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Arthur C. Clarke Award: This Year’s Nominees

The shortlist for the 34th Arthur C. Clarke Award is:

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

I had been looking for the list for a while but not for the first time discovered it had finally been announced via Ian Sales’s blog.

I reveiwed the Charlie Jane Anders book for Interzone 282 and published that review here on 28/5/20.

The Martine and Serpell I had seen good reviews of. The works of Hurley I have read tend to wallow in violence which I find off-putting. I’ve only read Tchaikovsky’s two Children of Time novels. They were OK but no more. Wellington is new to me (and Ian Sales doesn’t think much of his book.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (ii)

Large SF paperbacks this week for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.

I keep these in an old music cupboard I inherited from my great-uncle. I’ve got so many of these they have to be double-parked, so you can’t actually see the first and third shelves shown here when the cupboard is opened. Stacking some on their sides gives me an extra 4 cm of space. Click on the photos to enlarge the pictures.

These include a J G Ballard, Iain M Banks, Chris Beckett, Eric Brown, Ursula Le Guin and Ian McDonald:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (i)

Annoyingly, even these large paperbacks do not all come in one size. The upright ones to the right here are smaller than the previous books. More McDonald, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robertson, Adam Roberts, Hannu Rajaniemi, a lesser Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (ii)

More Ballard, Banks, Beckett and Brown. Lavie Tidhar, Neil Williamson and another step down in size:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iii)

John Crowley, M John Harrison, Dave Hutchinson, Stanisław Lem:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iv)

Bugs by John Sladek

Macmillan, 1989, 215 p.

Bugs cover

Sladek was one of those writers who contributed to the New Wave of Science Fiction in the 1960s. His SF always had a kind of sideways slant, not as bonkers as R A Lafferty but not conventional in any way.

This novel has a Science-Fictional premise in that it postulates the creation of a thinking robot but is designed more as a satire on the contemporary corporate culture of the 1980s and of USian manners, usages (Tea tier tgo for “To eat here, or to go) and sexual mores. It also rather spectacularly blows out of the water Gene Wolfe’s first rule of writing: ‘never name a character Fred.’

Said Fred is Manfred Jones, an English writer who has come to New York at the behest of his agent only to find that the project he had been lured with does not exist. His wife, Susan, is disgusted by their cockroach infested rooms and soon flies back home. Fred applies for a job as a technical writer at VIMNUT Industries in Minneapolis. He is mistaken for someone else and taken on – as a software engineer – and the misapprehensions go on from there.

He is rescued from a cloud of gnats by a Soviet spy calling herself K K who, of course, “speaks” with v replacing w, omits words like ‘a,’ ‘the’ and the odd ‘it,’ and says ‘darlink’ rather than darling and tries to recruit him. Various organisations offer him money over the phone, he is investigated by the IRS even though his pay-check from VIMNUT, which becomes Cyberk Corporation before he even joins, then later VEXXO, only one of a string of companies in the book constantly being renamed, while Fred’s British accent also leads to him continually being asked, “Why don’t you Brits bugger off out of Ireland.”

The whole is interspersed with background news items – most with ludicrously named reporters such as Aramis Whiteflow and Porthos Floog – on the killer targetting the Little Dorrit Restaurant chain. There is, too, an ongoing set of presidential sanity hearings. (If only, I hear you say.) There are embedded quotes from Bookends era Paul Simon songs and explicit references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose fate the robot fears, especially after it is kidnapped and blamed for a death that took place during the incident.

Bugs is entertaining and clever, a perfect light read for lockdown or any other time, but sensitive souls should note there is a character described as a Negro who at one point says to a receptionist, “all you gotta do is put it in your ad: No niggers need apply.”

Pedant’s corner:- Talos’ (Talos’s,) “all he could do was to put down the chair” (all he could do was put down the chair,) caviar (caviar.) “Seeing her though tears” (through tears,)

Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

Hodder, 2019, 317 p.

 Storm of Locusts cover

This is the second of Roanhorse’s Sixth World sequence featuring the adventures of Maggie Hoskie, Monsterslayer. I reviewed the first, Trail of Lightning, here. We are again in Navajo country, Dinétah, and straight away Maggie is asked by Hastiin, of the Thirsty Boys, (drought still afflicts the land after the environmental catastrophe known as the Big Water,) to help with something big and bad over near Lake Asááyi. On the way she is introduced to Ben, who is not a young man, but a teenage girl, Hastiin’s niece, whom Hastiin asks Maggie to look after if anything should happen to him, which naturally it soon does. The something big and bad turns out to be a woman with wings who can sing others to submission and is an adherent of the White Locust. Hastiin is killed, Ben blames herself for attracting the winged woman’s attention and tries to kill her in revenge. In the aftermath Maggie has to accept reponsibility for Ben, who we find, like Maggie, has clan powers, in her case to track people. The winged woman – despite her singing abilities – is then forgotten by the narrative.

Rissa and Clive Goodacre of the All-American bar encountered in the previous book come knocking asking for Maggie’s help to rescue their brother Caleb, taken apparently by Maggie’s former ally, Kai, whom she betrayed in the course of defeating then burying her mentor, Neizghání, whose sword of lightning is now in Maggie’s possession. A video of the abduction is in the bar’s archive, and despite not being very revealing does show Kai mouthing, “I love you. Don’t follow,” presumably to Maggie. Though Maggie is insistent she no longer wants to kill anyone and any pursuit means she might have to, follow is of course what she does, accompanied by Ben, Clive, Rissa, and a shapeshifter called Mósí, escaping pursuit by a swarm of locusts which can devour everything in sight and assemble themselves into a human shape.

They find Caleb at Dinétah’s southern entry gate, complete with a set of wings and pinned by stakes to the wall that surrounds Dinétah. (For some reason all the Goodacres have red hair. Odd, it isn’t a dominant gene.) The trail leads out into the Badlands beyond Dinétah. Within hours our adventurers are captured and taken to Knifetown, overseen by a man called Bishop who is a trader of all kinds but especially of breedable women. He deems Maggie and Rissa too dangerous though. They are to be harvested for their organs. Somewhat too easily they talk themselves out of captivity by persuading Bishop’s pilot, Aaron, to help them. This is good for plot reasons as he is the brother of Gideon, the White Locust. Mósí engineers that they stop at an abandoned casino named Twin Arrows, where Maggie becomes reacquainted with Ma’ii (Coyote) whom she had killed in the previous book, “The problem with immortals is that they don’t stay dead,” and engages in a game of chance with the god Nohoilpi. There is a diversion to a place called Wahheap, where Maggie learns from Tó how to control Neizghání’s sword, then on to Amangiri and the final confrontation with the White Locust, who holds a grudge against Dinétah and plans to destroy it.

Maggie is an engaging narrator. Despite all the mayhem, violence and killing, not all that much by way of plot, and the lack of filling in of background detail of this supposed future the book is well written. Roanhorse shows understanding of the human condition and a flair for character depiction. The blending of Navajo myth and beliefs with a Fantasy plot works well as a story but the control over natural phenomena by those with powers is always a stretch for me.

The last chapter is a bit of a tease as it does not relate at all to the main thrust of Storm of Locusts but instead promises more in the Sixth World.

Pedant’s corner:- “When the adrenaline spike that drive them fades” (drives then,) “at apace” (at a pace.) “Something about Rissa seem to repel the light” (seems,) “she slides off mattress” (the mattress,) “there’s no arcing patterns” (there are no arcing patterns,) a closed quotation mark at the end of a paragraph when the next paragraph started off with the same speaker (x 1,) “‘I’ve never drank alcohol before’” (never drunk.) “He shakes he head.” (his head.) “‘How it is my fault?’” (How is it my fault?,) “as we race for the Lupton” (for Lupton,) “like she’s relived” (relieved,) “Caleb’s rushes on” (Caleb rushes on,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “His freezes” (He freezes.) “Feedings us to the sporting dogs.” (Feeding us to,) hanger (hangar, used correctly later,) “what looks to be modified Heckler assault rifles” (what look to be,) the sheathe (the sheath,) “I loved the way it shined” (shone,) “the pressure of fingers on my neck disappear” (disappears.) “His stumbles back” (He stumbles,) “sounds like I great idea” (like a great idea,) “righted the plan” (righted the plane.) “The use it against a god?” (To use it against a god?) Nohoipli (elsewhere always Nohoilpi,) “making them they sparkle like diamonds” (no ‘they’ needed,) “rarer in this world that you think” (than you think,) “rolling through by body” (through my body,) “‘if you haven’t notice’” (noticed.) “The docks creaks and moans” (the dock,) “I sheath the sword” (sheathe,) “There’s a an individual” (no ‘a’.) “Kai shoulders fall slightly” (Kai’s,) an unneeded end quote mark at the end of a normal piece of prose (x1.) “The spill of pebbles under my feet sound like” (the spill …sounds like,) “reaching up hands up” (only one ‘up’ required.) “The impossibly rare smell of sugar and cinnamon waft from the dish” (the … smell … wafts,) “I cry out at my fingers bend and crack” (as my fingers,) “and his eyes – whatever light they had before – snuffs out” (- whatever light they had before snuff out,) Diyin Dine’ e (elsewhere always Dine’ é,) “the handful that are left” (strictly; the handful that is left.) “Stepping out of from behind” (either ‘out of’ or ‘from’, not both,) “from having the relive the horrors” (having to relive,) “her face tight” (his face.) “As in on cue” (As if on cue,) “his breath coming is gasps,” (in gasps,) Dinetah (elsewhere always Dinétah.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, 2019 , 485 p. Published in Interzone 282, May-Jun 2019.

 The City in the Middle of the Night cover

We start with a “Translator’s Note” telling us terms have been rendered into Peak English. This both frames the narrative and explains the use of “archaic Earth terms” for alien creatures and the recognisability of characters’ names.

The story itself takes place on January, a planet tide-locked to its star. Its human occupants, who still regard the arrangements on the Mother Ship that brought them there as significant, inhabit the narrow band between scorching Day and freezing Night (wherein monsters lurk.) The ship’s technology that at first sustained them has long been failing though and there are signs the environment is beginning to collapse – corrosive alkaline rain, sudden tornados. The novel’s events are situated mainly in Xiosphant – a repressive rules-based city, “nothing in this city is ever supposed to change” – and Argelo, which is much looser in organization and attitudes (“the city that never sleeps,”) with some scenes in the wildernesses between. Within the book’s seven parts alternate chapters see events from the first person, present tense viewpoint of Sophie, a would-be revolutionary in Xiosphant, and the third person, past tense perspective of Mouth, who thinks she is the last survivor of a society of Travellers known as the Citizens and is lately a member of a band of smugglers calling themselves the Resourceful Couriers, so knows the ways between the cities.

Sophie takes the blame for a theft by Bianca, her friend for whom it is obvious to the reader (though not spelled out in the narrative till near the end) she has deep feelings. As punishment, Xiosphant’s Police Force ejects Sophie from the city into the night to die. A strange encounter with a creature known to January’s humans as a crocodile (though its physical characteristics are very different from that Earth animal) saves her. During this she is somehow enabled to see the creature’s memories, including one of a complex city situated somewhere out in the night.

Mouth is exercised by the destruction of the Citizens, which she witnessed from a distance, especially since it was before they could bestow a name on her. Her attempt to secure their book of customs from Xiosphant’s Palace coincides with the failure of the revolutionaries’ take-over. She, Sophie, Bianca and others have to flee across the Sea of Murder to reach Argelo. This involves curiously cursory action scenes accompanied by extended, and hence unconvincing, dialogue. Sophie’s connection to the crocodiles (whom she names the Gelet) helps save most of them and she receives a bracelet which thereafter keeps drawing her to the night and the Gelet.

The contrast between life in Xiosphant and Argelo is marked but Mouth learns more of her background from a former Citizen, Barnabas, who left the group after achieving enlightenment, “‘The point of religion is to keep trying to reach someplace, the last thing you want is for someone to feel like they’ve reached it.’”

As far as the Science-Fictional meat of all this goes Sophie and Mouth eventually do arrive at the city in the middle of the night – but not until almost four-fifths of the way through the book. In the city they learn of the importance of the Gelet to January’s bio-friendliness – not just from transmitted memories but from a recording left by one of January’s earliest humans, “‘These natives seem to regard geoengineering and bioengineering as two branches of the same discipline.’” A tidal-locked planet would require an air-conditioning system to circulate hot air from the near side to the far side to avoid weather instability and atmospheric disruption. “‘These creatures seem to have created something better, using networked chains of flora and fauna.’” Also revealed is the crucial role the useful substance, known to the Citizens as nightfire since it glowed in the dark, played in stabilising the planet’s biosphere and in the Citizens’ demise. The Gelet’s interest in Sophie is to use her as a bridge between civilisations. She willingly accepts the sacrifice required.

A thought that speaks perhaps to the twenty-first century reader’s awareness is, “‘Progress requires us to curate the past, to remove from history things that aren’t ‘constructive.’ I don’t know if our power to forget makes humans stronger, more self-destructive, or maybe both.’”

The novel starts off intriguingly but it becomes clearer as we go on that the author’s interest is not so much in her imagined world, or her plot, as in the societies and interactions she is depicting – good stuff, but lacking something in urgency. And the book doesn’t so much end as just stop. Perhaps, at a touch under 500 pages, Anders decided she had delighted us long enough.

The following did not appear in the published review:
The sentence, “Here’s what Mouth learned about Sasha from eavesdropping,” ought to have been removed by a decent editing process.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian. Otherwise; “something makes me stop and examine closer” (examine more closely,) “I notice someone who seems out of place … They turn their head” (‘someone’ is singular, therefore not ‘they’, in this case ‘she turns her head’,) “now a few s cattered memories” (a few scattered memories,) “a group of students … argue about” (a group argues.) “‘He’s been making a fortune speculating on sour cherries’” (‘speculating in’ something might lead to a fortune, ‘speculating on’ it is just wool-gathering,) “a group of musicians hunch” (a group hunches.) “‘We lay there’” (We lie there; elsewhere Anders shows she does know the difference between lay and lie,) “open maw” (it’s not a mouth!) “their heads almost exploded” (used once, this phrase for an eye-opening experience appears fresh and striking; used again, not so much,) “‘I don’t even know if any Gelet ever want to meet me again’” (if any Gelet ever wants to meet me.) A chapter begins, “Ignore the buzzing from my right wrist, and I take Bianca’s wrist,” (‘I ignore’ makes more sense. This typo probably occurred because the first word of a chapter is always in a much larger font size than the others,) envelopes (envelops,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) “which stunk just as much as she’d expected” (stank.)

BSFA Awards for 2019

It seems the BSFA Awards were announced on 17/5/20. (I found out the novel winner via a mention on Ian Sales’s blog and I subsequently checked the full list on the Wiki page for the Awards.)

They were announced via live streaming and the video is on You Tube.

The winners were:-

Novel: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Short Fiction: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Artwork: cover of Wourism and Other Stories (Luna Press) by Chris “Fangorn” Baker
Non-Fiction: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn

I voted for only one of these.

Issue 287 of Interzone

The latest issue of Interzone arrived today. Number 287. It has a great wraparound cover:-

Interzone 287 cover

This is the one which contains my reviews of The City We Became by N K Jemisin and Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards.

I note that one story inside is titled Make America Great Again. Hmmm.

All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

Apollo Quartet 4, Whippleshield Books, 2015, 155 p, including 2 p Notes, 4 p You Have Been Reading About writers and editors, 1 p Further Reading, 2 p Bibliography, and 1 p Online Sources.

 All That Outer Space Allows cover

Like previous books in his Apollo Quartet the author does not take a straightforward approach in this short novel. It is ostensibly the life story of Ginny Eckhardt, wife of Apollo astronaut Walden Eckhardt (a character based on actual Apollo 15 Lunar Module pilot Jim Irwin.) On the quiet, though, Ginny is a writer of Science Fiction, and the book, as well as delineating the lot of an astronaut’s wife in the 1960s, describes the evolution of Ginny’s idea to write an alternative history of the US space programme in which women were the astronauts. She knows they are at least as capable as the men, if not more so. However, her personal life as first an Air Force wife, and then an astronaut’s after Walden is picked in the latest round of recruits, becomes increasingly circumscribed. This is how it was in the 1960s. Ginny’s mother, along with others of her generation, had been quickly levered back into the home after working during the Second World War, and forever resented it. Ginny herself had made sure to obtain a degree before marrying but has no opportunity to use it. (The role of astronaut’s wife is as prop and support, adornment, rather than a person in her own right.) Given her inner thoughts, the solidarity she feels with other female writers of SF in the 1960s and of the position of women generally, Ginny’s attitudes to this might have been expressed more forcefully, she seems too willing to conform to the role set – even if she does resolve to find out as much technical detail of the Apollo Programme as possible in order to enhance her fiction. We are told she loves Walden, but we don’t really feel it, and Walden gives little back in the way of emotional support, not even wondering how the sanctuary of his room manages to stay tidy and clean.

In common with other instalments of the Apollo Quartet Sales gives us (in boxes lined-off on the pages) technical and biographical information. So here we have a table of contents from Galaxy magazine, Vol 26, issue 3, February 1968 (which contained Ginny’s story “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” as by V G Parker;) comments on the position and relative scarcity of female SF writers of the time; biographical details from a NASA press release of the 19 newly recruited astronauts of 1966; a letter to Ginny from another woman SF writer signed YouKay; the utterly male Hugo Awards Winners listings for 1966; a historical overview of Ginny’s writing career; the complete text of “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” (a nice piece of literary ventriloquism by Sales, though it reads more like a 1950s piece;) a specification for Lunar Module Cockpit Simulation training; a letter to the editor of Galaxy bemoaning “Mr” Parker’s contribution to that Feb 1966 issue; another NASA spec, this time for the Lunar Module; one-sentence extracts from SF stories by women each commenting on some aspect of the female experience; a Wikipedia biography of Walden Eckhardt’s life; the Nasa specs for spacesuit materials; a short transcript of Neil Armstrong’s early exchanges with ground control just after he set foot on the Moon’s surface that first time; the launch schedule for Apollo 15 (Walden’s mission;) a NASA description of the Apollo 15 landing site; V G Parker’s entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This is an Altered History, though. In Ginny’s world, SF is written, edited and read mainly by women and denigrated more (if that’s possible) because of that. At several points Sales addresses the reader directly by interpolating comments on his choices as a writer when composing the story and on the subject of Science Fiction as an enterprise, especially on how it generally does not reflect the harsh realities of space travel. Worth reading in and of itself All That Outer Space Allows also acts as a kind of primer in the history of women writers of SF in the world the reader knows.

Pedant’s corner:- “makes turban of a second towel” (makes a turban is more natural sounding,) “and so predates Ginny’s migration” (postdates,) “Only a Mother” (“That Only a Mother”), “There was loud thunk” (a loud thunk,) “The descent stage measure ten feet seven inches high by… ” (‘measures ten feet seven inches high’. This was in the NASA Lunar Module spec so I assume was their mistake,) vapourised (vaporised,) “as she lays on the beach” (as she lies on the beach,) misrembering (misremembering.)

House of Books, St Petersburg

Or the Singer Building. It’s the corner building with the cupola and sphere. Also known as Dom Knigi. Note Victory Day banners.

House of Books, Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg

The bookshop lies just by the Griboyedov Canal on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and the Griboyedov Channel Embankment road.

St Petersburg, House of Books, Nevsky Prospekt

We went in. It has loads of lovely books. The good lady was most taken by the illustrated children’s ones. She bought a copy of Гуси лебеди (Gusi-lebedi or Geese-swans) and (in English) Pushkin’s Fairy Tales and also The Monarchs of Russia. The shop had a large stock of SF. Unfortunately it was all in Russian!

The light fittings on the Griboyedov Channel Embankment road are something else:-

Lampposts, House of Books, off Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg

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