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Lie of the Land by Michael F Russell

Polygon, 2015, 299 p

 Lie of the Land cover

In a near future authoritarian Britain surveilled by CivCon, Carl Shewan is an investigative journalist for a news organisation on its last legs. On a tip-off from his friend Howard Brindley he makes his way from Glasgow through several checkpoints to the north-west coast town of Inverlair. While he is there, a system known as SCOPE – short for Secure Communications Open Emergency – to be used for asset management and communications coverage in a national crisis but in reality designed to track and control people, is switched on. The people of the town find themselves cut off from the rest of the world which may well no longer exist in any meaningful sense as Howard believes an imperfection in the SCOPE protocol caused a standing harmonic in the same range as deep sleep. Anyone in its range has been put to sleep, not to wake up until the system fails, which may not be for years or even decades. Inverlair lies in a pocket outside the transmitters’ ranges and is cocooned in what the inhabitants come to call the redzone. When they approach its boundaries they experience a buzzing in their heads, and piercing headaches too painful to endure, so back away. The novel deals with the consequences of this isolation for the inhabitants – including Carl’s impending fatherhood which was occasioned by a mutual act of comfort he and Simone, Inverlair’s hotelier’s daughter, indulged in when the town’s plight became apparent.

The book is structured in seven sections relating to different months of the fateful year, not chronologically but more artfully in the order October, July, November, August, December, January-April, with the last section titled New Life.

As the old certainties break down new arrangements come into force. A town committee is formed to allocate food and resources according to relevant contributions, actual or potential. Social norms pertaining to legal observances become undermined. With the older incumbent no longer having access to his medication, Carl is taken on somewhat unwillingly as a trainee in the stalking, killing and gralloching of deer.

Despite its premise the book is more concerned with the dynamics of personal relationships than the working out of the technological quandary its characters inhabit. In this it more resembles a mainstream novel rather than a work of traditional Science Fiction. It is in effect a novel in the wider Scottish literary heritage of the small town tale and an exemplar of Scottish fiction in its vivid descriptions of landscape. And in that it is very good indeed.

Pedant’s corner:- telecoms (usually telecoms,) “‘He gestured towards vaguely towards the window” (remove one “towards”,) nosey (nosy,) sprung (sprang,) spinal chord (cord.) “‘One their way out’” (On,) “this time there had been no one eye in the sky” (doesn’t need the “one”.) “The committee had stepped into the breach and were now” (the committee was now; several instances of the committee were.) “There were a variety of responses” (there was a variety.) “There was no reason he couldn’t live like this way for years” (either, “There was no reason he couldn’t live like this for years”, or, “There was no reason he couldn’t live this way

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Bloomsbury, 2006, 174 p. First published with the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, 1818. This edition also contains ii p Why You Should Read This by Benjamin Zephaniah and 35 p Extra! Extra! of snippets dealing with the history of the author’s times in the style of a modern tabloid newspaper and 3 p listing significant events in her life.

 Frankenstein cover

This is seen in some quarters as the prototypical Science Fiction text though other fantastical tales of course preceded it. It is also an example of Gothic Fiction. The outlines of the story are part of the general background, Frankenstein a cultural reference point (though the name is often attributed to the “monster” rather than to its creator,) as a symbol of meddling gone wrong. The book itself is one I had never got around to till now.

Shelley’s tale is narrated, sometimes at third hand, in the letters of one Robert Walton to his sister, telling of his meeting with Victor Frankenstein on the ice plains of the Arctic Ocean and embedding the relation of that man’s moment of hubris in his act of creation, and the monster’s response to its various rejections.

Unlike in film versions the mechanics of the animation of the creature are not gone into, nor the moment of creation (beyond the opening of an eye.) Such considerations are left mysterious, which arguably means the novel is not Science Fiction, by some later definitions of the term. The ethical consequences for Frankenstein, his responsibility for his creation’s welfare and its actions are the main themes of the book. To create a being in a distorted image so that it is reviled, to refuse it suitable companionship, is a heavy enormity. I found my sympathies lying with the creature, even despite its own iniquities, which, again, occur off-stage. As with the Greeks, hubris leads to nemesis.

The epistolary form, the different forms of phrase and rhythms of story-telling of the Gothic to the modern are a hurdle, but not a high one. In any case I’m glad I finally read it. For completeness if nothing else.

Pedant’s corner:- several archaic spellings – phænomena (oh what a delight,) minutiæ (ditto,) oxyds (oxides,) stept, paradisaical, outstript, æra (era,) doated ,wrapt, controul, pennyless, phrenzy – and usages – sprung, sunk, lighted. Otherwise; “the greatest fluency of potassium and born” (boron???) “and laughed aloud Clerval at first attributed” (is missing a full stop after aloud,) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “when the heavens poured forth its waters” (their waters, surely?) “endeavouring to identity every spot” (identify,) eventufl (eventful,) “nothing is so painful to the human mind as as a sudden change” (only one “as” necessary,) “these are are virtuous” (only one “are”.)

Roads Not Taken edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt

Tales of Alternate History, Del Rey, 1998, 332 p plus iv p What is Alternate History? by Shelly Shapiro.

Roads Not Taken cover

The question in that What is Alternate History? introduction is surely superfluous to anyone with an interest in buying this book.

As someone with an interest in both history and SF I’m obviously a pushover for counterfactual histories like the ones collected here. None of the stories (which are all by men I note) here deal with the big what-ifs like different outcomes to the US Civil War or Second World War but instead examine smaller turning points with subtler ramifications. The quality of the writing is variable but all hold the attention.
Must and Shall1 by Harry Turtledove sees Lincoln shot in a Confederate attack on Washington DC so that many years later the former Confederate States are still ruled by a much resented military occupation and aching to rebel.
An Outpost of the Empire2 is one of Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna stories. Here a new Roman pro-consul comes to Venetia – once of the recently defeated Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Greek aristocrat Eudoxia despises him yet has to be accommodating. The plot could be described as Pride and Prejudice in togas even though Silverberg undercuts it with his last sentence.
In We Could Do Worse by Gregory Benford we are under Joe McCarthy’s Presidency as Nixon had delivered the 1950 California Republican Primary delegates to Taft who in turn nominated McCarthy as Vice-President. Taft died. The story illustrates the resulting authoritarianism and bending of rules to ensure McCarthy’s re-election, all in the name of anti-Communism. Sadly this strikes all too resonant a chord now than it would when it was first published in 1989.
Mike Resnick’s Over There3 sees Teddy Roosevelt make a nuisance of himself during the Great War by reconstituting his Rough Riders and taking them over to France where Pershing is under orders to keep him well away from the front.
Ink From the New Moon by A A Attanasio is narrated by a Chinese visitor to the New World – colonised from Asia much earlier than it was by Europeans in our time – and encounters Columbus.
Southpaw by Bruce McAllister follows Fidel Castro after his acceptance of the invitation to become a professional baseball player with the New York Giants. The story concerns his glancing contact with Cuban dissidents.
Greg Costikyan’s The West is Red4 has an impoverished capitalist USA has voting in a Communist President to implement the more efficient economics of centralist planning. Background events in the story bear some resemblance to Boris Yeltsin’s frustration of the old guard’s coup d’état in our world.
The longest story in the book, The Forest of Time5 by Michael J Flynn, examines the fate of a parallel worlds Jumper who is marooned in a North America where the thirteen original colonies never united and focuses on the responses of those who encounter him.
In Aristotle and the Gun6 by L Sprague de Camp a time traveller goes back to try to persuade Aristotle of the benefits of the Scientific Method, with, to him, unexpected results.
How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion by Gene Wolfe is not as apocalyptic as it sounds. The Second World War is a board game and the German invasion is by the “People’s Car”, a device outperformed due to Churchill’s knowledge of the properties of transistors.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Michaels’ (Michaels’s,) Morrie Harris’ (Morrie Harris’s,) New Orleans’ (New Orleans’s,) “gaping at naked women” (it’s usually gawping at,) Colquit Reynolds’ (Colquit Reynolds’s) 2In the introduction “Shadrack in the Furnace” (Shadrach.) 3”Bullets and cannonballs flew to the right and left” (cannonballs? In World War 1?) 4”would have own the Cold War” (would have won.) 5mowed down (mown.) “The argument in the cell reached a crescendo.” (No. It reached a climax,) Oschenfuss’ (Oschenfuss’s.) 6Nearchos’ (Nearchos’s,) Alexandros’ (Alexandros’s,) Zandras’ (Zandras’s,) Attalos’ (Attalos’s,) Herodotos’ (Herodotos’s.)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Illustrated by Pat Marriott. Vintage, 2012, 227 p.

The book is an altered history set in an early Nineteenth Century England. There is a Channel Tunnel mentioned in a prefatory Note and wolves roam the countryside. Apart from two instances (where they variously attack a stationary train and chase the main characters) plus the odd howl from far off the wolves are mainly an off-stage menace though. It is clearly aimed at a YA – or even younger – audience.

Bonnie Green is the daughter of the grand house Willoughby Chase. Her cousin Sylvia is coming to visit as her carer, Aunt Jane, is getting on. Bonnie’s mother is ailing and requires a trip to help cure her, naturally accompanied by her husband. The first requirement of a children’s adventure, the absence of parents, is hereby secured. The governess hired to look after them, Miss Slighcarp, a supposed distant relative, is the usual wicked creature, not content with mistreating the pair but also intent on defrauding Bonnie of her inheritance with the assistance of the forger Mr Grimshaw. Much Dickensian harsh schooling ensues but the plucky pair escape with the help of Simon, a local boy who lives in the woods. They make their way to London to enlist the services of Mr Gripe, the estate’s lawyer.

It all rattles along (as YA novels have to) but this leaves little time for anything but sketching each character. Best read as a young person I would think.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, backboards (context demands “blackboards”.)

Latest Review

You may have noticed in my side-bar that I am now reading Fifty-One by Chris Barnham.

 Fifty-One cover

I bumped into the author at Follycon and vaguely remembered his book was on a list for review from Interzone a few months back.

Not knowing whether it had been sent to anyone else I blagged a review copy anyway with the promise of trying to get it into Interzone or else posting about it here.

IZ hadn’t sent it out so I’ve got the gig. The review might even be in the next issue (275) along with Andrew Crumey’s The Great Chain of Unbeing.

It’s a time travel story.

The cover (okay it has a doodlebug, but….) totally misrepresents the contents by the way.

Hugo Award Nominations

As on the Locus website where the full list of nominees can be found. There’s a lot of “the usual suspects” here:-

Best Novel

The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty (Orbit US)
Provenance, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi (Tor US; Tor UK)

Best Novella

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
“And Then There Were (N-One)”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
All Systems Red, Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water”, Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny 7-8/17)
“Extracurricular Activities”, Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com 2/15/17)
“The Secret Life of Bots”, Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld 9/17)
“Wind Will Rove”, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

Best Short Story

“The Martian Obelisk”, Linda Nagata (Tor.com 7/19/17)
“Fandom for Robots”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™”, Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Sun, Moon, Dust”, Ursula Vernon (Uncanny 5-6/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/17)

I’ve read two of the novels and will read the Jemisin at some point. Not so much the shorter fiction.

BSFA Awards 2017

BSFA Awards 2017 booklet cover

Short fiction nominees:-
The Enclave1 by Anne Charnock (NewCon Press, Feb 2017) is not obviously Science Fiction. Written well enough, it focuses on Caleb, a refugee seemingly from Spain but it could be further south, at a time when the world seems to have global warmed. It has some echoes of Oliver Twist as Caleb is variously exploited and learns to trust no-one. The titular enclave lies somewhere near Manchester.
In These Constellations Will Be Yours by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons, 7/8/17) oraculos from the planet Buyin have enabled much swifter interstellar travel at the cost of having their backs opened, spines, brains and nervous systems attached to the galleon-ships which ply the celestial sea. Some avoid this fate by paying to opt out. There is a revolt.
Uncanny Valley2 by Greg Egan (Tor.com, 9/8/17) is an extract only. The full text is available online but I dislike reading fiction from a screen so this one page sample had to do and was consequently hard to adjudge.
Angular Size3 by Geoff Nelder ( SFerics, 2017) is in the tradition of the big dumb object story, or, in this case, the maybe not quite so big as something the apparent size of the moon but only detectable in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum suddenly appears in the solar system. However it may be as small as a button but, more importantly, a precursor to alien invasion.
The Murders of Molly Southborne4 by Tade Thompson (Tor.com publishing) is also an extract, two pages this time; too short an extract to appraise properly.

In the non-fiction items the extract from Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banksa by Paul Kincaid is mainly about Feersum Endjinn, Whit, A Song of Stone and Excession.
Juliet E McKenna’s The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and other Obstacles in Science Fiction and Fantasyb examines the ways in which women are undervalued in and marginalised from SF.
There is an extract from Wells at the World’s Endb by Adam Roberts in which he looks at The Invisible Man.
Various contributors consider The 2017 Shadow Clarke Awardsc.
The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement’d by Vandana Singh deals with the unwillingness of people to think about climate change.

Pedant’s corner (fiction):- 1focussed (focused,) sat (sitting,) “no sense of daring-do” (it’s derring-do.) 2a stationers (stationer’s.) 3”they might consider humanity are a scourge on the planet” (is a scourge,) miniscule (minuscule,) focussed (focused,) “‘The White House are having kittens’” (is having,) “‘take it Edwards’” (take it to Edwards,) “‘it’s slowing down but still heading for the Moon’” (unless it was very close to the Moon already, not in any trajectory I’ve ever heard of.) 4feces (faeces.)
(Non-fiction):- ain a passage about Banks’s prefiguring of txt spk, “duz she 1/2 a naim” (I read that as one/two, not ½,) rumor and center (in a British piece about a British writer! Rumour and centre, please.) bCandaules’ (Candaules’s, yet we have Wells’s and Griffins’s,) “to talk an individual caught up in … is to describes” (to talk of an individual… is to describe,) “as good as stopping photons” (as good at stopping.) b”which that presenting evidence” (which presenting that evidence,) practise (practice,) selfevidently (self evidently.) c”as a third wave of riots break out” (a wave breaks out.) dCO2 (CO2.)

Interzone 274

Interzone 274 cover

Antony Johnston’s guest editorial considers influences. We all have them but everybody’s are different. In what he tells us will be his last column for Interzone Jonathan McCalmont1 lauds the spread of short stories exploring the experiences of the oppressed and marginalized but bemoans the fact that this has not travelled over into the genre’s main novel publishing outlets. In Time Pieces Nina Allan2 argues that the influence of Hugo Gernsback was to the detriment of both the genre and the mainstream, though that influence might now have run its course. In the Book Zone I review E J Swift’s Paris Adrift, Andy Hedgecock3 the Lewis Carroll inspired anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, Maureen Kincaid Speller considers Sam J Miller’s Blackfish City and interviews the author, Science Fiction: A Literary History4 is admired by John Howard, Rod Duncan’s The Queen of All Crows gets a thumbs up from Ian Hunter, Gareth L Powell’s Embers of War is given a guarded welcome by Duncan Lunan5, Lawrence Osborn notes the cliff-hanger ending to Charles Stross’s Dark State (but it is the second in a trilogy,) Stephen Theaker loved Blood Binds the Pack by Alex Wells even if it lacked originality, The Smoke by Simon Ings gets the approval of Ian Sales and Elaine Gallgher reviews Gary Dalkin’s plant based anthology Improbable Botany.

In the fiction:-
Beautiful Quiet of the Roaring Freeway by James Sallis is a very short piece bulked out by graphics redolent of rear light trails and features an illicit jaunt with a human driver on roads governed by automation.
Antony Johnston’s Soul Musica is set on a far-flung environment once connected to human civilisation by an Einstein-Rosen bridge now broken. The plot concerns gold-coloured local manifestations known as souls.
Schrödinger’sb by Julie C Day tells of the eponymous strip club (“A Universe of possibilities”) run by women in which a Dr Ringenbach has installed a box wherein molecular isolation is enabled by quantum refrigeration. But what can be kept in can also be kept out.
Saif and Hjørdis are two conjoined personalities – light years and centuries apart – in Never the Twainc by Michael Reid.
T R Napper’s Opium for Ezra is set inside a virtually impregnable battle tank engaged in a war against the Chinese. Or is it the experiences of someone immersed in a highly addictive virtual game? Whatever, it revels overmuch in the battle details.
baleen, baleend by Alexandra Renwick is the story of Zeke, who keeps diving into the ocean to drown and “pierce the curtain”, with his friends there to haul him back out. But every time he resurfaces the world has changed.
In Zene by Eliot Fintushel an alien invasion of the solar system is being enabled by koans.

Pedant’s corner:- 1series’ (series’s.) 2half-cock (half-cocked.) 3Richard Bowes’ (Bowes’s.) 4Caroline Edwards’ (Edwards’s,) 5hommages (homages, or else italicize the French spelling.) a2Res’ (2Res’s,) liquified (liquefied.) bWritten in USian, “I’d setup” (set up,) “she headed out door” (outdoors, or out of the door,) Britta (elsewhere the name is spelled Bitta,) “A reminder for us girls each and every time we turned created our quantum world.” (No. I can’t parse that.) cWritten in USian – except, centre!) both d and eWritten in USian.

BSFA Awards for 2017

This year’s BSFA Awards (for works published last year) were announced at Eastercon on Saturday 31st March.

The winners were:-

Best novel: The Rift by Nina Allan

Best Short Fiction: The Enclave by Anne Charnock

Best Non-fiction: Paul Kincaid for Iain M Banks

The Best Artwork Award: was shared between Jim Burns and Victo Ngai

The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz

Yale University Press, 2017, 188 p. Translated from the Polish Góry Parnasu, Science Fiction, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Polityczenej, 2012, by Stanley Bill. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Mar-Apr 2017.

 The Mountains of Parnassus cover

My knowledge of Polish SF has heretofore begun and ended with the works of Stanisław Lem. I saw this book as a welcome opportunity to rectify that. However, Miłosz made his reputation as a poet and essayist – as cited in his Nobel Prize – and this unfinished work (deliberately unfinished, the translator’s introduction tells us) is, as far as I can tell, his only attempt at an SF novel. Miłosz apparently had doubts about the viability of the novel as a form, though he considered SF’s realist conventions as the most promising vehicle for it even if “Science Fiction has mainly consisted of gloomy prophecies.” In his Introductory Remarks to the novel he says will “never be written” he notes that his depiction of two female characters “who do not appear in the pages printed here” made him shrink from the “horror” of writing a “novel from life.” Since “literature always fares awkwardly when it strives to depict good people and good intentions,” he describes what lies in front of us as artistically dubious and immoral. So much for fiction, then.

The book as a whole seems designed more for the academic than general reader with its Translator’s Introduction plus Note (both complete with references) emphasising Poland’s highly literary tradition of SF writing and Milosz’s view of SF as akin to scripture in its use of the past tense to describe future events. Correspondingly the “novel”’s latter parts are steeped in Catholicism. The style is discursive, its six sections reading more like essays than a conventional narrative. Strewn throughout them are nuggets allowing us to glean the outlines of society plus references to powerful groups of various sorts; the Botanists’ and Astronauts’ Unions, the Arsonists’ Association. There is no dialogue; unless you count the Mass of the Catechumens in the Appendix.

A description of the Mountains of Parnassus, supposedly kept in a state of wilderness, is written almost like a gazetteer. Their visitors exist in “an Earth without fatherhood” and strive to become their own fathers. A general atmosphere of ennui (avoiding “killing time” via the M37 current or erotic games, which prove unsatisfactory palliatives) leads a character called Karel to play Russian Roulette. His survival and altered mental state lends him immunity to the activities of an organisation known as The Higher Brethren of Nirvana which has begun to cull humans to prevent degeneration and extinction, its victims simply disappearing, each “losing its unitary quality in a single moment” with no one knowing the criteria for selection.

There follows an adumbration of the theories of Professor Motohiro Nakao which overturned the practice whereby “long ago the more energetic rulers had made the strange assumption that the minds of the ruled were a threat if they could not be convinced by persuasion or fear.” Data collection of “tracks” of perception can identify any which may be harmful to the rational social order defended by the Astronauts. This leads to Cocooning, interfering with the ability to communicate by slowing or accelerating the speed of a person’s thoughts thus denying access to those of others.

The “Cardinal’s Testament” of Petro Vallerg, all but the last celibate, finds him struggling to understand the thinking behind John XXIII’s aggiornamento in calling the Second Vatican Council, as it caused a rotting structure to collapse by attempting to refurbish it. Vallerg recognises the Church’s failings, where ritual has petrified into form, but “if the Church had not used the stake and the sword of obedient monarchs in the critical thirteenth century, little would have remained of Christianity,” and “no purely human institution similarly depraved could have survived,” but bemoans “the shame that induced us to reject the relative good simply because it was relative” and that the numinous has been reduced to metaphor and figures of speech.

Lino Martinez, member of the elite Astronauts’ Union, whose perk for risking their lives on humanity’s behalf is monthly longevity treatments, is never the absolutely perfect Astronaut and finding desires, passions, betrayals and faults reduced to miniature dimensions and the effects of time dilation disturbing, he deserts, to expose himself to time.

An Appendix: Ephraim’s Liturgy looks back to when inhabitants of Earth were allowed to run wild as educating them would be too difficult; “the petty and insignificant became great and significant”; a guaranteed small income allowed anyone who wished, to be an artist (but structuralism destroyed any hope of immortality thereby, rendered works indistinguishable) and the promise of communication had led to its negation. Ephraim therefore believed speech could be imparted only by ritual.

It’s all undeniably intellectual, almost Stapledonian but lacking the extraordinary timescale and perspective. I doubt it’s representative of Polish SF, of anything but Miłosz himself.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Translator’s Introduction “allows Milosz to takes these” (take.) I found it odd that the author’s full name (and indeed Lem’s first) – except twice, both times in Notes – is rendered with an unPolish unbarred l while that of another mentioned Polish writer, Sławomir Sierakowski, isn’t. Otherwise: “In the name of the Kingdom. I made sacrifices…..” (no full stop necessary?) snobbism (snobbery is more usual,) “sent their long ago” (there,) Bureaus (Bureaux.)

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