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The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2016, 333 p

 The Corporation Wars: Dissidence cover

Most of the “characters” in this novel are dead, their consciousnesses (or what remains of them) uploaded into a simulation. Others are robots whose “minds” have gained awareness. The first of these presents a problem; one which I have written about before here and here. I know that fiction isn’t a description of the real, it’s all made-up – thinly disguised real lives of the roman à clef aside – but it aspires to that verisimilitude; the people we are reading about ought to feel real, or at the very least plausible, their perils and dilemmas actual to the reader even if at one remove. Breaking the necessary suspension of disbelief is a dangerous activity for an author, with the potential fatally to undermine what is the delicate process of interacting with a fictional text. But if the characters in a novel are themselves dead the distancing goes too far. Put simply, if these people are dead already why should the reader care? There is no real jeopardy; they can be resurrected at the touch of a button. Yes, there is the argument that our “real life” might itself be a simulation so what does it matter if the characters in a novel also are but that falls down on the grounds that we can only suspect it, we do not know it for sure.

The action, and there is a lot of it, takes place on or near an exo-planet long after the Final War on Earth between the more-or-less progressive Acceleration and the counter-revolutionary Reaction. A government known as “The Direction” is nominally in charge but as a result of the development of robot consciousness various companies are now at war either with the robots or each other. Human consciousnesses from the time of the Final War have been preserved, training to fight the Corporations’ wars after being decanted into a virtual reality of the way the exo-planet will be after its terraformation. The story-telling details here are elegant enough, the “bus journey” from the “spaceport” every time they are resurrected from an abortive mission is a nice touch. The shadow of the Final War still hangs over these remnants though. The extension of their consciousnesses beyond their bodies when they are in their (tiny) battle arrays is also neatly handled, instantaneous connectivity feeling akin to telepathy, being able to “smell” the sun etc.

Curiously (or perhaps not, as they may be the most “real” characters in the book as opposed to mere ghosts of electrons fizzing about in a server) it is the robots who seem the most human entities in Dissidence even if their dialogue, rendered in chevron brackets as opposed to normal quote marks, can be a little reminiscent of Dalek in its terseness and detached vocabulary (though admittedly, “Shut up,” is never an injunction I have heard issued by a Dalek.)

As usual with MacLeod there is a degree of philosophical discourse, especially among the robots, and of political discussion. There is also an allusion to please all SF buffs, “I have no mouth and I must gape.” If you can get over any nagging doubts about the “reality” of the dilemmas and situation of the entities here it’s a fine read.

Pedant’s corner: when in their “battle” arrays the “humans” also spoke in chevrons apart from one instance at the close of a section where the quote marks were normal. I didn’t gain the impression they had yet dropped out of battle mode. There was also medieval (long time devotees know I prefer mediaeval or even mediæval,) plus “upside the head” (a USianism, what’s wrong with “on the head”?)

Trumping Democracy

I happened to catch on BBC rolling news today a “speech” given by one Donald J Trump. This consisted mostly of him opening his mouth and letting anything pour out (or, as the phrase has it, letting his belly rumble.) There was absolutely nothing of substance in it whatever, merely the assertion and vacuous sloganising of a blustering braggart and bully.

I note that he has also repeated his belief that the US Presidential election is rigged against him.

So, let me get this clear; the reopening of an FBI investigation against his opponent isn’t rigging but its subsequent finding “no evidence of criminality” is? Is that perhaps because the first was to his advantage and the second wasn’t? (And yes, Donald, it is possible to trawl through millions of emails in a few days. There’s something called a “search” function that will allow you to do precisely that.)

The claim of rigging sounded to me remarkably like someone who thought they weren’t going to win anyway getting their excuses in first.

Yet the attitude behind it is the culmination of a trend I noticed a long time ago whereby Democratic Presidents don’t seem to be afforded the same leeway as that accorded to Republicans.

You may remember eight years ago I predicted that Barack Obama would face four (or eight) years of hounding if he were to be elected. I wasn’t wrong. As I recall it started as soon as he was sworn in (or even before if you don’t think the original swearing in was legitimate.)

To claim the election is rigged goes against everything the US is supposed to stand for. The cornerstone of democracy is that leaders are replaced peaceably – and the new one is accepted by the old and his/her supporters. Claims of illegitimacy put that peaceful handover in danger (and in the case of a country awash with firearms might even lead to civil war.)

There was also the small point of Trump suggesting during the campaign that he didn’t know what the “Second Amendment people” would do if his opponent wins. To which I say this, if Trump loses and the then President Hillary Clinton is subsequently assassinated the prime accused in any court case ought to be Donald Trump, for incitement to murder.

Later on the BBC news showed a speech by Clinton in which, by contrast, she appeared measured, thoughful, rational and reasonable. (To be fair that wasn’t a big ask.)

Mr Trump has been revealed (is even proud of the fact!) to have paid little or no tax for at least a ten year period and hasn’t released details of any tax payments in the years since. I find it incredible that a tax avoider can put himself forward to become the head of state of a country to which he has made no such monetary contribution. (My view is that it is the duty of a citizen to pay the taxes necessary for the country in which they are domiciled/make a living to be run successfully. And to do so without complaint. The only point to be debated is the level at which the taxes ought to be levied, not whether they are to be ignored.)

In amongst his ramblings Trump said America* was a laughing stock.

Not quite yet, Donald. Not quite yet.

But if you are elected President the US will not only have become a laughing stock overnight; it will have removed itself from the status of a serious nation and be seriously weakened as a result. Far from making America great again it will diminish it hugely. You can not have someone with the character traits of a narcissist in charge of a country’s diplomacy. Especially when that country is the most important in the world and whose actions may impact on allies and potential foes alike. (I shudder at the thought of any such person being in charge of the nuclear launch codes.)

US citizens might say their election is none of my business. To that I would reply “no annihilation without representation”.

A former US President once used the phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Good advice; especially the “speak softly” part.

*Don’t you just love that appropriation of a whole two continents’ name to a polity which occupies only a small portion of its landmass?

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Windmill Books, 2012, 574 p (plus no fewer than 9 p of puffs before the publishing information page.)

 Angelmaker cover

Clockworker Joshua Joseph Spork, son of Matthew a now dead former denizen of the Night Market, by contrast likes to keep his head down and his nose clean. An old woman called Edie Banister with her one-toothed, marble-eyed dog; the Death Clock left to Spork by his father; a plague of mechanical bees; various varieties of heavies, governmental and not, all lead to him becoming active rather than passive. On the way we encounter a train called the Ada Lovelace, which is a kind of travelling Bletchley Park, an Asian fiefdom ruled by a ruthless would-be-god, not to mention the resourceful Polly Cradle, all wrapped up in a plot which revolves around an Apprehension Engine, “‘a device which would allow one to know the truth of a situation, without fear of error,’” aka Angelmaker as, “‘It makes angels out of men…. It makes the world better, just by being,’” but with the potential to make the world infinitely worse.

Any plot summary suffers the possibility of being thought bonkers but we are driven on throughout by an insistent present tense – in which even the flash-backs are couched – and the brio of the storytelling plus the incidental details render any tendency to disbelief otiose. (Polly Cradle’s bed is a memorable construction.) The Night Market has echoes of Hugo and the names of Arvin Cummerbund, Rodney Titwhistle, Frankie Fossoyeur and Vaughn Parry evoke Dickens but this is really sui generis.

The book is exquisitely written – and fantastic entertainment – but in the end not much more than entertainment. I was left with a slight sense of disappointment that it wasn’t more meaningful. Still, that would be greedy. As it is Edie Banister and Polly Cradle are wonderful creations. To have two such in the one book is a pleasure indeed. I shall look out for more Harkaway.

Pedant’s corner:- the work gang look like astronauts from another world (the work gang looks like,) medieval. “But he has no Scots lilt, just a pure English diction… (Scots don’t speak pure English????) Brits (was this designation in use in the 1940s?) “Having your own engine means no timetables, no delays” (yes, acknowledging that signals etc will have to be set to accommodate this,) twenty foot away (feet; please,) “a wild exultant creel of power” (a wild exultant “rack”, or “basket for fish”, of power?) Decent batter (of Don Bradman; the English – as opposed to USian – usage is batsman,) “‘even with the new bodyline’” (in the 1940s bodyline was well past new,) twinging (twingeing?) mischievious (why do people add that extraneous “i” into mischievous?) “none of these blessings place the Watsons in the clutches of the system” (none of these places the Watsons,) “the enemy knows they’re on the edge” (the enemy knows it’s on the edge,) surpresses (suppresses,) “X-rayed, MRI’d and electron microscoped” (I would prefer MRI-ed; there are no letters missing to warrant an apostrophe. Also, the first two techniques would delve into the depths of an object – the required goal here – but electron microscopy only reveals surface details,) oxidisation (the verb is oxidise but the noun is oxidation,) novagenarian (nonagenarian, I think,) “‘I think I may have over-egged the nitro and gone a bit heavy on the toluene’” (a good line but a touch inaccurate. The first of these is possible, though chemically difficult, but the second would have the opposite effect to the one implied,) “written in a European alphabet Joe doesn’t recognise” (? As far as I’m aware European alphabets are Roman, Cyrillic or Greek. Surely all three are recognisable?) a magnet … so that any metal will move the catch (not any metal: only iron – hence its alloy, steel – nickel and cobalt are magnetic.) “The fire service withdraw their operators” (withdraws its operators,) the wrecking crew strip the dead machines (the crew strips; on the previous page we had, correctly, the crew slips away,) veterbrae (vertebrae.) I liked “brook no denay.”

Interzone Review Time Again

 Invisible Planets cover

Two months seem to come round very quickly.

This time it’s back to Chinese SF with Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu. I’m looking forward to it. The cover shown on the page on the link above is the US one from Tor. I’ve got the UK publication from Head of Zeus.

I’ve been given a bit more leeway with this one. 1400 words instead of the usual 800.

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

Jo Fletcher, 2014, 345 p, plus i p acknowledgements and v p bonus content.

 The Galaxy Game cover

Humans are spread over five extraterrestrial planets, Saraldi, Zhinu, Punartam, Cygnus Beta and Ntshune with Earth embargoed. Psionic abilities necessary for swift transit between solar systems are frowned upon in Cygnus Beta where Rafi lives. Since he may follow his father in being be so endowed he is administered a cap to monitor his urges/proclivities. However, Rafi swiftly moves on to Punartam where his abilities are encouraged and developed in a wall-running game which – like the similar task in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game – has much more significance than at first appears. Third person narration is interspersed with first person sections from one of Rafi’s friends; which seemed to me rather an odd authorial decision.

Unfortunately I found out too late that The Galaxy Game seems to be a sequel to one of Lord’s previous novels, The Best of All Possible Worlds, which I have not read and knowledge of which may have improved my appreciation of this one. As it is, two weeks on from reading this I can barely recall what it was about except that too many things were reported rather than narrated, even in the first person sections.

I enjoyed Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, which was set in Africa, much more than this even though it was more of a fantasy rather than the straightforward SF of The Galaxy Game.

Pedant’s corner:- directed a student (at a student,) “‘are you in love with Rafi,'” (question mark rather than comma,) “he was staring a collection of shapes, colours and textures that coalesced … under the identity Naraldi,” (staring at a collection,) “a handful of Uplanders were (a handful was,) a skilled team who knows (team who know,) must have showed (shown,) practise (practice? practise is USian?) “anything that the worlds ….. has seen (have seen,) mentions an ice-bound world that nevertheless has a stable and favourable atmosphere (what produces the oxygen that makes it breathable? On our world it is plants and photosynthetic algae. Is that going to be true for an ice-covered world?) “She quickly reached in and detached the upper casing from their pod.” (Only one person was in the pod; so his, not their,) by slight increase in gravity (by a slight increase,) hovercrafts (hovercraft’s plural is hovercraft,) “according whatever terms were agreeable to us” (according to whatever terms) tumbling out thin air (out of thin air,) paid with their pilots lives (pilots’.)
Plus points for the “fewer” in “fewer drugs and less malaise” though.

Sheri S Tepper

I see Sheri S Tepper has died.

She has a long list of SF works and awards to her name but the only one I have read so far is Grass. So many books, so little time.

Sheri S Tepper (née Stewart): 16/7/1929-22/10/2016. So it goes.

The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

Gollancz, 2015, 543 p.

The Promise of the Child cover

It is sometime in the 14,700s, Homo sapiens has speciated, “Prismed into a dozen breeds of fairy-tale grotesques,” Pifoon, Vulgar, Melius, Amaranthine, being only some of its descendants; Immortals wait out their time before falling into madness, a war is being waged. There is intrigue over the succession of a new Emperor. A machine called the Soul Engine can resurrect dead bodies, undamaged dead bodies, into true immortality and is an object of desire for some of the characters, none of whom engaged my interest or sympathy. A pair of long-dead space-faring dinosaurs found among the rings of Saturn also feature.

Despite containing spaceships and superluminal engines (which somehow also seem to be capable of operating at sub-light speeds) this future still has artillery which fires shells and recognisable place names and locations on Earth. Also marring it all are unconvincing fight and battle scenes, tedious information dumping and a failure to adhere to Colin Greenland’s injunction to beware the pluperfect.

I never give up on a book; but I came perilously close with this one.

Pedant’s corner:- The text mentions lifeless worlds exist where oxygen concentration is higher than that of the Old World. (Oxygen is a reactive gas; without replenishment it would swiftly be used up. Replenishment is a by-product of plant activity, ie life,) “the drilling team were” (was,) whisps, (wisps,) Impatiens’ (Impatiens’s; and this use of the apostrophe is not applied consistently, witness Sotiris’s,) fetid (I prefer foetid,) the crew were (was,) crenulated (crenellated?) metal is “soft enough to mould and carve in a person’s hand, with only a dip in salt water necessary to begin the hardening process” (no metal I know of behaves like this; each metal is either soft or not, depending perhaps on the temperature. Mind you, this metal grows on trees,) “said…. a voice in the chapel that appeared to come from everywhere” (the chapel came from everywhere?) “hoping at least one would find their target” (its target surely?) “but did nothing shade them” (nothing to shade them,) hingeing (I believe the correct form is hinging – but to someone from the West of Scotland there is a distinction between hinge and hing so I would accept hingeing in a Scottish work, which this isn’t,) the expectant trio were (was,) epicentre (centre,) master-at-arms’ (master-at-arms’s,) wollen (woollen.)

Asimov’s Aug 2016

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Aug 2016 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial1 remembers her introduction to SF via the women superheroes found in comic books and the inspiration she took from them; inspiration she hopes her own daughters will also find. Robert Silverberg’s Reflections2 discusses the software of magic (spells) with regard to ancient Egyptian papyri. Paul Di Filippo’s On Books3 is complimentary about all the books reviewed but especially a reprint of Judith Merril’s critical essays on SF and China Miéville’s This Census Taker (which I reviewed here.)
In the fiction:-
Wakers4 by Sean Monaghan is set on a colonisation starship which has suffered damage to its operating AI and veered off course. Only one crew member at a time is woken to keep things going, passing on the duty at the end of their stint. The latest waker has an idea to change the ship’s fate.
In Toppers5 by Jason Sandford New York has been separated from the rest of the world. Only the tallest skyscrapers provide secure refuges above the mists. Our (unnamed) female protagonist has to walk through the mists to get supplies.
The title of The Mutants Men Don’t See by James Alan Garner of course refers to a celebrated SF story by James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon.) Here a repressed Flash Gene may be activated by some kind of shock during puberty and changes its carrier into a superhero. Menopausal Ellie Lee fears her son will try to force such a change by endangering his life and sets put to protect him. It becomes obvious very early on where this is going. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold a candle to Tiptree.
The “Kit” in Kit: Some Assembly Required6 by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is Christopher Marlowe or, rather, a simulacrum of Marlowe in a computer network. Kit achieves sentience. The slightly clichéd identity of his human “creator” is all that lets this tale down. The best story I’ve read in Asimov’s so far.
Patience Lake7 by Matthew Claxton sees a former cyborg soldier, damaged in an attack and surplus to requirements, hitch-hiking to Saskatchewan and taking odd jobs to try to meet his maintenance costs. But his spare parts could make him valuable himself.
In Kairos8 by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst, a research project has come up with a way to stop telomeres unravelling and hence halt ageing. Our narrator is married to the technology’s discoverer and suffers a crisis of conscience, apparently due to the legacy of her previous marriage. The story depicts scientists as blinkered and philistine. Well, not all of them are ignorant of the humanities.
The title of Sandra McDonald’s President John F Kennedy, Astronaut9 is a trifle misleading as the story is more about the search in an ice-cap melted, flooded future world for an obelisk found by said astronaut but whose existence was subsequently concealed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1(she) learned marital arts (that would be a good thing I suppose but I think martial arts was what was meant,) no pinic (no picnic,) 2 H G Wells’ (H G Wells’s,) 3Karel apek (for some reason misses the capital letter of his surname, Čapek,) 4 “A Masters from .. but on the next line her master’s thesis (if one Masters is capitalised I would think the other ought to be,) 5 lays (lies,) 6loathe (loth or loath; loathe is something else entirely,) 7thirty clicks outside (four lines later; “the last few dozen klicks”,) augur (auger –used previously,) 8“none of them know, none of them have any idea” (none knows, none has any idea,) “so he did he” (has one “he” too many,) 9 blond hair (blonde,) gravitation distortion (gravitational,) “where whales still roamed and tropical reefs covered with dazzling life” (were covered?) “to imagine what must have been like” (what it must have been like,) “great-great-great forbearer” (forebear.)

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2014, 241 p plus iv p introduction by Pat Cadigan

 The Long Tomorrow cover

The Destruction has come, fire has rained down, civilisation has fallen far. Nearly one hundred years on people scrape by as best they can. Society is now dominated by Neo-Mennonites as in the aftermath of the Destruction only those who did not depend on technology had the means to survive. The thirtieth amendment to the US constitution was enacted to forbid both cities and dense populations. The law is backed up by the strict Old Testament religious mind-set which pervades the agrarian culture.

Len Culter is influenced by his grandma who could not quite forget that the old days were good. He is fascinated by her stories and also by the possibility that remnants of the old times might still exist in a place called Bartorstown, whose location no-one knows and whose proponents risk execution. His only hope of ever finding this chimera is via the traders who ply across the land. He is led astray by his cousin Esau, stealer of old books and purloiner from a summarily executed trader’s wagon of a radio which by accident they manage to get to work. On being discovered and forced to flee from Piper’s Run, he and Esau make it to the Ohio riverside settlement of Refuge where a merchant is pushing against the size laws. His endeavour does not turn out well and Len, with Esau and Amity, the girl whom Esau has got pregnant, are plucked from the vengeful zealots by agents of Bartorstown. After a long discouraging journey Len finally reaches his goal where he finds it is much less but also far more than he had expected. He also finds his childhood indoctrination hard to shake off.

From a twenty-first century perspective the absence of any Native Americans in Brackett’s scenario is glaring. It might be thought that they would be equipped to thrive in a world so stripped down. I suppose that in the1950s when the book was first published such a consideration might not have occurred and would in any case probably have been rejected by an editor – and readers. (A darker explanation for their absence from a future like this is of course also possible; but Brackett’s attention does not lie in that direction. In this context I note that no black characters appear either.) Even though Brackett was one of the (very) few high-profile women SF writers of the 50s the book’s sexual politics are also of its time, with women being depicted as strictly domestic creatures – or temptresses, who are also nevertheless fated to domesticity. (I would also have thought that the US as a polity could not have survived a Destruction as complete as portrayed here. Doubtless, this is also not a thought which would have been comfortable – or perhaps even imaginable – to mid-twentieth century USians. Pat Cadigan in her introduction suggests that a nuclear war would not have been survivable at all.) Still, take it all as read for purposes of story.

Brackett’s characters are convincingly portrayed, it is easy to believe people would behave in the ways shown given their circumstances; only Julio Gutierrez’s breakdown when Bartorstown’s latest attempt to remove the threat overhanging their project failed seemed in any way unlikely. Despite the intervening years since its first publication The Long Tomorrow still bears reading.

Pedant’s corner:- Pa. hadn’t noticed it (no need for the full stop after Pa,) proselyting (apparently the USian form of proselytising,) Harkness’ (Harkness’s,) he had waked (woken, please,) “‘Good-by, Len’” (Goodbye, there was another good-by later,) “Dulinsky wiped his face oil his shirt sleeve” (on his shirt sleeve,) Watts’ (Watts’s,) “trailing of tobacco smoke from a pipe” (no need for “of”,) lay low (lie low,) Gutierrez’ (Gutierrez’s.)

Interzone: Issues 266 and 267

 Europe in Winter cover
Interzone 266 cover

Interzone issue 266 arrived yesterday. Along with the usual fiction and comment pieces this one contains my review of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds.

My next review, to appear in Interzone 267, will be of Europe in Winter, the third in Dave Hutchinson’s “Fractured Europe” sequence. I posted about its predecessors Europe in Autumn here and Europe at Midnight here.

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