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Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

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

 Occupy Me cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

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

The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar

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

 The Great Game cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

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

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

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

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

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

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

Interzone 266 Sep-Oct 2016

TTA Press

Interzone 266 cover

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

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

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

Christmas Presents

One from each of my sons.

A slipcased and delightfully illustrated Folio Society edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune plus a Savile Rogue football scarf in the colours of the mighty Sons, Dumbarton FC.

Christmas Presents

Football Scarf

Folio Society Edition of Dune
Spine of Folio Society Edition of Dune

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2016, 320 p. ISBN 9780356505015

 The Corporation Wars: Insurgence cover

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

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

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

Reading Scotland 2016

I managed 31 Scottish books this year by ten women and fifteen men, though in total 11 were by women and 20 by men. Four were SF or Fantasy. Two were non-fiction and one a graphic novel.

The ones in bold were on the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books. Those in italic are in the 100 best Scottish Books. If asterisked they were in Scotland’s favourite books.

The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
The Holy City by Meg Henderson
Asterix and the Pechts by Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad
Cold in the Earth by Aline Templeton
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
The Gracekeepers by Kirstie Logan
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
The Heart of Mid-Lothian by Walter Scott
The Antiquary by Walter Scott
Public library and other stories by Ali Smith
The Highway Men by Ken MacLeod
Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie
The Princess and the Goblin by George McDonald
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken MacLeod
Body Politic by Paul Johnston
Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh*
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell*
The Brilliant and Forever by Kevin MacNeil
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

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

 Children of Time cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asimov’s Oct-Nov 2016

Special Slightly Spooky Issue. Dell Magazines.

Asimov's Oct-Nov 2016 cover

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

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

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

Among Others by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2013, 408 p.

 Among Others cover

How does a reviewer describe this odd but delightful concoction? A coming of age story? No; the critical event of the narrator’s life so far has occurred before the time at which all but the initial chapter is set. A tale of adolescent awakening? Yes to that one. A fairy story? That first chapter invites us to consider it so but it does not begin with “once upon a time” nor end with “they lived happily ever after” and is in any case written in a realistic register. Then again it does have fairies in it. An orphan’s tale? Not quite, the narrator has run away from her mother and ended up in the care of a father – and his overbearing three sisters – whom she had previously never known. A boarding school story? In part. (You could well lose count of the number of ways in which our narrator is “among others”.) A primer on Science Fiction and Fantasy? Undoubtedly. It is almost perfectly calibrated to appeal to those with a love for the genre, especially for those books of the 1960s and 1970s people of a certain age will remember with great affection. Yet it doesn’t neglect the wider world of letters either. In particular it shows the interest in Plato Walton would later indulge in her Thessaly trilogy.

As a novel the story is couched in the form of almost daily diary entries – covering the six months from September 1979 to February 1980 – by one Morganna Rachel Phelps Markova, many of which display her love of books and of SF/Fantasy in particular. She can also see and talk to fairies and practices magic – but only in a benign way. Morganna’s voice is pitch perfect. This is how we feel a sometimes confused but opinionated girl of fifteen might write about herself. With a gammy leg due to an incident in which her twin sister was killed while they thwarted an attempt by their witch mother to destroy the world in some (unspecified) way she has difficulty with mobility. In memoriam she seems to have taken her dead sister’s name, Morwenna. One of the diary entries is signed as Morganna, letting us know this.

Walton has some fun delineating the antipathies of the Welsh towards the English (and the condescension from the other direction,) the snobbery endemic in a boarding school, “Class is entirely intangible, and the way it affects things isn’t subject to scientific analysis, and it’s not supposed to be real but it’s pervasive and powerful. See; just like magic,” and the oddities of adolescent behaviours in general. Her injuries actually are an aid as her bookishness would have set her even further apart from her boarding school peers. As it is she is excused games and haunts the school library, “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilisation.” Her mother is an intermittent looming menace throughout the book and this is the major weak point as all the confrontations with her mother are curiously muted and of course the major one took place outside the novel’s confines. The final confrontation is somewhat anti-climactic, and over too quickly.

Apart from that Among Others is, to use Morganna/Morwenna’s word, brill.

Pedant’s corner:- chemistry (as a school subject it’s Chemistry; ditto Biology for biology – both French and Latin were capitalised; however, Physics, Economics, History and Music were not,) who everyone loves (whom,) “I bought four honey buns to go” (Morganna is supposed to be Welsh, not USian; the British usage is “to take away”,) someone is described as a fly half for the house hockey team; fly half is [or was] a position in Rugby Union, not, as far as I know, in hockey,) Morganna quotes a song’s lyric as, “‘Over the hills to Abergavenny, hoping the weather’ll be fine.’” (The actual lyric is, ‘Taking a trip up to Abergavenny, Hoping the weather is fine’,) “where we brush our teeth, and our hair” (the comma is unnecessary. Or is it?) “How much more likely resurrection if the dead process through the valley” (likely is resurrection,) “to which it is intended” (“for which” is more usual,) fit as a past tense (is USian, a Welsh girl would write fitted,) “everyone one always talks at the top of their voice” (at the tops of their voices,) “an explosion at a paint factory” (it’s usually “an explosion in a paint factory”,) a whole scrum were milling about (a scrum was,) “I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt?” (is not a question,) “Though I think ‘Etruscan Sea’ scans better?” (ditto; there were four more instances of such non-questions appended with a question mark,) “I don’t have maths brain” (a maths brain; or, a brain for maths,) “Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane” (Birnam Wood.)

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