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SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (iv)

The remainder of my larger SF paperbacks. These are on the lower shelves of the old music cupboard. Looking at these photos two of the books seem to have wriggled away from alphabetical order. (I’ve fixed that now.)

Stanisław Lem, Ken Macleod, Cixin Liu, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian McDonald:-

Large Paperback Science Fiction

China Miéville, a Tim Powers, Christopher Priest:-

SF Large Paperback Books

Alastair Reynolds, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad:-

Science Fiction Large Paperbacks

Lavie Tidhar, Kurt Vonnegut, Gene Wolfe, Ian Watson, Roger Zelazny, (well half of one is):-

SF Books, Large Paperbacks

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (ii)

Large SF paperbacks this week for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.

I keep these in an old music cupboard I inherited from my great-uncle. I’ve got so many of these they have to be double-parked, so you can’t actually see the first and third shelves shown here when the cupboard is opened. Stacking some on their sides gives me an extra 4 cm of space. Click on the photos to enlarge the pictures.

These include a J G Ballard, Iain M Banks, Chris Beckett, Eric Brown, Ursula Le Guin and Ian McDonald:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (i)

Annoyingly, even these large paperbacks do not all come in one size. The upright ones to the right here are smaller than the previous books. More McDonald, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robertson, Adam Roberts, Hannu Rajaniemi, a lesser Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (ii)

More Ballard, Banks, Beckett and Brown. Lavie Tidhar, Neil Williamson and another step down in size:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iii)

John Crowley, M John Harrison, Dave Hutchinson, Stanisław Lem:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iv)

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 347 p.

 The Violent Century cover

This is at once an unusual but also common tale, innovative in style but not so much in plot. (Then again, there are only supposed to be seven of those.) The narrative is conducted in large part via short, verbless sentences, sometimes only one or two words long, at times almost reading like a description of a film playing out before the reader’s eyes, telling us what we would be seeing on the screen. Now and then an authorial voice slides in, adopting the first person plural, as if the reader is a cinema audience relating the story to itself. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time from 1926 to the present day, allowing Tidhar’s characters to be active at various points in the unfolding of the violent mid- to late twentieth century, even the early twenty-first. Scene changes are akin to cinematic dissolves, though each is “captioned” with its time and place in its chapter heading. Throughout, direct speech is not set within quotation marks – which does lead to the occasional phrase requiring a reread.

The plot begins (and periodically unwinds) like an echo of le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Henry Fogg called in by his old oppo, Oblivion, to meet the Old Man, boss at his former employer, The Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, to be questioned about his past evasions.

The background is that sometime in 1932 Dr Joachim Vomacht pushed the button on his machine and unleashed a quantum wave. As a Dr Turing (Alan, we assume) tells the British altered, recruited to a training area in Devon, “To observe an event is to change it. On the quantum level. When Vomacht pressed the button, everything changed. The Vomacht wave was a probability wave. The wave made genetic changes at a subatomic level… For most the change was undetectable ….. But perhaps a few hundred became … you.” The changed, dubbed Übermenschen, have superpowers and are named appropriately. Fogg conjures fog out of the air or any smoke available, Oblivion destroys things, Spit conjures up and projects bullets from her mouth, Mr Blur … blurs, Tank is built like one, Mrs Tinkle can make time retrace itself. Corresponding Übermenschen exist in other countries. The US has Tigerman, the Green Gunman and Whirlwind; the Soviets, the Red Sickle and Rusalka; Germany, Schneesturm and Der Wolfsmann.

The crux of the plot is Sommertag, Vomacht’s daughter Klara, who can pass through doors into a perfect summer’s day, an attribute Fogg finds irresistible despite her being an enemy citizen when they meet. His defence is that, “‘It,’” (the Vomacht wave,) “‘fused into her somehow. It kept her pure.’”

Tidhar appears to have gone to great lengths to make sure that history in this story is unchanged from what the reader knows happened – apart from the appearance of rocket men on the Russian Front (unless this is a WW2 manifestation of which I had not previously heard, a singular unlikelihood) and the Potsdam Conference being held one year later than it was, still with Churchill attending rather than Attlee as it would have been in 1946 (and as it was for the latter part in 1945) – the rise of the Nazis, World War 2, the Cold War, Vietnam, September 11th all take place here as they did in our time. It is as if the comic books were true and those superheroes were present to take part in events but without affecting anything substantial, participants but not decisive.

One scene in Afghanistan involves Sheik Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden calling the changed ‘abominations’ while the Americans (who regard him as, “The rich spoiled son of a rich and powerful family…. Playing soldiers in the desert,”) are trying to use him against the Soviets – and thereby sow the seeds for the Twin Towers whirlwind. Of that 11th September our (plural) narrator tells us, “That day we look up to the sky and see the death of heroes.”

A Russian says, “We should have learned from your history. The British. Three wars and you lost every one. You can’t win a war here. You couldn’t, we can’t, and whoever comes after us is going to lose too. This land hates invaders,” and warns, “This bin Laden. This Saudi. Kill him now. Kill him when you have the chance, or he will turn on you.” Easy to say in a book published over ten years after an event but many did give out warnings at the time.

The Violent Century is admirably plotted and well paced, with an atmosphere of menace throughout, I’m puzzled as to why this wasn’t on any award shortlist for its year.

Pedant’s corner:- Antennas (antennae.) “Facing the bar counter are a row of barstools.” (Facing the bar counter is a row of barstools,) barkeep (not a British usage. We say ‘barman’ or maybe ‘landlord’,) “air separating into nitrogen and hydrogen” (that’s a neat trick, there’s very little hydrogen in air, only what is the relatively low proportion of air comprised of water vapour.) “None of us choose what we become” (None of us chooses,) King George IV (George VI, as he was correctly designated later,) “the moans reach a crescendo” (a climax perhaps; a crescendo is a build-up, not a culmination,) eldrich (eldritch,.) “None of them have been properly introduced yet” (None of them has been properly introduced.) “None of them are.” (None of them is,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) “none come” (none comes,) “do this hundreds of time” (of times.) “Millions more watched the ceremony around the world in a special broadcast by the BBC.” (Millions around the world watched the Coronation ? In 1953? Before communication satellites? I don’t think so.) “The only thing in motion are his eyes” (‘thing’ is singular so cannot have a plural verb form; ‘the only things in motion are his eyes,) Johnny Rivers’ (Rivers’s,) a missing question mark after “What do I know”, another question mark ought to replace a comma later on, “we’re not in the army here, Bob, Bob says, Yeah, yeah,” (a full stop instead of a comma after the first ‘Bob’) “Incoming!” (British troops do not shout this. They yell, ‘Take cover!) “Goddamned” (nor do British folk say this.)

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Tachyon, 2016, 277 p.

 Central Station cover

Central Station is a giant spaceport situated between Arab Jaffa and Jewish Tel Aviv. The incidents of the book occur under its shadow but the station itself is curiously absent from the narrative, we do not see inside it as such, it is merely a backdrop.

The book is filled with a multitude of Science-Fictional concepts, a kind of mind-vampire known as strigoi; robots yearning to be human; characters with augmentation; a third essential component of a human along with sperm and egg, the node seed, enabling people always to be in connection; a family, the Chongs, with memories passed on from generation to generation. The text is also sprinkled with references to previous works or authors of SF. There is an Elronite Centre for the Advancement of Humankind, mentions of Louis Wu, Jubjub birds, sandworms, the Up and Out, Mother Hitton, Shambleau, Glimmung, all of which will be decoded easily by aficionados. And the cover is not without its button-pushing charms.

The setting is a welcome antidote to the mainly US-centred concerns of the genre up to recent times and Tidhar deserves appreciation for championing SF from outwith the usual sources.

However, there is something disjointed about the book as a whole, no ongoing narrative drive, as there is little by way of plot. This is perhaps due to the book’s prior incarnation as a set of stories sharing the same milieu (and characters,) published in different outlets between 2011 and 2013 – with two original to these pages. This is not an objection that could be levelled at the same author’s Bookman Histories nor the other novels of his I have read, Osama and A Man Lies Dreaming, but it is a hindrance to full engagement with the text. There is, perhaps, just too much going on, not enough exploration or development of the individual ideas to give a completely satisfying whole.

He is an author to look for though.

Pedant’s corner:- On the map at the beginning; chryogenic (cryogenic.) Otherwise; Mama Jones’ (Mama Jones’s,) a missing full stop at the end of a piece of direct speech, automatons (strictly, automata,) Venusian Fly Trap (this being SF it might be Venusian but the earth-bound version is a Venus fly trap.) “She had hid” (she had hidden, plus a later instance of “had hid”,) sunk (sank,) a greengrocers’ (a greengrocer’s,) moyel (I’ve only seen this before as moyle,) “could convert food and drink into energy” (um; no. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; only transformed from one kind into another. Food and drink already contain [chemical] energy, bodies convert that to heat, movement, electricity etc as required,) lacrimal apparatus (lachrymal,) “a simulacra” (one of these is a simulacrum, several instances,) a full stop where a question mark was required, “reversed engineered” (reverse engineered,) mazal tov (several instances yet later is in the more familiar form “mazel tov”.)

Best of 2017

Fifteen novels make it onto this year’s list of the best I’ve read in the calendar year. In order of reading they were:-

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Untouchable by John Banville
Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

That’s six by women and nine by men. Six were SF or Fantasy, counting in The Underground Railroad, (seven if the Michael Chabon is included,) seven were by Scottish authors.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 268 p, plus 5 p Historical Notes, 9 p Endnotes and 1p Acknowledgements

 A Man Lies Dreaming cover

Before we plunge into the first chapter there is a framing device, “In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.” Then we enter the diary, from November 1939, of a private investigator who calls himself Wolf, a refugee to London from Germany after an event he describes as the Fall, before a passage in the third person relating ongoing events not described in Wolf’s diary. It very soon is apparent Wolf is a Nazi. “I don’t work for Jews,” he tells the woman who wishes to be his client. Moreover he once had an affair with his neice, Geli (who killed herself with his gun,) and then took up with “sweet, good-natured” Eva. This, in other words is Adolf Hitler, fallen on hard times. (That name though, does not appear on the page till very late in the book.) The woman is Isabella Rubenstein who wants to know the whereabouts of her sister Judith, supposedly smuggled out of a Germany led by the Communist Ernst Thälmann after the 1933 elections, but since disappeared. Altered history territory, then.

Except, it isn’t. The chapter ends with the framing device and the dreaming man is named as Shomer. The book continues with the noir thriller elements alternating Wolf’s diary entries with third person elements and every so often the framing device being reasserted. In this we learn Shomer was a writer of shund (a kind of pulp fiction) and the place he is dreaming in is Auschwitz, the real Auschwitz. So it appears it is Shomer who is telling Wolf’s tale, an exquisite revenge presumably since he inflicts pain on Wolf through the various beatings he receives throughout the thriller. Shomer also hallucinates a companion, Yenkl, partly, it seems, to give him some comfort.

It can also be considered a kind of revenge by Tidhar, who is an Israeli, and whose maternal grandparents were both Auschwitz survivors. (The rest of their families were not so fortunate.) This is the sort of subject matter which a non-Jew would have to treat with circumspection, if not avoid altogether. Tidhar has more licence in that regard.

Hitler has been treated before in SF of course, but not usually so directly – except perhaps for Fritz Leiber’s short story Catch That Zeppelin! and Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream part of which purports to be a novel written by a Hitler who emigrated to the US in 1919. The crazed nature of that narrative is not quite emulated here. If anything Wolf is relatively restrained in his ravings. That may be due to the necessity for a viewpoint character to be, at least, coherent.

An altered history would not be worthy of the name did we not meet the famous within and here – as well as Hitler – we duly encounter Oswald Mosley – soon to be a British Union of Fascists Prime Minister in Wolf’s world – his wife, Diana (Mitford,) and her sister Unity, whom Wolf knows as Valkyrie and has the hots for him. Various other Nazis pepper the plot, Rudolf Hess, Josef Kramer, Ilse Koch, Joseph and Magda Goebbels. Literary Brits pop up including Ian Fleming, Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh. Tidhar’s tendency to gild the lily was exemplified here at a publisher’s party (the publisher concerned had, of course, turned down My Struggle,) when Wolf re-encounters Leni Riefenstahl, now working in the US, and she relates to him a plot – to be written by F Scott Fitzgerald as a sequel to The Great Gatsby – for a projected film starring Humphrey Bogart as Gatsby, owner of a bar in North Africa when Daisy Buchanan walks back into his life. The film is to be called Tangier, though, not Casablanca.

There is, too, a Constable Keech. I wondered mildly if Tidhar was aware of what this word signifies for Scots. For myself, I could not avoid the inference.

A Wilfred Owen reference occurs in Wolf’s Great War reminiscences of being blinded and I must confess I liked the conflation, “It is a truth universally acknowledged , that once a detective acquires two concurrent cases , the two must be in some way related,” but I’m not sure about the odd scene where Wolf dreams he is in what is obviously, to us, Auschwitz. Then again, he tells the Chief Inspector who had interrogated him about the murders of prostitutes outside his office, “‘You Jews spend far too much time in your own imagination.’”

This could have been powerful stuff but there is something unbalanced about it all. The scenes in Auschwitz are compelling (but did they still require Sonderkommando to dig graves after the ovens came into operation?) and moving. However, they occupy far too few pages. It is Wolf’s tale which dominates. And that is too trifling to carry the weight thrust upon it by the overall concept.

Pedant’s corner:- USianisms abound. For a story mainly set in late 1930s London that is an added barrier to suspension of disbelief. We had purse for handbag, down-at-the-heels for down at heel, nightstand for bedside table, inside of for inside, ruckus for racket, nightstick – in the 1930s British policemen had truncheons, whiskey (whisky,) airplanes (aeroplanes,) bums used by an Englishwoman as a term for a ne’erdowell (not a chance,) beat-up (beaten-up,) the car’s hood (the car’s bonnet.)

Otherwise there was maw (it’s a stomach not a mouth,) “‘What are you looking at,’ he said’” (ought to have a question mark after at,) Mosleys’s (x2, the correct Mosleys’ was used once,) “the past was …. threatening to catch up to him” (to catch up with him,) tenements (does London have tenements?) sunk (sank,) “none … were” (none was,) “one table was covered in vegetarian dishes from an Indian-style curry to Italian lasagne and British shepherd’s pie” (lasagne and shepherd’s pie would never be vegetarian in the 1930s,) “and sat two tables away from Goodman. He tried to listen to their conversation” (his conversation surely?) ears perked (ears pricked is more usual.) “Her bosoms were immense” (no-one has more than one bosom.) “They put me in a cell again.” (They’d,) “‘Are you,’ I said,” (question mark, not comma, after “you”, “and he gives him with a cursory glance and his diagnosis,” (and he gives him with a cursory glance his diagnosis,) “before immigration out of Germany became impossible” (you cannot immigrate out of a country,) Goebbels misspelled once as Goebbles, “the back of my hands” (technically that would be backs, then,) detached of space and time (detached from,) a red phone box (what other colour would it be? He wasn’t in Hull,) fireworks (on 22nd November? (They were apparently to celebrate the General Election. Not in Britain.) Mosley declares victory on the stroke of midnight of election day. The votes would not all have been counted by then; probably not till the next day back then. He uses the phrase nineteen hundred hours, a military one, not one a politician would employ when addressing a crowd. His first act as the new Prime Minister is to declare war – because Germany has invaded Poland – then martial law (I doubt that last could have been done so readily.) Imposter (impostor.) Wolf describes Charlie Chaplin as “that vile man,” (his lampooning of Hitler did not come till 1940 in our world and would perhaps not have been necessary in Wolf’s.) “The sound the drawer had made … sounded very loud to him” (“the sound sounded” is inelegant, use a different noun; rattle? scrape? noise?) the limelight (of a spotlight, which could be moved? Limelights were fixed in position,) “he always had much respect for the German soldiers,” (lots of respect,) a row work (a row works,) exodii (used in the context of people making an exodus. Is this an invention by Tidhar?)

The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published 2012.

 The Great Game cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the third in Tidhar’s Bookman Histories wherein Les Lézards were roused from their Caribbean island by Vespucci’s trip to the New World and subsequently became monarchs of Great Britain. See my reviews here and here. It is again to Tidhar’s credit that familiarity with either of the two previous books is not necessary to follow events in this one as it stands alone quite easily.

It’s all a very readable romp, a steampunk/altered history mash-up but Tidhar again goes over the top with his references. One of the joys of altered history is seeing familiar names in situations for which they are not best known but he really does take it too far with this one – among the characters from literature we have Mycroft Holmes (and his brother, retired to the village of St Mary Mead [where a busybody twitches her curtains] not to mention Irene Adler) we have a hunchback named Q who lives in Notre Dame cathedral, a scientist called Moreau exiled to a Pacific island, Van Helsing, a Miss Havisham, a thiefmaster called Fagin and his pickpocket protégé Oliver Twist, a Doctor Victor Frankenstein, Harry Flashman. And at the novel’s climax tripods begin to devastate – okay it wasn’t London – Paris. Real life intruders into the story include the Mechanical Turk, Karl May, Harry Houdini, Bram Stoker, Jack London, Charles Babbage and Friedrich Alfred Krupp.. Of a Dickens’ book in three volumes an unnamed character observes, “You should never write a third volume.” Perhaps Tidhar was commenting on his own situation as in his afterword he says publisher Angry Robot asked him for two more novels after accepting The Bookman.

Hokum, but entertaining, a plot summary would be fatuous, as well as sounding mad.

A quibble. The first lizard-king was Henry VII, followed by another Henry, an Edward, and later the great Gloriana. How come then they ended up in the timeline of the novel with a lizard Queen Victoria? Our Queen Victoria was descended primarily from Hanoverians, not Tudors. Why would the naming of lizard-monarchs follow that of the real world?

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the omnibus volume; “I wanted to tribute the wuxia tropes” (pay tribute to.) Elsewhere; “eThe last one” (typo; The,) Market Blandings’ (Market Blandings’s,) “who often said a ‘Honesty is a gun’” (said a ‘Honesty’? surely “said ‘Honesty is a gun.’”) “There are a number” (There is a number,) not to be found on the British Isles (“in the British Isles” is the more usual formulation,) “that only now he was beginning to identify” (that only now was he beginning to identify is more common syntax,) automatons (many occurrences – it’s an acceptable spelling but stick to it; there were also at least four instances of automata,) snuck (a London street boy of the time would have said sneaked,) her team were outnumbered (her team was outnumbered,) mortician (USian, we British say undertaker,) “Something to scare children by” (“to scare children with” makes more sense.) “They sat and sipped their drink,” (drinks, I think. They weren’t sharing the one cup,) then the one in Europe (than the one in Europe,) “one… being…. who had made it their life’s ambition” (a singular being; so, its life’s ambition,) Paris’ (Paris’s,) had showed up (shown up,) “undistinguished from his cover story” (indistinguishable from his cover story,) “like that persistent feel that she was being followed” (okay, the author uses feeling two lines later and maybe wanted to avoid complete repetition but it’s still awkward.) “But no one was going to act until the airship had landed, safely. Weren’t they?” (should be “Were they?”) as for the recipe (as to,) “in a rather quite threatening manner” (choose from ‘in rather a’, ‘in quite a’ or ’in a quite’ not ‘a rather quite’,) sat (sitting, or seated,) “running down a narrow mountain pass that led upwards” (???) “the sound of motors sounded” (use another verb?) Vlad epe ? (remove gap before the question mark,) “moving, now that he knew to look for it, moving in a single direction” (second “moving” not necessary,) a vast antennae (antenna,) taking no mind (taking no heed; or, paying no mind,) “Van Helsing, rode shotgun” (no comma required,) all manners of (all manner of,) had indeed deducted the observer’s arrival (deduced,) Mr Spoons’ (Mr Spoons’s,) no full stop at the end of chapter forty-six, a simulacra (a simulacrum,) “he’d brought his own people in” (he’s brought.) “There was a string of miniature model cars strung together” (use a different verb, coupled?) “paid her no mind” (“no heed” sounds more natural,) there is much work to do (lots of work,) Victoria Rex (Victoria Regina.)

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published in 2010.

 The Bookman cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the first of Tidhar’s “Bookman” trilogy (original book cover left) and constitutes steampunk at its flashiest. Amerigo Vespucci’s trip to the New World – here known as Vespuccia – has aroused a set of marooned extraterrestrial lizards, Les Lézards, who have since taken over the throne of Great Britain but been thrown out of France.

Our hero is Orphan (he knows no other name) and the plot is kicked off with a pair of exploding books, one of which kills Orphan’s girl-friend, Lucy, to whom he was newly engaged. He is drawn into a web of intrigue laid by the enigmatic Bookman by the implication that she is not dead – or at least he can be reunited with a version of her. The action ranges from a Victorian London to the Caribbean – where Caliban’s island of Les Lézards is located (and where he discovers his true lineage) – back again to London and finally to Oxford.

Now, one of the joys of altered history is the chance to encounter well-known names – real or otherwise – in unfamiliar settings but, really, Tidhar throws the kitchen sink at it. Apart from frequent sly allusions, we meet not only newspaper reports from Rudyard Kipling but Persons from Porlock; and Henry Irving, Beerbohm Tree, Mrs Beeton, Jules Verne – plus his ship (and submarine Nautilus, what else?) Not to mention, among others, body snatchers, the Mechanical Turk, Karl Marx, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft and Moriarty – who is Prime Minister no less. We also encounter various simulacra, pirates (with keel-hauling, plank-walking and all) that mysterious island, an interplanetary probe (which is actually potentially more sinister) and a vast hidden library. Breathless isn’t the word.

Had I not already read the second book in the series, the much better Camera Obscura, I would perhaps not have bothered doing so on this evidence. But I have the third in this volume, The Great Game, still to go, so I will get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the three collected books “it was the obvious end for the arc began by Orphan’s choice” (begun.)
Otherwise:- to go see her (to go to see her – or just “to see her”,) “no sooner had Maskelyne departed that the door chimed again” (than the door chimed,) overlaying the grief (overlying,) “his face were strangely peaceful” (was,) indistin-guishable not at a line break, “bound with Les Lézard” (Les Lézards,) whiskey (whisky,) “he left his drink on the table besides Jack’s glass” (beside,) automatons (automata,) “at the bottom off…” (of, surely?) Gibbons’ (Gibbons’s,) go see it (go to see it,) flamingos (flamingoes?) “from his momentary surprised” (surprise,) “us humans need to stick together” (“us need to”? That would be we humans,) outside of (outside; no “of” necessary, though “outside” appeared two more times in that same five line paragraph,) sail-ships (sailing ships,) the Nautilus’ deck (Nautilus’s, a page later Moses’s was fine but one more page on we had Aramis’,) “like the unmixed paint on an artist’s palate” (did the artist mix the paint by mouth, then? Palette that would be,) “not sure what he had let himself into” (not sure what he had got himself into; or, not sure what he had let himself in for,) the King of England (yes, but also the Empire,) the fungi (it was singular; so fungus,) “he felt exulted” (exultant, I think,) “you knew were you were with them” (where you were,) “Orphan was glad for that” (glad of that,) a group of men… were standing (a group was standing.)

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

We See a Different Frontier: a post-colonial speculative fiction anthology edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, 2013, 213 p. Reviewed for Interzone 249, Nov-Dec 2013.

By and large the language of Science Fiction has always been English, its explorations of other worlds in the main tending to describe their exploitation. In literature (as in life) humans have generally gone off planet to seek things, either knowledge or possessions – and damn any natives. Long past time for a corrective? A “straight, white, cis, male” might feel loth to comment.

The Arrangement of Their Parts by Shweta Naryan is a partly fabular tale of clockwork animals taken to pieces by an Englishman and the Artificer Diva who stands up to him.

The delightfully titled but pulpy Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus by Ernest Hogan tells how with the help of Nicola Tesla’s death ray Alejandro Sahagún replaces Pancho Villa and sets out to recover his sweetheart, abducted by Hollywood producers. While a slight tale this nevertheless rightly fingers Hollywood as the centre of cultural colonialism.

Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Aliens in iridescent spacehips have taken over Earth. Our (unnamed) narrator, a former street scavenger, wonders why his cell-mate – the once privileged Leonardo – would want to escape what he regards as a cosseted life.

In J Y Yang’s Old Domes Jing-Li is a cullmaster, charged with despatching guardians – the personifications of buildings – before their renovation. The guardian of Singapore’s Supreme Court is unwilling to go quietly.

Fabio Fernandes’s The Gambiarra Method reads a bit like a 1950s magazine story. Time travel is discovered in 2077. By accident. In anti-gravitational lifts with an attached post-virtual environment. The mechanism is investigated using the Gambiarra method – how to do things with whatever is at hand.

Riya in A Bridge of Words by Dinesh Rao has spent most of her life in Krashnigar, the former colonial power. She is now involved in a project to decipher the tattoos of the Thuri, one of the two sects of her ancestral homeland. Over this world hangs a mysterious red spaceship broadcasting an unchanging coded message.

Droplet by Rahul Kanakia. Subhir has lived in India after his parents took him there from his childhood home in California to avoid the ever worsening drought conditions. On his return to the US he finds out what really happened.

In Joyce Chng’s Lotus most of the Earth is covered in water after an event called the Washing. Landers fight fiercely to hold on to their territories while boaters roam the Waterways, exchanging and bartering. Boater Cecily and her partner Si one day come upon a source of precious drinkable water and food, giving them a moral dilemma.

Lavie Tidhar’s Dark Continents* envisages several different ways in which the past two centuries of Jewish history could have worked themselves out. These include forging a disputed homeland in Africa, intervention in the US Civil War and a peaceful integration into Palestine.

A Heap of Broken Things* by Sonny Moraine features a planet lit by two suns, where human colonists carried out a massacre a generation before. A local tour guide is confronted with that inheritance.

Sandra McDonald’s Fleet* is set a generation after the Night of Fire when solar megaflares destroyed all electronic communication. The people of a Pacific island forge their future in isolation.

Remembering Turinam by N A Ratnyake. A scholar from a defeated people whose language and culture have been oppressed, all but forgotten, returns to his capital city to speak with his grandfather, the last remaining witness to the old days.

Sofia Samatar’s I Stole the DC’s Eyeglass is the story of Pai-te and her sister Minisare who has a spirit-eye and builds a beast of iron as a gesture of “defiance honour, dawn, tomorrow.”

Vector by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. In a US dominated Thailand where no-one has dark hair anymore, nor speaks Thai, a woman’s body has been turned into a viral weapon, both disease and vector, to undo the changes.

In Gabriel Murray’s Forests of the Night* the illegitimate son of the ex-colonial Captain Lyons, brought to Yorkshire to act as his father’s valet, dreams of the tiger that is stalking the local neighbourhood.

What Really Happened in Ficandula by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. A cultural misunderstanding leads to deaths and reprisals the memories of which are kept alive by the female descendants of the colonised as they themselves head for a new planet.

This collection illustrates how language, or its suppression, has been a primary tool of colonialism on Earth. There is irony, then, that, as Ekaterina Sedia’s afterword notes, all these stories were written in US English. (Double irony when the word “veterinarian” is depicted as being employed by a Yorkshireman.) Yet the theme of resistance, the keeping of traditions, shines through. Under the circumstances resistance becomes necessary.

As with most anthologies the standard can be uneven, but each story works as speculative fiction; and four (asterisked in this blog post) are very good indeed.

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