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Fifty-One by Chris Barnham

Filles Vertes Publishing, 2018, 317 p. Reviewed for Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

 Fifty-One cover

This novel is centred on the explosion of a V-1 Flying Bomb in Lewisham, London, in 1944 where fifty-one people were killed, hence the book’s title. It also features time travel in a way which has unavoidably noticeable echoes of Connie Willis’s “Oxford” series of tales but is in some respects better plotted and certainly not so prone to the narrative deferral to which Willis seems so wedded. Do not be put off by the book’s cover, which admittedly does have a doodlebug on it, but otherwise conveys a misleading impression of the contents. There is an element of romance here and it drives part of the plot but it is by no means the narrative’s main concern.

In the early 2020s experiments at CERN led by one Axel Darnell showed certain particles to be travelling back in time. Soon (too soon?) this discovery was extended into sending back animals then humans and the OffTime organisation was set up not only to explore the past for historical knowledge but also to monitor and amend any changes in the timeline.

There are two main settings, London in 2040 where the offices of OffTime are located and the same city during the 1940s war years. A prologue set in Koblenz in 1954 does rather give the game away about where we might be headed and we return there for the epilogue.

In the main story Jacob Wesson and his partner (in the romantic sense) Hannah Benedict are part of an OffTime team sent to 1941 to thwart an assassination attempt on Churchill. From the off there are odd aspects to this venture, including why it is even necessary, and of course things do not go smoothly. Jacob’s retrieval to 2040 in the middle of an air-raid is interrupted by a mysterious voice. Instead he jumps to 1943. While in 1941 Jacob (literally) bumped into one Amy Jenkins – about whose life we had been told in a previous chapter – then disturbed her wedding preparations. In implementing the “lost retrieval” protocol he meets up again with Amy (widowed in the same air-raid which disrupted the retrieval), and eventually despairing of being brought back to his own time allows himself to form an attraction to her. When contact is finally made Jacob has no option but to return to 2040, leaving Amy behind. But she follows him to the pick-up point and is projected into her future – against the supposed laws of time travel. Jacob and his team are faced with the dilemma of what to do with her and more importantly, what else have they not been told?

If you examine this in any detail it all vanishes in smoke of course. Any alteration of past events scenario is necessarily prone to that, however – unless it restores the time we know. There are certain pointers, though, that the past into which the team is sent is not our past (the “real” past?) and the 2040 shown here always seems contingent.

There are some problematic aspects to the narrative. Barnham has a tendency to tell the reader things rather than show them. The information dumping is not well integrated into the text and at times too crude. There is a bagginess to the prose, a tendency to repetition of things we already know. The necessity to make a time jump naked in order to avoid temporarily debilitating nausea was also a bit of hand-waving overkill. The dynamics of the relationship between Jacob and Hannah are underplayed and, for a supposed grand passion, that between Jacob and Amy is too restrained.

This is a US publication and so accommodations must be made but putting transatlantic speech patterns* into the mouths of 1940s Londoners can only jar with the British reader. Particularly egregious was the substitution of “Mum” by “Mom” in the wording of a famous wartime poster which consequently totally fails to embody the pun necessary for its effect. And that’s a pity as it immediately hauls said reader out of the story.

For all that, fans of a good time travel romp will enjoy this. The plotting is clever (if transparent, so that the twist in the tail came as not entirely a surprise.) Were Barnham to be more confident in his ability – and in the reader’s – eliminate repetition, tighten up on info-dumping and expand on characterisations sometimes too closely linked to plot necessities, his creations would breathe more freely.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- *eg “‘we can go help them’” (go and help them,) “‘will go find’” (go and find.) “Be Like Dad, Keep Mom” (“Keep Mom” makes absolutely no sense. Unlike “keep mum”, which means “don’t say anything”.) “to get back with the program” (not a phraseology appropriate to a 1940s Londoner.)
Otherwise; “probably” appeared twice within the space of one line, “‘Keep out of sight and be ready to get into position right on the dot?’” (isn’t a question so needs no question mark,) “Code One” (really? Nothing more original for an emergency signal?) “The Heinkel bombers” (just “the Heinkels”, bombers is unnecessary,) “and what was doing there” (what was he doing there.) “‘But I finally I have some news’” (drop one of those “I”s ), “or tables, to be precise since she’d pushed” (the comma is misplaced “or tables to be precise, since she’d pushed”.) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s,) “Amy had never seen a color (sic) photograph” (but coloured cinema films surely?) “the shops on this side of the Thames were closed for the weekend” (for Sunday maybe, but not the whole weekend,) practice (I thought the USian was always practise,) “get ahold” (get a hold,) “within a few days they’d break out and advance south towards Paris” (the D-Day breakout took longer than a few days after D-Day and Paris was east of the landing area, perhaps an indication of this not being “our” past.)

America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2017, 365 p.

 America City cover

Twenty-second Century USA. The sea-level has risen, superstorms regularly batter the eastern seaboard, drought ravages the southwest. Resentment from within northern states towards those fleeing the environmental disasters is building. In the wider world polar bears, giraffes, blue whales, rhinoceroses and dolphins are extinct. Right-wing Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a former haulage contractor who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, worries that the country will fall apart under the strain of internal migration. Meanwhile a wall keeps out Mexicans and other possible migrants from the south.

Nevertheless some seem still to be welcome. Holly Peacock is an immigrant from Britain who has left-wing beliefs. She works in affecting public opinion via the whisperstream – a kind of updated internet accessed via devices known as cristals which contain AI personalities called jeenees. Think of her job as nudge politics and fake news taken to altogether different levels. She is attracted by Slaymaker’s desire to accommodate the internal refugees in the north. They meet and Slaymaker convinces her to work with him on his plan to bring about accommodation between the states, some of whom have begun arguing for border controls within the US.

Beckett tells his story mainly via the viewpoints of Holly and her husband Richard but occasionally intersperses their views with those of some of the people displaced by the storms or the drought. The Britain Holly has left seems a particularly dark place but isn’t much fleshed out as Beckett’s focus is on the happenings in the USA. He only alludes to British conditions via references to her family back home.

Air travel in this future is by machines called drigs (I assume a shortening of dirigible) but they seem no slower than jet aircraft. The political parties in the US are supposed to be different from our day – an (unelaborated) event called the Tyranny lies between now and then – but Slaymaker’s Freedom Party might as well be the Republicans and the Unity Party the Democrats. At the start of the novel the incumbent President is a woman from the Unity Party. (Is a woman US President perhaps the most Science-Fictional thing about this?)

Beckett’s scenario speaks to our time as Slaymaker was a climate change denier – he even argued against Williams’s ameliorative efforts to construct machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air as being pointless – and the topic of influencing voters in non-transparent ways acquired even more resonance during the novel’s writing during 2016. However, the time-scale appears a mite elongated. The problems Beckett describes may be upon us in far sooner than one hundred years.

Holly is instrumental in Slaymaker’s successful campaign, it is her idea that swings voters behind him. The unexpected consequences of its ramifications are less to her liking but it still (unlikely in my view) does not prevent her from continuing to work for the new President. Slaymaker is supposed to be charismatic and persuasive but more detachment might have been in order.

I note that Beckett seems to have adopted Connie Willis’s habit of narrative deferment. Here it is not so irritating as with Willis but the gaps before fulfillment of the teases are still too long for my taste. In addition I found most of the characters not to be as rounded as in Beckett’s Eden trilogy. But this is a different sort of book with more of a narrative drive. It might serve as a good introduction to Beckett’s work though and find him new readers.

Pedant’s corner:- the novel is written in USian (but this is a British edition, published in Britain,) “Slaymaker lay down his fork,” (laid, though I suppose most USians use lay for lie,) the president (President,) ditto presidency (Presidency,) “‘every times he gets the chance’” (time,) zeros (zeroes,) “an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it” (a web is,) “a squadron of bombers somewhere were attacking a flooded town” (a squadron was attacking.) “None of these were” (none was,) “a steady stream of these stories were put out” (a steady stream was,) Williams’ (Williams’s,) “feeling that suddenly been blowing toward them” (that’s,) “after been shown” (after being shown,) with men and woman (women,) “a coup[le of time” (times,) Mephistopholis’ (Mephistopholis’s,) “‘I need do stuff’” (to do stuff, ) Holly says ‘different than’ (I know she’s supposed to have been in the States for 20 years but would she really have stopped saying different from? And later, in the text, we have maths, not math,) “with the other forty-eight states in a vast bloc” (land-based states,) care about things about things” (only one “about things” required.)

Promised Land by Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice

Ace, 1998, 366 p.

 Promised Land cover

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

Pedant’s corner:- mowed (mown,) Milleflores’ (Milleflores’s,) Keramos’ (Keramos’s, which did appear once,) solarises (a soralis is a solar powered vehicle: the plural might have been solares but I suppose that could have been misconstrued,) mike as an abbreviation for microphone (still in use in 1998 then) Flaherty’s (this is usually given as Flahertys’ as its plural,) two full stops at the end of one sentence, jerry-rigged (jury-rigged; why do people confuse this with jerry-built?) tamarines (elsewhere always timarines,) species’ (the usage was singular so species’s.)

Blackout by Connie Willis

Gollancz, 2012, 611 p

Why does Willis have a fascination with the 1940s Britain of the Second World War? One of her most celebrated short stories, Fire Watch, is about the preservation of St Paul’s from destruction in the Blitz, To Say Nothing of the Dog relied on the bombing of Coventry Cathedral for its plot motor and now we have a whole novel (split into two parts – I still have All Clear to come) devoted to the subject. (There are scenes set in the similarly troubled London of 1944 under doodlebug bombardment but these end when one of the characters is apparently hit by a V1 and we are thereafter firmly stuck in 1940.) Fair enough, Pearl Harbor, D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge get mentions but you’d have thought a USian would have been more interested in these scenarios – or the Pacific War. Or is it that the details of those would be more familiar to her core US readership and she thinks she can busk it here? I certainly wasn’t convinced that life during the Blitz was anything like Willis describes it here.

As to details, the back cover puff from the Washington Post “every detail rings true” raises a hollow laugh in a British reader; for the details are what consistently hit wrong notes. For example, we hang out the washing, not the laundry – hanging out a building where washing takes place would be a mite difficult. And again, our trains and buses have timetables, not schedules. The text is littered with such divergences in use of language. This is not a trivial criticism; the characters are supposed to be British (though one has a US language implant) and it is their viewpoints we experience. Even more egregiously, in a chapter heading about not evacuating the princesses to Canada the relevant quote is attributed to their grandmother Queen Mary rather than their mother Queen Elizabeth.

As is usual in Willis’s Oxford Time Travel stories we start in the Oxford of 2060 where historians are “prepping” to make use of the time travel apparatus to experience their periods of study themselves. Between our time and then there has been some sort of disruption (the Pandemic – and a terrorist with a pinpoint bomb has blown up St Paul’s) but the feel of this future is curiously old-fashioned. Desk top telephones for urgent communication?

The plot depends on things going wrong with the mechanism of time travel, preventing the historians’ return to the future. Slippage of location and time of each “drop” are not unexpected – there are apparently inviolable rules for when and where a historian can be dropped and when the drop may reopen plus divergence points to which there is no access. It is not surprising to the reader, though, that not all goes smoothly: disorganised is too mild a word to describe the 2060s lab. This renders all the anguishing of the characters as to why their drops won’t open, that it’s their fault, tiresome.

Blackout is the usual Willis read, though, despite her famous technique, in her presentation of awards speeches, of digression to build up tension being grossly overused. In a novel it only delays getting to the point and is an almighty irritant but I suppose it helps to increase the word count.

I’m at a loss to understand why the Blackout, All Clear combination won the Hugo Award last year. The only other novel on that year’s list I have read, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, far outshone this.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Or: How We Found The Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last

Bantam Books, 1998, 493 p.

To Say Nothing of the Dog cover

I usually like Willis stories – my review of Bellwether is here – but this, the latest in her Oxford Time Travel tales, was something of a struggle to complete. There is a payoff towards the end but that is around 450 pages in so it’€™s a long time acoming.

The book starts promisingly enough with a scene set in Coventry Cathedral in 1940 during the air raid that destroyed it but too quickly descends into whimsy. Willis’s sympathy with and obvious affection for the material from which she derived her title – Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) – not to mention comic novels and detective fiction of the 1930s, has led her to utilise a series of stock characters none of whom spring to life on the page. There is an omniscient butler, a susceptible vicar, a medium, a convinced spiritualist, an absent minded professor, a put upon maid. The character of Tocelyn (Tossie) is as irritating as her diminutive implies, her initial love interest, Terence, merely a device, his dog Cyril an annoyance. The only character with a whiff of verisimilitude, Elizabeth Bittner, wife of the last bishop of Coventry, barely makes an appearance – though she is essential to the story.

The narrator, Ned Henry, a time traveller from the mid twenty-first century, has been tasked by the overbearing Lady Shrapnell (no prizes for guessing a literary antecedent there) to ascertain whether something called the bishop’€™s bird stump was present in the cathedral when it was burned down as she wishes to have her replica cathedral, being built in Oxford, correct in every detail. Cue much toing and froing, time-lag induced by too many jumps, incongruities in the time stream, talk of “€œslippage”€ on the jumps and various discussions on historical events such as the Battles of Hastings and Waterloo and in particular the first RAF raid on Berlin in 1940.

Willis is renowned for her introductions at award ceremonies where she will be seemingly about to get to the point before making a digression. This is fine at such an occasion provided it does not drag on but she overdoes it here. At novel length it becomes ever more wearing the more the technique is employed.

Willis’€™s fascination with UK history has been evident since The Doomsday Book but her grasp of British usage is shaky to say the least. To be fair I was reading a US edition so the US spellings and terms such as “€œrailroad”€ and “€œties”€ for sleepers etc I could go with but when it comes to dialogue surely there is a duty to reflect the setting. Here we have innumerable instances of characters saying “gotten,” a Victorian lady – and a butler – use “€œmomentarily”€ when they mean “in a moment,”€ frequent absences of “€œand”€ in phrases like “€œgo tell”€ plus no-one in Britain ever says “€œall tuckered out.”€ And surely even in the US those flowers are not known as gladiolas?

Overall the tone of To Say Nothing of the Dog was too uneven, the light-hearted elements not in synch with the more serious elements of the story. It was easy to read though.

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Harper Perennial, 2008, 247 p

I zoomed through this even though the book could be subtitled “A Short History Of Fads And Crazes.” Each chapter begins with a description of some historical fashion or trend – hula hoops, tattoos, chain letters, coonskin caps, angel food cake, etc – which Willis must have had fun researching. (Or not.)

Our narrator, Sandra Foster, is interested in such crazes since she is trying to find out why they start as part of her work at HiTek, an interdisciplinary scientific enterprise with various projects on the go and whose administration is keen for one of these to win a prestigious Niebnitz Grant. The HiTek environment allows Willis to satirise the systems, management initiatives and staff interactions of large workplaces. This is an easy target, of course, but in the mix we also have discursions on the nature of scientific discovery as related to the roles of serendipity, chaos and distraction.

At HiTek all are lumbered with an admin assistant from Hell – a woman known as Flip, who loses papers, delivers mail to the wrong people and generally stirs things up. Through Flip’s incompetence Foster encounters the biologist, Dr O’Reilly, who wishes to study information diffusion patterns in macaques but is having trouble with the paperwork for his funding. Both he and Foster are hampered in their subsequent endeavours by the “never there when you want her but always when you don’t” Flip who is also annoyingly in the forefront of the latest “thing” whatever that might happen to be; anti-smoking initiatives, unusual accessories, pointless facial adornments etc.

To help O’Reilly, Foster arranges for a farmer friend of hers to deliver (instead of monkeys) sheep but it is not till they realise the flock’s bellwether is missing and have it delivered that the project shows signs of success.

There are opportunities in among all this comedy stuff for Willis to contrast the human urge for conformity vis-a-vis fads with herd instinct in animals.

Some order is eventually brought to proceedings when Flip gains an assistant who is surprisingly efficient and the plot’s strands are all tied together successfully.

Where in all this is the Science Fiction, you may ask? Well, it is set in a scientific research establishment and it is unlikely a mainstream story, even a mainstream comic novel, would treat the subject of crazes in the way it is done here.

While Bellwether is a light read (despite some philosophical underpinnings) it is also reasonably entertaining. Willis is able to get you turning the pages. Sometimes it’s great to get through a book in a short time.

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