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All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, 2016, 429 p.

 All the Birds in the Sky cover

This, Anders’s first novel, is a blend of Fantasy and Science Fiction which starts off reading like YA fiction but soon enough makes clear that it deals with adult matters too. Patricia Delfine very early in her life realises she is a witch when birds begin to talk to her and she can talk back. She also has a conversation with a speaking tree – The Tree. In school her path crosses that of Laurence Armstead, a so-called techno-geek, who invents for himself a two-second time machine for travel only into the future, and later builds an AI he calls CH@NG3M3. For both of them schooldays are a kind of purgatory, as they are picked on and bullied. Their home lives are little better, both using the other as a means of convincing their parents they are out doing what is desired for them rather than what they wish for themselves. Mixed in with all this is an assassin called Mr Rose who gets a job as counsellor at their school in order to monitor their activities. Despite appearing intermittently in the novel Mr Rose’s function is not really clearly defined.

Later the children’s lives diverge as Patricia finds the company of other witches (whose old division into Healers and Tricksters was patched over many years before.) She is always being warned by them of the dangers of Aggrandisement. It seems just about anything she does can be interpreted in this way. Laurence is recruited by Milton Dirth to work on his project to build a wormhole machine to take humans to another planet. In the background there is a large degree of environmental degradation which makes this construction seem worthwhile and in daily life an electronic device called a Caddy somehow engineers people’s lives to be better through apparently serendipitous meetings and the like. How all these things are connected and Patricia and Laurence’s coming together in adult life are central to the story.

There are some observations on human nature. In one of their conversations Laurence says to Patricia “‘no matter what you do, people are going to expect you to be someone you’re not. But if you’re clever and work your butt off, then you get to be surrounded by people who expect you to be the person you wish they were.’”

Oddly, despite the novel being written in USian I noticed the British usages, “a total wanker,” “for some emergency nookie,” and “one intense wank fantasy.” In addition I was delighted to see the phrase “head for the Dumbarton.” (The Dumbarton is a bridge over San Francisco Bay – the southernmost. Its name derives from Dumbarton Point, itself named after my home town.)

Though it has some flaws, All the Birds in the Sky is overall an impressive debut.

Pedant’s corner:- epicenter [sic] (it was a centre,) a missing comma before a quotation mark, a capital letter after a colon, “none of the computers were connected” (none .. was connected,) “‘to lay low’” (lie low,) Patricia at one point is said to have reasonably fullish breasts but later they are described as small, “Here’s what Isobel said to Laurence, just before the earthquake hit” is a poor – a dreadful – way to start a flashback.

Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland

Anchor, 1998, 411 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Jelly Roll cover

When a book’s epigraph is the passage from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which ends in, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” as uttered by Mephistopheles, you know its contents will not be an unalloyed bundle of laughs. Jelly Roll has its lighter moments but the subject matter is indeed serious.

The novel starts when Glasgow jazz band The Sunny Sunday Sextet’s saxophonist, Malc, who is a bit of a psychopath, decides, for domestic reasons, to stop playing with them. The ensuing discussions among the band’s members – in uncompromising Glasgow dialect – relate to whether to give up altogether or find a replacement, and even if doing the latter would be a wise move given Malc’s likely reaction. The prospect of a tour of the Highlands and Islands has the potential to sway things. The group’s drummer Paddy introduces narrator Roddy Burns (whose tipple is the unlikely Bailey’s) to his sister’s boyfriend Liam; who plays like a dream. He seems the perfect answer, young, gifted and ……. black. Embarrassments ensue when he comes along to the next band practice as Roddy has somehow neglected to mention that last fact to the other members. He thinks they are being racist and they think he is, precisely because he didn’t mention it. Liam’s response is to ignore any tension. It turns out this is his strategy to cope with the harassments he habitually has to endure because of his skin colour.

The novel then jumps forward in time to describe incidents occurring during the tour, taking in a roll-call of Scottish towns – Blairgowrie, Dunkeld, Crieff, Fort William, Inverness, Portree, Ullapool – which are usually described by an italicised gazetteer entry. (Ullapool’s is a touch harsh. It merely says herring 1788.) It is obvious we have missed something in the interim. A later return to events which occurred after Malc rejoined the band, with Liam as a supposed backing saxophonist, fills in the gaps. Malc is an unreconstructed racist, as his dubbing of Liam as ‘Banana’ emphasises. His tendency to violence and to pick fights is displayed in several scenes, including the plot’s fulcrum. Not that Malc is alone in his racism or indeed his violence. The band’s reception at one of the venues develops into a rammy due to elements of the audience taking exception to Liam’s appearance.

I assume the book gains its title from Roddy’s penchant for “jellies” (diazepam.) When I first read the blurb on the back I declined to buy it thinking it would not be for me but given my wish to complete that “100 Best Scottish Books” list (at least all the fiction on it) I subsequently could not ignore a charity shop copy at a very reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised – depictions of violence notwithstanding: there is a lot more going on in Jelly Roll than I have commented on. Its appearance on the list may be due to its highlighting of racism (in his youth Sutherland was the only Scots-African in Orkney) but it is certainly better written than some others which are on it.

Pedant’s corner:- the speaker grill (grille,) sunk (x3, sank,) sprung (sprang,) peninsular (peninsula,) “another thing comin” (another think,) whinging (to me ‘whingeing’ is the better spelling,) duffelcoat (duffel coat,) “to fall back onto” (fall back on to,) span (spun,) the watersedge (the water’s edge,) lungeing (conversely, lunging,) “seemlessly into the cultural fabric” (seamlessly,) twinging (twingeing,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) doppleganger (doppelganger,) “‘Ah’m ah fuck?’” (‘Am ah fuck.’) “fob us of” (off,) windowledge (window ledge,) Dunkin Doughnuts (I believe the company spells it Donuts,) “a hand held short” (hand held shot,) snuck (sneaked.)

Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas

Coronet, 1981, 252 p.

 Walk to the End of the World cover

This book has an odd, disjointed structure, being narrated sequentially from the point of view of four of its characters, Captain Kelmz, Servan d Layo, Eykar Bek and Alldera, before the final section, called Destination, which switches between the last three of those. It was a bit of a slog at first as there was a significant degree of information dumping and much of the story was told, not shown to us.

The setting is many, many years after The Wasting, where most of humanity was wiped out by various environmental disasters and their accompanying wars. The remains of humanity are congregated in a smallish land area known as Holdfast, bounded on two sides by The Wild and stretching from the inland town of ’Troi to Lammintown and Bayo on the coast with a slight seaside extension to Endpath. (These are – unneccesarily – outlined on a map which follows the dedication page.)

Holdfast is a subsistence society run by men who blame the descent of the species on women, here known as Fems and treated as subhuman slaves barely fit for the necessary breeding (which is looked on with more than distaste by the men, who are supposed to prefer same-sex encounters.) The litany of those “Dirties” who are the butt of the men’s displeasure at their reduced state is a list of all those whom political right-wingers have traditionally despised. They chant, “Reds, Blacks, Browns, Kinks; Gooks, Dagos, Greasers, Chinks; Ragheads, Niggas, Kites, Dinks,” and, “Lonhairs, Raggles, Bleedingarts; Faggas, Hibbies, Families, Kids; Junkies, Skinheads, Collegeists; Ef-eet Iron-mentalists,” adding, “Bird, Cat, Chick, Sow, Filly, Tigress, Bitch, Cow,” and, “the dreadful weapons of the unmen; cancer, raybees, deedeetee; Zinc, lead and mer-cur-ee.”

I note that in that second last list, of derogatory terms for women, Charnas has missed out the most potent, the c-word, which her characters would more probably have gloried in. (It may be she thought it would not get past her publishers. Possibly she tried, and they vetoed it.)

In Holdfast, intergenerational conflict is thought to be inevitable and male children are brought up not knowing who their father is (and vice versa.) This provides part of the motor for the plot as Eykar Bek, once Endtendant at Endpath, to where men go at the end of their lives for a ritual suicide, knows his father is Raff Maggomas but not his whereabouts. The plot involves d Layo, Bek and the fem Alldera variously hiding out from the men at Lammintown and Bayo before travelling to ’Troi where the final confrontationt takes place. As Alldera is set on finding the legendary free women in The Wild, whom we do not meet (and into which we do not venture) in this novel, scope is afforded for a sequel.

At time of first publication in 1974 the future postulated here may have seemed an overly pessimistic view of the future of gender relations – which then were becoming more fluid in the West. But suppression of women never really went away in the wider world and in these days of resurgent male chauvinism in the so-called “mature” democracies and the less polite areas of the internet, it is frighteningly plausible.

Undoubtedly feminist as Charnas’s intent was, as a novel, taking the gender relationships aside, the mechanics of Walk to the End of the World’s plot and the degree (or lack of it) of characterisation were pretty standard SF fare for the time.

Pedant’s corner:- a UK edition but printed in USian. Kelmz’ (many instances; Kelmz’s,) Maggomas’ (several instances; Maggomas’s,) pantomines (pantomimes,) flutists’ (flautists’) focussed (focused,) Chings (Chinks,) lambaste (lambast,) tattoed (tattooed,) Matris’ (x2, Matris’s,) gutterals (gutturals,) gasses (gases,) Robrez’ (Robrez’s,) a missing end quotation mark, “to wipe the thin film of pinkish blood, from the Trukker’s blade” (doesn’t need the comma,) metail-tipped (metal-tipped,) dismissal (dismissal,) mock-obsequity (mock-obsequiousness.)

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2010, 398 p.

The Stars in the Bright Sky cover

This is a sequel of sorts to Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos where a group of girls from the school Our Lady of Perpetual Succour went on a trip to Edinburgh from their town – known in Warner’s novels as ‘the Port’ – for a choir competition, but they saw it instead as an opportunity for a night on the razz in the big city.

Now adults, Kylah, Chell, Manda, Kay, Finn and Finn’s friend from university, Ava, are planning a holiday abroad. They meet up on a Friday evening at a hotel near Gatwick Airport preparatory to utilising a last minute booking for taking off to Europe, settling on Magaluf as a destination.

Much has changed since The Sopranos. In the interim one of them has had an abortion, another a baby – always referred to by mother Manda as ‘wee Sean’ – by a waster of a father, and Finn’s studies at Oxford have created a distance between them. She has, for instance, never been to Rascals, the Port’s newest night venue, which Manda in particular regards as the height of sophistication. (I use that last word in its modern sense rather than the original of world-weariness.) Despite, though, Ava’s upper middle class background they begin to settle down together and forge – or re-forge – bonds. Manda is something of a force of nature, overbearing and scornful, but also vulnerable. It is through her mislaid passport that the group’s plans go awry and they are forced to forfeit the already outlaid money and to spend the weekend in or around the airport and its hotels waiting for a cheap flight to Las Vegas. The interlude provides time for an eventful trip to Hever Castle and back plus copious drinking opportunities.

Incidental comments and snippets underline the contrast between those who stayed in the Port and those who left and Warner’s focus on the girls’ relationships lends a creeping claustrophobia to the situation. Their knowledge of and regard for each other, though, remain the central core of the book. Yet there are still revelations. In one break away from the others Finn describes Ava to Kay as “a legendary, awful cokehead” who, she hopes, has given it up.

Perhaps a not-so-subtle note of class consciousness on Warner’s part occurs when Ava says, “‘When you’ve plenty money there’s no such thing as a drug problem,’” because your parents can get a lawyer to get you off on a first offence. Yet if you live on a council estate the authorities will throw the book at you. Ava continues, “‘It’s all semantics. What problem? You have a supply, you have no drug problem.’”

As befits his characters the dialogue tends to the earthy but Warner’s ability to get inside the heads of young women eager for a bit of hedonism (some of whom are customarily given small chance of that) is impressive.

I did not much take to The Sopranos when I read it, nor to the rest of Warner’s early work, as I said here on his later novel The Deadman’s Pedal. However I found both that and his The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven more congenial. The Stars in the Bright Sky was published between those two books. Does it say something about me or Warner’s later writing that I had less of an aversion to it than to The Sopranos? (I’m not in a hurry to go back to that book and check, though. Too much else to read.)

Pedant’s corner:- ballisters (balusters,) a missing end quote mark, “‘you credit card’” (your credit card,) ass (it’s ‘arse’ – which is employed later,) “the swinging toilets door” (toilets’ or toilet’s.) “Hanging from … were a gang of” (was a gang of.) “A moody pocket of lads were stepping out” (strictly, a pocket .. was stepping out.) “A babble of excited voices were …” (strictly, a babble … was,) “a vast mass of …were visible” (a vast mass … was visible,) “high jinx” (high jinks,) sprung (sprang.) “The vast bulk of … were back” (the vast bulk …. was back.) “‘That a sweet thing ..’” (That’s a sweet thing,) “the camera was a snugged, tight lump was in the skirt pocket” (no second ‘was’ needed,) “laying in the lap” (lying,) shrunk (shrank,) “she was laying out long upon her bed” (she was lying out,) sunk (sank,) “with a curled lips” (no ‘a’.) “‘You don’t seems nervous.’” (seem,) “a dossal attached to their sides” (dorsal?)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Harper Collins , 2017, 342 p.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine cover

This novel is divided into three sections, the very long Good Days, the shorter Bad Days and the even shorter Better Days. Viewpoint character (and narrator) Eleanor Oliphant is a loner who affects to be precise and fastidious, with supposedly little grasp of cultural norms, a bit of a joke to her work colleagues. But she sends herself to sleep at the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka.

Eleanor Oliphant is, of course, far from fine. It is apparent from very early on that her narration is likely to be unreliable – the vodka alone would suggest that – but Eleanor’s past is obviously very troubled indeed. Her abusive, and abusing, mother talks to her once a week over the phone from prison. The crime she committed we don’t know until much later (but a series of hints, subtle and otherwise, the biggest being the fact of Eleanor’s facial scarring, allows us to guess) and she is responsible for many of Eleanor’s attitudes to society, her peers, officialdom and herself. It is her mother’s inner voice that Eleanor hears when she is considering any course of action.

It’s a fine line to tread as an author where the reader knows that bit more about what might be going on than the narrator seems to, an even finer one when the narrator is hiding things from herself (and therefore necessarily from us.) By and large Honeyman succeeds in this, though.

Eleanor has conceived a liking for, an attachment to, singer Johnnie Lomond, whom she thinks might be the one to make her whole. She has, of course, never met him; so has no idea of his character. Into her orbit comes the IT man at her workplace, Raymond, who to Eleanor’s eyes is slovenly in dress and appearance and repugnant in habits due to his smoking. (Drinking vodka to excess seems to be all right, but smoking isn’t.) Nevertheless, Raymond and she begin to go out for lunch occasionally. It never crosses the narrative’s mind that this may be a prelude to more than friendship (but then Eleanor is obsessed by Mr J Lomond.)

When Raymond teases out some details of her past she denies it was so bad and says she thinks herself lucky because, after her mother was off the scene, she was looked after by adults. That did not stop her from again suffering abuse – mental, physical and sexual, mercifully briefly described – by a boyfriend she had at University.

Perhaps the crucial point of the novel is when Raymond and Eleanor witness the collapse in the street of an oldish man called Sammy, to whose aid they come, calling an ambulance and accompanying him to the hospital. In the aftermath of this they become almost part of Sammy’s family.

Her inevitable breakdown comes and Eleanor starts to see a therapist. Initially reluctant to reveal anything of herself she eventually lets her guard down and we learn the details of her childhood trauma.

Or do we? We only have Eleanor’s word for it that those events as described to us are true. It is a testament to Honeyman’s handling of the narrative (a few slips in Eleanor/Honeyman’s precision aside) that even after the revelations there is still a niggling doubt as to who was responsible. It remains possible that hidden deep inside her there is an alternative, much darker, explanation for the tragedy that befell Eleanor’s family. After all Eleanor Oliphant is an unreliable narrator, and quite possibly, disingenuous.

Pedant’s corner:- “bon mots” (bons mots,) “Mr J Lomond Esq.” (the correct description is either Mr J Lomond, or, J Lomond Esq.) snuck (x2, sneaked,) Mearns’ (Mearns’s.) “None of his muscles were visible” (none … was visible,) “there were a variety of” (there was a variety of,) “at the hairdressers” (hairdresser’s,) sprung (sprang,) crystalizing (crystallising.)

Resolution Way by Carl Neville

Repeater, 2016, 395 p.

 Resolution Way by Carl Neville cover

Ah. The drawbacks of writing near future SF. In this novel Scotland seems to be independent (not that much is made of that) yet there hasn’t been a UK referendum on EU membership. What there is, is an extrapolation of what life might look like under a right wing regime which treats workers as scum and non-workers as even worse.

It seems at first to be about the attempt by Alex Hargreaves, writer of a novel called Gilligan’s Century which plagiarised earlier works but was excused by him as being a kind of remix, into the life and archive of disappeared (and thought dead) 1970s pop musician Vernon Crane. Hargreaves has come across one chapter of a novel written by Crane but knows other chapters were scattered among Crane’s friends. Hargreraves wants to publish it as his own. The tale is then broadened out by the use of a succession of different viewpoint characters, a strategy which serves to flesh out this future dystopia (though it doesn’t seem too much of a leap for society to get there as many of the harsher elements are incipient in the concept of austerity) showing it from various angles.

An example of present day trend extrapolation is that the employees of fast food franchise Heart of Chicken have to wear a plastic heart on their chests, an affective monitoring system which glows if they are happy, and if it doesn’t glow customers get a refund. Cue customers making employees lives miserable and the highest staff turnover rate in the world. (A similar technology is used in brothels.) Then there is the Community Giveback scheme where unproductive (or just unlucky) members of society have to work off debt or simply gain subsistence by it. This can extend into Permanent Giveback, when the recipients of this largesse by the state are obliged to have children so that they can pay off the debt.

It’s a horribly plausible description of a world where solidarity and fellow feeling have all but evaporated and public considerations have devolved into rampant individualism – and outright cruelty. About the only quotable phrase in the novel, though, is the rumination, “Music and love and sentimentality: dangerous drugs.”

The final section, titled Resolution, where we revisit the viewpoint characters in much shorter chunks, didn’t work for me and the alternative endings to characters’ stories we are provided with, as well as smacking of an author having his cake and eating it, did not chime with everything that had gone before. Even so Resolution Way has its moments and Neville inhabits his viewpoint characters’ heads convincingly. But, oh my…. What a list for Pedant’s corner.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a small number” (there was a small number.) “5trhere were a series of adverts” (there was a series,) “‘he might have distributed things too’” (to,) “laying on his back” (lying – plus one more instance of laying where lying is the correct word) Hargreaves’ (x3, Hargreaves’s,) “the locked draw of his desk” (drawer,) “to take her mind of things” (off things,) Louise (elsewhere spelled Lewis, but this is the girl’s mother’s viewpoint and she is probably using Lewis’s given name rather than the version she may have chosen for herself,) “as a women” (woman,) “raise a few wains” (this West of Scotland word for kids is spelled weans,) “and slides into the machine” (slides it into the machine,) snuck (sneaked,) “a gaggle of schoolkids run” (a gaggle … runs,) “if he wanted too” (to.) “Ahh yes” (usually ‘Ah yes’,) “off in quiet corner” (in a quiet corner,) “some lingering anxiety about … have held her back” (some lingering anxiety … has held her back,) “a spectacularly attractive women” (woman,) unstaunchable (unstanchable,) curb (kerb,) “later on he has meeting” (has a meeting,) “stuck up a friendship with” (struck up,) Lewis’ (Lewis’s,) “of how not to be slave” (a slave.) “The same company that are trying” (that is trying,) “her work log and pen …. and lays it down” (and lays them down,) “the way the body is a whole, interconnected system” (no comma needed.) “That must have has soaked up ..” (either ‘must have’ or ‘has’; not both,) “so a series of …. have been set up” (a series .. has been set up,) “Peter’s has been” (Peters has been,) “to numerous players, each of whom use it in different ways” (each of whom uses it …,) “he’s had had to listen” (only one ‘had’ needed,) “not quite the young, brilliant billionaire though he was” (not quite the young, brilliant billionaire he thought he was,) focussed (focused,) “naught but a whisp,) (wisp,) waitress’ (waitress’s,) epicentre (centre,) “from the desk draw” (drawer,) whiskey (whisky,) Ferris’ (Ferris’s. I gave up noting these errant apostrophes much earlier in the book, this happened to be on the same page as another literal,) “let’s the petrol pour onto the rug” (lets the petrol. This – and the draw/drawer confusion earlier – are pretty unforgiveable mistakes to make,) “What’s left of his face begin to tremor” (begins,) “and a four rapid little taps” (and four rapid little taps,) “under and Immigration Threat Relocation Order” (under an Immigration Threat Relocation Order,) “as the crowd from the enclave head” (as the crowd … heads,) “she wants to give her mum piece of mind” (peace of mind,) a missing full stop at a section’s end, “with a dead Author” (author.) “He said that you would kill me to have me” (‘He said that you would kill to have me’ makes more sense.)

Spring by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 346 p.

When a novel starts with a diatribe containing, among other like things, the words,“What we don’t want is facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth … we want muslim women a joke in a newspaper column we the laugh we want the sound of that laugh behind them wherever they go,” and we recognise them as an accurate reflection of the times then we know the body politic has gone to a deep, dark, unpleasant place – and we also know that literature is probably not up to the task of ameliorating it. This is the first of a series of interludes which separate the “story” elements of Ali Smith’s third instalment in dissecting post EU referendum Britain. Not all these interludes articulate an anti-Brexit viewpoint. The opposite attitude is also given a voice as is the hidden data-mining agenda of social media platform providers.

There’s more in that first diatribe though. “We need to suggest the enemy within… we need enemies of the people we want their judges called enemies of the people we want their journalists called enemies of the people we want the people we decide are enemies of the people called enemies of the people we want to say loudly over and over again on as many tv and radio shows as possible how they’re silencing us … we need news to be what we say it is. We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it.”

And it’s chilling when set down all at once. Against that, what chance has a mere novel of gaining traction?

The plot is bifold. Richard Lease, an old producer of TV plays (which is to say a producer of TV plays in the past, not that he’s not knocking on a bit) who speaks to an imaginary child, a version of the daughter he no longer speaks to in the real world, has been invited to produce a new programme – an adaptation of a literary novel about Kathleen Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke – who happened to live in the same hotel in Switzerland in 1922 but didn’t meet – and in which nothing much happens. The TV script is appalling though, having the two embark on an affair even though Mansfield at the time was on her death bed. Richard goes to his old script-writer friend Paddy (Patricia Heal) for advice. She is ill and her children desire as little disturbance to her as possible. Her eventual death hits Richard hard and he decides to take a trip north on a train, and he tries to commit suicide when he disembarks.

The second strand involves Brit (Brittany Hall) an officer in a detention centre who finds her humanity being ground down by the system; soul crushing for detainees and officers both. Here a young girl has somehow walked into the centre and got to talk to its governor, persuading him to have the toilets cleaned properly. It is also rumoured that the same girl had managed to infiltrate a brothel to dissuade punters from their intentions and emerged unscathed. Even if it is a riff on Shakespeare’s Pericles this magic realist style intrusion is troubling. That literary form emerged from societies where freedom of expression suffered certain constraints. Is this where we are now? Is this our salvation? Our only hope of some humanity in public services is through magical interventions? Where truth is not the first casualty of war but a hostage to whoever can shout loudest? Where to assert something is to demand that thing’s validity be unquestioned? Against Twitter and Facebook, literature is a lumbering sloth.

A further comment on the times is given when a dying Paddy says, “‘I’m that thing nobody out there thinks is relevant any more. Books. Knowledge. Years of reading. All of which means? I know stuff,’” and another reflects, “She’s, what’s the word? Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life anymore. She is good.”

The two strands come together when the young girl speaks to Richard as he is lying on the railway line and says she needs him to stop that. Thereafter all three travel on to Culloden Moor for a dénouement of sorts.

Given what has gone before, the hint of regeneration – of the month of April being characterised as a harbinger of better times to come, of spring as when the old gods are about to be reborn is perhaps a little optimistic.

Pedant’s corner:- This book has that unjustified right margin which is a feature of all Smith’s publications. Otherwise; “she walked passed” (past,) an uncapitalised beginning to a sentence.

the Extremes by Christopher Priest

Scribner, 1999, 398 p.

the Extremes cover

FBI operative Teresa Simons has lost her husband in one of those shooting incidents typical of the US. In an attempt to assuage her grief and probe the circumstances of similar tragedies she has travelled to her native England, from where her parents emigrated when she was young, to visit the south coast town of Bulverton, also scene of a (much less typical) mass shooting several months before. In her FBI training to improve the responses of law enforcement agents in such cases Teresa had undergone many immersions in virtual reality scenarios of shooting incidents. We are given accounts of several of these where Teresa inhabited the minds of different participants – victims, bystanders, perpetrator. Commercial VR outlets are also a feature of this world and, in them, shooting simulations (as well as the inevitable porn) are widely popular. Employees of the GunHo Corporation, purveyors of ExEx (extreme experience, their version of virtual reality, which overall amounts to the second largest economy in this world) also occupy the hotel where Teresa is staying and are willing to pay the town’s inhabitants enormous sums for their recollections of the fatal day.

Like Philip K Dick, Priest has always been a slippery prospect. In his work appearances can be deceptive and reality tenuous. As Teresa delves deeper into ExEx’s wares, trying to find the limits to their scenarios, the outside world starts to become less concrete. If, in a scenario, you enter an ExEx property within it and immerse yourself in one of its simulations where will you emerge when you activate the trigger that is supposed to restore you to the ‘real’ world? In particular she has to face up to her own responsibility for, within an ExEx simulation, inadvertently showing the Bulverton shooter how to handle the gun he is carrying. Is she to blame for the subsequent deaths? This has the potential to takes us down a rabbit hole which Priest manages to sidestep but the phrase, “Extreme reality was a landscape of forking paths,” is undoubtedly a nod to Borges’s famous short story wherein he presaged the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics by decades.

The subject matter invites comment. The fascination some people have with guns is undoubted but I suspect they would not be swayed out of it in any way by the observation, however true, that, “the more there were people who owned guns, who made themselves expert with guns, who prepared to defend themselves with guns, who went on hunting trips with guns, who mouthed slogans about freedom and rights being dependent on guns, the more those guns were likely to be abused and to fall into the wrong hands.”

As usual Priest’s characters are well drawn and believable. This is so even within the virtual realities. For a twenty year-old narrative this still holds up remarkably well.

Pedant’s corner:- On the cover and spine the title is given as the Extremes but the title page has The Extremes. At times the narrative slips between English and USian usages. Otherwise; Mrs Simons’ (Simons’s,) epicentre (centre,) “in bright orange shirt” (in a bright …,) “the police Swat team were trying to gain access” (the police Swat team was trying ….) “A crowd … were staring” (a crowd … was staring,) non-antibioticly (non-antibiotically?) Mrs Williams’ (Williams’s.) “She thought, Any more of this and….” (Either put the ‘any more of this and….’ in quotation marks or lose the capital ‘A’.)

Body of Glass by Marge Piercy

Penguin, 1992, 590 p.

Body of Glass cover

In a post-environmental disaster, post-nuclear war world dominated by commercial multis Shira Shipman has returned to her domed home of Tikva after Y-S, the multi she worked for, awarded custody of her son, Ari, to her husband. In Tikva she finds that Avram has created a(n illegal) cyborg, Yod, named for the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (He – Piercy depicts Yod as male and to all intents and purposes fully human – has had nine less successful predecessors.) Shira’s grandmother Malkah has helped Avram to construct Yod’s persona as the previous efforts had lacked, for want of a better word, humanity. Complicating Shira’s return is the presence of Avram’s son, Gadi, Shira’s first lover and a producer of computer generated entertainment, but who is constitutionally incapable of keeping himself to one woman. There is an ongoing effort to keep Yod’s nature secret within Tikva, always under threat of attack by information pirates, and to prevent Y-S from gaining control of him for itself.

Paralleling this narrative and taking up one out of every three of the book’s chapters we are treated to the story of the golem of Prague (called Joseph,) created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Prague ghetto’s inhabitants from their gentile neighbours. This is presented as if Malkah is telling it to Yod and is interesting enough but is really meant as a counterpoint to Tikva’s situation – though there are perhaps too many similarities between the two strands of the book (the would-be independent woman in Prague, Chava, is what Malkah considers herself to be) – and also to act as an illustration of the struggle against the perennial prejudice Jewish people have suffered throughout history. The inhabitants of Tikva seem all to be Jews but that is more or less incidental to the plot in those sections, whereas in Prague it is the central consideration.

The contest between Shira and Y-S for custody of Ari and of Tikva with Y-S makes up the meat of the plot and provides most of the science-fictional interest – she and Yod themselves undertake what is in effect a cyber attack on Y-S, very William Gibson – but these are in many ways the least satisfying aspects of the novel as Piercy is considering what it might mean to be Jewish (Jewish words and customs are liberally sprinkled through both strands) and, in the characters of Yod and Joseph, interrogating what it means to be human. While Joseph and Chava do not, Yod and Shira become close and eventually lovers. Yod is of course more accomplished than either Gadi or Shira’s husband ever were – or could be. In one of their conversations Shira tells Yod telepathy is a prominent human fantasy – usually of women, who wish they could understand what men want and tell men what they want. Not that their relationship, and that of Shira with Malkah, is without complication. This is a fully fleshed out narrative, more intricate than I have room to set down here. It’s easy to see why it won the Clarke Award in 1993.

I noticed the phrase, “my wee installation.” Is there perhaps a Scottish influence on Piercy there?

Pedant’s corner:- The publication date given is 1992 but the author information tells us this won the Clarke Award in 1993, so it must be a later reprint. Otherwise; Fernandez’ (Fernandez’s,) hung (several times, hanged,) “a epiphenomenon” (an epiphenomenon,) “conveyer belt” (conveyor belt,) “Each people has their own road, their own destiny” (has its own road, its own destiny. People is treated as singular two lines below this!) “If she were Gadi, she would not be careless in turning his back to Yod” (if she were, then she would not be careless in turning her back,) “a group of Jews … follow after” (a group … follows after,) “the doctor yanks it free as she streams, the blood spurting out” (as she screams,) “to staunch the rush of blood” (stanch.) “Malkah shuffled after here” (after her.) “Because the house disapproved of him so strongly she wondered sometimes if an occasional message did not get lost” (she wondered sometimes if an occasional message got lost,) “eighteen hundred point fifteen hours” (eighteen hundred point one five hours – especially as this is an AI [the house] speaking,) plasticene (plasticine.)

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then, what constituted real. Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

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