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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, 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.)

Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Titan Books, 2019, p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

Skein Island cover

As readers of Interzone already know, Whitley writes impressively. Here she takes a modern domestic setting and gradually blends it with strange happenings and figures from Ancient Greek myth to make a tale that is always readable and looks at sexual politics from an oblique angle.

On the day she receives an invitation from a dead woman, Marianne Spence has an encounter with a pervert at closing time at the library where she works in Wootton Bassett. The incident prompts Marianne to accept that invitation to the Skein Island of this novel’s title; a retreat for women only, set up after the Second World War by the adventurer Lady Amelia Worthington. The only requirement for beneficiaries is to make a written Declaration of their reasons for visiting, to be kept in the island’s library. Marianne’s mother Vanessa had herself gone to the island seventeen years before – and never returned; prompting Marianne’s father, Arnie, himself to retreat, into moroseness, spending his evenings at The Cornerhouse, a pub with a dubious reputation – and odd goings on in its back room. The ramifications of Marianne’s decision rumble through the novel as husband Dave takes to lying in wait for the pervert to prevent him offending again. Here his path crosses that of Police Community Support Officer, Samantha, who also hopes to catch the offender. The narrative is delivered in two strands which for the most part alternate; a present tense first person chronicle from Marianne’s viewpoint and a third person past tense account focusing on Dave.

Threaded through the initial stages of the novel is the appearance in the narrative of either squares or cubes coloured red, blue, yellow and green and an emphasis on a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, “Each man delights in the work that suits him best.”

The dead woman is a bit of a tease on Whiteley’s part as the invitation was not in fact written by her but by Marianne’s mother to whom Lady Amelia bequeathed the operation on Skein Island. Vanessa tells her the cubes represent the four types of men in the world, heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, corresponding to the four colours. In the library Marianne reads Lady Amelia’s Declaration in which she described looking for the Throne of Zeus in a cave on Crete and instead found a monstrosity which caused her male companions to rip each other to pieces. Amelia tamed it by telling it her life story, turning it into a statue which she took back to the island and locked underground to keep it away from men, naming it Moira after the Greek fates. Its appetite for the stories which bind it is fed by reading the Declarations to it. Marianne encounters Moira in the basement and recognises its strangeness. Her roommates remain unconvinced, but the possibility it was all illusion is not supported by the rest of the narrative. Things go awry when in his attempts to find Marianne, Dave finally gets to the island and his presence there leads to a demolition and Moira’s disappearance.

Thereafter, in the wider world, men’s behaviour, already somewhat overbearing, changes; their tendencies towards being heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, to “protect” women, becoming exaggerated. Marianne reasons that Moira’s constraint seems to be necessary for equable relations between the sexes so Marianne’s task becomes to find Moira and restore “her” to captivity on the island.

On the face of it Skein Island has an explicitly feminist perspective but Marianne’s thought that Moira’s existence means men are meant to be more important than women sits oddly with that. However, “When a hero walks into a story, he doesn’t do as he’s told,” is an entirely consistent proposition. In this context the relationship between Dave and policewoman Samantha also struck a discordant note.

As to Moira: it may be a rather well-worn trope but for supernatural beings to exert influence on human behaviour is a problematic feature of a fantasy since that automatically removes agency – and responsibility – from its characters. Characters’ behaviours should not be exculpated in this way. They can also be perceived as dancing too much to the author’s tune rather than behaving as if independently.

I should add that, completely unheralded, either in the blurb or the title page, and taking up 35 pages here, is the inclusion in the book of a novelette, The Cold Smoke Declaration, a ghost story partly set on Skein Island. Value for money then.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:-“the physical cracks that lead to emotional ones” (context suggests ‘led’ rather than ‘lead’,) zipper (zip,) “to not have to field questions,” (not to have to; many instances of ‘to not’ rather than ‘not to’,) “a chemical brand that irritates my nostrils” (this is of a washing powder, what does Whiteley think any other brands of washing powder contain apart from chemicals? The phrase ‘chemical free’ is a nonsense.) “There are a number of caves in Crete” (strictly, there is a number,) Zeus’ (Zeus’s,) sunk (sank,) fit (fitted – used on the next line!) smoothes (smooths,) “the eldest girl had thrown back her shoulders and sang to the vaulted ceiling” (that ‘had’ carries on so the next verb ought to be ‘sung’,) “it would be impossible to spit it into sentences” (split, I think,) “exclamation points” (exclamation marks,) “the lay of the island” (it wasn’t a tune; lie of the island.) In the novelette, “a strong draft” (draught.)

Interzone 289

Nov-Dec, 2020, TTA Press

 Interzone 289  cover

Editorial duties are taken by artist Jim Burnsa where, in the light of Covid, he reflects his roads not taken are most likely now behind him. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted considers “the slow cancellation of the future,” the recycling of cuture in all its forms, the lack of innovation during the past forty or so years. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Storiesb relates the thoughts and fears engendered in her by finding slow worms in her compost bin at the allotment.

Book Zone returns to its place just after the fiction. Duncan Lawriec finds Stephen Baxter’s World Engines: Destroyer and World Engines: Creator a muddle as if he’s crammed all his favourite SF tropes into one (double) package, seemingly designed to provide a “complete history of the solar system and the evolution of life as we currently understand it.” Stephen Theakerd notes Machine by Elizabeth Bear is heavily influenced by James White’s Sector General stories and so promised too much but was ultimately entertaining while The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem is like a post-apocalyptic Gilmore Girls but was very good and the author is now a new favourite of his. Maureen Kincaid Spellere thinks Mordew by Alex Pheby is amazing, not a thing she says lightly: the author shows an extremely thorough knowledge of the fantasy formula but constantly resists its confines. Jaime Lee Moyer’s Divine Heretic, a reworking of the story of Joan of Arc in which she is chosen by fae spirits who are “as dangerous as they are brilliant,” didn’t work for Juliet E McKennaf but may well for others, while she is enthused enough by Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke, the second “A Poison War” novel, to read her next book. I review Cixin Liu’s collection Hold Up the Sky whose stories mostly deal with mind-expanding concepts but sometimes lack emotional engagement.

As to the fiction:-

In Cryptozoology by Tim Lees a man whose marriage is breaking down tries to rescue it by embarking on an expedition with his wife (who believes they exist) to find all the legendary monsters (in which he doesn’t believe.) When they argue, and she leaves he carries on on his own. The story ends the way we know it will.
The Ephemeral Quality of Mersay by John Possidente1 combines two stories in one as a journalist on space station Humboldt has a starship captain relate her experiences on a planet with odd seasons at the same time as murders are occurring on the station.
The Way of his Kind by James Sallis2 is a very short tale of the advent of a new kind of human – or are they aliens?
The Smoke Bomb of Matt Thompson’s story3 is an unusual type of drink, concocted by the altered digestive system (seen through skin and organs rendered transparent) of an indentured woman. Her keeper becomes wary of a new customer.
Again very short, There’s a Gift Shop Now by Françoise Harvey tells of an experimental school with oddly proportioned rooms and spacious ceilings – which had unfortunate effects on its pupils. It’s now a tourist attraction full of warning signs.
The narrator of The Third Time I Saw a Fox by Cécile Cristofari4 is an old man working the night shift in a museum. He talks to the exhibits, dinosaur and whale skeletons, (all casts rather than the real fossilised bones) and to the anatomically extreme “circus man”. They talk back.
Rather appropriately this year’s James White Award winner, Limitations5 by David Maskill, deals with a medical problem being suffered by a fluorine-breathing alien, an alien which can protect itself via Biological Quantum Optimisation.

Pedant’s corner:- aa missing comma before a piece of direct speech. b“Aren’t there are number of” (Aren’t there any number of.) c“humanity has recognised the destruction they inflicted on the Earth” (the destruction it inflicted,) ditto “They have pulled back” (‘It has pulled back’.) d“Helen Alloy (a pun apparently on Helen of Troy)” (maybe but possibly – more likely even? -on Helen O’Loy from the 1930s SF story by Lester Del Rey which had that title,) steam-rolled (steam-rollered.) e“around feet” (around the feet,) “all fulfil their purpose very effectively all while” (no second ‘all’.) f“None of these tensions are” (None of these tensions is.) “None of these central characters are” (None of these central characters is,)
1Written in USian. 2Written in USian. 3wettened (usually ‘wetted’,) “time interval later” count: 3. 4“None of us have.” (None of us has,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. 5accepter (acceptor?) CaF2 (makes the chemical equation it’s in unbalanced, because it’s the wrong formula for carbon fluoride. It ought to be CaF4,) “one less friend” (one fewer,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “off of” (just ‘off’ please,) focussing (focusing.)

Incomplete Solutions by Wole Talabi

Luna Press, 2019, 270 p. Published in Interzone 284, Nov-Dec 2019.

 Incomplete Solutions cover

This collection’s title may allude to the proverb from its author’s Nigerian homeland, “Starting a thing is not as crucial as seeing it through to completion,” but can also be seen as an explicit nod to Gödel’s famous theorem. Yet finishing things doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem for Talabi. Twenty stories in a first collection, all of them published in the last five years, is not a low count. As a result it probably contains something for everyone. Often set in Lagos and frequently taking inspiration from Nigerian mythology and folk-tales the contents range from intellectual explorations to straightforward what-ifs.

In Parse. Error, Reset, alters are electronic neurosocial profiles of humans, with a ninety day deadline for disposal, to be used when you need to keep up with social obligations. A Short History of Migration in Five Fragments of You is told in the second person in five sections tracing the lineage of the captain of a Nigerian mission to land on Europa.

Drift-Flux starts arrestingly enough with a spaceship exploding but soon degenerates into a race-against-time to foil a plot to destroy Earth, interlaced with a crudely characterised conspiracy by those prejudiced against enhanced humans and tinged with ancestral beliefs as a ward against nosiness. Its fight scenes are a touch unconvincing, though. A Certain Sort of Warm Magic is a love story, conventional in every way yet worth reading just the same. In the post-Singularity, post human-AI war, neural interfaced world of Necessary and Sufficient Conditions a man travels to the home of the murderer of his mother to exact revenge.

Tales within tales within tales saturate Wednesday’s Story, a meditation on the art and purpose of storytelling taking as its inspiration the rhyme about Solomon Grundy, here half-Nigerian, as told by a creature from outside time, who along with his six siblings is named after a day of the week.

An object falls from the sky in front of a pre-teen African girl in The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anaborhi. When she touches it she becomes fluid, inhabiting two places at one time. In Crocodile Ark the protagonist becomes the front man for a revolution on a theocratic habitat orbiting Mars. He knows the history of revolutions and their children, though. Told mainly in the second person, Nested follows a chain of deaths towards the ultimate creator.

Two years after an event when green light fell from the air and water rose into the sky The Last Lagosian scours his home city in search of the water he needs to survive. In If They Can Learn a cyborg police officer has killed a young black man without good reason. The Borg had been programmed with neural nets using input mostly from human twentieth- and twenty-first century US police officers. Nneoma is a stealer of souls who manifests as “the kind of woman that entire religions, cultures and civilisations concoct elaborate legends and myths to warn men like me about.” She appears again in I, Shigidi where she pairs up with that Yoruba god.

Polaris is the life story of Tunde, a convict exiled to Mars, a dumping ground for those Earth has deemed undesirable. Connectome, Or, The Facts in the Case of Miss Valerie Demarco (Ph D) is the tale of what happened when Connectome made the first memory map of a human brain. An entity calling itself Valarie Demarco holds forth from the lab’s loudspeakers. (We must infer that different spelling of Valerie is deliberate.)

In The Regression Test a woman is called on to perform a confirmatory Sorites test on the copy of her grandmother’s personality stored in a computer, while Eye is a philosophical exploration of the benefits and drawbacks of having true foresight.

Mars is inhabited by human and alien immigrants in Home is Where My Mother’s Heart is Buried. Tinu is influenced by her Chironi lover to let her younger sister go her own way. The longest story in the book, Incompleteness Theories, is a traditional SF tale about the extension of teleportation technology to living beings.

Finally, in When We Dream We Are Our God the internet has become conscious and gone on to ignore humanity except for those few humans who have become networked together themselves via a process called Omi Legba.

Talabi certainly can write and while not all the stories here are equally successful Incomplete Solutions is one to add to the growing presence of SF from beyond its historical bounds in the Anglo-American imagination.

The following did not appear in the published review.
“She started to explain with a question, such a uniquely Nigerian thing to do,” is a sentiment expressed twice here. Is it unique to Nigeria?
“Fela Kuti was on a small make-shift stage singing something socially scathing while simulating strange, savage sex with a sweaty, skinny seductress to scintillating sounds from a splendid saxophone,” takes alliteration a bit too far.

Pedant’s corner:- “that allowed her function” (that allowed her to function,) “the network of pipelines, cables, equipment, and rigging, that kept” (doesn’t need those last two commas,) (ditto in “space, time, energy, matter, spirit, and life, are considered”) (ditto in “ fire, lights, and panelling go by,) (ditto in “remained visible, from high above, a spectre”) “before continuing. ‘… That” (comma after continuing instead of full stop,) “in a smiled” (in a smile,) Adadevoh drive (spelling is sometimes Adedevoh,) “the solar systems economy” (system’s,) “the short man pretending to Mwanja Mukisa” (pretending to be Mwanja Mukisa,) “the squad that had meet then” (that had met them,) “where the fire raged most fierce” (fiercely,) “a large group …. were” (a large group … was,) “the cluster nearby asteroids” (cluster of nearby asteroids,) bioplasium (previously bioplasmium,) “‘my ships interface’” (ship’s,) “the middle of control deck” (of the control deck,) “‘Its drift-flux.’” (It’s,) “the ships basecode” (ship’s,) “trying to recall her what he’d been taught” (no ‘her’,) “allowed him access even the deepest layer” (allowed him access to even the deepest layer, or, allowed him to access even the deepest layer,) “the ships hardcoded path” (ship’s,) “and he edges” (the edges,) crenulated (crenellated.) “Under of all that hair” (Under all of that,) “allowing my tongue dance a private gentle waltz” (allowing my tongue to dance a private gentle waltz,) “mindless watching something silly” (mindlessly watching something silly,) “allowed them sink in” (allowed them to sink in,) “other times like brisk and efficient agent” (like a brisk and efficient agent,) “‘I just need you acknowledge your crime’” (‘I just need you to acknowledge your crime’,) “‘a nation of African people are the dominant hegemony’” (a nation of African people is the dominant hegemony’.) “The sharpness of its arcs flare and wane” (The sharpness of its arcs flares and wanes,) “his daughters initials” (daughter’s,) “the wood-carvers hands” (wood-carver’s,) like talon (like a talon,) the hunters head (hunter’s,) maw (it’s not a mouth!) “with he and his wife” (with him and his wife,) “went home the hunter” (went home with the hunter,) “the sphere that was chasing the ship matched their manuever [sic]” (matched its manœvre,) themselves (themselves,) to allow something like explosion to occur” (like an explosion to occur,) “allowed her senses re-engage” (allowed her senses to re-engage.) “The fear she’d developed for her mother” (the fear … of her mother was meant,) “made her pull hand away” (made her pull her hand away,) solider (soldier,) “as anyone who as ever read” (has ever read,) “one of the prophets many VR centres” (of the Prophet’s, lower case ‘prophet’ occurs frequently. In all cases since it is a particular individual it ought to be ‘Prophet’,) artic wasteland (Arctic,) “of the Earths destruction” (Earth’s,) “letting it explode like bomb” (like a bomb,) “what I imagined to be stately voice” (to be a stately voice,) vocapohone (vocaphone,) “how disengage from orbit” (how to disengage,) wold (would,) “they might have even succeeded” (they might even have succeeded,) Arinamaka (the spelling starts off Ariannamaka then begins to vary between the two forms,) “the Prophets records” (Prophet’s,) “‘Do you remember wat came before your birth?’ He asks. ‘If there was nothing before, why do you all believe something mist come after?’ He inquires further’” (Both those ‘He’s ought to be ‘he’,) “it finally it roared into life” (has one ‘it’ too many,) “beyond deaths reach” (death’s,) “like gates of a city” (like the gates of a city,) “pointing his gun Chuka’s face” (at Chuka’s face,) “allow him wrap his thick, veined hands around” (allow him to wrap,) “that don’t make a lot sense to me” (a lot of sense to me,) “the presence of things far and unseen reaches me” (the presence … reaches me.) “The bright, strobe lights” (the bright strobe lights,) “gathered the gathered the sheets around me” (remove one ‘gathered the’,) “it was written in wetness of her eyes” (in the wetness,) lay (lie, x6,) “to allow myself be recruited” (to be recruited,) shrunk (shrank,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) vermillion (spelling used a page later is vermilion.) “The real madness when I still worked for you” (the real madness was when I still worked for you,) “allowing everything that was me become fluid” (to become fluid,) “in readiness for was sure to come” (in readiness for what was sure to come,) “as he allowed her unzip his corduroy trousers” (as he allowed her to unzip his corduroy trousers,) seven unindented new paragraphs, bidurnially (bidiurnially?) “Synthesized water began to take back what was their ancient, ancestral home.” (Synthesised water began to take back what was its ancient, ancestral home.”) [He] “allowed himself forward to the control panel” (I know what it means but it’s a very odd construction.) “He pressed the pressed the ‘transmit’ button” (only one ‘pressed the’ needed,) “something that resembles like a bony ridge” (either, ‘something that resembles a bony ridge’, or, ‘something like a bony ridge’, not ‘resembles like a’,) “her sons life” (son’s,) “with fist full of naira” (with a fist full,) “I allowed myself feel” (is this missing ‘to’ after ‘allowed myself’ a Nigerian idiom, then?) “She brushed a stray strand of her from her cheek” (of hair, I think. Brushing a strand of her from her cheek would be in a different story entirely,) “a doctor with a kind smile and bald head whose name was Arogundade” (the head has a name? ‘a bald-headed doctor whose name’,) “clear sliver fluid” (silver, methinks – but if it was it could not have been clear as silver is not transparent,) “allowing it connect” (here is that missing ‘it’ again,) one doubly indented new paragraph, a paragraph continued when it puth ti have been a new one for a fresh speaker, “on her laps” (on her lap,) “‘I don’t want do this’” (want to do this,) “had been bleak affair” (a bleak affair,) “that would-be worm meal” (that would be worm-meal,) “to allow herself think” (again a missing ‘to’ after the verb allow,) “allowing …. fade and abrade” (yet again, ‘to fade’,) “in your way your progress” (‘in your way’, or, ‘in the way of your progress’,) was the point at which they were at” (remove one of those ‘at’s,) a logical followership of the facts presented” (followership? Following, surely?) laying (lying.)

Automatic Eve by Rokurō Inui

Haikasoru, 2019, 315 p. Translated from the Japanese Jidō ibu (自動イブ,) by Matt Treyvaud. Published in Interzone 284, Nov-Dec 2019.

 Automatic Eve cover

How necessary is it to suspend disbelief in order to appreciate, or perhaps persevere with, a work of fiction? Conventional wisdom suggests it is at least a necessary condition. Automatic Eve suggests that might not be the case.

The plot of Inui’s novel hinges on the existence of elaborate automata. Not toys, not merely small things like crickets, but better than android–like simulacra of human beings. Things of convincing, warm, outer human appearance but internally consisting of metal, cogs, gears, wires – each with a pendulum for a heart. Yet the automata here are effectively so realistic that they appear to be completely human to everyone involved, even to the extent of being able to have sex convincingly, to inspire love and devotion, and to experience these things for themselves. Even capable of being convinced that they themselves are human – until, perhaps, they find otherwise. And that’s a leap that’s a big requirement to ask of a reader. (This one always had nagging doubts.) Yet, to carry on, to keep faith with the story, said reader has to take this on trust. (And, maybe, later, write a review.)

It is a mark of Inui’s writing, and his translator’s ability to convey it, that the necessary perseverance isn’t a problem. The story here is engaging enough to keep you turning the pages. It helps that the central concept is introduced fairly gradually.

The setting is a little odd though. The characters know of Chemistry, electricity and clockwork, yet the society in which they are embedded has a mediæval feel. It is obviously closely based on Japan, but not a Japan which ever existed. Yes, we have sake, bathhouses, sumo, cricket fights, meticulous gardening (albeit also a cover for spying,) a certain pleasure in fine objects, finely wrought – not to mention the goings-on in the building known as the Thirteen Floors. There is, too, intrigue between an Imperial court and a shogunate, but the divine figure is an Empress, and the succession goes through the female line, to a female. It is a Japan tweaked just so, to enable the story. A fantasy, then.

Would-be Sumo wrestler, Geiemon Tentoku, has fallen in love with the Eve of the title and selflessly seeks to release her from her indenture in the Thirteen Floors to restore her to the man he thinks she loves. Kyuzo Kugimiya learned all he knows about the construction of automata from Keian Higa, who had plotted the overthrow of the system before being executed after his plans were betrayed to the authorities. Under the instructions of the Imperial Gardener (really a spymaster) Kihachi Umekawa, the shogun’s spy, Jinnai, is investigating Kigimiya’s activities. All these are actors in the overall plot, which concerns the contents of the Sacred Vessel, a sealed container within the Imperial Palace.

The existence of convincing automata leads a couple of characters to question the nature of humanity. Kyuzo thinks, “A pregnant woman’s body was home to not one soul but two. Where did the life in her womb come from, and when? If souls came from elsewhere to reside in the human body, was it not possible that one might take up residence in the infant automaton they were building?” Later, Jinnai wonders, “Where did the soul come from? Where, in the body or brain, did it conceal itself while a human still lived? …. Automata like Eve showed human behavior [sic] as a response to the care and love they received from humans.”

Such metaphysical considerations are invited by the subject matter – and are arguably the raison d’être of literary fiction – but Inui doesn’t let them bother the thrust of his story for too long.

There is a slight flaw to the book’s structure, however. Rather than a novel it is a succession of seven shortish novellas, albeit featuring ongoing characters. That the narrative viewpoint changes between these sections is not a problem but certain repetitions of information suggest that they may not have been conceived or written as a whole but subject to a later fix-up. And Automatic Eve herself is more like an absence than a protagonist. Though she does appear in them all she is neither the focus nor viewpoint character in any of the seven segments.

None of that, however, takes away from the overall effect. It may lack innovation in its central idea but Automatic Eve is still a well-written, solid piece of fiction.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- “none were too explicit” (none was too explicit.) “The master of accounts were responsible for” (the master … was responsible.) “None of these new revelations were the answers Kakita sought..” (None of these new revelations was the answer ..) “none of them understand the situation” (none of them understands the situation.) “None of the spies were supposed to know” (None … was supposed to know.) “The attendant’s quarters” (attendants’ quarters.) “The group made their way…” (The group made its way,) “‘I gather that neither of those fates await those who are careless?’” (neither of those fates awaits those, plus the sentence isn’t really a question.) “Mounts of leftover soil and worktools ..” (‘Mounds’ makes more sense.) “‘The palace has decided to keep the news to themselves for now’” (to itself is more grammatical,) “for this automata” (for this automaton.) “These question had always bothered Jinnai.” (These questions.)

Latest Interzone – Issue 289

 Hold Up the Sky cover
 Interzone 289 cover

It’s that time again. The latest issue of Interzone – 289 of that ilk – landed on my doormat this morning.

This one contains my review of Cixin Liu’s collection of short stories Hold Up the Sky which I mentioned receiving here.

Once again the cover is a wraparound. See below:-

Interzone 289 full cover

Another Review Book

Hold Up the Sky By Cixin Liu

Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu is a collection of the Hugo Award winning author’s short stories. It’s my latest review book for Interzone and arrived this afternoon. It’s not usual for my mail to be so late in the day but I was pleased it came all the same.

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