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Daniel Keyes

I see from yesterday’s Guardian (I was out all day yesterday and only got round to reading it this morning) that Daniel Keyes has died.

He was best known in the SF world for just the one story, Flowers for Algernon.

But what a story! I read it many years ago and it is one of those that sticks in the mind forever. I haven’t read the later novel to which it was converted. I didn’t want my memories of the short piece to be diminished in any way. From the obituary and the link above I learned that it has been adapted for film and TV. I doubt that any of those have the power of the original text.

Daniel Keyes: 9/8/1927 – 15/6/2014. So it goes.

Book Illustrations

You may have noticed from my side-bar that I’m reading Kemlo and the Satellite Builders by E C Eliott. That was one of the pseudonyms of Reginald Alec Martin.

I’ll post about the book later but one of its main attractions was the illustrations it contained – in all their 1960 finery.

The copy I bought was without its dust jacket but the hard cover itself is illustrated, as is the spine, and there is an internal coloured illustration as a frontispiece.

There were a further six internal black and white pictures, four of which are below. All illustrations are by George Craig.

Nothing dates so quickly as the future. Witness the lever switches, metal grilles over loudspeakers and flashing lights of the original Star Trek.

When the Blue Shift Comes by Robert Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amoro

Gollancz, 2014, 187p

The Member and The Radical cover

“Heigh-ho! It’s time to sing of the ending of time!” is the first sentence of this strange confection. It originated in a failed attempt by Silverberg to write a novel about the end of the universe in “a flamboyant, high-spirited postmodern style, using direct asides to the reader and other little playful … touches.” It comprises two novellas, The Song of Last Things by Silverberg himself and The Last Mandala Sweeps by Alvaro Zinos-Amoro. Sandwiched between them is an introduction to Zinos-Amoro and When the Blue Shift Comes as a whole. In this Silverberg reveals what I had long suspected – that he has more or less given up writing fiction. Only an invitation to a venture where established writers would contribute a novella to a book, to be complemented by another by a protégé, broke this trend. Silverberg didn’t write something new. He dusted off his failed novel.

I have spoken before about Silverberg’s facility with prose and especially first paragraphs. This one continues, “Yes, the death of worlds, the crumbling of the continuum, the great Folding-in of the Gloriously Unfolded.” A lot to live up to you might think.

The story is set in Year 777 of Cycle 888 of the 1,111th Encompassment of the Ninth Mandala. This phrase is repeated so often it becomes engrained in the mind. (Nevertheless, why that “Ninth” is capitalised when the other numbers are not is a mystery.)

Hanosz Prime, ruler of the Parasol system in the Andromeda Nebula is about to undergo his umpteenth regeneration. (While he expects to die at some point, it is a peculiarity of this time that residents of Earth – still human, as is Hanosz, though their physical appearance is not like ours at all and is indeed, mutable – are immortal, provided they don’t spend prolonged periods elsewhere.) A traveller called Zereshk Poloi informs him that the universe is ending. (It turns out that something called a Twisselman hypersingularity – like a black hole but considerably more aggressive and therefore even nastier – is expanding more than exponentially, sucking the Milky Way into itself and threatening the galaxies beyond.)

(The two novellas are full of parenthetical narrator’s inserts like these.)

(Sometimes several follow one upon the other.)

(It gets quite irritating after a while.)

In his prime Silverberg might have been able to bring this sort of thing off with something approaching brio. As it is, and while Zinos-Amaro does bring the project to a more or less coherent conclusion, there is something amiss, the end result is just too silly. It pains me to say this as Silverberg is one of my SF immortals but on this evidence it’s probably as well he has given up the scribbling game. Heigh-ho.

Annoyances corner. We had the Usianism “spit” used as a past tense. It’s so much less pithy and vituperous than “spat.”

Approaching Omega by Eric Brown

Telos, 2005, 118 p.

Approaching Omega cover

To escape an Earth that is falling apart, several thousand people have been selected to journey in cold sleep to find another habitable planet. The ship’s automated systems are to wake them either on detecting a suitable candidate or when an accident has occurred.

A prelude chapter sets up the situation and foreshadows a possible problem with the ship’s drive. The main body of the book deals with the aftermath of damage to the ship and the controlling AI’s response. This turns the tale into one of action adventure. While Brown’s usual focus on human relationships is not absent it is lessened here in comparison to other works of his. A coda re-establishes this aspect, though.

The Female Man by Joanna Russ

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2010, 209 p, plus 5p epigraph and Introduction. Originally published in 1975.

The Female Man cover

One day a woman called Janet Evason appears on a street in the US. She is from the future, from a planet named Whileaway where a cataclysm wiped out all men hundreds of years before Janet’s birth. Her appearance makes her a celebrity and occasions disbelief at the mere possibility of a manless society. This US is in a parallel timeline to ours where the Great Depression is still ongoing and the Second World War never happened. She is, of course, Janet Evasdaughter but as the book tells us, Evason “is your translation.” Her path crosses that of Jeannine Dadier, who is in an unsatisfactory relationship with a man called Cal but feels pressurised to marry – especially by her mother. “Someone is collecting J’s” as we also meet Joanna, a woman from something very like our own 1970s who may indeed be a representation of the author, and Jael Reasoner from a world where men and women are at war.

This set-up gives Russ opportunity to elaborate on the many iniquities which men pile upon women. In the intervening forty or so years since the novel was first published many things have changed but others have not. Russ’s strictures still have power. Of motherhood Joanna says, “This is the most important job in the world. That’s why they don’t pay you for it.”

The book’s structure is disjointed and bitty, though, the many asides a distraction from the unfolding of story but these asides are one of the means by which Russ is pointing up her concerns.

Science Fiction is the perfect medium for thought experiments; SF is never really about the future. In its particular highlighting of how things might (still) be different in terms of sexual equality The Female Man was – and remains – an important book in the history of SF and in its evolution.

Curiosity corner. We had “waked” for “woke.” Is this a US usage? Also gay appeared in the sense of homosexual – as long ago as 1975!

The Incomer by Margaret Elphinstone

The Women’s Press, 1987, 229 p

The Incomer cover

I picked this one up in a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh a few months ago. For two reasons. One, it was a Women’s Press SF publication I hadn’t bought at the time so it filled a gap and two, it fitted the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. The book has the impeccably Scottish word incomer as part of its title. Though born in Kent, author Margaret Elphinstone has lived extensively in Scotland – in Galloway when the book was published – and has a professional academic interest in Scottish literature, especially of the islands. (She does have a character say, “Aren’t I?” though.)

As dark is falling a human figure falters through a vaguely menacing forest to a crossroads with a village on its north side. The village has several ruined houses but we are given to understand this is by no means unusual for the times. (Almost incidentally we find out some sort of change has reduced the human population compared to our time and advanced technology is conspicuous by its absence. Despite this, familiar things such as flower pots, nappies and sheep crop up from time to time. Heat is provided by burning wood, which seems to be a precious resource despite the surrounding forest. The North Sea is dangerous, referred to as dead, in contrast to the reviving Irish Sea.)

The figure, a travelling musician named Naomi, finds room at the inn. Her fiddle playing at a gathering a day or so later ensures her acceptance to stay for the rest of the winter. The village is called Clachanpluck (the novel has been republished as The Incomer or Clachanpluck) and holds a secret. A path through the forest leads to an entry into the earth hidden behind a waterfall. (No spoilers.)

Naomi’s presence has an impact on the relationships within the village but the main theme of the novel is mutual incomprehension, the lack of understanding Naomi has of the local norms, the assumed knowledge she doesn’t have, the care with which she has to tread. Her main driving force is her music but during her stay in the village she nevertheless – if somewhat unconvincingly – throws off her long-maintained celibacy in a relationship with fellow fiddle player Davey to whom she teaches tunes that she learned on her travels in Europe. Old, powerful music, written by Beethoven. Despite the almost unspoken matriarchy in Clachanpluck human nature hasn’t much changed. Other misunderstandings take place among those who have lived there all their lives.

This is a quiet, understated novel whose depiction of a restrained, unfussy, reticent lifestyle where people no longer exploit nature unsustainably and have a deep attachment to the land may be nostalgic and idealistic yet resists being idyllic.

We See a Different Frontier: a post-colonial speculative fiction anthology edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

Futurefire.net, 2013, 213 p. Reviewed for Interzone 249, Nov-Dec 2013.

By and large the language of Science Fiction has always been English, its explorations of other worlds in the main tending to describe their exploitation. In literature (as in life) humans have generally gone off planet to seek things, either knowledge or possessions – and damn any natives. Long past time for a corrective? A “straight, white, cis, male” might feel loth to comment.

The Arrangement of Their Parts by Shweta Naryan is a partly fabular tale of clockwork animals taken to pieces by an Englishman and the Artificer Diva who stands up to him.

The delightfully titled but pulpy Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus by Ernest Hogan tells how with the help of Nicola Tesla’s death ray Alejandro Sahagún replaces Pancho Villa and sets out to recover his sweetheart, abducted by Hollywood producers. While a slight tale this nevertheless rightly fingers Hollywood as the centre of cultural colonialism.

Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Aliens in iridescent spacehips have taken over Earth. Our (unnamed) narrator, a former street scavenger, wonders why his cell-mate – the once privileged Leonardo – would want to escape what he regards as a cosseted life.

In J Y Yang’s Old Domes Jing-Li is a cullmaster, charged with despatching guardians – the personifications of buildings – before their renovation. The guardian of Singapore’s Supreme Court is unwilling to go quietly.

Fabio Fernandes’s The Gambiarra Method reads a bit like a 1950s magazine story. Time travel is discovered in 2077. By accident. In anti-gravitational lifts with an attached post-virtual environment. The mechanism is investigated using the Gambiarra method – how to do things with whatever is at hand.

Riya in A Bridge of Words by Dinesh Rao has spent most of her life in Krashnigar, the former colonial power. She is now involved in a project to decipher the tattoos of the Thuri, one of the two sects of her ancestral homeland. Over this world hangs a mysterious red spaceship broadcasting an unchanging coded message.

Droplet by Rahul Kanakia. Subhir has lived in India after his parents took him there from his childhood home in California to avoid the ever worsening drought conditions. On his return to the US he finds out what really happened.

In Joyce Chng’s Lotus most of the Earth is covered in water after an event called the Washing. Landers fight fiercely to hold on to their territories while boaters roam the Waterways, exchanging and bartering. Boater Cecily and her partner Si one day come upon a source of precious drinkable water and food, giving them a moral dilemma.

Lavie Tidhar’s Dark Continents* envisages several different ways in which the past two centuries of Jewish history could have worked themselves out. These include forging a disputed homeland in Africa, intervention in the US Civil War and a peaceful integration into Palestine.

A Heap of Broken Things* by Sonny Moraine features a planet lit by two suns, where human colonists carried out a massacre a generation before. A local tour guide is confronted with that inheritance.

Sandra McDonald’s Fleet* is set a generation after the Night of Fire when solar megaflares destroyed all electronic communication. The people of a Pacific island forge their future in isolation.

Remembering Turinam by N A Ratnyake. A scholar from a defeated people whose language and culture have been oppressed, all but forgotten, returns to his capital city to speak with his grandfather, the last remaining witness to the old days.

Sofia Samatar’s I Stole the DC’s Eyeglass is the story of Pai-te and her sister Minisare who has a spirit-eye and builds a beast of iron as a gesture of “defiance honour, dawn, tomorrow.”

Vector by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. In a US dominated Thailand where no-one has dark hair anymore, nor speaks Thai, a woman’s body has been turned into a viral weapon, both disease and vector, to undo the changes.

In Gabriel Murray’s Forests of the Night* the illegitimate son of the ex-colonial Captain Lyons, brought to Yorkshire to act as his father’s valet, dreams of the tiger that is stalking the local neighbourhood.

What Really Happened in Ficandula by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. A cultural misunderstanding leads to deaths and reprisals the memories of which are kept alive by the female descendants of the colonised as they themselves head for a new planet.

This collection illustrates how language, or its suppression, has been a primary tool of colonialism on Earth. There is irony, then, that, as Ekaterina Sedia’s afterword notes, all these stories were written in US English. (Double irony when the word “veterinarian” is depicted as being employed by a Yorkshireman.) Yet the theme of resistance, the keeping of traditions, shines through. Under the circumstances resistance becomes necessary.

As with most anthologies the standard can be uneven, but each story works as speculative fiction; and four (asterisked in this blog post) are very good indeed.

Clarke Award 2014

I see Ancillary Justice has won this year’s Clarke Award.

Not having read three of the contenders I can’t really comment beyond saying the winner’s author, Ann Leckie, has clearly hit some sort of nerve as her book has also (jointly) won the BSFA Award and for good measure is on the Hugo Award ballot paper too.

Descent by Ken MacLeod

This book is dedicated to the memory of the author’s close friend, Iain (M) Banks, and may be considered as a tribute. It is topped and tailed by two of the protagonist’s dreams, titled respectively 0.1111 Recurring and 0.2222 Recurring. The first of these is very Banksian in tone.

Some time in the near(ish) future Ryan Sinclair and his friend Calum, who has a more demotic form of speech than Ryan, have a close encounter with a strange silver sphere in the hills above Greenock. Ryan thereafter experiences dreams/memories of the classic UFO alien abduction scenario. Calum does not. Both are subsequently visited by mysterious strangers – in Ryan’s case a man calling himself the Reverend James Baxter, a literal Man in Black. Thereafter Baxter figures intermittently throughout the novel. (Quite why MacLeod used the name of perhaps Scotland’s most famous footballer for this character is obscure; to me at least.)

Descent contains simultaneously an exploration and a debunking of the UFO abduction story but is also much more than this. Calum tells Ryan a family history about uniqueness and distancing. In his later life as a freelance science journalist, Ryan uncovers evidence, through fertility statistics, of speciation occurring within humans. This affects Ryan’s life directly in his relationship with Gabrielle, one of Calum’s relatives, whom he meets at a wedding. While Ryan is busy with his Highers* a worldwide change in economic arrangements called the Big Deal saves capitalism from itself by instituting what Calum refers to as a kind of socialism (but if it is, it is very dilute.) The pre-Big Deal revolutionaries evaporate away in this new dispensation where jobs are more abundant, while silver airships and smart fabrics make their appearance. Otherwise people’s activities, drinking, vaping (presumably of e-cigs,) buying, selling, work and relationships are more or less as we know them now. The UFO aspect of his story allows MacLeod to have some fun with government’s response to such manifestations.

The early scenes set in Greenock bear some similarities to Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal. Both novels have at their start a sixteen year old protagonist, a West of Scotland seaside town setting, a sudden attraction to a girl. The writing of the two novels is comparable also. Descent is a different beast altogether, however. While Warner’s book dealt with politics only obliquely MacLeod has always been a writer whose interest in political ideas has been foregrounded in his fiction. He never lets it get in the way of the story but his engagement with politics is distinctive among SF writers.

In character terms Descent deals with betrayal, revenge and redemption. While the SF elements are necessary to the plot, they could be considered as trappings, scaffolding on which to build the human story.

A nice touch was the inclusion of the phrase, “Gonnae naw dae that,” made famous in Scotland by the TV series Chewin’ the Fat.

*A Scottish educational qualification (originally the Higher School Leaving Certificate) and roughly equivalent to A-levels, but undertaken over one year.) Nitpick:- page 84 refers to Calum excelling at O-level technical drawing. O-levels were not a Scottish examination. Some Scottish schools did enter their pupils for them but I doubt that happened in Greenock. Nor will it. The Scottish equivalent, O-grades, were superseded in the 1980s by Standard Grades, which in their turn have this year been replaced by National 3, 4 and 5 qualifications. O-levels were replaced in England by GCSEs from 1988.

Koko Takes a Holiday

Koko Takes a Holiday cover

Still catching up from being away at Eastercon. (I’m also still surrounded by unpacked boxes from the flitting.)

My latest review book for Interzone came through the door one day last week. It is the rather strangely titled (for a cyberpunk novel) Koko Takes a Holiday and was written by Kieran Shea. Mr Shea is new to me but has published short pieces in various outlets.

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