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Interzone 274

Interzone 274 cover

Antony Johnston’s guest editorial considers influences. We all have them but everybody’s are different. In what he tells us will be his last column for Interzone Jonathan McCalmont1 lauds the spread of short stories exploring the experiences of the oppressed and marginalized but bemoans the fact that this has not travelled over into the genre’s main novel publishing outlets. In Time Pieces Nina Allan2 argues that the influence of Hugo Gernsback was to the detriment of both the genre and the mainstream, though that influence might now have run its course. In the Book Zone I review E J Swift’s Paris Adrift, Andy Hedgecock3 the Lewis Carroll inspired anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, Maureen Kincaid Speller considers Sam J Miller’s Blackfish City and interviews the author, Science Fiction: A Literary History4 is admired by John Howard, Rod Duncan’s The Queen of All Crows gets a thumbs up from Ian Hunter, Gareth L Powell’s Embers of War is given a guarded welcome by Duncan Lunan5, Lawrence Osborn notes the cliff-hanger ending to Charles Stross’s Dark State (but it is the second in a trilogy,) Stephen Theaker loved Blood Binds the Pack by Alex Wells even if it lacked originality, The Smoke by Simon Ings gets the approval of Ian Sales and Elaine Gallgher reviews Gary Dalkin’s plant based anthology Improbable Botany.

In the fiction:-
Beautiful Quiet of the Roaring Freeway by James Sallis is a very short piece bulked out by graphics redolent of rear light trails and features an illicit jaunt with a human driver on roads governed by automation.
Antony Johnston’s Soul Musica is set on a far-flung environment once connected to human civilisation by an Einstein-Rosen bridge now broken. The plot concerns gold-coloured local manifestations known as souls.
Schrödinger’sb by Julie C Day tells of the eponymous strip club (“A Universe of possibilities”) run by women in which a Dr Ringenbach has installed a box wherein molecular isolation is enabled by quantum refrigeration. But what can be kept in can also be kept out.
Saif and Hjørdis are two conjoined personalities – light years and centuries apart – in Never the Twainc by Michael Reid.
T R Napper’s Opium for Ezra is set inside a virtually impregnable battle tank engaged in a war against the Chinese. Or is it the experiences of someone immersed in a highly addictive virtual game? Whatever, it revels overmuch in the battle details.
baleen, baleend by Alexandra Renwick is the story of Zeke, who keeps diving into the ocean to drown and “pierce the curtain”, with his friends there to haul him back out. But every time he resurfaces the world has changed.
In Zene by Eliot Fintushel an alien invasion of the solar system is being enabled by koans.

Pedant’s corner:- 1series’ (series’s.) 2half-cock (half-cocked.) 3Richard Bowes’ (Bowes’s.) 4Caroline Edwards’ (Edwards’s,) 5hommages (homages, or else italicize the French spelling.) a2Res’ (2Res’s,) liquified (liquefied.) bWritten in USian, “I’d setup” (set up,) “she headed out door” (outdoors, or out of the door,) Britta (elsewhere the name is spelled Bitta,) “A reminder for us girls each and every time we turned created our quantum world.” (No. I can’t parse that.) cWritten in USian – except, centre!) both d and eWritten in USian.

The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz

Yale University Press, 2017, 188 p. Translated from the Polish Góry Parnasu, Science Fiction, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Polityczenej, 2012, by Stanley Bill. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Mar-Apr 2017.

 The Mountains of Parnassus cover

My knowledge of Polish SF has heretofore begun and ended with the works of Stanisław Lem. I saw this book as a welcome opportunity to rectify that. However, Miłosz made his reputation as a poet and essayist – as cited in his Nobel Prize – and this unfinished work (deliberately unfinished, the translator’s introduction tells us) is, as far as I can tell, his only attempt at an SF novel. Miłosz apparently had doubts about the viability of the novel as a form, though he considered SF’s realist conventions as the most promising vehicle for it even if “Science Fiction has mainly consisted of gloomy prophecies.” In his Introductory Remarks to the novel he says will “never be written” he notes that his depiction of two female characters “who do not appear in the pages printed here” made him shrink from the “horror” of writing a “novel from life.” Since “literature always fares awkwardly when it strives to depict good people and good intentions,” he describes what lies in front of us as artistically dubious and immoral. So much for fiction, then.

The book as a whole seems designed more for the academic than general reader with its Translator’s Introduction plus Note (both complete with references) emphasising Poland’s highly literary tradition of SF writing and Milosz’s view of SF as akin to scripture in its use of the past tense to describe future events. Correspondingly the “novel”’s latter parts are steeped in Catholicism. The style is discursive, its six sections reading more like essays than a conventional narrative. Strewn throughout them are nuggets allowing us to glean the outlines of society plus references to powerful groups of various sorts; the Botanists’ and Astronauts’ Unions, the Arsonists’ Association. There is no dialogue; unless you count the Mass of the Catechumens in the Appendix.

A description of the Mountains of Parnassus, supposedly kept in a state of wilderness, is written almost like a gazetteer. Their visitors exist in “an Earth without fatherhood” and strive to become their own fathers. A general atmosphere of ennui (avoiding “killing time” via the M37 current or erotic games, which prove unsatisfactory palliatives) leads a character called Karel to play Russian Roulette. His survival and altered mental state lends him immunity to the activities of an organisation known as The Higher Brethren of Nirvana which has begun to cull humans to prevent degeneration and extinction, its victims simply disappearing, each “losing its unitary quality in a single moment” with no one knowing the criteria for selection.

There follows an adumbration of the theories of Professor Motohiro Nakao which overturned the practice whereby “long ago the more energetic rulers had made the strange assumption that the minds of the ruled were a threat if they could not be convinced by persuasion or fear.” Data collection of “tracks” of perception can identify any which may be harmful to the rational social order defended by the Astronauts. This leads to Cocooning, interfering with the ability to communicate by slowing or accelerating the speed of a person’s thoughts thus denying access to those of others.

The “Cardinal’s Testament” of Petro Vallerg, all but the last celibate, finds him struggling to understand the thinking behind John XXIII’s aggiornamento in calling the Second Vatican Council, as it caused a rotting structure to collapse by attempting to refurbish it. Vallerg recognises the Church’s failings, where ritual has petrified into form, but “if the Church had not used the stake and the sword of obedient monarchs in the critical thirteenth century, little would have remained of Christianity,” and “no purely human institution similarly depraved could have survived,” but bemoans “the shame that induced us to reject the relative good simply because it was relative” and that the numinous has been reduced to metaphor and figures of speech.

Lino Martinez, member of the elite Astronauts’ Union, whose perk for risking their lives on humanity’s behalf is monthly longevity treatments, is never the absolutely perfect Astronaut and finding desires, passions, betrayals and faults reduced to miniature dimensions and the effects of time dilation disturbing, he deserts, to expose himself to time.

An Appendix: Ephraim’s Liturgy looks back to when inhabitants of Earth were allowed to run wild as educating them would be too difficult; “the petty and insignificant became great and significant”; a guaranteed small income allowed anyone who wished, to be an artist (but structuralism destroyed any hope of immortality thereby, rendered works indistinguishable) and the promise of communication had led to its negation. Ephraim therefore believed speech could be imparted only by ritual.

It’s all undeniably intellectual, almost Stapledonian but lacking the extraordinary timescale and perspective. I doubt it’s representative of Polish SF, of anything but Miłosz himself.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Translator’s Introduction “allows Milosz to takes these” (take.) I found it odd that the author’s full name (and indeed Lem’s first) – except twice, both times in Notes – is rendered with an unPolish unbarred l while that of another mentioned Polish writer, Sławomir Sierakowski, isn’t. Otherwise: “In the name of the Kingdom. I made sacrifices…..” (no full stop necessary?) snobbism (snobbery is more usual,) “sent their long ago” (there,) Bureaus (Bureaux.)

Interzone 274 Has Arrived

Interzone 274 cover
Paris Adrift cover

After its brief hiatus, Interzone is back, this time with issue 274.

Among the usual selection of goodies – including no less than seven stories – this issue contains my review of Paris Adrift by E J Swift.

Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 383 p. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Jan-Feb 2017.

 Invisible Planets cover

Chinese SF has been making something of a splash in the wider world of late. This volume – containing thirteen stories (bar one all award winners in China) by seven authors, four women and three men, along with three essays on the form’s Chinese incarnation – provides the opportunity to delve into its ripples but perhaps dangles an invitation to a question. Do these examples of Chinese SF exhibit traits which are specifically Chinese in nature? Is it possible to discern characteristics unique to a culture’s literary output and, within that, to its SF?

In the broad sense, surely yes. Russian literature for example has a very different feel to that written in English. So too its SF. But does Invisible Planets spread its net widely enough to allow any such judgement? (I myself, though, having noted a qualitative difference in the broad sweep of US SF as opposed to that from the UK – which was then all but solely English – and so deliberately set out to write a novel that could only have arisen from a Scottish background, might be the wrong person to ask.)

In his introduction Ken Liu specifically warns us not to expect the contents here to be monolithic, that SF from China will be as diverse in nature as that from anywhere else, and cautions us that the stories he has chosen may not be representative; though he does note that SF from Singapore, the UK and the US “are all quite different” from each other, even if there are “further divisions within and across such geographical boundaries.”

He offers us “science fiction realism” from Chen Qiufan, the self-proclaimed “porridge SF” (neither “hard” nor “soft” – the terms apparently have slightly different meanings in China where hard refers to the inclusion of more technical material) of Xia Jia, “wry, political metaphors” from Ma Boyong, the “surreal imagery” of Tang Fei, “dense language-pictures” from Cheng Jingbo, the “fabulism and sociological speculation” of Hao Jingfang and Cixin Liu’s “hard science-fictional imagination”. Apart from Cixin Liu, most of the authors (whose names are all rendered in Chinese style, family name first) are “rising stars” and all work in professions.

The fiction starts with three stories from Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan.) The Year of the Rat sees an unemployed graduate forced to join the Rodent-Control Force dealing with the genetically engineered NeoratsTM infesting the Chinese countryside. In The Fish of Lijiang, people exposed to time dilation or compression require occasional readjustment which they obtain by meeting up with those of the yin tendency to their yang. Body films, patches which express personality in response to muscular tension or temperature, feature in The Flower of Shazui which reworks the old tale of a man fascinated by a prostitute who is beyond his reach. She nevertheless requires his help.

Xia Jia also makes three appearances. In the at times dream-like A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight foundling Ning is the sole living inhabitant of a village of ghosts whose days as a tourist attraction are gone. He nevertheless does not age beyond seven. Tongtong’s Summer sees Tongtong’s grandfather needing care after a fall. This comes in the shape of Ah Fu, a robot controlled from afar via a telepresence body-suit. Soon grandfather is interacting remotely with others in his position. Packed with invocations of opposites and apparently inspired by the poem “With Dreams as Horses” by Hai Zi, Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse (a story original to this book) sees the dragon-horse awaken after centuries to a world long bereft of humans. It meets a bat and they travel together telling each other stories.

Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence might be taken to be a reflection of Chinese experience in its depiction of a time when web access and everyday discourse is restricted to only allowable words but its explicit reference to Orwell’s 1984 (and implicit one to Fahrenheit 451) implies a wider relevance. The inevitable attempts to circumscribe the rules lead to an ever narrowing list of healthy words. Marring this slightly was that some aspects of the story were seen from our frame of reference rather than its.

Hao Jingfang has two contributions. Invisible Planets uses a Scheherazade type storyteller (without the jeopardy) describing fantastical planets and their inhabitants to suggest how both interactions with others and experiencing stories can change us. Her Hugo Award winning Folding Beijing sees that city – out to the sixth ring road – as a kind of time share, with three Spaces taking turns in occupying the ground over two days before the cycle recurs. During two such Changes Third Space denizen Lao Dao, wishing to earn enough money for his daughter to attend kindergarten, makes the dangerous journey to take a message to the less crowded and much wealthier First Space.

Xiaoyi is the fifteen year-old titular character in Call Girl by Tang Fei. It isn’t sex she sells, though, but stories related to her ability to manipulate space and time. Cheng Jingbo’s Grave of the Fireflies is an almost indescribable admix of fairy tale – princesses, magicians – and end of the universe SF – the stars are going out – in five sequential sections headed three successively apart days in February yet spanning centuries.

We round off with two stories from Liu Cixin. The Circle is a reworking of a chapter from his Hugo winning novel The Three Body Problem. An ancient Chinese mathematician develops a binary calculating machine utilising soldiers carrying flags. In Taking Care of God two billion members of the God civilisation which created the conditions for life on Earth and oversaw its development are deposited on the planet’s surface from a horde of ageing spaceships. In exchange for the Gods’ knowledge their wellbeing is catered for by billeting each of them on a family. Inevitably tensions ensue. Their science turns out to be too far advanced to be intelligible and their daily habits tend to forgetfulness. There are echoes here of Aldiss’s Heresies of the Huge God, Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God and a touch of Leinster’s The Greks Bring Gifts. (Whether Liu was aware of, or even intended, these cannot be judged from a distance.)

The three concluding essays delve into various aspects of Chinese SF. Liu Cixin’s “Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” covers SF’s century-long history in China, its original incarnation optimistic, its later role in the People’s Republic era where it was seen as being only for children, to be educative about technology, the startling absence of Communist Utopias within its purview, its new-found literary credentials and confidence, all as a lead-in to explaining the origins of the pessimistic vision imbuing his trilogy.

Chen Qiufan’s “The Torn Generation” contrasts the anxiety of the younger generation with the thoughtlessness of the older. “Faced with the absurd reality of contemporary China the writer cannot fully explore or express the possibilities of extreme beauty and ugliness without resorting to science fiction.” These are not strictures necessarily confined to China.

In the final essay, where Xia Jia tries to answer the question asked of her at a convention “What Makes Chinese SF Chinese?” she covers some of the same historical background as Liu Cixin, saying the breakaway from science-popularisation was motivated by binary oppositions such as China-the West, underdeveloped-developed, tradition-modernity, and concludes that while the Chinese SF community is full of internal differences she does find some commonality as the stories are written primarily for a Chinese audience, but, “Perhaps Western readers can also read Chinese science fiction and experience an alternative Chinese modernity and be inspired to imagine an alternative future.” Alternative futures. Any SF reader will drink to that.

But it’s the stories that matter. All here work well as SF. Their characters behave as characters do, with love, jealousy, resentment, tenacity, fear, and loathing. Apart from references to aspects of Chinese daily life and culture they could easily have originated from non-Chinese sources. Taken in all, however, I did note a tendency to didacticism, a leaning towards the fantastical, an awareness of contrasting opposites, an air of detachment. None of that would make them uniquely Chinese, though, and whether or not Chinese SF really is a creature all to itself, on this evidence it’s certainly worth reading.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the fiction written in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States are all quite different” (is all quite different,) interpretive (interpretative,) one of the China’s most elite colleges (one of China’s,) maw for mouth rather than stomach, Xian Quan (Xiao Quan,) hid (hidden,) “When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday. (Only if he’d started on a Sunday.) The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight, (is slightly clumsy; balanced in weight?) “has to transfer buses three times to get there” (has to change buses? Has to take three different buses?) “archers loosened volleys from their bows” (loosed volleys.)”There were a total” (there was a total.)

Interzone 273

 Interzone 273 cover

Erica L Satifka’s Editorial states her surprise and delight at winning the best newcomer award at Fantasycon for her novel Stay Close. Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 comments on the ebb and flow of the Science Fictional year due to the awards cycle and bemoans the narrowing down of discourse to only the professional sphere. Nina Allan extols the merits of the French short SF film La Jetée. Book Zone is now relegated to coming after Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn film reviews. This edition features my review of Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows plus others on Gnomon2 by Nick Harkaway, 2084 an anthology edited by George Sandison, Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, Tricia Sullivan’s Sweet Dreams, the new Ann Leckie, Provenance, Jane O’Reilly’s Blue Shift, Jane Yolen’s collection, The Emerald Circus, the tie-in book to the Channel 4 series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun: a Novel of the Fae and The Overneath3, a collection by Peter S Beagle.

In the fiction we have:-
Looking for Laika4 by Laura Maro, an altered history where the Soviet Union seems to have survived longer than in our timeline. An adolescent with fears of atomic conflict consoles his younger sister with tales of Laika the first space dog travelling the universe in search of a better planet. Off-stage in this story London is immolated in a nuclear strike.
After the Titans5 by Rachael Cupp is a fabular construction in a bucolic setting where Titans roam the land and ordinary folk are as flies to the gods.
In the future of Dan Grace’s Fully Automated Nostalgia Capitalism people are pervaded by mites of all sorts that protect them from the harmful effects of smoking and the like. But the mites also act as agents for control. Nevertheless petty acts of defiance are possible.
The Big So-So6 by Erica L Satifka is set in the aftermath of an alien takeover where they used a drug to pacify and classify the populace. Then they withdrew it and themselves.
The Garden of Eating7 by R Boyczuk riffs on the Garden of Eden theme in a post-apocalypse setting where an (AI?) remnant of the UN counsels a young boy against a police-like entity called the Amerigun.
James White Award Winner The Morrigan8 by Stewart Horn is narrated in a style flavoured by demotic Glaswegian. While well-written it depressingly panders to the “hard man” image and the gang culture by describing the influence of the (possibly other-worldly) woman who instigates the biggest gang fight in Glasgow’s history.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“less time, less money, and less staff,” (I know staff is technically singular but fewer staff is a more natural usage,) “that might have an influence on the discourse: Ordinary fans (surely needs a full stop. Not a colon.) 2 “into which a body is broke” (broken?) 3”The sheer breath of theme” (breadth,) “eventually a pair of elderly Turkish mystics take the tenants to..” (a pair takes,) “characters getting out of their depth” (characters, so depths,) “in which monarch’s relinquish power” (monarchs,) “intervenes in a case of marital fidelity and creates chaos” (infidelity? Possibly not.) 4“Taken a deep shuddering breath, and began to read” (the previous sentence was in the pluperfect so begun to read,) “they lay in rows” (this one is present tense, so “they lie in rows”. Mauro has the preterite, lain, correct, though.) 5To emphasise the ‘ancient’ nature of the tale this has a ligature between the letters s and t – as in st – when they occur consecutively within a word. “I say, May all creatures tremble,” and, “He says, Make to me a sacrifice” (why not put in the quote marks?) Cronus’ (Cronus’s.) 6written in USian, “none of them look at us” (none looks.) 7Written in USian. 8Crosslea park (that’s a proper noun so Crosslea Park,) “‘They’re gonnae to be” (no “to” required,) “like was made for cutting” (like it was made for cutting.)

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Solaris, 2016, 498 p. Reviewed for Interzone 267, Nov-Dec 2016.

 Europe in Winter cover

This third in Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence of novels (previous knowledge of which is not necessary for reading this instalment) starts with a bang. Under the Urals a young couple blow up both themselves and a train in the tunnel belonging to the Trans-European Republic (aka the Line.) The significance of this, its ramifications, just who was responsible, do not become clear till much later.

Then, what at first seems merely a re-run of the “Hungarians trash the restaurant in Kraków” scene from Europe in Autumn leads to an encounter wherein chef Rudi meets an older version of himself. He is told, “You, and your entire world, are very, very sophisticated computer programs.” Not much later Rudi steps out from the restaurant and the wall behind him fades. The tone of this is of a piece with other scenes in Hutchinson’s trilogy. It is present here to introduce the idea that simulations of various futures are being run in the very secretive polity of Dresden-Neustadt in an attempt to realise a prediction engine. But that concept renders the scene problematic. Indications of unreliable narration are usually welcome, but this revelation verges on the dangerous for an author. How do we then have any faith in the depictions of all that follows?

Trust; and enjoy the roller-coaster. Rudi (what we must assume is the “real” Rudi,) an agent for the smuggling organisation known as Les Coureurs des Bois – a more or less essential organisation for those wishing to get things across Europe’s now innumerable borders – but here seemingly more free-lance, has a large part to play in the remainder of the book. His observation that, “Working in Intelligence is just a case of continually winging it,” neatly describes his approach but is probably more widely apposite. We are also reacquainted, from Europe at Midnight, with The Community, the parallel world created by the English Whitton-Whyte family who, “seem subsequently to have lost the knowledge of how to do it. Either it was lost, or stolen, or destroyed, no one knows, not here or in the Community. There are stories of a book of instructions, floating about somewhere, which tells how to map a new landscape over an old one.” Powerful, and dangerous, the Community had precipitated Europe’s ultra-Balkanisation by unleashing the Xian Flu before official contact was made with it. “There was no way to defend against an enemy who could walk across invisible borders anywhere on your territory whenever they wanted, while you were quite unable to retaliate.”

Hutchinson’s unravelling of the interactions between the (by now essentially former) EU – “The Schengen era was just an historical blip, an affectation” – the Community and an entity known as The Realm (up to something in Luxembourg) is never straightforward but always intriguing. He also finds time to comment on the proceedings. “It had been an eventful day; if he had ever been unsure of what the word infodump meant, he wasn’t now.” Despite the appearance of SF grace notes – stealth suits reduce you to a transparent patch of barely-roiling air, there are time dilation effects between the Community and Europe with even longer ones in a certain cottage by the sea, someone steals part of the Community, it in turn steals Heathrow – the overall treatment is less redolent of the genre. “A solid reliable fellow” is not common SF phraseology. And not many SF novels mention a spectacularly catastrophic bowel movement, or AJP Taylor or, indeed, deliver an amusing aside on the interrogation methods of TV detective Columbo. Other allusive touches include the punning chapter title “The Justified Ancients Of Muhu” and a character named László Viktor. Another character opines, “England is a constant pain in the arse; always whining, European only when it suits them.”

Rudi’s attempts to comprehend the convoluted relationships between the Realm, the Community, his father’s involvement in a billion-dollar trust fund, the murder of a Professor Mundt, the significance of a photograph of attendees at the Versailles Peace Conference and the importance of a group of mathematicians, topologists and cartographers known as the Sarkisian Collective are never oppressive. His discovery of just what his role in Les Coureurs des Bois actually is adds an ironic twist.

Europe in Winter’s essence is really that of a Cold War spy thriller – it even name checks Mutually Assured Destruction – but in SF terms it does not add much to the two previous novels. It’s a good, excellently written Cold War spy thriller; but one nonetheless. That, though, is a strength. When a novel deals with an organisation which is capable of rewriting worlds, that looking-glass, nothing is quite what it seems ambience may be the only suitable medium. Hutchinson executes it superbly.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner. (Some of these may have been amended since the proofs):- mediaeval (Hurrah!) but…. none were (none was,) “at one point” occurred in one sentence which was followed only two lines later by a sentence which started with, “At one point,” avis (the context suggests axis rather than a bird,) three-d is an odd contraction, it’s usually 3-d or 3d, would at very least (at the very least,) the crew were prepping (the crew was,) metropoli (metropolis is Greek in origin; so the plural is metropoles,) Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries (if you capitalise Seventeenth and Eighteenth so also should you Centuries,) Polish Border Security were famously savvy (Polish Border Security was,) broke branches off nearby trees to conceal it with (doesn’t need the with,) “with a passport in either hand” (in each hand,) again a chapter number appeared at the very bottom of a page. “Facing them were the Community delegation” (was,) cats-cradle (cat’s-cradle,) in an dialect (in a dialect,) a missing full stop, cammo dudes (two lines later is camo dudes,) off of (no of required,) miasm (miasma,) Forsythe (Forsyth,) on either side (on each side,) “she watched a wild boar sow and half a dozen piglets” (wild boar, sow and…) Tipped his/her head to one side (a Hutchinson tic.)

Interzone 273

Interzone 273 cover

Interzone 273 has arrived.

Included along with the usual columns, fiction and reviews this one contains my review of Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows.

I note the Book Zone now occupies the last part of the magazine, its order having been swapped with Nick Lowe’s film reviews.

Interzone 271, Jul-Aug 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 271 cover

Roy Gray takes the Editorial and describes a visit to the summer’s Barbican exhibition, Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction. Jonathan McCalmont discusses China Miéville’s history of the Russian Revolution October, describing it as the book Miéville was born to write. Nina Allan again reflects on SF’s distinction or otherwise as a genre and the necessity to question and reinvent its tropes. Book Zone1 has appreciative reviews of Nina Allan’s The Rift and Emily B Cattaneo’s collection Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories plus author interviews with the pair and also considers novels from Eleanor Lerman, Aliette de Bodard and Taiyo Fuji along with Ex Libris, an anthology of stories set in libraries, not to mention my review of Justina Robson’s The Switch.

In the fiction:-
Julie C Day’s The Rocket Farmer2 has three narrative viewpoints in its 10 pages: the descendant of a long line of Mongolian rocket farmers, her daughter, and one of the rockets. It is the daughter who is the first to truly understand the rockets.
Gods in the Blood (of those who rise)3 by Tim Casson is narrated by a science teacher (who has rather unprofessional biological deterministic views about his charges I must say. But these turn out to be plot related.) The nearby Genomic Innovation Facility is manipulating human epigenetics. All this is tied in with a legend from a Sumerian manuscript.
In If Your Powers Fail You in a City Under Tin4 by Michael Reid a tentacled creature called the God Beast has settled in the sky over the city now called Duolunduo. Some people have developed superpowers as a result.
The titular Chubba Luna5 in Eliot Fintushel’s story is an interplanetary music star in a future where people’s life partners are allotted to them in accord with their biochemistry. This doesn’t turn out any better than choosing them for yourselves.
Chris Barnham’s When I Close My Eyes is a mix of SF and ghost story. It is the tale of the first potholer on Titan, a man who hallucinates his dead wife while encountering extraterrestrial life after being trapped by an ice-fall.
The McGuffin of Cryptic Female Choice6 by Andy Dudak is a spermathecal, a mechanism introduced to the womb by virus which allows women to store various men’s sperm and edit their content to produce a desired genome. The societal backlash is portrayed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“while allowing they catch up” (allowing them to catch up,) “how do you feel it has effected your life as a writer” (affected,) Goss’ (Goss’s.) 2Written in USian, “so that it spread across the table” (the rest of the story is in present tense, so “spreads”,) practicing (practising.) 3where a bunch of other kids were gathered (a bunch was gathered.) 4Written in USian, ”none of them recognize” (none recognises,) “‘can you come with?’” (with me,) “he shines it on the floor near the figure, trying not to startle them” (not to startle it.) 5Written in USian. 6Written in USian, inside of (inside,) “there used to be hundreds of words for love like Inuit words for snow” (isn’t that snow thing a bit of a myth?)

Interzone 270, May-Jun 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 270 cover

The Editorial apologises for housekeeping issues not entirely within the magazine’s control, Jonathan McCalmont’s column argues for a recognition that the SF and Fantasy community still has a lot to do to welcome and encourage, writers and readers of black or other “minority” (my quotation marks) background, instead of discouraging them as at present, Nina Allan1 reflects on her experience as a shadow Clarke Award judge and concludes that it is difficult to argue for SF as any longer being distinct from wider literature; a novel is good or it isn’t regardless of its origin or intent. Book Zone contains Paul Kincaid’s* review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140, reviews of the latest novels from Clare North2 and Cory Doctorow plus the collaboration between Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster as well as collections by Ellen Klages and regular Interzone contributor Malcolm Devlin (who is also interviewed) along with my review of Karen Hurley’s The Stars are Legion.
(*Kincaid mentions austerity as being needed to pay for the bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis. It wasn’t. The economy was beginning to recover by the time of the 2010 election. Austerity was a choice made by the incoming government for ideological, political, reasons. The bailout merely provided the excuse for its imposition. And the measures killed the recovery stone dead.)
As to the fiction:-
In Rushford Recapitulation by Christopher Mark Rose3 women in Rushford, New York, start giving birth to technological artefacts, bringing a rush of visitors, protesters, pregnant mothers. The technology becomes less advanced as time goes by.
Like You, I am a System4 by Nathan Hillstrom features an intelligence of silicon and electric current coming to consciousness and taking over its environment. Then it interferes in the wider world.
Dirty Code5 by Wayne Simmons is set in what appears to be a simulation. The protagonist keeps waking up with a new face and is in the employ of someone who wants him to get rid of those passing on the titular dirty code by infecting others via activities in strip clubs and the like.
Encyphered by Jonathan L Howard is the life story of a man obsessed with cyphers, determined to keep his secrets (after all, we all have them) to himself till the day after his death. It is also a potted history of cryptography and cryptanalysis and contains the wonderful observation, “In those halcyon days before successive austerities and unimaginative governments, the library was a mighty thing indeed.” I’m struggling to see it as either SF or fantasy though.
In The New Man6 by Malcolm Devlin a man killed in an accident in the warehouse of the cloning company where he works is, to make them look good, revived in one of their bodies. His new body is the basic model though. The warehouse seems absurdly low-tech for a company making such a modern product.
Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse7 by Emily B Cattaneo is a tale of childhood friendship, messages in bottles, roads not taken, the regrets of adulthood and that tantalising, inaccessible, forbidden lighthouse. All this in only eight pages.
In Memories of Fish8 by Shauna O’Meara virtual tourism enabled by drone footage is the big online attraction. A young woman at the viewed end takes a drone on a journey through areas the local authorities don’t want seen. While the story’s target is compassion fatigue it strays close to perpetuating the idea that dreadful living conditions in traditionally poor countries cannot be ameliorated. Since the viewer’s country had suffered extreme drought the story might have had more punch if the situations of viewer and viewed had been reversed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1focussed (focused.) 2involunatary (involuntary,) and a sentence with four verbs whose subject is team, the first verb is singular (tick) but the remainder plural. 3written in USian; “far ahead or behind schedule” (far ahead of or behind schedule,) “Rushford’s human inhabitants where healthy and normal” (were healthy,) blunderbuss (blunderbusses,) “Inca kuipu” (quipu.) 4written in USian; ”none of you pick your own nodes” (picks.) 5written in USian despite the author being Northern Irish. 6over emphatic (over-emphatic makes more sense,) fit (fitted,) “the both of us” (no “the”; just “both of us”.) 7Written in USian. 8”that this where she lives” (that this is,) “the olfactory interpreter’s best attempt at recreating a stench that is probably far worse in person” (in person is for, well, a person; not a smell; “in reality” fits better here.)

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2016, 380 p. Reviewed for Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.

 Revenger cover

The first thing that strikes the reader about this novel is that (barring two very small encyclopaedia extracts laid out in a dark green) it is printed in brown ink. This turns out to be no mere presentational quirk but is instead symbolic. Our narrator, Arafura Ness, tells us fairly early on that she has scratched her story in blood onto rough paper. (Just how rough we find out in the last chapter.) This foreshadowing of things to come belies the book’s initial brightness which has some of the tonal qualities of a Victorian Boy’s Own Adventure; except for the female lead. Throughout the book individuals are denoted by the word “cove”, spaceship crew argot abounds and there are quests for hidden treasure. In that sense it might have been a YA title and in accord with that there is first the necessity to be rid of the parents.

Fura is sixteen, well educated, but her mother is dead and her father fallen on hard times. Her elder sister, Ardana, leads her astray, into the shady environs of Neural Alley where she is tested for ability to read Bones. These are only one of many types of artefact left over from before the Sundering and allow Bone Readers to communicate instantly if sometimes unreliably across the reaches of space. Both sisters are of course adept. To gain quoins to help their father’s plight they sign up for six months service on the Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore.

Like all the other spaceships in the novel Monetta is a sunjammer with auxiliary ion engines. Rackamore uses her to seek out baubles, closed environments which contain valuable items of ancient tech but which only open at irregular intervals and for irregular times. Along with the Bone Readers the ship’s crew contains an augurer to divine those times, an assessor to determine what any finds are worth, integrators to unseal internal locks plus other specialists. Each bauble (and most of the large habitable environments in the book) has a mini black hole called a swallower at its core.

The science fictional aspects of this – a degenerate humanity seemingly restricted to a relatively small area of space surrounding the habitats of the Congregation, in an era called the Thirteenth Occupation; cut adrift from its origins in the Old Sun, a history with many gaps, with only barely recalled legends for memories, relying on tech it can use but not understand, tech more or less indistinguishable from magic – mostly lie in the background and lend the whole the feel of steampunk in reverse; while bone reading verges on fantasy. There are also aliens; especially those nicknamed Crawlies who fortuitously turned up just before a banking crash and now oversee the financial system despite claiming to have no interest in money themselves, a question as to just what exactly quoins might really be and hints of shadowy others beyond human knowledge.

Of course things do not go smoothly. While plundering a bauble the Monetta is attacked by the shadowy ship Nightjammer, captained by the notorious Bosa Sennen. Most of the crew are killed, Ardana is captured and Fura only saved by the selfless action of the previous Bone Reader, Garval. In hiding, Fura is forced to eat lightvine to survive. As a consequence she contracts the glowy, which makes her skin emit light and may affect her brain function. She and the only other survivor, Prozor, eventually gain rescue and form an alliance, which is soon interrupted by what at first seems an authorial misstep as Fura is legally forced to return to her original home. But this becomes a means to underline how much her experience has changed her. Desires for both revenge and to free Ardana have made any thought of returning to her old life intolerable. With the help of Paladin, the family robot (another remnant of ancient tech, a battle robot no less, but with much diminished competence) she escapes – a process which requires the hasty surgical removal of a lower arm to get rid of her restraint bracelet with Fura acquiring an artificial hand in its place, the partial destruction of Paladin and the devastation of her father. She again teams up with Prozor, taking ship on the Queen Crimson and working towards inveigling Bosa into a trap.

Reynolds tackles it all with brio. Yet he doesn’t ignore deeper concerns. Bosa has a rationale for her depredations. Fura regrets the hardness which has entered her soul, the deceptions she has had to undertake, the decisions made. Revenger asks the question: is the search for revenge worth the price of turning you into what you detested?

I doubt I’ll read a more engaging work of SF this year.

The comments below did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- a figure lying on their back (a figure is singular and ought not to carry a plural pronoun; so lying on her back. There are other instances of their being used of an individual,) we adjusted to the routines to the ship (of the ship.) “Whether it was my words ….but Garval’s distress seemed to lessen” (is missing something like “I don’t know” before the “but”,) two full stops at the end of one sentence, a space missing after a parenthetical dash, ‘I think I can there easily enough’ (get there,) in the opposite direction that I had come (,) adingy (a dingy,) refers to an over-wound clock (they still have mechanical clocks? – and telegraphs later,) to fight if off (it off,) was still set as it had been in when (no “in”,) “how likely is that it someone” (how likely is it that someone,) a missing paragraph indent at a new speaker, “moved you into lock” (into the lock,) for a while.Even (for a while. Even,) ‘I was part of it wasn’t?’ (wasn’t I?) the sorry state Paladin had been when (had been in when,) but there’d no reason (be no reason,) a acceptance (an acceptance,) I should never have let Vidin Quindar to bring me home (no “to” necessary,) maw for entrance, “trying not to drop the pillowcase in the process I thought of all the limbs” (full stop after pillowcase,) moved a hand to brake lever (to the brake lever,) he’d had resigned himself (he’d, or he had,) walled=in (walled-in,) skeptical (sceptical,) Cazarary (Cazaray,) just enough to pluck his interest (pique his interest? – but pluck his interest is a good formulation,) weedled your way onto (wheedled?) “Ground that had been trod” (trodden,) “as if she were holding over a new born baby” (handing over makes more sense,) “since I’d been any contact” (been in any contact; or, seen any contact,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘I’ve told you aren’t anything special’” (‘I’ve told her you aren’t anything special,’) “maybe we should be get at that first” (no “be” required,) were were, pivotted (pivoted,) wickedabout (wicked about,) “but then was so Mattice” (but then so was Mattice,) not not, sometimesd, intution (intuition,) “and was were coming back with it” (either was or were, not both,) in the all the (in all the,) “I’d shirked it off” (shucked it off?) Nighjammer (Nightjammer,) bronzey (bronzy,) “whether was that the start of it” (whether that was,) “some work to on that score” (work to do,) deviousways (devious ways,) “I stroked her hair than bid her rest” (then bid her rest.)

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