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The Switch by Justina Robson

Gollancz, 2017. Reviewed for Interzone 271, Jul-Aug 2017.

The Switch cover

On Harmony, isolated from the rest of the Diaspora, balance is everything. It is ruled by a theocracy known as the Alchemy. Driven by its founder, Tecmaten, the Alchemy seeks to create, by non-technological manipulation of DNA, the pinnacle of human development; people called Exalted who have special powers. It teaches everything is twofold, arising from twinned energy flows; it preaches light must always be balanced by dark. Consequently it has a sister dark-side city, Chaontium, to which – since rejects must be treated with mercy – they are consigned.

Instead of a tidy sun and moon, one such reject, narrator Nico Perseid, a male homosexual, is composed of two suns. Even in Chaontium consummation of such sexuality is illegal as it would be a meeting of four suns and so burn through the fabric of reality.
We first encounter Nico when he is on trial for the murder of Chaontium gang boss Dashein VanSant, a rap for which he has been promised escape from the death penalty. This is not his first such deliverance. Chapter two flashes back to his childhood in Chaontium’s state orphanage where he met his lifelong friend Twostar Fae. They seized a chance to flee but Nico was hit by a car. Seemingly dead, he was revived by a bystander whom Twostar thinks was an Exalted. Nico, though, doesn’t believe in the theology of the Alchemy or its woo – “spooky bullshit nobody can prove”. In a kind of foreshadowing that is slightly over-egged he also occasionally sees a minotaur.

For Nico and Twostar life in Chaontium is a continual struggle till they are taken in by a gang. He is kidnapped by VanSant for a career in a variety of kickboxing which reads more like lethal cage-fighting. Under the guise of a wetware upgrade to prevent him dying in the ring Nico undergoes an operation to insert a pilot switch – provided by Twostar’s lover Tashin DeKalfu – a piece of Diaspora tech capable of synching with a starship; the only way out of Harmony except death. He wakes up to the murder charge and Tashin’s betrayal, the presence in his head of a Forged Interface, a Chimeric Avatar Switch, a Transhuman converter which can interface with anyone else and allows “Tek or Forged ships to pilot human or other biological avatars”. In other words, telepathy and remote sensing with a gloss of rationalisation.

An awful long time is spent on this set-up but from hereon in the focus is on Tashin’s agenda, the penetration of the Alchemy to try to prove it has been trading illegally offworld. Finally, we have the revelation of where and what Harmony actually is.

Nico is an engaging enough narrator, albeit overfond of expletives, but naturally impatient of the world he inhabits, “Cisnormativity. That isn’t even a word. It shouldn’t even be an idea. It should be destroyed in hellfire.” Despite his disparagement of woo and The Alchemical Wedding (the locus where mysticism, symbolism and reality meet to give rise to a new kind of being,) his encounter with the powers of mind of the Exalted and witnessing an apparent resurrection (or, “reanimation by goldlight intervention”) leads to some musing on the possibility of souls, of energy that exists above and beyond that of body and mind.

There is an idiosyncratic approach to chapter titling (One: is the loneliest number; Seven: sins; Three Threes – the charm; Light the Blue Touchpaper and Count to – Ten; Thirteen. Triskaidekaphobia can kiss my ass,) but these also give a flavour of Nico’s irreverent narrative style. There are times when the information dumping tends to be ad hoc but Robson has deployed a good coinage in the word datmosphere. There are some instances of odd syntactical choices, verb tense anomalies and phrases like “coins down the back of the sofa” and “Defcon One” which hauled me back out of Nico’s frame of reference into our own.

The setting is undeniably Science Fiction but, since the Exalted’s abilities are never truly explained hence might as well be magic, the whole seems an odd blend with outright fantasy and we don’t see enough of Nico’s early relationship with Twostar to make his enduring attachment to her entirely credible.

Fittingly there is a claustrophobic feel to the novel but it all feels rather breathless. Interesting but flawed, The Switch somewhat ironically suffers from a lack of balance.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a quote, (x 2,) “you do the math” (it’s maths,) ass (arse,) “a host of burning issues were eating him up” (a host was,) Daylus’ (Daylus’s,) “than I would’ve betted he could” (than I would’ve bet.) Dashein spelling varies with Dashain.

Future Reading Delight

No less than three future items of reading came through my letter box between yesterday and today.

 The Book of Hidden Things cover
 Shoreline of Infinity 12 cover

 Interzone 276 cover

Firstly Shoreline of Infinity 12 arrived yesterday – I know I’ve not yet read issues 8-11 but I will get round to them – then both Interzone 276 (which contains my review of Close your Eyes by Paul Jessup) and the latest novel for review in Interzone, The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri. Mr Dimitri is another author new to me. An Italian writer of Fantasy, this is the first book he has written in English.

Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018

TTA Press

Interzone 275 cover

Steven J Dines’s Editorial describes the unlikely role of father figure which fiction took in his young life. Andy Hedgecoock takes over Jonathan McCalmont’s Future Interrupted column and hopes to continue his search for SF “that is of value and worthy of our time”. In Time Piecesa Nina Allan looks at the abiding relevance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

In Book Zone Maureen Kincaid Speller found herself disappointed and frustrated by Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, Duncan Lunan reviews two anthologies edited by Mike Ashley Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures and Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet welcoming some of the choices made and questioning others and laterb looks very favourably on Sisyphean by Dempow Torishima, Duncan Lawiec says he won’t persevere with any sequels to Tristan Palmgren’s Quietus, Ian Hunter findsd The Oddling Prince by Nancy Springer hindered by its first person narrative, Andy Hedgecock warmly welcomes Ursula Le Guin’s collection of non-fiction Dreams Must Explain Themselves, Stephen Theaker laments the enduring topicality of Middle-Eastern woes in his look at The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, Elaine Gallagher praises Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming while I myself find Chris Barnham’s Fifty-One diverting and Andrew Crumey’s The Great Chain of Unbeing totally accomplished. Finally Ian Sales says the stories in the Australian Sean McMullen’s collection Dreams of the Technarion do what SF ought to as it contains a wide range of ideas thoroughly worked out.

In the fiction, Erika L Satifka’s The Fate of the World Reduced to a Ten-Second Pissing Contest is set in a bar which has been abducted into a gap in reality – contents, patrons and all – by aliens with a taste for alcohol.
In Looking for Landau1 by Steven J Dines a man wanders the earth in search of Landau, who introduces people to the gateway to the next world.
The Mark2 by Abi Hynes can be read as a comment on how women are perceived in some quarters as not quite being human. A member of a seemingly uniform far future community (where reproduction has been a technological process now failing) flees up a mountain to escape the consequences of deformity. It soon becomes apparent she has given birth and the bundle she is carrying with her is the child.
The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct3 by Malcolm Devlin is a quasi-philosophical piece centred round a man who dies at the same time in every separate reality (though in different ways depending on each.)
The Christ Loop4 by Leo Vladimirsky is narrated by a Jesus who undergoes every kind of execution possible, and is debriefed after each one in order to discern which will finally be enough to satisfy God.
It is a bit odd that these last two stories both feature the multiple deaths of their main character.

Pedant’s corner:- adescendent (descendant.) bOne Day in the Life of Ian Denisovitch (Ian?) Star Trek – Next Generation (Star Trek – The Next Generation) cIain M Banks’ (Iain M Banks’s,) populus (populace.) d“will not except him as a son” (accept.) 1stood (standing,) focussed (focused.) “A pair of women’s panties sit on the crumpled roof” (a pair sits.) 2“They lay Uncle down” (laid.) 3Iron Bridge (Ironbridge,) “the manner of Prentis O’Rourke’s deaths were documented” (the manners …. were documented,) Mechano (Meccano,) busses (buses.) 4Written in USian, “if they just left all the other me” (all the other me’s,) a question mark at the end of a statement.

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Angry Robot 2017, 397 p Reviewed for Interzone 270, May-Jun 2017.

The Stars Are Legion cover

Lit by an artificial sun, the worlds of the Legion hang in space. Massive orbs, they are living things covered externally by tentacles that simultaneously reach out but also offer protection to their world’s inhabitants. Their interiors are sticky and moist, biology taking the functions of such things as floors, walls and lifts. The worlds, though, are dying, with patches of rot blotching their surfaces. Beyond the misty veil that shrouds the sun lies the Mokshi, the only world to have moved out from the usual orbits of the Legion. As a result the Mokshi is an object of envy and conquest; but it is defended fiercely. Anat, Lord of Katazyrna, has a metal arm whose power is lost and she wishes to conquer the Mokshi in order to restore it and (literally) make a new world.

Each chapter here is prefaced by an aphorism by-lined, “Lord Mokshi, Annals of the Legion”. The narrative viewpoint, though, is shared between Zan and Jayd, once lovers, neither of whom are particularly sympathetic characters. At least twice as many chapters are devoted to Zan, who has lost her memory but is the only one of Katazyrna’s army ever to penetrate the Mokshi and survive. She is told she has made the attempt and returned many times.

The first set piece is a fairly standard piece of military SF as Katazyrna’s latest army attacks the Mokshi. However, the prospect this holds out of endless space battles is misleading. Hurley’s attention is more on the somewhat complicated relationship and backstory between Zan and Jayd.

It doesn’t take very long to work out that there are only women on these worlds. Hurley does not make anything of this – except in her afterword – it is merely a factor of this scenario, the society she has decided to portray. The mechanics of how their inhabitants become pregnant are obscure, though; even the mothers seem in the dark. Also, the birth products may be non-human, “Each world produces what it needs.” But in a strange mix of this magical-seeming biology with hi-tech, womb transfer can be effected surgically. Indeed we find Zan has donated hers and its contents to Jayd.

Neither does Lord Mokshi’s identity remain a mystery to the attentive reader, becoming obvious long before Hurley confirms it.

Interference from the forces of Bhavaja makes the attack fail and Anat decides on an alliance with these erstwhile enemies. To this end she arranges a marriage between Jayd and Rasida, Lord of Bhavaja. Jayd’s pregnancy is an important aspect of the deal. Bhavaja has not had a birth for some while. For a long time, to help Zan penetrate the Mokshi, Jayd has been working secretly towards this end.

The wedding is accompanied by a human sacrifice. This is only one of the many gory incidents in the book exemplified by Rasida’s despairing philosophy expressed later, “There’s no such thing as love in the Legion. There is birth and there is death. That’s all.” By this time Rasida has not kept her word, destroying Ana in the process, while Zan was thrown into Katazyrna’s recycler.

Which is where things begin to get bogged down. As well as what are in effect no more than monsters devouring the material to be recycled (Hurley seems to relish the details but they are oddly uninventive) Zan finds a woman living in the belly of the world, Das Muni, who helps her to escape to the next level.

The main body of the book is taken up with Zan’s journey up through the strata of the living world where the obstacles she meets are overcome perhaps a little too easily and she picks up another two handy companions.

One of Gene Wolfe’s prescriptions for writing fiction is that if your hero(ine) goes on a journey you must describe it. Well, there’s describing and then there’s overdoing it. The journey here is certainly important to the outcome as it provides Zan with clues to both her past (she has done all this before, remember) and future but it reminded me of the seemingly endless trek across the Ringworld in one of Larry Niven’s series of novels; it’s there more to show us the author’s invented world rather than advance the plot. Together with the emphasis on violence here that, for me, reduced engagement. It may be more to others’ taste.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “I change directions” (direction,) auroras (aurorae.) “The security crosses their arms and puts their backs to me” (its arms, its backs,) “a bevy …. begin” (begins,) “the whole of Katzyrna pour out” (the whole pours out,) in the hopes (in the hope,) maw in sense of mouth (sigh; it’s a stomach,) “a hunger than no meal can satisfy” (that no meal,) “fearful that the council will change their mind” (its mind,) the moths become less and less (fewer and fewer,) a missing start quote when a chapter began with a piece of dialogue, “I motion to Das Muni to lower the litter …… I motion to Das Muni to lower our own load” without the load being picked back up in the meantime, “I … try to see the where it’s fallen from” (no “the” needed,) “lined in row upon row” (by row upon row,) “if it is was my child” (if it was,) “that something had happened to her leg” (the narration is always present tense; so, something has happened to her leg,) “One is full of clear liquid. The other is full of purple liquid.” (clear here is contrasted with a colour; since clear does not mean colourless, the purple liquid could equally have been clear,) “Zan gets up now and wipe her hands” (wipes.)

Interzone 275

The latest issue (no 275) of Interzone has arrived (cover image centre below.)

 Fifty-One cover
 The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

Interzone 275 cover

This one contains my reviews of The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey and of Fifty-One by Chris Barnham.

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.)

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