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White Wing by Gordon Kendall

Sphere, 1986, 312 p.

Gordon Kendall is a pseudonym used – for one book only – by S N Lewitt (Shariann Lewitt) no doubt for the same reason female writers have always used male pen names. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database says the book was a collaboration with Susan Shwartz.

Humans are in a war against the Sej. Earth has been destroyed and the remnants of its population forced to take refuge on other human worlds of the League, where they are seen as largely second-class citizens and subject to prejudice. Earthers’ military arm, it has to be said, does not help in this regard. Except in their own company its members keep their emotions to themselves, presenting an unflinching, unemotive face to the worlds at large, only ever expressing their feelings in private. The League’s armed forces are split up into Wings, each with its own designated colour. The White Wing of the title is the Earther Wing, trained up on Wing Moon, a world given to them begrudgingly by the League. Their unit of battle is typically, though not always, made up of groups of seven. These are tight knit contingents, living and fighting together, joined in a contract they call marriage. Never has a member of White Wing been captured by the Sej. If any of them is in danger of that (and the subsequent maltreatment the Sej will no doubt administer) they are granted what is called the Mercy. In other words their own unit will kill them in order to prevent it. This happens to squad member Maryam in chapter two and makes pilot Gregory, who committed the deed, almost a pariah among the other Wings.

Squad Comm officer Suzannah has an eidetic memory. Her chief in League Security, Federico Hashrahh Kroeger, is another eidetic, keen to capture as much data about Earthers as he can. The plot revolves around the gap Maryam’s death has left in the squad, the solo pilot Dustin who may in the end become her replacement, Sej spies called Bikmat and Aglo, a Sej drug named hathoti, and a rabble-rousing politician, Ag Kolatolo, eager to exploit and amplify anti-Earther attutudes. The novel’s resolution is perhaps a bit too optimistic about how easily prejudice in public life can be overcome.

The book is a fairly typical SF tale of its time. Of military SF at any time. There are sufficient battle scenes and intrigue to satisfy adherents of the form but there is more of a tendency towards describing the interactions between, and thoughts of, the characters than most of its male purveyors tend to provide.

Pedant’s corner:- epicantic (epicanthic,) Gus’ (Gus’s,) Charles’ (Charles’s.) “None of them were” (was,) eidectics (eidetic,) neutrino (neutrino – spelled correctly elsewhere,) forseeable (foreseeable.) “A phalanx of Reds were closing in” (a phalanx … was closing in,) hanger (hangar– spelled correctly elsewhere, except for Hanger Deck,) “‘when she’d off duty’” (when she’s off duty.) “‘You said ‘us’ Federico,’” (to which he assents. He actually said ‘we’.)

Exiles on Asperus by John Wyndham (writing as John Beynon)

Coronet, 1979, 154 p.

John Wyndham was one of the big names of British SF in the 1950s and early 60s, most famous for The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned.) Gifted with a plethora of forenames (John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon; his surname was Harris) he wrote under several almost aliases – Lucas Parkes as well as John Harris, John Beynon and John Wyndham. It is those latter, more mature works for which he will be remembered – even if Brian Aldiss did dub the sub-genre of the disaster novel for which they stand as exemplars as ‘cosy catastrophes’. This book contains three tales, two novellas plus one shorter story and could not be more different in intent from those novels.

Exiles on Asperus. Humans have colonised Mars and Venus and the three planets are at loggerheads with each other. A Martian faction has rebelled and prisoners are being taken to the asteroids. On the way they turn the tables on their captors but are forced to land on the asteroid Asperus where another ship had crashed many years before. They find winged aliens called Batrachs have captured the previous humans and forced them to work underground. The factions join together to try to free them. It is not plain sailing. To modern eyes Asperus is an impossibly lush and hospitable place for an asteroid but this novella first appeared in 1933. Expressive of that era’s attitudes the characters too readily resort to violence, marriage is an unquestioned institution and women are called girls.

In No Place Like Earth (first published in 1951) humans live only on Mars and Venus as Earth was shattered into a collection of asteroids (presumably by acts of planetary war.) At the story’s beginning, viewpoint character Bert – this surely verges on breaking Gene Wolfe’s prescription on naming characters Fred – is living on Mars but longs for the old days on Earth. He is persuaded to leave Mars, and the prospect of settling down with Zaylo, a local “girl”, by the arrival of a manned spaceship from Venus offering “a future”. On that planet he works overseeing the labour of the indigenous life-form called griffas but the promise of advancement and acceptance into the dominant layer of Venusian society fails to materialise. He comes to realise there’s no place like Earth.

The Venus Adventure (from 1932) incidentally has people usually come into the world by incubation rather than natural birth but its main tale is of the first two human journeys to Venus – many centuries apart. In that elapsed time the original arrivals have separated into two groups, Dingtons and Wots, descended from the two heads of the expedition, an idea probably prompted by Wells’s The Time Machine. The Dingtons have made friends with the Venusian Gorlaks with whom the Wots are more or less at war. The newcomers by force of circumstance take the side of the Dingtons against the “degenerated” Wots. The characters’ dialogue displays colonial attitudes. One uses the phrase, “went native,” and explains it by, “‘In the tropics we find that a white man either conquers the conditions, or is conquered by them.’”

These stories nowadays have to be read through a filter. It is in the nature of such early tales of interplanetary adventure that science has since overtaken the details of the narrative. Mars does not have sufficient oxygen (or indeed partial pressure) for humans to exist on its surface unprotected. Never mind perpetual rain and lack of visibility, Venus is totally inhospitable. An asteroid such as Asperus will have no atmosphere, full stop. Societal norms have evolved, especially in terms of sexual roles and the prevalence of cigarette smoking. Attitudes to the writing and reading of SF itself have changed profoundly. Characterisation here is rudimentary and the assumption of hostility to humans by aliens is not interrogated. These are primarily stories of action adventure, though No Place Like Earth does have a more reflective side, perhaps since it was presumably written about twenty years after the other two stories here; about the same time as The Day of the Triffids.

Pedant’s corner:- “A broad path let from the ship” (led from.) “They had run into a meteor shower and had been lucky in not being carved to bits. Happily most of their score of leaks had been small.” I suspect an encounter like this would have destroyed any spaceship and stripped it of air, however small the leaks,) the text refers to Venus as a younger planet (it isn’t of course, but the sense is metaphorical in terms of exploiting its resources,) transcendant (transcendent,) “they champed in silence” (they were eating, so, ‘they chomped in silence’,) “but it is probably that you have not found more” (probable.) “Crawshaw, himself, and Heerdahl” (it wasn’t three people, it was two – Crawshaw himself, and Heerdahl,) “from their alarm of the unearthly roar” (alarm at the unearthly roar,) “for old time’s sake” (old times’.)

Impossible Things by Connie Willis

This is a book of short stories by the person who has won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than any other writer.

Bantam, 1994, 471 p, plus vi p Introduction by Gardner Dozois Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

The Last of the Winnebagos sees a near future where a mutated parvovirus has killed off all species of dog. Only jackals are left and even those are vanishingly rare. The Humane Society monitors and polices any animal deaths. The roads are dominated by water tankers servicing the city of Phoenix and the like and travelling very fast to blur the speed cameras. Our narrator is a photojournalist who sees a dead jackal on the road while on his way to photograph the last Winnebago, and is drawn into a web of suspicion.

Even the Queen was apparently written in response to complaints that Willis never wrote about women’s issues. (Her view is of course that there ought to be no restrictions on what a writer writes about.) In the story a device called a shunt disseminates a drug called ammenerol which prevents periods. The narrator’s daughter causes a stushie in the family when she announces she wishes to join a group called the Cyclists, who see shunts and ammenerol as instruments of the male patriarchy seeking to deprive women of their natural functions. Nevertheless, the story is played for laughs.

Schwarzschild Radius combines the theory of a star’s gravitational collapse into a black hole with the memories of a Dr Rottschieben who apparently served with Schwarzschild in the Great War. It’s beautifully written and its embedded metaphor ingenious but doesn’t really hold up under retrospective scrutiny.

Ado imagines a future (very litigious, very USian) in which everybody complains about everything and so teaching is made almost impossible. Hamlet consists of only two lines.

Spice Pogrom is Willis’s tribute to Hollywood screwball comedies but also reminded me of one of James White’s Sector General stories. Aliens called Eahrohhs have come to Earth, or, rather, to a space station called Sony which has an idiosyncratic housing policy. One of them, Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh, has promised to deliver NASA a space program (sic) and narrator Chris’s Nasa employed fiancé has billeted him/it on her and told her to allow it/him whatever it wants. There is plenty of the incidental happenings the screwball comedy enshrines to complicate the story-line. This one turns on whether Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh actually understands the English words they are all using but the story’s pay-off doesn’t really reward the time investment required by the reader.

Winter’s Tale riffs on the theory that since Shakespeare was low-born he could not have written all those magnificent plays and poems. Told as by Anne Hathaway it plays with that notion (which Willis’s foreword insists is surely incorrect,) and with the possibility that Christopher Marlowe’s murder in a Deptford Inn was faked while also providing a reason for Shakespeare’s famous bequest to Anne.

In Chance a woman has moved back to the town where she attended college (where everything is the same but everything is different) because her husband, who is interested only in career advancement, has a new job there. She starts to see the students as people she knew back in her youth and wonders on the chance happenings that change lives for the better – or worse.

In the Late Cretaceous is a satire on neologisms and academia, with the institution where it’s set also riddled with an over-officious set of traffic wardens, ticketing anything that doesn’t move. The professor of palæontology is a metaphorical dinosaur, still using chalk on blackboard. Willis’s preface to this laments what she calls political correctness, as being inimical, or at least antithetic, to comedy and moans about “every anti- (Choose one: smoking, animal research, logging, abortion, Columbus.)” Well she did include anti-abortionists, so she’s not a complete lost cause.

Time Out centres round a project to produce a “temporal oscillator” with which to manipulate “hodiechrons” (quantum units of time which Willis has presumably named from the Latin for today and the Greek for time.) An anatomy of both the quotidian routines of marriage and parenthood – the domestic detail is thoroughly true to life – the vicissitudes of not well resourced research and nostalgia for youth it suggests a mechanism for the origins of déjà vu. The whole is intricately plotted but leans a bit too heavily on light-heartedness.

Jack returns to the subject of the London Blitz which Willis explored in her short story Fire Watch and novels To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear. As in those (and The Doomsday Book) it is marred for a British reader by a failure to get details of life and usages in the UK correct. The story concerns a new member of an ARP unit who shows an uncanny knack for detecting bodies buried by rubble. He also disappears sharply to his day job. The narrator develops suspicions.

At the Rialto’s title has a different meaning to Sons of the Rock of my generation compared to those who hail from elsewhere. It was the name of the local cinema. The Rialto here is a hotel in Hollywod hosting (or not) a meeting of quantum physicists. The plot revolves around a series of uncertainties.

Pedant’s corner:- flack (x3, flak,) “the Queen of England” (was of course not crowned as such but as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and is of course Queen of many other places besides,) gladiolas (gladioli,) Russian Front (in the Great War it was called the Eastern Front,) LaGrangian points” (Lagrange points,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘The seasons’ just started’” (season’s.) “‘Five years and no sex have made desperate’” (have made me desperate’,) “I don’t’” (I don’t,) a missing full stop, “setting her cap for you” (setting her cap at you,) liquor (the British usage is booze, or drink,) a character is said by another to be from Yorkshire but himself says he’s from Newcastle (all British people know Newcastle [either of them] isn’t in Yorkshire,) ME 109s (it’s Me 109s – and the text implies that type of plane was a bomber. It was a fighter,) bannister (banister,) oleo (the word used in the UK for this type of spreadable butter substitute is margarine,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, automobile jack (‘car jack’, or just ‘jack’,) row houses (terraced houses,) the Duchess of York (by this time [1941] the said woman was the Queen and was only ever referred to as ‘the Queen’,) a medal is said to have been awarded at a military HQ (investitures are [and were even during the war] held at Royal Palaces,) a recipient’s father is said to have pinned the medal on his son himself (medals are conferred by a member of the Royal family or perhaps, in extreme cases, by a representative such as a Lord Lieutenant,) the Duchess of York kissed the award recipient on both cheeks (absolutely not,) “and said he was the pride of England” (the ‘pride of Britain’ possibly, ‘England’ I very much doubt. The Queen [formerly Duchess of York] was Scottish,) an inland revenue collector (a taxman,) “had gotten married” (had got married,) the award recipient had shot down fifteen German planes so must have been in Fighter Command but is later said to be flying nightly bombing missions over Germany – a Bomber Command task.) “‘meaning’ or possible ‘information’” (or possibly.)

Best Reading of 2020

I don’t usually do this till after Christmas even though others seem to do it well before. However, my reading for the rest of the year is planned out and I don’t think I’ll be adding to this list. 14 this year; 9 written by men, 5 by women, 1 non-fiction, 3 in translation, 7 Scottish, no SF or Fantasy.

Listed in order of reading. The links are to my reviews.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan
The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
The Pure Land by Alan Spence
The Apple (Crimson Petal Stories) by Michel Faber
Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness
The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

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.

Starsilk by Sydney J van Scyoc

Penguin, 1986, 251 p.

 Starsilk  cover

Reyna is a barohna’s daughter all set to make the trip into the hills to face the challenge which will make her into a barohna herself or die in the attempt. Her parents are Khira and Iahn from Bluesong who have fallen out over this tradition, with Iahn returning to the plains where Khira met him. On the day of the annual dance (when it seems the inhabitants of Brakrath choose mates) Reyna meets a hunter, Juaren, one of the last of his kind. That evening though it is her mother who picks out Juaren to dance and take to her bed. Some weeks later Khira tells Reyna she will not be the next barohna, her unborn sister will, and forbids her to take go on her challenge. The Arnimi, off-planet humans reliant on instruments to a very un-Brakrathi extent and who have been studying the people of Brakrath for many years, have discovered which part of the brain allows a palace daughter to become a barohna and Reyna has not inherited it. That her father is himself an off-planet Rauthimage is almost certainly a factor in this and Khira has therefore been forced to mate with a Brakrathi to fulfil her purpose of providing a daughter to replace her as barohna.

The communication from Birnam Rauth (of whom Iahn is a clone) via the bluesilk from the previous book in the sequence provides a new purpose for Reyna’s life though, as the Arnimi propose she travels to the likely planet where he is held captive to find and, if possible, rescue him. Her companions will be Verra, an Arnimi, and Juaren, whose dynastic purpose having been fulfilled is something of a spare at the palace.

Reyna’s tale is interspersed with details of the lives of some sithi, indigenous bear-like creatures of Birnam Rauth’s prison planet; in especial, Tsuuka, mother of several sithi one of whom, Dariim, is so enthralled by a red starsilk that he disobeys her strictures about penetrating deep into the nearby forest and falls into danger. There creatures called spinners produce the starsilks which sing to the sithi and also protect the eldest tree within which Rauth is trapped.

Through the third person text, Reyna keeps asking herself questions, as does Tsuuka. As a means of information provision (I hesitate to call it dumping) and illustration of Reyna’s lack of knowledge of the sithi’s planet, this is fine but there was perhaps too much of it.

As if to prove that Science Fiction is rarely about the future the Arnimi recording medium of choice in this book is tape. In Starsilk’s year of publication, 1984, of course, this would have seemed unremarkable and to have invented another a seemingly unnecessary extrapolation. How much has changed in the past 36 years.

The journey to find out where and how starsilks were produced and Birnam Rauth sequestered is where the trilogy has been headed all along. Though it takes us off Brakrath with its unusual culture and doesn’t really illuminate those of the Arnimi and the inimical Benderzic, it is not a disappointment. This is good, solid SF – even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the genre.

Pedant’s corner:- “picking up his work without word” (without a word,) “to show them that none of those supositions were true” (that none … was true,) “it had flirted away” (flitted makes more sense,) “a deep sound accompanying its ascent” (this was of a ship – or shuttle – coming down from orbit; descent, then,) “‘Danior described the night sky in just enough detail that our ship’s system was able to calculate the location of the forested atea he described’” (a knowledge of its night sky would be enough to locate a planet’s position, but not a specific area on its surface,) “‘to see if its drinkable’” (it’s,) “more briskly then before” (than before,) abosrbed (absorbed,) “‘maybe its nocturnal’” (it’s,) Komas’ (Komas’s,) thougts (thoughts.) “She saw what she hadn’t dare believe” (dared.)

Brain Plague by Joan Slonczewski

Tor, 2000, 382 p.

 Brain Plague  cover

Since the events of The Children Star – the third in Slonczewski’s tales of The Fold – the people of Valedon have come to terms with the microzoöids found on the planet Prokaryon spreading through their population. With some hosts the tiny creatures are under control (usually by means of restricting access to the arsenic necessary for their survival but also via rewards of the chemical azetidine,) in others their proliferation runs rampant resulting in a disease (the Brain Plague of the title,) whose victims become zombie-like. A rogue human element known as slavers promotes fear in the population by abducting citizens to their concealed planet.

The book’s protagonist is Chrys (Chrysoberyl,) an artist who can see infrared. Initially she is struggling to pay her rent and keep painting and when she is introduced to her colony of microbes, which reveal themselves and communicate with their host by flashing colours in the host’s eyes, some of her former friends and associates withdraw from her. Since the hosts have power of life and death over them the microscopic creatures refer to their hosts as gods. They also have only a limited understanding of their hosts’ lifestyles.

Chrys’s colony, known as Eleutheria and to whose leaders she gives names corresponding to the colours with which they “speak” to her, inspires her work and her paintings become collectable. Her microbes are also mathematicians and allow her to gain a contract to refurbish a failing piece of architecture known as the Comb, whose ever expanding structure has become unstable. The colony members’ lifespans are short and they have their internal politics for Chrys to contend with.

There is plenty of Valedon politicking to occupy Chrys outside all this and some intrigue involving the slavers whose secret planet she is the first to be abducted to and return to tell the tale.

Brain Plague is 392 pages of fairly small font size print and continues Slonczewski’s trait of incorporating biological and chemical ideas into her SF. It is rewarding enough reading and deals with a common SF concern (alien invasion of the body) with an unusual slant.

Pedant’s corner:- shrunk (shrank,) “the stress must have wreaked its program” (wrecked, I think, [and I spell it ‘programme’,]) “the shear newness” (sheer,) “laying low” (lying low,) a missing quote mark at the end pof a piece of direct speech. “The sphere cut in, it’s the plane of section…” (The sphere cut in, it’s plane of section.) “She shined her light inside” (shone.) “‘Such an distinctive cut’” (Such a distinctive cut,’) “Chrys grasp his back” (grasped.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (ix)

Again, for this week’s contribution to Judith‘s meme now hosted by Katrina, it’s a crop of a previous photo (hence the blurriness.)

This is the shelf which contains books by my third favourite SF writer (after Ursula Le Guin and Roebert Silverberg,) Roger Zelazny.

ZelaznySF Books

So here you will find Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, Isle of the Dead – starring the unforgettable Shimbo of Darktree, Shrugger of Thunders – and Doorways in the Sand. (The Dream Master, expanded from He Who Shapes, and This Immortal, ditto from …. And Call Me Conrad, must be just out of shot.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (viii)

This week contribution to Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times started by Judith and taken up by Katrina.

This shelf is full of SF books by Robert Silverberg.

He is my second favourite SF writer. (Ursula le Guin is my favourite but due to the way my books are shelved hers are not to the fore.)

The photo is a crop of the one I featured on 16/8/20. As a result it’s a bit blurry.

Science Fiction Books, Robert Silverberg

There’s stuff here from Silverberg’s glory days; Thorns, Nightwings, The Man in the Maze – the one that persuaded me to persevere with SF when I was on the point of stopping reading in the genre – Tower of Glass, A Time of Changes – “My Name is Kinnall Darrival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Obscene! Obscene!” – Dying Inside. Then there’s the much later Kingdoms of the Wall (see my take on its first paragraph here.)

Looking at the photo I see the books aren’t quite shelved im my usual order system, probably due to them getting mixed up a bit in the house move – six and a half years ago now. Time flies.

A Socialist Utopia?

The keener eyed among you will have seen from my side bar that I have just finished reading Chinese SF author Cixin Liu’s collection entitled Hold up the Sky.

In it there were two separate references to characters requiring medical procedures that were too expensive for them to afford.

I also heard on the TV news recently that those receiving a test dose of a vaccine newly produced in China against the Covid-19 causing coronavirus also needed to pay the equivalent of £45 pounds for the privilege.

China is reviled in certain quarters as being a Communist country.

I must say that on the evidence above China must be far from being even a socialist utopia, the minimum requirement for which I would have considered to be medical treatment free at the point of use.

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