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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.

Hugo Award Nominations

The nominations for this year’s Hugo Awards were unveiled at Eastercon (among other places.)

Of all these nominations I have read only those two that overlap with the BSFA Award nominations.

There has apparently been a stushie over the fact that a series has been nominated in the best novel category (but that is entirely within the rules) and also that one of the novelette nominees has been described as racist, sexist and homophobic. I know nothing of the background to this so can make no comment.

Best Short Story:-

If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013)
The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, 04-2013)
Selkie Stories Are for Losers, Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)
The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere, John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)

Best Novelette:-

Opera Vita Aeterna, Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
The Exchange Officers, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)
The Lady Astronaut of Mars, Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013)
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
The Waiting Stars, Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)

Best Novella:-

The Butcher of Khardov, Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
The Chaplain’s Legacy, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
Equoid, Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
Wakulla Springs, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013)

Best Novel:-

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK)
Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK)
Parasite, Mira Grant (Orbit US/Orbit UK)
Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, Larry Correia (Baen Books)
The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books / Orbit UK)

BSFA Awards

This year’s awards were announced at Eastercon.

Unfortunately I had to miss the ceremony due to my appearance on a panel the hour beforehand and the necessity to eat thereafter.

The winners were:-

Best Non-Fiction: Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer.

Best Art: cover of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-Fi.

Best Short Fiction: Spin by Nina Allan

Best Novel: tie between Gareth L. Powell for Ack Ack Macaque and Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice.

I voted for three of the four fiction winners.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2013

A welcome innovation this year was the inclusion in the booklet of pieces to do with the Award for non-fiction. The nominees here were:-

“Sleeps with Monsters” by Liz Bourke. Two extracts from Bourke’s blog for tor.com are included. One is about fantasy, the other gaming.

“Going Forth by Night” by John J Johnston. A discussion on the history of Mummies in literature from the introduction to Unearthed, an anthology published in partnership with The Egypt Exploration Society.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. The Awards booklet contained an extract from the book’s first chapter.

As usual the booklet contains all the nominees for the short story award.

I have already reviewed Spin by Nina Allan, TTA Press.

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, Strange Horizons, January 2013.

A girl who works in a restaurant has a host of selkie stories which she says always end in the same way, except she will never tell one. Of course; she does. A story about the faces we present to the world, the masks we hide behind and how we yearn to be our true selves.

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

Saga was the most famous astronaut in the Solar System before, and after, she took off into the unknown from the surface of Ceres and was never heard from again. (There is an explosion here due to “unstable gases released by drilling.” No mention of the necessary oxygen though.) The lives of her three children, who up till a few days before that moment had not realised they had siblings, are irreparably marked by her single-mindedness.

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, no 113, Jan 2013.
A tale of infatuation and betrayal with indeterminate gendered folk, and houses that are alive in a city of canals. More fantasy than SF.

Hmmm. I would say that two and a half out of these four stories are more fantastical in nature than SF.

The winners will be announced on Sunday evening during Eastercon.

Satellite 4 (Eastercon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucius Shepard and Margo MacDonald

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

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

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

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

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

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

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

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