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The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski

Tor, 1999, 347 p.

The Children Star cover

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

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

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

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

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

Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019

TTA Press, 96 p

 Interzone 283 cover

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

In the fiction:-

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

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

Shoreline of Infinity 13; Autumn 2018

The New Curiosity Shop, 2018.

 Shoreline of Infinity 13 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexica by Norman Spinrad

Abacus, 2006, 510 p.

Mexica cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Scotland 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Born to Exile by Phyllis Eisenstein

Grafton, 1992, 219 p.

 Born to Exile cover

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

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

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

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

Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison

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

Memoirs of a Spacewoman cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age of Legends by James Lovegrove

Solaris, 2019, 405 p.

 Age of Legends cover

The novel starts with a scene in which parakeets in London are being systematically culled. They are alien, you see. They don’t belong in Britain. At least not in a Britain run by Prime Minister David Drake, head of the Resurrection Party, out to restore the country to “proper” British values and rid it of all undesirables. This last category, of course, includes anyone not born in the UK. Ajia Snell’s mother has been deported “back” to India – a country she had never visited. Bicycle courier Ajia’s father was white British, and therefore she is tolerated. Just. Her dusky skin tends to attract suspicion in certain quarters though. When out on her self-imposed mission to paint graffiti criticising Drake, she is spotted by cops and shot while trying to escape them. This leads to her capture, imprisonment and beating. Her heart stops.

It is of no consequence. The police can do anything they like in this law-and–ordered world. Two cops are delegated to dispose of the body. While they are dumping her in a sewer she wakes up, frightening them off.

Resting on a park bench, she is saved from a further beating at the hands of a vagrant by a man calling himself Smith. He calls her “good fellow” and tells her she is one of a new kind, people who did indeed die but have somehow come back to life with special attributes, attributes drawn from British mythological figures and folk tales. She is Puck, aka Robin Goodfellow, and has the ability to move at incredible speed. Smith is able to rework broken metal and shattered glass into new objects.

Nominative determinism is a central feature of the reincarnations in this book, who are known collectively as eidolons. Their leader is called Auberon LeRoy. A man named Fletcher is extremely handy with a bow and arrow, Daisy Hawthorn has power over growing things, Wee Paul Klein can diminish in size, Neve Winterton has the ability to freeze and unfreeze things. In order to save the soul of Britain they and their like are set to do battle against the armoured cars and Humvees of Drake’s security force, the Paladins.

Interspersed with the story of Ajia Snell (both of whose names mean speed) we are given the experiences of Drake, his wife Harriet, and Security Chief Major Dominic Wynne. In their telling I found these scenes to be reminiscent of the fiction of Harry Turtledove. Before entering politics Drake had been a successful businessman and collector of religious artefacts. He believes himself to be a devout Christian (in his youth a hard row to hoe, in his opinion) but his actions belie any tenets of that faith beyond those of the Old Testament fundamentalist types who seem able to ignore totally any (all?) of the compassionate things that their Messiah is reported to have said and encouraged. Drake’s prize possession is the Holy Grail. Returning to Britain after purchasing it abroad, his helicopter had crashed, with Drake the sole survivor. It is kept under lock and key in a secure building in the grounds of his family home. Not only does he talk to it, it talks back to him in the voice of his companion on that trip, Emrys Sage.

I note there is no mention of the Monarchy in this depiction of a Britain under Fascist rule. An odd omission. Perhaps we are meant to assume it’s been abolished. The implication is that it has been sidelined and of no relevance, certainly no kind of brake on anything.

I suspect Lovegrove intended his tale as a warning of how close the UK is to a future of this sort. Its appeal I suppose lies in the invocation of mythic British heroes and the prospect of the fascist state’s overthrow. However, the treatment suggests that we need to depend on the supernatural to rescue us from such a fate. If that’s the case we’re more lost than I had feared. It’s also depressing that in order to overcome it those heroes have to resort to methods almost indistinguishable from their persecutors. I suppose that was ever the way though.

Pedant’s corner:- Many instances of “‘time interval’ later” throughout. Otherwise; “‘that there was any unnatural about your speed’” (anything unnatural,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘You’re coming with’” (coming with me,) “where an assortment of … were parked” (an assortment … was parked.) “Mr LeRoy helped pored” (helped pour,) “air conditioning kept the temperature steady between 16 and 200C (a 4 degree range is hardly steady,) a pope (a Pope,) “used by the Saint Veronica” (Saints’names are not usually prefixed by the definite article; ‘used by Saint Veronica’,) “there were a number of ikons and Bibles,” (‘there was a number’ or, here, ‘there were numbers of…,) “told you do” (told you to do,) unadvisable (inadvisable,) “that Auberon LeRoy fit the bill” (fitted the bill.) “A trio of Paladins were zeroing in” (A trio … was zeroing in,) “skidded into the life” (into life.) “Mr Le Roy sai without looking round” (Mr LeRoy said..,) “of out both politeness and deference” (out of both,) jpeg (x3, it was a video file, I believe that’s an mpeg, or a gif,) “his his great shoulders” (only one ‘his’ required,) lay low (lie low,) “for another women” (woman.) “The armoured slowed” (armoured truck slowed,) “said to much” (too much,) travelling into the troop-carrier” (in the troop-carrier,) “the tongue-lashing he’d excepted” (expected,) “an elicit thrill” (illicit thrill, this was used correctly later, as was elicit,) “was quite bit older” (quite a bit older,) “all she owned in the way of acreage were two window boxes” (all she owned … was two window boxes,) “‘but all indications is that’” (all indications are that,) “like steel hawser” (like a steel hawser,) “the onyx, jewel-encrusted cup” (the jewel-encrusted onyx cup,) “over a licking flames” (‘over a licking flame’, or, over licking flames’,) “as if unconscionably” (‘unconsciously’ makes more sense in the context. Unconscionably = ‘without conscience’ rather than ‘without thought’,) “an besuited MC took up the microphone on small stage” (a besuited MC took up the microphone on a small stage,) “Drake’s Paladin’s killed them all” (Paladins.) “‘Add your ability own to ours’” (Add your own ability to ours,) behind the fathering “‘and you’d be alerting the bastards the fact’” (and you’d be alerting the bastards to the fact.) “Smith look up at Fletcher” (looked up.) “Lieutenant Noble raised spoke hurriedly into his lapel mic” (raised what?) “Harriet laid on the bed” (Laid? Laid what? ‘Harriet lay on the bed’,) “pointed to see the town far below” (pointed to the town..,) whiskey (x3, whisky.) “They drove onto town” (on to town, or, into town.) At television stood in the corner” (A television,) “‘to contact President Vasilyev on the morning’” (‘in the morning’ is more usual.) “‘The flashed up a fucking mugshot of me, didn’t they?’” (They flashed up..,) “on Wolfson arm” (Wolfson’s arm,) “raring like a demon” (roaring makes more sense,) “‘the method of murder in Bradford suggest the same perpetrator’” (the method … suggests,) “towards an door” (a door,) “a strong of high-pitched gibberish” (a string,) “and hugged hers shins” (her shins,) “or rather where its head has been” (had been.) “‘On you way.’” (On your way,) “a newsagents” (newsagent’s,) “the creature shrieked and rage” (in rage.) Edward Winterton opened her eyes and smiled sat her” (opened his eyes and smiled at her,) “that had rang out” (that had rung out,) parliament (Parliament,) “in ones and two” (ones and twos,) “aptitude with the weapons” (it’s usually aptitude for, not with, something,) “icy and other creepers” (ivy,) “until such a time” (usually ‘until such time’,) “at the top of their voices” (‘tops of their voices’ is more grammatical,) “the line of a ha-ha diving it from sloping lawns” (dividing it,) “jersey cows” (Jersey cows,) “a small force of Russian insurgents have crossed the border” (a small force … has crossed,) a missing full stop (x2,) “more Paladin” (Paladins,) “opened fire of the castle’s defenders” (on the castle’s defenders.) “The reply was hard to make out about the rattle of gunfire” (above the rattle.) “The study door open and an voice” (door opened and a voice,) “You will seek to form a coalition with Labour and the Liberal Democrats” (Labour and the Liberal Democrats are still around in this scenario? They’ve not been banned?)

The Citadel by A J Cronin

BCA in arrangement with Gollancz, 1983, 347 p. First published 1937. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

This book has the dedication, “To my wife.” No name, just, “To my wife.” Of its time.

The Citadel cover

Cronin lived for a while in my home town of Dumbarton and was well-liked there. He had a long and successful writing career being best known for his “Doctor Finlay” stories which have been made into television series more than once. This is the first of his books I have read.

In it, newly qualified doctor Andrew Manson takes up his first post in the Welsh mining village of Drineffy only to find to his surprise that Dr Page, whose practice he has joined as assistant, is ill, therefore leaving the whole burden to him. It takes him some while to come to terms with his new existence, to overcome the hide-bound attitudes of others, and he bemoans the lack of recent knowledge amongst the elder doctors on the town. He then forms a pact with another young doctor to blow up the leaking sewer causing enteric fevers in the village. In a confrontation over isolation procedures for communicable disease he meets local schoolteacher, Christine Barlow. His dedication to his patients eventually leads to a confrontation with Page’s sister over an ex-gratia payment. He resigns on principle and seeks a post in Aberalaw, a few valleys away. This requires a married man, so his intended proposal to Christine is accelerated.

In Aberalaw there are still aspects of typical medical practice which he abhors but he has a chance to investigate the incidence and genesis of lung disease in anthracite miners. His paper on the matter is well received on both sides of the Atlantic. This leads to a brief spell at the Government Board overseeing mines, where his talents are misplaced.

His taking over a practice in a not too well-off part of London is the start of his ascent as he is gradually drawn into the web of venality and malpractice surrounding the higher elements of his profession there. Increasing affluence leads to an estrangement from Christine. His eyes are finally re-opened to the true state of affairs when he assists at an operation which is botched. The comeuppance he’s given for his misdemeanours is perhaps unduly harsh, though, as it is personal rather than professional.

Characterisations tend to be broad-brush and to a modern eye the conversations too long. Another historical note is that the text is pervaded with mention of cigarettes. You can almost feel the tobacco smell rising from the paper.

The book is to be commended for its main thrust, though, the indictment of the absolute racket that was private medicine. (And, no doubt, still is.) That people seek to profit from the gullible is a given of human nature but to do so from the ill is utterly despicable.

To those with sensitive dispositions I should mention that a character says, “‘He’s a white man,’” in that old casual usage, meaning sound, or reliable. Cronin probably thought it unremarkable.

Pedant’s corner:- signagure (signature,) “it was no mere slip of the tongue which has caused” (had caused,) doyleys (the usual spelling is doilies,) “her background previous to her marriage to Doctor Bramwell, had been” (needs no comma after Bramwell,) “caught he unguardedly fixing him” (caught her.) “There was also palms and a string orchestra.” (There were also palms and a ..,) marraiges (marriages,) ampule (ampoule is more usual,) “if I’d been the King of England” (Manson is a Scot; he would more likely have thought, ‘if I’d been the King’,) Rees’ (Rees’s – which appeared six lines later,) etctera (etcetera,) prtence (pretence,) “a county practice” (country practice?) cruciform (cruciform?) “at he could” (as he could,) “what an earth for?” (what on Earth for?) “he flung out of bed” (flung himself out of bed,) “tht night” (that night,) “at Vaughans’” (at the Vaughans’, or, at Vaughan’s,) Glyn-Jones’ (Glyn-Jones’s,) out-bye (out-by,) beieve (believe,)“could .. be inducted” (induced makes more sense,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “a PS.,” Spahlinger (later [once each] Sphahlinger and Sphalinger,) “when we’re time” (when we’ve time,) “whiteheart cheeries” (cherries?) “there were signs of new life spring up” (sprung up,) “the crumped note” (crumpled,) “by Freddie’ gush” (Freddie’s,) Mr winch (Winch,) Rogers’ (Rogers’s,) wisteria (wisteria,) “more than usualy acrimony on her patchy features” (more than usual,) “ a stiff whicky and soda” (whisky,) “he isn’t so mart as Ivory” (smart,) “dity money” (dirty,) waggon (wagon,) “‘I’ve been thinking so much before you come in’” (came in.)

Starfarers by Vonda N McIntyre

Ace, 1989, 286 p.

Starfarers cover

J D Sauvage has been appointed alien contact specialist on the starship Starfarer, soon to make its maiden voyage into interstellar space by magnetically latching onto cosmic string. In the meantime she is finishing up her work with genetically modified humans known as divers, who are able to communicate with Orcas (capitalised here.) Both the starship and the divers are threatened by the policy of the latest US government which is anxious to make sure the divers are not used as spies by the Mideast Sweep (a fundamentalist religion dominated political entity which has swallowed up not only the Middle East but also the former USSR) and wishes Starfarer itself to become a low-orbit military facility.

On the starship, a pair of huge contra-rotating cylinders only one of which is inhabited by humans, J D meets the members of the family partnership containing Victoria, Stephen Thomas and Satoshi. The family partnership is said to be a now outdated social arrangement, a loosely structured menage, not quite polygamy, with several members. Victoria, Stephen Thomas and Satoshi’s “family” had had a fourth member Merry, but she died.

The conflict here is between the starship’s crew and the US government – not the only but the main funder for the expedition. A minor conflict ensues from the activities on the ship of Griffith, a US government spy, sent to discredit the expedition’s aims. The programme, Grandparents in space, seems to him a prime example of its uselessness. However Griffith gets distracted from his mission by the presence on board of space pioneer Kolya Cherenkov.

Operations on the ship are overseen by a web AI called Arachne which is in direct contact with all on board. This seems a mundane extrapolation nowadays but in 1989 when this was published it was fairly visionary, (the presence of a back-up system of hardware perhaps less so.)

This edition has one of those ‘window’ covers which were popular at the time, depicting a spaceship and the Moon as through another spaceship’s viewport. Unfortunately its tag-line “They broke all the rules …” is a huge spoiler as it continues on the inside flap, “to explore the final frontier,” thus vitiating the book’s main outcome.

It is thirty plus years on of course, but once again I found on reading McIntyre that my memories of her prose from The Exile Waiting and Dreamsnake (evolved from the short story Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand) are not lived up to. Starfarers is certainly readable enough but not anything out of the ordinary.

Pedant’s corner:- earth (multiple instances; Earth,) J. D. (we had examples of ‘J. D.,’ but at the end of a sentence it was always ‘J. D.’ not ‘J. D..’,) “hyphenated double last names. Like Conan Doyle.” (Conan Doyle isn’t hyphenated, neither in the name of that author nor in this book’s text,) the moon (several times, the Moon.) “And I cooked the isotopes, so the dating will be consistent.” (‘Cooking the isotopes’ wold be incredibly difficult and looks beyond any technology on display here,) “font of wisdom” (fount,) “the United States’” (is now a singular entity, United States’s,) impoundment (impounding, as in seize legally, was what was meant; an impoundment is a dam,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x2.)

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