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Interzone 271, Jul-Aug 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 271 cover

Roy Gray takes the Editorial and describes a visit to the summer’s Barbican exhibition, Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction. Jonathan McCalmont discusses China Miéville’s history of the Russian Revolution October, describing it as the book Miéville was born to write. Nina Allan again reflects on SF’s distinction or otherwise as a genre and the necessity to question and reinvent its tropes. Book Zone1 has appreciative reviews of Nina Allan’s The Rift and Emily B Cattaneo’s collection Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories plus author interviews with the pair and also considers novels from Eleanor Lerman, Aliette de Bodard and Taiyo Fuji along with Ex Libris, an anthology of stories set in libraries, not to mention my review of Justina Robson’s The Switch.

In the fiction:-
Julie C Day’s The Rocket Farmer2 has three narrative viewpoints in its 10 pages: the descendant of a long line of Mongolian rocket farmers, her daughter, and one of the rockets. It is the daughter who is the first to truly understand the rockets.
Gods in the Blood (of those who rise)3 by Tim Casson is narrated by a science teacher (who has rather unprofessional biological deterministic views about his charges I must say. But these turn out to be plot related.) The nearby Genomic Innovation Facility is manipulating human epigenetics. All this is tied in with a legend from a Sumerian manuscript.
In If Your Powers Fail You in a City Under Tin4 by Michael Reid a tentacled creature called the God Beast has settled in the sky over the city now called Duolunduo. Some people have developed superpowers as a result.
The titular Chubba Luna5 in Eliot Fintushel’s story is an interplanetary music star in a future where people’s life partners are allotted to them in accord with their biochemistry. This doesn’t turn out any better than choosing them for yourselves.
Chris Barnham’s When I Close My Eyes is a mix of SF and ghost story. It is the tale of the first potholer on Titan, a man who hallucinates his dead wife while encountering extraterrestrial life after being trapped by an ice-fall.
The McGuffin of Cryptic Female Choice6 by Andy Dudak is a spermathecal, a mechanism introduced to the womb by virus which allows women to store various men’s sperm and edit their content to produce a desired genome. The societal backlash is portrayed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“while allowing they catch up” (allowing them to catch up,) “how do you feel it has effected your life as a writer” (affected,) Goss’ (Goss’s.) 2Written in USian, “so that it spread across the table” (the rest of the story is in present tense, so “spreads”,) practicing (practising.) 3where a bunch of other kids were gathered (a bunch was gathered.) 4Written in USian, ”none of them recognize” (none recognises,) “‘can you come with?’” (with me,) “he shines it on the floor near the figure, trying not to startle them” (not to startle it.) 5Written in USian. 6Written in USian, inside of (inside,) “there used to be hundreds of words for love like Inuit words for snow” (isn’t that snow thing a bit of a myth?)

Jerry Pournelle

I seem to have missed the passing of SF writer Jerry Pournelle. This may have been because I was out of the country and not on the internet at the time.

He was apparently the first author to have used a word processor to write a subsequently published piece of fiction.

Apart from an anthology he edited and one novel the works of his in my SF collection were written in collaboration with Larry Niven.

In general I found his military SF and right wing politics not to my taste, but if I recall correctly one of his novels echoed the beginning of Robert Graves’s I Claudius (I cannot at the moment check the book concerned as it is in the garage – to where most of my paperbacks were consigned after our house move) but he was a prominent figure in the genre.

Jerry Eugene Pournelle: 7/8/1933 – 8/9/2017. So it goes.

Interzone 270, May-Jun 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 270 cover

The Editorial apologises for housekeeping issues not entirely within the magazine’s control, Jonathan McCalmont’s column argues for a recognition that the SF and Fantasy community still has a lot to do to welcome and encourage, writers and readers of black or other “minority” (my quotation marks) background, instead of discouraging them as at present, Nina Allan1 reflects on her experience as a shadow Clarke Award judge and concludes that it is difficult to argue for SF as any longer being distinct from wider literature; a novel is good or it isn’t regardless of its origin or intent. Book Zone contains Paul Kincaid’s* review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140, reviews of the latest novels from Clare North2 and Cory Doctorow plus the collaboration between Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster as well as collections by Ellen Klages and regular Interzone contributor Malcolm Devlin (who is also interviewed) along with my review of Karen Hurley’s The Stars are Legion.
(*Kincaid mentions austerity as being needed to pay for the bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis. It wasn’t. The economy was beginning to recover by the time of the 2010 election. Austerity was a choice made by the incoming government for ideological, political, reasons. The bailout merely provided the excuse for its imposition. And the measures killed the recovery stone dead.)
As to the fiction:-
In Rushford Recapitulation by Christopher Mark Rose3 women in Rushford, New York, start giving birth to technological artefacts, bringing a rush of visitors, protesters, pregnant mothers. The technology becomes less advanced as time goes by.
Like You, I am a System4 by Nathan Hillstrom features an intelligence of silicon and electric current coming to consciousness and taking over its environment. Then it interferes in the wider world.
Dirty Code5 by Wayne Simmons is set in what appears to be a simulation. The protagonist keeps waking up with a new face and is in the employ of someone who wants him to get rid of those passing on the titular dirty code by infecting others via activities in strip clubs and the like.
Encyphered by Jonathan L Howard is the life story of a man obsessed with cyphers, determined to keep his secrets (after all, we all have them) to himself till the day after his death. It is also a potted history of cryptography and cryptanalysis and contains the wonderful observation, “In those halcyon days before successive austerities and unimaginative governments, the library was a mighty thing indeed.” I’m struggling to see it as either SF or fantasy though.
In The New Man6 by Malcolm Devlin a man killed in an accident in the warehouse of the cloning company where he works is, to make them look good, revived in one of their bodies. His new body is the basic model though. The warehouse seems absurdly low-tech for a company making such a modern product.
Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse7 by Emily B Cattaneo is a tale of childhood friendship, messages in bottles, roads not taken, the regrets of adulthood and that tantalising, inaccessible, forbidden lighthouse. All this in only eight pages.
In Memories of Fish8 by Shauna O’Meara virtual tourism enabled by drone footage is the big online attraction. A young woman at the viewed end takes a drone on a journey through areas the local authorities don’t want seen. While the story’s target is compassion fatigue it strays close to perpetuating the idea that dreadful living conditions in traditionally poor countries cannot be ameliorated. Since the viewer’s country had suffered extreme drought the story might have had more punch if the situations of viewer and viewed had been reversed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1focussed (focused.) 2involunatary (involuntary,) and a sentence with four verbs whose subject is team, the first verb is singular (tick) but the remainder plural. 3written in USian; “far ahead or behind schedule” (far ahead of or behind schedule,) “Rushford’s human inhabitants where healthy and normal” (were healthy,) blunderbuss (blunderbusses,) “Inca kuipu” (quipu.) 4written in USian; ”none of you pick your own nodes” (picks.) 5written in USian despite the author being Northern Irish. 6over emphatic (over-emphatic makes more sense,) fit (fitted,) “the both of us” (no “the”; just “both of us”.) 7Written in USian. 8”that this where she lives” (that this is,) “the olfactory interpreter’s best attempt at recreating a stench that is probably far worse in person” (in person is for, well, a person; not a smell; “in reality” fits better here.)

Friday on my Mind 159: William Chalker’s Time Machine

The Idle Race wasn’t the only Birmingham group to like (Here We Go Round) the Lemon Tree. The band that recorded the song here liked that earlier one so much they took their name from (part of) its title.

The somewhat psychedelic – not to say SF tinged – William Chalker’s Time Machine was written by Ace Kefford, who had just left The Move, and produced by Andy Fairweather-Low (of Amen Corner and solo fame) and Trevor Burton of …. The Move.

It didn’t bother the charts.

The Lemon Tree: William Chalker’s Time Machine

A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 1996, 185 p.

A Short, Sharp Shock cover

A man comes to in a sea, pounded by raging surf. He tries to stop himself drowning and eventually makes it to shore along with a woman he calls the swimmer. Apart from vague stirrings he cannot remember his previous existence. The world he and she find themselves on is an odd one, mostly sea, with one long line of mountains, the spine, round its equator. There are strange humanoid inhabitants, some with trees growing out of their shoulders, others with faces where their eyes should be, still more use shells as their homes, shifting from one to the next like crabs.

The main bulk of the book is taken up with a journey along the spine to escape the brutal spine kings. Along the way the man loses touch with the woman several times before regaining contact, and hears the lores and formation stories of the various peoples he encounters. In part this is reminiscent of the journey across Mars in (as I recall) the second of Robinson’s Mars trilogy which seemed to me when I read it to be there solely to show off his research but here has more of a justification. (I noted Paul Kincaid commenting on this Robinson trait of journey describing in his review of New York 2140 in Interzone 270.)

There is one break in the spine of this strange world, traversable by a causeway at low tide, guided by the latest in a long line of custodians called Birsay. (At this point I wondered if Robinson has been to Orkney.) In the book this gap in the mountain range is called the brough. Brough actually means island but we can forgive the author this slight misuse. The trip over takes two tides with a dangerous stop in the middle where kelp bladders tied to anchors in the rock allow travellers to avoid being swept away by the currents of the rising tide. Our intrepid travellers of course have to hit it on a bad day.

The book is preoccupied with mirrors. One of the things our traveller, who has decided to call himself Thel, is told is that, “Through mirrors we see things right way round at last,” and he muses on the possibility of a landscape in reverse. On helping a group of tree-people escape from the spine kings one of them delays to rescue a mirror. Some time later Thel is pushed through the mirror into an altered spined world before finding his way back.

This is not major Robinson. The story is not much more than a novella and each chapter starts on an odd numbered page so there is sometimes a complete blank page between them. The book is further bulked out by its last 14 pages containing a “preview” of Robinson’s Blue Mars. This is an off-putting practice I hope publishers have now discontinued.

Pedant’s corner:- “the north side grew less steep, laying out until the peninsula was wider than ever” (lying out,) “some laying over the ridge” (lying,) “cursing one another under their breath” (breaths,) sunk (sank,) “ate the muscles” (mussels, I think,) miniscule (minuscule,) “and bid him eat” (bade,) “all was not peaceful” (not all was peaceful.)

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

the greatest empire that never was.

Small Beer, 2003, 255 p. Translated from the Spanish Kalpa Imperial by Ursula K Le Guin. First published in two volumes La casa del poder (The House of Power) and El Imperio mas vasto (The Greatest Empire) by Ediciones Minotauro, Buenos Aires, 1983.

 Kalpa Imperial cover

This is not really like anything I’ve ever read before, a sweeping, dazzling, accomplishment of a book, soaring yet at the same time utterly grounded, told in two parts, The House of Power and The Greatest Empire, of five and six sections respectively, a history of an empire “so long that a whole life dedicated to study and research isn’t enough to know it wholly,” a history “strewn with surprise, contradictions, abysses, deaths, resurrections,” of an empire “so vast that a man can’t cross it in his lifetime.” A chronicling of human life, then.

I doubt it has any equivalent but the nearest comparison in SF is probably Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna, mainly due to its episodic narrative, but despite its fabular nature (no empire could ever last as long, with so many ruling dynasties, as the one in this book) this is somehow less fanciful and more convincing (and I liked Roma Eterna a lot even though it was late Silverberg where he wasn’t quite as incisive as in his pomp.) Kalpa Imperial nevertheless did somehow at times remind me of translations of Chinese literature but probably only because it deals with emperors and empires and the consequent power struggles.

Despite its subtitle the book does not restrict itself to the emperors or their courts. Life in the empire is presented in an approximation of its diversity but there is no continuity between the sections, no characters carry on from one to the next or later. Instead the picture is built up from what are in effect short stories/novellas set in the same milieu. A binding link in the book, though, is that, like fairy tales, most of the sections begin with the same phrase, in this case, “The storyteller said:” but varied with one, “Yes, said the storyteller:” a, “Vast is the empire, said the storyteller:” with the last section altering the template to, “‘I’m an orphan,” The Cat had said,’”. All these help to solidify the tales, to root the book in a compelling simulation of an actual history as remembered by oral historians. But it is precisely that lack of continuity, that difference between the sections (except for the narrative tone,) that works to make the book feel like a true history.

Throughout the book there are asides on the art of story. “The reason why there are storytellers in the world is to answer those questions we all ask, and not as the teller, but as the reader,” “a storyteller is no more than a free man, and being a free man is a dangerous business,” and, pertinently to any time but certainly apposite now, “who takes any notice of the wise, these days, except storytellers, or poets?” Particularly redolent was the passage which dwelt on the phrase, “not all is said.”

There is a knowing quality to the section which riffs on The Odyssey. A legend is recited containing people named Kirdaglas, Marlenditrij, Betedeivis, Maripícfor, Briyibardó, Jedilamar, Alendelón, Orsonuéls, Clargueibl, Yeimsdín etc, with houses named saloon, rashomon, elañopasadoenmarienbad and charge of the light brigade and which also features sirens called ringostars.

Gorodischer is well-served by her translator. (Though if you’re going to be translated it must be a boon if it is done by one of the best writers around.) But the whole is a marvel of invention, a rich imagining of a world not our own but as near to it as makes no difference.

Pedant’s corner:- “time’s mirror losses all its reflects” (reflections, surely?) Ja’ladahlva (elsewhere Ja’ladahva,) a missing end quotation mark, busses (buses,) “who lived more than twenty kilos away” (kilo is used as an abbreviation for kilogram, not kilometre,) “the girl was very young girl” (a very young girl,) “in the darkness under of the walls” (either under or of, not both,) two of the women were were crawling (only one were needed.) “Five minutes later” (twice in two lines, both beginning a paragraph.) “He knew it” – death – “was waiting for him in the South too, but maybe there it wouldn’t take so long to come” (context suggests “but maybe there it would take longer to come”,) traveller’s tales (travellers’ tales?) “.. he could stay as long as he like before” (liked,) “a gesture that included that included” (one “that included” only,) a missing quote mark at a section beginning with a piece of dialogue – probably house style but it irritates me, Clargueible (previously Clargueibl,) “of the the dead emperor” (only one “the”,) “it it rose up” (only one “it”.)

Binary System by Eric Brown

Solaris, 2017, 334 p. (Binary © 2016; System © 2017.)

 Binary System cover

After the Pride of Amsterdam explodes on entering the Lunar quantum lattice wormhole Cordelia Kemp finds herself shunted ten thousand light years from Earth, with only an escape pod and her implant technology (Imp) for company. Much against the odds there is a solar system nearby with a planet capable of supporting life. While descending its atmosphere the pod is shot down and Delia is soon confronted by intelligent life-forms. The locust-like Skelt turn out to be inimical, having invaded from space centuries before and conquered most of the lands of the indigenous intelligent species on what Delia learns is named Lavinda, a planet with an elongated orbit now arcing into its short summer near one of the binary system’s stars. The Vo appear like giant spider crabs and are used as beasts of burden and mounts, while the Fahran are blue-furred simian analogues allotted menial tasks. The Skelt, though lightning fast in movement, have degenerated since their conquest and no longer have space-faring capability, being now armed with only swords and crossbows. They are however in quest of technology to restore them to their former glories. Delia’s Imp is able to analyse and decipher the alien languages and so provide translation services.

With the help of Mahn, a Fahran slave, Delia escapes the Skelt and learns a little about the Fahran religion. Unusually in a Brown story this has not originated in deep time but is a recent development. Their God, Chalto, is due to rise again at the height of summer. They set out for the site of the ceremony. Along the way they travel in a gallia pod through the hundreds of kilometre long digestive system of a summer worm, and on emergence save, from a carnivorous creature known as a ghorn, a Vo called Var and are joined by it in their trek, are borne aloft by Yarm, a kind of airborne jellyfish attracted by music, and encounter Skelt patrols, while a con-trail in the sky suggests another escape craft avoided the destruction of The Pride of Amsterdam, necessitating a detour to that craft’s landing site.

Plenty of plot and incident to be going on with then, with Brown’s inventiveness and descriptive powers well to the fore alongside his facility for delving into human nature.

The unrolling of all this, the foreshadowing of the nature of the Fahran God, the suspicion that Delia’s arrival on Lavinda was not entirely coincidental are prompts to keep reading on. Brown knows how to tell a story. If I have quibbles about Binary System they encompass the rather retro feel of the ending and that the action sequences, the conflict with the Skelt, are somewhat at odds with other aspects of the narrative. But that last is the nature of the space adventure game.

Pedant’s corner:- las (last: this was on the first page, the author pointed it out to me himself and swears it was correct in the proofs so it must have been introduced between then and the print stage. Ah well, that’s publishing for you. It looks to me like they’ve cut the “t” to preserve the line’s length.) Otherwise; “do the math” (I prefer maths,) “that shrunk to fit her” (shrank,) “going on what I have observed” (going by,) “with what he have observed” (what we have,) an upside down apostrophe, ʻ, (for a normal one, ’,) griped (gripped,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth, several instances,) under the yolk (yoke.) “The air on the pod” (in the pod,) “with a multitude rivers” (multitude of rivers,) “around the witness the festivities” (around to witness,) “No other species on Valinda possess the technology” (possesses,) miniscule (minuscule,) discoloration, (I prefer disclouration.) “‘where the line of pharl trees grow’” (where the line grows,) “connecting the highland to the plain” (high land?) “The South Africa” (South African,) “…sporting occasional multi-coloured blooms. The Skelt rattled its jaws and again” (no “and”,) “‘there were so may of the damned things’” (many,) “having drank their fill” (drunk,) “lay them end to end” (laid,) exaltedness (exaltation,) “gave of a heady scent” (off,) jerry-rig (jury-rig,) “the only sound her breathing and the skitter of Var’s claws” (that’ll be sounds, then,) “there were even a line of” (there was a line.)
“Time interval” later; 22: “in/for/within/after x seconds/minutes”; 7: minutes ago 2: ¨x seconds elapsed” 1.

The Revolution of Saint Jone by Lorna Mitchell

Women’s Press, 1988, 206 p.

Another Women’s Press book I’ve only just caught up on.

 The Revolution of Saint Jone cover

Newly ordained priest of the Church of the Rational Cosmos, Jone Grifan, has been sent as a Krischan missionary from Strylya to the pagan district of Embra in Skosha, part of the “cold, damp” Yukey Isles off the north-west coast of Yurope. These rather transparent altered spellings do not mean the locations bear more than a tangential relation to anything a twentieth (or twenty-first) century reader might recognise. Even if the text does explicitly refer to the Revelation of St John, Krischan teaching in the book is well removed from Christianity as we know it; though its central tenet – the abjuration of physical contact – is merely a heightened version of the anathemas pronounced by over-zealous adherents of present day patriarchal religions. As one of Jone’s catachumens puts it, “‘it’s “Dinny dae this” an’ “Dinny dae that.”’”…. “‘Aw the time it’s stoppin’ ye daein’ whit ye want.’” Both Jone’s nascent estrangement from the hard line and her willingness to see her new charges as people sow the seeds for her revolution.

As the above quotes demonstrate, the locals’ speech is rendered in Scots dialect, not something I expected to see in an SF book from the 1980s.

In common with other Women’s Press SF books there is a consideration of the rigidity of gender roles, subversion of which is one of the elements of Jone’s revolution. Unfortunately there is also a lot of information dumping in the book – sometimes through an embedded lecture by a character – and a large amount of telling, rather than showing.

Pedant’s corner:- catachumen (the spelling catechumen is more usual for a religious instructee but Mitchell uses catachumen consistently, or employs the contraction cat,) Bablylonianism (x 2; Babylonianism,) “The girls” (girl,) “naebody elses” (else’s,) “Everyone couldn’t run away,” (Not everyone could run away,) “point fifty-five” (oh dear, fifty-five means five more than fifty, anything after a decimal point is smaller than one, designated by a place value: hence point five five,) foreever (forever,) a missing full stop (x 2,) a lower case at the beginning of a sentence, a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) “‘you’re going you have a difficult time’” (to,) “to use if skilfully” (it,) diny (elsewhere dinny,) frist (first,) locted (located,) astronimical (astronomical,) by the cats laziness (cats’) Gannymede (Ganymede – again Gannymede was used consistently,) viscuous (viscous,) casuality (casualty,) “Fear of breaking rules… were blotted out” (fear was blotted out,) instrusions (intrusions,) “opt out the whole rotten system” (opt out of,) caryotid nerve (carotid,) “nebulus exploding” (nebulas – or nebulae!) agglomoration (agglomeration,) “a hot spark to Jones genitals” (Jone’s,) HC1 (HCl,) HSO F’s corrosion (HSOF’s,) “it’s mountain contours” (its,) two ethnic woman (women,) gunjed up (gunged,) she was being lain out (laid out,) scanning Luner’s finger’s (fingers,) “then he proceeded to telling her” (to tell her,) “what’s its criteria” (what are its criteria,) gasses (gases.)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Fleet, 2016, 373 p (plus an additional 16 pages extract of Colson’s first novel, none of which I read.)

 The Underground Railroad cover

Even if this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2017 I might not have got round to it for some while had it not also won this year’s Clarke Award (- not to mention the shadow Clarke Award.).

The main viewpoint character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, whose grandmother bequeathed (informally of course) to her descendants a small patch of ground in the slave quarters on which she grew scrubby vegetables. Cora’s mother ran away when she was small – the only runaway from the plantation not to be recaptured – and Cora tries to defend the patch as best she can, before she is pushed out to the Hob (a kind of depository for the less fortunate slaves.) This demonstration of the hierarchy that existed within the slave community is one of the features of Whitehead’s book. While Cora lives on the relatively benign half of the plantation this benignity is still only relative. Whitehead does not go overboard on the indignities and horrors but nevertheless portrays slave life in all its wretchedness, yet he doesn’t skirt over the harshnesses they endure nor can themselves inflict. Cora is female: no more need be said. Things change when the Randall brother in charge of her half of the estate dies and the whole plantation becomes subject to the whims of Terrance Randall. When she steps in to absorb his blows on a slave boy he becomes her implacable enemy and so she accepts the offer of male slave Caesar, who has been in contact with the Underground Railroad, to escape with him. They do not make it to the Station without mishap and in a confrontation with a group of whites Cora, in order to evade capture has to kill one of them by striking his head with a stone. This makes her even more of a target for tracking down.

At the Station they descend below the cellar and come to a tunnel along the floor of which run two parallel steel lines. Thus is the metaphor of the organisation which helped runaway slaves, and gave Whitehead his title, made literal. This literalisation is the sort of thing Science Fiction does and I suppose is what allows the book to be classified as such (or, indeed, an Altered History) and thus eligible for the Clarke. In other respects though the story the book tells does not rely on this speculative element – could have been written without this device – and so would lie outside the boundaries of the genre. The book might not have received as much attention without this presence of steel and steam, though.

The main sections are titled for the various States in which Cora finds herself, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” while shorter chapters relate aspects of the lives of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, captured and enslaved in Africa; slave-catcher Ridgeway; an anatomist and “resurrectionist” called Stevens; Ethel, the wife of one of the Railroad’s agents; Cora’s escape companion Caesar; and the ironical fate of Cora’s mother.

Cora ponders the US Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truth” that, “All men are created equal,” with the thought “unless we decide you are not a man.”

Set in the time and place it is there are of course frequent uses of the “n” word, which therefore appears in full in some later quotes here.

It is not just slave-catchers – and Ridgeway in particular – that Cora has to be wary of. In South Carolina she and Caesar find the authorities are collecting data about and performing medical procedures on the “coloured” – controlled sterilisation, research into communicable diseases by pretending to give treatment but really allowing the disease to run rampant, perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit – to protect “our women and daughters from their (the coloureds’) violent jungle urges” which was understood “to be a particular fear of southern white men.”

Whitehead tells us, “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. More slaves led to more cotton.” But more slaves represented a problem. “Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers.” North Carolina’s response was to advertise for Europeans to be indentured for a while to pick the cotton. “In effect they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.” Coloured men and women were banned from North Carolina soil on pain of death. Bodies of those unable to flee lined the so-called Freedom Trail for mile upon mile.

The resurrectionist anatomist reflects on the irony that, “when his classmates put their blades to a coloured cadaver, they did more for the cause of coloured advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

About the excesses of his fellow slave patrollers Ridgeway ruminates, “In another country they would have been criminals. But this was America.” And later, that justification of acquisition, “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property. slave, or continent. The American imperative.” Later he tells Cora about the country they are travelling through after she is captured, “Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.” Ridgeway describes the American spirit, “to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches and finds a temporary refuge in Indiana where a black speaker orates, “‘Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

On her first journey underground Cora was told, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, “It was a joke then from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

All nations have their darker shadows. Slavery is the USA’s original (and in the form to which it evolved, racism, its besetting) sin. Whitehead shows how the patterns it produced were engrained, embedded by the “Peculiar Institution”. The Underground Railroad is extremely well-written, its characters far more than ciphers or types – and Whitehead gives due consideration to the views of the slave-holders – but the tale it tells seems, sadly, to be as relevant today as the organisation it was named for was all those years ago.

Pedant’s corner: a pile of ball and chains (balls and chains,) “The doctors were stealing her babies from her, not her former masters” (is ambiguous. “The doctors, and not her former masters, were stealing her babies from her,” would make it clearer,) forbid (forbade, x 3,) “Every town … held their Friday Festival” (its Friday Festival,) hung (hanged,) “the fire had eliminated the differences in their skin” (in their skins,) laying (lying,) “The two rifles turned to him” (on the previous page it had been “his pistol” and “A second man held a rifle,” so not two rifles then.)

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 Shadows by 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.

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