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On Their Shoulders by C N Barclay

British Generalship in the lean years 1939-1942. Faber and Faber, 1964, 184 p.

On Their Shoulders cover

The book is primarily a defence of the British generals in the early years of World War 2 who, “out-numbered, out-gunned, out-tanked and inadequately supported from the air,” nevertheless did not suffer terminal defeat and thereby bought time for sufficient numbers of men, training and decent equipment to be brought to bear. (Time too for allies belatedly to alleviate the burden.)

Barclay’s preface is at pains to point out that, “with the exception of the Great War, the British Army was a small colonial force, unsuitable for modern war. Both World Wars were begun with negligible land forces which had to hold the fort until expansion had taken place. After Dunkirk, alone, defeats were inevitable, not losing the war was about all that could be done,” and include the amazing statistic that, “The Boer War of 1899-1902 cost us more in men and material resources than the struggle against Napoleon nearly one hundred years before.” Perhaps more contentiously he states that, “the Staff College provided us in World War 2 with the best team of generals this country has ever known.” A particular handicap was that British generals’ experience of armoured warfare when the war began was theoretical as none had directed armoured troops as those forces barely exisedt. Nevertheless an armoured foray against the German advance near Arras did give the enemy cause for concern.

Barclay devotes one chapter each to Gort, Wavell, O’Connor, Wilson, Auchinleck, Cunningham, Percival and Hutton. Gort made the correct decision to retreat to Dunkirk and thereby saved not only most of the BEF, including most of the generals who would go on to victory in the latter years of the war, but also a substantial number of French troops, Wavell oversaw the victories against the Italians in East and North Africa, O’Connor directed that North African campaign and might have gone on to Tripoli if not denuded of troops for the forlorn Greek adventure but was then unluckily captured by a German patrol, Wilson helped in the planning for O’Connor’s victory and was then himself plunged into the debacle that was Greece before taking successful command of the Iraq, Syria and Persia sector, Auchinleck at least stopped Rommel’s first foray into Egypt but as an Indian Army man with no experience of armoured warfare was a strange choice for the role given to him, Cunningham swept the Italians from East Africa before being (briefly and almost certainly mistakenly) appointed to command in the Western Desert, Percival made no difference at all to the defence of Malaya and Singapore and Hutton had the impossible job of trying to save Rangoon.

While Norway, the Dunkirk campaign, the Western Desert, Greece, Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma saw defeats they were in the main retrievable. The single utter catastrophe was the fall of Malaya and Singapore (the biggest ever defeat in British military history.) This could be put down to political failure, local attitudes and dispositional necessities but General Percival did not do much to ginger things up when he arrived. It was also the only British campaign for hundreds of years in which naval support was totally absent. This was of course due to the sinkings of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by the Japanese air force. In amongst these setbacks there were notable successes, the utter destruction of numerically much larger Italian forces in East Africa and North Africa (“two of the most resounding military victories in history”,) the elimination of the Vichy French threat in Syria and the flawed success of Operation Crusader in the Western Desert.

Barclay cites lack of high quality training as a principal contributor to defeat. Better trained, more mobile forces, even if much smaller in number, can nevertheless achieve victory. Against the Italians the British troops (whom I would submit were also better motivated) were the better trained. In Malaya, not so, even if the Japanese had in effect only the one tactic. The Germans were, of course, trained superbly.

The book is unfortunately lacking in depth. In addition, due to the overlapping jurisdictions and swapping of roles there is frequent repetition of information. We were told about ABDA at least four times.

According to Barclay the war was disastrous in its consequences, “allowing Communism into the heart of Central Europe.” In addition the colonies were lost, Britain’s prestige and influence declined. Yet the consequences of a German and Japanese victory would have been even more regrettable. And the generals discussed did prevent that.

Barclay’s somewhat Victorian/Edwardian world-view, exemplified by the Communism remark above, is emphasised by his use of the word “savages” to describe some of the native peoples against whom the British Army was used in colonial times. Fifty years after the book’s publication reading that expression came as a shock.

Pedant’s corner:- he showed mark enthusiasm (marked,) india (India,) seemed to damp enthusiasm (dampen,) and other who visited (others,) the British public have been given the impression (has been given,) Field- Marshall (Field-Marshal,) Alemein (Alamein,) non-commital (non-committal,) Iraqui (may have been the spelling in 1964; now it is Iraqi,) based on New Delhi (in, surely?) after he arrive (arrived,) Caldron Battle (Cauldron is more usual,) there were a few (was,) for an Army office his early background (officer,) military unsound (militarily,) Japanes (Japanese,) “It would be foolish to deny that there may not have been neglect in the training of the Army in Malaya” (the exact opposite is meant; “It would be foolish to deny that there may have been neglect in the training of the Army in Malaya.” It is obvious from Barclay’s previous comments that the training was very poor,) “if other councils had prevailed” (counsels,) it maybe that (may be,) “that is is no part” (that it is,) two lines are transposed on page 160, by much small bodies (such small bodies,) to a less degree (lesser degree is more usual,) acquite (acquit,) salving the bulk of the Burma Army (saving makes more sense,) miscaste (miscast,) “the programmes for units was similarly laid down” (either

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

Gollancz, 2016, 272 p. Reviewed for Interzone 262, Jan-Feb 2016.

 Occupy Me cover

While it’s always good to review a novel featuring those exotic, for SF, locations of Edinburgh and Queensferry – North or South sadly not specified, but likely North as there’s a crossing of the Forth (Road) Bridge interrupted by a shooting incident – and which comes to its climax on an oil rig in the North Sea, Occupy Me starts even more interestingly with a second person narration, raising the possibility of something along the lines of Keith Roberts’s Molly Zero; but the tonal qualities are quite different and in any case, before this there is an appendix to instructions for something called a waveform launcher and we soon move on. The second person concerned is the viewpoint of Dr Kisi Sorle, who hears whispers from the past and whose body has occasionally been taken over by another being which is possibly an AI, coming to himself again to find he is in possession of an unusual briefcase. Dr Sorle has been hired by Austen Stevens, once of Pace Industries but now of Invest in Futures Foundation, to palliate his last days. Stevens in turn has been building up funds in the expectation that they will be used to prevent him dying. After two chapters there is an interpolated advert for flight attendants. The ad was placed by the Resistance, an organisation which we later find tries to improve humanity by having its agents commit small acts of kindness. Said flight attendant and Resistance operative Pearl Jones narrates in the first person and, fittingly, has wings which in her Earthly form she has to hide. Pearl has access to higher dimensions, HD, which comes in handy when she recognises a passenger as the person who stole part of her and in a struggle she, him, and his briefcase tear through the aeroplane’s fuselage and plummet to the sea. Just as she is about to rescue him the briefcase opens and a pterosaur (a quetzalcoatlus) emerges. Pearl’s backstory from when she became aware of herself in a bullet riddled refrigerator in Dubowski’s scrap yard, where she hides out, makes small repairs and leaves the fixed objects, like a cat to its owner, for the caretaker to find, is told to us in flashbacks as she tries to come to terms with who – or what – she is. In these it is revealed she loves to push against things with her muscles. The narration alternates irregularly between these two viewpoints until much later in the book when there are third person chapters featuring an Edinburgh vet called Alison.

The briefcase. Yes. While normal in appearance, battered looking even, its weight alters from time to time and it resists Pearl’s attempts to open it despite it belonging to her. The AI controlling Dr Sorle has locked it to his body pattern. It contains a Post-event Adjacent Reality Launcher, capable not only of time travel back to the Cretaceous but to Pearl’s creators. She is not a real person, has been built by bird mothers, scavengers of waveforms, who call themselves waveform artists. “We make new beings from old. You are a recycled piece of junk from a dying civilisation. We can store materials in HD but the Immanence left us behind.”

The Immanence? “The Immanence is an intelligence far beyond any of us. It rose out of a hypercivilisation and was a great ordering in the universe that came about because entropy favours higher order.” Sullivan seems keen to stress this point; we are told elsewhere that “the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order.”

The Immanence, however, is entirely incidental to the surface plot which is concerned with much more mundane considerations to do with Austen Stevens’s funds, which will somehow allow the Resistance, “Love’s what the Resistance is really made of, internally,” to come into being. A woman called Bethany and her husband Liam have embezzled these funds so threatening the Resistance’s existence. But the Resistance is already in operation. This not being a time paradox novel that last fact does tend to undermine a tad any sense of jeopardy surrounding it.

No matter. Things roll along; fellow Resistance operative Marquita tells Pearl, “Don’t accept the axe of either/or; there’s always a third way,” Alison treats not only Bethany’s cat (poisoned by eating part of a giant Cretaceous frog) but also the quetzalcoatlus, on Salisbury Crags no less, we discover Pearl’s wing feathers contain a strange oil and the feathers are a repository of stored information, “a sophisticated HD structure” which is also in the trees back in the Cretaceous. And Pearl’s pushing is useful in the final scene.

Occupy Me takes a while to get there though and goes round several houses on the way.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an uncorrected proof copy; the usual caveats therefore apply to these. [line space] appeared quite often as did underlinings, Stevens’ (Stevens’s,) Two Phones’ (Two Phones’s,) shrunk (shrank,) fusilage (fuselage – which does appear later,) miniscule (minuscule,) there receipts (there are receipts,) “made ‘poorly’ made sound like Pearly” (remove the second “made”,) “because it we had another lead” (no “it”,) “switched on large screen” (the large screen,) one instance of qzetzalcoatlus, the Haymarket (it’s just Haymarket, no “the”,) Abernathy biscuit (Abernethy,) “like a waves leave on the sand” (like waves leave,) “had set put out a hit on me” (had put out,) veterinarian (this was from Sorle’s viewpoint though, he is Ghanaian,) at one point Alison says “airplane” (that would be aeroplane, then,) as loathe as I may feel (loth,) crude oil probably dating to the late Cretaceous (oil does not “date from” the Cretaceous; its starting materials may do so but the oil that comes from them takes millions of years to form,) Queens Street (Queen Street,) strapped to the Kelly (I can’t find a dictionary definition of Kelly as a noun,) all chapter titles were in bold, save one.

The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published 2012.

 The Great Game cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the third in Tidhar’s Bookman Histories wherein Les Lézards were roused from their Caribbean island by Vespucci’s trip to the New World and subsequently became monarchs of Great Britain. See my reviews here and here. It is again to Tidhar’s credit that familiarity with either of the two previous books is not necessary to follow events in this one as it stands alone quite easily.

It’s all a very readable romp, a steampunk/altered history mash-up but Tidhar again goes over the top with his references. One of the joys of altered history is seeing familiar names in situations for which they are not best known but he really does take it too far with this one – among the characters from literature we have Mycroft Holmes (and his brother, retired to the village of St Mary Mead [where a busybody twitches her curtains] not to mention Irene Adler) we have a hunchback named Q who lives in Notre Dame cathedral, a scientist called Moreau exiled to a Pacific island, Van Helsing, a Miss Havisham, a thiefmaster called Fagin and his pickpocket protégé Oliver Twist, a Doctor Victor Frankenstein, Harry Flashman. And at the novel’s climax tripods begin to devastate – okay it wasn’t London – Paris. Real life intruders into the story include the Mechanical Turk, Karl May, Harry Houdini, Bram Stoker, Jack London, Charles Babbage and Friedrich Alfred Krupp.. Of a Dickens’ book in three volumes an unnamed character observes, “You should never write a third volume.” Perhaps Tidhar was commenting on his own situation as in his afterword he says publisher Angry Robot asked him for two more novels after accepting The Bookman.

Hokum, but entertaining, a plot summary would be fatuous, as well as sounding mad.

A quibble. The first lizard-king was Henry VII, followed by another Henry, an Edward, and later the great Gloriana. How come then they ended up in the timeline of the novel with a lizard Queen Victoria? Our Queen Victoria was descended primarily from Hanoverians, not Tudors. Why would the naming of lizard-monarchs follow that of the real world?

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the omnibus volume; “I wanted to tribute the wuxia tropes” (pay tribute to.) Elsewhere; “eThe last one” (typo; The,) Market Blandings’ (Market Blandings’s,) “who often said a ‘Honesty is a gun’” (said a ‘Honesty’? surely “said ‘Honesty is a gun.’”) “There are a number” (There is a number,) not to be found on the British Isles (“in the British Isles” is the more usual formulation,) “that only now he was beginning to identify” (that only now was he beginning to identify is more common syntax,) automatons (many occurrences – it’s an acceptable spelling but stick to it; there were also at least four instances of automata,) snuck (a London street boy of the time would have said sneaked,) her team were outnumbered (her team was outnumbered,) mortician (USian, we British say undertaker,) “Something to scare children by” (“to scare children with” makes more sense.) “They sat and sipped their drink,” (drinks, I think. They weren’t sharing the one cup,) then the one in Europe (than the one in Europe,) “one… being…. who had made it their life’s ambition” (a singular being; so, its life’s ambition,) Paris’ (Paris’s,) had showed up (shown up,) “undistinguished from his cover story” (indistinguishable from his cover story,) “like that persistent feel that she was being followed” (okay, the author uses feeling two lines later and maybe wanted to avoid complete repetition but it’s still awkward.) “But no one was going to act until the airship had landed, safely. Weren’t they?” (should be “Were they?”) as for the recipe (as to,) “in a rather quite threatening manner” (choose from ‘in rather a’, ‘in quite a’ or ’in a quite’ not ‘a rather quite’,) sat (sitting, or seated,) “running down a narrow mountain pass that led upwards” (???) “the sound of motors sounded” (use another verb?) Vlad epe ? (remove gap before the question mark,) “moving, now that he knew to look for it, moving in a single direction” (second “moving” not necessary,) a vast antennae (antenna,) taking no mind (taking no heed; or, paying no mind,) “Van Helsing, rode shotgun” (no comma required,) all manners of (all manner of,) had indeed deducted the observer’s arrival (deduced,) Mr Spoons’ (Mr Spoons’s,) no full stop at the end of chapter forty-six, a simulacra (a simulacrum,) “he’d brought his own people in” (he’s brought.) “There was a string of miniature model cars strung together” (use a different verb, coupled?) “paid her no mind” (“no heed” sounds more natural,) there is much work to do (lots of work,) Victoria Rex (Victoria Regina.)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Phoenix, 2005, 506 p, plus i p summary, i p about the author, ii p “For discussion”, x p “A walk in the footsteps of The Shadow in the Wind” including ii p maps. Translated by Lucia Graves from the Spanish La sombra del viento, Editorial Planeta, 2002.

The Shadow of the Wind cover

Well, this all started out promisingly enough with ten year old Daniel Sempere being taken by his father to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books to pick one out for himself, to keep it alive. This conceit hinted that the novel would be one of those books about books and the importance of the word like The Name of the Rose, especially since Daniel is told, “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens,” but the novel soon veers off into more conventional unravelling a mystery territory.

The book Daniel picks is titled The Shadow of the Wind by one Julián Carax. Daniel reads it and is enthralled, wishing to find out more about its author and any other books he may have written. But Carax is an elusive creature. Very few of his books (most of which sold in pitifully small numbers) survive. In addition a mysterious man going under the name Lain Coubert, a character in Carax’s Shadow of the Wind, is going around buying them up – in order to burn them. Already we are in a recursive situation, a loop which is in essence claustrophobic. Too many of the characters in the book are bound up either with Daniel, Carax or both.

Daniel’s first infatuation is with the blind Clara, quite a few years his senior. Their (necessarily) chaste relationship – and her entanglement with her piano teacher – is somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but as if off-key, though paradoxically, given Marquez’s magic realism, none of this aspect of Zafón’s novel feels natural. It appears forced, occurring only at Zafón’s will. Other backstories read like information dumping and there are too many parallels between Carax’s life and Daniel’s; between his friend Tomás Aguilar and Carax’s, Jorge Aldaya, between his first lover Beatriz Aguilar and Carax’s, Penélope Aldaya.

As an example of an authorial misstep Zafón has Daniel tell Bea about Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind that, “This was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life,” inviting us to draw a parallel that had been obvious long before. Yes, Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, is a memorable character but the villain of the piece, Inspector Francisco Javier Fumero, tends to the cartoonish, his obsession with Carax insufficiently founded – at least to me. There are, too, frequent recapitulations of the story to other characters. The Aldaya mansion on the Avenida del Tibidabo, though, is a gothic enough creation, along with the statues in its grounds.

Attempts at background verisimilitude also fall down at times. An old quack’s “sole remaining wish was for Barcelona’s football team to win the league, once and for all, so that he could die in peace.” This is an odd observation for someone to make in 1954 as Barcelona had most recently won La Liga in season 1952-3 and also the one before. Again in 1954 a restaurant manager apologises for poor service by saying, “‘But s’afternoon, it being the European Cup semi-final, we’ve had a lot of customers. Great game.’” The first European Cup semi-finals did not take place till 1956. Similarly there is a mention of the League Cup – but the La Liga Cup did not start till 1984 (and only lasted four years.) Did Zafón perhaps have the Copa del Rey in mind?

Still, “‘Mysteries must be solved, one must find out what they hide,’” and I suppose this is what keeps us reading but while it may be true that, “People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t complicated enough,” I’m not sure I agree with the assertion, “‘When we stand in front of a coffin, we only see what is good, or what we want to see.’”

Set where and when it is The Shadow of the Wind could not avoid touching on the fallout of the Spanish Civil War but it does so only tangentially. It is eminently readable but in the end it doesn’t manage to achieve the stature that the author is clearly striving for. Quite simply in this book Zafón is trying too hard.

Pedant’s corner:- “a couple of nuns …. mumbling under their breath” (ought really to be breaths,) polanaises (polonaises; this correct form is used later in the book,) “froze the blood in my veins” (really? Especially when followed on the next page by “my blood froze,”) the Barcelós apartment (Barceló’s,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s,) automatons (okay it’s acceptable in English – as well as automata, the plural from the Greek,) “none of the drawings were more than rough sketches” (none was more than a rough sketch,) faggotry (a USianism,) “‘It’s my fault,’ I said. I should have said something…’” (missing open quote mark after “I said.”) “An act of charity or friendship on behalf of an ailing lady” (‘on the part of’ is meant,) “which violated at least five of six recognized mortal sins,” (shouldn’t that be “five or six”? – and violated here seems to mean committed,) morgue (mortuary,) with sudden heartfelt hug (with a sudden,) catlike smile the smile of a mischievous child (a missing comma after the first smile,) garoted (garrotted,) Jacintaʻs vision (has a backward, and upside down, apostrophe,) “so that he can have a brain scan” (a brain scan? In 1954?) Barnarda (her name everywhere else in the novel is Bernarda,) passion (passion,) a benzine lighter (the term used in English is cigarette lighter,) “and whose specialty was Latin, trigonometry, and gymnastics, in that order,” (that’s three specialties.)
Plus points for “not all was lost”.

Kindred by Octavia E Butler

headline, 2014, 320 p. First published 1979.

Kindred cover

The novel is narrated by Dana Franklin, a black woman who lives in California in 1976 with her white husband, Kevin. One day she has a dizzy spell and comes to herself in a strange environment and just in time to save a young white boy, Rufus, from drowning. Threatened with a gun by the boy’s father, in fear of death, she is as suddenly returned to her 1976 home. She barely has time to wash herself before suffering another dizzy spell and is thrown back again to Rufus’s bedroom, where she puts out a fire. Rufus is older. His speech leads her to question him and she discovers she is in Maryland in 1815 or so, on a slave plantation and works out Rufus is her ancestor, yet to beget her great grandmother. There is no mechanism given for Dana’s ability to travel in time, it just happens. The only connection seems to be the genetic one. This makes this aspect of the novel fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

There are several more instances of journeys back and forth through time, on one occasion Dana is accompanied by Kevin as he is holding on to her at the time. They are separated when Dana is drawn back home after being whipped for teaching a slave to read. On her next return they meet up again but Kevin has spent five years in the past while only days have passed for Dana.

The set-up allows Butler the opportunity to portray the life of slaves and the attitudes of slaveholders in some detail. Quite how close that is to the real experience is a good question. Words on a page cannot truly convey the experience of being whipped, for example. The whole truth may well have been too incompatible with readability though, a delicate balance for the author to achieve. The compromises and accommodations the slaves have to make simply to survive, the jealousies, hierarchies and resentments among them are well delineated though.

The book of course is a commentary on how the past history of the US still has resonance – even now, almost forty years after the book was first published – the victimisation of women, sexual dynamics, and race as a construct.

Butler’s characterisation is excellent but the episodic nature of Dana’s encounters with Rufus – she is only drawn back to his time when his life is in danger – means his development into a typical slave-holder is also disjointed. His attraction to Alice Greenwood is problematic, though. While it is necessary for the story to work logically his initial scruples over forcing himself on her (even after her enslavement) seem a touch unlikely.

History is a complicated web. Family history perhaps more so. Butler reminds us that in the US it is also contentious.

Pedant’s corner:- apart from being written in USian there were – remarkably – only two things I noted: insure (ensure; do USians employ insure in this sense?) hung (hanged; but it was in dialogue.)

Interzone 266 Sep-Oct 2016

TTA Press

Interzone 266 cover

The Editorial is by Martin McGrath and discusses the continuing importance of the James White Award, whose latest winner* is published in this issue, Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 bemoans the recent trend towards magical policemen solving crimes in old London town as having a reactionary effect while Nina Allan praises Scottish Science Fiction’s engagement with political themes. In the Book Zone I review Dave Hutchinson’s Winter in Europe and there are interviews with Tade Thompson and Chris Beckett.

Alts2 by Harmony Neal is a tale of humans genetically modified by StateCorp into a kind of slavery.
The narrator of Ryan Row’s Dogfights in Olympus and Other Absences3 is a mercenary pilot involved in a multi-party conflict over a planet called Olympus which has a desirable hyper potential energy dense matter core. The relativistic aspects of his 0.2 light year separation from his family affect the relationship.
The Hunger of Auntie Tiger by Sarah Brook is set on a planet where people of Chinese origin, left more or less to their own devices by “the Company” relive myths.
Rich Larson’s You Make Payata4 suggests there is really only a small number of tales that can be written as this one of an attempted scam has a familiar template but is nevertheless well executed and full of Science-fictional gloss.
*Rock, Paper, Scissors5 by David Cleden literalises the game alluded to in its title vinto a contest between the bodily-transformed representatives of two tribes for the annual rights to the hunting grounds.
In My Generations Shall Praise6 by Samantha Henderson a woman on death row is persuaded to have her mind overwritten so that someone else can use her body.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Morris’ (Morris’s,) use of they and them as pronouns for an individual. 2Written in USian. “She wasn’t sure the exact details of his alteration” (of the exact details,) “everyone holding their breath (their; so breaths,) sunk (sank.) 3 Written in USian. “Curealian and silver beams” (Cerulean?) “where his family makes their home” (“makes” is the singular; so “makes its home”,) “above him the naked stars lay out in the dark” (lie out; the narration is present tense,) dying her hair (dyeing.) 4 Written in USian, pretenses (pretences,) “‘when you get the hotel’” (to the hotel,) florescent (is this USian? – fluorescent.) A collection were (a collection was.) 5mold (mould,) vocal chords x 2 (cords,) “growing soft and downy my back” (on my back?) “the Tribe grow quiet” (grows; several more instances of Tribe as plural,) “‘Your foe will keep their distance’” (his distance; his is used later,) “‘when they tire’” (when he tires,) “‘though they beg you’” (though he begs you,) the attack is borne of frustration (born of.) 6Written in USian. “‘Will they let her in short notice?’” (At short notice? On short notice? With short notice?)

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2016, 320 p. ISBN 9780356505015

 The Corporation Wars: Insurgence cover

The conflict between the Acceleration and the Reaction which resurrected itself in the first book of Macleod’s trilogy, The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is here being promulgated further. As in that previous instalment of MacLeod’s Corporation Wars trilogy much of the story here takes place inside sims, the “terraformed SH-0” being joined in this instance by one based on a fantasy role-playing game centred round magic. While in these environments philosophical and political issues are discussed by the characters there is still the problem of lack of jeopardy to be overcome. At least Carlos the Terrorist, having changed sides, is now in danger of his consciousness – or at least a large swath of his memories – being erased if he “dies” in the new sim. Meanwhile the robots which themselves achieved consciousness in Dissidence have declared themselves neutral.

One of the characters observes, “Racism had never been about biology in the first place. That had always been a pretext.” After all, what chance will Artificial Intelligences have of being considered worthy of respect, given autonomy, if some humans aren’t?

Pedant’s corner:- kerogene (kerogen?) medieval again, ambiance (ambience,) adz (adze,) “she might well have, followed Carlos’s example” (might well have followed Carlos’s,) “was down its last nanofacturing tube” (down to its last,) several instances of a plural pronoun used in conjunction with a singular antecedent (though in most cases it was for something of indeterminate sex and where “it” would not have been appropriate,) “might whip it way from beneath her” (away from.)

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Pan, 2015, 604 p. (The author’s surname is given as Czajkowski on the copyright page.)

This is this year’s Clarke Award winner. I read it for that reason.

 Children of Time cover

In the last days of the Old Empire it had set up terraforming projects on planets in other solar systems. The plans of the watcher over one of these to seed it with a virus that would exalt monkeys were frustrated by the adherents of Non Ultra Natura, the transfer ship, containing monkeys and virus both, going down in flames. Millenia later the last remnants of humanity, the successors to the old Empire, trying desperately to use its all but forgotten tech to preserve the species by leaving a devastated Earth on the starship Gilgamesh, make an approach to the system and the Sentry Pod housing the watcher, the persona of Avrana Kern. Meanwhile on the planet below, the virus has been doing its work; but on invertebrates. Giant spiders dominate, slowly evolving greater and greater intelligence and cooperation.

Kern’s mission causes her to spurn the remnant humans, warning them off and all but disabling their ship. After an abortive landing an agreement is reached for them to leave for the nearest terraformed planet and never come back. This is a forlorn journey as that planet’s environment turns out to be unsuitable and the commander of the Gilgamesh orders a return.

The chapters set on the Gilgamesh are seen from the viewpoint of Holsten Mason, a classicist (historian) revived from and put into suspended animation at frequent intervals throughout the novel. Those describing the spiders – to whom more or less each successive chapter is devoted – are in a distanced third person. Here sentences like, “Their planet’s oxygen levels are higher than Earth’s,” “Something more virulent than the Black Death,” and, “Hidden in this arachnid Alexandria are remarkable secrets,” are jarring as they relate to things beyond the spiders’ ken. They are there for us, as readers in the twenty-first century. This, I would submit, is poor writing. The use of the same names for the different spiders at various stages of the story (Portia, Bianca and Fabian reoccur frequently) is also somewhat odd, though there is a rationale in that the spiders retain memories of the existence and knowledge of their predecessors through their genetic inheritance.

Avrana Kern has been in communication with the spiders by radio but she is ignorant of the nature of the species which have been exalted until they at last manage to send her a picture. She nevertheless regards them as her children and the remnant humanity on the Gilgamesh as impostors.

That ship’s systems begin to deteriorate badly and Mason witnesses increasing degradation and conflict within the crew as time goes by. However so much of the novel is spent with the spiders that by the time of the final confrontation we have known is inevitable between the two species it is almost they who seem the more human and sympathetic. In this regard the disruptions within the Gilgamesh have rendered its inhabitants less sympathetic to the reader.

The initial chapters were turgid reading with far too much information dumping. While things improved a little later on I could never quite suspend my disbelief at the goings-on on the Gilgamesh. The chapters on the planet were more interesting but even they became overly programmatic (especially Tchaikovsky’s shoe-horning in of arachnid sexual politics.)

I can only conclude that this won the Clarke because of its unusual spidery protagonists. There were certainly at least two novels on this year’s Clarke Award short list that I would consider were better written (as well as one that was considerably worse.)

Pedant’s corner:- The Non Ultra Natura lobby were (the lobby was,) miniscule (x 3; it’s spelled minuscule,) there were a limited number of circumstances (there was a limited number,) species’ (in the singular sense, so species’s, x 2,) loathe (loth or loath, x 2. Loathe in its correct sense of revile is used later,) “it came out more as a plea than he had intended” (as more of a plea?) one antennae (one antenna,)” another handful of her kind are already here” (another handful is here,) “Less than half her infiltration force remain alive” (any fractional value counts as singular so; less than half remains.) “The exploration of Earth’s orbit” (the context implies the solar system not merely Earth’s orbit.) Tiny animicules (usually animalcules,) overlain (overlaid,) “it was as if the human race was unwilling to be freed from their confines” (its confines,) “the host of individual ants reach” (the host reaches,) a host of Paussid beetles are lined up (a host is lined up,) “none …. are familiar” (none is familiar,) “there are a handful” (there is a handful,) the balance are here (the balance is here,) the crew are preparing (the crew is,) some of the crew gather (gathers,) “there were a few” (was,) ditto “there were a handful”, “there were a lot” of looks, “Lain’s tribe have done a remarkable job” (Lain’s tribe has done,) by no ways (either “by no means” or else “in no way” but not “by no ways”,) chromatopores (x 2; chromatophores,) a colony of hundred million insects (of a hundred million,) “The vibrations of the enemy’s approach serves as forewarning (vibrations; therefore “serve”,) Portia’s band are able to set an ambush (Portia’s band is able.)

Asimov’s Oct-Nov 2016

Special Slightly Spooky Issue. Dell Magazines.

Asimov's Oct-Nov 2016 cover

Editorial: Our Slightly Spooky Issue Asimov’s1 by Sheila Williams reminisces about all the issues of Asimov’s tinged with the uncanny which she has published around Halloween time.
Reflections: Magical Thinking by Robert Silverberg considers Lynn Thorndike’s “magisterial” A History of Magic and Experimental Science “an extraordinary treasurehouse of human thought in all its folly and grandeur.”
On the NET: Welcome Our Robot Overlords!2 by James Patrick Kelly examines the state of AI development.
In an excellent On Books:3 Norman Spinrad, for the first time in his reviewing career at Asimov’s dealing with short story collections/anthologies, notes the tendency for works of fantasy to dominate SF awards (and outlets,) in effect the colonisation of SF by “literary” craftspeople looking for a market (all but the only market,) and the necessity for story and style to be combined to make any fictional work outstanding. He decries the necessity for an author to have a “voice” as the style a tale is told in ought to serve the story, not the ego of its author.

In the fiction, Alexander Jablokov’s The Forgotten Taste of Honey4 sees viewpoint character Tromvi have to take a corpse back to the land it came from in order to please the gods. A transfer of memories from the corpse to Tromvi via the honey from a hive inside the body thwarts the man who tries to prevent him.
In Eating Science with Ghosts by Octavia Cade our unnamed narrator goes about eating and drinking with the ghosts of scientists and explorers, ghosts only she can see.
The People in the Building5 by Sandra McDonald describes the occupants of said building – including the interplanetary rescue service on the third floor which has unwisely as it turns out revived an ancient god from a nearby swamp.
Wretched the Romantic by Michael Libling is narrated by Richard, a loser who takes up scattering ashes as a scam once he discovers he has taken on the attributes of the deceased after accidentally inhaling them.
Water Scorpions6 by Rich Larson is set in the aftermath of the crash of an alien spaceship in the Sahara. One of their offspring, genetically modified to make them more human-like, is taken into the family of an ethnobiologist.
In The Leaning Lincoln7 by Will Ludwigstein, said figure is a toy made from a lead ingot salvaged from the shore. It has baleful properties.
Lucite8 by Susan Palwick sees a visitor to an attraction based on Dante’s Inferno take home a dead person’s soul in a lucite box.
Project Entropy9 by Dominica Phetteplace is another in the author’s series on AIs in San Francisco. My heart has begun to sink when I see her name on Asimov’s cover.
When Grandfather Returns10 by S N Dyer is a tale of the appearance among the Navaho of Cabeza De Vaca and his followers and their displacement to the present day.
In Choose Poison, Choose Life11 by Michael Blumlein a woman who has an unfortunate taste in men is variously, and in various guises, saved from, or saves herself from, suicide.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Joel Richards’ (Richards’s.) 2easily your best source the very latest news (of the latest news,) 3Henry James’ (James’s,) a epiphany climax (an,) Gunther Grass’ (Grass’s,) “what the differences between the two, are and stronger “ (between the two are, and stronger.) 4an ewer (I suppose since ewer starts with a vowel this is technically correct, but… It is sounded as a consonant so “a ewer” would be fine by me,) “maw” used for part of a ruminant’s stomach (hurray!) 5new emotions arrives (arrive.) 6sked (seems to be a USian abbreviation for schedule. I was of course thoroughly confused as I pronounce schedule as “shed-yule”.) 7Tutankhamen, (Tutankhamun.) 8McManus’ (McManus’s.) 9negress (we’re back to using n-words now?) 10Thunder Cries’ (Thunder Cries’s,) Rabbit Smile’s (name was previously Rabbit Smiles: the later Rabbit Smiles’ should be Rabbit Smiles’s,) 11to portage the water (“portage”? What on Earth is wrong with “carry”?)

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis by Wendy Cope

faber and faber, 1997, 59 p.

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis cover

This exceedingly slim volume – 59 pages, some of which are blank – exhibits the problem with poetry as a profession in the modern age. How can anyone possibly make a living at it?

Cope’s forte seems to be satire. Many of the poems here have that intent. In the opener, Engineers’ Corner, she laments the poet’s lot of worldly success in contrast to that of the downtrodden engineer, even if the latter doesn’t get memorials in Westminster Abbey. She also rewrites nursery rhymes in the styles of poets such as Wordsworth or Eliot and frequently inhabits the persona of one Jason Strugnell, a slightly unreconstructed figure from whose viewpoint many of the poems herein are written.

A flavour of her style is given by the first verse of Rondeau Redoublé
“There are so many kinds of awful men-/One can’t avoid them all. She often said/She’d never make the same mistake again:/She always made a new mistake instead.”

On the evidence of this collection Cope presents a fondness for iambic pentameter, and rhyme. The book’s overall title is also that of the final poem and sounds like a euphemism but the poem itself is a throwaway, apparently arising from a dream, and shows the danger of rhyme, as without care its results can tend to the McGonagallesque.

Pedant’s corner:- whiskey (whisky, unless you’re Irish,) primeval (I prefer primaeval.)

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