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Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas

Coronet, 1981, 252 p.

 Walk to the End of the World cover

This book has an odd, disjointed structure, being narrated sequentially from the point of view of four of its characters, Captain Kelmz, Servan d Layo, Eykar Bek and Alldera, before the final section, called Destination, which switches between the last three of those. It was a bit of a slog at first as there was a significant degree of information dumping and much of the story was told, not shown to us.

The setting is many, many years after The Wasting, where most of humanity was wiped out by various environmental disasters and their accompanying wars. The remains of humanity are congregated in a smallish land area known as Holdfast, bounded on two sides by The Wild and stretching from the inland town of ’Troi to Lammintown and Bayo on the coast with a slight seaside extension to Endpath. (These are – unneccesarily – outlined on a map which follows the dedication page.)

Holdfast is a subsistence society run by men who blame the descent of the species on women, here known as Fems and treated as subhuman slaves barely fit for the necessary breeding (which is looked on with more than distaste by the men, who are supposed to prefer same-sex encounters.) The litany of those “Dirties” who are the butt of the men’s displeasure at their reduced state is a list of all those whom political right-wingers have traditionally despised. They chant, “Reds, Blacks, Browns, Kinks; Gooks, Dagos, Greasers, Chinks; Ragheads, Niggas, Kites, Dinks,” and, “Lonhairs, Raggles, Bleedingarts; Faggas, Hibbies, Families, Kids; Junkies, Skinheads, Collegeists; Ef-eet Iron-mentalists,” adding, “Bird, Cat, Chick, Sow, Filly, Tigress, Bitch, Cow,” and, “the dreadful weapons of the unmen; cancer, raybees, deedeetee; Zinc, lead and mer-cur-ee.”

I note that in that second last list, of derogatory terms for women, Charnas has missed out the most potent, the c-word, which her characters would more probably have gloried in. (It may be she thought it would not get past her publishers. Possibly she tried, and they vetoed it.)

In Holdfast, intergenerational conflict is thought to be inevitable and male children are brought up not knowing who their father is (and vice versa.) This provides part of the motor for the plot as Eykar Bek, once Endtendant at Endpath, to where men go at the end of their lives for a ritual suicide, knows his father is Raff Maggomas but not his whereabouts. The plot involves d Layo, Bek and the fem Alldera variously hiding out from the men at Lammintown and Bayo before travelling to ’Troi where the final confrontationt takes place. As Alldera is set on finding the legendary free women in The Wild, whom we do not meet (and into which we do not venture) in this novel, scope is afforded for a sequel.

At time of first publication in 1974 the future postulated here may have seemed an overly pessimistic view of the future of gender relations – which then were becoming more fluid in the West. But suppression of women never really went away in the wider world and in these days of resurgent male chauvinism in the so-called “mature” democracies and the less polite areas of the internet, it is frighteningly plausible.

Undoubtedly feminist as Charnas’s intent was, as a novel, taking the gender relationships aside, the mechanics of Walk to the End of the World’s plot and the degree (or lack of it) of characterisation were pretty standard SF fare for the time.

Pedant’s corner:- a UK edition but printed in USian. Kelmz’ (many instances; Kelmz’s,) Maggomas’ (several instances; Maggomas’s,) pantomines (pantomimes,) flutists’ (flautists’) focussed (focused,) Chings (Chinks,) lambaste (lambast,) tattoed (tattooed,) Matris’ (x2, Matris’s,) gutterals (gutturals,) gasses (gases,) Robrez’ (Robrez’s,) a missing end quotation mark, “to wipe the thin film of pinkish blood, from the Trukker’s blade” (doesn’t need the comma,) metail-tipped (metal-tipped,) dismissal (dismissal,) mock-obsequity (mock-obsequiousness.)

Resolution Way by Carl Neville

Repeater, 2016, 395 p.

 Resolution Way by Carl Neville cover

Ah. The drawbacks of writing near future SF. In this novel Scotland seems to be independent (not that much is made of that) yet there hasn’t been a UK referendum on EU membership. What there is, is an extrapolation of what life might look like under a right wing regime which treats workers as scum and non-workers as even worse.

It seems at first to be about the attempt by Alex Hargreaves, writer of a novel called Gilligan’s Century which plagiarised earlier works but was excused by him as being a kind of remix, into the life and archive of disappeared (and thought dead) 1970s pop musician Vernon Crane. Hargreaves has come across one chapter of a novel written by Crane but knows other chapters were scattered among Crane’s friends. Hargreraves wants to publish it as his own. The tale is then broadened out by the use of a succession of different viewpoint characters, a strategy which serves to flesh out this future dystopia (though it doesn’t seem too much of a leap for society to get there as many of the harsher elements are incipient in the concept of austerity) showing it from various angles.

An example of present day trend extrapolation is that the employees of fast food franchise Heart of Chicken have to wear a plastic heart on their chests, an affective monitoring system which glows if they are happy, and if it doesn’t glow customers get a refund. Cue customers making employees lives miserable and the highest staff turnover rate in the world. (A similar technology is used in brothels.) Then there is the Community Giveback scheme where unproductive (or just unlucky) members of society have to work off debt or simply gain subsistence by it. This can extend into Permanent Giveback, when the recipients of this largesse by the state are obliged to have children so that they can pay off the debt.

It’s a horribly plausible description of a world where solidarity and fellow feeling have all but evaporated and public considerations have devolved into rampant individualism – and outright cruelty. About the only quotable phrase in the novel, though, is the rumination, “Music and love and sentimentality: dangerous drugs.”

The final section, titled Resolution, where we revisit the viewpoint characters in much shorter chunks, didn’t work for me and the alternative endings to characters’ stories we are provided with, as well as smacking of an author having his cake and eating it, did not chime with everything that had gone before. Even so Resolution Way has its moments and Neville inhabits his viewpoint characters’ heads convincingly. But, oh my…. What a list for Pedant’s corner.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a small number” (there was a small number.) “5trhere were a series of adverts” (there was a series,) “‘he might have distributed things too’” (to,) “laying on his back” (lying – plus one more instance of laying where lying is the correct word) Hargreaves’ (x3, Hargreaves’s,) “the locked draw of his desk” (drawer,) “to take her mind of things” (off things,) Louise (elsewhere spelled Lewis, but this is the girl’s mother’s viewpoint and she is probably using Lewis’s given name rather than the version she may have chosen for herself,) “as a women” (woman,) “raise a few wains” (this West of Scotland word for kids is spelled weans,) “and slides into the machine” (slides it into the machine,) snuck (sneaked,) “a gaggle of schoolkids run” (a gaggle … runs,) “if he wanted too” (to.) “Ahh yes” (usually ‘Ah yes’,) “off in quiet corner” (in a quiet corner,) “some lingering anxiety about … have held her back” (some lingering anxiety … has held her back,) “a spectacularly attractive women” (woman,) unstaunchable (unstanchable,) curb (kerb,) “later on he has meeting” (has a meeting,) “stuck up a friendship with” (struck up,) Lewis’ (Lewis’s,) “of how not to be slave” (a slave.) “The same company that are trying” (that is trying,) “her work log and pen …. and lays it down” (and lays them down,) “the way the body is a whole, interconnected system” (no comma needed.) “That must have has soaked up ..” (either ‘must have’ or ‘has’; not both,) “so a series of …. have been set up” (a series .. has been set up,) “Peter’s has been” (Peters has been,) “to numerous players, each of whom use it in different ways” (each of whom uses it …,) “he’s had had to listen” (only one ‘had’ needed,) “not quite the young, brilliant billionaire though he was” (not quite the young, brilliant billionaire he thought he was,) focussed (focused,) “naught but a whisp,) (wisp,) waitress’ (waitress’s,) epicentre (centre,) “from the desk draw” (drawer,) whiskey (whisky,) Ferris’ (Ferris’s. I gave up noting these errant apostrophes much earlier in the book, this happened to be on the same page as another literal,) “let’s the petrol pour onto the rug” (lets the petrol. This – and the draw/drawer confusion earlier – are pretty unforgiveable mistakes to make,) “What’s left of his face begin to tremor” (begins,) “and a four rapid little taps” (and four rapid little taps,) “under and Immigration Threat Relocation Order” (under an Immigration Threat Relocation Order,) “as the crowd from the enclave head” (as the crowd … heads,) “she wants to give her mum piece of mind” (peace of mind,) a missing full stop at a section’s end, “with a dead Author” (author.) “He said that you would kill me to have me” (‘He said that you would kill to have me’ makes more sense.)

the Extremes by Christopher Priest

Scribner, 1999, 398 p.

the Extremes cover

FBI operative Teresa Simons has lost her husband in one of those shooting incidents typical of the US. In an attempt to assuage her grief and probe the circumstances of similar tragedies she has travelled to her native England, from where her parents emigrated when she was young, to visit the south coast town of Bulverton, also scene of a (much less typical) mass shooting several months before. In her FBI training to improve the responses of law enforcement agents in such cases Teresa had undergone many immersions in virtual reality scenarios of shooting incidents. We are given accounts of several of these where Teresa inhabited the minds of different participants – victims, bystanders, perpetrator. Commercial VR outlets are also a feature of this world and, in them, shooting simulations (as well as the inevitable porn) are widely popular. Employees of the GunHo Corporation, purveyors of ExEx (extreme experience, their version of virtual reality, which overall amounts to the second largest economy in this world) also occupy the hotel where Teresa is staying and are willing to pay the town’s inhabitants enormous sums for their recollections of the fatal day.

Like Philip K Dick, Priest has always been a slippery prospect. In his work appearances can be deceptive and reality tenuous. As Teresa delves deeper into ExEx’s wares, trying to find the limits to their scenarios, the outside world starts to become less concrete. If, in a scenario, you enter an ExEx property within it and immerse yourself in one of its simulations where will you emerge when you activate the trigger that is supposed to restore you to the ‘real’ world? In particular she has to face up to her own responsibility for, within an ExEx simulation, inadvertently showing the Bulverton shooter how to handle the gun he is carrying. Is she to blame for the subsequent deaths? This has the potential to takes us down a rabbit hole which Priest manages to sidestep but the phrase, “Extreme reality was a landscape of forking paths,” is undoubtedly a nod to Borges’s famous short story wherein he presaged the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics by decades.

The subject matter invites comment. The fascination some people have with guns is undoubted but I suspect they would not be swayed out of it in any way by the observation, however true, that, “the more there were people who owned guns, who made themselves expert with guns, who prepared to defend themselves with guns, who went on hunting trips with guns, who mouthed slogans about freedom and rights being dependent on guns, the more those guns were likely to be abused and to fall into the wrong hands.”

As usual Priest’s characters are well drawn and believable. This is so even within the virtual realities. For a twenty year-old narrative this still holds up remarkably well.

Pedant’s corner:- On the cover and spine the title is given as the Extremes but the title page has The Extremes. At times the narrative slips between English and USian usages. Otherwise; Mrs Simons’ (Simons’s,) epicentre (centre,) “in bright orange shirt” (in a bright …,) “the police Swat team were trying to gain access” (the police Swat team was trying ….) “A crowd … were staring” (a crowd … was staring,) non-antibioticly (non-antibiotically?) Mrs Williams’ (Williams’s.) “She thought, Any more of this and….” (Either put the ‘any more of this and….’ in quotation marks or lose the capital ‘A’.)

Body of Glass by Marge Piercy

Penguin, 1992, 590 p.

Body of Glass cover

In a post-environmental disaster, post-nuclear war world dominated by commercial multis Shira Shipman has returned to her domed home of Tikva after Y-S, the multi she worked for, awarded custody of her son, Ari, to her husband. In Tikva she finds that Avram has created a(n illegal) cyborg, Yod, named for the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (He – Piercy depicts Yod as male and to all intents and purposes fully human – has had nine less successful predecessors.) Shira’s grandmother Malkah has helped Avram to construct Yod’s persona as the previous efforts had lacked, for want of a better word, humanity. Complicating Shira’s return is the presence of Avram’s son, Gadi, Shira’s first lover and a producer of computer generated entertainment, but who is constitutionally incapable of keeping himself to one woman. There is an ongoing effort to keep Yod’s nature secret within Tikva, always under threat of attack by information pirates, and to prevent Y-S from gaining control of him for itself.

Paralleling this narrative and taking up one out of every three of the book’s chapters we are treated to the story of the golem of Prague (called Joseph,) created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Prague ghetto’s inhabitants from their gentile neighbours. This is presented as if Malkah is telling it to Yod and is interesting enough but is really meant as a counterpoint to Tikva’s situation – though there are perhaps too many similarities between the two strands of the book (the would-be independent woman in Prague, Chava, is what Malkah considers herself to be) – and also to act as an illustration of the struggle against the perennial prejudice Jewish people have suffered throughout history. The inhabitants of Tikva seem all to be Jews but that is more or less incidental to the plot in those sections, whereas in Prague it is the central consideration.

The contest between Shira and Y-S for custody of Ari and of Tikva with Y-S makes up the meat of the plot and provides most of the science-fictional interest – she and Yod themselves undertake what is in effect a cyber attack on Y-S, very William Gibson – but these are in many ways the least satisfying aspects of the novel as Piercy is considering what it might mean to be Jewish (Jewish words and customs are liberally sprinkled through both strands) and, in the characters of Yod and Joseph, interrogating what it means to be human. While Joseph and Chava do not, Yod and Shira become close and eventually lovers. Yod is of course more accomplished than either Gadi or Shira’s husband ever were – or could be. In one of their conversations Shira tells Yod telepathy is a prominent human fantasy – usually of women, who wish they could understand what men want and tell men what they want. Not that their relationship, and that of Shira with Malkah, is without complication. This is a fully fleshed out narrative, more intricate than I have room to set down here. It’s easy to see why it won the Clarke Award in 1993.

I noticed the phrase, “my wee installation.” Is there perhaps a Scottish influence on Piercy there?

Pedant’s corner:- The publication date given is 1992 but the author information tells us this won the Clarke Award in 1993, so it must be a later reprint. Otherwise; Fernandez’ (Fernandez’s,) hung (several times, hanged,) “a epiphenomenon” (an epiphenomenon,) “conveyer belt” (conveyor belt,) “Each people has their own road, their own destiny” (has its own road, its own destiny. People is treated as singular two lines below this!) “If she were Gadi, she would not be careless in turning his back to Yod” (if she were, then she would not be careless in turning her back,) “a group of Jews … follow after” (a group … follows after,) “the doctor yanks it free as she streams, the blood spurting out” (as she screams,) “to staunch the rush of blood” (stanch.) “Malkah shuffled after here” (after her.) “Because the house disapproved of him so strongly she wondered sometimes if an occasional message did not get lost” (she wondered sometimes if an occasional message got lost,) “eighteen hundred point fifteen hours” (eighteen hundred point one five hours – especially as this is an AI [the house] speaking,) plasticene (plasticine.)

The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

Titan Books, 2018, 384 p. Published in Interzone 277, Sep-Oct 2018.

 The Book of Hidden Things cover

Dimitri is an Italian fantasy author now living in London. This is his first novel in English but there is no awkwardness in the text to betray that circumstance. In fact he writes with more facility than many a published native speaker (for which he can be forgiven the few USianisms present.) The book’s setting, though, is deepest, darkest rural Italy, the Puglia region, a town called Casalfranco. Four friends, Tony, Fabio, Mauro and Art(uro) have a pact to meet up in their home town every year, kept to ever since they left school, despite mostly living elsewhere, abroad in one case. This year Art doesn’t turn up. The other three feel compelled to find out why.

Things are complicated by the fact that in their youth Art disappeared for a week (putting his friends under suspicion) and never gave a truly satisfactory explanation for his absence. Due to that legacy the Carabinieri aren’t interested in his latest disappearance and the three (musketeers?) are left to their own devices. Their investigation of Art’s home reveals an unsavoury aspect to his recent activities and, in his marijuana plantation, a likely source of conflict with the local mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita. The deeper into the web of Art’s life they delve the more they find his connections dangerous. For a dispensation, Art once cured a Corona chief’s granddaughter of leukaemia by mysterious means and in a previous conversation he raved about Hidden Things. He is also said to have been obsessed with a woman he called la Madama.

The bulk of the narrative is carried by first person, present tense sections narrated by one or other of the three and in which their present relationships and frustrations with their lives are revealed, with salient important incidents from the past drip-fed to the reader throughout the novel. Very little of this has the feel of fantasy and most of it reads more like a crime novel. In fact until Dimitri inserts his slice of the weird (and even afterwards to a great extent) The Book of Hidden Things felt as if it could easily have been a lost Iain Banks – without the M – novel written somewhere in the continuum between The Crow Road and Stonemouth. There is that same emphasis on home, and the gravitational pull of family and old friendships, not to mention one of our narrators’ fascination with a particular woman. Obviously some things are universal.

Up to now all might have served to illustrate the thought, “We think we are in control of our lives but we aren’t. Most of the time we don’t know what we’re doing.”

A start to resolution comes when they read the prologue to Art’s manuscript THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, a discourse about barriers and dry stone walls as boundaries.

Then, as before, the spanner in the works, Art returns, with a story about being drawn over the boundary into a world of hedonism, his rejection from it and desire to go back, which he accomplished. Even though Puglia lies under “a long-forgotten curse that makes change, any change, impossible,” his book delineates the connection of physical things and spirituality. Landscape is context, not backdrop. People have left the land, giving space for the hidden things to flourish. Chapels dedicated to all sorts of Saints litter the countryside. Junctions between the profane and the sacred, the seen and unseen, they mark the boundary between two different lands. He expresses his wish to take his friends across the barrier with him and the necessity of transgression to breach it. Not convinced (all the other world seems to boil down to is a promise of endless sex) the three swither over trying to stop him. And the Corona wants to use his abilities for their own purposes.

Dimitri’s book captures the claustrophobia of small town life, the brooding atmosphere of menace of a mafia ridden polity, the yearning for the lost possibilities of youth and the belated acceptance of adulthood. The possibility that Art may be mad, or at least delusional, is left open till the last word, which swings the pendulum firmly in one direction. Whether it contains enough of the fantasy element to satisfy the buffs is a matter of choice but The Book of Hidden Things is well-written, characterful and, in the end, humane. You could read it for those alone.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- *ass for arse, ice tea for iced tea, awesome, faggot. Otherwise; “none of us were expecting” (none of us was expecting,) Lucius Apelius’ (Apelius’s.) “The first thing I notice are the books” (the first thing is the books,) Blu-Tack (Blu-Tak?) “there are a set number of pharmacies” (there is a set number,) “their chirping reaches a crescendo” (reaches a climax, the crescendo is the rise not its culmination,) “a bunch of teenagers burst into laughter” (a bunch of teenagers bursts into laughter,) “the tourist crowd find it oh-so- picturesque” (the tourist crowd finds it.) “Half of Casalfranco were my father’s students” (half was,) “‘the only structure I ever saw on that side were drystone walls’” (the only structure was,) the golden writing underneath assure the faithful (the writing assures the faithful.) “The couple seem happy” (the couple seems happy.)

That List Again

The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the century, Part Two.

I have read the ones in bold.

50 Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
49 Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
48 Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002)
47 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003), translated by Mattias Ripa (2003-2004)
46 Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (2010)
45 Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (2013)
44 Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2004)
43 Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)
42 Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2010)
41 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
40 The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
39 White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
38 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
37 The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015)
36 Experience by Martin Amis (2000)
35 The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
34 Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014)
33 Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
32 The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
31 The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)
30 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
29 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009), translated by Don Bartlett (2012)
28 Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)
27 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro (2001)
25 Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)
24 A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)
23 The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (2001)
22 Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)
21 Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2011), translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman (2014)
20 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
19 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‑Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
18 The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (2007)
17 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
16 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
15 The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
14 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
13 Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
12 The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
11 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011), translated by Ann Goldstein (2012)
10 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
09 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
08 Autumn by Ali Smith (2016)
07 Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
06 The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)
05 Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001), translated by Anthea Bell (2001)
04 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
03 Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (2013), translated by Bela Shayevich (2016)
02 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
01 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Nine out of this fifty, but I’ve read the number 1. I’ve got a good run between six and twelve.
However. Life After Life at no 20? Not A God in Ruins?

A List. (Well; Part of a List)

This list – supposedly of the 100 best books of the 21st century (so far) – was published in The Guardian Review on Saturday 21/9/19. (Some of them are non-fiction which I’m extremely unlikely to read.)

I’ve split it in two for purposes of concision in a post.

The usual annotations apply. Those in bold I have read, an asterisk denotes intention to read.

100 I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (2006)
99 Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou (2005), translated by Helen Stevenson (2009)
98 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005), translated by Steven T Murray (2008)
97 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (2000)
96 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
95 Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan (2004)
94 The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
93 Darkmans by Nicola Barker (2007)
92 The Siege by Helen Dunmore (2001)
91 Light by M John Harrison (2002)
90 Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008), translated by Susan Bernofsky (2010)
89 Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (2000)
88 Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)
87 Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (2017)
86 Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis (2017)
85 The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006)
84 The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)
83 Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli (2016), translated by Luiselli with Lizzie Davis (2017)
82 Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)
81 Harvest by Jim Crace (2013)
80 Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002)
79 The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)
78 The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (2015)
77 Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009), translated by Lisa Dillman (2015)
76 Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)
75 Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2018)
74 Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)
73 Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2009)
72 The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2019)
71 Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (2000)
70 Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller (2003)
69 The Infatuations by Javier Marías (2011), translated by Margaret Jull Costa (2013)
68 The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)
67 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)*
66 Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2014)
65 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
64 On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
63 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
62 Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2006)
61 This House of Grief by Helen Garner (2014)
60 Dart by Alice Oswald (2002)
59 The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson (2002)
58 Postwar by Tony Judt (2005)
57 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
56 Underland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)
55 The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
54 Women & Power by Mary Beard (2017)
53 True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)
52 Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
51 Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)

As you can see I’ve only read four of this selection – all of them broadly under the SF or fantasy umbrella.

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 347 p.

 The Violent Century cover

This is at once an unusual but also common tale, innovative in style but not so much in plot. (Then again, there are only supposed to be seven of those.) The narrative is conducted in large part via short, verbless sentences, sometimes only one or two words long, at times almost reading like a description of a film playing out before the reader’s eyes, telling us what we would be seeing on the screen. Now and then an authorial voice slides in, adopting the first person plural, as if the reader is a cinema audience relating the story to itself. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time from 1926 to the present day, allowing Tidhar’s characters to be active at various points in the unfolding of the violent mid- to late twentieth century, even the early twenty-first. Scene changes are akin to cinematic dissolves, though each is “captioned” with its time and place in its chapter heading. Throughout, direct speech is not set within quotation marks – which does lead to the occasional phrase requiring a reread.

The plot begins (and periodically unwinds) like an echo of le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Henry Fogg called in by his old oppo, Oblivion, to meet the Old Man, boss at his former employer, The Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, to be questioned about his past evasions.

The background is that sometime in 1932 Dr Joachim Vomacht pushed the button on his machine and unleashed a quantum wave. As a Dr Turing (Alan, we assume) tells the British altered, recruited to a training area in Devon, “To observe an event is to change it. On the quantum level. When Vomacht pressed the button, everything changed. The Vomacht wave was a probability wave. The wave made genetic changes at a subatomic level… For most the change was undetectable ….. But perhaps a few hundred became … you.” The changed, dubbed Übermenschen, have superpowers and are named appropriately. Fogg conjures fog out of the air or any smoke available, Oblivion destroys things, Spit conjures up and projects bullets from her mouth, Mr Blur … blurs, Tank is built like one, Mrs Tinkle can make time retrace itself. Corresponding Übermenschen exist in other countries. The US has Tigerman, the Green Gunman and Whirlwind; the Soviets, the Red Sickle and Rusalka; Germany, Schneesturm and Der Wolfsmann.

The crux of the plot is Sommertag, Vomacht’s daughter Klara, who can pass through doors into a perfect summer’s day, an attribute Fogg finds irresistible despite her being an enemy citizen when they meet. His defence is that, “‘It,’” (the Vomacht wave,) “‘fused into her somehow. It kept her pure.’”

Tidhar appears to have gone to great lengths to make sure that history in this story is unchanged from what the reader knows happened – apart from the appearance of rocket men on the Russian Front (unless this is a WW2 manifestation of which I had not previously heard, a singular unlikelihood) and the Potsdam Conference being held one year later than it was, still with Churchill attending rather than Attlee as it would have been in 1946 (and as it was for the latter part in 1945) – the rise of the Nazis, World War 2, the Cold War, Vietnam, September 11th all take place here as they did in our time. It is as if the comic books were true and those superheroes were present to take part in events but without affecting anything substantial, participants but not decisive.

One scene in Afghanistan involves Sheik Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden calling the changed ‘abominations’ while the Americans (who regard him as, “The rich spoiled son of a rich and powerful family…. Playing soldiers in the desert,”) are trying to use him against the Soviets – and thereby sow the seeds for the Twin Towers whirlwind. Of that 11th September our (plural) narrator tells us, “That day we look up to the sky and see the death of heroes.”

A Russian says, “We should have learned from your history. The British. Three wars and you lost every one. You can’t win a war here. You couldn’t, we can’t, and whoever comes after us is going to lose too. This land hates invaders,” and warns, “This bin Laden. This Saudi. Kill him now. Kill him when you have the chance, or he will turn on you.” Easy to say in a book published over ten years after an event but many did give out warnings at the time.

The Violent Century is admirably plotted and well paced, with an atmosphere of menace throughout, I’m puzzled as to why this wasn’t on any award shortlist for its year.

Pedant’s corner:- Antennas (antennae.) “Facing the bar counter are a row of barstools.” (Facing the bar counter is a row of barstools,) barkeep (not a British usage. We say ‘barman’ or maybe ‘landlord’,) “air separating into nitrogen and hydrogen” (that’s a neat trick, there’s very little hydrogen in air, only what is the relatively low proportion of air comprised of water vapour.) “None of us choose what we become” (None of us chooses,) King George IV (George VI, as he was correctly designated later,) “the moans reach a crescendo” (a climax perhaps; a crescendo is a build-up, not a culmination,) eldrich (eldritch,.) “None of them have been properly introduced yet” (None of them has been properly introduced.) “None of them are.” (None of them is,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) “none come” (none comes,) “do this hundreds of time” (of times.) “Millions more watched the ceremony around the world in a special broadcast by the BBC.” (Millions around the world watched the Coronation ? In 1953? Before communication satellites? I don’t think so.) “The only thing in motion are his eyes” (‘thing’ is singular so cannot have a plural verb form; ‘the only things in motion are his eyes,) Johnny Rivers’ (Rivers’s,) a missing question mark after “What do I know”, another question mark ought to replace a comma later on, “we’re not in the army here, Bob, Bob says, Yeah, yeah,” (a full stop instead of a comma after the first ‘Bob’) “Incoming!” (British troops do not shout this. They yell, ‘Take cover!) “Goddamned” (nor do British folk say this.)

Interzone 283 Has Arrived

Interzone 283 cover

Interzone 283 has landed on my doormat.

The issue contains, among the usual fare, two reviews of mine:-

The novel This is How You Lose the Time War, a collaboration written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

Palestine +100 edited by Basma Ghalayini, the first ever collection of SF from Palestine.

Time flies….

I’ll need to be getting on with reading the books for review in issue 284.

Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2012, 248 p.

 Reality, Reality cover

The title of this second collection of Jackie Kay’s short stories reflects the contents. Most of the stories have shifting perspectives or protagonists who are unsure of their surroundings. All are very well written.

Reality, Reality is a stream of consciousness narration by a woman who is attempting to reach the final of a TV cookery competition, or thinks she is.
Another stream of consciousness, These are not my Clothes is told from the point of view of an inmate in a care home – who is not receiving very good care. The title is a phrase she keeps repeating to the nurses who dress her. Her only confidante is the part-time cleaner Vadnie.
From its first sentence I could sense from the way it is written that The First Lady of Song is a piece of Science Fiction; which is what, indeed, it is. It is narrated by a female singer, who centuries ago, was drugged by her father with a potion that meant she would not die. Her performing names always start with the letter ‘E’ – Elina, Eugenia, Ekateriana, Elisabeth, Ella, Emilia. The only change over time is that her skin darkens. Kay doesn’t bring much that is conceptually new to the old SF chestnut of the life eternal but she does write it well.
In The Pink House a heavily pregnant woman – also heavily debt-ridden – finds refuge in the house that Elisabeth Gaskell once lived in.
Grace and Rose is the story of the first lesbian wedding in Shetland, told by both its principals. A joyous tale of love and fulfilment.
In Bread Bin the narrator’s grandmother tells her she has never had an orgasm – but always had a clean bread bin. The narrator is similarly starved of sexual ecstasy; till the age of forty-nine.
Doorstep sees Cheryl decide to spend Christmas on her own; to the displeasure of her latest girl-friend Sharon.
Hadassah is a retelling of the Moses story, updated to feature a young refugee, Hadassah, who becomes the King’s eyes and ears. The King is running a people-trafficking and prostitution operation.
Inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, The White Cot features two women in a holiday let picking at the cracks in their relationship. One had wanted a child, the other hadn’t. The white cot in their room becomes the material focus for the first’s longings.
In Mind Away the narrator’s mother is gradually losing her memories and thoughts. Together they seek out the doctor into whose head the thoughts have gone.
Two girls who were on holiday together aged ten and nine the year their parents swapped partners, forever after call themselves Barn and Tawny due to witnessing the activities of an Owl.
In The Last of the Smokers two life-long friends contemplate giving up by comparing smoking to ex-lovers.
A woman seeks to find the Mini Me inside her by dint of dieting. Repeatedly.
Mrs Vadnie Marleen Sevlon (the same Vadnie as in These are not my Clothes) took the title Mrs as she thought I it would engender respect. She also invents a husband and children for herself reflecting that, ‘Only people with money have choice.’
The Winter Visitor appears to our narrator every so often without fanfare, taking over her life, until vanishing again as mysteriously.

Pedant’s corner:- “like she is tossing a ball” (as if she is tossing a ball,) “the river Mersey” (river here is a proper noun, so River Mersey,) “and, and” (only one ‘and’ needed, no comma required.) “None of them have” (strictly ‘none of them has’ but it was in the narrator’s voice so perhaps true to that,) “coming forth to carry me home” (I had always thought the words from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were ‘coming for to carry me home’ and it seems that is indeed the case (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_Low,_Sweet_Chariot#Traditional_lyrics)) homeopaths (homoeopaths, please; or even homœopaths,) “I clamour through” (it was through a window, so ‘clamber’,) sprung (sprang,) edidn’t (didn’t,) “as if it was the scene a crime I had committed” (scene of a crime I had committed,) doubt (a cigarette end is spelled dout,) lasagne (lasagne. Narrator’s spelling? Or author’s?) “‘could of’” (could have; but this was in dialogue.)

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