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Gilbert and Edgar on Mars by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2009, 93 p.

On leaving a meeting with Bernard Shaw and H G Wells at the Athenæum, G K Chesterton is bumped into by a small man who subsequently asks him to sign some of his works. On crossing the threshold of the building to where he is led Chesterton realises he has been mistaken for Wells, but before he can correct his companion he finds to his initial confusion, he has been instantly transported to Mars.

Very shortly thereafter he is busted from the room where he is confined by a man with a US accent. This is the Edgar of the title (whom we later find is, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

As is the way of conceits such as this we soon encounter one John Carter, plus Professor Challenger and a depiction of a caged man who might as well be Tarzan and, we must impute, Burroughs’s inspiration for that character. To go with the conceit here we have a cod Edwardian literary styling in the prose. There may well too be some Chestertonian references which I missed but I know Brown is familiar with that writer’s œuvre.

The plot revolves around the Six Philosophers, the Jabbak Kathro – an ancient race from when Mars was lush and green but whose star faded once the dry times came and who now live only with their minds. They had long ago invented a device called The Dream Crystal to read the contents of others’ minds, abducting people from Earth for the purpose before giving them an amnesiac and sending them back. “The crystal takes the imagination of the subject .… and makes it apparently real.” They have run through Earth’s playwrights and poets and now have a taste for adventure stories, hence their intended abduction of Wells.

The enjoyment in reading – and I assume writing – pieces like this lies in the ambience and allusions rather than the plot. Brown manages it all with entertaining ease.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later”/“within time interval” count: 23. Otherwise; “his bulk seemed not to possess its erstwhile laggardly mass” (it would have the same mass, what it woudn’t have is the same weight,) “none of which were easily recognisable” (none of which was…,) Edgar addresses Gilbert as ‘chum’ which I do not think is a USian usage, nought (naught,) Wells’ (Wells’s,) gunnel (it’s spelled gunwale,) fullness (my dictionary gives both spellings but I have usually encountered only ‘fulness’,) Edgar asks Gilbert if he is “some kind of pinko Commie” (which is an anachronism,) prioll (prial,) “a haberdashers” (a haberdasher’s.)

The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace by Eric Brown

Titan Books, 2020, 343 p.

 Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace cover

I have mentioned before that the detective story/crime fiction isn’t really my thing – nor Shelock Holmes for that matter. This however is by my friend Eric Brown who, although he has written in the crime genre, started off in the SF field and this certainly counts as Science Fiction. It is, as its title suggests, a mash-up (I was going to say curious mash-up but that is its whole point) of the work of H G Wells and Arthur Conan-Doyle. As is the way of such things we have many references throughout, starting early with the presence of Mr Herbert Wells himself – here a scientific liaison officer in the Martian Embassy to Great Britain and an aspiring writer whose output is deemed too fanciful to appeal to the public – and his love interest, Cicely Fairfield, whose writing efforts have been more successful.

This is a world where the Martians of War of the Worlds have returned, complete with their signature tripods and nightly cries of “Ulla, ulla,” and armed with antibodies to Earthly pathogens, transforming life on Earth with technological advances. This is a good brand of Martian, who came in peace, having overthrown their acquisitive predecessors. Or so they say. Some people on Earth doubt this story and there is an active political resistance to the Martian influence. Among their number are George Bernard Shaw and G K Chesterton.

Holmes, having established his credentials by solving the case of the murder of the Martian ambassador two or so years before the main plot of this tale begins – albeit by concealing the identity of the true culprit – is invited to Mars to investigate the murder of Delph-Aran-Arapna, one of the finest Martian minds of the era. Curiously no reference to this creature can be found in any of the Martian literature which Holmes has read. (The great detective has of course made himself fluent in Martian.) Our narrator, as is customary, is Dr Watson, who in an anti-Martian public meeting has made the acquaintance – or rather by design been made her acquaintance – of a Miss Freya Hamilton-Bell, a prominent member of the anti-Martian faction.

The journey to Mars having been made (also making his appearance here is a certain Professor Challenger,) Holmes and Watson are soon contacted by Miss Hamilton-Bell and told of the Martians’ plan to replace well-known or powerful men from Earth (or mostly men) with simulacra – with all the attributes, memories and brain-power of their originals’ but controllable at a distance – as a means to taking over Earth and eradicating humans entirely. Fortunately there is an underclass of Martians who were recently at war with the dominant aggressive faction who are able to help.

Unsurprisingly in a series of novels trading on the Holmes mythos, Professor Moriarty – indeed a whole series of Moriartys as the Martians have cloned his body multiple times – is a pivotal figure. More surprisingly he is less of an antagonist to Holmes than the reader might have thought.

All first-person novels (all novels, perhaps?) are an act of ventriloquism but that act is surely more difficult if the voice being simulated is not of the author’s own devising. Brown has made a good fist of the mash-up, capturing the stilted, repressed, awkwardnesses of “Watson’s” style and character, but also made it more accommodating to a modern audience. (Words like antibodies, pathogens and feisty seem unlikely for the 1910s. The agency of Miss Hamilton-Bell as active and important in the anti-Martian movement seems also to be a more modern note – but then again the book is set in the age of the suffragettes, who could be an unruly lot – though they are unmentioned.)

Holmes fans might hanker for more of the supposed deductive reasoning powers of Conan-Doyle’s hero (which are used sparingly here) but the Wells influence, the flavour of the scientific romance, is more to the fore. Brown is primarily an SF writer after all.

An enterprise like this is surely not meant to be conceived as a serious work of fiction and should not be read as such. As an entertainment, though, it succeeds admirably.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: substantial, plus variants such as “in due course” etc. Otherwise; Cicely (the real-life Miss Fairfield was named Cicily,) nought (naught,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) smidgen (I prefer ‘smidgin’,) cannister (canister,) imposters (I prefer ‘impostors’,) cicatrise (cicatrice.) “The content of their originals’ minds have been reproduced” (The contents of their originals’minds,) “nine pence” (ninepence,) “the two Miss Fairfields” (the two Misses Fairfield.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (xi)

A meme as started by Judith and now collated by Katrina.

Since these are SF paperbacks mostly published several decades ago they are on the shelves housed in my garage. The photos are zooms in on the ones of the whole bookcases and so are a bit fuzzy.

On view are books by the excellent Michael Bishop, several by my friend Eric Brown, three by Algis Budrys, five (or seven since one is an omnibus of a trilogy) by C J Cherryh, but most of the books shown here were written by John Brunner. I remember fondly Stand on Zanzibar, The Dramaturges of Yan, Telepathist and The Squares of the City, in which the characters are in effect avatars of chess pieces whose moves were taken from a real game.

SF Books by John Brunner

Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (in which he more or less predicted computer viruses but due to the storage medium of computers at the time he called them tapeworms,) The Sheep Look Up and The Jagged Orbit are shelved in another bookcase in the garage for arcane reasons.

Science Fiction Books

His Timescoop is on my hardback shelves.

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (v)

(This week’s edition for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.)

These are all small-sized SF paperbacks. By small I mean the size all paperbacks used to be back in the day – before publishers realised they could charge a higher price for larger editions and they aspired to the status of hardbacks.

In our old house all my paperback SF was shelved in one room – on shelving specially built for the purpose. When we moved to Son of the Rock Acres there was no space for them in the house. Hence these are stored in the garage; to accomodate them they are double parked on each shelf, which is why they seem to start at Ballard and jump from Bester to Bishop, and Dick to Garnett.

Lots of goodies here: Eric Brown, John Brunner, Michael G Coney, Philip K Dick, Mary Gentle, Colin Greenland. If you look closely you’ll even see some Harlan Ellison peeping through at the back on the bottom shelf.

Science Fiction Paperbacks

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

Starship Coda by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2016, 35 p.

 Starship Coda cover

As its title implies this, very short at 33 pages, novella is a rounding off of Brown’s four volume Starship series published between 2007 and 2012. In it David Conway’s now settled life on Delta Pavonis IV is disturbed by a message from his ex-wife, Sally – mysteriously delivered in audio only – wanting to meet him. This brings up memories of his dead daughter, which Conway would prefer to have kept submerged.

What at first seems incidental (though one of Brown’s familiar flourishes,) the unveiling of a new interactive art work, this time by Conway’s friend Matt, reflecting a person’s emotions and personality back at them and projecting them as sound to whoever is nearby, helps to divert Conway from his thoughts about the impending encounter with Sally, becomes instrumental in the plot’s unravelling.

Before meeting Sally, Conway is first greeted by her companion, Gideon Antrobus, who claims to have reversed Sally’s ageing. The apparition Conway is then confronted with indeed looks like a young girl. Neither Antrobus nor the girl is quite what they appear on the surface.

As a final send-off to the Starship series Starship Coda is enjoyable – and readable – enough. Brown handles the situation with his usual aplomb. How much it adds to the series is debatable but it certainly doesn’t detract from it.

“Time interval later” count: seven. Plus a ‘Later’ an ‘a few months later’ an ‘A little later,’ and an ‘A while later.’

Pedant’s corner:- “ ‘Here’s goes,’” (Here goes,) “that all was not right” (that not all was right,) Matt Sommers’ (Sommers’s,) “‘You make it sounds as if’” (You make it sound as if’,) aging (ageing,) at worse (at worst.)

Buying Time by E M Brown

Solaris, 2018, 357 p.

 Buying Time cover

The designation of the author as E M Brown is a slight repositioning by the publisher of my old mate Eric Brown to highlight works of his that are more character based. (It’s a bit late and a bit odd. He has always produced these to go alongside his action adventure novels but even in those he did not neglect character.)

In 2017 Ed Richie, prodigious boozer, script-writer for Coromandel Cable’s Morgan’s Café and also with a few radio plays to his name, is a serial monogamist with a penchant for women of a certain type. His latest relationship with a woman called Anna blows up in his face after he has had some sort of medical emergency experiencing a blinding white light. The break-up is part of a pattern repeated throughout his life. He has a long standing, equally boozy, friend Digby Lincoln, a jobbing script-writer on the TV serial Henderson’s Farm, with whom he discusses his situation.

We then jump to 2030, where in an independent Scotland Ella Croft works as a journalist for ScotFreeMedia. England and the US are in the grip of right-wing authoritarian regimes and Scotland is accepting LGBT refugees from a US where gay marriage is banned and same sex relationships suspect. It seems Richie disappeared some time in 2025 after switching successfully to a career as a novelist. Croft, who knew Richie in her childhood, sets out to find out what happened to him.

When we return to Richie he has had another white light episode and discovers himself in April 2016, much to his confusion and others’ bafflement.

The Richie and Shaw strands alternate throughout the book, interspersed with interpolations from various journal extracts, some Richie’s own, others newspaper or media outlet pieces. Richie is tumbling backwards through time, from 2017 to 2016, then 2013, 2008, 2002, 1995, 1988, and finally 1983. At first Richie wonders if these are hypnagogic hallucinations but Brown later provides, via the 2030 Croft sections, a science-fictional explanation.

Brown draws some amusement from Richie’s knowledge of the future. To the revelation that Trump will be elected President of the US Digby responds, “What? The multiple-bankrupt TV celebrity shyster? Come on, even the Americans can’t be that stupid!” and when told Leicester will win the league in 2016 comments, “Now I know you’re crazy.”

A Trove of Stars, Digby’s SF piece, had caused a rift between them for a while as Richie told him he, “took needless time out to tell the reader about the characters’ states of mind.” Digby objects, “‘What I’m trying to do here is bring the concerns of the modern psychological novel to the hidebound format of hard SF.’ Richie had restrained himself from accusing his friend of talking pretentious bollocks.” In a later time-shift the book’s success signals we’re in a different timeline. All Richie’s touches down in the past must be in altered histories or else there would be time paradoxes.

Ed suffers further confusion when Finnish artist Emmi Takala, whom he met on a trip to Crete, seems to know about his condition but he time–jumps again before she can elucidate. Ella finds out Emmi also disappeared in the late 2020s when she went to England to meet a man called Ed. There is a connection too to scientist Ralph Dennison – mates at University with and Ed and Digby – an investigator into the theory behind faster-than-light travel but who, too, vanished in 2010. The scientists’ backer, tycoon Duncan Mackendrick, finally provides Ella (and us) with the puzzle’s solution.

Brown’s characterisation is excellent throughout. The Richie sections do not read like SF which is fine – good even – the Shaw ones do when necessary. Whether Buying Time brings “the concerns of the modern psychological novel to the hidebound format of hard SF” or is “pretentious bollocks” is for each reader to decide. I thought it was very well done indeed.

Pedant’s corner:- imposter (I prefer impostor.) “How many woman have you lived with over the years?” (women) “that all was not as it should be” (that not all was as it should be,) Diggers’ (Diggers’s – several other instances,) “her portrayal a grieving mother” (portrayal of a grieving mother,) Man U (earlier it had been Man U.,) humous (humous means ‘like a component of soil’, the food is houmous or hummus,) “He could curb the TV work, continued writing radio plays, and, to flex his creative muscles and ambition, tried his hand at stage plays.” (continue writing….try his hand,) recent British politics (given it’s 2030 here would that not be English politics?) Waterstones’ crowd (earlier, Waterstones staff and Waterstones crowd had had no apostrophe,) a double full stop at the end of a sentence (facing each other..) “‘You can bring yourself to love anyone’” (You can’t bring yourself to,) (and again later) -Tennant’s lager (Tennent’s,) “Pam took herself off the bed” (off to bed,) flag-stoned (flagstoned,) “she later said that that was what she initially liked about him was his ability” (she later said that what she initially liked about him was his ability.)

Exalted on Bellatrix 1 by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet Part Four, PS Publishing, 2017, 92 p.

In this conclusion to Brown’s Telemass Quartet, Matt Hendrick’s chase across the galaxy via different telemass stations in order rescue his daughter Samantha reaches its end on the titular planet, to where his wife Maatje has taken Samantha’s life-suspended body in an effort to be cured and possibly “exalted” by the indigenous Vhey.

We first, though, have a bit of misdirection when Hendrick learns of a cure for Samantha’s condition. It is however, prohibitively expensive, which leads him to take on a commission from the EU in effect to spy on the Vhey on its behalf and enable his travel there.

The Vhey are another example of Brown’s stable of enigmatic aliens, eminently nebulous in their motivations, almost incomprehensible in their actions. (The cover’s depiction of them is, though, somewhat at odds with their description in the text.) Other common Brown tropes to appear include an artist’s colony – though here this is pretty much incidental – and someone with a profound psychological disturbance. And, of course, there is telepathy, in the shape of Hendrick’s helpmeet, Mercury Velazquez. But all contribute to the plot.

There are the usual bumps and hollows and action incidents along the way but the spying element never really comes to much as the Vhey dispose of the means of surveillance very expeditiously. However, that is more than made up for when we finally witness an exaltation, the details of which are suitably horrific. It all rounds up the Quartet satisfactorily.

One quibble. The cover and title pages have Bellatrix 1 as the planet on which this is set. In the previous three Telemass novellas the planet’s number was expressed in Roman numerals (IV, III, II.) The reason why this one’s should contain the Arabic numeral 1 is obscure. Within the text the planet’s name is written as Bellatrix I so I assume the change wasn’t due to the author.

“Time interval” later count: 7. Pedant’s corner:- a missing full stop, “out offer” (our offer,) “the subjective interpretation of objective phenomenon” (either “objective phenomena”, or, “an objective phenomenon”) tae chi (tai chi,) “to affect change” (to effect change,) “when the might return” (they,) “they Vhey” (the Vhey.) “Its eyes nictitated slowly from side to side” (eyes don’t nictitate, eyelids or membranes do. Then again maybe in aliens eyes do nictitate,) “watch Sam grown up” (grow up would be a more usual expression. Though watching Sam grown up would be possible for him.)

Winter’s Tales 27 Edited by Edward Leeson

Macmillan, 1981, 187 p.

Winter's Tales 27 cover

I read this because it was recommended (and loaned) to me by Guardian reviewer Eric Brown as containing a very good non-SF story written by 1960s and 70s British SF stalwart John Brunner. It does and it is. There is also a story by once (and now again) SF author – and reviewer for the Guardian – M John Harrison.
Letting the Birds Go Free by Philip Oakes is narrated by the son of a farmer whose eggs are being stolen. They both confront the culprit but then offer him employment. He is, though, a deserter from the Army unwilling to be sent back to Northern Ireland.
Another first person narration, Things by V S Pritchett, is the tale of the sudden descent after years away of a wayward sister(-in-law) on a newly retired couple’s home.
Old Tom1 by Celia Dale relates the experiences and reminiscences of a down-and-out war veteran intercut with the administrations of a retired woman to an ageing cat.
In Flora’s Lame Duck by Harold Acton, Flora has taken under her wing a young Italian disfigured by polio. He becomes besotted with her but she is only waiting for the terminally ill wife of the man she loves to die before returning to the US to marry him.
Terence Wheeler’s Safe Wintering2 is narrated by an ex-sailor and describes the sequential (and contrasting) relationships another man in the town has with two women.
The Indian Girl3 by Giles Gordon is the tale of the narrator’s possibly hallucinatory experience while travelling from New Delhi to Amritsar by train.
A Mouthful of Gold4 John Brunner is another of those ‘as told to’ tales – this time in a London club for writers – concerning a particularly fine wine and the failure of a US flier shot down over Italy and hidden by the region’s inhabitants from the Germans to understand the nature of its secret ingredient.
Home Ownership5 by Murray Bail tells the story of a Brisbane house, growing old along with the man who lives there.
In Chemistry by Graham Swift a ten year-old child muses on the relationship between his widowed mother, his grandfather, his mother’s new lover and himself.
Egnaro by M John Harrison is the story of a bookseller/pornographer who is tantalised by the possibility of a mysterious land, Egnaro, found nowhere on the maps except by hint or exegesis, and the translation of this obsession to the narrator.
Birthday!6 by Fay Weldon concerns the marriage of two people, Molly and Mark, who had both been born on the same day and met on their twenty-eighth birthday. Words beginning with “m” dominate the text as does Molly’s belief in astrology. Another birthday, their fortieth, when Mark’s workmates descend on the family with a birthday video, bookends the story.
In Christmas with a Stranger by Leslie Thomas, a young man from the Welsh valleys uses the bit of money he has come into to visit London. On the train there he invents for himself a persona as a film director. In the city he meets a woman fashion designer, down from the north. They spend Christmas Day navigating a deserted London.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Editor’s Note; “full of strange, twists and turns” (unless strange here is a noun, that comma is unnecessary.) 1“if he don’t move” (this is the only verb in the piece not in standard English; doesn’t,) plimsoles (x 2, plimsolls.) 2the whole story is told in seaman’s language so contains instances of ungrammatical or other usages. Otherwise; laying (lying,) “farther gone that he had thought” (than,) a lay-in (lie-in.) 3mannaged (managed.) 4“there were only a couple of” (there was only a couple.) 5 “You-who!” (is normally Yoohoo!) 6silicone-chip (silicon,) sprung (sprang.)

I Remember Pallahaxi by Michael Coney

Drugstore Indian Press, 2014, 283 p plus vi p Introduction by Eric Brown.

 I Remember Pallahaxi cover

Michael G Coney was a writer of the 1970s and 1980s whose work I remember most fondly. Despite winning a BSFA Award for best novel for Brontomek! he never achieved the wide success and readership he deserved perhaps because his novels tended to focus on the dilemmas and relationships of his characters rather than any SF ideas they might contain. In this regard his influence on the work of Eric Brown (who provides the introduction to this volume) is unmistakable.

Never published in the author’s lifetime, I Remember Pallahaxi is a sequel of sorts to Coney’s 1975 novel Hello Summer, Goodbye but is set hundreds of years after the events of that book. Here we are among the stilk, a humanoid race, inhabiting an unnamed Earth-like planet orbiting a sun called Phu with a giant planet named Rax dominating the system’s celestial mechanics. The stilk inherit their ancestors’ memories up to the moment of their own conception, boys only their father’s line, girls only their mother’s. The resulting hierarchy means those who can trace these memories back furthest become manchief or womanchief of their respective villages. Inheritance therefore falls to the youngest son or daughter – the ones with the most such memories. Gender roles are also rigidly demarcated as are the living arrangements. There are no nuclear families; association of mothers and fathers beyond their initial sexual encounter is looked upon as unnatural. Boys are taken into the men’s house on coming of age, girls remain in the women’s.

The book starts at a time when the crops of Yam village are beginning to fail, the animals the men hunt scarcer, and the chiefs have to make a journey to the fishing village of Noss to borrow food for the winter against future crops. The crude boat young Yam Hardy, nephew of Yam’s manchief, has taken along on the trip for adventure begins to sink under him and he is rescued by Noss Charm, the most eligible girl in Noss. They form an instant attraction to each other despite the long-standing mutual prejudices of each village. The sinking wasn’t an accident though. They find a hole in the upturned boat. A mystery then, along with the SF elements. Subsequently, Yam’s food situation gets no better as the crops fail again and the animals become ever fewer. When Hardy’s father Bruno is murdered on another supplicant trip to Noss Hardy realises he is in danger.

All this is almost by the way to what is really the main driver of the book, the importance of “stardreaming” (the accession to those ancestral memories,) the mysterious creatures called lorin (with apparent telepathic abilities) and the casual discarding of the stilk by the humans, who arrived after the time in which Hello Summer, Goodbye was set, in order to exploit the planet’s resources – albeit with treaty obligations – as humans do.

I note that by the end the conceit that Hardy is relating this to a human (his narrative makes frequent references to this and compares both races’ backgrounds) does not quite stand up. Not that it matters. In most respects the stilk we are shown might as well be human. They behave in the way we would expect humans to. Barring the living arrangements (which in the novel are beginning to break down and are found in some human societies anyway) they have the same flaws, strengths and idiosyncrasies as humans. Most crucially, Coney makes the reader care about them. Along the way he takes a wide swipe at religion and the fervour it can induce, the mask it can provide.

Quite why this novel took so long to be published is a mystery to me. It is quintessential Coney which makes it very good indeed.

Pedant’s corner:- various USianisms and spellings (no doubt Coney hoped for US publication when he was writing this,) “‘What’s you name?’” (your,) “trying the race the motorcart” (trying to race,) “what was going on it my mind” (in my mind,) “and from time to time and drank deeply” (from time to time drank deeply,) “as boiler ran out of steam” (as the boiler,) “ten, eleven generations ago” (on next page is “ten, eleven years ago”,) inclintions (inclinations,) “much older that Dad” (than Dad,) “‘you’d rather to show me around’” (rather show me around,) womn’s (women’s,) “‘she’s an easy women to let go of’” (woman,) “the lay of the rocks” (the lie,) “‘Come one’” (Come on,) a missing quote mark at the start of a paragraph of direct speech, “a small group of trees were shaking violently” (a small group was shaking,) “and finally spoke words that seem to crackle like ice” (seemed.) “His audience were not so familiar,” (his audience was not,) Browneyes’ (Browneyes’s,) “one of Stance’s huntsman” (huntsmen,) “not having their parents memories” (parents’,) “‘it was never mean to be opened’” (meant.)

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