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America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2017, 365 p.

 America City cover

Twenty-second Century USA. The sea-level has risen, superstorms regularly batter the eastern seaboard, drought ravages the southwest. Resentment from within northern states towards those fleeing the environmental disasters is building. In the wider world polar bears, giraffes, blue whales, rhinoceroses and dolphins are extinct. Right-wing Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a former haulage contractor who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, worries that the country will fall apart under the strain of internal migration. Meanwhile a wall keeps out Mexicans and other possible migrants from the south.

Nevertheless some seem still to be welcome. Holly Peacock is an immigrant from Britain who has left-wing beliefs. She works in affecting public opinion via the whisperstream – a kind of updated internet accessed via devices known as cristals which contain AI personalities called jeenees. Think of her job as nudge politics and fake news taken to altogether different levels. She is attracted by Slaymaker’s desire to accommodate the internal refugees in the north. They meet and Slaymaker convinces her to work with him on his plan to bring about accommodation between the states, some of whom have begun arguing for border controls within the US.

Beckett tells his story mainly via the viewpoints of Holly and her husband Richard but occasionally intersperses their views with those of some of the people displaced by the storms or the drought. The Britain Holly has left seems a particularly dark place but isn’t much fleshed out as Beckett’s focus is on the happenings in the USA. He only alludes to British conditions via references to her family back home.

Air travel in this future is by machines called drigs (I assume a shortening of dirigible) but they seem no slower than jet aircraft. The political parties in the US are supposed to be different from our day – an (unelaborated) event called the Tyranny lies between now and then – but Slaymaker’s Freedom Party might as well be the Republicans and the Unity Party the Democrats. At the start of the novel the incumbent President is a woman from the Unity Party. (Is a woman US President perhaps the most Science-Fictional thing about this?)

Beckett’s scenario speaks to our time as Slaymaker was a climate change denier – he even argued against Williams’s ameliorative efforts to construct machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air as being pointless – and the topic of influencing voters in non-transparent ways acquired even more resonance during the novel’s writing during 2016. However, the time-scale appears a mite elongated. The problems Beckett describes may be upon us in far sooner than one hundred years.

Holly is instrumental in Slaymaker’s successful campaign, it is her idea that swings voters behind him. The unexpected consequences of its ramifications are less to her liking but it still (unlikely in my view) does not prevent her from continuing to work for the new President. Slaymaker is supposed to be charismatic and persuasive but more detachment might have been in order.

I note that Beckett seems to have adopted Connie Willis’s habit of narrative deferment. Here it is not so irritating as with Willis but the gaps before fulfillment of the teases are still too long for my taste. In addition I found most of the characters not to be as rounded as in Beckett’s Eden trilogy. But this is a different sort of book with more of a narrative drive. It might serve as a good introduction to Beckett’s work though and find him new readers.

Pedant’s corner:- the novel is written in USian (but this is a British edition, published in Britain,) “Slaymaker lay down his fork,” (laid, though I suppose most USians use lay for lie,) the president (President,) ditto presidency (Presidency,) “‘every times he gets the chance’” (time,) zeros (zeroes,) “an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it” (a web is,) “a squadron of bombers somewhere were attacking a flooded town” (a squadron was attacking.) “None of these were” (none was,) “a steady stream of these stories were put out” (a steady stream was,) Williams’ (Williams’s,) “feeling that suddenly been blowing toward them” (that’s,) “after been shown” (after being shown,) with men and woman (women,) “a coup[le of time” (times,) Mephistopholis’ (Mephistopholis’s,) “‘I need do stuff’” (to do stuff, ) Holly says ‘different than’ (I know she’s supposed to have been in the States for 20 years but would she really have stopped saying different from? And later, in the text, we have maths, not math,) “with the other forty-eight states in a vast bloc” (land-based states,) care about things about things” (only one “about things” required.)

This Year’s BSFA Awards Short Lists

The lists have been published here.

Amazingly, of the best novel list I’ve read four out of the five.

Chris Beckett’s Daughter of Eden, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter, Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me and Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges.

My review of Europe in Winter hasn’t appeared here yet as it only appeared in Interzone a few months ago.

You may wonder why there is also no review of Azanian Bridges on my blog. Well that’s because I did some proof-reading work on it and that exercise is a little different from reading for review purposes.

The only one I haven’t read is A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers and I won’t be. I thought her previous novel was godawful. I can’t see her having improved much.

I don’t have such a good strike record on the shorter works of which I’ve read only the two which appeared in Interzone.

Malcolm Devlin The End of Hope Street (Interzone #266)

Jaine Fenn Liberty Bird (Now We Are Ten, NewCon Press)

Una McCormack Taking Flight (Crises and Conflicts, NewCon Press)

Helen Oyeyemi Presence (What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Picador)

Tade Thompson The Apologists (Interzone #266)

Aliya Whiteley The Arrival of Missives (Unsung Stories)

I look forward to reading these when the usual annual booklet arrives.

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

Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2016, 398 p

 Daughter of Eden cover

The narrator here is Angie Redlantern, childhood friend of Starlight, the protagonist of the previous novel in Beckett’s Dark Eden sequence, Mother of Eden, but long since struck out on her own from Knee Tree Grounds and living among the Davidfolk in Veeklehouse on the near side of Worldpool. Angie is a batface, one of the many such in Eden as a consequence of the inbreeding unavoidable in the scenario. She had for a long time been companion to Mary, a shadowspeaker faithful to the cult of Gela but was rejected by her after failing to hear Gela’s voice in the sacred Circle of Stones. The novel kicks off when Angie’s daughter, Candy, is the first to notice the men in metal masks coming across Worldpool in wave after wave of boats. Soon Angie’s family is heading out over Snowy Dark to Circle Valley to escape this invasion. There, in a strange left turn that falls outside the narrative pattern of the trilogy so far, the event that marks Angie’s life occurs. To reveal it would be a spoiler of sorts.

Beckett is of course examining origin myths and belief systems and here explicitly the question of what happens when evidence arises that directly contradicts the stories you have heard all your life, stories which that life revolves around, especially if they are stories on which your self-esteem and means of living depend. Well, belief is a stubborn beast. If you truly believe, you just rationalise that evidence away.

Beckett’s depiction of the evolution and entrenchment of social hierarchies is not an especially optimistic view of humanity. Perhaps all Edens are dark. Within it, however, while he shows us humans bickering and fighting, we also find loving and caring; so there is hope. Readable as always, Beckett involves us fully in Angie’s world, and presents us with characters who behave in the way we know they would. I’m still not sure about that life-marking event though.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung (sprang,) when when (this is not one of those instances where Eden folk use repetition of an adjective to express the comparative, a habit Beckett expands on later; just one “when” needed here,) me and her had fallen out (the English ought to be I and she or she and I but of course Angie is writing in Edenic,) me and Mary (I and Mary; Mary and I, ditto.) “Their bones, those that were left unpulverized, would be twice as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux” (twice as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux? Those cave paintings [being older than the bones] would themselves be three times as old as the ones referred to by the time concerned. “Twice as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux are now” would make more sense.) “Come Tree Road” (this corruption of the song Country Road is elsewhere “Come Tree Row”,) Johnfollk (Johnfolk,) a new kind of, story (kind of story.)

Review Delivered

The Peacock Cloak cover

My review of Deathless by Catherine M Valente has now been sent to Interzone.

It will appear in the Sep-Oct edition, issue 248.

Issue 247, with my review of Chris Beckett’s collection The Peacock Cloak ought to be available soon, if not already.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2012, 404p. This is the novel that has recently won the Clarke Award.

Family (there is only one, hence no qualifying article is required) lives in Circle Valley on Eden, a planet with no external light source save that of the faint Starry Swirl in the sky. The forbidding mountainous surroundings are known as Snowy Dark and no-one has ever climbed over them – nor wanted to. From the founding pair Tommy and Angela, marooned when their companions took the Landing Veekle up to the damaged spaceship Defiant to try to get back to Earth and help, Family has grown to over 500 members. Respect for tradition and its Oldest keep Family’s way of life as it has always been. But life is a continuing struggle. John Redlantern has realised that someday the food will run out. The novel describes the consequences of his actions in breaking Family tradition.

This reworking of the Adam and Eve story could have been a disaster (it is one of the hoariest clichés in SF) and there is a certain inevitability about John’s behaviour; we know it must be so to drive the plot. We also know that someone will eventually climb over Snowy Dark.

However, Beckett has peopled his novel with some compelling characters – not only John Redlantern, but also Tina Spiketree and clever, clawfooted Jeff, who is given to saying, “We are here. We really are here.” (Apart from claw feet the main genetic consequence of the inbreeding unavoidable in Family’s situation is in severe hare-lips, “batfaces.”) Moreover at the conclusion the plot also delivers a twist so that we and the characters are forced to reappraise their situation. And a nice touch is the reworking of the old phrase about Tom, Dick and Harry into a Family profanity.

The main viewpoint narrators are John and Tina but others also have the odd chapter. The frustrations John and his fellow youngsters feel at the restrictions and boredom of the AnyVirsies and Strornies where Family’s past is mythologised (mentions of telly vision, kee boards and lecky-trickity serve only to confuse the youngsters) or where disputes are resolved, are well articulated and so is the point of view of the adults who cling to what they know. The young count in wombtimes rather than years and are upbraided for it. The transition of the matriarchal, consensual, more or less cohesive Family life where even the concept of rape is unknown – there is nevertheless a lot of relatively guilt free sex – to a more confrontational, male dominated future of strife, of events allowing the domineering to take over, is a key one.

Beckett’s story-telling brio overcomes any nagging doubts at the scenario. (There can be no photosynthesis here, so what kind of carbohydrates would be available? Would the local flora and fauna really be compatible with humans? Would they be comprised of the same amino acids as on Earth, allowing them to be eaten successfully? Would the necessary vitamins be present? Who is this story being told to? These have to be discounted, for without these conditions there would be no story for us to read – and the last applies to any work of fiction.)

While the characters frequently repeat adjectives for emphasis – cold, cold; dark, dark etc – the issues of inadequate proofreading which slightly marred the readability of Beckett’s previous novels Marcher and The Holy Machine are more notable by their absence here.

Whether read as Science Fiction or simply as fiction Dark Eden is good stuff, well worth its Clarke Award. I suspect it will stay with me a long time.

Clarke Award Winner

Congratulations to Chris Beckett whose Dark Eden has won the Clarke Award. It’s reasonably unusual for a book firmly within the SF genre to win the Clarke so double congratulations for that. (I have just started to read the book and so far I’m impressed.)

For review in Interzone I have been also reading Chris’s collection The Peacock Cloak. This was in tandem with reading The Blue Book (now finished) and Dark Eden. The review of The Peacock Cloak will be with Interzone soon.

Chris Beckett

The Peacock Cloak cover

Chris has recently been placed on the short list for the Clarke Award for his novel Dark Eden which I was on the point of reading.

However, I have now received from Interzone his latest collection of short stories, The Peacock Cloak, so I may postpone embarking on Dark Eden for a while.

Another option would be to read the two books in tandem, which might be interesting.

Clarke Award Shortlist

Last year it was Chris Priest who incited controversy over the Clarke Award, this year it seems to be the judges themselves – for not including a book by a woman on their shortlist.

The contending books are:-

Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)*
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)*
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)*

I’ve read the last two of these and Dark Eden is on the TBR pile.

The overlap with this year’s BSFA Awards novel short list is strong (asterisked titles) but only 2312 is also up for the Hugo.

I’m a bit surprised that M John Harrison’s Empty Space didn’t make the list, it’s the sort of book that Clarke Award juries tend to like.

Marcher by Chris Beckett

Cosmos Books, 2008, 304 p.

A drug called slip allows people, shifters, to move between parallel universes – which are arranged in a tree shape. Charles Bowen is an immigration officer in a universe (not ours) where his main job is to deal with shifters in an effort to eradicate the problem they represent. Here the poor and unemployed are kept in sink estates known as Social Inclusion Zones from which it is difficult to break free. Unusually, and all the more welcome for it, the main setting for the novel is the Bristol area. Bowen likes to think of himself as a guardian of the borders – between universes in his case – the “Marcher” of the title. He is himself attracted to shifting without at first quite knowing why.

Shifters are treated as criminals because they can do what they like and then evade capture by shifting. To be fair some of them follow the cult of Dunner, based on Norse mythology, and are dedicated to mayhem. These misfits commit a massacre in Clifton which allows the government to crack down hard on Social Inclusion Zones and any shifters – cultees or not – who are captured.

In the chapters written (in first person) from Bowen’s viewpoint his relationship with a social worker called Jazamine and his part in her shifting are treated as haunting him but the relationship itself is only portrayed at its beginning, its end (her shift) and otherwise in snapshots. Other sections are written in third person but as narrated by Bowen.

The proof-reading is at times inadequate. At various points a word required to make complete sense of the sentence is missing, “He was (a) decent man,” “He looked as if he’d (be) more comfortable,” “But (it) was hard to turn away,” and there are places where the author has clearly changed one part of a phrase or sentence but not another where sense requires it, “I’ve never understand this bit,” “Carl that he had always known that acts of courage would lead to something new,” “he had been moved him to another high security unit.”

Beckett’s previous book The Holy Machine was a treat despite suffering from the same issue with words missing. Marcher is less focused and also has too much telling rather than showing plus some not too well integrated info-dumping. His latest novel, Dark Eden, has been nominated for this year’s BSFA Award.

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