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The Smoke by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2018, 300 p

 The Smoke cover

We start on a space vehicle on which the brother of protagonist Stuart Lanyon is about to take off from Woomera – powered by successive explosions of atom bombs underneath it blasting it into space. This is something of a distraction however, though a signifier of an altered history where Yellowstone erupted in 1874, immolating North America, and a Great War was ended in 1916 after the atomic bombing of Berlin.

The main meat of the story is the ramifications of the discovery of the Gurwitsch ray – biophotonic weak ultraviolet pulses passing from cell to cell in living things, each creature with its own characteristic emissions, orchestrating development, leading to the ability of humanity to sculpt organic forms at will. Hence we are in the age of speciation of mankind. The dead of the Great War battlefields were subjected to Gurwitsch’s ray, producing strange organisms known as chickies which are able to exert sexual allure among other abilities, a technocratic intellectually superior elite called the Bund has arisen in Eastern Europe and dominates world affairs.

The weird aspects of all this are underlined by Ings’s story-telling, part of the novel being narrated in the second person, though the down to Earth sections are more traditional first person and some interludes are in third. Though the background details seem to sit oddly with one another – a thoroughly industrial Yorkshire can feel more like the 1930s, a television series more signifies the early 1960s, parts of London are dominated by ultra-modern architecture – Ings manages to hold them together. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia with the merest hint of Ballard thrown in for extra alienation.

At the novel’s heart is the love story between Stuart and Bund citizen Fel, aka Felicine Chernoy, daughter of Georgy, inventor of the Chernoy Process which utilises Gurwitsch’s ray to enable rebirth. Stuart’s mother, dying of cancer, undergoes this treatment and is reconstituted as an infant. A curious phenomenon to behold, this, a child with an adult’s memories, behaving in unchild-like ways – and subject to unthinking prejudice. Stuart and Fel’s different backgrounds lend their affair the attributes of all star-crossed lover stories.

The characters are well drawn but despite their supposedly greater intellects the two members of the Bund shown here – Fel and her father – do not seem significantly different from humans as we know them. Stuart does though in his narration refer to his father as Bob and mother as Betty, which is a touch unusual.

Ings’s vision here is a particular one, at once curiously fantastic and yet also recognisable, a flight of fancy (several flights if you like) but utterly grounded.in human emotions. The Smoke goes to show that Science Fiction continues to produce work of which those detractors who dismiss it without ever sampling it assume it to be incapable.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Bund” is treated as plural throughout, but ought to be singular, “And since no one wants to meet each other’s eye, it makes logical sense that the entire audience repair en masse to the bar” (others’ I think, plus make that no-one, and, the entire audience repairs,) Lutyens’ (Lutyens’s,) potshard (potsherd, please,) Picasso is referred to as a Parisian artist (he was Spanish, but this is an altered history,) “the family were meant to cheer Jim off to Woomera” (the family was meant to,) “it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to stove this thing’s head in” (the verb is to stave in, stove is the past tense form.) “The odds against there being no set now increases” (the odds …. increase.) “‘According your friend’” (According to your friend,) “till it run out of” (runs out,) a parenthetical sentence not started with a capital letter as it ought to have been, “for goodness’ sake” (this ought to be written “goodness’s” even if it’s pronounced “goodness”.)

Wolves by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2014, 295 p.

This is the first in my attempt to catch up with this year’s BSFA Awards nominations for best novel. I’ve now read half of them. With two more at hand I’m on track for 6 out of the 8.

 Wolves cover

Wolves is a strange beast, part SF, part mystery, part love story, but never really completely any one of them. Conrad is working in advertising when school friend Michel’s phone call to him to come to meet his girlfriend and view their pet project – building a boat to see them safe through what they divine as the impending apocalypse – throws him into their orbit. How this is all linked to Conrad’s past, his mother’s death and dysfunctional relationship with his father, Ben, is worked out in stages and flashbacks to Conrad’s teenage years. Ben was involved in devising a system of artificial sight for blinded soldiers. Later, Conrad’s company develops augmented reality technology – “with tricks of mathematics and optics, we augment reality, smothering surfaces in warm, spicy notes of brand belonging” – eventually to the point where it can overlay the real world, without its experiencer even carrying/wearing a processing device. As Conrad tells us later, in another context, “the mind cannot retain vanished geographies, and we find ourselves adapting to this new terrain.”

In perhaps the crucial sentences in the book Ralf, the ideas man behind the AR technology, says to his financial backer when queried about what he calls the model, the brain’s importance in perception, “Your model, my model, of what the world is like. We only have models, Mr Vaux. From the little data granted us, we extrapolate a model of the world. This, we call ‘reality’.”

I’m very dubious about Conrad’s contentions that, “When we fall in love with someone, we fall in love first with their world,” and, “Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy,” but less so with, “Confusing the two loves is easier still.” He also says, “Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy.”

Despite the trappings – and the nomination – the book doesn’t really feel at all like SF. The novel’s sensibility throughout is mainstream. Augmented Reality isn’t truly embedded in the story and reads more like an add-on. The book could actually be stripped of its futuristic components and the plot still work as well. The text also mentions Science Fiction, generally thought to be unwise in a work within the genre. However, one thing that can be taken from Wolves is that whatever happens, human relationships will still be as muddled and messy as ever.

Pedant’s corner:- clitoriclectomy (clitoridectomy or clitorectomy,) pretentions (pretensions – though the latter spelling is used later,) queuing (queueing?) populous (populace,) “I rack my head for anecdotes,” (wrack?) stoved in (staved in surely?)
Plus points, though, for “lie of the land.”

BSFA Awards (for 2014)

This year’s nominees for the BSFA Awards have been announced.

As far as the fiction is concerned we have the unusually high total of eight novels on the ballot form, of which I have read three*. (Edited to add: so far.)

The Race* by Nina Allan (NewCon Press)
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Wolves by Simon Ings (Gollancz)
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August* by Claire North (Orbit)
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)
The Moon King* by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)

The short fiction has only three contenders – all of whom are women it seems; for the second year in a row. I have read none of them as yet (but hope the BSFA will produce the usual booklet.) Though it’s totally irrelevant I was on a panel at last year’s Eastercon with Ruth Booth.

The Honey Trap by Ruth EJ Booth (La Femme, Newcon Press)
The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade (The Book Smugglers)
Scale Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion Press)

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