This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Jo Fletcher Books, 2019, 203 p. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 This is How You Lose the Time War cover

On behalf of the Agency, Red travels upthread into the past and downthread to the future to effect changes in the different Strands of the worlds, (“so many Atlantises,”) waging an eternal time war against Garden, tweaking conditions here, ensuring individuals thrive there, so that they may be in a position to affect history in the Agency’s favour.

At the end of one such mission Red finds a letter which should not be there and on which is inscribed the instruction, “burn before reading.” Despite knowing that it is a trap designed perhaps to kill her, to convert her to the other side, or to compromise her with her own, she decides to comply with the instruction and reads the message. It is from her adversary, Blue; an acknowledgement of her part in making Blue raise her own game, an expression of admiration, a declaration of inevitable victory. Red responds with a letter of her own.

So begins a long correspondence achieved through an increasingly bizarre series of dead drops in which the two agents’ regard for one another deepens and grows into something else.

The book’s narrative is carried via sequences describing Red’s and Blue’s endeavours to change different strands’ histories, each followed by the contents of a letter written to one by the other. Only in one instance is this strict authorial practice not followed and that is where Blue’s letter is encoded in six seeds but Red only swallows three of them and so only gets part of the whole message. (This makes sense in the context of the novel.) Their letters are studded with recommendations, allusions and digressions and embellished by postscripts, PPS’s and even at times PPPS’s.

In all but the first (and the three ante-penultimate) non-epistolary sections the reader is vouchsafed a line or two at the end wherein a seeker manages to reconstitute the letter we are about to read for ourselves. Red becomes aware of this pursuer and is continually looking over her shoulder to see if she can catch her shadower and therefore also wary of contact with her Commandant in case she is suspected of treason. So too, Blue with Garden.
The deployment of various Science Fiction tropes is essential to the novel’s overall effect but to begin with they are merely there, as a kind of exotic background; none of the strands or missions is explored in any detail, there is no mechanism ascribed to the ability to travel in time, Red and Blue are just able to do it. Up to its denouement the plot could have been akin, say, to the jockeyings of John le Carré’s Smiley and Karla but its resolution and the identity of the mysterious seeker are thoroughly dependent on the story’s premise.

All this is laced with the occasional piece of sly humour – a group of participants at the assassination of Julius Caesar (or, rather, a Julius Caesar) seems to consist entirely of agents known to Red – and allusions such as “hoarse Trojans” and “across half a dozen strands, of mice, of men, plans, canals, Panama.” Add in references to Ozymandias, Mrs Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence, Bess of Hardwick and an exhortation by Blue to Red for her to read Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (of which we are later given a short critique) and the reading experience becomes a rich one. The letters are a particular delight. Necessarily so, for they are the narrative’s focus, the means by which we come to understand and appreciate the relationship between Red and Blue, and their mutual goals.

This is a book which eschews the flash, bang, wallop of much of the modern SF genre, containing SF of an enquiring and knowing kind, yet playful with it. Discursive, though relatively short, it is still economic, packing a lot into its 199 pages. It deserves a wide audience.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:-“knew one other” (one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres,) “it amuses Blue to no end” (that would mean ‘without purpose’; ‘it amuses Blue no end’ is the phrase required.) “Adaption is the price of victory” (Adaptation is the..,) “colour” but “humor” (does one of the authors use USian spellings while the other doesn’t?) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) proboscides (it is the Greek plural of proboscis – the ‘English’ plural is proboscises – but I’ve only ever seen probosces before. Apparently that has a specialised use in biology.)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2019

British Science Fiction Association, 2020, 72 p.

 BSFA Awards 2019 cover

Four of the six “stories” in the short fiction category are extracts from longer works.
The first To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers1 is couched in the form of a report from one of the first human expeditions to an exoplanet back to an Earth fourteen light-years distant. There are some aspects of Chambers’s writing which have improved since I read her first novel but still in evidence here was that impulse to dump unnecessary information. For example, why give us an account of the (Earthly) life cycle of a metamorphic insect? By all means mention it; but to expound on the detail? Similarly authors ought to avoid formulations like, “If enzyme patches are still used medically, you know this already,” providing the example of an insulin patch for diabetics. On reading this I had the thought that Chambers is either still writing amateur fiction or else writing Science Fiction for people who don’t read Science Fiction.
Jolene by Fiona Moore2 I read in Interzone 283.
Ragged Alice by Gareth L Powell3 is again an extract. Set on the west coast of Wales we are following the investigation of female detective Holly Craig who has the ability to see people’s inner light, or darkness. This deals with information dumping much more subtly and more naturally than did Becky Chambers.
The Survival of Molly Southborne by Tade Thompson (an extract again) is one of those “many lives” narratives which have become common. Here drops from Molly Southborne’s blood can generate genetically identical duplicates of her. These usually turn on her and try to kill her. The story is narrated by the last one, whom Molly has trained to survive her own death in a fire.
For Your Own Good by Ian Whates4 is about a man who has spent his life working towards AI rights waking up in different virtual realities. The moment when his car’s AI adds a vocative, “Dave,” to its sentence when first addressing him is chillingly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also acts as a foreshadowing emphasised by its later phrase, “‘It’s for your own good, Dave.’”
I read This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone5 for review in Interzone 283 (see link above.) I don’t usually post those reviews here till a year has gone by but will make an exception in this case in my next post. Suffice to say I thought it was excellent.

As to the non-fiction:-
In Chapter 6 of “The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein” by Farah Mendlesohn (reprinted here) the author argues that Heinlein’s support of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment’s ‘right to bear arms’ is, as evidenced by his fiction, more nuanced than people usually allow, as such carrying is shown as being almost useless.
The introduction to “Sideways in time: Critical Essays on Alternate History” by Glyn Morgan and C Palmer-Patela featured here says the form is not merely a sub-genre of SF, illustrates its long history distinguishes between the counterfactual (academically accepted,) and fiction and outlines three different kinds of altered history stories, the nexus, the true altered history and the parallel worlds story.
The extract from “About Writing” by Gareth L Powell boils down to ‘just do it’.
H G Wells: A Literary Life by Adam Roberts looks in detail at Wells’s A Modern Utopia.
Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit by Jo Lindsay-Waltonb discusses the role of work in Star Trek’s post-scarcity utopia.

I won’t get round to the two novels I’ve not yet read and I’m not too enthused about any of the art works nominated this year.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“The closest access I had to nature were the hydroponic planters” (closest access … was the …,) “soft-ware … neighbour-hood” (why the hyphens?) “How can anyone be expected to care about the questions of worlds above when the questions of the world you’re stuck on those most vital criteria of home and heath and safety – remain unanswered?” (needs a comma after ‘stuck on’.) “It didn’t matter where you from” (where you were from.) 2This has the sort of underlining used in manuscripts to denote when a word is to appear in italics in the final version, “to lay over top of it” (over the tp of it,) it’s set in Britain and narrated by a Brit so why the use of ‘pickup’ for a truck and ‘veterinarian’ for a vet? 3whiskey (it was a single malt, so, whisky. The second time ‘whiskey’ appeared may have been referring to Jack Daniel’s, so I’ll let it off,) “he tended to avoid the alcoholic binges which tended to follow team matches” (one ‘tended’ too many inside the space of eight words,) the text also mentions “a recently laid-off teacher” (such a teacher would have to have done something major to have been dismissed, lay-offs are highly unusual.) 4Ballearics (Balearics,) sprung (sprang.) “‘Humankind will be made aware of how far beyond them we are,’” (how far beyond it we are.) “‘Humanity must believe they can continue to trust us,’” (believe it can continue to trust us.) 5“knew one other” (knew one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres.)
aascendency (ascendancy.) b“That is is” (only one ‘is’ required,) “making a Data a slave” (making Data a slave,) Keynes’ (x7, Keynes’s,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s – used later,) “becomes freighted cognitive and emotional significance” (is missing a ‘with’ before cognitive.)

Warnemünde Again

In Warnemünde town centre is a sculpture of a man and two women in a boat. It is the Pilot’s Monument for Stephan Jantzen, sailor, harbour pilot and life saver.

Sculpture, Warnemünde Town Centre

A nearby plaque bears information about the sculptor, Reinhard Dietrich Lotsenehrung. It also says, “1976 Beton, Eigentum Hansestadt Rostock.” (1976 concrete, Property of the Hanseatic City of Rostock.)

Sculpture plaque, Warnemünde

In another side street there was this unusual fountain:-

Fountain Warnemünde

Which bore this plaque:-

Plaque, Fountain, Warnemünde

The small park had a pillar containing books acting as a library:-

Book Pillar In a Park, Warnemünde

The children’s play area had this delightful ride a (working) digger:-

Play Digger in a Park, Warnemünde

Warnemünde, Germany

Third stop on our Baltic cruise last year was Warnemünde, North Germany. It lies at the mouth of the River Warnow and is effectively the port for Rostock, of which it is administratively part.

We could have taken trips to Rostock – or Berlin – but decided not to. The Berlin one involved a long bus trip would only have allowed a few hours in the city and Rostock wasn’t particularly attractive.

From the dockside on the River Warnow you have to cross an inlet to get to the main part of Warnemünde. Looking north:-

Warnemünde, Inlet of River Warnow from Bridge

Looking south:-

Warnemünde, Looking South on Inlet of River Warnow

Warnemünde is a nice wee place with quite a lot of modern architecture but in the town centre mostly older type buildings:-

Warnemunde street, Germany

Building, Warnemünde

One of its tourist attractions is this lighthouse, which is not beside the sea:-

Lighthouse, Warnemünde

I also spotted this windmill up a side street:-

Windmill, Warnemünde

Passing On by Penelope Lively

Penguin, 1990, 214 p.

 Passing On cover

Helen and Edward Glover have into middle age lived with their overbearing mother Dorothy (from whose clutches their younger sister Louise had long since escaped by marriage) in a crumbling pile called Greystones which has an accompanying area of land known as the Britches. The novel starts at Dorothy’s funeral with Helen reflecting, “Eternal life is an appalling idea, especially in mother’s case,” and thereafter traces the lives of Helen and Edward in the following weeks. Helen has a part-time job at the local library, Edward teaches at a nearby girls’ school but it is their inner lives which foreground the book.

In its initial stages the novel is deceptively light in tone, like a cross between The Shell Seekers and The New Moon with the Old, but as it progresses it develops an accumulation of detail which underpins its seriousness.

The terms of Dorothy’s will come as a shock. She has left Greystones to Louise’s teenage son Phil, now in that rebellious stage, adorned by a black crest of hair streaked with green, but with Helen and Edward having the right to live in the house until death. Only the Britches has been left to the Glovers. This is in one sense suitable as Edward has always felt more at home with nature than people (“the natural world thinks nothing and neither laughs nor cries,”) awkward at dealing with the world, and Helen is increasingly brought into the company of solicitor Giles Carnaby through dealing with the probate. She finds herself falling for him. She still sometimes sees her mother in the house and hears Dorothy’s voice in her head commenting on her foolishness. Dorothy’s classification of girls had been, “Pretty was best, clever was worst.” Her disparagement of any friend – especially male – Helen might bring home made sure she stopped doing so. While clearing out a cupboard Helen finds that Dorothy many years ago, by accident or design (but the narrative leaves little room for doubt which,) prevented an attachment developing by not passing over a letter Helen had received from Peter Datchett. Running in and out of the narrative is local builder Ron Paget, whose yard neighbours Greystones, and who is always out for the main chance and has perennially had his eyes on the Britches as ripe for development.

The interactions of the characters can verge on the seemingly mundane, Helen’s almost adolescent infatuation, her does-he doesn’t-he should-I-contact-him thoughts, Giles’s slipperiness, the hints at and revelation of Edward’s true nature, Louise’s battles with Phil, his blossoming at Greystones when he comes to get away from mum for a bit, Ron Paget’s persistent unsubtle attempts to wheedle the Britches out from under the Glovers, but the picture they build becomes more and more compelling.

I would say this does not quite achieve the heights of excellence which the same author’s Moon Tiger did but is another demonstration that quiet lives lived (more or less) quietly still have their dramas and deserve recording.

Pedant’s corner:- frequently commas were missing before pieces of direct speech, Windowlene (for the glass cleaner. It’s spelled ‘Windolene’,) a mack (this abbreviation for mackintosh is usually spelled mac,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ would mean ‘from from where’. I know the two words appear as such consecutively in the text of a hymn but that doesn’t make it correct.)

Verdant Works, Dundee

The Verdant Works Dundee is a museum of the city’s heritage of jute production, housed in a former jute mill. It’s somewhere we had meant to visit for a while but when we’re in Dundee we’re usually busy doing something else or going on somewhere else. The cruise ship docking there gave us the opportunity to pop in for a look.

The guide was a former jute worker who operated all the machinery for us. The noise of each one was very loud. Considering that the machines are only third-size it made you realise what a cacophony the real environment with twenty or more carding, rolling, spinning etc machines on the go must have been. Many people went deaf.

Jute bales:-

Jute Bales, Verdant Works, Dundee

Interior from upper floor:-

Interior, Verdant Works, Dundee

Verdant Works ceiling:-

Verdant Works, Dundee, Ceiling

Upper floor and ceiling. The wood is lovely:-

Ceiling, Verdant Works, Dundee

Beam engine which used to power the machines:-

Beam Engine, Verdant Works, Dundee

Photo in the Verdant Works of the Art Deco Taybank Jute Works, Dundee, Spinning Department, opened 1949. I have photographed this building myself in 2009.

Taybank Jute Works, Dundee

Tay Bridge and V&A Dundee

The first stop on the cruise we took last year was … Dundee! It’s only about twenty-five miles or so away from Son of the Rock Acres but it cost £200 less, each, for us to board at Newcastle rather than embark a day later at Dundee. No brainer.

The ship’s docking point in Scotland’s fourth city did give me a view of the Tay Bridge I hadn’t had before, though.

Tay Bridge

To the extreme right of the above photo is the new V&A Dundee, better seen in the photo below with RSS Discovery and Discovery Point beyond V&A:-

Tay Bridge and V&A Building

Wandering round the city centre I came across these stone penguins having a wee daunder:-

Model Penguins, Dundee City Centre

Nearby was this plaque commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Great War. “Dedicated to the glory of god and to those men and women who in all corners of the world gave their lives in service of our beloved country. We Will Remember Them, 11th November 1989.”

Anniversary War Memorial, Dundee City Centre

War Graves, Muckhart

Muckhart is a collective term for two small villages in Clackmannanshire, Yetts o’ Muckhart and Pool of Muckhart. Both of these are near to Cowden Garden but unlike the garden are on the main A 91 road.

I found these graves in Muckhart Parish Church graveyard in Pool of Muckhart, which has a lovely situation below the Ochil Hills.

Serjeant W Cairns, Royal Engineers, 30/11/1918.

War Grave Muckhart

Lieutenant J D Cairns, B Sc, CA, 54th L A A Regt, R A, (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) Territorial Army,18/3/1946, aged 42:-

War Grave, Muckhart

I suppose these may have been father and son.

One of the other gravestones contained dedications to two brothers, Gunner James Petrie, Royal Field Artillery, died of wounds, 5/4/1918, aged 26.
Private David Petrie, Black Watch, killed in action, July 2nd, aged 20.

War Inscriptions, Muckhart Grave

Not Friday on my Mind 60: From Home

From home is where we’re all doing things at the moment. It brought this to mind.

(Not that the song has anything to do with coronavirus. Keep safe everyone.)

It was the B-side of Wild Thing, at least in the UK.

There’s that earthy very Troggy quality to this and listening to it again it presages both punk and Adam and the Aunts.

There’s a video clip here of the group performing it live in 1967.

The Troggs: From Home

Star War Memorial

Star, or Star of Markinch, is a village in Fife, lying between Markinch and Kennoway, and a few miles from Son of the Rock Acres.

Its War Memorial is a plaque on the wall of the Primary School.

Star War Memorial

Surrounded by Celtic knot work the inscription is “1914” (as a monogram) “Pro Patria” plus a monogrammed “1918” then, “To the glory of god and in memory of the men of Star who fell in the Great War, followed by their names and, “They overcame and they loved not their lives unto the death.

War Memorial, Star

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