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Interzone 272

Interzone 272 cover
A Skinful of Shadows cover

Two packages from Interzone have arrived.

The latest issue, Interzone 272, containing all the usual but no contribution from me this time.

An ARC (uncorrected proof) of A Skinful of Shadowsby Frances Hardinge for me to review for the next issue.

Ms Hardinge is another writer new to me though her entry on Fantastic Fiction lists seven previous books by her. Most seem to be fantasy works.

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2016, 430 p.

 Radiance cover

Radiance is set in a fantastical universe where the Moon and the planets have all been colonised and are unrecognisably exotic places. At times the appearance of the text mirrors this exuberance. There is a variety of typefaces, some offset on the page to the right, others to the left and some laid out as a film or play script – or even transcript.

We are first invited to “Come inside and meet the prologue.” In a comment on literary affectation she (the prologue) tells us she has been told often that she is wholly unnecessary, a growth upon the story the wise doctor must cut off.

Below each chapter’s title is a representation of a film strip with an astrological symbol in it relating to the planet or moon on which it is set. The meat of the novel deals with the life of Severin Unck, an actress since a very young child, her father a film director, her mother a camera (he was always pointing one at her) but herself in her film-making resolutely wedded to documentary, “Any story is a lie cunningly told to hide the real world from the bastards who can’t live in it.” Severin cannot tell that lie. “We think of ourselves as being in … not just a story, but a good story.” It turns out film in this universe occurred early but when talkies evolved Edison subsequently sat on the patent so that only silent movies acquired the cachet of being art.

The story is told through personal reminiscences, transcripts of both Severin’s own – now fragmentary – archive and her father’s. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, her real mother is unknown to her – and to the world except for her mother (who wishes to remain anonymous) and her father who keeps his counsel. Severin was delivered to his doorstep and he took her in and raised her without demur, casting her in his films from an early age. She had a succession of stepmothers all of whom seem to have treated her well enough, the most long-lasting being Mary Pellam. The timeline (helpfully given in a Chronology on pages 7-9) goes from 1858 to 1962.

Creatures known as callowhales feature heavily. They are massive denizens of the deeps of a water-covered Venus. Their nature is unknown except for being able to produce a universal food called callowmilk, which gets turned into ice-cream among other things.

Anchises St John grew up with Severin and has a strange disfigurement, an unhealing “mouth” on his hand procured due to him inadvertently touching a callowhale. At one point the novel threatens to turn into a detective story as Anchises is manœuvred into trying to ascertain what happened to Severin after she dropped out of the public eye. This does give Valente the opportunity to regale us with the aside, “In detective stories, women are usually dead before the curtain goes up. In fairy tales, they’re usually alive. Fairy tales are about survival. That’s all they’re about. The detective solves the woman, the knight saves her.”

There is something very odd about the celestial mechanics of the Solar System described in the text. In ours, Earth is not incommunicado for years when the sun passes between it and Pluto – or Neptune (stated in the text to be out of radio contact with Earth for 72 years.) Our Earth scoots completely round the Sun in only one year after all; so it will be on the same side as those planets again within six months at maximum (and in practice probably only obscured for a few days.) Arguably, though, this discrepancy is in agreement with the fantastical nature of the solar system of the book. When there is a bridge between Pluto and Charon and people can stroll about in the open air under the moons of Uranus what’s a little radio blackout?

In its settings Radiance is a whirling round of invention but these flourishes do make it difficult to read as Science Fiction – though as outright fantasy not a problem – and it is not until the very last pages that the genesis of this strange solar system is addressed in the text. (Even so those orbital mechanics are a bit hard to take.) Severin explains, “‘Because I am a nexus point connecting all possible realities and unrealities…. I exist in innumerable forms throughout the liquid structure of space/time, and neither self nor causality have any meaning for me.'” The significance of the callowhales is that they “exist throughout everything that has ever existed or will exist.” For, “There are a million million frames,” (in a movie) “each one of them only a little different, and callowhales move through those frames like a cigarette burn in the corner of the image. Each frame is a world, a universe.” These glosses were too late for me as by the time they came I had lost patience with the idea of the book as anything but a fantasy.

As an adjunct to the living in a good story theme we also have a character say, “‘I think we’re all Graeae… We all share one eye between us, the big, black camera iris. We wait for our turn to see what someone else saw on a screen. And then we pass it on.'”

In an aside on hiding in plain sight Mary Pellam tells another, “‘If you’ve married men twice, nobody asks what you think about when the night breeze comes sidling in.'”

The penultimate chapter, Goodbye, echoes the prologue – “There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers.” And of course in another piece of comment on the art of fiction it is not the end of the book.

Despite Valente being from the US we have “arse”, “knitted” and “bum” used in the British sense – and even maths! – but hood for the bonnet of a vehicle. Odd. Her intention for the book may be that “the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been.”

Radiance is pyrotechnic and contains some fine writing but its fantastical trappings distract more than a little from the human story it portrays.

Pedant’s corner:- parenthetical hyphens are not spaced from their content-as a result this reads oddly-put in the space please. Otherwise; sprung (sprang,) lay down (lie down,) ice flow (floe,) off of (off, just off, no of,) assaying a Charleston (essaying,) outside of (outside, just outside, no of,) “partnered in own his dance” (in his own dance?) Hades’ (Hades’s,) “Nous vous attendons pour vous” (if I remember my schoolboy French aright either the “vous” or the “pour vous” is superfluous – Nous vous attendons = we will await you; nous attendons pour vous = we will wait for you,) “‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan his stately pleasure dome decree.’” (A stately pleasure dome, ) “and, and” (the first “and” is superfluous,) “a throng stampede” (earlier throng had been accorded a verb agreeing with its singular nature – so; a throng stampedes,) Franklyn Edison (elsewhere referred to as Freddy,) octopi (octopuses, at a pinch octopodes.)

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2016, 380 p. Reviewed for Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.

 Revenger cover

The first thing that strikes the reader about this novel is that (barring two very small encyclopaedia extracts laid out in a dark green) it is printed in brown ink. This turns out to be no mere presentational quirk but is instead symbolic. Our narrator, Arafura Ness, tells us fairly early on that she has scratched her story in blood onto rough paper. (Just how rough we find out in the last chapter.) This foreshadowing of things to come belies the book’s initial brightness which has some of the tonal qualities of a Victorian Boy’s Own Adventure; except for the female lead. Throughout the book individuals are denoted by the word “cove”, spaceship crew argot abounds and there are quests for hidden treasure. In that sense it might have been a YA title and in accord with that there is first the necessity to be rid of the parents.

Fura is sixteen, well educated, but her mother is dead and her father fallen on hard times. Her elder sister, Ardana, leads her astray, into the shady environs of Neural Alley where she is tested for ability to read Bones. These are only one of many types of artefact left over from before the Sundering and allow Bone Readers to communicate instantly if sometimes unreliably across the reaches of space. Both sisters are of course adept. To gain quoins to help their father’s plight they sign up for six months service on the Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore.

Like all the other spaceships in the novel Monetta is a sunjammer with auxiliary ion engines. Rackamore uses her to seek out baubles, closed environments which contain valuable items of ancient tech but which only open at irregular intervals and for irregular times. Along with the Bone Readers the ship’s crew contains an augurer to divine those times, an assessor to determine what any finds are worth, integrators to unseal internal locks plus other specialists. Each bauble (and most of the large habitable environments in the book) has a mini black hole called a swallower at its core.

The science fictional aspects of this – a degenerate humanity seemingly restricted to a relatively small area of space surrounding the habitats of the Congregation, in an era called the Thirteenth Occupation; cut adrift from its origins in the Old Sun, a history with many gaps, with only barely recalled legends for memories, relying on tech it can use but not understand, tech more or less indistinguishable from magic – mostly lie in the background and lend the whole the feel of steampunk in reverse; while bone reading verges on fantasy. There are also aliens; especially those nicknamed Crawlies who fortuitously turned up just before a banking crash and now oversee the financial system despite claiming to have no interest in money themselves, a question as to just what exactly quoins might really be and hints of shadowy others beyond human knowledge.

Of course things do not go smoothly. While plundering a bauble the Monetta is attacked by the shadowy ship Nightjammer, captained by the notorious Bosa Sennen. Most of the crew are killed, Ardana is captured and Fura only saved by the selfless action of the previous Bone Reader, Garval. In hiding, Fura is forced to eat lightvine to survive. As a consequence she contracts the glowy, which makes her skin emit light and may affect her brain function. She and the only other survivor, Prozor, eventually gain rescue and form an alliance, which is soon interrupted by what at first seems an authorial misstep as Fura is legally forced to return to her original home. But this becomes a means to underline how much her experience has changed her. Desires for both revenge and to free Ardana have made any thought of returning to her old life intolerable. With the help of Paladin, the family robot (another remnant of ancient tech, a battle robot no less, but with much diminished competence) she escapes – a process which requires the hasty surgical removal of a lower arm to get rid of her restraint bracelet with Fura acquiring an artificial hand in its place, the partial destruction of Paladin and the devastation of her father. She again teams up with Prozor, taking ship on the Queen Crimson and working towards inveigling Bosa into a trap.

Reynolds tackles it all with brio. Yet he doesn’t ignore deeper concerns. Bosa has a rationale for her depredations. Fura regrets the hardness which has entered her soul, the deceptions she has had to undertake, the decisions made. Revenger asks the question: is the search for revenge worth the price of turning you into what you detested?

I doubt I’ll read a more engaging work of SF this year.

The comments below did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- a figure lying on their back (a figure is singular and ought not to carry a plural pronoun; so lying on her back. There are other instances of their being used of an individual,) we adjusted to the routines to the ship (of the ship.) “Whether it was my words ….but Garval’s distress seemed to lessen” (is missing something like “I don’t know” before the “but”,) two full stops at the end of one sentence, a space missing after a parenthetical dash, ‘I think I can there easily enough’ (get there,) in the opposite direction that I had come (,) adingy (a dingy,) refers to an over-wound clock (they still have mechanical clocks? – and telegraphs later,) to fight if off (it off,) was still set as it had been in when (no “in”,) “how likely is that it someone” (how likely is it that someone,) a missing paragraph indent at a new speaker, “moved you into lock” (into the lock,) for a while.Even (for a while. Even,) ‘I was part of it wasn’t?’ (wasn’t I?) the sorry state Paladin had been when (had been in when,) but there’d no reason (be no reason,) a acceptance (an acceptance,) I should never have let Vidin Quindar to bring me home (no “to” necessary,) maw for entrance, “trying not to drop the pillowcase in the process I thought of all the limbs” (full stop after pillowcase,) moved a hand to brake lever (to the brake lever,) he’d had resigned himself (he’d, or he had,) walled=in (walled-in,) skeptical (sceptical,) Cazarary (Cazaray,) just enough to pluck his interest (pique his interest? – but pluck his interest is a good formulation,) weedled your way onto (wheedled?) “Ground that had been trod” (trodden,) “as if she were holding over a new born baby” (handing over makes more sense,) “since I’d been any contact” (been in any contact; or, seen any contact,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘I’ve told you aren’t anything special’” (‘I’ve told her you aren’t anything special,’) “maybe we should be get at that first” (no “be” required,) were were, pivotted (pivoted,) wickedabout (wicked about,) “but then was so Mattice” (but then so was Mattice,) not not, sometimesd, intution (intuition,) “and was were coming back with it” (either was or were, not both,) in the all the (in all the,) “I’d shirked it off” (shucked it off?) Nighjammer (Nightjammer,) bronzey (bronzy,) “whether was that the start of it” (whether that was,) “some work to on that score” (work to do,) deviousways (devious ways,) “I stroked her hair than bid her rest” (then bid her rest.)

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Windmill, 2016, 314 p.

 The Sunlight Pilgrims cover

Though I have some caveats about it this is a beautifully written, engaging novel touching on those three novelistic perennials love, sex and death, and peopled with sympathetic, rounded characters.

Dylan MacRae’s inheritance, an art-house cinema in London, has been forced to close with heavy debts. With his mother’s – and grandmother’s – ashes he retreats to a caravan his mother had bought in the area of Clachan Fells in Scotland. Once there he finds himself attracted to his next door neighbour, Constance, whose twelve-year old daughter, Stella, is in the process of transitioning from a boy and is the object of local curiosity and sometime bullying from her classmates. All this is occurring as the ice-caps melt, the seas in the northern hemisphere are being diluted by fresh water run-off, the North Atlantic Drift is switching off and Europe is being plunged into a deep winter. The book’s four parts are headed “November 2020, -6 degrees”; “8th December 2020, -19 degrees”; “31st January 2021, -38 degrees”; “The End Has Almost Come 19th March 2021, -56 degrees”. (I have no idea why, in the text, that last date is italicised.)

Those dates might suggest this is a work of Science Fiction but it is hard to sustain that reading. If it is actually a metaphor, which I doubt, the increasing temperatures are not literalised in the way Science Fiction deals with such things and are not manifested in the characters’ interactions.

Fagan’s story is told through Dylan’s and Stella’s viewpoints and it is in effect one of relationships and family, one that could be told without any reference to external factors of climate or setting. There is a hint of fantasy in the appearances of Dylan’s grandmother to Stella but one of these was in a dream. In addition, Clachan Fells is described as if it is a remote location yet it is near a motorway and there is an IKEA within easy travelling distance, both of which would place it near a city. The deep freeze extends as far as North Africa – a touch unlikely I’d have thought. The metal door of a caravan is mentioned frequently. If anyone touched it at those temperatures their fingers would stick fast to it.

These are cavils and do not reflect on Fagan’s ability to conjure character. Dylan, his mother and grandmother, Constance, Stella, even local vagrant Barnacle, felt like living, breathing people. If the circumstances of, and reasons for, Dylan’s mother’s purchase of the caravan strain credulity a little it does not detract from the depiction of the characters and their relationships.

Constance mentions trick-or-treating to Dylan. The Scottish (and Northern Irish) term is guising. Fagan may have placed the USianism in Constance’s mouth when speaking to him since he grew up in London and she might have assumed he wouldn’t be familiar with it. In Stella’s thoughts, though, the activity is described as guising. This is a very subtle piece of writing by Fagan which would go over the heads of those unfamiliar with the original term.

It is somewhat ironic that the woman who has for years had ongoing relationships with the same two men, adds Dylan to the list, and has had other liaisons, is named Constance. I’ll presume Fagan intended this though.

The Sunlight Pilgrims contains excellent writing and utterly believable characters. Stella’s voice in particular is a joy. In The Panopticon Fagan has previously shown ability to get inside the head of a troubled teenager. In that book the adults were slightly less to the fore. Here all are wonderfully realised.

Pedant’s corner :- morgue (mainly USian, the British term is mortuary,) and later, mortician (the British usage is undertaker,) “a trail of empty wine glasses lead to” (a trail leads to,) “a pile of unpaid bills are stacked” (a pile is stacked,) “a stack of records have still not been put back in their sleeves” (a stack has not,) “none of these things are going to happen” (none is going to happen – after a while I gave up counting these failures of verbs to agree with their subjects,) “the wind farm’s nacelle rotate” (I doubt the plural of nacelle is irregular as in “sheep” or “aircraft”, so nacelles,) Ikea (it’s IKEA,) in the corner of her eyes (corners,) then they gone (they’re,) bended heads (I know “bent heads” would have meant something different but so does bended [compare bended knee,] bowed heads conveys the sense, though bowed is used on the next line,) a quoted news report says “there have barely been any bird sightings for weeks now. Those that are in nests have just frozen,” (no birds would have been nesting as late as November, when the freeze is said to have started.)

Brian Aldiss

Earlier today I read the news that Brian Aldiss has died.

At times during my youth he was about the sole standard bearer for British SF (for which actually read English SF as Science Fiction from other parts of these islands was more or less invisible till years later.) Only John Wyndham and J G Ballard had anything like as high a profile and they were very different writers.

(Edited to add: I don’t know why it was that Arthur C Clarke slipped my mind when I originally wrote this. Maybe because his output was hard SF as compared to the others.)

As a result of Aldiss’s prominence I have a large number of his books. I think The Interpreter was the first SF book I bought as opposed to borrowing them from the local library.

The latest such purchase was bought for me for Christmas by the good lady because she liked the cover so much – and she read it before me!

I suppose there won’t be any more now.

I did meet him once; briefly, at one of the Liverpool Eastercons.

One of the greats. Arguably the last of the SF pioneers.

Brian Wilson Aldiss: 18/8/1925 – 19/8/2017. So it goes.

Hugo Awards for Works from 2016

This year’s Hugo winners (for stories published last year) were announced at the Worldcon in Helsinki.

BEST NOVEL: The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)

BEST NOVELLA: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)

BEST NOVELETTE: The Tomato Thief, by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)

BEST SHORT STORY: Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)

I’m afraid I’ve read none of them. How much the balloting was affected by the Sad Puppies I don’t know and can’t tell.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Vintage, 2016, 296 p. Reviewed for Interzone 265, Jul-Aug 2016.

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

The title is an indicator, clearly alluding to a famous collection of tales of wonder, promising (as it then does) exotic happenings, digressions, meanderings and stories within stories. Yet it is also somehow unmistakably Rushdian. Exotic but recognisable, aslant but accessible. In any case, I doubt any other present day author would invite comparison to such a well-known set of stories as the Arabian Nights. But the conceit doesn’t come from nowhere. If he perhaps hasn’t addressed the supernatural quite as directly in most of his previous novels there has nearly always been more than a hint of the strange, brushes with the uncanny, in Rushdie’s work. So here we have jinn (not genies, no, we don’t use that word any more) the Grand Ifrits, Zumurrud the Great, Zabardast the Sorcerer, Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls – so slender he disappears when he turns sideways – Ra’im the Blood-Drinker, the source of all the world’s vampire stories, and the jinnia Dunia, otherwise known as Aasmaan Peri, aka the Sky Fairy and the Lightning Princess of Mount Qâf.

The narrative is couched as a looking back at the legendary time when the seals between the worlds eroded, a great storm struck the Earth and the Strangenesses began. Yet the story begins over 800 years earlier, in 1195, with the arrival at the house of the philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) of a young homeless girl. This was Dunia, indulging her fascination with human men and her capacity for love. For two years eight months and twenty-eight nights they lived as man and wife and produced numerous offspring, whose descendants, all characterised by their lobeless ears, became the Duniazát. Not named after him as, “To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.” Ibn Rushd’s dispute with the philosophy of a predecessor, Ghazali, “Only fear will move sinful man towards God,” and who stated that things happen only because God wills them, provides us with disquisitions on God’s nature, “God is a creation of human beings; the clap-hands-if-you-believe-in-fairies principle.” These differences are played out on a grander scale during the war between the worlds that followed the Strangenesses.

During that time rationality crumbled. Some found their feet didn’t touch the ground and might float away so high that they died, others were weighed down so that they became crushed. A baby born during the storm caused outbreaks of sores on anyone corrupt or dishonest into whose vicinity she came. The irrational became commonplace. The Duniazát had inherited some of Dunia’s jinn powers and were invaluable in the final confrontations with the Grand Ifrits. The whole time of Strangeness lasted, of course, two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.

Lines like, “If I get hurt in this putative affray of yours then I’m not an innocent bystander?” to a policeman from a musician at risk from the incitements of a rabid preacher show that the events of Rushdie’s life so far have contributed mightily to this – as, I assume, theirs must necessarily do for all but hack authors. Yet while the novel contains all Rushdie’s strengths, it also manifests and perhaps magnifies his faults. There is not much restraint here, there is a lot of telling, the treatment is, as ever, consciously literary and full of word play (Lebanonymous; “all the gold, men, in your sacks will not save you.”) Yet the retrospective narrator defuses any tension in the reader as to the eventual outcome. Rushdie also feels it necessary to define FTL despite name-checking eleven masters of the golden age of science fiction.

However, the book is mainly a meditation on the nature of story. “All our stories contain the stories of others and are themselves contained within larger, grander narratives.” “The first thing to know about made-up stories is that they are all untrue in the same way,” (which feels Tolstoyan but is certainly debatable.) “To tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present.” That stories tell us what we are; we tell them in order to understand ourselves. Quite where the incursion of the supernatural leaves us with that one is rather problematic. “To recount a fantasy is to tell a tale about the actual.” Well, maybe. “If good and evil were external to Man, it became impossible to define what an ethical man might be,” is closer to the mark.

In general Rushdie is at his best when his flights of fancy are tethered more firmly to earthly events, more centred on his human characters which here are too thinly delineated. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is pyrotechnic, impressive even, undoubtedly worth reading, but, ultimately, curiously lacking in heart.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- St Sebestian (Sebastian?) Nietzche (later rendered correctly as Nietzsche,) “when the princes’ attention was elsewhere” (yes it was princes, plural, ergo it should be attentions were,) bsattling (battling,) Rossonero, (Rossoneri.) In name (In the name,) one less sad angel face (one fewer – but it was narrated in tight third person,) waitstaff (that’s just a horrible conflation, waiting staff is entirely adequate,) knobkerry (I’ve only ever seen the spelling knobkerrie before,) scent to the lower world (sent.)

Superposition by David Walton

Pyr, 2015, 302 p.

 Superposition cover

Told in alternating chapters headed Up-Spin and Down-Spin – until the text’s narration merges in Chapter 40 – Superposition is an exploration of quantum theory and how it might manifest in the macroscopic world if its effects were to apply there. At the same time it is a crime story with a murder at its heart. The victim, Brian Vanderhall, was a physicist who has managed to find a way to interact with creatures from the quantum world, using their knowledge to build a Higgs projector, which can locally alter the Higgs field, thus allowing bullets, for example, to be fired at an object and pass around it, plus various other might-as-well-be-magic occurrences.

The Up-Spin chapters see Jacob Kelley relating the events surrounding the crime and its aftermath, the Down-Spin ones depict Kelley’s trial for the murder. At first the chapters are set at different times but they eventually become contemporaneous. Irruptions from the quantum world have meant that two sets of Kelley – and some other characters – can exist at one time, their probability functions supposedly spread out (superposed) in the manner of sub-atomic particles. Quite how this squares with there only being two – or at most three – versions of each is left unexplained, or, more charitably, a form of artistic licence.

As might be imagined there is a plethora of information dumping and explanation. For this, handy non-Physics-knowledgeable characters provide useful sounding boards. While necessary, these explanations do tend to the obtrusive and there are occasional other narrative infelicities.

The back-cover blurb from William Hertling, “Walton’s captivating writing will draw you in, the murder mystery will keep you reading and you’ll finish with a better understanding of quantum physics,” is wrong on all three counts. Walton’s writing is up to the task but rarely more than workmanlike, the murder mystery is the least of the attractions and the last will only apply if you didn’t know anything about it already. (Arguably even if you do. As Niels Bohr said, anyone who isn’t profoundly shocked by quantum physics hasn’t understood it.) The text also betrays some unreconstructed ideas about both the triggering of female sexual arousal and maternal instinct. The plot depends for its continuation on the lack of collapse of the probability functions of both Kelley and his daughter Alex/Alessandra yet other characters not so necessary to it revert to the one form relatively quickly.

In addition Walton represents the “split” characters as mirror images of each other. Down-Spin Kelley – and one version of daughter Alex – have been active throughout. They will require to have eaten during this time. Like most other biological molecules carbohydrates, fats and proteins are compounds which are chiral (ie exhibit handedness – all in the same sense.) A mirror image body would not be able to metabolise food molecules inverse to it (the only ones available) since its relevant processing enzymes work only with the correct handedness, and hence it would starve. This is not a problem Roger Zelazny avoided in his novel Doorways in the Sand: he addressed it straight on. Walton doesn’t even seem to be aware of it.

Superposition is an entertaining enough tale – the courtroom scenes are well realised, if familiar from countless screen dramas. And it does fulfil the function of the detective novel. If you want a primer on quantum Physics dressed up as crime fiction this is the book for you.

Pedant’s corner:- “firmly established liver mortis” (liver mortis? Not rigor mortis?) “It wasn’t until I walked around one of the card tables that I saw him.” (saw the body, rather than “him” would have had more impact,) “‘What it doing?’” (What’s,) “the stream was still projecting, a show about the real-life exploits of…” (no comma,) “like an auctioneer valuating items for sale” (USian can be so ugly at times; the word is valuing,) “and a hanging model of the super collider hanging above our heads” (well, a hanging model can only hang, can’t it?) imposter (impostor,) “each of them wavered between themselves and their double” (their doubles.) “But hadn’t Elena and Claire and Sean had already resolved…?” (omit “had”.)

Extinction by Kazuaki Takano

Mulholland Books, 2016, 512 p. Translated from the Japanese ジェノサイド (Jenosaido) by Philip Gabriel. Reviewed for Interzone 265, Jul-Aug 2016.

 Extinction cover

Jonathan Yeager has just finished a tour working for a private defence contractor, protecting VIPs visiting Baghdad – in plainer terms, a mercenary – when he is recruited for a secret mission in Africa. Operation Guardian is to seek out and kill a group who may be infected by a deadly virus but its members are also given the strange instruction to kill on sight a “living creature you’ve never seen before,” a creature which becomes immediately clear is the operation’s real target.

Kento Koga is a pharmaceutical research worker whose father, a virologist, has just died. He receives an email from his dead father asking him to look in a certain book and not to tell anyone. In there he finds an ATM card and a memo informing him about a hidden laptop of which he is never to relinquish control, an address to go to and to expect all his communications to be monitored. The building contains equipment for carrying out Organic Chemistry reactions and he is tasked with researching and synthesising an agonist for a mutant form of the protein GPR769,l to be completed within one month.

Unfortunately the prologue, which describes a meeting in the White House, dissipates any sense of mystery about the reasons for Operation Guardian as it reveals the existence of a new life form (an evolved human, or more precisely a Pygmy born into the Kanga band of Mbuti.) This may lead to the extinction of the human race and of course is seen as a threat to the US. The President here is named as Gregor S Burns but reads as an extremely thinly disguised version of George W Bush, as he ordered an invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and declared victory before the war was won.

The US security apparatus is also concerned about leaks to human rights organisations concerning extraordinary rendition (a procedure which Takano feels the need to explain to us at length.) A secondary purpose of Operation Guardian is to kill the leaker, Warren Garrett, one of its members, who wishes to intimidate President Burns into stopping rendition/torture by revealing the evidence to threaten him with a war crimes tribunal. We all know this could never really happen and like the text’s attempts to soften Yeager and the other members of the operation is rather limp. These are killers after all.

And the relationship between the two strands? Yeager’s son Justin suffers from pulmonary alveolar epithelial cell sclerosis, or PAECS, which is the fatal disease caused by mutant GPR769. There are occasional passages from other points of view which are only visited the once.

Takano has characters hark on violence’s inevitability. “We project our true colours onto our enemies, fear them, and attack them. And in using violence against others, the nation and religion are the support systems that pardon our actions.” Maybe so; but, “‘War is just another form of cannibalism. Humans use their intelligence to try to hide their instinct for cannibalism,’” Really? Again, “‘Good deeds are seen as virtuous precisely because they run counter to human nature,’” which is definitely arguable. The point is in any case somewhat undermined by Koga’s determination to succeed and the members of Operation Guardian ending up protecting the creature – a three-year old named Akili.

The descriptions of the mechanics involved in undertaking Organic Chemistry are also not convincing. And a month to synthesise a chemical’s agonist from scratch – even with the help of an advanced computer programme – is more than a tall order. The violent scenes, in addition to being curiously perfunctory, read more like reportage at a remove. Then there is the skating over of the ethics of administering an untested drug (actually two drugs; an allosteric agent is also required) on human patients.

Extinction is an uneasy mix of military fiction and thriller. A work of pure SF would surely focus more on the evolved human. Granted, Akili has an undeveloped pharynx and is therefore incapable of speech (though can two-finger type.) He can factorise large numbers into their prime components so compromising the security of encrypted data and communication between computers but otherwise his agency is limited. Not so Koga’s mysterious telephonic prompter, a further link between the two main narratives.

Whether it is a consequence of translation is difficult to determine but the writing is plodding. It is also full of redundancies and meanderings of various sorts such as a disquisition on the lack of remuneration scientists receive for their endeavours. The slightest action is described, information dumping is intrusive, often ad hoc and frequently unnecessary. One phrase read, “Yeager, who’d had reconnoitring training.” Haven’t all soldiers?

As SF, Extinction is nugatory. Action thriller devotees may wish to take a look.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the number of US war dead and Burns’s rising popularity were both trending upward” (the word rising does rather imply an upward trend doesn’t it?) “the formal internment of his father’s bones” (interment,) CO2 (CO2,) “a core structure of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen molecules” (a core structure of atoms: oxygen and nitrogen molecules are discrete entities not bonded to other things; ditto a carbon molecule – which would also be a sliver of diamond, graphite, Buckminster Fullerene or graphene,) “he hovered his laser pointer over at the middle of the map” (at it; or over it?) one faction …. are (a faction is,) “we have more of a metallic bond. We’re just atoms moving in a group” (atoms moving in a group? Electrons roaming the structure, not strictly bound to any one atom, is more my conception of metallic bonding,) coversationalists (conversationalists,) homology (homologue,) “lining up the cans of juice he’d just bought on the tatami mat” (he’d bought them on the tatami mat?) “someone was going to force his way in here and grab the laptop away” (grab the laptop,) “he knew right way what they’d done” (right away,) “still had something he wanted ask Sugai” (wanted to ask,) semispherical (usually that’s hemispherical,) lingua francas (the noun here is lingua not franca so linguae – or in English, linguas; plus in Latin the adjective also takes its noun’s case, hence linguae francae,) president (President,) “like an inverted triangle” (triangles have a correct orientation?) dumfounded (dumbfounded,) ecstatic.e (ecstatic,) “the river was hundred metres wide” (a hundred metres,) “the jostling crowd…. were dressed” (the crowd was dressed,) “Yeager looked at this watch” (his watch,) thisnk (think,) “a long thin structure with two benzene rings and one heterocyclic compound” (heterocyclic component; again a compound would be separate.) “Although the allosteric drug used together with it was of a different composition and structure, it was also made up of three cyclic compounds” (three cyclic compounds would again be separate and not part of the same drug,) was mowed down (mown,) half the vocabulary … are foreign words (half is,) if worse came to worst (if the worst came to the worst.)

Clarke Award Winner

This year’s winner is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I’ve not read but from what I’ve read about it seems to be an Altered History.

This verdict coincides with that of the Shadow Clarke jury over at the Anglian Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

One for the “to look out for” list.

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