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SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

The Art of Hunting by Alan Campbell

Book Two of The Gravedigger Chronicles. Tor, 2013, 433 p

The Art of Hunting cover

This retains many of the characters from Campbell’s previous novel in this series, Sea of Ghosts. The only Gravedigger left, though, is Colonel Granger, now more or less in the thrall of a replicating sword which produces copies of Granger to enhance his fighting powers. This takeover by the sword has the consequence that he dies in the novel (twice over) but he is still nevertheless a participating agent in the story at the novel’s end. This is, then, a fantasy after all. Other familiar names are Ianthe (Granger’s daughter,) Briana Marks and Ethan Maskelyne. Ianthe is now engaged to the Unmer Prince Paulus Marquetta, who may have wooed her merely to earn her protection. She was the power whereby the Unmer defeated their enemies the Haurstaf in Book One.

Various plot strands thread the novel. Marquetta is on a quest to recover the lost Unmer throne of Losoto, Granger to throw off the sword’s influence, Maskelyne to uncover a mysterious Unmer artefact and there is the entropath (an “elder god”) Fiorel’s wish to revenge himself on Argusto Conquillas who killed his daughter Duna in the prologue. These all come together at the climax with a sort of tournament of sorcery. In addition we find out the true nature of Granger’s, and so also Ianthe’s, lineage.

Along the way we have some philosophical aperçus. Of a particularly hideous bodily alteration:- “The human mind can come to accept even the most grievous change.” Then, “If every cell and every drop of blood … in your body had been replaced. Every memory. Would you know?”

The issues of proof reading which I noted in Sea of Ghosts were mostly absent here, thankfully. The first did not come till page 224 “He wondering” has a “was” missing, then (on page 225!) “When the reached the lamp.” Campbell does, though, make the common attribution of maw as mouth rather than stomach (which I suppose we’ll have to accept as the new orthodoxy as it appears as the first definition in dictionary.com) and there is a single misuse of “whom”.

The author’s powers of description are as prodigious as ever but as the second in a (presumed) trilogy The Art of Hunting does have a slight sense of marking time. In particular it lacks a firm conclusion. But there has to be something to make readers wish for a third volume. More of the engaging character of, Siselo, Conquillas’s young daughter would be a good thing.

Fantasy is not really my thing, but Campbell can write.

Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2011, 431p.

 Sea of Ghosts cover

On a world where a race known as the Unmer was vanquished decades ago their artefacts still haunt the human inhabitants. Much-valued Unmer “trove”€ is scattered randomly over the sea-bed and material called brine, poisonous to humans, is emanating from ichusae, or sea bottles, and making the sea level rise slowly but inexorably. Protective clothing must be worn if there is danger of contact with brine as humans develop “€œsharkskin”€ on any exposed surfaces, which leads to pain and death. Those fully immersed, however, still carry on a life as “€œthe Drowned,”€ swimming about freely under the brine, but are feared and persecuted by the authorities.

Telepaths known as Haurstaf helped defeat the Unmer and act as a kind of secret service (or, since they act for both sides in conflicts, more like an inquisition.)

This is a fantasy world with a difference. Yes there are dragons and slaves, but while the political structure is still monarchical (Emperor Hu) there are guns – and boats with engines. Refreshingly not the usual mediæval milieu, then.

In addition the Unmer trove has a technological basis. A rationale is given for the otherwise magical overflowing of brine from unstoppered ichusae and for the properties of Unmer artefacts. One of the characters knows about the wave-particle duality of light and muses on gravitation. These aspects of the novel make it Science Fiction rather than Fantasy. In feel, however, it leans more towards the fantastical.

In the prologue one of the so-called Gravediggers of the subtitle, Colonel Thomas Granger, offends Emperor Hu and they have to spirit themselves away to the city of Ethugra to escape his ire. The novel proper starts when an enslaved woman recognises Granger as the man she had a relationship with years before and pleads with him to save herself and her daughter, Ianthe, whom Granger surmises to be his child too, by buying them. Ianthe turns out to have powers to find trove, powers which will interest the Haurstaf and the local Mr Big, Ethan Maskelyne.

The novel sometimes has aspects of a quest story, at others of the military insert and retrieve mission. Pleasingly, very few of the characters are mere ciphers (though Emperor Hu is something of a caricature of the spoilt aristocratic brat.) Campbell knows how to draw a reader in to his story and to keep the attention.

Unfortunately, at the production level, the text is ill-served by having words – frequently “€œthe”€ or “a” – missing or repeated and other typographical errata of various sorts. Another example of the tendency of publishers to look on their publications simply as “€œproduct” and wheel them out without due care.

Novels are not product. At least, the good ones aren’€™t.

Rant over.

Sea of Ghosts is a superior fantasy, well worth a read. The paperback is now available.

God Of Clocks by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2009. 373p

God Of Clocks cover

The usual caveat applies to this review.

This is an unusual one. It is nominally a fantasy yet about two thirds of the way through we suddenly encounter time travel and temporal paradoxes, which was in retrospect quite elegantly foreshadowed, and it begins to resemble more a work of SF. That was the point that the book, for me, sparked to life. Up to then it had been a (I hesitate to say typical, as Campbell’s skill as a writer elevates it above the norm) fantasy and consequently I found it difficult to engage with. And the solution one of the characters adopts to the deleterious consequences of her previous choices on the timeline she has thereby created is well out of the ordinary, not to say drastic.

Far from it merely happening there is also a rationale – a mechanism, no less – given for the ability to travel in time. The God of Clocks for whom the book is named inhabits a building where clocks abound and rooms with portals to other times open and close on their unwinding.

Certain characters from the two previous Deepgate Codex books reappear – Dill, Rachel Hael, John Anchor and also the angel, Carnival. The vision which illuminated the first, Scar Night, though, of the city Deepgate suspended on huge chains over a chasm, has been missing in the latter books, which suffer as a consequence since the setting lies closer to the default mediaeval of the general run of fantasy. There is also too much murder and mayhem for my tastes but this is evidently what aficionados of the form appreciate.

In God Of Clocks there is a quest, of sorts. So far, so fantasy. Yet at its end the status quo ante is not restored – or only in (small) part. This too is more characteristic of SF than of the standard fantasy novel. Is it possible that Campbell secretly yearns to be a writer of SF? Whatever, he is certainly twisting the tropes of fantasy in new directions.

(The book blurb states he lives in south Lancashire. I think that, just perhaps, might be south Lanarkshire.)

Consider Phlebas: Towards A Scottish Science Fiction

Throughout the 1950s, the early 1960s, through the late 60s efflorescence of the New Wave and into the 1970s and 80s a stream of English authors came to prominence in the SF field and had novels published in Britain. To my mind there was a clear distinction in the type of books all these authors were producing compared to those emanating from across the Atlantic and that certain characteristics distinguished the work emanating from either of these publication areas. While Bob Shaw was a notable Northern Irish proponent of the form during this period and Christopher Evans flew the flag for Wales from 1980 something kept nagging at me as I felt the compulsion to begin writing. Where, in all of this, were the Scottish writers of SF? And would Scottish authors produce a different kind of SF again?

Until Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas, 1987, contemporary Science Fiction by a Scottish author was so scarce as to be invisible. It sometimes seemed that none was being published. As far as Scottish contribution to the field went in this period only Chris Boyce, who was joint winner of a Sunday Times SF competition and released a couple of SF novels on the back of that achievement, Angus McAllister, who produced the misunderstood The Krugg Syndrome and the excellent but not SF The Canongate Strangler plus the much underrated Graham Dunstan Martin offered any profile at all but none of them could be described as prominent. And their works tended to be overlooked by the wider SF world.

There was, certainly, the success of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981 but that novel was more firmly in the Scottish tradition of fantasy and/or the supernatural rather than SF (cf David Lindsay’s A Voyage To Arcturus, 1920) and was in any case so much of a tour de force that it hardly seemed possible to emulate it; or even touch its foothills.

David Pringle noted the dearth of Scottish SF writers in his introduction to the anthology Nova Scotia where he argued that the seeming absence of Scottish SF authors was effectively an illusion. They were being published, only not in the UK. They (or their parents) had all emigrated to America. Though he has since partly resiled on that argument, it does of course invite the question. Why did this not happen to English SF writers?

It was in this relatively unpromising scenario that I conceived the utterly bizarre notion of writing not just Science Fiction but Scottish Science Fiction and in particular started to construct an SF novel that could only have been written by a Scot. Other novels may have been set in Scotland or displayed Scottish sensibilities but as far as I know I’m the only person who deliberately set out to write a novel of Scottish SF.

It could of course simply be that there was so little SF from Scotland being published because hardly anyone Scottish was writing SF or submitting it to publishers. But there were undoubtedly aspirants; to which this lack of role models might have been an off-putting factor. I myself was dubious about submitting to English publishers as they might not be wholly in tune with SF written from a Scottish perspective. I also thought Scottish publishers, apparently absorbed with urban grittiness, would look on it askance. I may have been completely wrong in these assumptions but I think them understandable given the circumstances. There is still no Scottish publisher of speculative fiction.

With Iain M Banks and Consider Phlebas the game changed. Suddenly there was a high profile Scottish SF writer; suddenly the barrier was not so daunting. And Phlebas was Space Opera, the sort of thing I was used to reading in American SF, albeit Banks had a take on it far removed from right wing puffery of the sort most Americans produced. Phlebas was also distant from most English SF – a significant proportion of which was seemingly fixated with either J G Ballard or Michael Moorcock or else communing with nature, and in general seemed reluctant to cleave the paper light years. Moreover, Banks sold SF books by the bucketload.

There was, though, the caveat that he had been published in the mainstream first and was something of a succès de scandale. (Or hype – they can both work.)

[There is, by the way, an argument to be had that all of Banks’s fiction could be classified as genre: whether the genre be SF, thriller, in the Scottish sentimental tradition, or even all three at once. It is also arguable that Banks made Space Opera viable once more for any British SF writer. Stephen Baxter’s, Peter Hamilton’s and Alastair Reynolds’s novel debuts post-date 1987.]

As luck would have it the inestimable David Garnett soon began to make encouraging noises about the short stories I was sending him, hoping to get into, at first Zenith, and then New Worlds.

I finally fully clicked with him when I sent The Face Of The Waters, whose manuscript he red-penned everywhere. By doing that, though, he nevertheless turned me into a writer overnight and the much longer rewrite was immeasurably improved. (He didn’t need to sound quite so surprised that I’d made a good job of it, though.)

That one was straightforward SF which could have been written by anyone. Next, though, he accepted This Is The Road (even if he asked me to change its title rather than use the one I had chosen) which was thematically Scottish. I also managed to sneak Closing Time into the pages of the David Pringle edited Interzone – after the most grudging acceptance letter I’ve ever had. That one was set in Glasgow though the location was not germane to the plot. The idea was to alternate Scottish SF stories with ones not so specific but that soon petered out.

The novel I had embarked on was of course A Son Of The Rock and it was David Garnett who put me in touch with Orbit. On the basis of the first half of it they showed interest.

Six months on, at the first Glasgow Worldcon,* 1995, Ken MacLeod’s Star Fraction appeared. Another Scottish SF writer. More Space Opera with a non right wing slant. A month or so later I finally finished A Son Of The Rock, sent it off and crossed my fingers. It was published eighteen months afterwards.

I think I succeeded in my aim. The Northern Irish author Ian McDonald (whose first novel Desolation Road appeared in 1988) in any case blurbed it as “a rara avis, a truly Scottish SF novel” and there is a sense in which A Son Of The Rock was actually a State Of Scotland novel disguised as SF.

Unfortunately the editor who accepted it (a man who, while English, bears the impeccably Scottish sounding name of Colin Murray) moved on and his successor wasn’t so sympathetic to my next effort – even if Who Changes Not isn’t Scottish SF in the same uncompromising way. It is only Scottish obliquely.

So; is there now a distinctive beast that can be described as Scottish Science Fiction? With the recent emergence of a wheen of Scottish writers in the speculative field there may at last be a critical mass which allows a judgement.

Banks’s Culture novels can be seen as set in a socialist utopia. Ken MacLeod has explicitly explored left wing perspectives in his SF and, moreover, used Scotland as a setting. Hal Duncan has encompassed – even transcended – all the genres of the fantastic in the two volumes of The Book Of All Hours, Alan Campbell constructed a dark fantastical nightmare of a world in The Deepgate Codex books. Gary Gibson says he writes fiction pure and simple and admits of no national characteristics to his work – but it is Space Opera – while Mike Cobley is no Scot Nat (even if The Seeds Of Earth does have “Scots in Spa-a-a-ce.”)

My answer?

Probably not, even though putative practitioners are more numerous now – especially if we include fantasy. For these are separate writers doing their separate things. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether they have over-arching themes or are in any way comparable.

PS. Curiously, on the Fantastic Fiction website, Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds are flagged as British – as are Bob Shaw, Ian McDonald, Christopher Evans and Mike Cobley – while all the other Scottish authors I’ve mentioned are labelled “Scotland.” I don’t know what this information is trying to tell us.

*For anyone who hasn’t met the term, Science Fiction Conventions are known colloquially as Cons. There are loads of these every year, most pretty small and some quite specialised. The Worldcon is the most important, an annual SF convention with attendees from all over the globe. It’s usually held in the US but has been in Britain thrice (Glasgow 2, Brighton 1) and once in Japan, to my knowledge. The big annual British SF convention is known as Eastercon because it takes place over the Easter weekend.

Edited to add (6/6/2014):- Margaret Elphinstone should be added to the list above of Scottish authors of SF. Her first SF book The Incomer appeared from the Womens’ Press in 1987, the same year as Consider Phlebas, but I missed out on it then. My review is here.
See also my Scottish SF update.

Edited again to add (4/4/18) Elphinstone’s sequel to The Incomer is A Sparrow’s Flight which I reviewed here.

Iron Angel by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2009, 435p

See my review of Campbell’s Scar Night for the usual caveat.

This is volume 2 of The Deepgate Codex and features characters from that book – some of whom are dead. It is in three parts which at first seem totally unrelated but do begin to interweave.

There are some startling images within its pages. A giant skyship pulled along on a rope tether by a man named John Anchor. The Iron Angel of the title, a vast mechanical construct driven by the soul of one of the characters (inspired perhaps by the Angel Of The North?) A hell where characters inhabit themselves – embodied as walls, floor and ceiling.

It was here I began to lose interest a little as the characters could manipulate “reality” at will and generate objects out of thin air. This is one of my quibbles with utter fantasy. When anything is possible how much actually has any meaning? And what jeopardy is present when people are already dead? (OK, there is, perhaps, eternal torment to avoid but is this sufficient to carry us through?) Hence my preference for SF.

The Deepgate of Scar Night, while refreshingly post-mediæval, was pre-mass industrial; yet here we have battleships, locomotives and steamboats. We also have the intrusion of a plethora of gods and their adherents. The more focused vision of Scar Night has become somewhat diffused.

What made that earlier book so memorable and distinctive was the city of Deepgate itself, a gloomy, brooding presence, hanging over an abyss from a network of chains, and the complex interactions of the characters who lived there. Since, towards the end of Scar Night, most of Deepgate fell into the chasm over which it was suspended we no longer have that unique vision to bolster the narrative. A whiff of contractual obligation hangs over proceedings.

Yet Campbell can write. Some of his descriptions are excellent and he has an eye/ear for portraying character with subtlety and a few telling phrases.

Personally I’d have liked him to try his hand at another scenario but I suspect the commercial imperative to follow Scar Night with something similar in order to please its fans weighed too heavily in the construction of Iron Angel. And, disappointingly, despite a climactic battle, this novel is not truly rounded off. The ending here is something of a cliffhanger, probably to set up the third Deepgate Codex volume God Of Clocks. (Which does have an excellent prologue. It’s printed at the back of this edition; a practice by publishers which is rather naff. I read it earlier – as a writers’ group submission. On the basis of that alone I will read God Of Clocks.)

Writers’ Group Publications

Two fellow members of the East Coast Writers’ Group have had books published recently.

Alan Campbell’s third novel, God Of Clocks, has garnered some good reviews, notably these ones in Strange Horizons and Scotland On Sunday.

I reviewed his first novel Scar Night, here.

Poet Jane McKie’s second collection is called The Sun Is Green. Her first, Morocco Rococo, won an award for best first book.

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