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Gilbert and Edgar on Mars by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2009, 93 p.

On leaving a meeting with Bernard Shaw and H G Wells at the Athenæum, G K Chesterton is bumped into by a small man who subsequently asks him to sign some of his works. On crossing the threshold of the building to where he is led Chesterton realises he has been mistaken for Wells, but before he can correct his companion he finds to his initial confusion, he has been instantly transported to Mars.

Very shortly thereafter he is busted from the room where he is confined by a man with a US accent. This is the Edgar of the title (whom we later find is, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

As is the way of conceits such as this we soon encounter one John Carter, plus Professor Challenger and a depiction of a caged man who might as well be Tarzan and, we must impute, Burroughs’s inspiration for that character. To go with the conceit here we have a cod Edwardian literary styling in the prose. There may well too be some Chestertonian references which I missed but I know Brown is familiar with that writer’s œuvre.

The plot revolves around the Six Philosophers, the Jabbak Kathro – an ancient race from when Mars was lush and green but whose star faded once the dry times came and who now live only with their minds. They had long ago invented a device called The Dream Crystal to read the contents of others’ minds, abducting people from Earth for the purpose before giving them an amnesiac and sending them back. “The crystal takes the imagination of the subject .… and makes it apparently real.” They have run through Earth’s playwrights and poets and now have a taste for adventure stories, hence their intended abduction of Wells.

The enjoyment in reading – and I assume writing – pieces like this lies in the ambience and allusions rather than the plot. Brown manages it all with entertaining ease.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later”/“within time interval” count: 23. Otherwise; “his bulk seemed not to possess its erstwhile laggardly mass” (it would have the same mass, what it woudn’t have is the same weight,) “none of which were easily recognisable” (none of which was…,) Edgar addresses Gilbert as ‘chum’ which I do not think is a USian usage, nought (naught,) Wells’ (Wells’s,) gunnel (it’s spelled gunwale,) fullness (my dictionary gives both spellings but I have usually encountered only ‘fulness’,) Edgar asks Gilbert if he is “some kind of pinko Commie” (which is an anachronism,) prioll (prial,) “a haberdashers” (a haberdasher’s.)

Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole

Angry Robot, 2020, 336 p. Published in Interzone 286, Mar-Apr 2020.

Sixteenth Watch cover

In a crowded field how do you attempt to make your military SF stand out from that crowd? Well, if you are Myke Cole you make your story about a cinderella service, the Coast Guard (which seems to be two words in the US and in whose ranks Cole has served himself.) “COASTGUARDS IN SPACE!” is a good tag-line after all, even if it might not seem to promise much in the way of battle scenes. Fans of this particular sub-genre need not worry though. There’s plenty of the usual mayhem associated with the form in these pages. Cole is careful to get some of this in early in a prologue where viewpoint character Coastguard Commander Jane Oliver is called into a confrontation between US and Chinese miners of Helium-3 on Lacus Doloris on the Moon, in which two of her crew, Kariawasm and Flecha, plus her Navy frigate commander husband Tom, are killed. This is a future where the US is (naturally) a major power on the Moon with its main rival being China. Mention is made of Russia but its presence is very much off-stage in this book, whose title derives from the days of the International Space Station and refers to the sixteen sunrises experienced there every Earth day. The sixteenth watch has come to mean any assignment in space.

As a result of the Lacus Doloris debacle Oliver was put out to grass in a training capacity back on Earth. The book proper begins when Oliver is recalled four years after Lacus Doloris to help the Coastguard in a tussle for influence over the course of events on the Moon. The navy is leaning on the (slightly flaky, insistent on quarantine against space sickness which doesn’t exist) US President to allow it free reign in policing the border between its economic zone on the Moon and that of the Chinese, using its superiority in Boarding Action, an inter-service reality TV competition broadcast once a year to large enthusiastic audiences, which the Marines have won several years running, as evidence for its suitability for the task. The Coastguard’s high command is anxious to counter this as they regard the Navy as far too gung-ho and liable to start a war. They see a possible Coastguard victory in the forthcoming Boarding Action as the perfect antidote. Oliver is given the job of training the crew along with the carrot of promotion to Admiral. Of course feathers are ruffled, her unconventional methods provoking confrontations both among the crew and with the Navy, the Marines and her own commanders. Complicating all this for Oliver is her relationships with her son Adam, off doing his own thing on Earth, and daughter Alice, now working on the moon and expecting her to retire there.

Cole is at pains to emphasise that the coastguards’ main mission is not fighting (though they will – and do – when they have to) but to save lives. Oliver is determined not to make the same mistakes as before as well as to avoid accidentally provoking a war. Even four years on the events on Lacus Doloris still hang over the thoughts of several of the characters. Pictures of the dead Kariawasm and Flecha are on the wall of the training ship and implicit comparisons are drawn about relative abilities. In a hard-boiled service this almost morbid angst is surely somewhat unlikely and probably counter-productive.

Cole does seem keen either to appear right-on or else to niggle the (presumably) main readership of military SF. The Navy’s 11th fleet flagship is named the USS Obama, the Marines’ toughest operative is a niqab and hijab wearing hulk of a woman, characters, Oliver especially (despite her military sang froid and competence,) display emotion and sentimentality with surprising alacrity. Yet the book is still crammed with military jargon and acronyms – so much so that Cole has felt the need to include a Glossary.

The above would-be humanising touches and reflections on the ethics, responsibilities and effective strategies for leadership aside, in the end we have innumerable puffs of mist as spacesuits are punctured by weaponry and – surely precious – atmosphere is (deliberately or otherwise) vented to vacuum from ships, the same old high body count, the same old recounting of deaths of combatants – and non-combatants. Military SF, doing what it says on the tin.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Author’s Note; “at the end of the this book” (either ‘the’ or ‘this’, not both.) Otherwise: Aries’ (Aries’s, several instances) “folded over their back” (their backs,) autocannons (the plural of cannon is cannon, therefore ‘autocannon’,) “a single antennae” (one of them is an antenna,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 6,) cox’sun (cox’n, innumerable instances.) “The only thing that came close were their two children” (the only thing was, or, the only things were,) “off the roof one of the government habs” (off the roof of one of the government habs.) “She turned back the class” (back to the class,) Elias’ (Elias’s,) kindergartners (kindergarteners,) a missing opening quote mark at a chapter heading, “the bottom the of the screen” (the bottom of the screen,) “in and endless loop” (in an endless loop,) “someone of the other end of the line” (on the other end,) “as the silenced stretched” (silence,) “dancing down bow” (only sensible if ‘down bow’ is a naval term,) O-TRACEN (elsewhere always OTRACEN,) a question ended with a full stop instead of a ‘?’,) “on the whole installation” (in the whole installation,) “Ho folder his arms” (folded,) Kariwasm (x 2, elsewhere [-1] always Kariawasm,) “enormity of the task” (it wasn’t a dreadful or despicable task, just a daunting one, so enormity is not warranted as a description,) “between themselves at the enemy” (and the enemy,) “let alone being able” (the rest of the sentence was in past tense, so, ‘been able’.) “Oliver would see” (could see,) “lay of the land” (lie,) Okonwo (elsewhere [-1] always Okonkwo,) conturbernium (elsewhere always contubernium.) “‘There’s a only one surefire way’” (no ‘a’ needed,) imposter (impostor, please,) “onto the top the of his head” (no, ‘the’ needed,) “comfortable in dear to her” (and dear makes more sense,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Pervez’ (Pervez’s,) “‘to let you do your way’” (to let you do it your way’,) “a work bench someone had clearly been checking autocannon loads” (a work bench where someone had clearly been checking autocannon loads.) “This is was right call” (This was the right call,) “in in” (only one ‘in’ needed,) “when the clocking was ticking away” (when the clock was,) “the crowd … were” (was,) “to make the squint even against the glass’ glare dampeners” (to make them squint even against the glass’s glare dampeners.) “‘We’re are learning’” (We are learning,) Kariaswasm (Kariawasm,) “to wonder if maybe wasn’t going to speak” (if he maybe.) “Earth was a glowing green-blue wedge …shining nearly as bright as a star” (from Moon orbit? Much, much brighter than a star, surely?) Santos’ (Santos’s.) “I takes Oliver a full thirty seconds” (rest of passage is in past tense, so, ‘It took Oliver thirty seconds’,) Baskins’ (Baskins’s, x 2,) “as the gained on the runner so rapidly, it looked as if” (as they gained so rapidly it looked as if,) “when the immediate dangers was past”(either ‘danger’ or ‘were’.) “Protocol forbid her” (forbade.) “‘I could give a fuck about’” (context demands, ‘couldn’t give a fuck about’ rather than ‘could’. Do USians really use the inverse?) “‘Welp’” (context implies ‘Well’, x 2.) Oknonkwo (Okonkwo,) “‘I need you work with the team’” (I need you to work with the team,) “‘I tell you too’” (to,) “the impact of the team’s effectiveness” (on the team’s effectiveness.) “‘Doesn’t hurt when I breath’” (breathe,) “she could she the” (she could see the, x 2,) “two hospital corpsman” (corpsmen,) “and turns back to him” (turned,) pollenating (pollinating,) “looked at Each of the crew’s faces” (each,) “as the she fired the bow thrusters” (no first ‘the’ needed,) “‘Turret’s clear!’ He radioed a moment later’” (‘Turret’s clear!’ he radioed a moment later,) “in a pinch” (at a pinch,) “court marital” (martial,) “had originally been surrounded what must have been” (had originally been surrounded by what must have been,) “her antennae was intact” (antenna,) a missing end quotation mark. “‘Ma,am,’” (Ma’am,) “where a broad bandage swatched his abdomen” (swathed,) the Obama (elsewhere Obama, CO2 (CO2,) “where’d she’d been” (where she’d been.) In the Glossary; “on the moons’ surface” (Moon’s.) “Artificial generated by” (Artificial gravity generated by.)

BSFA Award Winners

This year’s BSFA Award winners have been announced. (They were livestreamed from Confusion – this year’s Eastercon – and on You Tube.)

They are:-

Best Novel: N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became (Orbit)
Best Non-Fiction: Adam Roberts, It’s the End of the World: But what are we really afraid of? (Elliot & Thompson)
Best Shorter Fiction: Ida Keogh, Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe (London Centric)
Best Artwork: Iain Clarke, ‘Shipbuilding Over the Clyde,’ art for Glasgow in 2024 Worldcon bid.

I must say I don’t think 2020 was a vintage year. I have read (or seen) all – or part of – the winners’ works, though. (In the novel’s case that’s a bit fortunate as it is the ooly one of the nominees I did read due to reviewing it for Interzone.) Some of the other novel nominees I may get round to in time. When more normal service in daily life has returned.

Re-Coil by J T Nicholas

Titan Books, 2020, 357 p. Published in Interzone 286, Mar-Apr 2020.

 Re-Coil cover

When an author prefaces a novel with an epigraph from Shakespeare he (Nicholas in this case) is setting himself up for a fall. This book’s apparently oddly punctuated title arises from that quote. Coils here take the place that in Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels was occupied by what Morgan dubbed sleeves. Once you have shuffled off one mortal coil your backed-up personality, your core, is decanted, along with your memories (except of course those gained since your last back-up,) into another coil grown solely for these purposes. Hence Re-Coil. In effect people in this scenario are immortal. Unless something goes wrong. There are safeguards to the process. Supposedly. To guarantee quality control one corporation has the franchise and is held to exacting standards.

The economics of this are a bit obscure. Some sort of insurance means you are guaranteed back-up but not necessarily in a similar body or even one of the same sex. There are four grades of coil from the top-notch to the frankly worthless, used only to bank up credit for a better one next time. Nicholas does make a foray into the demographic implications of all this in terms of population increase but soon skates away from them. At the same time everyone has a connection to an internal AI, called an agent, which acts as a sort of personal internet, connected to the outside world. And nanites in the narrator’s bloodstream effect quick tissue repairs to any injuries.

That narrator, Carter Langston, is part of a spaceship salvage crew. He is the one tasked with entering derelict ships to determine whether there is anything worth salvaging. In one such he comes across scores of dead bodies, faceplates open. While he is engaged in the grisly task of retrieving the cores of the dead, one of the corpses reanimates and comes for him. The derelict, his coil and his ship are destroyed.

On reawakening in his new coil, he discovers there has been a glitch, data corruption, he nearly died for real. And then he narrowly escapes an assassin. Another of the crew did not survive. Someone is out to get them. Along with the crew’s computer whizz Shay Chan, a woman now uncomfortably re-coiled into a male body, he sets out to discover whom, and what is the big secret which needs such drastic protection.

Their investigations lead them to a megacorps called Genetechnic. It has created nanobots designed to seek out and remove bad memories from a coil. They called it Bliss. The nanobots between them formed an AI which decided any memories at all could be bad and wipes them all out, leaving behind blank coils. Worse, the nanobots can act like a virus and infect others – and they escaped the derelict ship. The Genetechnic operative sent to silence Langston and Chan decides their ship boarding expertise will be an asset in chasing Bliss down.

Langston affects to be sickened by the slaughter, indeed gore of any sort. Nevertheless the body count rises and rises and there is a certain fetishising of the mechanics of gun use. Nicholas here is attempting to disown his cake yet is still serving it up for wider consumption.

As in many other stories of this type the prose tends towards the utilitarian and a lot of the information dumping is clearly intended for a twenty-first century audience rather than being required for story purposes. Nicholas has also made several unexamined assumptions. Langston (and others) prowl spaceship hulls utilising magnetic boots, implying these spaceships are made of iron, a material surely too dense for the purpose. Despite being exposed to vacuum, a solvent, rather than evaporating instantly, still manages to dissolve a glue. In a fairly important scene set inside another depressurised spaceship the text implies oxygen (which the text acknowledges is absent) is a fuel. It isn’t. We are then told other fuels are available, running as gases through pipes on the walls. (Really? And to what purpose?) These gases are utilised to burn our heroes’ pursuers. Not without oxygen they wouldn’t. Missteps like these are detrimental to a suspension of readers’ disbelief.

If your tastes lie in the direction of shoot-em-ups rendered in the form of prose Re-Coil may very well satisfy your appetite. If you’re looking for anything even mildly approaching Shakespeare you should try elsewhere.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “The airlock opened into a short hallway, ending at another hatch at either end” (‘ending in another hatch’, or, ‘ending in another hatch at its end’. The hallway may have had hatches ‘at either end’ but cannot have had one and the same hatch ‘at either end’. ‘At either end’ means two hatches,) “almost before they got them out” (before he got them out,) “passages that lead to engineering” (text was in past tense, ‘passages that led to engineering’,) “to affect the retrieval” (to effect the..,) gasses (x2, gases,) “the laser-cutter doings its gruesome work” (doing,) acclimation “acclimatisation, ditto ‘acclimate’ for ‘accclimatise’, ) laying (lying,) “the edge of the sink caught my eye and lunged forward” (a neat trick, that; ‘and I lunged forward’,) “it might by me a few extra seconds” (buy,) “would have stuffed be back” (would have stuffed me back,) “to bled off” (x2, bleed off,) Deadalus’ (Daedalus’s,) “happened.,” (has an intrusive full stop,) “to be back on-board” (on board,) harness’ (harness’s,) “for whoever is behind this have found out” (for whoever is behind this to have found out,) “a trio … were pushing” (a trio … was,) “almost no one looked at raw footage, anymore” (almost no-one looked at raw footage anymore,) “the walk from the bridge, passed the airlock, and on” (past,) “still made from blindly” (either ‘still made blindly’ or ‘still made from blind’,) sprung (x2, sprang,) “from living room” (from the living room,) “for all intents and purposes” (to all intents and purposes,) “taking pressure of the wounds” (off the wounds,) “‘somewhere near Sol..’” (only one full stop needed,) “get ahold of” (a hold of,) Daedelus (Daedalus,) “Class One’s” (it was a plural, so ‘Class Ones’,) ditto Class Two’s (Twos. I note Class Threes and Class Fours were not apostrophised,) Ingles’ (Ingles’s,) “waiving the glass” (waving,) route (rout,) “that staid my hand” (stayed,) “where dropped down” (where he dropped down,) “instead I grit my teeth” (do USians really not say ‘gritted’?) nanines (nanites,) “sublimate every molecule” (sublime every molecule,) “the thrust from the shuttle’s engines were still giving us a simulated gravity” (the thrust … was still giving us …,) “like a pack downhill slalom skiers” (like a pack of downhill.) “He didn’t so much hit the coil as did overfly it” (no need for that ‘did’,) “‘confidant’” (x2, confident,) “to clear section of ship hull” (clear a section,) automatons (automata,) “she was taller than I” (than me,) O2 (x2, O2,) Bliss’ (Bliss’s,) cannister (x2, canister,) vitalness (vitality, I would think,) “the myriad computer systems than ran a ship” (that ran,) “now ran from tablet” (from her tablet,) “Shay’s asked” (\Shay asked,) “I waived one hand” (waved,) “demonstrated an amazing faculty in manipulating the archive system” (facility,) “repairs that needed to be affected needed to be affected right now” (effected, in both instances,) CO2 (CO2 – I also note the O2 and CO2 but the text eschewed N2 preferring ‘nitrogen’,) “Bilss-infected” (Bliss-infected,) “of inevitable press of” (of the inevitable press,) “around the hole that that” (omit a ‘that’,) “eggshell walls, one each bed, chair, window, bathroom, exit” (one each bed???) In the Acknowledgements; a parenthesis ending ‘?).’ (no full stop needed after the end bracket.)

The Odyssey Effect by Phillip G Cargile

Fulton Books Inc, 2020, 280 p.

Dexter Ruyac is a space war veteran whose family have aged in relation to him due to relativistic time-dilation effects while he was saving Earth in military service many light years distant. Dexter is 37 by his timing, but his wife is now 61, his son 29, and daughter 27. He now has no relationship with them. As a result he is somewhat bitter. He has nevertheless joined the police as, in 2127, “Police officers were still needed in society.” (I note that the time scale here is troublesome. 2127 is only 100 years or so from now, so hardly allows much scope for such a galaxy-spanning scenario to play out.)

The novel starts with Dexter being called to a murder scene, a murder which seems to have been carried out by someone with non-human capabilities. It is not long before Dexter discovers that drone workers called artificials, mindless clones developed to mine planets in the Vesta system for a substance named dycornum, (“used for fusion reactors” – and which may as well be magical given the properties ascribed to it,) have managed to evolve into intelligent beings, superartificials, and have come to Earth to mix with humans. After encountering them, Ruyac feels his protect and serve ethos extends to the artificials. However, an official on the World Court, Earth’s governing body, claims that artificials are not sentient but a danger and believes that in time they will replace humans through interbreeding so is trying to destroy them using “Combative Organic Battle units,” cybernetic hit squads whose members were created to help prosecute Earth’s wars in space.

Ruyac’s service background and the changes on Earth between now and the book’s time are laid out in blizzards of info-dumping in the first few pages but have little to do with the book’s plot. (More such incidental info-dumps outlining the setting’s contemporary social or architectural arrangements are liberally sprinkled through the book. Some involve characters saying to others “as you know” before providing us with the background.) Staples of the detective genre – an inter-departmental jurisdiction wrangle, our detective going rogue – also make their appearance. Through all of this the characters’ inner lives never really blossom; they are there primarily as plot enablers.

My preference is for stories where characters are the driving force. The Odyssey Effect is more concerned with plot, incident, and action scenes. As such, a lot of it is told to us rather than shown. The default position in so many recent SF books of violence being the instrument of plot resolution is unfortunately also to the fore here.

It has to be said that his publisher, Fulton Books Inc, has done Cargile no favours whatsoever. There are no signs here of the text having been copy-edited or even proof-read before publication, (an absolute minimum obligation of a publisher to an accepted manuscript,) which sadly detracts from the reading experience.

A Reading Experience

I know how much effort an author has to make in order to produce a finished story, much more for a novel than a short story, granted, but even the shortest piece of fiction requires a high degree of attention. Anyone who attempts it deserves to be given some leeway.

And yet. And yet.

There are exceptions.

A couple of months ago the good lady was approached by someone via her blog to ask if she would like to receive a certain book for review, a book which happened to be labelled Science Fiction. She replied that she had too many books to read but mentioned that I read SF so the offered was extended to me. I accepted despite some misgivings. The book duly arrived (from the US with a heavy postage on it) and those misgivings multiplied. Its appearance had the stamp of print on demand on it and a look that implied self-publishing. There was a named publisher on the copyright page though, Fulton Books Inc, so I thought it might be okay.

Wrong.

So wrong.

I’m not going to name the book here but I will post the review on the blog at a later date. I won’t put the usual “Pedant’s corner” addendum on the review but include that here (see below) to give a flavour of it. I think it’s the longest such I’ve ever had but it could have been many times the length and still not encompassed all its stumbles.

After one day of reading, I googled the “publisher.” It “is the most affordable solution for publishing your manuscript.” Yes. It’s a vanity publisher, a self-publishing racket, if you will.

Nevertheless I kept on with it. I felt under an obligation as I had agreed to review it and the author had taken the trouble to send it to me.

Most novels have at least some typos, some clumsiness of expression – that’s to be expected – but this book had infelicities on every page, sometimes many – whether grammatical, syntactical, in spelling (even allowing for USianisms,) or in its punctuation; words were used in ways askew from their accepted meanings (separated for divided, relented for refrained from, radiate for radiant,) it contained sentences that made no sense. The whole thing gave the impression of being hammered out on the keyboard and thrown into the world not fully formed. There was no sign of revision or editing, certainly none of proof-reading. None of the things a reputable publisher would at least make some sort of fist of.

Reading it was like reading through a distorting mirror or in a language that wasn’t quite English, certainly not English as we know it. (To be generous to the author this may have been an attempt on his part to render future changes in the language via his prose but other parts of the novel were resolutely quotidian and so challenge that interpretation; challenge it severely; challenge it to destruction. There is no comparison here to the likes of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.)

At times it felt as if a sort of meaning might be glimpsed through the forest of words, a ray of understanding of a possible new method of expression, an almost making of sense. But humans are hard-wired to discern patterns from chaos, to see images in cloud formations or in the dappling of light through trees: that tantalising flicker never did quite coalesce. There was no substance to it.

It was as if the text had been written by a machine or possibly run several times between different languages through a ropy translation engine. Disorienting. And did I say the characters were one-dimensional?

Lesson learned.

Accept review copies only through recognised outlets.

As to the review, I’ll be as gentle as I can with it when I do post it.

Pedant’s corner:- in the epigraph; Leonard da Vinci (x 2, the usual ‘Leonardo’ was used in the book’s text,) deign (design.) Most of the following occurred in the first few chapters. Thereafter I only noted down particularly glaring incidences:
skullduggery (skulduggery,) “the skyline of Chicago that ebbed from the distance” (either, ‘ebbed into the distance, or, ‘swelled from the distance’) “the water smoothed to a placid.” (To a placid what?) “the world had change in the last decade” (changed. This is only one of many inappropriate verb tenses employed in the book. There were also many failures of agreement of subject and verb, along with innumerable stray quotation mark, with ‘where’ and ‘were’ being frequently mixed up,) “that thrived on carbon dioxides” (carbon dioxide; carbon does have two oxides, but only one of them is a dioxide,) “Terra farming” (several instances, terraforming is the usual term,) “spectrums of color not comparable to anything he’d seen on Earth” (1, spectra; 2, human colour perception does not depend on the viewer’s location, on Earth or anywhere else,) “maneuvered into a parking space between a police patrol vehicle;” (it parked inside another vehicle?) “a pail face” (pale face, pail was used again later for pale,) “a man lay dead on his back in the position he had fallen” (where he had fallen,) “identification card” (many instances; ‘identity card’.) “Next to that image appeared a coded script of information she had been trained to read was projected from the computerized crime kit on the floor.” (That is a sentence which, like many others here, needs revising.) “‘……the GSR.’ ‘The Galactic Smugglers Ring,’ Thad defined the acronym.” (Another acronym was also elaborated in the sentence after it by a character whom we were then told was defining that acronym.) “Dexter pushed over a pillow then stopped when he saw a sparkling grey rock underneath a pillow” (the same pillow or a different one?) “when its it processed” (when it’s processed,) “‘but that was in zero gravity, the laws are different here on Earth.’” (It wasn’t in zero gravity; the previous speaker had referred to jumping off lunar rock faces, moons exert gravitational attraction: also the law of gravity is exactly the same everywhere in the universe – “the laws” are not different on Earth,) “to almost to an obsession” (only one ‘to’ required.) Dexter says something to Gail even though five lines above she had been referred to as not yet being present in the room, we’re told when she does step into the room – at the bottom of that same page. “Now that he was within several feet from his target” (either, ‘Now that he was several feet from his target’, or, ‘Now that he was within several feet of his target’,) “with the world’s resources that their disposal the birth a new day, a new world came from the ashes” (at their disposal, birth of a new day,) “sir name” (several times; the usual term is ‘surname’. To be generous to him it may be that Cargile here is trying to suggest a future form of English but when there is a perfectly usable term understood by its intended readership in the present day, that’s not necessary,) “on it’s surface” (its. OK, many writers are prone to this substitution,) “down on his hunches” (a simple typo, the correct ‘haunches’ is used elsewhere,) “the normal gene pole” (gene pool.) “‘That’s not what I met, sir.’” (‘not what I meant’,) “‘A grin crept across his face of amusement’” (I like the concept of a face of amusement, but the suntax here is awry,) “at top her gloved hand” (atop – used later,) “bringing the rifle to bare on target” (to bear,) “soft and none threatening” (non-threatening.) “‘The weather net will … then return current temperature to sixty-eight degrees Celsius’” (if its ‘current’ it’s already at that point and does not need to be returned. And ‘sixty-eight degrees Celsius’? People would likely die of heat stroke within seconds, 68o Fahrenheit would be much more comfortable.) “‘When Homo Sapiens encountered Homo Erectus and ‘Neanderthal’” (Neanderthal, yes, but Homo Sapiens came long after Homo Erectus became extinct, “taken a back” (aback.) “Dexter took those last words like a parent forwarding his disobedience would be his demise.” (??? I can not make sense of that sen tence in any way.) “He glanced to either of his team members” (both members, not ‘either’.) “He suddenly lurched his head to the roof of the bay compartment.” (That is one for Thog’s masterclass.)
On the back page blurb: “artificial human’s labor” (humans’,) “a part of humanities utopian society” (humanity’s.)

BSFA Award Time Again

The short lists for this year’s awards (for works published in 2020) have been announced.

In the fiction categories we have

Best short fiction:-

Eugen M. Bacon, Ivory’s Story, Newcon Press.

Anne Charnock, All I Asked For, Fictions, Healthcare and Care Re-Imagined. Edited by Keith Brookes, at Future Care Capital.

Dilman Dila, Red_Bati, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Ida Keogh, Infinite Tea in the Demara Caf, Londoncentric, Newcon Press. Edited by Ian Whates.

Tobi Ogundiran, Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll, Shoreline of Infinity.

I have read none of these but of course the annual BSFA Awards booklet ought to be able to remedy that.

The Best Novel list is longer than usual due to a tie for fifth place in the nominations:-

Tiffani Angus, Threading the Labyrinth, Unsung Stories.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury.

M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Gollancz.

N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became, Orbit.

Gareth L. Powell, Light of Impossible Stars, Titan Books.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, Orbit.

Nikhil Singh, Club Ded, Luna Press.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden, Tor.

Liz Williams, Comet Weather, Newcon Press.

Nick Wood, Water Must Fall, Newcon Press.

I reviewed The City We Became by N K Jemisin for Interzone 287 (May-Jun 2020) but that review has not appeared here yet.

That leaves nine others to get through before April 4th. No chance. (I see from the link, though, that BSFA members are to receive a PDF containing excerpts of the nominated works.)

The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

Orbit, 2019, 379 p.

This is the second in the author’s Rosewater trilogy of which I reviewed the first here.

In this instalment something is up with the alien named Wormwood, buried in a part of Nigeria, where the city of Rosewater has grown up around it. The latest clone of the human from whom it derives sustenance, Anthony, has failed to form properly. A woman called Alyssa Sutcliffe has woken up not knowing who she is – nor her husband and daughter – but with other memories intact. She does not know who she is, only that she is not Alyssa. The novel is told through various other viewpoints as well – some first person, others third – including two of the characters from the previous book in the sequence, Aminat, and Kaaro, plus Eric (an agent of S45 Nigeria’s security service) and the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, who is in dispute with the President of Nigeria and declares independence, relying on the alien’s presence to protect the city. There are also extracts from a novel titled Kudi by Walter Tanmola, who in addition narrates one section which focuses on his experiences after he is enlisted by Jacques to write an “impartial” chronicle of the independence struggle and during which he forms a relationship with a construct, Lora, who acts as Jacques’s advisor/personal assistant. And, too, we remake acquaintance with S45’s most formidable operative, Femi Alaagomeji, but only through other eyes.

Alien cells called xenoforms are infiltrating the bodies of humans, “‘We change the organisms and live in them. In you.’” S45 is involved in a project to try to separate these cells from living humans. The attempts are not going well. Alyssa is of particular interest as she is over 70% xenoform. Some of the novel is taken up with Aminat’s efforts to keep Alyssa away from S45’s attentions, some of it with the conflict between Rosewater and Nigeria, another strand deals with the xenosphere, a dream-like atlternative universe, into which Kaaro can take his consciousness and where he has a gryphon as an avatar. To add to all this an intrusive plant species, which may have been inspired by The Day of the Triffids but isn’t quite so threatening, is taking over Rosewater.

As in the previous book there is a lot going on; perhaps too much. At times it seems Thompson isn’t quite sure what kind of novel he wants this to be. It veers between thriller, fantasy, adventure story and quasi-allegory. The situation is so extreme that the characters don’t get the time to behave as humans (of course, at least two of them are not.) Certainly there is a third instalment to come, but I may leave that for a while.

At the end of the novel this edition has “extras” – a half page of author information and several pages of extract from another book by a different author. I do wish publishers would cease this practice. I do not understand who would read these. I’m certainly not going to start a book which I cannot possibly finish and may well find offputting in any case, so defeating the purpose. It has the effect of merely filling out the page count to make a book look bigger than it actually is.

Pedant’s corner:- “none ever return” (none ever returns.) “She is clothed in some diaphanous material, but it is like a nightgown and covers nothing” (if she’s clothed she is covered, a nightgown is also a covering. I suspect Thompson meant ‘hides nothing’,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) “none of them fit” (none of them fits,) staunches (stanches.) “It lays down” (It lies down,) floatation (flotation – used later,) “good to his word” (good as his word,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) “reaches a crescendo” (no, the crescendo is the increase, not its climax,) lay (lie,) “a skein of geese make their way” (a skein [of geese] makes its way,) ganglions (elsewhere ganglia is used for this plural.)

The Menace From Farside by Ian McDonald

Tor.com, 2019, 153 p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

 The Menace From Farside cover

This novella is set in the milieu of McDonald’s Luna series of books which might have been designed to illustrate the mantra that “Lady Luna knows a thousand ways to kill you.” As an aphorism this calls to mind The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I don’t know whether McDonald has read that book (I confess I haven’t) but it could be a possible inspiration.

In The Menace From Farside our narrator is Emer Corcoran who hates her name and prefers to be called Cariad. Initially it appears that she may be addressing the reader directly – on first sight a fine literary touch – but it turns out that these interludes in which she gives her views on the intricacies of story-telling and construction, relationships, the forever beyond reach lure of Earth, among other things, she is talking to a psychiatric bot as a kind of debriefing after an escapade in which she was involved (and incidentally made her famous on the Moon) and which her narrative goes on to describe.

A background sociological aspect of McDonald’s tale (but with a tangential impact on the plot) is the existence on the Moon of the arrangement of the ring marriage, wherein each member is married to two spouses, a derecho/a and an iz, left and right. This provides an SSSS, super-stable support system, said to be great for kids as it provides a network of ceegees (care givers.) When Cariad opines, “‘when it comes to love, rings are the craziest of all possible families, apart from all the others,’” McDonald manages to allude to both Tolstoy and Churchill in the one sentence.

The introduction to Cariad’s ring of a new “husband” for her mother, also brought into her life his daughter Sidibe Sissay. Cariad rather resents this intrusion into her “family.” Cariad fears heights and Sidibe’s effortless use of a special winged suit to fly from Osman Tower on a visit to the cavernous centre of the habitat of Queen of the South compounds her feelings. As a result Cariad conceives a scheme to take her “siblings” to visit the site of the first human footprint on the Moon – almost half the Moon distant – as a way for her to take back control. (Those last three words have a particular resonance for contemporary British readers. For the more general SF audience McDonald also explicitly references the phrase, ‘Make it so,’ as a sentence which leaders are supposed to utter.)

The scenes on the Moon’s surface are vaguely reminiscent of Arthur C Clarke’s novel A Fall of Moondust and short story Robin Hood FRS mainly because of that background. In McDonald’s vision, however, less untrammelled considerations intrude. At Queen of the South, the sun only ever appears to crawl around the rim of the crater in which the habitat is sited. On their journey, our group of adventurers find its full glare unsettling, their possible vulnerability to cosmic ray impacts troubling. And this Moon being McDonald’s Luna, things do not go entirely smoothly for them.

Quite what transpires, and the contribution to that of the dog-eat-dog nature of Luna’s overall organisation, plus the importance of the Moonloop – a sort of slingshot orbiting at very low level to wheech cargoes off into space or capture them on the way down – to the resolution of Cariad’s story I’ll leave to the reader to discover.

Through Cariad, McDonald adds in another comment about writing. “You know what makes storytellers laugh? That people really think their story reveals something about the person who tells it. It doesn’t. Stories are control. First, last, always. It tells you something about who’s hearing it.”

McDonald’s control is never in doubt.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- My copy was an ARC (proof.) Some or all of these may have been corrected for the final print run.)
ass (it’s arse,) “your shine up your image” (you shine up your image,) “‘your idea of family and parents are so ancient’” (your idea …… is so ancient,) “with radarand seismics” (radar and seismics,) “a ring of warning lights flash” (a ring …. flashes,) “the thing not do” (not to do,) “that’s what makes the gut lurches” (lurch would seem more grammatical,) “onto bridge” (onto the bridge,) “There’ dusters” (There’s dusters or, more preferably, there’re dusters,) “pulled into chest” (into his chest,) “is going notice” (going to notice,) “it’s won’t be open wide enough” (it won’t be open.) “‘Do want me to count off …’” (Do you want me to count off,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) Tranquility base (Tranquillity, please,) “humanity’s first steps on the moon” (humanity’s first steps on the Moon,) “tells Kobe to told her left arm” (to hold her left arm,) “the smiles goes out of me” (the smiles go out of me,) “the moon want to kill you” (the Moon wants to kill you,) “his right arms swings” (his right arm swings,) “how to they get back” (how do they.) “That when the consequences arrive.” (That’s when..,) heard-earned (hard-earned.)

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Vintage, 2019, 574 p.

The Clarke Award (whose 2020 version this novel won) has a history of recognising, and sometimes rewarding, novels which are only marginally SF. At first sight this novel seems to be of that ilk – resolutely realist in tone, albeit with the occasional magic realist flourish, almost family saga in form (there is even a family tree facing the contents page,) while incorporating the history of Zambia and white colonialism in Southern Africa in its purview. Only in its later sections does it stray into SF territory and that in a way which non-SF readers may find jarring. To British eyes the text is a curious mixture of British – bum (as in backside,) maths – and US – fit as a past tense, swim lessons (swimming lessons,) mowed down (mown down) – usages, but there is also a generous sprinkling of Zambian words.

The novel is bookended by two short sections, The Falls – “The Smoke That Thunders” which David Livingstone of course immediately named after Queen Victoria – and The Dam (the Kariba Dam,) but the main body of the book is taken up by incidents in the lives of “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children,” to each of whom a section, though not always exclusively, is devoted. (In The Falls we are told that Livingstone’s attendants transported his body to the coast – and thence to England – not out of devotion or duty to him, but rather from fear that otherwise his death would have been blamed on them. The explicit racism of European colonisers in Africa is expressed in some of the words used.) Intermissions between the sections, rendered in italics and occasionally commenting on the text, are written as if by anopheles mosquitoes. In one of these interludes we are told that “evolution forged the entirety of life using only one tool: the mistake…”

The Grandmothers are Sibilla, whose hair grows uncontrollably – all over her body, Agnes, a promising English tennis player who had to give up the game when she became blind and who falls in love with Ronald, a black student come to England from Rhodesia (as was,) and therefore has to run away from her racist parents in order to marry him, and Matha, one of the participants in Zambia’s unofficial space programme (an aspirational effort the concept of one individual, Ba Nkoloso, without any of the resources nor capability necessary to succeed.) Pregnant, and told Godfrey has left her, Matha begins to weep unceasingly, her eyelids crusting over with salt, an affliction which lasts the major part of her life thereafter.

Of the Mothers, Sylvia is Matha’s daughter by Godfrey, one of her fellow Afronauts, Isabella the result of Sibilla’s union with Federico, forced to flee Italy after killing his brother but usurping his identity, and Thandiwe marries Agnes’s son Lionel (who also impregnates Sylvia.) The Children are Joseph and Jacob (the ensuing sons of Lionel’s two unions) while Naila is the child of Isabella’s marriage to Balaji, a shopkeeper of Indian sub-continental origin. Sibilla’s children inherit her hair-growing condition – but only at twice the usual rate and only on their heads. This is transformed into a family wig-making enterprise known as Lovely Luxe Locks Ltd.

There is a nice exchange between Agnes and Ronald when he asks, “‘But I thought the English hated the French,’” and she replies, ‘Oh we do, but we steal from them mercilessly. It’s our sort of thing,’” a comment on the perennial position of women when we are told Matha thinks, “She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch,” and a rumination on the myths countries tell themselves, “This sort of thing happens with nations, and tales, and humans, and signs. You go hunting for a source, some ur-word or symbol and suddenly the path splits…. Where you sought an origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence.” We also have Serpell’s variation on Tolstoy, “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”

The main Science-Fictional ingredient in the tale is the Digit-All Bead, a kind of iPhone embedded in a finger which utilises the skin’s conductivity as a power source and shines its information onto the palm – or elsewhere if needed. This invention, since it appears in the book’s 2000s, makes The Old Drift an Altered History. Digit-All had been savvy in calling their product a bead rather than a chip as it sounds less threatening. They then partnered with local governments to distribute their beads free. Its connection to the internet makes it the ultimate surveillance tool. Another SF-ish element is Jacob’s development of lightweight microdrones – to all intents and purposes technological mosquitoes.

Hanging over the characters in the later sections is a pathogen only ever named as The Virus (which the reader will naturally take to be HIV but may not be. It does have HIV-like characteristics, though.) Lionel is researching a way to immunise against it and is particularly inteeested in people who seem to have natural immunity. Two human mutations are likely candidates. The person he calls the Lusaka patient has both. Serpell compares the Virus’s modus operandi – infiltrating the immune system’s white blood cells (usually the body’s defenders) to reproduce itself – to its main means of transmission, sex, “it takes advantage of the two engines of life – the desire to reproduce and the will to persevere.”

Serpell undoubtedly can write and has an eye for the variety of human relationships. I am not entirely convinced, though, that the later sections and the novel’s conversion into a subdued kind of technological thriller really belong together with the earlier character-based narratives but as an attempt to render the (relatively) recent history of Zambia in fictional form by focusing on the lives of individuals The Old Drift is still a formidable achievement. I have no doubt that it will linger in my mind.

Pedant’s corner:- “The hair on her crown and face were the same” (was the same,) sprung (sprang,) “irked Agnes to no end” (irked Agnes no end; ‘to no end’ means without purpose, ‘no end’ means without limit,) Cadbury Whole Nut (in Britain it always used to be “Cadbury’s” but I note that they have recently dropped the apostrophe and its ‘s’,) Walkers shortbread (Walker’s,) “to secret her to Kasama” (that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘secret’ as a verb, it appeared as such once more,) wracked (racked,) stunk (stank,) “because was it was” (one ‘was’ too many,) grills (grilles,) “turning those minuses into plusses” (‘pluses’; and in any case why put a double ‘s’ in plusses but not in minusses?)

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