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This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Jo Fletcher Books, 2019, 203 p. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 This is How You Lose the Time War cover

On behalf of the Agency, Red travels upthread into the past and downthread to the future to effect changes in the different Strands of the worlds, (“so many Atlantises,”) waging an eternal time war against Garden, tweaking conditions here, ensuring individuals thrive there, so that they may be in a position to affect history in the Agency’s favour.

At the end of one such mission Red finds a letter which should not be there and on which is inscribed the instruction, “burn before reading.” Despite knowing that it is a trap designed perhaps to kill her, to convert her to the other side, or to compromise her with her own, she decides to comply with the instruction and reads the message. It is from her adversary, Blue; an acknowledgement of her part in making Blue raise her own game, an expression of admiration, a declaration of inevitable victory. Red responds with a letter of her own.

So begins a long correspondence achieved through an increasingly bizarre series of dead drops in which the two agents’ regard for one another deepens and grows into something else.

The book’s narrative is carried via sequences describing Red’s and Blue’s endeavours to change different strands’ histories, each followed by the contents of a letter written to one by the other. Only in one instance is this strict authorial practice not followed and that is where Blue’s letter is encoded in six seeds but Red only swallows three of them and so only gets part of the whole message. (This makes sense in the context of the novel.) Their letters are studded with recommendations, allusions and digressions and embellished by postscripts, PPS’s and even at times PPPS’s.

In all but the first (and the three ante-penultimate) non-epistolary sections the reader is vouchsafed a line or two at the end wherein a seeker manages to reconstitute the letter we are about to read for ourselves. Red becomes aware of this pursuer and is continually looking over her shoulder to see if she can catch her shadower and therefore also wary of contact with her Commandant in case she is suspected of treason. So too, Blue with Garden.
The deployment of various Science Fiction tropes is essential to the novel’s overall effect but to begin with they are merely there, as a kind of exotic background; none of the strands or missions is explored in any detail, there is no mechanism ascribed to the ability to travel in time, Red and Blue are just able to do it. Up to its denouement the plot could have been akin, say, to the jockeyings of John le Carré’s Smiley and Karla but its resolution and the identity of the mysterious seeker are thoroughly dependent on the story’s premise.

All this is laced with the occasional piece of sly humour – a group of participants at the assassination of Julius Caesar (or, rather, a Julius Caesar) seems to consist entirely of agents known to Red – and allusions such as “hoarse Trojans” and “across half a dozen strands, of mice, of men, plans, canals, Panama.” Add in references to Ozymandias, Mrs Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence, Bess of Hardwick and an exhortation by Blue to Red for her to read Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (of which we are later given a short critique) and the reading experience becomes a rich one. The letters are a particular delight. Necessarily so, for they are the narrative’s focus, the means by which we come to understand and appreciate the relationship between Red and Blue, and their mutual goals.

This is a book which eschews the flash, bang, wallop of much of the modern SF genre, containing SF of an enquiring and knowing kind, yet playful with it. Discursive, though relatively short, it is still economic, packing a lot into its 199 pages. It deserves a wide audience.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:-“knew one other” (one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres,) “it amuses Blue to no end” (that would mean ‘without purpose’; ‘it amuses Blue no end’ is the phrase required.) “Adaption is the price of victory” (Adaptation is the..,) “colour” but “humor” (does one of the authors use USian spellings while the other doesn’t?) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) proboscides (it is the Greek plural of proboscis – the ‘English’ plural is proboscises – but I’ve only ever seen probosces before. Apparently that has a specialised use in biology.)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2019

British Science Fiction Association, 2020, 72 p.

 BSFA Awards 2019 cover

Four of the six “stories” in the short fiction category are extracts from longer works.
The first To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers1 is couched in the form of a report from one of the first human expeditions to an exoplanet back to an Earth fourteen light-years distant. There are some aspects of Chambers’s writing which have improved since I read her first novel but still in evidence here was that impulse to dump unnecessary information. For example, why give us an account of the (Earthly) life cycle of a metamorphic insect? By all means mention it; but to expound on the detail? Similarly authors ought to avoid formulations like, “If enzyme patches are still used medically, you know this already,” providing the example of an insulin patch for diabetics. On reading this I had the thought that Chambers is either still writing amateur fiction or else writing Science Fiction for people who don’t read Science Fiction.
Jolene by Fiona Moore2 I read in Interzone 283.
Ragged Alice by Gareth L Powell3 is again an extract. Set on the west coast of Wales we are following the investigation of female detective Holly Craig who has the ability to see people’s inner light, or darkness. This deals with information dumping much more subtly and more naturally than did Becky Chambers.
The Survival of Molly Southborne by Tade Thompson (an extract again) is one of those “many lives” narratives which have become common. Here drops from Molly Southborne’s blood can generate genetically identical duplicates of her. These usually turn on her and try to kill her. The story is narrated by the last one, whom Molly has trained to survive her own death in a fire.
For Your Own Good by Ian Whates4 is about a man who has spent his life working towards AI rights waking up in different virtual realities. The moment when his car’s AI adds a vocative, “Dave,” to its sentence when first addressing him is chillingly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also acts as a foreshadowing emphasised by its later phrase, “‘It’s for your own good, Dave.’”
I read This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone5 for review in Interzone 283 (see link above.) I don’t usually post those reviews here till a year has gone by but will make an exception in this case in my next post. Suffice to say I thought it was excellent.

As to the non-fiction:-
In Chapter 6 of “The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein” by Farah Mendlesohn (reprinted here) the author argues that Heinlein’s support of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment’s ‘right to bear arms’ is, as evidenced by his fiction, more nuanced than people usually allow, as such carrying is shown as being almost useless.
The introduction to “Sideways in time: Critical Essays on Alternate History” by Glyn Morgan and C Palmer-Patela featured here says the form is not merely a sub-genre of SF, illustrates its long history distinguishes between the counterfactual (academically accepted,) and fiction and outlines three different kinds of altered history stories, the nexus, the true altered history and the parallel worlds story.
The extract from “About Writing” by Gareth L Powell boils down to ‘just do it’.
H G Wells: A Literary Life by Adam Roberts looks in detail at Wells’s A Modern Utopia.
Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit by Jo Lindsay-Waltonb discusses the role of work in Star Trek’s post-scarcity utopia.

I won’t get round to the two novels I’ve not yet read and I’m not too enthused about any of the art works nominated this year.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“The closest access I had to nature were the hydroponic planters” (closest access … was the …,) “soft-ware … neighbour-hood” (why the hyphens?) “How can anyone be expected to care about the questions of worlds above when the questions of the world you’re stuck on those most vital criteria of home and heath and safety – remain unanswered?” (needs a comma after ‘stuck on’.) “It didn’t matter where you from” (where you were from.) 2This has the sort of underlining used in manuscripts to denote when a word is to appear in italics in the final version, “to lay over top of it” (over the tp of it,) it’s set in Britain and narrated by a Brit so why the use of ‘pickup’ for a truck and ‘veterinarian’ for a vet? 3whiskey (it was a single malt, so, whisky. The second time ‘whiskey’ appeared may have been referring to Jack Daniel’s, so I’ll let it off,) “he tended to avoid the alcoholic binges which tended to follow team matches” (one ‘tended’ too many inside the space of eight words,) the text also mentions “a recently laid-off teacher” (such a teacher would have to have done something major to have been dismissed, lay-offs are highly unusual.) 4Ballearics (Balearics,) sprung (sprang.) “‘Humankind will be made aware of how far beyond them we are,’” (how far beyond it we are.) “‘Humanity must believe they can continue to trust us,’” (believe it can continue to trust us.) 5“knew one other” (knew one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres.)
aascendency (ascendancy.) b“That is is” (only one ‘is’ required,) “making a Data a slave” (making Data a slave,) Keynes’ (x7, Keynes’s,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s – used later,) “becomes freighted cognitive and emotional significance” (is missing a ‘with’ before cognitive.)

Angel at Apogee by S N Lewitt

Berkley, 1987, 221 p.

 Angel at Apogee cover

Gaelian is the eldest of the eldest of the YnTourne family and thus in line to inherit all its privileges, including a seat on the board which runs life on Dinoreos and its dependencies, Adedri and Cahaute. She is also the hottest graduate of her military flying school; the only one always able to land her spaceship on a dit. This last is whence her nickname, Angel, derives. Dinoreos is a thoroughthly class-ridden polity trained up on and bound by the pastime of nerris, a combat sport once a deadly endeavour but now mainly ceremonial. All aspects of Dinorean life are threaded through with the tactics of nerris. As part of Gaelian’s inheritance, for dynastic and political reasons she is engaged to Teazerin YnSetti, an adept in the sporting aspects of nerris.

However, Gaelian spent most of her early life on Cahaute, where her father had been sent on diplomatic business. This, along with her appearance, has led to suspicions she is not wholly aristocratic, that her mother may have been one of Cahaute’s natives. Her father has always warned her to stand up for her rights and to assert that any genetic test would be passed easily. Gaelian knows the truth though and still feels the influence of Cahaute’s Power Clans within her. Her father’s conscience has led to him becoming a drunkard, both unsuitable and unwilling to take over as Head of household when Gaelian’s grandmother dies. The setting is here for a power struggle between Gaelian and her cousin Dobrin, eager to take on the leadership role himself, and who knows he has the Board’s backing, with the possibility of Gaelian’s background being exposed.

To her credit and much more interestingly, Lewitt takes a different tack though. The inheritance crisis is soon upon Gaelian but due to Dobrin’s honourable behaviour and her realisation that her primary wish is to be a pilot she agrees to stand down in his favour (with the proviso that her engagement to Teazerin is dissolved.) Even here we could have ended up with a standard military SF type plot but on her very first real mission (to Adedri) Gaelian’s ship is outpaced and out-manœuvred and she disappears, presumed dead.

On occasion up to then we have been given snippets of life on Cahaute and its belief systems (which seem very much to be derived from Native American customs.) Attention now focuses mainly on the situation on Cahaute, to where Teazerin has been posted and where he exerts a large degree of influence on the base and its actions, and the plans of Gaelian’s captor, Nomis, on Adedri, while occasionally switching back to machinations on Dinoreos. The wisdom and knowledge of the Power Clans are crucial to the unfolding of the subsequent events on Cahaute. In keeping with the preceding chapters the plot’s resolution is also very much against the usual run of SF novels.

Pedant’s corner:- “to betroth her” (betrothe.) “None of them were in use” (None of them was in use.) “He didn’t try follow it” (to follow it,) a pair of end direct speech marks without a preceding opening pair, publically (publicly,) “as she tried to lay down” (lie down,) “did not enter the ledge” (the lodge.)

Two More From Interzone

 Echo Cycle cover
 The City We Became   cover

Thursday’s post brought two more goodies from Interzone. (Well I hope they’re goodies.)

The first was The City We Became by N K Jemisin. Jemisin won the Hugo Award for best novel three times in a row with the components of her Broken Earth series of books.

The second is from a writer new to me, Patrick Edwards. His novel is titled Echo Cycle. The reviews ought to appear in issue 287.

Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020

TTA Press, 96 p.

Interzone 285 cover

Guest Editorial this time is taken by Andy Dudak (who has a story elsewhere in the issue) and he relates how his experience as a translator and reader of translated fiction has affected his own.
Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted investigates how SF/fantasy/weird writers are responding to the greed, corruption and flagrant abuse of power in the modern-day world. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories ranges over theme-park rides, maps and films as well as books in contemplating how transporting a story can be and how it’s never the same on each subsequent experience of it.
Book Zone starts with my reviews of Aliya Whiteley’s Skein Island and Menace from Farsidea by Ian McDonald. I had some minor reservations about the first but none about the second. John Howardb finds the collection of essays on altered History stories Sideways in Time edited by Glyn Morgan and C Palmer-Patel brisk, lively and illuminating. Maureen Kincaid Spellerc welcomes the “long-needed biography” that is John Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns, which increased her respect for the man and his writing. Stephen Theaker says Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock is interesting and thoughtful, keeping readers engaged throughout, and the review is followed by an interview with the author. Andy Hedgecockd lauds The Crying Machine by Greg Chivers as an entertaining romp with an unexpected degree of thematic complexity, flawed but promising.

In the fiction:
Each Cell a Throne1 by Gregor Hartmann contains a fair bit of intrusive information dumping. The story concerns an off-duty cop who has been hired to persuade an old man not to let his personality be uploaded into a datasphere.
Flyover Country2 by Julie C Day is a love story in which the caretaker of an extremely little used airfield falls for one of the operatives of the firm AeroFix (which to British eyes looks very like a miniature modelling kit manufacturer,) which sprays cures for logic illnesses.
In Frankie3 by Daniel Bennett the titular character never appears though some of the posts from his popular website, written as reflections on his terminal illness and which always end in -ah death followed by the date, do. His brother has come back from the front in the (unspecified) country’s ongoing war to visit the shack where they lived in their youth. The shack is now all-but besieged by Frankie’s followers.
Since the expansion of the universe is caused by it being observed, a millennium ago all humans bar those travelling through space were turned inward (frozen in time) by aliens in Salvage4 by Andy Dudak. Aristy Safewither is a soul salvager, illegally extracting the thoughts of the frozen on the planet New Ce. This all gets mixed up with the tale of the planet’s dictator at the time of turning inward.
The Dead Man’s Coffee5 by John Possidente is an odd piece where a journalist on a small space habitat learns (at least second-hand) from a conversation in a coffee bar about a planet where photovores – humans who can photosynthsesise – fall foul of a mandatory fasting-during-day-time rule.

Pedant’s corner- a“is a novella is set in a” (quite where that extraneous ‘is’ crept in I have no idea. I have checked all three files in which I keep my Iz reviews [the original, the one for sending and the one where I stack them to be posted here] and it appears in none of them.) bAldiss’ (Aldiss’s,) “silences and onmissions that … marginalises many” (marginalise – it was a quote from the original text though,) Sales’ (Sales’s.) cParkes’ (Parkes’s,) Binns’ (Binns’s.) dChivers’ (Chivers’s.)
1Written in USian. 2convey (convoy,) “both stylus and table” (stylus and tablet.) 3None of us have the time (none of us has the time.) 4personal affects (effects,) “opened hellish geothermal maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.) 5Written in USian.

Interzone 286

Interzone 286 cover

Interzone 286 arived today.

This one contains my reviews of Re-Coil by J T Nicholas and Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole.

The cover to this issue looks like some sort of homage to 1950s SF magazines with its many eyed, many tentacled alien apparently in a struggle with a spacesuited human. I didn’t know they made them like that any more.

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Macmillan, 2019, 573 p.

This, the third of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read, is not exactly a sequel but does follow on from Children of Time, Tchaikovsky’s big hit from 2018.

 Children of Ruin cover

The story is told mostly in two strands, Past and Present. Past describes the landing on an alien planet (soon designated Nod) of an expedition from Earth sent to terraform it for future colonies. There is life there already (of strange radially symmetric organisms) and so the leader decides not to terraform Nod but to utilise another water bound world (Damascus) in the same system for that purpose. One of the expedition’s members, Disra Senkovi, has for a long time been working with octopuses to increase their intelligence and usefulness and so this compromise suits all parties. (Senkovi knows the plural ‘octopi’ – as opposed to octopuses – is incorrect but prefers it because he likes its sound and so, annoyingly, Tchaikovsky uses it in all the sections relating to him. At one point, though, Senkovi states ‘octopi’ is “even more incorrect” than ‘octopodes’ – which his boss prefers. ‘Octopodes’ is not incorrect at all, though. It is the Greek plural.) While in the system all communication from Earth ceases as a result of a devastating nuclear war and the expedition is left to itself. After a few years one of the expedition’s members is ‘infected’ by an organism from Nod, which encodes genetic information by the placement of individual atoms on ‘cell’ walls. This swiftly takes over the members on Nod and in orbit around it and sets out for Damascus where Senkovi’s insatiably curious octopuses have spread in its ocean. The vessel is shot down but lands in the ocean. Senkovi invokes a strict prohibition on the crash site, and on Nod itself. Many years down the line the octopuses have utilised the whole sea-bed and one of them ignores the prohibition. The infection spreads once more and the remnant octopuses are reduced to living in orbitals and spaceships.

In Present, Humans (as distinct from pre-uplift humans) and the uplifted spiders from the Kern’s World of Children of Time have detected radio signals from Past’s system and a mission has been sent to investigate. Much of this strand is devoted to the initial contact between Humans-and-spiders and octopuses, the clash between them over approaching whatever it is on the module left orbiting Nod and what is in Damascus’s ocean, the problems of interspecies communication, and the nature of the infecting organism.

Too much is told, however, not shown and Tchaikovsky doesn’t really inhabit the minds of his characters. (Okay, the mindset of spiders and octopuses, not to mention the Nod creature, may be a bit of a stretch but SF readers are used to alienness. It shouldn’t be a problem. In Children of Time the spiders weren’t.) While Children of Ruin does contain some interesting stuff the chunks of exposition and internal monologues can be hard going. Far from not being able to put this down I had difficulty in staying awake while reading it. And it is not short. I fear others have been swayed in their considerations of Children of Ruin’s merits by the relatively novel nature of its aliens.

Pedant’s corner:- “sixty-one degrees centigrade” (sixty-one degrees Celsius,) miniscule (x2, minuscule,) ‘his subjet species’ world view’ (species singular, so, species’s.) “None of them were” (none of them was,) “polarised Calcium ions” (calcium is not a proper noun, no capital C required,) “hoves onto view” (hove is past tense; ‘heaves into view’.) “A string …. rip through her hull” “a string … rips,) “how authentic the simulacra is” (‘simulacra’ is plural, the singular is simulacrum,) “reacted to different stimulus” (‘to a different stimulus’, or, ‘to different stimuli’,) sung (sang.) “None of the entities … are real” (None … is real.) “”Both of them tries to recruit him.” (Both try to recruit him,) childrens’ (children’s,) “the colours stabilize and compliment each other” (complement, and while we’re at it, stabilise. Please,) “And his are a passionate, mercurial people” (his is a passionate, mercurial people,) “anathema to their mind” (minds,) “a living compliment of one hundred and seventeen” (complement,) “a severe under-compliment” (under-complement,) “materials-salvaging” (was split over two lines despite materials being the first word on its line,) octopusus’s (octopuses’.) “Six-eighths of his cerebral capacity … are bent towards that one end” (six-eighths is less than one and hence takes a singular verb form, is bent.) “Two-eighths … remains” ([on the very next page!] does indeed, correctly, have a singular verb form,) “the females have found the thing containment” (????) “one faction has worked themselves up” (‘have worked themselves up,’ would be internally consistent with ‘themselves’ but ‘faction’ is singular so, ‘has worked itself up,) condusive (conducive.) “None of them pay any attention” (None … pays attention,) smidgeon (smidgin, or smidgen.) “The warship faction are making a” (is making.) “The science faction are singing” (is singing.) “The science faction are going to test” (is going,) “fit around” (fitted.)

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Ace, 2019, 312 p.

 Atlas Alone cover

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read. It is set on a starship called Atlas 2, heading out on a twenty-year voyage to join a colony on another planet (in the wake of someone called the Pathfinder who I assume appeared in an earlier novel in Newman’s Planetfall sequence.) Just as well; Earth has been devastated by a nuclear war.

Our narrator is named Deanna, on board Atlas 2 after her indentured debt had been paid off by her friend. Carl, who likes nothing better than to get his teeth into a real murder (or unexplained death) mystery. Or, I should say, because his indentureship trained/programmed him for that. Deanna – and I suppose everyone else in this scenario – has a link to an internal personal assistant. (This last is getting to be a fixture of SF novels these days.) There is also a system called MyPhys which monitors people’s health and bodily responses while the relaxation activity of choice is the use of mersives, highly detailed, virtual reality role-playing games.

Very early on Newman, through Deanna, puts the boot into fundamentalism of the self-styled Christian variety. In this story, what had been the USA has fractured and non-believers in Christianity kicked out. Deanna had had to fake belief in order to get onto the largely American funded ship, trading on relative ignorance of and assumptions about trans-Atlantic – here called Noropean – norms.

Up till now apparently footloose and fancy-free with all needs catered for Deanna is invited to do an analysis job on some data and discovers a previously hidden (at least to her and her acquaintances) hierarchy on the ship. Rich and with far from mean living spaces the elite also has access to a money economy Deanna had been unaware of.

Things ramp up when a mysterious person with incredible powers of access and concealment intrudes into the mersive area she calls her office space and entices her into a mersive which seems to have all sorts of information about her past life and homes. In it she finds clues to the nature of those running the show; leaders from the CSA (not the CSA I first thought of, but the Christian States of America) and that they were responsible for the destruction of all those sinners back on Earth. On meeting one of them in the mersive she takes the opportunity to kill him there, knowing he will experience the pain of it back in meatspace. On returning to real life she is startled to find that despite safeguards against crossover (not to mention MyPhys) that person has indeed died while immersed. Carl, a dog that won’t let a bone go, has been assigned to find out what happened to him. Thereafter she is forced to prevaricate with Carl while still plotting revenge on those in charge who are intent on preserving the indentured system she and all the less privileged on board thought they’d escaped from. In the course of this we come to realise that Deanna is indeed, in her own words, “A cold collection of responses, pretending to be a person.” When the identity of her mysterious helper is revealed she comes round to planning her act of retribution very quickly, almost without thought, but also without compunction.

That the major part of this novel is spent with Deanna in mersive environments is a bit off-putting. It’s too close to “it was all a dream.” Granted within them Deanna is revealed certain clues to help her unravel her circumstances but the overlap between mersive and meatspace is a step too far. The other characters in the book are little more than attributes rather than real people – unless Newman is making the point that spending too much time in game-playing is detrimental to human relationships, which the text does not really support. Then again we are seeing this from the viewpoint of a cold collection of responses pretending to be a person; perhaps not the best reader of people. Deanna is not an exemplary human (not that characters in books necessarily have to be) but Newman lets her off her actions lightly, leaving an unsavoury taste.

Newman’s invented expletive JeeMuh is still as irritating as in Before Mars, the previous book of hers I have read, but at least this time she gives it a provenance. Yet why use it at all when the ‘f’ word is liberally sprinkled across the text?

Pedant’s corner:- It was an ARC. Many of the following may have been corrected in the published edition: hangry (is this meant to be a portmanteau word – hungry/angry – or is it just a misprint for hungry? In context the misprint is far more likely.) “‘And it’s going kill you’” (‘going to kill you’,) n00b (x2, noob?) “the smell had alerted the neighbours, the body removed” (the body had been removed,) “a couple of specs on my throat” (neither speculations nor spectacles; it was blood, so, specks,) “‘you’ve got another thing coming,’” (another think,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “As long as I know what I want and know how to get, that’s all that matters” (how to get it,) hung (hanging,) “while I patched up her” (that reads very differently from ‘while I patched her up’,) “ a variety of ways … quickly float through my mind” (a variety …floats,) grills (USian? ‘grilles’,) “the same as what I can in meatspace” (the ‘what’ is superfluous,) “none of them live on deck five” (none of them lives on deck five.) None of the Circle are working” (None … is working,) “‘who were genuinely were’” (omit one ‘were’.)

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L Powell

Titan, 2019, 401 p.

 Fleet of Knives cover

As last year, Powell’s is the first of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read. Like the previous instalment in Powell’s projected trilogy (see link above) it is again a multi-viewpoint narrative. Most of these are familiar from Embers of War; war criminal turned poet turned condemned prisoner Ona Sendak, ship’s captain Sal Konstanz, his ship Trouble Dog’s AI brain, its Druff engineer Nod – now accompanied by thirteen offspring. There is a new viewpoint character called Johnny Schultz, (“lucky” Johnny Schultz,) captain of a trading vessel on the shady side of things, plus a sole chapter from the viewpoint of Trouble Dog’s sister ship, Adalwolf.

The Marble Armada which our motley crew liberated from five thousand years of confinement in the trilogy’s previous instalment causes Sendak to be rescued at the point of her execution by a Conglomeration army detachment. For some reason the Armada needs a biological identity to authorise their actions. It is in this scene that the first of many gratuitous acts of violence in the book occurs.

Schultz’s ship, Lucy’s Ghost, is about to sweep out of the hypervoid to “salvage” a derelict Nymtoq ship, the Restless Itch, when it is attacked by an entity invisible to the ship’s sensors, causing it to crash into the Itch on reentering real space. Schultz’s crew is forced to board the Itch for shelter and await rescue. Konstanz and Trouble Dog’s crew respond to the distress call.

Meantime the Armada launches an attack on any armed vessel or military outpost everywhere in the Human Generality apparently in the name of preventing any further war and killing. There is an attempt at some moralistic justification for this orgy of destruction (“‘We act to preserve life…. By destroying the means to wage war. Only when war is impossible will life be safe,’”) but any such is of necessity tenuous. In any case it seems the Armada – by now dubbed the Fleet of Knives of the book’s title – fears that widespread war may bring down the unwelcome attention of aliens from the higher dimensions. (Some cognitive dissonance here, surely?)

Inside Itch, Schultz and his crew (now accompanied by Lucy, an avatar of the ship’s human-derived brain housed in a cloned body appearing twelve years old) are beset by a horde of implacable metallic-carapaced creatures which resemble crayfish, and thus have to flee for their lives. The arrival of Trouble Dog is swiftly followed by Sendak and three Armada ships demanding surrender.

Konstanz and Schultz reflect on the inevitable deaths within their crews with regret but these and other attempts at humanising them are unconvincing, appearing bolted on, almost as a chore for the author to pay lip service to. As characters they do not breathe.

The book is riddled with other infelicities. The crayfish provide their interval of conflict and then the narrative seems to forget them. We are (twice) told Trouble Dog displaces ten thousand tons. I could not have quibbled with ‘massed ten thousand tons’ (mass does not depend on environment) but how can a spaceship displace anything? Its working environment is a vacuum in which, by definition, there is nothing to displace. ‘Normal’ ships of course displace their equivalent tonnage of water. Restless Itch has a number of convenient parallel tunnels for Trouble Dog to hide in and then escape through, Trouble Dog itelf refers to Sendak’s Armada ship as 88,573 but had not at that point been told its name. There are also too many references to things familiar to twenty-first century readers which would most likely have no meaning for the inhabitants of this book – and therefore jar as part of their story – for disbelief to remain suspended. And remorseless metallic, cannibalistic crustacean lookalikes? Come on, guys.

This novel will not get my vote.

Pedant’s corner:- milleniums (millenia,) momentarily (means ‘for a moment’, not ‘in a moment’,) maw (x3 it’s not a mouth,) “if worse came to worst” (does make more logical sense but in the past this phrase was always, ‘if the worst came to the worst’,) crawfish (previously ‘crayfish’, but ‘crawfish’ from hereon in,) “I fancied I could almost hear the ‘whoosh’ as the entangled wreckage of both ships passed scant metres from our bows” (it was in space, there would have been no ‘whoosh’, and only one bow,) epicentre (centre.)

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Orbit, 2018, 393 p.

 Rosewater cover

Rosewater was a nominee for the BSFA Award last year and won the Clarke Award. Its successor The Rosewater Insurrection is on this year’s BSFA Award short list. As I hope to get round to reading that before voting I thought I’d better look at this first.

Rosewater is a doughnut-shaped city that surrounds the biodome, an alien outcropping in Nigeria. The biodome opens once every year for twenty or thirty minutes and everyone in the vicinity is cured of all physical ailments. Even dead people can be reanimated, but the results tend to be soulless and mindless, and have to be killed again.

Narrator Kaaro is a sensitive, able to discern the thoughts of others by accessing the xenosphere, strands of alien fungi-like filaments and neurotransmitters, which link with the natural fungi on human skin and penetrate the nervous system. His abilities have made him useful to S45, a branch of the Nigerian security services. He is also a finder, and a thief. Later his abilities are referred to as those of a quantum extrapolator. He is also a misogynist and sexist, notwithstanding his entering a relationship with a woman called Aminat. Not that strong women are missing in the book, his initial S45 boss, Femi Alaagomeji, and Aminat being cases in point.

The novel is structured into scenes taking place in Kaaro’s Now of 2066, the Then of when the biodome first appeared and its subsequent evolution, and interludes describing his previous missions for S45. This tends to render the reading experience as bitty. Just when getting into the swing of things in one timeline we are jarred out of it, often with a cliffhanger. Coming across in the background we find that the thing humans call Wormwood was an amœbic blob of alien organic matter that fell to Earth in 2012 in Hyde Park, London. Unlike previous such incursions, Wormwood survived and (apparently) tunnelled its way to Nigeria.

Not that it has any real connection to any part of Kaaro’s story, but we are informed that in this world, as a response to the alien incursions, the US has withdrawn into itself, letting nothing in or out, not even information.

At the start of the book Kaaro has a job protecting a bank’s customers from the attentions of other sensitives out to steal their information. This is one of the hares Thompson sets running but never quite catches. There is the biodome itself, the appearance of a character known as Bicycle Girl or Oyin Da, and, in an apparent signal to a thriller subplot that never arrives, sensitives are dying. In the wider xenosphere, where reality is very distorted, Kaaro uses a gryphon as an avatar. Aminat’s brother, Layi, is kept chained in her flat to prevent him burning things using his own xenospheric power.

As can perhaps be gleaned from the previous paragraph there is too much going on in the novel which, as a result, fails to achieve focus. Thompson can undoubtedly write but hasn’t yet found the virtue of economy. Quite why Rosewater has been accorded the accolades it has is therefore a bit obscure.

Pedant’s corner:- “crimes perpetuated in the xenosphere” (crimes perpetrated,) “Ascomytes xenophericus” (elsewhere Ascomytes xenosphericus,) smoothes (smooths,) “amuses me to no end” (‘to no end’ means ‘without purpose’, ‘amuses me no end’ [‘no end’ = infinitely] was meant,) aircrafts “OK it was in dialogue but the plural of aircraft is aircraft.) “None of the people around me are harmed” (None …is harmed.) “None of them want to live in the refugee camps” (None of them wants to live….)

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