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Two Months on

The Switch cover
The Stars Are Legion cover

Two months seems to come round very quickly.

Yesterday The Switch by Justina Robson dropped onto my doormat.

It is the latest book for review in Interzone – to appear in issue 271.

Issue 270 arrived earlier in the week. That one features my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion.

The Vorrh by B Catling

Coronet, 2015, 510 p.

The Vorrh cover

I had this on the back burner until I read the recent favourable review by Brian Kelly in the Guardian of The Erstwhile, the second part of Catling’s trilogy.

The book is an eccentric thing to be sure – featuring a mysterious forest, robots in basements, a more or less human cyclops, a bow forged from human bone and which has strange powers of attraction, a pioneering photographer, anthropophagi (a smaller species of cyclops – Catling seems to have a thing about one-eyed creatures – but whose heads protrude from their chests,) a ritual involving still-born or aborted children – but I fear you may have to be in the mood for it. And I wasn’t.

The Vorrh is a forest in Africa which may be the site of the Garden of Eden and may even still have living somewhere in its centre, Adam. Most of the action of the book, though, occurs in Essenwald, a European city “imported piece by piece to the Dark Continent” which lies to the Vorrh’s south-east. The time is sometime after the Great War – yet there are sections from the Victorian era featuring the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

The more or less human cyclops is Ishmael, raised in the basement of 4 Khüler Brunnen by the Kin, gentle dark-brown robotic machines. He is rescued from them by the building’s inhabitant, Ghertrude Tulp, whose lifelong chastity is broken by her attraction to Ishmael. But having tasted freedom from the basement and seen the city via a camera obscura in 4 Khüler Brunnen’s upper levels Ishmael is not content and on Carnival weekend (a time of masked, licenced debauchery) travels the city, encounters and has sex with the blind Cyrena Lohr. The next morning, Ishmael disappeared, Cyrena finds she can see. As a result of this miracle she dedicates herself to finding him. Meanwhile the ability to cure or cause affliction has become transferable from person to person.

The city’s fortunes are tied up with trade with the Vorrh for timber, trade which can only take place via creatures known as the Limboia, whose cooperation is only achieved via the delivering to them of the bodies of still-born children, an enterprise in which a Dr Hoffmann is closely involved.

There are also passages featuring a Frenchman who is based on the real life Raymond Roussel, in whose book Impressions of Africa appeared a forest called the Vorrh. Likewise the names of Ishmael and Dr Hoffmann are, I’m sure, intended to have resonances.

In that review Stuart Kelly waxed lyrical about The Erstwhile as did Michael Moorcock about The Vorrh in his review. but none of this really grabbed me.

And the Muybridge strand was odd in that it did not link to the others. I suppose it may do so in subsequent volumes but that, along with the occurrence of at least 30 instances of “time interval later”, meant I found completing this something of a chore. Those subsequent volumes may have to wait.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was a publisher’s proof (or advanced reading copy as they are now known) so some or all of these may have been changed in the final published book.
“He had been in a slithering ditch at Passchendaele for two years” (no British unit was ever in the line that long) “had witnessed spectral visions .. Angels of the Somme” (Passchendaele isn’t on the Somme – and the Angels were seen at Mons,) at 23 “he stepped from a plane” 200 miles to the southeast of the Vorrh (a plane? in what must be the very early 1920s?) Prone (in the sexual encounter described “supine” is meant,) silkand (silk and,) workingmen (working men, cargos (cargoes,) “I loosen an arrow” (x3, arrows are loosed, not loosened,) “he had survived far worst” (worse,) leeched (leached, ditto for leeching vs leaching) “the surface is clear and highly reflective” (it can’t be both those things; clear = transparent, reflective = mirror-like, mirrors are not transparent,) affliction (affliction,) Misstress (Mistress,) a missing end quote mark, octopus’ (octopus’s,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb,) gotten (got,) vise (vice,) skeptics (sceptics,) fit (fitted,) “‘She’s just a bit ruffled, that all’” (that’s all,) staunched (stanched,) parquetflooring (parquet flooring,) “’I am the only person ever to ever have photographed it’” (one of those “ever”s is unnecessary,) the butlerhad (the butler had,) on all matter of things (manner,) no start quote when dialogue started Chapter 29. “He had aged seven years enough time for every cell in his body to change. A different man climbed these shadows and stairs, so why did he feel the same?” (in Victorian times was it known that every cell in the body changed over seven years?) lay low (lie low,) laughingstock (laughing stock,) undrgrowth (undergrowth.)

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher, 2016, 450 p. Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 City of Blades cover

In this sequel (of sorts) to Bennett’s City of Stairs the action of the book is set round the Continental city of Voortyashtan, quite a few years after the events of the previous novel. The Continentals are still resentful of the rule of Saypur and, in Voortyashtan, especially of the cannons threatening its citizens from the ramparts of Fort Thinadeshi.

Saypuri General Turyin Mulaghesh has been recalled from retirement by Shara Komayd, now Prime Minster of Saypur, to investigate the strange goings-on in Voortyashtan to do with a mysterious powdery ore (at first described as a new element) which can greatly enhance electrical conductivity. Komayd’s previous investigator, Sumitra Choudhry, has disappeared and a series of strange ritualistic murders is taking place in Voortyashtan’s hinterland. Examination of the crime scenes rouses Mulaghesh’s guilt at what she did on the Yellow March during Saypur’s war with the Continent.

Voortyashtan was formerly the Continent’s main port but most of the city has been destroyed, sliding into its waters in the event known as the Blink which ended the war. Voortyashtan’s harbour and river are now being cleared by a consortium of Dreyling, the people from the Northern Isles. This project is being managed by Signe Harkvaldsson. The suspicion nags that the Dreyling are only there so that Sigrud from the earlier novel can be dragged into the tale. Bennet has made an effort here to humanise Sigrud a little (Signe is his estranged daughter) but he’s still quite cartoonish; and, while we’re casting aspersions, Thinadeskite is a strangely Wellsian name for the mysterious ore.

Despite its suspicious nature, on close examination the Saypurians can find no trace in Thinadeskite of influence of the Divine who used to rule the Continent. This is as it should be, as all these old Gods are supposed to be dead, killed either in the war or the Battle of Bulikov which ended City of Stairs. Yet the spirit of the Continental Saint Zhurgut still somehow manages to manifest in a guard who handles the gift of a sword meant for Mulaghesh and cuts a swath through Saypuri soldiers and Voortyashtani citizenry alike before Mulaghesh can bring him down.

Mulaghesh’s investigations lead to a scene where the blood – why does it always have to be blood? – of killers (herself, Sigrud and, more surprisingly, Signe) is required to transport her to the Voortyashtani nether world and its City of Blades where she believes Choudhry has gone. There, she uncovers the mystery of Thinadeskite but is too late to prevent an army of the dead from which the ore derives its potency setting out to devastate Voortyashtan. Her trip does provide her the means with which to confront them though.

Mulaghesh has something of a rose-tinted view of the trade of soldiering as a noble enterprise whose standards she fell below during the Yellow March but still strives to uphold. General Biswal, her commander during that march and now in charge of security at Fort Thinadeshi, represents what is perhaps a more realistic tradition of single-minded self-righteousness.

Its treatment of such themes of personal responsibility and the importance of relationships makes City of Blades very readable stuff.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- to not say so (not to say so. Please?) Secret (Bennett meant secrete,) “none of them produce anything” (none produces anything; repeat instances of “none” with a plural verb,) “the figure’s head….. [is] oddly swollen as if their skull is far too large” (only one figure, therefore its, not their, skull. Bennett repeats this use of plural possessive pronouns relating to singular nouns several times,) routing (routeing,) Olvos’ (Olvos’s,) off of (just off, no “of” necessary, multiple instances,) Mulaghesh’js (Mulaghesh’s,) a gazing pool (is a usage I had not come across before; it seems to mean a pool which reflects light,) each of which resemble (each resembles,) “the surface of the waters are dotted with shapes, long and thin and curiously shaped” (the surface is dotted [and shapes/shaped is clumsy],) “the ship is shook” (shaken,) putting the lives … in incredible risk (it’s usually “at incredible risk”,) “he lunges at her piling riposte upon riposte as she just barely manages to parry” (a riposte is a return thrust, not an attack; barely also appeared two lines above,) “the endless line toil up” (a line toils.)

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Orbit, 2015, 379 p

The Water Knife cover

The south-western US states have run out of water. Federal authority has all but broken down; there are patrolled borders between states to cut down on refugees. Phoenix is a dust-bowl, any refugees that have made it from Texas face a life scraping on the margins, doing what they have to do. The South Nevada Water Authority under Catherine Case aggressively pursues its water rights over the Colorado River making Phoenix’s problems worse.

There are three narrative viewpoints; Angel, the water knife of the title, one of Catherine Case’s enforcers; Lucy, an investigative journalist; and Maria, a refugee from Texas scrabbling to survive. The plot centres round ancestral water rights which once belonged to Native Americans and which outweigh all others.

It is an almost relentlessly misanthropic endeavour. Only one character states a view approaching anything compassionate, “‘We’re all each other’s people…. When everything’s going to pieces, people can forget. But in the end? We’re all in it together.’” Yet he then goes on to say what an immigrant from India had told him, “‘… people are alone here in America. And they don’t trust anyone except themselves, and they don’t rely on anyone except themselves….. India would survive all this apocalyptic shit but America wouldn’t. Because here, no one knew their neighbo(u)rs…. in America everyone had left their homes in other countries, so maybe that was why we’d forgotten what it was to have neighbo(u)rs.’”

More representative is when Angel describes “a view of the world that anticipated evil from people because people always delivered.” Contrast that to the essentially optimistic view of humanity in Naomi Mitchison’s The Bull Calves which I read just beforehand. If anything, The Water Knife actually shows the necessity for a resilient, well-ordered, balanced society, even in times of stress; but that is not an argument which Bacigalupi makes.

The back cover here reads (in part,) “One of the most exciting and original novels you will read this year.” I must disagree. It’s the same picture of degradation and selfishness peddled by too much recent SF. Only the details differ. Bacigalupi does it well though.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was an uncorrected proof (ARC) riddled with “a”s or “the”s or “it”s or other words either missing or extraneously interpolated eg “His was face was puffy” and “just another of victim of”. There were so many I gave up noting them. I hope most of these were cleaned up before actual publication. Missing start quotes if a piece of dialogue began a chapter. “she wrapped her arms around her herself,” (no second “her” needed,) “The went after the Calies” (they went after.) “Do find that’s true?” (Do you find?) “out of Hell , he’d,” (out of Hell, he’d,) “Lucy’s sister was the kind of people who broke eas(il)y” (the kind of person.)

Clarke Award Short List

I’m in Holland at the moment (unlike last year scheduled posts have been appearing okay though) so I’ve only just discovered this year’s Clarke Award nominees which are:-

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
After Atlas – Emma Newman (Roc)
Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)
Central Station – Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

I’ve read one of them but two others were on my look out for list. I suppose I’ll now be adding two more. (Yes that makes only five. There is one I certainly won’t be reading as the author’s previous book was a waste of my time.)

The winner will be announced in July.

The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 460 p. £14.99 Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 The Paper Menagerie cover

In the preface to this collection Liu says he doesn’t pay much attention to the distinction between fantasy and science fiction – or, indeed, between genre and mainstream. For him fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors over (an irreducibly random and senseless) reality; some stories simply literalise their metaphors a bit more explicitly. His position is borne out by this collection’s contents as many of the stories straddle those boundaries. Most are informed and coloured by the author’s Chinese heritage but the first few are more conventional fare.

The Bookmaking Habits of Selected Species is not about gambling but rather the ways in which different species (every sentient species it would seem) produce and consume books. In State Change Rina goes through life keeping her soul frozen in case she loses it – and her life with it. The Perfect Match reads a bit like a 1984 for the digital age. Tilly’s algorithm makes suggestions for you, finds partners for you, remembers for you. Its parent company Centillion’s mission statement is “to arrange the world’s information to ennoble the human race.” Tilly, however, doesn’t switch off.

The only story in the book with no real fantastical content is The Literomancer, who is a Mr Kan, and can tell fortunes via calligraphy. He befriends Lilly, the daughter of a US secret service operative. In 1950s Taiwan that turns out to be dangerous.

Good Hunting is set in late 19th century China, and comes over as a fantasy and steampunk cross wherein a werevixen and her former hunter’s lives become intermittently intertwined. The inventor of the titular technology in Simulacrum disgusts his daughter by using his invention in a debauched way. After their estrangement he keeps a copy of her childhood self, which despite her mother’s entreaties she still finds off-putting. The Regular sees us in gumshoe territory. Police investigators have software to inhibit their emotions and, to access their data for use in blackmail, a serial killer is targeting only those upmarket call-girls who have had security cameras built into their eyes. The police aren’t interested and (the rather programmatically named) ex-cop Ruth Law takes the case.

Multiple award winner The Paper Menagerie gains its title from the collection of origami animals the protagonist’s mother, a mail-order bride from China, made and breathed life into. As he grows, her lack of integration to life in the US embarrasses him so that he neglects his Chinese roots. Partly written in the second person An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition deals with a project to use the gravitational lensing of the sun to search for extraterrestrial signals. This necessitates sending the receiver (and the humans to operate it, one of whom is “your” mother) to a point 550 AU away. The Waves is a strange beast wherein the occupants of a generation starship face a dilemma when life-prolonging technology becomes accessible. This on its own would have been enough for most authors but Liu goes further. When the ship reaches 61 Virginis the rest of humanity has got there before them and its members are so changed new choices must be made. The Japanese narrator of Mono No Aware (Japanese for the sense of the transience of all things) is faced with a threat to the solar sails of the generation starship carrying the last remnants of humanity fleeing from the destruction of Earth.

The longest story in the collection, All The Flavours, has little fantastical content bar the traditional Chinese tales with which it is interspersed in its account of the incoming of Chinese workers to 19th century Idaho and their (ultimately successful) attempts at fitting in. Boasting a Formosan narrator, A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel is an alternative history wherein Japan proposed the project in response to the 1930s Great Depression. This being mainly an endeavour of Shōwa era Japan, regrettable incidents occur during its construction.

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King features a peasant lawyer (or vexatious litigant according to taste) who can see and converse with the demon spirit Monkey King. His coming into knowledge of a suppressed book describing the atrocities of the Yangzhou massacre a century before constricts his options. In The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary the discovery of quantum-entangled Bohm-Kirino particles allows the past to be witnessed but the process of doing so destroys the evidence. Its inventor wants to demonstrate to the world the realities of Unit 731, the site of Japanese medical experiments on prisoners during World War 2 in Harbin province. Politics remains politics though.

Liu’s stories are never less than well-crafted, he has an excellent range, and a clear eye for the subtleties of human relationships. You will read worse.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- a team trace out (a team traces out,) “Eliot could not have written, and the world would have understood, Four Quartets without the scent of Eliot’s soul,” (either “not” is missing before “have understood” or the tense is awry – “nor the world understood” instead?) “so much of their lives are lived in..” (so much is lived in…,) over this shoulder (his shoulder,) to not ask (not to ask,) “the jade from which the cups were made had an inner glow to them” (the jade had an inner glow to it,) “all you’ve said simply show” (all you’ve said simply shows,) one of the older man (men,) of of (just “of”,) accused with murder (accused of murder,) Femal (Female? But this was in an extract of a poem in olde style language,) sprung (sprang,) “the flight of neutrons are determined” (the flight is,) “about ten years in age” (of age,) sheepherding (okay; shepherding has a different ring to it,) “a 120 miles per hour” (120 means one hundred and twenty; there is no need to preface it with “a”,) United Stat es (United States,) “more and more evidence … have come to life” (has come to life,) “reformed through ‘re-education’, They were released” (they.)

Shoreline of Infinity 3; Spring 2016

Shoreline of Infinityy 3 cover

In this issue there is an interview with Dee Raspin winning author of Shoreline of Infinity’s Story Competition for readers (from issue 1.) In SF Caledonia1, Monica Burns looks at the work of David Lindsay, especially A Voyage to Arcturus. Reviews2 gave a thumbs-up to five of the six novels considered. MultiVerse3 has two poems apiece from Jane Yolen and Marge Simon. Parabolic Puzzles4 asks how many aliens and fingers there are in a bar full of them.

In the fiction:-
Time for Tea5 by J K Fulton features an embedded 1.0 human-equivalent AI coming back to consciousness after over 3,000 years to find everything has changed but its Imperatives. Since it’s a kettle, those are to make tea.
The Slipping6 by Miriam Johnson. A new personality takes over a body from inside then sloughs off the old covering.
Lacewing7 by Edd Vick is a one-pager where two lovers have all of time and space at their fingertips. In the Jurassic they see and name a butterfly.
In Into the Head, Into the Heart8 by Thomas Broderick, a bar that successfully banned all modern technology has started to decline when a young inventor brings in a machine that will give people the nostalgic experience they want. Business booms, but the response of the inventor when the machine’s flaws are revealed is, to my mind, almost the opposite of what would be likely from the type.
It’s Been a Long Day by Tracey S Rosenberg. Lindia has foreknowledge of the deaths of people she meets. Her attempts to prevent that of newscaster Balcan Dobbs fail in a way she hasn’t foreseen.
We Have Magnetic Trees by Ian Hunter is narrated from the points of view of former sheep farmers who have tried everything to make a success and yielded to WEErd Wonders products genetically modified to withstand constant downpour. They worry it’s the thin end of the wedge. Notable for the use of the Scots word gubbed.
Pigeon9 by Guy Stewart conflates a real Wellsian time traveller with a past USA in which the passenger pigeon was not wiped out.
*The Great Golden Fish10 by Dee Raspin sees a widowed crofter from the time of the Highland Clearances rescued from his plight by a giant robotic golden fish.
The Beachcomber11 by Mark Toner is a graphic story using the ploy of an interplanetary beachcomber to enable a retelling of part of E E ‘Doc’ Smith’s The Skylark of Space (which on this evidence must have been the most godawful tosh. I may have read it as a boy but if so I’ve blanked it out.)
Extract from A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. Chapter Six in its entirety. This seems no less odd now than did the whole book when I read it in the long ago.

Pedant’s corner:- 1A in the Editor’s introduction an “of” is missing. 2 “her heavy modifications…. puts” (put,) “on the way to a hanger in Texas” (a hanger? A hangar is more likely,) a list of “what is”es none of which has a question mark after it, the Dettman’s (Dettmans; it was plural.) 3two lovers (lovers,) “with it fierce seers” (its.) 4“A gaggle … were” (a gaggle was,) “from the dangers gravitational waves (of gravitational waves.) 5“Their qualia, their subjectiveness, has gone” (OK subjectiveness is singular, qualia isn’t; but “their subjectiveness” was parenthetical: so, have gone,) “not what I remember dogs and rabbits to look like” (not what I remember dogs and rabbits looked like would be more natural but the narrator is an AI.) 6Written in USian – though curiously “manoeuvre” is rendered the British way, “I don’t know if he thought he could reverse it?” (is not a question,) “pulled handkerchief out” (a handkerchief,) too many instances of “time interval” later, “a multi-national cooperation” (reads oddly but this is SF, could be a portmanteau word formed from corporation and cooperative,) “I may have lost it” (might have.) 7Written in USian. 8Also written in USian, mat black (matt), “finally talking a look around” (taking.) 9Written in USian, H G Wells’ (Wells’s.) 10fit (fitted.) 11One speech bubble carries the phrase “46.72 light-centuries right?” as a calculation of distance from Earth, the next has a “character” say “We’re nearly five thousand light-years from Earth.” To compound this, then is added “and getting further at a rate of about one light-year per minute.” !!!!

Mathematical Time Travel

According to this post from The Daily Galaxy, time travel is mathematically possible.

Not by a time machine as such but in “a bubble of space-time geometry which carries its contents backward and forwards through space and time as it tours a large circular path.”

Ben Tippett from the University of British Columbia has created a formula that describes the method. Unfortunately that formula the does not figure in the post. The method also requires bending of space-time by exotic matter – which hasn’t been discovered yet/ Might as well be Science Fiction.

The bubble is described as a Traversable Acausal Retrograde Domain in Space-time. The acronym spells TARDIS. Ha very ha.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A Novel in Nine Parts. Sceptre, 1999, 446 p.

Ghostwritten cover

The novel is true to its sub-title. The first eight parts are all narrated in the first person from the respective viewpoints of a brain-washed cult member, perpetrator of a gas attack in a Japanese subway (in thrall to His Serendipity); a young half-Korean worker in a Tokyo shop selling jazz records; a compromised English banker in Hong Kong; a woman whose misfortune it was to live in China through most of the Twentieth Century; a mind-dwelling entity who can transmigrate from person to person by touch; a gallery attendant in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, who is an agent of an art-stealing syndicate; a London-dwelling, womanising ghostwriter; a female Irish physicist with the key to making atomic weapons worthless; and to round off we have transcripts from the broadcasts of Night Train FM, 97.8 ‘til late. The last two are awfully familiar but I can’t put my finger on from where (beyond the section set in Ireland in the same author’s The Bone Clocks.)

At first the connections between the parts seem tenuous, that between one and two is a misplaced phone call, between two and three seems to be a reference to the couple embarking on a love affair in part two, but gradually, the more sections come into play, the more resonances between them build up. Still, the Queen Anne chair mentioned in Hong Kong and a biography of His Serendipity seem lobbed into the London section when they arrive, gratuitous intrusions; the Music of Chance is the name of the ghostwriter’s band but also occurs as a phrase in a later section. Each part, though, is wonderfully written, suspending disbelief is never difficult – except in the case of the transmigrating mind entity, an interpolation of the fantastic which seems at odds with the realistic tone of the other parts. But then we find the fulcrum on which the novel comes to turn is a process called quantum cognition. This is not merely smuggling quantum physics into the literary landscape but making it the book’s focus – a piece of bravery (or potential folly) in a first novel which almost makes the previous mind-hopping seem mundane. “Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” is not the sort of comparison common in literary texts.

Asides like, “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,” or “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up,” is perhaps over-egging the pudding, however. “Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous,” is a pessimistic view of humanity. The last bit is always worth repeating, though.
The pessimism is carried on by phrases like, “‘Loving somebody’ means ‘wanting something’. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things,” but “‘womanisers are victims – unable to communicate with women any other way. They either never knew their mother or never had a good relationship with her,’” is more compassionate. The killer line follows as the womaniser is told, ‘I don’t quite know what you want from us. But it’s something to do with approval.’”

At one point one of the narrators says, “Italians give their cities sexes…. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.” I suspect all cities are secretly gay. “The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity,” is either a prescient thesis or one now in the process of hard testing.

Ghosts, of memories and of sentience, begin to permeate the book. “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,” while, “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting….. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us,” which leads to, “The real drag about being a ghostwriter is you never get to write anything beautiful.” Pessimism again.

But, “Technology is repeatable miracles.” That is the age in which we live.

I read in a recent(ish) review (of Slade House?) the opinion that Ghostwritten is still the best Mitchell has done. Not for me, of the ones I have read that would be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet but in Ghostwritten I found the intrusion of the fantastical elements took away from the whole. Perhaps if they had been fully present from the start – part one is in the viewpoint of a delusion sufferer, true, but it is only the later parts which suggest it may not be a delusion – I would have felt differently, but I suppose in that case Mitchell might not have found a publisher. It’s brilliantly written and the characterisation is superb, but paradoxically, I thought Ghostwritten came to something less than the sum of its parts.

Pedant’s corner:- “The rest of for ever in a cell” (forever,) in paper bag (in a paper bag,) the owner of the greengrocers across the street (greengrocer’s) he jubilated (as an example to be avoided of an alternative to “he said” that is an absolute cracker,) I stunk (stank,) flack (flak,) uppercutted (uppercut?) leeched (leached,) emporers (emperors,) wracked (racked,) a group of … were waiting (was,) “There are less than one hundred left” (fewer than,) noncorpi (Mitchell’s previous plural form for noncorpum was noncorpa.) “like a virus within a bacteria” (bacterium,) reindeers (reindeer,) Ulan-Bator (Ulan Bator,) more muscle that (than,) a trio were playing … (a trio was playing,) some passersbys (passersby,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) staunch (stanch,) acquatic (aquatic,) the only good thing about Oxford Street are (things; or “is”,) I’d betted (bet – used 12 lines above!) Kyrgistan (nowadays spelled Kyrgyztan,) scaley (scaly,) wrapped into ((wrapped in,) Maise (Maisie – but it may have been an affectionate diminutive,) “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Whiter,) “ ‘We skipped the last fandango” (light fandango.) “The only words for technology is “here”, or “not here” (The only words are,) “in Dr Bell and my case” (in Dr Bell’s and my case,) the aerobatic corp (corps,) practise (practice,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie,) coup d’etats (coups d’etat,) the Brunei’s (the Bruneis.)

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2015, 477 p.

 Aurora cover

This is Robinson’s take on the generation starship novel, wherein he makes it clear what a risky and unlikely undertaking such an adventure would be. The ship contains a microcosm of Earth habitats spread through various biomes in an attempt to provide the future colonists with the wherewithal to survive on landfall and subsequently thrive.

We begin with the generation born just before arrival at the destination (Tau Ceti). The viewpoint is that of Freya, a seemingly cognitively impaired child (but really only mathematically) and whose deficiencies are symptomatic of the ship’s growing imbalances. Her mother Devi is the ship’s troubleshooter, interrogating and solving problems as they arise but increasingly frustrated at the finite nature of her resources.

The book has an odd structure, topped and tailed by sections focusing on Freya but with the five interior sections ranging more widely. The occasional odd word choice and sentence structure are clarified when it becomes obvious that the (five section long) middle part of the book is being narrated by the ship’s quantum computer AI. Comments such as, “How to decide how to sequence information in a narrative account? … sentences linear, reality synchronous. Devise a prioritizing algorithm, if possible,” give some of the flavour here.

The target world, Aurora whose name is given also to the ship, orbits gas giant Planet E. The colonists begin to set about making it habitable – a very long-term project – but a setback when one is injured, her sealed suit punctured, which leads to the death of not only her but also those with whom she shared the tented living space they’d set up, means abandonment. Those who had remained on the ship are evenly split between “stayers” – willing to try another candidate moon in the system – and “backers” – those who want to return to Earth. Conflict ensues – a rather depressing authorial conclusion here; you might have thought people would avoid that in such a situation. The novel then follows the backers on their long trip home alleviated by the somewhat fortuitous (for Robinson’s purposes; deus ex machina thy name is god) development of hibernation technology on Earth (in radio contact with the colonists throughout) in the interim.

Many passages are given over to Ship pondering its liability to succumb to recursive programmes and what is known as the halting problem plus other philosophical conundrums to do with language and existence, including a discourse on metaphor and numerous references to the presence of metaphors when they occur in the narrative thereafter. All of which is interesting enough at an abstract level but is no more than filler. Yet Robinson appears more interested in this and in the nuts and bolts of interstellar travel, its inevitable flaws, its lack of controllability, than in any of the humans he is depicting.

Some have been intrigued by the proposition that the most interesting character in the book is an AI. While that is true it is only because the so-called humans are little more than ciphers. Moreover it seemed at one point that the whole thing was devised solely to allow Robinson to make a pun on the phrase “halting problem”. Ship’s late conclusion that, “Love gives meaning,” is not borne out by any of the preceding prose.

File under “worthy, but no more”.

Pedant’s corner:- “a group of people ascend (a group ascends,) a group are packed (is,) ten g’s (an abbreviation subsumes its plural; so, ten g – multiple instances of g’s but towards the end of the book only g was used,) 1.28 deaths for every 100,000 births (that ratio would surely lead to a very rapid overpopulation of the ship and it is a plot point that human fertility is rigidly controlled,) a missing question mark, “and diffuse nebula” (nebulae,) flatted to white (what’s wrong with flattened?) “north of the Aurora’s equator” (no “the”,) “like Terran deltas [origin of phrase delta v?]” (a misdirection by Robinson – in the guise of the ship’s AI – as he must surely know that the “v” in “delta v” stands for velocity,) a series … were held (a series was held,) the median times…. was (the median time… was,) “‘Bacteria exposed to vacuum doesn’t grow very fast’” (OK it was dialogue but bacteria is plural; so, don’t grow very fast,) so that maybe (so that may be,) helmiths (helminths,) protozoa and amoeba (ameobae,) ambiance (ambience,) 2mankind … increased their destructiveness” (its,) “sent up to Tau Ceti” (sent us,) “she scoops up little sand crabs that makes her cry ‘Eek’” (make. )

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