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Impossible Things by Connie Willis

This is a book of short stories by the person who has won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than any other writer.

Bantam, 1994, 471 p, plus vi p Introduction by Gardner Dozois Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

The Last of the Winnebagos sees a near future where a mutated parvovirus has killed off all species of dog. Only jackals are left and even those are vanishingly rare. The Humane Society monitors and polices any animal deaths. The roads are dominated by water tankers servicing the city of Phoenix and the like and travelling very fast to blur the speed cameras. Our narrator is a photojournalist who sees a dead jackal on the road while on his way to photograph the last Winnebago, and is drawn into a web of suspicion.

Even the Queen was apparently written in response to complaints that Willis never wrote about women’s issues. (Her view is of course that there ought to be no restrictions on what a writer writes about.) In the story a device called a shunt disseminates a drug called ammenerol which prevents periods. The narrator’s daughter causes a stushie in the family when she announces she wishes to join a group called the Cyclists, who see shunts and ammenerol as instruments of the male patriarchy seeking to deprive women of their natural functions. Nevertheless, the story is played for laughs.

Schwarzschild Radius combines the theory of a star’s gravitational collapse into a black hole with the memories of a Dr Rottschieben who apparently served with Schwarzschild in the Great War. It’s beautifully written and its embedded metaphor ingenious but doesn’t really hold up under retrospective scrutiny.

Ado imagines a future (very litigious, very USian) in which everybody complains about everything and so teaching is made almost impossible. Hamlet consists of only two lines.

Spice Pogrom is Willis’s tribute to Hollywood screwball comedies but also reminded me of one of James White’s Sector General stories. Aliens called Eahrohhs have come to Earth, or, rather, to a space station called Sony which has an idiosyncratic housing policy. One of them, Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh, has promised to deliver NASA a space program (sic) and narrator Chris’s Nasa employed fiancé has billeted him/it on her and told her to allow it/him whatever it wants. There is plenty of the incidental happenings the screwball comedy enshrines to complicate the story-line. This one turns on whether Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh actually understands the English words they are all using but the story’s pay-off doesn’t really reward the time investment required by the reader.

Winter’s Tale riffs on the theory that since Shakespeare was low-born he could not have written all those magnificent plays and poems. Told as by Anne Hathaway it plays with that notion (which Willis’s foreword insists is surely incorrect,) and with the possibility that Christopher Marlowe’s murder in a Deptford Inn was faked while also providing a reason for Shakespeare’s famous bequest to Anne.

In Chance a woman has moved back to the town where she attended college (where everything is the same but everything is different) because her husband, who is interested only in career advancement, has a new job there. She starts to see the students as people she knew back in her youth and wonders on the chance happenings that change lives for the better – or worse.

In the Late Cretaceous is a satire on neologisms and academia, with the institution where it’s set also riddled with an over-officious set of traffic wardens, ticketing anything that doesn’t move. The professor of palæontology is a metaphorical dinosaur, still using chalk on blackboard. Willis’s preface to this laments what she calls political correctness, as being inimical, or at least antithetic, to comedy and moans about “every anti- (Choose one: smoking, animal research, logging, abortion, Columbus.)” Well she did include anti-abortionists, so she’s not a complete lost cause.

Time Out centres round a project to produce a “temporal oscillator” with which to manipulate “hodiechrons” (quantum units of time which Willis has presumably named from the Latin for today and the Greek for time.) An anatomy of both the quotidian routines of marriage and parenthood – the domestic detail is thoroughly true to life – the vicissitudes of not well resourced research and nostalgia for youth it suggests a mechanism for the origins of déjà vu. The whole is intricately plotted but leans a bit too heavily on light-heartedness.

Jack returns to the subject of the London Blitz which Willis explored in her short story Fire Watch and novels To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear. As in those (and The Doomsday Book) it is marred for a British reader by a failure to get details of life and usages in the UK correct. The story concerns a new member of an ARP unit who shows an uncanny knack for detecting bodies buried by rubble. He also disappears sharply to his day job. The narrator develops suspicions.

At the Rialto’s title has a different meaning to Sons of the Rock of my generation compared to those who hail from elsewhere. It was the name of the local cinema. The Rialto here is a hotel in Hollywod hosting (or not) a meeting of quantum physicists. The plot revolves around a series of uncertainties.

Pedant’s corner:- flack (x3, flak,) “the Queen of England” (was of course not crowned as such but as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and is of course Queen of many other places besides,) gladiolas (gladioli,) Russian Front (in the Great War it was called the Eastern Front,) LaGrangian points” (Lagrange points,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘The seasons’ just started’” (season’s.) “‘Five years and no sex have made desperate’” (have made me desperate’,) “I don’t’” (I don’t,) a missing full stop, “setting her cap for you” (setting her cap at you,) liquor (the British usage is booze, or drink,) a character is said by another to be from Yorkshire but himself says he’s from Newcastle (all British people know Newcastle [either of them] isn’t in Yorkshire,) ME 109s (it’s Me 109s – and the text implies that type of plane was a bomber. It was a fighter,) bannister (banister,) oleo (the word used in the UK for this type of spreadable butter substitute is margarine,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, automobile jack (‘car jack’, or just ‘jack’,) row houses (terraced houses,) the Duchess of York (by this time [1941] the said woman was the Queen and was only ever referred to as ‘the Queen’,) a medal is said to have been awarded at a military HQ (investitures are [and were even during the war] held at Royal Palaces,) a recipient’s father is said to have pinned the medal on his son himself (medals are conferred by a member of the Royal family or perhaps, in extreme cases, by a representative such as a Lord Lieutenant,) the Duchess of York kissed the award recipient on both cheeks (absolutely not,) “and said he was the pride of England” (the ‘pride of Britain’ possibly, ‘England’ I very much doubt. The Queen [formerly Duchess of York] was Scottish,) an inland revenue collector (a taxman,) “had gotten married” (had got married,) the award recipient had shot down fifteen German planes so must have been in Fighter Command but is later said to be flying nightly bombing missions over Germany – a Bomber Command task.) “‘meaning’ or possible ‘information’” (or possibly.)

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Head of Zeus, 2020, 510 p.

Why would an Israeli author better known for exploring Middle-Eastern or Jewish themes and concerns and the byways of Altered History turn his attention to the (so-called) matter of Britain? For that is what Tidhar has done in By Force Alone, a retelling of the story of King Arthur from a novel angle – what would it really have been like to contest for kingship in a bygone age, to gain, hold and wield power by force alone? I suppose the tale is well enough known, though, and, as Tidhar’s Afterword shows, it has always been fair game for reploughing and reinterpreting.

Here we have all the familiar names of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Galahad, Mordred etc, but seen in a downcast light. Forget any notion of parfit, gentil knyghts (especially as that was a phrase which Chaucer no doubt devised cunningly.) The characters here are earthy, human, venal, demotic in speech, prone to all the vices known to man and few of the virtues, their surroundings mostly squalid, their motivations base.

By Force Alone is told in an urgent present tense, its background is England before it was England, in the Dark Age aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. A “wild country, a host of warring tribes who scrabble for scraps in the ruin of civilisation,” with a new religion, Christianity, on the ascendant. Most of the characters are Brythonic Celts but offstage sundry Angles, Saxons and Jutes are making inroads into the territory of southern Britain, mainly by peaceful settlement but bringing their harsh, guttural Anglisc tongue with them.

Arthur is engendered in the usual way, Uther Pendragon disguising himself with Merlin’s help to resemble the lady Igraine’s husband and so impregnate her, but the resulting child is whipped off by Merlin to a foster home in Londinium, where, growing up, he learns the dark arts of street fighting and survival. Joseph of Arimathea features as the trainer of Lancelot in martial arts and his inductor into membership of the Inner Circle of the Venerated Secret Brotherhood of the Seekers of the Grail. Joseph’s conviction that the Grail was to be found in Britain brings Lancelot somewhat reluctantly to its shores.

In what in retrospect is an odd interpolation Tidhar brings in elements of SF with the appearance of a falling star – which can be read as a descending spaceship or, more prosaically, Halley’s Comet, but its later reascent militates against that – and the growing up round its landing/crash site of the Zone, where strange things happen, odd creatures appear, food rots instantly or stays unaccountably preserved and where those who frequent it tell newcomers, “Don’t touch anything.” Merlin spends his time thinking about this apparition and Lancelot conceives it as the location of the grail. In this context that streak of light in the sky might be considered as an avatar of the Star of Bethlehem.

We all know how things will end but finding out what happens is not the driving force for the reader to continue. This tale of Arthur may be, as the text has it, “just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed,” but it is the telling of it that matters, the slants it takes – Guinevere as a sort of bandit, a leader of Amazons up for a scrap as much as anyone else in this, Arthur as almost feckless – and uncaring that he is cuckolded by Lancelot – Galahad an administrator supreme.

The text is replete with allusion and quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut’s recognition of the inevitability and ubiquity of death (three words not unfamiliar to readers of this blog) and even a riff on the “choose” rant from Trainspotting, not to mention a scene depicting musings on an Antikythera mechanism. Some readers may find this sort of thing distracting but others that it adds to the flavour, a reminder that this is a commentary on its sources as well as a skewed recapitulation. Repetition too is an ingredient, especially of the three words of the title which describe the way in which Kings in these circumstances win and keep their crowns.

Merlin’s thoughts perhaps at times speak to Brexit, “A shared identity, Merlin thinks. A story to unify all these warring tales, so that Britons now and in centuries to come could tell each other that they share a thing. That they are one. And to be one, as Arthur understands implicitly, you must be defined against an other,” and his reflection that “this island’s just a piece of Europe with the landbridge submerged,” and, “It doesn’t really matter, this matter of Britain. Just another way to pass the time.” Later Sir Pellinore muses, “And who’s to say whose land this is, really? Land’s just land.” (Which may – or may not – be a reflection by Tidhar on his Israeli background.)

It is the characters that make By Force Alone. The humans feel like flesh and blood people. The wizard (who doesn’t himself believe in magic) or the fae folk are all as they are in fantasy tales, instruments of darkness to tell us truths, to betray their victims in deepest consequence. (That allusiveness can be catching.) Warnings, all.

The novel is a vigorous, vibrant retelling of “the glorious age of Camelot” rendered more powerful by focusing on the individuals rather than the appurtenances or overall architecture of the tale. In a curious way this demystification of the myth almost makes it more memorable.

Pedant’s corner:- “fifteen hundred heads of cattle” (usually ‘head of cattle’,) “moat pleasantly” twice within the space of a line, and “most pleasant” another line later, Nennius’ (Nennius’s – all of the names here which end with the letter ‘s’ are given possessives with s’ rather than s’s,) “ he lays back, sated” (lies back,) mithraeums (the Latin plural would be mithraea,) ass (in a narrative like this, set where it is, that just seems so wrong. The correct word is arse,) Morgana (is used once for Morgan, but it was Merlin thinking it and will have been an allusion,) “a money changers’” (a money changer’s.) “And he resents her that” (for that?) “…. Kay says Shrugs” (should have a full stop after ‘says’,) “off of” (off, just ‘off’s no ‘of’ required,) fit (fitted.) “It gauges out eyes” (gouges out, surely/) “he flies across a darkening skies” (omit ‘a’ or have a singular sky,) “‘The Angles and the Saxons’ growing influence’” should have apostrophe for Angles as well as Saxons.) “Previous stones. Coin” (Precious stones, I think.) “They are a tribal peoples” (either, ‘They are a tribal people,’ or ‘They are tribal peoples,’ the latter preferably, given that ‘they’.) The army of mutatio scatter” (scatters.) “Lancelot expands little energy” (expends.) “Lancelot is shook” (shaken.) “‘That’s none really of your business’” (has odd syntax – ‘that’s really none of your business’ is more usual,) “The trees don’t sway unless the king commands” (this was in Orkney, traditionally thought to have no trees. When I was there I saw none worth the name,) parlay (parley,) sat (sitting, or, seated,) the town of Wormwood has a sign saying Pop 971 853 (so populated? In the Dark Ages?) epicentre (centre,) “and the water turn to dull reflection” (turns,) “nought but an illusion” (naught.) “A veritable rain of arrows flies down from the enemy’s archers then and hit him” (‘rain … flies down’, therefore should be followed by ‘hits him’,) snuck (sneaked.) In the Afterword; Tidhar says Britain was unified once more by the end of the Wars of the Roses. (It wasn’t. England – with Wales – might have been; but Scotland was politically separate till much later,) ditto “the Norman conquest of Britain” (the Normans conquered only England – until within 200 years the Plantagenet Edward I had also subdued Wales – though their influence spread into Scotland with dynastic marriages and the like.)

Hugo Awards 2021

The short lists for this year’s Hugo Awards have been announced.

The fiction nominees are:-

Novel-

Black Sun Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery/Saga Press/Solaris)
The City We Became N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Harrow The Ninth Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com)
Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tor.com)
Piranesi Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
The Relentless Moon Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Solaris)

I note here the crossover with the BSFA Award list as regards N K Jemisin (which I reviewed for Interzone 287 but have not yet published here) and Susanna Clarke.

Novella-

Come Tumbling Down Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)
The Empress of Salt and Fortune Nghi Vo (Tor.com)
Finna Nino Cipri (Tor.com)
Ring Shout P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
Riot Baby Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor.com)
Upright Women Wanted Sarah Gailey (Tor.com)

I have read none of these.

Novelette-

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super A T Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine, May/June 2020)
Helicopter Story Isabel Fall (Clarkesworld, January 2020)
The Inaccessibility of Heaven Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny Magazine, July/August 2020)
Monster Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2020)
The Pill Meg Elison (from Big Girl, (PM Press))
Two Truths and a Lie Sarah Pinsker (Tor.com)

Ditto.

Short story-

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse Rae Carson (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2020)
A Guide for Working Breeds Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, ed. Jonathan Strahan (Solaris))
Little Free Library Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com)
The Mermaid Astronaut Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020)
Metal Like Blood in the Dark T Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)
Open House on Haunted Hill John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen)

Ditto.

Series-

The Daevabad Trilogy S A Chakraborty (Harper Voyager)
The Interdependency John Scalzi (Tor Books)
The Lady Astronaut Universe Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Audible/Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction/Solaris)
The Murderbot Diaries Martha Wells (Tor.com)
October Daye Seanan McGuire (DAW)
The Poppy War R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)

Ditto.

I’m obviously not keeping up with SF from the US. (Mind you the stuff from there I have read recently hasn’t been too inspiring.)

Two More Books

 This Fragile Earth cover
 The First Sister cover

I mentioned the new online SF magazine ParSec here.

Editor Ian Whates is keeping me busy. Two more books have arrived from him for review, This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise published by Gollancz and The First Sister by Linden Lewis from Hodder.

Well it is actually my fault. I did ask for them from the list of review books he sent out.

Gilbert and Edgar on Mars by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2009, 93 p.

On leaving a meeting with Bernard Shaw and H G Wells at the Athenæum, G K Chesterton is bumped into by a small man who subsequently asks him to sign some of his works. On crossing the threshold of the building to where he is led Chesterton realises he has been mistaken for Wells, but before he can correct his companion he finds to his initial confusion, he has been instantly transported to Mars.

Very shortly thereafter he is busted from the room where he is confined by a man with a US accent. This is the Edgar of the title (whom we later find is, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

As is the way of conceits such as this we soon encounter one John Carter, plus Professor Challenger and a depiction of a caged man who might as well be Tarzan and, we must impute, Burroughs’s inspiration for that character. To go with the conceit here we have a cod Edwardian literary styling in the prose. There may well too be some Chestertonian references which I missed but I know Brown is familiar with that writer’s œuvre.

The plot revolves around the Six Philosophers, the Jabbak Kathro – an ancient race from when Mars was lush and green but whose star faded once the dry times came and who now live only with their minds. They had long ago invented a device called The Dream Crystal to read the contents of others’ minds, abducting people from Earth for the purpose before giving them an amnesiac and sending them back. “The crystal takes the imagination of the subject .… and makes it apparently real.” They have run through Earth’s playwrights and poets and now have a taste for adventure stories, hence their intended abduction of Wells.

The enjoyment in reading – and I assume writing – pieces like this lies in the ambience and allusions rather than the plot. Brown manages it all with entertaining ease.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later”/“within time interval” count: 23. Otherwise; “his bulk seemed not to possess its erstwhile laggardly mass” (it would have the same mass, what it woudn’t have is the same weight,) “none of which were easily recognisable” (none of which was…,) Edgar addresses Gilbert as ‘chum’ which I do not think is a USian usage, nought (naught,) Wells’ (Wells’s,) gunnel (it’s spelled gunwale,) fullness (my dictionary gives both spellings but I have usually encountered only ‘fulness’,) Edgar asks Gilbert if he is “some kind of pinko Commie” (which is an anachronism,) prioll (prial,) “a haberdashers” (a haberdasher’s.)

Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole

Angry Robot, 2020, 336 p. Published in Interzone 286, Mar-Apr 2020.

Sixteenth Watch cover

In a crowded field how do you attempt to make your military SF stand out from that crowd? Well, if you are Myke Cole you make your story about a cinderella service, the Coast Guard (which seems to be two words in the US and in whose ranks Cole has served himself.) “COASTGUARDS IN SPACE!” is a good tag-line after all, even if it might not seem to promise much in the way of battle scenes. Fans of this particular sub-genre need not worry though. There’s plenty of the usual mayhem associated with the form in these pages. Cole is careful to get some of this in early in a prologue where viewpoint character Coastguard Commander Jane Oliver is called into a confrontation between US and Chinese miners of Helium-3 on Lacus Doloris on the Moon, in which two of her crew, Kariawasm and Flecha, plus her Navy frigate commander husband Tom, are killed. This is a future where the US is (naturally) a major power on the Moon with its main rival being China. Mention is made of Russia but its presence is very much off-stage in this book, whose title derives from the days of the International Space Station and refers to the sixteen sunrises experienced there every Earth day. The sixteenth watch has come to mean any assignment in space.

As a result of the Lacus Doloris debacle Oliver was put out to grass in a training capacity back on Earth. The book proper begins when Oliver is recalled four years after Lacus Doloris to help the Coastguard in a tussle for influence over the course of events on the Moon. The navy is leaning on the (slightly flaky, insistent on quarantine against space sickness which doesn’t exist) US President to allow it free reign in policing the border between its economic zone on the Moon and that of the Chinese, using its superiority in Boarding Action, an inter-service reality TV competition broadcast once a year to large enthusiastic audiences, which the Marines have won several years running, as evidence for its suitability for the task. The Coastguard’s high command is anxious to counter this as they regard the Navy as far too gung-ho and liable to start a war. They see a possible Coastguard victory in the forthcoming Boarding Action as the perfect antidote. Oliver is given the job of training the crew along with the carrot of promotion to Admiral. Of course feathers are ruffled, her unconventional methods provoking confrontations both among the crew and with the Navy, the Marines and her own commanders. Complicating all this for Oliver is her relationships with her son Adam, off doing his own thing on Earth, and daughter Alice, now working on the moon and expecting her to retire there.

Cole is at pains to emphasise that the coastguards’ main mission is not fighting (though they will – and do – when they have to) but to save lives. Oliver is determined not to make the same mistakes as before as well as to avoid accidentally provoking a war. Even four years on the events on Lacus Doloris still hang over the thoughts of several of the characters. Pictures of the dead Kariawasm and Flecha are on the wall of the training ship and implicit comparisons are drawn about relative abilities. In a hard-boiled service this almost morbid angst is surely somewhat unlikely and probably counter-productive.

Cole does seem keen either to appear right-on or else to niggle the (presumably) main readership of military SF. The Navy’s 11th fleet flagship is named the USS Obama, the Marines’ toughest operative is a niqab and hijab wearing hulk of a woman, characters, Oliver especially (despite her military sang froid and competence,) display emotion and sentimentality with surprising alacrity. Yet the book is still crammed with military jargon and acronyms – so much so that Cole has felt the need to include a Glossary.

The above would-be humanising touches and reflections on the ethics, responsibilities and effective strategies for leadership aside, in the end we have innumerable puffs of mist as spacesuits are punctured by weaponry and – surely precious – atmosphere is (deliberately or otherwise) vented to vacuum from ships, the same old high body count, the same old recounting of deaths of combatants – and non-combatants. Military SF, doing what it says on the tin.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Author’s Note; “at the end of the this book” (either ‘the’ or ‘this’, not both.) Otherwise: Aries’ (Aries’s, several instances) “folded over their back” (their backs,) autocannons (the plural of cannon is cannon, therefore ‘autocannon’,) “a single antennae” (one of them is an antenna,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 6,) cox’sun (cox’n, innumerable instances.) “The only thing that came close were their two children” (the only thing was, or, the only things were,) “off the roof one of the government habs” (off the roof of one of the government habs.) “She turned back the class” (back to the class,) Elias’ (Elias’s,) kindergartners (kindergarteners,) a missing opening quote mark at a chapter heading, “the bottom the of the screen” (the bottom of the screen,) “in and endless loop” (in an endless loop,) “someone of the other end of the line” (on the other end,) “as the silenced stretched” (silence,) “dancing down bow” (only sensible if ‘down bow’ is a naval term,) O-TRACEN (elsewhere always OTRACEN,) a question ended with a full stop instead of a ‘?’,) “on the whole installation” (in the whole installation,) “Ho folder his arms” (folded,) Kariwasm (x 2, elsewhere [-1] always Kariawasm,) “enormity of the task” (it wasn’t a dreadful or despicable task, just a daunting one, so enormity is not warranted as a description,) “between themselves at the enemy” (and the enemy,) “let alone being able” (the rest of the sentence was in past tense, so, ‘been able’.) “Oliver would see” (could see,) “lay of the land” (lie,) Okonwo (elsewhere [-1] always Okonkwo,) conturbernium (elsewhere always contubernium.) “‘There’s a only one surefire way’” (no ‘a’ needed,) imposter (impostor, please,) “onto the top the of his head” (no, ‘the’ needed,) “comfortable in dear to her” (and dear makes more sense,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Pervez’ (Pervez’s,) “‘to let you do your way’” (to let you do it your way’,) “a work bench someone had clearly been checking autocannon loads” (a work bench where someone had clearly been checking autocannon loads.) “This is was right call” (This was the right call,) “in in” (only one ‘in’ needed,) “when the clocking was ticking away” (when the clock was,) “the crowd … were” (was,) “to make the squint even against the glass’ glare dampeners” (to make them squint even against the glass’s glare dampeners.) “‘We’re are learning’” (We are learning,) Kariaswasm (Kariawasm,) “to wonder if maybe wasn’t going to speak” (if he maybe.) “Earth was a glowing green-blue wedge …shining nearly as bright as a star” (from Moon orbit? Much, much brighter than a star, surely?) Santos’ (Santos’s.) “I takes Oliver a full thirty seconds” (rest of passage is in past tense, so, ‘It took Oliver thirty seconds’,) Baskins’ (Baskins’s, x 2,) “as the gained on the runner so rapidly, it looked as if” (as they gained so rapidly it looked as if,) “when the immediate dangers was past”(either ‘danger’ or ‘were’.) “Protocol forbid her” (forbade.) “‘I could give a fuck about’” (context demands, ‘couldn’t give a fuck about’ rather than ‘could’. Do USians really use the inverse?) “‘Welp’” (context implies ‘Well’, x 2.) Oknonkwo (Okonkwo,) “‘I need you work with the team’” (I need you to work with the team,) “‘I tell you too’” (to,) “the impact of the team’s effectiveness” (on the team’s effectiveness.) “‘Doesn’t hurt when I breath’” (breathe,) “she could she the” (she could see the, x 2,) “two hospital corpsman” (corpsmen,) “and turns back to him” (turned,) pollenating (pollinating,) “looked at Each of the crew’s faces” (each,) “as the she fired the bow thrusters” (no first ‘the’ needed,) “‘Turret’s clear!’ He radioed a moment later’” (‘Turret’s clear!’ he radioed a moment later,) “in a pinch” (at a pinch,) “court marital” (martial,) “had originally been surrounded what must have been” (had originally been surrounded by what must have been,) “her antennae was intact” (antenna,) a missing end quotation mark. “‘Ma,am,’” (Ma’am,) “where a broad bandage swatched his abdomen” (swathed,) the Obama (elsewhere Obama, CO2 (CO2,) “where’d she’d been” (where she’d been.) In the Glossary; “on the moons’ surface” (Moon’s.) “Artificial generated by” (Artificial gravity generated by.)

BSFA Award Winners

This year’s BSFA Award winners have been announced. (They were livestreamed from Confusion – this year’s Eastercon – and on You Tube.)

They are:-

Best Novel: N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became (Orbit)
Best Non-Fiction: Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But what are we really afraid of? (Elliot & Thompson)
Best Shorter Fiction: Ida Keogh, Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe (London Centric)
Best Artwork: Iain Clarke, ‘Shipbuilding Over the Clyde,’ art for Glasgow in 2024 Worldcon bid.

I must say I don’t think 2020 was a vintage year. I have read (or seen) all – or part of – the winners’ works, though. (In the novel’s case that’s a bit fortunate as it is the ooly one of the nominees I did read due to reviewing it for Interzone.) Some of the other novel nominees I may get round to in time. When more normal service in daily life has returned.

Re-Coil by J T Nicholas

Titan Books, 2020, 357 p. Published in Interzone 286, Mar-Apr 2020.

 Re-Coil cover

When an author prefaces a novel with an epigraph from Shakespeare he (Nicholas in this case) is setting himself up for a fall. This book’s apparently oddly punctuated title arises from that quote. Coils here take the place that in Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels was occupied by what Morgan dubbed sleeves. Once you have shuffled off one mortal coil your backed-up personality, your core, is decanted, along with your memories (except of course those gained since your last back-up,) into another coil grown solely for these purposes. Hence Re-Coil. In effect people in this scenario are immortal. Unless something goes wrong. There are safeguards to the process. Supposedly. To guarantee quality control one corporation has the franchise and is held to exacting standards.

The economics of this are a bit obscure. Some sort of insurance means you are guaranteed back-up but not necessarily in a similar body or even one of the same sex. There are four grades of coil from the top-notch to the frankly worthless, used only to bank up credit for a better one next time. Nicholas does make a foray into the demographic implications of all this in terms of population increase but soon skates away from them. At the same time everyone has a connection to an internal AI, called an agent, which acts as a sort of personal internet, connected to the outside world. And nanites in the narrator’s bloodstream effect quick tissue repairs to any injuries.

That narrator, Carter Langston, is part of a spaceship salvage crew. He is the one tasked with entering derelict ships to determine whether there is anything worth salvaging. In one such he comes across scores of dead bodies, faceplates open. While he is engaged in the grisly task of retrieving the cores of the dead, one of the corpses reanimates and comes for him. The derelict, his coil and his ship are destroyed.

On reawakening in his new coil, he discovers there has been a glitch, data corruption, he nearly died for real. And then he narrowly escapes an assassin. Another of the crew did not survive. Someone is out to get them. Along with the crew’s computer whizz Shay Chan, a woman now uncomfortably re-coiled into a male body, he sets out to discover whom, and what is the big secret which needs such drastic protection.

Their investigations lead them to a megacorps called Genetechnic. It has created nanobots designed to seek out and remove bad memories from a coil. They called it Bliss. The nanobots between them formed an AI which decided any memories at all could be bad and wipes them all out, leaving behind blank coils. Worse, the nanobots can act like a virus and infect others – and they escaped the derelict ship. The Genetechnic operative sent to silence Langston and Chan decides their ship boarding expertise will be an asset in chasing Bliss down.

Langston affects to be sickened by the slaughter, indeed gore of any sort. Nevertheless the body count rises and rises and there is a certain fetishising of the mechanics of gun use. Nicholas here is attempting to disown his cake yet is still serving it up for wider consumption.

As in many other stories of this type the prose tends towards the utilitarian and a lot of the information dumping is clearly intended for a twenty-first century audience rather than being required for story purposes. Nicholas has also made several unexamined assumptions. Langston (and others) prowl spaceship hulls utilising magnetic boots, implying these spaceships are made of iron, a material surely too dense for the purpose. Despite being exposed to vacuum, a solvent, rather than evaporating instantly, still manages to dissolve a glue. In a fairly important scene set inside another depressurised spaceship the text implies oxygen (which the text acknowledges is absent) is a fuel. It isn’t. We are then told other fuels are available, running as gases through pipes on the walls. (Really? And to what purpose?) These gases are utilised to burn our heroes’ pursuers. Not without oxygen they wouldn’t. Missteps like these are detrimental to a suspension of readers’ disbelief.

If your tastes lie in the direction of shoot-em-ups rendered in the form of prose Re-Coil may very well satisfy your appetite. If you’re looking for anything even mildly approaching Shakespeare you should try elsewhere.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “The airlock opened into a short hallway, ending at another hatch at either end” (‘ending in another hatch’, or, ‘ending in another hatch at its end’. The hallway may have had hatches ‘at either end’ but cannot have had one and the same hatch ‘at either end’. ‘At either end’ means two hatches,) “almost before they got them out” (before he got them out,) “passages that lead to engineering” (text was in past tense, ‘passages that led to engineering’,) “to affect the retrieval” (to effect the..,) gasses (x2, gases,) “the laser-cutter doings its gruesome work” (doing,) acclimation “acclimatisation, ditto ‘acclimate’ for ‘accclimatise’, ) laying (lying,) “the edge of the sink caught my eye and lunged forward” (a neat trick, that; ‘and I lunged forward’,) “it might by me a few extra seconds” (buy,) “would have stuffed be back” (would have stuffed me back,) “to bled off” (x2, bleed off,) Deadalus’ (Daedalus’s,) “happened.,” (has an intrusive full stop,) “to be back on-board” (on board,) harness’ (harness’s,) “for whoever is behind this have found out” (for whoever is behind this to have found out,) “a trio … were pushing” (a trio … was,) “almost no one looked at raw footage, anymore” (almost no-one looked at raw footage anymore,) “the walk from the bridge, passed the airlock, and on” (past,) “still made from blindly” (either ‘still made blindly’ or ‘still made from blind’,) sprung (x2, sprang,) “from living room” (from the living room,) “for all intents and purposes” (to all intents and purposes,) “taking pressure of the wounds” (off the wounds,) “‘somewhere near Sol..’” (only one full stop needed,) “get ahold of” (a hold of,) Daedelus (Daedalus,) “Class One’s” (it was a plural, so ‘Class Ones’,) ditto Class Two’s (Twos. I note Class Threes and Class Fours were not apostrophised,) Ingles’ (Ingles’s,) “waiving the glass” (waving,) route (rout,) “that staid my hand” (stayed,) “where dropped down” (where he dropped down,) “instead I grit my teeth” (do USians really not say ‘gritted’?) nanines (nanites,) “sublimate every molecule” (sublime every molecule,) “the thrust from the shuttle’s engines were still giving us a simulated gravity” (the thrust … was still giving us …,) “like a pack downhill slalom skiers” (like a pack of downhill.) “He didn’t so much hit the coil as did overfly it” (no need for that ‘did’,) “‘confidant’” (x2, confident,) “to clear section of ship hull” (clear a section,) automatons (automata,) “she was taller than I” (than me,) O2 (x2, O2,) Bliss’ (Bliss’s,) cannister (x2, canister,) vitalness (vitality, I would think,) “the myriad computer systems than ran a ship” (that ran,) “now ran from tablet” (from her tablet,) “Shay’s asked” (\Shay asked,) “I waived one hand” (waved,) “demonstrated an amazing faculty in manipulating the archive system” (facility,) “repairs that needed to be affected needed to be affected right now” (effected, in both instances,) CO2 (CO2 – I also note the O2 and CO2 but the text eschewed N2 preferring ‘nitrogen’,) “Bilss-infected” (Bliss-infected,) “of inevitable press of” (of the inevitable press,) “around the hole that that” (omit a ‘that’,) “eggshell walls, one each bed, chair, window, bathroom, exit” (one each bed???) In the Acknowledgements; a parenthesis ending ‘?).’ (no full stop needed after the end bracket.)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2020

BSFA, 2021, 64 p.

Ivory’s Story (extract) by Eugene M Bacon. (PS Publishing, 2020.)1

Ivory, or Izett, has suffered in a series of foster placements, her only stable influence a nun in a Catholic children’s home. This has hardened her. The only SF aspect of the extract here (very well written though it is) was in the opal pendant she wears which burns people who touch it if they are inimical to her.

All I Asked For by Anne Charnock. (Part of the Future Care Capital charity’s Fiction Series, edited by Keith Brooke.)2

An expectant couple spend their evenings counting the movements of Alice, their yet-to-be born baby, on the screen in their living room. Because the mother is forty-six her foetus was transferred to a baby-bag at twenty-two weeks gestation. (“We must do what’s best for the baby.”) Some mothers opt for the procedure but this mother (despite her own telling her that childbirth belongs to the Stone Age) feels disappointment at never having felt her baby kick inside her.
I note here that my own story about artificial wombs (Osmotic Pressure, in The Company He Keeps, PS Publishing, 2010, took a different tack.

Red_Bati (extract) by Dilman Dia. (Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora)3

The story relates the experiences of a robot dog who thinks he’s human and speaks ony to a holographic granny who walks through a forest. Impressed as a mining dog he has been damaged and faces shut down and total memory loss so is forced to take over the space ship he is on.

Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon (extract) by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, (Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora)4

This is set in a post-nuclear war African enclave, outside which lies corruption and mutation, and where the survivors recount the myths and legends of the god who saved them from the devastation.

In Infinite Tea in the Demara Café by Ida Keogh, (London Centric, NewCon Press) a man who has been stifling the memories of his dead wife for twenty years through simple routine – like a daily cup of coffee in a certain café – suddenly finds himself being transported between parallel worlds, where he finds others who have suffered loss give him new focus.

Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll by Tobi Ogundiran, (Shoreline of Infinity)5 is structured awkwardly, with a different view point suddenly thrown in to provide a necessary but up till then peripheral perspective. It is the tale of a girl’s affection for her doll shading into something more. Woven into it is a Nigerian folk-tale (whether invented by Ogundiran or not I am unqualified to judge.)

In the non-fiction we have a precis of each of the essays in Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Francesca T Barbinia; an excerpt from the introduction to from The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest by Paul Kincaid; an extract from Science Fiction and Climate Change by Andrew Milner and J R Burgmannb; It’s the End of the World but What Are We Really Afraid of? by Adam Robertsc; another extract, Estranged Entrepreneurs by Jo Lindsay-Waltond; and Books in Which No Bad Things Happen by Jo Waltone.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“flora and fauna and the way it behaved” (the way they behaved,) “a Joey in its pouch” (joey, capital not required,) sat (seated, or, sitting,) “was a foster dad after foster dad” (was foster dad after foster dad,) Zeus’ (Zeus’s,) “whose two speakers were scattered about the room” (I would humbly submit that the minimum for a scattering is three.) 2focussed (focused.) 3The first paragraph is repeated for some unknown reason. “-250o C” (-250 oC,) “-400o C” (presumably meant to be -400 oC but this temperature is impossible, absolute zero is -273.15 oC,) “16o C” (16oC,) “300o C” (300 oC,) “one of the tube’s data rod” (data rods,) “to fix critical damages to the ship” (why the plural? ‘critical damage’ serves perfectly well,) “space crafts” (space craft.) 4“with the savagery that made Morako swallow” (with a savagery,) “was no ordinary tales” (tale,) “in front Ologbon” (in front of Ologbon,) Igbo Igboya (x 1, elsewhere this is always italicised.) 5Should there not be a question mark at the end of the title? “fit” (fitted,) confectionaries (x2, confectionery,) “in the hopes that” (in the hope that,) snuck (x2, sneaked,) “who had fopund companion in a doll,” (either ‘found a companion’, or, ‘found companionship’.)
ain “New Frontiers in Romantic Fiction Relationships in Science Fiction Josephine by Maria Yanasak-Leszczynski that ‘Josephine’ is surely misplaced, Chambers’ (Chambers’s,) “E.T. A Hofmann’s” (either E.T.A. Hoffmann’s, or, E T A Hoffmann’s, not this mish-mash.) “Unrequieted love” (unrequited,) “Unrequired love” (unrequited.) bfocussed (focused,) H2O (H2O,) earnt (earned.) c“food for the imagination no the body” ([I didn’t realise Roberts was Scottish – joke.] It should be ‘not the body’,) “and yet is finality is a kind of deferment” (has one ‘is’ too many,) “in a way that is howsoever lame, at least, hearfelt way” (has one ‘way’ too many.) “most of the apocalypses we will be looking are gaudy dreams” (looking at are,) quick-sand (quicksand,) “some who insists” (insist,) “little-rear-view mirror fixed to lour heads” (mirrors,) “a world that stubborn;y persist” (persists,) momentarily (this is used in the USian sense = ‘in a moment’, rather than its usual sense = ‘for a moment’,) “we are woring on assumption that” (on the assumption,) “the glass if its shopfront” (of its shopfront,) Bayes’ (many times, Bayes’s,) “we’re not the centre around which the entire cosmos, but in fact are” (around which the entire cosmos turns, but in fact.) dtwo full stops missing. e“Raymond Briggs The Snowman” (Briggs’s) “no more than threats that pass over safely Cotillion does this” (needs a full stop after safely.)

New Reviewing Venture

NewCon Press, under the direction of Ian Whates, is starting up a new online SF magazine in the summer of 2021. Its name is ParSec.

There had been a suggestion that NewCon Press might be taking over Interzone but that did not come to fruition and Ian decided to go for the online option of a new magazine instead.

He did, however, contact me with a view to reviewing for ParSec and I was pleased to oblige.

The first two books of I hope many which I shall review for the new venture have now arrived. They are:-

The Mother Code by Carole Stivers, published by Hodder and Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker, an Angry Robot publication.

Both of these writers are new to me.

I’ve got a bit of leeway here. The reviews are not needed till June.

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