought this since I suspected it might be on the BSFA Award ballot: and it is. (Only three of this year’s nominees still to read now.)

Breq is a fragment of an Artificial Intelligence, the spaceship Justice of Torren, of which she was once an ancillary of the ship’s Esk level. Ancillaries are bodies captured by the Radchaai in their territorial expansions, implanted with augmentations and enslaved to a ship’s consciousness as military units, in companies named decades, which are themselves subsidiaries of hundreds. (An organisational parallel with Roman armies is obvious.) The book deals with the prelude to and aftermath of Breq’s (or Justice of Torren one Esk’s) sudden isolation from her hundred and ship. She goes on a self-imposed mission to seek out a weapon invisible to Radch technology and then use it against the Lord of the Radch. For most of the book Breq’s story is related in alternating chapters describing respectively the search and the events which led up to her separation from Justice of Torren. Once the two strands unite the narrative is straightforwardly linear. Leckie’s depiction of the multiple consciousness Breq inhabits before her severance is effective but authorially she seemed more at ease when the necessity to deal with it was removed.

One curiosity is that, despite some early asides on problems with languages in which gender assignation is important – and the same person is referred to as he or she at different points – all the characters in Ancillary Justice seem to be female, or at least they read as though they are. This is refreshing even though the usual actions, betrayals etc with which Breq deals are perhaps no different from stories featuring male characters – and it doesn’t affect the tale one whit.

Included at the rear were “Extras” – an “about the author,” an interview with her and a totally unnecessary extract from a book by someone else entirely. Here we find that further stories in this universe are to be forthcoming. I found myself curiously disappointed with this as, while there are unresolved elements, it did not strike me that further exploration of the scenario would be as intriguing as this book is.

Ancillary Justice is the better of the two candidate novels for this year’s BSFA Award I have read up to now. By far.

Pedant’s corner: we had publically for publicly, gasses for gases and a character saying, “one point eleven meters.” It was not the USianism of that meters which grated – there were USianisms throughout despite the British publication imprint. You might as well pronounce the number 231156 as twenty-three eleven fifty-six – which would be all but meaningless. The number 1.11 ought to be transliterated as one point one one. Eleven is a number larger than one: by definition numbers after a decimal point are smaller than one. No number after a decimal point should be described other than by its successive single digits. A writer of SF ought to know such things.

Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions by Kate Wilhelm

Readers Union Group of Book Clubs, 1979, 174 p

Somerset Dreams cover

I missed this book when it was published in the 1970s and picked it up recently in a charity book sale in St Andrews.

Wilhelm was one of the few women who had a relatively high profile in SF in the 1960s and 70s. She continues to be active as a writer.

The stories in this collection tend to straddle the boundary between SF and Fantasy but the emphasis is usually on the effects on the characters in the story of whatever strangeness is involved rather than on the speculative component itself.

Somerset Dreams
Anæsthetist Janet Matthews (Wilhelm uses the word anesthesiologist) who works in New York has returned to her home town of Somerset for her summer break. Since a dam was built in her late childhood Somerset has become a backwater cul-de-sac and most of the people who live there are ageing. A group of dream researchers headed by the unsympathetic Dr Staunton wishes to use the locals to test a theory that city dreams and rural dreams are of a different character. The locals are suspicious and Janet acts as a link between the town and the researchers. As time goes by it becomes apparent that the dreams in Somerset are of an unusual nature.

The Encounter
A man has to stay overnight in a snowbound bus station with wonky heating as the snowdrifts get higher against the door. The woman who is also there brings back memories of his marriage and his time in the Korean War.

Planet Story
An exploratory party is scouting out a new planet, very Earth-like but with no dominant predator. Two of the group have committed suicide and the rest suffer a fear that appears to have no cause.

Mrs Bagley Goes to Mars
Mrs Bagley, taken for granted by her family, announces one day she is going to Mars. (She may be imagining things.) Mars is not entirely to her liking and she informs the locals they have been misinformed. She tells them that female earthmen don’t defecate. They, “go to the little girl’s room, or the powder room, or ladies’ room. They freshen up, or wash their hands, or fix their make-up, but they never shit.” She opts for Ganymede instead.

Symbiosis
A girl grows up in Beacham, Indiana. Her mother dies when she is young and her best friend’s mother, Mrs McInally, takes her under her wing. The friendship fractures as Mrs McInally becomes ill.

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis
Presciently (the story was first published in 1976) this features a compulsive survival game show – slogan This is Your Crisis! – which has people with various kinds of psychiatric need trekking through Alaska (the week before it might have been the Andes) to win one million dollars. The split screens it looks best on are huge and take fifteen years to pay off. Viewers Lottie and Butcher bicker all the way through the programme, which lasts a whole weekend, distracting them from their lives.

The Hounds
A woman whose husband has lost his job at the age of 49 and subsequently moved the family to the farm he buys finds herself the object of fascination of two mysterious dogs who will let no-one else near them.

State of Grace
The things in her tree are destroying the narrator’s marriage as her husband Howard knows there is something there but can’t actually see them. Nor can anyone else he hires to find them. And when he tries to cut it down with a chainsaw he hallucinates cutting his leg off.

Satan’s Reach by Eric Brown

Abbadon Books, 2013, 284 p.

This is the second novel set in Brown’s “Weird Space” universe. Den Harper, a telepath who has absconded from the authoritarian Expansion to trade among the spaceways of the much less regimented, almost lawless, Satan’s Reach, visits the planet Ajanta to sell a steamship engine. There he becomes embroiled with the fortunes of singer Zeela Antarivo whom he saves from a fate worse than death at the hands of the local aliens who enslave humans by means of a drug ubiquitous on Ajanta. The Ajantans regard Zeela as their property and thereafter chase the pair all across the Reach.

Meanwhile, bounty hunter Sharl Janaker is tasked by an Expansion General to return Harper to their employ in order to deal with the threat of the Weird, aliens whose lurking presence in human minds can only be uncovered by telepathy. She is accompanied by Helsh Kreller, one of the Expansion’s old enemies the Vetch, but now in alliance to counteract the Weird. Kreller has reasons of his own to recover the spaceship Harper stole when he absconded.

Spoiler alert! I thought the twist involving Kreller towards the end of the book didn’t quite square with the underlying narrative thrust of the two Weird Space books so far.

A lot of the adventures here are reminiscent of Brown’s stories of Salvageman Ed, which I read during the summer. Like that collection Satan’s Reach is not the most profound of Brown’s books. It’s good entertainment though.

Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald

Everness Book II, Jo Fletcher Books, 2013, 374 p.

This second book in McDonald’s series of novels for young adults set in the Plenitude of Worlds starts off with Everett M Singh, an “alter” of our hero from Book I. M lives on the only Plenitude world which has encountered aliens, the Thryn Sentience. On M’s world the UK Prime Minister is a Mr Portillo. Everett M is knocked down by a car and remade with Thryn technology into a walking arsenal of weapons to be used by Plenitude Plenipotentiaries against the Everett from our world, E10. This Everett is the only person with a map of all the worlds, kept on his computer, Dr Quantum. He has become accepted as a crew member on the Airish airship Everness from E3, enabling them to evade immediate pursuit and jump to an Arctic waste. Each jump leave a trace, though, and they have been followed. Using the last of their power Everett jumps them back to E10 and French air space. A quick piece of thinking sees them recharge their systems from electric power lines and they jump once more to hover over White Hart Lane. (Everett supports Spurs.) He tries to rejoin his E10 family but is prevented by a nifty little battle with Everett M in Abbey Park Cemetery before retreating.

Everness then ventures to the embargoed world E1 where the voracious Nahn have destroyed nearly all organic life. Residual groups of humans hang on in some electromagnetically protected cities but it is on this world that Everett may find a device allowing him to trace all jumps and so track down his father, sent randomly into the Panoply in Book I. Meanwhile Everett M has to deal with the Nahn to get on with his mission. Book III neatly set up then.

Be My Enemy does not fall into the usual “second instalment of a trilogy” slump. The young adult novel requires a brisk pace and there is plenty incident here. It is all tackled with McDonald’s usual brio and is highly entertaining stuff yet with enough insight into human nature to make it well worth an older reader’s time never mind a young adult’s. Knowing references like the airship’s captain Anastasia Sixsmyth saying, “Make it so,” or her adopted daughter Sen breathing, “It’s full of stars,” on seeing a 3D computer graphic plus the observation by Everett M that “parallel universes always have airships” add pleasing grace notes.

The Everness crew, both Sixsmyths, Miles O’Rahilly Lafayette Sharkey and Scots engineer, Mchynlyth, all make their presences felt in various ways and even minor characters are fleshed out.

There were signs of tendering to the US market. We had meters for metres and no unrespectable – or respectable for that matter – Glaswegian ever said “ass” instead of “arse,” but I await Book III, Empress of the Sun, with keen anticipation.

BSFA Awards List

The lists for this year have been announced.

The novels are:-

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

I’ve read one of these already and have another, Ancillary Justice, on the tbr pile.

The short fiction:-

Spin by Nina Allan (TTA Press)

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)

Saga’s Children by E. J. Swift (The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium)

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

I have so far read Spin.

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