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Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A Novel in Nine Parts. Sceptre, 1999, 446 p.

Ghostwritten cover

The novel is true to its sub-title. The first eight parts are all narrated in the first person from the respective viewpoints of a brain-washed cult member, perpetrator of a gas attack in a Japanese subway (in thrall to His Serendipity); a young half-Korean worker in a Tokyo shop selling jazz records; a compromised English banker in Hong Kong; a woman whose misfortune it was to live in China through most of the Twentieth Century; a mind-dwelling entity who can transmigrate from person to person by touch; a gallery attendant in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, who is an agent of an art-stealing syndicate; a London-dwelling, womanising ghostwriter; a female Irish physicist with the key to making atomic weapons worthless; and to round off we have transcripts from the broadcasts of Night Train FM, 97.8 ‘til late. The last two are awfully familiar but I can’t put my finger on from where (beyond the section set in Ireland in the same author’s The Bone Clocks.)

At first the connections between the parts seem tenuous, that between one and two is a misplaced phone call, between two and three seems to be a reference to the couple embarking on a love affair in part two, but gradually, the more sections come into play, the more resonances between them build up. Still, the Queen Anne chair mentioned in Hong Kong and a biography of His Serendipity seem lobbed into the London section when they arrive, gratuitous intrusions; the Music of Chance is the name of the ghostwriter’s band but also occurs as a phrase in a later section. Each part, though, is wonderfully written, suspending disbelief is never difficult – except in the case of the transmigrating mind entity, an interpolation of the fantastic which seems at odds with the realistic tone of the other parts. But then we find the fulcrum on which the novel comes to turn is a process called quantum cognition. This is not merely smuggling quantum physics into the literary landscape but making it the book’s focus – a piece of bravery (or potential folly) in a first novel which almost makes the previous mind-hopping seem mundane. “Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” is not the sort of comparison common in literary texts.

Asides like, “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,” or “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up,” is perhaps over-egging the pudding, however. “Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous,” is a pessimistic view of humanity. The last bit is always worth repeating, though.
The pessimism is carried on by phrases like, “‘Loving somebody’ means ‘wanting something’. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things,” but “‘womanisers are victims – unable to communicate with women any other way. They either never knew their mother or never had a good relationship with her,’” is more compassionate. The killer line follows as the womaniser is told, ‘I don’t quite know what you want from us. But it’s something to do with approval.’”

At one point one of the narrators says, “Italians give their cities sexes…. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.” I suspect all cities are secretly gay. “The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity,” is either a prescient thesis or one now in the process of hard testing.

Ghosts, of memories and of sentience, begin to permeate the book. “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,” while, “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting….. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us,” which leads to, “The real drag about being a ghostwriter is you never get to write anything beautiful.” Pessimism again.

But, “Technology is repeatable miracles.” That is the age in which we live.

I read in a recent(ish) review (of Slade House?) the opinion that Ghostwritten is still the best Mitchell has done. Not for me, of the ones I have read that would be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet but in Ghostwritten I found the intrusion of the fantastical elements took away from the whole. Perhaps if they had been fully present from the start – part one is in the viewpoint of a delusion sufferer, true, but it is only the later parts which suggest it may not be a delusion – I would have felt differently, but I suppose in that case Mitchell might not have found a publisher. It’s brilliantly written and the characterisation is superb, but paradoxically, I thought Ghostwritten came to something less than the sum of its parts.

Pedant’s corner:- “The rest of for ever in a cell” (forever,) in paper bag (in a paper bag,) the owner of the greengrocers across the street (greengrocer’s) he jubilated (as an example to be avoided of an alternative to “he said” that is an absolute cracker,) I stunk (stank,) flack (flak,) uppercutted (uppercut?) leeched (leached,) emporers (emperors,) wracked (racked,) a group of … were waiting (was,) “There are less than one hundred left” (fewer than,) noncorpi (Mitchell’s previous plural form for noncorpum was noncorpa.) “like a virus within a bacteria” (bacterium,) reindeers (reindeer,) Ulan-Bator (Ulan Bator,) more muscle that (than,) a trio were playing … (a trio was playing,) some passersbys (passersby,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) staunch (stanch,) acquatic (aquatic,) the only good thing about Oxford Street are (things; or “is”,) I’d betted (bet – used 12 lines above!) Kyrgistan (nowadays spelled Kyrgyztan,) scaley (scaly,) wrapped into ((wrapped in,) Maise (Maisie – but it may have been an affectionate diminutive,) “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Whiter,) “ ‘We skipped the last fandango” (light fandango.) “The only words for technology is “here”, or “not here” (The only words are,) “in Dr Bell and my case” (in Dr Bell’s and my case,) the aerobatic corp (corps,) practise (practice,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie,) coup d’etats (coups d’etat,) the Brunei’s (the Bruneis.)

NAT TATE An American Artist 1928 – 1960 by William Boyd

21 Publishing Ltd, 1998, 71 p.

NAT TATE cover

Complete with cover flap comments from David Bowie and Gore Vidal attesting to its subject’s importance this is an account of forgotten US artist Nathwell ‘Nat’ Tate, whose final artistic act was to burn as many of his works as he had managed to lay hands on (“perhaps a dozen survive”) before committing suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. The usual biographical conditions apply, obscure origins, father unknown, mother died young, adoption by her rich employer (emphatically not Tate’s father but an avid admirer and buyer of his work,) an influential teacher at Art School, chance viewing of his work by the founder of a gallery, socialising with other artists, the development of his style – aslant to that of his contemporaries and details of which Boyd provides – descent into alcohol, meetings with Picasso and Braque, disillusionment. The text is interspersed with photographs of three of the surviving paintings and various important stages of Tate’s life, four of which depict Tate but in only one is the adult artist the sole subject. Boyd gives us a convincing, if short, portrait of an artist and his life.

Yet the story of Tate is of course entirely fictitious. Not fictional, such biographies imagining the circumstances and lives of real people abound, but fictitious. Tate never existed. He is a total invention by Boyd.

On the book’s publication in 1998 the cover picture, containing as it does a cropped version of that black and white photograph of the adult “Tate” obviously photoshopped over a coloured one of New York, might have provided a clue to those not in on the joke but anyone at all familiar with Boyd’s work coming to it post hoc would be immediately aware of its confected nature on its first mention of Logan Mountstuart, protagonist of the author’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart. Boyd would also employ photographs to an equally verisimilituding end within the text of his 2016 novel Sweet Caress.

A hint of Boyd’s purpose in writing this book (apart from sending up the hagiographic artistic biography of the forgotten genius) may be gleaned from the passage where there are speculations on possible reasons for “Tate”’s destruction of his work and his suicide. “Tate was one of those rare artists who did not need, and did not seek, the transformation of his painting into a valuable commodity to be bought and sold on the whim of a market and its marketeers. He had seen the future and it stank.”
Pedant’s corner:- “the layers of white turps-thinned paint that was repeatedly laid over them” (Boyd treats this as if paint is the subject of the verb laid; that subject is in fact layers, hence “were laid”,) swop (swap.)

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2002, 254 p including ii p list of principal characters and ii p map of the North Atlantic Ocean. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Sea Road cover

This is the story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who sailed beyond the end of the world, gave birth to the first European to be born in the Americas beyond Greenland, voyaged to the court of the King of Norway and made a pilgrimage to Rome. Her tale is so extraordinary that I was irresistibly drawn to the parallel of Poilar Crookleg, whose first sentence (see here) I have echoed above.

Expanding on her source material in the Icelandic sagas, Elphinstone in The Sea Road has Gudrid’s storyframed by a Praefatio and Postscriptum written by Icelandic monk Asgar Asleifarsson who is – at the behest of Cardinal Hildebrand for the sake of some ephemeral Vatican political intrigue – taking down the memories of a Gudrid now a grandmother. On her dark (to Icelanders) appearance – though in Italy she is fair – she says, “Now it makes no difference. Old women are the same the world over.” The text is mostly Gudrid’s as supposedly written down by Asgar but there are occasional scenes observed in the third person and rendered in italics.

Elphinstone’s handling of her tale is exquisite. The characters live on the page and the relationship between Gudrid and Asgar is deftly portrayed. Despite his replies to her never being transcribed we still get insights into his thoughts and feelings. There is a prefatory list of principal characters which is unnecessary as there is never any difficulty in distinguishing them.

Gudrid was born just after Christianity had come to Iceland and on the death of her mother was fostered out by her father to his sister’s home. She herself was baptised when she was fourteen. There is tension between the old religion and the new in Iceland and Greenland both and some in Gudrid herself. Her first crisis comes when she is asked as a young girl to help a witch (this is the word used in the text) by singing along with the old songs.

Her father Thorbjorn, a friend of Eirik Raudi (Eric the Red) had always hankered after adventure and finally undertakes the voyage to Greenland taking Gudrid with him. Though of course the winters are harsh, through Asgar Gudrid tells us that “Eirik’s land is better than any she saw till she went to Norway” and at least till the time she left, “There have been no killings in the Green Land.” Leif Eiriksson, Raudi’s son, has by this time discovered Vinland. Gudrid might have been married to him but for his dalliance with an earl’s daughter in Ireland. Instead she marries another of Raudi’s sons, Thorstein, with whom she made her first voyage to Vinland, but he falls sick one winter in Greenland and dies along with Grumhild, the wife of their host Thorstein the Black. The two survivors spend five months in the same hut with the dead bodies, haunted by their ghosts. “In that place the dead watched everything,” she tells Asgar. “All that winter we were outside the boundaries of this world of yours,” and, “You look as if my callous attitude shocked you, and yet you’d not be shocked at all if I were a man and told you I’d wiped out a whole settlement in blood feud.” Spirits were never very far away in Gudrid’s world. “The launching of a ship is no place for new gods.” It is with a second husband, Thorfinn Harlsefni, come to the Green Land to make profit, that she again sails to Vinland and this time beyond.

Among Gudrid’s many insights we have, “You think there is a pattern to the way people behave… But I have never got to know any household well, when I didn’t find out quite soon that they don’t keep to the pattern….. the pattern doesn’t exist. I’ve never met a family that behaved normally. Have you?” which may be a comment on Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families. Then we have, “Girls are much harder to deal with generally but as far as I can make out boys of that age never think about anything except sex.” Make that boys of any age perhaps.

The Sea Road is a wonderful reminder that the Dark Age world was not as parochial as we might believe; a magnificently told tale about an extraordinary woman and extraordinary times, yet times which to Gudrid herself were unexceptional.

Pedant’s corner:- In the list of characters; Chirstianity (Christianity.) Otherwise:- Asgar mentions the clock; mechanical clocks were not invented till the late 1200s – but water clocks were well known, “the herd of ponies come out” (comes out,) Halldis’ (Halldis’s,) “the family quarrel with their neighbours” (the family quarrels with its neighbours,) Eirik says ‘Aren’t I enough for you?’ (Do Icelanders say this so ungrammatically? Wouldn’t they say, “Amn’t I?”) “none of her children believe” (none believes,) “the household have discussed” (has discussed,) staunch (stanch,) unfocussed (x2, unfocused,) “In the darkness Gudrid eyes escape the blank face of the dead” (Gudrid’s eyes,) Freydis’ (Freydis’s,) Chistendom Christendom.)

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2015, 477 p.

 Aurora cover

This is Robinson’s take on the generation starship novel, wherein he makes it clear what a risky and unlikely undertaking such an adventure would be. The ship contains a microcosm of Earth habitats spread through various biomes in an attempt to provide the future colonists with the wherewithal to survive on landfall and subsequently thrive.

We begin with the generation born just before arrival at the destination (Tau Ceti). The viewpoint is that of Freya, a seemingly cognitively impaired child (but really only mathematically) and whose deficiencies are symptomatic of the ship’s growing imbalances. Her mother Devi is the ship’s troubleshooter, interrogating and solving problems as they arise but increasingly frustrated at the finite nature of her resources.

The book has an odd structure, topped and tailed by sections focusing on Freya but with the five interior sections ranging more widely. The occasional odd word choice and sentence structure are clarified when it becomes obvious that the (five section long) middle part of the book is being narrated by the ship’s quantum computer AI. Comments such as, “How to decide how to sequence information in a narrative account? … sentences linear, reality synchronous. Devise a prioritizing algorithm, if possible,” give some of the flavour here.

The target world, Aurora whose name is given also to the ship, orbits gas giant Planet E. The colonists begin to set about making it habitable – a very long-term project – but a setback when one is injured, her sealed suit punctured, which leads to the death of not only her but also those with whom she shared the tented living space they’d set up, means abandonment. Those who had remained on the ship are evenly split between “stayers” – willing to try another candidate moon in the system – and “backers” – those who want to return to Earth. Conflict ensues – a rather depressing authorial conclusion here; you might have thought people would avoid that in such a situation. The novel then follows the backers on their long trip home alleviated by the somewhat fortuitous (for Robinson’s purposes; deus ex machina thy name is god) development of hibernation technology on Earth (in radio contact with the colonists throughout) in the interim.

Many passages are given over to Ship pondering its liability to succumb to recursive programmes and what is known as the halting problem plus other philosophical conundrums to do with language and existence, including a discourse on metaphor and numerous references to the presence of metaphors when they occur in the narrative thereafter. All of which is interesting enough at an abstract level but is no more than filler. Yet Robinson appears more interested in this and in the nuts and bolts of interstellar travel, its inevitable flaws, its lack of controllability, than in any of the humans he is depicting.

Some have been intrigued by the proposition that the most interesting character in the book is an AI. While that is true it is only because the so-called humans are little more than ciphers. Moreover it seemed at one point that the whole thing was devised solely to allow Robinson to make a pun on the phrase “halting problem”. Ship’s late conclusion that, “Love gives meaning,” is not borne out by any of the preceding prose.

File under “worthy, but no more”.

Pedant’s corner:- “a group of people ascend (a group ascends,) a group are packed (is,) ten g’s (an abbreviation subsumes its plural; so, ten g – multiple instances of g’s but towards the end of the book only g was used,) 1.28 deaths for every 100,000 births (that ratio would surely lead to a very rapid overpopulation of the ship and it is a plot point that human fertility is rigidly controlled,) a missing question mark, “and diffuse nebula” (nebulae,) flatted to white (what’s wrong with flattened?) “north of the Aurora’s equator” (no “the”,) “like Terran deltas [origin of phrase delta v?]” (a misdirection by Robinson – in the guise of the ship’s AI – as he must surely know that the “v” in “delta v” stands for velocity,) a series … were held (a series was held,) the median times…. was (the median time… was,) “‘Bacteria exposed to vacuum doesn’t grow very fast’” (OK it was dialogue but bacteria is plural; so, don’t grow very fast,) so that maybe (so that may be,) helmiths (helminths,) protozoa and amoeba (ameobae,) ambiance (ambience,) 2mankind … increased their destructiveness” (its,) “sent up to Tau Ceti” (sent us,) “she scoops up little sand crabs that makes her cry ‘Eek’” (make. )

BSFA Awards Booklet 2016

The End of Hope Street1 by Malcolm Devlin. First published in Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.
This is told in a curiously flat style which seems devoid of any feeling. Without explanation – which makes this fantasy rather than SF – the houses in the cul-de-sac of Hope Street are one by one becoming unliveable, death to anyone inside or who enters thereafter. The survivors are taken in by their neighbours, but matter-of-factly, not compassionately. The end of hope may touch a nerve in these unenlightened times but it’s a depressing philosophy.

Liberty Bird2 by Jaime Fenn. First published in Now We Are Ten, edited by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, July 2016.
The bird of the title is a racing spaceyacht about to take part in a prestigious race and piloted by Kheo Reuthani, scion of an aristocratic house but homosexual in a society which frowns on that – and where some such aristocratic clans have seemingly managed to survive the removal of an Empress from power. The plot hinges on the fact of Kheo’s sexuality being known to his chief engineer. It’s depressing that such repression of sexuality has to be continually commented on. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Taking Flight by Una MacCormack. First published in Crisis and Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, July 2016.
On reading this I was reminded irresistibly of the style and tonal quality of many of Eric Brown’s SF stories. Our (unnamed) narrator having come to find little satisfaction in the bustle of life in the core worlds remembers an invitation by Eckhart, an acquaintance from her privileged youth in college, to visit him on far-flung backwater Wright’s World. Eckhart appears distracted and fretful but arranges for his friend to travel up-country where the scenery is magnificent, the experience of gliding, on drugs, sublime and the secret of Eckhart’s behaviour is revealed. Apart from a single phrase to do with the passage of time and a slightly weak ending this is pitched perfectly.

Presence3 by Helen Oyeyemi. First published in What is Not Yours is Not Yours, an anthology from Riverhead Books, March 2016.
Jill and Jacob, two psychiatrists married to each other – both not in their first marriage – agree to take part in an experiment to simulate the presences of deceased loved ones some people experience after their bereavement. Jill and Jacob are each to feel the presence of the other but an unexpected different presence intrudes. I found the experience of reading this was marred by no less than 17 unusual hyphenations (pur- pose, drop- ping,) in the middles of lines which may have been a hangover from true line-breaks in the original publication.

The Apologists4 by Tade Thompson. First published in Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.
Somehow in taking over Earth the aliens didn’t realise it was inhabited. Only five humans survive but they don’t get on. They are kept alive and given work designing replacements for everything that was lost. Storm’s project is to design simulant humans, Katrina works on roads, buildings etc. But, as Storm says, “Humanity is defined by imperfections.”

Extract from The Arrival of Missives5 by Aliya Whiteley. First published by Unsung Stories, May 2016.
In the aftermath of the Great War Shirley Fearn conceives a passion for education and war-wounded Mr Tiller, her teacher. She goes to his house to speak to him about it and through the window witnesses something strange. This is well-written but unfortunately the BSFA booklet contains only an extract so it is difficult to assess.

In the non-fiction category, Paul Graham Raven’s essay New Model Authors? Authority, Authordom, Anarchism and the Atomized Text in a Networked World discusses an experimental piece of critical writing on Adam Roberts’s novel New Model Army which had appeared on the internet (and which he had uploaded to his clipping service) but which has now vanished – apparently without trace. Raven’s essay read to me as if it were a piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Lewis’ (Lewis’s,) the both of them (“both of them, or “the pair of them” not “the both of them”,) oblivious of (ignorant of was meant; oblivious means “unaware of”, not “unknowing”,) the community prided themselves (itself,) residents committee (residents’, x4) “there had been only few” (only a few,) “one of its residents found their way” (his, or her, way,) more-so (more so,) a sentence containing only subordinate clauses, may have (might have,) focussing (focusing,) “the neighbourhood fought to free themselves” (strictly, itself,) homeopathic (homoeopathic,) PIN number (PIN – the N already stands for number,) the chemists (the chemist’s.) 2miniscule (minuscule,) “Why were this mismatched pair meeting ..?” (Why was this pair meeting?) “a block of portholes have been elected” (a block has been selected,) seven year ago (years,) a lack of punctuation makes at least two sentences read oddly, publically (publicly,) forbad (forbade,) “‘But not every change is for the worst,’” (worse, I think that would be.) 3stood (standing,) focussed (focused,) four absences of paragraph breaks when a different person is speaking. 4none … yells (fine,) but none … mean anything (means,) none of us remember (remembers,) breathing heavy (heavily,) “I cannot move from the aches and pains” (for the aches and pains,) “I know there is such a thing as odourless solvents” (such things as,) whinging (I prefer whingeing) 5”Those from farming stock can possess…..if he is shown..” (those is plural, therefore, “if they are shown”,) smoothes (smooths,) “there are a handful” (is a handful,) Clemens’ (Clemens’s,) “which decorates the entire of his chest and stomach” (the entire? How about “the entirety” or “the whole”.)

Standing Female Nude by Carol Ann Duffy

Picador, 2016, 67 p.

Standing Female Nude cover

A reprint of what is stated to be Poet Laureate Duffy’s first collection but both Wiki and Fantastic Fiction have it otherwise. The slim volume contains 49 poems. A few are only 7 or 8 lines long, most are of longer length, some are sonnets and employ that most passé of poetic devices, rhyme. Much of Duffy’s verse here tells stories. Several deal with unsympathetic husbands.

This is a strong assortment of poems with the most memorable including Lizzie, Six which seems to be about child abuse, while Ash Wednesday, 1984 employs rhyme to emphatic effect in imploring parents not to subject their children to religion, Jealous as Hell uses unusual stripped-down syntax and grammar to help make its point, Terza Rima SW19 varies from classic terza rima rhyming but does so to good effect, Where We Came In is a modern take on La Ronde with divorcees meeting up complete with new spouses, Free Will dwells on the lingering effects of an abortion, A Clear Note’s three sections tell a story of three generations of women. The title poem examines the distance between an artist and his sitter, What Price? is about The Hitler Diaries and those who thought to make money from them, Borrowed Memory the reality of incidents in novels to some people’s sense of themselves, while Shooting Stars is a plea not to forget atrocities.

Irish Encounters by Keith Roberts

A short travel. Kerosina Books, 1988, 80 p.

Irish Encounters cover

This is an account, initially written for his friends, of a trip Roberts took to Ireland but which he later used as background for his BSFA Award winning novel Gráinne.

It was Roberts’s first time flying and he was nervous but was equally astonished at the quickness of the flight. His trip came before the Celtic Tiger days and Roberts contrasts Ireland – mostly favourably – with the England he had travelled from but does note encounters with beggars. The politeness and hospitality he met with were initially strange to him and he describes navigating Dublin’s streets in a hired car as a daunting task. On only one occasion did he encounter a lack of consideration, when a man in a pub questioned him about the North.

His comparison of real Irish pubs to those in England is very favourable, “smarter and cleaner, and the service leaves us standing.” The addendum, “Try asking for tea in your local English boozer; then count the number of times you bounce before you land in the street,” is perhaps no longer so true. Even so he says about English attitudes to Ireland, “bigotry is time saving; you can form opinions without troubling to get the facts.” It was the ancient monuments he was mainly there to visit though (Tara of the Kings etc.)

One of the things that struck me most about this account was that almost without exception every female (women and girls) Roberts mentions is described as either pretty or beautiful; he even goes so far as to apologise in his head and in print to the author of Molly Malone for assuming he had described Dublin’s girls as “so pretty” merely for the rhyme. Roberts also has a fascination for describing their eyes.

At his trip’s end he had a curious sensation that, “I was led, conducted, given as much at any one time as I could handle. Shown carefully what someone, or some thing, wished me to see,” and conceived “a debt to Eirann, and its tutelary deity”, a debt which became Gráinne.

I rarely read travel books and did so here only for completeness – though there is still some of Roberts’s œuvre I have yet to catch up with. But good writing is good writing wherever you meet it and Roberts was a good writer. Better than good.

Pedant’s corner:- nictating (nictitating,) a stationers (a stationer’s,) tricolors (tricolours,) facia (fascia,) a missing comma before a speech quote, a group of tourists are (a group is,) murmer (murmur.)

Interzone 268

TTA Press

Interzone 268 cover

Dave Senecal’s Editorial1 ponders the necessity of mystery to the creative impulse.Jonathan McCalmont’s column examines how SF got into its present sorry state and says it ought to return to preparing us for the future. If his example of Carl Neville’s Resolution Way is to be believed (not to mention the world’s political circumstances) that future may be hellish. Nina Allan’s Time Piece reflects on the different approaches required to writing fiction and non-fiction especially with regard to those recent political events. In the book reviews2 you’ll find mine of Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets, Maureen Kincaid Speller’s evaluation of Johana Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, Duncan Lunan’s review of Stephen Baxter’s H G Wells’s estate-approved War of the Worlds sequel The Massacre of Mankind and Shaun Green’s take on both Iraq +100 edited by Hassan Blasim and Adrian Selby’s Snakewood, while in 2016 Round Up3 Interzone’s regular book reviewers list their bests of the year. Despite not reading not much new fiction in 2015 Jo Lindsay Walton manages to produce an extended essay on the year’s fiction.

As to the stories, Everyone Gets a Happy Ending4 by Julie C Day features an unusual apocalypse. A plague of rabbits foisted on human wombs by Immaculate Conception.

The Noise & The Silence5 by Christien Gholson. In a world saturated by The Wall ceaselessly pounding out Orwellian slogans and musical pap, a resistance movement known as The Silence arose. It was put down but adherents hang on in the hidden places.

The Transmuted Child6 of Michael Reid’s story is Esmonde, thrown out by her family after her Erkess implant makes her drown her brother. Her new carer, Dao Nghiem, takes her to the Erkess home world to try to find a cure for her.

Mel Kassel’s Weavers in the Cellar are spiders kept in captivity to weave clothes and armour for their captors. Any thoughts of their species’ previous relationship are Unthinkable. But our narrator’s mother passed on knowledge of her heritage.

Freedom of Navigation7 by Val Nolan is set amidst a territorial dispute in the asteroid belt. Two of the narrator’s slaved AIs come to believe he is a traitor. For some reason I was reminded of the film Casablanca.

The Rhyme of Grievance8 by T R Napper follows the granting of human rights to the first AI. A woman who needed to finance a life-saving operation is recruited by those who see AIs as merely an extension of the powerful class to destroy it. I was reminded of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll.

Pedant’s corner:- 1wont (won’t; but Sevecal’s an artist not a wordsmith.) 2refers throughout to England rather than Britain. Perhaps Baxter did this, I can’t remember if Wells did. 3practise (noun; therefore practice) “the emotional contortions forces onto us” (forced,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) an italicised Thing is which didn’t seem to be a title, superrare (super-rare,) The Triump of Mechanics (Triumph,) 4unphased (apparently phased is a legitimate US variant of fazed. I prefer there to be a distinction in the spellings.) 5”The vibrations … was said” (were said.) 6Erkess’ (Erkess’s.) “A bundle of ropy organs descend” (a bundle descends,) 7“Part of the sides of my feet were numb” (Parts were numb,) florescent (fluorescent,) “the Belt Republic is moving one of their asteroids” (its asteroids,) “there was nothing us pilots liked more than mischief” (we pilots,) ci-Martian space (cis-Martian space?) “subservice activity via seismic shivers” (subsurface makes more sense,) ordinance (ordnance – used previously.) 8“The audience were” (was,) colourful vegetable and fruit (vegetables,) to sooth (soothe,) “up to white porcelain sink” (to the white porcelain sink.)

The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil

Hamish Hamilton, 2005, 269 p

The Stornoway Way cover

“If you are easily offended, consign this book to the flames immediately, or return it to the shop from which you stole it.” So begins The Stornoway Way, but not the novel of that name contained within this book. The conceit is that the embedded novel is a manuscript sent to our author Kevin MacNeil by one R Stornoway (yes, the schoolboy joke is acknowledged) whose real identity – the town of the surname being one where everyone knows everyone else; and their business – MacNeil has sworn to keep secret. I doubt we are supposed to be taken in by any of this. In any case there is not really too much to be offended by; except I suppose if you are one of those determined killjoys for whom “the Old Testament was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough” with which the Western Isles and Scotland generally have historically been saddled.

The cover is a work of genius, by the way, invoking both Whisky Galore and the island obsession, also shared by much of the mainland, with alcohol. The cartoon figure, blotto, with bottle still in hand, is a particularly apposite touch. Unlike in Compton MacKenzie’s book though, the dark side of alcohol dependency gets an airing here. In case this sounds gloomy I should say that in many ways The Stornoway Way is an amusing book, but while at times comedic it is never light, and always serious. (The recitation entitled “The Neighbours We Could Have Had” might not find favour in southern parts of these islands though.) And it has copious footnotes!!!! Who doesn’t love footnotes? Admittedly a lot of these are translations of various Gaelic terms – some of which aren’t even in the text – but better footnotes than a glossary. In them for example we find the Gaelic Sasanach has no pejorative connotations, unlike its Scots/English borrowing.

Before the internal novel begins we are presented with a map of Scotland upside down compared to the usual occidentation*. This helps to illustrate the point that in Stornoway, “We do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond, “Our blood relatives in Scandinavia to the left, our blood relatives in Ireland to the right.” Though “R Stornoway” perhaps overdoes it when he says, “The Western Islander’s response to our diminishing way of life is that of the oppressed the world over, from Native American to Australian aborigine: a powerful urge to drink oneself underground.” The Western Islanders – and the Scots – have been drinking themselves underground for centuries.

When the novel proper starts, poverty has brought would-be artist “R Stornoway” back to Lewis and his childhood home, which he had been avid to leave as soon as possible. From there we range over various incidents from his life, his first experience with alcohol being a seminal moment. In all of these, even his relationship with Eva, a student from Hungary, alcohol plays a significant part – as it does for Stornoway the town.

An example of the narrator’s sardonic humour occurs when he is accused of being uncaring – and an alky. He replies, ‘Some people will believe anything if you tell them it’s a rumour.’

His existential crisis comes when he wakes up beside a beautiful woman and, due to the booze, cannot remember who she is, how she came to be there, nor exactly what happened between them the night before. His decision to fetch the ingredients for breakfast without waking her backfires when he returns to find her gone. At this point there is still a substantial part of the novel is to come though. Eventually he comes to terms with himself and his relationship with alcohol. “Drink doesn’t give you a better sense of who you are, it gives you a nonsense of who you are.”

The latter part of the novel has a more downbeat nature than the delicious early chapters, concomitant with the cumulative effects of alcohol on the individual personality, but even with that The Stornoway Way is overall brilliant stuff.

*One of MacNeil’s coinages, see also gloominous clouds, muselicious.

Pedant’s corner:- smoothe (smooth,) Captain Moses’ place (Moses’s, several instances,) Stevens’ (Stevens’s.)

Strange Visitors by Eric Brown

Imaginings 8, NewCon Press, 2014, 158 p.

I ought again to point out that the author is well-known to me: is, indeed, a friend. I hope that this does not colour any appreciation – or lack thereof – of his output nor get in the way of any judgements or comments I make about his work.

 Strange Visitors cover

In any case in his introduction to this collection its publisher Ian Whates relays “stalwart of the British SF community” and former owner of Birmingham’s much-lamented Andromeda bookshop Rog Peyton’s opinion that Brown is our greatest living SF writer – as much for the author’s concentration on the humans in his stories as for anything else. Whatever, Strange Visitors contains an excellent body of stories displaying Brown’s range and it is striking here how often those which reflect humanity and its foibles most directly are the most successful and satisfying. Many of Brown’s perennial concerns are evident (religion surprisingly excepted) but their handling shows Brown’s assurance as a writer.

In Life Beyond…… 1 Brown pays effective homage to SF writer Clifford D Simak. An ageing writer faced with losing his recently orphaned grand-daughter to an adoptive family has a close encounter with a book-collecting alien.

Steps Along the Way2 is set thirty thousand years into the future where humans are effectively immortal, have spread all through the galaxy and can Enstate and Enable people from history.

Brown’s affection for the work of Michael G Coney shines through The Sins of Edward Veron3 where the titular Veron is an artist who has lost his ability to produce good work. Then an alien art collector from Mintaka V arrives at Sapphire Oasis. (SPOILER ALERT. There is a slight flaw in this story in that Veron seems to have been able to leave the Oasis the day after his wife died without engendering either suspicion or investigation.)

In Myths of the Martian Future4 Olinka and Tem, two crab-like cave dwellers on a far-future Mars, set out on their initiation rite on the surface. What they meet encompasses both the past of their species and a description of its future. There is a certain stiltedness in the narration, characteristic of all stories such as this.

The Scribe of Betelgeuse V5 is a tongue-in-cheek account of the invasion of Earth by octopods from Betelgeuse V, whose first act is to cause an episode of mass writers’ block. It manages to name check a couple of Brown’s writer friends as well as poke fun at the publishing industry.

The Rest Is Speculation6. Two and a half billion years into the future representatives of every sentient race that ever existed on Earth are gathered together by the Effectuators to witness its last days.

The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador7 is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche wherein the great detective is invited to investigate the murder of the Martian ambassador at Mars’s London embassy, where the two human employees are a certain Herbert Wells and Miss Rebecca West.

In Bukowski on Mars, With Beer8 Brown imagines how Charles Bukowski would cope after being brought back to life – along with all the greats – on a future Mars. The beer helps.

People of Planet Earth9 is an alien invasion story where the method of body snatching is exceedingly unusual, to say the least.

In P.O.O.C.H.10 Michael is punished for electronically stealing from the rich (but relaying the proceeds to charity) by being given his own Personal Omni-Operational Correction Hound; a robot which mimics a real dog in all respects.

Pedant’s corner:- A total of 20 occurrences of “time interval later” plus one “within seconds”. Each story has its title as a header on odd-numbered pages except The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador appears for both its own story and for The Rest Is Speculation and People of the Planet Earth appears for People of Planet Earth. Otherwise; 1USian spellings – disheveled, defense, etc; but…. manoeuvre. “of legion of thinkers” (of a legion; or, of legions.) “What if they alien” (the alien,) “I am loathe to give them up” (loth, or loath,) 2“men whose contribution to history were steps along the way” (contributions.) 3“accused her of having affair” (an affair,) “the piece in which I had tried to imbue” (the piece which I had tried,) back-peddling (back pedalling,) 4Barington (Barrington.) 5Carstairs’ (Carstairs’s,) stared at MS (the MS,) the BBC were on hand (the BBC was,) “I wil l-” (I will-,) Hemmings’ (Hemmings’s,) “‘I demanded reparations’” (demand.) 6a missing comma before a piece of dialogue, “this absence, this lacunae” (lacuna,) disk x 3 but disc x 1, “‘And they?’ I Kamis asked.” (‘And they?’ Kamis asked.) 7Wells’ (Wells’s,) “‘Was he is the habit….’” (in the habit,) “The slightest frowned marred” (frown,) “‘For a little short for six months’” (of six months,) Madame Rochelle’s (appears as Madame the first twice but subsequently as Madam, but this may have been an authorial distinction between that lady’s establishment and her person,) “‘if any of your ladies in the habit’” (are in the habit,) St Pauls (St Paul’s,) 8“A guy a silver suit” (in a silver suit,) “That last I remembered” (The last?) anther beer (anther beer sounds like great stuff but another beer was meant,) “to keep in breathable” (it breathable,) “and the all fucking” (and all the fucking.) 9the throes delirium (of delirium,) ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Speaker of the House’ (when starting a speech in Parliament the form is, ‘Mr Speaker, honourable members.’) 10”to answer to summons” (the summons,) descendent (descendant,) miniscule (minuscule,) you commands (your,) busses (buses.) Thirty minute (minutes,) banks accounts (banks’ accounts.)

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