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Proxima by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz, 2013, 485 p.

Proxima cover

Proxima is set in the mid-twenty second century after the Heroic Generation has been demonised in retrospect. Yuri Eden was cryogenically stored by his parents till better times arrived. He wakes up on the Ad Astra, a starship bound for Proxima Centauri, one of many caught up in a sweep (press-ganged) to provide colonists for an Earth-like planet tide-locked to that system’s third sun.

Meanwhile back in the solar system — where, on Mercury, mysterious artefacts known as kernels have been discovered and are proving a revolutionary power source — Stephanie Penelope Kalinski is forging her career as a physicist.

Life on Proxima c, dubbed Per Ardua by the colonists, is harsh and brutal. Soon, out of his group of thirteen colonists, only Yuri and Mardina Jones, a ship’s officer of Australian aboriginal lineage, delegated/dragooned/abandoned by her commander to fill a gap in the manifest as the best genetically diverse replacement available, are left, along with an AI robot known as a ColU. Together they watch the local life forms – stick-like creatures they call builders – while trying to scratch a living from the surface. Despite mutual misgivings they have a daughter, whom they name Beth. Despite strict orders to remain where they were set down they have to migrate as their water source – a lake – is moved by the builders. Eventually, meeting other groups along the way they gravitate towards the point on the Per Ardua’s surface immediately below the sun.

On Mercury a further apparently alien device is discovered under a hatch in the bedrock. When it’s opened Stephanie finds a twin, Penelope Dianne, previously unknown to her, and her name has become Stephanie Karen, but everyone else thinks this is how it has been all along. The hatch has altered reality, created ragged edges like Steph’s memories or her mother’s headstone where Steph’s original name remains inscribed. The hatch sequences were somewhat reminiscent of Arthur C Clarke’s The Sentinel (which provided the germ for 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The link between the two narratives is then established.

This is all good, solid Science-Fictional stuff but the characters are not very engaging, limited in scope, mostly at the mercy of the plot, present only to push the story along.

Pedant’s corner:- The edition I read was a proof copy so some of these may have been corrected in the final printing. “People moving around him wearing in green shirts and hygiene caps and masks” (wearing in?) like cvNissan huts (Nissen huts – unless Baxter is essaying a pun.) “A women” (woman,) “‘And we are going -’ He pointed straight up … There.’” (that’s a continued sentence the “he” should not be capitalised,) “she understood that that the” (only one “that”,) “from Earth and moon” (traditionally Earth’s [principal] satellite is afforded proper noun status, Moon.) “The throng gathering …. were” (the throng was,) “not as fast as it would in Earth” (on Earth.) “He’d known here on Mars,) He’d known her on Mars,) “a position were the cuffs” (where the cuffs,) focussed (x2, focused,) “‘..what time it be when’” (time will it be when .) “In her dreams she had been the one seprated from the rest, in her dreams.” (repetition of “in her dreams” is unnecessary.) “The ColU continued to stress was that the” (no “was” needed.) “‘Waiting for the prize, where you?’” (were you,) “‘its relationship, of any,’” (if any,) a paragraph start doubly indented, fit (fitted,) “had been the only way route by which she” (either way or route, not both,) “‘they’ve been are about us’” (either ‘they’ve been’ or ‘they are’, not ‘they’ve been are’,) “the ancient impact created shattered the bedrock” (“created” is redundant,) “the further Proxima rise in the sky” (rose,) put-puts (putt-putts,) “a party of four of them … made their way” (a party made its way.) “On the wall opposite other was some kind of” ) on the wall opposite was some kind of,) antennas (antennae.) “There hadn’t been much opportunities” (‘There hadn’t been much opportunity’, or, ‘There hadn’t been many opportunities’.) None of their families were here” (None of their families was here,) Secretary Generals (Secretaries General,) grills (grilles,) “that the languages of widely scattered groups was so consistent” (either ‘language’, or, ‘were so consistent’,) “of the species and their culture” (its culture,) Lu (elsewhere Liu.) “A couple of crew members were” (a couple was,) “‘will be like atomised when we lift’” (no need for the ‘like’,) “there was no point holding their breath” (breaths.)

Blog Problems Again

I’ve been unable to publish my latest book review post – on Proxima by Stephen Baxter. It wouldn’t schedule nor publish directly, all I got was an error mesage when I tried.

The blog wouldn’t accept the whole thing but I have managed to save an incomplete draft by saving it a paragraph, or less, at a time. But there’s still about half a sentence it just won’t accept. I haven’t tried to schedule it or post it direct though, as previously it has thrown me out contact with the server whenever I did so. My blog administrator suggested all sorts of things like clearing my cookies and cache – thank you, Duncan – but it wasn’t having anything to do with saving the whole post. I’m hoping the problem will somehow go away.

I want to see what happens with this one before attempting anything else.

Fingers crossed.

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

A sequel to The War of the Worlds.

Gollancz, 2017, 464 p.

 The Massacre of Mankind cover

This sequel to H G Wells’s War of the Worlds is authorised by the H G Wells estate and in it, of course, the Martians return to Earth. Since in our timeline they did not ever come in the first place that makes this book an altered history. To make it correspond with the original Baxter has to employ early twentieth century cosmology and speculation as part of his story, in particular the supposedly superpowerful civilisation inhabiting Jupiter’s cloud banks.

Our narrator is Julie Elphinstone, sister-in-law of the narrator of the earlier book. Elphinstone is a journalist (divorced from her husband) and at the start of the novel is working in New York. Britain is under an authoritarian regime, astronomy is banned to the general public – apparently worldwide – but of course everyone expects the Martians to invade again at the next opposition. Elphinstone is invited back to England to hear from her brother-in-law of their imminent arrival.

This time they come in greater force, have adapted their tactics and gained immunity from the microbes that did for them before. Britain’s armed forces, though better prepared, still fight the last war and the Martians swiftly gain a foothold and press their advantage. Two years later landings take place all around the world, allowing Baxter to set more scenes in the US, but much of the book is taken up with how people in England adjust to life under the gaze of the Martians and efforts to strike back against them. Elphinstone becomes an unwitting agent of the government in its attempts to defeat the Martians in the same old way but is instrumental in invoking the power of the Jovians to rebuff the Martians – or at least to make them retreat to the Arctic.

All the familiar Wellsian touches recur, the heat-ray, the red weed, the Martians’ desire for the blood of their conquered foes. (I know this adds to the horror – and Baxter adds in some gruesome scenes to illustrate it – but it is extremely unlikely that human blood rather than flesh could be a prime food source. I find excessive harping on the efficacy of blood in magic rituals and the like, as here, risible.) Baxter makes more of the Cythrereans the Martians have brought from Venus than I remember Wells doing. A strange inconsistency was that despite the Martians targeting motorised transport it is still used later under their eyes.

Baxter’s use of a female narrator is, of course, a reflection of our times rather than Wells’s. In this regard the inclusion of the strongish female character Verity Bliss (who might once have been introduced solely as a love interest for Elphinstone’s former husband Frank Jenkins but actually has much more agency than that) is another nod to the twenty-first century. Baxter also references things about which Wells would have been ignorant, like the Schlieffen War – in the book still raging between the Empires of Germany and Russia – Craiglockhart Hospital, Porton Down, Stapledon, and Ataturk as an Ottoman representative. He has a certain RFC Lieutenant, William Leefe Robinson kill a Martian in an air attack on one of their machines and mentions Wells as the Year Million Man.

But I’m struggling to see the point. Did we need a sequel to War of the Worlds? Does it really tell us anything about ourselves now? Or is it about present day fears? As an illustration of the ills that plague us in Britain – and the Western world in general – I would have thought a story about unfeeling monied zombies bleeding us dry would be much more apposite.

I don’t blame Baxter for taking the project on; it’s an open goal after all and he does accomplish it rather well. And I suppose it’s entertaining enough.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an ARC (proof) so some of these may have been corrected in the final publication. Practise (as a noun, so practice,) “‘I am aware have called some of you’” (I am aware I have called some of you.) “Even the privileged few like myself who had advance warning of the new invasion, this coldly stated news, the reality officially confirmed, came as a dreadful shock.” (Even to the privileged few,) “meant for a comparative trickle commuting clerks,” (of commuting clerks.) “Frank already had an intuition that the percentage of survivors would be small, that the wounded they encountered from the periphery of the infall,” (that the wounded they encountered came from the periphery of the infall,) “Frank said as determinedly as we could” (as he could.) “‘But he’s had no time for his precious fishing that since he was called up for the reserves’” (no “that” required,) “as he was.,” (has an extraneous comma,) “my sister-in-had” (my sister-in-law had,) “the thousand-strong crew .” (should have no space between crew and the full stop,) scuttlebutt (a USian term, so an unlikely usage on a British warship in the 1920s,) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s, which appears four lines later!) “the contents of the their kit-bags” (of their kit-bags,) “mirroring my own side by riddled with detail,” (mirroring my own side in being riddled with detail,) Ted Land (elsewhere always Ted Lane,) “‘That looks it came off a sewer.’” (That looks as if – or, That looks like – it came off a sewer’) “the next I remember I was lying in on green grass” (no “in”,) “sat on a low twig” (seated or sitting, but since it was a yellowhammer perhaps perched,) “‘I can always use an enthusiastic NCO’” (the British usage is “I could always do with an enthusiastic NCO”,) “supplies of antibiotics” (in the 1920s?) fit (fitted,) “we newcomers were been invited” (were invited; or, had been invited,) priel (prial,) an extraneous open quote mark, Chapter 23’s number and title were not in the larger font size of all the others, ”he based had his calculations” (he had based his calculations.) “Even now it’s hard to recall now” (has an extraneous now,) “”adjusting their positions, And Cherie saw them” (a full stop after positions or no capital A at and,) “from the gitgo” (isn’t it getgo?) “where the fires where” (where the fires were,) “had so nearly had befallen” (has one had too many.) “Straight after the Second War he plunged straight into the Basra conferences” (two straights in eight words.) “‘And he’s as careless of his health as ever he is,’” (as ever he was,) the earth (the Earth, many instances.)

Top Ten Space Operas

Another list.

According to Wikipedia “Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.”

Partly as a comment on the sub-genre and also as an attempt to subvert it I provided my own novel A Son of the Rock with the tagline “A Space Libretto” mainly because – while it roamed the spaceways and deployed technology – advanced abilities and weapons were largely, if not completely, absent.

As to Space Opera itself, Gareth Powell has posted a list of what he considers a Top Ten of Space Operas on his website. It leans heavily towards relatively recent works.

As you can see I’ve read all but three of them.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Space by Stephen Baxter
Excession by Iain M. Banks

Parallax View by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown

Illustrations by Dominic E Harman. Sarob Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2000, 175 p

Parallax View cover

This is a collection of short stories, one each written by the individual authors, the remaining six in collaboration. Most of them I have read before on their first appearance.

In his introduction Stephen Baxter says “Science Fiction is the literature of our age….. one way of dealing with [future] shock… the only modern literature which deals seriously with the universe… as a protagonist,” but “the best Science Fiction is, was and always will be about the impact of the universe on the human soul.” All the stories herein illustrate that last point admirably.

Appassionata by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
In a time of little musical innovation a famous but lonely young pianist is contracted to help a composer improve his work. Unknown to her the composer’s personality has been imprinted with a simulation of Beethoven’s.

Sugar and Spice by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
A very human tale of loss, revenge and betrayal via the connection between two works of art related to each other through the nursery rhyme suggested by the story’s title.

A Prayer for the Dead by Eric Brown
This is possibly the best of Brown’s stories set on Tartarus, a tale of young love, tragedy and loss, and an enigmatic alien.

The Flight of the Oh Carollian by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
Julius Frayn is an hereditary fluxmaster capable of guiding ships along the Songlines through time and space generated by the callers of Cynthera. His son Sylvian has not inherited the trait. This one has “had rode” for “had ridden.”

Jurassic and the Great Tree by Keith Brooke
Jurassic is a disposable body inhabited by three personalities hired by an entrepreneur to investigate the reclusive humans called Burul’Chasi whose land he wishes to exploit. The Great Tree is the huge interlocking organism which dominates the Burul’Chasi’s territory. Contains the phrase, “The only Terran life…. are….”

Mind’s Eye by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
In a setting reminiscent of Brown’s Bengal Station but apparently not offshore, a girl from the lower levels comes up to Sundeck where she is befriended by a telepath on a mission.

Under Antares by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
Mackendrick is a former Planetary Overseer on Shannon’s Break, second planet of Antares. Six and a half years after his wife’s death as result of an entanglement with the local aliens, the Shandikar, he is called in as blood-tied-speaker when his son trespasses on one of the Shandikar’s holy sites. Dealing with both enigmatic aliens and religious practices, this story bears Brown’s hallmarks.

The Denebian Cycle by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
An exploration group on Deneb 5 is forced to trek north when their lander and food are destroyed in a forest fire caused by a lightning storm. The local vegetation is all but inedible. Eventually they come upon a stash of food left by the semi-sentient natives and then the natives themselves. Those familiar with John Wyndham’s Survival will not be surprised by the ending. Here there were three instances of the seconds/minutes later formulation, a persona non gratis, (which should be grata,) lay instead of laid as a perfect tense, and the authors felt it necessary to qualify “flayed” with the words “- skinned alive.”

Overall, though, a very good, very readable collection.

Conqueror by Stephen Baxter

Time’s Tapestry Book Two. Gollancz, 2007, 320p.

 Conqueror cover

This is the second in Baxter’s series featuring a Weaver of Time, the first of which I reviewed here. The prophecy which guides the characters’ lives this time – called the Menologium of Isolde and whose utterance came at the end of Book One of Time’s Tapestry – is linked to the appearances of Halley’s Comet.

Again the book is in four sections, here set respectively at the time of the expulsion from England of the remnants of the Romanised Britons by the Angles and Saxons, the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, Alfred the Great’s stemming of the Danish tide and the Norman Conquest. Unlike the earlier book there is also a prologue and epilogue. Had the book’s title and cover not already been a clue the prologue would in any case have detracted from the impact of the revelation of the date 1066 at the end of section three as the time of the last crucial happening.

An interesting inclusion in the Alfred section is the character of Ibn Zuhr, a Muslim from Al-Andalus, whose knowledge of medicine, other sciences and arithmetic far outstrips that of the locals – as it would have done.

The history of the “Dark Ages” is fascinating but once more too much has to be conveyed in expository lumps. Baxter’s evocation of these times is well done, though, and his battle scenes are viscerally rendered. There is still a hint of too much modern knowledge and attitudes on the part of some of the characters however.

Events remain the same as in our timeline but the monk Sihtric, both in the prologue and epilogue, states he believes he is living in the wrong history as his reading of the prophecy has been unfulfilled.

After Emperor, I swithered about whether to continue with Time’s Tapestry. Conqueror has persuaded me to persevere. The harping of various characters on the word Aryan and its appearnce in the Menologium of Isolde is a trifle ominous, though.

Friday On My Mind 77: The Weaver's Answer

Stephen Baxter’s Emperor, which I have just finished reading, has as its motive force a Weaver of Time’s tapestry. Inevitably it brought to mind this song.

Family: The Weaver’s Answer

Family’s songs didn’t usually have straightforward structures and so they stray into Prog Rock territory.

Engineering Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan. (Solaris, 2010.)

Reviewed for Interzone issue 233, Mar-Apr 2011.

Engineering Infinity cover

According to Strahan’s introduction this anthology is a collection of stories roughly categorisable as hard SF, adding the disclaimer that the term is now a slippery concept hence the stories are inevitably broader in scope than might once have been implied. Whatever his claim that they all invoke the sense of wonder, most exhibit a tendency to be didactic in their narrative styles.

The tone is set early with “Malak” by Peter Watts, the tale of an unmanned airborne war drone that learns from its experiences.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Watching the Music Dance” deals with the effect of enhanced abilities for children on their dependency and psychological development.

The ghosts of the Soviet space programme are being made real in “Laika’s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder, mainly set in the former cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Stephen Baxter’s “The Invasion of Venus” is peculiar in that everything that happens, including the disappearance of the planet Neptune, occurs off stage. Apt, in that humans, and Earth, are of no consequence to the eponymous invaders.

Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Server and the Dragon” has an intergalactic AI on some inscrutable purpose creating a baby universe as its plaything before being suborned and consumed by a message packet it receives. Extremely dry in the telling, a knowledge of quantum physics and cosmology might be advantageous here.

Charles Stross’s “Bit Rot” is a generation starship type story where the ship is “manned” by cyborgs who are suffering the deleterious aftermath of a gamma and cosmic ray burst. Stross references Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” but overall the story is more reminiscent of John Wyndham’s “Survival.”

In “Creatures with Wings” by Kathleen Ann Goonan the remnants of humanity eke out their lives in what could almost be a zoo which the protagonist leaves to achieve enlightenment. Though Goonan tries to finesse it the story has too large a disjunction when these survivors are taken from Earth by the creatures of wings of the title.

“Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone” by Damien Broderick & Barbara Lamar is the story from which the collection’s title may have sprung. A man sees himself on a film shot in 1931. The story moves on swiftly to become a concoction of quantum entanglement, self-interference of particles, Bayesian probability, spatial displacements and time travel.

Robert Reed’s “Mantis” concerns the realness (or otherwise) of our experiences and how to tell whether or not we live in stories. The SF gloss involves two way CCTV type screens called infinity windows.

The title of John C Wright’s “Judgement Eve” evokes Edgar Pangborn but unfortunately Wright is no Pangborn. The story, involving angels and Last Judgement, aspires to the condition of myth or Biblicality. As a result the “characters” become cyphers, the prose overblown, the dialogue bombastic and syntactically archaic.

In “A Soldier of the City” by David Moles the eponymous soldier volunteers for the revenge attack on the habitat of the terrorists who attacked his city and killed the goddess whom he loved.

The somewhat loopy protagonist of “Mercies” by Gregory Benford, made rich by inventing a logic for constructing unbreakable codes, invests in and then uses quantum flux technology to “jogg” to nearby timelines in order to execute serial killers before they set out on their sprees; thus becoming himself the object of the same fascination.

In Gwyneth Jones’s ”The Ki-Anna” a man travels to a distant planet to discover the circumstances surrounding his sister’s death and encounters the obligatory strange and disturbing ritual practices.

John Barnes’s “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” features a humaniform who has swum Europa’s oceans and stridden the beds of Titan’s methane seas unravelling the unforeseen consequences of humans trying to offset climate deterioration by seeding Earth’s Southern Ocean with iron from meteorites.

Hard SF? Sense of wonder? In an uneven collection a few stories fail to hit these marks. Enough do, though.

Postscripts: The A to Z of Fantastic Fiction Special. BSFA Members Sampler Edition

PS Publishing, 2010, 112p.

This was the collection I mentioned had been in a BSFA mailing about 18 months ago – a taster from Postscripts.
I’ve only just got round to reading it. The authors include Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell and Gene Wolfe.

Most of the stories are not SF but are fantasy or horror; the best of which is Lisa Tuttle’s Closet Dreams where a young girl dreams of her incarceration by a man she calls the monster.

Of the out and out SF Eagle Song by Stephen Baxter concerns messages from Altair which recur at time intervals that decrease in powers of three from 7510 BC to 2210 AD. While clearly not our own history it parallels that closely, so the phrase “hippy chick” and the use of helicopter gunships in Vietnam supposedly in 1967 jarred a little. Footvote by Peter Hamilton relates the consequences of a private venture opening a wormhole to another planet and Gene Wolfe’s Comber is set on a world where cities drift on tectonic plates.

The writing throughout all the stories cannot be faulted but the fantasy and horror didn’t do too much for me.

BSFA Mailing

The latest BSFA mailing dropped onto my doormat today.

As well as the usual review magazine, Vector, which (unusually, since I’m normally slow at catching up with the latest thing) contains reviews of three books I’ve already read – Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief which I reviewed for Interzone, Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House – the envelope also spilled forth the A4 magazine of those short stories on the ballot for the BSFA Awards for 2010 and an A5 booklet published as a memorial to Robert Holdstock.

Apart from the book reviews this edition of Vector is a special Stephen Baxter issue.

Much of my reading for March is now more or less scheduled. As well as the short stories mentioned above, I have one more of the five novels shortlisted in the BSFA Award novel category in my to be read pile. I’ve just finished Paolo Bagicalupi’s The Windup Girl – review to come. For my thoughts on Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House see previous posts. Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn awaits. Only Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City will escape my attention.

In addition Interzone has sent me Dominic Green’s Smallworld to review by the end of March. Busy, busy.

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