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Interzone 281

 Beneath the World, A Sea cover
Interzone 281 cover

Lying on my doormat – among a whole load of other stuff – after I got back from holiday was the latest issue of Interzone, 281 by number.

I had thought that my review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders was due in this one but it’s not there. I assume it will now appear in issue 282.

Also on my doormat (delivered via TTA Press) was Chris Beckett’s latest novel Beneath the World, A Sea. I suppose my review of that one will also appear in issue 282.

Fifty-One by Chris Barnham

Filles Vertes Publishing, 2018, 317 p. Reviewed for Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

 Fifty-One cover

This novel is centred on the explosion of a V-1 Flying Bomb in Lewisham, London, in 1944 where fifty-one people were killed, hence the book’s title. It also features time travel in a way which has unavoidably noticeable echoes of Connie Willis’s “Oxford” series of tales but is in some respects better plotted and certainly not so prone to the narrative deferral to which Willis seems so wedded. Do not be put off by the book’s cover, which admittedly does have a doodlebug on it, but otherwise conveys a misleading impression of the contents. There is an element of romance here and it drives part of the plot but it is by no means the narrative’s main concern.

In the early 2020s experiments at CERN led by one Axel Darnell showed certain particles to be travelling back in time. Soon (too soon?) this discovery was extended into sending back animals then humans and the OffTime organisation was set up not only to explore the past for historical knowledge but also to monitor and amend any changes in the timeline.

There are two main settings, London in 2040 where the offices of OffTime are located and the same city during the 1940s war years. A prologue set in Koblenz in 1954 does rather give the game away about where we might be headed and we return there for the epilogue.

In the main story Jacob Wesson and his partner (in the romantic sense) Hannah Benedict are part of an OffTime team sent to 1941 to thwart an assassination attempt on Churchill. From the off there are odd aspects to this venture, including why it is even necessary, and of course things do not go smoothly. Jacob’s retrieval to 2040 in the middle of an air-raid is interrupted by a mysterious voice. Instead he jumps to 1943. While in 1941 Jacob (literally) bumped into one Amy Jenkins – about whose life we had been told in a previous chapter – then disturbed her wedding preparations. In implementing the “lost retrieval” protocol he meets up again with Amy (widowed in the same air-raid which disrupted the retrieval), and eventually despairing of being brought back to his own time allows himself to form an attraction to her. When contact is finally made Jacob has no option but to return to 2040, leaving Amy behind. But she follows him to the pick-up point and is projected into her future – against the supposed laws of time travel. Jacob and his team are faced with the dilemma of what to do with her and more importantly, what else have they not been told?

If you examine this in any detail it all vanishes in smoke of course. Any alteration of past events scenario is necessarily prone to that, however – unless it restores the time we know. There are certain pointers, though, that the past into which the team is sent is not our past (the “real” past?) and the 2040 shown here always seems contingent.

There are some problematic aspects to the narrative. Barnham has a tendency to tell the reader things rather than show them. The information dumping is not well integrated into the text and at times too crude. There is a bagginess to the prose, a tendency to repetition of things we already know. The necessity to make a time jump naked in order to avoid temporarily debilitating nausea was also a bit of hand-waving overkill. The dynamics of the relationship between Jacob and Hannah are underplayed and, for a supposed grand passion, that between Jacob and Amy is too restrained.

This is a US publication and so accommodations must be made but putting transatlantic speech patterns* into the mouths of 1940s Londoners can only jar with the British reader. Particularly egregious was the substitution of “Mum” by “Mom” in the wording of a famous wartime poster which consequently totally fails to embody the pun necessary for its effect. And that’s a pity as it immediately hauls said reader out of the story.

For all that, fans of a good time travel romp will enjoy this. The plotting is clever (if transparent, so that the twist in the tail came as not entirely a surprise.) Were Barnham to be more confident in his ability – and in the reader’s – eliminate repetition, tighten up on info-dumping and expand on characterisations sometimes too closely linked to plot necessities, his creations would breathe more freely.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- *eg “‘we can go help them’” (go and help them,) “‘will go find’” (go and find.) “Be Like Dad, Keep Mom” (“Keep Mom” makes absolutely no sense. Unlike “keep mum”, which means “don’t say anything”.) “to get back with the program” (not a phraseology appropriate to a 1940s Londoner.)
Otherwise; “probably” appeared twice within the space of one line, “‘Keep out of sight and be ready to get into position right on the dot?’” (isn’t a question so needs no question mark,) “Code One” (really? Nothing more original for an emergency signal?) “The Heinkel bombers” (just “the Heinkels”, bombers is unnecessary,) “and what was doing there” (what was he doing there.) “‘But I finally I have some news’” (drop one of those “I”s ), “or tables, to be precise since she’d pushed” (the comma is misplaced “or tables to be precise, since she’d pushed”.) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s,) “Amy had never seen a color (sic) photograph” (but coloured cinema films surely?) “the shops on this side of the Thames were closed for the weekend” (for Sunday maybe, but not the whole weekend,) practice (I thought the USian was always practise,) “get ahold” (get a hold,) “within a few days they’d break out and advance south towards Paris” (the D-Day breakout took longer than a few days after D-Day and Paris was east of the landing area, perhaps an indication of this not being “our” past.)

Paris Adrift by E J Swift

Solaris, 2018, 379 p. Reviewed for Interzone 274, Mar-Apr 2018.

Paris Adrift cover

Time travel is one of Science Fiction’s most venerable tropes but in more recent times has taken something of a back seat to other aspects of the genre. In Paris Adrift, E J Swift has adopted an oblique approach to the topic, gaily skipping over any problems with the ethics of non-intervention and avoidance of the grandfather paradox. She does not make anything of, still less explain, the mechanics of the process (which arguably puts us in fantasy territory,) it is simply an integral part of the story she has to tell.

Hallie, an English geology student estranged from her family, is on a gap year in Paris trying to sort her life out. She takes a waiting job at Millie’s, a bar near the Moulin Rouge. Millie’s is a nexus for the strange. Fellow employee Gabriela finds she is always somehow prevented from leaving Paris while Hallie has odd encounters with birds that talk to her, an apparent doppelganger, and customers, while also experiencing odd sensations both in the keg room and in Paris’s catacombs. She still finds space for a relationship with fellow waiter Léon, and Swift charts superbly the overwhelming intensity of a burgeoning love affair.

The narration is almost exclusively from Hallie’s viewpoint, in that pressing present tense which can seem like a default in so much modern SF. Occasional mentions of geological terms underline Hallie’s background.

The incursions of the weird might perhaps have been more unexpected had we not already read a prologue chapter introducing us to the chronometrist, a person seemingly able to take control of other’s bodies at will but whose essence is fading, and to the concept of anomalies and their incumbents. Hallie soon finds out the keg room is a time portal and her future has been mapped out by the Way of Janus.

Her first experience of timefaring takes her to 1875 where she seems to adapt to her new situation remarkably quickly and is befriended by the Millie who will one day found the bar. She also meets the architect designing the Sacré-Coeur. Partly due to Hallie’s interference that building will no longer be erected. In its stead will arise the Moulin Vert which becomes a significant location in the rest of the book (plus inspiration for a political movement) and technically makes the novel an alternative history. However, other aspects of our modern world and its history are unaffected, there are mentions of Whatsapp, plus the Bataclan, Stade de France and Nice attacks.

The anomaly’s next flare sends Hallie to 1942 and a suitably claustrophobic encounter with would-be cellist Rachel Clouarte. Hallie dodges German soldiers and the curfew to reunite Cluarte with her cello and aid her escape in order to ensure her career in music will prevail, so that she will not marry and produce (eventually) the descendant who will contribute to a catastrophic war in the future. This 1942 Paris is lightly affected by the occupation, street life continuing gaily as normal, though of course the deportations from which Clouarte is to be saved proceed apace. I did wonder why Hallie’s intervention in the Clouarte family tree had to be quite so early but of course it does give Swift the opportunity to depict Paris in wartime and up the danger quotient.

Another flare takes Hallie to 2042 and a terribly plausible fascist Paris (complete with Metro station called LePen) and the seeds of the situation which the Way of Janus seeks to avert. Other timefaring trips are mentioned but not gone into in detail.

The 1942 and 2042 excursions lend the novel aspects of a thriller yet there are other scenes which bring to mind Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and the work of Tim Powers. Throughout, Swift’s portrayal of her characters is assured. These are people we can believe in even if one of them is prey to the logical fallacy that because the Earth is remarkably suited to humans it is a sign of something miraculous rather than the unfolding of impersonal forces which merely allowed us to arise.

Paris Adrift deals with the heavy theme of totalitarianism and the threat of the far right but never loses sight of the smaller people who live through interesting times. While Léon and Hallie are pivotal to the resolution of the plot (and History itself) its emotional focus, though sometimes sidelined, is on their relationship.

Like a lot of SF this suggests life is hard and pain impossible to avoid but unlike most recent SF it proffers hope along with the sacrifice. Never mind it being good SF/Fantasy, this is a good novel.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “the night team begin to trickle in” (the night team begins to trickle in,) “the group want shots” (wants,) “a stream of people flow inside,” (a stream flows,) “the confines of the locker room lends an air” (the confines lend an air,) “a travelling company were performing” (a company was performing,) “the shape of the walls change, become smooth and rounded” (the shape changes, becomes smooth,) “Her age and appearance has altered once again” (have altered,) “the floor team are doing the rounds” (the team is doing the rounds.) “None of these people have an anomaly. None are bound to this place” (none has, none is.) “Only a small proportion of the catacombs are maintained for visitors.” (Only a small proportion is maintained,) “as the assault team go through their final checks” (as the team goes through its final checks.) Yet despite all these examples of such failures of agreement of subject and verb Swift obviously knows what’s what as we had the correct “a rickety set of steps leads up to”,) “till I am stood right next to him” (it wasn’t a passive activity, so standing”,) “sat on the gravestones” (sitting,) gotten (in a narrative otherwise so British in tone this USianism jars,) “since she bid me farewell” (bade me farewell,) “preempting the touch that will follow” (the context implied savouring rather than pre-empting,) Dušanka calls Hallie “‘my petit chou.’” She responds, “‘And I’m not a pastry.’” (That response would be to “my petit choux” – chou is a cabbage and “petit chou” a term of endearment. Hallie’s French isn’t supposed to be good but surely she would not confuse the two?) “is sat” (is sitting,) “another woman is stood at the window” (is standing,) dove (USian; the British past tense of dive is dived,) “sat sipping” (sitting sipping,) “glasses pile up on either side” (context implies both sides,) inside of (USian, it’s just inside, no “of”,) descendent (descendant,) focusses (focuses,) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, though I concede syllabi is a correct Latin plural,) “you’ll be never be happy” (that first “be” is redundant, “‘How can I do that.’” (That is a question so requires a question mark, not a full stop.)

Interzone 278 (Nov-Dec, 2018)

TTA Press

Interzone 278 cover

Tim Lees takes the guest Editorial where he ponders truth and realism in fiction and welcomes more inclusiveness – more truths – in SF. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupteda wonders about the preponderance of negative perceptions of crowds in SF – and more generally – compared to their positive potential. Aliya Whiteley fills the gap left by Nina Alan’s columnistic departure in Climbing Storiesb, arguing that SF tales have no set structure like romances or horror stories do. Instead SF steals from everywhere. In Book Zonec Tade Thompson laments the failure of The Evolution of African Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Francesca Barbini to treat African Sf&F on its own terms rather than Western ones, Daniel Carpenter says Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin will haunt the reader long after it is read (and also interviews the author,) John Howard appreciates Gary Westfahl’s reappraisal of Arthur C Clarke in the latest Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, Val Nolan discusses Christopher Priest’s “September 11th” novel An American Story, Duncan Lunan finds The Song my Enemies Sing by James Reich enjoyable hard work – up to a point – and considers carefully E M Brown’s Buying Time, I characterise Death’s End, the culmination of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, as a bracing intellectual tour-de-force but emotionally unsatisfying, Andy Hedgecock finds Adam Roberts’s By the Pricking of her Thumb too self-indulgent, Stephen Theaker says Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar is quite terrific – a corker – and Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates to be heavy-handed satire but arguably what this moment needs.

As to the fiction:-
Soldier’s Things1 by Tim Lees tells of a soldier invalided out from an ongoing conflict journey back home only to find nothing familiar, his memory untrustworthy – about anything.
In Doomed Youth2 by Fiona Moore an infestation of giant ants occurred sometime in the 1950s with intermittent rises and falls in their population ever since. The story is supposedly narrated by a Chinese American called Kara Chong in a chatty style that didn’t sit well with the content. The background of a world elsewhere falling apart has led to distrust of foreigners.
The Path to War3 by Louise Hughes sees a storyteller whose audience finds her lacking take a mountain path between two newly-warring countries (after a litany of wars) rather than the coast road in the wake of the army.
In Heart of an Awl4 by Eliza Ruslander an AI that was a car is bequeathed its owner’s body after his death. It and his widow go on a road trip.
Zero Day5 by Sheldon J Pacotti is the story of an off-duty cyber soldier who meets a girl on a bus. Tracking her later online he misses the big cyber attack.
The SF premise of Birnam Platoon by Natalia Thoeodoridou is much the same as that of Green Troops by William King, ie the development of soldiers capable of photosynthesising by themselves. This lot take their mission of promoting world peace seriously though. The story is framed via the post-war trial of one of their commanders for war crimes.

Pedant’s corner:- aZamyati’s (Zamyatin’s.) b“in the same way that there are” (in the same way that they are,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s.) cMaurits’ (Maurits’s,) “And it’s becoming clear is that” (and what’s becoming clear is that,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) 1fit (fitted,) 2“I made a final effort” (“I finally made an effort” makes more sense,) “someone beating a tympani” (tympani is plural, one of them is a tympanum.) 3snuck (sneaked,) “stood like marketplace crowds” (standing like marketplace crowds.) 4Written in USian, “she pulls up the hand break” (hand brake.) 5Written in USian, “and diffuse the situation” (defuse.)

Interzone 280 Has Arrived

Interzone 280 cover
The Orphanage of Gods cover

On the doormat this morning: Interzone 280.

This one contains – among all the other goodies – my review of The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan.

My review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, due in issue 281, has been despatched.

Review for Interzone 281

 The City in the Middle of the Night cover

You may have noticed on my sidebar that I’m currently reading The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders.

This is because it’s the latest book I’ve received for review in Interzone.

Ms Anders is another author new to me. She is, though, a multiple award winner, gaining the Hugo for her novelette Six Months, Three Days in 2012 and several awards including the Nebula Award for her novel All the Birds in the Sky in 2017.

The review ought to appear in Interzone 281.

Interzone 277

Sep-Oct, 2018. TTA Press

In her guest editorial Aliya Whiteley wonders who owns a story as influences can colour story telling as if by osmosis. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted notes a new approach to doorbell ringing by those under 25 in his consideration of the changes wrought by the internet and the false sense of agency fostered by advertisers and data brokers. Nina Allan’s last Time Pieces muses on what a difference four years can make, in politics, in Doctor Who, in the inclusiveness of SF as a whole. In Book Zonea Duncan Lawie welcomes the wide perspective in the anthology Twelve Tomorrows edited by Wade Roush, Ian Sales appreciates Hannu Rajaniemi’s latest novel Summerland despite its lack of SF bells and whistles but is slightly more critical of Liminal by Bee Lewis, I wax lyrical over Francesco Dimitri’s The Book of Hidden Things but less so with Supercute Futures by Martin Millar, John Howard approves of the anthology Infinity’s End edited by Jonathan Strahan, Andy Hedgecock describes Literature® by Guillermo Stitch as a promising debut and Julie C Day’s first collection Uncommon Miracles (can there be common miracles?) as not merely promising but astonishing while Stephen Theaker enjoyed Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s Secret Passages in a Hillside Town.

In the fiction:-
Inscribed on Dark Waters by Gregor Hartmann has a student on a work experience programme on an ocean world at a factory producing liquid hydrocarbons biochemically being befriended by an inspector who has her own agenda. The student has an idea to improve the processing.
The Sea-Maker of Diarmid Bay1 by Shauna O’Meara is another sea-based tale. Four boys on a fishing expedition on a global-warmed, polluted planet come across a mythical creature, a sea-maker.
The narrator of Joanna Berry’s The Analogue of Empathy2 is a robot, a Cognitive Intelligence Personhood Emulating Robot to be precise. Doctor Harris is developing its – her – consciousness in an attempt to save humanity from itself. Since its structure, form and feel so closely resemble Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon I would be amazed if this story did not take its inspiration from that source.
Territory: Blank3 by Aliya Whiteley is a journal based story but the entries are presented to us out of order. Narrator Saffron enters one of the domes; simulated environments designed as entertainment for the masses. Either she goes mad or the domes generate inimical entities by themselves. The third explanation – that Saffron is the experimental subject – is vitiated by the manner of her second dome excursion.
Samantha Murray’s Singles’ Day4 – Singles’ Day is like Black Friday but only for the partnerless – is a multi-viewpoint tale of four winners of a Singles’ Day lottery (via Smile to Pay) for passage aboard a starship intended to travel through The Rift to the planet of Zorya to escape an overcrowded Earth. The story does not need the info-dump of its preamble.

Pedant’s corner:- aStokes’ (Stokes’s,) one book title is given as Infintiy’s End (the book’s cover has Infinity’s End,) Watts’ (Watts’s,) Dickens’ (Dickens’s,) “reflections on these parallel projects show remind us” (either show or remind, not both.)
1a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, vortexes (vortices,) miniscule (minuscule.) 2Harris’ (Harris’s,) terphthalate (terephthalate,) chassis’ (chassis’s.) 3“Each has their own way” (Each has its own way,) maw (it’s a stomach! Not a mouth.) 4“to not live,” “to not be,” (not to live, not to be,) “there were even a couple of birds” (there was even a couple,) fit (fitted.) “The latest crop were blooming” (the latest crop was blooming,) wracked with pain” (racked.) “The team of seven photographers were” (the team was.)

Interzone Time Again

The Orphanage of Gods cover
Interzone 279 cover

The latest Interzone, 278 of that ilk, came through the letter box a few days ago. It doesn’t have one of my reviews in it.

The issue after, though, 279, will do, as a couple of days later The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan also arrived.

Once again, Ms Coggan is a new author to me – even if she has had two previous books published.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Macmillan, 2017, 423 p. Reviewed for Interzone 273, Nov-Dec 2017.

 A Skinful of Shadows cover

A YA novel with the usual quota of incident this is also a book written with a pleasing clarity and focus.

Makepeace Lightfoot is brought up as a Puritan in her aunt’s house in Poplar, sleeping on a straw mattress shared with her mother. More unusually her mother frequently forces her to spend nights in a church so that she might learn to ward off ghosts. Her lack of knowledge of her origins and the conflict this produces induces Makepeace to run off after a man her mother lets slip came from Grizehayes, her father’s home. This leads Makepeace into a mob heading for Lambeth Palace, protesting against the influence Archbishop Laud has over the King. In the confusion her chasing mother loses touch with her. Makepeace encounters wisps emanating from the body of a mistreated dancing bear, whose presence, as Bear, will be with her for ever. When Makepeace’s mother dies in the disturbances the classic ingredient for a children’s story, no parents, is in place but there is a moment of horror as Makepeace battles off her mother’s ghost.

Quickly packed off to Grizehayes, the ancestral seat of the powerful Felmotte family where the patriarch Lord Felmotte is a malevolent presence, calling her ‘the by-blow’, Makepeace is despatched to work in the kitchen where she befriends the domestic animals, despite Bear’s reluctance, and in turn is taken up by her half-brother James, another Felmotte by-blow who tells her a Felmotte’s character changes for the worse when he comes into his inheritance. While the reader has already divined the phenomenon it is only slowly that the extent of Makepeace’s genetic disposition – beyond the Felmotte cleft chin – becomes fully apparent to her.

That the waters we swim in colour our attitudes is indicated by Makepeace’s observation that, “Back in Poplar, everyone had known that the king was being led astray by evil advisers and Catholic plots. …. in Grizehayes it was just as obvious … that a power-hungry Parliament driven to frenzy by crazy Puritans was trying to steal power from the rightful King.”

Up to this point that background conflict seems only colouring but Hardinge integrates it into her plot with the revelation of the existence of a charter bearing the King’s seal acknowledging the Felmottes’ unique strangeness in return for their financial support.

The relatively kindly Sir Thomas Felmotte, who has not yet inherited, reveals to Makepeace, “‘There is a …space inside us. We can host more than ourselves.’” Makepeace realises, “‘We’re hollow. And dead things can get in.’” On death, the Elder Felmottes pass on their personalities to their chosen heir’s body, which acquires exceptional skills as a result. As Sir Thomas rationalises, “‘Imagine how great a family would be, if no experience, no skills, no memories were ever lost.’” The downside? Only the strongest personalities survive among the mix.

Makepeace ponders their toleration by the Elders and begins to understand the danger she and James are in, telling him, “‘We are spares,… somewhere to put the ghosts in an emergency!’”

The dispute between King and Parliament has by now erupted into full blown war, “The world was turning cartwheels … and nobody was sure which way was up any more,” providing Makepeace with the opportunity to flee when that emergency does arise. But James has meanwhile succumbed to Felmotte infiltration.

“Humans always betrayed you sooner or later,” Makepeace reflects, but embarks on a search for a way to restore James to himself and destroy the Felmottes forever. Along the way she incorporates a doctor, a Parliamentary soldier and a Felmotte sent ahead to take her over. These talk to her in a different, lighter font. Her travels take her to the King’s court at Oxford and capture by a Parliamentary detachment where she is accused of witchcraft. She speaks again to our times with the thought, “Humans are strange, adaptable animals, and eventually get used to anything, even the impossible or unbearable. In time, the unthinkable becomes normal.”

Towards the end Hardinge has a playful stab at the author/reader relationship with the doctor’s ghost’s rumination, “I am nothing but a bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories, given life by someone else’s mind. But then again, so is a book.”

The author’s touch is assured and her execution admirable. Apart from some dialogue which (arguably necessarily) doesn’t quite have a 17th century feel there is little to find fault with here.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- Remarkably for these times I found only one typo, “she had had unexpectedly halted” (only one “had”.) Yes the book had a few examples of collective nouns being given a plural verb but these were in dialogue and therefore possibly true to the character – except for “a murder of Crowes were gathered around Lord Felmotte” (was gathered.) The phrase, “‘I had a ringside seat’” is hardly a 17th century expression, I’d have thought, and unfortunately we had an explosion occurring at an “epicentre” (centre.)

Interzone 278

Interzone 278 cover

The latest copy of Interzone has arrived. Issue number 278, Nov-Dec 2018.

This one does contain my review of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End the last in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.

Despite my doubts about managing to meet the time scale (the book was over 700 pages long) the review obviously did arrive on time to be included.

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