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The Watcher by Jane Palmer

Women’s Press, 1986, 181 p.

The Watcher cover

A Star Dancer has taken to draining the energy pools of Ojal, threatening the planet’s future. Controller Opu finds the perpetrator retreats to Perimeter 84296 (Earth) on the other side of the galaxy and in “less than seconds.” Opu has to delegate care for her offspring before she can deal with this. She decides to send an android to Earth to try to stop the Star Dancer’s activities. Such a transmission is illegal, a transgression liable to be uncovered by a Watcher.

That aliens have childcare issues too is a neat touch; but that responsibility is shrugged off to someone else, in what may be regarded as an all too human manner, for most of the book.

On Earth the locals include Wendle a youthful looking man who is well over a hundred years old, a black police inspector called Weatherby, a sparky policewoman named Perkins, an orphan of Asian extraction called Gabrielle, and a divorced mother named Penny. Not all of these are as they seem but as with The Planet Dweller the interactions between the human characters are much more convincing than those sections dealing with aliens, which again have a cartoonish element. The search for Opu’s agent by giant cylindrical robots mistaken for sea creatures excites a certain degree of interest but the intrusion is accepted in a phlegmatic, restrained, very English way.

In the course of its endeavours the android manages to convert itself into being human; the first to achieve such transformation. As a further complication its senders are about to destroy it, which would be a further transgression now it’s technically alive. In the end the Watcher reveals herself.

The back cover blurb calls this, “Another joyous send up of the SF genre”. It may have appeared satirical when it was written but now I’m afraid it evokes only bathos. At least to this reader.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘They can’s be that backward’ (can’t,) “they stared in wonderment the needle erratically began to flicker into life (has an “as” missing somewhere,) even less that the intruder (even less than,) vocal chords (cords,) ‘But how well these creatures know it’s a trial run’ (how will,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means “from where”,) andriod (android,) ‘Why?’ said Annac, had no idea what was going on (said Annac, who had no idea,) “he was adamant she should not. and refused” (has an errant full stop,) “and a possible explanation …… came to him he froze (also missing an “as”.)

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2015, 352 p.

 The Philosopher Kings cover

Twenty years on from the events of The Just City and its Last Debate following which Athene flew off in a huff taking all but two of the Worker robots with her, our Platonists are still trying to become their best selves but have split into five cities on Kallisti/Santorini/Thera/Atlantis and a further group headed by Kebes/Mathias who sailed off in the ship Goodness to found colonies in the Ægean. The remaining five cities indulge in raiding each other to purloin the city’s art works for themselves. The Philsopher Kings starts off with one of these in which the heroine of the previous book, Simmea, is killed by an arrow. Apollo, in his incarnation as Pytheas, could have prevented her death but she forestalled him. The rest of the novel is preoccupied with Apollo’s search for the reasons why she wanted him to remain in the project without her and a quest for revenge on Kebes whom Apollo thought might be responsible for Simmea’s death and discovers from her journal had as good as (as bad as?) raped her. This gives Walton the opportunity to take us on a sub-Homeric trip round the Mediterranean and to allow those of Apollo/Pytheas’s children who are on the voyage to be imbued with divine powers on the island of Delos. It turns out the Goodness group has started to practice a form of Christianity, centuries before Christ’s life. They rationalise this by saying he is their eternal saviour.

As in the first book the narrative is presented from three viewpoints. Those of Maia and Apollo follow on from it, but, Simmea being dead, the third thread here is as by her daughter by Apollo/Pytheas, Arete (whose name means excellence.) There is much talk of possibly changing history but The Philosopher Kings does not engage as fully with the issues of free will and equal significance as The Just City did.

(Spoiler) There is also a spectacular example of what I can only call a Zeus ex machina towards the end. Granted, in Walton’s scenario the Greek Gods are real but Zeus has heretofore been well offstage and his incorporation seemed a trifle gratuitous.

Maybe this book is suffering from middle-of-trilogy, marking-time syndrome. I’ll still look out for Necessity, the next in the sequence.

Pedant’s corner:- blacksmith (isn’t this technically an iron-worker? We’re in the Bronze Age here, though iron is mentioned in places. The general term for metal-worker is smith.) “Near enough the overhear us” (near enough to.) “The thing they most wanted to discover….. were” (The thing…..was.) A sculpture of a crucifixion describes nails through “his palms and feet”; I believe the Romans actually pinned the nails through the wrists and ankles. Arete’s narrative refers to this as a crucifix but she would not have known that word. We are only told later she can understand all languages. Kebes face (Kebes’s – which appears later.) “‘I don’t want to discuss standing it on the harbor.’” (‘I don’t want to discuss it standing on the harbor.’)

The Lordly Ones by Keith Roberts

Gollancz, 1986, 160 p.

This is a collection of seven stories by one of the best (if not the best) British SF writers of the late twentieth century.

The Lordly Ones cover

The Lordly Ones A man who was “a bit slow” in school finds a job as a lavatory attendant. A war or revolution (the Trouble) breaks out but he keeps the toilets spotless despite there being no infrastructure to sustain him.
Ariadne Potts Sedate bank clerk Henry Potts has a hobby of photographing the garden statuary of stately homes. One day he comes across a most fetching, exquisite nymph whom he wishes to come alive. She does; and then takes over his life. An almost perfect be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.
Sphairistike A subtly told story of our nameless narrator’s relationship to the man behind a tennis playing prodigy, who/which may or may not be an android.
The Checkout One of Roberts’s stories featuring Anita the witch. Here she is intrigued by a supermarket checkout girl whom she helps escape from her restrictions.
The Comfort Station riffs on the same scenario as The Lordly Ones with a woman disrupting the toilet attendant’s existence.
The Castle on the Hoop A ghost story. Or one about someone who can bend time.
Diva A woman singer becomes a world-wide sensation as her voice calms the troubled breasts of her audiences and sparks off outbreaks of peace, love and understanding. Narrated as by the gardener of the Laird of Ardkinross in Argyllshire where she gives her last performance before the powers that be prevail on her to stop. Even the cohorts of the local Minister whose “notices proclaimed the sinfulness of singing, dancing, musicmaking and almost anything else one cared to mention,” are placated. Both Scots and US speech are part represented phonetically, not always entirely convincingly. Note to those of a nervous disposition. The US President at one point says, “Uh ain’t never lynched a nigger yet.”

Pedant’s corner:- “I was suppose” (I was supposed,) “coming up smelling violets” (it’s usually smelling of violets,) “with six whole channels to fill” seems a quaint detail these days, awhile (a while,) “I can only – and your belief isn’t my concern – that I was…” (say that I was,) nobbly roots (knobbly,) James’ (James’s,) whisht (this Scottish imprecation to be quiet is nowadays usually spelled wheesht,) sometning’s afoot (something’s,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means from where,) will-he, nill-he (an unusual rendering of willy-nilly,) the Diva’s bodyguard has a Schmeisser sub-machine gun (in Britain??) Brahmans (usually written Brahmins.)

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

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!


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? )

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