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Phyllis Eisenstein

I see from George R R Martin’s blog that Phyllis Eisenstein died last month – from Covid-19 though she had suffered a cerebral hæmorrhage much earlier in the year. Another sad departure for a year too full of them. Not that this year is looking much better at the moment, vaccine apart.

I first read her work in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction way back in the day but it wasn’t till recently that I read her two novels relating the adventures of Alaric the minstrel, Born To Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach.

I have another of her books on the tbr pile. It will be read with a sense of sorrow.

Phyllis Eisenstein: 26/2/1946 – 7/12/2020. So it goes.

Clarke Award 2020

I seem to be a few months late in noticing this. I couldn’t have been looking hard enough, though I posted the shortlist here.

The winner was The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.

It’s on my tbr pile. I’ll probably shift it up the list now.

The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace by Eric Brown

Titan Books, 2020, 343 p.

 Sherlock Holmes The Martian Menace cover

I have mentioned before that the detective story/crime fiction isn’t really my thing – nor Shelock Holmes for that matter. This however is by my friend Eric Brown who, although he has written in the crime genre, started off in the SF field and this certainly counts as Science Fiction. It is, as its title suggests, a mash-up (I was going to say curious mash-up but that is its whole point) of the work of H G Wells and Arthur Conan-Doyle. As is the way of such things we have many references throughout, starting early with the presence of Mr Herbert Wells himself – here a scientific liaison officer in the Martian Embassy to Great Britain and an aspiring writer whose output is deemed too fanciful to appeal to the public – and his love interest, Cicely Fairfield, whose writing efforts have been more successful.

This is a world where the Martians of War of the Worlds have returned, complete with their signature tripods and nightly cries of “Ulla, ulla,” and armed with antibodies to Earthly pathogens, transforming life on Earth with technological advances. This is a good brand of Martian, who came in peace, having overthrown their acquisitive predecessors. Or so they say. Some people on Earth doubt this story and there is an active political resistance to the Martian influence. Among their number are George Bernard Shaw and G K Chesterton.

Holmes, having established his credentials by solving the case of the murder of the Martian ambassador two or so years before the main plot of this tale begins – albeit by concealing the identity of the true culprit – is invited to Mars to investigate the murder of Delph-Aran-Arapna, one of the finest Martian minds of the era. Curiously no reference to this creature can be found in any of the Martian literature which Holmes has read. (The great detective has of course made himself fluent in Martian.) Our narrator, as is customary, is Dr Watson, who in an anti-Martian public meeting has made the acquaintance – or rather by design been made her acquaintance – of a Miss Freya Hamilton-Bell, a prominent member of the anti-Martian faction.

The journey to Mars having been made (also making his appearance here is a certain Professor Challenger,) Holmes and Watson are soon contacted by Miss Hamilton-Bell and told of the Martians’ plan to replace well-known or powerful men from Earth (or mostly men) with simulacra – with all the attributes, memories and brain-power of their originals’ but controllable at a distance – as a means to taking over Earth and eradicating humans entirely. Fortunately there is an underclass of Martians who were recently at war with the dominant aggressive faction who are able to help.

Unsurprisingly in a series of novels trading on the Holmes mythos, Professor Moriarty – indeed a whole series of Moriartys as the Martians have cloned his body multiple times – is a pivotal figure. More surprisingly he is less of an antagonist to Holmes than the reader might have thought.

All first-person novels (all novels, perhaps?) are an act of ventriloquism but that act is surely more difficult if the voice being simulated is not of the author’s own devising. Brown has made a good fist of the mash-up, capturing the stilted, repressed, awkwardnesses of “Watson’s” style and character, but also made it more accommodating to a modern audience. (Words like antibodies, pathogens and feisty seem unlikely for the 1910s. The agency of Miss Hamilton-Bell as active and important in the anti-Martian movement seems also to be a more modern note – but then again the book is set in the age of the suffragettes, who could be an unruly lot – though they are unmentioned.)

Holmes fans might hanker for more of the supposed deductive reasoning powers of Conan-Doyle’s hero (which are used sparingly here) but the Wells influence, the flavour of the scientific romance, is more to the fore. Brown is primarily an SF writer after all.

An enterprise like this is surely not meant to be conceived as a serious work of fiction and should not be read as such. As an entertainment, though, it succeeds admirably.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: substantial, plus variants such as “in due course” etc. Otherwise; Cicely (the real-life Miss Fairfield was named Cicily,) nought (naught,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) smidgen (I prefer ‘smidgin’,) cannister (canister,) imposters (I prefer ‘impostors’,) cicatrise (cicatrice.) “The content of their originals’ minds have been reproduced” (The contents of their originals’minds,) “nine pence” (ninepence,) “the two Miss Fairfields” (the two Misses Fairfield.)

Interzone 289

Nov-Dec, 2020, TTA Press

 Interzone 289  cover

Editorial duties are taken by artist Jim Burnsa where, in the light of Covid, he reflects his roads not taken are most likely now behind him. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted considers “the slow cancellation of the future,” the recycling of cuture in all its forms, the lack of innovation during the past forty or so years. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Storiesb relates the thoughts and fears engendered in her by finding slow worms in her compost bin at the allotment.

Book Zone returns to its place just after the fiction. Duncan Lawriec finds Stephen Baxter’s World Engines: Destroyer and World Engines: Creator a muddle as if he’s crammed all his favourite SF tropes into one (double) package, seemingly designed to provide a “complete history of the solar system and the evolution of life as we currently understand it.” Stephen Theakerd notes Machine by Elizabeth Bear is heavily influenced by James White’s Sector General stories and so promised too much but was ultimately entertaining while The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem is like a post-apocalyptic Gilmore Girls but was very good and the author is now a new favourite of his. Maureen Kincaid Spellere thinks Mordew by Alex Pheby is amazing, not a thing she says lightly: the author shows an extremely thorough knowledge of the fantasy formula but constantly resists its confines. Jaime Lee Moyer’s Divine Heretic, a reworking of the story of Joan of Arc in which she is chosen by fae spirits who are “as dangerous as they are brilliant,” didn’t work for Juliet E McKennaf but may well for others, while she is enthused enough by Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke, the second “A Poison War” novel, to read her next book. I review Cixin Liu’s collection Hold Up the Sky whose stories mostly deal with mind-expanding concepts but sometimes lack emotional engagement.

As to the fiction:-

In Cryptozoology by Tim Lees a man whose marriage is breaking down tries to rescue it by embarking on an expedition with his wife (who believes they exist) to find all the legendary monsters (in which he doesn’t believe.) When they argue, and she leaves he carries on on his own. The story ends the way we know it will.
The Ephemeral Quality of Mersay by John Possidente1 combines two stories in one as a journalist on space station Humboldt has a starship captain relate her experiences on a planet with odd seasons at the same time as murders are occurring on the station.
The Way of his Kind by James Sallis2 is a very short tale of the advent of a new kind of human – or are they aliens?
The Smoke Bomb of Matt Thompson’s story3 is an unusual type of drink, concocted by the altered digestive system (seen through skin and organs rendered transparent) of an indentured woman. Her keeper becomes wary of a new customer.
Again very short, There’s a Gift Shop Now by Françoise Harvey tells of an experimental school with oddly proportioned rooms and spacious ceilings – which had unfortunate effects on its pupils. It’s now a tourist attraction full of warning signs.
The narrator of The Third Time I Saw a Fox by Cécile Cristofari4 is an old man working the night shift in a museum. He talks to the exhibits, dinosaur and whale skeletons, (all casts rather than the real fossilised bones) and to the anatomically extreme “circus man”. They talk back.
Rather appropriately this year’s James White Award winner, Limitations5 by David Maskill, deals with a medical problem being suffered by a fluorine-breathing alien, an alien which can protect itself via Biological Quantum Optimisation.

Pedant’s corner:- aa missing comma before a piece of direct speech. b“Aren’t there are number of” (Aren’t there any number of.) c“humanity has recognised the destruction they inflicted on the Earth” (the destruction it inflicted,) ditto “They have pulled back” (‘It has pulled back’.) d“Helen Alloy (a pun apparently on Helen of Troy)” (maybe but possibly – more likely even? -on Helen O’Loy from the 1930s SF story by Lester Del Rey which had that title,) steam-rolled (steam-rollered.) e“around feet” (around the feet,) “all fulfil their purpose very effectively all while” (no second ‘all’.) f“None of these tensions are” (None of these tensions is.) “None of these central characters are” (None of these central characters is,)
1Written in USian. 2Written in USian. 3wettened (usually ‘wetted’,) “time interval later” count: 3. 4“None of us have.” (None of us has,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. 5accepter (acceptor?) CaF2 (makes the chemical equation it’s in unbalanced, because it’s the wrong formula for carbon fluoride. It ought to be CaF4,) “one less friend” (one fewer,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “off of” (just ‘off’ please,) focussing (focusing.)

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Tor, 1997, 283 p.

 Black Wine cover

On starting to read this I was quickly reminded of N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (which of course was published 11 years later.) We have three different narrative strands each with a female protagonist, obviously connected (but in what way not immediately apparent,) a recognisable world yet different from our own, possibly far in the future, featuring places with portentous names, Trader Town, the Fjord of Tears, the Remarkable Mountains, the Land of the Dark Isles, an unfamiliar social system – or systems, there are different polities here – to navigate. However, as it unfolded the resemblances diminished somewhat. In particular, the relationship between Jemisin’s strands was a more bravura writing accomplishment. But Black Wine is good all the same.

We start with the story of a woman, amnesiac as a result of falling from the sky, with another, mad, woman living in a cage in the courtyard outside. They live in a society – the Zone of Control – where a favour bestowed consequently imbues obligation. The mad woman had not received any such favour and so managed to live without the burden of repayment. The amnesiac, however, had, and so is a sexual slave to her master and the nurse who looked/looks after her. Here also, minor acts of defiance can lead to tongues being removed. The amnesiac forms a friendship with a male slave who has suffered from this. The tongueless have devised a sign language for themselves of which their owners are unaware.

The resemblance of the amnesiac, whom we later find is named Essa, to the titular ruler – actual rule has been devolved to her son-in-law – of a different polity (as shown on its coins) is marked. When the mad woman finds Essa is going to voyage there she tells her to avoid the regent and certainly not to have sex with him. The female ruler is a cruel type, as is her son-in-law, and the connection between her, the madwoman and Essa is the motor of the plot.

The world Dorsey describes is a little strange. For the most part it appears to be without advanced technology – though it does have airships (from which you can fall from the clouds) – a lot of the travelling involved seems to be on foot, but at one point one of the characters decides she wishes to get somewhere faster and a quicker transit system is utilised.

A touch of fantasy arrives with the Carrier of Spirits, who imbibes the memories of everyone who dies. (She carries Essa’s pre-amnesia existence, but not of course those gained after the fall.) Essa’s relationship with the muted slave allows Dorsey to comment on the nuances of free will and the dependence of the exercise of it on social status.

Observations such as, “‘Look. I am this stone. I have been tumbled and moved, and it has all shaped me,’” are as much an expression of the universal as an outcrop of the story being told. Occasionally the text comments on itself or the writing process, (or perhaps reader expectations,) as in, “‘The mad king is a trope of literature and myth.’”

Black Wine is the first Dorsey novel I have read. It is less opaque than some of her short stories and encouraged me to look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- “the effect was shouting underwater” (was of shouting underwater,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “none of them were done” (none … was done,) “a deep courtesy” (curtsy,) “any of them even know it” (any of them even knows it,) connexion (Ugh! Several times; connection.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Lewis Grassic Gibbon

This will be my final entry for Judith’s meme now collated by Katrina.

This one concentrates on Scotland’s best writer of the twentieth century; J Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Boks by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Here you’ll find his classic A Scots Quair, whose first instalment, Sunset Song, is the best Scottish novel of the past 150 years plus.

Also present are his two Science Fiction novels Three Go Back and Gay Hunter, his historical novel Spartacus, two other novels, two collections of shorter stories and a history book, Nine Against the Unknown, recounting the voyages of various explorers.

Another collection of his shorter fiction Smeddum is on my tbr pile as is A Scots Hairst, which contains non-fiction pieces.

Interzone 288

Sep-Oct 2020, TTA Press

This issue’s Editorial is by Alexander Glass who reflects on the human need to define things, especially as regards gender, and contrasts two different approaches to this as found in Science Fiction. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupteda considers the failings of education systems to teach outside narrow parameters and SF’s almost complete recent failure to examine education at all by mention of novels that, in the past, did. In Climbing Stories Aliya Whiteleyb ponders the strange disjunction between these coronavirus times and SF futures, the necessary waiting involved before resolution, waiting that writers are habitually accustomed to. Book Zone again follows the film reviews and features an interview with M John Harrison plus a review of his new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by Andy Hedgecockc (who says the novel quietly, but surely, slips the bounds of literary realism, sf and fantasy and transcends the limitations of all three,) my guardedly welcoming take on Tim Major’s Hope Island, Duncan Lawie delights in Ken MacLeod’s mix of summer romance with Scottish folklore, Selkie Summer, Maureen Kincaid Spellerd says the buzz about The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez is justified, while Stephen Theakere gets a bite at three cherries – Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Firewalkers (not ground-breaking but a solid story,) Andres Eschbach’s The Hair-Carpet Weavers (a retitling of The Carpet Weavers published in 2005) and, despite flaws, very good, plus R B Lemberg’s decent but not outstanding The Four Profound Weaves – Graham Sleight finds William Gibson’s Agency terrific fun but at the moment suffers from being written pre-Covid. Finally things are rounded off with Barbara Melvillef interviewing Agnes Gomillion.

In the fiction:-
Told as in an interrogation transcript Time’s Own Gravity by Alexander Glass1 postulates that time and energy are interconvertible – though it’s harder to do than with energy and matter. A man called Lukasz, of mysterious origins, developed (or brought with him) the Technology involved but something went wrong and emanations speeding time up locally are occurring with increasing frequency.
Soaring, the World on their Shoulders by Cécile Cristofari2 is set in an alternate steam-powered France (there is mention of Marseilles and Spain) in the time of its tipping over into a brand of fascism. (“You know, what they say makes a lot of sense. Our country will be great again.”) Madame Santucci is a scientist who despises the regime and then herself for complying with it. Her research is double-edged though.
A Distant Hum by John K Peck3 is one of those stories that never quite explains itself and of which Interzone is relatively fond. It’s set in a city by an archipelago in a familiar demi-monde milieu where our female protagonist has memories to exorcise and revenge to take.
The Captured Dreams of the Dead Machine of Daniel Bennett’s story are old computer files from before the great information plague now worth a great deal to collectors. In this society, however, tech – of any sort – is not a universally accepted boon.
Warsuit by Gary Gibson4 sees a battlefield scavenger find the powered down suit of the title on one of his expeditions. It is operated by a downloaded human intelligence and they come to an accommodation.

Pedant’s corner:- afocussed (focused,) “Larrry Niven’s” (Larry,) “the population … are exposed to” (the population .. is exposed to,) Sf (SF.) b“This inability to see what’s coming next be considered ironic” (might be considered ironic.) “Six weeks or so separates us” (Six weeks …. separate us.) c“returns to finds the business suddenly closed” (returns to find.) dJimenez’ (Jimenez’s.) e“the centre of a ever expanding desert” (an,) “Nen-Sasaïr agrees to come with.” (Nen-Sasaïr agrees to come with her.) fDouglass’ (Douglass’s,)
1“‘if you stay to close to it’” (too close) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. 2“filled to burst” (filled to bursting.) “A second person hauls themselves into the nest” (that pronoun should surely not be plural.) 3Written in Usian, “These [lighthouse foghorns] were unique to the region, in that they each used a distinctly different sound, so that an experienced captain could not only avoid foundering on the rocks, but could use the varied tones as navigational guides.” (Not unique: all lighthouse foghorns were like this,) “none of them were …” (none of them was.) 4“They span ever faster” (spun.)

Ben Bova and Chuck Yeager

I see from George R R Martin’s blog that SF writer and editor Ben Bova has died.

Martin is particularly indebted to Bova as it was he as editor of Analog who helped Martin’s career (and those of many others) by accepting his stories for publication.

As a writer Bova’s style was in that USian hard SF tradition, which isn’t entirely to my taste. Looking at my records it seems I only bought two of his novels, Millenium and Kinsman.

Benjamin William (Ben) Bova: November 8/11/1932 – 29/11/2020. So it goes.

I also saw (on CNN as it happens) that legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, first to person to fly faster than the speed of sound (in air,) yesterday passed away. (The link is to his Guardian obituary.) I read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff (and also watched the film made from it) about Yeager’s era of piloting and the early US space programme.

Charles Elwood (Chuck) Yeager; 13/2/1923 – 7/12/2020. So it goes.

Also gone from us is former golfer and TV commentator Peter Alliss. His style had gone a bit past its sell-by date in recent times but it cannot be denied that his knowledge of golf and its history was immense.

Peter Alliss; 28/2/1931 – 5/12/2020. So it goes.

The Sardonyx Net by Elizabeth A Lynn

Berkley Books, 1982, 429 p.

 The Sardonyx Net cover

“Dana Ikoro, smuggler, stood facing Monk the drug courier across the floor of the starship Treasure.”

So begins this novel, the second have read by this author – and almost certainly the last.

More or less from the start of this I felt soiled by reading it. Not by the writing, even though it has to be said it is not the best crafted of works (that “smuggler” in the first sentence is an especially awkward piece of journalese, Ikoro’s occupation ought to be introduced to us much more subtly,) but by its content. We are implicitly asked to sympathise with a drug-runner as protagonist and later, by extension, with slave-holders – and therefore the system of slavery as a whole. Even worse, the character in the book who works most against the institution of slavery, indeed plots to overthrow it, Michel A-Rae, is presented as deranged.

Given these reservations I suppose the plot is well-enough worked out, the human motivations reasonable enough – though another of the main characters is a psychopath with incestuous leanings, which is a bit extreme. The writing, though, is passable at best with the info-dumping being particularly crude and intrusive.

As background we are told that centuries ago aliens had come to Earth and handed over hyperdrive equations and hence access to the galaxy. Moreover, “Repossessed of a frontier, humans set out to …. and to colonize (sic) the stars.” I note that humans here seems to refer only to those feeling the loss of a frontier. That’s me – and billions of others – counted out. Lynn goes on, “In most colonies criminals were either killed or ostracised,” (harsh) but one, Chabad, set itself up as a planet which would take offenders from the local sector, Sardonyx, and keep them as slaves. Hence the need for dorazine to pacify them.

Main viewpoint character Dana Ikoro has had his cargo of dorazine stolen from him by another drug-runner who turned up at the drop-off before him with the correct access code. This leads to a desperate attempt by him to rescue the situation by travelling to the planet Chabad, the sole market for dorazine, where it is used to the slaves submissive. He is apprehended and convicted (the evidence on his ship of dorazine storage suffices to incriminate him of smuggling) and enslaved on Chabad to the Yago family where he gets involved peripherally in the dynastic affairs of Chabad’s four ruling families and Rhani Yago’s schemes to gain direct access to the manufacture and supply of dorazine as well as Michel A-Rae’s plots.

Once again, and despite the appearance here of computers and something which is very much like Skype or Zoom but more akin to a video analogue of a phone call, we have tapes as the information storage medium of choice. The future is always different in ways unforeseen.

Pedant’s corner:- ostenstatiously (ostentatiously,) “permission to birth” (berth, spelled correctly later.) “They landed on Chabat” (rest of sentence was in present tense; ‘They land on Chabad,) hiccoughed (hiccuped,) Nexus’ (Nexus’s – every name ending in “–s” is treated with –s’ instead of –s’s to denote a possessive,) “she lifted a hand to wave him to her” (to wave to him.) “None of its citizens are free.” (None … is free.) Sherrix’ (Sherrix’s,) we are twice told that in a bar the first drink is free, (that only needs one mention,) there’s supposed to be a curfew on slaves but in a bar on a mission for his owner Ikoro “could see the lights of Abanat” hence it must be nighttime, but could wait “three hours more,” torques (torcs,) staunch (stanch,) “beneath his uxorious facade she sensed intelligence, caution, and malice” (uxorious means “excessively or submissively fond of a wife” which doesn’t make sense here, and there was no wife mentioned,) “there are facts that neither you nor any other Chabadese resident knows” (know,) “‘The dorazine formula is a carefully guarded secret’” (this is supposed to be the future. Are chemical analysis labs defunct, then? The formula for a drug is relatively easy to decipher, and was so even in 1982,) Enchantanter (Enchanter,) “‘labs have been unable to analyze [sic] the drug or discover how it is made’” (see comment above,) “it acquired gravity” (??? The mind boggles.) None of them were especially heavy” (None … was … heavy,) “in the way Ramas-I-Occad has been reticent” (had been,) distrubance (disturbance,) a missing end quotation mark after a piece of dialogue.

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (xi)

A meme as started by Judith and now collated by Katrina.

Since these are SF paperbacks mostly published several decades ago they are on the shelves housed in my garage. The photos are zooms in on the ones of the whole bookcases and so are a bit fuzzy.

On view are books by the excellent Michael Bishop, several by my friend Eric Brown, three by Algis Budrys, five (or seven since one is an omnibus of a trilogy) by C J Cherryh, but most of the books shown here were written by John Brunner. I remember fondly Stand on Zanzibar, The Dramaturges of Yan, Telepathist and The Squares of the City, in which the characters are in effect avatars of chess pieces whose moves were taken from a real game.

SF Books by John Brunner

Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (in which he more or less predicted computer viruses but due to the storage medium of computers at the time he called them tapeworms,) The Sheep Look Up and The Jagged Orbit are shelved in another bookcase in the garage for arcane reasons.

Science Fiction Books

His Timescoop is on my hardback shelves.

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