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The Colour of Television

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

What do you make of the above sentence?*

Pyrotechnic? Emblematic? Iconic? Redolent of a new sensibility? A clarion call for the new digital age?

Or did it perhaps elicit a bemused, “Eh, what? Come again?”

It is of course the first sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer which thrust cyberpunk onto the novel-reading SF public all those years ago now and to which I alluded in my review of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream Paris.

Many saw it as the perfect embodiment of the new style of SF Gibson was promulgating. Yet to me it’s not quite in the league of the wake up calls that “Come on and hear!” or “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” were in musical terms. It’s not as pithy for a start. And when you begin to parse it any meaning it might contain slips away.

The sentence has been taken to mean descriptive of an oppressive, lowering sky, deep grey, I assume. (The colour of battleships, painted for action?)

Its first six words are unexceptional. But what, pray, is the colour of television?
I have no difficulty visualising the colour of a (or the) television (which word is still in the back of my mind suffixed by “set”.) Nowadays they’re nearly all black but back when Neuromancer came out in 1984, they could be all sorts, white, blue, pink, yellow. Some even had wood on them; or if it was plasticky, what I used to call pseud wood.

But television, with no defining article, is an abstract noun. Used in this way the word usually means the industry which produces the programmes it displays, not the apparatus they are shown on. And how can an abstract noun have colour? (Another possibility would be the band called Television, also fairly abstract, but that is spelled with a capital T.) It’s not even the apparatus’s screen that could be implied. Nowadays they’re uniformly blackish when the set is switched off; back in the day they were a deep olive green colour. That would be a sky too odd even for Science Fiction – except perhaps off Earth (which this sky wasn’t.)

Then there is that “dead channel”. I don’t suppose the young things these days know what that could possibly look like, when is a channel ever dead now? But then if the channel wasn’t broadcasting (the only possible interpretation of “dead”) the screen wasn’t even a uniform colour. It was spitty and specky, flecked with black and white, displaying what physicists call white noise; not a particular coherent signal as it was designed to do, but any signal – and every signal – picked up in the absence of a modulated transmission. Have you ever seen a flecked, spitty, specky sky? I haven’t. Not then, not now.

That sentence destroyed Neuromancer for me. From that point on I could not trust the author or what he attempted to describe. (I know about unreliable narrators but this was of a different order, it was in the omniscient third person for a start.) I didn’t have quite the same negative response to Gibson’s next novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive but still couldn’t really warm to him.

Ballantyne gave us, “The sky was the colour of an unpolished euphonium, tuned to a dead key,” which makes a bit more sense, but only a bit, and he did have the grace to come back to it at the end.

*For myself I think the sky was the colour of an author, straining, unsuccessfully, for effect.

Dream Paris by Tony Ballantyne

Solaris, 2015, 443 p.

 Dream Paris cover

This is the sequel to Ballantyne’s earlier Dream London which I reviewed here. Its first sentence riffs on the famous opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Ballantyne’s comes closer to making sense though.

Seventeen year-old Anna Sinfield is trying to get her life together in what is left over after the fall of Dream London and the restoration of something like normality. She is given a fortune scroll by Mr Twelvetrees, a man with faceted, insect-like eyes. The scroll reveals she will meet her mother again, whom she had thought dead in Dream London’s demise; but it will be in Dream Paris. Twelvetrees has his own reasons for wishing her to go to there as he is an agent of the British Government. To protect her on the journey she is assigned a bodyguard, Francis, whose backpack trails a wire behind him – Theseus style – so they can find their way back. Both the English Channel and the rivers in Dream France are infested by aquatic dinosaurs and the French distinction between the second person pronouns tu and vous has become highly elaborate with up to 17 degrees of superiority/inferiority capable of being expressed. (Ballantyne’s treatment of this linguistic quirk wasn’t entirely consistent, though.)

There are some longueurs, particularly on Anna’s and Francis’s journey to Paris and even some while they are there. To Anna’s disappointment her mother sends several messages to the effect that she should not come. But Anna has the fortune scroll. She will meet her mother no matter what. And it seems everyone, the revolutionary Committee for Public Safety (a very slight adjustment in title by Ballantyne to the one in our history,) the Prussians who have been at war with Dream France for centuries, the British Government, has their own reasons for finding Anna’s mother.

Francis’s wire (in the Dream World its mechanism becomes apparent) criss-crosses the streets of Paris and provides any British citizens stranded in the Dream World – or indeed anyone else – who wish to do so with the means to find their way (back) to London. It also allows travel in the opposite direction.

In the Dream World the counting/numbering system is peculiar. In Dream London there had been no prime numbers, and mathematicians went mad; here there are no fractions, making shapes and geometry different. The chapters count down in the dream numbering system from Silver then Twenty-three through numbers such as blue and (a feeling of fulfilment) down to Zero. Count-downs are of course a harbinger of a significant event. In this regard mention of an Integer Bomb is a foreshadowing.

Dream Paris suffers from the drawback of most sequels in that the unique nature of its predecessor cannot be repeated. The plot here is not so much one of restoration of the natural order of things as it was in Dream London (even if that wasn’t truly achieved) as that of a thriller; albeit one with elements that verge on being bonkers and a vision of an extremely odd Paris.

Pedant’s corner:- “The sound of violins wove their way..” (the sound wove its way,) a moments rest (moment’s,) “it was important not show any emotion” (not to show,) Mr Twelvetrees’ (x2, Mr Twelvetrees’s,) “I folded up the wallet up” (one “up” is sufficient.) “It fell back onto road,” (onto the road,) “swept away in whirl” (in a whirl,) sat (x2; seated, or sitting,) towns of unspeakably loveliness (unspeakable,) “had a wall around it to” (too,) “I don’t mean like strong like expresso is at home” (one like is enough,) but this gentlemen (gentleman,) Entschuldigen (Entschuldigung,) for hundreds miles (hundreds of miles.) “‘And now I must now report back’” (only one “now” is necessary.) “‘Someone came in rushing in’” (one “in” only,) “from a word written on the side ‘Abattoir’” (is missing a full stop after side,) “‘We are both that same’” (the same,) that that (only one needed,) “that feeling of the meaningless of it all” (meaninglessness,) “that complimented the taste “ (complemented,) “right next me”(to me,) “‘if you wish to continue, than I shall wish you good luck’” (then I shall wish you..) the crowd were (the crowd was, [as found later on the same page,]) placenta (of a fish????) “‘And now the rest of the table were doing the same’” (the rest was….) “I didn’t want it know” (to know,) “‘You think you could you kill your dinner?’” (You think you could kill your dinner,) teeth made for ripping flash (flesh.) Men and woman (women,) the point of infinity were the two sides converged (where the two sides,) miniscule (minuscule.) “At that they all gazed at me open-mouthed at that” (only one “at that” I feel,) “‘I grew up here.Surely’” (is missing the word break,) who knows what he was doing (should be “knew what”; or “is doing”,) “More to the point would have you done otherwise?” (would you have done,) “‘Francis what’s going?’” (what’s going on,) to note the Francis had done (that Francis had,) “‘You don’t see very happy, Anna’” (seem,) a welcoming committee were drawn up (a committee was drawn up,) sipping at glass (at a glass,) “A child. What had happened to their eyes” (its eyes.)

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

Solaris, 2013, 347 p.

 Dream London  cover

London is changing, expanding upwards and outwards, shape-shifting. In this strange new city salamanders munch beetles, the Thames is miles wide, blue monkeys roam the treetops and roofs, and a woman can say, ‘I didn’t used to be a virgin,’ without sounding ridiculous. The inhabitants too are changing, “Dream London did something to the people here. It brutalised the men …. It was softening the women.” On its ever widening two rivers, the Thames and the Roding, sail- and steamboats ply the waters, one of the only means of access. The rail systems are a mix of steam and electric power. As well as drifting into the past technologically this London seems to have the sexual and social politics of the 1950s or earlier, “the women had to hope that some man would look after them” or were “on their knees as whores or cleaners.” In addition “‘Dream London likes its Asians to dress like this’ – ie “ethnically” – ‘and run curry houses,’” and smoking is endemic once more. Not the least of its oddities is an area known as The Spiral where you can look over the edge of a precipice to see a tower growing up from another city to meet it. Like a black hole Dream London is impossible to escape. Journeys to do so twist and turn and lead back to their starting points.

Unfortunately our narrator Captain James Wedderburn is something of an exploitative sexist and minor drug pusher. (Not to mention a bit of a fraud. In his army career he never made it beyond Sergeant.) At several points he is taken to task for exploiting his workers but still remains a relatively unsympathetic character even after he gets the chance to write down his new persona on a parchment on the Contract Floor of the Angel Tower and (SPOILER) doesn’t sell his – or rather his friend’s – soul. Captain Wedderburn by his own estimation is tall and good looking. “He has messy dark hair, a knowing grin and a tendency to talk about himself in the third person.” At first he is torn between two factions wishing to enlist his aid, neither of whom he is particularly keen to serve. These are the mysterious Cartel, which is backed by foreign governments keen to see the end of Dream London and willing to do almost anything to achieve this, and Daddio Clarke and his Maicon Wailers – whose henchmen have eyes in their tongues and count in their number big, burly Quantifiers and a particularly foul-mouthed six year-old girl called Honey Peppers.

In the early chapters Wedderburn is handed a scroll containing his fortune, a scroll whose predictions start to be borne out. “ I lived in a city where the buildings changed every night, where people had eyes in their tongues, where women turned into whores over three weeks. Was a scroll that told my fortune so fantastic?” There is also a nod to prior art with its mention of a slow glass camera – called a shawscope. A picture taken by this means shows London’s parks to be strong areas of indeterminacy.

In Wedderburn’s excursion to the Angel Tower on the Cartel’s behalf we discover that Dream London’s mathematics has no prime numbers. On the Tower’s Counting Floor Wedderburn comes to recognise the order one, red, two, blue, a feeling of setting out on a journey, three, a feeling of fulfilment, yellow, four, five, orange, six, cyan, seven, eight, green, nine, purple, ten, eleven, indigo, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, ochre, fifteen, olive, sixteen, chocolate, seventeen; which sequence also serves as Dream London’s chapter numbers. (Despite this, later we are told there are 98 squares in Snakes and Ladders Square, numbered from 2 to 99.) He later visits the tower’s Writing Room, where the changes are inscribed onto paper. (This bears similarities to the written city in Andrew Crumey’s Pfitz.)

This is an outright fantasy you would think, yet Rudolf Donati whose body has been separated into its component parts but is still alive (it make sense when you read it) says, “‘Dream London isn’t a fantasy, Jim, it’s science fiction.’” [I think I spot a riff on Star Trek here.] “‘What you see here, Captain, is what you get when science is explained by artists! Something which looks beautiful, but doesn’t make any sense.’” Cynthia, a woman Wedderburn meets on a train, was a member of a team who had been ‘looking for sub-atomic particles, but we were doing it using pen and paper. We wanted to describe things smaller than atoms. Things so small that you can know where they are, or where they’re going, but not both at the same time,’ which is of course a statement of the Uncertainty Principle. Ballantyne has found an elegant way to illustrate this fictionally in his account of Wedderburn’s train journey through London, never quite getting to where he wants to go.

Then again all this could be an allegory of how life in the real London in our world has been transformed by oligarchs and financial interests. Wedderburn says, “‘when people talk about choices, it’s usually the people who are in charge who are setting the alternatives,’” and “‘all those people who earn a living off the sweat of someone else’s brow. Dream London bought and sold them all.’” Anna, the daughter of one of Wedderburn’s friends and despite her peripherality the most interesting character in the novel – at least until she fades somewhat towards its end – tells him, “The only thing Dream London fears is that we might ever join together to fight it. It wants us to turn in on ourselves, rather than having us reach out to each other.” Wedderburn’s friendly stalker, Miss Elizabeth Baines – to whom he was revealed in a fortune parchment to be her future husband – says, “‘Dream London wants every man to do nothing. To be weak-willed and selfish. What it doesn’t want is people who do what’s right despite getting paid no notice,’” and another friend Amit, “‘There were always enough people in London to resist its influence, if only they chose to do so.’” Note that “London”, rather than Dream London.

Towards the novel’s climax Wedderburn begins to feel hope when he hears, “The sound of so many people doing the same thing. Of people united to a common cause, and not expressing themselves freely.” This apotheosis of togetherness is a brass band, the culmination of a series of references throughout the book to music and musicians.

Misgivings about Wedderburn’s occupation and attitudes aside Ballantyne writes well and has had an intriguing vision. Though to have your narrator say of his escape from a dilemma, “I’ll skip how I did it though,” (on page 201) – even if he later reveals he did not in fact escape – is something of a hostage to fortune.

Wedderburn’s most serious revelation though is that, “I was nothing more than misdirection, a sideshow … the magician’s assistant drawing the eye whilst the real work took place elsewhere.” With Dream London Ballantyne certainly draws the eye.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘If the Cartel succeed’” (succeeds; but this was in dialogue.) “‘This was a half-hearted threat if ever I heard of one’” (if ever I heard one,) a brace of pheasants (the phrase is usually a brace of pheasant,) wharfs (wharves?) “to ensure that traveller’s return” (context implies travellers, plural,) “seeing her around her before” (around here,) Hieronymous Bosch (Hieronymus.) “There were a number of suits hanging” (there was a number of suits,) Miss Baines’ face (Miss Baines’s,) he didn’t give me chance to speak (a chance,) sat (seated; or sitting,) 839th (previously and subsequently all such ordinal numbers were superscripted, as in 839th,) “and a random selection of numbers were” (a random selection was,) Honey Peppers’ (Honey Peppers’s, several instances,) “as about authentic as” (about as authentic as,) your your, less (fewer; but it was in dialogue,) Moules’ (Moules’s.) “The sign … was written in a particularly curly font. It read ‘ . , .’” (contained no text in curly font; there was nothing on the page but ‘. , .’ A joke about Dream London?) “as soon as saw the place” (as soon as I saw the place,) “Never let it be said the Captain James Wedderburn” (said that Captain…,) lay low (lie low.) A group of drummers were playing (a group was: several instances of a group were,) a large crowd were waiting (a crowd was,) stood in a pool of light (standing,) a missing end quote, out back (is USian: at the back,) “‘It’s every man for themselves in the new world’” (it was dialogue but even so it should be every man for himself; as it was on the next line,) “I could use a man like you” (USian: I could do with,) “‘I stared at building’” (the building,) Baines’ (Baines’s,) much a of a problem (much of a problem,) then the screaming begin (began,) “‘their minds can’t find your way back to their bodies’” (their way back,) I had strode (stridden,) Honey Pepper (Honey Peppers,) the drummer sounded taps (taps is a US military signal, not a British one, and it’s a bugle call, not a drum roll,) “Miss Elizabeth Baines’shouse” (I note the different use of the apostrophe here compared to Baines’ above, and the lack of a space between Baines’s and house,) unphased (unfazed.)

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Robinson, 2013, 572 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Twenty-First Century Science Fiction cover

The book cover and spine has 21st Century but the title page Twenty-First Century. The editors choices were made from those writers whose rise to prominence came after 1999 – in a world where they say SF is no longer marginal but a part of the cultural landscape. So to the stories.

In Vandana Singh’s Infinities Abdul Karim is fascinated by mathematics. Visions of beings he calls farishte and sees out of the corners of his eyes lead him to ponder the variety of mathematical infinities and the intersection between transcendental numbers and primes. But life wears him down and his glimpse of the connections does not mesh with the troubles of a divided India. Rogue Farm by Charles Stross is set in a depopulated future and features trees which can store nitrate (effectively making them rockets/bombs) and collective farms composed of several people melded into some sort of tank-like vehicle. I know it was originally published in a US magazine but it’s located in Cumbria yet not only the prose but also the dialogue – with a few exceptions – was written in USian. The exceptions were some unconvincing “ayup”s and a sudden splattering of “Northern” speech in the second last paragraph.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Gambler sees an exiled Laotian struggle to get enough click-bait on his news stories, Neal Asher’s Strood features more or less beneficent invading aliens and their pets, which have unusual eating habits. In Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky, Adriana seeks love from and marries a robot called Lucian. Things go wrong when she lets Lucian have free will and their adopted daughter begins to believe she’s a robot. “The Tale of the Wicked” by John Scalzi is an updated version of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories when the brains of two spaceships in a hot pursuit start to communicate. Bread and Bombs by M Rickert is a post-apocalypse, post twin towers, tale where no-one travels by air, indeed any sighting of an aeroplane is accompanied by fear, and outsiders are treated with suspicion.

Taking its inspiration from a Biblical text and the Uncertainty Principle, Tony Ballantyne’s The Waters of Meribah is set in a universe shrunk to only tens of miles across where a group of scientists is engaged in a bizarre experiment to create an alien in order to break out again. Tk’Tk’Tk by David D Levine features the experiences of a hereditary salesman on a planet inhabited by excessively polite aliens. He comes to an epiphany, as you do. Genevieve Valentine’s The Nearest Thing is the closest to a human an artificial entity can get but the process is neither morally nor emotionally simple for its software designer. In Ian Creasey’s Erosion the comparison evoked by its title is perhaps a touch over-egged in his tale of an augmented human about to leave for the stars out for a last hike along the North Yorkshire coast. Marissa Lingen’s The Calculus Plague tells of the beginnings of transfer of memories by viral infection. One of our Bastards is Missing by Paul Cornell is set in a future where early eighteenth century Great Powers have lasted into the space age, the balance of power is kept steady but they still plot against each other.

A damaged war machine, the last of its platoon, roams the seashore in Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, collecting material to make memorial necklaces for the fallen. Finistera by David Moles is set on a giant planet with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere where floating creatures as large as mountains form homes for people and exploitable resources for the less scrupulous. In Mary Robinette Kowal’s Evil Robot Monkey an augmented chimpanzee wants only to make pottery; but humans – especially schoolchildren – remain humans. The junior of The Education of Junior Number Twelve by Madeline Ashby is the twelfth offspring of a kind of self-replicating android, designed so as not to allow harm to humans. They make perfect lovers though. Even if humans themselves remain as messed up as ever. Toy Planes by Tobias S Buckell sees a Caribbean island join the space-faring nations. Ken Liu’s The Algorithms of Love is curiously reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon in its tale of a designer of truly interactive dolls coming to believe she herself, and all humans, are merely reacting to inbuilt instructions. The Albian Message by Oliver Morton speculates on just exactly what is contained in a pyramid left by aliens in the Trojan Asteroids hundreds of millions of years ago while Karl Schroeder’s To Hie From Far Cilenia supposes layers of “cities” – or at least organised groupings of people – only existing in a kind of online virtual reality parallel to the real world. Brenda Cooper’s Savant Songs is about the search by a brilliant (but socially awkward) female physicist for her counterparts in the multiverse of worlds. Ikiryoh by Liz Williams is reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas in that the eponymous child is the repository of all the darkness that would otherwise be present in the goddess who rules. The Prophet of Flores by Ted Kosmatka is set in a world where Darwinism was disproved in the 1950s by dating techniques. Yet on the Indonesian island of Flores unusual bones have been discovered in a cave. The protagonist’s conclusion sticks neatly to the logic of his world.

According to Catherynne M Valente’s How to Become a Mars Overlord each solar system has its own Red Planet and the author provides a stepwise guide to its overlordship but the piece overall is less of a story than a disquisition. In Daryl Gregory’s Second Person, Present Tense Therese has taken an overdose of a drug called Zen, which alters her persona. Her parents don’t accept this. Third Day Lights by Alaya Dawn Johnson features a shape-shifting demon and a human looking for the afterlife of the afterlife. James L Cambias’s Balancing Accounts has a robotic/AI protagonist plying a living for its owners by trading in the Saturn system. An unusual cargo brings problems. A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee is another disquisitive story about various different cultures’ star drives. Hannu Rajaniemi’s His Master’s Voice stars a dog (and, yes, it’s called Nipper) seeking the return of its master who has been “condemned to the slow zone for three hundred and fourteen years” for illegally producing copies of himself and, since Rajaniemi sojourned for a while in Edinburgh, could just perhaps have been inspired (a bit) by the tale of Greyfriars Bobby. Plotters and Shooters by Kage Baker is set on a space station dedicated to spotting and destroying Earth threatening asteroids. The station’s hierarchies are disrupted by a new arrival. In The Island by Peter Watts a never-ending mission to seed the universe with jump gates threatens the existence of a millimetre thin organism surrounding its sun like a gossamer Dyson sphere. Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction by Jo Walton is set in a world where not only did the New Deal fail but the Second World War did not occur as we know it. By 1960 the US is becoming fascistic. Cory Doctorow’s Chicken Little posits a future where the rich are utterly cut-off from even the wealthy but a drug called Clarity can enable true assessment of risk to take place.

On the whole, strong stuff. There is enough here to suggest that SF is a vigorous culture still.

Pedant’s corner:- “the cluster of competing stories are growing” (the cluster is growing,) metastized (metastasised – I have also substituted s for the USian z,) remittance (remission,) minutia (minutiae,) her sisters’ ability to overcome her fear of their father (their fear?) rung (rang,) “I hate to come out of that jump (I’d hate to,) none of the …. have (none has,) a they as an antecedent to an it, and the killed (and killed,) the architecture of the brains are different (the architecture is different,) a yearning gap (the context suggests yawning gap,) “where his regiment were dining” (his regiment was dining,) a Queen Mother is addressed as “Your Royal Highness,” (I suspect that would still be, “Your Majesty,”) “the Queen Mother’s Office are asking” (is asking,) “the unit are still in the fold” (is still in the fold,) the start quote mark is omitted at a story’s beginning, stripped off (stripped of,) Becqurel Reindeer (they are radioactive, so I presume Becquerel,) borne (born,) Hitchens’ (Hitchens’s – which is used later,) jewelery (the USian is jewelry, in British English it’s jewellery,) the total affect (the noun is effect,) goddess’ (goddess’s, which is used 12 lines later!) equilibriums (equilibria,) Deluvian Flood Theory (Diluvian? – which means flood, so is this Flood Flood Theory?) “Hands were shook” (shaken,) a phenomena (phenomena is plural; one of them is a phenomenon,) “It’s the circulating domain of their receptors that are different” (is different,) sunk (sank,) rarified (rarefied,) talk to the them (no “the”,) none of us get (gets,) aureoles (context suggests areolae,) “that whole series were built” (that series was built,) “a great deal of time to attempting” (no need for the “to”,) “The chained aurora borealis flicker and vanish,” (if its one aurora borealis that should be “flickers and vanishes”; otherwise it’s aurorae boreales.) “We sweeped over the dark waves,” (I think that really ought to be “swept”,) hemi sphere (hemisphere,) the Van Oort belt (a confusion of Oort Cloud with Van Allen Belt?) infered (even USian surely has inferred?) borne of parents (born of; definitely born of.)

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