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Kindred by Octavia E Butler

headline, 2014, 320 p. First published 1979.

Kindred cover

The novel is narrated by Dana Franklin, a black woman who lives in California in 1976 with her white husband, Kevin. One day she has a dizzy spell and comes to herself in a strange environment and just in time to save a young white boy, Rufus, from drowning. Threatened with a gun by the boy’s father, in fear of death, she is as suddenly returned to her 1976 home. She barely has time to wash herself before suffering another dizzy spell and is thrown back again to Rufus’s bedroom, where she puts out a fire. Rufus is older. His speech leads her to question him and she discovers she is in Maryland in 1815 or so, on a slave plantation and works out Rufus is her ancestor, yet to beget her great grandmother. There is no mechanism given for Dana’s ability to travel in time, it just happens. The only connection seems to be the genetic one. This makes this aspect of the novel fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

There are several more instances of journeys back and forth through time, on one occasion Dana is accompanied by Kevin as he is holding on to her at the time. They are separated when Dana is drawn back home after being whipped for teaching a slave to read. On her next return they meet up again but Kevin has spent five years in the past while only days have passed for Dana.

The set-up allows Butler the opportunity to portray the life of slaves and the attitudes of slaveholders in some detail. Quite how close that is to the real experience is a good question. Words on a page cannot truly convey the experience of being whipped, for example. The whole truth may well have been too incompatible with readability though, a delicate balance for the author to achieve. The compromises and accommodations the slaves have to make simply to survive, the jealousies, hierarchies and resentments among them are well delineated though.

The book of course is a commentary on how the past history of the US still has resonance – even now, almost forty years after the book was first published – the victimisation of women, sexual dynamics, and race as a construct.

Butler’s characterisation is excellent but the episodic nature of Dana’s encounters with Rufus – she is only drawn back to his time when his life is in danger – means his development into a typical slave-holder is also disjointed. His attraction to Alice Greenwood is problematic, though. While it is necessary for the story to work logically his initial scruples over forcing himself on her (even after her enslavement) seem a touch unlikely.

History is a complicated web. Family history perhaps more so. Butler reminds us that in the US it is also contentious.

Pedant’s corner:- apart from being written in USian there were – remarkably – only two things I noted: insure (ensure; do USians employ insure in this sense?) hung (hanged; but it was in dialogue.)

Among Others by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2013, 408 p.

 Among Others cover

How does a reviewer describe this odd but delightful concoction? A coming of age story? No; the critical event of the narrator’s life so far has occurred before the time at which all but the initial chapter is set. A tale of adolescent awakening? Yes to that one. A fairy story? That first chapter invites us to consider it so but it does not begin with “once upon a time” nor end with “they lived happily ever after” and is in any case written in a realistic register. Then again it does have fairies in it. An orphan’s tale? Not quite, the narrator has run away from her mother and ended up in the care of a father – and his overbearing three sisters – whom she had previously never known. A boarding school story? In part. (You could well lose count of the number of ways in which our narrator is “among others”.) A primer on Science Fiction and Fantasy? Undoubtedly. It is almost perfectly calibrated to appeal to those with a love for the genre, especially for those books of the 1960s and 1970s people of a certain age will remember with great affection. Yet it doesn’t neglect the wider world of letters either. In particular it shows the interest in Plato Walton would later indulge in her Thessaly trilogy.

As a novel the story is couched in the form of almost daily diary entries – covering the six months from September 1979 to February 1980 – by one Morganna Rachel Phelps Markova, many of which display her love of books and of SF/Fantasy in particular. She can also see and talk to fairies and practices magic – but only in a benign way. Morganna’s voice is pitch perfect. This is how we feel a sometimes confused but opinionated girl of fifteen might write about herself. With a gammy leg due to an incident in which her twin sister was killed while they thwarted an attempt by their witch mother to destroy the world in some (unspecified) way she has difficulty with mobility. In memoriam she seems to have taken her dead sister’s name, Morwenna. One of the diary entries is signed as Morganna, letting us know this.

Walton has some fun delineating the antipathies of the Welsh towards the English (and the condescension from the other direction,) the snobbery endemic in a boarding school, “Class is entirely intangible, and the way it affects things isn’t subject to scientific analysis, and it’s not supposed to be real but it’s pervasive and powerful. See; just like magic,” and the oddities of adolescent behaviours in general. Her injuries actually are an aid as her bookishness would have set her even further apart from her boarding school peers. As it is she is excused games and haunts the school library, “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilisation.” Her mother is an intermittent looming menace throughout the book and this is the major weak point as all the confrontations with her mother are curiously muted and of course the major one took place outside the novel’s confines. The final confrontation is somewhat anti-climactic, and over too quickly.

Apart from that Among Others is, to use Morganna/Morwenna’s word, brill.

Pedant’s corner:- chemistry (as a school subject it’s Chemistry; ditto Biology for biology – both French and Latin were capitalised; however, Physics, Economics, History and Music were not,) who everyone loves (whom,) “I bought four honey buns to go” (Morganna is supposed to be Welsh, not USian; the British usage is “to take away”,) someone is described as a fly half for the house hockey team; fly half is [or was] a position in Rugby Union, not, as far as I know, in hockey,) Morganna quotes a song’s lyric as, “‘Over the hills to Abergavenny, hoping the weather’ll be fine.’” (The actual lyric is, ‘Taking a trip up to Abergavenny, Hoping the weather is fine’,) “where we brush our teeth, and our hair” (the comma is unnecessary. Or is it?) “How much more likely resurrection if the dead process through the valley” (likely is resurrection,) “to which it is intended” (“for which” is more usual,) fit as a past tense (is USian, a Welsh girl would write fitted,) “everyone one always talks at the top of their voice” (at the tops of their voices,) “an explosion at a paint factory” (it’s usually “an explosion in a paint factory”,) a whole scrum were milling about (a scrum was,) “I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt?” (is not a question,) “Though I think ‘Etruscan Sea’ scans better?” (ditto; there were four more instances of such non-questions appended with a question mark,) “I don’t have maths brain” (a maths brain; or, a brain for maths,) “Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane” (Birnam Wood.)

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Gollancz, 2014, 307 p

 Wolfhound Century cover

Investigator Vissarion Lom is bobbling along in the regional city of Podchornok seeking out dissidents when he is summoned to the capital city Mirgorod and there tasked with catching a terrorist. The setting is clearly based on Russia, characters have patronymics, the currency is the rouble, distances are measured in versts, the iconography of the cover is Soviet. A secret service head called Lavrentina (Chazia) adds to the impression. But it is a strangely altered Russia, named Vlast, ruled not by a Tsar nor a General Secretary, but by a Novozhd, and perpetually at war with a polity called the Archipelago. Moreover, an Archangel lies imprisoned in the countryside potentially threatening the future but first it has to ensure that the Pollandore, the vestige of an older voice which can undo the Archangel’s vision and is capable of altering reality, is destroyed. Lom has a piece of angel flesh embedded in his forehead “like a blank third eye”, giving him powers to move the air. There are giants.

It is a curious mix. The flavour of the novel is a bit like reading Joseph Conrad, the feel of the society it depicts like late Tsarist era Russia, but there are sub-machine guns. I found the thriller aspect of it to be too conventional, the circles of contact of Lom’s suspects too restricted and their connections too easily uncovered by him but it is an unusual fantasy scenario, all the more welcome for not being based on a mediæval template.

To be sure there is occasional “fine writing” but I’m afraid I lose patience when extra-human powers come into things, although such content may be true to its Russian inspiration. A more major complaint is that the novel didn’t end. An immediate threat was dealt with but the Archangel and the Pollandore were still extant. And quite why it is entitled Wolfhound Century remained obscure. If I see its sequel in one of my local libraries I might pick it up; otherwise, no.

Pedant’s corner:- “He should have waited. Showed his papers.” (Shown,) “his cap pulled down tight down over his forehead (only one down required,) and and (only one and required,) miniscule (minuscule.) “Its not on any map” (It’s,) dikes (USian? dykes,) “broken staithes and groynes” (staithes?) “with the trunk on it back” (its back,) a missing full stop.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

In the omnibus At the Back of the North Wind/The Princess and the Goblin/The Princess and Curdie, published by Octopus, 1979, 166 p (for The Princess and the Goblin.)

George MacDonald Omnibus cover

As a fairy tale (its first three words are “There was once”) this is not my usual fare. I only read it as it was in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books. The title seems a little askew as there was not one goblin in the story but many, who live under a mountain near to the castle where the Princess (who has the very unprincessly name of Irene) lives. She is to be kept away from the forest and hill at night in case she encounters the goblins but her nurse, Lootie, mistakes the time one day and the pair would have been at their mercy but for the intervention of a miner’s son, Curdie. A lot of the tale is in fact Curdie’s as he later ventures into the mines and discovers what the goblins are up to, but several sequences involve the princess’s meetings with a strange old woman claiming to be her great-great grandmother (though on the second meeting she has become young) spinning away in the upper floors of the castle, invisible threads which, Theseus-like, aid the princess and Curdie in the plot’s working-out.

To twenty-first century eyes the demonisation of the goblins stands out. I suppose they are some sort of sexual metaphor – the princess has to be protected from nastiness – and the King is presented as far too noble. Still; it is a fairy tale. A certain degree of simplicity is to be expected.

The king spends most of the time absent, on kingly duties, and I note there is no mother, no queen, to be seen. A perennial trope of the children’s tale is such a separation from parents.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quote, rhymster (rhymester,) horid (horrid,) “The cobs dropped persecuting me and look dazed” (looked,) “they came to the conclusion it had been slain in the mines, and had crept out there to die” (slain implies death; so how could it then have crept out to die?) balnkets (blankets.)

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Harper, 2015, 526 p plus 1 p Reading Group Questions, 6 p photos of Detroit taken during Beukes’s research and 7 p author interview.

 Broken Monsters cover

Detective Gabriella Stirling-Versado becomes OIC of a bizarre murder case (where half the body of a young teenage boy has been joined to half that of a deer) by virtue of being first on the scene. The story is narrated from several viewpoints each rendered in an urgent stripped down present tense. Some tension is lost by the fact that one of these is that of the murderer but there is no doubt throughout that Beukes is in control. All the viewpoints are compelling and Gabi’s relationship with her daughter, Layla is particularly neatly drawn as, in turn, is her friendship with schoolmate Cas. Along the way Beukes addresses issues of the prevalence, and misuse, of social media, and of sexual harassment.

The circumstances of the murder and the hints that chalk outlines of doors drawn on walls presage occult events notwithstanding, this is a straight enough police procedural thriller until the supernatural elements impinge in force at the climax. This for me was where the novel broke down. It is difficult to register my misgivings without spoilers but the details of the way in which those forces manifest and gain power were beyond my ability to sustain suspension of disbelief.

My main complaint, though, is that any hint of the supernatural is a cop-out. History has shown humans are cruel enough to each other. There is no necessity for an external force to make them so. Buekes can write well – brilliantly even – but I would contend that it is a failure of the imagination rather than its triumph to posit influences beyond humanity as causal factors in demented behaviours.

Pedant’s corner:- jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) “sounds fraught with meaning that don’t have anything to do with her” (with meaning that doesn’t – or; with meanings that don’t,) peering through the grill of an oversized hockey helmet (grille,) “where the skin of the worlds are permeable (the skin is – or; the skins are,) the lay of the land (lie,) a cluster of party people are standing (a cluster is,) the back of his hands are (the back is – or; the backs are,) lay low (lie.) He’s was trying to help. (He was,) and realises her and mistake (realises her mistake,) “she’s terrified that if she opens Gabi’s all her secrets will come flying out,” (opens Gabi’s what?) “A scattering of neon highlighter markers stand out,” (a scattering stands out.)
Plus points for “ten years’ time” though.

Interzone 262, Jan-Feb 2016

Interzone 262 cover

Jonathan McAlmont’s column rails against current SF’s inability to conceive of society freed from the shackles of the market and examines the Quatermass series in the light of how “humanity would rather destroy itself than deal with the ambiguities of change”. Nina Allan muses on the pressures of a writer to produce to order and how unlikely that is to suit every writing style. The Book Zone has an interview with Dave Hutchinson and I review Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan. The fiction has:-
The Water-Walls of Enceladus1 by Mercurio D Rivera. Lily has been infected by an alien virus contracted on an asteroid. Despite the pustules on her body she is still regarded as beautiful by the Wergen, who have given humans advanced technology in return for companionship. Hating other humans reactions to herself she has contracted for a mission on Enceladus with only Wergen for company, Wergen whom she has come to hate. A well enough told story but my sympathies were entirely with the Wergen.
Empty Planets2 by Rahul Kanakia. In a future dominated by The Machine, people can offset the dwindling of their habitats’ prospects by earning shares through performing services or making discoveries.
In Geologic3 by Ian Sales the author calls on his knowledge of deep-sea diving and space exploration to tell the tale of an expedition to the crushingly high atmospheric pressure planet 61 Virginis b and the enigmatic rock structure on its surface. This brought to mindSolaris, except it has a rock instead of an ocean.
Circa Diem by Carole Johnstone is set after an asteroid bypass has caused Earth’s rotation to slow. One group of remnants lives underground, another above, never meeting – until a man from below and a woman from above do.
In A Strange Loop4 by D R Napper a man has been selling his memories to accumulate money to try to rewoo his estranged wife. As a result he doesn’t remember having done so.
Dependent Assemblies5 by Philip A Suggars is set in an alternative late 19th century Buenos Aires run by a homophobic, racist dictator who controls a mysterious substance called lux which can bring inanimate matter to life but does odd things to living tissue. Two male lovers try to use lux to make children from metal and ceramics. Effectively done but a little cursory.

Pedant’s corner:- Stross’ (Stross’s,) Quatermass’ (x2, Quatermass’s.) “But all writers are not the same” (not all writers are the same.) 1Written in USian; one less freak (one fewer,) corner of their eyes (corners,) Enceladus orbited at its greatest distance from Saturn (was orbiting at,) plateaus (plateaux,) providing us a panoramic view (with a panoramic view,) off of, outside of, trying to acclimate myself (acclimatise,) full-fledged (fully-fledged) 2Written in USian; while I laid out on a rock (lay.) 3 Not written in USian but still employs “ass” for arse, “the pilot in their blister” (I dislike this use of the plural for an individual character.) 4leather-bounds books (leather-bound,) Irving held up hand (a hand,) 5 Rojas’ (Rojas’s,) in middle of the night (in the middle of the night,) off of, sat (seated,) were a group (was a group.)

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2015, 352 p.

 The Philosopher Kings cover

Twenty years on from the events of The Just City and its Last Debate following which Athene flew off in a huff taking all but two of the Worker robots with her, our Platonists are still trying to become their best selves but have split into five cities on Kallisti/Santorini/Thera/Atlantis and a further group headed by Kebes/Mathias who sailed off in the ship Goodness to found colonies in the Ægean. The remaining five cities indulge in raiding each other to purloin the city’s art works for themselves. The Philsopher Kings starts off with one of these in which the heroine of the previous book, Simmea, is killed by an arrow. Apollo, in his incarnation as Pytheas, could have prevented her death but she forestalled him. The rest of the novel is preoccupied with Apollo’s search for the reasons why she wanted him to remain in the project without her and a quest for revenge on Kebes whom Apollo thought might be responsible for Simmea’s death and discovers from her journal had as good as (as bad as?) raped her. This gives Walton the opportunity to take us on a sub-Homeric trip round the Mediterranean and to allow those of Apollo/Pytheas’s children who are on the voyage to be imbued with divine powers on the island of Delos. It turns out the Goodness group has started to practice a form of Christianity, centuries before Christ’s life. They rationalise this by saying he is their eternal saviour.

As in the first book the narrative is presented from three viewpoints. Those of Maia and Apollo follow on from it, but, Simmea being dead, the third thread here is as by her daughter by Apollo/Pytheas, Arete (whose name means excellence.) There is much talk of possibly changing history but The Philosopher Kings does not engage as fully with the issues of free will and equal significance as The Just City did.

(Spoiler) There is also a spectacular example of what I can only call a Zeus ex machina towards the end. Granted, in Walton’s scenario the Greek Gods are real but Zeus has heretofore been well offstage and his incorporation seemed a trifle gratuitous.

Maybe this book is suffering from middle-of-trilogy, marking-time syndrome. I’ll still look out for Necessity, the next in the sequence.

Pedant’s corner:- blacksmith (isn’t this technically an iron-worker? We’re in the Bronze Age here, though iron is mentioned in places. The general term for metal-worker is smith.) “Near enough the overhear us” (near enough to.) “The thing they most wanted to discover….. were” (The thing…..was.) A sculpture of a crucifixion describes nails through “his palms and feet”; I believe the Romans actually pinned the nails through the wrists and ankles. Arete’s narrative refers to this as a crucifix but she would not have known that word. We are only told later she can understand all languages. Kebes face (Kebes’s – which appears later.) “‘I don’t want to discuss standing it on the harbor.’” (‘I don’t want to discuss it standing on the harbor.’)

The Lordly Ones by Keith Roberts

Gollancz, 1986, 160 p.

This is a collection of seven stories by one of the best (if not the best) British SF writers of the late twentieth century.

The Lordly Ones cover

The Lordly Ones A man who was “a bit slow” in school finds a job as a lavatory attendant. A war or revolution (the Trouble) breaks out but he keeps the toilets spotless despite there being no infrastructure to sustain him.
Ariadne Potts Sedate bank clerk Henry Potts has a hobby of photographing the garden statuary of stately homes. One day he comes across a most fetching, exquisite nymph whom he wishes to come alive. She does; and then takes over his life. An almost perfect be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.
Sphairistike A subtly told story of our nameless narrator’s relationship to the man behind a tennis playing prodigy, who/which may or may not be an android.
The Checkout One of Roberts’s stories featuring Anita the witch. Here she is intrigued by a supermarket checkout girl whom she helps escape from her restrictions.
The Comfort Station riffs on the same scenario as The Lordly Ones with a woman disrupting the toilet attendant’s existence.
The Castle on the Hoop A ghost story. Or one about someone who can bend time.
Diva A woman singer becomes a world-wide sensation as her voice calms the troubled breasts of her audiences and sparks off outbreaks of peace, love and understanding. Narrated as by the gardener of the Laird of Ardkinross in Argyllshire where she gives her last performance before the powers that be prevail on her to stop. Even the cohorts of the local Minister whose “notices proclaimed the sinfulness of singing, dancing, musicmaking and almost anything else one cared to mention,” are placated. Both Scots and US speech are part represented phonetically, not always entirely convincingly. Note to those of a nervous disposition. The US President at one point says, “Uh ain’t never lynched a nigger yet.”

Pedant’s corner:- “I was suppose” (I was supposed,) “coming up smelling violets” (it’s usually smelling of violets,) “with six whole channels to fill” seems a quaint detail these days, awhile (a while,) “I can only – and your belief isn’t my concern – that I was…” (say that I was,) nobbly roots (knobbly,) James’ (James’s,) whisht (this Scottish imprecation to be quiet is nowadays usually spelled wheesht,) sometning’s afoot (something’s,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means from where,) will-he, nill-he (an unusual rendering of willy-nilly,) the Diva’s bodyguard has a Schmeisser sub-machine gun (in Britain??) Brahmans (usually written Brahmins.)

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

I’m on the Map!

Literally.

Despite me not having a piece of fiction published for a few years – and only ever one novel – I’ve been included on this map of British SF and Fantasy writers. (If you click on the map it will lead you to its creator’s website, where copies can be purchased):-

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map

I’m humbled by this. Imagine me being on the same map as Alasdair Gray, Iain (M) Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Eric Brown, Arthur C Clarke, J G Ballard, George Orwell et al. Not to mention J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon.)

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