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A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1987, 410 p.

The novel starts off on the planet Valedon but is mostly set on its aquatic satellite, Shora, inhabited for centuries solely by women. They wear no clothes since they spend a lot of time in the moon-spanning ocean and have a bluish tinge due to microbes which, in the aquatic environment, help them to maintain breath. In contrast to Valedon – a world where the usual vices of political power are prevalent and which seems to be a militarily directed society – life on Shora is peaceable, its values based on sharing learning, and where the highest form of punishment is Unspeaking (that is, sending someone to Coventry.) They are also capable of a state known as whitetrance, a type of withdrawal where their hearts slow almost to death. The Shorans live on rafts of plant material floating on the water’s surface and have an appreciation of the interactions between all the life-forms – beneficial or seemingly inimical – that make up Shora’s web of life. They also have a deep knowledge of biology and genetics and a plant-based means of expressing new organisms quickly.

Traders from Valedon – sometimes known pejoratively as malefreaks – have been present on Shora for years and Berenice Hyalite – known on Shora as Nisi – has come to a deep understanding of its way of life. Her father set up the trading post but she reports back to the rulers of Valedon. There is some interplay between Valans and Shorans on whether the others are really human with respect to each other but all the characters present as recognisably so to the reader. Berenice’s fiancé Realgar is a military man, and he is given the command of the Valedon forces sent to Shora to bring it fully under control.

The novel is thus set up to explore the mutual incomprehension of the military mindset and the habitual, instinctive, non-violence of the Shorans. It can therefore be read as a feminist work but is equally parsable as a Science Fictional exploration of a different approach to life’s challenges. In A Door Into Ocean Slonczewski is exploring an alternative way of being human. This is partly territory pioneered by the late lamented Ursula Le Guin. Slonczewski is no Le Guin but is good enough to be going on with.

Pedant’s corner:- laniard (lanyard,) “Berenice like to absorb” (the rest of the paragraph was in past tense, so, Berenice liked,) maw (mouth was implied, a maw is a stomach,) sunk (sank,) shined (shone,) octopi (octopuses, or, octopodes, but since we’re on an alien planet, octopods,) sprung (sprang,) “I could take take pills” (only one take needed,) “‘You could to that?’” (do that,) brusk (brusque,) langauge (language,) “more that she let on” (than she let on,) “was kept with in raftwood” (within,) strategem (stratagem,) collander (colander,) waked up (woken up,) automatons (strictly, automata.)

“Half an Hour Ago I Was a White-Haired Scotsman”

Last night I watched the first of the new Doctor Who series on BBC TV. It was okay as far as it went but I’m not sure it will have won over any of the easily disgruntled unreconstructed among us who thought the Doctor couldn’t be a woman. There’s no reason why the Doctor wouldn’t be able to change gender – after all the Master already has – but I didn’t think this episode was strong enough as an introduction to the new one.

Jodie Whittaker probably has the chops to make a good doctor but on this evidence I’ll be reserving judgement as to the story-lines.

A curious feature in this one was that there was no introductory theme music – not even after a few minutes in when the problem had been set up. Again I thought that was a mistake.

Then we had, “Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.”

No. Half an hour ago you were an alien with two hearts from the planet Gallifrey. You still are. Half an hour ago you may have had a Scottish accent but you were never a Scotsman.

You also said, “I would of.”

You can reboot yourself right there. The correct phrase is “would have” or at a pinch “would’ve”. Don’t do it again.

The Stone Sky by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2017, 423 p.

Like The Fifth Season, the first in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, this last instalment has a three-fold structure. Again, the sections focused on Essun are narrated in the second person, while those featuring her daughter Nassun are, as in The Obelisk Gate, in third person. The third strand here, set in Syl Anagist and counting down from Four to Zero, is a first person historical (in the overall trilogy’s terms) account of how the orogenes, who can manipulate matter and temperature to initiate or quell earth movements, came into existence. The first page of the prologue refers to fossilized insects – “a whole that can only be inferred from fragments” – and is suggestive that this is how we as readers may decode the text of the complete story. Once again though, as in The Fifth Season, this final book’s architecture is a bit of a trick played by the author as it eventually becomes clear exactly who it is who is narrating each strand.
As far as resolution is concerned, the Syl Anagist project to use a Plutonic Engine to exploit the Earth by improving on the talents of a group of people known as the Neiss backfired when the Earth – as a living organism itself – having lost the Moon by the engine’s operation got its own back on its troublesome inhabitants by initiating the seasons. The Moon, with a huge chasm reaching right through it – is now on its orbital return and Essun wants to use the obelisks to recapture it in order to placate the Earth and so end the seasons. Nassun, whose natural orogenic talents far outweigh her mother’s has other ideas. She simply wants to destroy everything.

There is “no need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment” would seem to be a comment on slavery (or even patriarchy.) There are too, grace notes such as naming two incidental characters Oegin and Ynegen. I also liked the coinages magestry and biomagestry.

Jemisin pulled off an unlikely hat-trick in securing the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row for the successive books in The Broken Earth. While the second instalment dipped in quality – perhaps inevitably since it was in effect the middle third of a larger narrative – the narrative dexterity and skill deployed in the first and third books certainly betoken a story telling talent of a high order. Her invented world, while not really bearing scrutiny at the level of actual possibility (it is Science Fiction though, predicated on at least one at present impossible thing – but perhaps more akin to fantasy in the level of its various impossibilities,) has been thought through and as an imaginative response to the lived history of prejudice against slaves and their descendants, all while embedded in a tale which impels the reader on with – among the extravagances – rounded characters who struggle and bicker, love and lose in the most interesting of times, is an impressive achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “none of us understand” (none of us understands,) “‘The potential for significant gains are why you will go’” (the potential for significant gains is why you will go,) “to not shake her head” (not to shake her head,) force-march (forced-march.) “None of them care.” (None of them cares.) “None of them are angry” (none is angry,) tableaus (tableaux,) “chewed up in its maw” (a maw is a stomach and hence can have no teeth,) “imagine that disaster times two hundred and fifty-six” (imagine that disaster multiplied by two hundred and fifty-six,) “like a child willing the monster under the bed to not exist” (like a child willing the monster under the bed not to exist,) “a low, bone-shaking blat” (context implies blast.)

For Interzone 278, Maybe

The latest book for me to review for Interzone arrived this morning.

Well actually it was three books as Head of Zeus has recently published Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy in paperback and they sent me all three.

I reviewed the first two books, The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, in Interzone 261 (Nov-Dec 2015) and posted that review on the blog about a year later.

The first two added up to 912 pages. I will concentrate on the third book, Death’s End, this time round. On its own it’s over 700 pages long so it may be too late for me to meet the deadline for Interzone 278. (There was a delay in the publisher sending me out the books.)

Interzone 279, then.

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Tor, 2018, 138 p.

McDonald has always been a stylist. There has tended, though, to be a pyrotechnic quality to his poetically inclined prose, plus a certain knowingness. Knowingness isn’t entirely absent here, a pitch perfect novella in some contrast to his most recent Luna series (which tends to emphasise violence and power manœuvrings rather than relationships,) but it is always ruthlessly subordinated to the tale he is telling. Here the pyrotechnics have been reined in and the author shows an admirable restraint, total control. Everything is at the service of the story. Though there is still room for his sly allusions, I doubt there’s a spare word in its 138 pages. Before the inevitable deployment of the Science Fictional concepts underpinning the novella, the language used stands in comparison to that of anyone who has ever written fiction, the emotions conjured as poignant. My only caveat is that since it was published in the US it contains USianisms (‘ass’ for ‘arse’, ‘Dumpster’, ‘soccer’, ‘tires’ etc) and for a British reader the first two in particular immediately lift him or her straight out of the narrative. However, this is still the best piece of fiction I have read this year – and possibly for a long time beyond.

It is narrated mainly by Emmett Leigh, a bibliophile and bookseller who finds an odd book in the cast-offs of a bookshop which has gone out of business, inside which is enclosed a letter from one World War 2 soldier to another. A love letter. Other passages are extracts from a memoir by one of the two soldiers of his time in Shingle Street, engaged in a very hush-hush World War 2 project on the English coast.

Intrigued by both the book, Time Was – “A singular book,” which has “no author biography, no foreword, no afterword, no index or notes. No publisher’s address, no publication date. No clue to author,” – and the letter, Emmett sets about finding out more about the pair. This brings him into contact with Thorn Hildreth (who is twice greeted by the phrase, ‘Thorn thirtieth letter of the Icelandic alphabet,’ – I will merely note it is also, like yogh, a former letter in English both now defunct -) whose grandfather’s papers contained a photograph of the soldiers. Emmett contacts Shahrzad, a Persian émigré with the ability to recall not only faces but also where it was she first saw them. She identifies the pair of soldiers, Seligman and Chappell, in photographs taken in Gallipoli in 1915, and Goritsa in the war of the break-up of Yugoslavia. Pictures of Seligman and Chappell are also traced as far back as the Crimean War. By application of the normal distribution curve, Emmett eventually reasons Seligman and Chappell are time travellers, venturing up and down the ages with only the book Time Was – that in Emmet’s time exists solely in the inventories of five bookshops with strict instructions as to its disposal – to enable them to contact each other. Via the extracts we also find the Shingle Street project entailed “The Uncertainty Squad” using quantum superposition in order to achieve displacement of the location of a ship but instead conjured displacement in time.

A hint of McDonald’s background comes with the phrase, “Pagans are worse than Protestants for denominationalism.” We also have the observation, “Emotions have no definition other than themselves….. All written art is an attempt to communicate what it is to feel,” and a comment on the novelist’s and poet’s bane, “the irreducibility of feeling, it can’t be broken down into anything simpler or more explicable.”

While the SF idea In McDonald’s Time Was isn’t quite as outré as in Robert Heinlein’s All You Zombies (the father and mother of all time travel stories) it’s up there with that same author’s By His Bootstraps and, in contrast, a thousand times better written than either.

Pedant’s corner:- thatfirst (is two words, not one,) a new paragraph that was unindented, hadhoped (again, two words.) “‘A hot wind blew in our aces’” (faces,) “ ‘”Not abductees. Immortals.”’ ” (that first double inverted comma in the quote ought to be a start quote mark not an end one,) a missing start quote mark, at “ Mea culpa””, “any simpler: (anything simpler.) “He hops up behind he” (behind me,) “soe time” (some time,) “dedicated to a pastry-cooking” (why the “a”?) “‘I sold this copy one of your bookfinders’” (copy to one of your,) “a new tray or drinks” (of drinks,) “strung out along for half a mile along the street” (has one “along” too many.) “His glee is evident as he cast around” (casts around.) “He beckons me out to the where the bikes” (to where the bikes,) drafhty (draughty,) an extraneous single inverted comma at “ “East Suffolk”’ ” and again at “ ‘I look around’’ ” , the start quote mark for a piece of direct speech given at the end of the previous line (x 2,) withany (again, two words,) “I could be certain that that I lived with Thorn” (only one “that”,) “from the across the shop” (from across the shop.) “I would always been that Englishman” (always have been, or, always be.)

Interzone 277, To Be Read

Interzone 277 cover

The latest issue of Interzone, 277, arrived last week.

As well as the usual fictional goodies and commentary on SF this one contains two of my reviews.

The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri and Supercute Futures by Martin Millar.

Shoreline of Infinity 9: Autumn 2017

The New Curiosity Shop, 2017, 132 p.

 Shoreline of Infinity 9 cover

Noel Chidwick’s Editorial riffs on the importance of SF as an admonitory undertaking. In SF Caledonia1 Monica Burns discusses the Victorian Robert Ellis Dudgeon (who also greatly improved the predecessor of the device used to measure blood pressure.) The Beachcomber Presents2 (Where Have all the Time Machines Gone) continues our four page graphic stories. There is an Interview with Cory Doctorow.3
Reviews has Eris Young praising Shattered Minds by Laura Lam,4 Neil Williamson describing Nina Allan’s The Rift as “a high class piece of fiction and a triumph of styorytelling”, Katie Gray in the end dislikes Sirens by Simon Messingham, Marija Smits5 casts a welcoming eye over Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun, Steve Ironside recommends Carapace by Davyne DeSye to lovers of bleak and gritty SF,6 Benjamin Thomas7 reviews the anthology Off Beat: Nine Spins on Song, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway is appreciated by his interviewer Joanna McLaughlin, while The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross is assessed by Duncan Lunan.8
Multiverse9 features poems by Marise Morland, Bill Herbert and Peter Roberts. Paul Holmes’s Parabolic Puzzles10 updates the old what happened to the missing change conundrum.
As to the fiction:-
In The Last Days of the Lotus Eatersa by Leigh Harlen the universe is dying. The last humans inhabit a small village in a cooling world under a starless sky. One girl reads about the past and questions their straitened existence. For this heresy she is sacrificed; but her essence lives on in a tree.
Keeping the Peaceb by father and daughter pair Catriona Butler and Rob Butler is set in a world where sentients predict how long people will live. Narla is upset by the preferential treatment her brother receives as the result of his short projected life-span.
In Death Acceptancec by Tony Clavelli a funeral director receives a call from an unusual client, one of the community of NextState androids who wants to die: because if it doesn’t end it isn’t a story.
The unusual one sentence story, APOCALYPSE BETA TEST SURVEY by Gregg Chamberlain, consists of the pitch for custom – complete with disclaimers – by Armageddon Inc, whose motto is, “The Horsemen are always ready to ride.”
The spires in Spirejackd by Patrick Warner are huge towers propping up cities in the skies. The titular spirejack finds himself under investigation after his wife gets involved with subversives. The writing shows signs of the author’s lack of experience.
A young girl is obsessed by getting to the Moon (again) in Vaughan Stanger’s The Last Moonshot.e
Lowland Clearances by Pippa Goldschmidt is the same story that appeared in Shoreline of Infinity’s special Edinburgh Book Festival edition, issue 8½.
In The Sky is Alive by Michael F Russell, a settler on Gliese 581 has found life not so congenial as he had hoped. There, the threat of cloud is of them absorbing water – from anything.
The Useless Citizen Actf by Ellis SJ Sangster sees a woman faced with being culled because she’s jobless in a harsh 2107, locking herself in a cupboard to escape her fate. Or is her subjective experience just a metaphor for her depression?
In the extract for SF Caledonia from Colymbia by Robert Ellis Dudgeon our narrator joins a white shark hunt.

Pedant’s corner:- aWritten in USian, make-up (is cosmetics; the sense was “imagined”, so, make up,) sooth (soothe,) “there were less and less of them” (plural; so, fewer and fewer.) b“the family sit quietly” (the family sits.) cWritten in USian, “in a shock” (the phrase is “in shock”,) “give you creeps” (the phrase is “the creeps”,) “each of the Guillorys comment” (each comments.) dWhat‘s (the inverted comma was the mirror image of what it ought to have been,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (twice,) “’Wait, what you mean?’” (has a “do” missing.) eLamber2033 (previously always Lambert2033.) f“I listen to rapid beat of the pulse” (the rapid beat.)
1“designed restore perfect vision” (designed to restore,) homeopathy/ic, (I prefer homoeopathy/ic, or, better still, homœopathy/ic.) 2The Beachcomber Presents is missing from the contents page (as is the Interview with Cory Doctorow.) 3focussing (x 2, focusing,) half an hours (hour’s.) 4“people the company think no one will miss” (people the company thinks no one will miss,) “occur to to” (omit a “to”,) “easily elided; Indigenous …” (It wasn’t a new sentence, hence no capital I needed at indigenous.) 5milieus (milieux.) 6sci-fi. (SF. Please.) 7“starts off strong” (strongly,) “there a two or three” (there were two or three; or, if Scottish, there were a two-three,) “provided in extended depth” (an extended depth?) “Each song effecting us in a way” (affecting us.) 8mediaeval (hurrah!) “lack if manpower” (lack of.) 9Roberts’ (Roberts’s.) 10“Bud-Eyed Monster” (Bug-Eyed?)

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Orbit, 2017, 414 p.

A space station, the city in the sky known as Ciudad de Cielo, shortened to CdC or Seedee, has the ostensible purpose of preparing for and building a generation starship, the Arca Estrella, to continue humanity’s history of exploration. Run by the corporate Quadriga, it is the subject of jealous regard from the Federation of National Governments (FNG) down on Earth. Despite widespread corruption and venality, CdC has never had a murder, not officially anyway.

The narration focuses on Alice Blake, the new representative of FNG on the station, and Seguridad member Nikki Freeman. Like most on the station Nikki has to supplement her income with underhand dealings of various sorts. Pay rates are low, decent alcohol hard to obtain, hustling is a way of life.

This is a depressingly familiar scenario, the worst aspects of capitalist society extrapolated into the future. Granted it gives ample scope for the darker side of human nature to be displayed (and to depict acts of violence) but some authors seem to revel in it. For a long while Brookmyre also appears to do so. By the time he does emphasise the co-operative, law-abiding, anti-exploitative, do-as-you-would-be-done-by side of things it is almost too late to make the point. His good guys are really only guys who are slightly less bad. Then again, I don’t suppose a novel that is relentlessly upbeat would sell.

On Seedee people are equipped with mesh, a device for inserting memories. But there is a distancing from them, referred to as watermarking, so you know they aren’t yours. Also prevalent is the grabacíon, a kind of video clip from your vision recording system that can be uploaded instantly to Seedee’s web equivalent. (I note the abbreviation Seedee is probably only in the text in order to enable the pun “The Seedee underbelly.”) Part of the mix is a musing on the part of Alice on the nature of androids and advanced AI tech.

Since she was once a cop down on Earth Nikki finds herself called in to investigate human remains (flayed and eviscerated) floating in a “gravity-free” area of CdC. Her job is made more difficult by being saddled with Alice Blake – masquerading under a pseudo-ID – as a side-kick.

That “‘consciousness is a lie your brain tells you to make you think you know what you’re doing,’” the brain fabricates a narrative that makes us believe we experience the world objectively, is one of the drivers of the plot. On Seedee people have begun to do odd things, like a woman stripping off and demanding any random stranger has sex with her on a bar top, or a man continuing a knife fight with ridiculous abandon. All of this is connected to a leak from the mysterious Project Sentinel, knowledge of which seems to mean death.

I found Brookmyre’s use of information dumping utterly intrusive. Most of the time it wasn’t at all well integrated into the text and the time where he used supposedly naïve kids to enable it was a particular low point.

I also took exception to the sentence, ‘Humanity is born from somewhere messy and bloody and stinky.’ The first and third of these adjectives probably only apply when the second does – and that’s by no means all the time. The third in especial is a misconception promulgated by advertisers in order to sell deodorant. Taken in all, this is an extremely sexist sentiment Brookmyre should be embarrassed by. Especially since he put it in the mouth of a woman.

Brookmyre does nod to previous SF by naming the halfway station from Earth to orbit (at the top of a space elevator) Heinlein, and having a character say, “‘Find the puppet master.’” Whether or not he’s a true fan is difficult to say on this evidence (I assume he must be or he wouldn’t try to write the stuff) but it was a nice touch to have a plot point dependent on the notion of refractive index. I can’t recall that in an SF story before.

Brookmyre has never steered away from violence but in a space station environment where utter disaster is never more than a thin metal plate away surely co-operation and teamwork are much better bets for survival than a constant round of competition and one-upmanship. (Even with a wee bit of smuggling on the side – which would still be scratching each other’s backs.)

I suppose Places in the Darkness makes a fair enough fist of what it’s trying to do but it also doesn’t really distinguish itself from a swathe of like-minded SF, and panders too much to the free-market, individualist, bloodthirsty constituency. It’s far too uneasy a blend of SF and the crime novel and consequently fails to do justice to either.

Pedant’s corner:- USian usages (airplane, she could use, leastways etc) but then, manoeuvres, “the rest of today’s audience fully appreciate” (appreciates,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x2,) “she is aware that that” (only one “that” required,) “a standard container …. These are…” (This is,) “where Habitek assemble and demonstrate their test modules” (where Habitek assembles and demonstrates,) “was a soccer player” (Brookmyre is a buddy!* A season ticket holder no less. He knows it’s football, never soccer.) “There is no more screaming, no more cries or moans” (can’t help feeling there ought to be an “are” in there somewhere,) jerry-rigged (it’s jury-rigged,) “the Quadriga aren’t” (isn’t,) Gonçalves’ (Gonçalves’s,) “to home in in on” (only one “in”.)
*St Mirren supporter.

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir

Fox Spirit, 2015, 161 p.

The Stars Seem So Far Away cover

This is a set of stories set in a future Earth presumably globally warmed where the south has become parched and refugees have flowed north to places such as Svalbard and The Green Land. Though not conceived of as a unity the author gradually found they described one fictional world. Characters reappear from one story to another. There is a certain sparseness to Helgadóttir’s style evident throughout.

The scene setter is Nora. The titular woman, who is sailing her ship alone, has her own methods of dealing with pirates. More like a sketch for a story rather than the story itself.
The Lost Bonds of this story’s title are those between humans and the animal world. In a post-ice northern clime a spirit fox helps out a group of men.
Aida is a refugee to the highly populated Svalbard Islands from the drought ridden lands to the south. Her survival after the plague which has depopulated the islands again is secured by an old man. But he is dying.
InThe Rescue, Bjørg, a young girl left by her father in charge of a seed vault, lives in fear of intruders. Things might not be as she fears though.
The Stars Seem So Far Away sees Zaki travel across the deserts of what was once called the Green Land and stumble upon a crashed aircraft in which lives the man who was once an astronaut.
In A Sailor Girl Goes Ashore, Nora goes ashore in Svalbard against her better instincts only to find the place all but deserted. She does, however, meet Aida and take her under her wing.
The Breakfast Guest is a boy who is following Zaki and Roar as they journey west towards Nuuk. He offers to help them cross a lake but they sense something is amiss.
In The End of the World Simik from The Rescue is on a hunt for murderers with his squad of soldiers when they come across a group of boys whose living space inside a mountain contains a mural depicting the decline of life on Earth up to now – and into the future.
Nora and Aida come ashore on The Women’s Island where they are greeted by three women whose friendly overtures they soon mistrust.
Frostburst Heart sees Bjørg and Simik, her earlier rescuer, threatened with separation after his invitation to go to space.
In Conversations siblings Zaki and Aida have finally been reunited in Nuuk but find it difficult to talk to each other. Enrolled in school they both have prospects of joining the space programme.
The Whale in Nuuk relates the visit of Bjørg and Simik to see the remains of possibly the last such creature not to be made by humans.
In The Last Night Nora says goodbye to her sailing ship, Naureen, and is surprised by a visit from Bjørg.
Farewell sees five of our principals go into space. Roar, who’s already been, and Aida’s dog Tarik stay behind. It’s an ending, of sorts.

Pedant’s corner:-“he clearly saw it lay down” (he saw it lie down,) the text refers to the lighting of explosives (in the future? Unless the future has degenerated – and this one doesn’t seem to have,) plus points for whom, “to not let people see her emotions” (not to let people see,) sailboat (sailing boat,) “he was not much taller than she” (either “he was not much taller than her” or “he was not much taller than she was”,) sunk in (sank in,) air field (airfield,) aircrafts (aircraft,) spacecrafts (spacecraft,) “the skin didn’t lay tight” (lie tight,) boar (the creature is obviously a bear,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘Where is Gard?’.” (Doesn’t need that full stop outside the quote mark,) sunk (sank,) shrunk (shrank.)

Hugo Awards for 2018

These are for works published in 2017.

I forgot they were due to be published in August.

I’ve also been having internet connection problems recently so only looked them up tonight.

The winners were:-

Best Novel:- The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit.)

Best Novella:- All Systems Red by Martha Wells ( Publishing.)

Best Novelette:- The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017.)

Best Short Story:- Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017.)

I note N K Jemisin’s third win in a row for best novel – a record I think.

The other fiction winners were also all women. Again a first I believe.

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