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The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 537 p. First published 1997. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Wire in the Blood cover

I have not seem the TV series into which this was adapted so had no preconceptions, nor illusions to be shattered, but it wasn’t long into the novel before I was wondering why it made it onto a list of Scotland’s favourite books. It seemed like a reasonably standard crime (or police procedural) novel with nothing particular to distinguish it. Okay there is a twist in the sense that we are in the midst of a newly set up (and experimental – for the UK) psychological profiling unit but we have the usual coppers reluctant to accept something different from their common practice. Then there were the things that swiftly irritated or grated. We discover who the baddy is in the prologue, pretty well dispelling the suspense and rendering the sections where we learn how he got to be psychopathic less revealing than they might be. Several early sections begin in journalese – the first three are, “Tony Hill lay in bed,” “Shaz Bowman understood perfectly,” “Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan slipped the original out of the photocopier.” With the odd exception this practice is repeated throughout, though perhaps with surnames omitted. Fair enough we are dealing with a range of viewpoints and authors may need to signal who the relevant character is but this way of doing it is, at the least, inelegant. Then there is the fact that in the text no crime is committed till well after page 100, which for a crime novel, I would submit, is lumberingly slow. The sub-plot, about a fire-raiser in East Yorkshire, seemed only to be there to give one of the characters a tenuous connection to the experiences of the profiling expert. And the victims are portrayed as almost asking for their fate – certainly by the killer but also by the police officers investigating (cursorily) their disappearances – which is disconcerting.

Having said that, McDermid does know her tool – language – and deploys it well (only three entries for Pedant’s Corner is remarkable for a book this length) and her plotting was accomplished even if it unravelled a little slowly and the psychopath’s mistake was obvious from the moment it happened (and somewhat unlikely I’d have thought.)

I have read that McDermid modelled her psychopath on Jimmy Savile (brave for the time, and she expected to be taken up on it) but while he is a very well-known TV personality here and does good works in hospitals as a cover, he is also married – albeit in a sham arrangement – and a former Olympic athlete, sufficient divergence I’d have thought for any resemblance to be muted or passed over. (Plus Savile wasn’t a murderer – as far as I know – and could he have taken the risk of litigation? Might that not have signalled his recognition of himself in the portrayal?)

I suppose the main attraction to this sort of thing is the possible insight into the mind of a killer and in particular in this case to the art of psychological profiling but I’ll not be in a hurry to read another McDermid.

Pedant’s Corner:- fit (fitted,) dissemblement (my dictionary gives dissemblance, but states it is rare. In any case inventing words isn’t impermissible.) “‘Play it as it lays.’” (Should be “as it lies” but it was in dialogue and so may have been true to the character.)

The Corporation Wars: Emergence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2017, 333 p

 The Corporation Wars: Emergencecover

Emergence is the last in Macleod’s Corporation Wars trilogy, which I have struggled with from the outset. For my take on Dissidence and Insurgence click on the links. Again in this third instalment the lack of jeopardy inherent in characters being able to be “revived” in a simulation is admittedly somewhat lessened by the length of time spent in their mechanical avatars returning from which would by now mean substantial memory loss, yet it is never fully avoided. Here, too, not a little of the necessary background of the story is related to us directly rather than being presented through the “character”’s experiences. There is also a lot of redundant phraseology as in where one of the robot characters says, “” and this is immediately followed by, “What she told them was this.”

InEmergence a group of fascists calling themselves the New Confederacy has invaded SH-119, the planetoid on which robots have achieved sentience and declared independence. Meanwhile, the Locke module has landed on the hitherto unblemished primary world SH-0, which it turns out has indigenous inhabitants, a form of life which is very good at incorporating new genes. Both these scenarios play out as the book unfolds with Carlos siding with the sentient robots.

MacLeod lards his text with plentiful SF allusions (which will play to the aficionados.) At one point, though, he also deploys the impeccably Scottish interjection, “Ya beauty!”

Emergence is a good enough – and readable – conclusion to a sequence which I’m afraid as a whole didn’t really grab me.

Pedant’s corner:- “None of the other robots were coming to the captive’s aid.” (none was,) sulphurous (sulphurous, please,) gasses (gases,) wrack our brains (rack.) “Data et Accepta” (a chapter title translated as ‘The Data is Accepted.’ If it’s Latin that would have to be ‘Data Accepta Est’ but most [all?] of the chapter titles contain slight mistranslations,) “as she ran and tried to not think about running” (and tried not to think about,) “less then five seconds” (less than) “a hundredth of second” (of a second,) “” (get or send, not both,) “most about about half a metre in diameter” (only one “about” needed,) “” (this is no moment,) “being surrounded by not a hostile jungle but…” (surrounded not by a hostile jungle but….)

Interzone 271, Jul-Aug 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 271 cover

Roy Gray takes the Editorial and describes a visit to the summer’s Barbican exhibition, Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction. Jonathan McCalmont discusses China Miéville’s history of the Russian Revolution October, describing it as the book Miéville was born to write. Nina Allan again reflects on SF’s distinction or otherwise as a genre and the necessity to question and reinvent its tropes. Book Zone1 has appreciative reviews of Nina Allan’s The Rift and Emily B Cattaneo’s collection Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories plus author interviews with the pair and also considers novels from Eleanor Lerman, Aliette de Bodard and Taiyo Fuji along with Ex Libris, an anthology of stories set in libraries, not to mention my review of Justina Robson’s The Switch.

In the fiction:-
Julie C Day’s The Rocket Farmer2 has three narrative viewpoints in its 10 pages: the descendant of a long line of Mongolian rocket farmers, her daughter, and one of the rockets. It is the daughter who is the first to truly understand the rockets.
Gods in the Blood (of those who rise)3 by Tim Casson is narrated by a science teacher (who has rather unprofessional biological deterministic views about his charges I must say. But these turn out to be plot related.) The nearby Genomic Innovation Facility is manipulating human epigenetics. All this is tied in with a legend from a Sumerian manuscript.
In If Your Powers Fail You in a City Under Tin4 by Michael Reid a tentacled creature called the God Beast has settled in the sky over the city now called Duolunduo. Some people have developed superpowers as a result.
The titular Chubba Luna5 in Eliot Fintushel’s story is an interplanetary music star in a future where people’s life partners are allotted to them in accord with their biochemistry. This doesn’t turn out any better than choosing them for yourselves.
Chris Barnham’s When I Close My Eyes is a mix of SF and ghost story. It is the tale of the first potholer on Titan, a man who hallucinates his dead wife while encountering extraterrestrial life after being trapped by an ice-fall.
The McGuffin of Cryptic Female Choice6 by Andy Dudak is a spermathecal, a mechanism introduced to the womb by virus which allows women to store various men’s sperm and edit their content to produce a desired genome. The societal backlash is portrayed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“while allowing they catch up” (allowing them to catch up,) “how do you feel it has effected your life as a writer” (affected,) Goss’ (Goss’s.) 2Written in USian, “so that it spread across the table” (the rest of the story is in present tense, so “spreads”,) practicing (practising.) 3where a bunch of other kids were gathered (a bunch was gathered.) 4Written in USian, ”none of them recognize” (none recognises,) “‘can you come with?’” (with me,) “he shines it on the floor near the figure, trying not to startle them” (not to startle it.) 5Written in USian. 6Written in USian, inside of (inside,) “there used to be hundreds of words for love like Inuit words for snow” (isn’t that snow thing a bit of a myth?)

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd

Canongate, 2017, 211 p, including 3 p Glossary: plus ii p Dramatis Personae and vi p Introduction. First published 1930.

 The Weatherhouse cover

I don’t normally pick up a book according to its cover but I did in this case. It helped that the novel was by Nan Shepherd whose The Quarry Wood I enjoyed a year or so ago. Yet I was also attracted by the illustration which is almost in the style of a 1930s railway poster – a very Art Deco form – even down to the lettering. The house shown is actually wrong though; in two ways. It is much more of an English type of building rather than Scottish and it bears no relation at all to the hexagonal construction described in the text. Pretty, just the same.

That titular Weatherhouse is the home in Fetter-Rothnie of the Craigmyle family, which consists of matriarch Lang Leeb plus her daughters Annie, Theresa and the widowed Ellen. The story though, is more to do with how Garry Forbes, the intended of Lindsay Lorimer, in turn the daughter of Andrew, Lang Leeb’s cousin, came to become a proverb in Fetter-Rothnie.

The former Minister’s daughter, Louie Morgan, claimed after Forbes’s friend David Grey had died in the Great War that she and Grey had been secretly betrothed and carries Grey’s mother’s ring about her neck as proof. Forbes, home from the war as a convalescent, is convinced that can not be the case. He attempts, first to bring the falseness of Louie’s claim to the attention of the Kirk Session (which upsets Lindsay) and then to prevent his knowledge of Louie’s theft of the ring becoming more widely apprehended.

Despite what appears to be a focus on small matters The Weatherhouse nevertheless has a wider resonance, and has some humorous observations. The incidental mention of the man who, because of his brother, waited twenty years to wed his fiancée (who nevertheless brought him children “as a wedding gift”) shows life in those times was not entirely as straight-laced as might perhaps be thought.

Human dilemmas and emotions occur in all places and at all times. Shepherd shows us the humanity of her characters, in all their complexity. This is a fine companion piece to The Quarry Wood. Both these novels bear some similarities to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song and Cloud Howe but don’t quite have the sweep of the first of those.

Pedant’s corner:- Amy Liptrot’s introduction says Shepherd’s writing is very localised to the foothills of the Grampian mountains and quotes two of the words she uses, stravaigin and collieshangie as being specific to that area. Stravaigin certainly has no such specificity.
In the glossary: keeing (keeking,) snored (smored.) Otherwise: “you’re as light ’s a feather” (light’s,) knit (knitted,) chose (choose,) “a moment before made up on her sister on the road” (before she made up,) a missing comma before a start quote mark.

Phantastes by George MacDonald

In Phantastes and Lilith, Gollancz, 1962, 237 p. First published 1858.

 Phantastes and Lilith cover

This takes much the same form as the same author’s Lilith, which was originally published forty-three years after it. The narrator travels to a strange land – in this case Fairy Land – and has there certain adventures. On the face of it MacDonald had learned no new tricks over that time span but there was a slight difference in The Princess and the Goblin (1872) where at least there was in evidence something in the form of characters it was possible to care about.

In Fairy Land – reached seemingly by walking through a wood – the narrator (unnamed here, in Lilith at least he had a surname) among other things encounters a long dark shadow not attached to his body, deaths in various guises and more observations through a mirror.

As to MacDonald’s prose I can only agree with C S Lewis who says in his introduction that, “The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.” But where Lewis detects a mythopoeic quality in Macdonald, I cannot.

MacDonald’s narrator seems to have forgotten Shakespeare’s dictum that, “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” when he pleads, “‘But tell me how it is that she could be so beautiful without any heart at all – without any place even for a heart to live in.’”

Definitely of its time. I would not have read it but for it being in the same set of covers as Lilith (and that I only read because it was in the 100 best Scottish Books list.)

Pedant’s corner:- shrunk (shrank,) drank (drunk,) sung (sang, used correctly four lines later. Were these possibly misreadings of MacDonald’s handwriting by the typesetter?)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

faber and faber, 2005, 238 p. First published 1963.

 The Bell Jar cover

It is very difficult to read this without an awareness of the troubled life of its author, who, like her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, lost her father in early life and on reaching young adulthood developed mental health issues. As it did with Plath herself, the shadow of madness, or at least disturbance, lies heavily over the book’s second half.

Esther, a nineteen year-old from a provincial background has won a fashion magazine contest to jaunt about New York. The early part of the novel describes her experiences there and some of her fellow winners, one of whom wears, in a beautiful phrase, “dressing gowns the colour of sin”.

Esther is somewhat naïve as well as still a virgin. “When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.” Magazines told her, “The best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex.” Her would-be husband Buddy Willard is, “the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for,” and when she finds he isn’t so fine and clean himself she rejects him and reflects staying pure may not be all it’s cracked up to be. But she “wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself.” It’s a conflict she finds difficult to resolve.

In this first half the book is feminist in an early 1960s kind of way but it soon drives off on a darker tangent as Esther’s behaviour becomes more erratic.

The novel’s first sentence sets it in the summer the Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted. This is something that clearly preoccupies Esther as it perhaps did Plath. In an exchange which illustrates Esther is perhaps more humane than some “normal” people Esther as narrator tells us, “I said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?’ ‘Yes’ Hilda said. ‘It’s awful such people should be alive.’” Electrocution is a fate Esther suffered as a child due to a faulty lamp – and will again as she is trundled through a succession of mental hospitals and subjected to electro-convulsive shock therapy of varying degrees of intensity. How much this helped or hindered is difficult to assess. Plath’s fate suggests the latter. Esther does describe madness as being like inside a bell jar which lifts – temporarily? – after the milder shock treatment she receives from a (slightly) more careful practitioner than her first.

There is a particularly horrific scene in the aftermath of Esther losing her virginity. Put together with the emphasis on pureness from Esther’s early life such an outcome seems like a punishment. It is possible from this to argue that one of the book’s purposes was to suggest that sexual naivety consequent on the insistence of the purity of women before marriage is at the least detrimental to well-being, maybe even a major contributor to madness.

It would be tempting to think that this book gives some insight into Plath’s later life but as an account of the onset of mental problems and its inadequate treatment it doesn’t really.

All I’d read about this – and its author – suggested that it would be a difficult book but it is in fact extremely easy to read. It may be autobiographical (or at least semi-autobiographical) and there is her poetry to take into account but from the perspective of a reader of novels it is a pity Plath never wrote (or perhaps never had the time to write) another one.

Pedant’s corner:- sewed (USianism, I prefer sewn,) the women (it was one person, so woman,) “why couldn’t I just got to the classes?” (just go to,) “I was my last night” (It was,) a missing start quote mark, “with pinks tips” (pink.)

Lilith by George MacDonald

In Phantastes and Lilith, Gollancz, 1962, 237 p. First published 1895. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Phantastes and Lilith cover

A Mr Vane (no first name is ever provided) inherits a country pile and very soon finds it is visited by a strange apparition. This is the house’s long ago librarian, a coated gentleman who from the front appears to be a raven and has the ability to move through mirrors – taking Mr Vane with him.

This mirror world at first appears strange merely in an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland kind of way. The librarian/raven is prone to whimsical verbal contortions as in, “‘No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he is and then what himself is. In fact nobody is himself and himself is nobody,’” but the milieu soon develops a darker aspect in the creatures Mr Vane encounters. Seemingly dead bodies, animated skeletons (one of whom expresses a deeply misanthropic view of wedlock in a conversation, where its expostulation, “‘This can’t be hell!’ is rejoined by another’s, ‘It must: there’s marriage in it!’”) Then there are Little Ones, who if they are not careful how they eat turn into giants. These giants capture Vane and might persecute the Little Ones but somehow manage to forget their origins and remain blind to them. Visiting a city called Bulika, whose princess wishes to kill all babies to forestall a prophecy of her demise, becomes a goal of Vane’s sojourn. Her existence is bound up with two leopardesses, one spotted, one white, which feature prominently from then on.

After Vane meets the librarian/raven’s wife the couple’s identities are revealed to be Adam and Eve. Adam bestows on Vane some cryptic warnings. Vane’s rescue and revival of a comatose – to all intents dead – woman leads to complications as this turns out to be Lilith, Adam’s former wife and the same princess who blights the existence of all who live under her sway. I say live, but there is some doubt as to whether these creatures are in fact alive or dead or indeed in some other state. After that it all got a bit mired in philosophical ramblings. Not my cup of tea at all.

The book’s 19th century origins are indicated by archaisms like wafture (of wings,) dropt (dropped,) wrapt (wrapped,) glode (glided,) clave (cleaved,) and staid (stayed.)

I would say this is firmly of its time. As an insight into the religious preoccupations of a late Victorian it is no doubt illustrative. It doesn’t much illuminate the human condition, though, and would not reach my 100 Best Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- Shakspere (the 1895 spelling of Shakespeare I assume,) narow (narrow,) “against walls of its cage” (against the walls,) ne’re (1895 spelling of ne’er?) “fast as could” (as fast as I could?)

Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

Chroma, 2005, 446 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Psychoraag cover

From its opening sentence “’Salaam alaikum, sat sri sakaal, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat summer’s night!’” this novel proudly proclaims its uniqueness. The tale of the last broadcast of Radio Chaandni, “’Sax oors, that’s right, sax ooors ae great music, rock an filmi an weird, weye-oot there happenins an ma rolling voice,’” on “ninety-nine-point-nine meters” sic FM. The voice is that of Zaf – “’that’s zed ay eff’” – DJ of The Junnune (madness) Show, scion of a pair of romantic (but adulterous) runaways from Pakistan.

As the above quote shows, Zaf’s monologues to his microphone are rendered in a very broad Glaswegian indeed. They are presented on the page with an unjustified right margin, a feature distinguishing them from the more normal narrative interspersed with them which relates the events of the night in a slightly more refined Scots dialect. Meanwhile sections devoted to his parents’ life together are in Standard English (except when their back story has caught up to times Zaf can remember.) To render the Glaswegian Scots, Saadi spells most participles (indeed most words ending with “ng”) without the final g – even when they occur inside longer words as in increasinly.

The music he plays (ranging from Asian Dub Foundation through Kula Shaker and Corner Shop to The Beatles, The 13th Floor Elevators, the golden hour and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) is integral to Zaf’s conception of himself and for those interested in such things a Play List and Discography of his many and varied tastes are appended after the glossary of Urdu and other terms with which the novel is liberally sprinkled.

Zaf’s stream of consciousness sees him ruminate on life, the universe and everything, with an emphasis on Scotland and Pakistan, “the land of the pure”, often mixing things to great effect, “if Dante Alighieri, in his exile, had had Irn-Bru, he wouldn’t have needed Beatrice. He wouldn’t have needed poetry.”

His thoughts also whirl around both the important women in his adult life, present girlfriend Babs, prone to jaunts to the wilds on her blue Kawasaki motor bike, and previous occupier of that position Zilla. Babs is white and – once – called him her brown god. Like Zaf, Zilla is of Asian descent but has fallen into drugs and prostitution, a circumstance for which it turns out Zaf is partly responsible.

Considerations of race inevitably loom large in Zaf’s thoughts. “The aspiration of all good Asians, finally, wis to be as white as possible. To marry white, to generate white and to strive incessantly for depigmentation.” To be half white or part white gave you, “one foot in the door… You became an honorary person.” He ponders acronyms and abbreviation as aspects of western life, “the whole pompous culture of indecipherability and wilful obscurantism had arisen from the collective mind of the grey men.” He articulates the Asian experience of Glasgow, especially the part which has become known as Wee Faisalabad, mentions the activities of local gang The Kinnin Park Boys, desirous of taking over the station franchise, and his experience of living in the slightly more upmarket area of the Shiels. He has, too, recognised that Calvinist sensibility, knowing that Glasgow had “turned its hard Presbyterian face away from its own children, it averted its thin lips,” and hence reasoning, “So why on earth should it bother to acknowledge a changeling like Zaf?” Neither does society’s attitude to women escape him, especially that of those keen on patriarchy and the primacy of the word. If they fall from an ideal, women are never forgiven, “There wis no such entity as the prodigal daughter,” he notes. Even the possibility of such a fall proscribes them.

Where the narrative breaks away from Zaf and instead tells the story of his father Jamil Ayaan and his mother Rashida, their meeting and falling in love, their affair and her desire for them to be together (only possible if they left Pakistan,) their long journey in a Ford Popular from Lahore to London then Glasgow; a city Jamil had never heard of before, and which he therefore thought would be safe from “prying eyes, ears tongues,” only to find on arrival the sole job he could find was in the sewers, the prose becomes lyrical. Saadi is no mere Shock Jock, he handles straightforward English narrative with as much skill as his demotic flourishes.

There are dream-like sequences where Zaf seems simultaneously to be in the studio at Radio Chaandni and at the same time roaming the city’s streets. This may or may not be because he has drunk some absinthe lying about the studio or perhaps a result of Zaf’s general sense of dissociation. The scenes where Zilla has turned up in the studio have a particularly hallucinatory feel.

Psychoraag is a tremendous achievement, managing to distil both the essence of immigrant experience and of Scottishness and to embody them in one character. It is certainly an admirable piece of work, utterly memorable, worthy of a place in that list of 100 Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- “ninety-nine-point-nine meters FM” (FM radio tuning is characterised by frequency, not by wavelength; Zaf must mean 99.9 MHz,) “but, to Zaf’s right, was a partition wall” (unnecessary parenthetical commas,) zndabad (zindabad,) off of (just off, please,) “poking out from of the back pockets of their jeans” (from or of; not both,) “on account he was” (on account of he was.) “Cognito ergo sum” (The context implies this re-rendering – I know therefore I am – of Descartes’s philosophical statement, I think therefore I am, is intended,) “more dif icult to maintain” (difficult,) “aren’t I?” (OK Zaf says this to his mum and “Indian” English perhaps uses this formulation; but the Scottish English is “amn’t I?) “‘It’s finishes tonight.’” (It,) “she will have she have OD’d” (no “she have”,) Glasgae (Saadi – as Zaf – often uses this but no West of Scotland person says this; Glesca or Glesga maybe, never Glasgae,) re-appeared (in the middle of a line? reappeared,) outside of (outside; ditto inside of,) “it’s three thirty in the morning” (Zaf thinks this during a disturbance in the show’s fifth hour, ie after four a.m.) posonous (poisonous,) “as if it there had been” (as if it had been.) Peter Sellars (Sellers,) “the music swelled tae a crescendo” (no, the crescendo is the swelling; “swelled to a climax” maybe,) “hud been lain” (laid,) ivirthin (previously, and subsequently, ivirythin, with one iviryhin,) “just a little, as. underneath the sunshine” (no full stop.) Fundmentalist (Fundamentalist.) “A certain section of the community were” (a section was.) Polyethelene (Polyethylene,) “ninety-nine point-nine wave-length” (it’s frequency not a wavelength; and wavelength isn’t hyphenated,) cadeceus (caduceus?)
In the glossary:- a shopkeepers, (a shopkeeper) “the commercial films or South Asia” (of,) “a person who own a lot of land” (owns,) “of which there are an enormous variety” (there is a variety.)

A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 1996, 185 p.

A Short, Sharp Shock cover

A man comes to in a sea, pounded by raging surf. He tries to stop himself drowning and eventually makes it to shore along with a woman he calls the swimmer. Apart from vague stirrings he cannot remember his previous existence. The world he and she find themselves on is an odd one, mostly sea, with one long line of mountains, the spine, round its equator. There are strange humanoid inhabitants, some with trees growing out of their shoulders, others with faces where their eyes should be, still more use shells as their homes, shifting from one to the next like crabs.

The main bulk of the book is taken up with a journey along the spine to escape the brutal spine kings. Along the way the man loses touch with the woman several times before regaining contact, and hears the lores and formation stories of the various peoples he encounters. In part this is reminiscent of the journey across Mars in (as I recall) the second of Robinson’s Mars trilogy which seemed to me when I read it to be there solely to show off his research but here has more of a justification. (I noted Paul Kincaid commenting on this Robinson trait of journey describing in his review of New York 2140 in Interzone 270.)

There is one break in the spine of this strange world, traversable by a causeway at low tide, guided by the latest in a long line of custodians called Birsay. (At this point I wondered if Robinson has been to Orkney.) In the book this gap in the mountain range is called the brough. Brough actually means island but we can forgive the author this slight misuse. The trip over takes two tides with a dangerous stop in the middle where kelp bladders tied to anchors in the rock allow travellers to avoid being swept away by the currents of the rising tide. Our intrepid travellers of course have to hit it on a bad day.

The book is preoccupied with mirrors. One of the things our traveller, who has decided to call himself Thel, is told is that, “Through mirrors we see things right way round at last,” and he muses on the possibility of a landscape in reverse. On helping a group of tree-people escape from the spine kings one of them delays to rescue a mirror. Some time later Thel is pushed through the mirror into an altered spined world before finding his way back.

This is not major Robinson. The story is not much more than a novella and each chapter starts on an odd numbered page so there is sometimes a complete blank page between them. The book is further bulked out by its last 14 pages containing a “preview” of Robinson’s Blue Mars. This is an off-putting practice I hope publishers have now discontinued.

Pedant’s corner:- “the north side grew less steep, laying out until the peninsula was wider than ever” (lying out,) “some laying over the ridge” (lying,) “cursing one another under their breath” (breaths,) sunk (sank,) “ate the muscles” (mussels, I think,) miniscule (minuscule,) “and bid him eat” (bade,) “all was not peaceful” (not all was peaceful.)

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

the greatest empire that never was.

Small Beer, 2003, 255 p. Translated from the Spanish Kalpa Imperial by Ursula K Le Guin. First published in two volumes La casa del poder (The House of Power) and El Imperio mas vasto (The Greatest Empire) by Ediciones Minotauro, Buenos Aires, 1983.

 Kalpa Imperial cover

This is not really like anything I’ve ever read before, a sweeping, dazzling, accomplishment of a book, soaring yet at the same time utterly grounded, told in two parts, The House of Power and The Greatest Empire, of five and six sections respectively, a history of an empire “so long that a whole life dedicated to study and research isn’t enough to know it wholly,” a history “strewn with surprise, contradictions, abysses, deaths, resurrections,” of an empire “so vast that a man can’t cross it in his lifetime.” A chronicling of human life, then.

I doubt it has any equivalent but the nearest comparison in SF is probably Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna, mainly due to its episodic narrative, but despite its fabular nature (no empire could ever last as long, with so many ruling dynasties, as the one in this book) this is somehow less fanciful and more convincing (and I liked Roma Eterna a lot even though it was late Silverberg where he wasn’t quite as incisive as in his pomp.) Kalpa Imperial nevertheless did somehow at times remind me of translations of Chinese literature but probably only because it deals with emperors and empires and the consequent power struggles.

Despite its subtitle the book does not restrict itself to the emperors or their courts. Life in the empire is presented in an approximation of its diversity but there is no continuity between the sections, no characters carry on from one to the next or later. Instead the picture is built up from what are in effect short stories/novellas set in the same milieu. A binding link in the book, though, is that, like fairy tales, most of the sections begin with the same phrase, in this case, “The storyteller said:” but varied with one, “Yes, said the storyteller:” a, “Vast is the empire, said the storyteller:” with the last section altering the template to, “‘I’m an orphan,” The Cat had said,’”. All these help to solidify the tales, to root the book in a compelling simulation of an actual history as remembered by oral historians. But it is precisely that lack of continuity, that difference between the sections (except for the narrative tone,) that works to make the book feel like a true history.

Throughout the book there are asides on the art of story. “The reason why there are storytellers in the world is to answer those questions we all ask, and not as the teller, but as the reader,” “a storyteller is no more than a free man, and being a free man is a dangerous business,” and, pertinently to any time but certainly apposite now, “who takes any notice of the wise, these days, except storytellers, or poets?” Particularly redolent was the passage which dwelt on the phrase, “not all is said.”

There is a knowing quality to the section which riffs on The Odyssey. A legend is recited containing people named Kirdaglas, Marlenditrij, Betedeivis, Maripícfor, Briyibardó, Jedilamar, Alendelón, Orsonuéls, Clargueibl, Yeimsdín etc, with houses named saloon, rashomon, elañopasadoenmarienbad and charge of the light brigade and which also features sirens called ringostars.

Gorodischer is well-served by her translator. (Though if you’re going to be translated it must be a boon if it is done by one of the best writers around.) But the whole is a marvel of invention, a rich imagining of a world not our own but as near to it as makes no difference.

Pedant’s corner:- “time’s mirror losses all its reflects” (reflections, surely?) Ja’ladahlva (elsewhere Ja’ladahva,) a missing end quotation mark, busses (buses,) “who lived more than twenty kilos away” (kilo is used as an abbreviation for kilogram, not kilometre,) “the girl was very young girl” (a very young girl,) “in the darkness under of the walls” (either under or of, not both,) two of the women were were crawling (only one were needed.) “Five minutes later” (twice in two lines, both beginning a paragraph.) “He knew it” – death – “was waiting for him in the South too, but maybe there it wouldn’t take so long to come” (context suggests “but maybe there it would take longer to come”,) traveller’s tales (travellers’ tales?) “.. he could stay as long as he like before” (liked,) “a gesture that included that included” (one “that included” only,) a missing quote mark at a section beginning with a piece of dialogue – probably house style but it irritates me, Clargueible (previously Clargueibl,) “of the the dead emperor” (only one “the”,) “it it rose up” (only one “it”.)

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