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BSFA Award Winners

This year’s BSFA Award winners have been announced. (They were livestreamed from Confusion – this year’s Eastercon – and on You Tube.)

They are:-

Best Novel: N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became (Orbit)
Best Non-Fiction: Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But what are we really afraid of? (Elliot & Thompson)
Best Shorter Fiction: Ida Keogh, Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe (London Centric)
Best Artwork: Iain Clarke, ‘Shipbuilding Over the Clyde,’ art for Glasgow in 2024 Worldcon bid.

I must say I don’t think 2020 was a vintage year. I have read (or seen) all – or part of – the winners’ works, though. (In the novel’s case that’s a bit fortunate as it is the ooly one of the nominees I did read due to reviewing it for Interzone.) Some of the other novel nominees I may get round to in time. When more normal service in daily life has returned.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2020

BSFA, 2021, 64 p.

Ivory’s Story (extract) by Eugene M Bacon. (PS Publishing, 2020.)1

Ivory, or Izett, has suffered in a series of foster placements, her only stable influence a nun in a Catholic children’s home. This has hardened her. The only SF aspect of the extract here (very well written though it is) was in the opal pendant she wears which burns people who touch it if they are inimical to her.

All I Asked For by Anne Charnock. (Part of the Future Care Capital charity’s Fiction Series, edited by Keith Brooke.)2

An expectant couple spend their evenings counting the movements of Alice, their yet-to-be born baby, on the screen in their living room. Because the mother is forty-six her foetus was transferred to a baby-bag at twenty-two weeks gestation. (“We must do what’s best for the baby.”) Some mothers opt for the procedure but this mother (despite her own telling her that childbirth belongs to the Stone Age) feels disappointment at never having felt her baby kick inside her.
I note here that my own story about artificial wombs (Osmotic Pressure, in The Company He Keeps, PS Publishing, 2010, took a different tack.

Red_Bati (extract) by Dilman Dia. (Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora)3

The story relates the experiences of a robot dog who thinks he’s human and speaks ony to a holographic granny who walks through a forest. Impressed as a mining dog he has been damaged and faces shut down and total memory loss so is forced to take over the space ship he is on.

Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon (extract) by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, (Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora)4

This is set in a post-nuclear war African enclave, outside which lies corruption and mutation, and where the survivors recount the myths and legends of the god who saved them from the devastation.

In Infinite Tea in the Demara Café by Ida Keogh, (London Centric, NewCon Press) a man who has been stifling the memories of his dead wife for twenty years through simple routine – like a daily cup of coffee in a certain café – suddenly finds himself being transported between parallel worlds, where he finds others who have suffered loss give him new focus.

Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll by Tobi Ogundiran, (Shoreline of Infinity)5 is structured awkwardly, with a different view point suddenly thrown in to provide a necessary but up till then peripheral perspective. It is the tale of a girl’s affection for her doll shading into something more. Woven into it is a Nigerian folk-tale (whether invented by Ogundiran or not I am unqualified to judge.)

In the non-fiction we have a precis of each of the essays in Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Francesca T Barbinia; an excerpt from the introduction to from The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest by Paul Kincaid; an extract from Science Fiction and Climate Change by Andrew Milner and J R Burgmannb; It’s the End of the World but What Are We Really Afraid of? by Adam Robertsc; another extract, Estranged Entrepreneurs by Jo Lindsay-Waltond; and Books in Which No Bad Things Happen by Jo Waltone.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“flora and fauna and the way it behaved” (the way they behaved,) “a Joey in its pouch” (joey, capital not required,) sat (seated, or, sitting,) “was a foster dad after foster dad” (was foster dad after foster dad,) Zeus’ (Zeus’s,) “whose two speakers were scattered about the room” (I would humbly submit that the minimum for a scattering is three.) 2focussed (focused.) 3The first paragraph is repeated for some unknown reason. “-250o C” (-250 oC,) “-400o C” (presumably meant to be -400 oC but this temperature is impossible, absolute zero is -273.15 oC,) “16o C” (16oC,) “300o C” (300 oC,) “one of the tube’s data rod” (data rods,) “to fix critical damages to the ship” (why the plural? ‘critical damage’ serves perfectly well,) “space crafts” (space craft.) 4“with the savagery that made Morako swallow” (with a savagery,) “was no ordinary tales” (tale,) “in front Ologbon” (in front of Ologbon,) Igbo Igboya (x 1, elsewhere this is always italicised.) 5Should there not be a question mark at the end of the title? “fit” (fitted,) confectionaries (x2, confectionery,) “in the hopes that” (in the hope that,) snuck (x2, sneaked,) “who had fopund companion in a doll,” (either ‘found a companion’, or, ‘found companionship’.)
ain “New Frontiers in Romantic Fiction Relationships in Science Fiction Josephine by Maria Yanasak-Leszczynski that ‘Josephine’ is surely misplaced, Chambers’ (Chambers’s,) “E.T. A Hofmann’s” (either E.T.A. Hoffmann’s, or, E T A Hoffmann’s, not this mish-mash.) “Unrequieted love” (unrequited,) “Unrequired love” (unrequited.) bfocussed (focused,) H2O (H2O,) earnt (earned.) c“food for the imagination no the body” ([I didn’t realise Roberts was Scottish – joke.] It should be ‘not the body’,) “and yet is finality is a kind of deferment” (has one ‘is’ too many,) “in a way that is howsoever lame, at least, hearfelt way” (has one ‘way’ too many.) “most of the apocalypses we will be looking are gaudy dreams” (looking at are,) quick-sand (quicksand,) “some who insists” (insist,) “little-rear-view mirror fixed to lour heads” (mirrors,) “a world that stubborn;y persist” (persists,) momentarily (this is used in the USian sense = ‘in a moment’, rather than its usual sense = ‘for a moment’,) “we are woring on assumption that” (on the assumption,) “the glass if its shopfront” (of its shopfront,) Bayes’ (many times, Bayes’s,) “we’re not the centre around which the entire cosmos, but in fact are” (around which the entire cosmos turns, but in fact.) dtwo full stops missing. e“Raymond Briggs The Snowman” (Briggs’s) “no more than threats that pass over safely Cotillion does this” (needs a full stop after safely.)

BSFA Awards 2020

BSFA Awards 2020

The usual annual booklet containing the nominated short stories and non-fiction plus images of the artworks for the BSFA Awards dropped onto the doormat this morning.

That’s my short reading for the next few days fixed then.

BSFA Award Time Again

The short lists for this year’s awards (for works published in 2020) have been announced.

In the fiction categories we have

Best short fiction:-

Eugen M. Bacon, Ivory’s Story, Newcon Press.

Anne Charnock, All I Asked For, Fictions, Healthcare and Care Re-Imagined. Edited by Keith Brookes, at Future Care Capital.

Dilman Dila, Red_Bati, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Ida Keogh, Infinite Tea in the Demara Caf, Londoncentric, Newcon Press. Edited by Ian Whates.

Tobi Ogundiran, Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll, Shoreline of Infinity.

I have read none of these but of course the annual BSFA Awards booklet ought to be able to remedy that.

The Best Novel list is longer than usual due to a tie for fifth place in the nominations:-

Tiffani Angus, Threading the Labyrinth, Unsung Stories.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury.

M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Gollancz.

N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became, Orbit.

Gareth L. Powell, Light of Impossible Stars, Titan Books.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, Orbit.

Nikhil Singh, Club Ded, Luna Press.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden, Tor.

Liz Williams, Comet Weather, Newcon Press.

Nick Wood, Water Must Fall, Newcon Press.

I reviewed The City We Became by N K Jemisin for Interzone 287 (May-Jun 2020) but that review has not appeared here yet.

That leaves nine others to get through before April 4th. No chance. (I see from the link, though, that BSFA members are to receive a PDF containing excerpts of the nominated works.)

BSFA Awards for 2019

It seems the BSFA Awards were announced on 17/5/20. (I found out the novel winner via a mention on Ian Sales’s blog and I subsequently checked the full list on the Wiki page for the Awards.)

They were announced via live streaming and the video is on You Tube.

The winners were:-

Novel: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Short Fiction: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Artwork: cover of Wourism and Other Stories (Luna Press) by Chris “Fangorn” Baker
Non-Fiction: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn

I voted for only one of these.

2020 Hugo Awards Shortlists

The shortlists for this year’s Hugo Awards have been announced. Amazingly I have actually read some of these (the ones in bold the one also in italics as an extract only, in the BSFA Awards 2019 booklet) – partly due to Interzone, but also becasue I read Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation towards the end of last year.

Since the Worldcon (at which these awards are presented) which was to take place in New Zealand has been cancelled for attendees I assume the ceremony will now have to be virtual, as will the con itself.

The nominations are:-

Best Novel

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)

Best Novella

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))
The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga Press/Gallery)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Saga Press; Jo Fletcher Books)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)

Best Novelette

“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, April 2019)
“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine: Disabled People Destroy Fantasy Special Issue, September/October 2019)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, July-August 2019)
Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (Forward Collection (Amazon))
“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, 10 July 2019)
“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))

Best Short Story

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, 9 September 2019)
“As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang (Tor.com, 23 October 2019)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, 24 July 2019)
“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2019)
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2019)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, May 2019)

Best Series

The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
InCryptid, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Luna, by Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
Planetfall series, by Emma Newman (Ace; Gollancz)
Winternight Trilogy, by Katherine Arden (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
The Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

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 top 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.)

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Macmillan, 2019, 573 p.

This, the third of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read, is not exactly a sequel but does follow on from Children of Time, Tchaikovsky’s big hit from 2018.

 Children of Ruin cover

The story is told mostly in two strands, Past and Present. Past describes the landing on an alien planet (soon designated Nod) of an expedition from Earth sent to terraform it for future colonies. There is life there already (of strange radially symmetric organisms) and so the leader decides not to terraform Nod but to utilise another water bound world (Damascus) in the same system for that purpose. One of the expedition’s members, Disra Senkovi, has for a long time been working with octopuses to increase their intelligence and usefulness and so this compromise suits all parties. (Senkovi knows the plural ‘octopi’ – as opposed to octopuses – is incorrect but prefers it because he likes its sound and so, annoyingly, Tchaikovsky uses it in all the sections relating to him. At one point, though, Senkovi states ‘octopi’ is “even more incorrect” than ‘octopodes’ – which his boss prefers. ‘Octopodes’ is not incorrect at all, though. It is the Greek plural.) While in the system all communication from Earth ceases as a result of a devastating nuclear war and the expedition is left to itself. After a few years one of the expedition’s members is ‘infected’ by an organism from Nod, which encodes genetic information by the placement of individual atoms on ‘cell’ walls. This swiftly takes over the members on Nod and in orbit around it and sets out for Damascus where Senkovi’s insatiably curious octopuses have spread in its ocean. The vessel is shot down but lands in the ocean. Senkovi invokes a strict prohibition on the crash site, and on Nod itself. Many years down the line the octopuses have utilised the whole sea-bed and one of them ignores the prohibition. The infection spreads once more and the remnant octopuses are reduced to living in orbitals and spaceships.

In Present, Humans (as distinct from pre-uplift humans) and the uplifted spiders from the Kern’s World of Children of Time have detected radio signals from Past’s system and a mission has been sent to investigate. Much of this strand is devoted to the initial contact between Humans-and-spiders and octopuses, the clash between them over approaching whatever it is on the module left orbiting Nod and what is in Damascus’s ocean, the problems of interspecies communication, and the nature of the infecting organism.

Too much is told, however, not shown and Tchaikovsky doesn’t really inhabit the minds of his characters. (Okay, the mindset of spiders and octopuses, not to mention the Nod creature, may be a bit of a stretch but SF readers are used to alienness. It shouldn’t be a problem. In Children of Time the spiders weren’t.) While Children of Ruin does contain some interesting stuff the chunks of exposition and internal monologues can be hard going. Far from not being able to put this down I had difficulty in staying awake while reading it. And it is not short. I fear others have been swayed in their considerations of Children of Ruin’s merits by the relatively novel nature of its aliens.

Pedant’s corner:- “sixty-one degrees centigrade” (sixty-one degrees Celsius,) miniscule (x2, minuscule,) ‘his subjet species’ world view’ (species singular, so, species’s.) “None of them were” (none of them was,) “polarised Calcium ions” (calcium is not a proper noun, no capital C required,) “hoves onto view” (hove is past tense; ‘heaves into view’.) “A string …. rip through her hull” “a string … rips,) “how authentic the simulacra is” (‘simulacra’ is plural, the singular is simulacrum,) “reacted to different stimulus” (‘to a different stimulus’, or, ‘to different stimuli’,) sung (sang.) “None of the entities … are real” (None … is real.) “”Both of them tries to recruit him.” (Both try to recruit him,) childrens’ (children’s,) “the colours stabilize and compliment each other” (complement, and while we’re at it, stabilise. Please,) “And his are a passionate, mercurial people” (his is a passionate, mercurial people,) “anathema to their mind” (minds,) “a living compliment of one hundred and seventeen” (complement,) “a severe under-compliment” (under-complement,) “materials-salvaging” (was split over two lines despite materials being the first word on its line,) octopusus’s (octopuses’.) “Six-eighths of his cerebral capacity … are bent towards that one end” (six-eighths is less than one and hence takes a singular verb form, is bent.) “Two-eighths … remains” ([on the very next page!] does indeed, correctly, have a singular verb form,) “the females have found the thing containment” (????) “one faction has worked themselves up” (‘have worked themselves up,’ would be internally consistent with ‘themselves’ but ‘faction’ is singular so, ‘has worked itself up,) condusive (conducive.) “None of them pay any attention” (None … pays attention,) smidgeon (smidgin, or smidgen.) “The warship faction are making a” (is making.) “The science faction are singing” (is singing.) “The science faction are going to test” (is going,) “fit around” (fitted.)

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Ace, 2019, 312 p.

 Atlas Alone cover

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read. It is set on a starship called Atlas 2, heading out on a twenty-year voyage to join a colony on another planet (in the wake of someone called the Pathfinder who I assume appeared in an earlier novel in Newman’s Planetfall sequence.) Just as well; Earth has been devastated by a nuclear war.

Our narrator is named Deanna, on board Atlas 2 after her indentured debt had been paid off by her friend. Carl, who likes nothing better than to get his teeth into a real murder (or unexplained death) mystery. Or, I should say, because his indentureship trained/programmed him for that. Deanna – and I suppose everyone else in this scenario – has a link to an internal personal assistant. (This last is getting to be a fixture of SF novels these days.) There is also a system called MyPhys which monitors people’s health and bodily responses while the relaxation activity of choice is the use of mersives, highly detailed, virtual reality role-playing games.

Very early on Newman, through Deanna, puts the boot into fundamentalism of the self-styled Christian variety. In this story, what had been the USA has fractured and non-believers in Christianity kicked out. Deanna had had to fake belief in order to get onto the largely American funded ship, trading on relative ignorance of and assumptions about trans-Atlantic – here called Noropean – norms.

Up till now apparently footloose and fancy-free with all needs catered for Deanna is invited to do an analysis job on some data and discovers a previously hidden (at least to her and her acquaintances) hierarchy on the ship. Rich and with far from mean living spaces the elite also has access to a money economy Deanna had been unaware of.

Things ramp up when a mysterious person with incredible powers of access and concealment intrudes into the mersive area she calls her office space and entices her into a mersive which seems to have all sorts of information about her past life and homes. In it she finds clues to the nature of those running the show; leaders from the CSA (not the CSA I first thought of, but the Christian States of America) and that they were responsible for the destruction of all those sinners back on Earth. On meeting one of them in the mersive she takes the opportunity to kill him there, knowing he will experience the pain of it back in meatspace. On returning to real life she is startled to find that despite safeguards against crossover (not to mention MyPhys) that person has indeed died while immersed. Carl, a dog that won’t let a bone go, has been assigned to find out what happened to him. Thereafter she is forced to prevaricate with Carl while still plotting revenge on those in charge who are intent on preserving the indentured system she and all the less privileged on board thought they’d escaped from. In the course of this we come to realise that Deanna is indeed, in her own words, “A cold collection of responses, pretending to be a person.” When the identity of her mysterious helper is revealed she comes round to planning her act of retribution very quickly, almost without thought, but also without compunction.

That the major part of this novel is spent with Deanna in mersive environments is a bit off-putting. It’s too close to “it was all a dream.” Granted within them Deanna is revealed certain clues to help her unravel her circumstances but the overlap between mersive and meatspace is a step too far. The other characters in the book are little more than attributes rather than real people – unless Newman is making the point that spending too much time in game-playing is detrimental to human relationships, which the text does not really support. Then again we are seeing this from the viewpoint of a cold collection of responses pretending to be a person; perhaps not the best reader of people. Deanna is not an exemplary human (not that characters in books necessarily have to be) but Newman lets her off her actions lightly, leaving an unsavoury taste.

Newman’s invented expletive JeeMuh is still as irritating as in Before Mars, the previous book of hers I have read, but at least this time she gives it a provenance. Yet why use it at all when the ‘f’ word is liberally sprinkled across the text?

Pedant’s corner:- It was an ARC. Many of the following may have been corrected in the published edition: hangry (is this meant to be a portmanteau word – hungry/angry – or is it just a misprint for hungry? In context the misprint is far more likely.) “‘And it’s going kill you’” (‘going to kill you’,) n00b (x2, noob?) “the smell had alerted the neighbours, the body removed” (the body had been removed,) “a couple of specs on my throat” (neither speculations nor spectacles; it was blood, so, specks,) “‘you’ve got another thing coming,’” (another think,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “As long as I know what I want and know how to get, that’s all that matters” (how to get it,) hung (hanging,) “while I patched up her” (that reads very differently from ‘while I patched her up’,) “ a variety of ways … quickly float through my mind” (a variety …floats,) grills (USian? ‘grilles’,) “the same as what I can in meatspace” (the ‘what’ is superfluous,) “none of them live on deck five” (none of them lives on deck five.) None of the Circle are working” (None … is working,) “‘who were genuinely were’” (omit one ‘were’.)

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L Powell

Titan, 2019, 401 p.

 Fleet of Knives cover

As last year, Powell’s is the first of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read. Like the previous instalment in Powell’s projected trilogy (see link above) it is again a multi-viewpoint narrative. Most of these are familiar from Embers of War; war criminal turned poet turned condemned prisoner Ona Sendak, ship’s captain Sal Konstanz, his ship Trouble Dog’s AI brain, its Druff engineer Nod – now accompanied by thirteen offspring. There is a new viewpoint character called Johnny Schultz, (“lucky” Johnny Schultz,) captain of a trading vessel on the shady side of things, plus a sole chapter from the viewpoint of Trouble Dog’s sister ship, Adalwolf.

The Marble Armada which our motley crew liberated from five thousand years of confinement in the trilogy’s previous instalment causes Sendak to be rescued at the point of her execution by a Conglomeration army detachment. For some reason the Armada needs a biological identity to authorise their actions. It is in this scene that the first of many gratuitous acts of violence in the book occurs.

Schultz’s ship, Lucy’s Ghost, is about to sweep out of the hypervoid to “salvage” a derelict Nymtoq ship, the Restless Itch, when it is attacked by an entity invisible to the ship’s sensors, causing it to crash into the Itch on reentering real space. Schultz’s crew is forced to board the Itch for shelter and await rescue. Konstanz and Trouble Dog’s crew respond to the distress call.

Meantime the Armada launches an attack on any armed vessel or military outpost everywhere in the Human Generality apparently in the name of preventing any further war and killing. There is an attempt at some moralistic justification for this orgy of destruction (“‘We act to preserve life…. By destroying the means to wage war. Only when war is impossible will life be safe,’”) but any such is of necessity tenuous. In any case it seems the Armada – by now dubbed the Fleet of Knives of the book’s title – fears that widespread war may bring down the unwelcome attention of aliens from the higher dimensions. (Some cognitive dissonance here, surely?)

Inside Itch, Schultz and his crew (now accompanied by Lucy, an avatar of the ship’s human-derived brain housed in a cloned body appearing twelve years old) are beset by a horde of implacable metallic-carapaced creatures which resemble crayfish, and thus have to flee for their lives. The arrival of Trouble Dog is swiftly followed by Sendak and three Armada ships demanding surrender.

Konstanz and Schultz reflect on the inevitable deaths within their crews with regret but these and other attempts at humanising them are unconvincing, appearing bolted on, almost as a chore for the author to pay lip service to. As characters they do not breathe.

The book is riddled with other infelicities. The crayfish provide their interval of conflict and then the narrative seems to forget them. We are (twice) told Trouble Dog displaces ten thousand tons. I could not have quibbled with ‘massed ten thousand tons’ (mass does not depend on environment) but how can a spaceship displace anything? Its working environment is a vacuum in which, by definition, there is nothing to displace. ‘Normal’ ships of course displace their equivalent tonnage of water. Restless Itch has a number of convenient parallel tunnels for Trouble Dog to hide in and then escape through, Trouble Dog itelf refers to Sendak’s Armada ship as 88,573 but had not at that point been told its name. There are also too many references to things familiar to twenty-first century readers which would most likely have no meaning for the inhabitants of this book – and therefore jar as part of their story – for disbelief to remain suspended. And remorseless metallic, cannibalistic crustacean lookalikes? Come on, guys.

This novel will not get my vote.

Pedant’s corner:- milleniums (millenia,) momentarily (means ‘for a moment’, not ‘in a moment’,) maw (x3 it’s not a mouth,) “if worse came to worst” (does make more logical sense but in the past this phrase was always, ‘if the worst came to the worst’,) crawfish (previously ‘crayfish’, but ‘crawfish’ from hereon in,) “I fancied I could almost hear the ‘whoosh’ as the entangled wreckage of both ships passed scant metres from our bows” (it was in space, there would have been no ‘whoosh’, and only one bow,) epicentre (centre.)

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