Archives » Science Fiction

Saltflower by Sydney J van Scyoc

Avon, 1971, 174 p.

In the prologue three alien space ships appear over the Puget Sound in 1979 (eight years in the future when the novel was written) then make their way to the Great Salt Desert in Utah where one of them deposits something into the salt, but later investigations fail to reveal anything. Twenty-five years on Marley Greer finds a crystal on the salt bed and lifts it up. It melts in her palm to leave a tiny black seed, which she feels compelled to swallow. That night she tells her husband she is pregnant.

The body of the story unfolds over fourteen days in 2024 when protagonist Hadley Greer (daughter of Marley) undertakes a trip to the Salt Lake Desert where there is a settlement known as New Purification, inhabited by adherents of a cult which effectively worships the aliens. It is led by a Dr Braith (who perhaps surprisingly isn’t the usual money-grasping, sexual predator such leaders commonly are.) In New Purification everyday life is made easier by robotic assistants known as mechs. Over the years of the settlement over twenty people have disappeared in the desert. Braith maintains they have been taken up by the aliens.

Hadley is silver-eyed and has metallic hair which often moves of its own volition. Later we find she is prone to salt hunger. Braith’s associate Jacob has similar attributes to Hadley. Her companion, Richard Brecker, turns out to be a minder, employed by the State Investigation Bureau to keep tabs on her. (His organisation’s initials allow Scyoc to allot them the neat nickname, SIBlings,) Through him she finds there have been other trans-species children but only those close to salty deserts survived.

Unknown to Brecker, Hadley takes trips into the desert at night. There she finds she can see and travel through a strange city, that of the aliens, whose civilisation was dying and so they sought to seed other Earths. In an incidental conversation Brecker and Hadley appear to express themselves as in favour of a return to a system whereby people are imprisoned if they are deemed psychologically capable of a crime rather than actually having committed one. This is an oddly illiberal notion which does not really fill out the background.

The discovery of two murdered bodies in the desert precipitates the novel’s crisis. Brecker finesses the situation by blaming the deaths on rogue mechs but it is Jacob rather than Hadley who is involved with the resolution.

SF is full of linguistic coinages, some more mellifluous than others. Scyoc overdoes the tendency here, where people do not undergo air travel in aeroplanes, they dart in machines called avidarts. Among others we also have a transceiving device named a communipact, food dispensers called autocafs, and the word mecheries where ‘factories’ would be perfectly sensible. But it was her first novel. We can forgive a certain exuberance.

Pedant’s corner:- “the street – and the city itself – were deserted” (those dashes remove what’s inside them from the surrounding phrase so make the verb singular. Either they should be removed themselves or it should be ‘the city was deserted’.) “Besides each work stood a slender pole.” (Beside each work,) nonplussed (nonplussed,) metallicly (metallically.)

Another Two for ParSec

 The Cruel Stars cover

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham – see also my side-bar under ‘Currently Reading’ – is the latest book I’m reviewing for online SF mag ParSec. It’s the first of a trilogy.

It’s a bit of a bonus since it was published nearly ten months ago now. I had expresed an interest in the second in the series, The Shattered Skies, before I knew it was part of a trilogy and kind Mr Whates, the editor at ParSec, suggested I could read and review both books.

ParSec 2

ParSec 2 cover

The second issue of digital SF mag Parsec was published on Christmas Eve, shortly before midnight.

You can buy it here.

I have three reviews in this one:-

Best of British Science Fiction 2020 edited by Donna Scott.

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley and

The Second Rebel, Linden A Lewis’s follow-up to The First Sister which I reviewed for Parsec 1.

Blind Justice by S N Lewitt

Ace, 1991, 269 p.

Émile Saint-Just is a member of the Syndicat of the planet Beau Solis, the last bastion of French speaking culture. The mark of Syndicat membership is the cuff, worn round the wrist, binding its wearer to the group. Beau Solis is also the sole producer of sadece senin, a drug highly prized throughout the human worlds but subject to strict controls and taxes by the Justica, a polity somewhat sketchily delineated here but said to be uniform and rule bound and which seems to dominate the rest of human civilisation. Selling sadece senin is a lucrative business for the Syndicat, especially if the regulations and taxes of the Justica can be avoided.

Saint-Just takes a place on the Mary Damned, a spaceship running sadece for the Syndicat between the patrols of the Justica. These are relativistic journeys. When Saint-Just gets back no-one on Beau Solis will remember him. But he doesn’t get back. The Mary Damned is captured with no resistance, since Justica operatives flood it with a soporific gas. When Émile wakes up, sans cuff, he is on a Justica prison ship, the Constanza. The Mary Damned becomes a famous ghost ship, drifting through the spaceways.

Life on the Constanza, as in any prison, is tough but Émile has a few allies and they hatch a plan to escape, but the group splits into two, one of which plans to rendezvous with the Mary Damned. (Outside the prison time has flown.)

It is a very different Beau Solis to which Émile returns. The Justica has taken control and is eliminating as much sadece senin as it can. Émile’s lack of cuff means he is no longer recognized as a Syndicat member and he is thrown onto his own resources and those of the latent resistance, whose project takes up the remaining half of the book.

Reading a thirty-year-old Science Fiction novel can be a jolting experience. Noticeable to a 2021 audience is the importance of newspapers in Beau Solis. (Nothing dates as quickly as the future. Think of all those redundant flashing lights on the computer panels in the original Star Trek or Arthur Clarke’s journalist taking a typewriter along with him to the Red Planet in The Sands of Mars.) This is not Lewitt’s fault. There is only so much invention an author can put into an SF book. And we all have unexamined assumptions about what may be constant in our world. Her storytelling and characterisation make up for any such minor irritations. This is good solid readable SF.

Pedant’s corner:- Académie Français (since Académie is a feminine noun that should be ‘Académie Française’,) tsunumi (tsunami,) spit (spat,) “and he didn’t; understand at first why” (no need for that semi-colon,) “everyone can grown sadece” (can grow,) crosier (crozier,) Reims (Rheims,) “the group grew in size as they made their way” (as it made its way,) “it seemed that none of the them were” (no ‘the’,) good-by (goodbye.)

Scottish Books I Read This Year

It’s that time of the year when people post ‘best of’ lists.

This isn’t a best of, merely a list of the books with Scottish authorship or Scottish flavour which I read this year. A round 30, of which (since Scotland in Space was an anthology* containing stories and articles** by both men and women) 14½ were by men and 15½ by women, 28½** were fiction (Snapshot being about Scottish Football Grounds.)

The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J MacDonald
Light by Margaret Elphinstone
Snapshot by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie
And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla
A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh
Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt
The Gates of Eden by Annie S Swan
Close Quarters by Angus McAllister
Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin
End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Gleam in the North by D K Broster
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
Scotland in Space Ed by Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas
Being Emily by Anne Donovan
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner
The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark
Summer by Ali Smith
Glister by John Burnside
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes
The End of an Old Song by J D Scott
The Rental Heart and other fairy tales by Kirsty Logan
Republics of the Mind by James Robertson
The Dark Mile by D K Broster
Highland River by Neil M Gunn
The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis
The Last Peacock by Allan Massie
A Day at the Office by Robert Alan Jamieson

That last one was of course my final (unless I ever get round to Trainspotting) book on the Best 100 Scottish Books list.

I am part way through George McKay Brown’s collection of short stories, Hawkfall, which would make the above sex ratio of authors 1:1 but am unlikely to post about it here before the New Year. (I’m four behind as it is, though one of those is for ParSec.)

* It was also the only one to be SF or Fantasy.

Another Review for ParSec

You may have noticed on my sidebar that I am reading a book titled Absynthe by one Brendan P Bellecourt.

This is to be reveiwed for the online SF magazine ParSec.

Mr Bellecourt is an author new to me and Absynthe appears to be his first novel.

I was attracted to by the publisher’s blurb given to Parsec wherein it mentioned “a palace full of art-deco delights.”

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2010, 491 p.

 Terminal World cover

Spearpoint is a tiered city whose tip reaches beyond the atmosphere. Post-human angels (though they call themselves human and the other inhabitants pre-human) occupy the Celestial Levels and ride thermals with their wings. These are where the most advanced technology still works. Angels are feared, even hated, by those in the levels below. Down the tiers – through Neon Heights, Steamtown and Horsetown – the transition between different zones is debilitating or worse (requiring anti-zonal drugs to ameliorate the symptoms) and technology becomes progressively unusable. From time to time the zone boundaries quiver or shift due to disturbances in The Mire, aka the Eye of God, the chaotic origin point for the zones. A religious text called the Testament seems to allude to this.

The viewpoint character is Quillon, a former angel altered so as to be able to survive in the lower levels as a kind of spy, but whose wing buds keep growing and must periodically be surgically removed by his friend Fray. Quillon habitually wears tinted glasses to avoid his eyes betraying his angel nature, but has long since abandoned any allegiance to his origins when he found he was being used. The action kicks off when the body of a fallen angel is delivered to him in the mortuary where he works as a pathologist. Just as he is about to cut into it the body speaks to warn him. The angels know where he is and are coming for him. With the help of a man called Fray and his courier Meroka, who hates angels, he embarks on a journey away from Spearpoint. On that trip a sudden catastrophic shift in the zone boundaries affects most of the lower levels of Spearpoint.

Quillon and Meroka have to hide from a caravan of scavenger-rapists called Skullboys (whose clothing and symbology seems to be inspired by heavy metal) but notice a cage containing a mother and her child. Also inhabiting the plain below Spearpoint are metal and flesh creatures named carnivorgs, whose feeding habits are particularly noisome. (The clue is in the name, carnivore organisms, but their gruesome preference is for drilling into and eating brains – often leaving a victim alive but severely incapacitated.)

Later Quillon and Meroka are able to free the mother, Kalis, and child, Nimcha, but both bear the distinctive mark of a tectomancer. Kalis’s is fake to try to protect her child from the widespread fear of tectomancers, held responsible for zonal shifts, a minor one of which had given them Quillon and Meroka the opportunity to free them. Nimcha claims to have caused the shift. Her mother believes Nimcha can close the Eye and Nimcha says, “‘The tower wants me to make it better.’” So it seems they must go back.

This is prevented by them being taken up by the Swarm, a sort of flying circus (in the Richthofen sense) of dirigibles presided over by a man called Ricasso. He has had a project to use captured carnivorgs to produce an anti-zonal drug much more effective than the current one. He is learned and in his conversations with Quillon says, “The Testament tells us that we were once allowed through the gates of paradise.” Beyond the gates lay numberless gardens, each with its own sun and moon. Spearpoint may be a ladder to the stars.

Internal politics within the Swarm and an attempted coup delay things for a while but eventually they embark for Spearpoint with a cargo of the drug, taking a shortcut through a region called the Bane forever known as an area from which no-one returned but now, since the huge zonal shift, likely to be passable. While traversing it they pass over a series of downed aircraft of decreasing technological complexity and a truncated tower which appears to be an exact counterpart of Spearpoint, but obviously defunct before running the gauntlet of Skullboy military positions below the intact tower.

The characters refer to the planet as Earth but there are internal indications (the air is thinning, the forests dying, the planet getting colder, and there are three extinct volcanoes in almost a straight line plus another enormous natural mountain) that it is in fact Mars, backed up by one of the Mad Machines at Spearpoint’s centre mentioning Earth as a separate place.

While it is a powerful plot motor the zone shift is a neat idea which allow Reynolds to write SF without having to think up future technologies.

This is a complex yet highly readable piece of SF with all of the betrayal, loyalty, treachery and power plays that you might expect from its quasi-military/political elements but Reynolds does not neglect character. Meroka is a mouthy delight, Quillon troubled but decent at heart, Ricasso a refreshing input of philosophising. However, Kalis and Nimcha are never any more than plot enablers. It is all very enjoyable stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- “He scratched a finger under his right eye” (he has a finger under his right eye?) sprung (sprang,) wintery (wintry, which was used later,) amoebas (fine in English but amoebae, or, even better, amœbæ, is more classical,) “the other lying on their side” (‘its side’,) “he was taken not back to the others” (odd syntax. What’s wrong with ‘he was not taken back to the others’?) crenulations (crenellations, I assume,) close-minded (closed-minded?) “from some of other captains” (some of the other captains,) “where the blade had missed it mark” (its mark,) “none of the other skeleton staffers were in any way annoyed by it” (none of the other …was … annoyed,) hiccough (hiccup; hiccough is a misattribution.) “‘He hopes do,’” (‘He hopes so’,) “that was now hoving into clear view” (hove is past tense, ‘that was now heaving into clear view’.) “The best that Curtana could hope for were a few lucky strikes” (the best is singular, hence, ‘was a few lucky strikes’,) “none of the machine guns were operable” (none was operable.) “There were a handful of enclaves” (There was a handful,) staunched (stanched.)

2021’s Clarke Award

I don’t know how I missed this.

The winner of this year’s Clarke Award is The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay.

I suppose I should look out for it.

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley

Flipped Eye, 2021, 252 p.

Skyward Inn lies towards the edge of the Western Protectorate with a view over the Bristol Channel to Swansea from where the rocket ships rise from the Kissing Gate to make their way into space. The Kissing Gate was discovered fifty years before the events in the novel. The Coalition used it to travel to Qita, but the Western Protectorate disagreed with this action, and with the use of technology inside people’s heads, and so separated themselves from the rest of the world. The Coaliton’s take-over of Qita was complete but odd, as there was little resistance. “Why just move over and let us take it? No battle. No military. Not one voice raised – at least, not theirs.”

Jemima had in the past left her son, Fosse, to travel to Qita where an implant called Coach “bound us altogether in our heads” but now, in the inn, she dispenses Jarrowbrew, which her Qitan partner Isley, (with whom it is not possible for her to have a physical relationship,) prepares in the basement. Fosse has become something of a loner, who seeks solace among the buildings of an abandoned farm.

One day another Qitan, Won, turns up having travelled to Earth alone, but her suit needs a replacement device without which it will not restart. In an attempted bargain with a band of smugglers Jem and Isley lose the Jarrowbrew they had brought as payment for the device and nearly their lives. Meanwhile Fosse has been disturbed at the farm by three incomers who say they are taking it over. After an odd confrontation with the three where their flesh appears to meld together Fosse kills the man and flees to Swansea and takes the Kissing Gate to Qita.

So far, so SF, so good.

But things get stranger. Soil in the local graveyard begins to liquefy and the contagion spreads. Isley and Won get closer – literally. Fosse is taken on a cross-Qitan journey by a local during which he encounters its oddness. Through bodily contact with Isley, Jem is able to access Fosse’s mind but the Inn’s basement is soon filled with locals joining with Isley and Fosse (again literally) at which point SF ceases and we are in fantasy territory. The true nature of Jarrowbrew is revealed. It seems that Qita may not have been conquered after all but is taking revenge of sorts.

As a wordsmith and portrayer of character Whiteley is absolutely fine and presumably the way she takes her story is where she wanted it to go. But the journey, a little like Fosse’s on Qita, takes on an aspect which strays too far from the entirely believable. Sf/fantasy crossovers have a long history in the linked genre (A Voyage to Arcturus springs to mind) but in Skyward Inn I thought the two did not gel at all comfortably.

Pedant’s corner:- “neither of us move” (neither of us moves,) “they were not been welcoming to him” (‘being welcoming to him’ makes more sense,) Klaus’ (x2, Klaus’s.) “at he found he wanted the axe again” (‘and he found he wanted the axe again,) “their shoulder hunched” (shoulders, surely?) a missing full stop, Fosse (x 2, when Isley was meant.) “Every customer forces their laughs and drinks too fast and none of them want to say why” (wants,) “the questions he had been asked about it by his workmates was one of the reasons why he’d kept to himself” (questions is plural so needs were as its verb [though I can see why it would sit awkwardly with ‘one of the reasons’.) “He would not be charge after all.” (in charge?) “when Fosse looked up from the task from negotiating path” (task of negotiating a path.) “‘Let get on it.’” (‘Let’s get on it’.) “He glances at my hands at the sleeve pulled low” (sleeves,) “mowed grass” (mown grass,) “facing him with it arms raised” (its arms,) “to bomb the entire of the Protectorate” (yes it was in dialogue but ‘entire’ should still have been ‘entirety’,) miniscule (minuscule,) “and her saw her hand” (and he saw her hand.)

On Arcturus VII by Eric Brown

NewCon Press, 2021, 101 p.

This novella is set in Brown’s “Telemass” universe, of which I have read the four original novellas but not yet Telemass Coda, though it’s on my shelves

Here, former spaceship pilot Jon James is approached by shady businessman Santor Vakhodia to return to Arcturus VII (aka Pharantara,) the planet on which James’s lover Solange Delacroix had died. That expedition’s finding of sentient life on Pharantara had since led to it being interdicted but Vakhodia tells James that the Persephone, one of the pre-Telemass technology and so superseded suspended animation ships, has crashed on Arcturus VII with his great-great-great grandfather on it, a man whom Vakhodia wishes to thank for setting up the family business. Vakhodia offers James various incentives to join him but Jon’s acceptance is to prevent Vakhodia hiring anybody else for the job since there is a secret about Pharantara that he would like kept. His only condition is that he be accompanied by Octavia Carrera, one of his companions on the previous mission.

On the trip Vakhodia takes along his assistant Šarović and a Voronian bodyguard named Stent. Voronians have immense strength but unfortunate body odours. Carrera and James wonder if Vakhodia’s ostensible reason to visit Arcturus VII is true or merely a cover and if in fact he has permission to land, suspicions strengthened by their smallship landing well away from the Persephone crash site, necessitating an arduous land journey by tracked crawler to the downed ship.

This does though give Brown the opportunity to describe the profusion and fecundity of life on the planet and an incident which illuminates James’s sense of guilt at Solange Delacroix’s death as well as to reveal the special nature of Pharantara’s sentient inhabitants.

This is the author doing what he does best. It’s a solid tale with a good man at its heart, a baddy with hidden motives, action sequences in an exotic location and enigmatic aliens.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” (or equivalent) count; 10. Otherwise; “the full story what happened there” (story of what happened there,) “‘I’m taking the Telemass relay from here to Néos Kyrenia is here hours’” (in three hours?) “a ivory giant” (an ivory giant,) “the arrival’s lounge” (arrivals lounge,) “the planet had been a little further way from its primary” (away from.) “Was he privy the confidential report” (privy to the confidential report,) “‘the effect of hid pheromones. When a Voronian senses danger, they can instantaneously increase its production, and its potency’” (pheromones is plural; therefore ‘their production, and their potency’,) “lashing out at his erstwhile binds” (bonds; or, bindings,) “I just hope that” (the rest of the sentence is in past tense; so, ‘I just hoped that’,) “Vegetable life proliferated here” (plant life, surely,) “twice as tall as man” (as a man,) “trying to asses me” (assess,) “cagey” (usually ‘cagy’,) “observer would have put then at” (put them at,) “richochetted” (I prefer richoceted but apparently ricochetted is an acceptable alternative.)

free hit counter script