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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus, 2019, 453 p.

All religions are conspiracies against women. Theocracies even more so. Atwood’s conception of her repressive society of Gilead (in The Handmaid’s Tale and here) was not, I suspect, designed to illustrate that point in particular – rather than to suggest that advances in social arrangements can be reversed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but nevertheless does so. The source book/“sacred” text of the relevant conspiracy may not even contain the words used to justify women’s subjection by those of that bent. They instead tend to pick out the bits that suit them or else distort its contents. That point is made here when one of the narrators is warned about the Bible that, “It doesn’t say what they say it does.”

I can’t actually remember much about the text of The Handmaid’s Tale (to which this is a companion rather than a sequel) beyond the theocratic authoritarianism and the sexual exploitation, except that the book didn’t have a firm resolution – it just ended.

The Testaments is different in that it is not just one recollection of life in Gilead but three, and we see the seeds of Gilead’s downfall being sown. One of the narrators is Agnes Jemima (in a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369A supposedly collected by the Mayday Resistance movement,) a daughter of Gilead, for which read the daughter of a handmaiden but legally of her Commander “father,” Kyle, and his wife Tabitha. Tabitha looked after Agnes’s interests but died and Commander Kyle took a new wife, Paula, who most emphatically did not. The first account we read, though, is from “The Ardua Hall Holograph” a manuscript found hidden in a book of Cardinal Newman’s writings. It was from the library of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the Aunts who oversaw the lives of the women of Gilead. One of their functions was to keep track of the genetic heritage of Gilead’s children as so many’s may not have been what was generally thought. Uniquely among the women of Gilead, Aunts were allowed books. The Holograph was written by Aunt Lydia – whom we are to assume is the same Lydia described by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Lydia knew where the regime’s secrets were buried and had a tacit agreement with Commander Judd, one of the prime movers of Gilead, that she should have a free hand in organising women’s lives in return for useful information. But pre-Gilead she had been a judge; in the Holograph she remembers her earlier life and the humiliations borne when that was blown apart and is only biding her time to expose all Gilead’s hypocrisies. The third strand (a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369B) is the story of a girl brought up in Toronto by a couple who ran a second-hand clothes business but were active in the Underground Femaleroad which spirited refugees away from Gilead and whom she felt were overly protective of her. (Minor spoiler next.) Frequent early mentions of Baby Nicole, a cause célèbre both in Gilead and Canada, a poster-child who was taken from her “parents” in Gilead and for whose return its government actively campaigned and whose Pearl Girls, sent out to convert Canadians to the Gilead way of life, were constantly on the lookout for, provide heavy hints as to her identity. Atwood intersperses the three testimonies expertly, though the connection between Agnes and Jade/Nicole feels a bit too pat. That though is justified by the book’s coda which, like the similar addendum to The Handmaid’s Tale, is formed of notes from a symposium on Gilead Studies, here the Thirteenth, held at Passamaquoddy (formerly Bangor,) Maine, in 2197.

In the Holograph Aunt Lydia tells us of her secret cache of proscribed books, which includes Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost and Lives of Girls and Women, but also that “Knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognised this, or to have capitalised on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.” The Holograph incidentally illustrates the jealousies and rivalries of a closed order and the intricacies of power relationships while Lydia’s acidity is shown by her inclusion in a list of “hoary chetsnuts” the aphorism that “Time wounds all heels.” In a neat touch by Atwood the meeting/eating place at Ardua Hall (whose slippery motto is Per Ardua Cum Estrus) is called the Schlafly Café.

Moments of horror in The Testaments are rare. There are mentions of Particicution, where convicts are torn to pieces by handmaids (a seemingly eagerly grabbed outlet for their justifiable anger,) but the descriptions tend to avoid detail. The experiences of Agnes and her friend Becca herself at the hands of Becca’s dentist father (with Becca it was more than hands) exemplify that an obsession with controlling sex, far from making it go away, (though those in control of course make sure they get more than their share,) only serves to emphasise its centrality to human experience, perhaps even accentuate sexuality’s unsavoury extremities.

As to the prohibition on women (except the Aunts) reading, Agnes in her spell at Ardua Hall gets to the heart of the matter, “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to questions, and then to others.” In a theocracy, in any dictatorship, questions are to be avoided

Perhaps it was familiarity with the recent TV adaptation of the earlier book or the wider world demonstration that such a society is a likely goal for those who somehow feel the presence of women in the public sphere in some way disadvantages them The Testaments seemed a better structured, more rounded book than my memory of The Handmaid’s Tale. The three narrators are convincing, though Jade/Nicole doesn’t quite seem to realise the seriousness of the perils inside Gilead and Atwwod’s insights into human behaviour under stress are acute.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (strictly têtes-a-têtes, or even têtes-a-tête,) a missing comma at the end of a piece iof dialogue where the sentence continued after it.

In Limbo by Christopher Evans

Granada, 1985, 286 p.

Along with four companions – only ever described as Riley, Treadwell, Sinnott and Wright – Mike Carpenter has been confined to Limbo, a soulless, windowless (the cover image is wrong in this respect) prison of sorts, where they are under constant surveillance. None of the five has any idea why they are being held in this way as, to their knowledge, they have not committed a crime. Under the more or less constant scrutiny of the guards/attendants their days are spent in PT exercises, games such as snooker or chess, reading newspapers and watching TV. The food is bland but not unwholesome (though at one point they suspect it is being adulterated by laxatives.) Occasionally they will be hauled before the person in charge, a man named Naughton, who will berate them for any misdemeanours they have committed. Some relief for Carpenter is provided by interviews with Dr Dempster, a female medic who looks after the inmates’ welfare. In the nature of such an unresolved existence a couple of the five try to form an escape committee but Carpenter sees this as futile. His reflections on the constrained life and his comparitive boredom lead to him trying to invent slogans for his companions but also one for himself, It doesn’t help.

The author’s history as a Science Fiction writer (his previous novels had been The Insider and Capella’s Golden Eyes and he went on to write Aztec Century and Mortal remains) might incline the reader to the view that the incarceration is part of a psychological experiment of some sort and that the experiences in Limbo are real. Against that the realistic tone of the narrative and the mundane nature of the confinement argues for something a bit less exotic. This is heightened by the slow morphing of the storyline into a recounting of Carpenter’s memories of his life before Limbo, memories which gradually begin to take up more of the narrative space. These deal with his drifting from school to University and then from job to job but more particularly with his relationships with the sexual interests in his life, from his unrequited passion for schoolmate Gail through his experiences with his women lovers, Veronica, Karen, Eleanor and Penny (not to mention one night spent with the enthusiastic Cicely,) all of which were unsatisfactory in one way or another. In this reading his four companions in Limbo may be aspects of Carpenter’s own personality.

It would be thoughtless of a reviewer to reveal which – if either – of these two possibilities is borne out but In Limbo is very well written. Evans has a flair for depicting character and circumstance and the novel’s resolution does follow the logic of what has gone before. I’ve read a lot worse. A lot worse.

Pedant’s corner:- “a fresh batch of magazines and periodicals were delivered” (a fresh batch … was delivered,) “the gate is strait” (straight?) “like Saul on the road to Tarsus, he would experience a blinding moment of revelation” (Saul came from Tarsus. His blinding moment was on the road to Damascus,) “that of Veronicas” (if that’s a possessive it should be ‘Veronica’s’, but it’s redundant; the phrase ought to be simply ‘that of Veronica’,) “Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle” (Heisenberg’s.) “At the interview he old the” (he told,) “eight gin and sodas” (grammatically ‘eight gins and sodas’ – or even ‘eight gins and soda’,) falderal (folderol,) “gin and tonics” (see ‘eight gin and sodas’,) “a newsagents” (newsagent’s.)

Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

Stories of Life in the Void. British Library, 2021, 315 p, including 12 p Introduction.

Mike Ashley’s Introduction to this collection is in effect a short history of the earliest SF stories set in space habitats such as a space station, spaceship or generation starship, in any one of which the nine stories herein are set. Their first publications date from 1940 to 1967. Few are without (but in one case plays upon) the mostly unconscious sexism of their times. A theme common to that era of SF, the suffering of a technical problem which must be solved, crops up regularly, though some of the stories do concern themselves with psychological matters.
The eponymous umbrella of Umbrella in the Sky by E C Tubb is a space shield being built to protect Earth from a solar eruption due to the imminent arrival of an anti-matter stream. Our narrator is hired to find out why the work is progressing too slowly. This story invites the reflection that nothing ages as fast as the future. (Consider all those flashing panel lights and toggle switches in the original Star Trek TV series.) This story contains many references to people lighting cigarettes and smoking. In a space-faring environment!
Sail 25 by Jack Vance was originally published as Gateway to Strangeness. A grizzled, curmudgeonly veteran trains a group of recruits to operate a solar sailing ship (the type sometimes known as sunjammers.) He doesn’t make it easy for them.
In The Longest Voyage by Richard C Meredith the first human expedition to Jupiter is beset by problems. Scott Sayers is the only survivor, engine gone, in perpetual orbit round Jupiter. He has to find a way to cobble together some sort of propulsion system to get him back to Earth.
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey was the first SF story to feature a spaceship operated by a human mind. This one, Helva, inspired by music, is able to sing. This is a love story, of sorts.
O’Mara’s Orphan by James White I first read many years ago in the anthology Worlds Apart way back in the 1960s. It is one of White’s “Sector General” tales, set on a habitat designed for dealing with the medical needs of a vast array of alien species. O’Mara’s orphan is the offspring of two Hudlarians killed in an accident during Sector General’s construction. He is given its care as a punishment for his supposed responsibility for their deaths.
Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell finds a spaceship with a crew of three men emerging from hyperspace into nowhere – beyond the known universe, with no apparent way back. Each man reacts differently.
What was apparently the first ever generation starship story, The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox has thirty-five people setting out on the voyage – two of them stowaways of a sort. The narrator is the odd – therefore unmarried – one out. His job is to be revived every hundred years to solve any problems that have arisen in the interim. Over the generations there are plenty of these as he morphs from potential saviour and god to despised ogre. Just about all the subsequent tropes of this sub-genre are in evidence.
Survival Ship by Judith Merril is another generation starship story. This one is set on the Survival, sent off with much fanfare to “Sirius in fifteen years,” carrying its load of Twenty and Four humans. That capitalisation – and mix – is the single most important aspect of both the voyage and the story.
Lungfish by John Brunner focuses on the difference that developed between tripborn and earthborn as a generation starship nears Trip’s End. Unusually in the stories here, where marriage (and presumably, monogamy) are unquestioned social arrangements, a character in this one reflects that “promiscuity had to be encouraged to ensure the mixing of all genetic factors.”
Most of these stories – if not all – are still immensely readable. And they can still evoke a sense of the strangeness and immensity of the universe and humanity’s insignificance by comparison, though some of them lean towards the “humans can do anything” standpoint.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “in the same plane of Venus” (in the same plane as Venus.) Otherwise: “inside of me” (no ‘of’, just ‘inside me’,) “the death role mounted” (death roll,) “having just skirted a loose mass of asteriodal debris” (that is not how spaceship trajectories work,) Sayers’ (Sayers’s,) Isaacs’ (Isaacs’s,) “vocal chords” (vocal cords,) “the Horsehead Nebulae” (x 4. There is only one Horsehead Nebula,) Regulus’ (Regulus’,) insured (ensured; ditto insure/ensure,) “their mass and inertia was tremendous” (mass and inertia were,) a character allows water to boil off 2into the vacuum outside” (surely very wasteful,) “began to sag, and slip then was” (no comma needed,) “two volumes … showcases his …” (showcase,) “in behalf of” (on behalf of,) buncombe (x 2, usually spelled bunkum,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “got to … go to…” (the sense implies ‘got to … got to…’ but this may have been an attempt to simulate textually the losing of consciousness,) “Sirius’ planet” (x 2, Sirius’s,) chlorophyl (chlorophyll,) “the men must practically be able to read my mind” (it was an individual; ‘the man must be able to’.)

Scotland in Space

Creative Visions and Critical Reflections on Scotland’s Space Futures. Editors: Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas. Foreword by Ken MacLeod

Shoreline of Infinity/The New Curiosity Shop, 2019, 179 p.

Ken MacLeod’s wittily titled foreword “Steam me up Watty” (though he was not the first to it, Watt being apparently one of Birmingham’s finest, according to the Birmingham Mail) sets the scene for Scotland’s entitlement to a share in space endeavours while the editors’ Introduction explains the project’s genesis.

The main body of the book has three sections, each with a story specially written for the book, and academic essays complementing or critiquing the points it brings up.

Scotland and Mars has Pippa Goldschmidt’s Welcome to Planet AlbaTM!, set on the eponymous vistor centre next to a launch pad somewhere in the north of Sutherland, where tourists can experience a VR sensation of walking on Mars at a time when the first humans are actually on their way to the Red Planet. Narrator Ali is of Arabic extraction and spent some time working in the US. The story is about loneliness, rootlessness and fitting in. Alastair Bruce’s essay Mars: There and Back Again relates the hows and when of getting to Mars and the latest plans for that. Sean McMahon discusses what colour Mars really is. (Spoiler: not red – in fact it’s a mixture of browns, beiges and orange with the (very) occasional blue sunset or -rise.) Elsa Bouet in Red Journeys: ‘Welcome to Planet AlbaTM‘! and the Martian Literary Imaginary assesses Pippa Goldschmidt’s story and its themes among the history of Mars in fiction, Wells, Bradbury, Robinson et al.

Fringe in Space begins with Laura Lam’s story A Certain Reverence which is larded with Scottish words and usages. It’s narrated by Blair Orji. She is part of a Scottish contingent, either scientists or entertainers, to a tidal-locked planet orbiting Proxima Centauri b where aliens (who have already given humans access to all-but-light speed technology) are waiting to be exposed to Scots culture. In Life, but not as we know it: the prospects for life on habitable zone planets orbiting low-mass stars Beth Biller considers how we have identified such planets, their nature and how to tell if they are habitable. Tacye Philippson, senior Science Curator at National Museums Scotland, in Alien collecting: speculative museology, assesses what aliens might consider worth collecting from Earth and from Scotland in particular.

Scotland at the end of the Universe starts with Russell Jones’s story Far, in which an (almost literally star-cross’d) love story is blended in with an Inflation Drive which allows a newly independent Scotland to be transferred across the universe. The appearance of the story is notable for its layout which resembles that of modern poetry at times (unsurprisingly as Jones is a poet) but also for the brightly coloured illustrations of drinks glasses and what looks like microwave background images plus a few diagrams and the word ‘Yes’ rendered in blue in the font used for promoting that result during the 2014 Independence Referendum. In The Multiverse Catherine Heymans explains how cosmic inflation (which describes how the early universe must have expanded, its signature left as the cosmic microwave background,) violates Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity but how an Inflation Drive could indeed be a way of travelling faster than light – except for the problems involved in switching it off. Vatjaz Vidmar’s Of Maps, Love Stories and the Universe describes both fiction and science as kinds of maps delineating connectedness and that bonding in this way (as within or between atoms) may be the universe’s resistance to its own demise by heat death.

Colin McInnes’s Afterword notes that the first person to give a description of rocket propulsion (in 1861; well before Goddard and Tsiolkovsky) was a Scot, William Leitch, from Rothesay, and that Scotland is well to the fore in modern space technology, Glasgow now manufacturing more spacecraft than any other European city, a possible proving ground for the exploration of space both fictionally and in reality.

Pedant’s corner:- Jones’ (Jones’s.) “The tourists area” (ought to have an apostrophe; tourists’,) McFadyan (unusual spelling of McFadzean, though presumably pronounced the same way,) “Susan and me carefully wriggled through” (Susan and I,) a missing quotation mark before a piece of direct speech, “about half the diameter Earth” (of Earth,) Marts (Mars’s,) “one variant of these are ion thrusters” (one variant is – even if the ion thrusters are plural they are still the one variant,) Wells’ (Wells’s,) tinging (tingeing,) censors (sensors.) “Scotland’s always dead set on doing it on our own aren’t we?” (either ‘We Scots are always …aren’t we?’ or, ‘on its own, isn’t it?’) “because a shipful of dead humans arrive is likely” (because if a shipful it is likely.) The binary star of Alpha Centauri blaze in two, tiny pinpoints” (stars,) “as we bowed and rose back up, still panting. The humans…” (as we bowed and rose back up, still panting, the humans ….) “Only happened once a millenia or so” (once a millennium,) Anglada-Escud é (Anglada-Escudé,) electronic shocks (electric shocks.) “This class of exoplanet have temperatures…” (This class has …,) “metamorphised limestone” (metamorphosed, or, since this was marble, ‘metamorphic’,) a missing full stop (x 2,) “now the vote and die has been cast” (plus marks for ‘die’ but that ‘and’ makes the verb’s subject plural; ‘have been cast’,) sat (x 2, sitting,) “their owner” (x 2, each time it was a dog, so ‘its owner’,) Heymans’ (Heymans’s,) “using the same physics that can predict the original temperature of your cup of tea 13.8 minutes after you brewed it” (not ‘predict’, it’s already happened; ‘calculate’,) “very epicentre” (epicentre means off-centre; ‘centre’, if you must aggrandise it use the word ‘hypercentre’,) miniscule (minuscule,) the moon (the Moon.)

Exiles on Asperus by John Wyndham (writing as John Beynon)

Coronet, 1979, 154 p.

John Wyndham was one of the big names of British SF in the 1950s and early 60s, most famous for The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned.) Gifted with a plethora of forenames (John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon; his surname was Harris) he wrote under several almost aliases – Lucas Parkes as well as John Harris, John Beynon and John Wyndham. It is those latter, more mature works for which he will be remembered – even if Brian Aldiss did dub the sub-genre of the disaster novel for which they stand as exemplars as ‘cosy catastrophes’. This book contains three tales, two novellas plus one shorter story and could not be more different in intent from those novels.

Exiles on Asperus. Humans have colonised Mars and Venus and the three planets are at loggerheads with each other. A Martian faction has rebelled and prisoners are being taken to the asteroids. On the way they turn the tables on their captors but are forced to land on the asteroid Asperus where another ship had crashed many years before. They find winged aliens called Batrachs have captured the previous humans and forced them to work underground. The factions join together to try to free them. It is not plain sailing. To modern eyes Asperus is an impossibly lush and hospitable place for an asteroid but this novella first appeared in 1933. Expressive of that era’s attitudes the characters too readily resort to violence, marriage is an unquestioned institution and women are called girls.

In No Place Like Earth (first published in 1951) humans live only on Mars and Venus as Earth was shattered into a collection of asteroids (presumably by acts of planetary war.) At the story’s beginning, viewpoint character Bert – this surely verges on breaking Gene Wolfe’s prescription on naming characters Fred – is living on Mars but longs for the old days on Earth. He is persuaded to leave Mars, and the prospect of settling down with Zaylo, a local “girl”, by the arrival of a manned spaceship from Venus offering “a future”. On that planet he works overseeing the labour of the indigenous life-form called griffas but the promise of advancement and acceptance into the dominant layer of Venusian society fails to materialise. He comes to realise there’s no place like Earth.

The Venus Adventure (from 1932) incidentally has people usually come into the world by incubation rather than natural birth but its main tale is of the first two human journeys to Venus – many centuries apart. In that elapsed time the original arrivals have separated into two groups, Dingtons and Wots, descended from the two heads of the expedition, an idea probably prompted by Wells’s The Time Machine. The Dingtons have made friends with the Venusian Gorlaks with whom the Wots are more or less at war. The newcomers by force of circumstance take the side of the Dingtons against the “degenerated” Wots. The characters’ dialogue displays colonial attitudes. One uses the phrase, “went native,” and explains it by, “‘In the tropics we find that a white man either conquers the conditions, or is conquered by them.’”

These stories nowadays have to be read through a filter. It is in the nature of such early tales of interplanetary adventure that science has since overtaken the details of the narrative. Mars does not have sufficient oxygen (or indeed partial pressure) for humans to exist on its surface unprotected. Never mind perpetual rain and lack of visibility, Venus is totally inhospitable. An asteroid such as Asperus will have no atmosphere, full stop. Societal norms have evolved, especially in terms of sexual roles and the prevalence of cigarette smoking. Attitudes to the writing and reading of SF itself have changed profoundly. Characterisation here is rudimentary and the assumption of hostility to humans by aliens is not interrogated. These are primarily stories of action adventure, though No Place Like Earth does have a more reflective side, perhaps since it was presumably written about twenty years after the other two stories here; about the same time as The Day of the Triffids.

Pedant’s corner:- “A broad path let from the ship” (led from.) “They had run into a meteor shower and had been lucky in not being carved to bits. Happily most of their score of leaks had been small.” I suspect an encounter like this would have destroyed any spaceship and stripped it of air, however small the leaks,) the text refers to Venus as a younger planet (it isn’t of course, but the sense is metaphorical in terms of exploiting its resources,) transcendant (transcendent,) “they champed in silence” (they were eating, so, ‘they chomped in silence’,) “but it is probably that you have not found more” (probable.) “Crawshaw, himself, and Heerdahl” (it wasn’t three people, it was two – Crawshaw himself, and Heerdahl,) “from their alarm of the unearthly roar” (alarm at the unearthly roar,) “for old time’s sake” (old times’.)

Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards

Titan Books, 2020, 333p. Published in Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020.

 Echo Cycle cover

Just before Britain finally locked itself off from the continent, congratulating itself on escaping from incipient chaos, Winston Monk and Lindon Banks were on a school trip to Rome. Monk, a homosexual, had long suffered persecution at the hands of his school year’s bully, Tobias Easter (who in that Public School way is usually referred to only by his surname.) Having just received news he has failed to get into a Cambridge College, Monk snaps under another of Easter’s provocations and almost kills him before fleeing into the Rome night, to vanish.

Twenty years later, in 2070, Britain is much diminished, women are of little account and same-sex marriage utterly out of the question, with such relationships long since criminalised and persecuted, and the Royal Family mostly holed up behind protective barbed wire in Windsor. But in a sudden change of foreign policy, Banks has been chosen as part of a delegation headed by Easter, now a top Government official, to re-establish contact, diplomatic relations and trade with a recently ascendant European Confederacy, whose official language is a carefully chosen resurgent Latin, its centre of gravity switched to southern Europe, and Rome a gleaming, ultra-modern architectural wonder. In this world the US has collapsed after the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted, its citizens desperately seeking refuge in the countries to north and south, besieging the walls they had previously striven so hard to erect. Japan is in recovery after a seemingly unprovoked Chinese immolation of Tokyo.

On the swift train journey south through France Banks feels the contrast between his homeland where cars run on dung, there are riots in the streets and something grim though unspecified has happened in Scotland, and the prosperous, far from gloomy countryside outside. He also misses his deceased wife Elanor, and feels protective of his daughter Sara, sent to a boarding school in his absence. At times he hears his old schoolmaster, Orkney, speaking in his head, bemoaning his follies. In Rome, the British delegation is at pains to refuse all forms of Euro tech, including the near-ubiquitous but expensive translation devices most Europeans carry.

After his flight from the consequences of his attack on Easter, Monk fell through time. No concrete mechanism is presented for this, it has to be accepted for the purposes of story. He came to consciousness in 68 CE, the year of the four Emperors, Nero, Galba, Vitellius and Vespasian, just in time to witness the first’s death. From then on Monk’s fate is closely linked to the fortunes of Nero’s close companion, the androgynous Sporus, which rise and fall according to whoever the new First Man is.

Enslaved, branded, made to clean out latrines by hand – Edwards spares us no gritty detail – plucked by Sporus from utter servitude to become a scribe only to be finally despatched to a gladiatorial ludus, Monk resigns himself to death yet, despite receiving only rudimentary training, in his first arena combat he discovers he has a talent for it and eventually wins his freedom thereby, whiling out the years with a successful scribing business.
This story of his time-slip and sojourn in the past is addressed to an at first anonymous reader (but who we learn soon enough is Banks,) and in the novel is interlaced with Banks’s own first-person account of events in 2070, where he has made a connection with Mariko, a half-Japanese European functionary. This tentative association is tainted (both in Monk’s mind and his superiors’) by suspicion of diplomatic underhandedness. On leaving a restaurant one night the pair literally bump into a dishevelled, disorientated vagrant, who turns out to be Monk, returned from 96 CE.

Despite Monk appearing fairly early in the 2070 narrative the balance between the two strands is handled delicately by Edwards. The tone of both accounts is pitch perfect, encapsulating their narrators’ characters, the Roman set passages seem convincing, the dystopian Britain all-too plausible. The characterisation is adept, though Easter is perhaps a bit too relentlessly crass. But then again he is a bully, and an authoritarian. The author’s verb choices are considered, he has a subtle touch with information dumping and a good eye for description.

The denouement, where the importance of Sporus to the overall design becomes clear, is only slightly marred by tipping over into a thriller type plot which also puts Sara into danger – marvellously readable at the time but in retrospect a touch disappointing. Edwards is a talent though.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite the book having an overwhelmingly English sensibility there are USianisms in the text, snuck (x 2, sneaked,) fit (fitted,) parking lot (car park,) rowboat (rowing boat,) outside of (outside,) to visit with (to visit.) Otherwise; “it was every man for themselves” (for himself, surely?) “less fumes” (fewer fumes,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “The intoxicating flash of tomorrows were twisted” (the flash … was twisted,) Antinous’ (Antinous’s; every name ending with an ‘s’ here is treated as regards apostrophes as if it were plural – except we had one ‘Charteris’s’,) “none of us were surprised” (was surprised,) “The only reminder of the tons of water above my head were the small bronzed drains” (the only reminders were, or, the only reminder was,) “to the half-dozen or so people sat facing the stage” (seated, or, sitting,) “and Sporus, her of the large eyes” (she of the large eyes,) “I think I’d already be shaken” (been shaken,) “Didn’t mean the everyday citizen wanted their children to come home speaking another language” (citizens would be more grammatical,) “capacity or compartmentalisation” (for compartmentalisation,) sprung (sprang,) “a sword a foot-long and double-bladed,” (a foot long,) “that held giant, pulsating pupa” (Pupae,) lay (lie,) staunch (stanch,) “and the guttering torchlight fell revealed him there” (fell and revealed him? fell revealing him?) “seeing …. the certainty of death hove in on them” (‘hove’ is past tense, ‘seeing the certainty … heave in.)

Impossible Things by Connie Willis

This is a book of short stories by the person who has won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than any other writer.

Bantam, 1994, 471 p, plus vi p Introduction by Gardner Dozois Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

The Last of the Winnebagos sees a near future where a mutated parvovirus has killed off all species of dog. Only jackals are left and even those are vanishingly rare. The Humane Society monitors and polices any animal deaths. The roads are dominated by water tankers servicing the city of Phoenix and the like and travelling very fast to blur the speed cameras. Our narrator is a photojournalist who sees a dead jackal on the road while on his way to photograph the last Winnebago, and is drawn into a web of suspicion.

Even the Queen was apparently written in response to complaints that Willis never wrote about women’s issues. (Her view is of course that there ought to be no restrictions on what a writer writes about.) In the story a device called a shunt disseminates a drug called ammenerol which prevents periods. The narrator’s daughter causes a stushie in the family when she announces she wishes to join a group called the Cyclists, who see shunts and ammenerol as instruments of the male patriarchy seeking to deprive women of their natural functions. Nevertheless, the story is played for laughs.

Schwarzschild Radius combines the theory of a star’s gravitational collapse into a black hole with the memories of a Dr Rottschieben who apparently served with Schwarzschild in the Great War. It’s beautifully written and its embedded metaphor ingenious but doesn’t really hold up under retrospective scrutiny.

Ado imagines a future (very litigious, very USian) in which everybody complains about everything and so teaching is made almost impossible. Hamlet consists of only two lines.

Spice Pogrom is Willis’s tribute to Hollywood screwball comedies but also reminded me of one of James White’s Sector General stories. Aliens called Eahrohhs have come to Earth, or, rather, to a space station called Sony which has an idiosyncratic housing policy. One of them, Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh, has promised to deliver NASA a space program (sic) and narrator Chris’s Nasa employed fiancé has billeted him/it on her and told her to allow it/him whatever it wants. There is plenty of the incidental happenings the screwball comedy enshrines to complicate the story-line. This one turns on whether Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh actually understands the English words they are all using but the story’s pay-off doesn’t really reward the time investment required by the reader.

Winter’s Tale riffs on the theory that since Shakespeare was low-born he could not have written all those magnificent plays and poems. Told as by Anne Hathaway it plays with that notion (which Willis’s foreword insists is surely incorrect,) and with the possibility that Christopher Marlowe’s murder in a Deptford Inn was faked while also providing a reason for Shakespeare’s famous bequest to Anne.

In Chance a woman has moved back to the town where she attended college (where everything is the same but everything is different) because her husband, who is interested only in career advancement, has a new job there. She starts to see the students as people she knew back in her youth and wonders on the chance happenings that change lives for the better – or worse.

In the Late Cretaceous is a satire on neologisms and academia, with the institution where it’s set also riddled with an over-officious set of traffic wardens, ticketing anything that doesn’t move. The professor of palæontology is a metaphorical dinosaur, still using chalk on blackboard. Willis’s preface to this laments what she calls political correctness, as being inimical, or at least antithetic, to comedy and moans about “every anti- (Choose one: smoking, animal research, logging, abortion, Columbus.)” Well she did include anti-abortionists, so she’s not a complete lost cause.

Time Out centres round a project to produce a “temporal oscillator” with which to manipulate “hodiechrons” (quantum units of time which Willis has presumably named from the Latin for today and the Greek for time.) An anatomy of both the quotidian routines of marriage and parenthood – the domestic detail is thoroughly true to life – the vicissitudes of not well resourced research and nostalgia for youth it suggests a mechanism for the origins of déjà vu. The whole is intricately plotted but leans a bit too heavily on light-heartedness.

Jack returns to the subject of the London Blitz which Willis explored in her short story Fire Watch and novels To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear. As in those (and The Doomsday Book) it is marred for a British reader by a failure to get details of life and usages in the UK correct. The story concerns a new member of an ARP unit who shows an uncanny knack for detecting bodies buried by rubble. He also disappears sharply to his day job. The narrator develops suspicions.

At the Rialto’s title has a different meaning to Sons of the Rock of my generation compared to those who hail from elsewhere. It was the name of the local cinema. The Rialto here is a hotel in Hollywod hosting (or not) a meeting of quantum physicists. The plot revolves around a series of uncertainties.

Pedant’s corner:- flack (x3, flak,) “the Queen of England” (was of course not crowned as such but as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and is of course Queen of many other places besides,) gladiolas (gladioli,) Russian Front (in the Great War it was called the Eastern Front,) LaGrangian points” (Lagrange points,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘The seasons’ just started’” (season’s.) “‘Five years and no sex have made desperate’” (have made me desperate’,) “I don’t’” (I don’t,) a missing full stop, “setting her cap for you” (setting her cap at you,) liquor (the British usage is booze, or drink,) a character is said by another to be from Yorkshire but himself says he’s from Newcastle (all British people know Newcastle [either of them] isn’t in Yorkshire,) ME 109s (it’s Me 109s – and the text implies that type of plane was a bomber. It was a fighter,) bannister (banister,) oleo (the word used in the UK for this type of spreadable butter substitute is margarine,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, automobile jack (‘car jack’, or just ‘jack’,) row houses (terraced houses,) the Duchess of York (by this time [1941] the said woman was the Queen and was only ever referred to as ‘the Queen’,) a medal is said to have been awarded at a military HQ (investitures are [and were even during the war] held at Royal Palaces,) a recipient’s father is said to have pinned the medal on his son himself (medals are conferred by a member of the Royal family or perhaps, in extreme cases, by a representative such as a Lord Lieutenant,) the Duchess of York kissed the award recipient on both cheeks (absolutely not,) “and said he was the pride of England” (the ‘pride of Britain’ possibly, ‘England’ I very much doubt. The Queen [formerly Duchess of York] was Scottish,) an inland revenue collector (a taxman,) “had gotten married” (had got married,) the award recipient had shot down fifteen German planes so must have been in Fighter Command but is later said to be flying nightly bombing missions over Germany – a Bomber Command task.) “‘meaning’ or possible ‘information’” (or possibly.)

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Head of Zeus, 2020, 510 p.

Why would an Israeli author better known for exploring Middle-Eastern or Jewish themes and concerns and the byways of Altered History turn his attention to the (so-called) matter of Britain? For that is what Tidhar has done in By Force Alone, a retelling of the story of King Arthur from a novel angle – what would it really have been like to contest for kingship in a bygone age, to gain, hold and wield power by force alone? I suppose the tale is well enough known, though, and, as Tidhar’s Afterword shows, it has always been fair game for reploughing and reinterpreting.

Here we have all the familiar names of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Galahad, Mordred etc, but seen in a downcast light. Forget any notion of parfit, gentil knyghts (especially as that was a phrase which Chaucer no doubt devised cunningly.) The characters here are earthy, human, venal, demotic in speech, prone to all the vices known to man and few of the virtues, their surroundings mostly squalid, their motivations base.

By Force Alone is told in an urgent present tense, its background is England before it was England, in the Dark Age aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. A “wild country, a host of warring tribes who scrabble for scraps in the ruin of civilisation,” with a new religion, Christianity, on the ascendant. Most of the characters are Brythonic Celts but offstage sundry Angles, Saxons and Jutes are making inroads into the territory of southern Britain, mainly by peaceful settlement but bringing their harsh, guttural Anglisc tongue with them.

Arthur is engendered in the usual way, Uther Pendragon disguising himself with Merlin’s help to resemble the lady Igraine’s husband and so impregnate her, but the resulting child is whipped off by Merlin to a foster home in Londinium, where, growing up, he learns the dark arts of street fighting and survival. Joseph of Arimathea features as the trainer of Lancelot in martial arts and his inductor into membership of the Inner Circle of the Venerated Secret Brotherhood of the Seekers of the Grail. Joseph’s conviction that the Grail was to be found in Britain brings Lancelot somewhat reluctantly to its shores.

In what in retrospect is an odd interpolation Tidhar brings in elements of SF with the appearance of a falling star – which can be read as a descending spaceship or, more prosaically, Halley’s Comet, but its later reascent militates against that – and the growing up round its landing/crash site of the Zone, where strange things happen, odd creatures appear, food rots instantly or stays unaccountably preserved and where those who frequent it tell newcomers, “Don’t touch anything.” Merlin spends his time thinking about this apparition and Lancelot conceives it as the location of the grail. In this context that streak of light in the sky might be considered as an avatar of the Star of Bethlehem.

We all know how things will end but finding out what happens is not the driving force for the reader to continue. This tale of Arthur may be, as the text has it, “just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed,” but it is the telling of it that matters, the slants it takes – Guinevere as a sort of bandit, a leader of Amazons up for a scrap as much as anyone else in this, Arthur as almost feckless – and uncaring that he is cuckolded by Lancelot – Galahad an administrator supreme.

The text is replete with allusion and quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut’s recognition of the inevitability and ubiquity of death (three words not unfamiliar to readers of this blog) and even a riff on the “choose” rant from Trainspotting, not to mention a scene depicting musings on an Antikythera mechanism. Some readers may find this sort of thing distracting but others that it adds to the flavour, a reminder that this is a commentary on its sources as well as a skewed recapitulation. Repetition too is an ingredient, especially of the three words of the title which describe the way in which Kings in these circumstances win and keep their crowns.

Merlin’s thoughts perhaps at times speak to Brexit, “A shared identity, Merlin thinks. A story to unify all these warring tales, so that Britons now and in centuries to come could tell each other that they share a thing. That they are one. And to be one, as Arthur understands implicitly, you must be defined against an other,” and his reflection that “this island’s just a piece of Europe with the landbridge submerged,” and, “It doesn’t really matter, this matter of Britain. Just another way to pass the time.” Later Sir Pellinore muses, “And who’s to say whose land this is, really? Land’s just land.” (Which may – or may not – be a reflection by Tidhar on his Israeli background.)

It is the characters that make By Force Alone. The humans feel like flesh and blood people. The wizard (who doesn’t himself believe in magic) or the fae folk are all as they are in fantasy tales, instruments of darkness to tell us truths, to betray their victims in deepest consequence. (That allusiveness can be catching.) Warnings, all.

The novel is a vigorous, vibrant retelling of “the glorious age of Camelot” rendered more powerful by focusing on the individuals rather than the appurtenances or overall architecture of the tale. In a curious way this demystification of the myth almost makes it more memorable.

Pedant’s corner:- “fifteen hundred heads of cattle” (usually ‘head of cattle’,) “moat pleasantly” twice within the space of a line, and “most pleasant” another line later, Nennius’ (Nennius’s – all of the names here which end with the letter ‘s’ are given possessives with s’ rather than s’s,) “ he lays back, sated” (lies back,) mithraeums (the Latin plural would be mithraea,) ass (in a narrative like this, set where it is, that just seems so wrong. The correct word is arse,) Morgana (is used once for Morgan, but it was Merlin thinking it and will have been an allusion,) “a money changers’” (a money changer’s.) “And he resents her that” (for that?) “…. Kay says Shrugs” (should have a full stop after ‘says’,) “off of” (off, just ‘off’s no ‘of’ required,) fit (fitted.) “It gauges out eyes” (gouges out, surely/) “he flies across a darkening skies” (omit ‘a’ or have a singular sky,) “‘The Angles and the Saxons’ growing influence’” should have apostrophe for Angles as well as Saxons.) “Previous stones. Coin” (Precious stones, I think.) “They are a tribal peoples” (either, ‘They are a tribal people,’ or ‘They are tribal peoples,’ the latter preferably, given that ‘they’.) The army of mutatio scatter” (scatters.) “Lancelot expands little energy” (expends.) “Lancelot is shook” (shaken.) “‘That’s none really of your business’” (has odd syntax – ‘that’s really none of your business’ is more usual,) “The trees don’t sway unless the king commands” (this was in Orkney, traditionally thought to have no trees. When I was there I saw none worth the name,) parlay (parley,) sat (sitting, or, seated,) the town of Wormwood has a sign saying Pop 971 853 (so populated? In the Dark Ages?) epicentre (centre,) “and the water turn to dull reflection” (turns,) “nought but an illusion” (naught.) “A veritable rain of arrows flies down from the enemy’s archers then and hit him” (‘rain … flies down’, therefore should be followed by ‘hits him’,) snuck (sneaked.) In the Afterword; Tidhar says Britain was unified once more by the end of the Wars of the Roses. (It wasn’t. England – with Wales – might have been; but Scotland was politically separate till much later,) ditto “the Norman conquest of Britain” (the Normans conquered only England – until within 200 years the Plantagenet Edward I had also subdued Wales – though their influence spread into Scotland with dynastic marriages and the like.)

Hugo Awards 2021

The short lists for this year’s Hugo Awards have been announced.

The fiction nominees are:-

Novel-

Black Sun Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery/Saga Press/Solaris)
The City We Became N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Harrow The Ninth Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com)
Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tor.com)
Piranesi Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
The Relentless Moon Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Solaris)

I note here the crossover with the BSFA Award list as regards N K Jemisin (which I reviewed for Interzone 287 but have not yet published here) and Susanna Clarke.

Novella-

Come Tumbling Down Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)
The Empress of Salt and Fortune Nghi Vo (Tor.com)
Finna Nino Cipri (Tor.com)
Ring Shout P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
Riot Baby Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor.com)
Upright Women Wanted Sarah Gailey (Tor.com)

I have read none of these.

Novelette-

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super A T Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine, May/June 2020)
Helicopter Story Isabel Fall (Clarkesworld, January 2020)
The Inaccessibility of Heaven Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny Magazine, July/August 2020)
Monster Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2020)
The Pill Meg Elison (from Big Girl, (PM Press))
Two Truths and a Lie Sarah Pinsker (Tor.com)

Ditto.

Short story-

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse Rae Carson (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2020)
A Guide for Working Breeds Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, ed. Jonathan Strahan (Solaris))
Little Free Library Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com)
The Mermaid Astronaut Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020)
Metal Like Blood in the Dark T Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)
Open House on Haunted Hill John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen)

Ditto.

Series-

The Daevabad Trilogy S A Chakraborty (Harper Voyager)
The Interdependency John Scalzi (Tor Books)
The Lady Astronaut Universe Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Audible/Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction/Solaris)
The Murderbot Diaries Martha Wells (Tor.com)
October Daye Seanan McGuire (DAW)
The Poppy War R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)

Ditto.

I’m obviously not keeping up with SF from the US. (Mind you the stuff from there I have read recently hasn’t been too inspiring.)

Two More Books

 This Fragile Earth cover
 The First Sister cover

I mentioned the new online SF magazine ParSec here.

Editor Ian Whates is keeping me busy. Two more books have arrived from him for review, This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise published by Gollancz and The First Sister by Linden Lewis from Hodder.

Well it is actually my fault. I did ask for them from the list of review books he sent out.

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