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Binary System by Eric Brown

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

 Binary System cover

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

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

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

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

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

BSFA Awards Booklet 2016

The End of Hope Street1 by Malcolm Devlin. First published in Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.
This is told in a curiously flat style which seems devoid of any feeling. Without explanation – which makes this fantasy rather than SF – the houses in the cul-de-sac of Hope Street are one by one becoming unliveable, death to anyone inside or who enters thereafter. The survivors are taken in by their neighbours, but matter-of-factly, not compassionately. The end of hope may touch a nerve in these unenlightened times but it’s a depressing philosophy.

Liberty Bird2 by Jaime Fenn. First published in Now We Are Ten, edited by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, July 2016.
The bird of the title is a racing spaceyacht about to take part in a prestigious race and piloted by Kheo Reuthani, scion of an aristocratic house but homosexual in a society which frowns on that – and where some such aristocratic clans have seemingly managed to survive the removal of an Empress from power. The plot hinges on the fact of Kheo’s sexuality being known to his chief engineer. It’s depressing that such repression of sexuality has to be continually commented on. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Taking Flight by Una MacCormack. First published in Crisis and Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, July 2016.
On reading this I was reminded irresistibly of the style and tonal quality of many of Eric Brown’s SF stories. Our (unnamed) narrator having come to find little satisfaction in the bustle of life in the core worlds remembers an invitation by Eckhart, an acquaintance from her privileged youth in college, to visit him on far-flung backwater Wright’s World. Eckhart appears distracted and fretful but arranges for his friend to travel up-country where the scenery is magnificent, the experience of gliding, on drugs, sublime and the secret of Eckhart’s behaviour is revealed. Apart from a single phrase to do with the passage of time and a slightly weak ending this is pitched perfectly.

Presence3 by Helen Oyeyemi. First published in What is Not Yours is Not Yours, an anthology from Riverhead Books, March 2016.
Jill and Jacob, two psychiatrists married to each other – both not in their first marriage – agree to take part in an experiment to simulate the presences of deceased loved ones some people experience after their bereavement. Jill and Jacob are each to feel the presence of the other but an unexpected different presence intrudes. I found the experience of reading this was marred by no less than 17 unusual hyphenations (pur- pose, drop- ping,) in the middles of lines which may have been a hangover from true line-breaks in the original publication.

The Apologists4 by Tade Thompson. First published in Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.
Somehow in taking over Earth the aliens didn’t realise it was inhabited. Only five humans survive but they don’t get on. They are kept alive and given work designing replacements for everything that was lost. Storm’s project is to design simulant humans, Katrina works on roads, buildings etc. But, as Storm says, “Humanity is defined by imperfections.”

Extract from The Arrival of Missives5 by Aliya Whiteley. First published by Unsung Stories, May 2016.
In the aftermath of the Great War Shirley Fearn conceives a passion for education and war-wounded Mr Tiller, her teacher. She goes to his house to speak to him about it and through the window witnesses something strange. This is well-written but unfortunately the BSFA booklet contains only an extract so it is difficult to assess.

In the non-fiction category, Paul Graham Raven’s essay New Model Authors? Authority, Authordom, Anarchism and the Atomized Text in a Networked World discusses an experimental piece of critical writing on Adam Roberts’s novel New Model Army which had appeared on the internet (and which he had uploaded to his clipping service) but which has now vanished – apparently without trace. Raven’s essay read to me as if it were a piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Lewis’ (Lewis’s,) the both of them (“both of them, or “the pair of them” not “the both of them”,) oblivious of (ignorant of was meant; oblivious means “unaware of”, not “unknowing”,) the community prided themselves (itself,) residents committee (residents’, x4) “there had been only few” (only a few,) “one of its residents found their way” (his, or her, way,) more-so (more so,) a sentence containing only subordinate clauses, may have (might have,) focussing (focusing,) “the neighbourhood fought to free themselves” (strictly, itself,) homeopathic (homoeopathic,) PIN number (PIN – the N already stands for number,) the chemists (the chemist’s.) 2miniscule (minuscule,) “Why were this mismatched pair meeting ..?” (Why was this pair meeting?) “a block of portholes have been elected” (a block has been selected,) seven year ago (years,) a lack of punctuation makes at least two sentences read oddly, publically (publicly,) forbad (forbade,) “‘But not every change is for the worst,’” (worse, I think that would be.) 3stood (standing,) focussed (focused,) four absences of paragraph breaks when a different person is speaking. 4none … yells (fine,) but none … mean anything (means,) none of us remember (remembers,) breathing heavy (heavily,) “I cannot move from the aches and pains” (for the aches and pains,) “I know there is such a thing as odourless solvents” (such things as,) whinging (I prefer whingeing) 5”Those from farming stock can possess…..if he is shown..” (those is plural, therefore, “if they are shown”,) smoothes (smooths,) “there are a handful” (is a handful,) Clemens’ (Clemens’s,) “which decorates the entire of his chest and stomach” (the entire? How about “the entirety” or “the whole”.)

Strange Visitors by Eric Brown

Imaginings 8, NewCon Press, 2014, 158 p.

I ought again to point out that the author is well-known to me: is, indeed, a friend. I hope that this does not colour any appreciation – or lack thereof – of his output nor get in the way of any judgements or comments I make about his work.

 Strange Visitors cover

In any case in his introduction to this collection its publisher Ian Whates relays “stalwart of the British SF community” and former owner of Birmingham’s much-lamented Andromeda bookshop Rog Peyton’s opinion that Brown is our greatest living SF writer – as much for the author’s concentration on the humans in his stories as for anything else. Whatever, Strange Visitors contains an excellent body of stories displaying Brown’s range and it is striking here how often those which reflect humanity and its foibles most directly are the most successful and satisfying. Many of Brown’s perennial concerns are evident (religion surprisingly excepted) but their handling shows Brown’s assurance as a writer.

In Life Beyond…… 1 Brown pays effective homage to SF writer Clifford D Simak. An ageing writer faced with losing his recently orphaned grand-daughter to an adoptive family has a close encounter with a book-collecting alien.

Steps Along the Way2 is set thirty thousand years into the future where humans are effectively immortal, have spread all through the galaxy and can Enstate and Enable people from history.

Brown’s affection for the work of Michael G Coney shines through The Sins of Edward Veron3 where the titular Veron is an artist who has lost his ability to produce good work. Then an alien art collector from Mintaka V arrives at Sapphire Oasis. (SPOILER ALERT. There is a slight flaw in this story in that Veron seems to have been able to leave the Oasis the day after his wife died without engendering either suspicion or investigation.)

In Myths of the Martian Future4 Olinka and Tem, two crab-like cave dwellers on a far-future Mars, set out on their initiation rite on the surface. What they meet encompasses both the past of their species and a description of its future. There is a certain stiltedness in the narration, characteristic of all stories such as this.

The Scribe of Betelgeuse V5 is a tongue-in-cheek account of the invasion of Earth by octopods from Betelgeuse V, whose first act is to cause an episode of mass writers’ block. It manages to name check a couple of Brown’s writer friends as well as poke fun at the publishing industry.

The Rest Is Speculation6. Two and a half billion years into the future representatives of every sentient race that ever existed on Earth are gathered together by the Effectuators to witness its last days.

The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador7 is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche wherein the great detective is invited to investigate the murder of the Martian ambassador at Mars’s London embassy, where the two human employees are a certain Herbert Wells and Miss Rebecca West.

In Bukowski on Mars, With Beer8 Brown imagines how Charles Bukowski would cope after being brought back to life – along with all the greats – on a future Mars. The beer helps.

People of Planet Earth9 is an alien invasion story where the method of body snatching is exceedingly unusual, to say the least.

In P.O.O.C.H.10 Michael is punished for electronically stealing from the rich (but relaying the proceeds to charity) by being given his own Personal Omni-Operational Correction Hound; a robot which mimics a real dog in all respects.

Pedant’s corner:- A total of 20 occurrences of “time interval later” plus one “within seconds”. Each story has its title as a header on odd-numbered pages except The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador appears for both its own story and for The Rest Is Speculation and People of the Planet Earth appears for People of Planet Earth. Otherwise; 1USian spellings – disheveled, defense, etc; but…. manoeuvre. “of legion of thinkers” (of a legion; or, of legions.) “What if they alien” (the alien,) “I am loathe to give them up” (loth, or loath,) 2“men whose contribution to history were steps along the way” (contributions.) 3“accused her of having affair” (an affair,) “the piece in which I had tried to imbue” (the piece which I had tried,) back-peddling (back pedalling,) 4Barington (Barrington.) 5Carstairs’ (Carstairs’s,) stared at MS (the MS,) the BBC were on hand (the BBC was,) “I wil l-” (I will-,) Hemmings’ (Hemmings’s,) “‘I demanded reparations’” (demand.) 6a missing comma before a piece of dialogue, “this absence, this lacunae” (lacuna,) disk x 3 but disc x 1, “‘And they?’ I Kamis asked.” (‘And they?’ Kamis asked.) 7Wells’ (Wells’s,) “‘Was he is the habit….’” (in the habit,) “The slightest frowned marred” (frown,) “‘For a little short for six months’” (of six months,) Madame Rochelle’s (appears as Madame the first twice but subsequently as Madam, but this may have been an authorial distinction between that lady’s establishment and her person,) “‘if any of your ladies in the habit’” (are in the habit,) St Pauls (St Paul’s,) 8“A guy a silver suit” (in a silver suit,) “That last I remembered” (The last?) anther beer (anther beer sounds like great stuff but another beer was meant,) “to keep in breathable” (it breathable,) “and the all fucking” (and all the fucking.) 9the throes delirium (of delirium,) ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Speaker of the House’ (when starting a speech in Parliament the form is, ‘Mr Speaker, honourable members.’) 10”to answer to summons” (the summons,) descendent (descendant,) miniscule (minuscule,) you commands (your,) busses (buses.) Thirty minute (minutes,) banks accounts (banks’ accounts.)

I’m on the Map!

Literally.

Despite me not having a piece of fiction published for a few years – and only ever one novel – I’ve been included on this map of British SF and Fantasy writers. (If you click on the map it will lead you to its creator’s website, where copies can be purchased):-

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map

I’m humbled by this. Imagine me being on the same map as Alasdair Gray, Iain (M) Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Eric Brown, Arthur C Clarke, J G Ballard, George Orwell et al. Not to mention J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon.)

Murder at the Chase by Eric Brown

Severn House, 2014, 214 p.

 Murder at the Chase cover

The second of Brown’s Langham and Dupré stories this one promises to be a locked room mystery but the locking is cleared up very quickly. Donald Langham’s acquaintance Edward Endicott is the one who has disappeared. His son, Alasdair fears he has been harmed as he had fallen under the influence of a man claiming to be Victorian Satanist Vivian Stafford.

Retracing the possible path along which Endicott’s dog returned, Lanham, Dupré and former Hollywood actress Caroline Dequincy come upon a body. It is not Endicott’s though, but Stafford’s. The web of connections Brown then constructs involves most of the leading characters. I note here the appearance of artist, Haverford Dent, not the first time an artist has appeared in Brown’s fiction. The unwinding of the circumstances leading to Stafford’s murder and to the death of the local village’s vicar, Marcus Denbigh, involves a lot of toing and froing – not to mention sipping of pints. The hesitancies of the relationship between Langham and Dupré do take up quite a bit of the book’s time, though.

Though there are some sharp edges Brown again emulates well the cosiness of the classic detective story. However, a few of his characters seem more free-minded than might perhaps be expected of his 50s setting.

Pedant’s corner:- A “time interval later” count of 33 plus one instance of “a little later.”
“The bells of the neighbouring churchyard peeled” (that should be pealed – which was used for the same bells further into the book,) medieval, “the latter forbore the attention” (“bore the attention” makes more sense,) vol-au-vents (I still think the plural should be vols-aux-vents; I’m obviously in the minority here,) “aware of the sadness in actress’s words” (the actress’s words,) I thought there was a continuity error when Langham says to Maria “On top of the brandy?” – she’d been drinking only tonic water previously, registry office (Register office,) “Her smiled faltered” (smile,) veniality, (this means easily excused or forgiven; pardonable: I think venality, the condition or quality of being venal; openness to bribery or corruption was intended,) curb (kerb.)

Sacrifice on Spica III by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet II, PS Publishing, 2014, 81 p.

 Sacrifice on Spica III cover

Still in search of his wife and daughter, Matt Hendrick has arrived on Kallithea, a planet with an eccentric orbit around its two primaries which leads to a five year long winter, but before he even steps off the Telemass platform Hendrick is sidetracked by a chance meeting with Ed Miller, a former colleague in the Amsterdam Police, into tracking down Katerina Nordstrom, wanted for the murder of her lover back on Earth. Nordstrom just happens to have been Hendrick’s first real love, when he was a tyro detective twenty years ago. Also on the trip are Acolytes of the Ice, members of a bizarre cult inspired by Kallithea’s native culture, whereby devotees give themselves up to death in the freezing wastes.

A weird religion, past traumas, a private life tangled up with the mission at hand, are all typical Brown tropes. Once again it is the changes he rings on the ingredients that provide the impulse to keep reading. The details of the immolation cult are strange and Brown renders them well.

In the context of the Telemass Quartet it is perhaps a drawback that Hendrick’s personal quest is a sideshow to this novella’s plot, though. It causes him to take his eye off the greater ball and so his wife and daughter evade him. No spoiler really as of course this serves Brown’s purposes, as Telemass III and IV are still to come.

Pedant’s corner:- as its swung away (it,) epicentre, “I wouldn’t have through Kat” (thought,) the beneficent gaze His Holiness (gaze of His,) what as right (what was right) and a fair few instances of “time interval” later.

Battlefield of Prestonpans

Recently I have been travelling quite frequently up and down the A1 from Edinburgh to Dunbar, mainly to visit Eric Brown.

I had always wondered what the prominent hill with the flag on it just off the road a few miles east of Edinburgh was. A few weeks ago detouring into Prestonpans on the return I found out. Coincidentally I was reading Violet Jacobs’s Flemington at the time.

On the B 1361 into Prestonpans there was a sign pointing to the Battlefield of Prestonpans, 1745, the first battle of the Jacobite Rebellion of that year. I had previously thought the battlefield would lie somewhat closer to the Firth.

The prominent hill is the battlefield viewpoint, a converted coal bing, seen here from its foot.

The flag flying at the summit is Bonnie Prince Charlie’s battle standard.

There is a cairn at the side of the B 1361 erected in memory of the dead of the battle:-

According to the information boards on the Battlefield Viewpoint this is the site of the 1745 battle:-

This is the approximate Jacobite position at the battle’s start. It has a golf range on it now.

The battle itself was over in about fifteen minutes. Most of the relatively inexperienced Hanoverian force fled at the first charge of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders. This left the more hardened government troops sandwiched between the rebel wings. After suffering heavy casualties they gave way. Their commander Sir John Cope led some stragglers down a lane which to this day is named Johnnie Cope’s Road, but couldn’t get them to fight and left the field.

The song Hey Johnnie Cope Are Ye Wakin’ Yet? was written – by Adam Skirving, a namesake of the good lady – to commemorate the Jacobite victory.

This version, by the Corries, is preceded by an account of the first singing of the fourth verse of the UK National Anthem – the one which is no longer officially recognised.

Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet 1, P S Publishing, 2014, 88 p

 Famadihana on Fomalhaut-IV cover

This is the first of four novellas presumably centred round the beam-me-across-space technology Brown has dubbed Telemass and which, as I recall, made its first appearance in the author’s Meridian Days many moons ago.

Here, Matt Hendrick, a detective from Amsterdam, arrives by Telemass on the planet Avoel (Fomalhaut-IV) to seek his wife and the daughter she took with her when she left him. Once there he becomes embroiled with Tiana Tiandra, a woman whose girlfriend Lalla has also disappeared into the interior. The events of the novella are related to the goings-on of a strange cult inspired by the indigenous Avoeli who have a ritual similar to the famadihana of Madagascar from where most of the humans on Avoel originally derived. This involves the apparently dead being brought back to life. The story is mostly told in third person but small fragments from Tiana’s viewpoint are rendered in italics.

Brown does this sort of thing so well. His readers will be familiar with a protagonist not in a relationship at the story’s start or else getting over a failed one, a religion with a degree of bizzarrerie, a lost spouse or family member, strange aliens and may even expect a love interest to be encountered along the way. The entertainment comes with the twists he applies to these building blocks. In this novella the Avoel are perhaps a little too undeveloped, Hendrick’s relationship with Tiana is a bit precipitate and the resolution also feels a trifle rushed. Yet the whole thing is engaging, if perhaps lacking some of the warmth of Brown’s previous quartet for PS, Starship Seasons. But we’re only one story in. Time enough.

Pedant’s corner:- is a valued members of my congregation (member,) attempting to keep the irritation from her voice” (his voice makes more sense,) peered around it mass (its mass,) bears a passing a passing resemblance, not to hate met (me,) “He heard her breathing at her side (his.) And a fair sprinkling of instances of “time interval” later.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2005, 137 p, plus iv p of introduction by Ian Watson.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne cover

This handsomely produced novella was published to coincide with the centenary of Verne’s death in 2005. In that sense I’ve come to it about ten years too late. Part pastiche of Verne, part typical Eric Brown fare, this is an entertaining diversion, in which Verne is wheeched by means of a time-portal off to the Upper Cretaceous and the far future in a time machine which has the unfortunate drawback of leeching power from the sun and so causing Earth to freeze. Here too are a megalomaniac dictator, along with his nubile antagonist, not to mention ant-like interstellar aliens and strange gadgets. These adventures spark in Verne ideas he will later incorporate into fiction. What’s not to like? While there may be no profound points here – but neither were there in Verne’s fictions – what there is is an engaging adventure story with nods to the work of one of SF’s founding fathers.

Pedant’s corner:- gasses (gases,) panatela (panatella,) “hoves” as a present tense (heaves,) had take its toll on his reason (taken.)

Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

This book is dedicated to Jack and Katrina Stephen. Those of you who know me will realise how pleased that makes me.

 Jani and the Greater Game cover

Janisha Chatterjee, daughter of an Indian Father and (deceased) English mother, is on her way back from England – where she is training in medicine – to her father’s deathbed when the airship in which she is travelling is brought down by Russian artillery fire. For this is India in 1925, and the Great Game is still afoot. Even though the Great War of our era does not seem to have happened the Russia contesting with the British Empire is Communist. China is also involved though only in the background here.

The Greater Game of the title concerns the prisoner on the airship, a creature known as a Morn, who saves Jani from the Russians mopping up after the attack. He gives her a coin and her entanglement in the plot follows. Other viewpoint characters are Durga Das, a priest of Kali, who is searching out the coin for reasons of his own, and Lieutenant Alfie Littlebody of the British Army, tasked by his superiors to spy upon Jani.

Echoes of Brown’s Bengal Station trilogy are never far away, this is India after all. But this is also steampunk. The wonder material Annapurnite not only powers superfast trains and airships but also weapons to keep the Russians and Chinese at bay; in a James Bond film-like touch Littlebody is given a photon blade and a Visual Camouflage Amplifier, both of which come in handy. There is also a mind-reading device. Oh and a Mechanical Man and even bigger mechanical elephant. And this is before we get beyond steampunk to the parallel worlds and the threat to humanity from the Khell.

The pleasure of this is in the journey. The author piles on the jeopardy and the intrigue and handles the politics of the British presence in India well – from both sides. Despite the steampunk trappings this comes out as a very Eric Brown type of story, if not quite reaching the heights of his The Kings of Eternity then less pulpy then the Bengal Station series. If Littlebody is a bit of a twit and Jani’s childhood companion Anand perhaps too cloying, Jani is engaging enough. And there is ample scope for a sequel (which I understand is in the works.) I’ll look forward to it.

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