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Europa Deep

You may have noticed on my sidebar the book Europa Deep by Gary Gibson.

This is to be the latest of my reviews for ParSec online magazine.

I know Gary, at least to talk to at conventions. It’s been a long time since I did though. He now lives in Taipei. The book was mailed to me all the way from there.

Flood by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz, 2008, 478 p.

This could be seen as a revival of the British SF tradition of the disaster novel (sometimes dubbed the cosy catastrophe as there were always survivors just about coping) in the manner of the Johns, Wyndham and Christopher. There are resonances in Flood of The Kraken Wakes, but also of J G Ballard’s The Drowned World. Baxter’s take on it is his own, though.

Sea levels are rising – and not slowly. Very rapidly coastal cities are inundated and the rise continues, indeed progresses faster as time goes on. It is not mere global warming, then, and Baxter has come up with a scenario involving huge reservoirs of subterranean water brought to the surface through thermal vents at tectonic plate boundaries.

His treatment of the tale is episodic – much like that of his novel Evolution – but the time scale here is not that of millions of years but at most decades, and the ongoing scenes feature recurring characters, principally one Lily Brooke.

Just before the floods began she and three others, plus the baby one of them had had during their incarceration, had been freed from five years’ captivity at the hands of terrorists in Barcelona by agents of a corporation known as AxysCorp. Its head, Nathan Lamockson, takes an interest in the welfare of these five survivors (a sixth was killed just as the rest were being liberated) and their lives from then on. Baxter relies on the survivors’ concern for each other as a driver for the reader’s interest. However, in their actions they seem to be relatively unaffected by those experiences and show little sign of psychological trauma. The baby, Grace, the result of the rape in captivity of Helen Gray by a Saudi prince, becomes the subject of diplomatic dispute when she is relinquished by AxysCorps to the Saudis and spirited off to the Arabian peninsula. Only much later is she returned from there.

The main focus of the narrative is on the relentless sea rise, the efforts of humans to flee to higher ground and of the various characters involved to protect themselves and their families. In particular Lamockson manifests his megalomaniac tendencies in a series of ever more elaborate schemes, the last of which is to build a full-scale replica of the Queen Mary,  which he calls Ark Three, to house those of his friends, associates and employees which it can carry. Ark One is a starship onto which Grace is inveigled not long before its launch when what remains of humanity is reduced to living on huge rafts. That leaves Ark Two’s existence or whereabouts unrevealed at the book’s end. (There is a sequel titled Ark.)

Pedant’s corner:- mentions the projected 2018 World Cup in England (this shows the dangers of authorial short term projection of the future,) and regarding that same tournament’s later abandonment says the US team was among the favourites (no comment required,) “peering at streets signs” (usually rendered as street signs, if not it should be streets’ signs,) Himelayas (Himalayas – as in a later appearance,) “the wetsuits were one item that were wearing out fast” (one item that was wearing out.)

Another for ParSec

It’s not appeared on my sidebar yet but I am at the moment working my way through the first collection of stories by Teika Marija Smits for a review to be published in ParSec.


The book is titled Umbilical and contains twenty-one stories, covering various speculative fiction genres, plus one poem.

Chanur’s Venture by C J Cherryh

173 p, in The Chanur Saga, Daw Books, 2000. Originally published 1985.

After her banning due to her actions in the first book of the Chanur Saga, Pyanfar Chanur and her ship The Pride of Chanur are once again at Meetpoint Station. As she steps off the ship an old acquaintance, the mahendo’sat, Goldtooth, offers her a present. This turns out to be Tully, the human Pyanfar rescued from the kif in the earlier book and he carries with him a valuable contract for trade with humans, a contract the kif would have for themselves thus necessitating a quick exit from the station. Before this can happen, though, Pyanfar’s crew has to extricate her husband, Khym, from a bar fight which turns out to have been set up by kif. That Hani males like Khym are widely known to be unstable off-planet provided the perfect excuse for the brawl.

Internal factions among the Hani force Pyanfar to allow Tully and his escort, Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy, to be taken to a supposedly safe holding space at the station’s administrative centre but on the way they are abducted by kif.

The ship also needs repair and new drive vanes of mahendo’sat design and manufacture are fitted as part of the deal with Goldtooth.

Cherryh knows how to spin a story, her plotting and intrigue are intricate and the characters, albeit with their alien habits, recognisable psychological types. She does however have a tendency to overdo Pyanfar’s Hani imprecations. “By the gods “ is very much overused.

Unfortunately, this instalment doesn’t so much finish as just stop mid-plot. At its end Hilfy and Tully are still in kif hands and the Pride is about to launch into space using the new, and to Pyanfar’s mind untested, drive vanes.

Since I bought this as part of a trilogy I wasn’t too miffed at this lack of resolution but had I thought it was a stand-alone I would have been seriously dischuffed.

Pedant’s corner:- Pynafar (Pyanfar,) “before the door closed between” (between them,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “as well as well as kif” (only one ‘as well’ needed.) “There was long, frozen silence” (there was a long, frozen silence,) a missing end quote mark after a piece of direct speech. “She went there the guard motioned” (She went where the guard motioned,) “it clambered up the t’ca wrinkled side” (the t’ca’s wrinkled side,) “to their unladed mass” (unladen mass.)

Rachel Pollack

I’ve only just discovered that SF/fantasy writer Rachel Pollack died in April. I have read only one of her books, Unquenchable Fire (which was published in 1988) though my records also show I also have four of her short stories (three from the early days of Interzone and one published in SF Digest.)

Rachel Grace Pollack: 17/8/1945 –  7/4/2023. So it goes.

Enigma Season by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown

P&S Publishing, 2022, 92 p.

Humans live in domes and the underground Levels because they are frightened of the outside; of “The rain that burns, the light that blinds, the air that kills, the water that poisons,” as the hymn to Father Bahan sung by Followers of the Eternal Truth has it.

Life in the Domes is restricted, there is a curfew every night, patrolled by Enforcers. Adults have to register with the authorities every year. Employment is within Guilds and runs through families. (Our protagonist Pinto’s father, a sculptor and painter of heads, is unusual in that regard.) Society is stratified. Aliens known as Enigmats seem to be the power behind the human authorities, though. They are said to have saved humans from the savage environment outside, though the Followers of the Eternal Truth attribute that salvation to Father Bahan.

Pinto is one of a group of young friends, which includes Mags, a girl from the Levels and therefore not of his class, who are curious about their surroundings and like to explore the spaces where no-one else usually ventures. One day she sets Pinto to thinking about outside and he decides to find out what it is like.

The story from then on proceeds as it must though there are complications involving Pinto’s parents’ arrangement for him to marry his cousin and her father’s apparently revolutionary activities putting in danger – or at least at risk of arrest – anyone connected to him.

Enigma Season is well written and engaging, exactly what you expect of Brooke and Brown together and individually.

“‘Time interval’” later count – 7.

Pedant’s corner:- “so that you drowned on your own blood” (in your own blood.) “He knew that marriage only with someone of one’s own class or Guild was allowed in the Domes” (He knew that in the Domes marriage was allowed only with someone of own’s own class or Guild.) We are twice told that on reaching adulthood (21) citizens had to register with the authorities and repeat this registration every year, (once would have been enough,) “Sorenson” (x 2, always spelled Sorensen elsewhere.)

The Pride of Chanur by C J Cherryh

230 p, in The Chanur Saga, Daw Books, 2000. Originally published 1981.

The Pride of Chanur is a spaceship trading within the Compact. Its captain is Pyanfar Chanur, one of the oxygen-breathing hani race from the planet Anuurn, on which there are various factions. The descriptions of hani in the book depict them as being like lions in appearance, with claws, manes and mentions of ear position indicating emotions, though we must assume, there being no references otherwise, that they are bipedal. They were introduced to the Compact by fellow oxygen breathers the Mahendo’sat and mainly use that race’s technology. Howevr only female hani go into space. Their males are too unstable when off planet. Pyanfar’s niece, Hilfy, is a newby on this voyage.

Other oxygen breathing members of the Compact are the Kif and the Stsho, while methane breathing species called Tc’a, Chi, and Knnn (who communicate in a manner akin to whalesong) are also traders.

The action starts at Meetpoint Station in Mahendo’sat space where an alien intruder, mostly hairless but with a golden mane, sneaks onto The Pride of Chanur. On trying to apprehend him Pyanfar wounds him but he is of little threat. He speaks little to no hani but with a mahendo’sat symbol translator communication becomes easier. It is soon obvious to the reader that he is a human. More so when we learn his name is Tully. His presence on the Pride is disputed by a kif trader named Akkukkakk who claims Tully as his own. His ship and crew were captured by Akkukkakk and ill-treated. The presence of this alien race was hitherto unknown to the Compact and contact with him will be a significant advantage in setting up trading terms to whomever has access to Tully.

So is set up the source of conflict for the novel as Pyanfar makes Tully a member of the Pride’s crew and tries to return to Anuurn, having to dodge contact with kif vessels and those of their allies on the way. Interstellar travel is by some sort of hyperspace jump but different ships can achieve this at different rates. After each jump the book tells us mass has to be shed but the way it reads sounds much more like velocity. Actual mass on board seems to slow interspace jumps down as Pyanfar has to dump most of the Pride’s cargo (and therefore profit) to make her escape from the Meetpoint system.

A sentence on the cover blurb claims that here it is a mark of Cherryh’s success that it is the human who seems alien. Well, yes and no. Tully’s speech is halting and hardy more than single words making him appear strange. However, the details of life on board the Pride, mention of meals and suchlike, the hani crewmembers’ use of sheets on their sleeping places, bedecking themselves with jewellery, their interpersonal relationships, make them almost indistinguishable from the habits of a human reader. They, not Tully, might as well be human. Only their appearance, the claws and so on, the importance of grooming, signals any difference.

It was a decent story well told, though. And I have two instalments of the Chanur Saga still to come. (Plus, having looked it up, a further two beyond those should I care to continue.)

Pedant’s corner:- “now amd again” (now and again,) “ears pricked up ad she drew in a breath” (and she drew in.) “There were a finite number of opacities in the quadrant” (There was a finite number,) “scantly clad” (scantily.) “‘You know more that that?’” (than that,) “the translater” (even though it’s a machine I still think it ought to be spelled translator.) “there was long silence” (a long silence.)  “‘No one species’ way’” (species is singular here so; species’s.) “He belonged with his own, that was what” (that was that.)

Novelty by John Crowley

Doubleday, 1989, 235 p.

This is a collection of four pieces of Crowley’s shorter fiction.

The Nightingale Sings at Night is a fable outlining a creation myth garnished with a touch of Just So story. It tells how Boy and Girl (later to become Man and Woman) were the first to name things in the world made by Dame Kind in times when the Moon could talk, and did so slyly. And it tells us why the nightingale, who only ever had this one idea, came to sing only at night.

As its title might suggest, Great Work of Time is a tale of time travel, hinging on whether – or not – Cecil Rhodes was assassinated at his house Groote Schuur, in 1893. A society calling itself the Otherhood was set up after a provision in his will in order to preserve the Empire to which he was so attached. The story starts with Caspar Last in 1983 inventing a method of time travel which involves what our narrator (as in Heinlein’s “‘-All You Zombies-‘” despite superficial appearances, there is really only one) calls orthogonal logic – past and present do not lie before and behind the present but at right angles to it. Yet this story could start anywhere – or anywhen – and is mainly concerned with the life of Denys Winterset, the President pro tem of the Otherhood (all its presidents are pro tem) who is contacted in Khartoum on a journey north on the Cape to Cairo railway, enticed into the Otherhood and given the job of assassinating Rhodes. In the Otherhood’s timeline the Empire was prolonged, the Great War wasn’t so great since it ended in 1915 with the Treaty of Monaco and as a consequence the Holocaust never happened. The story roams hither and thither across the Empire’s history including to time’s end in a forest in the sea. The writing here is wonderful and Crowley’s altered worlds are enticing.

In Blue is a story set, post Revolution, in a kind of eutopia based on coincidence magnitude calculations and the act-field theory (which predicts the occurrence, within any given parameters of the field, of coincidences of a certain magnitude.) Whatever you do, whatever comes about in the whole act field, is by definition what act-field theory predicts. All possible disproofs were themselves provable parts of act-field theory as was everything else. Our protagonist, Hare, meets a woman who thinks there is no such thing as act-field theory but that as long as everybody else believes in it, then it does work. A beautiful expression of the type of double-think which exists in authoritarian societies.

Novelty relates the struggle of a writer to come to terms with his theme, the contrary pull people feel between Novelty and Security

Pedant’s corner:- “A theatrical costumer” (costumier,) “the place where the Nile had its origin” (the text implies this origin is the Victoria Falls, which are on the Zambezi, not the Nile,) railroad (I know it was written by a USian and for a USian publication but Brits don’t use that word. It’s a railway. Similarly we had ‘drapes’ for ‘curtains’,) the American civil war” (it’s a proper noun so, American Civil War,) “the year of grace IV Elizabeth II” (I’m not sure why that ‘IV’ is there – unless it’s to denote the fourth year of the reign,) “I apologise for the hugger-mugger” (hugger-mugger is used here in the sense of secrecy, clandestine, not the usual one of close-packed, disorderly confusion,) question marks omitted from three pieces of direct speech which were questions, “the probability of any two snowflakes’ being exactly alike” (that apostrophe after snowflakes is surely not needed.)

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, 2020, 257 p.

Narrator Piranesi lives in a set of Halls decorated with Statues and subject to sometimes disruptive sea-tides. He describes his life to us through a series of journal entries with headings such as Entry for the First Day of the Fifth Month in the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls. The Lower Halls provide food such as fish, crustaceans and vegetation. As far as he knows the Halls have only ever been home to fifteen people and thirteen of those are dead, their bones lying in various places among the Halls. One of these he has named Biscuit-Box Man since his (though we are not told so, it could actually be a her, Piranesi has no way of knowing for sure) smaller bones are contained in a red box bearing the words Huntley and Palmers and Family Circle. One of the others’ remains are wedged in a narrow space between a Plinth and a Wall, ten skeletons are in an Alcove and the one he calls the Folded-up Child, Piranesi thinks is a female. That leaves one person, The Other, a fifty to sixty year-old man who is Piranesi’s only live companion. He appears, usually to a schedule, speaks in obscurities and deflections and believes there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden in the World of the Halls which can give him enormous powers if it can be found. Occasionally the Other supplies Piranesi with items such as shoes.

Piranesi’s journal describes his journeys through the Halls in some detail, an otherwise deserted environment he has come to know intimately. His use of English and familiarity with notions like biscuit-boxes, though, immediately invite questions. How does he have knowledge and memories of these things, none of which are found in the Halls? What are we – and he – missing?

The obvious literary comparison of a story set in a huge building like this is with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast but this is not truly like. Something about the writing rang a distant bell but it wasn’t till the Other’s reference to a projected ceremony to discover the Great and Secret Knowledge that I thought of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, which again isn’t an apt comparison. However, given the vastness of the Halls, Walking on Glass might be the more pertinent – or even parts of The Bridge.

Piranesi’s diary entries are full of capitalised nouns – a flavour of which dapples my paragraphs above. This long out of date practice for all but proper nouns helps to emphasise the otherness of Piranesi’s existence – and that of the Halls.

Jeopardy introduces itself when a confluence of tides is set to deluge all but the uppermost parts of the Halls but also when a mysterious (to begin with) number sixteen is mentioned by the Other who claims sixteen wants to harm Piranesi or will send him mad. One day Piranesi hears sixteen calling out (the voice is a woman’s,) leaves a message for her to keep away and tries to avoid reading the reply she chalks on a Hall’s floor. He then meets an old man whose speech confuses him by saying that the Halls exist in a Distributary world which could not exist had the other world it flowed from not existed first, causing Piranesi to look back at his journal entries, which he realises contain gaps but also references to another world and people such as Laurence Arne-Sayles and Valentine Ketterley. How this is all connected is revealed only when Piranesi finally speaks with sixteen, who is named Raphael. Reflecting on this talk and the reassessment he has to make about his life he ruminates, “Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.”

Clarke conjures the sense of otherness of the Halls admirably and her approach is distinctive from other descriptions of parallel worlds but there was something underwhelming about the resolution. Clarke is an accomplished writer but for me the worlds she invents fail to convince completely.

Pedant’s corner:- enormity (used in the sense of huge rather than its true meaning of monstrous,) “I tried hard not complain” (not to complain,) “‘I thought that you were to unlikely to’” (no need for that first ‘to’,) at one point there was no new paragraph when a second person spoke, focussed (several times, focused,) “the fish that abounds in every vestibule” (the fish that abound,) “using the name the Other called her” (he had not done so in any of the conversations Piranesi had previously related to us.)

Empire of Two Worlds by Barrington J Bayley

Allison & Busby, 1979, 144 p.

Bayley was one of the instigators of the so-called New Wave in British SF in the 1960s – though it has to be said this book bears little of its hallmarks, being perhaps more typical of work that might have been published in the 1950s or early 1960s.

Killibol is a sterile world whose tower cities are ruled by those in charge of the protein tanks, which produce food processed from recycled sewage and rubbish. As portrayed by our narrator, Klein, life tends to the brutish. He lives in the city of Klittman, part of a gang headed by a man named Becmath who starts a rebellion in order to take over himself. However, it is not long before the authorities reassert themselves and the gang has to flee using a kind of armoured vehicle called a sloop. Along the way they pick up a woman from one of the nomad tribes who roam the barren land between the tower cities (though somehow with protein tanks of their own.) This woman, Gelbore, is only in the story to show how unfeeling Klein and his companions are – or perhaps reflects sexism or even misogyny on Bayley’s part, attitudes not uncommon in 1979 after all. Klein in effect rapes her (she is supposed to be grateful that he ensured she wasn’t disposed of immediately) and, a chapter or so later on, to avoid conflict between his henchmen, Becman summarily shoots her.

Killibol was settled from Earth millennia ago and the fleeing gang is seeking an all but forgotten portal between the worlds. They find it and make the transition. The rest of the novel describes how they fare on this far future Earth where the sunlight is far too strong for their eyes, the inhabitants are unable to stand against their firepower, the Moon is now called Merame and peopled by creatures even more ruthless and bloodthirsty than themselves, intent on conquering Earth, though with whom Becman manages to come to terms.

These protagonists are not admirable. Becman is a megalomaniac eager to rule over both Earth and Killibol, the rest of the gang are not any better and Klein again has sex with a woman without gaining consent – she was unconscious at the time – though he later acts selflessly in her interests. Unfortunately, his attack of conscience comes far too late to redeem his earlier conduct and the overall thrust of the book.

This isn’t one of  Bayley’s best. It is all far too crude to withstand any but a historical eye.

Pedant’s corner:-  Written in US style language. Otherwise; “and he nation” (the nation,) a stray line interpolated from elsewhere appears at the foot of page 65, “we had become recluse” (reclusive,) “take a look at a deep space” (at deep space,)

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