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Hold up the Sky by Cixin Liu

Head of Zeus, 2020, 333 p.

撑起天空, variously translated from Chinese by John Chu, Carmen Yiling Yan, Joel Martinsen, and Adam Lamphier. Reviewed for Interzone 289, Nov-Dec 2020.

 Hold up the Sky cover

In his foreword to this collection Liu says that until recently SF had been foreign to China, peripheral to the sweep of its history but the changes in the country have made the future ever more apparent and pressing, thereby creating more interest in the genre. The question he is most asked is what makes Chinese SF Chinese in nature, but he does not consider his writing to be about anything other than humanity as a whole. Which would be, of course, what makes it widely readable.

Liu’s stories here (spanning publication from 1985 to 2014) usually have echoes of Wells and Stapledon in displaying temporal or cosmological grandeur. He has no lack of ambition in his speculative ideas but sometimes that detracts from the capacity for emotional engagement with them. He has a fondness for portraying big (though not necessarily dumb) objects, but also a tendency (see *) to inelegant nomenclature – which may be a problem of translation of course – and a slight awkwardness with structure. Almost without exception, though, his stories deal with mind-expanding concepts.

Still, the leading one, The Village Teacher, (乡村教师,) appears strangely old-fashioned to Anglophone eyes and the contrast between the tale of the dying title character inculcating Newton’s three laws in his pupils and its intersection with a millenia-old galactic war between the forces of the Federation of Carbon-Based Life* and those of the Silicon-Based Empire* is fairly stark.

To alleviate environmental and population pressures The Time Migration, (时间移民,) is carried out using cryogenics. Stops at 120, 620 and 1,000 years hence proving unsuitable for various reasons, sights are set for 11,000.

In 2018-04-01, (2018年4月1日, – a future date when Liu wrote it) Gene Extension – which actually cuts out the bits that cause ageing rather than inserting anything – is possible but expensive. Our narrator is triggered by an April Fool joke involving digital nations to commit the fraud that will ensure he has the means to benefit.

Fire in the Earth, (地火,) is about the first project to gasify coal underground for use as an oil substitute and the disaster attendant on that endeavour. The story would work without its coda but arguably that’s the only thing that makes it SF.

In Contraction, ( 西洋,) Professor Ding Yi has constructed a unified field theory which predicts the imminent moment when the universe’s expansion will stop and its collapse begin, but only he truly understands the implications. The premise is far from new (Philip K Dick’s Counterclock World springs to mind) but the story ends with a neat, if obvious, typographical way to illustrate it.

Mirror, (镜子,) postulates the invention of the superstring computer – of infinite capacity. This has allowed simulations of evolutions of universes from different Big Bangs to take place, including of course our own. Liu lays out the implications of such knowledge for human relationships.

Despite its subtitle (An alternate history of the sophon,) Ode To Joy, (欢乐颂 ,) does not mention that concept, familiar from Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, at all. Instead a huge ultra-thin mirror appears in Earth’s sky on the day the UN is to be closed for good: a mirror that can turn radiation from nearby novae into music.

Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming, (全频带阻塞干扰,) is set during a war between a Russia newly returned to Communism and NATO (a war whose cause seems relatively trifling but has to be accepted for story purposes.) NATO’s electronic warfare capability outmatches the Russians who have to resort to the full-spectrum barrage jamming of the title. Depletion of the jamming network leads to a desperate measure in response.

Sea of Dreams, (梦之海,) is almost emblematic of Liu’s style. An ice-ball dubbed the low-temperature artist* arrives on Earth professing interest only in art and proceeds to convert the planet’s oceans into ice-cubes, which it suspends in a ring surrounding the planet (the titular Sea) before leaving humans to deal with their altered world.

Cloud of Poems, (诗云,) has faint echoes of Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God in its account of a human telling what is effectively a god that its poetry will never surpass that of the human Li Bai. Its attempt to do so involves programming every possible permutation of the formal rules of Chinese poetry composition and constructing them in a 100 AU diameter model of the Milky Way.

The last story, The Thinker, (思想者,) is the most successful here at integrating the science and speculation behind it with the experiences of its characters and making the reader feel them. A male brain surgeon and a female astronomer meet by chance at an observatory where she is studying the energy fluctuations from stars. Over the years that follow they, almost by accident, make a discovery about interstellar communication.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “in a pinch” (at a pinch,) “smoking sulfuric acid,” (the technical term is ‘fuming’ sulphuric acid, Liu also describes the smoke as yellow; that sounds more like fuming nitric acid,) “Order of Victories are worth the most” (should be “Orders of Victory are worth the most” but that was in dialogue,) however ‘Order of Suvorovs’ wasn’t, (Orders of Suvorov,) “gunpowder smoke” (gunpowder? From modern munitions?) “lakes of mercury” (on Mercury the planet. Yet the surface temperature is stated to be 1,800 degrees Celsius. The element mercury evaporates at 0C at 1 atmosphere pressure. In a vacuum – or near vacuum such as exists on the planet Mercury’s surface – and specifically mentioned in the text – that would occur at a much lower temperature,) Comanches (is the helicopter’s name spelled differently to the First Nation tribe’s? Commanche,) “1.0 gees” (1.0 gee, or, better, 1.0 G. It would still be ‘gee’ even if its value was greater than 1, since a measurement’s abbreviation subsumes its plural, eg 6 A, or 20 N or 3 m,) “changing from the dark red to orange” (no need for that ‘the’.)

Interzone 290-291, Summer 2021

TTA Press, 2021.

  Interzone 290-291 cover

After a longish break Interzone reappears with a double edition. The editorial is by Lavie Tidhar describing his early steps into being published (in Interzone natch,) and his quest to bring World SF to wider attention. This being a double issue there are two of Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories. In the first she ponders museum artefacts what they tell us about the past – and the future. In the seconda she wonders about the connections we make – as people and as readers – and their validities. Whiteley is also the subject of the first item in the book reviews, where Duncan Lawie looks at both her latest novels Greensmith (“the more astonishing end of Philip K Dick”) and the gentler on the reader Skyward Inn (the name of a pub in the Western Protectorate.) Both “explore big questions whose answers lead to further thought.” I examine the British Library’s reprints of John Brunner’s “very readable” The Society of Time (which is in control of time travel in a Western Europe dominated by a Catholic Spanish Empire) and Ian Macpherson’s Wild Harbour, a cosy catastrophe avant la lettre, and Scottish to boot. John Howard relishes M John Harrison’s “selected stories” collection Settling the World, stories in which nothing is settling, the footing is always unsure. Stephen Theaker discusses David Ebenbach’s How to Mars, (“a good story, but gimmicky, of a one-way trip to Mars for a reality show but where one of the inmates against all the rules has become pregnant,”) Premee Mohammed’s novella These Lifeless Things (set fifty years after the Setback killed 99% of humans) and Martha Wells’s Fugitive Telemetry (an Android SecUnit investigates a murder on Preservation Station,) Maureen Kincaid Speller considers The Wall by Gautam Bhatia (filled with moments of deep emotional intensity but a little too overcrowded with possibilities) yet “deeply satisfying,” and Val Nolan finds the “darkly absurdist” Line by Nial Burke well worth waiting for.

The fiction was all well worth reading.

A Hollow in the Sky by Alexander Glass.1 Except for a few refuseniks called scatterlings humans have joined into a kind of hive mind called the Gathering. Our narrator Mateo is one of the scatterlings, looking after a vespiary in a monastery. Some years ago fellow scatterling Tomoko went off with/was taken away by extremely enigmatic aliens named the Borers. Now she has returned. This is well written but overuses the vespine metaphor.
In The Andraiad by Tim Major,2 the titular andraiad is a church organist and piano tuner called Martin Helm, built to replace a man who died in a fight, and determined to be better.

Pace Car by Lyle Hopwood. Gates – matter transmitters – apparently gifted to Earth as a punishment for the creation of part animal/part human chimeras – have transformed the world, but they are gradually destroyinh their surroundings. Billions of humans have died. Our narrator is a collector of old cars who requires a mechanic to maintain them. He is part goat.

An Island for Lost Astronauts by Daniel Bennet is set in a post sea-level rising world and the appearanceof a mysterious and otherwise unexplained White Ship where convicts are left to scavenge the islands outside East City where returning astronauts have also been outcast for fear of contamination. The story has a sub-Ballardian feel and is deliberately enigmatic.

The narrator of A Stray Cat in the Mountain of the Dead by Cécile Cristofari3 is a nurse of Arabic origin working in a French care home. As the story unfolds we discover she has a weak heart but it is the stray cat that gets in no matter what the staff do that drives the story. If it lies on their laps the deaths of inmates seem inexorably to follow.

Nemesis by Matt Thompson. In a world threatened by comets thrown Earthwards by the sun’s dark companion beyond the Oort Cloud (the Nemesis of the tile) a woman’s memories are being reconstructed.

The Mischief That is Past by John Possidente4 is a tightly controlled exposition of justified paranoia. A journalist on Humbodt, a space station, is in hiding after a contact tells him of someone called Sacagawea who died in 1812. Except she didn’t; she’s still alive, uncovered in Greenland 1937 along with an alien spaceship, and now a state secret. Yet this story ends as its narrator’s is just beginning.

The Egg Collectors by Lavie Tidhar5 are two ballooners (sic) sheltering from a storm on Titan who encounter some ovoid objects on the surface.

Without Lungs or Limbs to Stay by Shauna O’Meara is set on a generation starship where the population has gone rogue, is now space adapted, and recycles the sleep-frozen members of the intended colony in order to keep their nutrient balance the right side of viable.

Pedant’s corner:- aTim Lees’ (Lees’s,) “to not only” (not only to.) 1“a timpani” (timpani is plural; one of them is a timpano.) 2Louis’ (x2, Louis’s,) a mining lift cage accident is said to involve nine men on the top deck and seven below, but three lines later reference is to nine on the lower deck.) 3a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. 4“to lay low” (to lie low.) 5ballooners (balloonists,) “‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you.’” (is a question so ought to finish with a question mark.)

Hope Island by Tim Major

Titan Books, 2020, 389 p. Published in Interzone 288, Jul-Aug 2020.

 Hope Island cover

Workaholic Nina Scaife has not taken a break from her job as a producer on a north of England TV news programme for five years. Now, her partner Rob Fisher having left her for another woman (and the two kids they’ve had,) she is accompanying her young teenaged daughter, Laurie, to Hope Island off the coast of Maine – where Nina has been too busy to travel to before – to visit Tammy and Abram Fisher, Rob’s parents, to break the news to them – and Laurie. The island is isolated, with bad communications to the outside world, and internet and mobile phone coverage barely even patchy.
On the way from the ferry terminal to the Fishers’ house Nina has to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a young girl on the road. This disorienting experience sets a tone of mild unease for the narrative, which, however, hovers below the edge of manifesting into something greater for well over half the book before it finally tips over into the weird.

Nina feels unsettled by Tammy who she thinks disapproves of her because of her atheism and also for never marrying Rob. Abram seems a detached presence, possibly descending into dementia. The Fishers’ bond with Laurie is strong though, but that between Laurie and Nina is fraught. Laurie’s teenage discontents, her wrong-footings of Nina, are well portrayed.

Tammy introduces Nina to a sort of commune known as the Sanctuary, run by a group known as the Siblings at the other end of the island. One of its members, Clay, is carrying out experiments into sound but also into silence using noise dampening headphones and a recorder. As part of his demonstration he takes Nina into a shell midden, a cavern inside a hill where no shells should be, where she has a strange experience with a sound that at first she perceives as the wind through the entrance passage but then feels as if it comes from everywhere. After this she tends to carry the headphones around with her but also experiences dreams of floating.

Due to her previous visits to the island with Rob, Laurie has an affinity with the local children – especially the oldest, Thomas, whose mother Marie has a young baby who wails incessantly and claws at his mother’s neck constantly, drawing blood, but, to Nina, Thomas can appear distant, as if his awareness is elsewhere. He also manifests a tic of rubbing at his ears, something Abram too does in his absent-minded moments.

Gradually, sound becomes a recurring motif. In what seems an innocent exchange Tammy tells Nina, “‘Everybody’s got a voice inside them,’” a voice telling them what’s going on in the outside world and also what’s inside themselves. Nina begins to feel everyone is shouting.

When a man called Si Michaud finds the body of Lukas Weber on the beach, skull caved in, the novel seems as if it might change tack into the crime investigation genre as Nina tries to find out who the murderer was. Nina takes Abram to the cliff above where the body was found, where he lets out a wordless howl to shut out the voices in his ear. Later Abram too becomes a murder victim and the islanders behave oddly at the gathering to mourn him.

Nina’s suspicions soon fall on the children. To this end she alienates the islands’ parents after she reasons some of the children have tried to kill her. Tracking down May and Noah Hutchinson she finds them almost feral and apparently terrorising their mother and father. All this gets trammelled up in Nina’s mind along with the implications of Tammy’s paintings of a man falling off a cliff. She wonders if she can trust anyone, even Laurie.

It is to Major’s credit that, despite the nagging familiarity of the situation, the necessity of isolation, the lack of communications, to the story, there is still an impetus to keep turning the pages, but how it all hangs together, the importance of sound and of the shell midden, are revealed in something of a rush. Suffice to say the explanation is not down to Earth but it does come as a bit of a deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, Major writes well, character and relationships are handled deftly, but the realistic register of the parts of the book which deal with these aspects feel as if they come from another novel entirely compared to the fantastical flourishes which are in store in its climax.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

There is overuse of a metaphor relating to white blood cells.

Pedant’s corner:- English coins (that would be British coins.) “At the crescendo of their performance” (At the climax of their performance,) fit (fitted,) “the fishmongers” (I’ve read that they don’t have such retail specialists in the US. And would a small-ish island have one anyway?) “beneath that were a series of decorated shells” (beneath that was a series of,) “lying prone” (this was while she was gazing up at the sky. Difficult to do when face down.) “The crowd were becoming restless again” (The crowd was becoming restless,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (to a climax.) “It was around a metre across and sixty centimetres.” (sixty centimetres tall?) crenulations (crenellations,) shrunk (shrank,) sunk (x 2, sank,) “was last thing she wanted” (was the last thing,) snuck (sneaked.) “None of the adults were concerned” (None of the adults was concerned,) “as she swum” (as she swam,) sprung (sprang.)

Interzone 290-291 Arrives

 The Society of Time cover
 Interzone 290-291 cover

Wild Harbour cover

After a hiatus in publishing of the magazine the latest Interzone has now started to arrive on doormats. (At least it has on mine.) It’s a double issue 290-291 to make up for the time since issue 289.

This one (two?) contains my reviews of Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson and The Society of Time by John Brunner, respectively originally published in 1936 and 1961/62 but both recently reissued under the British Library imprint.

Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards

Titan Books, 2020, 333p. Published in Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020.

 Echo Cycle cover

Just before Britain finally locked itself off from the continent, congratulating itself on escaping from incipient chaos, Winston Monk and Lindon Banks were on a school trip to Rome. Monk, a homosexual, had long suffered persecution at the hands of his school year’s bully, Tobias Easter (who in that Public School way is usually referred to only by his surname.) Having just received news he has failed to get into a Cambridge College, Monk snaps under another of Easter’s provocations and almost kills him before fleeing into the Rome night, to vanish.

Twenty years later, in 2070, Britain is much diminished, women are of little account and same-sex marriage utterly out of the question, with such relationships long since criminalised and persecuted, and the Royal Family mostly holed up behind protective barbed wire in Windsor. But in a sudden change of foreign policy, Banks has been chosen as part of a delegation headed by Easter, now a top Government official, to re-establish contact, diplomatic relations and trade with a recently ascendant European Confederacy, whose official language is a carefully chosen resurgent Latin, its centre of gravity switched to southern Europe, and Rome a gleaming, ultra-modern architectural wonder. In this world the US has collapsed after the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted, its citizens desperately seeking refuge in the countries to north and south, besieging the walls they had previously striven so hard to erect. Japan is in recovery after a seemingly unprovoked Chinese immolation of Tokyo.

On the swift train journey south through France Banks feels the contrast between his homeland where cars run on dung, there are riots in the streets and something grim though unspecified has happened in Scotland, and the prosperous, far from gloomy countryside outside. He also misses his deceased wife Elanor, and feels protective of his daughter Sara, sent to a boarding school in his absence. At times he hears his old schoolmaster, Orkney, speaking in his head, bemoaning his follies. In Rome, the British delegation is at pains to refuse all forms of Euro tech, including the near-ubiquitous but expensive translation devices most Europeans carry.

After his flight from the consequences of his attack on Easter, Monk fell through time. No concrete mechanism is presented for this, it has to be accepted for the purposes of story. He came to consciousness in 68 CE, the year of the four Emperors, Nero, Galba, Vitellius and Vespasian, just in time to witness the first’s death. From then on Monk’s fate is closely linked to the fortunes of Nero’s close companion, the androgynous Sporus, which rise and fall according to whoever the new First Man is.

Enslaved, branded, made to clean out latrines by hand – Edwards spares us no gritty detail – plucked by Sporus from utter servitude to become a scribe only to be finally despatched to a gladiatorial ludus, Monk resigns himself to death yet, despite receiving only rudimentary training, in his first arena combat he discovers he has a talent for it and eventually wins his freedom thereby, whiling out the years with a successful scribing business.

This story of his time-slip and sojourn in the past is addressed to an at first anonymous reader (but who we learn soon enough is Banks,) and in the novel is interlaced with Banks’s own first-person account of events in 2070, where he has made a connection with Mariko, a half-Japanese European functionary. This tentative association is tainted (both in Monk’s mind and his superiors’) by suspicion of diplomatic underhandedness. On leaving a restaurant one night the pair literally bump into a dishevelled, disorientated vagrant, who turns out to be Monk, returned from 96 CE.

Despite Monk appearing fairly early in the 2070 narrative the balance between the two strands is handled delicately by Edwards. The tone of both accounts is pitch perfect, encapsulating their narrators’ characters, the Roman set passages seem convincing, the dystopian Britain all-too plausible. The characterisation is adept, though Easter is perhaps a bit too relentlessly crass. But then again he is a bully, and an authoritarian. The author’s verb choices are considered, he has a subtle touch with information dumping and a good eye for description.

The denouement, where the importance of Sporus to the overall design becomes clear, is only slightly marred by tipping over into a thriller type plot which also puts Sara into danger – marvellously readable at the time but in retrospect a touch disappointing. Edwards is a talent though.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite the book having an overwhelmingly English sensibility there are USianisms in the text, snuck (x 2, sneaked,) fit (fitted,) parking lot (car park,) rowboat (rowing boat,) outside of (outside,) to visit with (to visit.) Otherwise; “it was every man for themselves” (for himself, surely?) “less fumes” (fewer fumes,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “The intoxicating flash of tomorrows were twisted” (the flash … was twisted,) Antinous’ (Antinous’s; every name ending with an ‘s’ here is treated as regards apostrophes as if it were plural – except we had one ‘Charteris’s’,) “none of us were surprised” (was surprised,) “The only reminder of the tons of water above my head were the small bronzed drains” (the only reminders were, or, the only reminder was,) “to the half-dozen or so people sat facing the stage” (seated, or, sitting,) “and Sporus, her of the large eyes” (she of the large eyes,) “I think I’d already be shaken” (been shaken,) “Didn’t mean the everyday citizen wanted their children to come home speaking another language” (citizens would be more grammatical,) “capacity or compartmentalisation” (for compartmentalisation,) sprung (sprang,) “a sword a foot-long and double-bladed,” (a foot long,) “that held giant, pulsating pupa” (Pupae,) lay (lie,) staunch (stanch,) “and the guttering torchlight fell revealed him there” (fell and revealed him? fell revealing him?) “seeing …. the certainty of death hove in on them” (‘hove’ is past tense, ‘seeing the certainty … heave in.)

The City We Became by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2020, 443 p. Published in Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020.

 The City We Became cover

The central conceit of the first book in Jemisin’s latest trilogy explains its otherwise odd-sounding title. Here cities can achieve some sort of critical mass by which they come alive and are personified by an individual. In the prologue we meet Paulo (Săo Paulo) come to aid the emergence of New York into sentience, but something goes wrong. This being New York, though, we have not one living embodiment but six; its five boroughs and the overall avatar, each the epitome of the area they personify. The book follows the five boroughs’ personas as they come to the realisation of their nature and seek each other out to help not only themselves but also the overall City, now underground and in a coma.

Manhattan’s instantiation is Manny, a new arrival whose awakening to his fresh nature involves him losing the memory of his previous identity. We then meet (Staten) Aislyn Houlihan, whose Irish parents did not pronounce her name in the Gaelic way and who physically cannot bring herself to visit the rest of New York. The former MC Free, Brooklyn Thomason, is now a mother and city councillor. Bronca, descendant of the original Lenape inhabitants of Long Island, runs the Bronx Art Centre, and maths whizz Padmini, of Asian extraction, is the avatar of Queens. On her confusion over her new status Padmini’s aunt invokes her background to tell her, “Real gods are people, who make love, have babies, fight, die. ‘It’s duty, it’s normal. Get over it.’”

If you were counting that’s four out of the six metropolitan areas are embodied by women. The narrative has sections focusing on all five boroughs, by intermittent turns, plus Interruptions describing Paulo’s endeavours before four of the avatars finally get together.

In Jemisin’s previous trilogy, the ground was literally not safe beneath her characters’ feet. Here it is not just the ground but also the air and especially the water in which weird things can happen. The first manifestation of this is when a tentacle rises out of the East River and smashes the Williamsburg Bridge. The ordinary folk of New York are aware only of the bridge’s destruction and some sort of obstruction preventing them from going about their business as usual.
Sentient cities traverse the layers of the parallel worlds. On emergence they punch through, killing other universes. If a city isn’t born, it dies, hard, (witness Pompeii, Tenochtitlán, Atlantis, Sodom and Gomorrah.) The enemy looming here is the city R’lyeh, an entity from the many parallel universes, out to kill new-born (newly-awoken really) Earth cities at birth. Manifesting as The Woman In White, she infests New York’s buildings and its ordinary citizens with white tendrils controlling their behaviour, putting obstacles into the boroughs’ way and sending large white columns shooting up into the sky.

Little vignettes of New York history are slipped into the narrative, from the original Dutch settlers (featuring an aside making this the only fantasy work I have read to give a name-check to Eddie Izzard) to Staten Island’s prickly relationship with its neighbouring boroughs, its almost orphan status, in contrast to Jersey City’s longings. It also manages to include three mathematical equations and remarks on the distinctiveness of Guastavino tiles.

Though incidental to the book as a whole, where in The Broken Earth Jemisin approached the subject of prejudice in a more-or less oblique way the use of an all-but contemporary setting here allows her to tackle it head-on, especially in the form of Aislyn’s everybody-but-him-is-wrong policeman father, attitudes which bleed over into Aislyn herself. At one point she ascribes a Canadian as “driven mad by the cold and socialised medicine,” at another, “terrorists are bearded Arab men who mutter in guttural languages and want to rape virgins.” An appearance by Alt-right ‘artists’ at Bronca’s work insisting on their right to have their art displayed and that any refusal to do so can only be evidence of reverse prejudice is a comment on our times.

Using five aspects of one whole might be seen as an attempt by Jemisin to repeat the bravura narrative of The Fifth Season, where three different viewpoints turned out to be the same person, but The City We Became feels more conventional, with its down-to-Earth, often demotic, dialogue and prose, but no less worth reading.

Roaming as it does over almost all of New York those unfamiliar with its geography might be grateful for the map which precedes the prologue here.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “None of the people around him react” (none … reacts,) antennas (antennae,) “lay of the land,” (lie of the land.) “‘Are you actually insane.’” (ought to have a question mark after insane, not a full stop,) dredlocs (is this how USians spell dreadlocks?) “None of them are talking to each other.” (none of them is talking to..,) “None of them face each other” (None of them faces each other,) several more examples of ‘none’ with an unwarranted plural verb, ambiance (ambience,) no opening quotation mark when a chapter begins with dialogue.

Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole

Angry Robot, 2020, 336 p. Published in Interzone 286, Mar-Apr 2020.

Sixteenth Watch cover

In a crowded field how do you attempt to make your military SF stand out from that crowd? Well, if you are Myke Cole you make your story about a cinderella service, the Coast Guard (which seems to be two words in the US and in whose ranks Cole has served himself.) “COASTGUARDS IN SPACE!” is a good tag-line after all, even if it might not seem to promise much in the way of battle scenes. Fans of this particular sub-genre need not worry though. There’s plenty of the usual mayhem associated with the form in these pages. Cole is careful to get some of this in early in a prologue where viewpoint character Coastguard Commander Jane Oliver is called into a confrontation between US and Chinese miners of Helium-3 on Lacus Doloris on the Moon, in which two of her crew, Kariawasm and Flecha, plus her Navy frigate commander husband Tom, are killed. This is a future where the US is (naturally) a major power on the Moon with its main rival being China. Mention is made of Russia but its presence is very much off-stage in this book, whose title derives from the days of the International Space Station and refers to the sixteen sunrises experienced there every Earth day. The sixteenth watch has come to mean any assignment in space.

As a result of the Lacus Doloris debacle Oliver was put out to grass in a training capacity back on Earth. The book proper begins when Oliver is recalled four years after Lacus Doloris to help the Coastguard in a tussle for influence over the course of events on the Moon. The navy is leaning on the (slightly flaky, insistent on quarantine against space sickness which doesn’t exist) US President to allow it free reign in policing the border between its economic zone on the Moon and that of the Chinese, using its superiority in Boarding Action, an inter-service reality TV competition broadcast once a year to large enthusiastic audiences, which the Marines have won several years running, as evidence for its suitability for the task. The Coastguard’s high command is anxious to counter this as they regard the Navy as far too gung-ho and liable to start a war. They see a possible Coastguard victory in the forthcoming Boarding Action as the perfect antidote. Oliver is given the job of training the crew along with the carrot of promotion to Admiral. Of course feathers are ruffled, her unconventional methods provoking confrontations both among the crew and with the Navy, the Marines and her own commanders. Complicating all this for Oliver is her relationships with her son Adam, off doing his own thing on Earth, and daughter Alice, now working on the moon and expecting her to retire there.

Cole is at pains to emphasise that the coastguards’ main mission is not fighting (though they will – and do – when they have to) but to save lives. Oliver is determined not to make the same mistakes as before as well as to avoid accidentally provoking a war. Even four years on the events on Lacus Doloris still hang over the thoughts of several of the characters. Pictures of the dead Kariawasm and Flecha are on the wall of the training ship and implicit comparisons are drawn about relative abilities. In a hard-boiled service this almost morbid angst is surely somewhat unlikely and probably counter-productive.

Cole does seem keen either to appear right-on or else to niggle the (presumably) main readership of military SF. The Navy’s 11th fleet flagship is named the USS Obama, the Marines’ toughest operative is a niqab and hijab wearing hulk of a woman, characters, Oliver especially (despite her military sang froid and competence,) display emotion and sentimentality with surprising alacrity. Yet the book is still crammed with military jargon and acronyms – so much so that Cole has felt the need to include a Glossary.

The above would-be humanising touches and reflections on the ethics, responsibilities and effective strategies for leadership aside, in the end we have innumerable puffs of mist as spacesuits are punctured by weaponry and – surely precious – atmosphere is (deliberately or otherwise) vented to vacuum from ships, the same old high body count, the same old recounting of deaths of combatants – and non-combatants. Military SF, doing what it says on the tin.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Author’s Note; “at the end of the this book” (either ‘the’ or ‘this’, not both.) Otherwise: Aries’ (Aries’s, several instances) “folded over their back” (their backs,) autocannons (the plural of cannon is cannon, therefore ‘autocannon’,) “a single antennae” (one of them is an antenna,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 6,) cox’sun (cox’n, innumerable instances.) “The only thing that came close were their two children” (the only thing was, or, the only things were,) “off the roof one of the government habs” (off the roof of one of the government habs.) “She turned back the class” (back to the class,) Elias’ (Elias’s,) kindergartners (kindergarteners,) a missing opening quote mark at a chapter heading, “the bottom the of the screen” (the bottom of the screen,) “in and endless loop” (in an endless loop,) “someone of the other end of the line” (on the other end,) “as the silenced stretched” (silence,) “dancing down bow” (only sensible if ‘down bow’ is a naval term,) O-TRACEN (elsewhere always OTRACEN,) a question ended with a full stop instead of a ‘?’,) “on the whole installation” (in the whole installation,) “Ho folder his arms” (folded,) Kariwasm (x 2, elsewhere [-1] always Kariawasm,) “enormity of the task” (it wasn’t a dreadful or despicable task, just a daunting one, so enormity is not warranted as a description,) “between themselves at the enemy” (and the enemy,) “let alone being able” (the rest of the sentence was in past tense, so, ‘been able’.) “Oliver would see” (could see,) “lay of the land” (lie,) Okonwo (elsewhere [-1] always Okonkwo,) conturbernium (elsewhere always contubernium.) “‘There’s a only one surefire way’” (no ‘a’ needed,) imposter (impostor, please,) “onto the top the of his head” (no, ‘the’ needed,) “comfortable in dear to her” (and dear makes more sense,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Pervez’ (Pervez’s,) “‘to let you do your way’” (to let you do it your way’,) “a work bench someone had clearly been checking autocannon loads” (a work bench where someone had clearly been checking autocannon loads.) “This is was right call” (This was the right call,) “in in” (only one ‘in’ needed,) “when the clocking was ticking away” (when the clock was,) “the crowd … were” (was,) “to make the squint even against the glass’ glare dampeners” (to make them squint even against the glass’s glare dampeners.) “‘We’re are learning’” (We are learning,) Kariaswasm (Kariawasm,) “to wonder if maybe wasn’t going to speak” (if he maybe.) “Earth was a glowing green-blue wedge …shining nearly as bright as a star” (from Moon orbit? Much, much brighter than a star, surely?) Santos’ (Santos’s.) “I takes Oliver a full thirty seconds” (rest of passage is in past tense, so, ‘It took Oliver thirty seconds’,) Baskins’ (Baskins’s, x 2,) “as the gained on the runner so rapidly, it looked as if” (as they gained so rapidly it looked as if,) “when the immediate dangers was past”(either ‘danger’ or ‘were’.) “Protocol forbid her” (forbade.) “‘I could give a fuck about’” (context demands, ‘couldn’t give a fuck about’ rather than ‘could’. Do USians really use the inverse?) “‘Welp’” (context implies ‘Well’, x 2.) Oknonkwo (Okonkwo,) “‘I need you work with the team’” (I need you to work with the team,) “‘I tell you too’” (to,) “the impact of the team’s effectiveness” (on the team’s effectiveness.) “‘Doesn’t hurt when I breath’” (breathe,) “she could she the” (she could see the, x 2,) “two hospital corpsman” (corpsmen,) “and turns back to him” (turned,) pollenating (pollinating,) “looked at Each of the crew’s faces” (each,) “as the she fired the bow thrusters” (no first ‘the’ needed,) “‘Turret’s clear!’ He radioed a moment later’” (‘Turret’s clear!’ he radioed a moment later,) “in a pinch” (at a pinch,) “court marital” (martial,) “had originally been surrounded what must have been” (had originally been surrounded by what must have been,) “her antennae was intact” (antenna,) a missing end quotation mark. “‘Ma,am,’” (Ma’am,) “where a broad bandage swatched his abdomen” (swathed,) the Obama (elsewhere Obama, CO2 (CO2,) “where’d she’d been” (where she’d been.) In the Glossary; “on the moons’ surface” (Moon’s.) “Artificial generated by” (Artificial gravity generated by.)

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.

Re-Coil by J T Nicholas

Titan Books, 2020, 357 p. Published in Interzone 286, Mar-Apr 2020.

 Re-Coil cover

When an author prefaces a novel with an epigraph from Shakespeare he (Nicholas in this case) is setting himself up for a fall. This book’s apparently oddly punctuated title arises from that quote. Coils here take the place that in Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels was occupied by what Morgan dubbed sleeves. Once you have shuffled off one mortal coil your backed-up personality, your core, is decanted, along with your memories (except of course those gained since your last back-up,) into another coil grown solely for these purposes. Hence Re-Coil. In effect people in this scenario are immortal. Unless something goes wrong. There are safeguards to the process. Supposedly. To guarantee quality control one corporation has the franchise and is held to exacting standards.

The economics of this are a bit obscure. Some sort of insurance means you are guaranteed back-up but not necessarily in a similar body or even one of the same sex. There are four grades of coil from the top-notch to the frankly worthless, used only to bank up credit for a better one next time. Nicholas does make a foray into the demographic implications of all this in terms of population increase but soon skates away from them. At the same time everyone has a connection to an internal AI, called an agent, which acts as a sort of personal internet, connected to the outside world. And nanites in the narrator’s bloodstream effect quick tissue repairs to any injuries.

That narrator, Carter Langston, is part of a spaceship salvage crew. He is the one tasked with entering derelict ships to determine whether there is anything worth salvaging. In one such he comes across scores of dead bodies, faceplates open. While he is engaged in the grisly task of retrieving the cores of the dead, one of the corpses reanimates and comes for him. The derelict, his coil and his ship are destroyed.

On reawakening in his new coil, he discovers there has been a glitch, data corruption, he nearly died for real. And then he narrowly escapes an assassin. Another of the crew did not survive. Someone is out to get them. Along with the crew’s computer whizz Shay Chan, a woman now uncomfortably re-coiled into a male body, he sets out to discover whom, and what is the big secret which needs such drastic protection.

Their investigations lead them to a megacorps called Genetechnic. It has created nanobots designed to seek out and remove bad memories from a coil. They called it Bliss. The nanobots between them formed an AI which decided any memories at all could be bad and wipes them all out, leaving behind blank coils. Worse, the nanobots can act like a virus and infect others – and they escaped the derelict ship. The Genetechnic operative sent to silence Langston and Chan decides their ship boarding expertise will be an asset in chasing Bliss down.

Langston affects to be sickened by the slaughter, indeed gore of any sort. Nevertheless the body count rises and rises and there is a certain fetishising of the mechanics of gun use. Nicholas here is attempting to disown his cake yet is still serving it up for wider consumption.

As in many other stories of this type the prose tends towards the utilitarian and a lot of the information dumping is clearly intended for a twenty-first century audience rather than being required for story purposes. Nicholas has also made several unexamined assumptions. Langston (and others) prowl spaceship hulls utilising magnetic boots, implying these spaceships are made of iron, a material surely too dense for the purpose. Despite being exposed to vacuum, a solvent, rather than evaporating instantly, still manages to dissolve a glue. In a fairly important scene set inside another depressurised spaceship the text implies oxygen (which the text acknowledges is absent) is a fuel. It isn’t. We are then told other fuels are available, running as gases through pipes on the walls. (Really? And to what purpose?) These gases are utilised to burn our heroes’ pursuers. Not without oxygen they wouldn’t. Missteps like these are detrimental to a suspension of readers’ disbelief.

If your tastes lie in the direction of shoot-em-ups rendered in the form of prose Re-Coil may very well satisfy your appetite. If you’re looking for anything even mildly approaching Shakespeare you should try elsewhere.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “The airlock opened into a short hallway, ending at another hatch at either end” (‘ending in another hatch’, or, ‘ending in another hatch at its end’. The hallway may have had hatches ‘at either end’ but cannot have had one and the same hatch ‘at either end’. ‘At either end’ means two hatches,) “almost before they got them out” (before he got them out,) “passages that lead to engineering” (text was in past tense, ‘passages that led to engineering’,) “to affect the retrieval” (to effect the..,) gasses (x2, gases,) “the laser-cutter doings its gruesome work” (doing,) acclimation “acclimatisation, ditto ‘acclimate’ for ‘accclimatise’, ) laying (lying,) “the edge of the sink caught my eye and lunged forward” (a neat trick, that; ‘and I lunged forward’,) “it might by me a few extra seconds” (buy,) “would have stuffed be back” (would have stuffed me back,) “to bled off” (x2, bleed off,) Deadalus’ (Daedalus’s,) “happened.,” (has an intrusive full stop,) “to be back on-board” (on board,) harness’ (harness’s,) “for whoever is behind this have found out” (for whoever is behind this to have found out,) “a trio … were pushing” (a trio … was,) “almost no one looked at raw footage, anymore” (almost no-one looked at raw footage anymore,) “the walk from the bridge, passed the airlock, and on” (past,) “still made from blindly” (either ‘still made blindly’ or ‘still made from blind’,) sprung (x2, sprang,) “from living room” (from the living room,) “for all intents and purposes” (to all intents and purposes,) “taking pressure of the wounds” (off the wounds,) “‘somewhere near Sol..’” (only one full stop needed,) “get ahold of” (a hold of,) Daedelus (Daedalus,) “Class One’s” (it was a plural, so ‘Class Ones’,) ditto Class Two’s (Twos. I note Class Threes and Class Fours were not apostrophised,) Ingles’ (Ingles’s,) “waiving the glass” (waving,) route (rout,) “that staid my hand” (stayed,) “where dropped down” (where he dropped down,) “instead I grit my teeth” (do USians really not say ‘gritted’?) nanines (nanites,) “sublimate every molecule” (sublime every molecule,) “the thrust from the shuttle’s engines were still giving us a simulated gravity” (the thrust … was still giving us …,) “like a pack downhill slalom skiers” (like a pack of downhill.) “He didn’t so much hit the coil as did overfly it” (no need for that ‘did’,) “‘confidant’” (x2, confident,) “to clear section of ship hull” (clear a section,) automatons (automata,) “she was taller than I” (than me,) O2 (x2, O2,) Bliss’ (Bliss’s,) cannister (x2, canister,) vitalness (vitality, I would think,) “the myriad computer systems than ran a ship” (that ran,) “now ran from tablet” (from her tablet,) “Shay’s asked” (\Shay asked,) “I waived one hand” (waved,) “demonstrated an amazing faculty in manipulating the archive system” (facility,) “repairs that needed to be affected needed to be affected right now” (effected, in both instances,) CO2 (CO2 – I also note the O2 and CO2 but the text eschewed N2 preferring ‘nitrogen’,) “Bilss-infected” (Bliss-infected,) “of inevitable press of” (of the inevitable press,) “around the hole that that” (omit a ‘that’,) “eggshell walls, one each bed, chair, window, bathroom, exit” (one each bed???) In the Acknowledgements; a parenthesis ending ‘?).’ (no full stop needed after the end bracket.)

The Menace From Farside by Ian McDonald

Tor.com, 2019, 153 p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

 The Menace From Farside cover

This novella is set in the milieu of McDonald’s Luna series of books which might have been designed to illustrate the mantra that “Lady Luna knows a thousand ways to kill you.” As an aphorism this calls to mind The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I don’t know whether McDonald has read that book (I confess I haven’t) but it could be a possible inspiration.

In The Menace From Farside our narrator is Emer Corcoran who hates her name and prefers to be called Cariad. Initially it appears that she may be addressing the reader directly – on first sight a fine literary touch – but it turns out that these interludes in which she gives her views on the intricacies of story-telling and construction, relationships, the forever beyond reach lure of Earth, among other things, she is talking to a psychiatric bot as a kind of debriefing after an escapade in which she was involved (and incidentally made her famous on the Moon) and which her narrative goes on to describe.

A background sociological aspect of McDonald’s tale (but with a tangential impact on the plot) is the existence on the Moon of the arrangement of the ring marriage, wherein each member is married to two spouses, a derecho/a and an iz, left and right. This provides an SSSS, super-stable support system, said to be great for kids as it provides a network of ceegees (care givers.) When Cariad opines, “‘when it comes to love, rings are the craziest of all possible families, apart from all the others,’” McDonald manages to allude to both Tolstoy and Churchill in the one sentence.

The introduction to Cariad’s ring of a new “husband” for her mother, also brought into her life his daughter Sidibe Sissay. Cariad rather resents this intrusion into her “family.” Cariad fears heights and Sidibe’s effortless use of a special winged suit to fly from Osman Tower on a visit to the cavernous centre of the habitat of Queen of the South compounds her feelings. As a result Cariad conceives a scheme to take her “siblings” to visit the site of the first human footprint on the Moon – almost half the Moon distant – as a way for her to take back control. (Those last three words have a particular resonance for contemporary British readers. For the more general SF audience McDonald also explicitly references the phrase, ‘Make it so,’ as a sentence which leaders are supposed to utter.)

The scenes on the Moon’s surface are vaguely reminiscent of Arthur C Clarke’s novel A Fall of Moondust and short story Robin Hood FRS mainly because of that background. In McDonald’s vision, however, less untrammelled considerations intrude. At Queen of the South, the sun only ever appears to crawl around the rim of the crater in which the habitat is sited. On their journey, our group of adventurers find its full glare unsettling, their possible vulnerability to cosmic ray impacts troubling. And this Moon being McDonald’s Luna, things do not go entirely smoothly for them.

Quite what transpires, and the contribution to that of the dog-eat-dog nature of Luna’s overall organisation, plus the importance of the Moonloop – a sort of slingshot orbiting at very low level to wheech cargoes off into space or capture them on the way down – to the resolution of Cariad’s story I’ll leave to the reader to discover.

Through Cariad, McDonald adds in another comment about writing. “You know what makes storytellers laugh? That people really think their story reveals something about the person who tells it. It doesn’t. Stories are control. First, last, always. It tells you something about who’s hearing it.”

McDonald’s control is never in doubt.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- My copy was an ARC (proof.) Some or all of these may have been corrected for the final print run.)
ass (it’s arse,) “your shine up your image” (you shine up your image,) “‘your idea of family and parents are so ancient’” (your idea …… is so ancient,) “with radarand seismics” (radar and seismics,) “a ring of warning lights flash” (a ring …. flashes,) “the thing not do” (not to do,) “that’s what makes the gut lurches” (lurch would seem more grammatical,) “onto bridge” (onto the bridge,) “There’ dusters” (There’s dusters or, more preferably, there’re dusters,) “pulled into chest” (into his chest,) “is going notice” (going to notice,) “it’s won’t be open wide enough” (it won’t be open.) “‘Do want me to count off …’” (Do you want me to count off,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) Tranquility base (Tranquillity, please,) “humanity’s first steps on the moon” (humanity’s first steps on the Moon,) “tells Kobe to told her left arm” (to hold her left arm,) “the smiles goes out of me” (the smiles go out of me,) “the moon want to kill you” (the Moon wants to kill you,) “his right arms swings” (his right arm swings,) “how to they get back” (how do they.) “That when the consequences arrive.” (That’s when..,) heard-earned (hard-earned.)

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