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Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Scholastic, 2002, 295 p.

Mortal Engines cover

For a thousand years cities have been mobile, traversing the dried up land in search of smaller urban entities to consume. This system is known as Municipal Darwinism and apparently has a set of rules. (There are, though, pirate towns which disregard these.) There is, too, an Anti-Traction League, settled towns safe in Asia behind an impregnable wall. The League has agents who work against the Traction towns.

Reeves has some fun with his premise. Panzerstadt-Bayreuth is a wonderful name for a predatory city, as is Tunbridge Wheels for a smaller ambulatory town. The text is also peppered with adapted phrases such as, “a rolling town gathers no moss,” with a curious emphasis on Hull; “like a bat out of Hull,” “Bloody Hull!”

Tom Natsworthy is a lowly member of the Guild of Historians in London, in thrall to the principles of Municipal Darwinism. His encounter with his – and London’s – hero, Chief Historian Valentine, draws him into a series of adventures after he witnesses an attempt on Valentine’s life by a mutilated young girl, Hester Shaw. In the aftermath both he and Hester are thrown out of London – Hester by her own hand, Tom at another’s – on the so-called Hunting Ground, forced together by this circumstance. In typical children’s book fashion both Hester and Tom are children (young adults here) who have lost their parents. By contrast the other main narrative focus in the book – apart from Valentine – is his daughter Katherine; but she has lost her mother.

Told in a mixture of past and present tenses, the book tracks the evolution of Tom’s and Katherine’s awareness of Valentine’s character (Hester was never in doubt) and even the principles of Municipal Darwinism itself – all among a welter of airships, men resurrected as machines, bullying pirates with pretensions to civility, and rediscovered weapons. As with many a Young Adult novel the pace is relentless, the pages incident packed.

Throw aside any notions of doubt about how a predatory system such as the Municipal Darwinism portrayed here could last for a hundred – never mind a thousand – years and also any quibbles about the level of characterisation (London’s Mayor, Magnus Crome, is a little one dimensional,) the piling on of incident and an occasional lack of subtlety. Broad brush strokes are arguably necessary in YA fiction. Mortal Engines is totally engaging, while still carrying the monitory subtext that appearance and demeanour are no clue to underlying character.

Pedants corner: Reeves has the resurrected man named the Shrike tune his ultra-red sensors. This turns out to be a heat-seeing system. That would be infra-red, below red, then; ultra-red, beyond or above red, is just plain green (in terms of primary colours) – or at a pinch, orange.

Odin’s Son by Susan Price

Simon and Schuster, 2008, 243 p.

Odin’s Son cover

This “Young Adult” book was in the book sale section at my local library. The good lady suggested I read it to see “what is getting published now.” It wasn’t till I’d finished it I realised it was the third in a trilogy. (To avoid spoilers I hadn’t looked at the back cover blurb.)

The trilogy aspect perhaps accounts for the lack of explanation in Odin’s Son of the system of indenture which underpins part of the narrative. The indentured, known as bonders, are legally sub-human, and – on Earth – are treated as if they were in fact actually less endowed with feeling and sentiment. (This is, of course, the way the privileged always behave towards the less fortunate.)

The book is mainly set on Mars where a religion based on the Norse Gods is in a subordinate position to that of the ancient Greeks. A now-dead bonder woman called Odinstoy had been smuggled up from Earth by another bonder, Affroditey Millington, but their status is in legal limbo. Odinstoy claimed her son, dubbed Odin’s Gift, was fathered by Odin – hence the title – and the story unravels both his fortunes and his true origins. The head of the “Greek” religion has the curious name of Zeuslove Thatcher. Is this to signal he is the baddy?

Remarkably, for 100 pages the novel was unmarked by typos or infelicities of any sort – then we had icanthus for acanthus and things began to run downhill. Price seems to think there is an asteroid belt between Earth and Mars. There may be some asteroids in such orbits, but the belt is usually considered to lie between Mars and Jupiter. An ascension by space elevator is said to be accompanied by “no G-forces, no thrill. Other ships were descending on the other side of the El, and their weight lifted (them) upwards.” From ground level the feeling would be exactly that of ascending by any sort of lift mechanism – most of which are counterbalanced in a comparable manner. Flint is “formed from the skeletons of sea-creatures dissolved in sea water.” If they’ve dissolved they’re no longer skeletons. And material precipitating out from sea water into the spaces the skeletons left is more likely.

While the characterisation can be thin at times (Zeuslove Thatcher) others are drawn more fully – but at least one plot thread is left dangling. Whether Odin’s Son represents a satisfactory conclusion to the trilogy I can’t say but for the most part it worked on its own terms and a late development nibbled at the edge of questioning what it means to be human.

Adrift in the Stratosphere by Prof A M Low

Blackie and Son, 1954? 338 p.

Adrift in the Stratosphere cover

What a strange old beast this is. It was first published in 1937 – and shows it. Its three protagonists are (in one case ex-) public schoolboys who say things like, “I say, you chaps,” “jolly well” and “Rather!” and get through more by luck than expertise. They become adrift in the stratosphere by accidentally taking off in a spaceship that someone has built (in a barn!) where they’d stopped off on a motorbike excursion. The radio on board (wireless set and radio are used interchangeably) can somehow access two week old broadcasts and their diet is provided by “super-vitamin tablets.” “One represents sufficient food for one person for one day. Dissolve in the mouth and swallow slowly.” Parse the last sentence of the quote, if you would.

Their adventures include passing through a belt of X-rays (which allow them to see through each other,) the ship being struck by particles from a passing meteor (without any structural damage,) an encounter with a cloud like stratospheric creature, being attacked by evil Martians (complete with death rays) and meeting a somewhat more benevolent set of comet dwellers. “The speed at which we travel through space sets up an action in the ether which covers us with a gas-like vapour. Your astronomers have fallen into the mistaken belief that we are composed entirely of gas.” The adventures come thick and fast but characterisation is non-existent. Plus the return of the chaps to Earth in the final page is very perfunctorily handled.

For its time I suppose it would have been unexceptional, a Boy’s Own Adventure indeed.

A view of the nice thistle design on the hardcovers ca be found here and that of the internal illustration here.

The author, one Prof A M Low, apparently designed a proto-television system he called Televista (a device of this name, which combines the “principles of television and that of the camera obscura,” appears in the book) but due to the Great War nothing much came of it.

Here Low uses the term stratosphere to describe what would now be called space. Whether that was a common usage in the 1930s I have no idea. He also employs the latter term in its modern sense. And the ship is at least once referred to as falling. In space you wouldn’t notice.

Typos corner (even in the 1950s!) – breath for breathe, noticably for noticeably.

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.

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