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All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, 2016, 429 p.

 All the Birds in the Sky cover

This, Anders’s first novel, is a blend of Fantasy and Science Fiction which starts off reading like YA fiction but soon enough makes clear that it deals with adult matters too. Patricia Delfine very early in her life realises she is a witch when birds begin to talk to her and she can talk back. She also has a conversation with a speaking tree – The Tree. In school her path crosses that of Laurence Armstead, a so-called techno-geek, who invents for himself a two-second time machine for travel only into the future, and later builds an AI he calls CH@NG3M3. For both of them schooldays are a kind of purgatory, as they are picked on and bullied. Their home lives are little better, both using the other as a means of convincing their parents they are out doing what is desired for them rather than what they wish for themselves. Mixed in with all this is an assassin called Mr Rose who gets a job as counsellor at their school in order to monitor their activities. Despite appearing intermittently in the novel Mr Rose’s function is not really clearly defined.

Later the children’s lives diverge as Patricia finds the company of other witches (whose old division into Healers and Tricksters was patched over many years before.) She is always being warned by them of the dangers of Aggrandisement. It seems just about anything she does can be interpreted in this way. Laurence is recruited by Milton Dirth to work on his project to build a wormhole machine to take humans to another planet. In the background there is a large degree of environmental degradation which makes this construction seem worthwhile and in daily life an electronic device called a Caddy somehow engineers people’s lives to be better through apparently serendipitous meetings and the like. How all these things are connected and Patricia and Laurence’s coming together in adult life are central to the story.

There are some observations on human nature. In one of their conversations Laurence says to Patricia “‘no matter what you do, people are going to expect you to be someone you’re not. But if you’re clever and work your butt off, then you get to be surrounded by people who expect you to be the person you wish they were.’”

Oddly, despite the novel being written in USian I noticed the British usages, “a total wanker,” “for some emergency nookie,” and “one intense wank fantasy.” In addition I was delighted to see the phrase “head for the Dumbarton.” (The Dumbarton is a bridge over San Francisco Bay – the southernmost. Its name derives from Dumbarton Point, itself named after my home town.)

Though it has some flaws, All the Birds in the Sky is overall an impressive debut.

Pedant’s corner:- epicenter [sic] (it was a centre,) a missing comma before a quotation mark, a capital letter after a colon, “none of the computers were connected” (none .. was connected,) “‘to lay low’” (lie low,) Patricia at one point is said to have reasonably fullish breasts but later they are described as small, “Here’s what Isobel said to Laurence, just before the earthquake hit” is a poor – a dreadful – way to start a flashback.

That List Again

The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the century, Part Two.

I have read the ones in bold.

50 Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
49 Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
48 Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002)
47 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003), translated by Mattias Ripa (2003-2004)
46 Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (2010)
45 Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (2013)
44 Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2004)
43 Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)
42 Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2010)
41 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
40 The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
39 White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
38 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
37 The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015)
36 Experience by Martin Amis (2000)
35 The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
34 Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014)
33 Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
32 The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
31 The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)
30 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
29 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009), translated by Don Bartlett (2012)
28 Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)
27 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro (2001)
25 Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)
24 A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)
23 The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (2001)
22 Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)
21 Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2011), translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman (2014)
20 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
19 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‑Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
18 The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (2007)
17 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
16 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
15 The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
14 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
13 Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
12 The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
11 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011), translated by Ann Goldstein (2012)
10 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
09 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
08 Autumn by Ali Smith (2016)
07 Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
06 The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)
05 Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001), translated by Anthea Bell (2001)
04 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
03 Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (2013), translated by Bela Shayevich (2016)
02 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
01 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Nine out of this fifty, but I’ve read the number 1. I’ve got a good run between six and twelve.
However. Life After Life at no 20? Not A God in Ruins?

A List. (Well; Part of a List)

This list – supposedly of the 100 best books of the 21st century (so far) – was published in The Guardian Review on Saturday 21/9/19. (Some of them are non-fiction which I’m extremely unlikely to read.)

I’ve split it in two for purposes of concision in a post.

The usual annotations apply. Those in bold I have read, an asterisk denotes intention to read.

100 I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (2006)
99 Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou (2005), translated by Helen Stevenson (2009)
98 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005), translated by Steven T Murray (2008)
97 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (2000)
96 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
95 Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan (2004)
94 The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
93 Darkmans by Nicola Barker (2007)
92 The Siege by Helen Dunmore (2001)
91 Light by M John Harrison (2002)
90 Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008), translated by Susan Bernofsky (2010)
89 Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (2000)
88 Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)
87 Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (2017)
86 Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis (2017)
85 The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006)
84 The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)
83 Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli (2016), translated by Luiselli with Lizzie Davis (2017)
82 Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)
81 Harvest by Jim Crace (2013)
80 Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002)
79 The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)
78 The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (2015)
77 Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009), translated by Lisa Dillman (2015)
76 Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)
75 Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2018)
74 Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)
73 Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2009)
72 The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2019)
71 Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (2000)
70 Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller (2003)
69 The Infatuations by Javier Marías (2011), translated by Margaret Jull Costa (2013)
68 The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)
67 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)*
66 Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2014)
65 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
64 On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
63 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
62 Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2006)
61 This House of Grief by Helen Garner (2014)
60 Dart by Alice Oswald (2002)
59 The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson (2002)
58 Postwar by Tony Judt (2005)
57 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
56 Underland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)
55 The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
54 Women & Power by Mary Beard (2017)
53 True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)
52 Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
51 Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)

As you can see I’ve only read four of this selection – all of them broadly under the SF or fantasy umbrella.

More for Interzone

 Automatic Eve cover
 Incomplete Solutions cover

At the end of last week two books arrived from Interzone (very quickly I might add. I only let editor Andy Cox I was interested in them on the Wednesday.)

The books are:-

Automatic Eve by Rokuro Inui, a Japanese writer hitherto unknown to me.

The story collection Incomplete Solutions by Wole Talabi, a Nigerian.

The reviews ought to appear in Interzone’s issue 284.

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges

and The Gold of the Tigers, Penguin Modern Classics, 1987, 190 p, including Author’s Note, two Prefaces and Notes.
The Book of Sand was translated from the Spanish El libore arena (published by Emecé Editores SA 1975) by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The Gold of the Tigers – a selection of poems from The Gold of the Tigers (published as El oro de los tigres by Emecé Editores SA 1972) and The Unending Rose (published as La rosa profunda by Emecé Editores SA 1975) were both translated by Alastair Reid.

The Book of Sand cover

In all of the tales in this collection there is an economical sparseness to the prose, a distancing, which tends to make them read like myth, or fable. They are certainly flavoured with the fantastic. The typical style is to tell rather than show. But in Borges’s hands it works. In his preface to The Unending Rose Borges says, “the notion of art as compromise is a simplification, for no one knows entirely what he is doing. A writer can conceive a fable, Kipling acknowledged, without grasping its moral.” He’s underselling himself. He knew perfectly well what he was doing.

A strange meeting is the nub of The Other. In Cambridge in 1969, by the Charles River, Jorge Luis Borges encounters Jorge Luis Borges, who is in Geneva in 1918, a few steps from the Rhone.
In Ulrike, a Colombian man has an encounter with a Norwegian woman in York. Their walk together leads them into a different time.
The Congress is the Congress of the World, an organisation set up to represent the men of all nations, whose President is Alejandro Glencoe, Uruguayan son of a man from Aberdeen.
Dedicated on its title page to the memory of H P Lovecraft There are more Things is in the tradition of ‘entering a strange house’ stories and ends with an undescribed horror approaching the narrator. Borges’s interest in Scotland is in evidence again. A character is named Alexander Muir and the narrator tells us, “Scotland’s symbol, after all, is the thistle.”
The Sect of the Thirty is a ‘fragment from a manuscript’ tale and reveals the origins of the titular sect’s name.
The night of the gifts contains a tale within a tale within a tale – all inside six pages. The gifts are knowledge of both love and death.
The mirror and the mask is set in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf when the High King of Ireland commissions a bard to compose a poem celebrating the victory, then – when it is delivered the next year – another, and finally a third the year after that. Each poem’s significance eclipses the earlier’s.
Undr purports to be a translation of an old manuscript and is another tale within a tale in which a man travels to the land of the Urns to find the single word which is their poetry plus a short rendering of his life thereafter to find the word’s meaning; and that of life.
In Utopia of a tired man our narrator is strolling a vast plain and comes across a building inhabited by a man who, when he speaks, reveals they are in the narrator’s (and the reader’s) future. Within the story’s seven pages we learn how the world came to be as it is and some of the future humans’ beliefs. Borges provides us with some sly digs at his own trade. “Printing – which is now abolished, since it tended to multiply unnecessary texts to the point of dizziness – was one of man’s worst evils.” “Language is a system of quotations.”
The bribe is an account of a piece of academic politics wherein one scholar publishes a critical paper as a stratagem to incline his criticisee to nominate him for a place at a conference.
Avelino Arredondo plans his forthcoming action for the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, sequestering himself from friends, fiancée and newspapers so that none but him can be blamed for it.
In The disk a now blind woodcutter recalls the time he gave a stranger shelter. In the morning the stranger told him he was the king of the Secgens and had Odin’s ring – the only one-sided ring in the world – in his palm. The woodcutter tried to obtain the ring.
The Book of Sand is a story which claims to be true. A man in Buenos Aires (with a great personal affection for Scotland through a love for Stevenson and Hume) opens his door to a Bible seller from Orkney – to where he hopes to return – who shows him the Book of Books, one which has no beginning nor end and whose pagination is arbitrary. He buys it.
The latter half of the book contains many of Borges’s poems; each printed with the original Spanish on the left hand page and the English translation on the right.

Pedant’s corner:- in the author’s note; Wells’ (Wells’s.) Otherwise:- Heraclitus’ (Heraclitus’s,) Tacitus’ (Tacitus’s,) Beauvais’ (Beauvais’s,) John Wilkins’ (Wilkins’s,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) extra marks for ‘hanged himself’. “One day less.” (One day fewer,) Wiclif (usually spelled Wycliffe,) Córboda (Córdoba.) In the Notes; Borges’ (Borges’s.)

Shoreline of Infinity 12: Summer 2018

The New Curiosity Shop, 134 p

In Pull up a Log Iain Maloney reflects on his time as Shoreline’s reviews editor.

In the fiction we have Do Not Pass GO by Helen Jackson, a light-hearted time-travelling story which tells how the board game “Property Is Best!” became “Monopoly” and conquered the world.
This is followed by Aeaea by Robert Gordon where day by day a man’s consciousness passes between bodies working on a production line of some sort. The workers are overseen by robots. He knows little of his past but occasional dreams let him know he had one. He instigates a revolution but there is still time for an ending which, despite some foreshadowing, is still a deus ex machina.
In Jammers by Anton Rose a young Max is recruited into a gang which remotely hi-jacks self-driving cars in order to rob their passengers. His junkie mother is disgusted by his new-found occupation.
Paradise Bird by J S Richardson features an exotic alien – a male – from an almost forgotten far-flung outpost of humanity come to visit the Habs on the fringe of the asteroid belt and charm one of the hermaphroditic inhabitants.
In Sand and Rust by W G White the entirety of human civilisation wanders through a relentless desert landscape in a caravan guided by a machine called The Chaperone. The caravan’s First Rider has to induct his replacement before entering The Chaperone, never to re-emerge. I did wonder how, in the midst of all this desert, the people in the caravan obtained food.
Sleeping Fire by Elvira Hills is a tale of haves and have nots, the desert people left without regeneration technology, those in Rejensy exploiting them to secure their own longevity. New recruit Resa determines to redress things. The pacing here is a little too breathless at times and the action sequence borders on cliché.
The Beachcomber Presents graphic strip literally depicts people living in social bubbles, escaping their confines to find the richness outside.
SF Caledonia: Crossing the Starfield by Chris Kelsoa relates how he stumbled on a copy of Starfield, the first ever anthology of Scottish Science Fiction, in a Glasgow second-hand bookshopb. He goes on to wonder how it has been so forgotten (not by those of a certain age, mate) and to eulogise the contents.
The Square Fella1 by Duncan Lunan is one of the stories from that collection and describes the first manned rocket mission out of the bowl of the world in which its protagonist lives.

There is a page introducing a flash fiction competition for SoI readers on the subject of the Moonc followed by an interview with Ada Palmer conducted by Eris Young.
Ruth E J Booth’s Noise and Sparks column Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Genred discusses the ongoing disparagement of SF by some academics.

Reviews sees Eris Young finding new depth in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognita trilogy as books 2 and 3 Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle roll on, Steve Ironsidee confesses to not being armoured enough to cope with the rhythm and narrative of Hal Duncan’s A Scruffian Survival Guide, Katy Lennon delights in the intricacies of M John Harrison’s You Should Come with Me Nowf, Georgina Merryg appreciates the gorgeous writing and unpredictable story line of Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts, Callum McSorley feels the mix of action thriller and political drama in Null States by Malka Older doesn’t quite mesh, Lucy Powellh describes Eric Brown’s Binary System as a colourful romp.
MultiVerse has poems by Caroline Haker, Ken Poyner and Elizabeth Dulemba (whose three very short pieces are illustrated.) Replacing Parabolic Puzzles we have Spot the Difference by Tsu.

Pedant’s corner:- I proofread the fiction original to this issue before publication so assume there are no remaining errata there. 1“at its comers” (‘corners’ makes sense, ‘comers’ doesn’t,) “on one side that the other” (than,) “but if was less massive” (if it was less massive,) “the last chance to bum him with his knowledge” (burn. This – as with comers above – is a manifestation of the problem in some fonts of distinguishing the letter pairing ‘rn’ from the single letter ‘m’.)
a“There is a notable contributions” (contribution,) David Crooks’ (Crooks’s,) “of it’s achievements” (its.) bSaid in the introduction to be in Glasgow’s Merchant City but it’s in the West end. c“on the the theme of the Moon” (only one ‘the’ needed.) d“the kind of the impact” (the kind of impact,) “startling out of depth” (startlingly.) e“but the challenges I faced in getting to grips with Duncan’s writing means …” (the challenges mean….) 3272 pags apparently (pages,) clamor (is the reviewer USian?) “twisting the reader’s expectations, forcing them…” (that ‘them’ means its noun antecedent ought to be “readers’”,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.) g“merely part of the characters’ identity” (characters, plural, therefore ‘identities’.) h“for all intents and purposes” (it’s ‘to all intents and purposes’.)

Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

Tor, 2017, 439 p, including 12 p Glossary. Illustrated by David Grove.

 Pirate Freedom cover

This is a book that probably contains all you ever wanted to know about pirates and then more. Not quite a swashbuckling romp – it is too reflective for that, not shying from depicting the downsides of pirate life – it is always highly readable.

It is also a time travel story. Narrator Chris (Crisofóro) was handed over by his father to be brought up in Our Lady of Bethlehem monastery in a post-Communist Cuba. When he left there he somehow or other found himself back in the heyday of the Spanish Empire, got caught up in the piracy trade, eventually becoming adept at it and in charge of several ships. Interpolations into the narrative of his pirate times relate Chris’s thoughts in later life when he is back in the future but not as far as the time he left it. In these interludes he is an ordained priest, given to musing on his past sins, and on God’s forgiveness.

One of his reflections is that, “money is just another way of saying freedom. If you have money you can do pretty much whatever you want to do. (If you do not believe me. Look at the people who have it.) …That is not exactly how it is for pirates … but it is close. And that is why they do it,” another on the ethics of obedience, “A boy who has been taught to be a sheep will not protect himself or anybody else. If he is molested and does not fight, the people who taught him to be a sheep are at least as much to blame as the molester.” In this he, and Wolfe as author, come dangerously close to condoning abuse.

Then we have, “I remembered that America had fought Spain once and freed Cuba.” Freed Cuba, eh? Swapping one empire for another is hardly freedom. That’ll be why they had a revolution sixty years later.

There are some bons mots. Of a man with whom he had dealings Chris says, “D’Ogeron was an honest politician – when you bought him, he stayed bought.” Another pirate captain says, “‘Not all beautiful things are treasures, but all treasures are beautiful.’”

Pirate Freedom is not one of Wolfe’s major works but it passes the time entertainingly enough and may correct some misconceptions about the pirate life.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (several instances,) formast (foremast.)

Interzone 280, Mar-Apr 2019

TTA Press, 96 p

In the Editorial Shauna O’Meara describes the genesis of her story in this issue in her practice as a vet, seeing the close bond between owners and their animals. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupteda muses on the influence of science and most latterly psychology on literature and SF and wonders what effect the development of neuroscience will have on the stories we tell ourselves. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories (Books That Smile Back) reflects the endless fascination some people have with books and their rewards. In Book Zone, again relegated to after the film reviews, I say of Helen Coggan’s The Orphanage of Gods that she writes well, with an eye for character and plot, Duncan Lunanb finds quality in the stories in game spin-off The True History of the Strange Brigade edited by David Thomas Moore, but arguing from the first page with The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman before eventually finding the author in complete control (though his final paragraph suggests to me the author is not entirely playing fair,) Lawrence Osbornc welcomes the fifth “Invisible Library” book, The Mortal World by Genevieve Cogman, “a detective story that actually works within the parameters set by its fantasy context,” Tim Major is impressed by Helen Marshall’s “eagerly awaited” first novel The Migration,like a parable offering moral guidance, Stephen Theaker thought M T Hill’s Zero Bomb very good indeed despite it switching protagonist halfway through, Val Noland tells us Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds succeeds by threading a tonal and thematic discourse between the two extremes of bleakness and optimism exemplified in the author’s previous work and offers a series of satisfying steps on the main characters’ journeys, Maureen Kincaid Speller praises the subtlety and nuance – unusual in a tale of interstellar goings-on – of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine and commends this first novel, Ian Sales finds it a sad state of affairs that Mimi Yu’s The Girl King having two female leads is worthy of note but that the tale is nevertheless an opportunity missed, Andy Hedgecocke lauds the invention, narrative energy and linguistic exuberance of the stories in The Clockworm and other strange stories by Karen Heuler but that there is an emotional flatness at their core.
In the fiction: Cyberstar1 by Val Nolan is narrated by a man whose body is transformed by a religious cult into a cyborg spacecraft in order for him to get close to God in the form of the Sun.
A survivor of a group of humans who were altered to sing in a way that would defeat the bots taking over the world is the viewpoint character of And You Shall Sing to me a Deeper Song by Maria Haskins.
Coriander for the Hidden2 by Nicholas Kaufmann examines the crisis of conscience suffered by Suriel, the angel designated to kill the firstborn of Egypt. This story may be theologically a bit iffy as I believe Judaism has no concept of an afterlife such as the one implied here.
In Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again3 by Sarah Brooks, people’s souls turn into black butterflies, which push themselves out of the body after death.
That Shauna O’Meara story, ‘Scapes Made Diamond4, turns on the desire of a kind of farmed alien animal, which nevertheless has intelligence, to achieve its goals; all mixed in with a human tale of love and sacrifice.

Pedant’s corner:- afocussed (focused; similarly focusses = focuses,) “the period immediately World War II” (the period immediately after World War II,) floatation tanks (flotation.) b“None of them are” (None of them is.) c “This is the fifth volume the very enjoyable” (of the very enjoyable,) Borges’ (Borges’s,) 1930s’ (1930s,) “a number … are being held hostage” (a number is singular,) d“no one is whom they seem to be” (while I welcome the use of whom in its context, the verb ‘to be’ does not take an object; therefore, ‘no one is who they seem to be,) “the work of an author enjoying their material” (Reynolds is male, ‘enjoying his material’.) efocussed (focused,) “critique of humanities tendency” (humanity’s.)
1“of the solar system’s brightest stars” (last I heard the solar system had only one star,) “the populace on Mars were forced to endure” (the populace on Mars was forced to endure,) “off of” (I hate this USianism. It’s just “off”.) < sup>2Written in USian, “None of them were” (None of them was,) “none of the other angels understand the language of flowers” (none … understands the language.) 3“but the pile of black flakes on the chopping board untouched” (is untouched.) 4“the form laying on” (lying on,) clear (I think ‘colourless’ was meant rather than ‘transparent’,) “… would stay close to our charge, stroking them, calming them…” (to our charges,) Bassinos’ (Bassinos’s,) staunching (stanching,) “our species’ vocabulary” (it was ‘species’ singular; so ‘species’s’.)

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

Penguin, 1982, 219 p.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman  cover

In a South American city possibly modelled on Manaus which at one time the “diabolical” Doctor Hoffman filled with mirages – nothing was what it seemed, “nothing at all” – in order to drive the inhabitants mad, an old man named Desiderio, too sardonic, too disaffected to be influenced by the mirages, is writing down his memories because he became a hero by surviving. The manifestations of Doctor Hoffman’s depredations included a dollop of synaesthesia and inspired the creation of the Determination Police, a seemingly fearsome body endowed with the duty of deciding whether something is real or not, though the name also implies a degree of tenacity.

Through Desiderio we are party to a conversation between Doctor Hoffman’s ambassador to the city (sent to demand surrender) and Desiderio’s employer, the Minister, where the ambassador says, “What if I told you we were engaged in uncovering the infinite potentiality of phenomena?” a get-out for describing any number of impossible things. The Minister refuses the surrender demand and sends Desiderio as a special agent to assassinate Hoffman “as inconspicuously as possible.” Complicating his mission is the fact that Desiderio is in love with Albertina, Hoffman’s daughter.

We follow Desiderio as he spends time at a peep-show, goes on a sojourn with river people, falls in with a troupe of acrobats (Carter seems to have had a thing about circuses – I suppose because they present illusions of various types,) meets a mysterious Count, and is captured by centaurs, before finally encountering the Doctor himself.

Carter indulges in various philosophical musings, “The introduction of cinematography enabled us to corral time past,” while the motion picture, “offers us nothing less than the present tense experience of time irrefutably past.” “Even if it is the dream made flesh, the real, once it becomes real, can be no more than real.” Desiderio tells us, “The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break.” She also makes an aside to the reader, “Those are the dreary ends of the plot. Shall I tie them up or leave them unravelled?” In this regard Desiderio’s encounter with the Doctor reminded me of the film of The Wizard of Oz even down to “clanking, dull stage machinery” – this is not a spoiler as a clue to this – desire machines – lies in the book’s title, though their power source eroto-energy doesn’t.

Imagine a series of surrealist paintings rendered in prose, mashed up with a picaresque adventure chronicle somewhat akin to Gulliver’s Travels – though Desiderio meets those centaurs rather than Houynhnhmns – then throw in a smidgin of James Bondery at the end and that is pretty much this novel.

Pedant’s corner:- “all they could do to make a living was to sell to the credulous charms and talismans against domestic spectres” (‘make a living was to sell the credulous charms’ makes more sense,) tetrahydron (tetrahedron?) statis, (stasis,) In ‘Dr Hoffman will make metaphysics your business’ the emphasis ought to be on ‘make’ rather than ‘your’.) “They gilded their finger and toenails” (finger- and toenails,) focussed (focused,) “teeth in a maw” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) colossi (colossus is from Greek not Latin, its plural will be colossodes,) shantys (shanties,) unharmonious (I prefer inharmonious,) “the shape of tears laid on their sides” (laid what on their sides? Oh; ‘lay on their sides’,) ensorcellating (ensorcelling,) “I thought the military were roused at last” (was roused.)

Truth дnd Feдr by Peter Higgins

Orbit, 2014, 366 p.

 Truth дnd Feдr cover

I wasn’t too taken with Higgin’s scenario in the first volume of his trilogy, Wolfhound Century. However, I realised early on on our recent cruise that I would probably be a touch short of reading matter and so was pleased to find this in the ship’s library, especially as I have the third book on my tbr pile.

Following on from the death of the Vlast’s leader, the Vorozhd, in the previous book, Vissarion Lom and Maroussia Shauman are continuing their search for the Pollandore, while trying to dodge the attentions of the Vlast’s security forces. Its security chief Lavrentina Chazia, who has designs on full power, has the Pollandore in confinement in the Lodya. Chazia has discovered that while her focus has been on supernatural eminences a secret project on the remote province of Novaya Zima has produced a technological weapon of devastating power. This project she hijacks by eliminating its instigator. In line with the book’s “Russian” background there are some scenes here which seem to be based on the Great Patriotic War. As the Vlast’s war with the Archipelago has not been going well and its forces are now capable of bombing the capital, Mirgorod, this new weapon shapes up to be a timely development.

Lom and Shauman are arrested but then broken free due to the intervention of shapechanger Antoninu Florian – a kind of supercharged werewolf. But Shauman is recaptured. Lom and Florian chase her down to Novaya Zima to where Chazia has taken her. Meanwhile the supernatural entity, Archangel, whose thoughts are rendered in italics is pursuing the Pollandore in order to destroy it. When the old hierarchy abandons Mirgorod, Josef Kantor takes charge in the guise of General Rhizin and puts the new technology to terrible use.

Higgins writes well and knows how to keep the reader turning the pages yet despite copious incidents there is a sense in this volume of marking time. Among other things, Elena Cornelius and her children are left hanging. There is, of course, that third instalment of Higgins’s trilogy to go but I am now intrigued enough by Higgins’s scenario not to leave it too long.

Pedant’s corner:- “the taste of … benzine” (no such usage in English now exists; benzene, yes, but that’s not meant here. Petrol possibly was.) “Lom had to listen the message three times” (listen to the message,) “spread out a chart out” (only one “out” needed,) “a group of seamen were playing cards” (a group of seamen was playing cards,) “just to breath it” (breathe it,) “folding his unconscious and desperately injured body in her arms” (holding makes more sense,) “to not let him die” (not to let him die,) epicentre (Sigh. it was a centre, not an off-centre,) “radios,.gramophones” (an extraneous full stop there.) “They saw women in overalls and headscarves worked at asssembly lines” (working at assembly lines.) “The hour hand on Lom’s watched crept” (watch.)

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