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Scar Culture by Toni Davidson

Rebel Inc, 1999, 253 p Including 9 p Appendices. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Scar Culture cover

Had it not been for that 100 best Scottish books list I would never have sought this out. As it was I couldn’t say I enjoyed it exactly but it was interesting and well written. It has an odd structure though, broken up into five sections titled respectively Click, Fright, Sad, Preparation, The Experiment; and the viewpoint shifts between Click and Fright and Fright and Sad are a bit jarring – but probably intentionally so.

The first two are memoirs of two inmates in The Breathhouse, a psychiatric institution, where the inmates have all been given nicknames by the staff to illustrate their quirks (not only Click and Fright, but also Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth.)

Click took photographs both in actuality (once he was given a camera by his parents) and in his head. He calls his parents Exit (because she did) and Panic (because he was prone to.) Fright’s section is a transcript of tapes made of him relating his memories as part of his therapy. He and his brother witnessed his mother’s death at the hands of his father and were later subjected to dark experiences in a caravan. The last three sections are written from the viewpoint of Dr Curtis Sad who is indulging in psychosexual research in the area of inter-family sexuality. Sad calls his other professionals psychohacks, and receives communications from Peterson, a like-minded psychosexual researcher in the US (but whose letters, rendered in the text in italics, use British English spellings.)

Sad is obsessed with his Sister Josie, about whom he has memories/fantasies of a distinctly unbrotherly hue. These demonstrate he is as loopy as any of the inmates. He refers to “memory recovery as a form of lethal weapon,” is setting up an exercise in milieu therapy in which he will reconstruct the environments in which Click and Fright suffered their traumas. He enlists Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth to help construct these. Does this sound as if all will go well?

Three appendices provide us respectively with the Rules of Psychiatry which Curtis refers to in sequence at intervals in the main narrative, notes from his sister Julie’s (much needed in my opinion given Sad’s account of her childhood and adolescence) psychotherapy sessions, and an index of Click’s photos.

In Scar Culture Davidson has opened up the world of the psychologically disturbed (and perhaps that of the practitioners of psychiatric well-being.) It is certainly important to consider in fiction the plight of the mentally unwell – and of those whose upbringing has rendered them unstable – but it is by no means a comfortable experience to read of them.

Curiously, my edition has rough-cut page edges (though the tops and bottoms were smooth) as if it had been published in the nineteenth century.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its safe here’” (It’s,) “‘but I couldn’t been to look at him’” (couldn’t bear,) a missing end quotation mark (x2,) “was back here in that mountainside lagoon” (back there makes more sense,) out-with (it’s one word, outwith,) “tickled out feet” (our feet,) “he would researched” (he would be researched,) “an sheepish look” (a sheepish look,) “liked to fight too much, like to use her hands to scratch” (liked to use her hands,) “my parents lies’ left off” (my parents’ lies left off,) “that’s just kind of moronic psychobite” (just the kind of,) winge (whinge,) “in small coffin shaped cardboard box” (in a small,) “on the dolls back” (doll’s,) Breatthouse (elsewhere always Breathhouse,) a missing end quotation mark (x4, one in Appendix II,) snuck (sneaked,) “for the the first hour” (only one ‘the’ required,) “in regard, to why you are here” (no comma needed,) airplane (aeroplane.) “Every tree … had been stripped of their bark” (of its bark,) “nasal wines” (whines.)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Book Two, The Neapolitan Novels. Youth.

Europa Editions, 2015, 467 p. Translated from the Italian Storia del nuovo cognome (Edizioni E/O, 2012) by Ann Goldstein.

 The Story of a New Name cover

I was not overly impressed by Ferrante’s first novel of her Neapolitan Cycle, My Brilliant Friend, and wasn’t actively seeking out any more of them. I saw, though, the remainder of the quartet priced very reasonably in a second-hand book shop and felt I couldn’t pass them by. I’m now glad that I did, for this second instalment seemed to have much more to commend it than the first. There was certainly a better flow to the narrative.

This may be because this book didn’t have the almost relentless focus on courses taken and exams passed that the first had – those are still here but muted by the fact that narrator Elena Greco is by and large undertaking these herself and not contrasting her successes and failures so much with her comperes – or that her attention has shifted to gender relationships.

There is naturally more focus here on sexual politics than in a book about childhood friends. Her brilliant friend Lila’s marriage is blighted from the start by the conflict sown by that incident at the end of Book One of the trilogy where the shoes she designed were given on her wedding day by her husband-to-be to her sworn enemy. Lila is immediately subjected to that physical chastisement by her husband – prompted by the desire to be seen to be a man and followed by the phrase, “look what you’ve made me do ,” – to which women of her milieu seem to be resigned and turn a blind eye to in others. But dark glasses can only cover so much. Curiously, Elena’s first boyfriend, Antonio, despite his seeking (and selfishness for) his own sexual pleasure at her hands, behaves with sanctimonious (albeit in his case temporary) abnegation by denying her similar succour on the one occasion when she implicitly offers her body to him.

One aspect that seemed out of kilter, though, for all her academic excellence, was Elena’s apparent obliviousness to the wider world. She contrasts her lack of self-assurance, of knowing how to behave, the attitudes to have, in comparison to that of the scions of the middle class she meets in her high school and – later – University days. Her school professor more or less introduces her to newspapers – which Elana confesses to finding boring and confusing, under the influence of a University boyfriend she affects interest in left-wing politics but she never seems to connect them to her childhood neighbourhood. Poverty is something that simply exists, to be struggled against, naturally, but not considered systemic or alterable. Lila is of the opinion “that there was nothing that could eliminate the conflict between the rich and the poor,” because those at the bottom always want to be on top and those who are on top want to stay on top.

Nunzia, Lila’s mother, has one of the most striking lines in the book, ‘For your whole life you love people and you never really know who they are,” while Nella, the mother of the object of Elena’s unrequited affections, Nino Sarratore, in relation to Lila’s attractions tells Elena of men’s great fear in the face of female beauty, “that their thingy won’t function or it will fall off or she’ll pull a knife and cut it off.”

From certain incidents (most notably the narrator’s eventual loss of virginity being referred to as reproduced in detail in a later fictionalised telling) it would seem we are being invited to assume that Elena’s story is a disguised account of Ferrante’s own life but that would be to deny any degree of authorial artifice. In any case our narrator’s coming to wider prominence is not pseudonymous as ‘Ferrante’’s is in the real world. There is certainly a density of apparently lived experience, a proliferation of detail, a fecundity of (re)construction; but it is an author’s job to try to represent the world.

And once again, the novel ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. Not portending as much of a potential conflict between characters as that in My Brilliant Friend but a tease just the same.

Pedant’s corner:- In one of the blurbs at the front: “both The Days of Atonement and Troubling Love are tour de forces” (tours de force that would be.) In the Index of Characters; “Elena, who likes the story a lot, and gives it to” (no need for the “and”.) Otherwise: “I knew only I was not what I wanted at that moment,” (it was not what I wanted,) insure (ensure,) enroll (enrol,) milleniums (millennia,) curtsey (curtsy,) “I handed in my … tests when my schoolmates … had barely started on it.”

Peregrine: Primus by Avram Davidson

Ace, 1971, 222 p.

Peregrine: Primus cover

The Peregrine of the title is the bastard son of a king, sent out on his own as he approaches manhood. The setting is in the declining years of the Roman Empire, an age of petty kingdoms and the burgeoning of Christianity as a Europe-wide religion. In this respect Peregrine is a heathen still, as was his father.

Davidson adopts a joky, referential, allusive style – with cod Roman numbers (VVVXXXCCCIII) and embedded quotations, “wine-dark sea,” “they looked at each other … with a wild surmise,” “minding the stoa,” “confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks,” – as his hero, along with page Dafty and mage Appledorus, goes out into the world partly in search of his elder brother Austin (also one of the King’s by-blows.) Along the way Peregrine falls into the company of Hun Horde Seventeen. You get the drift.

Peregrine, as his name suggests, is a traveller: not only that, but also, when fantasy bleeds into Davidson’s tale, at times a falcon.

This is not a novel to be taken very seriously. It’s a jeu d’esprit on Davidson’s part but passes the time well enough. I note that once again he employs the word wee to mean small. There’s Scots ancestry there somewhere.

Pedant’s corner:- “he had seen nought but” (‘nought’ means ‘zero’, it does not mean ‘nothing’. That would be ‘naught’.) “Gee” (an unlikely expletive for someone from a non-Christian culture, also an anachronism given the setting, but then we also had ‘mom’ and other twentieth century USianisms,) wisant (wisent,) “was still damp and a smelled briny” (no need for the ‘a’,) talley (tally, though always used in the plural so ‘tallies’,) a missing end quotation mark, boney (bony,) Sextuagesima (I’ve heard of Sexagesima and Septuagesima but not Sextuagesima. Davidson may have been signalling the speaker’s ignorance here,) cameleopard (usually camelopard,) coöperation (plus points for that diæresis,) “‘I didn’t use to wonder’” (I didn’t used to wonder,) “several battery of snores” (several batteries,) revery (usually reverie,) “lay of the land” (it’s lie, lie of the land.) “The Hun digested his slowly.” (The Hun digested this slowly,) Philozena (elsewhere always Philoxena,) “‘it’s an ideal was to get conversation started’” (ideal way,) abhore (abhor,) highoffice (high office,) apothegms (apophthegms,) asofoetida (asafoetida or, better, asofœtida,) “the congregation were delighted” (the congregation was delighted,) miniscules (minuscule,) “he had born hither” (borne hither.) “‘And where do you think to do?’” (And where do you think to go?)

The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski

Tor, 1999, 347 p.

The Children Star cover

This is another of the author’s tales of the Fold, an interstellar polity which we have met before in A Door Into Ocean and Daughter of Elysium.

Here, a prion plague known as the creeping is devastationg the human population of the planet L’li. A L’iite child called ’jum G’hana is rescued by Brother Rhodonite and taken to Prokaryon, a planet where the living things all contain ring-shaped structures in their body plans and chromosomes. Zoöids are animal-like, phycoöids resemble plants, phycozoöids display plant and animal traits, while the microzoöids are microbes. The planet is also rich in arsenic. Humans need to be life-shaped to survive there, a process which works better the younger you are. Adults have almost insuperable difficulties in being adapted. ’jum G’hana is on the cusp. She does, however, have a facility for numbers, especially primes which she calls ‘orphans.’ Sarai, a Sharer lifeshaper working on Prokaryon, connects the tale more directly to Slonzcewski’s previous novels of the fold, which were both set on the Sharer’s home planet of Elysium. Sarai’s adoption of ’jum G’hana as a co-worker has ramifications later in the book in whose initial stages the narrative flow is cramped somewhat by the intrusiveness of the author’s information dumping.

While there is a diversion into interstellar politics Slonzcewski’s interest in The Children Star is on the biology of Prokaryon. Tumblerounds have a triplex DNA and reproduce by splitting three ways down the middle. Microzoöids contain a brain’s worth of data in a single cell and are capable of ‘infecting’ humans. This is the main engine of the plot and an explicit threat to Prokaryon. The Fold’s authority debates whether or not to destroy Prokaryon’s indigenous life-forms (by a process known as boiling.) That at least some of these turn out to be intelligent would be their saving.

It’s all readable enough – and more so than Daughter of Elysium. To have such a focus on biology at the microscopic level is an unusual trope in SF, but Slonzcewski is herself a biologist so that isn’t too surprising. The characters tend a bit to the stereotypical, however.

Pedant’s corner:- Sari (elsewhere Sarai,) clear (used as equivalent to colourless. Clear does not mean this, it means transparent. Objects can be both clear and coloured.) “Rod would never has asked” (never have asked.) “Patella came because is a Spirit Caller,” (because he’s a.) “Khral’s voices was softened” (Khral’s voice was softened,) ’jum Ghana (elsewhere always ’jum G’hana,) “or she would not have designed to come” (deigned to come makes more sense,) “he picked her up and folded her in her arms” (in his arms,) kidnaped (kidnapped,) “ten thousand-odd items priorities by her nanoservos” (prioritised makes more sense,) “only a few last long enough to secret toxins” (to secrete toxins,) odiferous (usually spelled odoriferous,) “others such correlations” (other such correlations.) “There … were a group of tumblerounds” (there … was a group.) “And what would the Fold do when they found out?” (And what would the Fold do when it found out?,) “all-to-familiar” (all-too-familiar,) “knew them better, perhaps, even then they knew themselves” (even than they knew themselves,) descendent (descendant.) In the Appendix (a description of the life-forms of Prokaryon): “Rotate as they swims through the water.” (Rotate as they swim through.)

Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019

TTA Press, 96 p

 Interzone 283 cover

John Kessel takes the guest Editorial and wonders about the utility of fiction in today’s ‘alternative facts’ world. In that context too, in Future Interrupted Andy Hedgecocka reflects on the nature of beliefs and memory. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Storiesb appreciates the sequencing involved in ordering stories in an anthology – some have compared it to the similar process in musical albums – each choice reflects on previous and subsequent stories/tracks. In a bumper Book Zone Duncan Lawiec calls the climate change themed A Year Without a Winter edited by Dehlia Hannah interesting, strange and irritating, I run my eye over the excellent This is How You Lose the Time War by Amar El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone plus the anthology Palestine +100 edited by Basma Ghalayini, John Howardd surmises that present day equivalents of the stories from the twentieth century in Menace of the Machine and The End of the World and Other Catastrophes, both edited by Mike Ashley, might not deal with their subjects very differently, Lawrence Osborn finds Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago entrancing, a book to be savoured many times, Maureen Kincaid Speller praises Mick Wood’s collection Learning Monkey and Crocodile for a “striking insight into how one might write genuinely good stories in a respectful way”, Barbara Melville thought Driving Ambition by Fiona Moore disappointing since it didn’t work for her as it’s told by the wrong narrator and reads like an early draft, Stephen Theakere characterises Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes as goofball space opera with a more serious protagonist but far too long, Ian Hunterf says The Library of the Unwritten by A J Hackwith has at least one narrative viewpoint too many but the author has a hit on her hands, Georgina Bruce calls The Complex by Michael Walters a ‘startling and confident debut’ but is ponderous reading at times and its women only operate in relation to the men but is still elusive, stylish, complicated and interesting, while Andy Hedgecockg delights in the ‘narrative treasure trove of wit, compassion, excitement and erudition’ that is Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein.

In the fiction:-

Society is literally stratified for Sib and Malmo in The Winds and Persecutions of the Sky1 by Robert Minto. Their first plan is to adopt strict hygiene and work hard to access the lowest floors. Malmo eventually gives up and instead climbs their skyscraper till he can access the outside. Sib follows him trepidatiously, but the girl he finds there and who helps him seek out Malmo wants only to go inside.
In Of the Green Spires2 by Lucy Harlow a plant-like organism called a starthistle takes over Oxford before retreating again leaving its offspring behind.
The titular entity of Jolene3 by Fiona Moore is a sentient truck, who has left her rider, part-time country singer Peter McBride, for another job. McBride has also lost his wife and dog but wants the truck back and is referred to our narrator, Noah Moyo, a consultant autologist, to help with that. Jolene (“‘Please don’t take my van,’”) turns out to be a hard case. (Pun intended.)
The Palimpsest Trigger4 by David Cleden tells the story of Marni, who works for one of the palimps, creatures who can overwrite people’s memories.
Fix That House!5 by John Kessel starts off as it will be an account of a house restoration project for a TV programme but it later chillingly turns out that houses are not the only antebellum things that have been restored.
The James White Award Winner, Two Worlds Apart6 by Dustin Blair Steinacker, features an inhabitant from Earth (candidate to join the benevolent intragalactic Consortium) tested for suitability on a mission to persaude the inhabitants of a planet without a star into the fold.

Pedant’s corner:- a Goebbels’ (Goebbels’s.) bH G Wells’ (Wells’s,) Mary E Wilkins’ (Wilkins’s.) c“I took exception with” (it’s ‘took exception to’) “There are a variety of” (there is a variety of.) d Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s,) “Usually it is the entire planet and its inhabitants that is threatened” (the ‘and’ makes it plural, so, ‘that are threatened’.) e“to the ends of universe” (of the universe.) fLiz Williams’ (Williams’s,) “our merry band are initially trying to bring back” (our merry band is initially trying to bring back.) gDickens’ (Dickens’s.)
1Written in USian, miniscule (minuscule.) 2St Giles’ (Giles’s.) 3“to lay over top of it” (to lie over the top of it,) veterinarian (this is set in the UK and narrated by a Brit, hence vet, or veterinary surgeon.) 4Socrates’ (x4, Socrates’s,) similarly Endymius’ (x2, Endymius’s,) “Shafts of weak light like heavenly search lights, stabbed down” (no need for the comma.) 5Written in USian. 6Written in USian, shrunk (shrank,) “as if the hybrid had never spoke” (spoken,) “none of the Tarsach were coming forward” (none … was coming forward,) “between she and them” (between her and them.)

Shoreline of Infinity 13; Autumn 2018

The New Curiosity Shop, 2018.

 Shoreline of Infinity 13 cover

In Pull up a Loga Noel Chidwick says that the tradition and sense of myth in Scottish story-telling underlies Shoreline of Infinity, tales of wonder told round the fire as the cold swirls around, and invites us in. Reviewsb has Katy Lennon finding the worlds depicted in the anthology Improbable Botany edited by Gary Dalkin feeling “real and conscious”, Samantha Dolan is impressed by Cat Hellisen’s collection Learning How to Drown, Steve Ironside appreciates rather than enjoys the lampoon The Church of Latter-Day Eugenics by Chris Kelso and Tom Bradley, but still tilts his crown to it, Rachel Hill finds Autonomous by Annalee Newitz to be an accomplished thriller, tackling thorny contemporary issues without offering simple solutions, Callum McSorley welcomes us to the Wild East of the collected novellas of Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, formula plotting and all, Marija Smits says Sealed by Naomi Booth is a powerful book with an original, hard-hitting premise, Lucy Powell describes The Freeze-Frame Revolution as hard and fast-paced narrative that really makes you think, gripping till the last page, Georgina Merry defines Fifty-One by Chris Barnham as a fun read – with flaws.
Multiverse has poems by Tris Crestd, Charlotte Ozment and Nate Maxson, while a total of three 6 word stories (written respectively by Gregg Chamberlain, Dane Divine and Michael Stroh) appear, one each, at the bottoms of pages 44, 71 and 131.

In the fiction:-
Harry’s Shiver* by Esme Carpenter. A man commissioned to steal some sort of (unspecified) valuable raids the ‘unbreachable’ Caste Arco. To aid him he makes use of devices he calls Shivers. I’m afraid for me this story was marred by far too much obtrusive info dumping, some unnecessary phrases, the occasional odd word choice and more than a smattering of cliché.

In The Time Between Time*2 by Premee Mohamed windows onto another planet have begun appearing all over Earth. Eleven year-old Dalton finds one in her back garden and tries to keep it secret.

Daughter3 by Laura Young is narrated by a woman taking her terminally ill mother from Japan to her home in San Francisco to care for her. Things turn strange during the flight and even stranger when they land.

Splitting Up*4 by Bo Balder is narrated by a Split – a part of someone’s personality which by medical intervention has been reduced to only restricted access to that person’s body but takes over for designated purposes – in this case interacting/having sex with a boyfriend.

In Goodnight Rosemarinus5 by Caroline Grebell a future human, evolved into a sea-dweller, is held captive by an alien Observer. This story is followed by a one page article “We Have a Winner”d on the artist, Jimmy McGregor, who won the competition to illustrate the story.

Tim Major’s Cast in the Same Mould* describes the peculiar circumstances in which life is discovered on Mars.

The Beachcomber Presents Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein6 by Mark Toner, Stephen Pickering & Tsu Beel discusses Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the original and its various adulterated adaptations.

Next comes an interview with the authore (conducted by Noel Chidwick) and extracts from the novel Origamy7 by Rachel Armstrong.

Preceded by a very short author intervewf (by Chris Kelso,) The Silk Tower of Beijing8 by Preston Grassman is dedicated to the late Iain M Banks. Seeming to take inspiration from that author’s A Gift From the Culture an inhabitant of an Earth taken over by aliens strikes at the core of their hold over humans

Pedant’s corner:- I proofread the stories marked* before publication so assume there are no remaining errata there. Otherwise; aHanks’ (Hanks’s.) b“made up of diverse range” (made up of a diverse range,) pays of (pays off,) “an authors motivation” (author’s,) “each … aren’t window dressing” (each isn’t,) “this editions extra interview material” (edition’s,) “the majority of the public are unconcerned” (the majority … is unconcerned,) Watts’ (Watts’s,) eons (aeons,) “the inherently claustrophobia nature” (the inherently claustrophobic nature,) “where the human’s sleep” (humans,) “the twists and turns … is at times genuinely shocking” (are genuinely shocking,) “the ultimate climax of the book and the afterword to is one that is” (that ‘and’ requires a plural verb, ‘are ones that are’,) “one could be forgiven into thinking they were reading sections” (again, ‘one’ is a singular antecedent and should not be followed by a plural pronoun,) “the group split” (splits.) cIn the author blurb “bird nests” (normally ‘birds’ nests’.) dfocussed (focused.) eMobius’ (Mobius’s.) f“the nations arts” (nation’s,) skillful (skilful,) Ian M Banks (x2, Iain,) Banks’ (Banks’s.)
1Written in USian. 2Written in USian. Or is it Canadian? Instantly dated by its mention of Stephen Hawking. 3Written in USian. 4 Written in USian. “The uited people” (The suited people.) 5focussed (focused.) 6“ice flow” (ice floe that would be,) “whom in turn draughts it” (who in turn drafts it,) “as Victor grew as did his love for Science” (as Victor grew so did his love for..) Victors’ (Victor’s,) “evidence there of” (thereof,) Victor breaths his last” (breathes his last,) “There’s very few movies” (there are very few movies,) “near all of” (nearly all of.) 7haurspicy (haruspicy,) auger (after the previous page’s mention of four types of divination I strongly suggest this is intended to be ‘augur’. An auger is a different thing entirely.) 8Written in USian, “a flock of drone-birds hover” (a flock hovers,) a missing full stop (x 4.) “The cross-hatched ruins of the Bird’s Nest appears” (the .. ruins… appear,) “none of them are as monumental” (none .. is as monumental.) “As I think of the world as I want to be” (‘as I want it to be’ makes more sense.)

Mexica by Norman Spinrad

Abacus, 2006, 510 p.

Mexica cover

Spinrad is no stranger to readers of Science Fiction, coming to prominence around the time of the New Wave with works such as Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream (an Altered History SF novel whose author was supposedly Adolf Hitler.) In the early part of this century, though, he took a turn into historical fiction with The Druid King, about Julius Caesar’s adversary Vercingetorix the Gaul. Mexica is his take on conquistador Hernán Cortés (in the text always referred to as Hernando Cortes) one of History’s supreme adventurers – or villains, depending on your viewpoint.

Our narrator is Cortés’s companion, and unwilling advisor, Avram ibn Ezra (an Arabised form of the Jewish Ben Ezra,) who was baptised Alvaro Escribiente de Granada since being a Jew in the newly united Christian Spain under the scrutiny of the Inquisition was not a healthy prospect. This choice allows the narrative to distance itself both from the brutal Christianity of the Spanish invaders and from the sanguinary religious practices of the indigenous Mexica and their vassals. (Only once or twice is the word Aztec mentioned. This apparently was an insulting term deriving from the bumpkinish highlands down from which the Mexica came to replace their predecessors, the Toltecs, whom the Mexica still revered, after that earlier people had vanished into the east.)

It is arguably a necessary choice, as religion mattered. For how else can a few hundred men bring down a mighty empire? In this telling the Mexica – or at least their emperor Montezuma – were undone by their beliefs. The Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was prophesied to come back from the east with a light skin whereupon the fifth world (that of the Mexica) would end and the sixth begin. On hearing of the arrival of the Spaniards Montezuma awaits a sign from his god of war, Huitzilopochtli, as to their true nature, and receives none. A native woman, Malinal (known to present day Mexicans as Malinche but here dubbed Marina by the Spaniards as it’s easier for them to pronounce,) a princess of one the Mexica’s vassal states, sold into slavery when they were defeated, takes up with Cortés and, aided by Alvaro, becomes his translator. She it is who nudges Cortés (despite his own religious qualms) into affecting the appearance, and, in native eyes, substance, of Quetzalcoatl. The prospect of not having to pay blood tribute to the Mexica in the form of the hearts of their young men also leans on the Mexican vassals whom Cortés enlists as allies, vassals all but mystified at the thought of a god who gives his flesh and blood to be eaten by his worshippers rather than requiring their own of his believers.

It was still a very long shot, emphasised when after a couple of military victories against allies of the Mexica on the journey to the central high plateau, Alvaro briefly views through the clouds the magnificence of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan, from the mountain pass above. The city was built on a series of lakes and joined to the surrounding land by four causeways. An impregnable fortress it would seem.

Later, after falling in love with the place, Alvaro wonders, “How could the civilization that had built Tenochtitlan rip out human hearts on such a bloody altar?” but also, “How could the civilization of the Prince of Peace who commanded men to love their neighbours as themselves burn human beings at the stake in his name? How could those who worshipped an Allah who was styled the Beneficent and Merciful behead the infidels who would not bow down to him?”

Whle the central figure here is always Cortés, the most sympathetic and tragic is Montezuma, who is entrapped and imprisoned by Cortés and thus in conversations with Alvaro vouchsafes to the reader his philosophy. Here is a man who, in trying to do the best by his gods as he sees them, loses not only his empire, his people and his city, but also his life. That those gods were horrific taskmasters and not worthy of any such soul-searching or devotion does not diminish this. Religious beliefs make people do strange and bewildering things. From his religious perspective Alvaro sees, “This is the crime for which I have no name. Having conquered their lands, now we were conquering their spirit.”

Mostly a self-serving – not to mention greedy – hypocrite and casuist there are contradictions too in Cortés’s behaviour, illustrated when he gives full military honours to the dead Montezuma and Alvaro tells us, “There were so many reasons for me to hate Hernando Cortes…. But … there were moments …., when no matter how I tried, I found it impossible not to love the bastard.”

Before the story gathers momentum with the landing in Central America the reflective nature of Alvaro’s account can be a little tedious. The text is liberally larded with the word ‘thereof’ and vocative asides to “dear reader”, a tendency which drops out when the action sets in only to reappear many pages later. ‘Alvaro’’s intent in setting this down is to expose and expiate his guilt at the part he played in the downfall of the Mexica and the beautiful city they constructed. But in the end he rationalises that, “..it could not have been prevented. Even if Columbus had never set sail it could not have been prevented, for Europe had the ships, and sooner or later someone would have discovered this New World.” The fulfilment of Montezuma’s omen was inevitable. “For this new world held treasure and unbounded virgin land unknown in the tired old one, and Europe had the greed to covet and the means to sieze it.” The greatest devastator of the Mexica though, would be what Alvaro names as the small pox, a weapon more deadly to the natives than either cannon or arquebus. The Mexica live on, however, in the adaptation of their name to that of the modern day country sitting on their lands, a process which had begun even in Cortés’s time.

Alvaro’s profoundest thoughts are however inspired by the much older civilisation that built the huge pyramids at Teotihuacan, whose people were forgotten even by the Mexica. “This was not a New World. This was a world old beyond imagining…. Five worlds come and gone … And now the breaking of the fifth and the coming of the sixth.” He consoles himself with the thought that in the end great events do not matter; civilisations amd conquerors may come and go but, “It is in the small things that life comes closest to eternity.”

Pedant’s corner:- Cortes’ (innumerable instances, Cortes’s,) sprung (sprang,) “to the point where no one dare approach him” (the narrative is in past tense so, ‘no one dared’ – and ‘no one’ ought to be ‘no-one’,) maws (mouths was the intended meaning, not stomachs,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “but more than not wearing only simple cotton shifts” (more often than not is a more usual construction,) “in a foreign land as Britain might be to a Spaniard” (there was no Britain as a foreign ‘land’ (in a political sense) in the time of Cortes – only the geographical island.)

Reading Scotland 2019

This was my Scottish reading (including a Scottish setting) in 2019.

Those in bold were in that list of 100 best Scottish Books.

15 by women, 15 by men, one non-fiction,* two with fantastical elements.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
A Concussed History of Scotland by Frank Kuppner
Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig
Winter by Ali Smith
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle
The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
Independence by Alasdair Gray*
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Brond by Frederic Lindsay
The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh
The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams
Its Colours They Are Fine by Alan Spence
Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay
Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Spring by Ali Smith
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland
The Citadel by A J Cronin

Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison
Where the Bodies Are Buried by Christopher Brookmyre

Born to Exile by Phyllis Eisenstein

Grafton, 1992, 219 p.

 Born to Exile cover

These are the adventures of Alaric the minstrel, a foundling discovered on a wooded hillside with a severed hand clutching his leg. Taken in by a childless couple desperate for someone to care for he later is befriended by a minstrel called Dall who recognises his unusual ability – liable to be described by the society they live in as witchcraft. Alaric has the power of self-teleportation – handy for extricating himself from dodgy situations but a dangerous attribute.

In his wanderings after Dall’s death he comes to a castle where the local princess takes a fancy to him. Their liaison uncovered he has to flee precipitately but cannot forget her. Eventually he meets a former midwife with a strange tale to tell. She has only one hand. Cut off when a child she had just delivered disappeared along with it and banned from her home kingdom for failing to take proper care of her charge. Through her he comes to his ancestral home and finds a family he didn’t know he had (all of whom have his ability – but it must be kept secret.)

Born to Exile is a pleasant enough read, Alaric is a reasonably engaging protagonist – with a conscience (though the sexual politics of his world are typical of fantasy novels of this vintage) – and the ending provides scope for a sequel.

Pedant’s corner:- One entry. One only. Remarkable. “He bent her back till they lay prone on the bed” (face down? I think not; supine on the bed perhaps.)

Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison

Women’s Press, 1985, 149 p. © 1962, First published in the UK, 1976.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman cover

I read this when I first bought it many moons ago but couldn’t actually remember much about it other than it was a bit dry. Re-reading partially reinforces that impression. Much of it is told not shown and the overall effect tends towards the intellectual. That said, it is never less than interesting.

Our narrator Mary is a communications expert who has gained employment on the intergalactic expeditions sent from Earth to contact and understand the aliens on the target planets. Non-interference with the alien life-forms is the guiding principle of the expeditions. On her travels Mary encounters radiates, a bit like starfish, who therefore have no binary view of the universe, and creatures who form grafts on others’ surfaces as a means of reproduction. Mary accepts such a graft and finds herself mentally dissociating somewhat and mysteriously attracted to water. All creatures who agree to such a graft (dogs for example) tend to be unwilling to repeat the experience.

Reference is made to Mary’s relationships with the various fathers of her children but there is more or less no exploration of these and not much more of the hermaphrodite Martian, Vly who somehow manages to engender her haploid child, Viola. (Martians communicate via sex organs.) Keeping contact – or even contemporaneity – with partners is admittedly made difficult by the time blackout caused by space voyaging.

The bulk of the text, though, is devoted to the life-forms on a planet which bears pattern-making “caterpillars” whose patterns are painfully disrupted by “butterflies” they refer to as “masters”. Teasing out the relationships between these creatures takes Mary and her companions a while. Some tension is caused by this as one of the expedition members becomes too close to the “caterpillars”.

In its depiction of a society in which women are on an equal footing with men as scientists and explorers – and in more general senses – as well as in its exploration of the details of alien reproduction Memoirs of a Spacewoman was something of a trail-blazer. That makes it an important (I hesitate to say seminal) pioneering work of SF.

Pedant’s corner:- Extra points for hyaena (now defunct, as hyena has become the accepted spelling.) Otherwise; “I liked in that he had tried” (‘I liked it that he had tried’ makes more sense,) “assemblement of data” (assemblement? Assembly, or assemblage, of data, surely?) “Peder was much interested” (‘very interested’ is the more natural expression,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, aureolus (that means golden. I suspect aureola was intended,) in, “We might unwittingly destroy some life which was not induced to move out by any of these stimuli, and of course we destroyed vegetation,” life is contrasted with vegetation (but vegetation is, of course, alive,) Silis’ (Silis’s,) furtheir (further,) Miss Hayes’ (Hayes’s.) Miss Hayes sent off on long expeditions” (Miss Hayes set off on…,) the text describes alien creatures in Earthly terms as eg ‘reptiles,’ ‘caterpillars,’ ‘butterflies’ (I know this usage is for purposes of familiarity for the reader but animals on other worlds would/will not come under the same biological classifications as on Earth,) “as regard” (usually as regards,) follicules (follicles.)

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