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White Wing by Gordon Kendall

Sphere, 1986, 312 p.

Gordon Kendall is a pseudonym used – for one book only – by S N Lewitt (Shariann Lewitt) no doubt for the same reason female writers have always used male pen names. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database says the book was a collaboration with Susan Shwartz.

Humans are in a war against the Sej. Earth has been destroyed and the remnants of its population forced to take refuge on other human worlds of the League, where they are seen as largely second-class citizens and subject to prejudice. Earthers’ military arm, it has to be said, does not help in this regard. Except in their own company its members keep their emotions to themselves, presenting an unflinching, unemotive face to the worlds at large, only ever expressing their feelings in private. The League’s armed forces are split up into Wings, each with its own designated colour. The White Wing of the title is the Earther Wing, trained up on Wing Moon, a world given to them begrudgingly by the League. Their unit of battle is typically, though not always, made up of groups of seven. These are tight knit contingents, living and fighting together, joined in a contract they call marriage. Never has a member of White Wing been captured by the Sej. If any of them is in danger of that (and the subsequent maltreatment the Sej will no doubt administer) they are granted what is called the Mercy. In other words their own unit will kill them in order to prevent it. This happens to squad member Maryam in chapter two and makes pilot Gregory, who committed the deed, almost a pariah among the other Wings.

Squad Comm officer Suzannah has an eidetic memory. Her chief in League Security, Federico Hashrahh Kroeger, is another eidetic, keen to capture as much data about Earthers as he can. The plot revolves around the gap Maryam’s death has left in the squad, the solo pilot Dustin who may in the end become her replacement, Sej spies called Bikmat and Aglo, a Sej drug named hathoti, and a rabble-rousing politician, Ag Kolatolo, eager to exploit and amplify anti-Earther attutudes. The novel’s resolution is perhaps a bit too optimistic about how easily prejudice in public life can be overcome.

The book is a fairly typical SF tale of its time. Of military SF at any time. There are sufficient battle scenes and intrigue to satisfy adherents of the form but there is more of a tendency towards describing the interactions between, and thoughts of, the characters than most of its male purveyors tend to provide.

Pedant’s corner:- epicantic (epicanthic,) Gus’ (Gus’s,) Charles’ (Charles’s.) “None of them were” (was,) eidectics (eidetic,) neutrino (neutrino – spelled correctly elsewhere,) forseeable (foreseeable.) “A phalanx of Reds were closing in” (a phalanx … was closing in,) hanger (hangar– spelled correctly elsewhere, except for Hanger Deck,) “‘when she’d off duty’” (when she’s off duty.) “‘You said ‘us’ Federico,’” (to which he assents. He actually said ‘we’.)

Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Tor, 2017, 97 p.

In a planetary system protected by an early warning network known as the dewline, members of The Colony are hiding out from the authorities back on Earth, The Bureau, still looking for them after the thefts the Colony’s founders made on leaving Earth. The Colony has made genetic modifications to its members – forbidden by The Bureau – resulting in “superbrights” known as The Kids, “tall, fragile children with towering IQs and a penchant for terrible jokes.”

The crisis for The Colony is precipitated by the sudden emergence well within the boundaries of the dewline of a probe, which, though destroyed almost immediately by a Colony member, may still be noticed by The Bureau as missing and so bring down their vengeance. The Colony makes provision to escape elsewhere and instructs the dewline to dismantle itself. Our narrator, John Wayne Faraday (nicknamed Duke,) is The Colony’s latest President (elected by default,) and is one of those left behind to oversee the dewline’s disassembly after the Colony migrates. The banter between Duke and his Colony compatriots is as friendly and barbed as you’d expect and Duke himself appears (ahem) down to Earth and as a narrator seems utterly reliable.

Well before the dewline has finished its last task another probe enters the system. Duke’s negotiations with the man called Simeon Bivar operating it lead his companions to suspect that it is actually an AI. Bivar’s reaction to that assertion is surprising, and twists the entire tale.

This is a beautifully written novella, replete with allusion – spaceships are called One Potato, Two Potato and Gregor Samsa, for example. However, it does mention Science Fiction conventions – an unlikely allusion several centuries hence I’d have thought. It is, though, another instalment in SF’s long examination of what it means to be human.

Pedant’s corner:- “The second wave of probes were tasked with” (the second wave … was tasked with.) “There were a couple of sunloungers” (there was a couple,) “‘a great fuck-off big colony transport’” (violates the adjective order rule; ‘great big fuck-off colony transport’,) “with the most up-to-date motors … that would have been a trip of about ten light-years” (a light-year is a distance, not a time; it would have been a trip of ten light-years whatever kind of motor was employed.) “As soon as the second generation of Kids were old enough” (as soon as the second generation … was old enough,) “huge Christmas tree bubbles” (baubles surely?)

Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2009, 503 p, including 3 p Introduction by Paul McAuley.

This is a collection of Reynolds’s short(ish) stories from the early part of his writing career. They vary in length from short story to novella.

The Real Story is a beautifully well-thought out and executed tale of an investigation by journalist Carrie Clay into the whereabouts many decades later of the first man to land on Mars. His was a solo project which almost went catastrophically wrong and caused him profound psychological problems. There is a great set piece where the pair of them base jump from Mars’s premier city into that deep scar across the Martian surface, Valles Marineris.

Beyond the Aquila Rift is set in a universe where barely understood technology left behind by aliens allows interstellar travel. Sometimes, though, there are routing errors. Our narrator ends up beyond the local bubble in the Milky Way, beyond the Aquila Rift.

In the framing device of Enola the remnants of humanity live out their lives terrified of the alien enolas reining down destruction from the skies. The middle section of the story, the meat in the sandwich, contains the recollections of the last of the enolas, AI weapons of mass destruction but capable of reasoning with one another.

The world of Signal to Noise is one where correlators can “cold-call” similar machines in other realities, resonate with and lock on to them to allow information transfer. In the wider world implanted nervelinks can connect one body to the sensory inputs of another, sedated, body, giving control over it. In his world, Mike’s wife dies in an accident. His friend, Joe Liversedge, works in the correlation unit – where they were about to try nervelinking between worlds – and gives him the opportunity to interact with his estranged wife’s counterpart in a newly correlated other world. But the signal fades with time.

Cardiff Afterlife is set in the same milieu as Signal to Noise a few years later. Joe Liversedge doesn’t like the use the governments (and the parallel universes’ governments) are making of the correlation capability and sets out to do something about it.

The far future of Hideaway is one in which humans have long left Earth and its location has long been forgotten. The remnants of the Cohort, on a ship called the Starthroat, are in a decades long flight from a species known as the Huskers. When a Husker fleet is also detected in front of them the crew is forced to head for a likely planetary system to hide out. Unfortunately the star and the system’s biggest planet have unusual activity in them. The details of this involve some speculative physics. The story is told in five parts. For some reason in my proof copy parts 3-5 were in italics while 1 and 2 had been in a normal typeface.

In Minla’s Flowers, Merlin, a survivor from the previous story, is thrown out of the Waynet, an ancient interstellar transport system. He is forced to seek aid on a planet of a nearby sun, whose inhabitants’ technology is at the biplane/airship stage. He discovers the Waynet will intersect with the system’s sun in about seventy years. He drops them hints about physics so that they will be able to develop the means to leave for another world, coming out from ‘frostwatch’ cold sleep every fourteen years or so to see how things are going. The story has an embedded reference to Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing” comment about society.

Merlin’s Gun is a third story featuring Merlin. Here Sora survives an otherwise devastating Husker attack only for her familiar to shut her down in frostwatch for three thousand years – relativistic time-scales are one of Reynolds’s characteristics – waking her up only when a likely rescue ship enters the system where she is hidden. Merlin takes her on his quest to find the ‘gun’ which will allow the Huskers (whose true nature is revealed here) to be defeated. Reynolds’s knowledge of the SF genre is exemplified when he calls the gun ‘a weapon too dreadful to use’.

In Angels of Ashes aliens called the Kiwidinok, whose perception of quantum reality differs from that of humans, came to Earth and revealed to a “lucky” volunteer, Ivan, the remnants of a nearby neutron star whose formation ‘miraculously’ spared Earth the radiation devastation. The Kiwidinok suddenly left again. Ivan became the inadvertent Founder of a new religion but he is now on his deathbed and wishes his truth to be known.

Spirey and the Queen is another story set during an age-old interstellar war, where Von Neumann machines nicknamed wasps have evolved into consciousness but its main thrust is concerned with protagonist Spirey – from a branch of humanity which is entirely female – and her endeavours to survive while on a mission to kill a traitor and her discoveries about the reasons for the war continuing.

Understanding Space and Time is for some strange reason printed in italics. Its subtitle, Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids…, is a tip of the hat to the holographed Piano Man who appears in the story, complete with Bösendorfer grand. He appears to John Renfrew, the last survivor of humanity, in a habitat on Mars. Renfrew has little to do but converse with the holograph and use the few books available to try to understand space and time. With the later help of Aliens called the Kind who resurrect him from mummified death centuries after he suffers an accident on the Martina surface he spends his days, years and centuries, unlocking the layers of reality.

Digital to Analogue is, in effect, about an ear-worm which is akin to a virus, propagating via the sampling of a music track, and may be a new life-form.

Everlasting explores a ramification of the many worlds theory. Moira drives hurriedly through the snow to Ian’s house as he had talked on the phone about not killing himself. There he expounds his notion that in every dangerous branching of the worlds there will always be one where there is an unlikely survival and that he is therefore effectively immortal. Then he produces a revolver with one round in it. The twist in this tale is not hard to foresee but is arguably inevitable in any case.

Zima Blue is a story about memory and belonging, the tale of a universe-renowned artist called Zima, body adapted to endure the most extreme environments – interstellar vacuum, the pressures of gas giants etc – famous for the increasing vastness of his works (to the scale of moons,) and the particular blue colour he always employs. He gives his final interview to the Carrie Clay of The Real Story earlier in this book and produces his final, very much scaled down, artwork.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “That’s doesn’t mean” (That doesn’t,) “that begin in a different times and places” (in different times,) “none of the stories … are” (none … is.) Otherwise; “none of my expectations were actually contradicted” (none … was,) epicentre (centre,) overlaying (overlying,) “the atmospheric gases became steadily more fluidic” (gases are already fluids; they flow. I think Reynolds meant ‘steadily more like liquid’,) “to condense the air into its fluid state” (ditto; liquid state,) “glimpsed_moving”, “added_some”. “Slammed_Tyrant”. “The_closer”, (I have no idea what those underslashes are for, and another appeared in a later story) “‘with the things I’ve showed you’” (shown,) “letters in Lecyth us A marched in stentorian ranks across the high vertical face” (how ranks of alphabetical symbols can be loud is something of a puzzle.) “The music reached its crescendo now.” (No. The crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) “where gouged by” (were gouged by,) “had opened a rosewood box and showed them to him” (shown,) “like kneeling orisons” (I didn’t know invocations/acts of supplication to a deity could kneel,) “I understood the math” (Oh, please. It’s ‘the maths’,) “‘as it conveniences us’” (no need for the ‘it’,) one story’s afterword has no indents at a new paragraph. “The moment reached a kond of crecscendo” (No. It reached a kind of climax,) smidgeon (smidgin, or, smidgen, but in any case, the word has no ‘o’ in its spelling,) “for old time’s sake” (times’,) “finding that the scene was established in Newcastle made up for the wrench” (‘the scene that was established’ makes sense of this,) a new paragraph that is not indented, “than any prescience on my behalf” (on my part,) Sacks’ (Sacks’s.)

Hope Island by Tim Major

Titan Books, 2020, 389 p. Published in Interzone 288, Jul-Aug 2020.

 Hope Island cover

Workaholic Nina Scaife has not taken a break from her job as a producer on a north of England TV news programme for five years. Now, her partner Rob Fisher having left her for another woman (and the two kids they’ve had,) she is accompanying her young teenaged daughter, Laurie, to Hope Island off the coast of Maine – where Nina has been too busy to travel to before – to visit Tammy and Abram Fisher, Rob’s parents, to break the news to them – and Laurie. The island is isolated, with bad communications to the outside world, and internet and mobile phone coverage barely even patchy.
On the way from the ferry terminal to the Fishers’ house Nina has to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a young girl on the road. This disorienting experience sets a tone of mild unease for the narrative, which, however, hovers below the edge of manifesting into something greater for well over half the book before it finally tips over into the weird.

Nina feels unsettled by Tammy who she thinks disapproves of her because of her atheism and also for never marrying Rob. Abram seems a detached presence, possibly descending into dementia. The Fishers’ bond with Laurie is strong though, but that between Laurie and Nina is fraught. Laurie’s teenage discontents, her wrong-footings of Nina, are well portrayed.

Tammy introduces Nina to a sort of commune known as the Sanctuary, run by a group known as the Siblings at the other end of the island. One of its members, Clay, is carrying out experiments into sound but also into silence using noise dampening headphones and a recorder. As part of his demonstration he takes Nina into a shell midden, a cavern inside a hill where no shells should be, where she has a strange experience with a sound that at first she perceives as the wind through the entrance passage but then feels as if it comes from everywhere. After this she tends to carry the headphones around with her but also experiences dreams of floating.

Due to her previous visits to the island with Rob, Laurie has an affinity with the local children – especially the oldest, Thomas, whose mother Marie has a young baby who wails incessantly and claws at his mother’s neck constantly, drawing blood, but, to Nina, Thomas can appear distant, as if his awareness is elsewhere. He also manifests a tic of rubbing at his ears, something Abram too does in his absent-minded moments.

Gradually, sound becomes a recurring motif. In what seems an innocent exchange Tammy tells Nina, “‘Everybody’s got a voice inside them,’” a voice telling them what’s going on in the outside world and also what’s inside themselves. Nina begins to feel everyone is shouting.

When a man called Si Michaud finds the body of Lukas Weber on the beach, skull caved in, the novel seems as if it might change tack into the crime investigation genre as Nina tries to find out who the murderer was. Nina takes Abram to the cliff above where the body was found, where he lets out a wordless howl to shut out the voices in his ear. Later Abram too becomes a murder victim and the islanders behave oddly at the gathering to mourn him.

Nina’s suspicions soon fall on the children. To this end she alienates the islands’ parents after she reasons some of the children have tried to kill her. Tracking down May and Noah Hutchinson she finds them almost feral and apparently terrorising their mother and father. All this gets trammelled up in Nina’s mind along with the implications of Tammy’s paintings of a man falling off a cliff. She wonders if she can trust anyone, even Laurie.

It is to Major’s credit that, despite the nagging familiarity of the situation, the necessity of isolation, the lack of communications, to the story, there is still an impetus to keep turning the pages, but how it all hangs together, the importance of sound and of the shell midden, are revealed in something of a rush. Suffice to say the explanation is not down to Earth but it does come as a bit of a deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, Major writes well, character and relationships are handled deftly, but the realistic register of the parts of the book which deal with these aspects feel as if they come from another novel entirely compared to the fantastical flourishes which are in store in its climax.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

There is overuse of a metaphor relating to white blood cells.

Pedant’s corner:- English coins (that would be British coins.) “At the crescendo of their performance” (At the climax of their performance,) fit (fitted,) “the fishmongers” (I’ve read that they don’t have such retail specialists in the US. And would a small-ish island have one anyway?) “beneath that were a series of decorated shells” (beneath that was a series of,) “lying prone” (this was while she was gazing up at the sky. Difficult to do when face down.) “The crowd were becoming restless again” (The crowd was becoming restless,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (to a climax.) “It was around a metre across and sixty centimetres.” (sixty centimetres tall?) crenulations (crenellations,) shrunk (shrank,) sunk (x 2, sank,) “was last thing she wanted” (was the last thing,) snuck (sneaked.) “None of the adults were concerned” (None of the adults was concerned,) “as she swum” (as she swam,) sprung (sprang.)

Clarke Award 2021

It’s Arthur C Clarke Award time again.

This year’s shortlist is:-

The Infinite by Patience Agbabi

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang

Edge of Heaven by R.B. Kelly

The Animals in that Country
by Laura Jean McKay

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

I’ve read none of them.

Interzone 290-291 Arrives

 The Society of Time cover
 Interzone 290-291 cover

Wild Harbour cover

After a hiatus in publishing of the magazine the latest Interzone has now started to arrive on doormats. (At least it has on mine.) It’s a double issue 290-291 to make up for the time since issue 289.

This one (two?) contains my reviews of Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson and The Society of Time by John Brunner, respectively originally published in 1936 and 1961/62 but both recently reissued under the British Library imprint.

The Monitors by Keith Laumer

Dobson Science Fiction, 1968, 158 p.

Oh dear. The past really is a different country. This book has not worn at all well. I can see that in its day it was intended to be humorous but its humour is aimed at easy targets. It also displays just about every “ism” you could list. Racism, anti-semitism, sexism – as well as jibes about the Irish and Italians, while Hispanics are routinely dubbed “wetbacks” by the characters, many of whom are themselves out of central casting. It also panders to the “humanity is uniquely gifted” school (if in an outrageously obtuse way.) This is a pity because I had remembered the author’s “Retief” and “Worlds of the Imperium” stories with some nostalgia.

As to the plot: everyday life is interrupted one day by the television on a pub wall demanding attention for an “announcement of vital importance.” This is from “the Tersh Jetterax” to the citizens of Earth announcing a new regime has taken over. An indication of these invaders’ superior powers is that their broadcast is not prevented even when the television is turned off and then unplugged from the wall. The announcement is immediately followed by men in yellow uniforms disgorging from huge airship-like ships. These are the Monitors of the title, who from now on will regulate daily life and are able somehow to control humans’ behaviour if it is threatening or unco-operative. Among the other sour notes is one where viewpoint character Ace Blondel, under (totally non-violent) persuasion to accept the Monitors’ rule, is shown a classroom recording. During this scene a teacher warns a pupil, “you’ll be back down to Mr Funder’s office quicker’n a nigger’ll steal whiskey.”

Blondel manages to get himself away from the city but never fully from the Monitors. Every human he meets (most of whom are thick as mince) gets the wrong end of the stick of his conversational gambits, representations which rapidly become tedious, but Laumer has some fun with the typical bone-headed right-wing type response, as exemplified by self-styled General Blackwish, of attributing the invasion to “borscht-and-vodka-swilling” Reds. Some idea of the level of humour is given by organisations whose acronyms read as SCRAG and CHANCRE, while the introduction of Nelda Monroe seems included solely to provide a one-dimensional (and illustrative of sexist wish fulfillment) representation of insatiable womanhood. If this is humanity then the Monitors are profoundly better. At least Blondel seems to recognise this as – on behalf of humanity as a whole – he comes to an accomodation with them.

File under: well past its sell-by date.

Pedant’s corner:- “a squad .. were” (a squad … was,) “‘Don’t ast’” (ask,) bannistered (banistered,) kidnaping (kidnapping,) focussed (focused.) “‘Our network …. were planned’” (was … planned,) good-by (goodbye,) a World War One veteran says he ‘took a Jerry 88 millimeter right through the gonads.’ (the German 88 millimetre anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun was not developed till the 1930s.) “All that was left were a pair of …” (all that was left was a pair of …,) “like baby elephants trunks” (like baby elephants’ trunks.) “There were a number of apparati” (‘There was a number’; and the Latin plural of apparatus is ‘apparatus’, the English plural is ‘apparatuses’ but ‘pieces of apparatus’ is also common.)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus, 2019, 453 p.

All religions are conspiracies against women. Theocracies even more so. Atwood’s conception of her repressive society of Gilead (in The Handmaid’s Tale and here) was not, I suspect, designed to illustrate that point in particular – rather than to suggest that advances in social arrangements can be reversed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but nevertheless does so. The source book/“sacred” text of the relevant conspiracy may not even contain the words used to justify women’s subjection by those of that bent. They instead tend to pick out the bits that suit them or else distort its contents. That point is made here when one of the narrators is warned about the Bible that, “It doesn’t say what they say it does.”

I can’t actually remember much about the text of The Handmaid’s Tale (to which this is a companion rather than a sequel) beyond the theocratic authoritarianism and the sexual exploitation, except that the book didn’t have a firm resolution – it just ended.

The Testaments is different in that it is not just one recollection of life in Gilead but three, and we see the seeds of Gilead’s downfall being sown. One of the narrators is Agnes Jemima (in a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369A supposedly collected by the Mayday Resistance movement,) a daughter of Gilead, for which read the daughter of a handmaiden but legally of her Commander “father,” Kyle, and his wife Tabitha. Tabitha looked after Agnes’s interests but died and Commander Kyle took a new wife, Paula, who most emphatically did not. The first account we read, though, is from “The Ardua Hall Holograph” a manuscript found hidden in a book of Cardinal Newman’s writings. It was from the library of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the Aunts who oversaw the lives of the women of Gilead. One of their functions was to keep track of the genetic heritage of Gilead’s children as so many’s may not have been what was generally thought. Uniquely among the women of Gilead, Aunts were allowed books. The Holograph was written by Aunt Lydia – whom we are to assume is the same Lydia described by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Lydia knew where the regime’s secrets were buried and had a tacit agreement with Commander Judd, one of the prime movers of Gilead, that she should have a free hand in organising women’s lives in return for useful information. But pre-Gilead she had been a judge; in the Holograph she remembers her earlier life and the humiliations borne when that was blown apart and is only biding her time to expose all Gilead’s hypocrisies. The third strand (a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369B) is the story of a girl brought up in Toronto by a couple who ran a second-hand clothes business but were active in the Underground Femaleroad which spirited refugees away from Gilead and whom she felt were overly protective of her. (Minor spoiler next.) Frequent early mentions of Baby Nicole, a cause célèbre both in Gilead and Canada, a poster-child who was taken from her “parents” in Gilead and for whose return its government actively campaigned and whose Pearl Girls, sent out to convert Canadians to the Gilead way of life, were constantly on the lookout for, provide heavy hints as to her identity. Atwood intersperses the three testimonies expertly, though the connection between Agnes and Jade/Nicole feels a bit too pat. That though is justified by the book’s coda which, like the similar addendum to The Handmaid’s Tale, is formed of notes from a symposium on Gilead Studies, here the Thirteenth, held at Passamaquoddy (formerly Bangor,) Maine, in 2197.

In the Holograph Aunt Lydia tells us of her secret cache of proscribed books, which includes Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost and Lives of Girls and Women, but also that “Knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognised this, or to have capitalised on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.” The Holograph incidentally illustrates the jealousies and rivalries of a closed order and the intricacies of power relationships while Lydia’s acidity is shown by her inclusion in a list of “hoary chetsnuts” the aphorism that “Time wounds all heels.” In a neat touch by Atwood the meeting/eating place at Ardua Hall (whose slippery motto is Per Ardua Cum Estrus) is called the Schlafly Café.

Moments of horror in The Testaments are rare. There are mentions of Particicution, where convicts are torn to pieces by handmaids (a seemingly eagerly grabbed outlet for their justifiable anger,) but the descriptions tend to avoid detail. The experiences of Agnes and her friend Becca herself at the hands of Becca’s dentist father (with Becca it was more than hands) exemplify that an obsession with controlling sex, far from making it go away, (though those in control of course make sure they get more than their share,) only serves to emphasise its centrality to human experience, perhaps even accentuate sexuality’s unsavoury extremities.

As to the prohibition on women (except the Aunts) reading, Agnes in her spell at Ardua Hall gets to the heart of the matter, “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to questions, and then to others.” In a theocracy, in any dictatorship, questions are to be avoided

Perhaps it was familiarity with the recent TV adaptation of the earlier book or the wider world demonstration that such a society is a likely goal for those who somehow feel the presence of women in the public sphere in some way disadvantages them The Testaments seemed a better structured, more rounded book than my memory of The Handmaid’s Tale. The three narrators are convincing, though Jade/Nicole doesn’t quite seem to realise the seriousness of the perils inside Gilead and Atwwod’s insights into human behaviour under stress are acute.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (strictly têtes-a-têtes, or even têtes-a-tête,) a missing comma at the end of a piece iof dialogue where the sentence continued after it.

In Limbo by Christopher Evans

Granada, 1985, 286 p.

Along with four companions – only ever described as Riley, Treadwell, Sinnott and Wright – Mike Carpenter has been confined to Limbo, a soulless, windowless (the cover image is wrong in this respect) prison of sorts, where they are under constant surveillance. None of the five has any idea why they are being held in this way as, to their knowledge, they have not committed a crime. Under the more or less constant scrutiny of the guards/attendants their days are spent in PT exercises, games such as snooker or chess, reading newspapers and watching TV. The food is bland but not unwholesome (though at one point they suspect it is being adulterated by laxatives.) Occasionally they will be hauled before the person in charge, a man named Naughton, who will berate them for any misdemeanours they have committed. Some relief for Carpenter is provided by interviews with Dr Dempster, a female medic who looks after the inmates’ welfare. In the nature of such an unresolved existence a couple of the five try to form an escape committee but Carpenter sees this as futile. His reflections on the constrained life and his comparitive boredom lead to him trying to invent slogans for his companions but also one for himself, It doesn’t help.

The author’s history as a Science Fiction writer (his previous novels had been The Insider and Capella’s Golden Eyes and he went on to write Aztec Century and Mortal remains) might incline the reader to the view that the incarceration is part of a psychological experiment of some sort and that the experiences in Limbo are real. Against that the realistic tone of the narrative and the mundane nature of the confinement argues for something a bit less exotic. This is heightened by the slow morphing of the storyline into a recounting of Carpenter’s memories of his life before Limbo, memories which gradually begin to take up more of the narrative space. These deal with his drifting from school to University and then from job to job but more particularly with his relationships with the sexual interests in his life, from his unrequited passion for schoolmate Gail through his experiences with his women lovers, Veronica, Karen, Eleanor and Penny (not to mention one night spent with the enthusiastic Cicely,) all of which were unsatisfactory in one way or another. In this reading his four companions in Limbo may be aspects of Carpenter’s own personality.

It would be thoughtless of a reviewer to reveal which – if either – of these two possibilities is borne out but In Limbo is very well written. Evans has a flair for depicting character and circumstance and the novel’s resolution does follow the logic of what has gone before. I’ve read a lot worse. A lot worse.

Pedant’s corner:- “a fresh batch of magazines and periodicals were delivered” (a fresh batch … was delivered,) “the gate is strait” (straight?) “like Saul on the road to Tarsus, he would experience a blinding moment of revelation” (Saul came from Tarsus. His blinding moment was on the road to Damascus,) “that of Veronicas” (if that’s a possessive it should be ‘Veronica’s’, but it’s redundant; the phrase ought to be simply ‘that of Veronica’,) “Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle” (Heisenberg’s.) “At the interview he old the” (he told,) “eight gin and sodas” (grammatically ‘eight gins and sodas’ – or even ‘eight gins and soda’,) falderal (folderol,) “gin and tonics” (see ‘eight gin and sodas’,) “a newsagents” (newsagent’s.)

Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

Stories of Life in the Void. British Library, 2021, 315 p, including 12 p Introduction.

Mike Ashley’s Introduction to this collection is in effect a short history of the earliest SF stories set in space habitats such as a space station, spaceship or generation starship, in any one of which the nine stories herein are set. Their first publications date from 1940 to 1967. Few are without (but in one case plays upon) the mostly unconscious sexism of their times. A theme common to that era of SF, the suffering of a technical problem which must be solved, crops up regularly, though some of the stories do concern themselves with psychological matters.
The eponymous umbrella of Umbrella in the Sky by E C Tubb is a space shield being built to protect Earth from a solar eruption due to the imminent arrival of an anti-matter stream. Our narrator is hired to find out why the work is progressing too slowly. This story invites the reflection that nothing ages as fast as the future. (Consider all those flashing panel lights and toggle switches in the original Star Trek TV series.) This story contains many references to people lighting cigarettes and smoking. In a space-faring environment!
Sail 25 by Jack Vance was originally published as Gateway to Strangeness. A grizzled, curmudgeonly veteran trains a group of recruits to operate a solar sailing ship (the type sometimes known as sunjammers.) He doesn’t make it easy for them.
In The Longest Voyage by Richard C Meredith the first human expedition to Jupiter is beset by problems. Scott Sayers is the only survivor, engine gone, in perpetual orbit round Jupiter. He has to find a way to cobble together some sort of propulsion system to get him back to Earth.
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey was the first SF story to feature a spaceship operated by a human mind. This one, Helva, inspired by music, is able to sing. This is a love story, of sorts.
O’Mara’s Orphan by James White I first read many years ago in the anthology Worlds Apart way back in the 1960s. It is one of White’s “Sector General” tales, set on a habitat designed for dealing with the medical needs of a vast array of alien species. O’Mara’s orphan is the offspring of two Hudlarians killed in an accident during Sector General’s construction. He is given its care as a punishment for his supposed responsibility for their deaths.
Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell finds a spaceship with a crew of three men emerging from hyperspace into nowhere – beyond the known universe, with no apparent way back. Each man reacts differently.
What was apparently the first ever generation starship story, The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox has thirty-five people setting out on the voyage – two of them stowaways of a sort. The narrator is the odd – therefore unmarried – one out. His job is to be revived every hundred years to solve any problems that have arisen in the interim. Over the generations there are plenty of these as he morphs from potential saviour and god to despised ogre. Just about all the subsequent tropes of this sub-genre are in evidence.
Survival Ship by Judith Merril is another generation starship story. This one is set on the Survival, sent off with much fanfare to “Sirius in fifteen years,” carrying its load of Twenty and Four humans. That capitalisation – and mix – is the single most important aspect of both the voyage and the story.
Lungfish by John Brunner focuses on the difference that developed between tripborn and earthborn as a generation starship nears Trip’s End. Unusually in the stories here, where marriage (and presumably, monogamy) are unquestioned social arrangements, a character in this one reflects that “promiscuity had to be encouraged to ensure the mixing of all genetic factors.”
Most of these stories – if not all – are still immensely readable. And they can still evoke a sense of the strangeness and immensity of the universe and humanity’s insignificance by comparison, though some of them lean towards the “humans can do anything” standpoint.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “in the same plane of Venus” (in the same plane as Venus.) Otherwise: “inside of me” (no ‘of’, just ‘inside me’,) “the death role mounted” (death roll,) “having just skirted a loose mass of asteriodal debris” (that is not how spaceship trajectories work,) Sayers’ (Sayers’s,) Isaacs’ (Isaacs’s,) “vocal chords” (vocal cords,) “the Horsehead Nebulae” (x 4. There is only one Horsehead Nebula,) Regulus’ (Regulus’,) insured (ensured; ditto insure/ensure,) “their mass and inertia was tremendous” (mass and inertia were,) a character allows water to boil off 2into the vacuum outside” (surely very wasteful,) “began to sag, and slip then was” (no comma needed,) “two volumes … showcases his …” (showcase,) “in behalf of” (on behalf of,) buncombe (x 2, usually spelled bunkum,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “got to … go to…” (the sense implies ‘got to … got to…’ but this may have been an attempt to simulate textually the losing of consciousness,) “Sirius’ planet” (x 2, Sirius’s,) chlorophyl (chlorophyll,) “the men must practically be able to read my mind” (it was an individual; ‘the man must be able to’.)

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