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Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A Novel in Nine Parts. Sceptre, 1999, 446 p.

Ghostwritten cover

The novel is true to its sub-title. The first eight parts are all narrated in the first person from the respective viewpoints of a brain-washed cult member, perpetrator of a gas attack in a Japanese subway (in thrall to His Serendipity); a young half-Korean worker in a Tokyo shop selling jazz records; a compromised English banker in Hong Kong; a woman whose misfortune it was to live in China through most of the Twentieth Century; a mind-dwelling entity who can transmigrate from person to person by touch; a gallery attendant in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, who is an agent of an art-stealing syndicate; a London-dwelling, womanising ghostwriter; a female Irish physicist with the key to making atomic weapons worthless; and to round off we have transcripts from the broadcasts of Night Train FM, 97.8 ‘til late. The last two are awfully familiar but I can’t put my finger on from where (beyond the section set in Ireland in the same author’s The Bone Clocks.)

At first the connections between the parts seem tenuous, that between one and two is a misplaced phone call, between two and three seems to be a reference to the couple embarking on a love affair in part two, but gradually, the more sections come into play, the more resonances between them build up. Still, the Queen Anne chair mentioned in Hong Kong and a biography of His Serendipity seem lobbed into the London section when they arrive, gratuitous intrusions; the Music of Chance is the name of the ghostwriter’s band but also occurs as a phrase in a later section. Each part, though, is wonderfully written, suspending disbelief is never difficult – except in the case of the transmigrating mind entity, an interpolation of the fantastic which seems at odds with the realistic tone of the other parts. But then we find the fulcrum on which the novel comes to turn is a process called quantum cognition. This is not merely smuggling quantum physics into the literary landscape but making it the book’s focus – a piece of bravery (or potential folly) in a first novel which almost makes the previous mind-hopping seem mundane. “Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” is not the sort of comparison common in literary texts.

Asides like, “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,” or “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up,” is perhaps over-egging the pudding, however. “Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous,” is a pessimistic view of humanity. The last bit is always worth repeating, though.
The pessimism is carried on by phrases like, “‘Loving somebody’ means ‘wanting something’. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things,” but “‘womanisers are victims – unable to communicate with women any other way. They either never knew their mother or never had a good relationship with her,’” is more compassionate. The killer line follows as the womaniser is told, ‘I don’t quite know what you want from us. But it’s something to do with approval.’”

At one point one of the narrators says, “Italians give their cities sexes…. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.” I suspect all cities are secretly gay. “The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity,” is either a prescient thesis or one now in the process of hard testing.

Ghosts, of memories and of sentience, begin to permeate the book. “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,” while, “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting….. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us,” which leads to, “The real drag about being a ghostwriter is you never get to write anything beautiful.” Pessimism again.

But, “Technology is repeatable miracles.” That is the age in which we live.

I read in a recent(ish) review (of Slade House?) the opinion that Ghostwritten is still the best Mitchell has done. Not for me, of the ones I have read that would be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet but in Ghostwritten I found the intrusion of the fantastical elements took away from the whole. Perhaps if they had been fully present from the start – part one is in the viewpoint of a delusion sufferer, true, but it is only the later parts which suggest it may not be a delusion – I would have felt differently, but I suppose in that case Mitchell might not have found a publisher. It’s brilliantly written and the characterisation is superb, but paradoxically, I thought Ghostwritten came to something less than the sum of its parts.

Pedant’s corner:- “The rest of for ever in a cell” (forever,) in paper bag (in a paper bag,) the owner of the greengrocers across the street (greengrocer’s) he jubilated (as an example to be avoided of an alternative to “he said” that is an absolute cracker,) I stunk (stank,) flack (flak,) uppercutted (uppercut?) leeched (leached,) emporers (emperors,) wracked (racked,) a group of … were waiting (was,) “There are less than one hundred left” (fewer than,) noncorpi (Mitchell’s previous plural form for noncorpum was noncorpa.) “like a virus within a bacteria” (bacterium,) reindeers (reindeer,) Ulan-Bator (Ulan Bator,) more muscle that (than,) a trio were playing … (a trio was playing,) some passersbys (passersby,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) staunch (stanch,) acquatic (aquatic,) the only good thing about Oxford Street are (things; or “is”,) I’d betted (bet – used 12 lines above!) Kyrgistan (nowadays spelled Kyrgyztan,) scaley (scaly,) wrapped into ((wrapped in,) Maise (Maisie – but it may have been an affectionate diminutive,) “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Whiter,) “ ‘We skipped the last fandango” (light fandango.) “The only words for technology is “here”, or “not here” (The only words are,) “in Dr Bell and my case” (in Dr Bell’s and my case,) the aerobatic corp (corps,) practise (practice,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie,) coup d’etats (coups d’etat,) the Brunei’s (the Bruneis.)

BSFA Award Winners

The winnners of this year’s awards (for works published in 2016) have been announced.

Best Novel: Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter

Best Shorter Fiction: Jaine Fenn – Liberty Bird (Now We Are Ten, NewCon Press)

Best Non-Fiction: Geoff Ryman – 100 African Writers of SFF (Tor.com)

Best Artwork: Sarah Anne Langton – Cover for Central Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon Publications)

Congratulations to the winners, commiserations to the rest of the nominees.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2015, 477 p.

 Aurora cover

This is Robinson’s take on the generation starship novel, wherein he makes it clear what a risky and unlikely undertaking such an adventure would be. The ship contains a microcosm of Earth habitats spread through various biomes in an attempt to provide the future colonists with the wherewithal to survive on landfall and subsequently thrive.

We begin with the generation born just before arrival at the destination (Tau Ceti). The viewpoint is that of Freya, a seemingly cognitively impaired child (but really only mathematically) and whose deficiencies are symptomatic of the ship’s growing imbalances. Her mother Devi is the ship’s troubleshooter, interrogating and solving problems as they arise but increasingly frustrated at the finite nature of her resources.

The book has an odd structure, topped and tailed by sections focusing on Freya but with the five interior sections ranging more widely. The occasional odd word choice and sentence structure are clarified when it becomes obvious that the (five section long) middle part of the book is being narrated by the ship’s quantum computer AI. Comments such as, “How to decide how to sequence information in a narrative account? … sentences linear, reality synchronous. Devise a prioritizing algorithm, if possible,” give some of the flavour here.

The target world, Aurora whose name is given also to the ship, orbits gas giant Planet E. The colonists begin to set about making it habitable – a very long-term project – but a setback when one is injured, her sealed suit punctured, which leads to the death of not only her but also those with whom she shared the tented living space they’d set up, means abandonment. Those who had remained on the ship are evenly split between “stayers” – willing to try another candidate moon in the system – and “backers” – those who want to return to Earth. Conflict ensues – a rather depressing authorial conclusion here; you might have thought people would avoid that in such a situation. The novel then follows the backers on their long trip home alleviated by the somewhat fortuitous (for Robinson’s purposes; deus ex machina thy name is god) development of hibernation technology on Earth (in radio contact with the colonists throughout) in the interim.

Many passages are given over to Ship pondering its liability to succumb to recursive programmes and what is known as the halting problem plus other philosophical conundrums to do with language and existence, including a discourse on metaphor and numerous references to the presence of metaphors when they occur in the narrative thereafter. All of which is interesting enough at an abstract level but is no more than filler. Yet Robinson appears more interested in this and in the nuts and bolts of interstellar travel, its inevitable flaws, its lack of controllability, than in any of the humans he is depicting.

Some have been intrigued by the proposition that the most interesting character in the book is an AI. While that is true it is only because the so-called humans are little more than ciphers. Moreover it seemed at one point that the whole thing was devised solely to allow Robinson to make a pun on the phrase “halting problem”. Ship’s late conclusion that, “Love gives meaning,” is not borne out by any of the preceding prose.

File under “worthy, but no more”.

Pedant’s corner:- “a group of people ascend (a group ascends,) a group are packed (is,) ten g’s (an abbreviation subsumes its plural; so, ten g – multiple instances of g’s but towards the end of the book only g was used,) 1.28 deaths for every 100,000 births (that ratio would surely lead to a very rapid overpopulation of the ship and it is a plot point that human fertility is rigidly controlled,) a missing question mark, “and diffuse nebula” (nebulae,) flatted to white (what’s wrong with flattened?) “north of the Aurora’s equator” (no “the”,) “like Terran deltas [origin of phrase delta v?]” (a misdirection by Robinson – in the guise of the ship’s AI – as he must surely know that the “v” in “delta v” stands for velocity,) a series … were held (a series was held,) the median times…. was (the median time… was,) “‘Bacteria exposed to vacuum doesn’t grow very fast’” (OK it was dialogue but bacteria is plural; so, don’t grow very fast,) so that maybe (so that may be,) helmiths (helminths,) protozoa and amoeba (ameobae,) ambiance (ambience,) 2mankind … increased their destructiveness” (its,) “sent up to Tau Ceti” (sent us,) “she scoops up little sand crabs that makes her cry ‘Eek’” (make. )

BSFA Awards Booklet 2016

The End of Hope Street1 by Malcolm Devlin. First published in Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.
This is told in a curiously flat style which seems devoid of any feeling. Without explanation – which makes this fantasy rather than SF – the houses in the cul-de-sac of Hope Street are one by one becoming unliveable, death to anyone inside or who enters thereafter. The survivors are taken in by their neighbours, but matter-of-factly, not compassionately. The end of hope may touch a nerve in these unenlightened times but it’s a depressing philosophy.

Liberty Bird2 by Jaime Fenn. First published in Now We Are Ten, edited by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, July 2016.
The bird of the title is a racing spaceyacht about to take part in a prestigious race and piloted by Kheo Reuthani, scion of an aristocratic house but homosexual in a society which frowns on that – and where some such aristocratic clans have seemingly managed to survive the removal of an Empress from power. The plot hinges on the fact of Kheo’s sexuality being known to his chief engineer. It’s depressing that such repression of sexuality has to be continually commented on. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Taking Flight by Una MacCormack. First published in Crisis and Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, July 2016.
On reading this I was reminded irresistibly of the style and tonal quality of many of Eric Brown’s SF stories. Our (unnamed) narrator having come to find little satisfaction in the bustle of life in the core worlds remembers an invitation by Eckhart, an acquaintance from her privileged youth in college, to visit him on far-flung backwater Wright’s World. Eckhart appears distracted and fretful but arranges for his friend to travel up-country where the scenery is magnificent, the experience of gliding, on drugs, sublime and the secret of Eckhart’s behaviour is revealed. Apart from a single phrase to do with the passage of time and a slightly weak ending this is pitched perfectly.

Presence3 by Helen Oyeyemi. First published in What is Not Yours is Not Yours, an anthology from Riverhead Books, March 2016.
Jill and Jacob, two psychiatrists married to each other – both not in their first marriage – agree to take part in an experiment to simulate the presences of deceased loved ones some people experience after their bereavement. Jill and Jacob are each to feel the presence of the other but an unexpected different presence intrudes. I found the experience of reading this was marred by no less than 17 unusual hyphenations (pur- pose, drop- ping,) in the middles of lines which may have been a hangover from true line-breaks in the original publication.

The Apologists4 by Tade Thompson. First published in Interzone 266, Sep-Oct 2016.
Somehow in taking over Earth the aliens didn’t realise it was inhabited. Only five humans survive but they don’t get on. They are kept alive and given work designing replacements for everything that was lost. Storm’s project is to design simulant humans, Katrina works on roads, buildings etc. But, as Storm says, “Humanity is defined by imperfections.”

Extract from The Arrival of Missives5 by Aliya Whiteley. First published by Unsung Stories, May 2016.
In the aftermath of the Great War Shirley Fearn conceives a passion for education and war-wounded Mr Tiller, her teacher. She goes to his house to speak to him about it and through the window witnesses something strange. This is well-written but unfortunately the BSFA booklet contains only an extract so it is difficult to assess.

In the non-fiction category, Paul Graham Raven’s essay New Model Authors? Authority, Authordom, Anarchism and the Atomized Text in a Networked World discusses an experimental piece of critical writing on Adam Roberts’s novel New Model Army which had appeared on the internet (and which he had uploaded to his clipping service) but which has now vanished – apparently without trace. Raven’s essay read to me as if it were a piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Lewis’ (Lewis’s,) the both of them (“both of them, or “the pair of them” not “the both of them”,) oblivious of (ignorant of was meant; oblivious means “unaware of”, not “unknowing”,) the community prided themselves (itself,) residents committee (residents’, x4) “there had been only few” (only a few,) “one of its residents found their way” (his, or her, way,) more-so (more so,) a sentence containing only subordinate clauses, may have (might have,) focussing (focusing,) “the neighbourhood fought to free themselves” (strictly, itself,) homeopathic (homoeopathic,) PIN number (PIN – the N already stands for number,) the chemists (the chemist’s.) 2miniscule (minuscule,) “Why were this mismatched pair meeting ..?” (Why was this pair meeting?) “a block of portholes have been elected” (a block has been selected,) seven year ago (years,) a lack of punctuation makes at least two sentences read oddly, publically (publicly,) forbad (forbade,) “‘But not every change is for the worst,’” (worse, I think that would be.) 3stood (standing,) focussed (focused,) four absences of paragraph breaks when a different person is speaking. 4none … yells (fine,) but none … mean anything (means,) none of us remember (remembers,) breathing heavy (heavily,) “I cannot move from the aches and pains” (for the aches and pains,) “I know there is such a thing as odourless solvents” (such things as,) whinging (I prefer whingeing) 5”Those from farming stock can possess…..if he is shown..” (those is plural, therefore, “if they are shown”,) smoothes (smooths,) “there are a handful” (is a handful,) Clemens’ (Clemens’s,) “which decorates the entire of his chest and stomach” (the entire? How about “the entirety” or “the whole”.)

Hugo Awards Final Ballot 2017

From Locus via Geiorge R R Martin’s Not A Blog.

The winners will be announced at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in August.

I’ve only read two of the nominees. (I take it most are USian.)

Best Novel

All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan UK)
A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton; Harper Voyager US)
The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
Death’s End, Cixin Liu (Tor; Head of Zeus)
Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer (Tor)

Best Novella

Penric and the Shaman, Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
This Census-Taker, China Miéville (Del Rey; Picador)
A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan (Tor.com 7/27/16)
“Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld 4/16)
Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex, Stix Hiscock (self-published)
“The Tomato Thief”, Ursula Vernon (Apex 1/5/16)
The Jewel and Her Lapidary, Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing)
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny 5-6/16)

Best Short Story

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander (Uncanny 11-12/16)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
“The City Born Great”, N.K. Jemisin (Tor.com 9/28/16)
“That Game We Played During the War”, Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com 3/16/16)
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong (Tor.com 3/2/16)
“An Unimaginable Light”, John C. Wright (God, Robot)

Best Related Work

The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher (Blue Rider)
Women of Harry Potter series of posts, Sarah Gailey (Tor.com)
The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline)
The Geek Feminist Revolution, Kameron Hurley (Tor)
Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer)
Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, Robert Silverberg & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Fairwood)

Best Graphic Story

Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, Ta-Nehisi Coates, art by Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel)
The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, Tom King, art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel)
Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image)
Paper Girls, Volume 1, Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang (Image)
Saga, Volume 6, Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples (Image)
Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous, G. Willow Wilson, art by Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona & Nico Leon (Marvel)

Best Dramatic Presentation — Long

Arrival
Deadpool
Ghostbusters
Hidden Figures
Rogue One
Stranger Things, Season One

Best Dramatic Presentation — Short

Black Mirror: “San Junipero”
Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”
The Expanse: “Leviathan Wakes”
Game of Thrones: “Battle of the Bastards”
Game of Thrones: “The Door”
Splendor & Misery

Interzone 268

TTA Press

Interzone 268 cover

Dave Senecal’s Editorial1 ponders the necessity of mystery to the creative impulse.Jonathan McCalmont’s column examines how SF got into its present sorry state and says it ought to return to preparing us for the future. If his example of Carl Neville’s Resolution Way is to be believed (not to mention the world’s political circumstances) that future may be hellish. Nina Allan’s Time Piece reflects on the different approaches required to writing fiction and non-fiction especially with regard to those recent political events. In the book reviews2 you’ll find mine of Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets, Maureen Kincaid Speller’s evaluation of Johana Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, Duncan Lunan’s review of Stephen Baxter’s H G Wells’s estate-approved War of the Worlds sequel The Massacre of Mankind and Shaun Green’s take on both Iraq +100 edited by Hassan Blasim and Adrian Selby’s Snakewood, while in 2016 Round Up3 Interzone’s regular book reviewers list their bests of the year. Despite not reading not much new fiction in 2015 Jo Lindsay Walton manages to produce an extended essay on the year’s fiction.

As to the stories, Everyone Gets a Happy Ending4 by Julie C Day features an unusual apocalypse. A plague of rabbits foisted on human wombs by Immaculate Conception.

The Noise & The Silence5 by Christien Gholson. In a world saturated by The Wall ceaselessly pounding out Orwellian slogans and musical pap, a resistance movement known as The Silence arose. It was put down but adherents hang on in the hidden places.

The Transmuted Child6 of Michael Reid’s story is Esmonde, thrown out by her family after her Erkess implant makes her drown her brother. Her new carer, Dao Nghiem, takes her to the Erkess home world to try to find a cure for her.

Mel Kassel’s Weavers in the Cellar are spiders kept in captivity to weave clothes and armour for their captors. Any thoughts of their species’ previous relationship are Unthinkable. But our narrator’s mother passed on knowledge of her heritage.

Freedom of Navigation7 by Val Nolan is set amidst a territorial dispute in the asteroid belt. Two of the narrator’s slaved AIs come to believe he is a traitor. For some reason I was reminded of the film Casablanca.

The Rhyme of Grievance8 by T R Napper follows the granting of human rights to the first AI. A woman who needed to finance a life-saving operation is recruited by those who see AIs as merely an extension of the powerful class to destroy it. I was reminded of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll.

Pedant’s corner:- 1wont (won’t; but Sevecal’s an artist not a wordsmith.) 2refers throughout to England rather than Britain. Perhaps Baxter did this, I can’t remember if Wells did. 3practise (noun; therefore practice) “the emotional contortions forces onto us” (forced,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) an italicised Thing is which didn’t seem to be a title, superrare (super-rare,) The Triump of Mechanics (Triumph,) 4unphased (apparently phased is a legitimate US variant of fazed. I prefer there to be a distinction in the spellings.) 5”The vibrations … was said” (were said.) 6Erkess’ (Erkess’s.) “A bundle of ropy organs descend” (a bundle descends,) 7“Part of the sides of my feet were numb” (Parts were numb,) florescent (fluorescent,) “the Belt Republic is moving one of their asteroids” (its asteroids,) “there was nothing us pilots liked more than mischief” (we pilots,) ci-Martian space (cis-Martian space?) “subservice activity via seismic shivers” (subsurface makes more sense,) ordinance (ordnance – used previously.) 8“The audience were” (was,) colourful vegetable and fruit (vegetables,) to sooth (soothe,) “up to white porcelain sink” (to the white porcelain sink.)

Strange Visitors by Eric Brown

Imaginings 8, NewCon Press, 2014, 158 p.

I ought again to point out that the author is well-known to me: is, indeed, a friend. I hope that this does not colour any appreciation – or lack thereof – of his output nor get in the way of any judgements or comments I make about his work.

 Strange Visitors cover

In any case in his introduction to this collection its publisher Ian Whates relays “stalwart of the British SF community” and former owner of Birmingham’s much-lamented Andromeda bookshop Rog Peyton’s opinion that Brown is our greatest living SF writer – as much for the author’s concentration on the humans in his stories as for anything else. Whatever, Strange Visitors contains an excellent body of stories displaying Brown’s range and it is striking here how often those which reflect humanity and its foibles most directly are the most successful and satisfying. Many of Brown’s perennial concerns are evident (religion surprisingly excepted) but their handling shows Brown’s assurance as a writer.

In Life Beyond…… 1 Brown pays effective homage to SF writer Clifford D Simak. An ageing writer faced with losing his recently orphaned grand-daughter to an adoptive family has a close encounter with a book-collecting alien.

Steps Along the Way2 is set thirty thousand years into the future where humans are effectively immortal, have spread all through the galaxy and can Enstate and Enable people from history.

Brown’s affection for the work of Michael G Coney shines through The Sins of Edward Veron3 where the titular Veron is an artist who has lost his ability to produce good work. Then an alien art collector from Mintaka V arrives at Sapphire Oasis. (SPOILER ALERT. There is a slight flaw in this story in that Veron seems to have been able to leave the Oasis the day after his wife died without engendering either suspicion or investigation.)

In Myths of the Martian Future4 Olinka and Tem, two crab-like cave dwellers on a far-future Mars, set out on their initiation rite on the surface. What they meet encompasses both the past of their species and a description of its future. There is a certain stiltedness in the narration, characteristic of all stories such as this.

The Scribe of Betelgeuse V5 is a tongue-in-cheek account of the invasion of Earth by octopods from Betelgeuse V, whose first act is to cause an episode of mass writers’ block. It manages to name check a couple of Brown’s writer friends as well as poke fun at the publishing industry.

The Rest Is Speculation6. Two and a half billion years into the future representatives of every sentient race that ever existed on Earth are gathered together by the Effectuators to witness its last days.

The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador7 is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche wherein the great detective is invited to investigate the murder of the Martian ambassador at Mars’s London embassy, where the two human employees are a certain Herbert Wells and Miss Rebecca West.

In Bukowski on Mars, With Beer8 Brown imagines how Charles Bukowski would cope after being brought back to life – along with all the greats – on a future Mars. The beer helps.

People of Planet Earth9 is an alien invasion story where the method of body snatching is exceedingly unusual, to say the least.

In P.O.O.C.H.10 Michael is punished for electronically stealing from the rich (but relaying the proceeds to charity) by being given his own Personal Omni-Operational Correction Hound; a robot which mimics a real dog in all respects.

Pedant’s corner:- A total of 20 occurrences of “time interval later” plus one “within seconds”. Each story has its title as a header on odd-numbered pages except The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador appears for both its own story and for The Rest Is Speculation and People of the Planet Earth appears for People of Planet Earth. Otherwise; 1USian spellings – disheveled, defense, etc; but…. manoeuvre. “of legion of thinkers” (of a legion; or, of legions.) “What if they alien” (the alien,) “I am loathe to give them up” (loth, or loath,) 2“men whose contribution to history were steps along the way” (contributions.) 3“accused her of having affair” (an affair,) “the piece in which I had tried to imbue” (the piece which I had tried,) back-peddling (back pedalling,) 4Barington (Barrington.) 5Carstairs’ (Carstairs’s,) stared at MS (the MS,) the BBC were on hand (the BBC was,) “I wil l-” (I will-,) Hemmings’ (Hemmings’s,) “‘I demanded reparations’” (demand.) 6a missing comma before a piece of dialogue, “this absence, this lacunae” (lacuna,) disk x 3 but disc x 1, “‘And they?’ I Kamis asked.” (‘And they?’ Kamis asked.) 7Wells’ (Wells’s,) “‘Was he is the habit….’” (in the habit,) “The slightest frowned marred” (frown,) “‘For a little short for six months’” (of six months,) Madame Rochelle’s (appears as Madame the first twice but subsequently as Madam, but this may have been an authorial distinction between that lady’s establishment and her person,) “‘if any of your ladies in the habit’” (are in the habit,) St Pauls (St Paul’s,) 8“A guy a silver suit” (in a silver suit,) “That last I remembered” (The last?) anther beer (anther beer sounds like great stuff but another beer was meant,) “to keep in breathable” (it breathable,) “and the all fucking” (and all the fucking.) 9the throes delirium (of delirium,) ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Speaker of the House’ (when starting a speech in Parliament the form is, ‘Mr Speaker, honourable members.’) 10”to answer to summons” (the summons,) descendent (descendant,) miniscule (minuscule,) you commands (your,) busses (buses.) Thirty minute (minutes,) banks accounts (banks’ accounts.)

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2010, 330 p

Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Emblazoned across this book’s cover is ‘Should have won the 2009 Booker Prize’ – Kim Stanley Robinson. Rather a large claim to make and considering the novel spends some time mentioning and discussing Science Fiction and the existence or not of aliens – an automatic disbarment one would have thought – a forlornly hopeful one at best. (I note a certain amount of possible mutual back-scratching going on here as Roberts praised Robinson’s latest novel in his recent Guardian review.)

Yellow Blue Tibia, unusually for a piece of Western SF, is set entirely in the Soviet Union and starts when a group of Soviet SF writers is invited to meet comrade Stalin and asked to come up with a scenario of alien invasion to provide an enemy for the state to rally the people against. Their concept of radiation aliens becomes fleshed out but then they are told to forget the whole thing and never mention it again to anyone. Narrator Konstantin Skvorecky, former SF writer and veteran of the Great Patriotic War, recalls this from the perspective of the glasnost and perestroika era of 1986 when he once again meets a member of that original group, Ivan Frenkel, and weird things begin to happen.

The novel contains several nods to works of SF, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy etc, and frequent discussions of the form, ‘the worlds created by a science fictional writer do not deny the real world; they antithesise it!’
But what are we to make of this exchange?
“‘Communism is science fiction.’
‘And vice versa.’
‘I can think of many American writers of science fiction who would be insulted to think so.’
‘Perhaps they do not fully understand the genre in which they are working.’”

Frenkel is attempting to convince Skvorecky that UFOs are real, are in effect all around us, that in accordance with the scenario dreamed up by Stalin’s conclave of SF writers an alien invasion is under way. Skvorecky is initially sceptical, “‘Marx called religion the opium of the people… But at least opium is a high-class drug. UFO religion? That’s the methylated spirits of the people. It’s the home-still beetroot-alcohol of the people.’” To help persuade him Frenkel has Skvorecky meet two US Scientologists, James Tilly Coyne, and Nora Dorman – with whom Skvorecky falls in love mainly, it seems, because she is well-proportioned. In the end, though, Skvorecky tells us, “There are no secrets in this book… it is drawing your attention to that which is hidden in plain view all the time.”

Supposedly comedic interludes are provided by Saltykov – a taxi driver who has a condition, an extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome – and cannot bear contact with another man. He continually harps on about this and repeatedly says, ‘Do not talk to the driver. It’s a distraction.’ Roberts making one of Saltykov’s utterances, ‘I like to keep my engine clean. It’s a clean machine,’ is, though, certainly an authorial allusion to Penny Lane. Then we have the rather plodding KGB heavy, Trofim, who dogs Skvorecky more or less throughout.

This is the first time on reading Roberts that he has made me laugh. This came during an exchange in Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 (the aliens are apparently intending to blow this up, Skvorecky to find the bomb) when Trofim says, “It’s fallen in the water!”. But then I suppose, strictly speaking, since it’s a Goon Show quote (“He’s fallen in the water” – audio sample here, towards the bottom of the page) it was actually Spike Milligan making me laugh.

Skvorecky leads a charmed life, surviving many threatening situations, not least with Trofim. The UFO hypothesis suggests his survival is due to the superposition of states, of what Roberts dubs realitylines.

So why Yellow Blue Tibia? Apparently “yellow, blue, tibia” approximates to a phonetic declaration of “I love you” in Russian, a phrase which Skvorecky teaches to Dora. Unfortunately the book states that the tibia is a bone in the arm. The tibia is actually in the leg, along with the femur and the fibia; the bones of the arm are the humerus, the radius and the ulna. This is a pretty egregious mistake to make when the word tibia is in your book’s title.

It is undeniably all very cleverly done but again there is that distancing feeling attached to Roberts’s writing. Skvorecky claims to be in love with Dora but as a reader I couldn’t really feel it.

Apart from that could Yellow Blue Tibia have won the 2009 Booker Prize? Given the literary world’s prejudices – even though some of its denizens have taken to appropriating the tropes of the genre – never.

And should it have? In a word, no. Look at the short list.

Pedant’s corner:- for you next appointment (your,) paleoarcheological (palaeoarchaeological,) a stigmata (stigmata is plural, the singular is stigma,) a missing opening quote mark, sat (seated, or sitting,) “the spindle-wheels of the cassette again began turning again” (only one “again” required here,) span (spun – which appeared later,) “covered with the chocolate brown patches” (these patches had not previously been mentioned; so “covered with chocolate brown patches”,) a missing full stop at the end of a piece of dialogue, “we spent out energies” (our energies,) sprung (sprang.) “‘What am I suppose to do now?’” (supposed,) liquorish (liquorice. This is the second time I have seen liquorish for liquorice in a Roberts book. Does he really believe liquorish is the correct spelling?) “‘She was the middle of’” (in the middle of,) cesium (caesium, please,) trunk (of a car; previously “boot” had been used,) “‘Use you fucking head.’” (your,) “The air around me was less atmosphere and more immersion, or preparation was of a multiple spectral shift.” (????) “when accounts … becomes more frequent” (become. )

Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February 2017

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Jan-Feb 2017 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial hails Asimov’s 40th year of publication, Robert Silverberg’s Reflections solicits two cheers for Piltdown Man, James Patrick Kelly’s On the Net: Ask Me Anything compares various digital assistants, in On Books1 Paul di Filippo reviews eight books (including one I have reviewed for Interzone.) I was under the impression that Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station was a fix-up novel. di Filippo writes about it as if unaware of this.
As to the fiction. In Crimson Birds of Small Miracles2 by Sean Monaghan the father of a daughter with a terminal brain disease takes her and her sister to see Shilinka Switalla’s artwork, a flock of robot birds doing murmurations, as these excursions seem to help her. This story had an illustration of a strange attitude to wealth. The father has a good business, can afford increasingly complex prosthetics for his sick daughter, can take his children to various different planets but reckons he could never be rich in the monetary sense. Yet he quite clearly is.
Tagging Bruno3 by Allen Steele. On Coyote, a moon in the system 47-Uma, a former soldier is roped in to act as guide on a project to tag an indigenous bird-like species (boids) dangerous to humans but under threat of extinction due to human hunting activity. It goes quite well till the expedition encounters a flock which turns the tables on them.
Still Life with Abyss by Jim Grimsley is set in a project researching the only individual in all the multiple universes who has never caused a fork in time.
In Fatherbond by Tom Purdow, new arrivals on a colony planet begin to work against the entity which seeks to restrict their actions. (It’s tempting to read this as a metaphor for the pre-Revolutionary government of North America which forbade expansion westwards, the desire to overthrow which ban -rather than the confected protest about taxation – being the true reason for the War of Independence.)
Winter Timeshare4 by Ray Nayler shows us the annual meeting of two people who inhabit bodies (dubbed blanks) for their one holiday each year which is always in Istanbul, whose surrounding hills are the location for sending volunteers on a one-way trip to space. Despite their purchasing power blanks are resented by the “normal” locals. For a reason not particularly obvious the job of one of our protagonists involves simulating the Peloponnesian War.
Two young girls in the LA area in Lisa Goldstein’s The Catastrophe of Cities investigate strange houses wherein they glimpse oddly shaped people and passageways lead elsewhere. They drift apart on puberty, one seemingly dropping out of existence. In much later life the other seeks her out.
Robert R Chase’s Pieces of Ourselves5 is the tale of a survivor of a terrorist attack on a moon base who may have assimilated character traits as a result of her experience.
Jack Skillingstead’s Destination6 features a man who has not been outside the confines of his gated work community since being plucked from his childhood home after displaying high aptitude being told by his bosses to take part in the game Destination, essentially a mystery tour by taxi. Outside is not what he thought.
The Meiosis of Cells and Exile by Octavia Cade is structured around the life of Soviet biochemist and neuroscientist Lina Stern. On a train to exile in Dzhambul her body buds sequentially (or else she hallucinates) three of her former selves, the Academician, the Child, and the Scientist. Each is equated with a function of the blood-brain barrier.
Starphone by Stephen Baxter is set in a post ocean-rise world where flood refugees are kept inside domes. Some teenagers plan a short escape to test the Fermi Paradox by making an Allen Array with their mobile phones.
In Blow Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks7 by John Alfred Taylor a couple celebrates the last time it will be safe to witness a storm at their island home. The damage it causes is still substantial even though the hurricane’s eye passes thirty miles out from shore.
Robert Reed’s The Speed of Belief8 is a tale of three entities, two immortals with bioceramic brains, one normal human, on their way to a planet where the rivers are sentient. I really couldn’t make much of this. Perhaps I was too tired when I read it.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 again di Filippo uses stefnal for science-fictional – it still looks odd to me, “compare that man to somewhat callow fellow” (to the somewhat callow fellow.) 2a dark red button-front jumper (a dark red cardigan, then?) base reliefs (bas-reliefs, I think,) 378.2 inches (how can you decimalise a non-metric unit?) “a small red crosshairs” (a implies singular, crosshairs is surely plural; there was “a green crosshairs” later,) “Carbon testing of boid skeletons had shown they could live as long as thirty-five years” (leaving aside the question of whether 14C would exist on this world at all, unless the carbon testing is somewhat different from on Earth it could do no such thing; 14C dating only yields the time elapsed since death,) a missing end quote mark, sole causality (casualty.) 4Bosporus (I only ever saw Bosphorus when I was young,) causal (casual was intended.) 5 “started at her intently” (stared.) 6 “an approved media” (it was one of the social media; so medium.) 7grille (grill, used earlier in the story.) 8 “with every sort of creatures” (creature.) “But the dense native air was heavily oxygenated, and the bedrock had been scorched clean of its forests and soil.” (This is stated to have been done by wildfires. The oxygen would have to be remnant then as there will be nothing to replenish it,) “carefully tailored frame: The long body” (no capital at “the”.) “Mere notice what was different” (noticed,) forbad (the usual form is forbade.)

Shoreline of Infinity 2: Winter 2015/16

Science Fiction Magazine from Scotland, The New Curiosity Shop, 106 p.

Shoreline of Infinity 2 cover

This issue is larger than the first. Each story (bar one) still has its own piece of artwork and title page but the story text now starts about one-sixth down the page instead of at the top, with the first paragraph in a larger font size than the rest. The Interview1 is with Duncan Lunan whose work also features in SF Caledonia. Steve Green’s Border Crossings rues the modern tendency for excessive strip-mining of previous creative endeavours, in both fiction and film. Reviews2 looks at Poems by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod plus five other books, one of which I have marked for reading another of which I have read and liked much less than the reviewer and one I saw in embryo when it was workshopped by the East Coast Writer’s Group. The poetry theme is maintained with a new dedicated section, MultiVerse,3 edited by Russell Jones, which here takes the form of 2 poems apiece by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod.
In the fiction “We Sell Seashells”4 by Ryan L Daly has a prospector for mind-altering seashells finding her biggest one yet. It isn’t what she expects.
In Citizen Erased5 by Bethany Ruth Anderson, a married couple agree to take part in a process of memory extraction.
Megan Neumann’s Charlie, A Projecting Prestidigitator is an android who gives performances akin to the circus except with holographic projections. He/it finds sanctuary/fulfilment among children on a scrapheap.
Purgatory6 by Michael Fontana circles back on itself a trifle too predictably as two men roll the bones and confront each other in an
In Death Do Us Part7 by Tyler Petty the resurrection technology of the Wilton Foundation means risky endeavours are survivable Our married couple take it in turns to die – or kill each other.
Reliquaries8 by Steve Simpson. The Superior War has degraded civilisation. A spaceship has landed in South America and is compulsively attracting the remains of the population.
The very short Vanity by Kathy Steinemann has its artwork and title on the one page and its text barely fills one other. It is narrated by the purveyor of a rejuvenation treatment which is partly a con.
Anton Rose’s The Republic of David features a malfunctioning matter transmitter which keeps churning out copies of David at the colony on the receiving end.
A Season of Want by Ken Poyner is set in the cybernetic afterlife of the very rich who can afford such procedures.
In The Child With Wings9 by Ann Craig people on an underground train are enchanted by a young girl, with wings, who is also making the journey and may be a ghost or an angel,
In Last Days in the Nanotech War10 by Duncan Lunan nanotech biological implants have gone haywire, forcing updates voraciously on their hosts.

1the the (one “the”,) “That seem to me” (seems,) 2Banks’ (Banks’s,) a missing full stop, “and are all invoked” (the “and” should be before the last of the list of names given earlier,) “Ward Moore Bring the Jubilee” (Ward Moore’s,) to questions the ways (question,) 3and In “Sobieski’s Shield” (either in; or “In Sobieski’s Shield”,) “I first men” (met,) Banks’ (Banks’s,) “there’s a verge of danger and bout of war about them” (no, sorry. Can’t parse that at all.) 4Written in USian, rarified (rarefied,) spectrums (spectra,) “a trail of mucous” (mucous is an adjective; the noun is mucus.) 5in hopes that (in the hope that,) scrapping (scraping,) “than the songs lasts” (song; or, last) sat (seated; or, sitting,) “Naomi gathered up her back” (???? Context suggests bag.) 6Written in USian, “He had took” (taken,) pablum (pabulum,) “‘Why’d you let me up?’ He asked.” (‘Why’d you let me up?’ he asked,) a missing paragraph indent. 7Written in USian. Mills (Mills’s – which had appeared a few lines before.) 8Written in USian, or perhaps Aussie given the author’s address, ”shattered moonlets shone down on the tideless Atlantic” (even without the Moon there would still be tides, the Sun would still pull the Earth’s water towards it,) serra??? (sierra made more sense) callouses (calluses,) a missing end quotation mark. 9Every dialogue quote -barring two which end their respective sentences – is without the comma before the end quote mark, its (x 2, it’s.) 10insured (ensured,) “over the top” (not at Mons. The trench system hadn’t developed by then.)

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