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Provenance by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2017, 443 p

 Provenance cover

This novel is set in the same universe as Leckie’s highly successful “Ancillary” books but this one is in a far-off corner well away from the Imperial Radch fiefdoms though a Radch ambassador makes an appearance at one point.

In an attempt to impress her foster mother Netano, and so improve her own chances of succession rather than have that bestowed on her foster brother Danach, Ingray Aughskold has travelled at great expense to the planet of Tyr Siilas to try to extract Pahlad Budrakim from a state of imprisonment known as Compassionate Removal. Budrakim is the son of the Prolocutor, an elected official on Ingray’s home of Hwae. Netano is a former Prolocutor who will be seeking re-election soon.

Pahlad is delivered to her in a suspension pod but Tic Uisine, the captain of the ship Ingray has paid to travel home in, is unwilling to carry any passenger without that person’s express approval. When the pod is opened its occupant denies being Pahlad but after some toing and froing agrees to go on the ship.

On arrival at Hwae they become embroiled in a diplomatic contretemps with the ambassador of the Geck – a race in contact with the mysterious Presger who are an incipient menace to humans. Though he has all the necessary papers the Geck believe that Tic Uisine has stolen his ship from them (more than one in fact) and want him for restitution.

Meanwhile the Omkem, from the next interstellar gate to Hwae, are manoeuvring to gain access to Byeit, the system one on from Hwae with whom Omkem used to have gate access before a revolution on Byeit broke the link.

Hwae society has an exaggerated respect for vestiges, each household seems to have its own repository of such things, called a lareum. Hwae’s most venerated object is a copy of its original independence document kept in the system Lareum. (I liked the use of this word, with its echoes of a Latin term for Roman household gods, for a vestige repository.) However it turns out that “copy” may be the precise word. Provenance you see. Though does that actually matter if everyone agrees that what the document represents is all that counts?

A bunch of Omkem soldiers invades the Hwae Lareum, taking schoolchildren hostages in the process, and Ingray offers herself instead. There is also some byplay about the disturbance of a possible vestige site and the death of an Omkem ambassador.

Leckie throws personal pronouns about with abandon. Unlike in the Ancillary books she does not use she exclusively. Ingray is a she, Danach a he, but others are designated e. This indeterminate pronoun necessitates the use of em and eir as possessives, plus emself and eirself. From a British perspective a phrase such as, “she told em,” reads a little awkwardly at first as plural.

Leckie also makes much of Ingray’s full skirts and her uselessness with hairpins. The text is also riddled with information dumping – a lot of which is unnecessary, Leckie telling us about her universe because she can’t resist doing so. There is far too much of Ingray’s inner monologue and a degree of prurience about sexual relationships straying very close to, if not over the border of, Becky Chambers territory. Yes, the narrative has a chatty style but at times it seemed as if Leckie might be being rewarded for a high word count as whatever strengths she may have, economy isn’t one of them. See Pedant’s corner for an example.

Provenance is on the BSFA Award short list this year for best novel. I’ve not read any of the others yet but I think it’s safe to say it won’t be my number one.

Pedant’s corner:- Sat (sitting.) “‘They are disquieting, aren’t they.’” (is missing a question mark,) “since she’d waked” (woken.) “One small child turned their head to look at Ingray. Sniffled. Opened their mouth.” (what’s wrong with “one small child turned its head? Opened its mouth?) “‘Does she.’” (Again, missing the question mark,) “and besides, both Dicat and Chenns very probably knew what they were doing. She would only be in the way, and, besides, she’d caused this, it was her fault that Nicale was hurt” (like so much else in the book this needs a damned good editing; get rid of at least one of the “besides”, and either the “she’d caused this” or the “it was her fault” as they both tell us the same thing.)

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

Gollancz, 2017, 390 p, including i p derivation of Wolf Moon, i p map of the Moon’s nearside, iii p Glossary, iv p Dramatis Personae and ii p Lunar Calendar.

 Luna: Wolf Moon cover

Not long into this second of McDonald’s “Luna” sequence of novels, the rolling city of Crucible, surmounted by solar mirrors focusing the sun’s rays into the enormous smelter for which it is named and beneath which its inhabitants live, the source of the power and influence of Mackenzie Metals, one of the Five Dragons (the families which effectively control everything on the Moon,) meets the end which we have suspected it would since the moment McDonald introduced it in the previous book Luna: New Moon. Software hidden in its controlling programming is activated to misalign the mirrors; with catastrophic results.

At first surprisingly, McDonald makes very little of this potential set-piece, certainly much less than he did the destruction of Boa Vista, the city of the now fallen Corta family, in the previous volume. But then, the focus of his Luna books is, or seems to be, that particular family. Corta Hélio, their firm which mined the helium-3 which powered the fusion reactors which keep Earth going, is now no more, its functions taken over by the Mackenzies. A few of the Cortas have survived, notably Lucas, who has enlisted the help of the Vorontsovs (the clan in charge of the Dragon which transports cargo between Moon and Earth) and made the dangerous decision to accustom himself to Earth gravity to travel there and prepare the way for his revenge. The narration, in that urgent present tense which permeates a lot of modern SF, also follows Robson Corta, a ward of the Mackenzies, lawyer Ariel Corta, Lucas’s son Lucasinho, and Wagner, one of those “wolves” who are affected by the Earth’s phases. A significant addition to the cast is Alexia Corta, Queen of the Pipes, who keeps the water supply flowing in her Brazilian township till she inveigles herself into Lucas’s orbit and becomes his right-hand woman.

MacDonald’s decision almost to underplay the fall of Crucible becomes understandable as it sets the scene for what can only be described as total war between several Moon factions. Certainly a great deal of mayhem is involved. Almost as an incidental the Eagle of the Moon dissolves the Lunar Development Corporation before he himself is deposed. Along the way MacDonald subtly slips in references to previous works of speculative fiction, “The company of wolves wheels on,” “Earth is a harsh mistress,” “The bone clocks.”

A neat touch is Lucasinho’s contention that in a society where just about everything can be printed and recycled, cake is the perfect gift as it has to be hand-crafted. Admittedly he was saying this in extremis to distract his young companion from impending doom but it was a welcome light-hearted aside.

McDonald’s Luna does not present as an appealing place in which to live. Its people are for the most part even less appealing. It was ever thus with pioneers.

Pedant’s corner:- USianisms intrude -ass for arse, curb for kerb, shit for shat – yet we have manoeuvre. “‘Oh can I?’ Dr Volikova and again Lucas heard the amusement in her voice,” (has a “said” missing,) “Death is nothing. Not even not nothing,” (not even not nothing? “Not even nothing” is more parsable,) as in the previous volume the “2”s of CO2 and O2 are rendered as here in normal type and not as subscripts CO2, O2, lip-sticks (lipsticks.) “None ask to see the lip-gloss-smeared bruises.” (None asks,) “insisted that that Lucas Corta would inherit” (only one “that” needed,) “‘I think you should go back to you seat,’” (your seat,) “‘That’s there a Corta left to ask?’” (That there’s a Corta…) “was she doing it all?” (doing it at all.) Elamentals (Elementals,) “in Ariel’s’ entourage” Ariel’s,) “a third squad of hired blades secure the doors,” (a squad secures the doors,) “the maids’ uniform,” (it was one maid so maid’s.) “Jinji brings down a personnel capsule down” (only needs one “down”,) “the pod AI warn” (the AI warns,) “Communications seems to be down” (communications is plural, so “seem to be down”.) “Foods shortages” (Food shortages) “He feel sick” (feels,) “‘And you are withered old scorpion’” (a withered old scorpion.)

Science Fiction: a Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst

British Library, 2016, 254 p (including 2 p Preface by Adam Roberts, 3 p Introduction by Roger Luckhurst, 2 p Notes on Contributors, 1 p Picture Credits and 18 p Index.

Science Fiction: a Literary History cover

Adam Roberts’s Preface notes SF’s relative ubiquity in today’s world and praises this book as as compact and exhaustive an introduction to the subject as you will find. Roger Luckhurst’s Introduction, by way of reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Garden of Forking Paths (which presaged many-worlds theory by a considerable time,) acknowledges the impossibility of summing up SF in such a short space as a single book but hopes it will provide pointers to newcomers to the genre and to old hands alike.

The overall approach is more or less chronological. Chapter 11 sees Arthur B Evans tackle early forms of SF in The Beginnings. Roger Luckhurst himself covers the transition From Scientific Romance to Science Fiction in Chapter 2. The Utopian Prospects of 1900-49 are considered by Caroline Edwards in Chapter 32. There is some overlap in time here with Mark Bould’s Chapter 43, Pulp SF and its Others, 1918-39. Malisa Kurtz examines immediate post-war SF in Chapter 54, After the War. Chapter 65 has Rob Latham look at The New Wave ‘Revolution’. Chapter 7’s voyage From the New Wave into the Twenty-First Century6 is undertaken by Sherryl Vint. Gerry Canavan brings us up to date with Chapter 8, New Paradigms, After 2001. Each Chapter is repletely referenced and has a list of “What to Read Next” at its end. Imagine my satisfaction when finding I had read most – if not all – of the relevant recommendations. Plus I am in the process of ticking off another right now.

Perhaps the most interesting part (because the most remote) was Chapter 1 wherein Evans identifies many instances of SF or proto-SF from before 1900 and exemplifies two of its fundamental attributes at that time; diversion (imagination) and didacticism (cognition) – or, as Jules Verne’s editor/publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel put it, instruction that entertains and entertainment that instructs. Well before the twentieth century subterranean or interplanetary adventure became well established – along with time travel – and u- and dystopias have always abounded. It is noted that early interplanetary spaces were modelled on colonial spaces – Space Opera and Star Wars your origins lie here. Indeed the colonial adventure (King Solomon’s Mines etc) can be considered as SF. Examples of the genre emanating from outwith the anglo- or francophone spheres are given due note, including SF works from pre-revolutionary Russia, Africa, Asia, Latin America – and also by black US writers – of which I was not previously aware.

The New Wave chapter laments that “unique talents” such as R A Lafferty, D G Compton, David R Bunch and Edgar Pangborn are little read these days. In one of those omissions Luckhurst acknowledged would occur discussion of one of my favourites from the time, Richard Cowper, is absent.

For anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the genre this is an admirable place to start. It also provides potential new avenues for aficionados to pursue.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“by adding this own critical observations” (his own,) “the series of six novels … are set” (the series is set.) “But all is not perfect.” (But not all is perfect,) Cerillas’ (Cerillas’s.) 2“Has strengthened African-American will and prepared them for an international liberation movement” (“them” is the wrong pronoun here but to avoid it the whole sentence needs recasting.) “An imperial cabal of … plot to undermine the ..” (a cabal plots.) “As the new intake are given” (the new intake is given,.) “Slovakia’s defence strategy, and the novel’s SF element, employs the technique of…” (notwithstanding the parenthetical commas that “and” requires a plural noun; so, employ the technique.) 3“a series of coups weaken the fascist grip” (a series weakens the grip.) “The expedition… encounter” (the expedition encounters.) 4”from embracing the ‘the divine right of machines’” (omit the “the” before the quote,) “as the scientific elite have developed…” (the scientific elite has developed,) “the dark side of the Moon” (every side of the Moon is dark, for 14 days out of 28; I believe the “far side” was intended.) 5fit (fitted,) New Worlds’ (New Worlds’s.) 6ascendency (ascendancy,) a missing full stop, “between this world and the our present” (either “our” or “the”, not both,) “thus rejected earlier version of speculative genres” (versions of,) “it was posed to become” (poised to become.)

A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher

Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, 218 p.

A Wrinkle in the Skin cover

John Christopher is perhaps best remembered for his Tripods series of books for young adults but also contributed to the British sub-genre of “cosy catatstrophe” most mined by the other John (Wyndham.) A Wrinkle in the Skin falls firmly into the catastrophe category as a series of giant earthquakes befalls the world. (From a modern perspective Christopher’s description of the cause of earthquakes was obviously written before the theory of plate tectonics was fully established.)

Matthew Cotter is a widower living in Guernsey when the earthquakes hit. After living through the ’quakes, his aim is to try to find his daughter who was living somewhere in England before the catastrophe. He first joins a small group of survivors one of whom acts as a kind of petty king intent on keeping the best female to himself to ensure any sons that ensue are recognized as his and regards Cotter (whose relative lack of interest in the opposite sex was established in the short pre-disaster chapter) as his right hand man. It is here perhaps that the sexual attitudes of the time A Wrinkle in the Skin was written (of time immemorial?) are most obvious as a woman who is a willing sexual partner for most of the others is referred to in the text in crudely dismissive terms.

Soon Cotter escapes to strike out on his own but is followed by a pre-pubescent boy whom he had earlier managed to rescue from a damaged building and for whom he now has to take responsibility. The English Channel has disappeared in the vast upheaval and they can walk across the old sea bed. During this sojourn they come upon a more or less intact oil tanker deposited on the new land, inhabited by a captain who has gone slightly mad.

Making it to England they hit upon a group who recognize them as non-threatening and take them in. The group seeks to hide both themselves and their stash from bands of marauders but of course can not always be successful. One such raid takes place when Cotter and many of the others are away from the camp on a food search. They arrive back in time to prevent the attackers from unearthing the food and Cotter uses a shotgun to drive them off, wounded or not. However, he later learns from one of the women of the new accommodation she has had to make to those gangs of men who chance upon her and the contempt in which she holds all men for their appetites. In a lawless, almost hopeless environment I suppose this is the way it would be.

As I recall the author’s The Death of Grass was somewhat similar in its treatment of the post-apocalyptic scenario.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘You know how to get here?’” (context suggests there rather than here,) Skiopos’ (Skiopos’s,) dark-aureoled (they weren’t aureoles, but areolas,) “he cut if off” (he cut it off.)

Blue Moon edited by Douglas Lindsay

Mayflower, 1970, 174 p

Blue Moon cover

I only really bought this because of its cover painting of an iconic V2-shaped rocket on a desolate planet with crescent moon overhead – a really evocative image. As to its contents, had I not noticed the publication date I would have sworn they were written in the 1950s. Such is the rudimentary writing style adopted by all the contributors, the emphasis on gung-ho action, the cartoon characterization, the ad-hoc information dumping, the casual xenophobia, the equally unthinking sexism, this read like a pulp magazine. The New Wave might as well not have happened.

Blue Moon1 by Norman L Knight starts with a totally unnecessary prologue and goes on into an equally forgettable space adventure which throws a decades-marooned spaceman, telepathy, and aliens up in the air then allows them to land where they will, with a rather telling aside about black humans being easily forgotten and sexual dynamics of the most rudimentary kind. (This last stricture applies to most of the stories here.)

Twilight of Tomorrow2 by Joseph Gilbert features a dictator who commissions a time machine to enable him to eliminate the threat to his plans to take over the world. Unfortunately the story’s last sentence, its whole raison d’être, for which it depends for its effect, isn’t true within the terms of the story. For the spoiler see Pedant’s corner.

Rain of Fire3 by Ray Cummings is a tale of interplanetary conflict. The eponymous rain is inflicted on Earth by inhabitants of the Jovian moon Phorgos. Three humans set off in a space-flyer – home-built by a Dr Livingston – to try to find out how to stop it. Phorgos is small and said to be utterly inhospitable; yet has a breathable atmosphere!! The three’s immediate response to its inhabitants is to shoot at them.

In Time Exposure by E A Grosser, using the new Hsuing drivers reveals the Lorentz-Fitzgerald effect to be an expansion rather than a contraction. Ships’ crews end up spread all over time.

The Case of the Vanishing Cellars4 by J S Klimaris features the Society for the Investigation of Unusual Phenomena looking into why cellars are suddenly disappearing. It’s all a fiendish alien plot.

In Ajax of Ajax5 by Martin Barrow, a certain Ajax Calkins is invited to be the ruler of a group of planetoids orbiting the leading of Jupiter’s Trojan Points and which are named after ancient Greek heroes. This is all as a cover for piracy.

The last two stories were written by Hugh Raymond. Washington Slept Here6 sees a real estate agent set out to find why there is a spate of seemingly natural deaths in the company’s properties. By the end the story has morphed over into fantasy. The Year of Uniting starts off in a US right winger’s wet dream of a restrictive US state (run by something called the Science Government.) Protagonist John Clayhorn makes his escape to Europe and there (for reasons unexplained in the text) receives help to instigate a revolution back home.

As a collection it’s tempting to say Blue Moon is of its time. But it’s actually worse than that. Even in its time it ought to have been after its time. Before 2016 I’d have said it is only to be read now as a historical curio. But we may well be going back there.

If you see a copy, buy it for its cover only.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite it being a British publication all of the stories are written in USian. 1an unindented new paragraph (x 2,) Hermes’ (Hermes’s,) demonaic (demoniac,) Dinapod (elsewhere Dinopod,) crepulscular (crepuscular,) equatic (aquatic,) terrestrial (terrestial.) “A gang of Dinopods were labouring” (a gang was,) a missing start quote mark at one piece of dialogue, a missing full stop. 2one less hero (fewer,) a missing full stop. Spoiler follows. That last sentence was, “He never existed.” But he did exist, up until the year of the time machine’s intervention in his life. And if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been a story. 3frightening numerous (frighteningly,) Hans’ (Hans’s,) “a line of metallic globes and cylinders were being assembled” (a line of …. was being assembled,) “Earth was a huge yellow glowing ball” (yellow?) “My metal-tipped fingers somehow seemed gripping Simms’s shoulder” (seemed to be gripping,) plus why invent a Jovian Moon? 4“a fine spech” (speech.) 5“Martian non-wheel cars” (the one the narrator is in has an exterior …. wheel! The whole is five lines later called “a huge single wheel”. Words almost fail me,) thusly (thusly? Who in real life ever uses that word?) Jobian (Jovian,) “the movements of one would effect all the others” (affect.) 6“‘I have never before been known consciously to refuse a drink’” (since the speaker hasn’t refused one this time either, that “before” is redundant,) “in the older days” (in the olden days is more usual,) nonchalently (nonchalantly.) 7Sanders’ (Sanders’s,) “she sat the both of them” (she seated both of them,) “with no slight sign of suspicion” (without the slightest sign of suspicion is a more natural phrasing,) Curtis’ (Curtis’s,) “in which was stored some rare viands and beverages” (viands, plural; and beverages, also plural; so “in which were stored.”)

Life

What with one thing and another I’m late in posting about books I’ve read recently (not to mention trips I’ve been on.)

I’ve got Paris Adrift for Interzone 274 to write up and haven’t come near to thinking about what I’ll say about Science Fiction: A Literary History.

I suppose the second category (above) for this post ought to be Reading not Reviewed.

I’m eighteen months behind on photographs of places we’ve visited. That trip north to Ross-shire was in August 2016.

I’ve got things on for tomorrow, Thursday and Friday. Goodness knows when I’ll catch up.

Heigh-ho.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Solaris, 2016, 317 p.

 Ninefox Gambit cover

This was on both the Clarke and Hugo Awards shortlists last year, which is why I read it. After two or so pages I wondered why I was bothering. The first chapter is a morass of information dumping and telling rather than showing with a battle described in terms that dwell on the grisly details yet are also bathetic. Plus, for an interplanetary conflict some of the weapons seem far too prosaic; bullets for instance.

We are in a milieu ruled by an all-powerful hexarchate – Shuos, Kel, Andan, Vidona, Rahal, Nirai – each of whose adherents at first seem to stick to one aspect of life (for example the Kel are soldiers whose “formation instinct” is their greatest asset) but turn out not to be quite so restricted. Some time in the past there was a heptarch (Liozh) but that tendency was expunged for calendrical heresy. Lee makes much play on this notion of keeping order by specifying time intervals. Calendrical rot is presented as a constant menace.

In Chapter One main viewpoint character Kel Cheris (Ajewen Cheris) is on a military mission to take an objective but is told to pull out as soon as she achieves it. She reflects that “Kel luck was frequently bad” – in which case why would anyone take part in it, then? Oh, of course. “Formation instinct,” (which seems more like indoctrination than instinct but is injected so must be chemical and which in any case comes over more as hidebound obedience. Yet occasionally some of the Kel do question orders so the instinct can’t actually be all that binding.) Later we are told, “It was one thing to sacrifice Kel soldiers. That was the purpose of the Kel.” Soldiers are for sacrificing are they? That might explain US military tactics down the years.

Cheris has been extracted as a possibility to lead the response to a calendrical rebellion at The Fortress of Scattered Needles. (Quite why she has been identified as a potential candidate is a mystery to this reader.) Her suggestion to resurrect the notorious, never defeated general Shuos Jedao, killer of millions in Hellspin Fortress centuries before and whose personality has been preserved in the black cradle to be trotted out from time to time when needed, is immediately accepted. His essence is implanted in her brain and off they go to challenge the rebels who are influenced by the Liozh tendency and in particular are on the way to implementing democracy, which general Jedao characterises as, “An obscure experimental form of government where citizens choose their own leaders or policies by voting on them.” Kel wonders how that could possibly work. Having Jedao in her head of course changes her by the book’s end, which sadly leaves ample scope for sequels.

The author’s apparent relish in describing body parts on the various battlefields makes his later attempts to induce sympathy or pity for victims of such extreme violence seem hollow, bordering on objectionable, while sentences such as, “It didn’t make him a mathematician, let alone one specializing in calendrical techniques, let alone one trained in this kind of evaluation,” with a phrase repeated after just four intervening words shows the lack of care in the writing (or editing.) This is only one example of many pieces of clunking prose in the book which is more or less a standard piece of military SF and not ground-breaking in any way.

Thankfully Ninefox Gambit won neither of those awards. What it was doing on the shortlists goodness only knows.

Pedant’s corner:- staunch (I prefer stanch,) “all the Kel weren’t as straightforward” (not all the Kel were as straightforward,) indictaed queries from other moth commander as well” (commanders,) “a small team of deltaform servitors were cleaning up the messes” (a team was,) practicing (practising,) “about what about what” (it doesn’t need the repeat,) “it didn’t take long for him long to respond” (either take out “long for” or “long to”,) damndest (damnedest,) a closing quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue. “An infinitely brief pause.” (How can anything be infinitely brief? Infinite and brief are total opposites,) “alternately gold and bronze and silver” (successively gold and bronze and silver,) “‘They weren’t for the heretics, were they.’” (That sentence is a question; so needs a question mark not a full stop.) “‘I could care less.’” (The context is, “I couldn’t care less.”) “clear white” (there is no such thing, clear = see-through, white = opaque; so-called “white light” is actually colourless,) dodecahedrons (dodecahedra,) Nirai (the character has been called Niaad up to here – and later.)

Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 383 p. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Jan-Feb 2016.

 Invisible Planets cover

Chinese SF has been making something of a splash in the wider world of late. This volume – containing thirteen stories (bar one all award winners in China) by seven authors, four women and three men, along with three essays on the form’s Chinese incarnation – provides the opportunity to delve into its ripples but perhaps dangles an invitation to a question. Do these examples of Chinese SF exhibit traits which are specifically Chinese in nature? Is it possible to discern characteristics unique to a culture’s literary output and, within that, to its SF?

In the broad sense, surely yes. Russian literature for example has a very different feel to that written in English. So too its SF. But does Invisible Planets spread its net widely enough to allow any such judgement? (I myself, though, having noted a qualitative difference in the broad sweep of US SF as opposed to that from the UK – which was then all but solely English – and so deliberately set out to write a novel that could only have arisen from a Scottish background, might be the wrong person to ask.)

In his introduction Ken Liu specifically warns us not to expect the contents here to be monolithic, that SF from China will be as diverse in nature as that from anywhere else, and cautions us that the stories he has chosen may not be representative; though he does note that SF from Singapore, the UK and the US “are all quite different” from each other, even if there are “further divisions within and across such geographical boundaries.”

He offers us “science fiction realism” from Chen Qiufan, the self-proclaimed “porridge SF” (neither “hard” nor “soft” – the terms apparently have slightly different meanings in China where hard refers to the inclusion of more technical material) of Xia Jia, “wry, political metaphors” from Ma Boyong, the “surreal imagery” of Tang Fei, “dense language-pictures” from Cheng Jingbo, the “fabulism and sociological speculation” of Hao Jingfang and Cixin Liu’s “hard science-fictional imagination”. Apart from Cixin Liu, most of the authors (whose names are all rendered in Chinese style, family name first) are “rising stars” and all work in professions.

The fiction starts with three stories from Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan.) The Year of the Rat sees an unemployed graduate forced to join the Rodent-Control Force dealing with the genetically engineered NeoratsTM infesting the Chinese countryside. In The Fish of Lijiang, people exposed to time dilation or compression require occasional readjustment which they obtain by meeting up with those of the yin tendency to their yang. Body films, patches which express personality in response to muscular tension or temperature, feature in The Flower of Shazui which reworks the old tale of a man fascinated by a prostitute who is beyond his reach. She nevertheless requires his help.

Xia Jia also makes three appearances. In the at times dream-like A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight foundling Ning is the sole living inhabitant of a village of ghosts whose days as a tourist attraction are gone. He nevertheless does not age beyond seven. Tongtong’s Summer sees Tongtong’s grandfather needing care after a fall. This comes in the shape of Ah Fu, a robot controlled from afar via a telepresence body-suit. Soon grandfather is interacting remotely with others in his position. Packed with invocations of opposites and apparently inspired by the poem “With Dreams as Horses” by Hai Zi, Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse (a story original to this book) sees the dragon-horse awaken after centuries to a world long bereft of humans. It meets a bat and they travel together telling each other stories.

Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence might be taken to be a reflection of Chinese experience in its depiction of a time when web access and everyday discourse is restricted to only allowable words but its explicit reference to Orwell’s 1984 (and implicit one to Fahrenheit 451) implies a wider relevance. The inevitable attempts to circumscribe the rules lead to an ever narrowing list of healthy words. Marring this slightly was that some aspects of the story were seen from our frame of reference rather than its.

Hao Jingfang has two contributions. Invisible Planets uses a Scheherazade type storyteller (without the jeopardy) describing fantastical planets and their inhabitants to suggest how both interactions with others and experiencing stories can change us. Her Hugo Award winning Folding Beijing sees that city – out to the sixth ring road – as a kind of time share, with three Spaces taking turns in occupying the ground over two days before the cycle recurs. During two such Changes Third Space denizen Lao Dao, wishing to earn enough money for his daughter to attend kindergarten, makes the dangerous journey to take a message to the less crowded and much wealthier First Space.

Xiaoyi is the fifteen year-old titular character in Call Girl by Tang Fei. It isn’t sex she sells, though, but stories related to her ability to manipulate space and time. Cheng Jingbo’s Grave of the Fireflies is an almost indescribable admix of fairy tale – princesses, magicians – and end of the universe SF – the stars are going out – in five sequential sections headed three successively apart days in February yet spanning centuries.

We round off with two stories from Liu Cixin. The Circle is a reworking of a chapter from his Hugo winning novel The Three Body Problem. An ancient Chinese mathematician develops a binary calculating machine utilising soldiers carrying flags. In Taking Care of God two billion members of the God civilisation which created the conditions for life on Earth and oversaw its development are deposited on the planet’s surface from a horde of ageing spaceships. In exchange for the Gods’ knowledge their wellbeing is catered for by billeting each of them on a family. Inevitably tensions ensue. Their science turns out to be too far advanced to be intelligible and their daily habits tend to forgetfulness. There are echoes here of Aldiss’s Heresies of the Huge God, Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God and a touch of Leinster’s The Greks Bring Gifts. (Whether Liu was aware of, or even intended, these cannot be judged from a distance.)

The three concluding essays delve into various aspects of Chinese SF. Liu Cixin’s “Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” covers SF’s century-long history in China, its original incarnation optimistic, its later role in the People’s Republic era where it was seen as being only for children, to be educative about technology, the startling absence of Communist Utopias within its purview, its new-found literary credentials and confidence, all as a lead-in to explaining the origins of the pessimistic vision imbuing his trilogy.

Chen Qiufan’s “The Torn Generation” contrasts the anxiety of the younger generation with the thoughtlessness of the older. “Faced with the absurd reality of contemporary China the writer cannot fully explore or express the possibilities of extreme beauty and ugliness without resorting to science fiction.” These are not strictures necessarily confined to China.

In the final essay, where Xia Jia tries to answer the question asked of her at a convention “What Makes Chinese SF Chinese?” she covers some of the same historical background as Liu Cixin, saying the breakaway from science-popularisation was motivated by binary oppositions such as China-the West, underdeveloped-developed, tradition-modernity, and concludes that while the Chinese SF community is full of internal differences she does find some commonality as the stories are written primarily for a Chinese audience, but, “Perhaps Western readers can also read Chinese science fiction and experience an alternative Chinese modernity and be inspired to imagine an alternative future.” Alternative futures. Any SF reader will drink to that.

But it’s the stories that matter. All here work well as SF. Their characters behave as characters do, with love, jealousy, resentment, tenacity, fear, and loathing. Apart from references to aspects of Chinese daily life and culture they could easily have originated from non-Chinese sources. Taken in all, however, I did note a tendency to didacticism, a leaning towards the fantastical, an awareness of contrasting opposites, an air of detachment. None of that would make them uniquely Chinese, though, and whether or not Chinese SF really is a creature all to itself, on this evidence it’s certainly worth reading.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the fiction written in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States are all quite different” (is all quite different,) interpretive (interpretative,) one of the China’s most elite colleges (one of China’s,) maw for mouth rather than stomach, Xian Quan (Xiao Quan,) hid (hidden,) “When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday. (Only if he’d started on a Sunday.) The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight, (is slightly clumsy; balanced in weight?) “has to transfer buses three times to get there” (has to change buses? Has to take three different buses?) “archers loosened volleys from their bows” (loosed volleys.)”There were a total” (there was a total.)

All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky

Chatto & Windus, 2008, 206 p. Translated from the French Les Biens de ce Monde by Sandra Smith. (First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1947.)

All Our Worldly Goods cover

I have frequently alluded to love, sex and death as the three main novelistic concerns. In All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky focuses on the first of these but throws class and family dynamics into the mix. Interestingly, despite the scope of the narrative extending over the two World Wars, there are only two deaths explicitly dealt with in the text. (A myriad others occur off-stage of course.)

We start in the first decade of last century, on Wimereux Plage, where the Hardelot and Florent families are spending the summer. Normally not mixing much due to their different social standing, on their annual pilgrimages to the beach such niceties are not so strictly observed. Pierre Hardelot’s fiancée, Simone Renaudin, is also present. The engagement is at the behest of the domineering Hardelot patriarch Charles, owner of the paper mill in their home town Saint-Elme, desirous of Renaudin money for investment in the company but also a stickler for protocol. But grandson Pierre does not even like Simone. He and Agnès Florent are in love but resigned never to be together.

Back in Saint-Elme the planned futures all unravel when someone sees the pair on what they believe is their last meeting in a local wood and their association is revealed. As a result Pierre is cut off by Charles, as he marries Agnès and they go to live in Paris. The ramifications of their attachment will resound throughout their lives and the book, which, despite the passages involving their parents and children, is the story of their commitment.

Along with everyone else’s the certainties of Charles Hardelot’s life are thrown into turmoil by the Great War. Pierre is called up, the women from Saint-Elme join the refugees from the German advance. Charles remains behind and spends the war under German occupation. After the war Saint-Elme and the family business are rebuilt and Simone’s husband, whom she met during the retreat, is taken into the business, along with her money.

The book has several jumps in time in which Némirovsky lays out the history of the Hardelot family and the first half of the twentieth century but the wider world (except in so far as it impinges directly on Pierre and Agnès) tends to remain in the background. Still, the hopes and feelings of the immediate post-Great War period are summed up by Pierre’s thought, “It was the final war. There would never be another. The thirst for blood had been satisfied. Not only was it necessary to forget the war. It had to be vilified in people’s memory,” and the strangeness of the post-war world by, “Paris seemed bled dry.”

One of the episodes concerns the relationship Pierre and Agnès’s son Guy with a woman not known to the family and whose conduct leads to his suicide attempt. Years later in the pre-umbra of a future war Guy falls for his father’s former fiancée Simone’s daughter Rose. This description might make the book appear to be soap-opera like but the reality is far from that.

As Guy marches off to the Phoney War in 1939 Pierre notes that unlike in 1914 there were no flowers, no fanfares as the young went off ….. “’they know that all our sacrifices were useless…. they’ve read, or seen, or heard everything that happened then … how do you think they’re supposed to bear it?’” Perhaps this is Némirovsky’s view on why France’s resistance collapsed so quickly in 1940.

Once again in the turmoil of a German advance the women and the men are separated. During this evacuation, in what struck me as an unlikely coincidence, Agnès encounters the woman who betrayed Guy years before but is magnanimous towards her. Agnès’s struggle to return to Pierre in Saint-Elme underlines the book’s theme of closeness between her and Pierre.

“All our Worldly Goods” seems a bit off the mark as a translation for Les Biens de ce Monde (“The Good Things of This World”) but Sandra Smith gives reasons in her translator’s note as she says the spiritual and material nuances of les biens are almost impossible to translate and she wanted to emphasise the marriage connection.

In the end the book is an affirmation. Irony though it may be given the author’s own fate in Auschwitz in All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky is telling us that despite all the upheavals to which we may be subjected we must cling to the human.

Pedant’s corner:- Charles refers in August 1914 to the start of a world war. It wasn’t called a world war till later; shimmer-ing (no need for the hyphen in the middle of a line,) a missing comma at the end of a thought quote, both start and end commas missing, or the end one placed externally, at other thought quotes, frugalness (frugality?)

David Bowie’s 100 Books

The good lady has decided to go along with the online book club started up by Duncan Jones in honour of his father David Bowie.

The full list of David Bowie’s 100 Books was given earlier in The Independent.

This prompted me to take a look and see how many I’d read. The usual notation applies. Bold I’ve read, italic is on my shelves.

Interviews with Francis Bacon – David Sylvester – early 80s

Billy Liar – Keith Waterhouse – early 60s

Room at the Top – John Braine – early 60s

On Having No Head – Douglass Harding – mid-60s

Kafka Was The Rage – Anatole Broyard – 1995

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess – mid-60s

City of Night – John Rechy – mid 60s

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz – 2007

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert – 1980s

Iliad – Homer – late-70s

As I lay Dying – William Faulkner – early- 80s

Tadanori Yokoo – Tadanori Yokoo – 1973

Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Döblin – late 70s –

Inside the Whale and Other Essays – George Orwell – early 60s

Mr. Norris Changes Trains – Christopher Isherwood – late 60s

Halls Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art – James A. Hall – 1975

David Bomberg – Richard Cork – mid-90s

Blast – Wyndham Lewis – 2009

Passing – Nella Larson – 1983

Beyond the Brillo Box – Arthur C. Danto – early 90s

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – Julian Jaynes – late-70s

In Bluebeard’s Castle – George Steiner – early 70s

Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd – 1987

The Divided Self – R. D. Laing – 1964

The Stranger – Albert Camus – mid-60sk

Infants of the Spring – Wallace Thurman – 1992

The Quest For Christa T – Christa Wolf – 1979

The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin – 1987

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter – 1984

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov – early 90s

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark – late 60s

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov – late 60s

Herzog – Saul Bellow – early 80s

Puckoon – Spike Milligan – 1973

Black Boy – Richard Wright – early 80s

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald – early 70s

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea – Yukio Mishima – 1972

Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler – early 90s

The Waste Land – T.S. Elliot – mid-70s

McTeague – Frank Norris – 2000

Money – Martin Amis – 1984

The Outsider – Colin Wilson – 1964/5

Strange people – Frank Edwards – early 60s

English Journey – J.B. Priestley – 2011

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole – early 2000s

The Day of the Locust – Nathanael West – mid-80s

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell – mid-60s

The Life and Times of Little Richard – Charles White – 1985

Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock – Nik Cohn – 70s –

Mystery Train – Greil Marcus – 1976 s

Beano – Comic – 50s (I only looked at other people’s copies.)

Raw – Graphic Comic – 80s

White Noise – Don DeLillo – 1985

Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom – Peter Guralnick – late 80s

Silence: lectures and writing – John Cage – 1975

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews – Edited by Malcolm Cowley – mid-60s

The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll – Charlie Gillete – 1972

Octobriana and the Russian Underground – Peter Sadecky – 1973

The Street – Ann Petry – early 80s

Wonder Boys – Michael Chabon – 1995

Last Exit to Brooklyn – Hubert Selby, Jnr – late- 60s

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn – early 2000s

The Age of American Unreason – Susan Jacoby – 2008

Metropolitan Life – Fran Lebowitz – 1978

The Coast of Utopia – Tom Stoppard – 2003

The Bridge – Hart Crane – mid-2000s

All The Emperor’s Horses – David Kidd – Late 1970s

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters – mid-2000s

Earthly Powers – Anthony Burgess – early 80s

The 42nd Parallel – John Dos Passos – 2006

Tales of Beatnik Glory – Ed Saunders – 1975

The Bird Artist* – Howard Norman – 1995

Nowhere To Run: – The Story of Soul Music – 2006

Before the Deluge – Otto Friedrich – 1976

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson – Camille Paglia – 1990

The American Way of Death – Jessica Mitford – 1970

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote – late 60s

Lady Chatterly’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence – 1961

Teenage – Jon Savage – 2007

Vile Bodies – Evelyn Waugh – early 60s

The Hidden Persuaders – Vance Packard – around 1962/3

The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin – early 70s

Viz – comic – early 80s (I only ever flicked through this in shops.)

Private Eye – Satire Magazine – 60s through 80s (Only other people’s copies.)

Selected Poems – Frank O’Hara – 1974

The Trial of Henry Kissinger – Christopher Hitchens – early 2000s

Flaubert’s Parrrot – Julian Barnes – 1985

Maldodor – Comte de Lautréamont – late 70s

On The Road – Jack Kerouac – 1960

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders – Lawrence Weschler – 1995

Zanoni – Edward Bulwer-Lytton – 1975

Transcendental Magic, Its Doctine and Ritual – Eliphas Lévi – 1975

The Gnostic Gospels – Elaine Pagels – 1980

The Leopard – Giusseppe Di Lampedusa – 2001

Inferno – Dante Alighieri – 1985

A Grave for a Dolphin – Alberto Denti di Pirajno – mid 70s

The Insult – Rupert Thomson – 1996

In Between the Sheets – Ian McEwan – 1978

A People’s Tragedy – Orlando Figes – 2000

Journey into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzburg – 2002

Hmmm.

I’ve read eight (but the three comics/magazines not assiduously) and there are three on the tbr pile.

I can’t see me working through them all.

*Edited to add:- The good lady tells me she has this one on her shelves. Consider it italicised.

Pedant’s corner:- Halls Dictionary (Hall’s Dictionary,) Giusseppe Di Lampedusa (Giuseppe.)

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