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Interzone 261

Nov-Dec 2015

Interzone 261 cover

Five Conversations with my Daughter (Who Travels in Time)1 by Malcolm Devlin. The title pretty much sums this up. The narrator’s daughter travels back in time – on only five occasions – to talk to him when her body in his time is asleep.
We Might be Sims2 by Rich Larson. One of a group of three convicts forced to make a trial run to Europa thinks they may be in a simulation.
Heartsick3 by Greg Kurzawa. Martin has his heart, dying for seventeen years since the drowning of his daughter, removed.
Florida Miracles by Julie C Day. Inside, Esta hears the voice of Mrs Henry. The day comes when Mrs Henry wants out.
Scienceville4 by Gary Gibson. In his basement Joel Kincaird has constructed a map of Scienceville, the town he’d invented as a teenage boy but after an exhibition in which he’d displayed some of his drawings he gets emails from people who claim to have lived there.
Laika by Ken Altabe. The (USian) narrator’s great uncle Dimitri – a real Russian – is dying and asks him to look after his dog Laika whom he claims to be that Laika, the first living creature in space.

1 summersaults (somersaults)
2 snuck (sneaked; I know it was written in USian but still.)
3 miniscule (minuscule), plus written in USian so we had he felt obligated rather than he felt obliged.
4 Despite Gibson being Glaswegian this is written (at least in part) in USian so we have recess for interval, couple hours for couple of hours, ‘getting on what, four years?’ for ‘getting on for what, four years?’ (He lives in Taipei now though (and his protagonist lives in New York.) Ikea (surely it’s IKEA?)

The Thousand Emperors by Gary Gibson

Tor, 2012, 359p.

After a strange encounter with a renegade, when a dangerous piece of technology, an instantiation lattice, is forcibly inserted into his brain, information specialist Luc Gabion is called in to investigate the murder of a member of the Temur Council, one of the Thousand Emperors of the title, rulers of the Tian-Di, half of the two parts into which humanity had split after the events of Gibson’s previous novel Final Days.

Thereafter we are plunged into a mix of power politics, interstellar intrigue and action sequences with all the attendant skiffy stuff – armed insect–like machines called mechants, jump gates, books that release their contents on contact, enhanced humans with disseminated consciousnesses – of which devotees of Space Opera are fond.

I have a feeling that Gibson may have rushed this one; or else was squeezing too much into his word count. Quite a lot of the background information was revealed through dialogue and as a consequence seemed unnatural. (Yes, no-one in novels actually “talks” as in real life; but even so.) The mayhem count will please those who like that sort of thing though

Curiously a crime was “perpetuated” at one point but “perpetrate” was used later in an appropriate fashion. Compared to Final Days there was an increased span count of 5 here – though there was one “spun.”

Final Days by Gary Gibson

Tor, 2011, 373p.

 Final Days cover

Set in 2235, this is an unusual take on the apocalypse story. The time-honoured British approach to such a tale typically focuses on the post-apocalypse scenario. By way of contrast Gibson has his disaster unfold in front of us. To this end he employs the novel foreshadowing method of letting us and his characters (by viewing recordings from the future) know what will happen before it actually does in “real” time. The McGuffin is a series of tethered wormholes that allow interstellar travel but also act as time machines through which the future can be observed or even intrude into the present. This raises the concept of a kind of predestination as attempts to prevent the destruction of Earth seem foredoomed. Mitchell Stone, who has “died” and been resurrected by some process of the “Founders” who have left a network of wormholes behind them when they departed to the far future where these connections no longer exist, says such tied wormholes fix future history and pre-empt free will. The disaster – initiated by a device being brought back through a wormhole – will potentially leave millions dead but he is instrumental in its genesis and claims it is an attempt to “save” everyone and liberate them from this lack of choice. This is not how things appear to the others, though.

At one point the exigencies of the plot require some of the characters to take a trip to the Moon in a replica of a Saturn V. This is a curious authorial decision as in a very much plot driven, action-heavy tale where by that stage time is of the essence, the days-long journey does tend to hold up the story somewhat.

In a story such as this characterisation is not the essential point. There is not much fleshing out here, except in the coda, but it is a page turner. Another plus point is that we have no silly names such as Gibson employed in his Shoal sequence.

Span count: one. (Though there is a “spun” later on.)

New e-book Publishing Venture

Gary Gibson (see here or click on my side-bar) has set up a new e-book publishing imprint* called Brain In a Jar Books whose blog/web page is here.

Gary’s aim is to bring back to life some otherwise out of print books never before made available for e-readers.

Most of the projected releases are by authors known to him – and to me, it must be said. I’m particularly glad to see Angus McAllister appear on the list.

I don’t have an e-reader myself (I’m a bit of a Luddite; I prefer reading ink on paper, where it won’t be a calamity if you drop it in the bath) but if I had I would be buying these.

*or whatever the equivalent e-thingy is.

Empire Of Light by Gary Gibson

Tor 2010. 393p. Third Book of The Shoal Sequence.

This continues the adventures of Dakota Merrick and the Shoal member Trader In Faecal Matter Of Animals which started in Stealing Light and was followed by Nova War. The plot concerns the seeking out of an ancient weapon called the Mos Hadroch and its transportation across the galaxy for use in ending the war against the civilisation known as the Emissaries in which the Shoal have been engaged for centuries.

The name Mos Hadroch has faint echoes of Frank Herbert’s Dune series but Gibson’s is a more straight forward action adventure story with twists, turns and betrayals aplenty, not to mention novae, space battles and murder, though there seemed to be a bit less violence than in the two previous volumes. All this is grist to the Space Opera mill which Gibson is grinding. But some of his characterisation runs up against a problem common with SF which deals with humanity in altered states. For example, Nancy Kress’s Beggars In Spain has humans who no longer need to sleep and are said to be more intelligent as a result. However their behaviour and actions are not depicted as being so endowed.

Here, several of Gibson’s characters have machine implants in their heads but beyond being able to communicate with each other (and some spaceships) at distance their behaviour does not seem much different from that of “normal” humans, either in Gibson’s invented world or our own.

Empire of Light rounds off his trilogy nicely but Gibson still leaves the possibility of sequels.

Consider Phlebas: Towards A Scottish Science Fiction

Throughout the 1950s, the early 1960s, through the late 60s efflorescence of the New Wave and into the 1970s and 80s a stream of English authors came to prominence in the SF field and had novels published in Britain. To my mind there was a clear distinction in the type of books all these authors were producing compared to those emanating from across the Atlantic and that certain characteristics distinguished the work emanating from either of these publication areas. While Bob Shaw was a notable Northern Irish proponent of the form during this period and Christopher Evans flew the flag for Wales from 1980 something kept nagging at me as I felt the compulsion to begin writing. Where, in all of this, were the Scottish writers of SF? And would Scottish authors produce a different kind of SF again?

Until Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas, 1987, contemporary Science Fiction by a Scottish author was so scarce as to be invisible. It sometimes seemed that none was being published. As far as Scottish contribution to the field went in this period only Chris Boyce, who was joint winner of a Sunday Times SF competition and released a couple of SF novels on the back of that achievement, Angus McAllister, who produced the misunderstood The Krugg Syndrome and the excellent but not SF The Canongate Strangler plus the much underrated Graham Dunstan Martin offered any profile at all but none of them could be described as prominent. And their works tended to be overlooked by the wider SF world.

There was, certainly, the success of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981 but that novel was more firmly in the Scottish tradition of fantasy and/or the supernatural rather than SF (cf David Lindsay’s A Voyage To Arcturus, 1920) and was in any case so much of a tour de force that it hardly seemed possible to emulate it; or even touch its foothills.

David Pringle noted the dearth of Scottish SF writers in his introduction to the anthology Nova Scotia where he argued that the seeming absence of Scottish SF authors was effectively an illusion. They were being published, only not in the UK. They (or their parents) had all emigrated to America. Though he has since partly resiled on that argument, it does of course invite the question. Why did this not happen to English SF writers?

It was in this relatively unpromising scenario that I conceived the utterly bizarre notion of writing not just Science Fiction but Scottish Science Fiction and in particular started to construct an SF novel that could only have been written by a Scot. Other novels may have been set in Scotland or displayed Scottish sensibilities but as far as I know I’m the only person who deliberately set out to write a novel of Scottish SF.

It could of course simply be that there was so little SF from Scotland being published because hardly anyone Scottish was writing SF or submitting it to publishers. But there were undoubtedly aspirants; to which this lack of role models might have been an off-putting factor. I myself was dubious about submitting to English publishers as they might not be wholly in tune with SF written from a Scottish perspective. I also thought Scottish publishers, apparently absorbed with urban grittiness, would look on it askance. I may have been completely wrong in these assumptions but I think them understandable given the circumstances. There is still no Scottish publisher of speculative fiction.

With Iain M Banks and Consider Phlebas the game changed. Suddenly there was a high profile Scottish SF writer; suddenly the barrier was not so daunting. And Phlebas was Space Opera, the sort of thing I was used to reading in American SF, albeit Banks had a take on it far removed from right wing puffery of the sort most Americans produced. Phlebas was also distant from most English SF – a significant proportion of which was seemingly fixated with either J G Ballard or Michael Moorcock or else communing with nature, and in general seemed reluctant to cleave the paper light years. Moreover, Banks sold SF books by the bucketload.

There was, though, the caveat that he had been published in the mainstream first and was something of a succès de scandale. (Or hype – they can both work.)

[There is, by the way, an argument to be had that all of Banks’s fiction could be classified as genre: whether the genre be SF, thriller, in the Scottish sentimental tradition, or even all three at once. It is also arguable that Banks made Space Opera viable once more for any British SF writer. Stephen Baxter’s, Peter Hamilton’s and Alastair Reynolds’s novel debuts post-date 1987.]

As luck would have it the inestimable David Garnett soon began to make encouraging noises about the short stories I was sending him, hoping to get into, at first Zenith, and then New Worlds.

I finally fully clicked with him when I sent The Face Of The Waters, whose manuscript he red-penned everywhere. By doing that, though, he nevertheless turned me into a writer overnight and the much longer rewrite was immeasurably improved. (He didn’t need to sound quite so surprised that I’d made a good job of it, though.)

That one was straightforward SF which could have been written by anyone. Next, though, he accepted This Is The Road (even if he asked me to change its title rather than use the one I had chosen) which was thematically Scottish. I also managed to sneak Closing Time into the pages of the David Pringle edited Interzone – after the most grudging acceptance letter I’ve ever had. That one was set in Glasgow though the location was not germane to the plot. The idea was to alternate Scottish SF stories with ones not so specific but that soon petered out.

The novel I had embarked on was of course A Son Of The Rock and it was David Garnett who put me in touch with Orbit. On the basis of the first half of it they showed interest.

Six months on, at the first Glasgow Worldcon,* 1995, Ken MacLeod’s Star Fraction appeared. Another Scottish SF writer. More Space Opera with a non right wing slant. A month or so later I finally finished A Son Of The Rock, sent it off and crossed my fingers. It was published eighteen months afterwards.

I think I succeeded in my aim. The Northern Irish author Ian McDonald (whose first novel Desolation Road appeared in 1988) in any case blurbed it as “a rara avis, a truly Scottish SF novel” and there is a sense in which A Son Of The Rock was actually a State Of Scotland novel disguised as SF.

Unfortunately the editor who accepted it (a man who, while English, bears the impeccably Scottish sounding name of Colin Murray) moved on and his successor wasn’t so sympathetic to my next effort – even if Who Changes Not isn’t Scottish SF in the same uncompromising way. It is only Scottish obliquely.

So; is there now a distinctive beast that can be described as Scottish Science Fiction? With the recent emergence of a wheen of Scottish writers in the speculative field there may at last be a critical mass which allows a judgement.

Banks’s Culture novels can be seen as set in a socialist utopia. Ken MacLeod has explicitly explored left wing perspectives in his SF and, moreover, used Scotland as a setting. Hal Duncan has encompassed – even transcended – all the genres of the fantastic in the two volumes of The Book Of All Hours, Alan Campbell constructed a dark fantastical nightmare of a world in The Deepgate Codex books. Gary Gibson says he writes fiction pure and simple and admits of no national characteristics to his work – but it is Space Opera – while Mike Cobley is no Scot Nat (even if The Seeds Of Earth does have “Scots in Spa-a-a-ce.”)

My answer?

Probably not, even though putative practitioners are more numerous now – especially if we include fantasy. For these are separate writers doing their separate things. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether they have over-arching themes or are in any way comparable.

PS. Curiously, on the Fantastic Fiction website, Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds are flagged as British – as are Bob Shaw, Ian McDonald, Christopher Evans and Mike Cobley – while all the other Scottish authors I’ve mentioned are labelled “Scotland.” I don’t know what this information is trying to tell us.

*For anyone who hasn’t met the term, Science Fiction Conventions are known colloquially as Cons. There are loads of these every year, most pretty small and some quite specialised. The Worldcon is the most important, an annual SF convention with attendees from all over the globe. It’s usually held in the US but has been in Britain thrice (Glasgow 2, Brighton 1) and once in Japan, to my knowledge. The big annual British SF convention is known as Eastercon because it takes place over the Easter weekend.

Edited to add (6/6/2014):- Margaret Elphinstone should be added to the list above of Scottish authors of SF. Her first SF book The Incomer appeared from the Womens’ Press in 1987, the same year as Consider Phlebas, but I missed out on it then. My review is here.
See also my Scottish SF update.

Edited again to add (4/4/18) Elphinstone’s sequel to The Incomer is A Sparrow’s Flight which I reviewed here.

Nova War by Gary Gibson

Tor, 2009, 407p.

The usual caveat applies to this review.

This is the second adventure featuring Dakota Merrick; first introduced to us in Stealing Light (see link above.) We also meet our old friend – foe, really – Trader in Faecal Matter of Animals, one of the Shoal, a civilisation of water breathing creatures who dominate most of the human area of space and restrict access to it. (Another Shoal has the slightly more agreeable name Swimmer in Turbulent Currents.)

The title Nova War is a bit of a misnomer as the greater part of the book concerns Dakota’s travails in escaping (or not) from the clutches of various Hives of Bandati – winged, social-insect type creatures by whom she is imprisoned when the book starts. It is not till later (and mostly off-stage) that any interplanetary conflict occurs.

The earlier sections at first seemed to be symptomatic of middle-part-of-trilogy malaise but once Dakota is free of the Hives the action picks up. Dakota also comes into conflict with the Shoal’s main adversaries the Emissaries, an elephantine race with a peculiar religious obsession and extremely loud voices, who were only given brief mentions in the previous book.

While Gibson mostly avoids the troubles inherent in a sequel of telling us once more of prior events – more or less by the commendable expedient of ignoring any need to do so – there is a deal of info dumping and some episodes tend to be related rather than revealed. Also, the relaying of simultaneous events occurring to different characters is sometimes out of kilter.

Nova War, while depicting less overt violence than the previous volume in the sequence, keeps the pot set up in Stealing Light boiling nicely.

The third book of the Shoal sequence, Empire Of Light, comes out later this year.

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