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King of the Scepter’d Isle by Michael Greatrex Coney

New American Library, 1989, 297 p

 King of the Scepter’d Isle cover

This is set in Coney’s wider universe of the Greataway (as in the previous novels of his Song of Earth series, The Celestial Steam Locomotive, Gods of the Greataway and Fang the Gnome.) At its start the worlds of humans and gnomes, though visible to each other through the umbra, are separated in different happentracks, but Nyneve, a Dedo from the human world – yet who can see into the ifalong, the future of the many happentracks of the Greataway – can slip between them. (Coney’s linguistic inventiveness here is a delight. Happentrack is a lovely word to describe parallel universes and ifalong a beautifully poetic way to express (a) contingent future(s).)

Nyneve is also a storyteller who weaves tales of the legendary King Arthur, and how he will unite the warring lands and become King of England, in such a way as to make her audiences see as well as feel what they are hearing. In this she is helped by a wizened and faded centuries-old Merlin. Not that this is a rehash of the Arthurian legends (despite appearances from Lancelot, Guinevere – as a princess named Gwen – Morgan Le Fay, Mordred, Sir Galahad etc, and familiar concepts like the Sword in the Stone of course also make their appearance. Arthur even builds a Round Table – after many false starts – with a place labelled “Hot Seat” wherein anyone impure who sits at it dies soon after.)

But it is a commentary on such tales. As a minor king says to Nyneve, “‘Nobody’s poor in your stories. Nobody has to tend the animals or work the fields,’” and towards the end she herself says, “‘The stories were an ideal, Arthur. Reality is another thing. Reality is hungry soldiers who haven’t seen a woman for days. Reality is sweat and dirty pants.’” (I suspect that last word has a more earthy resonance in Britain than in the US.)

Nyneve is anxious to bend the stories to her will, arranging for the Sword in the Stone only to be released at the right time by a very mundane piece of trickery. She is also in love with Arthur but he marries Gwen anyway, since that is what the stories say he will. Here, though, Lancelot is never attracted to Arthur’s wife.

Then there are the gnomes, whose lives are circumscribed by the Kikihuahua Examples, handed down when gnomes were brought to their happentrack in the first place by the eponymous kikihuahuas to ensure they would not overexploit their resurces. Thus gnomes are never to work malleable materials and have a distaste for sex as “filth” (an aversion to which Fang and his lover the Princess are somewhat immune.)

What plot there is centres round the merging of human and gnome happentracks (concepts all of the characters seem to know about) and a big rock at a place called Pentor, whose movement by humans sometime in the ifalong will spell disaster.

It’s all enjoyable enough and amusing but suffers from a lack of focus by breaking from the Arthurian part of the tale to turn back to the plight of the gnomes for too many chapters before reversing, and vice versa.

Coney’s early work in the novels Syzygy, Winter’s Children, Hello Summer, Goodbye, The Girl with a Symphony in her Fingers, Charisma and Brontomek! was great stuff as was the much later I Remember Pallahaxi. His Greataway stories not so much.

Pedant’s corner:- Scepter’d (OK, it’s USian, but British English doesn’t even need the apostrophe. Sceptred.) On the back cover blurb; Brontomex (the previous Coney book that refers to was titled Brontomek!. Otherwise; prophesy/prophesies (USian spelling, several times; it was the noun so, prophecy/prophecies please.) Apothegm (I prefer apophthegm.) “‘it doesn’t strike me as being filth anymore, Elmera. It strikes me as …’” (this was Elmera speaking – ‘as being filth, Lady Duck. It strikes’,) “the less men will be killed” (OK it was in someone’s thoughts, but it still ought to be ‘fewer men’.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times Again

And so, back to the beginning of Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times, which started with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

These books sit on the very top of that bookcase I featured in the first of these posts, above the shelves that contain all my (read) Scottish books.

Books Once More

They’re here because they fit into the space – at least in the case of the three “What If…” books, What If?, More What If? and What If America? – anthologies of Altered History stories – and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Then there is Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Colin Greenland’s excellent Finding Helen, a Paul Torday, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, non-SF works by SF writers Brian Aldiss and Norman Spinrad, Robert Standish’s Elephant Walk and three books by Erich Maria Remarque including the incomparable All Quiet on the Western Front.

If I were filing my books thoroughly systematically these would all have to be moved.

Interzone Issue 288

 Interzone 288 cover
 Hope Island cover

Interzone 288 is out now. (It arrived on my doorstep this morning.)

This is the one which contains my review of Tim Major’s Hope Island.

Along with many other goodies of course.

Palestine + 100, stories from a century after the Nakba. Edited by Basma Ghalayini

Comma Press, 2019, 235 p, including viii p Introduction by Basma Ghalayini, v p About the Authors, ii p About the Translators. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 Palestine + 100 cover

It is over seventy years since what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe) and this collection was inspired by the notion of what Palestine might look like 100 years after it. (Not so long now, really.)
In the Introduction,1 Basma Ghalayini describes the Nakba as an ethnic cleansing. Some may disagree with this but it is an understandable Palestinian perspective. She also says Palestinians write about their past knowingly or unknowingly (this can also be true of other peoples who feel themselves to be suppressed) but for Palestinian writers the past is everything. SF, then, does not look to be fertile ground, a luxury to which they cannot afford to escape. But one of the defining features of Palestinian fiction is absence, and SF is well equipped to deal with isolation and detachment as well as to interrogate the present by reframing it.
In Song of the Birds by Saleem Haddad2 an adolescent girl whose brother has committed suicide finds herself slipping between two realities, one where the Israeli occupation has been overthrown and a harsher one where it hasn’t and in which the first is a simulation.
The Dr Eyal Schott of Sleep it Off, Dr Schott3 by Selma Dabbagh is a scientist thrown out of Israel for being less than 50% Jewish, now working in Gaza but under surveillance in case he is forming an inappropriate relationship with his co-worker Professor Mona Kamal.
N* by Majad Kayal4 posits a novel two-state solution. Palestinians and Israelis occupy the same land but in parallel worlds. Only those born after The Agreement are allowed to travel between the two. VR ‘realities’ are still a source of isolation, though.
Anwar Hamed5 sets The Key* in an Israel which restricts entry by constructing a gravity wall through which only people with the right chip (keyed to a person’s genome and embedded in newborns at birth) can pass. Psychological problems connected to this begin to manifest themselves in the narrator’s family.
Digital Nation by Emad El-Din Aysha6 is also set in Israel, where a bemused head of the cybercrime unit finds his worst imaginings of hacking and Palestinian take-over of the digital realm coming true.
Abdalmuti Maqboul’s7 Personal Hero* also features a virtual reality theme as a Palestinian hero is resurrected by a simulation in which time is reversed.
Vengeance by Tasnim Abutabikh8 suffers from being told rather than narrated. Set against a background where CO2 in the atmosphere has ballooned and lifemasks for safe breathing are in effect rationed, Ahmed plans revenge on the descendant of a man who supposedly stole his family’s land generations ago.
A Palestine broken up into a series of independent city states connected only by tunnels is the premise for Application 39 by Ahmed Masoud9 which chronicles the aftermath of a surprisingly successful application to hold the 39th Summer Olympics made by pranksters from the IT Department of the Republic of Gaza City.
Samir El-Youssef’s10 The Association* is set twenty years after the Agreement (to forget all about it) ended the Eighty Years War. The story is set in train by the murder of an obscure historian.
In Commonplace by Rawan Yaghi11, Adam’s sister, Rahaf, was all but killed in an ill-advised trip into the Eastern Lands. He has been planning his revenge ever since.
In Final Warning* by Talal Abu Shawish,12 the sun fails to rise, every electronic device has failed and cars won’t start. Isaam, a film buff, correctly predicts the form the alien intervention causing all this will take.
In The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid* by Mazen Maarouf,13 Palestinians have been wiped out by a biological weapon. All save the narrator, who somehow stores the pure energy of these dead within him and is thus kept in a glass cube designed to absorb it when released on death. Some of it is leaking out, though.
Whether the brief, or the allotted word count, was somehow too restricting or the authors are uncomfortable with the form, many of the stories have a tendency to be overloaded with information dumping and often resort to telling rather than showing. Striking too, is the preoccupation with sisters, usually dead or comatose, shown by several of the authors. Overall, the collection is notable for the way in which Israeli domination of Palestinian life is still manifesting itself in these futures, or has only been overthrown by frankly unlikely means. Perhaps even imaginative fiction has its bounds.

The following did not appear in the published review.
*Translated works. I assume the authors of the other stories wrote them in English.
Pedant’s corner:- 1“is a kind of a dystopia” (is a kind of dystopia,) ‘are issued ID cards … that keeps track” (that keep track.) 2“The string of hotels and restaurants were replaced by” (the string was replaced by, “inside of:” (inside; just ‘inside’,) “ ‘I should probably take a small sleep’” (‘I should probably take a nap’,) sunk (sank,) snuck (sneaked,) faucet (tap,) “‘You know how us Arabs are’” (‘You know how we Arabs are’, but it was in dialogue,) baby carriages (prams,) “is it a cynicism borne out of loss?” (born out of loss, ‘borne means ‘carried’.) “The sea and her are like two cats” (She and the sea are like two cats.) 3“since I was a young” (since I was young,) “to only recognise Ethocoin as an international currency (to recognise only Ethocoin as….,) “The General Assembly weren’t just nosey” (I prefer ‘nosy’,) “how many canons were used in the battle of Waterloo” (cannons, a canon is a clergyman.) 4Has some USian but then, manoeuvre; “he was in secretly love with” (he was secretly in love with,) “it was old café” (it was an old café,) “with it’s blinding light” (its blinding light.) 5“she was sat” (sitting.) 6“His aid continued to stand there” (aide, several more instances,) “a woman to lay on top of” (to lie on top of,) “hit singles from 1948” (hit songs, maybe, but there were no hit ‘singles’ in 1948, it was mostly sheet music which people bought,) “humous fests” (hummus; humous or humus is a component of soil) “The county was in no position to go on the offensive” (The country,) “‘You must have me mistaken for someone else’” (You must have mistaken me for someone else’,) “‘Me, are you kidding.’” (requires a question mark not a full stop.) 7“In a house in al-Qastal sit the Army of the Holy War” (in a house … sits the Army.) 8“a group of children were plying” (a group was playing,) “his boss’ design” (boss’s.) 9“seemed to only contain a long series” (seemed to contain only a long series,) “had not be possible” (been,) “36th Summer Olympics” (previously given as 39th Summer Olympics,) “‘Look its one of’” (it’s,) “to hold the such a” (no ‘the’,) antennas (antennae,) “it’s left leg” (its,) ditto “It’s cheek screens” (Its,) “outside of” (outside, no ‘of’,) sprung (sprang,) “spilled it’s guts” (its,) northern-most but then southernmost (use the hyphen both times or neither time,) “its shoulder-antenna and crossed them” (if them, then shoulder-antennae.) 10“snuck in” (sneaked in,) “the Jozoor’s” (the Jozoor, it was a plural for an organisation known as the Jozoor. Perhaps Jozoors, but certainly no apostrophe,) “ditto the Jidar’s” (the Jidar,) “it was too was obvious” (it was too obvious,) publically (publicly,) “‘just one group that knows their rights’” (that knows its rights.) 11“seven hundred hours” “twenty-one hundred hours” (military usage usually written as 0700 hours and 2100 hours and seemingly out of place here,) “a group of young men…. were caught” (a group …. was caught,) “she went in day light” (daylight.) 12 “in Rahel’s flat” (I’ve no idea why that apostrophised ‘s’ is in italics,) “take the edge of the darkness” (off the darkness,) Michael Renie (Rennie, spelled as such later,) “and reviewing them a film critic” (as a film critic.) “Everyone started shielding their eyes from the sun” (the sun hasn’t risen, an alien spaceship has, though,) “and bellowing commands to soldiers outside, insisting they join him” (insisted they join him.) 13“look forwards to” (look forward to.)
In ‘About the authors’; “He was …. and currently based in Lisbon” (and is currently based,) “is a Palestinian novelist, poet and literary critic born. With a master’s degree..” (born where? When? And it’s Master’s degree,) “for whom he has written wrote and directed” (omit ‘wrote’.)

Spy Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This meme, originating with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, has now been taken over by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Spy Fiction Books

Back in the days of the Cold War spy fiction was a big thing. The two main purveyors of the form – in the UK anyway – were my (sur)namesake Len Deighton (although he pronounces the “Deigh” part to rhyme with “day” rather than “die”) and John le Carré. I also have a le Carré omnibus of his early works shelved elsewhere.

These, too, are housed in the garage, below the last of my SF paperbacks (see last week’s post.)

I have read all the books by Deighton here. His book Fighter is not on these shelves because it’s a history of the Battle of Britain but then Blitzkrieg is also a history book and it is here. Winter is not a spy novel but reflects Deighton’s knowledge of Germany (specifically Berlin) in the first half of the twentieth century. Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a novel featuring members of the US Air Force which took part in the campaign in World War 2 in the lead up to the invasion of Normandy. SS-GB is an altered history set in a Britain where a German invasion of the UK in 1940 succeeded.

I’ve not read all the le Carrés. Spy fiction lost a lot of its resonance when the Cold War ended whereupon he moved on to other things. I always meant to get round to his later stuff but life (and other books) got in the way.

Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2020, 197 p.

 Bridge 108 cover

Bridge 108 is an expansion of the author’s novella The Enclave which won the BSFA Award for 2017 and is set against a backdrop of environmental degradation (drought, wildfires) in Southern Europe which has precipitated an exodus northwards. On such a journey fourteen-year-old Caleb was separated from his mother and trafficked to Britain where he has ended up in one of the enclaves set outside the mainstream of society. ‘Normal’ (non-enclave citizens) are chipped and inoculated and so cannot become addicted to drugs, gambling or alcohol nor apparently commit crime.

Life in an enclave among the unchipped ‘organics’ (who either refused the chipping – because you lose your spark – or else never had it for some other reason such as crime in the family) is not quite dog-eat-dog but the police venture there infrequently and prefer to ignore the goings-on, unless it involves illegal immigrants or murder. When we start, Caleb is working for Ma Lexie, a dealer in upcycled clothing, whose business is in turn a subsidiary of the dodgy family enterprises of her late husband, Ruben. Caleb hasn’t quite settled down in the enclave (he is locked in at night) and exchanges messages with the similarly trapped Odette on the adjacent roof via a weighted plastic bottle.

The story is told from the viewpoints of Caleb, Ma Lexie, Skylark (the young girl who trafficked Caleb,) Jerome (an undercover immigration officer,) Jaspar (Ma Lexie’s de facto boss,) and Officer Sonia, a simulant – further beyond the chipped members of society than they are to the unchipped ‘organics’ of the enclaves – who is portrayed as lacking in empathy. Apart from Caleb, who relates five of the ten chapters, each of the others has only one, allowing Charnock to provide us with a cross-section of the attitudes of the inhabitants of her future world.

On a trip to the market Caleb upsets Ma Lexie and his mistrust hardens. He agrees to escape the enclave with Odette who has her own reasons for fleeing. They travel at night towards Wales along the Shropshire Union Canal but Caleb quickly gives Odette the slip when he notices blood under her fingernails. He finds relatively easy work on a vineyard and some time later is befriended by Jerome who helps him avoid an immigration raid. They travel together and at Bridge 108 on the Shropshire Union Canal Caleb is persuaded by Jerome to hand himself in to the authorities. His indentured life on the path towards full citizenhood is not simple, nor is that path guaranteed, but is an illustration of the destination towards which UK domestic policy has been heading these many years.

Pedant’s corner:- The surname Farquharson is said to be pronounced Farkuson (It isn’t; it’s pronounced Farkarson, with both the ‘r’s sounded,) snuck (sneaked,) sat (x 2, sitting, or, seated,) “in my corner of room” (of the room.) “None of them stay in the camp” (None of them stays,) whiskey (whisky.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This meme started with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but has now been taken up by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Science Fiction Books Again

This shelf is the last containing SF books I have read. These start at Connie Willis and finish with Roger Zelazny – to whom all bar Silverberg and Le Guin bow down – but also incorporating my copies of the old Spectrum SF magazine (I have six copies of issue 2 because I had a story in it – I also had one in issue 3 but only got four copies of that) and 17 issues of Galaxy Magazine. [Edited to add. I forgot my four copies of the Destinies collections are in there too.]

In there is also my John Wyndham collection.

The 20 books following I had read (from Dumbarton Library it must have been) before I bought copies to keep and have housed them separately from my other SF ever since.

Then you’ll note two copies of a book called A Son of the Rock, plus a Zelazny collaboration.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

William Heinemann, 2008, 540 p.

 The Gone Away World cover

The Jorgmund Pipe circles the Gone-Away world, protecting its environs from the Stuff which conjures new people and things out of dreams snatched from the minds of survivors of the Go Away War by delivering FOX (inFOrmationally eXtra-saturated matter) into the air surrounding it. It is the aftermath of said War, so-called because of the deployment of Go Away bombs (which do as their name suggests; their targets simply disappear.) Not quite as secret a weapon as its original users thought, though, since retaliation in kind came swiftly, leaving only pockets of normality in its wake and the unforeseen side-effect of strange apparitions/demons/monsters, (delete as to taste) swirling out of the affected areas, manifestations of Stuff.

Nothing hereafter ought to detract from what in the end turned out to be an engaging, emotionally involving read. Harkaway is a talent, as he has shown in subsequent books, but this novel is not without its flaws – even if it does have a daring conceit as its turning point.

We kick off when (despite an anonymous phone call advising its employees not to) the Haulage & Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County, of which our narrator is a member, takes up a contract to put out a fire which threatens to destroy both the Pipe and the factory producing FOX. The company’s unwieldy title is an indicator of Harkaway’s approach here, an exuberance of word-play which tends to the wearing – at least until the book settles down. The author is certainly not afraid to call a spade a horticultural implement and otherwise circumlocute all the way around a subject in an attempt to provide levity, or (if you wish to be generous) to avoid cliché or the humdrum. It certainly makes for an impressive word-count. It was Harkaway’s first novel though, so we may forgive a little exuberance. (A little, but not a lot.)

Despite the destruction wrought by the Gone-Away bombs, there are still buses and cars (leaving me to wonder where the petrol for them came from) streetlamps, shops – gentlemen’s outfitters no less – and hierarchies of wealth much like that in the world before the war. Despite all having changed, in the larger settlements of the Pipe’s environment things appear to be much as they were before the War. (A nit-picking complaint, I agree, the author’s invention and creativity have been expended in other areas and it is possible to ask too much of a narrative, but it seemed to me to land on a default which the scenario would have made unlikely and thus undermined it.)

Then there is the book’s structure. By all means begin as near to the end as possible (as a piece of writing advice I read recently had it) but it is perhaps a mistake to presage a set-piece then – for all that it is the novel’s fulcrum – delay its depiction for well more than half the book. From that set-up we jump to our narrator’s back-story and relationship with his lifelong friend, Gonzo Lubitsch, his tutelage by a Zen master known as Wu Shenyang, his dabbling with roughly left-wing politics as a means to accessing girls, his targeting as a subversive and turning into a soldier and counter-insurgent, his encounter with the inventor of the Go-Away bomb, his awareness of the dirtiness of politics and international financial manœuvrings, his experience of the War and of its aftermath in the building of the Jorgmund Pipe. One highlight of this is a description of the difficulties of organising and carrying through a first-date – or making flapjacks – in a war zone; a ‘normal’ war zone at that.

The piece of authorial bravado at the heart of the book – which in its own terms justifies that structural choice – does not quite make up for it. For what happens when we are finally shown the Civil Freebooting Company extinguishing the fire – and incidentally discover along with the characters just how FOX is made – calls into question all that has come before. Not quite as in Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins but in a similar vein (yet opposite sense.) It does though highlight the question of what it might mean to be human. That is, of course, fiction’s job.

Pedant’s corner:- a few commas missing before pieces of direct speech, “one less layer” (one fewer,) “to test their metal” (Dearie me! The thing is you test is mettle,) hiccough (there is no derivational evidence for this spelling; hiccup,) “dinted grill” (grille,) appalls (appals,) genii (except in the sense of ‘spirit’ – which here it was not – the English plural of genius is geniuses,) infinitessimal (infinitesimal,) “so now there is now a crowd” (one ‘now’ too many,) “layed out” (laid out,) “beautiful woman are not rare” (women,) rarified (rarefied,) “‘I thought you were a gonner’” (a goner,) “I have kneeled” (knelt,) burglarised (for heaven’s sake! The word is burgled,) squidgey (squidgy,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) an opened parenthesis which is never closed (unless it was by the parenthesis later on the same page. But it didn’t read like that.)

Hugo Awards 2020

I’m a bit late with this. They were awarded on the 1st of this month.

Best Novel: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Best Novella: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Best Novelette: Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin

Best Short Story: “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

Best Series: The Expanse by James S. A. Corey

I’ve only read the second of these. It was very good.

Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas

The second novel in “Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines,” The Women’s Press, 1989, 219 p.

 Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines cover

In Walk to the End of the World fem Alldera finally escaped from the Holdfast, the brutal male dominated enclave which had been set up after the Collapse. Pregnant and starving, she makes her way across the desert into the grasslands where she is rescued by a Mare, one of a society of women who ride horses and patrol the desert to ensure no men from the Holdfast ever learn of their existence and also prevent free-fems, escapees from the Holdfast, from attempting to return to overthrow the men there.

It is these Mares who embody the Motherlines of the title, their ancestors having been made able to bear clones of themselves by scientists before things went awry, resulting in different breeds of descendants who look alike within each type. (The mechanics of the trigger for this reproduction strain credulity a little but also provide a source of derision towards them from the free-fems.)

The Mares’ decision to keep Alldera’s cub (as children are called here) and raise her as a Mare runs against previous practice whereby all such children of the Holdfast were entrusted to the free-fems. Alldera’s allegiances swing between Mares and free-fems (with whom she spends some time) as the narrative progresses. But, despite tensions within each of them, it is her affinity with both groups that brings them closer together among rumours of the Holdfast descending into conflict over diminishing amounts of food.

Motherlines narration does not embody the disjointed structure of Walk to the End of the World but the pastoral/nomadic lifestyles of the Mares and free-fems again resemble those in other books I have read recently, Bluesong and In the Red Lord’s Reach. Charnas is more concerned with the position of women, however, and the societies they might produce if left to themselves. As such Motherlines is in the fine SF tradition of “What if?”

Pedant’s corner:- “she though wretchedly” (thought,) rarified (rarefied,) ws (was,) “the Mare’s visit” (Mares’.)

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