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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.)

Top Ten Space Operas

Another list.

According to Wikipedia “Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.”

Partly as a comment on the sub-genre and also as an attempt to subvert it I provided my own novel A Son of the Rock with the tagline “A Space Libretto” mainly because – while it roamed the spaceways and deployed technology – advanced abilities and weapons were largely, if not completely, absent.

As to Space Opera itself, Gareth Powell has posted a list of what he considers a Top Ten of Space Operas on his website. It leans heavily towards relatively recent works.

As you can see I’ve read all but three of them.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Space by Stephen Baxter
Excession by Iain M. Banks

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 210 p (+ v page introduction by Ursula Le Guin.) © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 1972. Translated from the Russian Piknik na obochine by Olena Bormashenko.

This novel is apparently the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based. Not that I’ve ever seen it, I don’t go out of my way to view SF in its moving picture formats, either in film or television.

 Roadside Picnic cover

Aliens have come – and gone; their landing sites spaced over the Earth in a perfect curve. Each of those Zones is deserted, a repository of hell slime, death lamps, shriekers, black sparks, lobster eyes, rattling napkins and strange containers known as empties; not to mention the elusive Golden Sphere, said to grant human wishes. Stalkers illegally brave the dangers to retrieve Zone artefacts for the money they will bring. Scientific institutes study these to try to find uses for them – or even what they are. The scientists studying it are more scared than the rest of the populace because they understand how much they don’t understand. As one of the characters points out, such attempts to gain insight suffer from the flawed assumption that an alien race would be psychologically human. We don’t know what intelligence is; it can’t be defined. In the same conversation the possibility is raised of the stuff in the zone being just detritus, left behind after the aliens merely stopped for a picnic.

Yet the Zone has effects beyond itself. Despite there being no detectable radiation nor mutagens in the Zones, Stalker’s children have weird mutations, emigrants from the areas that became the Zones seem to cause disasters of various sorts in their new locations; corpses are reanimated, the dead return to their homes.

The book follows the evolution of stalking over a few years from an individual – or perhaps team – pursuit to remote probing by robots mainly through the experiences of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker in Harmont, which seems to be in the USA (a father aspires for his son to be President one day.) In our first foray into the Zone the descriptions of its outer edge are eerily premonitory of Chernobyl, its strangeness also prefigures the event site in M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In the concluding section Schuhart muses while finally seeking out the Golden Sphere, “What man is born for I have no idea.”

There is a temptation either – as according to Ursula Le Guin’s introduction many US SF writers did – to consider any Soviet era fiction to be ideologically based or else to see it as critiquing the system in which it originated. (US writers of course could not possibly be subject to either of these strictures themselves.)

In an afterword Boris Strugatsky says of the brothers’ battles with Soviet editors that (the editors) thought language had to be as colourless, smooth and glassy as possible and certainly not coarse; that SF had to be fantastic and have nothing to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; the reader must be protected from reality. Unsurprisingly you might think, I’m with the Strugatskys on this one.

Roadside Picnic, even forty years after its conception, still stands out as a compelling piece of written SF, well worth its inclusion as a Masterwork. As I hinted earlier its influence can be traced down through the years but merely imagining this scenario as written by a US practitioner of the genre – where a military sensibility may have prevailed instead – underscores its subtlety.

The otherwise excellent translation is into a robust USian: fair enough given its apparent setting but a few infelicities intruded:- “had probably stuck his freckled mug inside, frowned, and went off.” “(His face) hurt. His nose was swollen but his eyebrows and eyebrows were intact.” A “lighting” bolt.

Signs of Life by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1997, 246 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

Mick Rose (nicknamed China,) nearly fifty, is picked up by much younger waitress Isobel Avens in the café at “the busy little toy aerodrome they have outside the town” of Stratford-on-Avon while he is on a delivery run. He and his mate, Choe Ashton, (pronounced as in Joey) operate a courier business transporting hazardous/biological materials. Within a month or two Isobel has moved to London to live with Mick/China. The novel charts the ups and downs of Mick/China’s relationships with the other two. Rose is the most grounded of the three, Choe has sociopathic tendencies and Isobel wants to fly – not in an aeroplane, but literally. China’s friendship with Choe begins to breakdown when they meet US citizen Ed Cesniak on a trip to Prague, that with Isobel when she does a delivery for him and meets a medical researcher.

The book is in essence a love story but a love story skewed by Harrison’s perennial leanings towards the strange. While starting realistically enough – one might almost say banally; but Harrison’s writing is never banal – by the end we have by degrees shelved over into SF or fantasy territory by way of recombinant DNA, gene alteration and other weird bits along the way. This last is to give a false impression of the book as it reads for the most part as a straightforward mainstream novel, almost Banksian at times but still unmistakably Harrisonian and very good.

Best of the Year

It’s traditional at this season of the year to list what has most impressed over the past twelve or so months. Except I’ve only done it once before. Twelve months ago.

Once again I find ten books stood out over the year.

In order of reading they were:-

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Empty Space by M John Harrison
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Spin by Nina Allan
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

4 are translations, 4 are SF*, 3 are by women. Make of that what you will.

*If you count the last section of Girl Reading, that would be 4 and a bit.

Clarke Award Shortlist

Last year it was Chris Priest who incited controversy over the Clarke Award, this year it seems to be the judges themselves – for not including a book by a woman on their shortlist.

The contending books are:-

Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)*
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)*
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)*

I’ve read the last two of these and Dark Eden is on the TBR pile.

The overlap with this year’s BSFA Awards novel short list is strong (asterisked titles) but only 2312 is also up for the Hugo.

I’m a bit surprised that M John Harrison’s Empty Space didn’t make the list, it’s the sort of book that Clarke Award juries tend to like.

Empty Space by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 2012, 302 p. Reviewed for Interzone 243, Nov-Dec 2012.

Empty Space cover

Sub-titled on the cover and the main title page as “€œA Haunting,” Empty Space follows on and amplifies the universe Harrison constructed with his novel Light and continued in Nova Swing.

In early twenty first century London, Anna Waterman, obsessed by the memory of her first husband Mike Kearney, shuttles in an affectless way between her psychologist Helen Alpert, her daughter Marnie and other rather shiftless denizens of her world. Every so often on her night strolls she imagines her summerhouse is on fire.

In Saudade City, on the planet Saudade, overshadowed by the lurking strangeness of the astronomical anomaly called the Kefahuchi Tract, riddled by its impossible physics, Enka Mercury and Toni Reno are bizarrely murdered to the sound of a disembodied voice saying, “My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.” Their bodies hang suspended, rotating and slowly disappearing. An unnamed police assistant with data scrolling down her arm helps investigate the crimes.

R I Gaines is struggling to make sense of the mysterious apparition known as the Aleph, the figure of a woman contorted in an awkward way (and mysteriously accompanied by a cat) and who may bear some sort of relation to the Tract.

Meanwhile Fat Antoyne, who is no longer fat, and Liv Hula, undertake a commission from the elusive M P Renoko to transport odd containers called mortsafes in their spaceship “€œNova Swing.”€

Many of these characters are familiar from Light and Nova Swing but here Harrison extends and refines their relationships.

The Waterman sections of Empty Space, at least in the early stages, are related in what seems a straightforward mainstream prose and are at odds with the SF elements – which are as jargon-filled as any devotee could wish. But this highlights a problem.

The trouble with “€˜six impossible things before breakfast”€™ scenarios, with impossible physics, is that if nothing is explicable, if things just happen, then nothing means anything – or everything. When chains of causation are lost narrative becomes problematic and the trust between writer and reader can be undermined.

While considering the Aleph one of Harrison’€™s characters muses that the universe is “€œa useless analogy for an unrepresentative state.”€ This could, though, be a description of the novel Empty Space itself as Harrison is attempting a literary description of that unrepresentativeness, with all the cognitive dissonance that implies.

What redeems the book is Harrison’€™s prose; which sweeps grandly along, his descriptive powers manifest, the Waterman sections being the most flowing, apparently effortless.

Nevertheless; that Harrison in the end brings all the strands together – thus also resolving the whole of his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – comes as something of a release – and relief. The connections between the various types of haunting are finally made; though they are more than a little strained. Maybe even impossible: for the strangenesses around Saudade and the wrongness of the Tract physics remain pretty much unresolved.

Still, Harrison devotees and those who loved Light and Nova Swing will find Empty Space a notable conclusion.

BSFA Awards 2012

The BSFA Award shortlist for stories published in 2012 has been announced.

For best novel we have:-

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)

Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit.)

Unusually I have read three out of the five already, two of those courtesy of Interzone and its kind reviews editor. Thank you, Jim.

My views on 2312 I posted on this blog only two days ago. Those on Empty Space will be forthcoming.

Intrusion I reviewed here.

As for the short stories I have read only one of them so far, the last on this list; and very good it was too.

Three others, though, are available to read on the net. Doubtless the BSFA will be producing its usual booklet.

Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld no. 69)

The Flight of the Ravens by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)

Song of the body Cartographer by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)

Limited Edition by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

Interzone 243

Jim Steel’s blog has reported that Interzone 243 is out imminently. This is the issue that contains my review of M John Harrison’s Empty Space.

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