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Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times Again

And so, back to the beginning of Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times, which started with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

These books sit on the very top of that bookcase I featured in the first of these posts, above the shelves that contain all my (read) Scottish books.

Books Once More

They’re here because they fit into the space – at least in the case of the three “What If…” books, What If?, More What If? and What If America? – anthologies of Altered History stories – and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Then there is Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Colin Greenland’s excellent Finding Helen, a Paul Torday, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, non-SF works by SF writers Brian Aldiss and Norman Spinrad, Robert Standish’s Elephant Walk and three books by Erich Maria Remarque including the incomparable All Quiet on the Western Front.

If I were filing my books thoroughly systematically these would all have to be moved.

Spy Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This meme, originating with Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, has now been taken over by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Spy Fiction Books

Back in the days of the Cold War spy fiction was a big thing. The two main purveyors of the form – in the UK anyway – were my (sur)namesake Len Deighton (although he pronounces the “Deigh” part to rhyme with “day” rather than “die”) and John le Carré. I also have a le Carré omnibus of his early works shelved elsewhere.

These, too, are housed in the garage, below the last of my SF paperbacks (see last week’s post.)

I have read all the books by Deighton here. His book Fighter is not on these shelves because it’s a history of the Battle of Britain but then Blitzkrieg is also a history book and it is here. Winter is not a spy novel but reflects Deighton’s knowledge of Germany (specifically Berlin) in the first half of the twentieth century. Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a novel featuring members of the US Air Force which took part in the campaign in World War 2 in the lead up to the invasion of Normandy. SS-GB is an altered history set in a Britain where a German invasion of the UK in 1940 succeeded.

I’ve not read all the le Carrés. Spy fiction lost a lot of its resonance when the Cold War ended whereupon he moved on to other things. I always meant to get round to his later stuff but life (and other books) got in the way.

Britain in the the 15th Century

I’ve just been perusing the blurb on the publisher’s page for a book called Divine Heretic written by one Jaime Lee Moyer.

The blurb starts with the sentence, “Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who put Charles VII on the throne and spearheaded France’s victory over Britain before being burned by the English as a heretic and witch.”

Britain? In the 15th century? That’s some Altered History! The United Kingdom didn’t become so until about 300 years later, 1707 in fact.

I wonder who at Jo Fletcher Books (for it was they) thought Britain had an army in the 1400s – or that back then such a country existed that could have one. Or doesn’t know the difference between Britain and its constituent parts. Or mistakenly thought they might offend some not English inhabitant of the present day UK by saying England (in which case they failed miserably.)

(At least they put the blame for Joan’s burning in the right hands.)

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’.)

All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

Apollo Quartet 4, Whippleshield Books, 2015, 155 p, including 2 p Notes, 4 p You Have Been Reading About writers and editors, 1 p Further Reading, 2 p Bibliography, and 1 p Online Sources.

 All That Outer Space Allows cover

Like previous books in his Apollo Quartet the author does not take a straightforward approach in this short novel. It is ostensibly the life story of Ginny Eckhardt, wife of Apollo astronaut Walden Eckhardt (a character based on actual Apollo 15 Lunar Module pilot Jim Irwin.) On the quiet, though, Ginny is a writer of Science Fiction, and the book, as well as delineating the lot of an astronaut’s wife in the 1960s, describes the evolution of Ginny’s idea to write an alternative history of the US space programme in which women were the astronauts. She knows they are at least as capable as the men, if not more so. However, her personal life as first an Air Force wife, and then an astronaut’s after Walden is picked in the latest round of recruits, becomes increasingly circumscribed. This is how it was in the 1960s. Ginny’s mother, along with others of her generation, had been quickly levered back into the home after working during the Second World War, and forever resented it. Ginny herself had made sure to obtain a degree before marrying but has no opportunity to use it. (The role of astronaut’s wife is as prop and support, adornment, rather than a person in her own right.) Given her inner thoughts, the solidarity she feels with other female writers of SF in the 1960s and of the position of women generally, Ginny’s attitudes to this might have been expressed more forcefully, she seems too willing to conform to the role set – even if she does resolve to find out as much technical detail of the Apollo Programme as possible in order to enhance her fiction. We are told she loves Walden, but we don’t really feel it, and Walden gives little back in the way of emotional support, not even wondering how the sanctuary of his room manages to stay tidy and clean.

In common with other instalments of the Apollo Quartet Sales gives us (in boxes lined-off on the pages) technical and biographical information. So here we have a table of contents from Galaxy magazine, Vol 26, issue 3, February 1968 (which contained Ginny’s story “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” as by V G Parker;) comments on the position and relative scarcity of female SF writers of the time; biographical details from a NASA press release of the 19 newly recruited astronauts of 1966; a letter to Ginny from another woman SF writer signed YouKay; the utterly male Hugo Awards Winners listings for 1966; a historical overview of Ginny’s writing career; the complete text of “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” (a nice piece of literary ventriloquism by Sales, though it reads more like a 1950s piece;) a specification for Lunar Module Cockpit Simulation training; a letter to the editor of Galaxy bemoaning “Mr” Parker’s contribution to that Feb 1966 issue; another NASA spec, this time for the Lunar Module; one-sentence extracts from SF stories by women each commenting on some aspect of the female experience; a Wikipedia biography of Walden Eckhardt’s life; the Nasa specs for spacesuit materials; a short transcript of Neil Armstrong’s early exchanges with ground control just after he set foot on the Moon’s surface that first time; the launch schedule for Apollo 15 (Walden’s mission;) a NASA description of the Apollo 15 landing site; V G Parker’s entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This is an Altered History, though. In Ginny’s world, SF is written, edited and read mainly by women and denigrated more (if that’s possible) because of that. At several points Sales addresses the reader directly by interpolating comments on his choices as a writer when composing the story and on the subject of Science Fiction as an enterprise, especially on how it generally does not reflect the harsh realities of space travel. Worth reading in and of itself All That Outer Space Allows also acts as a kind of primer in the history of women writers of SF in the world the reader knows.

Pedant’s corner:- “makes turban of a second towel” (makes a turban is more natural sounding,) “and so predates Ginny’s migration” (postdates,) “Only a Mother” (“That Only a Mother”), “There was loud thunk” (a loud thunk,) “The descent stage measure ten feet seven inches high by… ” (‘measures ten feet seven inches high’. This was in the NASA Lunar Module spec so I assume was their mistake,) vapourised (vaporised,) “as she lays on the beach” (as she lies on the beach,) misrembering (misremembering.)

Mexica by Norman Spinrad

Abacus, 2006, 510 p.

Mexica cover

Spinrad is no stranger to readers of Science Fiction, coming to prominence around the time of the New Wave with works such as Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream (an Altered History SF novel whose author was supposedly Adolf Hitler.) In the early part of this century, though, he took a turn into historical fiction with The Druid King, about Julius Caesar’s adversary Vercingetorix the Gaul. Mexica is his take on conquistador Hernán Cortés (in the text always referred to as Hernando Cortes) one of History’s supreme adventurers – or villains, depending on your viewpoint.

Our narrator is Cortés’s companion, and unwilling advisor, Avram ibn Ezra (an Arabised form of the Jewish Ben Ezra,) who was baptised Alvaro Escribiente de Granada since being a Jew in the newly united Christian Spain under the scrutiny of the Inquisition was not a healthy prospect. This choice allows the narrative to distance itself both from the brutal Christianity of the Spanish invaders and from the sanguinary religious practices of the indigenous Mexica and their vassals. (Only once or twice is the word Aztec mentioned. This apparently was an insulting term deriving from the bumpkinish highlands down from which the Mexica came to replace their predecessors, the Toltecs, whom the Mexica still revered, after that earlier people had vanished into the east.)

It is arguably a necessary choice, as religion mattered. For how else can a few hundred men bring down a mighty empire? In this telling the Mexica – or at least their emperor Montezuma – were undone by their beliefs. The Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was prophesied to come back from the east with a light skin whereupon the fifth world (that of the Mexica) would end and the sixth begin. On hearing of the arrival of the Spaniards Montezuma awaits a sign from his god of war, Huitzilopochtli, as to their true nature, and receives none. A native woman, Malinal (known to present day Mexicans as Malinche but here dubbed Marina by the Spaniards as it’s easier for them to pronounce,) a princess of one the Mexica’s vassal states, sold into slavery when they were defeated, takes up with Cortés and, aided by Alvaro, becomes his translator. She it is who nudges Cortés (despite his own religious qualms) into affecting the appearance, and, in native eyes, substance, of Quetzalcoatl. The prospect of not having to pay blood tribute to the Mexica in the form of the hearts of their young men also leans on the Mexican vassals whom Cortés enlists as allies, vassals all but mystified at the thought of a god who gives his flesh and blood to be eaten by his worshippers rather than requiring their own of his believers.

It was still a very long shot, emphasised when after a couple of military victories against allies of the Mexica on the journey to the central high plateau, Alvaro briefly views through the clouds the magnificence of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan, from the mountain pass above. The city was built on a series of lakes and joined to the surrounding land by four causeways. An impregnable fortress it would seem.

Later, after falling in love with the place, Alvaro wonders, “How could the civilization that had built Tenochtitlan rip out human hearts on such a bloody altar?” but also, “How could the civilization of the Prince of Peace who commanded men to love their neighbours as themselves burn human beings at the stake in his name? How could those who worshipped an Allah who was styled the Beneficent and Merciful behead the infidels who would not bow down to him?”

Whle the central figure here is always Cortés, the most sympathetic and tragic is Montezuma, who is entrapped and imprisoned by Cortés and thus in conversations with Alvaro vouchsafes to the reader his philosophy. Here is a man who, in trying to do the best by his gods as he sees them, loses not only his empire, his people and his city, but also his life. That those gods were horrific taskmasters and not worthy of any such soul-searching or devotion does not diminish this. Religious beliefs make people do strange and bewildering things. From his religious perspective Alvaro sees, “This is the crime for which I have no name. Having conquered their lands, now we were conquering their spirit.”

Mostly a self-serving – not to mention greedy – hypocrite and casuist there are contradictions too in Cortés’s behaviour, illustrated when he gives full military honours to the dead Montezuma and Alvaro tells us, “There were so many reasons for me to hate Hernando Cortes…. But … there were moments …., when no matter how I tried, I found it impossible not to love the bastard.”

Before the story gathers momentum with the landing in Central America the reflective nature of Alvaro’s account can be a little tedious. The text is liberally larded with the word ‘thereof’ and vocative asides to “dear reader”, a tendency which drops out when the action sets in only to reappear many pages later. ‘Alvaro’’s intent in setting this down is to expose and expiate his guilt at the part he played in the downfall of the Mexica and the beautiful city they constructed. But in the end he rationalises that, “..it could not have been prevented. Even if Columbus had never set sail it could not have been prevented, for Europe had the ships, and sooner or later someone would have discovered this New World.” The fulfilment of Montezuma’s omen was inevitable. “For this new world held treasure and unbounded virgin land unknown in the tired old one, and Europe had the greed to covet and the means to sieze it.” The greatest devastator of the Mexica though, would be what Alvaro names as the small pox, a weapon more deadly to the natives than either cannon or arquebus. The Mexica live on, however, in the adaptation of their name to that of the modern day country sitting on their lands, a process which had begun even in Cortés’s time.

Alvaro’s profoundest thoughts are however inspired by the much older civilisation that built the huge pyramids at Teotihuacan, whose people were forgotten even by the Mexica. “This was not a New World. This was a world old beyond imagining…. Five worlds come and gone … And now the breaking of the fifth and the coming of the sixth.” He consoles himself with the thought that in the end great events do not matter; civilisations amd conquerors may come and go but, “It is in the small things that life comes closest to eternity.”

Pedant’s corner:- Cortes’ (innumerable instances, Cortes’s,) sprung (sprang,) “to the point where no one dare approach him” (the narrative is in past tense so, ‘no one dared’ – and ‘no one’ ought to be ‘no-one’,) maws (mouths was the intended meaning, not stomachs,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “but more than not wearing only simple cotton shifts” (more often than not is a more usual construction,) “in a foreign land as Britain might be to a Spaniard” (there was no Britain as a foreign ‘land’ (in a political sense) in the time of Cortes – only the geographical island.)

Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken

Puffin, 1969, 172 p.

Night Birds on Nantucket cover

At the start of this follow-up to Black Hearts in Battersea, itself a sequel of sorts to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Dido Twite has been comatose for four months, fed by one of the crew on the whaling ship Sarah Casket, which rescued her from drowning.

On her awakening she is asked by Captain Casket to befriend his now motherless daughter Dutiful Penitence (Pen) who is too scared to come on deck and hides away in her cabin. Dido soon finds another member of the crew, Mr Slighcarp (a surname readers of the series know well,) acting suspiciously and keeping secret the presence on ship of a mystery woman.

After following a pink whale (the captain’s obsession) from the Arctic down past the Galapagos and round into the Atlantic, Dido and Pen, now firm friends, are dropped off at the ship’s home port in Nantucket, where it has been arranged for the captain’s sister Tribulation to look after Pen for a while. Readers familiar with the series know where this domestic situation is going by now but perhaps its target younger audience might not. Excitement ensues though, when our two young friends come across a Hanoverian plot to kill King James III.

This is wholesome fare, as befits its intended YA audience but also eminently readable for older booklovers. Dido and Pen are agreeably portrayed – though some of the adults’ characterisations are a little over the top.

The book is decorated at intervals with illustrations (one of which is unfortunately placed one page too early.)

Pedant’s corner:- “The whole crew were trying to…” (the whole crew was trying to,) imposter (I much prefer impostor,) sculduggery (I know Dido does not speak in received pronunciation but the spelling of words she does speak ‘normally’ should not be altered; skulduggery,) trapesing (traipsing,) “‘when you Papa’s at sea’” (your Papa’s.) In the ‘About the author’; “the Amercian writer” (American.)

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 347 p.

 The Violent Century cover

This is at once an unusual but also common tale, innovative in style but not so much in plot. (Then again, there are only supposed to be seven of those.) The narrative is conducted in large part via short, verbless sentences, sometimes only one or two words long, at times almost reading like a description of a film playing out before the reader’s eyes, telling us what we would be seeing on the screen. Now and then an authorial voice slides in, adopting the first person plural, as if the reader is a cinema audience relating the story to itself. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time from 1926 to the present day, allowing Tidhar’s characters to be active at various points in the unfolding of the violent mid- to late twentieth century, even the early twenty-first. Scene changes are akin to cinematic dissolves, though each is “captioned” with its time and place in its chapter heading. Throughout, direct speech is not set within quotation marks – which does lead to the occasional phrase requiring a reread.

The plot begins (and periodically unwinds) like an echo of le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Henry Fogg called in by his old oppo, Oblivion, to meet the Old Man, boss at his former employer, The Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, to be questioned about his past evasions.

The background is that sometime in 1932 Dr Joachim Vomacht pushed the button on his machine and unleashed a quantum wave. As a Dr Turing (Alan, we assume) tells the British altered, recruited to a training area in Devon, “To observe an event is to change it. On the quantum level. When Vomacht pressed the button, everything changed. The Vomacht wave was a probability wave. The wave made genetic changes at a subatomic level… For most the change was undetectable ….. But perhaps a few hundred became … you.” The changed, dubbed Übermenschen, have superpowers and are named appropriately. Fogg conjures fog out of the air or any smoke available, Oblivion destroys things, Spit conjures up and projects bullets from her mouth, Mr Blur … blurs, Tank is built like one, Mrs Tinkle can make time retrace itself. Corresponding Übermenschen exist in other countries. The US has Tigerman, the Green Gunman and Whirlwind; the Soviets, the Red Sickle and Rusalka; Germany, Schneesturm and Der Wolfsmann.

The crux of the plot is Sommertag, Vomacht’s daughter Klara, who can pass through doors into a perfect summer’s day, an attribute Fogg finds irresistible despite her being an enemy citizen when they meet. His defence is that, “‘It,’” (the Vomacht wave,) “‘fused into her somehow. It kept her pure.’”

Tidhar appears to have gone to great lengths to make sure that history in this story is unchanged from what the reader knows happened – apart from the appearance of rocket men on the Russian Front (unless this is a WW2 manifestation of which I had not previously heard, a singular unlikelihood) and the Potsdam Conference being held one year later than it was, still with Churchill attending rather than Attlee as it would have been in 1946 (and as it was for the latter part in 1945) – the rise of the Nazis, World War 2, the Cold War, Vietnam, September 11th all take place here as they did in our time. It is as if the comic books were true and those superheroes were present to take part in events but without affecting anything substantial, participants but not decisive.

One scene in Afghanistan involves Sheik Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden calling the changed ‘abominations’ while the Americans (who regard him as, “The rich spoiled son of a rich and powerful family…. Playing soldiers in the desert,”) are trying to use him against the Soviets – and thereby sow the seeds for the Twin Towers whirlwind. Of that 11th September our (plural) narrator tells us, “That day we look up to the sky and see the death of heroes.”

A Russian says, “We should have learned from your history. The British. Three wars and you lost every one. You can’t win a war here. You couldn’t, we can’t, and whoever comes after us is going to lose too. This land hates invaders,” and warns, “This bin Laden. This Saudi. Kill him now. Kill him when you have the chance, or he will turn on you.” Easy to say in a book published over ten years after an event but many did give out warnings at the time.

The Violent Century is admirably plotted and well paced, with an atmosphere of menace throughout, I’m puzzled as to why this wasn’t on any award shortlist for its year.

Pedant’s corner:- Antennas (antennae.) “Facing the bar counter are a row of barstools.” (Facing the bar counter is a row of barstools,) barkeep (not a British usage. We say ‘barman’ or maybe ‘landlord’,) “air separating into nitrogen and hydrogen” (that’s a neat trick, there’s very little hydrogen in air, only what is the relatively low proportion of air comprised of water vapour.) “None of us choose what we become” (None of us chooses,) King George IV (George VI, as he was correctly designated later,) “the moans reach a crescendo” (a climax perhaps; a crescendo is a build-up, not a culmination,) eldrich (eldritch,.) “None of them have been properly introduced yet” (None of them has been properly introduced.) “None of them are.” (None of them is,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) “none come” (none comes,) “do this hundreds of time” (of times.) “Millions more watched the ceremony around the world in a special broadcast by the BBC.” (Millions around the world watched the Coronation ? In 1953? Before communication satellites? I don’t think so.) “The only thing in motion are his eyes” (‘thing’ is singular so cannot have a plural verb form; ‘the only things in motion are his eyes,) Johnny Rivers’ (Rivers’s,) a missing question mark after “What do I know”, another question mark ought to replace a comma later on, “we’re not in the army here, Bob, Bob says, Yeah, yeah,” (a full stop instead of a comma after the first ‘Bob’) “Incoming!” (British troops do not shout this. They yell, ‘Take cover!) “Goddamned” (nor do British folk say this.)

Paris Adrift by E J Swift

Solaris, 2018, 379 p. Reviewed for Interzone 274, Mar-Apr 2018.

Paris Adrift cover

Time travel is one of Science Fiction’s most venerable tropes but in more recent times has taken something of a back seat to other aspects of the genre. In Paris Adrift, E J Swift has adopted an oblique approach to the topic, gaily skipping over any problems with the ethics of non-intervention and avoidance of the grandfather paradox. She does not make anything of, still less explain, the mechanics of the process (which arguably puts us in fantasy territory,) it is simply an integral part of the story she has to tell.

Hallie, an English geology student estranged from her family, is on a gap year in Paris trying to sort her life out. She takes a waiting job at Millie’s, a bar near the Moulin Rouge. Millie’s is a nexus for the strange. Fellow employee Gabriela finds she is always somehow prevented from leaving Paris while Hallie has odd encounters with birds that talk to her, an apparent doppelganger, and customers, while also experiencing odd sensations both in the keg room and in Paris’s catacombs. She still finds space for a relationship with fellow waiter Léon, and Swift charts superbly the overwhelming intensity of a burgeoning love affair.

The narration is almost exclusively from Hallie’s viewpoint, in that pressing present tense which can seem like a default in so much modern SF. Occasional mentions of geological terms underline Hallie’s background.

The incursions of the weird might perhaps have been more unexpected had we not already read a prologue chapter introducing us to the chronometrist, a person seemingly able to take control of other’s bodies at will but whose essence is fading, and to the concept of anomalies and their incumbents. Hallie soon finds out the keg room is a time portal and her future has been mapped out by the Way of Janus.

Her first experience of timefaring takes her to 1875 where she seems to adapt to her new situation remarkably quickly and is befriended by the Millie who will one day found the bar. She also meets the architect designing the Sacré-Coeur. Partly due to Hallie’s interference that building will no longer be erected. In its stead will arise the Moulin Vert which becomes a significant location in the rest of the book (plus inspiration for a political movement) and technically makes the novel an alternative history. However, other aspects of our modern world and its history are unaffected, there are mentions of Whatsapp, plus the Bataclan, Stade de France and Nice attacks.

The anomaly’s next flare sends Hallie to 1942 and a suitably claustrophobic encounter with would-be cellist Rachel Clouarte. Hallie dodges German soldiers and the curfew to reunite Cluarte with her cello and aid her escape in order to ensure her career in music will prevail, so that she will not marry and produce (eventually) the descendant who will contribute to a catastrophic war in the future. This 1942 Paris is lightly affected by the occupation, street life continuing gaily as normal, though of course the deportations from which Clouarte is to be saved proceed apace. I did wonder why Hallie’s intervention in the Clouarte family tree had to be quite so early but of course it does give Swift the opportunity to depict Paris in wartime and up the danger quotient.

Another flare takes Hallie to 2042 and a terribly plausible fascist Paris (complete with Metro station called LePen) and the seeds of the situation which the Way of Janus seeks to avert. Other timefaring trips are mentioned but not gone into in detail.

The 1942 and 2042 excursions lend the novel aspects of a thriller yet there are other scenes which bring to mind Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and the work of Tim Powers. Throughout, Swift’s portrayal of her characters is assured. These are people we can believe in even if one of them is prey to the logical fallacy that because the Earth is remarkably suited to humans it is a sign of something miraculous rather than the unfolding of impersonal forces which merely allowed us to arise.

Paris Adrift deals with the heavy theme of totalitarianism and the threat of the far right but never loses sight of the smaller people who live through interesting times. While Léon and Hallie are pivotal to the resolution of the plot (and History itself) its emotional focus, though sometimes sidelined, is on their relationship.

Like a lot of SF this suggests life is hard and pain impossible to avoid but unlike most recent SF it proffers hope along with the sacrifice. Never mind it being good SF/Fantasy, this is a good novel.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “the night team begin to trickle in” (the night team begins to trickle in,) “the group want shots” (wants,) “a stream of people flow inside,” (a stream flows,) “the confines of the locker room lends an air” (the confines lend an air,) “a travelling company were performing” (a company was performing,) “the shape of the walls change, become smooth and rounded” (the shape changes, becomes smooth,) “Her age and appearance has altered once again” (have altered,) “the floor team are doing the rounds” (the team is doing the rounds.) “None of these people have an anomaly. None are bound to this place” (none has, none is.) “Only a small proportion of the catacombs are maintained for visitors.” (Only a small proportion is maintained,) “as the assault team go through their final checks” (as the team goes through its final checks.) Yet despite all these examples of such failures of agreement of subject and verb Swift obviously knows what’s what as we had the correct “a rickety set of steps leads up to”,) “till I am stood right next to him” (it wasn’t a passive activity, so standing”,) “sat on the gravestones” (sitting,) gotten (in a narrative otherwise so British in tone this USianism jars,) “since she bid me farewell” (bade me farewell,) “preempting the touch that will follow” (the context implied savouring rather than pre-empting,) Dušanka calls Hallie “‘my petit chou.’” She responds, “‘And I’m not a pastry.’” (That response would be to “my petit choux” – chou is a cabbage and “petit chou” a term of endearment. Hallie’s French isn’t supposed to be good but surely she would not confuse the two?) “is sat” (is sitting,) “another woman is stood at the window” (is standing,) dove (USian; the British past tense of dive is dived,) “sat sipping” (sitting sipping,) “glasses pile up on either side” (context implies both sides,) inside of (USian, it’s just inside, no “of”,) descendent (descendant,) focusses (focuses,) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, though I concede syllabi is a correct Latin plural,) “you’ll be never be happy” (that first “be” is redundant, “‘How can I do that.’” (That is a question so requires a question mark, not a full stop.)

The Smoke by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2018, 300 p

 The Smoke cover

We start on a space vehicle on which the brother of protagonist Stuart Lanyon is about to take off from Woomera – powered by successive explosions of atom bombs underneath it blasting it into space. This is something of a distraction however, though a signifier of an altered history where Yellowstone erupted in 1874, immolating North America, and a Great War was ended in 1916 after the atomic bombing of Berlin.

The main meat of the story is the ramifications of the discovery of the Gurwitsch ray – biophotonic weak ultraviolet pulses passing from cell to cell in living things, each creature with its own characteristic emissions, orchestrating development, leading to the ability of humanity to sculpt organic forms at will. Hence we are in the age of speciation of mankind. The dead of the Great War battlefields were subjected to Gurwitsch’s ray, producing strange organisms known as chickies which are able to exert sexual allure among other abilities, a technocratic intellectually superior elite called the Bund has arisen in Eastern Europe and dominates world affairs.

The weird aspects of all this are underlined by Ings’s story-telling, part of the novel being narrated in the second person, though the down to Earth sections are more traditional first person and some interludes are in third. Though the background details seem to sit oddly with one another – a thoroughly industrial Yorkshire can feel more like the 1930s, a television series more signifies the early 1960s, parts of London are dominated by ultra-modern architecture – Ings manages to hold them together. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia with the merest hint of Ballard thrown in for extra alienation.

At the novel’s heart is the love story between Stuart and Bund citizen Fel, aka Felicine Chernoy, daughter of Georgy, inventor of the Chernoy Process which utilises Gurwitsch’s ray to enable rebirth. Stuart’s mother, dying of cancer, undergoes this treatment and is reconstituted as an infant. A curious phenomenon to behold, this, a child with an adult’s memories, behaving in unchild-like ways – and subject to unthinking prejudice. Stuart and Fel’s different backgrounds lend their affair the attributes of all star-crossed lover stories.

The characters are well drawn but despite their supposedly greater intellects the two members of the Bund shown here – Fel and her father – do not seem significantly different from humans as we know them. Stuart does though in his narration refer to his father as Bob and mother as Betty, which is a touch unusual.

Ings’s vision here is a particular one, at once curiously fantastic and yet also recognisable, a flight of fancy (several flights if you like) but utterly grounded.in human emotions. The Smoke goes to show that Science Fiction continues to produce work of which those detractors who dismiss it without ever sampling it assume it to be incapable.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Bund” is treated as plural throughout, but ought to be singular, “And since no one wants to meet each other’s eye, it makes logical sense that the entire audience repair en masse to the bar” (others’ I think, plus make that no-one, and, the entire audience repairs,) Lutyens’ (Lutyens’s,) potshard (potsherd, please,) Picasso is referred to as a Parisian artist (he was Spanish, but this is an altered history,) “the family were meant to cheer Jim off to Woomera” (the family was meant to,) “it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to stove this thing’s head in” (the verb is to stave in, stove is the past tense form.) “The odds against there being no set now increases” (the odds …. increase.) “‘According your friend’” (According to your friend,) “till it run out of” (runs out,) a parenthetical sentence not started with a capital letter as it ought to have been, “for goodness’ sake” (this ought to be written “goodness’s” even if it’s pronounced “goodness”.)

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