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Embers of War by Gareth L Powell

Titan Books, 2018, 407 p.

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

 Embers of War cover

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

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

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

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

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

BSFA Awards 2015 Booklet

BSFA Awards 2015 cover

First, congratulations to the BSFA for getting this out in time in time for it to be read before the presentation of the awards at Eastercon. Easter is remarkably early this year. About as early as it can possibly be. (See previous post.)
And not only does the booklet contain the listed short stories but also the non-fiction nominees (or extracts therefrom) and as usual the nominated artworks.

As to the short fiction:-

Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight by Aliette de Bodard.1
An interstellar Empire has crop-growing space stations and long-lived mindships. Parents’ memories are usually downloaded to their children but those of crop researcher Professor Duy Uyen are allocated to her research group’s next leader. Her daughter, who became a mindship, will nevertheless remember her forever.

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell.2
A supermarket chain wants to build an outlet in a town where the borders with the other worlds are weak. This would result in the borders being breached. The witches of the title (not all of whom are witches) are three women who band together to preserve the status quo (in all its aspects.)

No Rez by Jeff Noon.3
Unlike in its original publication (in Interzone 260) the text here is not laid out transversely (perhaps robbing the story of some of its visual impact.) The tale is nevertheless rendered in a variety of typefaces. In its world, pixels are the be-all and end-all. Our narrator stumbles across a dead body with a box that renders everything in high rez. Heavies then come after him to get the box back.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.4
Binti is the first of her Himba kind to be invited to Oomza Uni, the first to leave Earth. Her tribal habit was to cover themselves in otjize, a mixture of plant extract and red clay. On the trip the space ship is invaded by Meduse with whom the otherwise dominant humans, the Khoush, are at war. Only Binti’s edna – a general name for a piece of old tech whose use no-one remembers – protects her. Otijze turns out to be useful to the Meduse, as does Binti herself.

Ride the Blue Horse by Gareth L Powell.5
In a post-apocalypse US two men scavenging amongst a huge collection of shipping containers for sellable goodies from the old days uncover a 1960s Ford Mustang. The freedom of the road beckons.

In the non-fiction6 Nina Allan called for the possibility of a woman Doctor (Who) not to be dismissed and for that programme to be less self-referential, the book of Letters to Tiptree acknowledges the legacy of Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr,) James McCalmont worries about the future of impartial reviewing, Adam Roberts surveys the SF and Fantasy of 2014 (and skewers Puppygate for its baleful effect on the Hugo Awards,) while Jeff VanderMeer tells of his trials while writing his three novels that were published in one year.

Pedant’s corner:-
1 “had fallen out before, on more trivial things” (over more trivial things,) “treason to much as think this” (to as much as think this,) “the only thing in existence were the laboratory and the living quarters” (“and” – therefore the only things in existence were,) designed to accept an unbalance (imbalance,) it’s mother’s hands that lie her down into the cradle” (lay her down [in?] the cradle,) ‘“When I hear you were back into service”’ (in service.)
2 This is set in Gloucestershire so the need to use the USianism “gotten” totally escapes me. Also “I could have used” for “I could have done with”. I know it was originally published on a US website but that’s no excuse. After all Cornell does have one character say “summat” as in summat terrible. Sprung (sprang,) focussed (focused,) “instead that she setting up the shop” (was setting up the shop,) “someone she vaguely new” (knew.)
3 “She always get the best streams” (gets,) “too many people, to many viewpoints, all on me” (context suggests “too many viewpoints”.)
4 “too old for anyone to know it functions” (its functions,) CO2 (CO2,) sunk (sank, x 3,) conducter (conductor,) ‘“The only thing I have killed are small animals”’ (things, then,) “all I could see were a tangle of undulating tentacles and undulating domes” (all I could see was…,) “Or the cool gasses” (gases) “Okwu promised would not harm my flesh even though I could not breathe it” (breathe them,) miniscule (minuscule,) museum specimen of such prestige are highly prized” (specimens,) ojtize (otjize,) clear is used to mean colourless rather than transparent.
5 Written in USian. “I caught a whiff of carbon monoxide.” (Carbon monoxide is odourless I’m afraid. A whiff of partially burnt petrol, maybe.) Plus: if the narrator and his companion don’t know how to drive a car (and nor has anybody for decades) how does he know which is first (gear) and what a clutch is?
6 There were typos etc (noun/verb disagreements in particular) in most of the non-fiction but I haven’t bothered enumerating them.

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