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Percivious Escape by J J Cook and A J Cook MD

AJ JJ Publishing, 2022, 269 p.  Reviewed for ParSec 6.

This is the third in a trilogy, a fact of which I was unaware when, drawn by the premise, I requested the book for review. (The previous two instalments, Percivious Insomnia and Percivious Origins, were not, I think, reviewed in ParSec.) Mea culpa, for not researching the authors beforehand.

Coming in only for the last part of any book sequence is problematic – especially for a reviewer. Not all the background to the text is available; though the author(s) ought to provide enough to give any new reader a fair shout. Still, a book is a book, and must be considered on its own merits.

The scenario here is that an outbreak of insomnia has hit Earth. We are told people stagger around like zombies, transport – personal and public – has all but ceased, society has broken down. A drug called Noctural has been peddled as a cure but is ineffective, a fact of which its makers are well aware. In addition, the XYZ, a group of aliens capable of instant communication with each other by a form of emotional telepathy and apparently descended from whales who lived on Earth millions of years ago but now taking the shape of outsize humans, have been on an unsuccessful interstellar odyssey to find a new home but failing to settle (and incidentally forced into making a kind of slingshot around a black hole in transit) have returned to Earth intent on helping to find a cure for the pandemic of sleeplessness and making us all kinder into the bargain.

It gives me no pleasure to write this but if this all seems like a bit much for the authors to juggle with successfully, well it is. Chapters are relatively short and each is narrated from one of at least twenty different viewpoints which tends to make the reading experience bitty. Far too much is told to us, not shown, information dumping is profuse, clumsy and intrusive, with overuse of the pluperfect tense and a frequent resort to cliché. The process of discovering an effective serum against the insomnia pandemic, Noctural 2.0, is not dramatised and it seems to have been found absurdly easily. The text is sometimes couched as journalese, the characters do not come across as rounded and their dialogue is wooden.

At the climax it all descends into Bond villainy: that the villain has been given the name Khalid Al Gamdi leaves a sour taste. In addition, after that dénouement there are no less than nine chapters clearing up loose ends (while ironically introducing a new one.)

Alarm bells about all this had been ringing from before the start – which itself has the galloping hiccups, with both an Introduction and a Prologue. On the title page there is that MD after the name of the second co-author. But why is it there? Is it to lend an air of scientific credibility? In which case it is spurious, since this is a work of fiction not an academic tract and ought to need no outside props. In any case such a claim is thoroughly undercut by multiple appearances in the text of the non-metaphorical use of the phrase “the dark side of the moon” (which is an elegant description of madness but not of reality. Both “sides” of the Moon, far and near, are bathed in fourteen continuous Earth days of sunlight – and another fourteen of darkness – per lunar cycle. If you are striving for scientific verisimilitude at least get the details right. See also the ancient whales above.)

The overall feel of the text is that of authors so enamoured with their vision that they indulged the need to put every last little aspect of it down on paper (or screen.) Unfortunately, fiction doesn’t succeed under those conditions. Certainly there has to be enough detail to convince the reader the authors have a consistent world in their heads. Too much however, tends to give the opposite impression. Moreover, it gets in the way of the story. And it is story that readers of Science Fiction primarily search for. There is story here but the authors’ avowed intention in the accompanying blurb and the ‘About the Authors’ page of reviving what they describe as forgotten altruism led them to stray into didacticism.

Pedant’s corner:- human’s vast and varied pastimes (humans’,) “the prime minister” (Prime Minister,) “‘Your safety, our safety, as well as the safety of many others depend on it’2 (depends on it,) “the dark side of the moon” (there is no such thing – see above – and it’s Moon,) “that was provided there were enough insomnia-resilient staff on duty” (provided there was enough staff.) “Fifty suicide STARLINK satellites composed the payload” (the satellites created the payload? – comprised,) “what drew his attention were her photos” (was her photos,) one ‘it’s’ that ought to have been ‘its’, “something cold crossed his gaze upon her face” (needs its syntax sorted out,) “regardless the cost” (regardless of the cost,) “risen to a crescendo” (to a climax,) “careful to cover their interaction with his torso from the cameras” (opaque syntax again,) “returning from whence he had come” (whence = ‘from where’ so this is equivalent to ‘from from where he had come’,) another “rose to a crescendo”, “the two crafts” (the plural of craft [as in conveyance] is ‘craft’,) “desperate to clear its path” (‘his’-  or ‘their’ – path,) “despite the unforeseen danger that undoubtedly lay ahead” (if it undoubtedly lay ahead then it was not unforeseen; ‘unknown’ perhaps,) “and good thing” (an interpolation that has no sense at all,) “Cooper’s gaze – abducted by a long black, illuminated gown” (how can a gaze be abducted?) many new paragraphs are unindented, “the reason his kiss had fallen on deaf lips” (a tin-eared construction, ‘unresponsive lips’,) “than he had ever felt had before” (one ‘had’ too many,) “the only options to negate it was to swallow Noctural 2.0 .. or they could go off planet” (is missing an ‘either’ before what then should be ‘were to swallow’; otherwise ‘the only option was to swallow’,) “had rode up in” (had ridden,) “the tallest thing standing on the island were the trees in Central Park” (was the trees.)


ParSec 8

I believe ParSec’s issue 8 has now gone live:-

I’ve not yet delved into this issue but it ought to contain my reviews of Beethoven’s Assassins by Andrew Crumey, Chimera by Alice Thompson, and Umbilical by Teika Marija Smits.


Beyond the Burn Line by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2022, 459 p. Reviewed for ParSec 6.

The burn line is a geological stratum of scorched remains marking where a catastrophe – partly of their own making – befell what the inhabitants of a far future Earth remember as ogres. After the ogres’ demise a civilisation of intelligent bears developed, bears who enslaved Pilgrim Saltmire’s people before the bears in turn lost sway and regressed to feral habits. But the people’s memories of enslavement are long and bitter. The society in which Pilgrim lives is at a more or less agrarian level, transport is typically by four-legged animal known as a mara, though a slow growth is occurring of techne inspired by artefacts dug up from archaeological sites, for example messages are being sent by tapcode. The prevailing religion’s deity is referred to as Mother, a mother who could at first be interpreted as Mother Earth but turns out not to be.

Saltmire has a gammy leg, is an albino and a pure – a person who doesn’t feel the effect of the yearly Season, and is pitied for it. We follow his story after the death of his mentor, the scholar Master Able, who spent his time trying to elucidate whether accounts of strange visitors accompanied by lights in the sky had any truth to them. Saltmire’s wish is to carry on Able’s work but all his writings were returned to Able’s family on his death and Saltmire is forced to go back to his own tribe to try to obtain funding to carry on the work. It does not go well and he is exiled for a year for a violent, though in self-defence, attack. In exile, he is charged with setting to rights a neglected library. One day he discovers a map which appears to show a visitor beside a hitherto unknown bear city. Unfortunately, he falls foul of the local law enforcement officer and loses the map to him. Thereafter, the remainder of Part One of the book, Archaeologies of Memory, lies in his attempts, along with members of The Invisible College, a group of female activists, to regain the map via a prophet, Foeless Landwalker, who claims the coming of the visitors is imminent and has gathered a cohort of adherents to call them down. Like all such, Landwalker’s connection to the object of his obsessions is negligible. When the visitors reveal themselves, it is not to him.

There is then a sudden jump to Part Two, The Other Mother. Pilgrim Saltmire is fourteen years dead, the visitors, descendants of ogres – humans sent out in seedships in a failed attempt to colonise other planets but now returned – live openly with, but separate from, the people (who are much smaller in stature, being descended from racoons) with treaties regulating their interactions. The controlling intelligence of the returned seedship, an AI, is referred to as Mother and has an array of advanced technologies at her disposal.

Human Ysbel Moonsdaughter of the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs is sent to investigate the deaths of two of the people as a result of a speedboat race between two humans, Trina Mersdaughter and Joyous Hightower. The local bailiff she is dealing with, Goodwill Saltmire, is Pilgrim’s nephew and he realises that the map, the prize Mersdaughter and Hightower were racing for, is the same one his uncle had lost. Its hint of a possible connection between humans and bears long before the recent supposed First Contact combined with a possible re-emergence of intelligent bears has potentially threatening consequences for relations between humans and the people. Ysbel’s investigations delve into the map’s background, unfold the history and antagonisms of both Mothers – and the possible existence of a third. During them she meets numerous setbacks, betrayals and agents acting in bad faith. At one point her commlink to the Mother’s network is memorably described by one of the people as a “telephone in her head.”

It is not often that a work of Science Fiction has as its central focus, its plot driver, a historical artefact. (Of course, to us readers in 2022 it is in effect a contingent future one.) The blending of far future SF with a quest for a defiantly mundane document works well here and the notion of a reverse First Contact is a neat twist to that trope. The main characters are depicted acting in recognisable ways (sometimes all too recognisable) but nevertheless have individuality.

Some may complain this is all too narrowly drawn, that the First Contact is witnessed but its immediate ramifications are not. That the climactic battle between the two Mothers occurs off-stage. But the stories of individuals caught up in larger events are as, if not more, worthy of depiction as those events themselves. It is, after all, as individuals that we live our lives.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘where you’re planning to go, someone like you is you’re going to need someone like me’” (doesn’t need the ‘you’re’,)  “reached a brief crescendo” (brief climax,) “jutting at at different levels and angles” (either no first [or second] ‘at’, or, ‘jutting out at’.) “ ‘So far no one will tell me who am I supposed to be co-operating with’” (who I am supposed to be co-operating with,) “when it came of matters of trust” (when it came to matters of trust,) “the map had once been belonged to his tribe” (no need for that ‘been’,) “‘and return it my tribe’” (return it to my tribe,) make sure that that neither the humans nor native authorities” (no second ‘that’,) accidently “accidentally,) oughten’t (oughtn’t.)


The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia

Tachyon, 2022, 177 p, plus 5 p Afterword and 4 p Acknowledgements.  $15.95. Reviewed for ParSec 5.

Qilwa is an island lately having become independent of the mainland Queendom of Dilmun after previously being conquered by Sassanid, which in its turn was taken over by Dilmun. A plague has been raging through Qilwa, blamed unofficially (but with nods and winks from the authorities) on an influx of refugees of Sassanian heritage from Dilmun, fleeing both from the depredations of the sky-borne Homa bird and the fear by Qilmunis of Sassanian blood magic. The flight has been such that during the novel the last Sassanian people that were left in Dilmun arrive in Qilwa.

Viewpoint character Firuz-e Jafari, a user of blood magic, has not been in Qilwa long and still cannot get used to the local failure to designate chosen pronouns on being introduced to someone. When meeting a local healer, Kofi Nadifa, a man who is also able to control breezes, he says, “I’m they-Firuz” and throughout the book is described by the pronouns they, them and themself. When Firuz rescues another Sassanian, she introduces herself to them as she-Afsoneh. We never see other characters, like Firuz’s brother Parviz, and his friend Ahmed, or indeed any Dilmunis, barring Kofi, introduced. Except for the occasional other pronouns such as zhe, zher and hu, usually used for incidental characters, those whom Firuz interacts with are designated either by name or the more traditional singular pronouns.

In Dilmun, Sassanians are definitely second-class citizens, kept more or less segregated. In this fantasy world, as in the real, colonialism exerts a dark shadow. Kofi tells Firuz, “It’s said when your people took ours over they made a pact with a dark god to gain powers over life,” a phrase which has echoes of the blood libel. Firuz’s family at first had to live in an area known as the Underdock before his work at Kofi’s clinic allows them to move to a slightly better neighbourhood and such is the fear in which blood magic is held that Firuz has to keep their abilities secret. They worry in particular about Afsoneh, who has an innate facility for blood magic but is totally untrained and thus a danger not only to anyone she might try to heal but to herself and her associates. Firuz agrees to train her and says, “‘Really all magic works on this principle, pulling energy from a source in order to manipulate it. But for us, for blood magic users, we have to pull from our own life force.’” Blood magic users are practiced in the science, those in training or without the control are adepts.

Some healing magic is acceptable in Dilmun, though. Environmental magic involves equivalent exchange (akin to the First Law of Thermodynamics,) and structural magic uses runes or words to channel energy.

When cases of blood-bruising begin to arise, brought to their clinic’s attention by a local undertaker showing them bodies strangely preserved after death, Firuz is at first baffled by the phenomenon but its possible ramifications for Sassanians in Qilmun after the only recently subsided plague are not lost on them. It takes a while for them to work out its possible cause, bone marrow increasing its output of blood cells to an unsustainable level. This faulty blood, leading to lack of clotting and subsequent bruising, its lack of oxygen carrying capacity giving unwarranted fatigue, is redolent of someone searching for blood that attacks illness and wipes it out without a trace by magical means instead of natural. Firuz’s suspicions initially fall on Afsoneh who is covertly attempting to carry out an alignment, a redistribution of tissue to other areas or a breakdown of tissue for the body to repurpose, on Parviz before Firuz prevails on her to stop. The true culprit for the altered blood is more surprising.

The background colouring to the story (the author is the child of Persians who emigrated to the US) is out of the ordinary for modern fantasy but not too unfamiliar historically. However, this is Jamnia’s first novel and sometimes that shows. Relationships tend to be sketched rather than fleshed out, the concept of the Homa bird is sorely underdeveloped and the climactic scene feels rushed. Then there is the use of the somewhat coy “muck” or “mud” as expletives. The prejudice in Qilwan society is mostly mentioned rather than shown and sits a little uneasily with the book’s other elements. In scenes where more than one person is present that usage of plural pronouns for Firuz is liable to be misread.

Twice it is emphasised that “Magic is mostly a working of the will.” Jamnia’s will is strong but perhaps their magic isn’t quite fully controlled as yet. Overall, though, The Bruising of Qilwa is an interesting read.

Pedant’s corner:- Afosneh (elsewhere Afsoneh.) “It annoyed Firuz to no end” (no, it did not annoy Firuz ‘for no purpose,’ it annoyed Firuz no end, ie it annoyed Firuz immensely, “the warm towel with the runes sewn into them” (sewn into it.) “Had he been in a chair, Ahmed would have likely sunk into it. As it were, he cradled his head in his hands.” (As it was, he cradled,) “the minutia of the shifts” (this read as plural, minutiae,) “on the governor’s behest” (at the governor’s behest,) sunk (sank.) “This would make the day to day of running of the clinic” (no need for the ‘of’.) “It was so nice someone around their age to talk with” (so nice to have someone,) sprung (sprang.) “a density separator” (a centrifuge to give it its proper name,) “a yellowish-clear layer” (implies a yellow liquid cannot be clear; it can: ‘a clear [pale?] yellow layer’,) “Afsoneh squirmed of reach” (out of reach.) In the Afterword; “the storming of the White House” (the Capitol,) “to use my background a scientist” (as a scientist,) “the people from whom my parents came from” (has one ‘from’ too many.)

Best of British Science Fiction 2021 Edited by Donna Scott  

NewCon Press, 2022, p. Reviewed for ParSec 5.

In her introduction to this collection of twenty-three stories taken from various sources, editor Donna Scott wonders about the shadow the Covid pandemic will cast over Science Fiction. Though few of the submissions to her had addressed it directly she sees its influence as being present in subtler ways – isolation being one of the themes. The book’s contents cover a relatively wide spectrum of SF tropes (the generation starship seems to be making a comeback, though time travel continues to be somewhat out of vogue.)

As to the stories themselves….

In ‘Distribution’ by Paul Cornell a local authority operative investigates a man who has divided his consciousness among parts of himself that he now keeps in tubes.

‘Stealthcare’ by Liz Williams focuses on an insurance assessor investigating possible fraud in a future where health is expensively monitored by interactive wrist band.

‘Down and Out Under the Tannhauser Gate’ by David Gullen centres on an old soldier eking out her existence by the interstellar gate where she was the only human survivor of the last battle and waiting for her chance to pass through to its imagined delights.

The superbly written ‘Me Two’ by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown is a poignant tale relating the connection, from first awareness(es) to death, of a consciousness switching daily between Danny Madison in London and Cristina Velásquez in Barcelona.

In Tim Major’s ‘The Andraiad,’ Martin is the andraiad replacement for a man who committed a violent crime, and is determined to be a better person than his predecessor.

The action of ‘Bloodbirds’ by Martin Sketchley occurs after the Qall have come, used humanity as humans had used other animals, and then gone again, leaving inside people cells which will form Qall embryos, emerge with little warning, and devastate their erstwhile host. Nikki is an Angel, part of the Vanguard who hunt down these surrogates. Then she meets a possible surrogate man who treats her kindly.

In ‘Going Home’ by Martin Westlake a Russian scientist is in effect conscripted to investigate mysterious fragments found in the area where Tunguska was struck by a meteorite              . Or was the devastation there caused by a conflict between angels?

Spookily atmospheric, ‘Okamoto’s Lens’ by A N Myers centres on the eponymous lens which acts a bit like Bob Shaw’s slow glass, only in reverse. It can capture images of the future.

Set in Leith, ‘Love in the Age of Operator Errors’ by Ryan Vance explores the illicit use of memory technology to access the experiences of the narrator’s lost boyfriend.

‘Stone of Sorrow’ by Peter Sutton combines two new technologies, an experimental system for regenerating farm soil and a top secret army transportation system in a story whose focus doesn’t stray from concern for its characters.

Bearing some tonal resemblances to Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, ‘Henrietta’ by T H Dray features a retired plastic-eating artificial life-form which wants to see a sunrise.

The light-hearted ‘A History of Food Additives in 22nd Century Britain’ by Emma Levin does what its title promises. The entry for 2150 is especially sardonic.

‘The Trip’ by Michael Crouch has a professor and a newly qualified former student undertake an archaeological expedition on a new planet, where they make a mind-expanding discovery.

‘The Ghosts of Trees’ by Fiona Moore. A plant researcher working in the Nevada desert on plants suitable for use on Mars sees the ghosts of trees, specifically the trees in the footage of 1950s nuclear test explosions.

Russell Hemmell’s ‘The Opaque Mirror of Your Face’ is narrated by a faceless cyborg, part of a human spinal fluid harvesting team, who steals – down to the seventh dermal level – the face of a young woman to use as his own. Her revenge is not what you might expect.

Aliya Whiteley’s ‘More Sea Creatures to See’ features aliens who, unbeknownst to humans, are slowly replacing them in order to turn Earth into a theme park.

Remarkably effective at evoking memories for those of a certain age, ‘The End of All Exploring’ by Gary Couzens is a hymn both to all those unrecorded 1960s TV moments forever lost to the ether and to the man who comes back in time to record them.

David Cleden’s ‘How Does My Garden Grow?’ is set on a generation starship whose occupants are obsessed with keeping the recycling ratio as high as possible.

‘Girls’ Night Out’ by Teika Marija Smits relates an experience of “bottled” memories by hybrids who are used to do the unpleasant jobs necessary for wider society to function.

‘Bar Hopping for Astronauts’ by Leo X Robertson finds a former astronaut who has been locked into his space suit for twenty years having to come to terms with the modern world.

‘In Aeturnus’ by Phillip Irving sees a man trapped in a never-ending cycle of regeneration and disposal.

Emma Johanna Puranen’s ‘A Spark in a Flask’ is set in a moonbase abandoned to robot caretakers supervising a series of experiments set up to engender life. The protocols are not set to cater for the project’s success.

A tale about the survivor of an airlock accident having to overcome her fears, the elegantly allusively titled ‘A Pall of Moondust’ by Nick Wood references other SF stories set on the Moon as well as the Arthur C Clarke story its title echoes.

In summary, there is nothing remarkably new here but all are good examples of the genre, many illustrating what it is best suited to explore, the human condition under stress.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction: Smits’ (Smits’s,)  Myers’ (Myers’s.) Otherwise; “its” (it’s,) “steps back down them with he sees Shan hasn’t followed” (when he sees Shan hasn’t,) WID (elsewhere WIS, for Wehlberg’s Inflammatory Syndrome,) missing start quotation marks. “‘She said she’d always has this one’” (always had this one.) ‘I thought about it. “some women too.”’ (either; no full stop but a comma; or; ‘Some women too’,) ‘Dumass” brigade’ (Dumas’s brigade,) ;the aliens” stillness’ (the aliens’ stillness,) no capital letters on a new piece of direct speech (x 2,) “you ‘ve done it” (you’ve done it,) “as they set of up the steps” (set off,) “I ‘ll come back” (I’ll come back,) “three Cytheran” (Cytherans,) Louis’ (x 3, Louis’s.) “The nine on the lower deck” (in the previous paragraph we are told there had been sixteen on the lower deck, nine on the upper,) unfocussed (unfocused,) whiskey (x 2. This is set in Birmingham [and not the one in Alabama]: whisky,then,) camelia (x 2, camellia,) Chris’ (Chris’s,) “leaving for her sisters’” (her sister’s.) “The receptionist clicks their tongue” (the receptionist had previously been described as a man; so; ‘clicks his tongue’,) “set him at odds to” (at odds with,) whiskey (in Leith it’s whisky,) “the civil war” (Civil War,) span (x 2, spun,) “porch swing” (for a story set in England a farm having a porch swing is unlikely.) “I acknowledge that the growing inefficiency of my mouth-parts, gut and legs necessitate precautionary measures” (the growing inefficiency ….. necessitates precautionary measures,) McVities’ (McVitie’s,) “meeting up with the one that got away after twenty years ago” (either ‘the one got away after twenty years’ or, ‘the one got away twenty years ago.) “‘That is what you we’re thinking’” (you were thinking,) a paragraph break in the middle of a sentence (x 2.) “The only thing I can seem to see in sharp focus are little bursts of light” (the only thing …. is little bursts.) “There are a mix of colours” (there is a mix,) “the cushioning effect of mycelial layers on the floor become more apparent” (the cushioning effect … becomes more apparent.) “Fungi can eat rock and absorb the mineral content into its own being” (fungi is a plural word; so; ‘into their own being’,) “eager to see what else lay beyond” (the rest of the paragraph is in present tense; ‘what lies beyond’,) “into the gaping maw of the passage entrance” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “neither of us were in a state” (neither of us was,) “Hangar is just passed the check point” (just past.) “Whatever ripe human muscles a human body owns is at risk” (ripe human muscles …. are at risk.) “‘Healthy for what I can see from a superficial reading’” (Healthy from what I can see,) “he began (rest is in present tense; begins,) “concentrated in listening to” (concentrated on,) “it has the excitement of the novelty” (of the novel,) “as he has done a while ago” (as he had done,) “or we careful avoid developing one” (carefully,) “I’m incapable to get rid of both” (it’s not ‘incapable to’ it’s ‘incapable of’; incapable of getting rid.) “I have to be contented in touching her lips” (contented with touching,) “for what it’s going to happen” (what is going to happen.) “‘Since the first time you’ve screwed me’” (the first time you screwed me,) Woolworth’s (Woolworths,) “<em>TV Time</em>” (<em>TV Times</em>; correctly titled lower down the same page,) “whom I met once I week” (once a week.) “I could day more” (say more?) “He turned to face m.” (to face me.) “I was furious at have been lied to” (at having been.) “I hurried down the stars” (stairs.) “‘I’m the one they’ve come from’” (they’ve come for,) “‘has involved us with us in this matter’” (no need for that ‘with us’,) “photograph if a bride and groom standing hand in hand” (of a bride and groom,) “the fading purple of chive flowers are hung with melancholy” (has something syntactically wrong about it. ‘The fading purple … is hung with melancholy’ is more grammatical but odd. ‘The fading purple chive flowers are hung with melancholy’ just about works,) smartglass’ (smartglass’s,) “open doorways loom dark like maws” (maws are stomachs, not mouths,) descendent (descendant,) “wide as a monster’s maw” (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.) “‘Do we need to titrate your medication and increase your dose?’” (titrate is not the correct verb here,) Baines’ (x 2, Baines’s,) knobkierie (Afrikaans spelling of knobkerrie.)


ParSec 7

It’s ParSec time again. The seventh edition of the online SF magazine is now available to purchase.

This issue contains my reviews of The Chinese Time Machine by Ian Watson and Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson.

Night, Rain, And Neon edited by Michael Cobley

A New Cyberpunk Anthology, NewCon Press, 2022, 315 p. Reviewed for ParSec 4.

Is it really nearly forty years since “the sky was the colour of television” as that famous opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer had it? For those of us old enough to have felt that particular jolt to the SF-verse it can be hard to remember those all-but pre-digital days. In his introduction to this anthology Michael Cobley reminds us that most of the visions of the cyberpunk pioneers have now become embedded in everyday life as he argues that the sub-genre has never been so relevant. This book is intended to address for the modern age the question cyberpunk always has; how does humanity adapt and change when its perceptions are retooled by technology? Do we accept becoming something else or try to remain stubbornly human? That last is something the best SF has always interrogated and illustrated. Cyberpunk’s edge is that it tends to do this at a more immediate, visceral level rather than a philosophical one.

Though there are few explicit homages here – Al Robertson references “a blank television, tuned to a dead channel,” Jon Courtenay Grimwood mentions the “sky above the street” (though in Neuromancer I recall it was “the sky above the port”) and has someone wearing mirrorshades – we have numerous paraphernalia or tropes generally associated with cyberpunk: neural jacks; implants; VR environments; scuzzy, run-down neighbourhoods; dismal weather – grey skies, rain: the sun never seems to shine in cyberpunk – and criminal activities. Society’s underbelly appears an enduring preoccupation. Many of these stories feature imbalances of power and/or the relative impunity of money. Some have high body counts, displaying an implicitly casual attitude to human life: in these particular cyberpunk futures life tends to the harsh and brutish and may be short. The stories are frequently told in the first person, present tense preferred, and typically conveyed in prose with brief, terse sentences. Many without a verb. One, Callum McSorley’s Forever in Scotland, where anti-ageing treatments (and therefore living forever) are banned, is written in Glaswegian and all the more effective for it.

So what can cyberpunk still offer us? Among other things; a virus gradually eating away a cyborg operative from toe to head but whose contract means he will be transferred to a digital existence to pay off the debt forever; five colourful superheroes called The Fianna designed to protect Ireland from The Threat, (a threat which seems to be people in boats;) AI driven buses crashing more often than they should and whose city’s systems blame everything but the buses, an impossibility leading to an investigation of their operator, QuickMind; a world where the rich can buy anything – even the use of another (poorer) person’s body – and one of them searches for the ultimate thrill, transfer into the mind of a top predator; brain implants, personalised in the mind as an entity called Ena, steering the narrator’s decisions, not all of which are intuitive; the ability to feel and cause remote sensation, six thousand miles apart; a hit man wondering if the game is worth the candle; a woman who’d been in a motor-cycle crash waking up to find herself with a brain implant giving her commands – with menaces; a VR addict who overdoses but is then hired by a VR entity who wants her to create new flavours digitally; an undercover agent trying to unionise AIs; a neo-Nazi rampant world where the good guys track one down to a VR dive house and ensure a condign punishment; a memory doctor allowing cycling through a series of altered memories to pick the most convenient, or believable; a contractor extracting a nine-year-old boy from a guarded convoy in what appears to be a kidnapping because the boy has been bred to usher in an AI to rule the world; AR personae being used to track down a murderer operating in the phase interstices of a series of spaceships plying the solar system; the facility for people’s consciousnesses to be temporarily transferred to proxy bodies – for a fee – permitting multiple opportunities to commit crime and escape the consequences, or pinning them on an innocent party, but raising the question as to how prison can be made to work under such circumstances.

None of the ideas is startlingly new and any of these tales could easily have been found in SF short story outlets over recent years. Which is only to say that cyberpunk is now firmly part of the SF writer’s toolbox, to be called upon as and when necessary.

The overall impression the book gives though is that it is not technology that is the enemy: it is other people; and what they are willing to do with and for that technology.

Pedant’s corner:- Except for the first page of a story odd numbered pages are without numbering until it kicks in at page 289. Otherwise; “All the monstrous growths …. branching of sub-tentacles of itself” (of themselves,) “where he’d been stood” (standing.) “Itsay laid back from the effort” (lay back,) “down to the staff stood around someone lying on a gurney” (standing around.) “‘Which one of us gets to live.’” (is a question so ought to have a question mark,) “reaches its crescendo “ (no; the crescendo reaches its climax,) “the The Threat” (has one ‘the’ too many?) “Rewiding Centre” (elsewhere, Rewilding,) “moments before they are aware of here” (aware of her,) “she had pretended to him …….that she were as robust as she’d ever been” (that she was as robust,) “the buses’ robotic voice” (the bus’s robotic voice,) “the buses’ story” (bus’s.) “The bus’ voice changed” (bus’s,) sprung (sprang,) curb (kerb,) bannister (x 2, banister,) staunchin (stanchin,) “pouring over” (poring over,) “in the class above one called us” (once called us,) “this many smells and strangers and squeezed into a tight, suffocating space” (all squeezed into.) “Neon it flickers across” (Neon light flickers,) “be apart of” (apart = separate, the context was “a part of” = ‘belonging to’. ‘Apart of’ appeared twice more when ‘a part of’ was the sense,) “there’s plenty of secrets” (there are plenty of secrets,) “but it’s not until the Lynx that I’d realised” (but it wasn’t until the Lynx that I realised,) “head over to large booth” (a large booth.) “The girl with terrible teeth we’d seen yesterday” (needs its syntax cleaning up,) “like putting your tongue a livewire” (on a live wire,) “the sniffily guy says” (x2, sniffly.) “If I walk away, I’d be an outcast” (it’s a prediction; so, ‘I’ll be an outcast’.) “The intensity of the heartbeats are stronger” (is stronger.) “I think I felt a finger” (rest of narration is present tense, ‘I think I feel’.) Ditto “My own body felt” (feels,) amoung (among.) “Some were already sobbing” (Some are.) “The masked groups scrambles away” (scramble away.) “The crowd roars their approval” (its approval.) “A series of firm, stony nods come from” (a series ….. comes from,) “The unbearably guilt” (unbearable,) “all with an invested interest” (the phrase is ‘vested interest’,) “laying down” (lying down.) “She could any-fucking-where” (She could be any-fucking-where,) “no license” (licence,) targetters (targeters.) “The headache couches in wait” (crouches makes more sense,) “lay down on the floor” (x 3; lie down,) “lay down” (again; lie down) “she can’t see what is says” (what it says,) “struggles to breath (breathe.) “‘I’m not going to lie you though’” (to lie to you,) “very still-human offal” (very human-still offal?) “other than they’re preferred pronouns” (their.) “The first SUV in the convoy was also its roof” (also on its roof,) “the Bofor’s” (Bofors,) needs-must (needs must,) “over head” (overhead,) “as lot calmer” (as a lot calmer,) “your parent’s security folks” (parents’,) scooedg (????) Shambles’ (Shambles’s,) “strafed across as tiny spot” (as a tiny spot.) “Bit Nico preferred the offensive” (‘But Nico preferred’ makes more sense.) “Murdere was expecting him” (Murder, or, Murderer.) “There was a silver scar across the back of each of his knuckles, and remembered what it was like” (and he remembered,) “more people that could reasonably be accounted for” (more people than could reasonably.) “Where they just circling the block” (Were they,) “closing against towards the ankles” (closing again,) “the all the possible outcomes” (one ‘the’ too many,) “‘you’ll always outbid by someone’” (you’ll always be outbid,) “couldn’t name to it” (couldn’t put a name to it,) “rode passed” (rode past.) “‘Better that I’d give most’” (‘Better than I’d give most’ makes more sense,) ithe (the,) “the ships holographic interface” (ship’s,) Praxiteles’ (Praxiteles’s.) “The others low murmuring becoming a howl” (others’.) “The glyphs was so beautifully complex” (the glyphs were,) Stobbs’ (several times, Stobbs’s,) Stobb’s (Stobbs’s,) an unneeded paragraph indent, “opened its maw wide and swallowed” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “artifact back into place” (my dictionary has artifact as a alternative spelling but artefact is more true to the word’s roots.) “‘I don’t think it’s that it’s a stretch to say’” (one ‘it’s’ too many,) fit (fitted,) H2O (H2O,) missing comma before direct speech, “they use clone for skin grafts” (use to clone for skin grafts,) “as ugly grin crept” (as an ugly grin.) “‘You’ll be surprised that you can concoct with stuff’” (what you can concoct,) “at the insect’s crawling underneath” (insects.) “He kissed her daughter” (his daughter,) SUV’s (SUVs,) “wanted to setup show” (set up shop.) “‘I could give a toss’” (couldn’t give a toss,) extraneous quotation marks, “Jean Paul” (elsewhere Jean-Paul,) missing quotation marks, “without getting whet” (??? The context did not imply ‘wet’,) “Where they alive or dead?” (Were they,) “promises to investment” (of investment,) “untouched by violence of decay” (violence or decay,) “handy work” (handiwork,) “the engine’s stays hot” (engine,) two sized too big” (two sizes too big,) “It was her sisters” (sister’s,) “but had not taste” (had no taste,) “several meters in every direction” (metres,) “knowing already that they find” (what they’d find.) “The first thing that stuck them” (struck them,) “pulled out small glass container” (a small glass container.) “She felt Jean-Paul silent horror” (Jean-Paul’s.) “He pointed at a finger in the corner” (‘at a figure’ makes more sense.) “It was about to get whet.” (????) “a years’ worth” (year’s worth,) “in the Bosses hand” (Boss’s hand.) “A dip attached to her arm” (a drip,) “dress gown” (dressing gown,) “her sisters’ eyes” (sister’s,) “like I was at the helm of ship” (of a ship,) “from whatever set of thoughts looking at” (thoughts she was looking at.) “The only thing I can control are my reactions” (The only thing I can control is my reactions,) a missing full stop at the end of a sentence, whinging (I prefer the spelling whingeing – without the ‘e,’ I, being Scots, would otherwise read this as rhyming with singing; compare ‘hinging’ [= hanging in Scots] with ‘hingeing’, British English does make this distinction between singing and singeing.)

The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge

Solaris, 2022, 600 p. Reviewed for ParSec 4.

“Welcome to the city of words” is the invitation spread across the front cover of the advanced reading copy of this interesting, characterful, ambitious, but flawed novel. Words indeed are what the reader experiences. What could be more appropriate for a book set in a city, Cadenza, full of libraries, run by poets, with a thriving Printing Quarter and where the word is respected if not quite universally revered? Yet it is perhaps too self-consciously wordy for its own good. It isn’t so much that the author hasn’t killed his darlings, more that the overall feel is of something overpolished, worked on too assiduously, words chosen a touch too particularly. Which is a ridiculous thing to be saying of a piece of writing, but there you are. Don’t let that put you off though. There is still plenty to savour in this blend of historical fiction with occasional intrusions of fantasy.

The book is composed of twelve sections of varying length the author has designated as Cantos, each of which has a descriptor on the Contents page similar to those short, pre-chapter, italicised précis found in Victorian novels. The book’s focus shifts from Canto to Canto, though some characters may appear incidentally in one or another, and for most of its length it seems more like a collection of short stories/novellas with little connection other than the city in which they are set before there comes a degree of synthesis towards the conclusion.

Cadenza lies (lay?) somewhere in the Italian peninsula, seeing itself as a rival to Venice (though that city could not care less,) the time is on the cusp of modernity (there are those printing presses) not long after that of the austere and censorious monk Savonarola whose sway in Florence some of the characters lived through. Cadenza’s leading citizen, or Artifex, has recently changed from Tommaso Cellini, who suffered an absurd accident that we later discover was no such thing and had a brutal, hidden side, to Cosimo Petrucci, widely regarded as ineffective. The latter is profoundly aware that the city is all but bankrupt and, to much disgruntlement, cancels the expensive Carnival of Wit which the city’s poets see as its embodiment.

Amongst those twelve Cantos we find a would-be poet whose first appearance in the city becomes a fiasco, an ink maid whose job it is to write missives for those who cannot do so for themselves, a poet whose latest vitriolic verse is made out to be targeted on the daughter of a powerful man, clandestine missives bearing an enigmatic message, a seeker-out of Aristotle’s lost library, a pair of poets engaged in a lifelong feud, a monk investigating the murder of a librarian who had a collection of forbidden books (an episode bearing extremely strong echoes of The Name of the Rose but not quite as intriguing or involved,) a group of would-be poets attempting to carry on a tradition of kidnapping, and a Count whose wife has locked herself up in a tower seeking help from an unusual quarter to persuade her to leave it.

Then, which changes everything, comes the plague, and a descent into chaos. The Canto describing a sojourn in the plague hospital is particularly stark. There are other more or less graphic scenes describing torture or conflict but in the main what we have is humanity in all its aspects, lustful, boastful, conniving, self-deceiving, tender, self-denying, violent, foolish and absurd.

It seems that this has been a labour of love for Beckerlegge, who has previously been better known for writing children’s books. This is emphatically not a book for children. There is too much scatology – and a measure of sexual content – for that to be true. He certainly knows how to put a scene together, though, even if his understandable investment in his concept occasionally overrides his facility.

Pedant’s corner:- On the Contents page; “MazzoniIn which” (Mazzoni In which.)
I read a proof copy. Some of these others may have been picked up and amended before the final printing; descendent (descendant,) Ucello (elsewhere Uccello,) staunch/ed (at least five times; stanch/ed,) Hyptia (elsewhere Hypatia,) “opened his mouth to object, then close it with a nod” (then closed it,) “wiping her mouth on the back of her mouth” (a neat trick; on the back of her hand,) “so obliging at hand” (obligingly a hand,) “inside of” (x 2, inside; no ‘of’,) unste ady (unsteady,) Guilio (elsewhere Giulio,) “thought further inevitable clashes inevitable,” (has one ‘inevitable’ too many,) “might taken as provocation” (might be taken,) Diamba (elsewhere Diambra,) vocal chords (they are cords, not chords,) maws (employed as if it means ‘mouth’; a maw is a stomach.) “Over the course of their acquaintance, Cosimo had” (the comma is unneccesary.) “He treated every word as though they were a personal gift from God himself” (every word as though it was [were] a gift,) “waiting to lend from the secreta for months” (waiting to borrow from the secreta,) “‘I would have thought you all people would understand’” (you of all people,) “knocking the both of them to the ground” (knocking both of them; no ‘the’,) “not Jacopo’s own , but” (‘own, but’,) “but the city had turned his back on him” (its back,) “the only thing left to tether him to the world were the shackles clamped around his limbs” (the only thing left … was the,) “gh l” (x 3, elsewhere ‘ghül’,) “strip it all clothing” (of all clothing,) “for s rathole or a crack so small” (for a rathole,) “he bid farewell” (he bade farewell,) “as books spilled out over to the floor” (either ‘out’ or ‘over’, not both.) “Stuck dumb with shock” (‘Struck dumb’ makes more sense,) Fabrizo (elsewhere Fabrizio,) “their crafts on the water” (the plural of craft – as in sailing – is craft,) “she came across sealed note” (a sealed note,) stood (standing,) “there was rumours that” (were; or ‘there was rumour that’.) “‘But is it not the plague of the flesh that has driven it to its knees’” (‘But it is not the plague ..’.) “A group … are” (A group … is,) “they lay down their slates” (they laid down their slates,) “catching one of his attackers and sending them tumbling backwards” (it was a woman; ‘sending her tumbling’,) sat (sitting, or, seated.) “‘You were with here when I saw her last’” (with her,) “hard for her breathe” (to breathe,) “as its connected” (as it connected.)

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Hodder, 2022, 333 p. Reviewed for ParSec 4.

There are 380 parallel worlds which can be reached by Adam Bosch’s invention allowing travel between them. In all but eight of those worlds Caramenta’s doppelgänger is dead. That makes her valuable as only people with no counterpart in another world can traverse to it safely. As Cara puts it, that means trash people, poor black and brown people, since most wealthy scientists and the like are alive (and presumably, though this is not explicitly stated in the book, white.) Those other worlds are a resource tapped by Earth Zero – the only one with traversing technology. This is not recognisably our Earth and therefore nor are the other worlds Cara visits; but it could be descended from it. Civil wars occurred in its relatively recent history, as a result of which weapons capable of killing from a distance have been banned. The social organisation is very different, the environment harsh, the sun at its height all but deadly.

Bosch’s Eldridge Institute is in Wiley City, separated from Caramenta’s original home in the Rurals by mutual suspicion. In Ashtown, which Cara was desperate to escape, life is nasty and brutish and run by what is in effect a particularly cruel mafia style boss; or maybe his brother depending on the individual world. It’s the family business. Whichever Earth it is, these are men with whom Cara has a past. To ingratiate herself with him she had the name of one of them, Nik Nik, tattooed on her back. The comparatively cosy life in Wiley City is nevertheless still stratified – literally; the upper levels of Cara’s building are reserved for those with more standing in the Institute.

Traversers have built up a mythology where a Goddess called Nyame stalks the space between the worlds. Sometimes Cara can feel Nyame’s breath on her back as she shifts from one world to another and on the novel’s crucial traverse – to Earth 175 – she realises with horror the Goddess is crushing her bones. On 175, Cara’s dop, Nelline, is not dead. On 175, intrigued by that tattoo, its Nik Nik saves Cara’s life by putting her mangled body in a medical recovery pod. On 175, Cara begins to question all she knew about Earth Zero, especially when she meets Adam Bosch’s counterpart there.

And Cara has her own secrets. Her original name was Caralee, she is really from Earth 22 and had come across her doppelgänger from Earth Zero just after Caramenta died traversing from there, and, hearing controller Dell’s voice coming from her cuff giving the instructions to follow to get ‘back,’ Cara took the chance to replace her dop and escape her own Nik Nik’s violence. She has been living a lie ever since, treading a tightrope, all the while developing an overwhelming attraction to Dell, without knowing the crucial differences between herself and Caramenta. Only Caramenta’s (handily well kept) journal gave her any chance of pulling this deception off.

There is plenty more plot to be going on with, barely hinted at above, all mediated through Cara’s distinctive voice, self-questioning, thoughtful, loyal to those who treat her well but unforgiving to any who didn’t.

A scenario such as this might in lesser hands have produced nothing more than a pot-boiler but Johnson, while never neglecting the necessity for story, has taken the opportunity to treat with profound questions if you read closely. Questions about how personalities are formed; why we are who we are; what might have made us different; why we do what we do; not to mention highlighting the importance of close relationships.

In infinite universes there is a world somewhere in which you will like this book. Perhaps many worlds.

Pedant’s corner:- in the first chapter preamble; earth (Earth.) Otherwise; “releasing the heat from rising from the baked sand” (that first ‘from’ is redundant,) “on the worlds whose census list Nik Nik as emperor” (‘whose census lists’, or, ‘whose censuses list’.) “One less, I decide” (One fewer.) “‘Lay down’” (Lie down,) “inside of” (inside; no ‘of’, please) “pulling clothes out of the back of my closet that I haven’t worn in years” (syntax clanger. Why would someone wear a closet? – ‘pulling clothes that I haven’t worn in years out of the back of my closet.’)

Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji

Jo Fletcher Books, 2022, 365 p. Reviewed for ParSec 3.

Every once in a while someone reinterprets an old SF trope, as if to show that newness isn’t necessarily a be-all and end-all, that even the hoariest of SF concepts can be dealt with in an altered light. Here, Oyebanji has taken the idea of the generation starship, stirred up its components and laid them out in a new configuration. And the result is something which for long-time readers of SF is almost nostalgic, but also verges on perfect.

The inhabitants of the Interstellar Space Vehicle Archimedes are onto the seventh generation on board but the ship is nearing its destination star Tau Ceti, and Braking Day is imminent. Lending distinctiveness to Oyebanji’s vision the ship has an unusual construction, between the forward shielding and the, for now silent, drive engine to the rear its body is made up of wheels named after old Earth countries, each rotating to produce artificial gravity but at different rates and in a contrasting direction to its neighbours’. Another divergence from the generation starship norm is the employment of those lift-like conveyances known as paternosters for movement between levels within a wheel.

Archimedes and its fleet companions Bohr and Chandrasekhar fled an Earth under the control of AIs with the (somewhat convoluted) acronym of LOKI, loosely organised kinetic intelligence, each “capable of reconfiguring itself as it learns and remembers” – dangerous both in and of themselves but also to their potential vulnerability to hacking. On board, these are anathema – unlike the implants all the ships’ inhabitants have inserted as children to allow them access to the hive and its information. Nevertheless the ship’s society is fairly rigidly stratified by occupation, especially between officers and crew, but its organisation means there is little but petty crime and there has been no conflict as such for generations.

The viewpoint character is Ravinder T MacLeod, whose family is a traditional thorn in the officers’ side but who is training to be an engineer and is the butt of remarks about his origins and frequently scruffy appearance. Water is a precious resource and used as a currency and his lowly status ensures he goes from one pay day to the next trying to conserve it. A trip to the officers’ wheel, Australia, where water abounds, marks a huge contrast between his existence and theirs. His best friend in training, Vladimir Ansimov, is also of humble background but his main companion is his perennially rebellious – albeit in a relatively minor way – cousin Roberta, known as Boz, a coding wizard. Her habitual smoking of cigarettes annoys Rav not only since it’s against ship regulations but also because he knows how knackered the recycling systems are. He takes a fancy to fellow trainee Sofia Ibori, unattainable due to her high-ranking lineage.

There is some dissent in the fleet in the form of a group known as BonVoyagers, who wish not to contaminate the Destination World as their ancestors did Earth but instead hope to journey the spaceways forever. Unlike the invocation of the ship’s name in the favoured expression of exasperation, “for Archie’s sake,” shipboard slang – sarding, gullgropers – is a little cloying at first but later contrasts effectively with usage on another ship.

Enough scope there you might think for any novel, but Oyebanji has still more for us. For a while it feels like he might even be about to give us a ghost story as down in the deepest part of the ship’s engines where Ravi has been sent on a repair job he hears a tapping sound which seems to be coming from outside the hull. On peering out of a porthole he sees a woman with dyed hair – something never seen on board – but also apparently impossible as she has no space suit. Blink and she is gone but he glimpses her the next day on one of the companionways. Ravi also begins to experience a recurring dream (or a recurring start to one.) In addition, memories that are not his and where the name indicators for genders appear to be reversed intrude into his consciousness. There is, though, a rational explanation for these events.

Further elements of mystery are added when Ravi sees the Captain and Chief Engineer examining an underfloor duct, he feels the drive turned on at low power late at night, discovers adaptations to the ship’s hull where rudimentary weapons have been attached, Boz is conscripted to devise software for a torpedo and the fleet is set to silent running. Something is out there and it is a threat.

Not the least of Braking Day’s pleasures is that its characters are rounded, with entirely human hopes, fears, motivations and flaws – and it is superbly plotted. Along the way Oyebanji conveys the attitudes imbued by growing up in a specific environment when Vlad compares the safety of shielding, bulkheads and life support to the exposure of life on a planet right next door to a star, with an atmosphere likely to be stripped away at any moment, and rhapsodises on the fifty square metres on Destination World he might enjoy – an almost unimaginably (to him) large amount of living space. Oyebanji makes this all real for us. This feels like how life on such a starship would be.

There is conflict here to be sure, even ordnance being set off, but what a pleasure it is (an unusual pleasure these days) to read an SF novel whose protagonists’ first resort is not to violence but to talking, diplomacy if you will. I doubt I’ll read a better SF novel this year.

Pedant’s corner:- When a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue the opening quote mark is missing, Petrides’ (Petrides’s,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) maws (these were mouths, not stomachs,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of dialogue, another at the beginning of a different piece, “the quiet whirr of power tools did their job” (whirr is singular, the pronoun ought to be too, ‘its job’, but then the sentence would need rejigged, ‘there was a quiet whirr as power tools did their job’,) andnightclubs (needs a space,) crewman (not crewmember, I note,) Outside the ship there are bits of ice on the superstructure. Since water is a currency on Archimedes these would surely be harvested, but in any case, exposed to vacuum would more likely sublime away before that could be done,) also drones for working outside the hull expend puffs of vapour as they manœvre, surely a waste of precious resources. “‘It’s has to be’” (It has to be,) “waiting for answer” (an answer,) “with the all the ship’s barristers” (that first ‘the’ is unnecessary.) “None of them were easy” (None of them was easy.) “He heard her a yell” (He heard her yell,) “of what had had once been” (only one ‘had’ needed,) grill (grille,) the Newton crewman (was a woman.) “If worse came to worst” (in my youth was always ‘if the worst came to the worst’.) “The cloud of numbers surrounding Ao Qin were already changing configurations.” (The cloud of numbers surrounding Ao Qin was already changing configuration’,) “theBohr” (needs a space,) “the use drugs to lower heartrate” (the use of drugs; heart rate,) “by LOKI’s” (LOKIs,) “‘you wanting it to different’” (it to be different.) “‘But,, sir –’” (has a comma too many.)

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