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SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (v)

(This week’s edition for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.)

These are all small-sized SF paperbacks. By small I mean the size all paperbacks used to be back in the day – before publishers realised they could charge a higher price for larger editions and they aspired to the status of hardbacks.

In our old house all my paperback SF was shelved in one room – on shelving specially built for the purpose. When we moved to Son of the Rock Acres there was no space for them in the house. Hence these are stored in the garage; to accomodate them they are double parked on each shelf, which is why they seem to start at Ballard and jump from Bester to Bishop, and Dick to Garnett.

Lots of goodies here: Eric Brown, John Brunner, Michael G Coney, Philip K Dick, Mary Gentle, Colin Greenland. If you look closely you’ll even see some Harlan Ellison peeping through at the back on the bottom shelf.

Science Fiction Paperbacks

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle

BCA, 2003, 603 p.

 1610: A Sundial in a Grave cover

Valentin Raoul Rochefort is a duellist, even though it is illegal, and a spy for the Duc de Sully, who in turn is right hand man to Henri IV of France. In order to protect his patron he is suborned by Henri’s wife Marie de Medici into procuring the King’s assassination. He means to fail by hiring an incompetent to carry out the killing but by chance the assassination succeeds and Rochefort is forced to flee. In attempting to make his escape he encounters a M. Dariole who had previously humiliated him in a duel. As a result of a further defeat (and a sexual humiliation) Rochefort and Dariole end up travelling together. The sparring between Rochefort and Dariole is of the verbal as well as the fencing kind. On a beach in Normandy they rescue a shipwrecked man, Tanaka Saburo, the only survivor of an embassy from the Shogun of the Japans to King James I (of England) and VI of Scotland. Saburo immediately sees M Dariole is in fact a woman. She is Arcadie Fleurimonde Henriette de Montargis de la Roncière, runaway from a premature marriage and much more at home as a sword wielder.

In London the three come under the influence of Robert Fludd – a historical figure here a practitioner of the Nolan Formulae learned from Giordano Bruno who can therefore calculate the future and who wishes (in order to create conditions so that humankind might prevent the impact of a destructive comet in 500 years’ time) to replace King James with his son Henry, Prince of Wales, and asks Rochefort to devise a plan to kill the King. The plan having been deliberately sabotaged with the help of another of Bruno’s disciples and spymaster Robert Cecil many further adventures ensue (including a trip to the Japans) before events are set on a more familiar keel with Prince Henry’s fatal swim in the Thames. We also meet in these pages Armand Jean du Plessis, to whose career our heroes give a boost.

We are presented all this as a found manuscript of Rochefort’s memoirs, partly burned and reconstructed via computer image-enhancement. It is perhaps too convenient that other accounts found in the same box, an extract from the cipher journal of Robert Fludd, two excerpts from Saburo’s report to the Shogun, an account of Roncière’s rape when captive by Fludd, fragments of a play by poet Aemilia Lanier, Roncière’s reflections from old age, so precisely fill in the gaps in Rochefort’s, though the “translator’s note” at the beginning states they are included for that purpose.

For all its glorying in the details of everyday life in the early 17th century (the black mud of Paris, the unwashed state of westerners, the fiddly business of clothing,) the minutiae of sword fighting – and the concomitant outpourings of blood and death – the toying with matters of history, the brushes with hermeticism, in the end this is a love story, peopled with eminently believable characters, replete with human passions, flaws, desires and misunderstandings.

Aside: I find it interesting that since 2000 Gentle has taken to setting her stories in the past (or alternative pasts Ash: A Secret History, Black Opera.) Is there something about the future or the present that she finds inimical to sweeping storytelling?

Pedant’s corner:- de Vernyes’ companion (de Vernyes’s,) laying (lying; also lay for lie, multiple instances,) sunk (sank; ditto,) swum (swam,) “I am not used to be manhandled” (being,) one instance of “amn’t I?” “No woman neither.” (The no is already a negation so “no woman either,”) “ought else” (aught, several instances,) Neopolitan (Neapolitan – which appeared later,) swum (swam,) one instance of Fontainebleu (Fontainebleau occurs elsewhere,) “cowardice on his own behalf” (on his part makes more sense,) Louis Capet (this is usually used to denote Louis XVI after his dethronement in the French Revolution – nearly 200 years after the events of this novel – but since all later French Kings were descended from the first Capetian, known as Hugh Capet, I suppose it may have been a common epithet,) I thought Bedlam might have been another possible anachronism but it seems the word did enter everyday speech in Jacobean times as a synonym for chaos, wernt (went,) Prince of Wales’ (Prince of Wales’s,) “All men do not travel in groups, with firearms” (Not all men travel in groups.)

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.

 Ash cover

The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.

It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.

Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.

All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.

So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.

That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.

The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.

I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.

Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)

Grunts! by Mary Gentle: a fantasy with attitude

Corgi, 1993, 480 p.

Grunts! cover

This is a kind of mash-up fantasy/SF cross-breed featuring dragons, trolls, orcs, Undead, kobolds, Men (male Men and female Men,) dwarves, elves and halflings, Lords of Light and Dark, taverns, whores, thieves, aristocrats and of course magic, but also Raybans, M16s, AK47s, Huey helicopters, APCs and T54 Battle Tanks. Oh, and space travelling Hive-Mind Bugs who grow weapons not only from their own bodies but also spaceships from sea serpents. And for a final flourish, portals between worlds.

The fun starts after the Last Battle between Good and Evil, when the defeated Dark Lord’s loyal orcs are looking for something to do, come across a hoard of hi-tech weapons and transform themselves into a force to be reckoned with; marines in a word.

Well, I say fun, but it takes a precious long time for Grunts to distinguish itself sufficiently from any other militaristically inclined, mayhem-scarred, blood-soaked SF or mediævally tinged fantasy to make the reading not a chore. It does so eventually – for me, about two thirds of the way through – and is larded with a fair number of good jokes, some elaborately set up, which lighten things a bit, the journalist named Perdita Del Verro being a case in point.

Despite its inherent absurdity Gentle does make it all work after a fashion and clearly she had fun in the writing (it is far removed from her usual serious style) but it goes on too long and I question its utility.

Grunts is meant to be light-hearted and a swipe at the mind-set that glories in war and weaponry but like one of its antecedents, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (an altered world fantasy supposedly written by an Adolf Hitler who never became a successful German politician,) has to indulge in the same attitudes as it is satirising. I doubt anyone who enjoys the source material will have his – or her – mind changed by reading something like this, no matter how much fun it has poked at it.

Despatches From the Frontiers of the Female Mind edited by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu

The Women’s Press, 1985, 248 p.

Despatches From the Frontiers of the Female Mind

This is an anthology from a time when it was thought there had to be a Women’s Press and a collection of SF stories by women writers only. Given the relative rarity, still, of published SF written by women – though the barriers are no longer so high and the practitioners are at least on a par with and often surpass their male counterparts – arguably the desideratum is as important now as it ever was. The avowedly feminist perspective, the didacticism, of a lot of these stories dates them though. Then again most SF from the 80s would be similarly dated.

Big Operation on Altair Three by Josephine Saxton
On a regressive colony world an advertising copywriter describes the unusual procedure devised to illustrate the extreme stability of a new car.

Spinning the Green by Margaret Elphinstone
A fairy tale. It even begins, “Once upon a time.” A treacle merchant on his way home from a convention encounters a group of green-clad women in a wood. They demand a price for the rose he has picked for his youngest daughter. Curiously this world has computers, televisions and round the world cruises but the merchant travels on horseback.

The Clichés from Outer Space by Joanna Russ
Satirises the portrayal of women in the typical slush-pile SF story of pre-enlightened times – like the 1980s – with four overwrought, overwritten examples. (As they no doubt were.)

The Intersection by Gwyneth Jones
Two space dwellers from an environment where privacy is impossible, “SERVE sees all, SERVE records all,” take a holiday to observe the indigs of the underworld. Bristling with acronyms and told rather than unfolded this is more an exercise in information dumping than a story as such. (And de rigeur ought to be spelled with a “u” after the “g”.)

Long Shift by Beverley Ireland
A woman who is employed to use her mind to demolish buildings safely is given a priority assignment monitoring a subsidence which turns out to be worse than expected.

Love Alters by Tanith Lee
Women only have babies with women, and men only with men. This is the right, the straight way to do it. Our female narrator is married to Jenny but then falls in love with someone else. A man.

Cyclops by Lannah Battley
A space-faring archaeologist discovers Earth was not the cradle of humanity by uncovering an ancient manuscript written by “Aeneas.” It has a clever explanation of why the Cyclops appeared to have one eye. The story’s balance is out of kilter, though.

Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire by Pamela Zoline
A remedy for the world’s ills involves the kidnapping, and resettlement, of children.

A Sun in the Attic by Mary Gentle
In Asaria, women take more than one husband. Roslin, head of House Mathury, is married to a pair of brothers one of whom has gone missing. The Port Council does not like his scientific investigations.

Atlantis 2045: no love between planets by Frances Gapper
In a repressive future society letters are too dangerous to write. Jene is a misfit, earning her family penalty points to the extent that they have her classified as a Social Invisible. Then one day her equally invisible aunt returns from being Ghosted.

From a Sinking Ship by Lisa Tuttle
Susannah works trying to communicate with dolphins. She is happier with them than with humans; so much so that she is unaware of the impending nuclear war. The dolphins understand the danger; and have an escape plan.

The Awakening by Pearlie McNeill
In a heavily polluted future world Lucy has doubts about her daughter’s participation in the Breeding Roster.

Words by Naomi Mitchison
Is about the inadequacy of language to describe new experiences – especially those induced by a device to stimulate brain synapses.

Relics by Zoë Fairbairns
A woman’s visit to a Greenham Common type peace camp is overtaken by the beginning of a nuclear war. She is placed in a freezing cabinet and woken decades later to be part of an exhibition illustrating her times. The future people get it hopelessly wrong of course.

Mab by Penny Castagli
A post-menopausal woman who takes a yoga class gives birth – from a lump on her head – to a tiny child. This apparently prefigures the demise of the male.

Morality Meat by Raccoona Sheldon*
A simple morality tale. Droughts and grain diseases have killed off the supply of meat but as always the rich still manage to get their share. Meanwhile every pregnancy is forced by law to go to full term. Adoption Centres provide a service for those who do not want or otherwise cannot keep their babies. But parents cannot be found for all the children.

*Raccoona Sheldon (Alice Sheldon) is also known as James Tiptree Jr.

Apples In Winter by Sue Thomason
People from another world interfere with a native culture.

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