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The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

Titan Books, 2018, 384 p. Published in Interzone 277, Sep-Oct 2018.

 The Book of Hidden Things cover

Dimitri is an Italian fantasy author now living in London. This is his first novel in English but there is no awkwardness in the text to betray that circumstance. In fact he writes with more facility than many a published native speaker (for which he can be forgiven the few USianisms present.) The book’s setting, though, is deepest, darkest rural Italy, the Puglia region, a town called Casalfranco. Four friends, Tony, Fabio, Mauro and Art(uro) have a pact to meet up in their home town every year, kept to ever since they left school, despite mostly living elsewhere, abroad in one case. This year Art doesn’t turn up. The other three feel compelled to find out why.

Things are complicated by the fact that in their youth Art disappeared for a week (putting his friends under suspicion) and never gave a truly satisfactory explanation for his absence. Due to that legacy the Carabinieri aren’t interested in his latest disappearance and the three (musketeers?) are left to their own devices. Their investigation of Art’s home reveals an unsavoury aspect to his recent activities and, in his marijuana plantation, a likely source of conflict with the local mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita. The deeper into the web of Art’s life they delve the more they find his connections dangerous. For a dispensation, Art once cured a Corona chief’s granddaughter of leukaemia by mysterious means and in a previous conversation he raved about Hidden Things. He is also said to have been obsessed with a woman he called la Madama.

The bulk of the narrative is carried by first person, present tense sections narrated by one or other of the three and in which their present relationships and frustrations with their lives are revealed, with salient important incidents from the past drip-fed to the reader throughout the novel. Very little of this has the feel of fantasy and most of it reads more like a crime novel. In fact until Dimitri inserts his slice of the weird (and even afterwards to a great extent) The Book of Hidden Things felt as if it could easily have been a lost Iain Banks – without the M – novel written somewhere in the continuum between The Crow Road and Stonemouth. There is that same emphasis on home, and the gravitational pull of family and old friendships, not to mention one of our narrators’ fascination with a particular woman. Obviously some things are universal.

Up to now all might have served to illustrate the thought, “We think we are in control of our lives but we aren’t. Most of the time we don’t know what we’re doing.”

A start to resolution comes when they read the prologue to Art’s manuscript THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, a discourse about barriers and dry stone walls as boundaries.

Then, as before, the spanner in the works, Art returns, with a story about being drawn over the boundary into a world of hedonism, his rejection from it and desire to go back, which he accomplished. Even though Puglia lies under “a long-forgotten curse that makes change, any change, impossible,” his book delineates the connection of physical things and spirituality. Landscape is context, not backdrop. People have left the land, giving space for the hidden things to flourish. Chapels dedicated to all sorts of Saints litter the countryside. Junctions between the profane and the sacred, the seen and unseen, they mark the boundary between two different lands. He expresses his wish to take his friends across the barrier with him and the necessity of transgression to breach it. Not convinced (all the other world seems to boil down to is a promise of endless sex) the three swither over trying to stop him. And the Corona wants to use his abilities for their own purposes.

Dimitri’s book captures the claustrophobia of small town life, the brooding atmosphere of menace of a mafia ridden polity, the yearning for the lost possibilities of youth and the belated acceptance of adulthood. The possibility that Art may be mad, or at least delusional, is left open till the last word, which swings the pendulum firmly in one direction. Whether it contains enough of the fantasy element to satisfy the buffs is a matter of choice but The Book of Hidden Things is well-written, characterful and, in the end, humane. You could read it for those alone.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- *ass for arse, ice tea for iced tea, awesome, faggot. Otherwise; “none of us were expecting” (none of us was expecting,) Lucius Apelius’ (Apelius’s.) “The first thing I notice are the books” (the first thing is the books,) Blu-Tack (Blu-Tak?) “there are a set number of pharmacies” (there is a set number,) “their chirping reaches a crescendo” (reaches a climax, the crescendo is the rise not its culmination,) “a bunch of teenagers burst into laughter” (a bunch of teenagers bursts into laughter,) “the tourist crowd find it oh-so- picturesque” (the tourist crowd finds it.) “Half of Casalfranco were my father’s students” (half was,) “‘the only structure I ever saw on that side were drystone walls’” (the only structure was,) the golden writing underneath assure the faithful (the writing assures the faithful.) “The couple seem happy” (the couple seems happy.)

Supercute Futures by Martin Millar

Piatkus, 2018, 232 p. Review first published in Interzone 277, Sep-Oct 2018.

Welcome to the realm of Mox and Mitsu, stars of the Supercute Show, the world’s most popular entertainment. Starting as teenage girls in a bedroom in London with only an iPhone and a collection of cuddly toys, using their own skills, software assistance and enhanced bodies – only thirty percent of their brains is still organic, about the only original body parts left – they have parlayed their following into the mammoth Supercute Enterprises, one of the world’s top nineteen conglomerates, with fingers in every pie (including weapons production) but particularly desalination. Their trade-marks are multi – but never clashing – colours, always having twelve centimetres of skin showing between their skirts/shorts and stockings (they are not unaware of older male followers) and Big Colour Super V-hair. Not color, note. Mox insists. Civilisation may be having a difficult time but it’s not yet ended. The Supercute Show can be accessed via what reads like “normal” television but also through Supercute space, in effect a virtual reality zone, a kaleidoscopic cyberspace, entry to which is mediated through purchases and brand enthusiasm.

The outside world is in the wake of an unspecified set of disasters alluded to but not described in the text. Large areas lie derelict and deserted at best, irradiated at worst, with government regulation of the C19 virtually non-existent and its members subject to fierce competition. “‘When you get to a certain size you can’t stop.’” Investors want growth. If you stand still you get swallowed up. Hence Mox and Mitsu are there to be shot at.

Enter Moe Bennie at Lark 3 Media with his offer to Supercute’s desalination rivals RK Enviro. He plans to exploit a flaw in Mox’s and Mitsu’s android Artificial Intelligence Forecast Unit, Aifu, to gain control of the company’s shares and consign Mox and Mitsu to oblivion. Literally. Members of the C19 deploy lethal force vigorously to protect their interests. Premises are guarded by “ag-scans” which detect hostile intent.

It does then seem a little odd that Millar puts into Bennie’s mouth the thought, “‘Most people don’t care about the super-rich. They’re struggling through life, worrying how they’re going to pay the rent while politicians tell them it’s time to make sacrifices. Meanwhile some guy on a yacht had just made 100 million with his AI investment software. The same day my first hedge fund reached ten billion, the government cut child benefit in half.’” The text offers no other trace of conscience on his part. Rather the opposite.

Not that Mox and Mitsu are innocent themselves. As things progress we learn more about how their success was achieved, how much potentially reputation damaging information they have suppressed. Their rise was in part propelled by confrontationalism, until their edge was blunted by the necessity to placate advertisers, their educational intent watered down so as not to baffle consumers unduly. Happy Little Science Pixie, anyone? In this, Millar’s dystopia is depressingly familiar.

Bennie’s strategy begins to succeed and the Supercute Show falls off air but he has reckoned without Mox and Mitsu’s determination and their devoted followers. Two of these, Amowie in Igboland and Raquel in South America, all but pre-teenagers, are the most engaging and (a little conveniently?) resourceful characters in the book.

The final confrontation – in shoot-em-up style – is enabled by a pair of time-limited Mox and Mitsu clones quickly computer-printed in a back-street laboratory.

The comparison to Vonnegut which is blazoned on the back cover is to my mind totally misplaced and does Millar no favours. There is a certain tonal similarity but in matters of execution Millar falls way behind, especially as regards information dumping. It is obtrusive enough elsewhere but it sometimes appears that the only purpose of a Mox and Mitsu conversation is so that a piece of background can follow immediately. Plus no matter how true it is I don’t recall a Vonnegut protagonist ever displaying cynicism of the order of, “‘As for confidence. If you don’t have enough you can fake it…. tell the world it’s lucky to have you … after you’ve faked it for a while, you’ll start to believe it.’” He was more for the underdog.

Supercute Futures isn’t pretending to be high art nor is it a rigorous exposure of corporate (lack of) ethics. It’s a bit too broad brush for that and its intention different. But if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a pleasant enough ride.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- (I stopped counting the number of times a corporate entity in this book was granted a plural verb form; such an organisation is a singular concern.) Otherwise; a missing end quote mark, desalinisation (innumerable instances, the word is desalination,) “Mox and Mitsu’s” (strictly Mox’s and Mitsu’s but they are frequently treated as a single unit linguistically here,) “Ms Mason’s” (Ms Mason,) neeed (need,) fender (civilisation hasn’t ended, remember: it’s bumper,) “‘his board aren’t going to abandon the deal’” (his board isn’t,) “‘I have to go to’” (I have to go.) “Neither were squeamish” (neither was squeamish.) “Soot in the stratosphere had severely damaged the ozone layer.” (I doubt it would. In addition the text following that sentence gives the impression the ozone layer prevents Earth overheating. It doesn’t, it blocks ultra-violet, not infra-red radiation,) “turbulence in the ionosphere affects satellite communications” (really?) “said one of the policeman” (policemen,) “in the celling” (ceiling,) anesthetised (anaesthetised, or better still anæsthetised.) “Once Ishikawa had lowered their radiation to manageable levels” (that’s some jump in medical technology to be able to do that.)

Interzone 283 Has Arrived

Interzone 283 cover

Interzone 283 has landed on my doormat.

The issue contains, among the usual fare, two reviews of mine:-

The novel This is How You Lose the Time War, a collaboration written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

Palestine +100 edited by Basma Ghalayini, the first ever collection of SF from Palestine.

Time flies….

I’ll need to be getting on with reading the books for review in issue 284.

Interzone 280, Mar-Apr 2019

TTA Press, 96 p

In the Editorial Shauna O’Meara describes the genesis of her story in this issue in her practice as a vet, seeing the close bond between owners and their animals. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupteda muses on the influence of science and most latterly psychology on literature and SF and wonders what effect the development of neuroscience will have on the stories we tell ourselves. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories (Books That Smile Back) reflects the endless fascination some people have with books and their rewards. In Book Zone, again relegated to after the film reviews, I say of Helen Coggan’s The Orphanage of Gods that she writes well, with an eye for character and plot, Duncan Lunanb finds quality in the stories in game spin-off The True History of the Strange Brigade edited by David Thomas Moore, but arguing from the first page with The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman before eventually finding the author in complete control (though his final paragraph suggests to me the author is not entirely playing fair,) Lawrence Osbornc welcomes the fifth “Invisible Library” book, The Mortal World by Genevieve Cogman, “a detective story that actually works within the parameters set by its fantasy context,” Tim Major is impressed by Helen Marshall’s “eagerly awaited” first novel The Migration,like a parable offering moral guidance, Stephen Theaker thought M T Hill’s Zero Bomb very good indeed despite it switching protagonist halfway through, Val Noland tells us Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds succeeds by threading a tonal and thematic discourse between the two extremes of bleakness and optimism exemplified in the author’s previous work and offers a series of satisfying steps on the main characters’ journeys, Maureen Kincaid Speller praises the subtlety and nuance – unusual in a tale of interstellar goings-on – of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine and commends this first novel, Ian Sales finds it a sad state of affairs that Mimi Yu’s The Girl King having two female leads is worthy of note but that the tale is nevertheless an opportunity missed, Andy Hedgecocke lauds the invention, narrative energy and linguistic exuberance of the stories in The Clockworm and other strange stories by Karen Heuler but that there is an emotional flatness at their core.
In the fiction: Cyberstar1 by Val Nolan is narrated by a man whose body is transformed by a religious cult into a cyborg spacecraft in order for him to get close to God in the form of the Sun.
A survivor of a group of humans who were altered to sing in a way that would defeat the bots taking over the world is the viewpoint character of And You Shall Sing to me a Deeper Song by Maria Haskins.
Coriander for the Hidden2 by Nicholas Kaufmann examines the crisis of conscience suffered by Suriel, the angel designated to kill the firstborn of Egypt. This story may be theologically a bit iffy as I believe Judaism has no concept of an afterlife such as the one implied here.
In Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again3 by Sarah Brooks, people’s souls turn into black butterflies, which push themselves out of the body after death.
That Shauna O’Meara story, ‘Scapes Made Diamond4, turns on the desire of a kind of farmed alien animal, which nevertheless has intelligence, to achieve its goals; all mixed in with a human tale of love and sacrifice.

Pedant’s corner:- afocussed (focused; similarly focusses = focuses,) “the period immediately World War II” (the period immediately after World War II,) floatation tanks (flotation.) b“None of them are” (None of them is.) c “This is the fifth volume the very enjoyable” (of the very enjoyable,) Borges’ (Borges’s,) 1930s’ (1930s,) “a number … are being held hostage” (a number is singular,) d“no one is whom they seem to be” (while I welcome the use of whom in its context, the verb ‘to be’ does not take an object; therefore, ‘no one is who they seem to be,) “the work of an author enjoying their material” (Reynolds is male, ‘enjoying his material’.) efocussed (focused,) “critique of humanities tendency” (humanity’s.)
1“of the solar system’s brightest stars” (last I heard the solar system had only one star,) “the populace on Mars were forced to endure” (the populace on Mars was forced to endure,) “off of” (I hate this USianism. It’s just “off”.) < sup>2Written in USian, “None of them were” (None of them was,) “none of the other angels understand the language of flowers” (none … understands the language.) 3“but the pile of black flakes on the chopping board untouched” (is untouched.) 4“the form laying on” (lying on,) clear (I think ‘colourless’ was meant rather than ‘transparent’,) “… would stay close to our charge, stroking them, calming them…” (to our charges,) Bassinos’ (Bassinos’s,) staunching (stanching,) “our species’ vocabulary” (it was ‘species’ singular; so ‘species’s’.)

Close Your Eyes by Paul Jessup

Apex Book Company, 2018, 230 p. Reviewed for Interzone 276, Jul-Aug 2018.

Close your Eyes cover

This certainly starts with a bang; to be precise a supernova, in which the star in its death throes somehow impregnates a woman called Ekhi, apparently by means of light. Thereafter she is forced to pilot her own ship after shutting down its AI heart since it goes insane due to entropic breakdown of its programmes. She is found floating, naked, in the ship’s control centre – throughout the book these are named egia – by Mari, Hodei and Sugoi, scavengers from The Good Ship Lollipop. At this early point the text displayed an uncomfortably voyeuristic attitude towards Ekhi, embodied in the character of Hodei, who is also fascinated by a nude model in a stache of magazines he keeps. (Magazines? These digital days?) This fascination is later revealed to be because he has the essence of a woman, Iuski, hidden inside him.

Sugoi is Mari’s (very jealous) lover and resents, to the point of violence, any hint of interest in her by Hodei. Sugoi is a lumbering, almost inarticulate creature. With his propensity for violence it is difficult to see what, for Mari, his attraction might be. Then too, there seems to be little jeopardy. Biological repair organisms named thalna can restore to health a body damaged to a high degree. In a similar way robot-like mozorro keep the egias running “smooth and perfect”. Moreover each character contains within itself systems called patuek which “have the ability to store a mind in stasis and be transplanted into a healed, cloned body”.

The ship’s captain, Itsasu, has a frail withered body tethered to the ship’s control heart near the Ortzadar engine (found on the ruins of a moon) and its “bizarre wisdom culled from centuries of intelligence algorithms evolving and learning and storing information into complex data matrices”. She is on a long, 435 year, quest to find her husband but has kept this from the crew, never explaining “exactly why they wandered the stars, stealing from dead cities and spun-down relics of starships”.

None of these are sympathetic characters, not even Ekhi, who seems to be present only to kick-start the story and incubate the supernova’s child. This problem of empathy is exacerbated by Jessup’s use of short, sometimes one word sentences. This is a technique best used sparingly, rather than being endemic.

Jeopardy does come; in the shape of pirates of a sort whose main weapon seems to be language; “‘We would whisper the word once, just once, and your mind would become a slave to this foreign tongue, this alien thought device.’” “That language is a giant looming inside of my mind. Hunting me.” “With the new language came a new being, a hive mind that commanded each and every one of them.” This enemy is connected with the sakre, which can drive human minds to destruction.

The novel is divided into two “books” titled “Open Your Eyes” and “Close Your Mouth” both with five Acts and separated by an Intermission. The birth of the child of the supernova (“I am Arigia. I am the dreams of humanity, the lands of the stars. I am the coupling between all and everything. I float, I am free. And I sing this ship to life. The port to life. I sing the sorrow song at the end of the universe, at the end of time,”) ends the first section. This seems to presage Arigia’s subsequent importance but she is all but totally absent from Book II wherein a wheelchair bound Isatsu, accompanied by Mari (now turned into a bird,) and Isatsu’s husband Ortzi – or, rather his consciousness contained within a skull – wander a labyrinth loosely drawn from the minotaur legend through a landscape of severed heads, while trying to escape the clutches of a bear-like creature called Basa and his diminutive controller La whose driving force seems to be, “Cover them in words. Take their heads. Fill with eggs.”

It all presents as just a little bonkers. Add in some purple-skinned, elephant-headed creatures for seasoning.

Bonkers is fine, but a human story to hang on to while we’re at it, characters whose fates the reader might care about, would help the medicine go down. If SF ideas for the sake of SF ideas do it for you then give this a go. Those who prefer their senses and sensibilities to be engaged should look elsewhere.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian, eg “inside of” (for inside) is littered throughout the text, as is outside of, though there was at least one plain “inside”, shined (shone,) gasses (gases.) Otherwise; sung (sang,) pixilated (pixelated; “pixilated” means drunk, not “blocky in appearance”,) madamoiselle (mademoiselle,) “the sound of the engine became a thundering rush of sounds” (sound….. became …. sounds,) “recording each movement and sending it back” (sending them back,) “and he doesn’t expect me too, either” (expect me to, either,) “kept trying on the shape of names” (shapes,) “had climbed into … and stole away” (stolen away is more natural.) “The only thing preserving his being … were his patuek” (The only thing …was.) “She felt a smile, somehow, hung in her mind” (hang in her mind?) “The eyes were not orbs, but instead flashlights, letting out hot white halos from LED eyes.” (The eyes …. eyes,) “[you] will be discarded of properly” (discarded properly; or, disposed of properly; not “discarded of properly”,) “the heart and the AI where the only things” (were the only things. How on Earth does this “where” for “were” substitution get past i] the writer, ii] any agent involved, iii] a publisher’s reader, iv] the editor?) “her remembered his mother” (he remembered,) “tried to push his cheek back and out its washcloth caress” (and out of,) “with the tip of his toes” (tips.) “His life readings show that his still alive” (he’s still alive,) “near were we need to be” (and now we get the reverse; “were” for “where”,) “a white milky, substance” (a white, milky substance,) ganeeshas(ganeshas,) “with doors along the every facet of the interior” (along every facet,) “Hodei opened door” (opened the door,) “a craggy old fishermen” (fisherman,) “and horded them for itself” (hoarded,) “of the most importance” (utmost?) “it heard a voice sing a solitary voice sing” (take out either ‘a voice’ or ‘a solitary voice’,) “on one the lesser pods” (one of the lesser,) batadur (previously betadur,) crow’s feet (crows’ feet,) “all of her wonderful machines she’d been building” (all of the wonderful machines she’d been building.) “The tenor of the words were true” (The tenor … was true.) Patuek (patuek.) “Sword to help each other” (Sworn makes more sense,) “She saw that flicker of flame tattoos on each of the foreheads” (that flicker of flame tattoo,) shrunk (shrank.) “The profound of absurdity of our very existence” (The profound absurdity of our,) “we watched thirteen suns float through and endless sea of night” (an endless sea,) encoves ….. “on a raised dais where the reprogrammed dolls” (Here it is again; were the reprogrammed dolls,) “all I found where your doubles” (and again: were,) a missing question mark (x3,) Mozorro (elsewhere mozorro,) their epidermis (their; therefore epidermises,) super nova (supernova,) “a room that was on large tank” (one large tank,) “waiting to be woke into” (woken,) “It always changed when they go on the hunt” (when they went on the hunt,) “And where they more her than she was?” (once more; were,) “through the infinite of space and time” (infinity,) sat (seated; or, sitting,) “The pain one’s experiences” (the pain of one’s experiences; or, the pain one experiences,) “This ship was filled with the most flammable object known to humankind. Oxygen.” (That “object” ought to be “substance”. And oxygen isn’t flammable. It’s the agent that causes flame,) damnit (elsewhere dammit,) “a thought eeked out” (eked? Leaked?) “with these cluster of doubles” (this cluster; or, these clusters,) ‘Can you use to revive him?’ (use it,) “full of explosive oxygen” (oxygen isn’t explosive; in its presence other substances may be.)

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.

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.)

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