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Interzone 271, Jul-Aug 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 271 cover

Roy Gray takes the Editorial and describes a visit to the summer’s Barbican exhibition, Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction. Jonathan McCalmont discusses China Miéville’s history of the Russian Revolution October, describing it as the book Miéville was born to write. Nina Allan again reflects on SF’s distinction or otherwise as a genre and the necessity to question and reinvent its tropes. Book Zone1 has appreciative reviews of Nina Allan’s The Rift and Emily B Cattaneo’s collection Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories plus author interviews with the pair and also considers novels from Eleanor Lerman, Aliette de Bodard and Taiyo Fuji along with Ex Libris, an anthology of stories set in libraries, not to mention my review of Justina Robson’s The Switch.

In the fiction:-
Julie C Day’s The Rocket Farmer2 has three narrative viewpoints in its 10 pages: the descendant of a long line of Mongolian rocket farmers, her daughter, and one of the rockets. It is the daughter who is the first to truly understand the rockets.
Gods in the Blood (of those who rise)3 by Tim Casson is narrated by a science teacher (who has rather unprofessional biological deterministic views about his charges I must say. But these turn out to be plot related.) The nearby Genomic Innovation Facility is manipulating human epigenetics. All this is tied in with a legend from a Sumerian manuscript.
In If Your Powers Fail You in a City Under Tin4 by Michael Reid a tentacled creature called the God Beast has settled in the sky over the city now called Duolunduo. Some people have developed superpowers as a result.
The titular Chubba Luna5 in Eliot Fintushel’s story is an interplanetary music star in a future where people’s life partners are allotted to them in accord with their biochemistry. This doesn’t turn out any better than choosing them for yourselves.
Chris Barnham’s When I Close My Eyes is a mix of SF and ghost story. It is the tale of the first potholer on Titan, a man who hallucinates his dead wife while encountering extraterrestrial life after being trapped by an ice-fall.
The McGuffin of Cryptic Female Choice6 by Andy Dudak is a spermathecal, a mechanism introduced to the womb by virus which allows women to store various men’s sperm and edit their content to produce a desired genome. The societal backlash is portrayed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“while allowing they catch up” (allowing them to catch up,) “how do you feel it has effected your life as a writer” (affected,) Goss’ (Goss’s.) 2Written in USian, “so that it spread across the table” (the rest of the story is in present tense, so “spreads”,) practicing (practising.) 3where a bunch of other kids were gathered (a bunch was gathered.) 4Written in USian, ”none of them recognize” (none recognises,) “‘can you come with?’” (with me,) “he shines it on the floor near the figure, trying not to startle them” (not to startle it.) 5Written in USian. 6Written in USian, inside of (inside,) “there used to be hundreds of words for love like Inuit words for snow” (isn’t that snow thing a bit of a myth?)

Lilith by George MacDonald

In Phantastes and Lilith, Gollancz, 1962, 237 p. First published 1895. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Phantastes and Lilith cover

A Mr Vane (no first name is ever provided) inherits a country pile and very soon finds it is visited by a strange apparition. This is the house’s long ago librarian, a coated gentleman who from the front appears to be a raven and has the ability to move through mirrors – taking Mr Vane with him.

This mirror world at first appears strange merely in an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland kind of way. The librarian/raven is prone to whimsical verbal contortions as in, “‘No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he is and then what himself is. In fact nobody is himself and himself is nobody,’” but the milieu soon develops a darker aspect in the creatures Mr Vane encounters. Seemingly dead bodies, animated skeletons (one of whom expresses a deeply misanthropic view of wedlock in a conversation, where its expostulation, “‘This can’t be hell!’ is rejoined by another’s, ‘It must: there’s marriage in it!’”) Then there are Little Ones, who if they are not careful how they eat turn into giants. These giants capture Vane and might persecute the Little Ones but somehow manage to forget their origins and remain blind to them. Visiting a city called Bulika, whose princess wishes to kill all babies to forestall a prophecy of her demise, becomes a goal of Vane’s sojourn. Her existence is bound up with two leopardesses, one spotted, one white, which feature prominently from then on.

After Vane meets the librarian/raven’s wife the couple’s identities are revealed to be Adam and Eve. Adam bestows on Vane some cryptic warnings. Vane’s rescue and revival of a comatose – to all intents dead – woman leads to complications as this turns out to be Lilith, Adam’s former wife and the same princess who blights the existence of all who live under her sway. I say live, but there is some doubt as to whether these creatures are in fact alive or dead or indeed in some other state. After that it all got a bit mired in philosophical ramblings. Not my cup of tea at all.

The book’s 19th century origins are indicated by archaisms like wafture (of wings,) dropt (dropped,) wrapt (wrapped,) glode (glided,) clave (cleaved,) and staid (stayed.)

I would say this is firmly of its time. As an insight into the religious preoccupations of a late Victorian it is no doubt illustrative. It doesn’t much illuminate the human condition, though, and would not reach my 100 Best Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- Shakspere (the 1895 spelling of Shakespeare I assume,) narow (narrow,) “against walls of its cage” (against the walls,) ne’re (1895 spelling of ne’er?) “fast as could” (as fast as I could?)

Interzone 270, May-Jun 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 270 cover

The Editorial apologises for housekeeping issues not entirely within the magazine’s control, Jonathan McCalmont’s column argues for a recognition that the SF and Fantasy community still has a lot to do to welcome and encourage, writers and readers of black or other “minority” (my quotation marks) background, instead of discouraging them as at present, Nina Allan1 reflects on her experience as a shadow Clarke Award judge and concludes that it is difficult to argue for SF as any longer being distinct from wider literature; a novel is good or it isn’t regardless of its origin or intent. Book Zone contains Paul Kincaid’s* review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140, reviews of the latest novels from Clare North2 and Cory Doctorow plus the collaboration between Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster as well as collections by Ellen Klages and regular Interzone contributor Malcolm Devlin (who is also interviewed) along with my review of Karen Hurley’s The Stars are Legion.
(*Kincaid mentions austerity as being needed to pay for the bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis. It wasn’t. The economy was beginning to recover by the time of the 2010 election. Austerity was a choice made by the incoming government for ideological, political, reasons. The bailout merely provided the excuse for its imposition. And the measures killed the recovery stone dead.)
As to the fiction:-
In Rushford Recapitulation by Christopher Mark Rose3 women in Rushford, New York, start giving birth to technological artefacts, bringing a rush of visitors, protesters, pregnant mothers. The technology becomes less advanced as time goes by.
Like You, I am a System4 by Nathan Hillstrom features an intelligence of silicon and electric current coming to consciousness and taking over its environment. Then it interferes in the wider world.
Dirty Code5 by Wayne Simmons is set in what appears to be a simulation. The protagonist keeps waking up with a new face and is in the employ of someone who wants him to get rid of those passing on the titular dirty code by infecting others via activities in strip clubs and the like.
Encyphered by Jonathan L Howard is the life story of a man obsessed with cyphers, determined to keep his secrets (after all, we all have them) to himself till the day after his death. It is also a potted history of cryptography and cryptanalysis and contains the wonderful observation, “In those halcyon days before successive austerities and unimaginative governments, the library was a mighty thing indeed.” I’m struggling to see it as either SF or fantasy though.
In The New Man6 by Malcolm Devlin a man killed in an accident in the warehouse of the cloning company where he works is, to make them look good, revived in one of their bodies. His new body is the basic model though. The warehouse seems absurdly low-tech for a company making such a modern product.
Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse7 by Emily B Cattaneo is a tale of childhood friendship, messages in bottles, roads not taken, the regrets of adulthood and that tantalising, inaccessible, forbidden lighthouse. All this in only eight pages.
In Memories of Fish8 by Shauna O’Meara virtual tourism enabled by drone footage is the big online attraction. A young woman at the viewed end takes a drone on a journey through areas the local authorities don’t want seen. While the story’s target is compassion fatigue it strays close to perpetuating the idea that dreadful living conditions in traditionally poor countries cannot be ameliorated. Since the viewer’s country had suffered extreme drought the story might have had more punch if the situations of viewer and viewed had been reversed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1focussed (focused.) 2involunatary (involuntary,) and a sentence with four verbs whose subject is team, the first verb is singular (tick) but the remainder plural. 3written in USian; “far ahead or behind schedule” (far ahead of or behind schedule,) “Rushford’s human inhabitants where healthy and normal” (were healthy,) blunderbuss (blunderbusses,) “Inca kuipu” (quipu.) 4written in USian; ”none of you pick your own nodes” (picks.) 5written in USian despite the author being Northern Irish. 6over emphatic (over-emphatic makes more sense,) fit (fitted,) “the both of us” (no “the”; just “both of us”.) 7Written in USian. 8”that this where she lives” (that this is,) “the olfactory interpreter’s best attempt at recreating a stench that is probably far worse in person” (in person is for, well, a person; not a smell; “in reality” fits better here.)

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

the greatest empire that never was.

Small Beer, 2003, 255 p. Translated from the Spanish Kalpa Imperial by Ursula K Le Guin. First published in two volumes La casa del poder (The House of Power) and El Imperio mas vasto (The Greatest Empire) by Ediciones Minotauro, Buenos Aires, 1983.

 Kalpa Imperial cover

This is not really like anything I’ve ever read before, a sweeping, dazzling, accomplishment of a book, soaring yet at the same time utterly grounded, told in two parts, The House of Power and The Greatest Empire, of five and six sections respectively, a history of an empire “so long that a whole life dedicated to study and research isn’t enough to know it wholly,” a history “strewn with surprise, contradictions, abysses, deaths, resurrections,” of an empire “so vast that a man can’t cross it in his lifetime.” A chronicling of human life, then.

I doubt it has any equivalent but the nearest comparison in SF is probably Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna, mainly due to its episodic narrative, but despite its fabular nature (no empire could ever last as long, with so many ruling dynasties, as the one in this book) this is somehow less fanciful and more convincing (and I liked Roma Eterna a lot even though it was late Silverberg where he wasn’t quite as incisive as in his pomp.) Kalpa Imperial nevertheless did somehow at times remind me of translations of Chinese literature but probably only because it deals with emperors and empires and the consequent power struggles.

Despite its subtitle the book does not restrict itself to the emperors or their courts. Life in the empire is presented in an approximation of its diversity but there is no continuity between the sections, no characters carry on from one to the next or later. Instead the picture is built up from what are in effect short stories/novellas set in the same milieu. A binding link in the book, though, is that, like fairy tales, most of the sections begin with the same phrase, in this case, “The storyteller said:” but varied with one, “Yes, said the storyteller:” a, “Vast is the empire, said the storyteller:” with the last section altering the template to, “‘I’m an orphan,” The Cat had said,’”. All these help to solidify the tales, to root the book in a compelling simulation of an actual history as remembered by oral historians. But it is precisely that lack of continuity, that difference between the sections (except for the narrative tone,) that works to make the book feel like a true history.

Throughout the book there are asides on the art of story. “The reason why there are storytellers in the world is to answer those questions we all ask, and not as the teller, but as the reader,” “a storyteller is no more than a free man, and being a free man is a dangerous business,” and, pertinently to any time but certainly apposite now, “who takes any notice of the wise, these days, except storytellers, or poets?” Particularly redolent was the passage which dwelt on the phrase, “not all is said.”

There is a knowing quality to the section which riffs on The Odyssey. A legend is recited containing people named Kirdaglas, Marlenditrij, Betedeivis, Maripícfor, Briyibardó, Jedilamar, Alendelón, Orsonuéls, Clargueibl, Yeimsdín etc, with houses named saloon, rashomon, elañopasadoenmarienbad and charge of the light brigade and which also features sirens called ringostars.

Gorodischer is well-served by her translator. (Though if you’re going to be translated it must be a boon if it is done by one of the best writers around.) But the whole is a marvel of invention, a rich imagining of a world not our own but as near to it as makes no difference.

Pedant’s corner:- “time’s mirror losses all its reflects” (reflections, surely?) Ja’ladahlva (elsewhere Ja’ladahva,) a missing end quotation mark, busses (buses,) “who lived more than twenty kilos away” (kilo is used as an abbreviation for kilogram, not kilometre,) “the girl was very young girl” (a very young girl,) “in the darkness under of the walls” (either under or of, not both,) two of the women were were crawling (only one were needed.) “Five minutes later” (twice in two lines, both beginning a paragraph.) “He knew it” – death – “was waiting for him in the South too, but maybe there it wouldn’t take so long to come” (context suggests “but maybe there it would take longer to come”,) traveller’s tales (travellers’ tales?) “.. he could stay as long as he like before” (liked,) “a gesture that included that included” (one “that included” only,) a missing quote mark at a section beginning with a piece of dialogue – probably house style but it irritates me, Clargueible (previously Clargueibl,) “of the the dead emperor” (only one “the”,) “it it rose up” (only one “it”.)

Interzone 272

Interzone 272 cover
A Skinful of Shadows cover

Two packages from Interzone have arrived.

The latest issue, Interzone 272, containing all the usual but no contribution from me this time.

An ARC (uncorrected proof) of A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge for me to review for the next issue.

Ms Hardinge is another writer new to me though her entry on Fantastic Fiction lists seven previous books by her. Most seem to be fantasy works.

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2016, 430 p.

 Radiance cover

Radiance is set in a fantastical universe where the Moon and the planets have all been colonised and are unrecognisably exotic places. At times the appearance of the text mirrors this exuberance. There is a variety of typefaces, some offset on the page to the right, others to the left and some laid out as a film or play script – or even transcript.

We are first invited to “Come inside and meet the prologue.” In a comment on literary affectation she (the prologue) tells us she has been told often that she is wholly unnecessary, a growth upon the story the wise doctor must cut off.

Below each chapter’s title is a representation of a film strip with an astrological symbol in it relating to the planet or moon on which it is set. The meat of the novel deals with the life of Severin Unck, an actress since a very young child, her father a film director, her mother a camera (he was always pointing one at her) but herself in her film-making resolutely wedded to documentary, “Any story is a lie cunningly told to hide the real world from the bastards who can’t live in it.” Severin cannot tell that lie. “We think of ourselves as being in … not just a story, but a good story.” It turns out film in this universe occurred early but when talkies evolved Edison subsequently sat on the patent so that only silent movies acquired the cachet of being art.

The story is told through personal reminiscences, transcripts of both Severin’s own – now fragmentary – archive and her father’s. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, her real mother is unknown to her – and to the world except for her mother (who wishes to remain anonymous) and her father who keeps his counsel. Severin was delivered to his doorstep and he took her in and raised her without demur, casting her in his films from an early age. She had a succession of stepmothers all of whom seem to have treated her well enough, the most long-lasting being Mary Pellam. The timeline (helpfully given in a Chronology on pages 7-9) goes from 1858 to 1962.

Creatures known as callowhales feature heavily. They are massive denizens of the deeps of a water-covered Venus. Their nature is unknown except for being able to produce a universal food called callowmilk, which gets turned into ice-cream among other things.

Anchises St John grew up with Severin and has a strange disfigurement, an unhealing “mouth” on his hand procured due to him inadvertently touching a callowhale. At one point the novel threatens to turn into a detective story as Anchises is manœuvred into trying to ascertain what happened to Severin after she dropped out of the public eye. This does give Valente the opportunity to regale us with the aside, “In detective stories, women are usually dead before the curtain goes up. In fairy tales, they’re usually alive. Fairy tales are about survival. That’s all they’re about. The detective solves the woman, the knight saves her.”

There is something very odd about the celestial mechanics of the Solar System described in the text. In ours, Earth is not incommunicado for years when the sun passes between it and Pluto – or Neptune (stated in the text to be out of radio contact with Earth for 72 years.) Our Earth scoots completely round the Sun in only one year after all; so it will be on the same side as those planets again within six months at maximum (and in practice probably only obscured for a few days.) Arguably, though, this discrepancy is in agreement with the fantastical nature of the solar system of the book. When there is a bridge between Pluto and Charon and people can stroll about in the open air under the moons of Uranus what’s a little radio blackout?

In its settings Radiance is a whirling round of invention but these flourishes do make it difficult to read as Science Fiction – though as outright fantasy not a problem – and it is not until the very last pages that the genesis of this strange solar system is addressed in the text. (Even so those orbital mechanics are a bit hard to take.) Severin explains, “‘Because I am a nexus point connecting all possible realities and unrealities…. I exist in innumerable forms throughout the liquid structure of space/time, and neither self nor causality have any meaning for me.'” The significance of the callowhales is that they “exist throughout everything that has ever existed or will exist.” For, “There are a million million frames,” (in a movie) “each one of them only a little different, and callowhales move through those frames like a cigarette burn in the corner of the image. Each frame is a world, a universe.” These glosses were too late for me as by the time they came I had lost patience with the idea of the book as anything but a fantasy.

As an adjunct to the living in a good story theme we also have a character say, “‘I think we’re all Graeae… We all share one eye between us, the big, black camera iris. We wait for our turn to see what someone else saw on a screen. And then we pass it on.'”

In an aside on hiding in plain sight Mary Pellam tells another, “‘If you’ve married men twice, nobody asks what you think about when the night breeze comes sidling in.'”

The penultimate chapter, Goodbye, echoes the prologue – “There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers.” And of course in another piece of comment on the art of fiction it is not the end of the book.

Despite Valente being from the US we have “arse”, “knitted” and “bum” used in the British sense – and even maths! – but hood for the bonnet of a vehicle. Odd. Her intention for the book may be that “the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been.”

Radiance is pyrotechnic and contains some fine writing but its fantastical trappings distract more than a little from the human story it portrays.

Pedant’s corner:- parenthetical hyphens are not spaced from their content-as a result this reads oddly-put in the space please. Otherwise; sprung (sprang,) lay down (lie down,) ice flow (floe,) off of (off, just off, no of,) assaying a Charleston (essaying,) outside of (outside, just outside, no of,) “partnered in own his dance” (in his own dance?) Hades’ (Hades’s,) “Nous vous attendons pour vous” (if I remember my schoolboy French aright either the “vous” or the “pour vous” is superfluous – Nous vous attendons = we will await you; nous attendons pour vous = we will wait for you,) “‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan his stately pleasure dome decree.’” (A stately pleasure dome, ) “and, and” (the first “and” is superfluous,) “a throng stampede” (earlier throng had been accorded a verb agreeing with its singular nature – so; a throng stampedes,) Franklyn Edison (elsewhere referred to as Freddy,) octopi (octopuses, at a pinch octopodes.)

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Corvus, 2012, 521 p.

 Hide Me Among the Graves cover

Powers has form with poetry and poets, especially those of the nineteenth century. In The Anubis Gates he even, in the form of William Ashbless, deployed one of his own (and that of James Blaylock) invention. Fantastic Fiction even lists some of “Ashbless”’s works.

Here Powers concentrates on the Rossetti family, Christina and her brother Dante Gabriel, but Algernon Swinburne also features as a character as does Edward Trelawny.

In Hide me Among the Graves sublime poetry is an expression of a kind of demonic possession by (or more accurately a close association to) the Nephilim, a semi-vampiric type of creature. The affliction is partly hereditary but can be transmitted by biting. Two of these creatures (one is Byron’s friend John Polidori, the Rosettis’ maternal uncle, the other embodies the spirit of Boudicca – though the characters of course call her Boadicea) are the background drivers of the plot. Uniting their two strands in one body by the union of the two bloodlines will awaken such power that Boadicea will again be able (as she did in Roman times) to destroy London in an earthquake. Byron, Shelley and Keats are said to have shared the nephilitic tendency, Tennyson and Ashbless not. The loved ones, especially the children, of those close to the Nephilim are in danger of death, or – worse – a lingering half life as a diminished ghost. The prologue involves the awakening of the spirit of Polidori, by Christina rubbing her blood into a small statue belonging to her father. (There it is, blood again.)

The lesser known (ie totally fictional) protagonists of the book are Adelaide McKee and John Crawford who unknown to each other (at first) are host to the relevant spirits. When they are passing by chance on a London bridge at night they are attacked by an avatar of Boadicea. Only Crawford’s quick thinking in hurling them both into the water saves them. (For some reason both salt water and almost drowning repel the vampires, exposure to the open air increases the danger.) The same night though they conceive a child. Since McKee had earlier been trapped into prostitution they do not meet again for seven years, by which time McKee thinks Johanna, their daughter, may be dead. She is not, but has fallen into the clutches of Polidori and they and she spend the rest of the book trying to evade a forced union of Johanna with one of Boadicea’s creatures.

Powers is good with characters. McKee, Crawford and Johanna are very well drawn and their story is much the most compelling in the book. I was less taken with the doings of the Rosettis though. This is perhaps due to my distaste for the incorporation (it might as well be traducing) of real people in such a distortion of history. It is only the fantastical elements which disturb me here, however; I have no quarrel with the practice in a straightforward altered history. In this context, in Hide me Among the Graves, Powers purports to give us the real reason why Gabriel’s wife Lizzie Siddal’s grave was exhumed.

While Powers does write like a dream bits of this are ridiculous. Like vampires, the Nephilim – or their agents – can be deflected by garlic, killed by silver bullets, and their reflections trapped by mirrors. (I know it’s a staple of vampire stories but …. garlic? Really?) It is a measure of Powers’s facility that despite my reservations I continued reading. He can certainly spin a yarn and people it with apparently living, breathing characters. The book is too long though. I could quite happily have stopped reading at the end of Part One and still felt satisfied; but there was still over half the book to go.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably few instances for a book this long. And the copy I read was an ARC (or proof as they used to be known.) It shows it can be done.
Nevertheless we still had “to lay low” (lie – but it was in direct speech,) missing opening quote marks when direct speech started a chapter, “had strode” (stridden, surely?) “‘the effect requires parents from two continents’” (Powers’s geography is off here. A Roman, no matter how consecrated to an Alpine Goddess, who raped one of Boadicea’s daughters – similarly consecrated to the old British Goddess known as Andraste, Magna Mater or Gogmagog – was not from a different continent to that of his victim.) An electric doorbell (in 1869?) Octopi (the plural is octopodes or octopuses,) “in front of one in the long row of houses” (it does make sense but “one of the long row of houses” is a more natural construction.)

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Vintage, 2016, 296 p. Reviewed for Interzone 265, Jul-Aug 2016.

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

The title is an indicator, clearly alluding to a famous collection of tales of wonder, promising (as it then does) exotic happenings, digressions, meanderings and stories within stories. Yet it is also somehow unmistakably Rushdian. Exotic but recognisable, aslant but accessible. In any case, I doubt any other present day author would invite comparison to such a well-known set of stories as the Arabian Nights. But the conceit doesn’t come from nowhere. If he perhaps hasn’t addressed the supernatural quite as directly in most of his previous novels there has nearly always been more than a hint of the strange, brushes with the uncanny, in Rushdie’s work. So here we have jinn (not genies, no, we don’t use that word any more) the Grand Ifrits, Zumurrud the Great, Zabardast the Sorcerer, Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls – so slender he disappears when he turns sideways – Ra’im the Blood-Drinker, the source of all the world’s vampire stories, and the jinnia Dunia, otherwise known as Aasmaan Peri, aka the Sky Fairy and the Lightning Princess of Mount Qâf.

The narrative is couched as a looking back at the legendary time when the seals between the worlds eroded, a great storm struck the Earth and the Strangenesses began. Yet the story begins over 800 years earlier, in 1195, with the arrival at the house of the philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) of a young homeless girl. This was Dunia, indulging her fascination with human men and her capacity for love. For two years eight months and twenty-eight nights they lived as man and wife and produced numerous offspring, whose descendants, all characterised by their lobeless ears, became the Duniazát. Not named after him as, “To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.” Ibn Rushd’s dispute with the philosophy of a predecessor, Ghazali, “Only fear will move sinful man towards God,” and who stated that things happen only because God wills them, provides us with disquisitions on God’s nature, “God is a creation of human beings; the clap-hands-if-you-believe-in-fairies principle.” These differences are played out on a grander scale during the war between the worlds that followed the Strangenesses.

During that time rationality crumbled. Some found their feet didn’t touch the ground and might float away so high that they died, others were weighed down so that they became crushed. A baby born during the storm caused outbreaks of sores on anyone corrupt or dishonest into whose vicinity she came. The irrational became commonplace. The Duniazát had inherited some of Dunia’s jinn powers and were invaluable in the final confrontations with the Grand Ifrits. The whole time of Strangeness lasted, of course, two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.

Lines like, “If I get hurt in this putative affray of yours then I’m not an innocent bystander?” to a policeman from a musician at risk from the incitements of a rabid preacher show that the events of Rushdie’s life so far have contributed mightily to this – as, I assume, theirs must necessarily do for all but hack authors. Yet while the novel contains all Rushdie’s strengths, it also manifests and perhaps magnifies his faults. There is not much restraint here, there is a lot of telling, the treatment is, as ever, consciously literary and full of word play (Lebanonymous; “all the gold, men, in your sacks will not save you.”) Yet the retrospective narrator defuses any tension in the reader as to the eventual outcome. Rushdie also feels it necessary to define FTL despite name-checking eleven masters of the golden age of science fiction.

However, the book is mainly a meditation on the nature of story. “All our stories contain the stories of others and are themselves contained within larger, grander narratives.” “The first thing to know about made-up stories is that they are all untrue in the same way,” (which feels Tolstoyan but is certainly debatable.) “To tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present.” That stories tell us what we are; we tell them in order to understand ourselves. Quite where the incursion of the supernatural leaves us with that one is rather problematic. “To recount a fantasy is to tell a tale about the actual.” Well, maybe. “If good and evil were external to Man, it became impossible to define what an ethical man might be,” is closer to the mark.

In general Rushdie is at his best when his flights of fancy are tethered more firmly to earthly events, more centred on his human characters which here are too thinly delineated. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is pyrotechnic, impressive even, undoubtedly worth reading, but, ultimately, curiously lacking in heart.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- St Sebestian (Sebastian?) Nietzche (later rendered correctly as Nietzsche,) “when the princes’ attention was elsewhere” (yes it was princes, plural, ergo it should be attentions were,) bsattling (battling,) Rossonero, (Rossoneri.) In name (In the name,) one less sad angel face (one fewer – but it was narrated in tight third person,) waitstaff (that’s just a horrible conflation, waiting staff is entirely adequate,) knobkerry (I’ve only ever seen the spelling knobkerrie before,) scent to the lower world (sent.)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail, 2016, 430 p.

 The Essex Serpent cover

To all intents and purposes this is a nineteenth century novel but it is one written with a modern sensibility. The text is divided into a prologue set on (an unspecified) New Year’s Eve followed by four parts split into unevenly distributed sections which are titled consecutively January to September and then finally November, all interspersed with letters written between the characters.

In it the recently (happily) widowed Cora Seaborne with her son Frankie – who seems to have OCD or at the least autistic traits – and his childhood nurse Martha travel to Colchester to get away from London. The doctor who attended her husband’s death bed, Luke Garrett, has meanwhile formed an unreciprocated attraction to her. An earthquake eight years before the book starts has, according to rumour, let loose again the Essex Serpent which for a short time in 1669 roamed the waters of the Essex coast. Every local mishap or disappearance is now blamed on it. In the Blackwater estuary village of Aldwinter, there is a representation of the serpent carved onto a pew in All Saints Church. Through a mutual acquaintance an introduction is arranged between its vicar, William Ransome, and Cora, who has an interest in ancient creatures inspired by Mary Anning. Both Cora and Ransome erroneously imagine the other to be a stereotype of their respective statuses. They first meet by accident while rescuing a sheep from the muddy river bank but on further introduction strike up an intellectual, if verbally combative, friendship. Ransome is at odds with his congregation in being unwilling to address or assuage their belief in the creature. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is a consumptive, who is pleased by, even encourages, the friendship between her husband and Cora, and herself befriends Frankie.

The ingredients are here for a tale of forbidden love (or two eternal triangles even) set against a backdrop of supernatural horror but Perry does not play that game. She is more subtle – and too good a writer. Yet something about the enterprise nevertheless misses the mark.

The prologue mentions the banks of the River Blackwater in its first sentence. Having once lived by that river’s banks myself – but way upstream not near the estuary – I was therefore disposed to like the book, but as time went by I grew increasingly frustrated by it. It is not that it is not accomplished in its way or fails to provide memorable characters – even the relatively minor ones are rounded and all too human. There was just something about it that felt askew. About halfway through the thought crystallised.

Perry has yet to learn economy. Accumulation of detail normally lends verisimilitude, but she overdoes it. Descriptions frequently contain at least one observation too many. There is too much telling, too many extended ruminations by the various characters. And is Cora just a little too modern in her attitudes? In this regard the sub-theme of the problem of social housing and high rents also seemed to be straining for contemporary relevance. And – this last was actually a grace note, so not infelicitous as such – I did wonder if Martha had been named solely so as that another character might say to her, “‘Martha, my dear.’”

A pointer to Perry’s intentions for the novel may be found when she puts into the mouth of Will Ransome the thought, “‘far from being one truth alone there may be several truths,’” but we are never in any doubt that there is only one reality here. In that regard the putative fantasy element of the serpent promises more than it delivers.

While Perry has a facility with character and behaviour and The Essex Serpent has much to recommend it, it is more than a touch overwritten.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) fit (fitted, x 2,) “no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge” (than another would emerge,) “‘Still gadding about with hookers, is he?” (hookers was not a British usage in Victorian times I’d have thought. It still isn’t,) “he’d showed her” (shown,) “that of a minor royal greeting dignitaries at the opening of a library” (did minor royals perform such functions in the nineteenth century?) “Fifty miles south as the swallow flies and London’s at her best” (London? South of the Blackwater estuary as the swallow flies?) “Think of the set to when Galileo sent the earth spinning round the sun” (that was Copernicus, not Galileo, but it was in a character’s musings. He may have been intended to be mistaken but he was otherwise presented as scientifically literate,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb – which was used only seven pages later!)
Greetings to the word croat (meaning a cross) which was a new one on me.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Viking, 2016, 349 p.

 The Power cover

The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, its origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader – and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.

Pedant’s corner:- “over to her cousins” (cousins’,) “the particulate and debris grow” (particulates and debris?) “the music reaches a crescendo” (no, a crescendo is a rise, not the climax at its end.)

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