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Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2019, 283 p. Published in Interzone 282, Jul-Aug 2019.

 Beneath the World, A Sea cover

“The ground of one world is the sky of the world below” runs one of the myths and legends of the Submundo Delta, the most inaccessible place on Earth, the Delta Beneath the World. A place of magenta trees with spiral leaves and flowers with bright pink mouths, overhung by a huge sun and moon as if inside a magnifying bubble, and not really below the outside world, it can be accessed only from South America via a long boat trip on the (perhaps too obviously named) River Lethe, passing through the Zona de Ovido, the Zone of Forgetfulness, all memories of which disappear the moment you leave it. The Delta has no radio communication with elsewhere, aeroplanes which try to penetrate its airspace all crash.

Such a cut-off world is a staple of fantastical fiction of course – fairyland, hollow hills, parallel worlds, alien planets and so on – but Beckett’s vision is a fresh take on the sub-genre even if the Delta is a slightly recycled though embellished version of the Caramel Forest of the planet Lutania in the same author’s collection The Peacock Cloak.

The Delta’s local human inhabitants are called Mundinos, and are descended from a group tricked into going there by a Baron Valente in the semi-distant past, long enough ago for them to have developed their own gods in the benign Iya, whose idol adorns every Mundino household, and the less indulgent Boca. More recent incomers are scientists and adventurers or hippie types plus the odd business man on the lookout for profitable exploitation.

Following a UN decree that a Delta life-form known as duendes, grey long-limbed, frog-like flaccid creatures with black button eyes, (somewhat reminiscent of the goblins of Lutania’s Caramel Forest) and which may be the offspring of trees – with which they perhaps form a single dimorphic species – are ‘persons’ entitled to the protection of the law, police Inspector Ben Ronson has been delegated from London to investigate their endemic killing by Mundinos. Duendes can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds, “‘Things already inside your head ….. become as powerful as things you normally choose to focus on,’” and build enigmatic structures called castelos. Despite their persecution the duendes keep intruding on Mundinos’ space.

What makes all this SF rather than fantasy is the attempt at scientific rationale. “‘There’s no DNA equivalent. No ‘animals’ or ‘plants’ in the delta,’” Ronson is told. “It seemed to him that it was just about possible to imagine that a completely different form of life might not only have a different chemistry and different anatomy, but might even involve the mind-stuff itself being configured in some manner unfamiliar to human beings,” while, “‘the trees and the harts and the duendes and so on aren’t competing against each other … any more than our blood cells are competing against our bone cells,’” but quite why the story is set in nineteen ninety is not clear. The Delta is obviously not quite of this world, making the tale an alternative history does not add to that.

Beckett also undercuts expectations. Despite the set-up what we have here is not a police procedural, nor a straightforward crime novel with a clear-cut resolution, nor indeed an action adventure. The author is more interested in the psychological aspects of isolation, the effect a strange environment has on human behaviour and particularly the influence the Zona might have on motivations and actions. Ronson is almost paralysed by the thought of what he might have done during those four days he cannot remember but is reluctant to consult the notebooks he compiled while in transit.

There are faint echoes here of other odd worlds, perhaps even a nod to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a touch of Ballard in the detachment of many of the characters. We do not have the complete isolation that applied to the inhabitants of Beckett’s Dark Eden, nor the genetic paucity of that environment, and the existence of the duendes adds a distinctive flavour but at the end the nature of the enigma they represent is not unravelled. Perhaps Beckett intends to return to the Delta.

That might be a misstep, though. Beneath the World, A Sea is not really concerned with its backdrop. Instead it uses that backdrop to question how much a person can know of him- or her- self. While not in the highest rank – the characters indulge in too much self-examination for that – like all the best fiction it explores the nature of humanity.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “whose contents, she learnt, turned yellow and shrank as it dried” (as they dried.) “Their only child, wherever she went inside the house, she was surrounded by” (that second comma distorts the meaning and should be removed,) outside of (outside, just outside, no ‘of’,) “before continuing towards to the west” (either “towards” or “to”, not both,) “a posse of men and woman” (it’s possible only one woman was involved but it reads oddly,) “for hundreds of millions of year” (years,) automatons (automata,) “‘take it out in the duendes’” (on the duendes,) ambiance (ambience,) a tendency to use ‘her’ and ‘him’ where ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more grammatical, “for goodness’ sake” (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be goodness’s, best to leave it out altogether,) “‘she’ll always being able to support herself’” (always be able.) “There were also a number of” (there was a number,) “all the holes on the ground” (in the ground,) “‘a range of tawdry attractions are duly provided for them’” (a range of tawdry attractions is duly provided,) epicentre (centre,) “cheer fully” (was split over two lines without the necessary hyphen when “cheerfully” was meant,) “‘to see if Rico’s turned up If you run into him’” (needs a full stop after “up,”) “three young woman were smoking” (women,) engrained (ingrained.) “He had a mango in there He’d bought at the last village” (No capital H after “there”, ‘he’d bought’.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (ii)

Large SF paperbacks this week for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.

I keep these in an old music cupboard I inherited from my great-uncle. I’ve got so many of these they have to be double-parked, so you can’t actually see the first and third shelves shown here when the cupboard is opened. Stacking some on their sides gives me an extra 4 cm of space. Click on the photos to enlarge the pictures.

These include a J G Ballard, Iain M Banks, Chris Beckett, Eric Brown, Ursula Le Guin and Ian McDonald:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (i)

Annoyingly, even these large paperbacks do not all come in one size. The upright ones to the right here are smaller than the previous books. More McDonald, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robertson, Adam Roberts, Hannu Rajaniemi, a lesser Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (ii)

More Ballard, Banks, Beckett and Brown. Lavie Tidhar, Neil Williamson and another step down in size:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iii)

John Crowley, M John Harrison, Dave Hutchinson, Stanisław Lem:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iv)

Interzone 282, Jul-Aug 2019

TTA Press, 96 p

 Interzone 282 cover

In her guest Editorial Kristi deMeester tells how her story in this issue was generated. Andy Hedgecock considers cities in Future Interrupteda. In Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Storiesb she ponders the mysterious processes that go into constructing – and choosing from – a tbr pile.
In Book Zone Andy Hedgecock lauds Nina Allan’s The Dollmaker as literary fantasy at its most ambitious, erudite and entertaining and also interviews the author, I compare Chris Beckett’s Beneath the World a Sea to the best fiction for its exploration of the nature of humanity but am slightly less enthusiastic about The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders for lacking something in urgency, Juliet E McKenna finds secondary world fantasy The Resurrectionist of Calligo by Wendy Trimboli & Alicia Zaloga highly enjoyable, Ian Hunter rejoices in the delights of New Maps: More Uncollected John Sladek edited by David Langford, Maureen Kincaid Spellerc respects the novels by Ian McDonald (of which Luna: Moon Rising is the third) but cannot love them and welcomes the SF-ness of AfroSFv3 edited by Ivor W Hartmann but also for the reminder that while society and SF have made great strides in increasing representation recently, there is still some way to go.
In the fiction:-
The Verum1 of Storm Humbert’s story is a new kind of drug which delivers experiences which seem real. The narrator is the purveyor of choice for verum, until Regina comes along. The denouement is not what you might expect from this set-up.
The weasel virus turns women’s reproductive organs to mush while killing them. As a preventive measure all as yet unaffected women have had hysterectomies, hence there will be no new humans ever again. Our narrator is working on a Sesame Street-like TV series called Gumdrop Road which is using the preserved bodies of dead children (their brains implanted with computers connected to their nervous systems) to simulate former normality. This is the world of Can You Tell Me How to Get to Apocalypse?2 by Erica L Satifka. The afterword tells us it has been brought to us by the letter P and the emotion despair.
The Frog’s Prince; Or, Iron Henry by N A Sulway is a kind of modern day fairy tale, or variant of one. The titular frog’s ‘prince’ suffers from an unusual curse: to have “no daughter of a woman born.” After turning the frog into a boy – and a lover – he several times turns him into a woman in order to bypass the curse.
A girl is lost in the eponymous mall of The Princess of Solomon Pond Mall by Timothy Mudie. Living things wink out of existence when she sees them. Her only contact with the outside world is through the food drops and robot parachuted in to her by the military looking to exploit her powers.
In Heaven Looks Down on the Tomb by Gregor Hartmann all human life on Earth has long since been eradicated. Those on the moon survived and now a few of their descendants have come down to Earth to try to harness any possible useful bacteria. Factions on the Moon complicate things, though.
In FiGen: A Love Story3 by Kristi deMeester the titular FiGen is a company which claims to be able to predict the likelihood of a spouse having an affair from a genetic sample. Our female narrator attempts to pre-empt the situation.

Pedant’s corner:- aJeffries’ (Jeffries’s, several instances) “Jeffries’ vision is in tune twenty-first century pessimism” (Jeffries’s vision is in tune with twenty-first century pessimism.) b“that is understandable given situation” (given the situation,) Nichelle Nicols’ (Nicols’s,) Billy Dee Williams’ (Billy Dee Williams’s.) cRobrerts’ (Roberts’s,) Garth Ennis’ (Eniss’s.)
All the fiction was written in USian. 1“a smattering of leaves huddle” (a smattering huddles,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.) 2“lay down” (lie down.) 3“expensive whiskies[sic] drank neat” (drunk neat,) “as if I needed reminding of whom you were” (extra marks for the use of ‘whom’ elsewhere but here it is the subject of ‘were’; so, ‘of who you were’.)

Latest from Interzone

 This Is How You Lose the Time War cover

It’s that time again.

I’m awaiting the arrival of Interzone 282, not least to find out if I’ll have two reviews in it. It seems ages ago I sent off my review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, and I did the same for Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett not long after.

Still a new book has arrived for review (to appear in Interzone 283?)

This is a collaboration between Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone and is titled This Is How You Lose the Time War.

Should be fun.

Interzone 281

 Beneath the World, A Sea cover
Interzone 281 cover

Lying on my doormat – among a whole load of other stuff – after I got back from holiday was the latest issue of Interzone, 281 by number.

I had thought that my review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders was due in this one but it’s not there. I assume it will now appear in issue 282.

Also on my doormat (delivered via TTA Press) was Chris Beckett’s latest novel Beneath the World, A Sea. I suppose my review of that one will also appear in issue 282.

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.

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