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Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Ace, 2019, 312 p.

 Atlas Alone cover

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read. It is set on a starship called Atlas 2, heading out on a twenty-year voyage to join a colony on another planet (in the wake of someone called the Pathfinder who I assume appeared in an earlier novel in Newman’s Planetfall sequence.) Just as well; Earth has been devastated by a nuclear war.

Our narrator is named Deanna, on board Atlas 2 after her indentured debt had been paid off by her friend. Carl, who likes nothing better than to get his teeth into a real murder (or unexplained death) mystery. Or, I should say, because his indentureship trained/programmed him for that. Deanna – and I suppose everyone else in this scenario – has a link to an internal personal assistant. (This last is getting to be a fixture of SF novels these days.) There is also a system called MyPhys which monitors people’s health and bodily responses while the relaxation activity of choice is the use of mersives, highly detailed, virtual reality role-playing games.

Very early on Newman, through Deanna, puts the boot into fundamentalism of the self-styled Christian variety. In this story, what had been the USA has fractured and non-believers in Christianity kicked out. Deanna had had to fake belief in order to get onto the largely American funded ship, trading on relative ignorance of and assumptions about trans-Atlantic – here called Noropean – norms.

Up till now apparently footloose and fancy-free with all needs catered for Deanna is invited to do an analysis job on some data and discovers a previously hidden (at least to her and her acquaintances) hierarchy on the ship. Rich and with far from mean living spaces the elite also has access to a money economy Deanna had been unaware of.

Things ramp up when a mysterious person with incredible powers of access and concealment intrudes into the mersive area she calls her office space and entices her into a mersive which seems to have all sorts of information about her past life and homes. In it she finds clues to the nature of those running the show; leaders from the CSA (not the CSA I first thought of, but the Christian States of America) and that they were responsible for the destruction of all those sinners back on Earth. On meeting one of them in the mersive she takes the opportunity to kill him there, knowing he will experience the pain of it back in meatspace. On returning to real life she is startled to find that despite safeguards against crossover (not to mention MyPhys) that person has indeed died while immersed. Carl, a dog that won’t let a bone go, has been assigned to find out what happened to him. Thereafter she is forced to prevaricate with Carl while still plotting revenge on those in charge who are intent on preserving the indentured system she and all the less privileged on board thought they’d escaped from. In the course of this we come to realise that Deanna is indeed, in her own words, “A cold collection of responses, pretending to be a person.” When the identity of her mysterious helper is revealed she comes round to planning her act of retribution very quickly, almost without thought, but also without compunction.

That the major part of this novel is spent with Deanna in mersive environments is a bit off-putting. It’s too close to “it was all a dream.” Granted within them Deanna is revealed certain clues to help her unravel her circumstances but the overlap between mersive and meatspace is a step too far. The other characters in the book are little more than attributes rather than real people – unless Newman is making the point that spending too much time in game-playing is detrimental to human relationships, which the text does not really support. Then again we are seeing this from the viewpoint of a cold collection of responses pretending to be a person; perhaps not the best reader of people. Deanna is not an exemplary human (not that characters in books necessarily have to be) but Newman lets her off her actions lightly, leaving an unsavoury taste.

Newman’s invented expletive JeeMuh is still as irritating as in Before Mars, the previous book of hers I have read, but at least this time she gives it a provenance. Yet why use it at all when the ‘f’ word is liberally sprinkled across the text?

Pedant’s corner:- It was an ARC. Many of the following may have been corrected in the published edition: hangry (is this meant to be a portmanteau word – hungry/angry – or is it just a misprint for hungry? In context the misprint is far more likely.) “‘And it’s going kill you’” (‘going to kill you’,) n00b (x2, noob?) “the smell had alerted the neighbours, the body removed” (the body had been removed,) “a couple of specs on my throat” (neither speculations nor spectacles; it was blood, so, specks,) “‘you’ve got another thing coming,’” (another think,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “As long as I know what I want and know how to get, that’s all that matters” (how to get it,) hung (hanging,) “while I patched up her” (that reads very differently from ‘while I patched her up’,) “ a variety of ways … quickly float through my mind” (a variety …floats,) grills (USian? ‘grilles’,) “the same as what I can in meatspace” (the ‘what’ is superfluous,) “none of them live on deck five” (none of them lives on deck five.) None of the Circle are working” (None … is working,) “‘who were genuinely were’” (omit one ‘were’.)

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L Powell

Titan, 2019, 401 p.

 Fleet of Knives cover

As last year, Powell’s is the first of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read. Like the previous instalment in Powell’s projected trilogy (see link above) it is again a multi-viewpoint narrative. Most of these are familiar from Embers of War; war criminal turned poet turned condemned prisoner Ona Sendak, ship’s captain Sal Konstanz, his ship Trouble Dog’s AI brain, its Druff engineer Nod – now accompanied by thirteen offspring. There is a new viewpoint character called Johnny Schultz, (“lucky” Johnny Schultz,) captain of a trading vessel on the shady side of things, plus a sole chapter from the viewpoint of Trouble Dog’s sister ship, Adalwolf.

The Marble Armada which our motley crew liberated from five thousand years of confinement in the trilogy’s previous instalment causes Sendak to be rescued at the point of her execution by a Conglomeration army detachment. For some reason the Armada needs a biological identity to authorise their actions. It is in this scene that the first of many gratuitous acts of violence in the book occurs.

Schultz’s ship, Lucy’s Ghost, is about to sweep out of the hypervoid to “salvage” a derelict Nymtoq ship, the Restless Itch, when it is attacked by an entity invisible to the ship’s sensors, causing it to crash into the Itch on reentering real space. Schultz’s crew is forced to board the Itch for shelter and await rescue. Konstanz and Trouble Dog’s crew respond to the distress call.

Meantime the Armada launches an attack on any armed vessel or military outpost everywhere in the Human Generality apparently in the name of preventing any further war and killing. There is an attempt at some moralistic justification for this orgy of destruction (“‘We act to preserve life…. By destroying the means to wage war. Only when war is impossible will life be safe,’”) but any such is of necessity tenuous. In any case it seems the Armada – by now dubbed the Fleet of Knives of the book’s title – fears that widespread war may bring down the unwelcome attention of aliens from the higher dimensions. (Some cognitive dissonance here, surely?)

Inside Itch, Schultz and his crew (now accompanied by Lucy, an avatar of the ship’s human-derived brain housed in a cloned body appearing twelve years old) are beset by a horde of implacable metallic-carapaced creatures which resemble crayfish, and thus have to flee for their lives. The arrival of Trouble Dog is swiftly followed by Sendak and three Armada ships demanding surrender.

Konstanz and Schultz reflect on the inevitable deaths within their crews with regret but these and other attempts at humanising them are unconvincing, appearing bolted on, almost as a chore for the author to pay lip service to. As characters they do not breathe.

The book is riddled with other infelicities. The crayfish provide their interval of conflict and then the narrative seems to forget them. We are (twice) told Trouble Dog displaces ten thousand tons. I could not have quibbled with ‘massed ten thousand tons’ (mass does not depend on environment) but how can a spaceship displace anything? Its working environment is a vacuum in which, by definition, there is nothing to displace. ‘Normal’ ships of course displace their equivalent tonnage of water. Restless Itch has a number of convenient parallel tunnels for Trouble Dog to hide in and then escape through, Trouble Dog itelf refers to Sendak’s Armada ship as 88,573 but had not at that point been told its name. There are also too many references to things familiar to twenty-first century readers which would most likely have no meaning for the inhabitants of this book – and therefore jar as part of their story – for disbelief to remain suspended. And remorseless metallic, cannibalistic crustacean lookalikes? Come on, guys.

This novel will not get my vote.

Pedant’s corner:- milleniums (millenia,) momentarily (means ‘for a moment’, not ‘in a moment’,) maw (x3 it’s not a mouth,) “if worse came to worst” (does make more logical sense but in the past this phrase was always, ‘if the worst came to the worst’,) crawfish (previously ‘crayfish’, but ‘crawfish’ from hereon in,) “I fancied I could almost hear the ‘whoosh’ as the entangled wreckage of both ships passed scant metres from our bows” (it was in space, there would have been no ‘whoosh’, and only one bow,) epicentre (centre.)

BSFA Awards for 2019

The BSFA has just published the short lists for the awards for works published in 2019.

As far as the fiction goes we have:-

Best Novel:

Juliet E McKenna – The Green Man’s Foe (Wizard’s Tower Press)
Emma Newman – Atlas Alone (Gollancz)
Gareth L Powell – Fleet of Knives (Titan Books)
Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin (Tor)
Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection (Orbit)

Best Shorter Fiction:

Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Hodder & Stoughton)
Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War (Jo Fletcher Books)
Fiona Moore – Jolene (Interzone #283)
Gareth L Powell – Ragged Alice (Tor.com)
Tade Thompson – The Survival of Molly Southbourne (Tor.com)
Ian Whates – For Your Own Good (Wourism and Other Stories, Luna Press)

I have read none of the novels so far though Atlas Alone is on my tbr pile. The Tade Thompson is the second in a trilogy of which the first Rosewater is also on the pile. I’ll need to get round to that soon as I want to read it before The Rosewater Insurrection.

In the shorter works I reviewed This is How You Lose the Time War for Interzone 283 but not yet here. Jolene also appeared in that Interzone issue. My thoughts on it are here. I look forward to the arrival of the usual BSFA Awards booklet with all the shorter works (or extracts therefrom.)

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Picador, 2019, 359 p.

 Exhalation cover

Despite never having written a novel (well, he certainly hasn’t published one) Ted Chiang has made a huge reputation for himself in the SF world. This is his second collection (after Stories of Your Life and Others.) Many of the ones here are thought experiments, intriguing and impeccably worked out. All are very well written.
The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate take its form and inspiration from The Arabian Nights. The titular merchant is telling his tales (within his tale) to the Caliph of Baghdad. His encounter with a man calling himself an alchemist leads to his travelling through a Gate of Years – in essence a time machine resembling an MRI scanner in appearance. Constraints apply but paradoxes are excluded. Well told but the “Arabic” voice wavered a little.
Exhalation won the BSFA Award in 2009. Looking back at my comments all those years ago I find I was very harsh. In this reading it was more a brilliant allegorical evocation of entropy and relativity wherein a difference in air pressure rather than energy as such is the universe’s driving force.
What’s Expected of Us describes a device in which a light flashes one second before its activating button is pushed – no matter how much the operator tries to trick it – and the implications that fact has for free will. The premise here is very like an unpublished story of mine yet is on the other hand entirely different.
By far the longest story in the book, The Life Cycle of Software Objects, is almost beyond novella length and follows the development of digients, software simulations of animals designed to behave as glorified digital pets, taught to speak and grow, able to interact with humans and have their consciousnesses transferred to robot bodies in the real world.
Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny is the story of a mechanical device constructed in order to minimise the failures of human upbringing of children and its ramifications for three generations of the inventor’s family. It gives a nod to the legendary Thackery T Lambshead.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’s narrator contrasts the introduction of a new technology whereby memory is set to become outsourced to digitalisation (and possibly deleteriously divorced from emotion) with the impact writing had on a tribal, oral tradition.
The story The Great Silence is actually the text from an Art Installation (also called The Great Silence) for which Chiang was asked to provide a narrative but absolutely works as a standalone story. It concerns the Fermi Paradox and humans’ inability to understand other creatures. It’s narrated by a(n endangered) parrot.
On the Earth depicted in Omphalos, essentially ours but with subtle place name spelling changes, there is direct evidence – ancient wood lacking tree rings at its centre, navelless mummified human bodies, abalone shells without early growth layers – that God created the universe in its entirety a few thousand years ago. Our narrator is an archaeologist whose faith is disturbed by astronomical observations which appear to show a different planet from his, is at its centre.
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom delves into the ramifications of using a device called a prism (Plaga interworld signalling mechanism) each of which enables communication with a parallel world which branched off at the exact moment it was activated.
Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a resumption of direct speech (x2,) “It’s been more thirty years since I read that” (… more than thirty years … .)

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2017, 219 p.

This was on the short list for the BSFA Award last year and subsequently won the Clarke Award.

 Dreams Before the Start of Time cover

It is, however, less of a novel than a series of vignettes featuring characters with some sort of relationship to each other but unfolding over a timescale of 83 years starting in 2034. The one big change to society involved in all this is the advent of technology to nurture human fœtuses outside the womb and to tweak the genetic composition of embryos for desired traits. The slow evolution of approved standards of child gestation into outright disapproval of the natural process – how can you be so uncaring of your child’s welfare as to carry it yourself? – is well served by the form of the narrative; it comes on us gradually, as the attitude would. The choice is not, however, so easy if you lack the resources to purchase the services and provides another stick with which to beat the poor, to go along with all the traditional ones.

As a Science Fictional thought experiment this is almost text book; consequences of a change thought out and demonstrated. I can see why it has garnered the acclaim it did. As a novel it’s less so, though, coming over as bitty and too pat. Moreover I wasn’t convinced by the implied background. Even in 2120 daily life in Dreams Before the Start of Time doesn’t appear to be very different from that in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this appears so because most of the characters are well-to-do, or at least comfortably off. Charnock writes well, though. The book is never less than readable and in places surpasses that.

Pedant’s corner:- practiced (practised.)

BSFA Awards for 2018

This year’s awards (for works published last year have been announced.)

Best Novel: Gareth L Powell for Embers of War

Best Shorter Fiction: Ian McDonald for Time Was

Best Non-Fiction: Aliette de Bodard for “On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures.”

Best Artwork: Likhain for “In the Vanishers’ Palace: Dragon I and II.”

The novel winner wasn’t my choice.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2018

BSFA, 2019, 104 p.

BSFA Award Booklet for 2018

It would appear from the nominations for shorter fiction appearing in this year’s booklet that the SF short story is dead. Barring the last in the booklet none of the shortlisted stories is printed in its entirety. The others are all extracts from longer pieces of fiction.
Nina Allan’s The Gift of Angels: an introduction1 is narrated by a Science Fiction writer, whose mother was the first person on Mars but whose fate remains unknown, and tells what appears to be his life story. The tale riffs on and critiques the films La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys. Allan has a beautiful writing touch. I did want to find the longer version to finish it. The story, though, refers to Harry Potter and Game of Thrones as famous. I doubt these will be quite such cultural touchstones in the fifty years or so time when this is set as they are now.
I read The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct by Malcolm Devlin in Interzone 275, where it was first published. I reviewed the issue it appeared in here.
The Land of Somewhere Safe3 by Hal Duncan is one of the author’s Scruffians stories. Here we have a wonderfully linguistically inventive tale (Dunstravaigin Castle is a brilliant coinage) involving wartime evacuees to Skye and a Nazi spy.
The magnificent Time Was by Ian McDonald I reviewed here.
Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries Vol 4)5 by Martha Wells is narrated by a murder bot apparently lured to a planet by an organisation that has sequestered its boss. The story suffers from being told to us rather than shown and did not grab me in the slightest.
Phosphorus6 by Liz Williams is set on Mars and the planet Winterstrike. One of its viewpoint characters is dead. However, the extract is not really long enough to judge whether its balance is askew or not nor to evaluate the story properly.
Kingfisher7 by Marian Womack is set in a future where wildlife is all but vanished and human births a rarity yet libraries seem to abound. Our protagonist is saddled with a useless tool of a husband, an abiding sense of failure and a fascination with birds. There is a hint of a writerly sensibility lurking underneath the prose but the story is riddled with a ridiculous number of errata.

The non-fiction nominees section contains two of Nina Allan’s “Time Pieces”a columns from Interzone, ditto for Ruth E J Booth’s Shoreline of Infinity essays published as “Noise and Sparks”, Liz Bourke has five of her “Sleeps with Monsters”b columns for Tor.com, Aliette de Bodard writes “On Motherhood and Erasure”c from the blog “Intellectus Speculativus” and there is an extract from Adam Roberts’s “Publishing and the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance”d.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“A sinister band of scientists prey off” (a band preys off,) “sprung up” (sprang up,) “the museum has replacedtheir stash” (its stash,) “a cetain child .. finds themselves” (a child finds itself.) 3puntied in (punted?) argylle socks (argyle,) liptick (lipstick seems intended but liptick may be one of Duncan’s neologisms.) 5GrayCris’ (GrayCris’s.) 6governess’ (governess’s,) mistress’ (mistress’s,) “The scatter of hovels erected at the tip of the Tail were the last to fall behind..” (The scatter … was the last.) 7 “each bar offered their personal take” (each bar offered its personal take,) statues becomes statue several lines later, “a prevalent Sun descended” (a prominent Sun?) “it was frightening how comforting was to fall back into” (how comforting it was to.) “The library would pay for my librarianship degree on the sole condition that I came back to work for them for three or four years” (to work for it, or, to work there,) “climbing up thopusands of miles up in the air” (one ‘up’ too many,) a ‘seem’ where ‘seemed’ fits the other tenses in the sentence, “and they would let themselves been touched” (be touched,) “Jonas was better at cooking at me” (than me,) “scribbled in old pieces of reclaimed paper” (scribbled on,) “in a strangely elaborated [dream]” (elaborate.) “I looked a Jonas” (at Jonas.) “I fell a moment of void” (I felt.) “I had never knew whsat to do with it” (I had never known, or, I never knew,) although there were not fluff” (although they were not fluff,) “but they seem to accumulate” (seemed,) “when I notice a stain” (noticed,) “too look inside” (to look,) “the dinning room” (dining room,) “what they where for” (were for.) “Whener I don’t remember what it means to be sad I took it out and look at those pages” (either ‘remembered’, and ‘looked’, or, ‘take’,) “minus zero” (that would be zero, then,) “magazines cut-outs” (magazine cut-outs,) “I had tided them up” (tidied,) “plastics bags” (plastic bags.) “They were not native to the local fauna” (‘They were not native’, or, ‘they were not local fauna’,) “so effectively they had contaminated the environment” (so effectively had they contaminated the environment.)
a“are startling out of step” (startlingly.) b“I’m going to look at take two books together” (either ‘look at’ or ‘take’ not both, automatons (automata,) “Neither of them resolve anything” (neither of them resolves anything,) “[X]’s .. pregnancy …. and her feelings … is central to the narrative” (there’s an ‘and’ in there; that makes for a plural verb subject, so, ‘are central’.) “The poets are most affect by” (affected by.) c“are littered with the death of mothers” (deaths.) d“is comic-satiric impossible voyage” (is a comic-satiric impossible voyage,) “triple-decker length SF form this era” (from, I think,) “the content of which were published” (was published.)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2019

BSFA Awards Booklet for 2019

This year’s booklet arrived this morning.

It contains all the short fiction and non-fiction nominees for the BSFA Awards for works published in 2018 and the artworks nominated for the relevant award.

On perusing it I found the closing date for electronic voting is today so I had a lot of reading to pack in this afternoon.

I have been expecting the booklet’s arrival since the turn of the month and was getting worried it would not be forthcoming in time.

Eastercon, which I will not be attending this year, where the final awards will be announced, is of course this Sunday coming.

BSFA Award Novel List

I’ve now read three of the short-listed novels for this year’s BSFA Award.

I can’t say I’ve been too struck on any of them.

Gareth L Powell’s Embers of War did not appear to be anything out of the ordinary.

My thoughts on Before Mars by Emma Newman are here.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Dawn was beautifully written but is the fourth in his Fractured Europe sequence and did not add substantially to the world(s) he has created.

I’ll not be reading the Yoon Ha Lee. I found his Nine Fox Gambit was not very good and put me off his fiction for life.

That leaves Tade Thompson’s Rosewater for which I probably don’t now have the time to resource or read. I gather also there is some doubt as to its eligibility as it was published on the Kindle in 2017 rather than 2018.

My reading of the short fiction has not progressed since the short list was announced (see first link in this post.) The usual BSFA booklet containing the stories has not yet arrived. I live in hope. In any case I doubt anything else will be better than Ian McDonald’s Time Was.

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Gollancz, 2018, 345 p.

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read.

 Before Mars cover

Anna Kubrin, child of free-thinking parents, is woken from the mersive (a recording of a memory played on a chip internal to the brain and that manifests as all but real) she’s been accessing towards the end of her trip from Earth to Mars. She’s been engaged by GaborCorp as a geologist but her primary task is to produce paintings of the Red Planet for the Corp’s chief, Stefan Gabor. She experiences the usual disorientation those reaching Mars undergo but seems to recover quickly.

What, though, is she to make of the note – clearly painted by herself – that she finds down the back of the bed in her quarters, warning her to beware station psychiatrist Arnolfi, or the fact that her wedding ring now has no engraving on it, the strange but familiar attraction she immediately feels to fellow base member Dr Elvan, and the lack of response to her comments in messages home – not to mention the human footprint she finds beside a Martian crater that is supposedly unexplored?

Is this immersion psychosis? Paranoia? Or a sign of something deeply wrong at the base?

Anna’s confusion is heightened by her ongoing guilt at the fact she didn’t feel the connection to her child, Mia, that is accepted as the societal norm and by fearing she has inherited the madness of her father whose actions almost killed Anna’s mother many years ago.

Through Anna’s use of mersives, and other snippets of information dumping, we find the book is set in a post-democracy era that nevertheless doesn’t seem to have got beyond the profit motive since it is ruled by gov-corps (some benefiting from the use of indentured labour) and where ordinary people struggle for access to good housing.

The implanted chips all but compulsory for employees in this world – and certainly so for those on the Mars base – enable communication with the base’s operating AI, verbally, visually or via virtual keyboard and can act as a kind of internal mobile phone for non-verbal information transfer with others. These future humans also have retinal cameras which enable the recordings from which mersives are made.

Newman’s invented expletive – JeeMuh – strikes a jarring note, possibly as it seems to lack an origin. This chimes with the tantalisingly opaque nature of the novel’s background. Events which were clearly important and have consequences for the characters are alluded to or referenced but not entirely explained. This is apparently the third in a series of books of which I have not read the previous two and so these things may be more obvious to those who have. Before Mars does stand alone, though, and can be read with no difficulty.

On this evidence Newman is capable enough as a writer but can tend to the long-winded and repetitious. Award-worthy, though? I’ll reserve judgement on that.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite the narrator (and author) being from Britain – albeit a future Britain – we have many USian usages and spellings – though we have one ‘arse’ used to mean ‘bollocks.’ “‘I’m at high risk for that’” (high risk of that,) black currant (blackcurrant,) “for all intents and purposes” (the phrase is ‘to all intents and purposes’,) commas missing before quotations and sometimes, but not consistently, at their ends, “the latter only in Charlie’s case” (syntactically that would be better as ‘only the latter in Charlie’s case’,) “that I’d strived for” (striven, please.) “‘There are a handful’” (there is a handful,) “obligated to” (obliged to,) “‘I wrack my brain’” (rack my brain, wrack is a seaweed,) “none of the remaining dots correspond with the location of the mast” (none …. corresponds,) epicenter (it was a centre, not an epicentre,) “‘the images from one of the drones was missing’” (okay, it was in dialogue but it should still be “were missing”,) “lay of the land” (again, in dialogue, but it’s “lie of the land”.) “‘None of you are permitted to be here’” (again in dialogue, but by an AI. You’d think they’d programme them with correct grammar, wouldn’t you? “None of you is permitted to be here.”)

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