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Promised Land by Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice

Ace, 1998, 366 p.

 Promised Land cover

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

Pedant’s corner:- mowed (mown,) Milleflores’ (Milleflores’s,) Keramos’ (Keramos’s, which did appear once,) solarises (a soralis is a solar powered vehicle: the plural might have been solares but I suppose that could have been misconstrued,) mike as an abbreviation for microphone (still in use in 1998 then) Flaherty’s (this is usually given as Flahertys’ as its plural,) two full stops at the end of one sentence, jerry-rigged (jury-rigged; why do people confuse this with jerry-built?) tamarines (elsewhere always timarines,) species’ (the usage was singular so species’s.)

I’m on the Map!

Literally.

Despite me not having a piece of fiction published for a few years – and only ever one novel – I’ve been included on this map of British SF and Fantasy writers. (If you click on the map it will lead you to its creator’s website, where copies can be purchased):-

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map

I’m humbled by this. Imagine me being on the same map as Alasdair Gray, Iain (M) Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Eric Brown, Arthur C Clarke, J G Ballard, George Orwell et al. Not to mention J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon.)

Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Mar 2016 cover

The second issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. Robert Silverberg describes how Walter de la Mare’s story The Three Mulla-Mulgars, read in his youth and many times since, inspired him and fed into his fiction. James Patrick Kelly’s internet overview discusses the pros and cons of reading and writing a series of books.1 In the fiction:-
The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka.2 A data cruncher who can predict scandals goes to work for a politician. Then she is contacted by the people who really run things. Another story which panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Ship Whisperer by Julie Novakova. An expedition to a black dwarf (which shouldn’t exist) discovers a device that can alter the rate of change of time. The titular character can “talk” to quantum computers, enabling the story’s resolution.
A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time by Sunil Patel is a series of listicles. I believe it is supposed to be humorous. The author seems to have a particular thing about kale.
Project Empathy by Dominica Phetteplace is about trends, moving elsewhere then finding the norms are different, plus there are Watcher chips inside people’s heads.
Do Not Forget Me by Ray Nayler3 is a story in the Eastern tradition, of tales within the tale – four embedded narratives here – the central one being about a man who doesn’t age. There is nothing really noteworthy here though.
A Little Bigotry by R Neube.4 An ex-soldier down on her uppers is reduced to accepting a contract to be an escort to a former enemy. A fine enough story but reminiscent of Barry B Longyear’s Enemy Mine. Then again, I suppose the point about enemies being worthy of understanding always bears repeating.
New Earth by James Gunn.5 A colony ship from a more-or-less destroyed Erath has reached a new planetary home. Choices and dangers must be faced.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space by Dale Bailey6 is narrated by a woman who takes home an alien who came into the Walmart she works in. This at first unpromising – clichéd even – scenario is, though, only scaffolding over what eventually becomes an affecting tale of love, loss and redemption. I note the references by Bailey – via the narrator’s surname (Sheldon,) her dead daughter Alice and her comment on her status as an invisible woman – to the career of James Tiptree Jr.

Pedant’s corner:- In the editorial; definine (define,) chose (choose,) Lawrence Watt Evans tale (Evans’s,) 1 ambiance (ambience,) 2 she could feel it siding in her fingers (sliding makes more sense,) lobyists (lobbyists,) 3 lay about (lie about.) 4 license (licence,) maw used for mouth (maw means stomach,) accurst (accursed,) 5mentions trees that are not-quite-trees but one of the characters says multi-cellular life hasn’t evolved there. Trees are multi-cellular; the fern-like structures subsequently described would be also. 6Bug-Eyes’ (it’s singular; so Bug-Eyes’s,) Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) laying (lying; plus lay for lie,) breath in (breathe in.) In Paul di Filippo’s book reviews; stefnal to mean science-fictional, a usage I had not come across before, whereas sfnal I was familiar with.

The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2014, 238 p.

 The Quiet Woman cover

Writer Alice Stockton lives in a Hampshire which has suffered the fallout from a nuclear accident at Cap la Hague in France. Despite there being no obvious reason for it she has had her latest manuscript impounded by agents acting for the government. Her only local friend, a much older woman named Eleanor, has been found murdered. Alice’s story is narrated in the third person and interspersed at times with a first person narrative by Eleanor’s son Gordon Sinclair, who also goes under the name of Peter Hamilton. As Hamilton he works, at arm’s length from the government, in information management – de facto censorship. Hence the ability to prevent Alice’s manuscript being published and to demand any copies, electronic or otherwise, be destroyed.

There are early hints that the first person narration may be unreliable when the narrator’s car and torch cut out and he observes spinning cylinders make circles in the nearby crops before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. However this incident is only once referred to again and can be taken to be imagined or hallucinated. However potential unreliability is underscored by part of one of the two letters Eleanor wrote for Alice wherein she says, “I am by nature a concealer and disguiser, a natural fiction writer,” and (a book should have) “little facts that don’t add up, that misdirect the truth.” Then there is the very late scene which is described in both the first and third person narratives with substantial discrepancies between the two. Two of the first person chapters describe acts of extreme sexual violence on their narrator’s part. They also describe Sinclair’s mother (in the third person sections a relatively benign presence) as relating to him from an early age stories of her life before he was born with sexual details foregrounded. Again a reading of delusion on the narrator’s part seems in order.

Priest’s prose is immensely readable but there is something elusive about what purpose his book might serve. The total mismatch between Sinclair’s accounts of events and the seemingly more authoritative third person sections reinforce the reading that he is unhinged (at best.) Yet he is a powerful man – able to alter the official records pertaining to Alice’s life. Even in authoritarian systems surely someone would notice? Then there is Alice’s sudden conviction, without any evidence, that Sinclair is responsible for his mother’s death. And the bit about authors being paid merely for submitting manuscripts to the “European Repository of Human Knowledge” is just bizarre.

The quiet woman of the title is presumably Eleanor, she speaks to us only through those two letters to Alice which Priest vouchsafes us, yet as a result is paradoxically too quiet. This is only one of the aspects of the novel which are unbalanced. The Quiet Woman is not one of Priest’s major works but interesting enough, if a little frustrating.

Pedant’s corner:- “we hurried back along to promenade (along the promenade? Along to the promenade?) “one three sent to England one of three,) “she knew he that he wasn’t sure who she was” (miss that first “he”? or “he that”?) “How could she had forgotten?” (have,) one end quote where there had been no dialogue, an personal nature (a,) “Tom pushed the bolt of the door home” followed nine lines later, with no other mention of the bolt, “Alice pushed home the bolt on the door,” plus seven or eight instances of “time interval later”.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Corsair, 2015, 267 p. Reviewed for Interzone 259, Jul-Aug 2015.

The Freedom Maze cover

It is 1960 in New Orleans. Eleven year old Sophie Martineau is descended from the once grand Fairchilds and through her mother she has inherited the distinctive Fairchild nose. The family owned the Oak River plantation in Louisiana but has now fallen on harder times. Her mother is still fiercely proud of her heritage though, refers to the War of Northern Aggression, has inculcated in Sophie a suspicion of black men and feels herself to be a Southern Belle. Sophie’s failure to live up to her mother’s standards of dress, tidiness and deportment is, then, a source of friction. To add to Sophie’s woes, her parents are divorced and her father has married again. Her mother always harboured suspicions about her ex-husband’s background – muttering darkly about a “touch of the tar brush” – has now had to get a job and has also signed up to train in accounting. To allow time for this Sophie must go to the ancestral home to be looked after by her aunt and grandmother for the summer. The signs saying “coloreds only” at a stopover and references to Negroes “the polite term” remind (or perhaps inform – this is a YA novel) the reader of the legacies of slavery.

At Oak River the former Big House is disused and the maze is in some disrepair. Sophie’s only solace is a book of adventures featuring teenagers who travel back in time. Wishing to be anywhere else she explores the maze one day and hears a voice in her ear. This is a trickster she calls The Creature, which later surprises her swimming in a pool and tells her he “sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, was and will be, here and there.” At her request it manifests itself; as an odd looking podgy mammal with deer’s ears. After one more altercation with her visiting mother she tells the Creature she wants to travel in time herself. The Creature obliges. The bulk of the novel deals with the consequences as Sophie finds herself on the Fairchild estate in 1860, mistaken for a slave sent up from New Orleans by estate owner Charles’s brother Robert. The spoilt daughter of the estate, Elizabeth Fairchild, is immediately antagonistic towards her but her parents Mr and Mrs Charles Fairchild are less mistrustful and Sophie is given household duties to perform. In following these we are treated to a rather heavy-handedly written conversation about the likelihood of war with the North. Sophie swiftly falls ill and is allowed even lighter duties in order to recover. While in her delirium she hears a conversation between the Creature and a spirit called Papa Legba (who saves her from dying) about the dangers of travelling in time without preparation.

It must be said that, after initial incomprehension at not being recognised as white, Sophie slips very easily into the life of a slave, learning deference quickly and adopting slave speech patterns. It is in this context that the novel strikes a note that seems slightly off. Yes, the Fairchilds are “good” slave owners, though the overseer Mr Akins is not so reticent in this respect, but even if the prospect of a whipping is never far off the slaves’ conditions do not come over as being as grim as might be expected. Similarly the one whipping Sophie does eventually receive does not read as being as devastating. Sherman does highlight other gritty aspects of 1860 life, sanitary protection for instance is very rudimentary.

What plot there is kicks in when Elizabeth’s suitor Beaufort Waters casts his roving eye – not to mention hands – on the slave girl Antigua. It is here that the Creature’s purpose in bringing Sophie back in time is fulfilled. Sophie’s resourcefulness and the usefulness of a Fairchild nose are instrumental in the resolution of Antigua’s situation.

In all of this any fantastical elements are scant. The intervention by Papa Legba could be interpreted as an hallucination induced by Sophie’s illness and the time travel is merely a black box. There is nothing speculative about it, no mechanism for it. It just happens. Sherman merely uses it as a device to precipitate Sophie’s consciousness into the nineteenth century. Her purpose is to tell a story set in the slavery era and to seek to make it relevant to modern times. In this she succeeds well enough. In the end, though, there is as little sense of true jeopardy in Sophie’s sojourn in the past as there was in the stories she so enjoyed in 1960. And it does seem rather to belittle the subject matter to make an overt comparison between freedom from slavery and throwing off parental shackles.

The following did not appear in the review:-
Pedant’s corner: up and moved (upped and moved, surely?) there was horrified gasp (a horrified gasp,) you should look out after her better, Lolabelle morphs to LolaBelle and back again, mistress’ (mistress’s,) “who lived in all the way up in” (who lived all the way up in,) lookingglass (looking glass,) her effort must have showed (shown,) bit (bitten,) made up of several man (men,) Mama appeared the garden entrance.

The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer

Women’s Press, 1985, 152 p.

The Planet Dweller cover

Another Women’s Press SF novel I missed out on when first published. Its feminist credentials are established early. I can’t recall reading another Science Fiction novel which mentions hot flushes, certainly not in its first three words as this one does. The sufferer is Diana who also hears a voice in her head, saying, “Moosevan.” She lives near to a radio telescope where a Russian émigré named Yuri works. He has discovered certain patterns in the arrangement of the asteroids which suggests outside interference. The interactions among the characters here are well delineated, Yuri’s tendency to drunkenness and the local toff Daphne’s sense of entitlement being particularly well captured if a little clichéd. However, in chapter three the story takes a sudden lurch into a narrative which contains what I can only call cartoon aliens who have plans to set off a piece of equipment which will destroy a planet. The planet concerned surrounds the intelligence that is Moosevan (a planet dweller) and soon both Yuri and Diana are transported there where they encounter the Torrans who wish to disrupt the plans of the most dangerous species in the galaxy, the Mott, in their quest to possess new worlds.

The idea of an intelligence surrounded by a planet is certainly interesting but is not taken very far. The Planet Dweller is readable enough but in SF terms certainly belongs back in the 1980s or beyond. It is unfortunate that the SF element is its weakest part. The back cover of Palmer’s later novel The Watcher (which I bought at the same time) says “Another joyous send up of the SF genre,” so I assume The Planet Dweller is meant to be read in that vein. Humour in SF is a difficult trick to pull off. From the perspective of 2016 Palmer doesn’t achieve it here.

Pedant’s corner:- alchohol (alcohol,) scintar (as in “scintars and pulsars” which would suggest it’s a kind of star but I’ve never heard of it and can find no definition of one,) “a light shower of carbon dioxide particles floated gently down through the thin air” (CO2 is invisible [but maybe not to cartoon aliens,]) lackies (lackeys,) shute (chute,) court martials (courts martial,) any other species’ (species’s? it could have been species plural though, the text wasn’t exactly clear,) to see one if those creatures (one of those,) “though she was on the track of quark that would solve the riddle of the universe” (?? – Of a quark? Of quark as a type? )

Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Feb 2016 cover

The first issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. In his column Robert Silverberg remembers the pulp days. As to the fiction:-
The Grocer’s Wife [enhanced transcription] by Michael Libling.1 Andrew Phillips works for a government agency overseeing the mental deterioration of various subjects. His latest, a grocer named Thomas Bonner, gets to him, or rather the devotion of Bonner’s wife does. The deterioration process mimics Alzheimer’s but is induced by the government to drain the brains of its victims. Waffle about JFK and President Bush aside quite how and why the government should feel the need to do this remains obscure.
Bringing Them Back by Bruce McAllister. A man tries to bring back all the creatures lost to environmental stress and targeted viral outbreaks by drawing them onto paper. The story is complete with illustrations purporting to be these drawings. The last of them (he cannot bring himself to draw his wife) are of his children and himself.
In Equity by Sarah Gallien.2 An orphaned child goes to his latest placement interview with little hope of acceptance. His prospective adopters want him to be subject to unfettered medical trials in exchange for the best education.
Passion Summer by Nick Wolven.3 A Passion can be bought but is usually fleeting. Fourteen year-old Jeffrey decides to ask for a Passion for Passion itself.
Exceptional Forces by Sean McMullen narrates the tale of a Russian scientist who detected carrier wave background noise in the Andromeda galaxy (evidence of alien radio transmissions) and the contract killer sent to silence him. The story panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Monster of 1928 by Sandra McDonald is an unexceptional fantasy tale. The monster of the title is Tulu, the legend of the Everglades, encountered one night by narrator Louise.
The Charge and the Storm by An Owomoyela.4 On a colony formed by a starship community but dominated by the alien Su a group of humans seeks independence.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 skullduggery (skulduggery,) 2 sprung (sprang,) unpixilated (pixilated means bemused or intoxicated, context suggests unpixelated,) 3 gladiolas (gladioli,) Diedre (Deirdre,) 4 missing comma before a speech quote, to not die (not to die.)

Satellite 5 and New Books

 Secret Language cover
 Pelquin's Comet cover

At the weekend I was away again, this time in Glasgow for the Satellite 5 Science Fiction Convention.

I met up with a few old friends from the Scottish SF scene, was a member of a panel on the subject of Writing Space – How do SF writers an­d artist­s make their fu­tur­istic tech­nology be­liev­able? And does it really mat­ter i­f they don’t? (I don’t think I made an idiot of myself.)

I was also introduced briefly to the editor of Shoreline of Infinity, a new SF magazine/ezine and a potential home for stories.

Not to mention buying a copy of Neil Williamson’s latest story collection Secret Language published by NewCon Press, so hot off the presses it hasn’t been officially released yet.

And that nice man Ian Whates, publisher at NewCon, gave me a copy of his Pelquin’s Comet as his thank you for doing the proof-reading on it.

Latest Interzone Stuff

 The Paper Menagerie cover
 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

On Monday morning Interzone’s issue 264 dropped through the letter box. This one contains two of my reviews, a normal length one of Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories and a shorter one of City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Meanwhile, waiting for me on my return from the continent was a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, review to be delivered by the end of the month.

A Science Fiction Jigsaw

I picked this up in a sale in January. Great 1950s SF feel to the box cover:-

Jigsaw Box

The actual jigsaw inside the box was different to the illustration on the box, being a representation of the game you could play using the printed paper (and counters and die provided) inside without making up the jigsaw. Again a 1950s SF feel:-

Jigsaw

free hit counter script