Archives » Reading Reviewed

Shoreline of Infinity 9: Autumn 2017

The New Curiosity Shop, 2017, 132 p.

 Shoreline of Infinity 9 cover

Noel Chidwick’s Editorial riffs on the importance of SF as an admonitory undertaking. In SF Caledonia1 Monica Burns discusses the Victorian Robert Ellis Dudgeon (who also greatly improved the predecessor of the device used to measure blood pressure.) The Beachcomber Presents2 (Where Have all the Time Machines Gone) continues our four page graphic stories. There is an Interview with Cory Doctorow.3
Reviews has Eris Young praising Shattered Minds by Laura Lam,4 Neil Williamson describing Nina Allan’s The Rift as “a high class piece of fiction and a triumph of styorytelling”, Katie Gray in the end dislikes Sirens by Simon Messingham, Marija Smits5 casts a welcoming eye over Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun, Steve Ironside recommends Carapace by Davyne DeSye to lovers of bleak and gritty SF,6 Benjamin Thomas7 reviews the anthology Off Beat: Nine Spins on Song, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway is appreciated by his interviewer Joanna McLaughlin, while The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross is assessed by Duncan Lunan.8
Multiverse9 features poems by Marise Morland, Bill Herbert and Peter Roberts. Paul Holmes’s Parabolic Puzzles10 updates the old what happened to the missing change conundrum.
As to the fiction:-
In The Last Days of the Lotus Eatersa by Leigh Harlen the universe is dying. The last humans inhabit a small village in a cooling world under a starless sky. One girl reads about the past and questions their straitened existence. For this heresy she is sacrificed; but her essence lives on in a tree.
Keeping the Peaceb by father and daughter pair Catriona Butler and Rob Butler is set in a world where sentients predict how long people will live. Narla is upset by the preferential treatment her brother receives as the result of his short projected life-span.
In Death Acceptancec by Tony Clavelli a funeral director receives a call from an unusual client, one of the community of NextState androids who wants to die: because if it doesn’t end it isn’t a story.
The unusual one sentence story, APOCALYPSE BETA TEST SURVEY by Gregg Chamberlain, consists of the pitch for custom – complete with disclaimers – by Armageddon Inc, whose motto is, “The Horsemen are always ready to ride.”
The spires in Spirejackd by Patrick Warner are huge towers propping up cities in the skies. The titular spirejack finds himself under investigation after his wife gets involved with subversives. The writing shows signs of the author’s lack of experience.
A young girl is obsessed by getting to the Moon (again) in Vaughan Stanger’s The Last Moonshot.e
Lowland Clearances by Pippa Goldschmidt is the same story that appeared in Shoreline of Infinity’s special Edinburgh Book Festival edition, issue 8½.
In The Sky is Alive by Michael F Russell, a settler on Gliese 581 has found life not so congenial as he had hoped. There, the threat of cloud is of them absorbing water – from anything.
The Useless Citizen Actf by Ellis SJ Sangster sees a woman faced with being culled because she’s jobless in a harsh 2107, locking herself in a cupboard to escape her fate. Or is her subjective experience just a metaphor for her depression?
In the extract for SF Caledonia from Colymbia by Robert Ellis Dudgeon our narrator joins a white shark hunt.

Pedant’s corner:- aWritten in USian, make-up (is cosmetics; the sense was “imagined”, so, make up,) sooth (soothe,) “there were less and less of them” (plural; so, fewer and fewer.) b“the family sit quietly” (the family sits.) cWritten in USian, “in a shock” (the phrase is “in shock”,) “give you creeps” (the phrase is “the creeps”,) “each of the Guillorys comment” (each comments.) dWhat‘s (the inverted comma was the mirror image of what it ought to have been,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (twice,) “’Wait, what you mean?’” (has a “do” missing.) eLamber2033 (previously always Lambert2033.) f“I listen to rapid beat of the pulse” (the rapid beat.)
1“designed restore perfect vision” (designed to restore,) homeopathy/ic, (I prefer homoeopathy/ic, or, better still, homœopathy/ic.) 2The Beachcomber Presents is missing from the contents page (as is the Interview with Cory Doctorow.) 3focussing (x 2, focusing,) half an hours (hour’s.) 4“people the company think no one will miss” (people the company thinks no one will miss,) “occur to to” (omit a “to”,) “easily elided; Indigenous …” (It wasn’t a new sentence, hence no capital I needed at indigenous.) 5milieus (milieux.) 6sci-fi. (SF. Please.) 7“starts off strong” (strongly,) “there a two or three” (there were two or three; or, if Scottish, there were a two-three,) “provided in extended depth” (an extended depth?) “Each song effecting us in a way” (affecting us.) 8mediaeval (hurrah!) “lack if manpower” (lack of.) 9Roberts’ (Roberts’s.) 10“Bud-Eyed Monster” (Bug-Eyed?)

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Orbit, 2017, 414 p.

A space station, the city in the sky known as Ciudad de Cielo, shortened to CdC or Seedee, has the ostensible purpose of preparing for and building a generation starship, the Arca Estrella, to continue humanity’s history of exploration. Run by the corporate Quadriga, it is the subject of jealous regard from the Federation of National Governments (FNG) down on Earth. Despite widespread corruption and venality, CdC has never had a murder, not officially anyway.

The narration focuses on Alice Blake, the new representative of FNG on the station, and Seguridad member Nikki Freeman. Like most on the station Nikki has to supplement her income with underhand dealings of various sorts. Pay rates are low, decent alcohol hard to obtain, hustling is a way of life.

This is a depressingly familiar scenario, the worst aspects of capitalist society extrapolated into the future. Granted it gives ample scope for the darker side of human nature to be displayed (and to depict acts of violence) but some authors seem to revel in it. For a long while Brookmyre also appears to do so. By the time he does emphasise the co-operative, law-abiding, anti-exploitative, do-as-you-would-be-done-by side of things it is almost too late to make the point. His good guys are really only guys who are slightly less bad. Then again, I don’t suppose a novel that is relentlessly upbeat would sell.

On Seedee people are equipped with mesh, a device for inserting memories. But there is a distancing from them, referred to as watermarking, so you know they aren’t yours. Also prevalent is the grabacíon, a kind of video clip from your vision recording system that can be uploaded instantly to Seedee’s web equivalent. (I note the abbreviation Seedee is probably only in the text in order to enable the pun “The Seedee underbelly.”) Part of the mix is a musing on the part of Alice on the nature of androids and advanced AI tech.

Since she was once a cop down on Earth Nikki finds herself called in to investigate human remains (flayed and eviscerated) floating in a “gravity-free” area of CdC. Her job is made more difficult by being saddled with Alice Blake – masquerading under a pseudo-ID – as a side-kick.

That “‘consciousness is a lie your brain tells you to make you think you know what you’re doing,’” the brain fabricates a narrative that makes us believe we experience the world objectively, is one of the drivers of the plot. On Seedee people have begun to do odd things, like a woman stripping off and demanding any random stranger has sex with her on a bar top, or a man continuing a knife fight with ridiculous abandon. All of this is connected to a leak from the mysterious Project Sentinel, knowledge of which seems to mean death.

I found Brookmyre’s use of information dumping utterly intrusive. Most of the time it wasn’t at all well integrated into the text and the time where he used supposedly naïve kids to enable it was a particular low point.

I also took exception to the sentence, ‘Humanity is born from somewhere messy and bloody and stinky.’ The first and third of these adjectives probably only apply when the second does – and that’s by no means all the time. The third in especial is a misconception promulgated by advertisers in order to sell deodorant. Taken in all, this is an extremely sexist sentiment Brookmyre should be embarrassed by. Especially since he put it in the mouth of a woman.

Brookmyre does nod to previous SF by naming the halfway station from Earth to orbit (at the top of a space elevator) Heinlein, and having a character say, “‘Find the puppet master.’” Whether or not he’s a true fan is difficult to say on this evidence (I assume he must be or he wouldn’t try to write the stuff) but it was a nice touch to have a plot point dependent on the notion of refractive index. I can’t recall that in an SF story before.

Brookmyre has never steered away from violence but in a space station environment where utter disaster is never more than a thin metal plate away surely co-operation and teamwork are much better bets for survival than a constant round of competition and one-upmanship. (Even with a wee bit of smuggling on the side – which would still be scratching each other’s backs.)

I suppose Places in the Darkness makes a fair enough fist of what it’s trying to do but it also doesn’t really distinguish itself from a swathe of like-minded SF, and panders too much to the free-market, individualist, bloodthirsty constituency. It’s far too uneasy a blend of SF and the crime novel and consequently fails to do justice to either.

Pedant’s corner:- USian usages (airplane, she could use, leastways etc) but then, manoeuvres, “the rest of today’s audience fully appreciate” (appreciates,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x2,) “she is aware that that” (only one “that” required,) “a standard container …. These are…” (This is,) “where Habitek assemble and demonstrate their test modules” (where Habitek assembles and demonstrates,) “was a soccer player” (Brookmyre is a buddy!* A season ticket holder no less. He knows it’s football, never soccer.) “There is no more screaming, no more cries or moans” (can’t help feeling there ought to be an “are” in there somewhere,) jerry-rigged (it’s jury-rigged,) “the Quadriga aren’t” (isn’t,) Gonçalves’ (Gonçalves’s,) “to home in in on” (only one “in”.)
*St Mirren supporter.

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir

Fox Spirit, 2015, 161 p.

The Stars Seem So Far Away cover

This is a set of stories set in a future Earth presumably globally warmed where the south has become parched and refugees have flowed north to places such as Svalbard and The Green Land. Though not conceived of as a unity the author gradually found they described one fictional world. Characters reappear from one story to another. There is a certain sparseness to Helgadóttir’s style evident throughout.

The scene setter is Nora. The titular woman, who is sailing her ship alone, has her own methods of dealing with pirates. More like a sketch for a story rather than the story itself.
The Lost Bonds of this story’s title are those between humans and the animal world. In a post-ice northern clime a spirit fox helps out a group of men.
Aida is a refugee to the highly populated Svalbard Islands from the drought ridden lands to the south. Her survival after the plague which has depopulated the islands again is secured by an old man. But he is dying.
InThe Rescue, Bjørg, a young girl left by her father in charge of a seed vault, lives in fear of intruders. Things might not be as she fears though.
The Stars Seem So Far Away sees Zaki travel across the deserts of what was once called the Green Land and stumble upon a crashed aircraft in which lives the man who was once an astronaut.
In A Sailor Girl Goes Ashore, Nora goes ashore in Svalbard against her better instincts only to find the place all but deserted. She does, however, meet Aida and take her under her wing.
The Breakfast Guest is a boy who is following Zaki and Roar as they journey west towards Nuuk. He offers to help them cross a lake but they sense something is amiss.
In The End of the World Simik from The Rescue is on a hunt for murderers with his squad of soldiers when they come across a group of boys whose living space inside a mountain contains a mural depicting the decline of life on Earth up to now – and into the future.
Nora and Aida come ashore on The Women’s Island where they are greeted by three women whose friendly overtures they soon mistrust.
Frostburst Heart sees Bjørg and Simik, her earlier rescuer, threatened with separation after his invitation to go to space.
In Conversations siblings Zaki and Aida have finally been reunited in Nuuk but find it difficult to talk to each other. Enrolled in school they both have prospects of joining the space programme.
The Whale in Nuuk relates the visit of Bjørg and Simik to see the remains of possibly the last such creature not to be made by humans.
In The Last Night Nora says goodbye to her sailing ship, Naureen, and is surprised by a visit from Bjørg.
Farewell sees five of our principals go into space. Roar, who’s already been, and Aida’s dog Tarik stay behind. It’s an ending, of sorts.

Pedant’s corner:-“he clearly saw it lay down” (he saw it lie down,) the text refers to the lighting of explosives (in the future? Unless the future has degenerated – and this one doesn’t seem to have,) plus points for whom, “to not let people see her emotions” (not to let people see,) sailboat (sailing boat,) “he was not much taller than she” (either “he was not much taller than her” or “he was not much taller than she was”,) sunk in (sank in,) air field (airfield,) aircrafts (aircraft,) spacecrafts (spacecraft,) “the skin didn’t lay tight” (lie tight,) boar (the creature is obviously a bear,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘Where is Gard?’.” (Doesn’t need that full stop outside the quote mark,) sunk (sank,) shrunk (shrank.)

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2001, 428 p.

Number9Dream cover

The difficult second novel. In his, Mitchell seems to have taken the decision to throw any number of things at the wall to see what might stick. It has its moments certainly but while being easy enough to follow on the level of the prose is not quite a straightforward read. It is told in nine sections; Panopticon, Lost Property, Video Games, Reclaimed Land, Study of Tales, Kaiten, Cards, The Language of Mountains is Rain.

The thread it hangs on is the search by Eiji Miyake for his father, who abandoned his mistress, mother to Eiji and his sister Anju, when they were young. Eiji has come to Tokyo from the sticks (an island called Kagoshima) to make himself known. We first find him in a café opposite the PanOpticon building waiting to meet his father’s lawyer, Akiko Katō, an encounter he fantasises about several times. The shifting ground of the novel starts here. From that point on the reader can never be entirely certain which of the incidents we are presented with are supposed to be occurring only within Eiji’s mind and which are meant to be “real”. But his burgeoning relationship with part-time waitress and proficient musician, Ai Imajō, the nape of whose neck is perfect, does give something to grab on to.

We follow the ups and downs of Eiji’s search, through an unfruitful meeting with Ms Katō, another with an ageing admiral from whom he learns his father’s family name is Tsukiyama, and also with his father’s wife and daughter, not to mention his falling into the orbit of the Yakuza and out again. His motives aren’t mercenary. But others find that difficult to believe.

I must say I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction and the characters here – Yakuza perhaps aside, but gangsters are gangsters the world over – don’t follow the behaviour, or speech, patterns of those in books written by Japanese authors. When Mitchell returned to Japan, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it was to the country well before its opening to the West, in Napoleonic times, and his Japanese characters seemed to me to behave as such.

You could call Mitchell’s approach playfulness. Or you could call it irritating. At one point Eiji is hiding out from the Yakuza in a house where a novel’s manuscript is lying about. He of course reads it and so we are given extracts. Its main characters are called Goatwriter (himself a writer,) Mrs Comb (one of those “comedy” earthy charlady types with non-received pronunciation,) and Pithecanthropus. Here we are vouchsafed the information that due to a gentleman’s agreement soldiers never fight each other – “They might get hurt,” – and that, “The purpose of war is to kill as many civilians as possible.’” Also, “‘Writing is not about ‘fulfilment!’ Writing is about adoration! Glamour! Awards!’ …. ‘I learned the language of writers, ‘coda’ and ‘conceit’ for ‘ending’ and ‘idea’; ‘tour de force’ instead of ‘the good bit’; ‘cult classic’ instead of ‘this rubbish will never sell’.” This is a novel wherein is made literal the sentence, “Goatwriter’s words stuck in his throat,” and contains the line, “‘A stream of consciousness’ he rejoyced.” All well and good, but it seems more designed to show off the author’s facility with word-play rather than advance either the plot or knowledge of human relationships.

In Number9Dream Mitchell seems to have pushed his conceits as far as he thought he could get away with. (And possibly beyond.) Still, I’d never thought to see the word zwitterion in a literary novel; hats off to that.

Episodes of seriousness do intrude. A Yakuza tells Eiji that straight citizens of Japan are all living in a movie set. “A show is run from the wings, not centre stage. …… In most places the muscle is at the beck and call of the masters. In Japan, we, the muscle, are the masters. Japan is our gig.’”

A hint that this may be considered an altered history comes in an entry in an exquisitely written, intriguing, realistically toned journal supposedly from 1944 of a Tsukiyama ancestor who was a pilot on the kaiten project (the submarine equivalent of the kamikaze) which makes reference to someone who threw himself under a Russian tank with a bomb and also mentions stories of the Soviets’ cruelty in Manchūkuo. In our world the Soviets didn’t declare war on Japan till after Hitler was defeated in 1945. But in a work such as this where so much is invention in the narrator’s mind this could be another example. On the other hand it could simply be a mistake by Mitchell. There is not much solid ground to hang on to here. This is particularly so when, within the ‘present day’ span of the book a huge earthquake strikes the Tokyo area. This, of course, has not happened in the reader’s time-line.

To back this up, towards the end of the book a truck-driver says to Eiji, “‘Trust what you dream. Not what you think,’” and an old woman tells him, “‘Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the never-will-be may walk amid the still-are,’” which could be Mitchell describing his methods. Later we are told, ‘A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter.’

It turns out Eiji’s favourite John Lennon song is #9Dream “‘It should be considered a masterpiece.’” He fantasises a meeting where Lennon says it’s a descendant of Norwegian Wood. Both are ghost stories. The title means “the ninth dream begins after every ending.”

In a variation of the man stepping into the same river some time later conundrum Eiji thinks, “A book you read is not the same book as before you read it. Maybe a girl you sleep with is not the same girl you went to bed with.” Is this taking philosophical speculation too far?

If you were counting earlier there were only eight named sections. The ninth is untitled and contains solely a blank page. Presumably the dream.

Which only leaves the question, is Number9Dream a ‘tour de force’ or perhaps a ‘cult classic’?

Pedant’s corner:- not every often (very often.) “An aviary of telephones trill” (An aviary trills.) A missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) vocal chords (vocal cords.) “‘What would me pictures be doing there??’” (my pictures,) soccer (it’s football,) “the twelve-yard box” (no such thing in football. Penalty box, or eighteen yard box at a pinch,) Eiji scores a goal direct from a goal-kick (that wouldn’t count, goal kicks are indirect free-kicks,) “the enemy goalposts …. enemy player(s)” (the opposition goalposts …. opponent(s).) “A queue of the hippest people wait outside” (a queue waits.) “Daaimon tells the girls a long story … that make the girls shriek with laughter” (tells a story that makes the girls shriek,) hiccoughs (hiccups; it’s not any kind of cough,) “we are in miniature planetarium” (a miniature planetarium,) “and flashes and enamel smile” (an enamel smile.) “A garage band rehearse” (a band rehearses.) “Inside are a whole row of” (is a whole row,) “‘And will his trousers needing pressing’” (need.) “The string section bask in the applause” (the string section basks.) “The clatter and glitter of cascading silver balls hypnotize the ranks of drones” (the clatter and glitter hypnotizes.) “The crowd drain away” (the crowd drains away,) eidelweiss (edelweiss,) “he tobaggoned down the crater” (tobogganed.) “How do you write a letter a real private detective?” (to a real private detective,) “with an cane” (a cane.) “A coven of wives blowhole laughter” (a coven blowholes laughter.) “None of are eager to” (None of us is eager to,) “life-sized statute” (statue,) “I saw than Shiomi’s eyes” (that,) military bace (base,) “we all knew knew” (omit a “knew”.) “He neck is” (his neck,) “a crowd of very busy people surge in” (a crowd surges in,) “‘people use to build Tokyo’” (used to,) vortexes (vortices.) “One set of hands frisk me while another set holds my arms” (note that failure of subject to agree with verb in the first clause with no such failure in the second clause; it ought to be ‘one set frisks me’,) “the three men also sat at the card table” (the three men seated at, or sitting at,) “wracked with relief and guilt” (racked,) “handwriting is an clear as malice” (is as clear,) “the enemy are tracking me” (the enemy is tracking me.) “A row of men in uniforms occupy the urinals” (a row of men occupies the urinals.)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Europa, 2012, 328 p. Translated from the Italian L’amica geniale by Ann Goldstein.

Book One: Childhood, Adolescence

My Brilliant Friend cover

Ferrante’s writing – especially her Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first – has been attracting a lot of attention if not hype. The mystery surrounding her identity – Ferrante is a pseudonym whose real-life counterpart has not revealed herself – is one of the elements in that I’m sure.

This volume is the tale of two childhood friends growing up in the back streets of Naples – not quite two children dressing in rags but poor certainly. Our narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter, her friend is Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter. Lila is gifted intellectually – at least according to Elena – but does not progress at school, as she decides not to. (Not that her parents would have allowed her to.) Elena is given every opportunity by her teacher who persuades her parents to allow her to continue her education beyond the normal for her milieu.

While still young Lila reveals to Elena the conspiracy of silence about before, before the war, before they were born, seeing all her elders as complicit. Elena realises, “Without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.”

Through Elena, Ferrante is good on the absurdities and embarrassments of puberty, the lack of control over the body and of how others perceive you. In time and in contrast to Elena, Lila begins to exert a magnetic attraction on all males. She is well able to defend herself (and Elena) against any unwanted advances however. She throws herself and her talents into designing shoes but her father has no faith in their ability to sell and scorns the possibility. Elena’s continuing education and the necessary separation as the new higher schools are across the city gradually puts a distance between the pair.

An element of fantasy – undeveloped in this volume – appeared when on New Year’s Eve 1959 Lila experienced what she will later describe to Elena as dissolving margins. To her the outlines of people suddenly dissolved, disappeared. How much this contributes to Ferrante’s overall story arc I can’t say but her story-telling in general I found irritating. There was too much telling not enough showing, too much concentration on boring minutiae – every test score Elena ever got seems to be included. In addition there were many cases in which the characterisation was lacking. There is an index of characters – inserted before the novel proper – so that you can tell them apart by name but many of them, the young males especially, do not stand out from each other on the page. I felt too that there was a stretching towards significance in phrases like, “there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit,” and “‘When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities,’” which actually don’t bear scrutiny. Moreover the book ends on a point of imminent conflict. Yes, there are three more instalments of Ferrante’s quartet to go but this still felt like a breach of the contract between writer and reader.

I would agree that as a social document of a time and a place, of certain attitudes, My Brilliant Friend is interesting enough but despite that “cliffhanger” I wasn’t moved to seek out further instalments with any alacrity.

Pedant’s corner:- The text has been translated into USian. Otherwise; “an anti-gas mask” (this may be a literal translation of the Italian, but the English term is simply, gas mask.) “To not be second.” (Not to be second,) pubis (is the pubic bone not the pubic area,) knickers (conveys a different meaning to a British reader than the knickerbockers or plus-fours I took it was intended,) an useful (technically correct I suppose, but not a common usage,) Aeneas’ (Aeneas’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Identity by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1999, 155 p. Translated from the French L’identité (Gallimard, 1998?) by Linda Asher.

Identity cover

After the loss of a baby from a previous marriage, the constant refrain from her husband and his family that another child would set things right Chantal left to take up with Jean-Marc, who feels he only engages with the world through her but is fearful that is only an illusion and without her he’d lose any connection to the world. Her realisation that, ‘Men don’t turn to look at me any more,’ is the starting point of the couple’s estrangement. She begins to receive anonymous letters, keeping them from Jean-Marc, and imagines who might be their writer. Eventually their contents contain too many details of her activities to be the work of someone who does not know her well. The confrontation that ensues sees Chantal take a trip to London, in part to escape.

In its early stages this book reminded me of the work of John Banville but then it took a left turn into a phantasia of unlikely occurrences which it is a tribute to Kundera’s skill are nevertheless entered seamlessly without any jarring to the reader.

Identity, the awareness of self, is of course the theme of the book. “Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining the wholeness of the self.” Saying friends help to bolster this sense, Jean-Marc calls into evidence Dumas’s four musketeers and claims friendship is, “proof of the existence of something stronger than ideology, than religion, than the nation,” but Chantal tells him. “Friendship is a problem for men. It’s their romanticism. Not ours.”

Chantal works at an advertising agency. One of her colleagues declares, “‘Only a very small minority really enjoys sex.’” When challenged, he adds, ‘If someone interrogates you on your sex life, are you going to tell the truth?….. while everyone may covet the erotic life everyone also hates it, as the source of their troubles, their frustrations, their yearnings, their complexes, their sufferings.’” Sex is never far from the surface in a Kundera book. Here advertising is characterised as, “Toilet paper, nappies, detergent, food. That is man’s sacred circle, and our mission is not only to discover it, seize it, and map it, but to make it beautiful, to transform it into song.” We are, “condemned to food and coitus and toilet paper.”

Identity is a slight volume at 155 pages but packs a lot in. However, the simile in, “her voice wavering like the lament of a woman raped,” strikes an off-note.

Pedant’s corner:- Patroclus’ (Patroclus’s,) Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas’s,) unfriendlike (is that a translation of a French word for which there is no direct English equivalent?) “an burdensome thing” (a burdensome thing, surely? Or was it a peculiar emphasis in the French?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Britannicus’ (Britannicus’s,) “to épater les bourgeois” (not translated, but italicised,) a curious shift to past tense for one paragraph in a section otherwise rendered in the present.

Shoreline of Infinity 8½: Special edition; Edinburgh Book Festival 2017

The New Curiosity Shop, 2017, 222 p.

Ken Macleod takes the editorial slot as he curated the SF strand in 2017’s Edinburgh Book Festival. He cautions that SF does not predict the future but can warn of it and notes Scotland’s present flourishing SF and fantasy scene inspired by its distinguished history. In From the Editor’s Log, Noel Chidwick introduces the authors and stories.
Some of the fiction has appeared previously, The Great Golden Fish by Dee Raspin in Shoreline of Infinity 3; The Stilt-Men of the Lunar Swamps by Andrew J Wilson, Organisms by Caroline Grebell, Senseless by Gary Gibson and SF Caledonia by Monica Burns with an extract from Gay Hunter by James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) were in Shoreline of Infinity 4; The Revolution Will be Catered by Iain Maloney and Incoming by Thomas Clark in Shoreline of Infinity 5; The Worm by Russell Jones in Shoreline of Infinity 6 while 3.8 Missions by Katie Gray and The Beachcomber Mutable Marians graced the magazine’s 7th issue.
In Edinburgh Masks1 by Adam Roberts a mediocre jobbing actor playing Iago in Edinburgh is given a gift of two theatrical masks, Comedy and Tragedy. They speak to him and he agrees to seven great performances in exchange for his soul, meaning to cheat his fate by retiring before the seventh. Whether by accident or design Roberts has mined one of the rich seams of Scottish literature, the meeting with the devil story.
The Last Word2 of Ken MacLeod’s story is produced by a meme generator coupled with a learning algorithm using out-of-copyright texts to combine phrases with ostensible meaning; a future equivalent of a million monkeys with typewriters.
Lowland Clearances by Pippa Goldschmidt is a neat inversion of a piece of Scottish history. Here people are cleared from Glasgow to the Highlands in order to make way for rubbish-eating sheep from ‘Dolly Enterprises’.
Ruth E J Booth’s The Honey Trap3 is a reprint from Le Femme, NewCon Press, of her BSFA award winning story. Agriculture has been thoroughly collectivised. A representative at a Faire is intrigued by an ugly but utterly delicious apple variety brought to him by a young girl in a hoodie.
Whimper4 by Nalo Hopkinson is a reprint from the very last edition of Clock magazine wherein each story was entitled either Bang or Whimper and ended in the middle of a sentence. Here people are being pursued to their death by things called leggobeasts. Our narrator claims she dreamed them all.
New Gray Ring to Olympic Five by Ada Palmer reads like a newspaper report of the addition of a sixth ring to the Olympic flag.
In the non-fiction:- Imagining Possible Futuresa by Charles Stross addresses the problem of writing optimistic futures in pessimistic times by pointing to the positive developments in the non-Western world. The following, Tomorrow Never Knows, written by Iain Malone follows on from Stross’s short essay by discussing recent examples of Scottish dystopian fiction. Russell Jones outlines the genesis of Shoreline of Infinity’s monthly “sci-fi”b cabaret: Event Horizon. Mark Toner in Making Art on the Shoreline of Infinity describes the magazine’s evolving policy on art work. Multiverse is introduced by Russell Jones making the case for SF poetry and showcases poems by Jo Waltonc, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Jane Yolend, Marge Simon, Shelly Bryant, Benjamin Dodds and Grahaeme Barrasford Young.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Leith Way (Leith Walk certainly, but there is no Leith Way in Edinburgh,) “liquorish-coloured wood” (liquorish – or lickerish – means fond of alcohol. I have no idea how that could translate to colour. I suppose Roberts meant liquorice,) “‘that would be a cheap of me’” (that would be cheap of me,) hiccough (hiccup, any comparison to a cough is misplaced,) an indent carried on from a quote to the next line of text, “in the stage” (on the stage is more usual,) “they too had had words” (the two is more natural,) “on Lothian road” (Lothian Road,) Wesminster (Westminster,) “audiences gasped and clutched their hands to their chest” (to their chests.) “A new generation of actors were being celebrated” (a new generation was,) “to hold the crowd’s attention, to manipulate their emotions” (its emotions,) “no more than and flotsam” (has an extraneous “and”.) “Attempting a cheat the Prince of Darkness”. (Attempting to cheat,) “brooding over the one great performance that still left in him” (that was still left in him,) “who had a better grounds” (who had better grounds,) bakelite (Bakelite, which wasn’t in any case in widespread use during the Great War where it appears here,) the story ends with a piece of dialogue but its end quote mark is missing. 2Kirkaldy (Kirkcaldy.) 3“‘none of the growers have seen you before’” (none has seen you.) It stunk like … (It stank like …) 4leggobeastst (leggobeasts.) Some of the author info blurbs end with a full stop others (including Multiverse) don’t.
a“Big Carbon … trying to monetize their assets” (its assets, and while we’re about it, monetise.) bsci-fi (I hate this usage. It’s SF,) “but we’ve even more pleased” (we’re even more pleased,) a missing full stop at the piece’s end. cIn the author blurb she has a novel due out in Fenruary 2018 (February.) d“with it fierce seers” (its.)

Exalted on Bellatrix 1 by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet Part Four, PS Publishing, 2017, 92 p.

In this conclusion to Brown’s Telemass Quartet, Matt Hendrick’s chase across the galaxy via different telemass stations in order rescue his daughter Samantha reaches its end on the titular planet, to where his wife Maatje has taken Samantha’s life-suspended body in an effort to be cured and possibly “exalted” by the indigenous Vhey.

We first, though, have a bit of misdirection when Hendrick learns of a cure for Samantha’s condition. It is however, prohibitively expensive, which leads him to take on a commission from the EU in effect to spy on the Vhey on its behalf and enable his travel there.

The Vhey are another example of Brown’s stable of enigmatic aliens, eminently nebulous in their motivations, almost incomprehensible in their actions. (The cover’s depiction of them is, though, somewhat at odds with their description in the text.) Other common Brown tropes to appear include an artist’s colony – though here this is pretty much incidental – and someone with a profound psychological disturbance. And, of course, there is telepathy, in the shape of Hendrick’s helpmeet, Mercury Velazquez. But all contribute to the plot.

There are the usual bumps and hollows and action incidents along the way but the spying element never really comes to much as the Vhey dispose of the means of surveillance very expeditiously. However, that is more than made up for when we finally witness an exaltation, the details of which are suitably horrific. It all rounds up the Quartet satisfactorily.

One quibble. The cover and title pages have Bellatrix 1 as the planet on which this is set. In the previous three Telemass novellas the planet’s number was expressed in Roman numerals (IV, III, II.) The reason why this one’s should contain the Arabic numeral 1 is obscure. Within the text the planet’s name is written as Bellatrix I so I assume the change wasn’t due to the author.

“Time interval” later count: 7. Pedant’s corner:- a missing full stop, “out offer” (our offer,) “the subjective interpretation of objective phenomenon” (either “objective phenomena”, or, “an objective phenomenon”) tae chi (tai chi,) “to affect change” (to effect change,) “when the might return” (they,) “they Vhey” (the Vhey.) “Its eyes nictitated slowly from side to side” (eyes don’t nictitate, eyelids or membranes do. Then again maybe in aliens eyes do nictitate,) “watch Sam grown up” (grow up would be a more usual expression. Though watching Sam grown up would be possible for him.)

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1983, 710 p. First published 1931.

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

This book has been described as “the best historical novel of the twentieth century.” Perhaps informed by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as an attempt to inhabit the mindset pertaining to an ancient belief system it is certainly admirable. Yet while readable, and a must for Mitchison completists, it is, however, not without its flaws, which are indeed acknowledged by the author’s afterword to this edition, published more than fifty years after its original appearance.

We start in the Black Sea area in the settlement of Marob where the young Erif Der is a practitioner of magic (she calls herself a witch) but this is actually a relative commonplace in the community. Erif’s father, Harn Der, wants her to marry Marob’s Corn King, Tarrik (who is part Greek and also has the name Charmantides) in order to nullify Tarrik’s powers with her own and so allow Tarrik to be replaced. Tarrik has fallen under the influence of the Stoic Sphaeros, and her enchantments are not enough. The fertility rituals are depicted comprehensively (and later contrasted with those of Egypt) their importance to the community’s functioning emphasised. Eventually Erif falls in love with Tarrik, but under Sphaeros’s influence he decides to take a trip to Greece to where she accompanies him. This entails a change of viewpoint as in Section Two we engage with the inhabitants of Sparta before the arrival of the barbarians from Marob.

The first six sections alternate between Marob and Greece thereafter we remain following the fortunes of Spartan King Kleomenes, even into exile in Egypt, until the final epilogue chapter, set in Marob but still concerned with Kleomenes as it rounds off the tale of his legacy. The Greek and Egyptian sections make up well over half the book and so make the title a little misleading. The book at times reads as more of a history of Kleomenes than of the lives of Erif Der or Tarrik.

Mitchison’s characters display a matter of fact attitude to sex which might have been unusual in print ninety years ago, yet when Kleomenes refers to “nigger-boxers” – meaning black pugilists – the book’s origins in what are now distant times are apparent.

Phrases such as, “‘When things turn simple, women have to give up much more than men. Because they live in shadow, by mystery,’” show that feminism is by no means a late twentieth century invention. That the passage of time may provide a different perspective is illustrated by, “With time and questionings, rights became wrongs and wrongs rights.”

Notwithstanding the alien belief systems Mitchison’s characterisation is excellent, Erif’s brother Berris’s infatuation with the Greek girl Philylla a particular high point. These are recognisable human beings. It is the book’s structure that is off-kilter. There are in fact two stories here, though intertwined, Erif’s (Tarrik is off-stage for more than half the novel) and that of Kleomenes, who in his freeing of the helots comes across as a bit of a socialist before their time. Maybe they would have been better split into two separate volumes.

Pedant’s corner:- “By and bye” (numerous instances, it is – and always has been – by and by,) “the oddest thing about it were his bright brown eyes” (the oddest thing was his eyes,) disk-throwing (disc-throwing,) Sphaeros’ (Sphaeros’s,) span (x2, spun,) Agis’ (Agis’s,) Panteus’ (Panteus’s,) Lycurgus (elswhere Lycurgos,) sewed (sewn, as in the line above!) “none of them were very sure” (none of them was very sure,) “the Achæan League .. begin to be afraid of Sparta” (the league begins to be afraid,) waggons (I prefer wagons,) Plowing Eve, plow, plow-beam, plowed, plowing (yet plough-ox,) Disdallis’ (Disdallis’s,) “aren’t I?” (did the ancient Greeks actually use this ungrammatical formulation? Besides Mitchison is Scottish. “Amn’t I?” is more grammatical and the natural Scottish usage,) Agiatis’ (Agiatis’s,) Phoebis’ (Phoebis’s,) Apelles’ (Apelles’s,) “none of the traders know Plato from Pythagoras” (none of the traders knows,) slue himself round (slew,) Antigonos’ (Antigonos’s,) Kleomenes’ (Kleomenes’s,) “this intolerable burden o planning” (of planning, the “o” occurred at a line’s end. Make of that what you will,) Krateskleia (elsewhere Kratesikleia,) stronglier (usually expressed as “more strongly”,) Themisteas’ (Themisteas’s,) Berris’ (Berris’s.) “The party in Sparta that hated him and his revolution prepare to welcome..” (the party prepares,) Agathokles’ (Agathokles’s,) Sosibios’ (Sosibios’s,) a missing comma before the start of a piece of dialogue, Nikomedes’ (Nikomedes’s,) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue, “a whole sleeping part of her had awoke,” (awoken,) Neolaidas’ (Neolaidas’s,) “none of the crowd were in the least willing” (none was willing,) “like polished sards” (shards?)

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 119 p. Translated from the Spanish Memoria de mis putas tristes (Mondadori, Barcelona, 2005) by Edith Grossman

Memories of My Melancholy Whores cover

The title strongly suggests this (short) novel will address at least two of literature’s big three themes. Sex certainly and, if not death, then at least old age. And it does so from the first sentence, where our narrator reveals that the year he turned ninety he, “wanted to give himself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” A columnist on a Colombian newspaper, this is a man who has always paid for the women he has had sex with – even if they threw the money on the floor straight away.

He contacts his madam of choice, Rosa Cabarcas, to arrange the contract. In the event, though, when he enters the room the child is sleeping and he does nothing to disturb her. Instead he begins to idolise her and reminisce about his past life.

That title is slightly misleading, there is not actually much about whores in the 119 pages, whether melancholy or otherwise. What there is, are the ruminations of an old man on life, love and obsession, thus hitting squarely on literature’s third big theme. Of women he says, “they know the how and the why when they want to,” and of ageing as a man, “among the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission.” There is also some wit. The state censor at the newspaper, altogether too fond of striking his pen through the whole of a piece of copy, is dubbed the Abominable No-Man.

It is definitely the work of a writer who knew thoroughly what he was doing and how to achieve his ends but also with the sly urge to provoke.

Pedant’s corner:- “the incipient down on her pubis” (the pubis is the pubic bone, not the genital area. The external prominence is the Mons pubis.) “The best part of her body were her large, silent stepping feet” (the best part was,) Praxiteles’ (Praxiteles’s,) Heraclitus’ (Heraclitus’s.)

free hit counter script