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Signs of Life by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1997, 246 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

Mick Rose (nicknamed China,) nearly fifty, is picked up by much younger waitress Isobel Avens in the café at “the busy little toy aerodrome they have outside the town” of Stratford-on-Avon while he is on a delivery run. He and his mate, Choe Ashton, (pronounced as in Joey) operate a courier business transporting hazardous/biological materials. Within a month or two Isobel has moved to London to live with Mick/China. The novel charts the ups and downs of Mick/China’s relationships with the other two. Rose is the most grounded of the three, Choe has sociopathic tendencies and Isobel wants to fly – not in an aeroplane, but literally. China’s friendship with Choe begins to breakdown when they meet US citizen Ed Cesniak on a trip to Prague, that with Isobel when she does a delivery for him and meets a medical researcher.

The book is in essence a love story but a love story skewed by Harrison’s perennial leanings towards the strange. While starting realistically enough – one might almost say banally; but Harrison’s writing is never banal – by the end we have by degrees shelved over into SF or fantasy territory by way of recombinant DNA, gene alteration and other weird bits along the way. This last is to give a false impression of the book as it reads for the most part as a straightforward mainstream novel, almost Banksian at times but still unmistakably Harrisonian and very good.

Parallax View by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown

Illustrations by Dominic E Harman. Sarob Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2000, 175 p

Parallax View cover

This is a collection of short stories, one each written by the individual authors, the remaining six in collaboration. Most of them I have read before on their first appearance.

In his introduction Stephen Baxter says “Science Fiction is the literature of our age….. one way of dealing with [future] shock… the only modern literature which deals seriously with the universe… as a protagonist,” but “the best Science Fiction is, was and always will be about the impact of the universe on the human soul.” All the stories herein illustrate that last point admirably.

Appassionata by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
In a time of little musical innovation a famous but lonely young pianist is contracted to help a composer improve his work. Unknown to her the composer’s personality has been imprinted with a simulation of Beethoven’s.

Sugar and Spice by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
A very human tale of loss, revenge and betrayal via the connection between two works of art related to each other through the nursery rhyme suggested by the story’s title.

A Prayer for the Dead by Eric Brown
This is possibly the best of Brown’s stories set on Tartarus, a tale of young love, tragedy and loss, and an enigmatic alien.

The Flight of the Oh Carollian by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
Julius Frayn is an hereditary fluxmaster capable of guiding ships along the Songlines through time and space generated by the callers of Cynthera. His son Sylvian has not inherited the trait. This one has “had rode” for “had ridden.”

Jurassic and the Great Tree by Keith Brooke
Jurassic is a disposable body inhabited by three personalities hired by an entrepreneur to investigate the reclusive humans called Burul’Chasi whose land he wishes to exploit. The Great Tree is the huge interlocking organism which dominates the Burul’Chasi’s territory. Contains the phrase, “The only Terran life…. are….”

Mind’s Eye by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
In a setting reminiscent of Brown’s Bengal Station but apparently not offshore, a girl from the lower levels comes up to Sundeck where she is befriended by a telepath on a mission.

Under Antares by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
Mackendrick is a former Planetary Overseer on Shannon’s Break, second planet of Antares. Six and a half years after his wife’s death as result of an entanglement with the local aliens, the Shandikar, he is called in as blood-tied-speaker when his son trespasses on one of the Shandikar’s holy sites. Dealing with both enigmatic aliens and religious practices, this story bears Brown’s hallmarks.

The Denebian Cycle by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
An exploration group on Deneb 5 is forced to trek north when their lander and food are destroyed in a forest fire caused by a lightning storm. The local vegetation is all but inedible. Eventually they come upon a stash of food left by the semi-sentient natives and then the natives themselves. Those familiar with John Wyndham’s Survival will not be surprised by the ending. Here there were three instances of the seconds/minutes later formulation, a persona non gratis, (which should be grata,) lay instead of laid as a perfect tense, and the authors felt it necessary to qualify “flayed” with the words “- skinned alive.”

Overall, though, a very good, very readable collection.

The World Shuffler by Keith Laumer

Sidgwick & Jackson, 1973, 185 p

The World Shuffler cover

I bought this book not long after the same author’s The Infinite Cage. This one was much less palatable.

Having previously performed services for Central, which co-ordinates travel between the different parallel worlds, Lafayette O’Leary is living out a sinecure existence in the royal court on the planet Artesia. This is suddenly disrupted when he finds Artesia disappearing around him and he ends up marooned on Melange, a world in which his ability to access the psychic energies is compromised. He is thrown into various escapades as the person whose appearance he has is wanted for crimes of various sorts on the new world. He manages to escape each predicament in a variety of unlikely ways while trying to search for the counterpart on Melange of his Artesian love Daphne.

Despite his knowledge of the different continua O’Leary is very slow on the uptake, failing for a long time to recognise that the look-alikes on Melange to his acquaintances on Artesia are not the same people and have different statuses.

This book has very little to recommend it except as a product of its time. I very much doubt it would be published today.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Solaris 2012, 302 p

The novel opens in Vientiane, Laos – part of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, a signal that we are not in our time line. Among other differences to our world there are references to Kuomintang China and Chiang Kai-shek. Here credit cards are novel, “The world is safe and healthy Opium comes from Asia, is made into medicine… and eases suffering. The money is taxed, which aids governance,” and cigarettes are smoked openly.

Joe is a private detective who reads the novels of Mike Longshott, extracts from which are reproduced in a typewriter–like font every so often through the novel. These recognisably feature our real Osama bin-Laden, or at least the actions of his followers.

A girl wanders into Joe’s office and asks him to find Longshott. This is only the first of many echoes of films noir or certainly those of Humphrey Bogart. This influence is made explicit when Joe meets in a bar a man called Rick (though Rick Laszlo) and with a couple of nods to the final departure scene in Casablanca.

Joe is puzzled by Longshott’s novels, wondering why the various bombings would take place as they are obviously part of a war of some sort. He muses, “If this was a war, how many dead were on the other side.” In Joe’s world there are Osama conventions – and all sorts of rumours about the reclusive Longshott.

Joe doesn’t know what The World Trade Center is or was, nor Samsung and Sanyo, nor the song Imagine, nor why people have “wires trailing from their ears.” The graffiti 9/11 and 7/7 also mean nothing to him. His world does contain the statue of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus but also WS Gilbert’s Topseyturveydom.

In his investigations – which take him as far as Paris and London – he encounters a girl who fades away unless she drinks alcohol and agents of the Committee on the Present Danger who are trying to prevent him contacting Longshott. The CPD questions him about iPods, flash mobs, DRM, Asian fusion, Star Wars, modems, James Bond, smart cars, Al-Jazeera, how cell phones work, what Area 51 is etc. It is very anxious indeed that none of the troubles of our world intrude into its, where the Cairo Conference of 1921 didn’t divide up the Middle East for the British; there was no Hashemite king in Iraq and no revolution in the 1950s, no US involvement in Vietnam and the British lost their African colonies after WW2.

As the book progresses ghosts increasingly flicker at the corners of Joe’s eyes. These are dubbed fuzzy-wuzzies. In their meeting at last Longshott talks about a woman who waxed and waned with the Moon. The CPD is desperate to prevent the fuzzy-wuzzies manifesting properly.
Perhaps because Tidhar is an Israeli the text has frequent USian touches (dove, off of, cell phone, curb, airplane) but there are also British usages.

I noticed an overfondness for the phrase “went past,” epicentre is used to mean point of balance and we had a “shrunk,” plus the text was littered with typos like “dusty shops selling stationary,” “snails … leaving their rails behind them,” “ the books did not seem particularly conductive for airplane flights,” “There was something her voice,” “he couldn’t… been explain.”

Some of the typos teetered on the edge of genius. “One woman was trapped under the rabble,” “the depilated building,” “baskets imprisoning the singing of live frogs,” “they were gone, fleeting from the edges of his cell like ghosts.” The last might not even have been a typo while “the depilated building” is positively Ballardian.

Despite the presence of these small irritants Osama is a well-written, gripping novel, casting a sly sidewise eye at our poor troubled world.

Reelin’ In The Years 74: Silver Machine

Hawkwind were said not so much to play as point their guitars and fly.

In the very early 70s Science Fiction author, sometime begetter of the New Wave in SF and New Worlds magazine editor Michael Moorcock became associated with the band.

This was their sole UK hit.

Hawkwind: Silver Machine

Salvage by Eric Brown

Infinity Plus Books, 2013, 244 p

My copy of Salvage is fruit of my recent visit to see the author. He is a very nice lad.

The book is the collected stories of Salvageman Ed, pilot of an old tub called A Long Way From Home in a universe with interstellar travel, AIs in human form and where there have been female popes. Brown’s recurring theme of religion appears frequently, as do enigmatic aliens and betrayals of various sorts.

Most of the tales are light-hearted action adventure stories with pulpy overtones but a few explore what it means to be human and what love is. An afterword reveals the second last of the full stories was the first to be written.

When Brown does stuff like this it is always entertaining. Don’t expect depth all the time though.

Dissimulation Procedure. On Sinclair’s Landfall, under the yellow-blue light of Procyon, Ed is approached by a beautiful young woman, Ella, wanting a job as a co-pilot. Ed’s shipmate Karrie is suspicious of the newcomer who is not, of course, what she seems. The story sets up sequels nicely.

The Soul of the Machine. Using Ella’s knowledge of the Hayakawa Organisation, whose property as an AI she is, the salvage crew set off for Dzuba and an abandoned wreck. In their pursuit is a Watson Interceptor of the Organisation, which is duly defeated.

Three’s a Crowd. Ella picks up a distress signal. The stranded ship contains a strange gestalt alien up to no good.

The Manexan Exodus. Karrie persuades Ed to take a trip to Menaxa where, she says, her brother Jens is trying to find out how the inhabitants vanished. It doesn’t end well.

To All Appearances. Lured to the planet Bokotar by an AI disguised as a Denebian, Ed is saved from death in a strange religious ceremony by Ella’s consciousness downloaded into a spider-drone. Ella’s disposal of the drone afterwards reinforces her non-humanity.

Cold Testing is a sort of 12,000 mile service for spaceships done on a planet with temperatures “fifty degrees below.” While A Long Way From Home is undergoing the procedure AI Ella decides to do a cold test on herself.

Salvaging Pride. The ship travels to an ice moon of a planet circulating Epsilon Centauri to salvage a hundred year old wreck. The wreck surprisingly contains the cryogenically suspended body of a Schlocken – one of the inhabitants of the Epsilon Centauri system who are at war with the humans of nearby Acrab. The situation is resolved unexpectedly.

Incident on Oblomov. A quick maintenance job on Oblomov, a planet where the Second Son of God is hauled out of cryonic suspension every twenty years to give his latest pronouncement, is interrupted when the totalitarian government requisitions the ship. Ella’s AI capabilities come in useful.

Laying the Ghost. A woman in an AI enhanced warware suit asks to be taken to the planet Serimion where she was born and her parents were killed in an invasion by the Kha. She is a strange entity indeed.

Salvage Rites. Ed comes across his salvage life’s dream, the returned St Benedictus, sent out by a sceptical Vatican centuries before to seek out the source of coded tachyon vectors that spoke of God-like beings who’d seeded the galaxy with life. The returnees have found God, of a sort. Ella sacrifices herself to protect the crew from contamination.

End Game. Two copies of her personality that Ella left in the smartcore of A Long Way From Home are given to Ed so he can choose one to upload into another body. The Hayakawa Organisation intercepts the process. Ed buys Ella’s freedom.

Coda. Ed and Ella meet one last time.

Starship Spring by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2012, 69 p

The fourth novella in Brown’s Starship sequence, this one finds David Conway six years on from the events of Starship Winter, happily married to Hannah van Harben and with a five year-old daughter, Ella. His artist friend Matt’s latest show has been funded by a patron, Dr Petronious, an alien art collector, on condition that he takes a holiday at the resort of Tamara Falls (which lies in a region of Chalcedony where the mysterious locals, the Ashentay, mostly keep themselves to themselves) with his group from Magenta Bay. A visit to an otherwise restricted archæological site has been included in the deal. Dr Petronious has also provided an alien artefact, a metal cone made into a necklace, to be gifted to Ella.

How all this locks together and links into Chalcedony’s Golden Column, which allows interstellar travel to take place by means of jumps, is delivered in Brown’s usual effective way. As is common with Brown, there are enigmatic aliens and strange quasi-religious ceremonies, though the climax here is more reminiscent of his Bengal Station trilogy than the previous Starship novellas.

The series has, I believe, now been collected as Starship Seasons and is well worth searching out.

(Misprints corner:- 7 typos – mainly word/letter omissions or interpolations.)

Reelin’ In The Years 71: The Tomorrow People

The Tomorrow People was a Science Fiction series that started up on ITV’s children’s slot in the early 70s. It had a “futuristic” sounding theme à la Doctor Who.

As far as I know the theme was never released as a single. This clip cuts to the end credits after the initial theme tune.

The Tomorrow People

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2012, 506 p.

Blue Remembered Earth cover

Global warming and sea level rises have altered the political landscape of Earth drastically. Africa is bounded by walls to keep out the sea and has become a global power house. People in this future have internal augmentation for long distance information and communication. Very few environments are beyond the reach of this Surveilled World, run by the Mechanism, which by overseeing everyone’s implanted augmentation prevents crimes occurring. Brother and sister Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya are two of the grandchildren of Eunice, the founder of the prominent industrial company Akinya Space, but are detached from this family enterprise; cousins Hector and Lucas are very much involved in its running.

Geoffrey is using aug to study elephants in the Amboseli region of Africa, Sunday is an artist in the Descrutinised Zone, an area of the Moon where, for privacy reasons, the Mechanism doesn’t operate. When Eunice dies both Geoffrey and Sunday are drawn into a search for something she may have left behind which Hector and Lucas fear may impact badly on the company’s fortunes.

The action roams from the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro to the Moon, under the Indian Ocean in the realm of the United Aquatic Nations, on to Phobos, then Mars, out to the Kuiper Belt and back. An array of instruments known as the Ocular, spanning vast areas of the Oort Cloud, has allowed imaging of extraterrestrial planets at high resolution and detection of a structure known as the Mandala on Sixty-one Virginis-f.

In this vision of a future where humanity is scattered over the Solar System Blue Remembered Earth is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. That novel, though, was to a large extent plotless, and its hero was really the Solar System. Blue Remembered Earth’s plot is intricately and cleverly meshed – like whatever passes for clockwork these digital days. And therein lies a problem. The characters are drawn all over the system by the plot’s exigencies. It is over-engineered, with complications that inspire “hold on a minute” moments. Its heroine is in effect Eunice, and she never makes an appearance except by way of machines imprinted with versions of her personality.

It’s still good SF though.

Pedant’s corner: overlaying for overlying. There was also a scene set on Mars where an abandoned Russian site on Mars had a faded hammer and sickle flag and Reynolds also mentions a former Soviet submarine. Is he still lost somewhere in the Cold War?

The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest

Earthlight, 1999, 264 p.

This is the first collection of Priest’s stories set in the Dream Archipelago, preceding The Islanders by 12 or so years, though apart from the introductory The Equatorial Moment – describing the strange vortex which affects the planet and presumably written especially for this book – the stories herein are considerably older.

The Negation features an author, Moylita Kaine, who has written a book called The Affirmation. (Priest later reused this title for a novel of his own and Kaine reappears in The Islanders.) Kaine’s book fascinates a border guard, Dik, who visits her in her position as writer in residence in the town where he is on leave.

Whores is a strange tale of another (unnamed) soldier whose visit to one of the whores of the title – forced into that profession by the enemy’s prior occupation of the island – has unexpected consequences.

The Cremation has Graian Sheeld travel to a funeral on an island where the customs are strange to him. His faux-pas lead him to a mistake. In parts this reminded me of the work of Michael G Coney. There is an enigmatic woman, a particularly nasty indigenous lifeform known as a thryme and its unusual life cycle.

The Miraculous Cairn is a tale of narrator Lenden’s sexual awakening combined with an unusual – possibly hallucinatory – encounter, and its ramifications resounding in later life.

The Watched has another of Priest’s confused protagonists. Ordier is fascinated by the mysterious Qataari who have been decanted from their ancestral peninsular home as a result of the war but who are notoriously secretive. A folly on the land he has bought allows him to spy on them.

As a collection this is fine but it doesn’t add up to a whole in the same way The Islanders did. But then it probably wasn’t supposed to.

There are some USian usages presumably because of where some of the stories were first published (though a twice mentioned casket is also once referred to as a coffin.)

Then there was the strange sentence, “You did not make rape my wife?” which badly needed editing and (twice) the common misuse of aureole for areola.

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