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Before Mars by Emma Newman

Gollancz, 2018, 345 p.

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read.

 Before Mars cover

Anna Kubrin, child of free-thinking parents, is woken from the mersive (a recording of a memory played on a chip internal to the brain and that manifests as all but real) she’s been accessing towards the end of her trip from Earth to Mars. She’s been engaged by GaborCorp as a geologist but her primary task is to produce paintings of the Red Planet for the Corp’s chief, Stefan Gabor. She experiences the usual disorientation those reaching Mars undergo but seems to recover quickly.

What, though, is she to make of the note – clearly painted by herself – that she finds down the back of the bed in her quarters, warning her to beware station psychiatrist Arnolfi, or the fact that her wedding ring now has no engraving on it, the strange but familiar attraction she immediately feels to fellow base member Dr Elvan, and the lack of response to her comments in messages home – not to mention the human footprint she finds beside a Martian crater that is supposedly unexplored?

Is this immersion psychosis? Paranoia? Or a sign of something deeply wrong at the base?

Anna’s confusion is heightened by her ongoing guilt at the fact she didn’t feel the connection to her child, Mia, that is accepted as the societal norm and by fearing she has inherited the madness of her father whose actions almost killed Anna’s mother many years ago.

Through Anna’s use of mersives, and other snippets of information dumping, we find the book is set in a post-democracy era that nevertheless doesn’t seem to have got beyond the profit motive since it is ruled by gov-corps (some benefiting from the use of indentured labour) and where ordinary people struggle for access to good housing.

The implanted chips all but compulsory for employees in this world – and certainly so for those on the Mars base – enable communication with the base’s operating AI, verbally, visually or via virtual keyboard and can act as a kind of internal mobile phone for non-verbal information transfer with others. These future humans also have retinal cameras which enable the recordings from which mersives are made.

Newman’s invented expletive – JeeMuh – strikes a jarring note, possibly as it seems to lack an origin. This chimes with the tantalisingly opaque nature of the novel’s background. Events which were clearly important and have consequences for the characters are alluded to or referenced but not entirely explained. This is apparently the third in a series of books of which I have not read the previous two and so these things may be more obvious to those who have. Before Mars does stand alone, though, and can be read with no difficulty.

On this evidence Newman is capable enough as a writer but can tend to the long-winded and repetitious. Award-worthy, though? I’ll reserve judgement on that.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite the narrator (and author) being from Britain – albeit a future Britain – we have many USian usages and spellings – though we have one ‘arse’ used to mean ‘bollocks.’ “‘I’m at high risk for that’” (high risk of that,) black currant (blackcurrant,) “for all intents and purposes” (the phrase is ‘to all intents and purposes’,) commas missing before quotations and sometimes, but not consistently, at their ends, “the latter only in Charlie’s case” (syntactically that would be better as ‘only the latter in Charlie’s case’,) “that I’d strived for” (striven, please.) “‘There are a handful’” (there is a handful,) “obligated to” (obliged to,) “‘I wrack my brain’” (rack my brain, wrack is a seaweed,) “none of the remaining dots correspond with the location of the mast” (none …. corresponds,) epicenter (it was a centre, not an epicentre,) “‘the images from one of the drones was missing’” (okay, it was in dialogue but it should still be “were missing”,) “lay of the land” (again, in dialogue, but it’s “lie of the land”.) “‘None of you are permitted to be here’” (again in dialogue, but by an AI. You’d think they’d programme them with correct grammar, wouldn’t you? “None of you is permitted to be here.”)

Embers of War by Gareth L Powell

Titan Books, 2018, 407 p.

This is the first of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read.

 Embers of War cover

Apart from the prologue, a somewhat ropily written account of the destruction of an entire ecosphere – an act which depending on point of view either brought the war between the Conglomeration and the Outward to a swift end, thus saving lives, or else was an unforgivable crime – this novel is told in first person chapters narrated from various viewpoints, three human, one spaceship AI and that of a peculiar alien creature with many legs whose feet act both as hands and faces and is the spaceship’s engineer/general dogsbody but nevertheless gets the last word, plus a single one-page chapter narrated by an ancient armada of spaceships.

Captain Sal Konstanz was present at that planet destroying act of war but since then has been dedicated to the peaceful House of Reclamation, an organistion set up to rescue survivors from space disasters or acts of piracy. Ona Sudak is a poet with a secret, a passenger on the stricken ship Geest van Amsterdam, Anton Childe a Conglomeration agent gun-running on a backwater planet till his bosses tell him to find Sendak, Trouble Dog is Konstanz’s ship’s AI, once dedicated to war but whose conscience made it too join the House of Reclamation, Nod is the alien, much given to rumination and philosophising.

A lot of this is the usual space opera stuff, various factions clashing, assorted interpersonal conflicts, a somewhat clichéd martinet General (shouldn’t that be Admiral if he commands a fleet?) and his milquetoast son, the exporation of a big dumb object (though this one has the internal characteristics of a TARDIS.)

OK, Embers of War is set in the aftermath of a war rather than its waging or genesis but I don’t see much to mark it out from the ordinary run of military SF/space opera. There must be better SF novels published in 2018 out there.

Pedant’s corner:- The Conglomeration is usually given a plural noun (I would use the singular for a collective entity,) cannons (the military plural is cannon,) “more than handful” (than a handful,) “few ships … had flown without numbering at least one member” – of the Druff – “among their crew” (among their crews,) “a hoarse voice shrieked itself into a crescendo of ragged, agonised silence” (Powell possibly meant climax rather than crescendo. In any case a crescendo builds, and not into silence, which in turn can only be silence, and therefore not ragged,) “this accommodation on the behalf of these ancient monuments (on the part of these ancient monuments,) “wheeling around each one like mosquitoes wheeling around a ship’s lantern” (two uses of “wheeling around” in the space of eight words?) “all of them coming and going from the doorways in th ziggurat like buses comng and gpoing from a central bus terminal” (two uses of “coming and going” in the space of fourteen words,) maw (a maw is not a mouth,) degrees centigrade (it’s degrees Celsius,) “a pack of four Carnivores were inbound from Cold Tor” (a pack was inbound,) staunch (stanch,) immoveable (immovable,) barbeque (barbecue.)

BSFA Awards Nominees for this Year

This year’s short list has been announced.

Best Novel:-

Dave Hutchinson – Europe at Dawn

Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun

Emma Newman – Before Mars

Gareth L Powell – Embers of War

Tade Thompson – Rosewater

I’ve not yet read any of these, I’m afraid.

Best Shorter Fiction:-

Nina Allan – The Gift of Angels: an Introduction

Malcolm Devlin – The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct

Hal Duncan – The Land of Somewhere Safe

Ian McDonald – Time Was

Martha Wells – Exit Strategy

Liz Williams – Phosphorus

Marian Womack – Kingfisher

The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct appeared in Interzone 275 (I reviewed that issue here) and I read Time Was in September.

Best Non-Fiction:-

Nina Allan – Time Pieces column 2018 articles

Ruth EJ Booth – Noise and Sparks column 2018 articles

Liz Bourke – Sleeps With Monsters column 2018 articles

Aliette de Bodard – On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures

Adam Roberts – Publishing the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance

Of these I have of course read Nina Allan’s “Time Pieces” from Interzone and (some of) Ruth EJ Booth’s “Noise and Sparks” columns in Shoreline of Infinity.

I’m assuming the usual BSFA Booklet will be forthcoming giving me a chance to catch up on the shorter fiction, non-fiction and artwork. First I’ll need to get to tracking down the novels…..

BSFA Awards 2017

BSFA Awards 2017 booklet cover

Short fiction nominees:-
The Enclave1 by Anne Charnock (NewCon Press, Feb 2017) is not obviously Science Fiction. Written well enough, it focuses on Caleb, a refugee seemingly from Spain but it could be further south, at a time when the world seems to have global warmed. It has some echoes of Oliver Twist as Caleb is variously exploited and learns to trust no-one. The titular enclave lies somewhere near Manchester.
In These Constellations Will Be Yours by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons, 7/8/17) oraculos from the planet Buyin have enabled much swifter interstellar travel at the cost of having their backs opened, spines, brains and nervous systems attached to the galleon-ships which ply the celestial sea. Some avoid this fate by paying to opt out. There is a revolt.
Uncanny Valley2 by Greg Egan (Tor.com, 9/8/17) is an extract only. The full text is available online but I dislike reading fiction from a screen so this one page sample had to do and was consequently hard to adjudge.
Angular Size3 by Geoff Nelder ( SFerics, 2017) is in the tradition of the big dumb object story, or, in this case, the maybe not quite so big as something the apparent size of the moon but only detectable in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum suddenly appears in the solar system. However it may be as small as a button but, more importantly, a precursor to alien invasion.
The Murders of Molly Southborne4 by Tade Thompson (Tor.com publishing) is also an extract, two pages this time; too short an extract to appraise properly.

In the non-fiction items the extract from Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banksa by Paul Kincaid is mainly about Feersum Endjinn, Whit, A Song of Stone and Excession.
Juliet E McKenna’s The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and other Obstacles in Science Fiction and Fantasyb examines the ways in which women are undervalued in and marginalised from SF.
There is an extract from Wells at the World’s Endb by Adam Roberts in which he looks at The Invisible Man.
Various contributors consider The 2017 Shadow Clarke Awardsc.
The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement’d by Vandana Singh deals with the unwillingness of people to think about climate change.

Pedant’s corner (fiction):- 1focussed (focused,) sat (sitting,) “no sense of daring-do” (it’s derring-do.) 2a stationers (stationer’s.) 3”they might consider humanity are a scourge on the planet” (is a scourge,) miniscule (minuscule,) focussed (focused,) “‘The White House are having kittens’” (is having,) “‘take it Edwards’” (take it to Edwards,) “‘it’s slowing down but still heading for the Moon’” (unless it was very close to the Moon already, not in any trajectory I’ve ever heard of.) 4feces (faeces.)
(Non-fiction):- ain a passage about Banks’s prefiguring of txt spk, “duz she 1/2 a naim” (I read that as one/two, not ½,) rumor and center (in a British piece about a British writer! Rumour and centre, please.) bCandaules’ (Candaules’s, yet we have Wells’s and Griffins’s,) “to talk an individual caught up in … is to describes” (to talk of an individual… is to describe,) “as good as stopping photons” (as good at stopping.) b”which that presenting evidence” (which presenting that evidence,) practise (practice,) selfevidently (self evidently.) c”as a third wave of riots break out” (a wave breaks out.) dCO2 (CO2.)

BSFA Awards for 2017

This year’s BSFA Awards (for works published last year) were announced at Eastercon on Saturday 31st March.

The winners were:-

Best novel: The Rift by Nina Allan

Best Short Fiction: The Enclave by Anne Charnock

Best Non-fiction: Paul Kincaid for Iain M Banks

The Best Artwork Award: was shared between Jim Burns and Victo Ngai

BSFA Awards Booklet Arrives

The BSFA’s annual booklet containing the nominees for the various awards for 2017 publications arrived on Thursday morning 29th Mar.

BSFA Award Booklet 2017

The deadline for postal votes is (was!) Mon 26th Mar and for electronic submissions Wed 28th Mar. The results will be announced on Saturday 31st Mar.

Not the BSFA’s fault it arrived late. Easter is about as early as it can be this year and there was precious little time between the close of the submission phase for the final nominations and Easter. They’ve done well to get it out at all.

Just as well I’m going to Eastercon this year where I can vote in person.

I’ve got my work cut out to read it all before then though.

My (belated) thoughts on its contents will appear next week.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 233 p. Another of the novels on this year’s BSFA Award shortlist.

 Exit West cover

In an unnamed Middle-Eastern city on the threshold of becoming embroiled in an insurrection, Saeed and Nadia meet while attending evening class. Despite wearing a black robe that covers her from toe to neck she tells him, “I don’t pray,” and on their first coffee together answers his question about the reason for her attire by saying, “So men don’t fuck with me.” As their relationship develops mysterious black doors are meanwhile beginning to appear at various locations on Earth, allowing people to move from place to place without traversing the ground, air, or sea between.

The relationship between Seed and Nadia becomes closer but when given the opportunity Saeed says he doesn’t want to have sex till they are married. Nadia’s response is pithy. To have Nadia as the less repressed of the two (she was independent enough to live in her own flat and had taken a previous lover,) to be the unreligious one of the pair, is a neat touch by Hamid. History has its own way with them, though, as the insurgents take over the city and life becomes repressive and dangerous. On Saeed’s mother’s death Nadia moves into his family’s apartment. They keep a fake marriage certificate in case of inquiries.

The militants are only ever in the background – though they do give Hamid the chance to convey the flavour of their impact – but they provide the impulse for our lovers to take a chance on escaping via a black door. The doors are essentially a fantasy element. How they work is never gone into, they just appear and do their, effectively magical, work.

Nadia and Saeed first alight on the Greek island of Mykonos, confined to a refugee camp, then later another door transports them to a plush but otherwise unoccupied London flat. Soon the flat fills up with more migrants through the door, unrest at the incomers builds up in the UK and the neighbourhood becomes ghettoised and a microcosm of the wider immigrant experience.

It is perhaps a flaw that Hamid doesn’t quite fully explore this strange new world where borders have been for all practical purposes abolished – and I suspect he is far too sanguine about the political accommodation the British state makes with the migrants, one which, in any case Saeed and Nadia eschew by taking another door to the US. Hamid’s main interest lies in portraying the migrant experience through the arc of Nadia and Saeed’s love affair, the strains their uncertain existence puts on the relationship between. Hamid also does a lot of telling rather than showing, but that is not uncommon among writers more celebrated than he is.

Hamid makes the point that migration is a trauma for the individual, “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” and that, “We are all children who lose our parents ….. and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity.” Then again, “Everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (This is why nostalgia, a yearning for a lost golden age, is such a pernicious emotion.)

Despite Exit West’s nomination for the BSFA Award, nothing in Hamid’s treatment betokens Science Fiction. This is really a mainstream novel (albeit a good mainstream novel) with an SF idea bolted on. The black doors are not necessary for the plot to work and the implications of easier transit between countries are rather skated over.

All three nominees I’ve read so far are lacking in some regards. I really don’t know which novel to place first; only the one I won’t.

Pedant’s corner:- legs akimbo (legs cannot be placed on hips; at least not on the same body’s hips,) fit (fitted.)

The Rift by Nina Allan

Titan Books, 2017, 421 p. One of the novels on this year’s BSFA Award shortlist.

 The Rift cover

In 1994, when she was fifteen, Selena Rouane’s two years’ older sister Julie disappeared, an event which has haunted the family ever since. Years later, after Selena has had an on-off relationship with Johnny, who occasionally phones her from Malaysia where lay the job opportunity she ushered him off to, Julie returns to her life saying that in the interim she had been living on the planet Tristane in the Suur system, in the Aww galaxy. No mechanism is described for this. It just happened to her, as if by magic. Neither is there a description of how she managed to get back. Selena is convinced by her story, especially as Julie remembers a particular childhood toy, but their mother is not.

The Rift is oddly constructed. Most of the narration is from Selena’s viewpoint but other perspectives are introduced from time to time to broaden out the story Allan has to tell. We have diary extracts (and one from a terrestrial novel,) newspaper clippings, and a scientific report. In Selena’s recollections of the time of Julie’s disappearance the sections can read like a YA novel. At other times a fairly prosaic mainstream one.

Julie’s knowledge of Tristane’s geography and history as relayed to Selena is derived from the planet’s books, her memories sometimes presented as a gazetteer – akin to Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, only not so comprehensive. (Or did this comparison only come to my mind because of the connection between Allan and Priest?) Some emphasis is laid on a creature known as a creef, a parasite from Tristane’s system companion the planet Dea (once accessible by spaceship, now cut off,) which debilitates its victims from the inside, slowly eroding their mental and physical capabilities as described in a Tristanean novel The Mind-Robbers of Pakwa.

Creef are said to be like a silverfish or centipede. It is here that severe doubts about Julie’s intergalactic voyaging grow on the reader. Would a Tristanean novel really use such Earthbound terms? Then too there are the previous mentions of “Ziploc wallets”; the choice of the name Marillienseet for one of Tristane’s seas and Cally (pronounced Kayleigh) for Julie’s friend in her exile, seemingly pointing to an origin within Julie’s mind, since the band Marillion is referred to several times in the terrestrial sections of the book. Later we find that “centigrade” is the Tristanean unit of temperature. Plus in one of the “gazetteer” extracts Tristane’s main raw material, julippa, is stated to be similar to rubber – surely the entry’s writer would not even have known what rubber is; yet Julie would. And of course the correspondence between “julippa” and “Julie” is marked. None of these is presented as Julie trying to make a terrestrial comparison for the sake of clarity.

An invocation of the fake Grand Duchess Anastasia, Franziska Czenstkowska, otherwise known as Anna Anderson, is another powerful steer towards the possibility that “Julie”’s memories have been constructed from newspaper and other accessible information. The case was a brief media infatuation, as such things are. And what to make of Cally’s statement to Julie, “‘The written word has a closer relationship to memory than with the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones’”?

Allan’s characterisation is good, even the minor players in the story appear as rounded people (though those on Tristane are more barely sketched.) A nod to the importance of reading (and the lack of awareness in ignoring genre?) is given by the sentences, “Categorisation is a kind of brainwashing. How do you know which books will turn out to be important to you, until you’ve encountered them?” Yet it is a big ask to read this as SF rather than a quotidian novel with SF trappings. Though she clearly feels an affinity with speculative fiction other qualities in Allan’s writing speak more loudly.

Two of the four BSFA Award shortlisted novels down. Two to go. I might not manage one of them though.

Pedant’s corner:- broach (several times; that particular style of jewellery is spelled “brooch”,) “her beside clock radio” (bedside clock radio,) “it still fit” (fitted,) “for not pursing it” (pursuing.) “The southern polar regions …… remains largely unmapped” (regions remain unmapped,) “[its support plinths] are still judged by certain scientists … to be a logistical impossibility” (from a gazetteer extract. Logistics is the art of moving, lodging and supply; the rest of the sentence does not support this meaning. The materials for the construction must have been able to be transported and lodged; that is, supplied. But if this was merely one of Julie’s imaginings Allan may have used the wrong term deliberately,) “the [organic] bond takes place at the sub-atomic level” (how is that possible? Organic bonds occur between atoms,) “on the playground” (the usual expression is “in the playground”,) “in her stocking feet” (it’s “stockinged feet”,) “‘one less thing to worry about’” (was in dialogue, but it still ought to be “fewer”, as it should five lines later, in plain text,) sung (sang.)

BSFA Awards for 2017

The shortlists for the BSFA Awards for last year went live while I was traipsing about down south.

They are:-

Best Novel

Nina Allan – The Rift (Titan Books)

Anne Charnock – Dreams Before the Start of Time (47North)

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West (Hamish Hamilton)

Ann Leckie – Provenance (Orbit)

I have read the Leckie (and will post a review on Saturday.) Two others are in hand.

Best Shorter Fiction

Anne Charnock – The Enclave (NewCon Press)

Elaine Cuyegkeng – These Constellations Will Be Yours (Strange Horizons)

Greg Egan – Uncanny Valley (Tor.com)

Geoff Nelder – Angular Size (in ‘SFerics 2017’ edited by Roz Clarke and Rosie Oliver, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform)

Tade Thompson – The Murders of Molly Southbourne (Tor.com)

I’ve read none of these so far.

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Iain M. Banks (University of Illinois Press)

Juliet E McKenna – The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and Other Obstacles in Science Fiction & Fantasy (in ‘Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction’ edited by Francesca T Barbini, Luna Press)

Adam Roberts – Wells at the World’s End 2017 blog posts (Wells at the World’s End blog)

Shadow Clarke Award jurors – The 2017 Shadow Clarke Award blog (The Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy). The 2017 Shadow Clarke jurors are: Nina Allan, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Victoria Hoyle, Vajra Chandrasekera, Nick Hubble, Paul Kincaid, Jonathan McCalmont, Megan AM.

Vandana Singh – The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (Strange Horizons)

Best Artwork

Geneva Benton – Sundown Towns (cover for Fiyah Magazine #3)

Jim Burns – Cover for ‘The Ion Raider’ by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)

Galen Dara – Illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons)

Chris Moore – Cover for ‘The Memoirist’ by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)

Victo Ngai – Illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)

Marcin Wolski – Cover for ‘2084’ edited by George Sandison (Unsung Stories)

BSFA Award Winners

The winnners of this year’s awards (for works published in 2016) have been announced.

Best Novel: Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter

Best Shorter Fiction: Jaine Fenn – Liberty Bird (Now We Are Ten, NewCon Press)

Best Non-Fiction: Geoff Ryman – 100 African Writers of SFF (Tor.com)

Best Artwork: Sarah Anne Langton – Cover for Central Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon Publications)

Congratulations to the winners, commiserations to the rest of the nominees.

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