Archives » Science Fiction

Saltflower by Sydney J van Scyoc

Avon, 1971, 174 p.

In the prologue three alien space ships appear over the Puget Sound in 1979 (eight years in the future when the novel was written) then make their way to the Great Salt Desert in Utah where one of them deposits something into the salt, but later investigations fail to reveal anything. Twenty-five years on Marley Greer finds a crystal on the salt bed and lifts it up. It melts in her palm to leave a tiny black seed, which she feels compelled to swallow. That night she tells her husband she is pregnant.

The body of the story unfolds over fourteen days in 2024 when protagonist Hadley Greer (daughter of Marley) undertakes a trip to the Salt Lake Desert where there is a settlement known as New Purification, inhabited by adherents of a cult which effectively worships the aliens. It is led by a Dr Braith (who perhaps surprisingly isn’t the usual money-grasping, sexual predator such leaders commonly are.) In New Purification everyday life is made easier by robotic assistants known as mechs. Over the years of the settlement over twenty people have disappeared in the desert. Braith maintains they have been taken up by the aliens.

Hadley is silver-eyed and has metallic hair which often moves of its own volition. Later we find she is prone to salt hunger. Braith’s associate Jacob has similar attributes to Hadley. Her companion, Richard Brecker, turns out to be a minder, employed by the State Investigation Bureau to keep tabs on her. (His organisation’s initials allow Scyoc to allot them the neat nickname, SIBlings,) Through him she finds there have been other trans-species children but only those close to salty deserts survived.

Unknown to Brecker, Hadley takes trips into the desert at night. There she finds she can see and travel through a strange city, that of the aliens, whose civilisation was dying and so they sought to seed other Earths. In an incidental conversation Brecker and Hadley appear to express themselves as in favour of a return to a system whereby people are imprisoned if they are deemed psychologically capable of a crime rather than actually having committed one. This is an oddly illiberal notion which does not really fill out the background.

The discovery of two murdered bodies in the desert precipitates the novel’s crisis. Brecker finesses the situation by blaming the deaths on rogue mechs but it is Jacob rather than Hadley who is involved with the resolution.

SF is full of linguistic coinages, some more mellifluous than others. Scyoc overdoes the tendency here, where people do not undergo air travel in aeroplanes, they dart in machines called avidarts. Among others we also have a transceiving device named a communipact, food dispensers called autocafs, and the word mecheries where ‘factories’ would be perfectly sensible. But it was her first novel. We can forgive a certain exuberance.

Pedant’s corner:- “the street – and the city itself – were deserted” (those dashes remove what’s inside them from the surrounding phrase so make the verb singular. Either they should be removed themselves or it should be ‘the city was deserted’.) “Besides each work stood a slender pole.” (Beside each work,) nonplussed (nonplussed,) metallicly (metallically.)

Another Two for ParSec

 The Cruel Stars cover

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham – see also my side-bar under ‘Currently Reading’ – is the latest book I’m reviewing for online SF mag ParSec. It’s the first of a trilogy.

It’s a bit of a bonus since it was published nearly ten months ago now. I had expresed an interest in the second in the series, The Shattered Skies, before I knew it was part of a trilogy and kind Mr Whates, the editor at ParSec, suggested I could read and review both books.

ParSec 2

ParSec 2 cover

The second issue of digital SF mag Parsec was published on Christmas Eve, shortly before midnight.

You can buy it here.

I have three reviews in this one:-

Best of British Science Fiction 2020 edited by Donna Scott.

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley and

The Second Rebel, Linden A Lewis’s follow-up to The First Sister which I reviewed for Parsec 1.

Blind Justice by S N Lewitt

Ace, 1991, 269 p.

Émile Saint-Just is a member of the Syndicat of the planet Beau Solis, the last bastion of French speaking culture. The mark of Syndicat membership is the cuff, worn round the wrist, binding its wearer to the group. Beau Solis is also the sole producer of sadece senin, a drug highly prized throughout the human worlds but subject to strict controls and taxes by the Justica, a polity somewhat sketchily delineated here but said to be uniform and rule bound and which seems to dominate the rest of human civilisation. Selling sadece senin is a lucrative business for the Syndicat, especially if the regulations and taxes of the Justica can be avoided.

Saint-Just takes a place on the Mary Damned, a spaceship running sadece for the Syndicat between the patrols of the Justica. These are relativistic journeys. When Saint-Just gets back no-one on Beau Solis will remember him. But he doesn’t get back. The Mary Damned is captured with no resistance, since Justica operatives flood it with a soporific gas. When Émile wakes up, sans cuff, he is on a Justica prison ship, the Constanza. The Mary Damned becomes a famous ghost ship, drifting through the spaceways.

Life on the Constanza, as in any prison, is tough but Émile has a few allies and they hatch a plan to escape, but the group splits into two, one of which plans to rendezvous with the Mary Damned. (Outside the prison time has flown.)

It is a very different Beau Solis to which Émile returns. The Justica has taken control and is eliminating as much sadece senin as it can. Émile’s lack of cuff means he is no longer recognized as a Syndicat member and he is thrown onto his own resources and those of the latent resistance, whose project takes up the remaining half of the book.

Reading a thirty-year-old Science Fiction novel can be a jolting experience. Noticeable to a 2021 audience is the importance of newspapers in Beau Solis. (Nothing dates as quickly as the future. Think of all those redundant flashing lights on the computer panels in the original Star Trek or Arthur Clarke’s journalist taking a typewriter along with him to the Red Planet in The Sands of Mars.) This is not Lewitt’s fault. There is only so much invention an author can put into an SF book. And we all have unexamined assumptions about what may be constant in our world. Her storytelling and characterisation make up for any such minor irritations. This is good solid readable SF.

Pedant’s corner:- Académie Français (since Académie is a feminine noun that should be ‘Académie Française’,) tsunumi (tsunami,) spit (spat,) “and he didn’t; understand at first why” (no need for that semi-colon,) “everyone can grown sadece” (can grow,) crosier (crozier,) Reims (Rheims,) “the group grew in size as they made their way” (as it made its way,) “it seemed that none of the them were” (no ‘the’,) good-by (goodbye.)

Best of the Year 2021

As usual these books are listed in order of my reading them. 18 this year; 17 fiction, one* not; 10 written by women, 8 by men; 4 could be described as SF or Fantasy; 6 were originally published in a foreign language.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Light by Margaret Elphinstone
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
Snapshot* by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie
The New Life by Orhan Pamuk
By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Landscape Painted with Tea by Milorad Pavić
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Being Emily by Anne Donovan
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh
Scandal by Shūsaku Endō
Ru by Kim Thúy

(I normally make the “year’s best” post nearer Hogmanay but I doubt any of the books I ought to have finished by then will make the list.)

Scottish Books I Read This Year

It’s that time of the year when people post ‘best of’ lists.

This isn’t a best of, merely a list of the books with Scottish authorship or Scottish flavour which I read this year. A round 30, of which (since Scotland in Space was an anthology* containing stories and articles** by both men and women) 14½ were by men and 15½ by women, 28½** were fiction (Snapshot being about Scottish Football Grounds.)

The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J MacDonald
Light by Margaret Elphinstone
Snapshot by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie
And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla
A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh
Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt
The Gates of Eden by Annie S Swan
Close Quarters by Angus McAllister
Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin
End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Gleam in the North by D K Broster
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
Scotland in Space Ed by Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas
Being Emily by Anne Donovan
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner
The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark
Summer by Ali Smith
Glister by John Burnside
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes
The End of an Old Song by J D Scott
The Rental Heart and other fairy tales by Kirsty Logan
Republics of the Mind by James Robertson
The Dark Mile by D K Broster
Highland River by Neil M Gunn
The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis
The Last Peacock by Allan Massie
A Day at the Office by Robert Alan Jamieson

That last one was of course my final (unless I ever get round to Trainspotting) book on the Best 100 Scottish Books list.

I am part way through George McKay Brown’s collection of short stories, Hawkfall, which would make the above sex ratio of authors 1:1 but am unlikely to post about it here before the New Year. (I’m four behind as it is, though one of those is for ParSec.)

* It was also the only one to be SF or Fantasy.

2021 Hugo Awards

The 2021 Hugo Awards have just been announced at the 79th Worldcon (DisCon III) in Washington, DC, USA.

They’re a bit late; Worldcons are usually held in August.

As far as the fiction goes the nominees were (the award winners are in bold.)

Best Novel

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

I read the Jemisin for Interzone and posted my review here. The Roanhorse, Kowal and Clarke novels are on my tbr pile. Judging by The Calculating Stars I wouldn’t have expected The Relentless Moon to have been on the short list.

I have read none of the below.

Best Novella

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

Best 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)
WINNER: “Two Truths and a Lie,” Sarah Pinsker (Tor.com)

Best 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)
WINNER: “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)

Another Review for ParSec

You may have noticed on my sidebar that I am reading a book titled Absynthe by one Brendan P Bellecourt.

This is to be reveiwed for the online SF magazine ParSec.

Mr Bellecourt is an author new to me and Absynthe appears to be his first novel.

I was attracted to by the publisher’s blurb given to Parsec wherein it mentioned “a palace full of art-deco delights.”

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2010, 491 p.

 Terminal World cover

Spearpoint is a tiered city whose tip reaches beyond the atmosphere. Post-human angels (though they call themselves human and the other inhabitants pre-human) occupy the Celestial Levels and ride thermals with their wings. These are where the most advanced technology still works. Angels are feared, even hated, by those in the levels below. Down the tiers – through Neon Heights, Steamtown and Horsetown – the transition between different zones is debilitating or worse (requiring anti-zonal drugs to ameliorate the symptoms) and technology becomes progressively unusable. From time to time the zone boundaries quiver or shift due to disturbances in The Mire, aka the Eye of God, the chaotic origin point for the zones. A religious text called the Testament seems to allude to this.

The viewpoint character is Quillon, a former angel altered so as to be able to survive in the lower levels as a kind of spy, but whose wing buds keep growing and must periodically be surgically removed by his friend Fray. Quillon habitually wears tinted glasses to avoid his eyes betraying his angel nature, but has long since abandoned any allegiance to his origins when he found he was being used. The action kicks off when the body of a fallen angel is delivered to him in the mortuary where he works as a pathologist. Just as he is about to cut into it the body speaks to warn him. The angels know where he is and are coming for him. With the help of a man called Fray and his courier Meroka, who hates angels, he embarks on a journey away from Spearpoint. On that trip a sudden catastrophic shift in the zone boundaries affects most of the lower levels of Spearpoint.

Quillon and Meroka have to hide from a caravan of scavenger-rapists called Skullboys (whose clothing and symbology seems to be inspired by heavy metal) but notice a cage containing a mother and her child. Also inhabiting the plain below Spearpoint are metal and flesh creatures named carnivorgs, whose feeding habits are particularly noisome. (The clue is in the name, carnivore organisms, but their gruesome preference is for drilling into and eating brains – often leaving a victim alive but severely incapacitated.)

Later Quillon and Meroka are able to free the mother, Kalis, and child, Nimcha, but both bear the distinctive mark of a tectomancer. Kalis’s is fake to try to protect her child from the widespread fear of tectomancers, held responsible for zonal shifts, a minor one of which had given them Quillon and Meroka the opportunity to free them. Nimcha claims to have caused the shift. Her mother believes Nimcha can close the Eye and Nimcha says, “‘The tower wants me to make it better.’” So it seems they must go back.

This is prevented by them being taken up by the Swarm, a sort of flying circus (in the Richthofen sense) of dirigibles presided over by a man called Ricasso. He has had a project to use captured carnivorgs to produce an anti-zonal drug much more effective than the current one. He is learned and in his conversations with Quillon says, “The Testament tells us that we were once allowed through the gates of paradise.” Beyond the gates lay numberless gardens, each with its own sun and moon. Spearpoint may be a ladder to the stars.

Internal politics within the Swarm and an attempted coup delay things for a while but eventually they embark for Spearpoint with a cargo of the drug, taking a shortcut through a region called the Bane forever known as an area from which no-one returned but now, since the huge zonal shift, likely to be passable. While traversing it they pass over a series of downed aircraft of decreasing technological complexity and a truncated tower which appears to be an exact counterpart of Spearpoint, but obviously defunct before running the gauntlet of Skullboy military positions below the intact tower.

The characters refer to the planet as Earth but there are internal indications (the air is thinning, the forests dying, the planet getting colder, and there are three extinct volcanoes in almost a straight line plus another enormous natural mountain) that it is in fact Mars, backed up by one of the Mad Machines at Spearpoint’s centre mentioning Earth as a separate place.

While it is a powerful plot motor the zone shift is a neat idea which allow Reynolds to write SF without having to think up future technologies.

This is a complex yet highly readable piece of SF with all of the betrayal, loyalty, treachery and power plays that you might expect from its quasi-military/political elements but Reynolds does not neglect character. Meroka is a mouthy delight, Quillon troubled but decent at heart, Ricasso a refreshing input of philosophising. However, Kalis and Nimcha are never any more than plot enablers. It is all very enjoyable stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- “He scratched a finger under his right eye” (he has a finger under his right eye?) sprung (sprang,) wintery (wintry, which was used later,) amoebas (fine in English but amoebae, or, even better, amœbæ, is more classical,) “the other lying on their side” (‘its side’,) “he was taken not back to the others” (odd syntax. What’s wrong with ‘he was not taken back to the others’?) crenulations (crenellations, I assume,) close-minded (closed-minded?) “from some of other captains” (some of the other captains,) “where the blade had missed it mark” (its mark,) “none of the other skeleton staffers were in any way annoyed by it” (none of the other …was … annoyed,) hiccough (hiccup; hiccough is a misattribution.) “‘He hopes do,’” (‘He hopes so’,) “that was now hoving into clear view” (hove is past tense, ‘that was now heaving into clear view’.) “The best that Curtana could hope for were a few lucky strikes” (the best is singular, hence, ‘was a few lucky strikes’,) “none of the machine guns were operable” (none was operable.) “There were a handful of enclaves” (There was a handful,) staunched (stanched.)

2021’s Clarke Award

I don’t know how I missed this.

The winner of this year’s Clarke Award is The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay.

I suppose I should look out for it.

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