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Evolution by Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 2003, 766 p.

 Evolution  cover

You can’t fault Baxter for ambition. This is potentially a daunting undertaking, to tell the story of human evolution – from those first small, nocturnal mammals scrabbling about under the feet of the dinosaurs all the way through modern Homo Sapiens to its far future descendants – via incidents from the imagined lives of individuals living at possibly pivotal moments in that great chain. It wouldn’t have been an easy task for anyone.

The story is told in three sections Ancestors, Humans, and Descendants, topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue and interrupted by an Interlude between sections One and Two. There is a further episode set in the same time as these three framing passages though it is included as the last chapter in Section Two.

By its nature the narrative of Evolution tends to the episodic and that, for a novel, can be a problem. The reader is no sooner taken into the lives of our various protagonists than is brought out again, hurrying onward ever onward, usually leaping millions of years, jumping from habitat to habitat. But that, of course, is evolution. Our own experience of life, of story, is not even a blink in those terms.

The early chapters – set in the days immediately before the impact of the Chicxulub meteor (Baxter has it as a comet, with its huge “Devil’s Tail” spanning across the sky in its approach) – can at times read as the transcript of a lecture on palæobiology. Baxter has clearly done a power of research (and of course without that his story would have been much the poorer) but the way he introduces some of the creatures is usually not novelistic. Then there are the information dumping paragraphs describing the geological processes altering the animals’ environments and the Earth’s climate: necessary to the overall picture, but again not novelistic.

The influence of Richard Dawkins on the author’s vision is perhaps evident in the importance Baxter gives to sex, the passing on of genes, in the motivations and actions of his ‘characters’. There is a persistent insistence on the compartmentalisation of early primates’ brains. The beginnings of religion are described as an attempt to make sense of the forces shaping the world via a new way of thinking. The importance of food scarcities on the development of certain human behaviours is noted. By contrast the effect of the beginnings of agriculture on the health of human teeth (not good, the grit in the resultant bread from the grinding of the wheat between stones wearing them away) and of nutritional health more generally (lack of dietary diversity leading to deficiency disease, stunted growth) is almost a throwaway. But ‘civilisation’ lies this way. And its fall is due to the same impersonal forces of nature as did for the dinosaurs, though with a different mechanism. (Sixteen years on such a natural cause need not necessarily be looked to. As a species many of us still seem inclined to blindness to our own possible contribution to a mass extinction event.)

So; does it work? The book is an intellectual undertaking but not on a Stapledonian scale. A lot of the scenarios while differing in detail tend to the similar in their outline; ancestors, humans, or descendants encountering some new phenomenon, species, or climatic pressure. Baxter’s strengths as a storyteller lie in this sphere rather than in characterisation. His protagonists and those with whom they come into conflict are in this case too pragmatically designed to fulfil the niches assigned to them to fully come alive. Some of the future scenes also seemed to owe more than a little to H G Wells. (Baxter has of course since written a sequel to War of the Worlds.) As an introduction to the convoluted history of human evolution, though, this is a good starting place even if more recent discoveries have rendered it slightly out of date.

Pedant’s corner:- Written with USian spellings. Otherwise; “The smoke from the volcano” (we’ve previously been told that the smoke was due to forest fires,) “like an featherless” (a featherless,) “his clan were gone: (was gone,) “forever looking over their shoulder” (shoulders,) “was a kind of primates” (a kind of primate,) a missing full stop, auroras (aurorae,) “the laellyn group were overcome” (the group was overcome.) “But Capo’s troop were responding” (Capo’s troop was responding,) “‘one group of experimenters were’”” (one group was – but this was in dialogue,) “in the shape of their backs, skulls, trunks” (in the shapes of their backs, skulls, trunks,) epicentre (centre,) “Dust had already laid down by the fire” (lain down,) fitted (despite, earlier – and later – the USian form of the preterite, fit,) “just as his spear had flow” (had flown,) tepee-style (tepee-style,) a missing full stop, “where the sun was staring to set” (starting,) “that was why there was so many of them” (there were so many of them,) “raised to shoulder, height above the ground” (no comma after shoulder.) “It took Hononus and Athalaric many weeks reach Jordan” (It took Honorius and Athalaric many weeks to reach Jordan,) Neandertal (is this a USian spelling of Neanderthal?) A sentence lacking a name – or pronoun – as its subject (on page 671,) “for these pits were mouths. These deadly maws” (maws are not mouths. They are stomachs.)

Latest from Interzone

 This Is How You Lose the Time War cover

It’s that time again.

I’m awaiting the arrival of Interzone 282, not least to find out if I’ll have two reviews in it. It seems ages ago I sent off my review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, and I did the same for Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett not long after.

Still a new book has arrived for review (to appear in Interzone 283?)

This is a collaboration between Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone and is titled This Is How You Lose the Time War.

Should be fun.

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2017, 219 p.

This was on the short list for the BSFA Award last year and subsequently won the Clarke Award.

 Dreams Before the Start of Time cover

It is, however, less of a novel than a series of vignettes featuring characters with some sort of relationship to each other but unfolding over a timescale of 83 years starting in 2034. The one big change to society involved in all this is the advent of technology to nurture human fœtuses outside the womb and to tweak the genetic composition of embryos for desired traits. The slow evolution of approved standards of child gestation into outright disapproval of the natural process – how can you be so uncaring of your child’s welfare as to carry it yourself? – is well served by the form of the narrative; it comes on us gradually, as the attitude would. The choice is not, however, so easy if you lack the resources to purchase the services and provides another stick with which to beat the poor, to go along with all the traditional ones.

As a Science Fictional thought experiment this is almost text book; consequences of a change thought out and demonstrated. I can see why it has garnered the acclaim it did. As a novel it’s less so, though, coming over as bitty and too pat. Moreover I wasn’t convinced by the implied background. Even in 2120 daily life in Dreams Before the Start of Time doesn’t appear to be very different from that in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this appears so because most of the characters are well-to-do, or at least comfortably off. Charnock writes well, though. The book is never less than readable and in places surpasses that.

Pedant’s corner:- practiced (practised.)

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Grafton, 1993, 395 p.

Ammonite cover

There is a well-established trope in children’s literature whereby the parents must be got rid of (benignly or otherwise) in order for the protagonist to have the scope for the adventure the book will describe. Ammonite has what I assume is a feminist variant on this device, which is to remove men, rather than parents, from the equation. Nothing wrong with that. This is SF after all. Thought experiments are more or less mandatory.

The newly rediscovered Grenchstom’s Planet – shortened to GP, or Jeep – has begun to be exploited by the Company only for it to find that a virus is endemic; a virus which kills all men but only a percentage of women. Jeep is thus quarantined and the surviving Company women stuck down there. Nevertheless the earlier human inhabitants, now of course all women, are able to have children and have been present on Jeep for many generations. This parthenogenetic ability is somehow linked to the virus.

Our main narrative viewpoint character Marghe (Marguerite Angelica Taishan,) has been given an experimental vaccine against the virus – which she has to take every day* – and sent to the planet’s surface, knowing if it fails she may die or would in the best case never return to Earth as the Company will most likely pull the plug on its venture and leave its employees to their fates. Other scenes are presented from the viewpoint of Commander Danner, head of the Company’s base at Port Central.

Marghe’s explorations amongst the natives lead to her capture by a particular clan. Here she learns some of the ways and beliefs of the inhabitants but realises they are slowly declining and dying out. As a result a kind of death cult begins to flourish and a tribal war breaks out. Marghe seizes the chance to escape and makes her way in the middle of a harsh winter to seek refuge at another outpost, almost dying as a result, but is rescued by another native tribe. Meanwhile Commander Danner is exercised by the problems of surviving on Jeep and the presence in her charges of those excessively loyal to the Company.

Marghe’s relationships with her rescuers lead her to develop an ability known as deepsearch which connects the natives to their pasts and, if undertaken with a companion, allows conception. Children simultaneously engendered in this way are known as soestres.

Whatever Griffiths’s intentions were on writing Ammonite the interactions between her characters are recognisably the same as in any other SF novel; indeed any other novel. We have goodies and baddies, conflicts, betrayals, loves, endurance, but the final battle is averted through dialogue.

I remember Ammonite being well received when it was first published but didn’t get round to it then. The years since may perhaps have been unkind to it as it no longer reads as being particularly distinctive. For example the planetary wanderings and the contrast between the “civilised” newcomers and older inhabitants reminded me of Avram Davidson’s Rork! which I read a few weeks ago. (There are, though, only a few variations on a theme.)

Pedant’s corner:- *I’m not sure vaccines actually work that way. An occasional booster – perhaps only once – to replenish the immune response, yes; but not a continual daily dose. “Accompanying them were a contingent” (was a contingent,) “They all wore scarves wrapped around their nose and mouth” (noses and mouths.) “Drink lots a of fluids” (‘Drink a lot of’. Or. ‘Drink lots of’. Not ‘Drink lots a of’.) Llangelli (Llanelli?) “the triple handful of riders were returning” (the triple handful …. was returning,) “perhaps she should talk to these two again some time” (this two,) Dogias’ (Dogias’s,) “a thumbs up…. That gesture had travelled to this world all the way from ancient Rome,” (true, but in ancient Rome it signified death, not approval,) “where people ate and breathed and relived themselves” (‘relieved themselves’ makes more sense.) “The less personnel risked, the better” (the fewer personnel,) Cardos’ (Cardos’s,) Huelis’ (Huelis’s,) “one less softgel than there had been” (one fewer softgel,) “another group of six were struggling” (strictly, a group was struggling,) “port Central” (otherwise always ‘Port Central’,) “to wipe the sweat from their brow” (brows,) “Fuller’s earth” (I believe it’s Fuller’s Earth.) There were a few uneasy glances” (a few is actually singular, grammatically,) “‘I nearly gave up, laid down and died’” (lay down and died.)

Moving Moosevan by Jane Palmer

The Women’s Press, 1990, 152 p

 Moving Moosevan cover

Perhaps it was my familiarity with the central premise and the tone, or that the setting has moved mainly to Earth in this sequel to The Planet Dweller but I found myself much less irritated with this book than that one, more willing to go with the flow. (Palmer is trying to send up the SF genre here and I generally find SF and humour don’t mix well.)

Moosevan, who it was established in the previous book lives inside planets, has taken up residence in Earth. Her adversaries The Mott have found a way to break through the barrier preventing pursuit and are intent on mayhem.

Moosevan herself is rather missing from the narrative, revealed only by her actions – of which beginning to move Britain and Ireland south towards the equator is only the most obvious. Most of the talk and action (which tends to be of the relentless sort but rather cartoonish) revolve around the human and alien characters but none of these ever really rises above caricature. Palmer’s technique is very broad brush indeed. There are occasional grace notes which might still jar (not many SF novels of the time mentioned Maggie Thatcher, Bert Kaempfert or acid house parties) but also the odd phrase grounding the narrative. “There had to be better causes for which to ladder your tights.”

Moving Moosevan is light reading. It has its place.

Pedant’s corner:- for goodness’ sake (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be followed by a further ‘s’, goodness’s, otherwise leave it out,) “for them to secure their grip” (them and their, therefore ‘grips’,) “wild creatures … must have been holding their breath” (breaths,) “tried to diffuse the argument with a hollow chuckle” (defuse, that would be,) “a network of thinking metal units were working (a network .. was working,) “‘this planet it about to sneeze’” (is about to sneeze.) “A pile of Ordnance Survey maps were stacked” (a pile … was stacked.) “‘There are a number of species’” (strictly, there is a number of species,) “that the army …. were still trying to” (that the army … was still trying to,) “none of the group were too sure” (none .. was too sure,) “Yat knew that the terrible trio were back” (the terrible trio was back.)

2019 Clarke Award Shortlist

I see the short list for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award has been announced. I missed it at the time as I was away.

The list is:-

Semiosis by Sue Burke (HarperVoyager)
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)
The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag (Simon & Schuster)
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit)
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

I’ve read none of them but note the Tade Thompson was on the BSFA Award list this year (despite doubts as to its eligibility – which would apply equally to the Clarke Award I’d have thought.)

Also on both lists is the Yoon Ha Lee. Having read his Ninefox Gambit I have to say I’m depressed by this.

Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski

Avonova, 1994, 525 p.

 Daughter of Elysium cover

Raincloud Windclan is from the planet of Bronze Sky where women are called goddesses, and have the dominant role in society. She has come to Elysium with her family to avert a confrontation between its inhabitants and the apparently aggressive planet of Urulan. Elysium is a city established on the water-world of Shora but separate from the raft dwellers of that world familiar from Slonczewski’s previous novel A Door into Ocean. Raincloud’s husband Blackbear is a scientist set to investigate the possibilities of restoring fertility to Elysians, whose “children” – known as shonlings from the crèche-like shons where they are brought up – are artificially generated since Elysians’ longevity treatment has modified their chromosomal DNA and conferred sterility. By treaty with the Shorans, though, the numbers of Elysians are meant to be kept steady.

Elysian society is attended to by genetically modified creatures known as sims, and artificially intelligent servants much given to intoning, “Please refer any fault to…”

There are, then, several conflicts built into this scenario as well as, in the persons of the Blue Skyans, a contrast with the gender norms of the time when Slonczewski was writing. Raincloud is an adept practitioner of martial arts, which gives her honorary male status in the eyes of the Urulite Ambassador to Elysium. Later, on Urulan itself, subjected to an attempt to murder her companions she muses, “Men were supposed to be wholesome nurturing creatures, not predators.”

While it is gratifying to a Chemistry graduate like myself to read of acetyl and methyl groups and glucosamine in an SF novel and there is a concentration on domestic life usually absent in such genre works this one is marred by excessive information dumping. Another flaw is that we don’t meet the indigenous inhabitants of Shora till well through the book. The enmeshing of all the elements of the set-up into the plot and its resolution is well-done though.

Pedant’s corner:- dumfounded (dumbfounded.) “Did not ‘death’ equate ‘shame’ in the Urulite tongue?” (equate with,) unsubstantially (insubstantially.) “Her breasts peeped out cheerfully beyond her bare back and shoulders,” (is some anatomical feat,) nanomanipulaters (nanomanipulators.) “What would Public Safety think, he wondered” (needs a question mark,) “either she was growing up – or just saving her spit” (??? Is this a USian phrase?) syllabi (I prefer syllabuses, it’s not originally from Latin.) “His chest was crossed with ropes of milky gems set in good Blackbear stared” (???? ‘… set in gold’ and a missing full stop?) “A number of long-necked reporter servos were on hand” (a number … was on hand,) “until the Gathering sent their messengers” (until the Gathering sent its messengers.) “Raincloud though it very likely” (thought it,) “took things in stride” (in her stride, please,) “‘except prone’” (the context demanded ‘supine’, not ‘prone’,) “who had woken at last and began to wail” (the ‘had’ carries over, so ‘who had woken at last and begun to wail’,) “‘none of the worlds we deal with are as safe as Elysium’” (none is as safe.) “None of the Guardians were allowed to leave” (none of the Guardians was allowed to leave.) “None significant were found.” (None significant was found.)

Paul Darrow

I was sad to see that Paul Darrow has died.

As Avon in the BBC TV SF series Blake’s 7 he provided the grit in the oyster which turned it into a pearl. (There wasn’t much TV SF about in those days in the UK – Doctor Who apart – so we were grateful for what we could get.)

There’s a hint of Davros in some of Darrow’s delivery of his lines in this compilation of Avon’s put-downs.

Paul Valentine Birkby (Paul Darrow): 2/5/1941 – 3/6/2019. So it goes.

Rork! by Avram Davidson

Penguin, 1969, 140 p.

 Rork! cover

The planet Pia 2 is isolated, so isolated it only has a spaceship visit every five years. Despite this it is home to the redwing, a crop which can be processed to manufacture an important medical treatment. In the time of the culture’s Great Wars Pia 2 was cut off for centuries. The humans there evolved into gruff, hardy creatures speaking in a stripped down patois – still recognisable but not standard. These “autochthonous” humans are known as Tocks and exist in tame (near the Station) varieties and wilder ones. It is the Tocks who harvest the redwing and bring it into the Station. The planet also harbours really native animals like crybabies (known as such for their calls at night) and others which can be dangerous, like the rips and especially, the titular Rorks, giant spider like creatures. Rorkland is a no-go area except perhaps in the Cold Time, when Rorks become sluggish.

Ran Lomar has been sent to the Station to see if there is any way in which redwing production can be increased. The local humans – not to mention the Tocks – are set in their ways and very resistant to change. Having entangled, then disentangled, himself with a local Station woman, Lindel, Lomar sets off to the South of Tockland to try to encourage those there to improve the yield of redwing. He, his Tock companion Old Guns, along with his daughter Norna, are captured by a wild bunch of Tocks and Old Guns is killed.

Aided by Norna, Lomar makes his escape, and the pair are forced to travel into Rorkland to evade recapture. It is obvious by now where this is going and what they are going to find out about Rorks on their travels. Davidson handles it well though and had I read this in the 1960s I would no doubt have thought it excellent. It now reads as a little well-worn, however, and its sexual politics are very much of the 1960s.

Davidson’s use of the words wee, besom and pogue indicates a Scottish connection somewhere but the internet is unforthcoming on what that might be. He can string sentences together though and spin out a plot. I’m not averse to reading more of him.

Pedant’s corner:- In the author information; Wand Moore (Ward Moore.) Otherwise; “Here and they the passed gatherers” (‘there’ for the first ‘they’,) melancholy (melancholy,) Flinders’ (several times, Flinders’s,) “born along” (borne along,) distanthill (distant hill,) “had not know” (known,) “the natural exultance inevitably to the male” (inevitable.) “‘Harb did not even seemed to be waiting” (seem,)”the spaces between the peoples was increased” (were increased,) “grimy impatient” (grimly.) “The mouth seemed trying to say something” (seemed to be trying,) exploitive (exploitative.)

Shoreline of Infinity 11½: Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018

Shoreline of Infinity 11½ cover

In “Pull up a Log” editor Noel Chidwick puts the case for SF as a way to fulfil the question, “Can Science Fiction save us?” posed as the title of the spoken word Event Horizon the magazine was invited by the International Science Festival to put on in connection with the festival.

Some of the contents have appeared in previous issues. Charlie: A Projecting Prestidigitator by Megan Neumann and the poem The Morlock’s Arms by Ken McLeod appeared in Shoreline of Infinity (SoI) 2, We Have Magnetic Trees by Iain Maloney, Pigeon by Guy Stewart and the poem South by Marge Simon in SoI 3, Goodnight New York, New York by Victoria Zevlin and the poem Starscape by J S Watts in SoI 6, Message in a Bottle by Davyne DeSye in SoI 7, the poem Spring Offensive by Colin McGuire in SoI 8, while The Sky is Alive by Michael F Russell, The Last Days of the Lotus Eaters by Leigh Harlen and the poem the evening after by Peter Roberts in SoI 9.

We start with the poem Can Sci-Fi Save Us? by Jane Yolen and then the fiction kicks off with A Cure for Homesickness by Anne Charnock in which a contract employee ponders whether to extend her time.
Winter in the Vivarium1 by Tim Major is set in a future ice age. Ice statues suddenly start to appear outside the Vivarium for the rich and privileged whose upkeep is seen to by viewpoint character, the much less privileged Byron.
Charlie’s Ant2 by Adrian Tchaikovsky is about the dispute between Central Control and the ants of Charlie field over how maintain a farm’s production of grain. (Unbeknownst to both, the human society they were set up to service has broken down.)
In Candlemaker Row3 by Jane Alexander an unspecified disaster has hit Edinburgh. Our narrator is a woman who once lived there, now employed to verify its digital reconstruction – especially its aromas.
The titular Mémé of Juliana Rew’s story is one of the few survivors of her age group left after a flu epidemic wiped out older people. She becomes venerated and an influencer.
Monoliths4 by Paul McAuley looks to have been inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the phenomenon of crop circles. Set in the author’s Quiet War universe three conspirators contrive to build a monolith on the far side of the Moon. When touched it will activate a radio signal beamed at the galaxy’s centre. Thirty-six years later more such unattributed monoliths begin to spring up all over the Solar System.
In A Distant Honk by Holly Schofield, a research biologist is tracking the behaviour and habitat of the wild clown population, which is dying out.
The Day it all Ended5 by Charlie Jane Anders shows a worker for a producer of useless but made highly desirable items deciding to tell his boss where to stuff it all only to find that was what the company had been waiting for to put into effect its real plan.
The narrator of Last of the Guerilla Gardeners6 by David L Clements is exactly that. Big agribusiness corporations have taken over seed distribution with only a dedicated few guerrilla gardeners left to scatter wild seed about. And there has been a crackdown on them. This story does for plants what Number Ten Q Street did for food.
This is followed by the poem: Now a Ragged Breeze by Jane Yolen.
Then in “Working the High Steel”7 by Jennifer R Povey, Malisse is a female Mohawk used to being told to get back to the reservation. But she is a construction worker, on a kind of space elevator. The finished project is being tested when one of the transit pods hits a problem. She goes out to try to fix it. After all, “‘Mohawks don’t fall.’”
The Rest is Speculation8 by Eric Brown is set over two million years in the future when representatives of all the sentient species which have populated Earth are brought to witness the planet’s last moments. The story nods to James Blish’s Surface Tension.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“Bryan dropped down from gantry” (from the gantry,) “the ha-ha that obstructed views of the town” (obscured is more usual,) jerry-rig (jury-rig.) 2Despite the author being British we have fit as a past tense (fitted,) “sufficient to even take the ants aback” (since this was about the ants’ attitudes this should be ‘sufficient to take even the ants aback,’) “I have had to considerable increase” (considerably.) 3“the skin team are working on it” (strictly ‘the skin team is working on it’,) “the Nor” Loch” (x2, Nor’ requires only an inverted comma, not an end quotation mark.) “Architects drawings” (strictly, Architects’.) “His team have been running behind” (his team has been.) 4 “ratio of 1:4:9, the square of the first three integers” (the squares of the first three.) 5ne280ws (???) CO2 (CO2, x 3,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. 6lept (leapt,) unlisenced (unlicenced,) gardner (gardener.) 7two odd line breaks on page 147, “a 140-pound woman could not hold a 230- pound man” (either both, or neither, should have a space after the 140 or 230,) “ I don’t really see she could have stayed on when the passenger pod after it started moving’” (no ‘when’ required,) “‘when the pod is stationery’” (stationary.) 8“this lacunae in our memories” (lacunae is plural. Either ‘these lacunae’ or, ‘this lacuna’. The first would make more sense,) eyes-stalks (eye-stalks – unless the stocks had more than one eye each,) “‘And they?’ I Kamis asked?” (The ‘I’ is redundant.) “Time interval later” count; 2.

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