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Irregularity. Edited by Jared Shurin.

Jurassic London, 2014, 303 p. Reviewed for Interzone 256, Jan-Feb 2015.

 Irregularity cover

Irregularity is an anthology of short stories inspired by the history of Science from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries (the back cover invokes the Age of Reason) and intended to coincide with an exhibition, Ships, Clocks and Stars, The Quest for Longitude, at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
To emphasise the “olde” feel the book is printed in a reconstruction of a seventeenth century typeface – though we are spared that italic-f-shape once used for the letter “s”. It has an unusual dedication, “To failure,” plus five internal illustrations adapted from paintings in the Museum’s collection.

The Prologue, Irregularity by Nick Harkaway, which sets the tone, has a woman bequeathed a library in which she finds a book which bears a cover described as similar (to all intents and purposes identical) to the one we are reading, not only relating her life story up to that point but also seeming to tell her future.
In the Afterword, Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring broadly define Science as the search for nature’s laws in order to codify them and ask what happens when things don’t fit. (Answering that last question is actually the most important scientific endeavour.) Irregularity’s contents are about just such attempts to understand the world.

As a coda, positioned after the afterword and which could easily be missed by a less than careful reader, an “email” to the editor comments on the impossibility of a book that loops back on itself.
The authors have interpreted their remit widely, the stories ranging from Science Fiction through Fantasy to Horror. Some could fall under the rubric of steampunk or alternative history. The literary antecedents being what they are it is perhaps not surprising that the majority lean towards the form of journal or diary extracts and epistolary accounts.

And so we have the inevitable pastiche of Samuel Pepys, M Suddain’s The Darkness, set in a steampunk 17th century with radio, telemessages and air defence antenna arrays, where the French are experimenting with Darke Materials, Restoration London has Tunnelcars and Skycars and a Black Fire of nothingness has begun to eat the city.

Of course, encountering well-known names is one of the pleasures of an anthology like this and there are plenty more to conjure with. Two for the price of one in Adam Roberts’s The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle, a piece of Robertsian playfulness in which Boyle has had access to modern physics (even discoursing with Brian May, whom Boyle says Newton resembles) and wishes to preserve the more human cosmogony which Newton’s work will displace. Chock full of allusion – including an extended riff on the “operatic” section of Bohemian Rhapsody – this story might just possibly be too knowing for its own good. Charles Darwin appears in Claire North’s The Voyage of the Basset where we follow him on his second sea voyage, utilising his knowledge of the lycaenidae to ensure nothing can mar the glory of Queen Victoria’s coronation. Ada Lovelace helps produce steam-driven animatronic dinosaurs in Simon Guerrier’s An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought, while Fairchild’s Folly by Tiffani Angus muses on the possible classification of love within a taxonomy via the epistolary relationship between Carl Linnaeus and Thomas Fairchild, who crossed a sweet william with a carnation to produce a sterile plant dubbed Fairchild’s mule. In Kim Curran’s A Woman out of Time unnamed creatures relate how they prevented Émilie du Chatelet from disseminating modern Physics too early. A Game Proposition by Rose Biggin has four women get together once every month to play a game which decides the fate of ships, incidentally giving William Dampier the knowledge to compile his atlas of the trade winds.

The most chilling tale is perhaps Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation, wherein a book-keeper is sent out from London to the island of San Domingue to investigate irregularities in the returns from the plantations there and comes upon the secrets of circulation as discovered by “the wizard Sangatte”.

Elsewhere; in Linnaean era Stockholm a young girl has dreams of the future, inspired by spiders; a maker of maritime clocks, in competition with Harrison for the Longitude prize, uses a variety of gruesome fluids to fine tune his escapement; a taxonomist travels to Southern Africa to seek out unusual beasts and finds the egg of a creature variously called gumma, gauma, gomerah, ghimmra, sjeemera; a found manuscript story with not one, but two introductions, suggests a reason for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after London’s Great Fire on a realigned axis; an artist and his apprentice, commissioned to depict an anatomy lesson, witness the subject’s heart beating after death.

The stories work well in their own terms, but in totality are rather relentlessly “olde worlde”.

The following comments did not appear in the review:-
In my edition one of the stories was not in the order given on the Contents page.
Span count 1, sunk 1, as you no doubt you anticipated, off of (x 2,) rolled a dice, court-marshalled, the committee force me to seethe (forced,) at prices that seems almost scandalous, her voice is a echo, baster gang (?) missing “it”(x 2,) two references to “three years” since the Great Fire of London (in diary entries dated 1667,) now used now, can secret a substance, they toppled the lids of those wooden prisons and relased their cargo, I might find pick my way back through the canes back to the house, in sight of one of another, walleyed with lust, inside of, to humour and old man.

Interzone 257 Mar-Apr 2015

Interzone 257 cover

We kick off with Alastair Reynolds and A Murmuration1 wherein a researcher into the flocking behaviour of starlings begins to be able to control their movements. This leads to conflict with the referee of the scientific paper on the research. Moreover, the birds start to behave contrarily.
In Songbird2 by Fadzlishah Johanabas, due to addiction to electronic devices people can no longer process emotions apart from a few women who can synthesise the emotions when they sing.
Brainwhales Are Stoners, Too3 by Rich Larson sees a teenage girl and the boy she fancies break into the ThinkTank where a brainwhale is confined, wired up, drugged to do computations.
The Worshipful Company of Milliners4 by Tendai Huchu. In a dilapidated factory in Harare a group of half-human, half-cat milliners – invisible to true humans – make equally invisible hats for authors to wear. Full membership of the sisterhood is only granted when the author becomes successful.
Aliya Whiteley’s Blossoms Falling Down is set on a generation starship where different cultures are housed on different decks with occasional tourism between them. The navigator is struck by his visit to a Japanese “Haiku Room”.

1 “The cameras should be aimed into the middle of the perimeter, and elevated sufficiently to catch the murmuration’s epicentre.” (Epicentre used, apparently correctly, as meaning “off-centre”. Remarkable.)
2 written in USian, lay (lie,) the liquid in the cylinders in front of me glow green (glows,) staunch (stanch.) Clear seems to be used as a synonym for colourless.
3 less (fewer,) snuck (sneaked,) a “I’m fine” look (an “I’m fine” look.)
4 sprung (sprang,) epaulets (epaulettes,) “‘almost as though you’re recycled no reincarnated,’” is surely missing punctuation of some sort.

2015 Hugo Awards

Old news now I suppose. The results are here.

The Hugo Awards are, or at least have been, arguably the most prestigious in Science Fiction.

This year is notable for “No Award” coming first in five of the categories: thus equalling the total of “No Award” for all previous winners in the entire history of the Hugos. This would therefore be an odd phenomenon.

The explanation, for those who are unaware of the stushie, is that two groups of fans calling themselves Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies tried to game the system by creating lists of recommendations in the various categories and asking those of like mind to nominate these and vote for them in the final ballot. All of which is perfectly within the rules.

The beef of the puppies appears to be (I summarise) that they think the Hugos have in recent years been taken over by political correctness with people of colour, other minorities and women being (in their view) disproportionately represented on award lists. One faction of the puppies ascribes this as due to the actions of what they call “Social Justice Warriors.”

Another viewpoint is that since they failed to win in previous years the Puppies are just bad losers.

An overview of the controversy is here.

The Puppies claim that the stories which have been winning have been unreadable. This is certainly not true of last year’s novel winner Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I have this year’s novel winner The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Cixin Liu sitting on my bed-side cabinet awaiting reading for review in Interzone. I understand that had another nominee, put on the Puppies’ list without the author’s agreement, not withdrawn from the contest The Three-Body Problem would not have made it to the final ballot. This looks ironic given the Puppies’ view of minorities. (In Hugo terms a Chinese author is definitely a member of a minority.)

To counter the Puppy strategy some people had advocated voting “No Award” in every category in this year’s ballot. Quickly scanning the results it seems to me that the voters have taken their responsibilities seriously. The nuclear option of blanket “No Award” has been eschewed. Instead “No Award” seems to have been used in the sense for which it was intended; that if the voters considered no nominee merited the award they placed “No Award” first, otherwise they placed it after nominations considered worthy.

It may be, though, that the Hugo Awards are now damaged beyond repair.

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

Asimov’s Science Fiction Jun 2015

Dell Magazines.

Asimov's Jun 2015 cover

This magazine is more weighted to fiction than Analog though there are non-fiction pieces. Kathleen Ann Goonan’s guest editorial describes SF as a literature that asks Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? – thus adding two additional questions to the one most literature addresses – Robert Silverberg’s Reflections goes over the history of predictions of the end of the world and of apocalyptic SF while James Patrick Kelly’s On The Net: an Optimist’s Tale argues that modern day SF is not as pessimistic as some in Project Hieroglyph present.
As to the fiction, there is less cleaving of the paper light years in Asimov’s than there was in Analog, notwithstanding the first story The End of the War by Django Wexler, wherein two remnants of humanity called Minoans and Circeans fight a proxy war on derelict spaceships left over from the main battles by means of pilot-controlled salvage/manufactory devices. The opposing pilots have conversations as they fight over the remains.1 Henry Lien’s The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society has two society ladies in what seems the nineteenth century trying to find the favour of Mrs Ava Vanderbilt by means of elaborate gardens. They take it too far.2 Mutability by Ray Nayler sees a couple meet for the first time in a café – four hundred years after being photographed together. Indrapramit Das’s The Muses of Shuyedan-18 features two human women who are witnessed having sex by the huge alien of the title which reproduces them in a carving on its back.3 The titular characters in M Bennardo’s Ghosts of the Savannah are two prehistoric women hunters who don’t want to settle to a life of domesticity and child-bearing. Our Lady of the Open Road by Sarah Pinsker is the tour bus for the band Cassis Fire, who are rare hold-outs still playing real gigs in a world where entertainment has been cornered by the corporate might of StageHolo.4

Pedant’s corner:-
1 the compute power (twice!! “computing power” is so much less ugly,) to go to particular place (a particular place,) “slingshot” as the preterite of the verb (slungshot? slingshotted? But then I suppose USians use fit as a past tense,) the maze of room and corridors (this ship had corridors but only one room?)
2 hostess’ (hostess’s,) the USianism “dove” for “dived”, plus the story jumps from Chapter VII to IX with no sign of VIII.
3 chord (cord,) in a way the human brain will remind of our own architectures (will be reminded of.)
4 in the cards (on the cards.)

ANALOG Science Fiction and Fact, Jun 2015

Special 1000th issue. Dell Magazines.

ANALOG 1000 cover

I read this as it was kindly given to me (along with the June 2015 edition of Asimov’s) by the good lady’s blog friend Peggy when she came to visit us in May.
The cover of ANALOG 1000 is apparently an adaptation of the very first cover (of Astounding Stories of Super Science, Jan 1930) and in his editorial Trevor Quachri says how much he loves both illustrations. He also notes the move under John W Campbell from unashamed action-adventure pulp to a magazine where “fleshed-out characters and realistic science are integral to what we do.” (You might still want to work a bit more on that “fleshed-out characters” thing, guys.)
In accordance with Campbell’s prescription, as well as the fiction the mag has several fact articles. This being the 1000th issue these include a look at how the magazine might evolve, a statistical comparison of Analog with other comparable magazines (genre or not) with regard to its longevity while also noting its most frequent contributors and a piece on the importance of legendary editor Campbell to the evolution of Astounding into Analog (and SF as a whole.)
The fiction is highly skewed towards the space operatic. Only two out of the featured stories were Earthbound. In The Wormhole War by Richard A Lovett, Zeke Schlachter is piloting Earth’s first exploratory wormhole (to the Earth-like planet Gaia 205c) when it suddenly explodes. Five years later so does the second. Every wormhole meets the same fate. The Gaians turn out to be sending wormholes towards Earth faster than humans can in the other direction. Something has to give.1 The very YA in tone Very Long Conversations by Gwendolyn Clare has an expedition to an alien planet being contacted by the indigenous population – through sculpture. The Kroc War by Ted Reynolds & William F Wu is told from a variety of sketched viewpoints, pro and anti the war, mostly human but one Kroc, and is the story of said war from beginning to end, and beyond. In Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising by Brenta Blevins a man whose T-shirt runs ever-changing advertising slogans (you can’t block adverts from someone standing right in front of you) has his system hacked. The Odds by Ron Collins contemplates the chances of being the one ambassador in the history of the universe charged with lying to the only other sentient species known.2 In The Empathy Vaccine by C C Finlay a man wants to buy a treatment that will remove his empathy. (The seller has already taken done this.)3 Seth Dickinson’s Three Bodies at Mitanni relates how three people (though it is their consciousnesses only) have been charged with roaming the galaxy and deciding whether the societies derived from seedships sent out earlier “by a younger and more desperate Earth” are to be culled or not. 4 Ships in the Night by Jay Werkheiser has a high c, time-dilated interstellar trader spin a yarn at a pub on a stopover. In The Audience by Sean McMullen, humanity’s first starship arrives at the gas giant Abyss as it passes through the Oort cloud. Under the surface of its moon, Limbo, the crew finds alien life. And it finds them.5
Many of these contain the sort of stuff I loved when I was a teenager discovering SF and consuming it voraciously. While I’m glad people are still producing stories like these (they’re entertaining enough and do what they say on their tins) I’ve moved on a bit and wouldn’t seek them out. But it’s great to have the 1,000th issue of a magazine on my shelves.

Pedant’s corner:- (in one of the book reviews) “who will stop at noting” (if only such people – or indeed aliens – would!!)
1 mowed (mown,) like Damocles’ (Damocles’s,) Two year later (years.)
2 has “lay” for “lie” but this seems to be common in USian
3 he probably checked out me the way I checked out him (checked me out the way I checked him out sounds more natural to me.)
4Lachesis’ (Lachesis’s; several instances.)
5 Complimenting each others’ skills would be a fine thing for the crew to do but complementing them is actually the reason why they had been selected. Clouds do not contain water vapour (it’s colourless) but rather liquid or solid water. And a scientist ought not to use “steam” in this context either. Gasses (gases.)

In Between Reading

Amongst all the library books I’ve been borrowing recently in an attempt to delay or even abort the threatened closures I’ve also been reading stories from back issues of Interzone and two SF mags the good lady’s blog friend, Peggy, gave me as a present when she came over in May for her dream holiday in Scotland.

These will be popping up on my “currently reading” sidebar from time to time over the next couple of weeks (Iz 255 is there at time of writing.) I’ll be posting about them in due course.

Meanwhile all those books I have actually bought and are languishing on the tbr pile on my shelves are of necessity taking a backseat.

No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

A Story of the Glasgow Slums. Corgi, 1978? 320 p.

 No Mean City cover

I had avoided reading this ever since I became aware of its existence as I had gained the impression it was an overly sensationalist account of life in the poorer parts of Glasgow in the 1920s but when it appeared in the list of 100 best Scottish Books I decided to take out a copy from one of the local libraries that is under threat of closure.

It is the story of Johnnie Stark, who manages to get himself a reputation as the Razor King of the Gorbals and thereafter has to live up to it. There are four main viewpoint characters, Stark, Lizzie Ramsay (the girl who marries him,) his brother Peter and his schoolmate, Bobbie Hurley. Peter’s and Bobbie’s stories seem to be forgotten about for long periods and their relevance is slight; though they are dragooned into the final scene.

Stark’s inevitable eventual demise is presented as a consequence of mental deterioration through drink and too many gang fights but his fate would have been to be overtaken in any case. It is the natural order of things that the younger succeed the older.

As a reading experience the book leaves a lot to be desired. The writing can only be described as poor. Certain words or phrases are placed in quotation marks for no good reason – does anyone reading a book set in Scotland not know what a “hoose” is? “Canny get a man” is surely self-explanatory and “single end” not unusual while “inferiority” is totally unremarkable. Others have their meanings explained in parenthesis immediately after their appearance eg kert (coal-waggon.) If a meaning cannot be explained by context (which would be the ideal) by all means provide a glossary but this practice of putting the wagon after the kert is irritating. (It is possible that I may be more irritated than most, since in Science Fiction, part of my regular reading matter for decades, the use of unfamiliar words – sometimes for unfamiliar concepts – is all-but obligatory and I am therefore used to it.)

Some writers show, others tell: it is infrequent that they lecture. At times this read like a treatise in anthropology, a condescending treatise at that. To describe the characters as “slummies” betrays a self-congratulatory attitude on the part of the authors, “a guid conceit o’ themselves” as we Scots have it. This assumption of moral superiority by the narrator ….. grates. Authors’ characters deserve some sort of sympathy from their creator(s).

These issues are perhaps explained by the book’s genesis. A McArthur was an unemployed man (the book uses the oxymoron unemployed worker) and H Kingsley North a London journalist obviously unused to the different art of writing a novel.

It might be thought that the minimum requirement for being included in any list of best books would be that a novel not be just socially relevant and illustrative of its times but also had some degree of literary quality. No Mean City has none. In saying this I realise that I am in danger of being called a literary snob (as the puff for the novel on the 100 best Scottish books webpages would have it.) Very well; but I would still maintain this does not belong on that list of “best”.

Pedant’s corner:- coal-waggon (I prefer wagon,) appraisement (appraisal?) how the hell with this yin do him any? (how the hell will this yin….)

Bête by Adam Roberts.

Gollancz, 2014, 320 p. Reviewed for Interzone 255, Nov-Dec 2014.

Bête cover

We know from the epigraph, “You? Better. You? Bête” – attributed to Pete Townshend but given Roberts’s own slant – that we are in for a tale full of word play and allusion; everything from Led Zeppelin lyrics to the riddle of the Sphinx, with nods to previous SF (at one point there is the shout, “Butlerian Jihad!”) as well as Animal Farm.

The novel begins with dairy farmer Graham Penhaligon, who has also trained to butcher his own livestock, having a verbal disagreement with a “canny” cow which does not wish to be slaughtered. This is shortly before such Loquacious Beasts (as the Act has it) are to be legally protected. The encounter makes Graham famous, after a fashion. The advent of speaking animals had come with green activists, “creeping around farms in the dead of night, injecting chips into the craniums (sic) of farm animals.” These bêtes at first spouted authentic sounding phrases, responses of animal rights propaganda, but quickly the chips, by now AIs, develop into something more integrated with their hosts.

It is tempting to find faint echoes in this set-up of Wells’s Dr Moreau but the comparison is too stretched to be truly viable. No vivisection is involved; the chips only have to be ingested to make their way into the host’s brain. Graham reflects that Moore’s Law made this sort of augmentation inevitable but he never believes that the animals are really expressing themselves; it is the computers in their heads doing so. Soon enough bêtes become legal citizens competing with humans for jobs. Along with the almost simultaneous development of synthetic Vitameat, one of the ramifications is that Graham’s farm is no longer viable.

He resorts to a nomadic existence, taking the odd slaughtering job, living (poorly) off the land, his peregrinations bringing him into irregular but recurring contact with Anne Grigson, with whom he falls in love. She has a canny cat, Cincinnatus, which loves its mistress but also exhibits a peculiar interest in Graham.

Graham is prickly from the outset. “Don’t call me Graham,” he tells the argumentative cow – and nearly everyone else whom he meets thereafter. He is especially so with the bêtes he encounters. These internet enabled, wifi-ed animals recognise him instantly, but there is always a hint of menace in it. A shambling incoherent human appears to know Graham but has been chipped; with “higher” animals schizophrenia is the unerring result of such a merger. Dogs, cows, horses are much more suitable.

This scenario gives Roberts scope to comment on humanity’s collective relationship with the biosphere, sometimes through his minor characters, ‘“Animals have feelings and thoughts – it’s just that only now have they been able to bring them out,”’ otherwise through Graham’s thoughts, “Speciesism is more deeply entrenched within us than sexism, and that is deep enough,” “Nature: it’s not nice, it was never nice. Niceness is what we humans built to insulate ourselves from – all that.” Cincinnatus provides the barbed observation, “Misrecognition. It’s what humans are best at.”

At times Bête takes on some of the characteristics of the post-disaster stories associated with British SF of the fifties and early sixties. Also stalking the land and causing AIDS-like panic is the disease, Sclerotic Charagmitis, where mucous membranes scar over, leading to death. The countryside is abandoned to the animals, people huddle together in the larger towns, the regime becomes repressive, but shuts off the wifi too late. There are tales of inter-species war in the north, animals immolated on pyres by the army. In his isolation, Graham does not witness any of this, though.

He makes much of language and his relish of it and notes his is a very English tale. Language is a field, he tells us, and farmers are used to working with fields. A strange aspect of the narrative, though, is its frequent use of archaisms. “And you have brought it me,” wroth, thrice. Sadly, this last appeared only twice.

But Anne dies from cancer, and Graham reflects that the loss of love brings resentment, bitterness, anger, envy. Fair enough, but I don’t quite buy his contention that, for adults, crying is always a performance, intended for an audience. The crux of the novel comes at Graham’s delayed meeting with the leader of the bêtes in the south, an AI in the brain of a very old ewe known (in a piece of somewhat heavy-handed symbolism) as The Lamb, which makes him an offer.

While the essential motor of the plot is that this is a love story, Graham’s relationship with Anne does not come over like a grand passion. Everything is a touch too intellectual; described, not experienced. Bête is good stuff, though, probably enough to ensure Roberts’s usual award nomination.

The following did not appear in the final review.:-
There is reference to a film scene which, though it can be parsed, will only make immediate sense if you’ve actually seen the film. The proof copy I read was absolutely littered with typos, easily averaging one a page. The best of these was “imagining I was in the gondolier of some balloon.” That “gondolier” conveys quite a different image from the one that “gondola” would. We also had “ruptures of the Achilles tension” and riveta for Ryvita. Plus:- lay for lie, apothegms for apophthegms, liquorish (the sweet stuff; not anything to do with alcohol,) and a span.

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

PS Publishing, 2008, 304 p.

 Song of Time cover

Love, sex and death.

Oh, I know within these pages there are dead people who are somehow still able to exist, an intelligent kitchen, a crystal field saturating the environment, artificial skin, the last snow melting from Kilimanjaro, computer screens with no visible supports, a nuclear war, the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing up, not to mention a symphony that continually rewrites itself, but these are all just background: at its core Song of Life charts the three literary biggies. And the greatest of these is love.

One day towards the back end of the twenty-first century Roushana Maitland finds a half-drowned man, possibly attempting to enter the country illegally and who does not remember who he is, on the Cornish beach just below her house. She drags him up to safety and shelter. His presence and her imminent transfiguration (not death, she has very recently undergone the procedure which will undo that) trigger memories of her life. Song of Time’s chapters alternate between depictions of her present day with the stranger in her house, whom she dubs Adam but who himself pronounces it Abaddon, and her memories of the unfolding century.

Roushana is of mixed heritage, Indian on her mother’s side, Irish on her father’s. Her brother Leo is a gifted musician but contracts WRFI, Wide Range Food Intolerance, perhaps brought about by an artificial virus targeted on the lactose tolerant, an adaptation mostly found in Westerners. Unable to withstand the debilitation this has caused him, he commits suicide, telling Roushana, It’s up to you now, Sis. She polishes her up to then not particularly good efforts on the violin and, with the later help of famous conductor Claude Vaudin who eventually becomes her husband, parlays them into fame and fortune. Her story is set against the background of a disintegrating world: racial tensions erupt in Britain, unspecified divisions occur elsewhere, a millenarian type of cult arises. In terms of terrorism and world politics this future is like our present, only more so. But technological progress still occurs. The environment becomes enmeshed in the “ever-spreading network of crystal” but no mechanism for the dead to still be around after death is elaborated beyond the “crystal seed of immortality whining its way” into Roushana’s skull.

It may seem counter-intuitive to have classical music as the driver for Roushana’s fame, but pop stardom would have been too clichéd, and a future classical revival of sorts is not too much of a stretch. There is in any case some genre crossing. Claude’s performances in clubs at times read more like those of a jazz musician.

Song of Time contains a profoundly imagined and realised world and Roushana’s voice is an engaging one. That there are doubts over the exact circumstances of Claude’s death ring entirely true, Leo’s continuing influence over her life being a source of jealousy to Claude.

MacLeod has a poignant story to tell, has a facility with language, a poet’s ear at times, scatters out in one book more ideas than many authors would use in a lifetime and the book itself is a lovely object. Roushana’s story is one I’ll remember for a long time. Looking back I see Song of Time won the literary-inclined Clarke Award. However, it didn’t make the nominee list for the BSFA Award for 2008. (The fact that the SF elements can be construed as only background may have told against it.) I have not read three of the four on that year’s list but nevertheless they’d have to be going some to be better novels than this.

I have a caveat, though.

Did anybody proof-read this thing?

Pedant’s corner:- “Pregnancy came as a shock to me…. The sheer alienness of the symptoms…” (But Roushana had been pregnant before – albeit then had an abortion.) Disks (discs,) programs (programmes) – I don’t care even if either of these two were to do with computers – practise (innumerable times as a noun, but the noun is “practice” which strangely also appears correctly at times,) the late 1950s in the search of (in the late 1950s in search of,) “They didn’t have say it” (have to say it,) into him arm (his,) the speed in which (with which,) lineney (lineny,) sung (sang,) would not longer (no longer,) with she as she was (with her as she was,) it was shade (a shade,) Doges’ Palace (Doge’s,) on diet (on a diet,) as goes inside (as he goes inside,) after I’ve I sat him down (either I’ve or I, but not both,) “You where I mean” (You know where I mean,) “For a just a while” (for just a while,) glowing n his (in his,) unfocussed (unfocused, ) “Pakkis” but later, “Paki-girl”, the “the village” (just “the village”,) sewerage (sewage,) lost contact Uncle Indra (lost contact with Uncle Indra,) reforming (re-forming,) I really do have sit down (have to sit down,) St Fimbarrus’ (St Fimbarrus’s,) we took at ride (a ride,) whilst still officially still at war (one still too many here, plus there was another “still” later in the same sentence,) how you were you supposed to deal (a “you” too many,) ignited =in (ignited in,) its commanding view sea (sea view.) Back the kitchen (Back in the kitchen,) Miles Davis’ (Miles Davis’s,) fames (??), has (had,) Blythe Monroe (on all other appearances it was Munro,) I was following what he saying (what he was saying,) in one of pots (one of the pots,) Christos’ (Christos’s) Cholera B (is later Cholera b,) of a return virtuality to paint (of a return from virtuality to paint,) pervious (previous.) Near beside them (Near them? Beside them?) Periphique (Peripherique,) sit ins (sit-ins,) burn-out (burned-out,) I knew that Claude was be out debating (“would be” or “was”, but not “was be”,) virtuality de monde (as I remember my French that’s du monde,) focussed (focused,) if she’s started (she’d,) the orchestra were (orchestra is singular; therefore the orchestra was.) Loose faith (Lose faith,) whether he of she (he or she,) Bezant’s Bay (in most instances it’s Bezant Bay,) one instance of its for it’s, complemented (complimented,) it they haven’t been paid enough (if,) one of periodic eruptions (one of the periodic eruptions,) the early half-life of the radiation had decreased considerably (the radiation level may decrease but the half-life most certainly doesn’t,) softy steaming greenery (softly?) were (where,) so I often with worked with, anything less that whole-heartedly (than,) wintery (wintry,) closer to him that when he was (than when he was,) after I’d laid down (lain,) the least emotion I felt was surprise (the last emotion) I can’t read you mind (your,) with its all lights (with all its lights,) it’s shrunken (shrunk.) The text implies Yellowstone is in Colorado but it is mostly in Wyoming with parts extending into Montana and Idaho.

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