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BSFA Awards Booklet 2019

British Science Fiction Association, 2020, 72 p.

 BSFA Awards 2019 cover

Four of the six “stories” in the short fiction category are extracts from longer works.
The first To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers1 is couched in the form of a report from one of the first human expeditions to an exoplanet back to an Earth fourteen light-years distant. There are some aspects of Chambers’s writing which have improved since I read her first novel but still in evidence here was that impulse to dump unnecessary information. For example, why give us an account of the (Earthly) life cycle of a metamorphic insect? By all means mention it; but to expound on the detail? Similarly authors ought to avoid formulations like, “If enzyme patches are still used medically, you know this already,” providing the example of an insulin patch for diabetics. On reading this I had the thought that Chambers is either still writing amateur fiction or else writing Science Fiction for people who don’t read Science Fiction.
Jolene by Fiona Moore2 I read in Interzone 283.
Ragged Alice by Gareth L Powell3 is again an extract. Set on the west coast of Wales we are following the investigation of female detective Holly Craig who has the ability to see people’s inner light, or darkness. This deals with information dumping much more subtly and more naturally than did Becky Chambers.
The Survival of Molly Southborne by Tade Thompson (an extract again) is one of those “many lives” narratives which have become common. Here drops from Molly Southborne’s blood can generate genetically identical duplicates of her. These usually turn on her and try to kill her. The story is narrated by the last one, whom Molly has trained to survive her own death in a fire.
For Your Own Good by Ian Whates4 is about a man who has spent his life working towards AI rights waking up in different virtual realities. The moment when his car’s AI adds a vocative, “Dave,” to its sentence when first addressing him is chillingly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also acts as a foreshadowing emphasised by its later phrase, “‘It’s for your own good, Dave.’”
I read This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone5 for review in Interzone 283 (see link above.) I don’t usually post those reviews here till a year has gone by but will make an exception in this case in my next post. Suffice to say I thought it was excellent.

As to the non-fiction:-
In Chapter 6 of “The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein” by Farah Mendlesohn (reprinted here) the author argues that Heinlein’s support of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment’s ‘right to bear arms’ is, as evidenced by his fiction, more nuanced than people usually allow, as such carrying is shown as being almost useless.
The introduction to “Sideways in time: Critical Essays on Alternate History” by Glyn Morgan and C Palmer-Patela featured here says the form is not merely a sub-genre of SF, illustrates its long history distinguishes between the counterfactual (academically accepted,) and fiction and outlines three different kinds of altered history stories, the nexus, the true altered history and the parallel worlds story.
The extract from “About Writing” by Gareth L Powell boils down to ‘just do it’.
H G Wells: A Literary Life by Adam Roberts looks in detail at Wells’s A Modern Utopia.
Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit by Jo Lindsay-Waltonb discusses the role of work in Star Trek’s post-scarcity utopia.

I won’t get round to the two novels I’ve not yet read and I’m not too enthused about any of the art works nominated this year.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“The closest access I had to nature were the hydroponic planters” (closest access … was the …,) “soft-ware … neighbour-hood” (why the hyphens?) “How can anyone be expected to care about the questions of worlds above when the questions of the world you’re stuck on those most vital criteria of home and heath and safety – remain unanswered?” (needs a comma after ‘stuck on’.) “It didn’t matter where you from” (where you were from.) 2This has the sort of underlining used in manuscripts to denote when a word is to appear in italics in the final version, “to lay over top of it” (over the tp of it,) it’s set in Britain and narrated by a Brit so why the use of ‘pickup’ for a truck and ‘veterinarian’ for a vet? 3whiskey (it was a single malt, so, whisky. The second time ‘whiskey’ appeared may have been referring to Jack Daniel’s, so I’ll let it off,) “he tended to avoid the alcoholic binges which tended to follow team matches” (one ‘tended’ too many inside the space of eight words,) the text also mentions “a recently laid-off teacher” (such a teacher would have to have done something major to have been dismissed, lay-offs are highly unusual.) 4Ballearics (Balearics,) sprung (sprang.) “‘Humankind will be made aware of how far beyond them we are,’” (how far beyond it we are.) “‘Humanity must believe they can continue to trust us,’” (believe it can continue to trust us.) 5“knew one other” (knew one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres.)
aascendency (ascendancy.) b“That is is” (only one ‘is’ required,) “making a Data a slave” (making Data a slave,) Keynes’ (x7, Keynes’s,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s – used later,) “becomes freighted cognitive and emotional significance” (is missing a ‘with’ before cognitive.)

Passing On by Penelope Lively

Penguin, 1990, 214 p.

 Passing On cover

Helen and Edward Glover have into middle age lived with their overbearing mother Dorothy (from whose clutches their younger sister Louise had long since escaped by marriage) in a crumbling pile called Greystones which has an accompanying area of land known as the Britches. The novel starts at Dorothy’s funeral with Helen reflecting, “Eternal life is an appalling idea, especially in mother’s case,” and thereafter traces the lives of Helen and Edward in the following weeks. Helen has a part-time job at the local library, Edward teaches at a nearby girls’ school but it is their inner lives which foreground the book.

In its initial stages the novel is deceptively light in tone, like a cross between The Shell Seekers and The New Moon with the Old, but as it progresses it develops an accumulation of detail which underpins its seriousness.

The terms of Dorothy’s will come as a shock. She has left Greystones to Louise’s teenage son Phil, now in that rebellious stage, adorned by a black crest of hair streaked with green, but with Helen and Edward having the right to live in the house until death. Only the Britches has been left to the Glovers. This is in one sense suitable as Edward has always felt more at home with nature than people (“the natural world thinks nothing and neither laughs nor cries,”) awkward at dealing with the world, and Helen is increasingly brought into the company of solicitor Giles Carnaby through dealing with the probate. She finds herself falling for him. She still sometimes sees her mother in the house and hears Dorothy’s voice in her head commenting on her foolishness. Dorothy’s classification of girls had been, “Pretty was best, clever was worst.” Her disparagement of any friend – especially male – Helen might bring home made sure she stopped doing so. While clearing out a cupboard Helen finds that Dorothy many years ago, by accident or design (but the narrative leaves little room for doubt which,) prevented an attachment developing by not passing over a letter Helen had received from Peter Datchett. Running in and out of the narrative is local builder Ron Paget, whose yard neighbours Greystones, and who is always out for the main chance and has perennially had his eyes on the Britches as ripe for development.

The interactions of the characters can verge on the seemingly mundane, Helen’s almost adolescent infatuation, her does-he doesn’t-he should-I-contact-him thoughts, Giles’s slipperiness, the hints at and revelation of Edward’s true nature, Louise’s battles with Phil, his blossoming at Greystones when he comes to get away from mum for a bit, Ron Paget’s persistent unsubtle attempts to wheedle the Britches out from under the Glovers, but the picture they build becomes more and more compelling.

I would say this does not quite achieve the heights of excellence which the same author’s Moon Tiger did but is another demonstration that quiet lives lived (more or less) quietly still have their dramas and deserve recording.

Pedant’s corner:- frequently commas were missing before pieces of direct speech, Windowlene (for the glass cleaner. It’s spelled ‘Windolene’,) a mack (this abbreviation for mackintosh is usually spelled mac,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ would mean ‘from from where’. I know the two words appear as such consecutively in the text of a hymn but that doesn’t make it correct.)

The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne

A Tale of the Pacific Ocean.

EriK Publishing, 2017, 239 p. First published 1858. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Coral Island cover

When I first saw this on the list of 100 best Scottish books I wondered if I had read it in my youth. Reading it now (which I would not have done were it not on the list) its contents struck absolutely no bells in my memory.

This is a tale narrated by Ralph Rover of three cheery lads; himself, the older Jack Martin and the younger Peterkin Gay, and their life after shipwreck on the coral island of the title, a place with bountiful food, not only cocoa-nuts, bread-fruit, yams, taro, plums and potatoes, but also pigs and ducks and of course fish. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness (not, what with all that bounty, do they really need them much) allow them to lead a happy life until it is disrupted first by the descent on their shores by South Sea natives at war with each other (one side whom our heroes naturally get the better of, the other side then becoming free to return to their home) then by pirates. Ralph falls into the latter’s hands and is transported across and around the Pacific islands before eventually finding his way back to rescue Mark and Peterkin.

The book is of course riddled with the cultural assumptions of the time in which it was written. A flavour of this is given when Peterkin asserts of potential black inhabitants, very early on when the three don’t know what exactly they will find, “‘Of course we’ll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs: white men always do in savage countries.’” (Those sensitively disposed should note the text contains one instance of the word “niggers” and that is put into the mouth of a pirate.)

Much play is made of this “savagery” and of the cannibalism of the region’s as yet unconverted natives as contrasted with Ralph’s intermittent piety (after he lost his Bible in the shipwreck.) To a man – and woman – the natives are redeemed, civilised and instantly ennobled by the adoption of Christianity. The more, though, that the text insisted that those tales of cannibalism and savagery are true the more I came to resist the thought. In any case, the savagery displayed was no more than the pirates are shown to be capable of.

Reunited, the three set off to aid one of the native women of the freed warring party whose chief Ralph had become aware was refusing to allow her to marry whom she pleased and now threatened to kill her. That chief is much displeased when they turn up and soon imprisons them. The book ends with an almost literal deus ex machina as the three are saved by the conversion of their captor by a missionary.

The Coral Island is not the shipwreck on a deserted island ur-text – that would be Robinson Crusoe – but with its depiction of pirates it clearly had an influence on Treasure Island and Peter Pan and its suffocating certainties apparently festered in William Golding’s head and led to its antithesis in Lord of the Flies. That it holds such a position is the only possible reason to include it in a list of 100 best books. In terms of literary merit or insight into the human condition it belongs nowhere near one.

Pedant’s corner:- Both the cover and the title page bear the words “with illustrations by the author.” None were to be found inside. Otherwise; contains mid-nineteenth century spellings – cocoa-nuts, sewed, etc. Otherwise; occasional omissions of commas before pieces of direct speech, ricochetting, (ricocheting,) maw (it’s not a mouth,) “signed to several of attendants” (of his attendants,) “seized Jack and Peterkin and violently by the collars” (doesn’t need that second ‘and’.)

Angel at Apogee by S N Lewitt

Berkley, 1987, 221 p.

 Angel at Apogee cover

Gaelian is the eldest of the eldest of the YnTourne family and thus in line to inherit all its privileges, including a seat on the board which runs life on Dinoreos and its dependencies, Adedri and Cahaute. She is also the hottest graduate of her military flying school; the only one always able to land her spaceship on a dit. This last is whence her nickname, Angel, derives. Dinoreos is a thoroughthly class-ridden polity trained up on and bound by the pastime of nerris, a combat sport once a deadly endeavour but now mainly ceremonial. All aspects of Dinorean life are threaded through with the tactics of nerris. As part of Gaelian’s inheritance, for dynastic and political reasons she is engaged to Teazerin YnSetti, an adept in the sporting aspects of nerris.

However, Gaelian spent most of her early life on Cahaute, where her father had been sent on diplomatic business. This, along with her appearance, has led to suspicions she is not wholly aristocratic, that her mother may have been one of Cahaute’s natives. Her father has always warned her to stand up for her rights and to assert that any genetic test would be passed easily. Gaelian knows the truth though and still feels the influence of Cahaute’s Power Clans within her. Her father’s conscience has led to him becoming a drunkard, both unsuitable and unwilling to take over as Head of household when Gaelian’s grandmother dies. The setting is here for a power struggle between Gaelian and her cousin Dobrin, eager to take on the leadership role himself, and who knows he has the Board’s backing, with the possibility of Gaelian’s background being exposed.

To her credit and much more interestingly, Lewitt takes a different tack though. The inheritance crisis is soon upon Gaelian but due to Dobrin’s honourable behaviour and her realisation that her primary wish is to be a pilot she agrees to stand down in his favour (with the proviso that her engagement to Teazerin is dissolved.) Even here we could have ended up with a standard military SF type plot but on her very first real mission (to Adedri) Gaelian’s ship is outpaced and out-manœuvred and she disappears, presumed dead.

On occasion up to then we have been given snippets of life on Cahaute and its belief systems (which seem very much to be derived from Native American customs.) Attention now focuses mainly on the situation on Cahaute, to where Teazerin has been posted and where he exerts a large degree of influence on the base and its actions, and the plans of Gaelian’s captor, Nomis, on Adedri, while occasionally switching back to machinations on Dinoreos. The wisdom and knowledge of the Power Clans are crucial to the unfolding of the subsequent events on Cahaute. In keeping with the preceding chapters the plot’s resolution is also very much against the usual run of SF novels.

Pedant’s corner:- “to betroth her” (betrothe.) “None of them were in use” (None of them was in use.) “He didn’t try follow it” (to follow it,) a pair of end direct speech marks without a preceding opening pair, publically (publicly,) “as she tried to lay down” (lie down,) “did not enter the ledge” (the lodge.)

Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020

TTA Press, 96 p.

Interzone 285 cover

Guest Editorial this time is taken by Andy Dudak (who has a story elsewhere in the issue) and he relates how his experience as a translator and reader of translated fiction has affected his own.
Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted investigates how SF/fantasy/weird writers are responding to the greed, corruption and flagrant abuse of power in the modern-day world. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories ranges over theme-park rides, maps and films as well as books in contemplating how transporting a story can be and how it’s never the same on each subsequent experience of it.
Book Zone starts with my reviews of Aliya Whiteley’s Skein Island and Menace from Farsidea by Ian McDonald. I had some minor reservations about the first but none about the second. John Howardb finds the collection of essays on altered History stories Sideways in Time edited by Glyn Morgan and C Palmer-Patel brisk, lively and illuminating. Maureen Kincaid Spellerc welcomes the “long-needed biography” that is John Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns, which increased her respect for the man and his writing. Stephen Theaker says Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock is interesting and thoughtful, keeping readers engaged throughout, and the review is followed by an interview with the author. Andy Hedgecockd lauds The Crying Machine by Greg Chivers as an entertaining romp with an unexpected degree of thematic complexity, flawed but promising.

In the fiction:
Each Cell a Throne1 by Gregor Hartmann contains a fair bit of intrusive information dumping. The story concerns an off-duty cop who has been hired to persuade an old man not to let his personality be uploaded into a datasphere.
Flyover Country2 by Julie C Day is a love story in which the caretaker of an extremely little used airfield falls for one of the operatives of the firm AeroFix (which to British eyes looks very like a miniature modelling kit manufacturer,) which sprays cures for logic illnesses.
In Frankie3 by Daniel Bennett the titular character never appears though some of the posts from his popular website, written as reflections on his terminal illness and which always end in -ah death followed by the date, do. His brother has come back from the front in the (unspecified) country’s ongoing war to visit the shack where they lived in their youth. The shack is now all-but besieged by Frankie’s followers.
Since the expansion of the universe is caused by it being observed, a millennium ago all humans bar those travelling through space were turned inward (frozen in time) by aliens in Salvage4 by Andy Dudak. Aristy Safewither is a soul salvager, illegally extracting the thoughts of the frozen on the planet New Ce. This all gets mixed up with the tale of the planet’s dictator at the time of turning inward.
The Dead Man’s Coffee5 by John Possidente is an odd piece where a journalist on a small space habitat learns (at least second-hand) from a conversation in a coffee bar about a planet where photovores – humans who can photosynthsesise – fall foul of a mandatory fasting-during-day-time rule.

Pedant’s corner- a“is a novella is set in a” (quite where that extraneous ‘is’ crept in I have no idea. I have checked all three files in which I keep my Iz reviews [the original, the one for sending and the one where I stack them to be posted here] and it appears in none of them.) bAldiss’ (Aldiss’s,) “silences and onmissions that … marginalises many” (marginalise – it was a quote from the original text though,) Sales’ (Sales’s.) cParkes’ (Parkes’s,) Binns’ (Binns’s.) dChivers’ (Chivers’s.)
1Written in USian. 2convey (convoy,) “both stylus and table” (stylus and tablet.) 3None of us have the time (none of us has the time.) 4personal affects (effects,) “opened hellish geothermal maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.) 5Written in USian.

The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan

Hodder and Stoughton, 2019, 407 p. Published in Interzone 280, Mar-Apr 2019

 The Orphanage of Gods cover

The first thing to be said of this novel is that Coggan writes well. She has an eye for character and plot, and builds layer on layer of complication and betrayal. Don’t expect to see much of the titular orphanage however, as it is offstage for most of the book, though it does provide the setting for a final confrontation.

In this world some humans, called gods, have developed strange abilities, known as demesnes. One of the demesnes, of which gods may have one or several, is premonition. But, ‘Premonitions are evil, sneaky things. They leave out the important stuff.’ It is not only in that where godhood seems a diffuse and random attribute, handy for story-telling though it may be.

These gods became feared and were overthrown in a revolution 20 years before the events of the novel, the remnants being persecuted or forced into hiding. Any foundling children since then have been suspect and kept in the orphanage at Amareth under the watchful eye of the Guard till eighteen years after they were found, when they are tested. Godhood shows up in blood which has a silvery appearance, but not until a child matures. Some orphans manage to hide their demesne till test day but others’ powers manifest themselves before they can hide them. Those discovered are said to be taken north to a place named Elida.

Narrator Hero, plus Joshua and Kestrel, were allocated to a triple room in the orphanage. Hero is a healer and can sense heartbeats, Joshua can manipulate light and heat. Kestrel is a normal human but loves Joshua (and also Hero as a sister.) We take up the story with Hero and Joshua escaped from the orphanage – the first ever to do so – but only because Kestrel sacrificed her own freedom in the process. Hero is trying to keep Joshua safe so that they can make their way north in order to rescue Kestrel from where the Guard has surely taken her – to Elida, as bait. The book’s first scene is set in a disused tavern, but the Guard has patrol cars complete with sirens and tyres, which makes that word seem an archaic choice. But it is in keeping with the rest of the world here which, barring the patrol cars and a powered boat, is mostly non-technological, presumably regressed, though this is not really spelled out.

Hero refers to herself as a half-breed, though since she actually has a demesne the distinction is so fine as to be useless. In an encounter in the dark with a Guard patrol, with Joshua hiding, one of them cuts her and drinks her blood, failing to recognise its taste as godly. (Blood will saturate this book.) She and Joshua are free to travel onwards, meeting suspicion and horror in a village called Seabourne and an offshoot resistance group whose help they spurn.

For other authors the quest for Kestrel would have taken up most of the tale but Coggan has more for us. The tower in which other gods, and Kestrel, are held in Elida is a dark and ominous place, the activities the Guard carries on there hideous. Hero and Joshua finally penetrate the tower and effect the rescue but only by jumping from its highest point into the sea, which breaks Kestrel’s neck. Gaining land, they are surrounded by the Guard but saved by the resistance group, one of whom can teleport – others as well as himself.

Narration duties then devolve to Raven, a child god whose demesne is shape-shifting. Her innocence is intended to be the key to reconciling normal humans with gods. The resistance group’s leader, Cairn, calls her mala kralovna. (Slovak for ‘be queen’ I discovered.) Raven is as yet too young for her assigned role, though desperate to take part in actions against the Guard. Before the group makes contact with the bulk of the resistance both Cairn and Joshua are captured by the Guard.

The book’s final, longest, section is narrated by Kestrel, healed by dint of Hero’s power. The resistance leader, Anthony Abernathy, turns out to be less than enthused by the prospect of Raven as a saviour. Joshua’s return shows he has been made mad by his experiences, as, in effect, is Anthony when the Guard discovers the camp and overruns it. The methods he then resorts to in revenge are no better than his opponents.

The book is riddled with violence as well as blood but does emphasise that, once wielded, power is difficult to eschew. Godly powers possibly the more so.

One factor about dark fantasy such as this never fails to puzzle me. Why does it always have to be blood? Granted here Coggan provides a rationale of sorts, but it is usually pretty thin stuff.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Throughout, the Guard and the resistance are treated as plural. Otherwise; despite the orphanage’s inmates being given triple rooms Hero tells us she one night went to that of another inmate who seems to be alone there. “When the first generation of gods were born” (when the first generation of gods was born.) “‘Bar the door if you want to live’” (three pages earlier the door had already been barred, [that was possibly from the outside but others are now clamouring to get in.]) “Yes I do. Idiot. Heartbeats.” (the Idiot is clumsy.) “We get there” – the coast – “near midnight . There’s a fishing town about ten miles west of us,” (fishing towns are usually on the coast.) “I feel nothing just weary resignation” (needs a comma after nothing,) offence (in British English – and this reads as British – it’s attack.) “Neither of the others speak.” (Neither of the others speaks, but there were more than two others, so it should have been, “None of the others speaks”,) “she’s is a monster” (either she is, or, she’s, not she’s is.) “The crowd are separating” (The crowd is separating,) “half of them are cheering” (half .. is cheering,) “the other half are screaming for Eliza” (the other half is screaming.) “Anthony’s battered army crawl like insects” (Anthony’s battered army crawls,) “into away from the city” (either into or away from, not both,) the crowd walk away (the crowd walks away.) “There’s a white–hot thread of power into her voice” (in her voice, or, “A white–hot thread of power has come into her voice.)

Slade House by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2016, 236 p, plus 32 p of the Bombadil Tweets.

 Slade House cover

Slade House, accessed from Slade Alley (itself dank and narrow, with a bend, and easy to miss from its connecting streets) through a small iron door in the wall, which appears only once every nine years. Slade House, bombed to rubble in 1940 and its grounds built over since, yet still able to effect the disappearance of Rita and Nathan Sharp in 1979, Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds in 1988, Sally Timms along with her paranormal investigation group in 1997 and then her sister Freya in 2006. Slade House, on whose walls certain visitors will find portraits of themselves and whose stairs lead only back to whence you came. Slade House, inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer (who can both take up all sorts of appearances, inhabit others’ bodies,) adepts of the Shaded Way from whom they wish to keep themselves hidden. Slade House, wrapped in an orison. (The word means prayer but the Grayers have adopted it to describe a bubble out of time.) The later sections tend to invoke Fred Pink, who saw both the Sharps outside Slade Alley just before he was hit by a car and went into a coma. Trying to fill in the gaps in his life years later he recognised the Sharps in newspaper photos from the time.

Mitchell’s story – an off-cut of his previous novel The Bone Clocks – is narrated in five sections by Nathan, Gordon, Sally and Freya as they make their visits, with the final section (set in 2015) from the viewpoint of someone calling himself Bombadil (whose uploads to Twitter from Monday 7th September to Saturday 31st October, 2015, act as an appendix to the book) but whose body has been taken over by Norah. Five different narrative styles, six if you include the tweets. Each internally consistent and – until the strange stuff begins to happen – realistic in tone.

In the guise of Pink and much to Norah’s dismay Jonah Grayer reveals to Freya they were Victorian twins with telepathic ability, taken under the wing of a medium called Cantillon who hustled them off to the Atlas Mountains for tutoring in the Shaded Way by the Albino Sayyid of Aït Arif, toured them round the world, then went too far by proposing to reveal their secrets in a book. Their longevity has been ensured by enticing ‘Engifted’ to Slade House and stealing their souls, a process which needs topping up every nine years. Mitchell’s facility with fantasy and SF is underscored by reference to the Midwich Cockoos among others.

As ever Mitchell is totally in command of his material and the read is never less than entertaining. There is a sense, though, of marking time, of promise unfulfilled. Perhaps it’s unreasonable, though, to expect another The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Pedant’s corner:- “Wolverhampton Wanderers play in black and orange” (black and gold in fact. Orange and black, though, recur as a motif in the book,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, liquified (liquefied,) lasagna (lasagne,) Tinker Bell (x4, Tinkerbell,) smidgeon (smidgin or smidgen,) Timms’ (x2, Timms’s.)

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Hodder and Stoughton, 2013, 298 p.

 The Girl on the Stairs cover

The viewpoint character here is Jane, heavily pregnant and newly arrived in Berlin to stay with her Lebenspartner, Petra, in an apartment block. The room being prepared for the baby is dark and overlooked by a derelict set of flats. Their neighbours are a single man and his daughter, Alban and Anna Mann. Anna is the titular girl on the stairs. Jane overhears Anna’s father shouting at her and sees bruises on her face and so becomes increasingly convinced Anna is being abused, despite Anna’s denials.

She observes Anna in various situations, at a U-Bahn station interacting with older boys, crossing the space towards the derelict flats – a haunt for all sorts of undesirable behaviour – coming out of the downstairs flat, where the Beckers live, going into the nearby church which has a relatively new young priest. On talking with Frau Becker, a woman still mentally scarred by the Russian occupation of Berlin, she is told Mann killed his wife, Greta, and buried her under the floorboards in the flats opposite.

All the while Petra is less than attentive to Jane, out at work all day or off to a conference in Vienna, and Jane’s imagination whirls around, causing her to delve into Anna’s life and unwittingly to set in train a chain of events which will lead to tragedy and a vindication, of sorts.

Via the medium of Mann’s former professional life as a gynaecologist Welsh offers the possibility that Jane’s fears about Anna are a consequence of pregnancy affecting her emotional balance or if they are indeed valid.

Welsh’s writing is smooth and fluid, the novel exquisitely plotted, the psychological motivations and subtleties of the characters utterly believable and the whole is never less than readable and engaging but there was something about it that felt as if it was an exercise verging on by the numbers. Perhaps it was the foreign setting – and in that respect Berlin was an absence here, there was nothing to illustrate the character of the city – but there was something distanced about it, not in the Muriel Spark class of distanced but certainly more surface then depth. Crime aficionados would probably find it fine though.

Pedant’s corner:- “she wanted nothing more but to lie down” (usually ‘than to lie down’,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, politeness’ (politeness’s,) “aren’t I?” (Jane is Scottish, supposed to be from Glasgow, she would say ‘amn’t I?’) staunch (stanch,) “out of synch” (usually ‘out of sync’.) “The congregation were beginning to” (was beginning to,) focussed (focused.)

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Macmillan, 2019, 573 p.

This, the third of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read, is not exactly a sequel but does follow on from Children of Time, Tchaikovsky’s big hit from 2018.

 Children of Ruin cover

The story is told mostly in two strands, Past and Present. Past describes the landing on an alien planet (soon designated Nod) of an expedition from Earth sent to terraform it for future colonies. There is life there already (of strange radially symmetric organisms) and so the leader decides not to terraform Nod but to utilise another water bound world (Damascus) in the same system for that purpose. One of the expedition’s members, Disra Senkovi, has for a long time been working with octopuses to increase their intelligence and usefulness and so this compromise suits all parties. (Senkovi knows the plural ‘octopi’ – as opposed to octopuses – is incorrect but prefers it because he likes its sound and so, annoyingly, Tchaikovsky uses it in all the sections relating to him. At one point, though, Senkovi states ‘octopi’ is “even more incorrect” than ‘octopodes’ – which his boss prefers. ‘Octopodes’ is not incorrect at all, though. It is the Greek plural.) While in the system all communication from Earth ceases as a result of a devastating nuclear war and the expedition is left to itself. After a few years one of the expedition’s members is ‘infected’ by an organism from Nod, which encodes genetic information by the placement of individual atoms on ‘cell’ walls. This swiftly takes over the members on Nod and in orbit around it and sets out for Damascus where Senkovi’s insatiably curious octopuses have spread in its ocean. The vessel is shot down but lands in the ocean. Senkovi invokes a strict prohibition on the crash site, and on Nod itself. Many years down the line the octopuses have utilised the whole sea-bed and one of them ignores the prohibition. The infection spreads once more and the remnant octopuses are reduced to living in orbitals and spaceships.

In Present, Humans (as distinct from pre-uplift humans) and the uplifted spiders from the Kern’s World of Children of Time have detected radio signals from Past’s system and a mission has been sent to investigate. Much of this strand is devoted to the initial contact between Humans-and-spiders and octopuses, the clash between them over approaching whatever it is on the module left orbiting Nod and what is in Damascus’s ocean, the problems of interspecies communication, and the nature of the infecting organism.

Too much is told, however, not shown and Tchaikovsky doesn’t really inhabit the minds of his characters. (Okay, the mindset of spiders and octopuses, not to mention the Nod creature, may be a bit of a stretch but SF readers are used to alienness. It shouldn’t be a problem. In Children of Time the spiders weren’t.) While Children of Ruin does contain some interesting stuff the chunks of exposition and internal monologues can be hard going. Far from not being able to put this down I had difficulty in staying awake while reading it. And it is not short. I fear others have been swayed in their considerations of Children of Ruin’s merits by the relatively novel nature of its aliens.

Pedant’s corner:- “sixty-one degrees centigrade” (sixty-one degrees Celsius,) miniscule (x2, minuscule,) ‘his subjet species’ world view’ (species singular, so, species’s.) “None of them were” (none of them was,) “polarised Calcium ions” (calcium is not a proper noun, no capital C required,) “hoves onto view” (hove is past tense; ‘heaves into view’.) “A string …. rip through her hull” “a string … rips,) “how authentic the simulacra is” (‘simulacra’ is plural, the singular is simulacrum,) “reacted to different stimulus” (‘to a different stimulus’, or, ‘to different stimuli’,) sung (sang.) “None of the entities … are real” (None … is real.) “”Both of them tries to recruit him.” (Both try to recruit him,) childrens’ (children’s,) “the colours stabilize and compliment each other” (complement, and while we’re at it, stabilise. Please,) “And his are a passionate, mercurial people” (his is a passionate, mercurial people,) “anathema to their mind” (minds,) “a living compliment of one hundred and seventeen” (complement,) “a severe under-compliment” (under-complement,) “materials-salvaging” (was split over two lines despite materials being the first word on its line,) octopusus’s (octopuses’.) “Six-eighths of his cerebral capacity … are bent towards that one end” (six-eighths is less than one and hence takes a singular verb form, is bent.) “Two-eighths … remains” ([on the very next page!] does indeed, correctly, have a singular verb form,) “the females have found the thing containment” (????) “one faction has worked themselves up” (‘have worked themselves up,’ would be internally consistent with ‘themselves’ but ‘faction’ is singular so, ‘has worked itself up,) condusive (conducive.) “None of them pay any attention” (None … pays attention,) smidgeon (smidgin, or smidgen.) “The warship faction are making a” (is making.) “The science faction are singing” (is singing.) “The science faction are going to test” (is going,) “fit around” (fitted.)

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Ace, 2019, 312 p.

 Atlas Alone cover

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read. It is set on a starship called Atlas 2, heading out on a twenty-year voyage to join a colony on another planet (in the wake of someone called the Pathfinder who I assume appeared in an earlier novel in Newman’s Planetfall sequence.) Just as well; Earth has been devastated by a nuclear war.

Our narrator is named Deanna, on board Atlas 2 after her indentured debt had been paid off by her friend. Carl, who likes nothing better than to get his teeth into a real murder (or unexplained death) mystery. Or, I should say, because his indentureship trained/programmed him for that. Deanna – and I suppose everyone else in this scenario – has a link to an internal personal assistant. (This last is getting to be a fixture of SF novels these days.) There is also a system called MyPhys which monitors people’s health and bodily responses while the relaxation activity of choice is the use of mersives, highly detailed, virtual reality role-playing games.

Very early on Newman, through Deanna, puts the boot into fundamentalism of the self-styled Christian variety. In this story, what had been the USA has fractured and non-believers in Christianity kicked out. Deanna had had to fake belief in order to get onto the largely American funded ship, trading on relative ignorance of and assumptions about trans-Atlantic – here called Noropean – norms.

Up till now apparently footloose and fancy-free with all needs catered for Deanna is invited to do an analysis job on some data and discovers a previously hidden (at least to her and her acquaintances) hierarchy on the ship. Rich and with far from mean living spaces the elite also has access to a money economy Deanna had been unaware of.

Things ramp up when a mysterious person with incredible powers of access and concealment intrudes into the mersive area she calls her office space and entices her into a mersive which seems to have all sorts of information about her past life and homes. In it she finds clues to the nature of those running the show; leaders from the CSA (not the CSA I first thought of, but the Christian States of America) and that they were responsible for the destruction of all those sinners back on Earth. On meeting one of them in the mersive she takes the opportunity to kill him there, knowing he will experience the pain of it back in meatspace. On returning to real life she is startled to find that despite safeguards against crossover (not to mention MyPhys) that person has indeed died while immersed. Carl, a dog that won’t let a bone go, has been assigned to find out what happened to him. Thereafter she is forced to prevaricate with Carl while still plotting revenge on those in charge who are intent on preserving the indentured system she and all the less privileged on board thought they’d escaped from. In the course of this we come to realise that Deanna is indeed, in her own words, “A cold collection of responses, pretending to be a person.” When the identity of her mysterious helper is revealed she comes round to planning her act of retribution very quickly, almost without thought, but also without compunction.

That the major part of this novel is spent with Deanna in mersive environments is a bit off-putting. It’s too close to “it was all a dream.” Granted within them Deanna is revealed certain clues to help her unravel her circumstances but the overlap between mersive and meatspace is a step too far. The other characters in the book are little more than attributes rather than real people – unless Newman is making the point that spending too much time in game-playing is detrimental to human relationships, which the text does not really support. Then again we are seeing this from the viewpoint of a cold collection of responses pretending to be a person; perhaps not the best reader of people. Deanna is not an exemplary human (not that characters in books necessarily have to be) but Newman lets her off her actions lightly, leaving an unsavoury taste.

Newman’s invented expletive JeeMuh is still as irritating as in Before Mars, the previous book of hers I have read, but at least this time she gives it a provenance. Yet why use it at all when the ‘f’ word is liberally sprinkled across the text?

Pedant’s corner:- It was an ARC. Many of the following may have been corrected in the published edition: hangry (is this meant to be a portmanteau word – hungry/angry – or is it just a misprint for hungry? In context the misprint is far more likely.) “‘And it’s going kill you’” (‘going to kill you’,) n00b (x2, noob?) “the smell had alerted the neighbours, the body removed” (the body had been removed,) “a couple of specs on my throat” (neither speculations nor spectacles; it was blood, so, specks,) “‘you’ve got another thing coming,’” (another think,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “As long as I know what I want and know how to get, that’s all that matters” (how to get it,) hung (hanging,) “while I patched up her” (that reads very differently from ‘while I patched her up’,) “ a variety of ways … quickly float through my mind” (a variety …floats,) grills (USian? ‘grilles’,) “the same as what I can in meatspace” (the ‘what’ is superfluous,) “none of them live on deck five” (none of them lives on deck five.) None of the Circle are working” (None … is working,) “‘who were genuinely were’” (omit one ‘were’.)

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