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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.”)

Embers of War by Gareth L Powell

Titan Books, 2018, 407 p.

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

 Embers of War cover

Apart from the prologue, a somewhat ropily written account of the destruction of an entire ecosphere – an act which depending on point of view either brought the war between the Conglomeration and the Outward to a swift end, thus saving lives, or else was an unforgivable crime – this novel is told in first person chapters narrated from various viewpoints, three human, one spaceship AI and that of a peculiar alien creature with many legs whose feet act both as hands and faces and is the spaceship’s engineer/general dogsbody but nevertheless gets the last word, plus a single one-page chapter narrated by an ancient armada of spaceships.

Captain Sal Konstanz was present at that planet destroying act of war but since then has been dedicated to the peaceful House of Reclamation, an organistion set up to rescue survivors from space disasters or acts of piracy. Ona Sudak is a poet with a secret, a passenger on the stricken ship Geest van Amsterdam, Anton Childe a Conglomeration agent gun-running on a backwater planet till his bosses tell him to find Sendak, Trouble Dog is Konstanz’s ship’s AI, once dedicated to war but whose conscience made it too join the House of Reclamation, Nod is the alien, much given to rumination and philosophising.

A lot of this is the usual space opera stuff, various factions clashing, assorted interpersonal conflicts, a somewhat clichéd martinet General (shouldn’t that be Admiral if he commands a fleet?) and his milquetoast son, the exporation of a big dumb object (though this one has the internal characteristics of a TARDIS.)

OK, Embers of War is set in the aftermath of a war rather than its waging or genesis but I don’t see much to mark it out from the ordinary run of military SF/space opera. There must be better SF novels published in 2018 out there.

Pedant’s corner:- The Conglomeration is usually given a plural noun (I would use the singular for a collective entity,) cannons (the military plural is cannon,) “more than handful” (than a handful,) “few ships … had flown without numbering at least one member” – of the Druff – “among their crew” (among their crews,) “a hoarse voice shrieked itself into a crescendo of ragged, agonised silence” (Powell possibly meant climax rather than crescendo. In any case a crescendo builds, and not into silence, which in turn can only be silence, and therefore not ragged,) “this accommodation on the behalf of these ancient monuments (on the part of these ancient monuments,) “wheeling around each one like mosquitoes wheeling around a ship’s lantern” (two uses of “wheeling around” in the space of eight words?) “all of them coming and going from the doorways in th ziggurat like buses comng and gpoing from a central bus terminal” (two uses of “coming and going” in the space of fourteen words,) maw (a maw is not a mouth,) degrees centigrade (it’s degrees Celsius,) “a pack of four Carnivores were inbound from Cold Tor” (a pack was inbound,) staunch (stanch,) immoveable (immovable,) barbeque (barbecue.)

BSFA Awards Nominees for this Year

This year’s short list has been announced.

Best Novel:-

Dave Hutchinson – Europe at Dawn

Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun

Emma Newman – Before Mars

Gareth L Powell – Embers of War

Tade Thompson – Rosewater

I’ve not yet read any of these, I’m afraid.

Best Shorter Fiction:-

Nina Allan – The Gift of Angels: an Introduction

Malcolm Devlin – The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct

Hal Duncan – The Land of Somewhere Safe

Ian McDonald – Time Was

Martha Wells – Exit Strategy

Liz Williams – Phosphorus

Marian Womack – Kingfisher

The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct appeared in Interzone 275 (I reviewed that issue here) and I read Time Was in September.

Best Non-Fiction:-

Nina Allan – Time Pieces column 2018 articles

Ruth EJ Booth – Noise and Sparks column 2018 articles

Liz Bourke – Sleeps With Monsters column 2018 articles

Aliette de Bodard – On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures

Adam Roberts – Publishing the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance

Of these I have of course read Nina Allan’s “Time Pieces” from Interzone and (some of) Ruth EJ Booth’s “Noise and Sparks” columns in Shoreline of Infinity.

I’m assuming the usual BSFA Booklet will be forthcoming giving me a chance to catch up on the shorter fiction, non-fiction and artwork. First I’ll need to get to tracking down the novels…..

BSFA Awards for 2017

This year’s BSFA Awards (for works published last year) were announced at Eastercon on Saturday 31st March.

The winners were:-

Best novel: The Rift by Nina Allan

Best Short Fiction: The Enclave by Anne Charnock

Best Non-fiction: Paul Kincaid for Iain M Banks

The Best Artwork Award: was shared between Jim Burns and Victo Ngai

BSFA Awards Booklet Arrives

The BSFA’s annual booklet containing the nominees for the various awards for 2017 publications arrived on Thursday morning 29th Mar.

BSFA Award Booklet 2017

The deadline for postal votes is (was!) Mon 26th Mar and for electronic submissions Wed 28th Mar. The results will be announced on Saturday 31st Mar.

Not the BSFA’s fault it arrived late. Easter is about as early as it can be this year and there was precious little time between the close of the submission phase for the final nominations and Easter. They’ve done well to get it out at all.

Just as well I’m going to Eastercon this year where I can vote in person.

I’ve got my work cut out to read it all before then though.

My (belated) thoughts on its contents will appear next week.

BSFA Awards for 2017

The shortlists for the BSFA Awards for last year went live while I was traipsing about down south.

They are:-

Best Novel

Nina Allan – The Rift (Titan Books)

Anne Charnock – Dreams Before the Start of Time (47North)

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West (Hamish Hamilton)

Ann Leckie – Provenance (Orbit)

I have read the Leckie (and will post a review on Saturday.) Two others are in hand.

Best Shorter Fiction

Anne Charnock – The Enclave (NewCon Press)

Elaine Cuyegkeng – These Constellations Will Be Yours (Strange Horizons)

Greg Egan – Uncanny Valley (Tor.com)

Geoff Nelder – Angular Size (in ‘SFerics 2017’ edited by Roz Clarke and Rosie Oliver, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform)

Tade Thompson – The Murders of Molly Southbourne (Tor.com)

I’ve read none of these so far.

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Iain M. Banks (University of Illinois Press)

Juliet E McKenna – The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and Other Obstacles in Science Fiction & Fantasy (in ‘Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction’ edited by Francesca T Barbini, Luna Press)

Adam Roberts – Wells at the World’s End 2017 blog posts (Wells at the World’s End blog)

Shadow Clarke Award jurors – The 2017 Shadow Clarke Award blog (The Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy). The 2017 Shadow Clarke jurors are: Nina Allan, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Victoria Hoyle, Vajra Chandrasekera, Nick Hubble, Paul Kincaid, Jonathan McCalmont, Megan AM.

Vandana Singh – The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (Strange Horizons)

Best Artwork

Geneva Benton – Sundown Towns (cover for Fiyah Magazine #3)

Jim Burns – Cover for ‘The Ion Raider’ by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)

Galen Dara – Illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng (Strange Horizons)

Chris Moore – Cover for ‘The Memoirist’ by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)

Victo Ngai – Illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)

Marcin Wolski – Cover for ‘2084’ edited by George Sandison (Unsung Stories)

BSFA Award Winners

The winnners of this year’s awards (for works published in 2016) have been announced.

Best Novel: Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter

Best Shorter Fiction: Jaine Fenn – Liberty Bird (Now We Are Ten, NewCon Press)

Best Non-Fiction: Geoff Ryman – 100 African Writers of SFF (Tor.com)

Best Artwork: Sarah Anne Langton – Cover for Central Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon Publications)

Congratulations to the winners, commiserations to the rest of the nominees.

This Year’s BSFA Awards Short Lists

The lists have been published here.

Amazingly, of the best novel list I’ve read four out of the five.

Chris Beckett’s Daughter of Eden, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter, Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me and Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges.

My review of Europe in Winter hasn’t appeared here yet as it only appeared in Interzone a few months ago.

You may wonder why there is also no review of Azanian Bridges on my blog. Well that’s because I did some proof-reading work on it and that exercise is a little different from reading for review purposes.

The only one I haven’t read is A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers and I won’t be. I thought her previous novel was godawful. I can’t see her having improved much.

I don’t have such a good strike record on the shorter works of which I’ve read only the two which appeared in Interzone.

Malcolm Devlin The End of Hope Street (Interzone #266)

Jaine Fenn Liberty Bird (Now We Are Ten, NewCon Press)

Una McCormack Taking Flight (Crises and Conflicts, NewCon Press)

Helen Oyeyemi Presence (What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Picador)

Tade Thompson The Apologists (Interzone #266)

Aliya Whiteley The Arrival of Missives (Unsung Stories)

I look forward to reading these when the usual annual booklet arrives.

BSFA Award Winners for 2015

The awards were announced on Saturday night at Mancunicon, this year’s Eastercon. See some pictures of the presentations here.

The fiction categories featured a double win for Aliette de Bodard.

Best Novel:
Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings

Best Short Story:

Aliette de Bodard, Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight

Best Non-Fiction:
Adam Roberts, Rave and Let Die: The SF and Fantasy of 2014

Best Artwork:-
Jim Burns, cover of Pelquin’s Comet.

Rosie Oliver’s reflections are here.

Like her I felt that the novel award winner lay too far to the fantasy side of the SF/Fantasy divide to be considered for an SF award. Others obviously saw things differently.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

Gollancz, 2015, 408 p. One of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel.

 The House of Shattered Wings cover

The Fallen are impossible. Their bones are far too lacking in density to bear their bodies’ weights, no backbone could possibly support the wings necessary for flight. (Those wings, useless after falling, are then removed. Only the Fallen, Morningstar, founder of House Silverspires, ever wore wings on Earth; but his were artificial and a species of weaponry.) But the Fallen have magic. Their breath and their rendered body parts can be rendered into magic residues. Each individual Fallen has no idea of the reason for having been expelled from heaven, knowing only that no return is possible.

Paris is dominated by Houses, whose heads may be Fallen or human. The Houses have been in uneasy balance since the aftermath of the Great War between them, which the text has beginning in 1914, evoking resonances with our own world, but this is the only date given in the book and the Houses’ war clearly has no parallel with a lengthy stalemate. The balance is upset by the falling of an angel (that is the only word to describe these beings) into the remains of Notre Dame Cathedral where gang members are scavenging. Their attempts to extract magic residues from her body are interrupted by Selene, after Morningstar’s disappearance head of House Silverspires by default, who names the angel Isabelle and takes her into Silverspires as a member and one of the gang, Philippe, an Annamese exile from the Court of the Jade Emperor, as a prisoner of the House. But during the scavenging they had come upon an artefact which contains dark magic intended to undo House Silverspires.

Religion exists in this Paris and appears to be familiarly Christian (and Roman Catholic at that: well, in France it would be) but how this squares with the existence in the human realm of Fallen from Heaven de Bodard keeps from us. Similarly the Fallen have motivations and desires which do not seem different, if at all, to those of humans (whether inside the story or outwith it in our own world.) We spend a lot of early time with Philippe, who is immortal (an unexplained circumstance but seemingly something to do with his Annamese inheritance) but also inhabit the views of Selene, Isabelle and of Silverspires’s alchemist, Madeleine. Crucially though de Bodard hasn’t done enough to engage our sympathies with House Silverspires and its threatened demise in an act of revenge by a former House member, Nightingale, who was betrayed by Morningstar to appease Asmodeus, head of House Hawthorn. It also wasn’t clear from the text whence Nightingale derives the power to do all this. The eventual resolution of Silverspires’s immediate troubles lies within the logic of the world though. There is, too, a running motif about possible resurrection of personalities which is left unresolved, perhaps for future volumes.

The House of Shattered Wings is not one for me, I’m afraid. I’m puzzled as to why people would consider it among the year’s best. It’s more fantasy than SF anyway.

Pedant’s corner:- written in USian, “boats to Asia almost inexistent” (in this sort of context it’s usually “non-existent”,) “his hand loosely wrapped around his handle” (its handle,) maw (de Bodard uses this to mean mouth; it actually means stomach,) ‘“You didn’t use to be”’ (didn’t used to; which appears seven lines below!) Silverspires’ (Silverpires’s, several instances,) ‘“to leave him into my care”’ (in my care,) the sentence, “The fact that she couldn’t have looked more innocent if she’d tried – and God knew Claire was no innocent,” is missing a main clause, “that no-one and nothing was coming to save him” (the “and” means there ought really to be a plural verb here,) “but nothing would leap into the broken mess of his hands – but there was only” (two “buts”?) octopi (the English plural is octopuses, the Greek is octopodes,) “set them at each other’s throat” (there’s only one throat between them?) “Closer, though, it didn’t quite look as impressive” (it didn’t look quite as impressive,) “Apart from that, it looked like a usual plant” (it looked like a normal plant,) ‘“You’re going to chastise me for lacking to do my duty”’ (failing to do my duty; or, being lacking in my duty,) ‘“You knew the rules and flaunted them”’ (that would be flouted, flaunting is something else entirely,) “the shop” (Les Halles) “ had been nuked in the war, and an upstart House had settled in the wreckage, making grandiloquent claims of restoring the art deco building to its former glory,” (nuked? And it can be restored? Any nuke would have destroyed the whole of Paris – and beyond – never mind Les Halles,) overlaid (overlain,) twinging (I had to think about this a second or so before I thought “twingeing”,) smidgeon (smidgen/smidgin.)

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