Interzone 269 arrived today.
It contains my review of The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.
A few days ago I received The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley.
That review is due soon for Interzone 270.
Interzone 269 arrived today.
It contains my review of The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.
A few days ago I received The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley.
That review is due soon for Interzone 270.
Interzone 268 has arrived. Amongst the fiction and the reviewers/contributors lists of best reads of 2016 there are of course book reviews. Mine was of Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu.
Also arrived from the same source is an unusual object, an SF novel by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Czesław Miłosz. He is best known for his poetry and this was his only SF novel. My review is due for Interzone 269.
Gollancz, 2016, 272 p. Reviewed for Interzone 262, Jan-Feb 2016.
While it’s always good to review a novel featuring those exotic, for SF, locations of Edinburgh and Queensferry – North or South sadly not specified, but likely North as there’s a crossing of the Forth (Road) Bridge interrupted by a shooting incident – and which comes to its climax on an oil rig in the North Sea, Occupy Me starts even more interestingly with a second person narration, raising the possibility of something along the lines of Keith Roberts’s Molly Zero; but the tonal qualities are quite different and in any case, before this there is an appendix to instructions for something called a waveform launcher and we soon move on. The second person concerned is the viewpoint of Dr Kisi Sorle, who hears whispers from the past and whose body has occasionally been taken over by another being which is possibly an AI, coming to himself again to find he is in possession of an unusual briefcase. Dr Sorle has been hired by Austen Stevens, once of Pace Industries but now of Invest in Futures Foundation, to palliate his last days. Stevens in turn has been building up funds in the expectation that they will be used to prevent him dying. After two chapters there is an interpolated advert for flight attendants. The ad was placed by the Resistance, an organisation which we later find tries to improve humanity by having its agents commit small acts of kindness. Said flight attendant and Resistance operative Pearl Jones narrates in the first person and, fittingly, has wings which in her Earthly form she has to hide. Pearl has access to higher dimensions, HD, which comes in handy when she recognises a passenger as the person who stole part of her and in a struggle she, him, and his briefcase tear through the aeroplane’s fuselage and plummet to the sea. Just as she is about to rescue him the briefcase opens and a pterosaur (a quetzalcoatlus) emerges. Pearl’s backstory from when she became aware of herself in a bullet riddled refrigerator in Dubowski’s scrap yard, where she hides out, makes small repairs and leaves the fixed objects, like a cat to its owner, for the caretaker to find, is told to us in flashbacks as she tries to come to terms with who – or what – she is. In these it is revealed she loves to push against things with her muscles. The narration alternates irregularly between these two viewpoints until much later in the book when there are third person chapters featuring an Edinburgh vet called Alison.
The briefcase. Yes. While normal in appearance, battered looking even, its weight alters from time to time and it resists Pearl’s attempts to open it despite it belonging to her. The AI controlling Dr Sorle has locked it to his body pattern. It contains a Post-event Adjacent Reality Launcher, capable not only of time travel back to the Cretaceous but to Pearl’s creators. She is not a real person, has been built by bird mothers, scavengers of waveforms, who call themselves waveform artists. “We make new beings from old. You are a recycled piece of junk from a dying civilisation. We can store materials in HD but the Immanence left us behind.”
The Immanence? “The Immanence is an intelligence far beyond any of us. It rose out of a hypercivilisation and was a great ordering in the universe that came about because entropy favours higher order.” Sullivan seems keen to stress this point; we are told elsewhere that “the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order.”
The Immanence, however, is entirely incidental to the surface plot which is concerned with much more mundane considerations to do with Austen Stevens’s funds, which will somehow allow the Resistance, “Love’s what the Resistance is really made of, internally,” to come into being. A woman called Bethany and her husband Liam have embezzled these funds so threatening the Resistance’s existence. But the Resistance is already in operation. This not being a time paradox novel that last fact does tend to undermine a tad any sense of jeopardy surrounding it.
No matter. Things roll along; fellow Resistance operative Marquita tells Pearl, “Don’t accept the axe of either/or; there’s always a third way,” Alison treats not only Bethany’s cat (poisoned by eating part of a giant Cretaceous frog) but also the quetzalcoatlus, on Salisbury Crags no less, we discover Pearl’s wing feathers contain a strange oil and the feathers are a repository of stored information, “a sophisticated HD structure” which is also in the trees back in the Cretaceous. And Pearl’s pushing is useful in the final scene.
Occupy Me takes a while to get there though and goes round several houses on the way.
The following remarks did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- I read an uncorrected proof copy; the usual caveats therefore apply to these. [line space] appeared quite often as did underlinings, Stevens’ (Stevens’s,) Two Phones’ (Two Phones’s,) shrunk (shrank,) fusilage (fuselage – which does appear later,) miniscule (minuscule,) there receipts (there are receipts,) “made ‘poorly’ made sound like Pearly” (remove the second “made”,) “because it we had another lead” (no “it”,) “switched on large screen” (the large screen,) one instance of qzetzalcoatlus, the Haymarket (it’s just Haymarket, no “the”,) Abernathy biscuit (Abernethy,) “like a waves leave on the sand” (like waves leave,) “had set put out a hit on me” (had put out,) veterinarian (this was from Sorle’s viewpoint though, he is Ghanaian,) at one point Alison says “airplane” (that would be aeroplane, then,) as loathe as I may feel (loth,) crude oil probably dating to the late Cretaceous (oil does not “date from” the Cretaceous; its starting materials may do so but the oil that comes from them takes millions of years to form,) Queens Street (Queen Street,) strapped to the Kelly (I can’t find a dictionary definition of Kelly as a noun,) all chapter titles were in bold, save one.
The Editorial is by Martin McGrath and discusses the continuing importance of the James White Award, whose latest winner* is published in this issue, Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 bemoans the recent trend towards magical policemen solving crimes in old London town as having a reactionary effect while Nina Allan praises Scottish Science Fiction’s engagement with political themes. In the Book Zone I review Dave Hutchinson’s Winter in Europe and there are interviews with Tade Thompson and Chris Beckett.
Alts2 by Harmony Neal is a tale of humans genetically modified by StateCorp into a kind of slavery.
The narrator of Ryan Row’s Dogfights in Olympus and Other Absences3 is a mercenary pilot involved in a multi-party conflict over a planet called Olympus which has a desirable hyper potential energy dense matter core. The relativistic aspects of his 0.2 light year separation from his family affect the relationship.
The Hunger of Auntie Tiger by Sarah Brook is set on a planet where people of Chinese origin, left more or less to their own devices by “the Company” relive myths.
Rich Larson’s You Make Payata4 suggests there is really only a small number of tales that can be written as this one of an attempted scam has a familiar template but is nevertheless well executed and full of Science-fictional gloss.
*Rock, Paper, Scissors5 by David Cleden literalises the game alluded to in its title vinto a contest between the bodily-transformed representatives of two tribes for the annual rights to the hunting grounds.
In My Generations Shall Praise6 by Samantha Henderson a woman on death row is persuaded to have her mind overwritten so that someone else can use her body.
Pedant’s corner:- 1Morris’ (Morris’s,) use of they and them as pronouns for an individual. 2Written in USian. “She wasn’t sure the exact details of his alteration” (of the exact details,) “everyone holding their breath (their; so breaths,) sunk (sank.) 3 Written in USian. “Curealian and silver beams” (Cerulean?) “where his family makes their home” (“makes” is the singular; so “makes its home”,) “above him the naked stars lay out in the dark” (lie out; the narration is present tense,) dying her hair (dyeing.) 4 Written in USian, pretenses (pretences,) “‘when you get the hotel’” (to the hotel,) florescent (is this USian? – fluorescent.) A collection were (a collection was.) 5mold (mould,) vocal chords x 2 (cords,) “growing soft and downy my back” (on my back?) “the Tribe grow quiet” (grows; several more instances of Tribe as plural,) “‘Your foe will keep their distance’” (his distance; his is used later,) “‘when they tire’” (when he tires,) “‘though they beg you’” (though he begs you,) the attack is borne of frustration (born of.) 6Written in USian. “‘Will they let her in short notice?’” (At short notice? On short notice? With short notice?)
Stephen Theaker’s Editorial muses on awards; their disadvantages and their necessity. Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 discusses Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katharine North favourably while Nina Allan reflects on the connections between classical and folk music on the one hand and the weird/faery on the other.
In the Book Zone I review Alastair Reynolds’s Revenger (recommended.) Also gaining approval are Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (even if it does require a sequel,) Peter S Beagle’s Summerlong and Gaie Sebold’s Sparrow Falling.
In the fiction, Tade Thompson’s The Apologists is set in the aftermath of an invasion of Earth by aliens who hadn’t realised it was inhabited. Discovering their oversight, they keep six remnants alive on a simulated world.
Extraterrestrial Folk Metal Fusion2 by Georgina Bruce is a tongue-in-cheek tale of the discovery of a signal from outer space which is soon parlayed into opportunities for profit, either personal or monetary.
Narrated by the best friend of the test pilot (who tells him what happened in a disturbing first flight) Ray Cluley’s Sideways3 is an excellent, affecting story about a 1950s rocket propelled prototype craft that can go sideways. That word is deployed strategically throughout the story to underline its strangeness.
In Three Love Letters From an Unrepeatable Garden by Aliva Whiteley the titular letters are to the lover of a gardener protecting a unique but dying flower.
One by one in The End of Hope Street4 by Malcolm Devlin, the houses in the street become unliveable. If you are in them when they do then you die. A tale of neighbourliness in adversity but told in an oddly distanced way.
Pedant’s corner:- 1octopi (it’s not Latin!! The Greek plural is octopodes but octopuses is perfectly good English,) the real meat… lays in (lies in.) 2maw (it was a black hole so I suppose could be interpreted as a stomach.) 3sliver mirror (silver,) 4he was stuck with a … sense of horror (struck?) inside of (inside x2; ditto outside of,) the community prided themselves (itself,) there had been only few major incidents (there had been few, or, only a few,) everyone was on their feet (was, so everyone is singular; so how then, their feet? Avoid such a construction,) the neighbourhood fought to free themselves (ditto, neighbourhood is singular,) to examine it closer (more closely.)
The Three-Body Problem, Head of Zeus, 2015, 400 p, translated from the Chinese 三體, Chongqing Publishing Group 2006, by Ken Liu. The Dark Forest, Head of Zeus, 2015, 512 p, translated from the Chinese 黑暗森林, Chongqing Publishing Group 2008, by Joel Martinsen. Reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2016.
Barring Verne and the genre’s very beginnings, non-Anglophone SF has historically had a low profile in its heartlands. Some Eastern European SF did manage to filter across the language barrier during the Iron Curtain days but was usually a niche commodity. That situation has recently begun to change markedly with SF emanating from outwith the usual source countries. Though not all from non-Anglophone sources, in the past few years I have been able to sample SF originating from Japan, Finland, Israel, South Africa, Nigeria and other former colonial states. Now, aided by Puppygate and its unintended consequence of a best novel Hugo Award for Cixin Liu, his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy looks set to raise the profile of Chinese Science Fiction; which on this evidence comprises hard SF, red in tooth and claw (though arguably not red in political terms.)
The first book, The Three-Body Problem, begins during the Cultural Revolution when Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father, a physicist unwilling to bend to the doctrine that the theories which underpin his subject are reactionary, at the hands of Red Guards. Ye herself is sent to a labour camp and further blots her copybook when she reads Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and pens a letter to the authorities about the environmental depredations resulting from the work of her labour corps but due to her capabilities as a physicist she is assigned to Red Coast Base, an apparently military endeavour.
There is then a jump of forty years in the narrative and we are plunged into a world where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is co-opted into a Battle Command Centre – a committee whose members comprise not only Chinese but also NATO generals plus the unorthodox but effective cop Shi Qiang. The world faces a threat (at this point unspecified) related to the fact that physicists are killing themselves as their experimental results are not consistent, leading them to the conclusion that physics varies from place to place and so does not exist. Shi Qiang warns Wang always to look behind the surfaces of things to find the deeper connections.
Strange things begin to happen to Wang; he sees a countdown on his photographs and then on his eyes. This stops when he ceases his research. His wider investigations lead him to an online game at www.3body.net, the playing of which requires a haptic feedback suit, and which is set on a curious world with unreliable sunrises and sunsets, Stable and Chaotic Eras, mysterious flying stars and inhabitants who can dehydrate and rehydrate according to the conditions. Each time he logs into it the game’s history has moved on. He works out the planet has three suns whose orbits form an inherently chaotic configuration. This is Trisolaris. In one of the novel’s structural problems the relevance of this game to the ongoing threat is not revealed till later.
We subsequently find Red Coast was actually a site for SETI investigations and Ye Wenjie had used its antenna – via the sun as a signal amplifier – to send a message to the universe. A reply containing a warning of invasion if Earth responds came from only four light years away and therefore must have originated on Alpha Centauri. The disillusioned Ye, convinced that humanity’s relationship to evil is like the iceberg to the ocean (made of the same material) ignores the warning. Meanwhile a secretive Earth Trisolaran Organisation, ETO, has recruited devotees via 3-body and communicated with the Trisolarans who have developed Project Sophon, the unfolding of protons into different dimensions, to shoot a quantum entangled pair at Earth to completely ruin scientific research and seal off the progress of human science. The Alpha Centauri system of course contains three suns.
The trouble is we are told a lot of this via the medium of 3-body and transcripts of Trisolaran transmissions – most of which content is dry as dust. Human interactions are sidelined, the main instigator of ETO, Mike Evans, advocate of Pan-Species Communism, barely appears in the novel and the chronology of the events is disjointed. While Wang’s nanomaterials background comes in useful in obtaining the Trisolaran transcripts the incident concerned is really the only one which occurs in the novel’s here-and-now.
In his translator’s afterword Ken Liu refers to Chinese fiction having different emphases and preferences “compared to what American readers expect”. Whether this explains the oddness of The Three-Body Problem’s structure the non-Chinese reader cannot tell. And nothing is resolved, the whole is merely a prologue.
In The Dark Forest the narrative is much more linear. Earth has 450 years to prepare for the Trisolaran invasion but is now riddled with sophons, making all transactions transparent to Trisolaris. The UN has set up a Planetary Defence Council which initiates the Wallfacer Project whereby four individuals are given more or less absolute power to command resources to further the anti-Trisolaran plans devised in their own minds, (the sophons cannot read thoughts). One character muses, “I wonder whether we could find a form of communication that only humans can comprehend, but which the sophons never will. That way, humanity can be free of sophon monitoring…… A gaze or a smile can transmit so much information!”
The first part of the book follows the progress of the Wallfacers’ plans, the setting up and development of Earth’s space forces and the societal changes which take place under the Trisolaran threat. “Behind them was the Golden Age, the good times that began in the 1980s and ended with the Crisis. Ahead of them, humanity’s arduous years were about to unfold.”
The disparity in force between Earth and Trisolaris is the biggest in human history, defeatism the worst enemy – especially in the space forces. Escapism, the thought of leaving Earth for the wide blue yonder, appeals to some but is soon made illegal as who goes and who remains involves basic human values no matter who gets to leave – elites, the rich, or ordinary people. So long as some will be left behind, it means the collapse of humanity’s ethical value system. One character says, “The fundamental axiom of economics is the human mercenary instinct. Without that assumption, the entire field would collapse. There isn’t any fundamental axiom for sociology yet, but it might be even darker than economics. A small number of people could fly off into space, but if we knew it would come to that, why would we have bothered in the first place?”
There are still occasional forays into 3-body where we find Trisolaris has designated a Wallbreaker to each Wallfacer, to frustrate or reveal their plans.
Curiously – or is this an endemic Chinese habit? – smoking seems to be commonplace in this future even when we have again jumped in time to year 205 of the Crisis Era, after a minor Dark Age called the Great Ravine has more than halved Earth’s population. Most cities are now underground.
The narrative contains a few potential sense of wonder moments. Giant space telescopes, the seeding of space with oil film, “mined” from Neptune’s rings, to reveal the tracks of Trisolaran probes, a space battle which came over eerily like an updated version of E E ‘Doc’ Smith, and other Science Fictional concepts such as the technology to fix beliefs in the human brain. However, there are times when the info dumping can be intrusive and strange interludes such as when Liu allows his characters to discourse on the writing process, “The highest level of literary creation is when the characters in a novel possess life in the mind of the writer. The writer is unable to control them. But today’s practitioners of literature have lost that creativity,” and the nature of the object of love, “not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination.”
Key to the book are two maxims, “Survival is the primary need of civilization” and, “Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant,” plus the related concepts of chains of suspicion and technology explosion.
The Dark Forest bristles with SF ideas while remixing the tropes of First Contact, Generation Starship and disaster tale but these elements sometimes sit uneasily with the stories of the humans involved. Its title’s metaphor encapsulates a bleak explanation for the Fermi Paradox.
Both these novels contain footnotes, mostly to explain specifically Chinese references. Footnotes can be a delight but SF readers are used to neologisms – sometimes unexplained. Their necessity in either book is therefore arguable – and in the cases of Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, tokamaks, the strong nuclear interaction and Lagrange point, surely superfluous.
However, together they both suggest Chinese SF has been neglected in the wider world for far too long.
The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- ahold (a hold,) meet-up (meeting,) to not have heard(not to have heard,) we get tori (correct for the plural of torus) but tetrahedrons instead of tetrahedra, in a 3body argument with “Liebniz”, “Newton” is heard to refer to calculus (Isaac Newton called his system fluxions, calculus was Liebniz’s name for these mathematical functions,) sunken (sunk,) Wallfacers (Wallfacer, singular,) widow (window,) in The Dark Forest the base is called Red Shore (in The Three-Body Problem it was Red Coast,) gasses (gases,) “you only would have” (you would only have,) automatons (automata,) Jupiter is referred to as a liquid planet – it’s a gas giant, impassible (impassable,) shape of sword (shape of a sword,) 120gs (a measurement unit’s abbreviation subsumes its plural so 120g,) miniscule (minuscule,) become (became,) torturous (the context implies tortuous,) off of, use to (used to, x 3.)
The latest issue of Interzone, 267 of that ilk, has landed.
Among all the usual stuff this one contains my review of Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter.
Jo L Walton’s Editorial welcomes the arrival of the Sputnik AwardsTM. Jonathan McCalmont rightly eviscerates Becky Chambers’s1 the long way to a small angry planet (its title is not capitalised on the cover) for its self-satisfaction and its lack of challenge. Nina Allan’s Timepiece argues that the canon (both SF and the wider literary one) ought not to be restrictive. In the Book Zone Lisa Tuttle is interviewed, I review Extinction by Kazuaki Takano and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie while Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories, James Lovegrove’s World of Water and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky gain approval.
As to the fiction:-
All Your Cities I Will Burn2 by John Schoffstall is set in the aftermath of a 2042 meteor strike on Earth. Humanity has just about survived. Then strange creatures arise from the sea. This story contains fine speculation about the implications for life on Earth from meteor-borne organisms.
The Eye of Job3 by Dan Reade. An alien tower twenty miles high and ten in diameter “covers most of Omaha.” An air force psychologist is still trying to come to terms with the ramifications.
Belong4 by Suzanne Palmer sees gwenna Thirty-Seven rejected for Placement in QuangEngXorp’s exploitation team despite always achieving the highest marks in training.
The title and subject matter of Ken Hinckley’s on the techno-erotic potential of Donald Trump under conditions of partially induced psychosis does of course invite comparisons with a certain J G Ballard short story. Its setting in a high-rise, its harping on the diesel fumes emanating from lorries on a motorway junction below, not to mention a vehicle crash and the matching style of its attendant author information appendix only add to this temptation. As you might expect it is estranged stuff but, to take up the invitation, Mr Hinckley is no Ballard. (Then again, who is?)
The Inside Out5 by Andrew Kozma. The eponymous structure (aka IO) is an abandoned Dyson sphere to which the remnants of humanity have been transported.
A Man of Modest Means6 by Robert Reed relates the encounter between a woman and a man who are both not what the reader first assumes.
Pedant’s corner:- All the fiction was written in USian. 1McCalmont has Chambers’. 2at loose ends (at a loose end?) “I would expatiate my guilt and despair” (expiate, expatiate means something else entirely,) not thrall to his own fears (in thrall.) 3“covers most of Omaha” (granted the tower would dominate the countryside but I’m sure Omaha is more than ten miles across,) Amos’ (Amos’s,) “behind him are a trio of radio towers” (is a trio,) “None of us do.” (None of us does.) 4“in the line from her shoulder down near her wrist” (to near her wrist?) “the enemies lay there peacefully” (lie there,) 5humongous (more usually humungous?) 6wack job (is usually spelt whack job,) “How would describe that gesture” (missing an “I” after would?) a double “the” in the author information.
Jonathan McAlmont1 discusses Claire Vaye Watkins’s Good Fame Citrus on the way to concluding that capitalism is similar to a cult. Nina Allan examines film adaptations of J G Ballard novels. In the Bookzone I review Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.
In the fiction:-
Starlings2 by Tyler Keevil is couched in the form of a recorded message from a mother to her child, Colum, who is one of the special children designed to leave an Earth doomed to a runaway greenhouse effect by the malfunction of the supposed remedy, the Hadron-Karensky Reactor, for a new start on another planet. Elegiac and
From the (almost) sublime to the hard to credit. Breadcrumbs3 by Malcolm Devlin posits an apartment block and a city suddenly overwhelmed by plant outgrowths and people beginning to change into animals. All of these could merely be the imaginings of viewpoint character Ellie, though.
James van Pelt’s Mars, Aphids, and Your Cheating Heart4 is told from the perspective of a God, who is addressed as “you.” Otherwise the only science-fictional elements it contains are mentions of an ice sheet on Pluto and the movement of a dust grain on Mars (with subsequent avalanche). The story is about a private eye who warms to the subject of his investigation.
Lifeboat5 by Rich Larson. Like many others before it the planet Lazy Susan is threatened with destruction by “synthetics”. A man who helps “rescue” inhabitants from these situations (for money) is faced with a dilemma over rescuing a woman carrying an unusual hybrid fœtus.
The Tower Princesses6 by Gwendolyn Kiste. The titular princesses – whose means of selection are obscure, the process is said to happen overnight – are caged (in materials of various sorts) and have to negotiate life within their restriction. Narrator Mary falls for one of them. The metaphor here is a little overstrained.
Pedant’s corner:- 1Watkins’ (Watkins’s,) “a group of activists are trying to convince” (is trying,) “the group positions itself on the edge of the dune sea and rearrange their vehicles” (“group” agrees with the first verb and not the second, “itself” is not in agreement with “their” so; rearranges its vehicles.) 2birth is used as a verb, anaesthiologist (that would be an anaesthetist, then.) Less respiratory problems (fewer,) “He told me ‘It doesn’t matter now’.” (That should be “He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter now.’”,) phased (fazed.) “He had not wept or showed any sign of emotions (nor shown.) 3”from the where she had lain” (no “the” required,) jimmy open (jemmy,) 4Written in USian – ladybug, sidewalk, skeptical, on the weekends, check (for cheque,) behavior – plus a “soundless avalanche” on Mars (Mars has an atmosphere; there will be sound,) “He must been shot” (must have been,) Tiggs’ (Tiggs’s,) cracks the entire length (cracks [along] its entire length.) 5Written in USian; “poofy” in the sense of voluminous (a usage I had never come across before. It’s not the first meaning that occurs to a Briton.) “That thing is not going to breach right.” (In the context of a birth; so “breech”?) ‘I’m smelling alkaline and vomit’ (alkaline is an adjective [cf acidic,] the noun is alkali.) 6Written in USian.
Tor, 2015, 300 p. Reviewed for Interzone 260, Sep-Oct 2015.
The author carved out a well-regarded space for himself in the 1980s and 90s as a purveyor of quality high fantasy as in the various books of the New, the Long and the Short Suns, essayed a novel take on the unreliable narrator in his Latro in the Mist novels, made the occasional foray into detective/murder stories such as Pandora by Holly Hollander, and has also published various stand-alone books each with his own distinctive stamp, but in his previous output hasn’t produced all that much in the way of straightforward SF. A Borrowed Man goes some way to altering that – but only some way – in that it has an impeccable Science Fictional premise in the shape of its narrator.
That narrator is Ern A Smithe, who is a reclone, having the consciousness of a long dead author housed in a new version of his body, as a resource on a shelf in a library. Not legally human, fixed so as not to sire children, he can be consulted or even borrowed, but if he is not, then he will eventually be discarded and burned. He thinks real humanity has retired. For this is a world much diminished in population, with inhabitants who advocate further reductions; and reclones stand out. In this future society people with disabilities are kept out of sight to avoid troubling the rest and what was the US is (to us) an unrecognisable set of fragment states. However, as well as the reclones, there is advanced tech aplenty, voice controlled cars and aircraft, robots of varying degrees of intelligence, but despite the ubiquity of screens, books still exist – and inter-library loans, for clones as well as books.
Smithe is checked out of Spice Grove Public Library by Colette Coldbrook, whose father and brother are dead and who is the heiress to the estate. Smithe’s original was the author of Murder on Mars, a book which formed the only contents of Conrad Coldbrook Snr’s safe and which holds a secret. Both the Coldbrook men have been murdered and Colette thinks Smithe might know what that secret is. He doesn’t, but he sets about finding out.
In what follows there is a degree of toing and froing across the country which, however, does not display many differences from at present; there are still for example bus stations and cross-country buses, on one of which Smithe takes up with a pair of misfits, Georges and Mahala, whose talents he makes use of.
The action keeps returning, though, to the Coldbrook house, where the murders took place. It is run by robots and has a mini nuclear reactor on one of the locked upper floors. There is also a door one step through which takes Smithe to an alien world, light years away, peopled by strange, stick-like creatures and with menacing things coming out of the sea. This shimmer of SF gloss, while it does contribute to the plot, seems at odds with the rest of the story which has much more in common with the hard-boiled thriller. For, if the streets Smithe walks down are not exactly mean, Wolfe has certainly not forgotten Chandler’s Law; the one about having a man come through the door with a gun, even if this gun does have a strange trumpet shape. Encounters with the police, and a confrontation with a man who is on his tail only heighten the film noir impression.
Frequently nowadays it can almost seem obligatory, but time was the SF detective story was a stunted beast; neither of the strands marrying well. In those terms A Borrowed Man just about falls on the right side of the line.
For an opening line, “Murder is not always such a terrible thing,” is quite arresting. It is a true enough indicator of what follows, especially in signposting the thriller nature of the book as a whole, but doesn’t quite deliver what it seems to promise, while still presaging Smithe’s sympathy for one of the murderers.
Notwithstanding the above, which can all be looked at as a species of excessive nit-picking, Wolfe writes like a dream. Smithe is an engaging and resourceful character and on the whole A Borrowed Man is immensely readable. It is all very cleverly done, and the plot is tied up without loose ends. As a detective story it works well and the SF elements are intriguing but while the “borrowed human” concept is an ingenious one it is not really fully developed, despite Smithe meeting, in various libraries, different copies of his one-time wife, poet Arabella Lee. There is, though, apparently a sequel in the works.
These comments did not appear in the published review:-
I’m not sure what to make of Smithe’s thought that, “Someone ought to do a study on how long a man can talk to a woman without having to lie.” And what strange mind set comes up with the thought, “We had no more business shooting them than a burglar has shooting the owner of the house that he is robbing”? How about no-one has any business shooting anyone? (Or burgling come to that.)
Pedant’s corner:- The USianism “throve”, hangar is quite often written as hanger, “none of the rest were” (none of the rest was,) no “open quote” mark when a chapter starts with a piece of dialogue, “I dropped it to floor” (to the floor,) boney for bony, “I’ll look for work when get there,” (when I get there,) were for where, “You known, I feel lighter here,” (You know,) “That the cleaning service,” (That’s the cleaning service.)