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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.)

2019 Clarke Award Shortlist

I see the short list for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award has been announced. I missed it at the time as I was away.

The list is:-

Semiosis by Sue Burke (HarperVoyager)
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)
The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag (Simon & Schuster)
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit)
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

I’ve read none of them but note the Tade Thompson was on the BSFA Award list this year (despite doubts as to its eligibility – which would apply equally to the Clarke Award I’d have thought.)

Also on both lists is the Yoon Ha Lee. Having read his Ninefox Gambit I have to say I’m depressed by this.

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Faber and Faber, 2015, 728 p.

 Arcadia cover

This was shortlisted in 2016 for the Clarke Award. I can see why, but I also wonder why. A part of it is set in the future (two parts if you accept the book’s premise,) it deals with time travel and parallel worlds, yes, but one of the futures is rendered rudimentarily at best and some of the writing is … is sketchy too harsh? Yet, despite that, the book plays with genre. There is a spy story here – and a romance – to go along with the SF. Neither does it wear its allusions lightly. However, the information dumping is obtrusive and many of the characters read as if they are from stock casting. Zoffany Oldmanter in especial, as cartoon a Bond villain as you could wish for. The Clarke has a history of grabbing at SF from authors generally reckoned to come from outwith the genre. This may be an example of that. I do note however that Arcadia didn’t win (though the novel that did ought not to have when Europe at Midnight was on the shortlist.)

It all starts promisingly enough, with a 1960 academic, Professor Henry Lytten, describing to some of his colleagues the fantasy world he has invented (“‘I am creating the world,’”) and reading extracts from his novel set there. This gives Pears the ventriloquised opportunity to animadvert about C S Lewis’s “bloody bore of a lion” and how his invention of a world resulted in only a middle-class English suburb with a few swords. Pears also acknowledges early on a source of inspiration in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

Then Rosalind (Rosie,) the fifteen-year-old girl who looks after the Professor’s cat, while searching for it in his basement draws back a curtain on a glowing pergola (disguised as a sculpture) and steps through it into that exact fantasy world. This could have been an intriguing premise for the book but Pears then adds layers of complication with the addition of a scientific outpost on the island of Mull centuries in the future investigating the possibility of travelling between parallel worlds. The institute’s Director Hanslip refuses to believe that the mechanism produced to do this is actually a time machine, though its creator, Angela Meerson, knows it is since past and future are thoroughly inter-related, there is none without the other, cause and effect are mirror images. If the past changes so does the future, and vice versa. To resolve the departmental conflict she despatches various bodies, eventually including herself, through the machine. It is she, using the Professor’s notes, who has created the world beyond the portal in his basement.

That fantasy – now actual – world, Anterwold, is ruled by the Story, its primordial text to which all disputes are referred, and is a place where storytellers are lauded, “‘There is no higher achievement or honour in the world.’” An assertion to which Rosie replies (presumably as an acerbic comment by Pears himself,) “‘In that case, it must be a very different world from mine.’” It is more or less mediæval in tone, though apparently more kindly. Despite its flimsy nature it is there the most important aspects of the novel are worked out and it and the 1960 domestic setting both seem far more real to the reader than the future world, dominated by the authoritarian Oldmanter, from which Meerson has fled. In one of her ruminations she says of the English “whose lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval.” (I did wonder, whatever would she make of the Scots… ?)

By way of information installed in the head of an agent sent by Hanslip to track down Meerson in (his) past we are also introduced to the concept of deep lies, “in which the speaker simultaneously says something he knows to be untrue and genuinely believes it nonetheless: politicians are particularly adept at this.” How true.

In her act of creation Meerson has set up a tension between past and future which can only be resolved by the elimination of one or other of the scenarios. To get there from here in the real world implies catastrophe. As part of the novel’s working out, the Professor himself appears in Anterwold as a literal deus ex machina where Rosie tells him, “‘You steal ideas from everyone.’” As does Pears whose Arcadia, partly as a result, is a bit of a curate’s egg.

Pedant’s corner:- Great-aunt Jessie (Great-Aunt Jessie,) New Year’s (New Year’s Eve that would be,) “took every scrap of paper referring to the missing cleaner and incinerated them” (incinerated it,) “‘the folly of mankind, their infinite capacity for self-importance’” (its infinite capacity,) Mr Williams’ (Williams’s,) span (spun,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “‘for kindness’ sake’” (kindness’s,) staunched (stanched.)

Clarke Award 2018

The shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award has been announced.

It is:-

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock
American War by Omar El Akkad
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s a list shorn of the usual suspects and I’m delighted Spaceman of Bohemia is on there. I really enjoyed it.

I note, too, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time again appearing on a short list.

Clarke Award Short List

I’m in Holland at the moment (unlike last year scheduled posts have been appearing okay though) so I’ve only just discovered this year’s Clarke Award nominees which are:-

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
After Atlas – Emma Newman (Roc)
Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)
Central Station – Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

I’ve read one of them but two others were on my look out for list. I suppose I’ll now be adding two more. (Yes that makes only five. There is one I certainly won’t be reading as the author’s previous book was a waste of my time.)

The winner will be announced in July.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Pan, 2015, 604 p. (The author’s surname is given as Czajkowski on the copyright page.)

This is this year’s Clarke Award winner. I read it for that reason.

 Children of Time cover

In the last days of the Old Empire it had set up terraforming projects on planets in other solar systems. The plans of the watcher over one of these to seed it with a virus that would exalt monkeys were frustrated by the adherents of Non Ultra Natura, the transfer ship, containing monkeys and virus both, going down in flames. Millenia later the last remnants of humanity, the successors to the old Empire, trying desperately to use its all but forgotten tech to preserve the species by leaving a devastated Earth on the starship Gilgamesh, make an approach to the system and the Sentry Pod housing the watcher, the persona of Avrana Kern. Meanwhile on the planet below, the virus has been doing its work; but on invertebrates. Giant spiders dominate, slowly evolving greater and greater intelligence and cooperation.

Kern’s mission causes her to spurn the remnant humans, warning them off and all but disabling their ship. After an abortive landing an agreement is reached for them to leave for the nearest terraformed planet and never come back. This is a forlorn journey as that planet’s environment turns out to be unsuitable and the commander of the Gilgamesh orders a return.

The chapters set on the Gilgamesh are seen from the viewpoint of Holsten Mason, a classicist (historian) revived from and put into suspended animation at frequent intervals throughout the novel. Those describing the spiders – to whom more or less each successive chapter is devoted – are in a distanced third person. Here sentences like, “Their planet’s oxygen levels are higher than Earth’s,” “Something more virulent than the Black Death,” and, “Hidden in this arachnid Alexandria are remarkable secrets,” are jarring as they relate to things beyond the spiders’ ken. They are there for us, as readers in the twenty-first century. This, I would submit, is poor writing. The use of the same names for the different spiders at various stages of the story (Portia, Bianca and Fabian reoccur frequently) is also somewhat odd, though there is a rationale in that the spiders retain memories of the existence and knowledge of their predecessors through their genetic inheritance.

Avrana Kern has been in communication with the spiders by radio but she is ignorant of the nature of the species which have been exalted until they at last manage to send her a picture. She nevertheless regards them as her children and the remnant humanity on the Gilgamesh as impostors.

That ship’s systems begin to deteriorate badly and Mason witnesses increasing degradation and conflict within the crew as time goes by. However so much of the novel is spent with the spiders that by the time of the final confrontation we have known is inevitable between the two species it is almost they who seem the more human and sympathetic. In this regard the disruptions within the Gilgamesh have rendered its inhabitants less sympathetic to the reader.

The initial chapters were turgid reading with far too much information dumping. While things improved a little later on I could never quite suspend my disbelief at the goings-on on the Gilgamesh. The chapters on the planet were more interesting but even they became overly programmatic (especially Tchaikovsky’s shoe-horning in of arachnid sexual politics.)

I can only conclude that this won the Clarke because of its unusual spidery protagonists. There were certainly at least two novels on this year’s Clarke Award short list that I would consider were better written (as well as one that was considerably worse.)

Pedant’s corner:- The Non Ultra Natura lobby were (the lobby was,) miniscule (x 3; it’s spelled minuscule,) there were a limited number of circumstances (there was a limited number,) species’ (in the singular sense, so species’s, x 2,) loathe (loth or loath, x 2. Loathe in its correct sense of revile is used later,) “it came out more as a plea than he had intended” (as more of a plea?) one antennae (one antenna,) “another handful of her kind are already here” (another handful is here,) “Less than half her infiltration force remain alive” (any fractional value counts as singular so; less than half remains.) “The exploration of Earth’s orbit” (the context implies the solar system not merely Earth’s orbit.) Tiny animicules (usually animalcules,) overlain (overlaid,) “it was as if the human race was unwilling to be freed from their confines” (its confines,) “the host of individual ants reach” (the host reaches,) a host of Paussid beetles are lined up (a host is lined up,) “none …. are familiar” (none is familiar,) “there are a handful” (there is a handful,) the balance are here (the balance is here,) the crew are preparing (the crew is,) some of the crew gather (gathers,) “there were a few” (was,) ditto “there were a handful”, “there were a lot” of looks, “Lain’s tribe have done a remarkable job” (Lain’s tribe has done,) by no ways (either “by no means” or else “in no way” but not “by no ways”,) chromatopores (x 2; chromatophores,) a colony of hundred million insects (of a hundred million.) “The vibrations of the enemy’s approach serves as forewarning (vibrations; therefore “serve”,) “Portia’s band are able to set an ambush” (Portia’s band is able.)

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

PS Publishing, 2008, 304 p.

 Song of Time cover

Love, sex and death.

Oh, I know within these pages there are dead people who are somehow still able to exist, an intelligent kitchen, a crystal field saturating the environment, artificial skin, the last snow melting from Kilimanjaro, computer screens with no visible supports, a nuclear war, the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing up, not to mention a symphony that continually rewrites itself, but these are all just background: at its core Song of Life charts the three literary biggies. And the greatest of these is love.

One day towards the back end of the twenty-first century Roushana Maitland finds a half-drowned man, possibly attempting to enter the country illegally and who does not remember who he is, on the Cornish beach just below her house. She drags him up to safety and shelter. His presence and her imminent transfiguration (not death, she has very recently undergone the procedure which will undo that) trigger memories of her life. Song of Time’s chapters alternate between depictions of her present day with the stranger in her house, whom she dubs Adam but who himself pronounces it Abaddon, and her memories of the unfolding century.

Roushana is of mixed heritage, Indian on her mother’s side, Irish on her father’s. Her brother Leo is a gifted musician but contracts WRFI, Wide Range Food Intolerance, perhaps brought about by an artificial virus targeted on the lactose tolerant, an adaptation mostly found in Westerners. Unable to withstand the debilitation this has caused him, he commits suicide, telling Roushana, It’s up to you now, Sis. She polishes her up to then not particularly good efforts on the violin and, with the later help of famous conductor Claude Vaudin who eventually becomes her husband, parlays them into fame and fortune. Her story is set against the background of a disintegrating world: racial tensions erupt in Britain, unspecified divisions occur elsewhere, a millenarian type of cult arises. In terms of terrorism and world politics this future is like our present, only more so. But technological progress still occurs. The environment becomes enmeshed in the “ever-spreading network of crystal” but no mechanism for the dead to still be around after death is elaborated beyond the “crystal seed of immortality whining its way” into Roushana’s skull.

It may seem counter-intuitive to have classical music as the driver for Roushana’s fame, but pop stardom would have been too clichéd, and a future classical revival of sorts is not too much of a stretch. There is in any case some genre crossing. Claude’s performances in clubs at times read more like those of a jazz musician.

Song of Time contains a profoundly imagined and realised world and Roushana’s voice is an engaging one. That there are doubts over the exact circumstances of Claude’s death ring entirely true, Leo’s continuing influence over her life being a source of jealousy to Claude.

MacLeod has a poignant story to tell, has a facility with language, a poet’s ear at times, scatters out in one book more ideas than many authors would use in a lifetime and the book itself is a lovely object. Roushana’s story is one I’ll remember for a long time. Looking back I see Song of Time won the literary-inclined Clarke Award. However, it didn’t make the nominee list for the BSFA Award for 2008. (The fact that the SF elements can be construed as only background may have told against it.) I have not read three of the four on that year’s list but nevertheless they’d have to be going some to be better novels than this.

I have a caveat, though.

Did anybody proof-read this thing?

Pedant’s corner:- “Pregnancy came as a shock to me…. The sheer alienness of the symptoms…” (But Roushana had been pregnant before – albeit then had an abortion.) Disks (discs,) programs (programmes) – I don’t care even if either of these two were to do with computers – practise (innumerable times as a noun, but the noun is “practice” which strangely also appears correctly at times,) the late 1950s in the search of (in the late 1950s in search of,) “They didn’t have say it” (have to say it,) into him arm (his,) the speed in which (with which,) lineney (lineny,) sung (sang,) would not longer (no longer,) with she as she was (with her as she was,) it was shade (a shade,) Doges’ Palace (Doge’s,) on diet (on a diet,) as goes inside (as he goes inside,) after I’ve I sat him down (either I’ve or I, but not both,) “You where I mean” (You know where I mean,) “For a just a while” (for just a while,) glowing n his (in his,) unfocussed (unfocused, ) “Pakkis” but later, “Paki-girl”, the “the village” (just “the village”,) sewerage (sewage,) lost contact Uncle Indra (lost contact with Uncle Indra,) reforming (re-forming,) I really do have sit down (have to sit down,) St Fimbarrus’ (St Fimbarrus’s,) we took at ride (a ride,) whilst still officially still at war (one still too many here, plus there was another “still” later in the same sentence,) how you were you supposed to deal (a “you” too many,) ignited =in (ignited in,) its commanding view sea (sea view.) Back the kitchen (Back in the kitchen,) Miles Davis’ (Miles Davis’s,) fames (??), has (had,) Blythe Monroe (on all other appearances it was Munro,) I was following what he saying (what he was saying,) in one of pots (one of the pots,) Christos’ (Christos’s) Cholera B (is later Cholera b,) of a return virtuality to paint (of a return from virtuality to paint,) pervious (previous.) Near beside them (Near them? Beside them?) Periphique (Peripherique,) sit ins (sit-ins,) burn-out (burned-out,) I knew that Claude was be out debating (“would be” or “was”, but not “was be”,) virtuality de monde (as I remember my French that’s du monde,) focussed (focused,) if she’s started (she’d,) the orchestra were (orchestra is singular; therefore the orchestra was.) Loose faith (Lose faith,) whether he of she (he or she,) Bezant’s Bay (in most instances it’s Bezant Bay,) one instance of its for it’s, complemented (complimented,) it they haven’t been paid enough (if,) one of periodic eruptions (one of the periodic eruptions,) the early half-life of the radiation had decreased considerably (the radiation level may decrease but the half-life most certainly doesn’t,) softy steaming greenery (softly?) were (where,) so I often with worked with, anything less that whole-heartedly (than,) wintery (wintry,) closer to him that when he was (than when he was,) after I’d laid down (lain,) the least emotion I felt was surprise (the last emotion) I can’t read you mind (your,) with its all lights (with all its lights,) it’s shrunken (shrunk.) The text implies Yellowstone is in Colorado but it is mostly in Wyoming with parts extending into Montana and Idaho.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 592 p

 The Book of Strange New Things cover

Despite having Dutch nationality, Michel Faber, by virtue of living in Scotland for 20 years and being published here, appears on the list of 100 Best Scottish books with his first novel, Under the Skin. That’s gone on my tbr list but I read this as it was one of the nominees for the Clarke Award this year.

Pastor Peter Leigh has been taken on by a mysterious company called USIC to become a missionary to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet Oasis. (This is a strange place with a day, and hence also a night, that each last 72 hours but, as described here, has a not very diverse ecology.) The selection process meant that Peter’s wife Beatrice – also interviewed by USIC – did not accompany him but they are able to write to each other via a communication device known as the Shoot.

Importing material from Earth to Oasis is very costly indeed and the base depends to a large extent on the Oasan crop, whiteflower, which (handily) can be converted to various Earth-like foods when harvested at different stages of its cycle. However the aliens (of whom we only hear of one group) have moved away from the USIC base and Peter has to spend over an Oasan day out of contact in order to further his mission. His immersion in this task leads to a gradual estrangement both from the humans at the base and from Bea.

The religious missionary to another planet concept may be new to mainstream readers of Faber’s work but Science Fiction readers have been on this sort of territory before; most notably with A Case of Conscience and The Sparrow, however here the crisis of conscience that interaction with aliens usually engenders in the missionary is undergone not by Peter but by Bea left at home on an Earth where various disasters – to the Maldives, Guatemala, Pakistan and a Britain falling apart economically and socially (along the way Tesco’s goes bust; I read this book a few weeks after my local Tesco’s closed) – are occurring and the couple’s cat Joshua comes to a sticky end.

Another unusual feature here is that the locals are actually avid to learn about Jesus and to hear from the King James Bible (the Book of Strange New Things as they call it.) The slow unravelling of their need for this good news holds what little SF tension the book provides. Faber is more interested in the aliens’ effect on Peter and the deterioration of his relationship with Bea. Faber renders the Oasans’ inability to pronounce the “s” “t” and “ch” sounds in English by using symbols (easily decipherable in context.) He then gives us Peter’s final speech to them almost entirely in these symbols but I wasn’t engrossed enough to try to decode them.

As a novel of how distance can undermine a relationship this is fine but, despite the aliens, it doesn’t really hit the SF buttons.

Pedant’s corner:- tourniquetted (tourniqueted?) imposter (impostor,) after a some hesitation, “glotch of submersion into the liquid-filled crib” (glotch seems to be a coinage, it doesn’t conform to the definition I found in the urban dictionary.) The text is full of Usianisms – lonesome, Styrofoam, Band-Aids, Caucasian, trunk, Cub Scout rather than just Cub, but uses British spellings, eg foetus. There is a reference to cameras with film in them (to be fair technology seems not to work well on Oasis) and to Georgia being in the Russian Federation as opposed to an independent state. I noted frequent instances of “seconds (or minutes) later” and a few of “within minutes/seconds.”

Clarke Award Winner

I see Emily St John Mandel has won the Clarke Award for her novel Station Eleven. Congratulations to her.

Having now read five out of the six nominees I can’t say I would disagree with the judges’ decision.

Clarke Award 2014

I see Ancillary Justice has won this year’s Clarke Award.

Not having read three of the contenders I can’t really comment beyond saying the winner’s author, Ann Leckie, has clearly hit some sort of nerve as her book has also (jointly) won the BSFA Award and for good measure is on the Hugo Award ballot paper too.

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