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Spy Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This meme, originating with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, has now been taken over by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Spy Fiction Books

Back in the days of the Cold War spy fiction was a big thing. The two main purveyors of the form – in the UK anyway – were my (sur)namesake Len Deighton (although he pronounces the “Deigh” part to rhyme with “day” rather than “die”) and John le Carré. I also have a le Carré omnibus of his early works shelved elsewhere.

These, too, are housed in the garage, below the last of my SF paperbacks (see last week’s post.)

I have read all the books by Deighton here. His book Fighter is not on these shelves because it’s a history of the Battle of Britain but then Blitzkrieg is also a history book and it is here. Winter is not a spy novel but reflects Deighton’s knowledge of Germany (specifically Berlin) in the first half of the twentieth century. Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a novel featuring members of the US Air Force which took part in the campaign in World War 2 in the lead up to the invasion of Normandy. SS-GB is an altered history set in a Britain where a German invasion of the UK in 1940 succeeded.

I’ve not read all the le Carrés. Spy fiction lost a lot of its resonance when the Cold War ended whereupon he moved on to other things. I always meant to get round to his later stuff but life (and other books) got in the way.

Britain in the the 15th Century

I’ve just been perusing the blurb on the publisher’s page for a book called Divine Heretic written by one Jaime Lee Moyer.

The blurb starts with the sentence, “Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who put Charles VII on the throne and spearheaded France’s victory over Britain before being burned by the English as a heretic and witch.”

Britain? In the 15th century? That’s some Altered History! The United Kingdom didn’t become so until about 300 years later, 1707 in fact.

I wonder who at Jo Fletcher Books (for it was they) thought Britain had an army in the 1400s – or that back then such a country existed that could have one. Or doesn’t know the difference between Britain and its constituent parts. Or mistakenly thought they might offend some not English inhabitant of the present day UK by saying England (in which case they failed miserably.)

(At least they put the blame for Joan’s burning in the right hands.)

Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2019, 283 p. Published in Interzone 282, Jul-Aug 2019.

 Beneath the World, A Sea cover

“The ground of one world is the sky of the world below” runs one of the myths and legends of the Submundo Delta, the most inaccessible place on Earth, the Delta Beneath the World. A place of magenta trees with spiral leaves and flowers with bright pink mouths, overhung by a huge sun and moon as if inside a magnifying bubble, and not really below the outside world, it can be accessed only from South America via a long boat trip on the (perhaps too obviously named) River Lethe, passing through the Zona de Ovido, the Zone of Forgetfulness, all memories of which disappear the moment you leave it. The Delta has no radio communication with elsewhere, aeroplanes which try to penetrate its airspace all crash.

Such a cut-off world is a staple of fantastical fiction of course – fairyland, hollow hills, parallel worlds, alien planets and so on – but Beckett’s vision is a fresh take on the sub-genre even if the Delta is a slightly recycled though embellished version of the Caramel Forest of the planet Lutania in the same author’s collection The Peacock Cloak.

The Delta’s local human inhabitants are called Mundinos, and are descended from a group tricked into going there by a Baron Valente in the semi-distant past, long enough ago for them to have developed their own gods in the benign Iya, whose idol adorns every Mundino household, and the less indulgent Boca. More recent incomers are scientists and adventurers or hippie types plus the odd business man on the lookout for profitable exploitation.

Following a UN decree that a Delta life-form known as duendes, grey long-limbed, frog-like flaccid creatures with black button eyes, (somewhat reminiscent of the goblins of Lutania’s Caramel Forest) and which may be the offspring of trees – with which they perhaps form a single dimorphic species – are ‘persons’ entitled to the protection of the law, police Inspector Ben Ronson has been delegated from London to investigate their endemic killing by Mundinos. Duendes can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds, “‘Things already inside your head ….. become as powerful as things you normally choose to focus on,’” and build enigmatic structures called castelos. Despite their persecution the duendes keep intruding on Mundinos’ space.

What makes all this SF rather than fantasy is the attempt at scientific rationale. “‘There’s no DNA equivalent. No ‘animals’ or ‘plants’ in the delta,’” Ronson is told. “It seemed to him that it was just about possible to imagine that a completely different form of life might not only have a different chemistry and different anatomy, but might even involve the mind-stuff itself being configured in some manner unfamiliar to human beings,” while, “‘the trees and the harts and the duendes and so on aren’t competing against each other … any more than our blood cells are competing against our bone cells,’” but quite why the story is set in nineteen ninety is not clear. The Delta is obviously not quite of this world, making the tale an alternative history does not add to that.

Beckett also undercuts expectations. Despite the set-up what we have here is not a police procedural, nor a straightforward crime novel with a clear-cut resolution, nor indeed an action adventure. The author is more interested in the psychological aspects of isolation, the effect a strange environment has on human behaviour and particularly the influence the Zona might have on motivations and actions. Ronson is almost paralysed by the thought of what he might have done during those four days he cannot remember but is reluctant to consult the notebooks he compiled while in transit.

There are faint echoes here of other odd worlds, perhaps even a nod to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a touch of Ballard in the detachment of many of the characters. We do not have the complete isolation that applied to the inhabitants of Beckett’s Dark Eden, nor the genetic paucity of that environment, and the existence of the duendes adds a distinctive flavour but at the end the nature of the enigma they represent is not unravelled. Perhaps Beckett intends to return to the Delta.

That might be a misstep, though. Beneath the World, A Sea is not really concerned with its backdrop. Instead it uses that backdrop to question how much a person can know of him- or her- self. While not in the highest rank – the characters indulge in too much self-examination for that – like all the best fiction it explores the nature of humanity.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “whose contents, she learnt, turned yellow and shrank as it dried” (as they dried.) “Their only child, wherever she went inside the house, she was surrounded by” (that second comma distorts the meaning and should be removed,) outside of (outside, just outside, no ‘of’,) “before continuing towards to the west” (either “towards” or “to”, not both,) “a posse of men and woman” (it’s possible only one woman was involved but it reads oddly,) “for hundreds of millions of year” (years,) automatons (automata,) “‘take it out in the duendes’” (on the duendes,) ambiance (ambience,) a tendency to use ‘her’ and ‘him’ where ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more grammatical, “for goodness’ sake” (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be goodness’s, best to leave it out altogether,) “‘she’ll always being able to support herself’” (always be able.) “There were also a number of” (there was a number,) “all the holes on the ground” (in the ground,) “‘a range of tawdry attractions are duly provided for them’” (a range of tawdry attractions is duly provided,) epicentre (centre,) “cheer fully” (was split over two lines without the necessary hyphen when “cheerfully” was meant,) “‘to see if Rico’s turned up If you run into him’” (needs a full stop after “up,”) “three young woman were smoking” (women,) engrained (ingrained.) “He had a mango in there He’d bought at the last village” (No capital H after “there”, ‘he’d bought’.)

All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

Apollo Quartet 4, Whippleshield Books, 2015, 155 p, including 2 p Notes, 4 p You Have Been Reading About writers and editors, 1 p Further Reading, 2 p Bibliography, and 1 p Online Sources.

 All That Outer Space Allows cover

Like previous books in his Apollo Quartet the author does not take a straightforward approach in this short novel. It is ostensibly the life story of Ginny Eckhardt, wife of Apollo astronaut Walden Eckhardt (a character based on actual Apollo 15 Lunar Module pilot Jim Irwin.) On the quiet, though, Ginny is a writer of Science Fiction, and the book, as well as delineating the lot of an astronaut’s wife in the 1960s, describes the evolution of Ginny’s idea to write an alternative history of the US space programme in which women were the astronauts. She knows they are at least as capable as the men, if not more so. However, her personal life as first an Air Force wife, and then an astronaut’s after Walden is picked in the latest round of recruits, becomes increasingly circumscribed. This is how it was in the 1960s. Ginny’s mother, along with others of her generation, had been quickly levered back into the home after working during the Second World War, and forever resented it. Ginny herself had made sure to obtain a degree before marrying but has no opportunity to use it. (The role of astronaut’s wife is as prop and support, adornment, rather than a person in her own right.) Given her inner thoughts, the solidarity she feels with other female writers of SF in the 1960s and of the position of women generally, Ginny’s attitudes to this might have been expressed more forcefully, she seems too willing to conform to the role set – even if she does resolve to find out as much technical detail of the Apollo Programme as possible in order to enhance her fiction. We are told she loves Walden, but we don’t really feel it, and Walden gives little back in the way of emotional support, not even wondering how the sanctuary of his room manages to stay tidy and clean.

In common with other instalments of the Apollo Quartet Sales gives us (in boxes lined-off on the pages) technical and biographical information. So here we have a table of contents from Galaxy magazine, Vol 26, issue 3, February 1968 (which contained Ginny’s story “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” as by V G Parker;) comments on the position and relative scarcity of female SF writers of the time; biographical details from a NASA press release of the 19 newly recruited astronauts of 1966; a letter to Ginny from another woman SF writer signed YouKay; the utterly male Hugo Awards Winners listings for 1966; a historical overview of Ginny’s writing career; the complete text of “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” (a nice piece of literary ventriloquism by Sales, though it reads more like a 1950s piece;) a specification for Lunar Module Cockpit Simulation training; a letter to the editor of Galaxy bemoaning “Mr” Parker’s contribution to that Feb 1966 issue; another NASA spec, this time for the Lunar Module; one-sentence extracts from SF stories by women each commenting on some aspect of the female experience; a Wikipedia biography of Walden Eckhardt’s life; the Nasa specs for spacesuit materials; a short transcript of Neil Armstrong’s early exchanges with ground control just after he set foot on the Moon’s surface that first time; the launch schedule for Apollo 15 (Walden’s mission;) a NASA description of the Apollo 15 landing site; V G Parker’s entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This is an Altered History, though. In Ginny’s world, SF is written, edited and read mainly by women and denigrated more (if that’s possible) because of that. At several points Sales addresses the reader directly by interpolating comments on his choices as a writer when composing the story and on the subject of Science Fiction as an enterprise, especially on how it generally does not reflect the harsh realities of space travel. Worth reading in and of itself All That Outer Space Allows also acts as a kind of primer in the history of women writers of SF in the world the reader knows.

Pedant’s corner:- “makes turban of a second towel” (makes a turban is more natural sounding,) “and so predates Ginny’s migration” (postdates,) “Only a Mother” (“That Only a Mother”), “There was loud thunk” (a loud thunk,) “The descent stage measure ten feet seven inches high by… ” (‘measures ten feet seven inches high’. This was in the NASA Lunar Module spec so I assume was their mistake,) vapourised (vaporised,) “as she lays on the beach” (as she lies on the beach,) misrembering (misremembering.)

Mexica by Norman Spinrad

Abacus, 2006, 510 p.

Mexica cover

Spinrad is no stranger to readers of Science Fiction, coming to prominence around the time of the New Wave with works such as Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream (an Altered History SF novel whose author was supposedly Adolf Hitler.) In the early part of this century, though, he took a turn into historical fiction with The Druid King, about Julius Caesar’s adversary Vercingetorix the Gaul. Mexica is his take on conquistador Hernán Cortés (in the text always referred to as Hernando Cortes) one of History’s supreme adventurers – or villains, depending on your viewpoint.

Our narrator is Cortés’s companion, and unwilling advisor, Avram ibn Ezra (an Arabised form of the Jewish Ben Ezra,) who was baptised Alvaro Escribiente de Granada since being a Jew in the newly united Christian Spain under the scrutiny of the Inquisition was not a healthy prospect. This choice allows the narrative to distance itself both from the brutal Christianity of the Spanish invaders and from the sanguinary religious practices of the indigenous Mexica and their vassals. (Only once or twice is the word Aztec mentioned. This apparently was an insulting term deriving from the bumpkinish highlands down from which the Mexica came to replace their predecessors, the Toltecs, whom the Mexica still revered, after that earlier people had vanished into the east.)

It is arguably a necessary choice, as religion mattered. For how else can a few hundred men bring down a mighty empire? In this telling the Mexica – or at least their emperor Montezuma – were undone by their beliefs. The Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was prophesied to come back from the east with a light skin whereupon the fifth world (that of the Mexica) would end and the sixth begin. On hearing of the arrival of the Spaniards Montezuma awaits a sign from his god of war, Huitzilopochtli, as to their true nature, and receives none. A native woman, Malinal (known to present day Mexicans as Malinche but here dubbed Marina by the Spaniards as it’s easier for them to pronounce,) a princess of one the Mexica’s vassal states, sold into slavery when they were defeated, takes up with Cortés and, aided by Alvaro, becomes his translator. She it is who nudges Cortés (despite his own religious qualms) into affecting the appearance, and, in native eyes, substance, of Quetzalcoatl. The prospect of not having to pay blood tribute to the Mexica in the form of the hearts of their young men also leans on the Mexican vassals whom Cortés enlists as allies, vassals all but mystified at the thought of a god who gives his flesh and blood to be eaten by his worshippers rather than requiring their own of his believers.

It was still a very long shot, emphasised when after a couple of military victories against allies of the Mexica on the journey to the central high plateau, Alvaro briefly views through the clouds the magnificence of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan, from the mountain pass above. The city was built on a series of lakes and joined to the surrounding land by four causeways. An impregnable fortress it would seem.

Later, after falling in love with the place, Alvaro wonders, “How could the civilization that had built Tenochtitlan rip out human hearts on such a bloody altar?” but also, “How could the civilization of the Prince of Peace who commanded men to love their neighbours as themselves burn human beings at the stake in his name? How could those who worshipped an Allah who was styled the Beneficent and Merciful behead the infidels who would not bow down to him?”

Whle the central figure here is always Cortés, the most sympathetic and tragic is Montezuma, who is entrapped and imprisoned by Cortés and thus in conversations with Alvaro vouchsafes to the reader his philosophy. Here is a man who, in trying to do the best by his gods as he sees them, loses not only his empire, his people and his city, but also his life. That those gods were horrific taskmasters and not worthy of any such soul-searching or devotion does not diminish this. Religious beliefs make people do strange and bewildering things. From his religious perspective Alvaro sees, “This is the crime for which I have no name. Having conquered their lands, now we were conquering their spirit.”

Mostly a self-serving – not to mention greedy – hypocrite and casuist there are contradictions too in Cortés’s behaviour, illustrated when he gives full military honours to the dead Montezuma and Alvaro tells us, “There were so many reasons for me to hate Hernando Cortes…. But … there were moments …., when no matter how I tried, I found it impossible not to love the bastard.”

Before the story gathers momentum with the landing in Central America the reflective nature of Alvaro’s account can be a little tedious. The text is liberally larded with the word ‘thereof’ and vocative asides to “dear reader”, a tendency which drops out when the action sets in only to reappear many pages later. ‘Alvaro’’s intent in setting this down is to expose and expiate his guilt at the part he played in the downfall of the Mexica and the beautiful city they constructed. But in the end he rationalises that, “..it could not have been prevented. Even if Columbus had never set sail it could not have been prevented, for Europe had the ships, and sooner or later someone would have discovered this New World.” The fulfilment of Montezuma’s omen was inevitable. “For this new world held treasure and unbounded virgin land unknown in the tired old one, and Europe had the greed to covet and the means to sieze it.” The greatest devastator of the Mexica though, would be what Alvaro names as the small pox, a weapon more deadly to the natives than either cannon or arquebus. The Mexica live on, however, in the adaptation of their name to that of the modern day country sitting on their lands, a process which had begun even in Cortés’s time.

Alvaro’s profoundest thoughts are however inspired by the much older civilisation that built the huge pyramids at Teotihuacan, whose people were forgotten even by the Mexica. “This was not a New World. This was a world old beyond imagining…. Five worlds come and gone … And now the breaking of the fifth and the coming of the sixth.” He consoles himself with the thought that in the end great events do not matter; civilisations amd conquerors may come and go but, “It is in the small things that life comes closest to eternity.”

Pedant’s corner:- Cortes’ (innumerable instances, Cortes’s,) sprung (sprang,) “to the point where no one dare approach him” (the narrative is in past tense so, ‘no one dared’ – and ‘no one’ ought to be ‘no-one’,) maws (mouths was the intended meaning, not stomachs,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “but more than not wearing only simple cotton shifts” (more often than not is a more usual construction,) “in a foreign land as Britain might be to a Spaniard” (there was no Britain as a foreign ‘land’ (in a political sense) in the time of Cortes – only the geographical island.)

Paris Adrift by E J Swift

Solaris, 2018, 379 p. Reviewed for Interzone 274, Mar-Apr 2018.

Paris Adrift cover

Time travel is one of Science Fiction’s most venerable tropes but in more recent times has taken something of a back seat to other aspects of the genre. In Paris Adrift, E J Swift has adopted an oblique approach to the topic, gaily skipping over any problems with the ethics of non-intervention and avoidance of the grandfather paradox. She does not make anything of, still less explain, the mechanics of the process (which arguably puts us in fantasy territory,) it is simply an integral part of the story she has to tell.

Hallie, an English geology student estranged from her family, is on a gap year in Paris trying to sort her life out. She takes a waiting job at Millie’s, a bar near the Moulin Rouge. Millie’s is a nexus for the strange. Fellow employee Gabriela finds she is always somehow prevented from leaving Paris while Hallie has odd encounters with birds that talk to her, an apparent doppelganger, and customers, while also experiencing odd sensations both in the keg room and in Paris’s catacombs. She still finds space for a relationship with fellow waiter Léon, and Swift charts superbly the overwhelming intensity of a burgeoning love affair.

The narration is almost exclusively from Hallie’s viewpoint, in that pressing present tense which can seem like a default in so much modern SF. Occasional mentions of geological terms underline Hallie’s background.

The incursions of the weird might perhaps have been more unexpected had we not already read a prologue chapter introducing us to the chronometrist, a person seemingly able to take control of other’s bodies at will but whose essence is fading, and to the concept of anomalies and their incumbents. Hallie soon finds out the keg room is a time portal and her future has been mapped out by the Way of Janus.

Her first experience of timefaring takes her to 1875 where she seems to adapt to her new situation remarkably quickly and is befriended by the Millie who will one day found the bar. She also meets the architect designing the Sacré-Coeur. Partly due to Hallie’s interference that building will no longer be erected. In its stead will arise the Moulin Vert which becomes a significant location in the rest of the book (plus inspiration for a political movement) and technically makes the novel an alternative history. However, other aspects of our modern world and its history are unaffected, there are mentions of Whatsapp, plus the Bataclan, Stade de France and Nice attacks.

The anomaly’s next flare sends Hallie to 1942 and a suitably claustrophobic encounter with would-be cellist Rachel Clouarte. Hallie dodges German soldiers and the curfew to reunite Cluarte with her cello and aid her escape in order to ensure her career in music will prevail, so that she will not marry and produce (eventually) the descendant who will contribute to a catastrophic war in the future. This 1942 Paris is lightly affected by the occupation, street life continuing gaily as normal, though of course the deportations from which Clouarte is to be saved proceed apace. I did wonder why Hallie’s intervention in the Clouarte family tree had to be quite so early but of course it does give Swift the opportunity to depict Paris in wartime and up the danger quotient.

Another flare takes Hallie to 2042 and a terribly plausible fascist Paris (complete with Metro station called LePen) and the seeds of the situation which the Way of Janus seeks to avert. Other timefaring trips are mentioned but not gone into in detail.

The 1942 and 2042 excursions lend the novel aspects of a thriller yet there are other scenes which bring to mind Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and the work of Tim Powers. Throughout, Swift’s portrayal of her characters is assured. These are people we can believe in even if one of them is prey to the logical fallacy that because the Earth is remarkably suited to humans it is a sign of something miraculous rather than the unfolding of impersonal forces which merely allowed us to arise.

Paris Adrift deals with the heavy theme of totalitarianism and the threat of the far right but never loses sight of the smaller people who live through interesting times. While Léon and Hallie are pivotal to the resolution of the plot (and History itself) its emotional focus, though sometimes sidelined, is on their relationship.

Like a lot of SF this suggests life is hard and pain impossible to avoid but unlike most recent SF it proffers hope along with the sacrifice. Never mind it being good SF/Fantasy, this is a good novel.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “the night team begin to trickle in” (the night team begins to trickle in,) “the group want shots” (wants,) “a stream of people flow inside,” (a stream flows,) “the confines of the locker room lends an air” (the confines lend an air,) “a travelling company were performing” (a company was performing,) “the shape of the walls change, become smooth and rounded” (the shape changes, becomes smooth,) “Her age and appearance has altered once again” (have altered,) “the floor team are doing the rounds” (the team is doing the rounds.) “None of these people have an anomaly. None are bound to this place” (none has, none is.) “Only a small proportion of the catacombs are maintained for visitors.” (Only a small proportion is maintained,) “as the assault team go through their final checks” (as the team goes through its final checks.) Yet despite all these examples of such failures of agreement of subject and verb Swift obviously knows what’s what as we had the correct “a rickety set of steps leads up to”,) “till I am stood right next to him” (it wasn’t a passive activity, so standing”,) “sat on the gravestones” (sitting,) gotten (in a narrative otherwise so British in tone this USianism jars,) “since she bid me farewell” (bade me farewell,) “preempting the touch that will follow” (the context implied savouring rather than pre-empting,) Dušanka calls Hallie “‘my petit chou.’” She responds, “‘And I’m not a pastry.’” (That response would be to “my petit choux” – chou is a cabbage and “petit chou” a term of endearment. Hallie’s French isn’t supposed to be good but surely she would not confuse the two?) “is sat” (is sitting,) “another woman is stood at the window” (is standing,) dove (USian; the British past tense of dive is dived,) “sat sipping” (sitting sipping,) “glasses pile up on either side” (context implies both sides,) inside of (USian, it’s just inside, no “of”,) descendent (descendant,) focusses (focuses,) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, though I concede syllabi is a correct Latin plural,) “you’ll be never be happy” (that first “be” is redundant, “‘How can I do that.’” (That is a question so requires a question mark, not a full stop.)

The Smoke by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2018, 300 p

 The Smoke cover

We start on a space vehicle on which the brother of protagonist Stuart Lanyon is about to take off from Woomera – powered by successive explosions of atom bombs underneath it blasting it into space. This is something of a distraction however, though a signifier of an altered history where Yellowstone erupted in 1874, immolating North America, and a Great War was ended in 1916 after the atomic bombing of Berlin.

The main meat of the story is the ramifications of the discovery of the Gurwitsch ray – biophotonic weak ultraviolet pulses passing from cell to cell in living things, each creature with its own characteristic emissions, orchestrating development, leading to the ability of humanity to sculpt organic forms at will. Hence we are in the age of speciation of mankind. The dead of the Great War battlefields were subjected to Gurwitsch’s ray, producing strange organisms known as chickies which are able to exert sexual allure among other abilities, a technocratic intellectually superior elite called the Bund has arisen in Eastern Europe and dominates world affairs.

The weird aspects of all this are underlined by Ings’s story-telling, part of the novel being narrated in the second person, though the down to Earth sections are more traditional first person and some interludes are in third. Though the background details seem to sit oddly with one another – a thoroughly industrial Yorkshire can feel more like the 1930s, a television series more signifies the early 1960s, parts of London are dominated by ultra-modern architecture – Ings manages to hold them together. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia with the merest hint of Ballard thrown in for extra alienation.

At the novel’s heart is the love story between Stuart and Bund citizen Fel, aka Felicine Chernoy, daughter of Georgy, inventor of the Chernoy Process which utilises Gurwitsch’s ray to enable rebirth. Stuart’s mother, dying of cancer, undergoes this treatment and is reconstituted as an infant. A curious phenomenon to behold, this, a child with an adult’s memories, behaving in unchild-like ways – and subject to unthinking prejudice. Stuart and Fel’s different backgrounds lend their affair the attributes of all star-crossed lover stories.

The characters are well drawn but despite their supposedly greater intellects the two members of the Bund shown here – Fel and her father – do not seem significantly different from humans as we know them. Stuart does though in his narration refer to his father as Bob and mother as Betty, which is a touch unusual.

Ings’s vision here is a particular one, at once curiously fantastic and yet also recognisable, a flight of fancy (several flights if you like) but utterly grounded.in human emotions. The Smoke goes to show that Science Fiction continues to produce work of which those detractors who dismiss it without ever sampling it assume it to be incapable.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Bund” is treated as plural throughout, but ought to be singular, “And since no one wants to meet each other’s eye, it makes logical sense that the entire audience repair en masse to the bar” (others’ I think, plus make that no-one, and, the entire audience repairs,) Lutyens’ (Lutyens’s,) potshard (potsherd, please,) Picasso is referred to as a Parisian artist (he was Spanish, but this is an altered history,) “the family were meant to cheer Jim off to Woomera” (the family was meant to,) “it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to stove this thing’s head in” (the verb is to stave in, stove is the past tense form.) “The odds against there being no set now increases” (the odds …. increase.) “‘According your friend’” (According to your friend,) “till it run out of” (runs out,) a parenthetical sentence not started with a capital letter as it ought to have been, “for goodness’ sake” (this ought to be written “goodness’s” even if it’s pronounced “goodness”.)

Buying Time by E M Brown

Solaris, 2018, 357 p.

 Buying Time cover

The designation of the author as E M Brown is a slight repositioning by the publisher of my old mate Eric Brown to highlight works of his that are more character based. (It’s a bit late and a bit odd. He has always produced these to go alongside his action adventure novels but even in those he did not neglect character.)

In 2017 Ed Richie, prodigious boozer, script-writer for Coromandel Cable’s Morgan’s Café and also with a few radio plays to his name, is a serial monogamist with a penchant for women of a certain type. His latest relationship with a woman called Anna blows up in his face after he has had some sort of medical emergency experiencing a blinding white light. The break-up is part of a pattern repeated throughout his life. He has a long standing, equally boozy, friend Digby Lincoln, a jobbing script-writer on the TV serial Henderson’s Farm, with whom he discusses his situation.

We then jump to 2030, where in an independent Scotland Ella Croft works as a journalist for ScotFreeMedia. England and the US are in the grip of right-wing authoritarian regimes and Scotland is accepting LGBT refugees from a US where gay marriage is banned and same sex relationships suspect. It seems Richie disappeared some time in 2025 after switching successfully to a career as a novelist. Croft, who knew Richie in her childhood, sets out to find out what happened to him.

When we return to Richie he has had another white light episode and discovers himself in April 2016, much to his confusion and others’ bafflement.

The Richie and Shaw strands alternate throughout the book, interspersed with interpolations from various journal extracts, some Richie’s own, others newspaper or media outlet pieces. Richie is tumbling backwards through time, from 2017 to 2016, then 2013, 2008, 2002, 1995, 1988, and finally 1983. At first Richie wonders if these are hypnagogic hallucinations but Brown later provides, via the 2030 Croft sections, a science-fictional explanation.

Brown draws some amusement from Richie’s knowledge of the future. To the revelation that Trump will be elected President of the US Digby responds, “What? The multiple-bankrupt TV celebrity shyster? Come on, even the Americans can’t be that stupid!” and when told Leicester will win the league in 2016 comments, “Now I know you’re crazy.”

A Trove of Stars, Digby’s SF piece, had caused a rift between them for a while as Richie told him he, “took needless time out to tell the reader about the characters’ states of mind.” Digby objects, “‘What I’m trying to do here is bring the concerns of the modern psychological novel to the hidebound format of hard SF.’ Richie had restrained himself from accusing his friend of talking pretentious bollocks.” In a later time-shift the book’s success signals we’re in a different timeline. All Richie’s touches down in the past must be in altered histories or else there would be time paradoxes.

Ed suffers further confusion when Finnish artist Emmi Takala, whom he met on a trip to Crete, seems to know about his condition but he time–jumps again before she can elucidate. Ella finds out Emmi also disappeared in the late 2020s when she went to England to meet a man called Ed. There is a connection too to scientist Ralph Dennison – mates at University with and Ed and Digby – an investigator into the theory behind faster-than-light travel but who, too, vanished in 2010. The scientists’ backer, tycoon Duncan Mackendrick, finally provides Ella (and us) with the puzzle’s solution.

Brown’s characterisation is excellent throughout. The Richie sections do not read like SF which is fine – good even – the Shaw ones do when necessary. Whether Buying Time brings “the concerns of the modern psychological novel to the hidebound format of hard SF” or is “pretentious bollocks” is for each reader to decide. I thought it was very well done indeed.

Pedant’s corner:- imposter (I prefer impostor.) “How many woman have you lived with over the years?” (women) “that all was not as it should be” (that not all was as it should be,) Diggers’ (Diggers’s – several other instances,) “her portrayal a grieving mother” (portrayal of a grieving mother,) Man U (earlier it had been Man U.,) humous (humous means ‘like a component of soil’, the food is houmous or hummus,) “He could curb the TV work, continued writing radio plays, and, to flex his creative muscles and ambition, tried his hand at stage plays.” (continue writing….try his hand,) recent British politics (given it’s 2030 here would that not be English politics?) Waterstones’ crowd (earlier, Waterstones staff and Waterstones crowd had had no apostrophe,) a double full stop at the end of a sentence (facing each other..) “‘You can bring yourself to love anyone’” (You can’t bring yourself to,) (and again later) -Tennant’s lager (Tennent’s,) “Pam took herself off the bed” (off to bed,) flag-stoned (flagstoned,) “she later said that that was what she initially liked about him was his ability” (she later said that what she initially liked about him was his ability.)

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p.

My Real Children cover

Multiple lives have been having a bit of a vogue recently what with the likes of Life after Life and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The trend may be waning now but this is one to add to the list – though its premise is more akin to that of the film Sliding Doors in that its protagonist, known variously as Patricia, Patsy, Patty, Pat, Tricia, Trish, has two lives here, the hinge being when she accepts or rejects her fiancé’s demand to marry her on the instant when he garners only a third class degree instead of the first they had both been expecting. The first chapter sees Patricia in a nursing home at the end of her life, remembering her past and confused as to whether she had four or three children. Up to the fifth chapter we follow the course of her early life until the (in)decisive moment. The two strands of her life alternate chapters with each other thereafter.

Both are altered histories. Depending on the strand, there are relatively small nuclear exchanges between the US and USSR over Cuba, others later in the Middle East and elsewhere, Bobby Kennedy becoming President in 1964, the UK joining the Coal and Steel Community at its inception in the 1950s, a rise in authoritarianism in Pat’s later life. Unfortunately all of this requires too much telling and not enough showing and this applies to the main thrust of the stories as well as the historical background.

It’s all shot through with how hard life is for women and the unfairnesses of discrimination against minorities, particularly same sex couples. Worthy, but done heavy-handedly.

I know we’re implicitly invited to do so ourselves but it is only in the final chapter, when Patricia’s lives seem to have re-coalesced, that Walton begins to make wider contrasts and connections by which time it is really too late.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite being a British edition this uses the USian text and spellings. Otherwise; post office (Post Office,) Finefare supermarket (it was Fine Fare,) “wracked with guilt” (racked.) “‘They will, however, will serve adequately’” (has one ‘will’ too many.) “The government were funding” (the government was funding,) grifters (is a USian term. A Brit wouldn’t use that but ‘conmen’ instead.) “Could she made it again, knowingly?” (Could she make it again.)

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2001, 428 p.

Number9Dream cover

The difficult second novel. In his, Mitchell seems to have taken the decision to throw any number of things at the wall to see what might stick. It has its moments certainly but while being easy enough to follow on the level of the prose is not quite a straightforward read. It is told in nine sections; Panopticon, Lost Property, Video Games, Reclaimed Land, Study of Tales, Kaiten, Cards, The Language of Mountains is Rain.

The thread it hangs on is the search by Eiji Miyake for his father, who abandoned his mistress, mother to Eiji and his sister Anju, when they were young. Eiji has come to Tokyo from the sticks (an island called Kagoshima) to make himself known. We first find him in a café opposite the PanOpticon building waiting to meet his father’s lawyer, Akiko Katō, an encounter he fantasises about several times. The shifting ground of the novel starts here. From that point on the reader can never be entirely certain which of the incidents we are presented with are supposed to be occurring only within Eiji’s mind and which are meant to be “real”. But his burgeoning relationship with part-time waitress and proficient musician, Ai Imajō, the nape of whose neck is perfect, does give something to grab on to.

We follow the ups and downs of Eiji’s search, through an unfruitful meeting with Ms Katō, another with an ageing admiral from whom he learns his father’s family name is Tsukiyama, and also with his father’s wife and daughter, not to mention his falling into the orbit of the Yakuza and out again. His motives aren’t mercenary. But others find that difficult to believe.

I must say I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction and the characters here – Yakuza perhaps aside, but gangsters are gangsters the world over – don’t follow the behaviour, or speech, patterns of those in books written by Japanese authors. When Mitchell returned to Japan, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it was to the country well before its opening to the West, in Napoleonic times, and his Japanese characters seemed to me to behave as such.

You could call Mitchell’s approach playfulness. Or you could call it irritating. At one point Eiji is hiding out from the Yakuza in a house where a novel’s manuscript is lying about. He of course reads it and so we are given extracts. Its main characters are called Goatwriter (himself a writer,) Mrs Comb (one of those “comedy” earthy charlady types with non-received pronunciation,) and Pithecanthropus. Here we are vouchsafed the information that due to a gentleman’s agreement soldiers never fight each other – “They might get hurt,” – and that, “The purpose of war is to kill as many civilians as possible.’” Also, “‘Writing is not about ‘fulfilment!’ Writing is about adoration! Glamour! Awards!’ …. ‘I learned the language of writers, ‘coda’ and ‘conceit’ for ‘ending’ and ‘idea’; ‘tour de force’ instead of ‘the good bit’; ‘cult classic’ instead of ‘this rubbish will never sell’.” This is a novel wherein is made literal the sentence, “Goatwriter’s words stuck in his throat,” and contains the line, “‘A stream of consciousness’ he rejoyced.” All well and good, but it seems more designed to show off the author’s facility with word-play rather than advance either the plot or knowledge of human relationships.

In Number9Dream Mitchell seems to have pushed his conceits as far as he thought he could get away with. (And possibly beyond.) Still, I’d never thought to see the word zwitterion in a literary novel; hats off to that.

Episodes of seriousness do intrude. A Yakuza tells Eiji that straight citizens of Japan are all living in a movie set. “A show is run from the wings, not centre stage. …… In most places the muscle is at the beck and call of the masters. In Japan, we, the muscle, are the masters. Japan is our gig.’”

A hint that this may be considered an altered history comes in an entry in an exquisitely written, intriguing, realistically toned journal supposedly from 1944 of a Tsukiyama ancestor who was a pilot on the kaiten project (the submarine equivalent of the kamikaze) which makes reference to someone who threw himself under a Russian tank with a bomb and also mentions stories of the Soviets’ cruelty in Manchūkuo. In our world the Soviets didn’t declare war on Japan till after Hitler was defeated in 1945. But in a work such as this where so much is invention in the narrator’s mind this could be another example. On the other hand it could simply be a mistake by Mitchell. There is not much solid ground to hang on to here. This is particularly so when, within the ‘present day’ span of the book a huge earthquake strikes the Tokyo area. This, of course, has not happened in the reader’s time-line.

To back this up, towards the end of the book a truck-driver says to Eiji, “‘Trust what you dream. Not what you think,’” and an old woman tells him, “‘Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the never-will-be may walk amid the still-are,’” which could be Mitchell describing his methods. Later we are told, ‘A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter.’

It turns out Eiji’s favourite John Lennon song is #9Dream “‘It should be considered a masterpiece.’” He fantasises a meeting where Lennon says it’s a descendant of Norwegian Wood. Both are ghost stories. The title means “the ninth dream begins after every ending.”

In a variation of the man stepping into the same river some time later conundrum Eiji thinks, “A book you read is not the same book as before you read it. Maybe a girl you sleep with is not the same girl you went to bed with.” Is this taking philosophical speculation too far?

If you were counting earlier there were only eight named sections. The ninth is untitled and contains solely a blank page. Presumably the dream.

Which only leaves the question, is Number9Dream a ‘tour de force’ or perhaps a ‘cult classic’?

Pedant’s corner:- not every often (very often.) “An aviary of telephones trill” (An aviary trills.) A missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) vocal chords (vocal cords.) “‘What would me pictures be doing there??’” (my pictures,) soccer (it’s football,) “the twelve-yard box” (no such thing in football. Penalty box, or eighteen yard box at a pinch,) Eiji scores a goal direct from a goal-kick (that wouldn’t count, goal kicks are indirect free-kicks,) “the enemy goalposts …. enemy player(s)” (the opposition goalposts …. opponent(s).) “A queue of the hippest people wait outside” (a queue waits.) “Daaimon tells the girls a long story … that make the girls shriek with laughter” (tells a story that makes the girls shriek,) hiccoughs (hiccups; it’s not any kind of cough,) “we are in miniature planetarium” (a miniature planetarium,) “and flashes and enamel smile” (an enamel smile.) “A garage band rehearse” (a band rehearses.) “Inside are a whole row of” (is a whole row,) “‘And will his trousers needing pressing’” (need.) “The string section bask in the applause” (the string section basks.) “The clatter and glitter of cascading silver balls hypnotize the ranks of drones” (the clatter and glitter hypnotizes.) “The crowd drain away” (the crowd drains away,) eidelweiss (edelweiss,) “he tobaggoned down the crater” (tobogganed.) “How do you write a letter a real private detective?” (to a real private detective,) “with an cane” (a cane.) “A coven of wives blowhole laughter” (a coven blowholes laughter.) “None of are eager to” (None of us is eager to,) “life-sized statute” (statue,) “I saw than Shiomi’s eyes” (that,) military bace (base,) “we all knew knew” (omit a “knew”.) “He neck is” (his neck,) “a crowd of very busy people surge in” (a crowd surges in,) “‘people use to build Tokyo’” (used to,) vortexes (vortices.) “One set of hands frisk me while another set holds my arms” (note that failure of subject to agree with verb in the first clause with no such failure in the second clause; it ought to be ‘one set frisks me’,) “the three men also sat at the card table” (the three men seated at, or sitting at,) “wracked with relief and guilt” (racked,) “handwriting is an clear as malice” (is as clear,) “the enemy are tracking me” (the enemy is tracking me.) “A row of men in uniforms occupy the urinals” (a row of men occupies the urinals.)

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