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A Reading Experience

I know how much effort an author has to make in order to produce a finished story, much more for a novel than a short story, granted, but even the shortest piece of fiction requires a high degree of attention. Anyone who attempts it deserves to be given some leeway.

And yet. And yet.

There are exceptions.

A couple of months ago the good lady was approached by someone via her blog to ask if she would like to receive a certain book for review, a book which happened to be labelled Science Fiction. She replied that she had too many books to read but mentioned that I read SF so the offered was extended to me. I accepted despite some misgivings. The book duly arrived (from the US with a heavy postage on it) and those misgivings multiplied. Its appearance had the stamp of print on demand on it and a look that implied self-publishing. There was a named publisher on the copyright page though, Fulton Books Inc, so I thought it might be okay.

Wrong.

So wrong.

I’m not going to name the book here but I will post the review on the blog at a later date. I won’t put the usual “Pedant’s corner” addendum on the review but include that here (see below) to give a flavour of it. I think it’s the longest such I’ve ever had but it could have been many times the length and still not encompassed all its stumbles.

After one day of reading, I googled the “publisher.” It “is the most affordable solution for publishing your manuscript.” Yes. It’s a vanity publisher, a self-publishing racket, if you will.

Nevertheless I kept on with it. I felt under an obligation as I had agreed to review it and the author had taken the trouble to send it to me.

Most novels have at least some typos, some clumsiness of expression – that’s to be expected – but this book had infelicities on every page, sometimes many – whether grammatical, syntactical, in spelling (even allowing for USianisms,) or in its punctuation; words were used in ways askew from their accepted meanings (separated for divided, relented for refrained from, radiate for radiant,) it contained sentences that made no sense. The whole thing gave the impression of being hammered out on the keyboard and thrown into the world not fully formed. There was no sign of revision or editing, certainly none of proof-reading. None of the things a reputable publisher would at least make some sort of fist of.

Reading it was like reading through a distorting mirror or in a language that wasn’t quite English, certainly not English as we know it. (To be generous to the author this may have been an attempt on his part to render future changes in the language via his prose but other parts of the novel were resolutely quotidian and so challenge that interpretation; challenge it severely; challenge it to destruction. There is no comparison here to the likes of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.)

At times it felt as if a sort of meaning might be glimpsed through the forest of words, a ray of understanding of a possible new method of expression, an almost making of sense. But humans are hard-wired to discern patterns from chaos, to see images in cloud formations or in the dappling of light through trees: that tantalising flicker never did quite coalesce. There was no substance to it.

It was as if the text had been written by a machine or possibly run several times between different languages through a ropy translation engine. Disorienting. And did I say the characters were one-dimensional?

Lesson learned.

Accept review copies only through recognised outlets.

As to the review, I’ll be as gentle as I can with it when I do post it.

Pedant’s corner:- in the epigraph; Leonard da Vinci (x 2, the usual ‘Leonardo’ was used in the book’s text,) deign (design.) Most of the following occurred in the first few chapters. Thereafter I only noted down particularly glaring incidences:
skullduggery (skulduggery,) “the skyline of Chicago that ebbed from the distance” (either, ‘ebbed into the distance, or, ‘swelled from the distance’) “the water smoothed to a placid.” (To a placid what?) “the world had change in the last decade” (changed. This is only one of many inappropriate verb tenses employed in the book. There were also many failures of agreement of subject and verb, along with innumerable stray quotation mark, with ‘where’ and ‘were’ being frequently mixed up,) “that thrived on carbon dioxides” (carbon dioxide; carbon does have two oxides, but only one of them is a dioxide,) “Terra farming” (several instances, terraforming is the usual term,) “spectrums of color not comparable to anything he’d seen on Earth” (1, spectra; 2, human colour perception does not depend on the viewer’s location, on Earth or anywhere else,) “maneuvered into a parking space between a police patrol vehicle;” (it parked inside another vehicle?) “a pail face” (pale face, pail was used again later for pale,) “a man lay dead on his back in the position he had fallen” (where he had fallen,) “identification card” (many instances; ‘identity card’.) “Next to that image appeared a coded script of information she had been trained to read was projected from the computerized crime kit on the floor.” (That is a sentence which, like many others here, needs revising.) “‘……the GSR.’ ‘The Galactic Smugglers Ring,’ Thad defined the acronym.” (Another acronym was also elaborated in the next sentence by a character whom we were then told was defining that acronym.) “Dexter pushed over a pillow then stopped when he saw a sparkling grey rock underneath a pillow” (the same pillow or a different one?) “when its it processed” (when it’s processed,) “‘but that was in zero gravity, the laws are different here on Earth.’” (It wasn’t in zero gravity; the previous speaker had referred to jumping off lunar rock faces, moons exert gravitational attraction: also the law of gravity is exactly the same everywhere in the universe – “the laws” are not different on Earth,) “to almost to an obsession” (only one ‘to’ required.) Dexter says something to Gail even though five lines above she had been referred to as not yet being present in the room, we’re told when she does step into the room – at the bottom of that same page. “Now that he was within several feet from his target” (either, ‘Now that he was several feet from his target’, or, ‘Now that he was within several feet of his target’,) “with the world’s resources that their disposal the birth a new day, a new world came from the ashes” (at their disposal, birth of a new day,) “sir name” (several times; the usual term is ‘surname’. To be generous to him it may be that Cargile here is trying to suggest a future form of English but when there is a perfectly usable term understood by its intended readership in the present day, that’s not necessary,) “on it’s surface” (its. OK, many writers are prone to this substitution,) “down on his hunches” (a simple typo, the correct ‘haunches’ is used elsewhere,) “the normal gene pole” (gene pool.) “‘That’s not what I met, sir.’” (‘not what I meant’,) “‘A grin crept across his face of amusement’” (I like the concept of a face of amusement, but the suntax here is awry,) “at top her gloved hand” (atop – used later,) “bringing the rifle to bare on target” (to bear,) “soft and none threatening” (non-threatening.) “‘The weather net will … then return current temperature to sixty-eight degrees Celsius’” (if its ‘current’ it’s already at that point and does not need to be returned. And ‘sixty-eight degrees Celsius’? People would likely die of heat stroke within seconds, 68o Fahrenheit would be much more comfortable.) “‘When Homo Sapiens encountered Homo Erectus and ‘Neanderthal’” (Neanderthal, yes, but Homo Sapiens came long after Homo Erectus became extinct, “taken a back” (aback.) “Dexter took those last words like a parent forwarding his disobedience would be his demise.” (??? I can not make sense of that sen tence in any way.) “He glanced to either of his team members” (both members, not ‘either’.) “He suddenly lurched his head to the roof of the bay compartment.” (That is one for Thog’s masterclass.)
On the back page blurb: “artificial human’s labor” (humans’,) “a part of humanities utopian society” (humanity’s.)

BSFA Award Time Again

The short lists for this year’s awards (for works published in 2020) have been announced.

In the fiction categories we have

Best short fiction:-

Eugen M. Bacon, Ivory’s Story, Newcon Press.

Anne Charnock, All I Asked For, Fictions, Healthcare and Care Re-Imagined. Edited by Keith Brookes, at Future Care Capital.

Dilman Dila, Red_Bati, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Ida Keogh, Infinite Tea in the Demara Caf, Londoncentric, Newcon Press. Edited by Ian Whates.

Tobi Ogundiran, Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll, Shoreline of Infinity.

I have read none of these but of course the annual BSFA Awards booklet ought to be able to remedy that.

The Best Novel list is longer than usual due to a tie for fifth place in the nominations:-

Tiffani Angus, Threading the Labyrinth, Unsung Stories.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury.

M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Gollancz.

N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became, Orbit.

Gareth L. Powell, Light of Impossible Stars, Titan Books.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, Orbit.

Nikhil Singh, Club Ded, Luna Press.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden, Tor.

Liz Williams, Comet Weather, Newcon Press.

Nick Wood, Water Must Fall, Newcon Press.

I reviewed The City We Became by N K Jemisin for Interzone 287 (May-Jun 2020) but that review has not appeared here yet.

That leaves nine others to get through before April 4th. No chance. (I see from the link, though, that BSFA members are to receive a PDF containing excerpts of the nominated works.)

The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

Orbit, 2019, 379 p.

This is the second in the author’s Rosewater trilogy of which I reviewed the first here.

In this instalment something is up with the alien named Wormwood, buried in a part of Nigeria, where the city of Rosewater has grown up around it. The latest clone of the human from whom it derives sustenance, Anthony, has failed to form properly. A woman called Alyssa Sutcliffe has woken up not knowing who she is – nor her husband and daughter – but with other memories intact. She does not know who she is, only that she is not Alyssa. The novel is told through various other viewpoints as well – some first person, others third – including two of the characters from the previous book in the sequence, Aminat, and Kaaro, plus Eric (an agent of S45 Nigeria’s security service) and the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, who is in dispute with the President of Nigeria and declares independence, relying on the alien’s presence to protect the city. There are also extracts from a novel titled Kudi by Walter Tanmola, who in addition narrates one section which focuses on his experiences after he is enlisted by Jacques to write an “impartial” chronicle of the independence struggle and during which he forms a relationship with a construct, Lora, who acts as Jacques’s advisor/personal assistant. And, too, we remake acquaintance with S45’s most formidable operative, Femi Alaagomeji, but only through other eyes.

Alien cells called xenoforms are infiltrating the bodies of humans, “‘We change the organisms and live in them. In you.’” S45 is involved in a project to try to separate these cells from living humans. The attempts are not going well. Alyssa is of particular interest as she is over 70% xenoform. Some of the novel is taken up with Aminat’s efforts to keep Alyssa away from S45’s attentions, some of it with the conflict between Rosewater and Nigeria, another strand deals with the xenosphere, a dream-like atlternative universe, into which Kaaro can take his consciousness and where he has a gryphon as an avatar. To add to all this an intrusive plant species, which may have been inspired by The Day of the Triffids but isn’t quite so threatening, is taking over Rosewater.

As in the previous book there is a lot going on; perhaps too much. At times it seems Thompson isn’t quite sure what kind of novel he wants this to be. It veers between thriller, fantasy, adventure story and quasi-allegory. The situation is so extreme that the characters don’t get the time to behave as humans (of course, at least two of them are not.) Certainly there is a third instalment to come, but I may leave that for a while.

At the end of the novel this edition has “extras” – a half page of author information and several pages of extract from another book by a different author. I do wish publishers would cease this practice. I do not understand who would read these. I’m certainly not going to start a book which I cannot possibly finish and may well find offputting in any case, so defeating the purpose. It has the effect of merely filling out the page count to make a book look bigger than it actually is.

Pedant’s corner:- “none ever return” (none ever returns.) “She is clothed in some diaphanous material, but it is like a nightgown and covers nothing” (if she’s clothed she is covered, a nightgown is also a covering. I suspect Thompson meant ‘hides nothing’,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) “none of them fit” (none of them fits,) staunches (stanches.) “It lays down” (It lies down,) floatation (flotation – used later,) “good to his word” (good as his word,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) “reaches a crescendo” (no, the crescendo is the increase, not its climax,) lay (lie,) “a skein of geese make their way” (a skein [of geese] makes its way,) ganglions (elsewhere ganglia is used for this plural.)

The Menace From Farside by Ian McDonald

Tor.com, 2019, 153 p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

 The Menace From Farside cover

This novella is set in the milieu of McDonald’s Luna series of books which might have been designed to illustrate the mantra that “Lady Luna knows a thousand ways to kill you.” As an aphorism this calls to mind The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I don’t know whether McDonald has read that book (I confess I haven’t) but it could be a possible inspiration.

In The Menace From Farside our narrator is Emer Corcoran who hates her name and prefers to be called Cariad. Initially it appears that she may be addressing the reader directly – on first sight a fine literary touch – but it turns out that these interludes in which she gives her views on the intricacies of story-telling and construction, relationships, the forever beyond reach lure of Earth, among other things, she is talking to a psychiatric bot as a kind of debriefing after an escapade in which she was involved (and incidentally made her famous on the Moon) and which her narrative goes on to describe.

A background sociological aspect of McDonald’s tale (but with a tangential impact on the plot) is the existence on the Moon of the arrangement of the ring marriage, wherein each member is married to two spouses, a derecho/a and an iz, left and right. This provides an SSSS, super-stable support system, said to be great for kids as it provides a network of ceegees (care givers.) When Cariad opines, “‘when it comes to love, rings are the craziest of all possible families, apart from all the others,’” McDonald manages to allude to both Tolstoy and Churchill in the one sentence.

The introduction to Cariad’s ring of a new “husband” for her mother, also brought into her life his daughter Sidibe Sissay. Cariad rather resents this intrusion into her “family.” Cariad fears heights and Sidibe’s effortless use of a special winged suit to fly from Osman Tower on a visit to the cavernous centre of the habitat of Queen of the South compounds her feelings. As a result Cariad conceives a scheme to take her “siblings” to visit the site of the first human footprint on the Moon – almost half the Moon distant – as a way for her to take back control. (Those last three words have a particular resonance for contemporary British readers. For the more general SF audience McDonald also explicitly references the phrase, ‘Make it so,’ as a sentence which leaders are supposed to utter.)

The scenes on the Moon’s surface are vaguely reminiscent of Arthur C Clarke’s novel A Fall of Moondust and short story Robin Hood FRS mainly because of that background. In McDonald’s vision, however, less untrammelled considerations intrude. At Queen of the South, the sun only ever appears to crawl around the rim of the crater in which the habitat is sited. On their journey, our group of adventurers find its full glare unsettling, their possible vulnerability to cosmic ray impacts troubling. And this Moon being McDonald’s Luna, things do not go entirely smoothly for them.

Quite what transpires, and the contribution to that of the dog-eat-dog nature of Luna’s overall organisation, plus the importance of the Moonloop – a sort of slingshot orbiting at very low level to wheech cargoes off into space or capture them on the way down – to the resolution of Cariad’s story I’ll leave to the reader to discover.

Through Cariad, McDonald adds in another comment about writing. “You know what makes storytellers laugh? That people really think their story reveals something about the person who tells it. It doesn’t. Stories are control. First, last, always. It tells you something about who’s hearing it.”

McDonald’s control is never in doubt.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- My copy was an ARC (proof.) Some or all of these may have been corrected for the final print run.)
ass (it’s arse,) “your shine up your image” (you shine up your image,) “‘your idea of family and parents are so ancient’” (your idea …… is so ancient,) “with radarand seismics” (radar and seismics,) “a ring of warning lights flash” (a ring …. flashes,) “the thing not do” (not to do,) “that’s what makes the gut lurches” (lurch would seem more grammatical,) “onto bridge” (onto the bridge,) “There’ dusters” (There’s dusters or, more preferably, there’re dusters,) “pulled into chest” (into his chest,) “is going notice” (going to notice,) “it’s won’t be open wide enough” (it won’t be open.) “‘Do want me to count off …’” (Do you want me to count off,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) Tranquility base (Tranquillity, please,) “humanity’s first steps on the moon” (humanity’s first steps on the Moon,) “tells Kobe to told her left arm” (to hold her left arm,) “the smiles goes out of me” (the smiles go out of me,) “the moon want to kill you” (the Moon wants to kill you,) “his right arms swings” (his right arm swings,) “how to they get back” (how do they.) “That when the consequences arrive.” (That’s when..,) heard-earned (hard-earned.)

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Vintage, 2019, 574 p.

The Clarke Award (whose 2020 version this novel won) has a history of recognising, and sometimes rewarding, novels which are only marginally SF. At first sight this novel seems to be of that ilk – resolutely realist in tone, albeit with the occasional magic realist flourish, almost family saga in form (there is even a family tree facing the contents page,) while incorporating the history of Zambia and white colonialism in Southern Africa in its purview. Only in its later sections does it stray into SF territory and that in a way which non-SF readers may find jarring. To British eyes the text is a curious mixture of British – bum (as in backside,) maths – and US – fit as a past tense, swim lessons (swimming lessons,) mowed down (mown down) – usages, but there is also a generous sprinkling of Zambian words.

The novel is bookended by two short sections, The Falls – “The Smoke That Thunders” which David Livingstone of course immediately named after Queen Victoria – and The Dam (the Kariba Dam,) but the main body of the book is taken up by incidents in the lives of “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children,” to each of whom a section, though not always exclusively, is devoted. (In The Falls we are told that Livingstone’s attendants transported his body to the coast – and thence to England – not out of devotion or duty to him, but rather from fear that otherwise his death would have been blamed on them. The explicit racism of European colonisers in Africa is expressed in some of the words used.) Intermissions between the sections, rendered in italics and occasionally commenting on the text, are written as if by anopheles mosquitoes. In one of these interludes we are told that “evolution forged the entirety of life using only one tool: the mistake…”

The Grandmothers are Sibilla, whose hair grows uncontrollably – all over her body, Agnes, a promising English tennis player who had to give up the game when she became blind and who falls in love with Ronald, a black student come to England from Rhodesia (as was,) and therefore has to run away from her racist parents in order to marry him, and Matha, one of the participants in Zambia’s unofficial space programme (an aspirational effort the concept of one individual, Ba Nkoloso, without any of the resources nor capability necessary to succeed.) Pregnant, and told Godfrey has left her, Matha begins to weep unceasingly, her eyelids crusting over with salt, an affliction which lasts the major part of her life thereafter.

Of the Mothers, Sylvia is Matha’s daughter by Godfrey, one of her fellow Afronauts, Isabella the result of Sibilla’s union with Federico, forced to flee Italy after killing his brother but usurping his identity, and Thandiwe marries Agnes’s son Lionel (who also impregnates Sylvia.) The Children are Joseph and Jacob (the ensuing sons of Lionel’s two unions) while Naila is the child of Isabella’s marriage to Balaji, a shopkeeper of Indian sub-continental origin. Sibilla’s children inherit her hair-growing condition – but only at twice the usual rate and only on their heads. This is transformed into a family wig-making enterprise known as Lovely Luxe Locks Ltd.

There is a nice exchange between Agnes and Ronald when he asks, “‘But I thought the English hated the French,’” and she replies, ‘Oh we do, but we steal from them mercilessly. It’s our sort of thing,’” a comment on the perennial position of women when we are told Matha thinks, “She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch,” and a rumination on the myths countries tell themselves, “This sort of thing happens with nations, and tales, and humans, and signs. You go hunting for a source, some ur-word or symbol and suddenly the path splits…. Where you sought an origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence.” We also have Serpell’s variation on Tolstoy, “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”

The main Science-Fictional ingredient in the tale is the Digit-All Bead, a kind of iPhone embedded in a finger which utilises the skin’s conductivity as a power source and shines its information onto the palm – or elsewhere if needed. This invention, since it appears in the book’s 2000s, makes The Old Drift an Altered History. Digit-All had been savvy in calling their product a bead rather than a chip as it sounds less threatening. They then partnered with local governments to distribute their beads free. Its connection to the internet makes it the ultimate surveillance tool. Another SF-ish element is Jacob’s development of lightweight microdrones – to all intents and purposes technological mosquitoes.

Hanging over the characters in the later sections is a pathogen only ever named as The Virus (which the reader will naturally take to be HIV but may not be. It does have HIV-like characteristics, though.) Lionel is researching a way to immunise against it and is particularly inteeested in people who seem to have natural immunity. Two human mutations are likely candidates. The person he calls the Lusaka patient has both. Serpell compares the Virus’s modus operandi – infiltrating the immune system’s white blood cells (usually the body’s defenders) to reproduce itself – to its main means of transmission, sex, “it takes advantage of the two engines of life – the desire to reproduce and the will to persevere.”

Serpell undoubtedly can write and has an eye for the variety of human relationships. I am not entirely convinced, though, that the later sections and the novel’s conversion into a subdued kind of technological thriller really belong together with the earlier character-based narratives but as an attempt to render the (relatively) recent history of Zambia in fictional form by focusing on the lives of individuals The Old Drift is still a formidable achievement. I have no doubt that it will linger in my mind.

Pedant’s corner:- “The hair on her crown and face were the same” (was the same,) sprung (sprang,) “irked Agnes to no end” (irked Agnes no end; ‘to no end’ means without purpose, ‘no end’ means without limit,) Cadbury Whole Nut (in Britain it always used to be “Cadbury’s” but I note that they have recently dropped the apostrophe and its ‘s’,) Walkers shortbread (Walker’s,) “to secret her to Kasama” (that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘secret’ as a verb, it appeared as such once more,) wracked (racked,) stunk (stank,) “because was it was” (one ‘was’ too many,) grills (grilles,) “turning those minuses into plusses” (‘pluses’; and in any case why put a double ‘s’ in plusses but not in minusses?)

Phyllis Eisenstein

I see from George R R Martin’s blog that Phyllis Eisenstein died last month – from Covid-19 though she had suffered a cerebral hæmorrhage much earlier in the year. Another sad departure for a year too full of them. Not that this year is looking much better at the moment, vaccine apart.

I first read her work in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction way back in the day but it wasn’t till recently that I read her two novels relating the adventures of Alaric the minstrel, Born To Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach.

I have another of her books on the tbr pile. It will be read with a sense of sorrow.

Phyllis Eisenstein: 26/2/1946 – 7/12/2020. So it goes.

Clarke Award 2020

I seem to be a few months late in noticing this. I couldn’t have been looking hard enough, though I posted the shortlist here.

The winner was The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.

It’s on my tbr pile. I’ll probably shift it up the list now.

The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace by Eric Brown

Titan Books, 2020, 343 p.

 Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace cover

I have mentioned before that the detective story/crime fiction isn’t really my thing – nor Shelock Holmes for that matter. This however is by my friend Eric Brown who, although he has written in the crime genre, started off in the SF field and this certainly counts as Science Fiction. It is, as its title suggests, a mash-up (I was going to say curious mash-up but that is its whole point) of the work of H G Wells and Arthur Conan-Doyle. As is the way of such things we have many references throughout, starting early with the presence of Mr Herbert Wells himself – here a scientific liaison officer in the Martian Embassy to Great Britain and an aspiring writer whose output is deemed too fanciful to appeal to the public – and his love interest, Cicely Fairfield, whose writing efforts have been more successful.

This is a world where the Martians of War of the Worlds have returned, complete with their signature tripods and nightly cries of “Ulla, ulla,” and armed with antibodies to Earthly pathogens, transforming life on Earth with technological advances. This is a good brand of Martian, who came in peace, having overthrown their acquisitive predecessors. Or so they say. Some people on Earth doubt this story and there is an active political resistance to the Martian influence. Among their number are George Bernard Shaw and G K Chesterton.

Holmes, having established his credentials by solving the case of the murder of the Martian ambassador two or so years before the main plot of this tale begins – albeit by concealing the identity of the true culprit – is invited to Mars to investigate the murder of Delph-Aran-Arapna, one of the finest Martian minds of the era. Curiously no reference to this creature can be found in any of the Martian literature which Holmes has read. (The great detective has of course made himself fluent in Martian.) Our narrator, as is customary, is Dr Watson, who in an anti-Martian public meeting has made the acquaintance – or rather by design been made her acquaintance – of a Miss Freya Hamilton-Bell, a prominent member of the anti-Martian faction.

The journey to Mars having been made (also making his appearance here is a certain Professor Challenger,) Holmes and Watson are soon contacted by Miss Hamilton-Bell and told of the Martians’ plan to replace well-known or powerful men from Earth (or mostly men) with simulacra – with all the attributes, memories and brain-power of their originals’ but controllable at a distance – as a means to taking over Earth and eradicating humans entirely. Fortunately there is an underclass of Martians who were recently at war with the dominant aggressive faction who are able to help.

Unsurprisingly in a series of novels trading on the Holmes mythos, Professor Moriarty – indeed a whole series of Moriartys as the Martians have cloned his body multiple times – is a pivotal figure. More surprisingly he is less of an antagonist to Holmes than the reader might have thought.

All first-person novels (all novels, perhaps?) are an act of ventriloquism but that act is surely more difficult if the voice being simulated is not of the author’s own devising. Brown has made a good fist of the mash-up, capturing the stilted, repressed, awkwardnesses of “Watson’s” style and character, but also made it more accommodating to a modern audience. (Words like antibodies, pathogens and feisty seem unlikely for the 1910s. The agency of Miss Hamilton-Bell as active and important in the anti-Martian movement seems also to be a more modern note – but then again the book is set in the age of the suffragettes, who could be an unruly lot – though they are unmentioned.)

Holmes fans might hanker for more of the supposed deductive reasoning powers of Conan-Doyle’s hero (which are used sparingly here) but the Wells influence, the flavour of the scientific romance, is more to the fore. Brown is primarily an SF writer after all.

An enterprise like this is surely not meant to be conceived as a serious work of fiction and should not be read as such. As an entertainment, though, it succeeds admirably.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: substantial, plus variants such as “in due course” etc. Otherwise; Cicely (the real-life Miss Fairfield was named Cicily,) nought (naught,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) smidgen (I prefer ‘smidgin’,) cannister (canister,) imposters (I prefer ‘impostors’,) cicatrise (cicatrice.) “The content of their originals’ minds have been reproduced” (The contents of their originals’minds,) “nine pence” (ninepence,) “the two Miss Fairfields” (the two Misses Fairfield.)

Interzone 289

Nov-Dec, 2020, TTA Press

 Interzone 289  cover

Editorial duties are taken by artist Jim Burnsa where, in the light of Covid, he reflects his roads not taken are most likely now behind him. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted considers “the slow cancellation of the future,” the recycling of cuture in all its forms, the lack of innovation during the past forty or so years. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Storiesb relates the thoughts and fears engendered in her by finding slow worms in her compost bin at the allotment.

Book Zone returns to its place just after the fiction. Duncan Lawriec finds Stephen Baxter’s World Engines: Destroyer and World Engines: Creator a muddle as if he’s crammed all his favourite SF tropes into one (double) package, seemingly designed to provide a “complete history of the solar system and the evolution of life as we currently understand it.” Stephen Theakerd notes Machine by Elizabeth Bear is heavily influenced by James White’s Sector General stories and so promised too much but was ultimately entertaining while The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem is like a post-apocalyptic Gilmore Girls but was very good and the author is now a new favourite of his. Maureen Kincaid Spellere thinks Mordew by Alex Pheby is amazing, not a thing she says lightly: the author shows an extremely thorough knowledge of the fantasy formula but constantly resists its confines. Jaime Lee Moyer’s Divine Heretic, a reworking of the story of Joan of Arc in which she is chosen by fae spirits who are “as dangerous as they are brilliant,” didn’t work for Juliet E McKennaf but may well for others, while she is enthused enough by Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke, the second “A Poison War” novel, to read her next book. I review Cixin Liu’s collection Hold Up the Sky whose stories mostly deal with mind-expanding concepts but sometimes lack emotional engagement.

As to the fiction:-

In Cryptozoology by Tim Lees a man whose marriage is breaking down tries to rescue it by embarking on an expedition with his wife (who believes they exist) to find all the legendary monsters (in which he doesn’t believe.) When they argue, and she leaves he carries on on his own. The story ends the way we know it will.
The Ephemeral Quality of Mersay by John Possidente1 combines two stories in one as a journalist on space station Humboldt has a starship captain relate her experiences on a planet with odd seasons at the same time as murders are occurring on the station.
The Way of his Kind by James Sallis2 is a very short tale of the advent of a new kind of human – or are they aliens?
The Smoke Bomb of Matt Thompson’s story3 is an unusual type of drink, concocted by the altered digestive system (seen through skin and organs rendered transparent) of an indentured woman. Her keeper becomes wary of a new customer.
Again very short, There’s a Gift Shop Now by Françoise Harvey tells of an experimental school with oddly proportioned rooms and spacious ceilings – which had unfortunate effects on its pupils. It’s now a tourist attraction full of warning signs.
The narrator of The Third Time I Saw a Fox by Cécile Cristofari4 is an old man working the night shift in a museum. He talks to the exhibits, dinosaur and whale skeletons, (all casts rather than the real fossilised bones) and to the anatomically extreme “circus man”. They talk back.
Rather appropriately this year’s James White Award winner, Limitations5 by David Maskill, deals with a medical problem being suffered by a fluorine-breathing alien, an alien which can protect itself via Biological Quantum Optimisation.

Pedant’s corner:- aa missing comma before a piece of direct speech. b“Aren’t there are number of” (Aren’t there any number of.) c“humanity has recognised the destruction they inflicted on the Earth” (the destruction it inflicted,) ditto “They have pulled back” (‘It has pulled back’.) d“Helen Alloy (a pun apparently on Helen of Troy)” (maybe but possibly – more likely even? -on Helen O’Loy from the 1930s SF story by Lester Del Rey which had that title,) steam-rolled (steam-rollered.) e“around feet” (around the feet,) “all fulfil their purpose very effectively all while” (no second ‘all’.) f“None of these tensions are” (None of these tensions is.) “None of these central characters are” (None of these central characters is,)
1Written in USian. 2Written in USian. 3wettened (usually ‘wetted’,) “time interval later” count: 3. 4“None of us have.” (None of us has,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. 5accepter (acceptor?) CaF2 (makes the chemical equation it’s in unbalanced, because it’s the wrong formula for carbon fluoride. It ought to be CaF4,) “one less friend” (one fewer,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “off of” (just ‘off’ please,) focussing (focusing.)

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Tor, 1997, 283 p.

 Black Wine cover

On starting to read this I was quickly reminded of N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (which of course was published 11 years later.) We have three different narrative strands each with a female protagonist, obviously connected (but in what way not immediately apparent,) a recognisable world yet different from our own, possibly far in the future, featuring places with portentous names, Trader Town, the Fjord of Tears, the Remarkable Mountains, the Land of the Dark Isles, an unfamiliar social system – or systems, there are different polities here – to navigate. However, as it unfolded the resemblances diminished somewhat. In particular, the relationship between Jemisin’s strands was a more bravura writing accomplishment. But Black Wine is good all the same.

We start with the story of a woman, amnesiac as a result of falling from the sky, with another, mad, woman living in a cage in the courtyard outside. They live in a society – the Zone of Control – where a favour bestowed consequently imbues obligation. The mad woman had not received any such favour and so managed to live without the burden of repayment. The amnesiac, however, had, and so is a sexual slave to her master and the nurse who looked/looks after her. Here also, minor acts of defiance can lead to tongues being removed. The amnesiac forms a friendship with a male slave who has suffered from this. The tongueless have devised a sign language for themselves of which their owners are unaware.

The resemblance of the amnesiac, whom we later find is named Essa, to the titular ruler – actual rule has been devolved to her son-in-law – of a different polity (as shown on its coins) is marked. When the mad woman finds Essa is going to voyage there she tells her to avoid the regent and certainly not to have sex with him. The female ruler is a cruel type, as is her son-in-law, and the connection between her, the madwoman and Essa is the motor of the plot.

The world Dorsey describes is a little strange. For the most part it appears to be without advanced technology – though it does have airships (from which you can fall from the clouds) – a lot of the travelling involved seems to be on foot, but at one point one of the characters decides she wishes to get somewhere faster and a quicker transit system is utilised.

A touch of fantasy arrives with the Carrier of Spirits, who imbibes the memories of everyone who dies. (She carries Essa’s pre-amnesia existence, but not of course those gained after the fall.) Essa’s relationship with the muted slave allows Dorsey to comment on the nuances of free will and the dependence of the exercise of it on social status.

Observations such as, “‘Look. I am this stone. I have been tumbled and moved, and it has all shaped me,’” are as much an expression of the universal as an outcrop of the story being told. Occasionally the text comments on itself or the writing process, (or perhaps reader expectations,) as in, “‘The mad king is a trope of literature and myth.’”

Black Wine is the first Dorsey novel I have read. It is less opaque than some of her short stories and encouraged me to look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- “the effect was shouting underwater” (was of shouting underwater,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “none of them were done” (none … was done,) “a deep courtesy” (curtsy,) “any of them even know it” (any of them even knows it,) connexion (Ugh! Several times; connection.)

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