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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.)

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

Interzone 266 Sep-Oct 2016

TTA Press

Interzone 266 cover

Stephen Theaker’s Editorial muses on awards; their disadvantages and their necessity. Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 discusses Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katharine North favourably while Nina Allan reflects on the connections between classical and folk music on the one hand and the weird/faery on the other.
In the Book Zone I review Alastair Reynolds’s Revenger (recommended.) Also gaining approval are Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (even if it does require a sequel,) Peter S Beagle’s Summerlong and Gaie Sebold’s Sparrow Falling.
In the fiction, Tade Thompson’s The Apologists is set in the aftermath of an invasion of Earth by aliens who hadn’t realised it was inhabited. Discovering their oversight, they keep six remnants alive on a simulated world.
Extraterrestrial Folk Metal Fusion2 by Georgina Bruce is a tongue-in-cheek tale of the discovery of a signal from outer space which is soon parlayed into opportunities for profit, either personal or monetary.
Narrated by the best friend of the test pilot (who tells him what happened in a disturbing first flight) Ray Cluley’s Sideways3 is an excellent, affecting story about a 1950s rocket propelled prototype craft that can go sideways. That word is deployed strategically throughout the story to underline its strangeness.
In Three Love Letters From an Unrepeatable Garden by Aliva Whiteley the titular letters are to the lover of a gardener protecting a unique but dying flower.
One by one in The End of Hope Street4 by Malcolm Devlin, the houses in the street become unliveable. If you are in them when they do then you die. A tale of neighbourliness in adversity but told in an oddly distanced way.

Pedant’s corner:- 1octopi (it’s not Latin!! The Greek plural is octopodes but octopuses is perfectly good English,) the real meat… lays in (lies in.) 2maw (it was a black hole so I suppose could be interpreted as a stomach.) 3sliver mirror (silver,) 4he was stuck with a … sense of horror (struck?) inside of (inside x2; ditto outside of,) the community prided themselves (itself,) there had been only few major incidents (there had been few, or, only a few,) everyone was on their feet (was, so everyone is singular; so how then, their feet? Avoid such a construction,) the neighbourhood fought to free themselves (ditto, neighbourhood is singular,) to examine it closer (more closely.)

And Another…

 Revenger cover

A proof copy of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds landed on my door mat last week.

It’s the latest book I’ve received from Interzone for review purposes.

I must confess it was a bit of a surprise as, though I had expressed interest in reviewing it, I thought I was in line for a different book altogether. No complaints though.

The review is due in before the end of the month and is scheduled to appear in issue 266 shortly thereafter.

I’ll need to get reading it then…..

This Year’s Hugo Award Nominees

All the nominees are listed here.

I don’t think there’s been much (if any) of a stooshie this year over ballot-rigging by Sad or Rabid or any other kind of puppies.

As far as the fiction goes I have read the ones in bold:-

BEST NOVEL (3695 ballots)

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

BEST NOVELLA (2416 ballots)

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)

BEST NOVELETTE (1975 ballots)

“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb2015)
“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)
“Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)
“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

BEST SHORT STORY (2451 ballots)

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)
The Commuter by Thomas A. Mays (Stealth)
“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)
“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)

Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2015, 600 p.

 Poseidon’s Wake cover

Poseidon’s Wake is the third book in Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children series, my reviews of the first two of which, Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze, can be found by following the links. By the time of this novel the enhanced elephants to which Goma Akinya has devoted her life on Crucible, the planet of the sun 61-Virginis round which humans first encountered the enigmatic machines known as Watchkeepers and where is sited the still mysterious construction the Mandala, left by the M-builders, are losing their intelligence to genetic drift. Things are stirred up however when a message is received from the direction of the star Gliese-163 hitherto thought not to have been visited by humans. The message contains only two words, “Send Ndege.” Ndege is Goma’s mother and was the instrument by which Crucible’s greatest disaster, the sudden loss of the habitat Zanzibar girdling the planet with a ring of its remains, occurred when Ndege managed to activate the Mandala. Despite Crucible’s relative poverty an interstellar ship is prepared but Ndege is thought too old to withstand the rigours of such a journey and Goma goes in her place.

Meanwhile on Mars, Kanu Akinya, like Ndege a child of one the Chiku Akinyas from On the Steel Breeze, suffers extremely severe damage in a terrorist incident. The machines of the Evolvarium – to which he had been an ambassador – manage to revive him though, but while doing so insert into his consciousness one of their own, an intelligence named Swift. Under Swift’s influence he deviously procures a lift to Europa on a ship belonging to his ex-wife Nissa Mbaye. From there he retrieves his own interstellar ship and sets off for Gliese-163.

The narrative follows Goma and Kanu and their various companions in alternate chapters till very near the end of the book. Goma experiences troubles en route to Gliese, Kanu less so but things only really motor up when we get to that system which contains a huge waterworld, Poseidon, with strange wheel-like objects protruding from its ocean up into space. Poseidon moreover is guarded by lots of moons, getting too near which provokes them to “examine” intruders and induce in them a phenomenon (felt as “the Terror”) as a result of its revelation of knowledge of the end of the universe. These guardians do not allow the Watchkeepers anywhere near Poseidon but only creatures of a certain degree of consciousness. The signal which brought them all to the system had had nothing to do with Poseidon though. It was sent by Eunice Akinya, progenitor of the Akinya clan, not now the artilect we met in previous books but restored to human form by the Watchkeepers. Also in orbit in the system is part of Zanzibar the habitat it was thought Ndege had caused to be destroyed. This (large) remnant of Zanzibar is run by Dakota, an enhanced elephant now at the level of human intelligence or beyond, who fell out with Eunice and banished her – along with six elephants loyal to her – to Orison, another planet in the system.

This set-up takes some while to put in place but even once we get to Poseidon the pay-off there isn’t as great as a three book sequence perhaps requires. Reynolds has though left ample scope for further exploration of his scenario.

Further note: compare the cover of this book to the previous two in the sequence.

Blue Remembered Earth cover
 Poseidon’s Wake cover

 On the Steel Breeze cover

That is seriously odd. When I first saw Poseidon’s Wake’s cover I thought Reynolds had published a novel not in the sequence. I know that the paperback covers are now in broadly similar form but for owners of all three in hardback it will make their shelves look askew.

Pedant’s corner:- The inside cover blurb has the message to Crucible which kicks things off reading as “Send Nedgi.”
Despite the speed of light being an absolute barrier the habitat Zanzibar was transported seventy light years with the people (and elephants) on board feeling only a few days at most had passed “in their frame of reference.” Surely even at only a fraction under the speed of light they would experience the interval as being much longer than this? I must confess, though, the intricacies of time dilation effects are beyond me.
Otherwise:- with offset with disquiet (was offset,) ‘I feel obligated to point out’ (I feel obliged to point out,) they might yet make it our alive (out,) the new generation of engines were faster (the new generation was faster,) before any of them were allowed (was allowed,) the link between his name and artist’s (and the artist’s,) epicentre (centre,) rolled over into his belly (onto,) ‘what his surname?’ (what’s his surname?) inside the orbit of the moons (orbits,) ‘Have you told spoken to her about it?’ (no “told” needed,) ‘with disarming speed – and an equally disarming lack of concern for their own safety – the figure appeared to descend the crag in a series of perilous backward hops’ (the figure; therefore “its” own safety,) ‘we might have wait’ (to wait) Nhemedjo (Nhamedjo,) ‘as to not matter’ (as not to matter,) rigor (rigour,) appraised (apprised,) ‘that we still recovering (we are still recovering,) had brought some valuable time (bought,) forsee (foresee,) a skull-faced person clasping their hands to the bony bulb of their head (her/his hands, her/his head,) ‘into it deepest secrets (its,) ‘when we returned from Poseidon (return,) it might signal a change of heart on Dakota’s behalf (on Dakota’s part,) ‘I’d be glad if weren’t going deeper now’ (if we weren’t,) rancor (rancour,) waiting the deliverance (awaiting the deliverance,) a century and half (a century and a half.)

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Tachyon Publications, 2015, 194 p

 Slow Bullets cover

This novella starts just after an armistice in a long war waged partly on religious differences. Each side had its sacred Book, “And I’m sure there is tremendous grace and power in these words. Tremendous wisdom and humanity – as well as ignorance and superstition and foolhardiness,” but Scur was not an ardent believer and her mother, very fond of the enemy’s official war poet, introduced her to the poem “Morning Flowers.” Just before the armistice Scur was captured by an enemy patrol and tortured by a war criminal called Orvin who left her for dead. Yet she mysteriously wakes up on the skipship Caprice along with soldiers of both sides, the ship’s crew and civilians of various sorts.

But things are awry. The skip has gone wrong, they are a thousand years in the future and the ship’s memory is malfunctioning. Not only that but sometime in the intervening years aliens dubbed The Sickening passed through human space. They could change physics, turning down the brightness of suns. No remnant of the civilisation the awakened people on the ship can remember is left.

While Scur’s desire for retribution on Orvin partly drives the story along so also does the rest of the ship’s company’s attempts to discard their differences and to preserve humanity’s knowledge. The slow bullets of the title contain information about their bearers, including personal memories, but can be overwritten. As such they are necessary to the story’s resolution, as is “Morning Flowers.”

The novella length doesn’t really give Reynolds much chance to develop character, most of the inhabitants are there to carry the plot along, but the justice Scur metes out to Orvin is not what we might expect and there is an elegiac tone to the ending.

Top Ten Space Operas

Another list.

According to Wikipedia “Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.”

Partly as a comment on the sub-genre and also as an attempt to subvert it I provided my own novel A Son of the Rock with the tagline “A Space Libretto” mainly because – while it roamed the spaceways and deployed technology – advanced abilities and weapons were largely, if not completely, absent.

As to Space Opera itself, Gareth Powell has posted a list of what he considers a Top Ten of Space Operas on his website. It leans heavily towards relatively recent works.

As you can see I’ve read all but three of them.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Space by Stephen Baxter
Excession by Iain M. Banks

On The Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon’s Children 2 Gollancz, 2013, 483 p. Reviewed for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

In Blue Remembered Earth, the previous volume in Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children sequence, the Akinya family was instrumental in the development of the Chibesa-drive engine which drastically increased the maximum speed of space travel. On the Steel Breeze is set a very long generation or so after the events of the previous book and the family is now much less powerful. Chibesa physics has allowed hollowed out asteroids dubbed holoships to be sent out in strings – Reynolds nods to history by using the term caravans – to various promising destinations in the stars. These holoships are each large enough to be able to house herds of elephants as well as the emigrating humans. Life prolongation techniques are so far advanced that withdrawal of such treatment is used as a punishment for crimes – a generation’s life span is now measured in several hundred years. Chiku Akinya, great-granddaughter of Eunice Akinya the begetter of the Chibesa drive, has an unusual triple identity. A process called Quorum Binding has stamped Chiku’s personality and memories on three indistinguishable bodies (her original and two clones) which are able to communicate almost telepathically deeply. Chiku Red set out after Eunice Akinya’s ship; Chiku Green is on the holoship Zanzibar, en route to Crucible, the extra-Solar planet with the enigmatic structure known as the mandala, discovered by the telescopic array Ocular; Chiku Yellow stayed on Earth. The novel intertwines the fortunes of the three Chikus. Making a reappearance is the artilect of Eunice – an AI in human form, as close an approximation to the human original as possible – which Chiku’s mother developed in the earlier novel. “She” is in a hidden chamber on Zanzibar tending a set of enhanced, “talking” elephants known as Trantors.

Much of the initial action takes place on Zanzibar, in whose caravan experiments to develop post-Chibesa physics have been proscribed. Travertine (who for some reason has a set of personal pronouns, ve, ver, vis, all to verself) has caused hundreds of deaths by an illegal but vital experiment. The holoships have been accelerated too much to be slowed down effectively enough by their Chibesa engines. The caravan’s politics, though, are set against the necessary research.

Back on Earth Chiku Yellow, with the aid of the merfolk of the United Aquatic Nations who reunite her consciousness with the returned Chiku Red’s, acts on a communication from Chiku Green to seek out a woman who can facilitate contact with their founder, Arethusa, who in turn may have knowledge that not all is as it seems on Crucible. This necessitates a journey to the surface of Venus (and, later, Mars and Hyperion.) Here the plot, as in Blue Remembered Earth, comes dangerously close to pulling the characters around the Solar System to show off the author’s research or to provide a set piece drama. The inevitable disaster with the space elevator connecting to Venus’s surface demonstrates the Chikus have a dangerous enemy. This is the “machine distributed consciousness” called Arachne which oversees the data produced by Ocular and has infiltrated the aug, the controlling agency of the Surveilled World familiar from Blue Remembered Earth. The secret Arachne is protecting is the presence in orbit round Crucible of over twenty enigmatic pine cone-like spaceships dubbed Watchkeepers.

Plot aplenty to be going on with then, and the above merely sketches the set-up. The playing out of the politics of Zanzibar’s caravan, involving the clandestine construction and launch of a scout ship to reconnoitre Crucible, the repression and conflict which ensues, the true situation on Crucible, fill out the story. The scout party’s meeting with Arachne’s avatar on Crucible verges on fantasy territory, though. While any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, in Science Fiction some degree of explicability is generally thought desirable.

Despite the space travelling elephants (and the light aeroplane able to fly within their hidden chamber in the holoship,) the mandala and the Watchkeepers, Reynolds doesn’t quite hit the sense of wonder button squarely with this one. The scale fails to register. (That may just have been a jaded reviewer’s perception, though.)

Yet with his holoships Reynolds has – much as he did in Pushing Ice – re-imagined the generation starship trope, albeit with less of a focus on the ships’ passengers than in novels of yore. Also in the mix, though such is the detail of Reynolds’s future that they have not yet been explored in any detail, is a Big Dumb Object in the shape of the mandala and a kind of first contact (the Watchkeepers.)

An example of the possibility of avoiding what the Watchkeepers apparently think is the inevitable conflict between organisms and artilects, Eunice poses the question of what it actually means to be human – highlighting a typically human tale of stupidities, betrayals, love and duty.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Omitted “a”, a for an, doubled “the”s, “had”s and “was”es, “assesment” “compliated” a “breaking” mechanism for slowing down, an “I have strode,” “on my behalf” instead of “on my part” plus the interesting coinage “programmemes.”

Review Delivered

My review of Alastair Reynolds’s On the Steel Breeze has been forwarded to Interzone.

Reviews head honcho Jim Steel tells me I was first in this time. (We aim to please.)

It’s due for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

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