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Automatic Eve by Rokurō Inui

Haikasoru, 2019, 315 p. £10.99. 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

Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020

 Interzone 287 cover

Editorial duties fall to cover artist Warwick Fraser-Coombe where he outlines his influences and compares their apocalypses to today’s ongoing Covid crisis. In Future Interrupteda Andy Hedgecock wonders at the relative absence in modern fiction of stories dealing with debt. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories tells of her life-long (well at least since she watched the film of John Wyndham’s classic) fear of and fascination with triffids.
In Book Zone I find both N K Jemisin’s The City We Became and Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards well up to, indeed beyond, the mark, Duncan Lawie describes Paul J McAuley’s The War of the Maps as absorbing, Duncan Lunan reviews Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound edited by Mike Ashley, reprints of mostly forgotten time travel stories, the most recent from 1958, Andy Hedgecock says Docile by K M Szpara is a promising but deeply problematic debut in comparing rape to financial exploitation in its exploration of debt-ridden commercial transactions while Maureen Kincaid Speller declares the third of Jeff Noon’s John Henry Nyquist mysteries, Creeping Jenny, the most satisfying yet in its twisting of narrative expectations and its binding of stories together.
In the fiction, meanwhile:-
Influenced by his Uncle Edward, the young narrator of Night-Town of Mars1 by Tim Lees seems to flit between our own reality and a separate one with an almost identical town to the one where he lives but which may be on Mars as its gravity is lower than Earth’s. Identical that is, except for the stones which can speak and the shop dummies which can move by themselves. This is all interpretable as a young boy’s dreams but the story’s thrust is that he moves between parallel universes.
Those We Serve2 by Eugenia Triantafyllou is told from the point of view of an ‘artificial’ called Manoli, who works on a holiday island whose human inhabitants have retreated undersea. Manoli is obsessed by human visitor Amelia who comes to the island annually. But the island is running down and Manoli is programmed not to leave.
In The Transport of Bodies by John Possidente, a journalist on a small space station (would he even have enough to do?) is told a tragic tale by a celebrity chef of his famous pitcher husband both just back from the two-year mission they’d volunteered for beyond Neptune. (Again. ??)
Make America Great Again3 by Val Nolan might have been designed to illustrate Halford E Luccock’s formalism to the effect that, when fascism comes to America it will not call itself fascism; it will be called Americanism. A black journalist – suspect to the police on two counts, then – is investigating the strange background of Kenny Hanson, who prevented a right-wing gunman, in his turn disrupting a protest, to stop him from killing Riley Porter, a woman who wants to be President one day. However, Hanson may be a fighter pilot from World War 2, brought to the story’s present by aliens.

Pedant’s corner:- a“in another story” (is another story.) 1“In the window were a series of posturing dummies” (was a series.) 2“he though” (he thought.) 3“with cops likes that on the beat” (with cops like that,) bandoleers (bandoliers.)

Interzone Issue 288

 Interzone 288 cover
 Hope Island cover

Interzone 288 is out now. (It arrived on my doorstep this morning.)

This is the one which contains my review of Tim Major’s Hope Island.

Along with many other goodies of course.

Palestine + 100, stories from a century after the Nakba. Edited by Basma Ghalayini

Comma Press, 2019, 235 p, including viii p Introduction by Basma Ghalayini, v p About the Authors, ii p About the Translators. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 Palestine + 100 cover

It is over seventy years since what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe) and this collection was inspired by the notion of what Palestine might look like 100 years after it. (Not so long now, really.)
In the Introduction,1 Basma Ghalayini describes the Nakba as an ethnic cleansing. Some may disagree with this but it is an understandable Palestinian perspective. She also says Palestinians write about their past knowingly or unknowingly (this can also be true of other peoples who feel themselves to be suppressed) but for Palestinian writers the past is everything. SF, then, does not look to be fertile ground, a luxury to which they cannot afford to escape. But one of the defining features of Palestinian fiction is absence, and SF is well equipped to deal with isolation and detachment as well as to interrogate the present by reframing it.
In Song of the Birds by Saleem Haddad2 an adolescent girl whose brother has committed suicide finds herself slipping between two realities, one where the Israeli occupation has been overthrown and a harsher one where it hasn’t and in which the first is a simulation.
The Dr Eyal Schott of Sleep it Off, Dr Schott3 by Selma Dabbagh is a scientist thrown out of Israel for being less than 50% Jewish, now working in Gaza but under surveillance in case he is forming an inappropriate relationship with his co-worker Professor Mona Kamal.
N* by Majad Kayal4 posits a novel two-state solution. Palestinians and Israelis occupy the same land but in parallel worlds. Only those born after The Agreement are allowed to travel between the two. VR ‘realities’ are still a source of isolation, though.
Anwar Hamed5 sets The Key* in an Israel which restricts entry by constructing a gravity wall through which only people with the right chip (keyed to a person’s genome and embedded in newborns at birth) can pass. Psychological problems connected to this begin to manifest themselves in the narrator’s family.
Digital Nation by Emad El-Din Aysha6 is also set in Israel, where a bemused head of the cybercrime unit finds his worst imaginings of hacking and Palestinian take-over of the digital realm coming true.
Abdalmuti Maqboul’s7 Personal Hero* also features a virtual reality theme as a Palestinian hero is resurrected by a simulation in which time is reversed.
Vengeance by Tasnim Abutabikh8 suffers from being told rather than narrated. Set against a background where CO2 in the atmosphere has ballooned and lifemasks for safe breathing are in effect rationed, Ahmed plans revenge on the descendant of a man who supposedly stole his family’s land generations ago.
A Palestine broken up into a series of independent city states connected only by tunnels is the premise for Application 39 by Ahmed Masoud9 which chronicles the aftermath of a surprisingly successful application to hold the 39th Summer Olympics made by pranksters from the IT Department of the Republic of Gaza City.
Samir El-Youssef’s10 The Association* is set twenty years after the Agreement (to forget all about it) ended the Eighty Years War. The story is set in train by the murder of an obscure historian.
In Commonplace by Rawan Yaghi11, Adam’s sister, Rahaf, was all but killed in an ill-advised trip into the Eastern Lands. He has been planning his revenge ever since.
In Final Warning* by Talal Abu Shawish,12 the sun fails to rise, every electronic device has failed and cars won’t start. Isaam, a film buff, correctly predicts the form the alien intervention causing all this will take.
In The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid* by Mazen Maarouf,13 Palestinians have been wiped out by a biological weapon. All save the narrator, who somehow stores the pure energy of these dead within him and is thus kept in a glass cube designed to absorb it when released on death. Some of it is leaking out, though.
Whether the brief, or the allotted word count, was somehow too restricting or the authors are uncomfortable with the form, many of the stories have a tendency to be overloaded with information dumping and often resort to telling rather than showing. Striking too, is the preoccupation with sisters, usually dead or comatose, shown by several of the authors. Overall, the collection is notable for the way in which Israeli domination of Palestinian life is still manifesting itself in these futures, or has only been overthrown by frankly unlikely means. Perhaps even imaginative fiction has its bounds.

The following did not appear in the published review.
*Translated works. I assume the authors of the other stories wrote them in English.
Pedant’s corner:- 1“is a kind of a dystopia” (is a kind of dystopia,) ‘are issued ID cards … that keeps track” (that keep track.) 2“The string of hotels and restaurants were replaced by” (the string was replaced by, “inside of:” (inside; just ‘inside’,) “ ‘I should probably take a small sleep’” (‘I should probably take a nap’,) sunk (sank,) snuck (sneaked,) faucet (tap,) “‘You know how us Arabs are’” (‘You know how we Arabs are’, but it was in dialogue,) baby carriages (prams,) “is it a cynicism borne out of loss?” (born out of loss, ‘borne means ‘carried’.) “The sea and her are like two cats” (She and the sea are like two cats.) 3“since I was a young” (since I was young,) “to only recognise Ethocoin as an international currency (to recognise only Ethocoin as….,) “The General Assembly weren’t just nosey” (I prefer ‘nosy’,) “how many canons were used in the battle of Waterloo” (cannons, a canon is a clergyman.) 4Has some USian but then, manoeuvre; “he was in secretly love with” (he was secretly in love with,) “it was old café” (it was an old café,) “with it’s blinding light” (its blinding light.) 5“she was sat” (sitting.) 6“His aid continued to stand there” (aide, several more instances,) “a woman to lay on top of” (to lie on top of,) “hit singles from 1948” (hit songs, maybe, but there were no hit ‘singles’ in 1948, it was mostly sheet music which people bought,) “humous fests” (hummus; humous or humus is a component of soil) “The county was in no position to go on the offensive” (The country,) “‘You must have me mistaken for someone else’” (You must have mistaken me for someone else’,) “‘Me, are you kidding.’” (requires a question mark not a full stop.) 7“In a house in al-Qastal sit the Army of the Holy War” (in a house … sits the Army.) 8“a group of children were plying” (a group was playing,) “his boss’ design” (boss’s.) 9“seemed to only contain a long series” (seemed to contain only a long series,) “had not be possible” (been,) “36th Summer Olympics” (previously given as 39th Summer Olympics,) “‘Look its one of’” (it’s,) “to hold the such a” (no ‘the’,) antennas (antennae,) “it’s left leg” (its,) ditto “It’s cheek screens” (Its,) “outside of” (outside, no ‘of’,) sprung (sprang,) “spilled it’s guts” (its,) northern-most but then southernmost (use the hyphen both times or neither time,) “its shoulder-antenna and crossed them” (if them, then shoulder-antennae.) 10“snuck in” (sneaked in,) “the Jozoor’s” (the Jozoor, it was a plural for an organisation known as the Jozoor. Perhaps Jozoors, but certainly no apostrophe,) “ditto the Jidar’s” (the Jidar,) “it was too was obvious” (it was too obvious,) publically (publicly,) “‘just one group that knows their rights’” (that knows its rights.) 11“seven hundred hours” “twenty-one hundred hours” (military usage usually written as 0700 hours and 2100 hours and seemingly out of place here,) “a group of young men…. were caught” (a group …. was caught,) “she went in day light” (daylight.) 12 “in Rahel’s flat” (I’ve no idea why that apostrophised ‘s’ is in italics,) “take the edge of the darkness” (off the darkness,) Michael Renie (Rennie, spelled as such later,) “and reviewing them a film critic” (as a film critic.) “Everyone started shielding their eyes from the sun” (the sun hasn’t risen, an alien spaceship has, though,) “and bellowing commands to soldiers outside, insisting they join him” (insisted they join him.) 13“look forwards to” (look forward to.)
In ‘About the authors’; “He was …. and currently based in Lisbon” (and is currently based,) “is a Palestinian novelist, poet and literary critic born. With a master’s degree..” (born where? When? And it’s Master’s degree,) “for whom he has written wrote and directed” (omit ‘wrote’.)

Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2019, 283 p. Published in Interzone 282, Jul-Aug 2019.

 Beneath the World, A Sea cover

“The ground of one world is the sky of the world below” runs one of the myths and legends of the Submundo Delta, the most inaccessible place on Earth, the Delta Beneath the World. A place of magenta trees with spiral leaves and flowers with bright pink mouths, overhung by a huge sun and moon as if inside a magnifying bubble, and not really below the outside world, it can be accessed only from South America via a long boat trip on the (perhaps too obviously named) River Lethe, passing through the Zona de Ovido, the Zone of Forgetfulness, all memories of which disappear the moment you leave it. The Delta has no radio communication with elsewhere, aeroplanes which try to penetrate its airspace all crash.

Such a cut-off world is a staple of fantastical fiction of course – fairyland, hollow hills, parallel worlds, alien planets and so on – but Beckett’s vision is a fresh take on the sub-genre even if the Delta is a slightly recycled though embellished version of the Caramel Forest of the planet Lutania in the same author’s collection The Peacock Cloak.

The Delta’s local human inhabitants are called Mundinos, and are descended from a group tricked into going there by a Baron Valente in the semi-distant past, long enough ago for them to have developed their own gods in the benign Iya, whose idol adorns every Mundino household, and the less indulgent Boca. More recent incomers are scientists and adventurers or hippie types plus the odd business man on the lookout for profitable exploitation.

Following a UN decree that a Delta life-form known as duendes, grey long-limbed, frog-like flaccid creatures with black button eyes, (somewhat reminiscent of the goblins of Lutania’s Caramel Forest) and which may be the offspring of trees – with which they perhaps form a single dimorphic species – are ‘persons’ entitled to the protection of the law, police Inspector Ben Ronson has been delegated from London to investigate their endemic killing by Mundinos. Duendes can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds, “‘Things already inside your head ….. become as powerful as things you normally choose to focus on,’” and build enigmatic structures called castelos. Despite their persecution the duendes keep intruding on Mundinos’ space.

What makes all this SF rather than fantasy is the attempt at scientific rationale. “‘There’s no DNA equivalent. No ‘animals’ or ‘plants’ in the delta,’” Ronson is told. “It seemed to him that it was just about possible to imagine that a completely different form of life might not only have a different chemistry and different anatomy, but might even involve the mind-stuff itself being configured in some manner unfamiliar to human beings,” while, “‘the trees and the harts and the duendes and so on aren’t competing against each other … any more than our blood cells are competing against our bone cells,’” but quite why the story is set in nineteen ninety is not clear. The Delta is obviously not quite of this world, making the tale an alternative history does not add to that.

Beckett also undercuts expectations. Despite the set-up what we have here is not a police procedural, nor a straightforward crime novel with a clear-cut resolution, nor indeed an action adventure. The author is more interested in the psychological aspects of isolation, the effect a strange environment has on human behaviour and particularly the influence the Zona might have on motivations and actions. Ronson is almost paralysed by the thought of what he might have done during those four days he cannot remember but is reluctant to consult the notebooks he compiled while in transit.

There are faint echoes here of other odd worlds, perhaps even a nod to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a touch of Ballard in the detachment of many of the characters. We do not have the complete isolation that applied to the inhabitants of Beckett’s Dark Eden, nor the genetic paucity of that environment, and the existence of the duendes adds a distinctive flavour but at the end the nature of the enigma they represent is not unravelled. Perhaps Beckett intends to return to the Delta.

That might be a misstep, though. Beneath the World, A Sea is not really concerned with its backdrop. Instead it uses that backdrop to question how much a person can know of him- or her- self. While not in the highest rank – the characters indulge in too much self-examination for that – like all the best fiction it explores the nature of humanity.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “whose contents, she learnt, turned yellow and shrank as it dried” (as they dried.) “Their only child, wherever she went inside the house, she was surrounded by” (that second comma distorts the meaning and should be removed,) outside of (outside, just outside, no ‘of’,) “before continuing towards to the west” (either “towards” or “to”, not both,) “a posse of men and woman” (it’s possible only one woman was involved but it reads oddly,) “for hundreds of millions of year” (years,) automatons (automata,) “‘take it out in the duendes’” (on the duendes,) ambiance (ambience,) a tendency to use ‘her’ and ‘him’ where ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more grammatical, “for goodness’ sake” (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be goodness’s, best to leave it out altogether,) “‘she’ll always being able to support herself’” (always be able.) “There were also a number of” (there was a number,) “all the holes on the ground” (in the ground,) “‘a range of tawdry attractions are duly provided for them’” (a range of tawdry attractions is duly provided,) epicentre (centre,) “cheer fully” (was split over two lines without the necessary hyphen when “cheerfully” was meant,) “‘to see if Rico’s turned up If you run into him’” (needs a full stop after “up,”) “three young woman were smoking” (women,) engrained (ingrained.) “He had a mango in there He’d bought at the last village” (No capital H after “there”, ‘he’d bought’.)

For Interzone 288: Hope Island

 Hope Island cover

My latest book to review for Interzone will be Hope Island by Tim Major.

I read his previous novel Snakeskins earlier this year.

I must admit to being surprised when the book fell on the doormat this morning. The list of possible review books for Iz 288 was only sent out a couple of days ago. I’ll get onto it as soon as possible.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, 2019 , 485 p. Published in Interzone 282, May-Jun 2019.

 The City in the Middle of the Night cover

We start with a “Translator’s Note” telling us terms have been rendered into Peak English. This both frames the narrative and explains the use of “archaic Earth terms” for alien creatures and the recognisability of characters’ names.

The story itself takes place on January, a planet tide-locked to its star. Its human occupants, who still regard the arrangements on the Mother Ship that brought them there as significant, inhabit the narrow band between scorching Day and freezing Night (wherein monsters lurk.) The ship’s technology that at first sustained them has long been failing though and there are signs the environment is beginning to collapse – corrosive alkaline rain, sudden tornados. The novel’s events are situated mainly in Xiosphant – a repressive rules-based city, “nothing in this city is ever supposed to change” – and Argelo, which is much looser in organization and attitudes (“the city that never sleeps,”) with some scenes in the wildernesses between. Within the book’s seven parts alternate chapters see events from the first person, present tense viewpoint of Sophie, a would-be revolutionary in Xiosphant, and the third person, past tense perspective of Mouth, who thinks she is the last survivor of a society of Travellers known as the Citizens and is lately a member of a band of smugglers calling themselves the Resourceful Couriers, so knows the ways between the cities.

Sophie takes the blame for a theft by Bianca, her friend for whom it is obvious to the reader (though not spelled out in the narrative till near the end) she has deep feelings. As punishment, Xiosphant’s Police Force ejects Sophie from the city into the night to die. A strange encounter with a creature known to January’s humans as a crocodile (though its physical characteristics are very different from that Earth animal) saves her. During this she is somehow enabled to see the creature’s memories, including one of a complex city situated somewhere out in the night.

Mouth is exercised by the destruction of the Citizens, which she witnessed from a distance, especially since it was before they could bestow a name on her. Her attempt to secure their book of customs from Xiosphant’s Palace coincides with the failure of the revolutionaries’ take-over. She, Sophie, Bianca and others have to flee across the Sea of Murder to reach Argelo. This involves curiously cursory action scenes accompanied by extended, and hence unconvincing, dialogue. Sophie’s connection to the crocodiles (whom she names the Gelet) helps save most of them and she receives a bracelet which thereafter keeps drawing her to the night and the Gelet.

The contrast between life in Xiosphant and Argelo is marked but Mouth learns more of her background from a former Citizen, Barnabas, who left the group after achieving enlightenment, “‘The point of religion is to keep trying to reach someplace, the last thing you want is for someone to feel like they’ve reached it.’”

As far as the Science-Fictional meat of all this goes Sophie and Mouth eventually do arrive at the city in the middle of the night – but not until almost four-fifths of the way through the book. In the city they learn of the importance of the Gelet to January’s bio-friendliness – not just from transmitted memories but from a recording left by one of January’s earliest humans, “‘These natives seem to regard geoengineering and bioengineering as two branches of the same discipline.’” A tidal-locked planet would require an air-conditioning system to circulate hot air from the near side to the far side to avoid weather instability and atmospheric disruption. “‘These creatures seem to have created something better, using networked chains of flora and fauna.’” Also revealed is the crucial role the useful substance, known to the Citizens as nightfire since it glowed in the dark, played in stabilising the planet’s biosphere and in the Citizens’ demise. The Gelet’s interest in Sophie is to use her as a bridge between civilisations. She willingly accepts the sacrifice required.

A thought that speaks perhaps to the twenty-first century reader’s awareness is, “‘Progress requires us to curate the past, to remove from history things that aren’t ‘constructive.’ I don’t know if our power to forget makes humans stronger, more self-destructive, or maybe both.’”

The novel starts off intriguingly but it becomes clearer as we go on that the author’s interest is not so much in her imagined world, or her plot, as in the societies and interactions she is depicting – good stuff, but lacking something in urgency. And the book doesn’t so much end as just stop. Perhaps, at a touch under 500 pages, Anders decided she had delighted us long enough.

The following did not appear in the published review:
The sentence, “Here’s what Mouth learned about Sasha from eavesdropping,” ought to have been removed by a decent editing process.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian. Otherwise; “something makes me stop and examine closer” (examine more closely,) “I notice someone who seems out of place … They turn their head” (‘someone’ is singular, therefore not ‘they’, in this case ‘she turns her head’,) “now a few s cattered memories” (a few scattered memories,) “a group of students … argue about” (a group argues.) “‘He’s been making a fortune speculating on sour cherries’” (‘speculating in’ something might lead to a fortune, ‘speculating on’ it is just wool-gathering,) “a group of musicians hunch” (a group hunches.) “‘We lay there’” (We lie there; elsewhere Anders shows she does know the difference between lay and lie,) “open maw” (it’s not a mouth!) “their heads almost exploded” (used once, this phrase for an eye-opening experience appears fresh and striking; used again, not so much,) “‘I don’t even know if any Gelet ever want to meet me again’” (if any Gelet ever wants to meet me.) A chapter begins, “Ignore the buzzing from my right wrist, and I take Bianca’s wrist,” (‘I ignore’ makes more sense. This typo probably occurred because the first word of a chapter is always in a much larger font size than the others,) envelopes (envelops,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) “which stunk just as much as she’d expected” (stank.)

Issue 287 of Interzone

The latest issue of Interzone arrived today. Number 287. It has a great wraparound cover:-

Interzone 287 cover

This is the one which contains my reviews of The City We Became by N K Jemisin and Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards.

I note that one story inside is titled Make America Great Again. Hmmm.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Jo Fletcher Books, 2019, 203 p. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 This is How You Lose the Time War cover

On behalf of the Agency, Red travels upthread into the past and downthread to the future to effect changes in the different Strands of the worlds, (“so many Atlantises,”) waging an eternal time war against Garden, tweaking conditions here, ensuring individuals thrive there, so that they may be in a position to affect history in the Agency’s favour.

At the end of one such mission Red finds a letter which should not be there and on which is inscribed the instruction, “burn before reading.” Despite knowing that it is a trap designed perhaps to kill her, to convert her to the other side, or to compromise her with her own, she decides to comply with the instruction and reads the message. It is from her adversary, Blue; an acknowledgement of her part in making Blue raise her own game, an expression of admiration, a declaration of inevitable victory. Red responds with a letter of her own.

So begins a long correspondence achieved through an increasingly bizarre series of dead drops in which the two agents’ regard for one another deepens and grows into something else.

The book’s narrative is carried via sequences describing Red’s and Blue’s endeavours to change different strands’ histories, each followed by the contents of a letter written to one by the other. Only in one instance is this strict authorial practice not followed and that is where Blue’s letter is encoded in six seeds but Red only swallows three of them and so only gets part of the whole message. (This makes sense in the context of the novel.) Their letters are studded with recommendations, allusions and digressions and embellished by postscripts, PPS’s and even at times PPPS’s.

In all but the first (and the three ante-penultimate) non-epistolary sections the reader is vouchsafed a line or two at the end wherein a seeker manages to reconstitute the letter we are about to read for ourselves. Red becomes aware of this pursuer and is continually looking over her shoulder to see if she can catch her shadower and therefore also wary of contact with her Commandant in case she is suspected of treason. So too, Blue with Garden.
The deployment of various Science Fiction tropes is essential to the novel’s overall effect but to begin with they are merely there, as a kind of exotic background; none of the strands or missions is explored in any detail, there is no mechanism ascribed to the ability to travel in time, Red and Blue are just able to do it. Up to its denouement the plot could have been akin, say, to the jockeyings of John le Carré’s Smiley and Karla but its resolution and the identity of the mysterious seeker are thoroughly dependent on the story’s premise.

All this is laced with the occasional piece of sly humour – a group of participants at the assassination of Julius Caesar (or, rather, a Julius Caesar) seems to consist entirely of agents known to Red – and allusions such as “hoarse Trojans” and “across half a dozen strands, of mice, of men, plans, canals, Panama.” Add in references to Ozymandias, Mrs Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence, Bess of Hardwick and an exhortation by Blue to Red for her to read Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (of which we are later given a short critique) and the reading experience becomes a rich one. The letters are a particular delight. Necessarily so, for they are the narrative’s focus, the means by which we come to understand and appreciate the relationship between Red and Blue, and their mutual goals.

This is a book which eschews the flash, bang, wallop of much of the modern SF genre, containing SF of an enquiring and knowing kind, yet playful with it. Discursive, though relatively short, it is still economic, packing a lot into its 199 pages. It deserves a wide audience.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:-“knew one other” (one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres,) “it amuses Blue to no end” (that would mean ‘without purpose’; ‘it amuses Blue no end’ is the phrase required.) “Adaption is the price of victory” (Adaptation is the..,) “colour” but “humor” (does one of the authors use USian spellings while the other doesn’t?) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) proboscides (it is the Greek plural of proboscis – the ‘English’ plural is proboscises – but I’ve only ever seen probosces before. Apparently that has a specialised use in biology.)

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