It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary, #5

So far this year I’ve read 37 books, which, judging by previous years, should see me read 150 books by the end of the year. This is just as well as I’ve joined the 150 books reading challenge on GoodReads, although it’s currently telling me I’m 2 books behind schedule. Oh well.

sacrificeSacrifice on Spica III, Eric Brown (2014). This is the second of Brown’s Telemass quartet, published by PS Publishing, and set in the same universe as some of his earlier fiction, such as the Starship Seasons quartet (see here). Retired Dutch police officer Hendrick is trying to track down his ex-wife, who has stolen their terminally ill but in medical stasis daughter, and their trail leads him to the titular planet. Spica III has a highly eccentric orbit and is due to go into five years of severe winter – so severe all travel to and from the planet will be suspended. Hendrick has to find his wife and daughter before that happens. En route, he runs into an old colleague, who explains he is hunting for his superior officer’s estranged wife, who is wanted for murder. Hendrick remembers the wife, he had an affair with her years before, and he doubts she’s guilty, but he agrees to help. The plot of Sacrifice on Spica III concerns that investigation, not Hendrick’s wife and daughter. It includes a typical Brown touch, a death cult whose members commit suicide by entering a sort of liquidizer, which then squirts them up into the air and their liquid remains freeze instantly in Spica III’s sub-zero climate. It’s pretty gruesome. Otherwise, a polished piece, although it does seem to depend a little too much on coincidence, back-shadowing and serendipity.

shortnovels2St Mawr, DH Lawrence (1925). The title is the name of a horse, bought by American heiress Lou for her husband, Australian and baronial heir, Rico. But this is DH Lawrence, so a horse is not just a horse of course of course. After a stay in London, with much riding in Hyde Park, the couple decamp with Lou’s acerbic mother to the wilds of Wales, where Rico seems to be more interested in a female friend who lives nearby. When St Mawr, who is very spirited, throws Rico, he ends up bed-ridden, and Lou decides she’s had enough. She follows her mother to London, and then across the Atlantic to the US. Where she eventually buys a run-down ranch somewhere in New Mexico. There are also a pair of grooms, a taciturn Welshman who came with St Mawr, and the mother’s, who is a Native American. In between the manly charms of the grooms, and the metaphor galloping through the text, Lawrence seems to have forgotten his plot. Still, it’s a lot more disciplined than, say, Sons and Lovers, although that’s much the better novel.

ancillaryswordAncillary Sword, Ann Leckie (2014). This won the BSFA Award last weekend, and I’ll admit to being disappointed. There were better books on the shortlist, and it’s likely this sequel was trading on the massive success of its predecessor. Now I liked Ancillary Justice and I liked this book too. But where the first felt like a much-needed return to progressive space opera, something that had been sadly lacking for several years, Ancillary Sword doesn’t so much feel like more of the same as it does a fellow traveller on previously-trod ground. And if Ancillary Justice let out a slight whiff of Susan R Matthews’ novels, Ancillary Sword reeks of it. This is no bad thing – I’m a big fan of Matthews’ books, and it’s a crying shame she was dropped by her publisher more than ten years ago (and her second publisher went under after publishing just one of her books). But Ancillary Sword… Breq has been given command of a warship and sent to a planetary system that appears to have been cut off. There she discovers inequality and near-slavery, not to mention some nasty little conspiracies, which she resolves. The main plot of the trilogy – the war between the two factions of Anaander Miaanai – is pretty much parked to one side for the bulk of the story. Which also introduces a fresh mystery toward the end. If this is going to be a trilogy, I can’t honestly see any shape to it, and two-thirds of the way in you’d expect one to be visible.

girlsofriyadhGirls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea (2007). This was apparently a bit of a phenomenon when it was published, a Sex & the City take on Saudi society by a young Saudi woman studying in the US. It’s a shame then that it’s all a bit juvenile. It’s presented as a serial told via email by the author, who prefaces each chapter with an email “answering” some of the responses she’s received to the previous chapter. The story itself is about four young women – Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah and Sadeem. Gamrah marries Rashid, and travels with him to the US, where he is studying. But he seems more interested in a prior US girlfriend, and Gamrah finds it hard to cope with life in the West. She returns to Riyadh, pregnant. Sadeem falls in love, arrangements are made, contracts exchanged, but a couple of days before the ceremony she succumbs to his blandishments and lets him take it too far… so he divorces her. Michelle falls for a young man from a good family, but his mother won’t hear of her son marrying beneath him, so he breaks it off. And Lamees is a bit of wild thing, making friends with Shi’ites, visiting chat rooms, and getting arrested for meeting a young man in a café. And other things happen too. While it shows the appalling treatment of women in Saudi well, and I realise English is not the writer’s first language, but it is the translator’s, this could really have done with a lot of a polish. The novel is structured to look like the titillating adventures of an amateur writer, and the prose reads like it was written by an amateur too.

strangebodiesStrange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013). Theroux’s 2009 novel Far North was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, so I read it… and I wasn’t much impressed. So I’m not sure what possessed me to give Strange Bodies a go – yes, people recommended it, and the premise sounded interesting, but… Anyway, I’m glad I did. If the plot doesn’t quite match the striking opening, the journey to the end is at least a damn sight better than you’d get from a typical genre novel. A man who apparently died a couple of years before, and in fact in no way resembles the dead man, contacts an old friend, who is persuaded of his claimed identity. Later she finds a thumb drive, containing the document which forms the bulk of the novel – which proves to be the history of a man, a Samuel Johnson scholar, who was asked by a media mogul to authenticate some letters and finds himself caught up in a secret Soviet experiment based on the Common Task (I’ve read up on Fedorov for a WIP, so I knew exactly what this referred to). The scientific scaffolding for the central premise was a little hard to swallow, but all the stuff wrapped around it was very good indeed. I thought the Johnson scholarship very clever, and the way Theroux handled the premise good. Despite my feelings about Far North, I am, much like several other people, surprised this never made any award shortlists.


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Reading diary, #4

I need to catch up on documenting my reading, before this blog turns into a movie blog. So even though most of the books I’ve read recently have been for review elsewhere, I’m posting this. (And also, I promised the Hook Quartet to a friend and I want to get my thoughts on it written down before I mail the books to him.)

The Bridge, Pamela Frankau (1957). I read this as part of my informal project to read some postwar British women writers and I wrote about it here.

flowersFlowers in the Minefield, John Jarmain (2012). I forget where I stumbled across John Jarmain’s poetry – it was probably through his connection to the Cairo poets during WWII (Lawrence Durrell was also one, and the group are mentioned in Olivia Manning’s The Levant Trilogy). Wherever it was, I liked the samples I read enough to hunt down a copy of his posthumous collection, Poems – Jarmain was killed in 1944 – and even a copy of his one novel, Priddy Barrows, which I wrote about here. While Flowers in the Minefield claims to offer more than just Jarmain’s poetry – which is reason enough to buy it, of course – the ancillary material is not up to much. There’s a brief biography, and a few reminiscences by people who knew him. But the poems are the real content, and they’re as good now as they were in 1945 when they first saw print. Jarmain is not as well known, nor was he as prolific, as Keith Douglas, but I find his poetry better-tuned to my tastes. It was, in fact, Jarmain who led me to explore WWII poetry – where previously I had read only WWI poetry, and then mostly that by Wilfred Owen – and I now own several volumes on the topic. Recommended.

secret-history-omnibus-volume-3-9781608864423_hrThe Secret History Omnibus Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3, Jean-Pierre Pécau and Igor Kordey (2005 – 2010, trans. 2010 – 2014). Back in prehistory, twin sisters Reka and Aker, and their brothers Dyo and Erlin, are each given a rune by the tribe’s shaman to safeguard the runes from an attack by a tribe of… Neanderthals? The Secret History follows the four, who are now immortal, through human history, their various struggles, between themselves and against others, and their attempts to direct human history toward their own ends. During the fourteenth century, William of Lecce is born, and proves to have similar powers… and becomes their enemy (although Dyo occasionally fights on his side). Later, the  mythical city of Kor, located either in the Empty Quarter or another dimension, begins to influence human affairs. Pécau has done an extremely clever job of tying his story of secret magical combat by immortals into real history, but unfortunately the story skips about so much it’s often hard to figure out the actual narrative. This is not helped by Archaia’s decision to only translate and publish The Secret History and not the two pendant bandes dessinées, Arcanes majeur and Arcanes. They’re also some way behind – Volume 3, published last year, covers albums 15 to 20, but the series is actually currently up to 32. (Volume 3 was a recent purchase, incidentally, but I had to reread 1 and 2 before tackling it.) I suppose if I’m going to keep on reading bandes dessinées there’s little point in doing so in English – I should get the original French editions instead. Anyway, for all its faults I like The Secret History and plan to keep on reading it.

hook4Hook: Virility Gene, Tully Zetford (1975). I suspect Bulmer was hoping he’d be able to churn these out forever – the book is dedicated to Ted Tubb’s Dumarest, and that series managed 31 novels before DAW stopped buying them (and then only because Donald A Wollheim passed away). Fortunately for us, Virility Gene was the last we saw of Ryder Hook, and the novel’s open ending will remain forever open. Deciding which is the worst of the Hook quartet is a difficult call, but this one is possibly the frontrunner. Hook, and friends Shaeel and Karg, are travelling on a liner when they become embroiled in a plot to find the semi-mythical world where the Virility Gene can be found. It all goes a bit wrong, and Hook comes to in a lifepod, accompanied by Brett, an alien, and a dwindling supply of, er, supplies. Fortunately, they’re rescued in time. Hook gets a message to Shaeel – who gives “ver” destination as… Shyle, the planet where the Virility Gene is harvested (Shaeel is a Hermaphrodite, with pronouns to suit). On Shyle, there are lots of prospectors, but no one seems to know how or where the Virility Gene is harvested or manufactured or what – and the native Shylao guard the secret zealously. Zetford doesn’t even reveal what the Virility Gene actually is until around page 69 (of a 111pp novel). Apparently it’s an extremely potent aphrodisiac. Or something. Anyway, after various adventures, Hook finds himself in the secret compound where the Virility Gene is bought and sold to wealthy buyers. The point of Hook is that he’s a prototype Boosted Man, although he fell out with the programme and is now hunted by them (and the Boosted Men are a thoroughly bad lot). While Hook’s various implants (detectors, stuff to eavesdrop on comms, etc) work all the time, his super-strength and super-speed are only activated when he’s in the vicinity of an actual Boosted Man. But this time, his powers are, er, boosted to a degree he has never before experienced. He also meets a woman and it’s love at first sight between the two… And you can see where this is going, can’t you? Yup, to THE END… with Hook chasing after the love of his life, a Boosted Woman, and a story arc never to be resolved. And I almost forgot to mention the two inept thugs who set upon Hook called… Line and Synker (and from the description they promise to be regular characters); or indeed one of Synker’s lines of dialogue, which gives a pretty accurate flavour of the book’s prose – read it and weep:

“Oxymoron, Line! He’s only an eczema-sniffing spirochaete sap! You should be able to rubberise him before your first tutorial!”

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014). I read this for review for Strange Horizons. It’s been getting quite a bit of press this, a self-published novel which has been shortlisted for the Kitschies and has also been picked up by Hodder. Of course, self-published works on genre awards shortlists are not exactly a new thing. I seem to vaguely recall one winning the BSFA Award a couple of years ago…

Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986). The final book of the original Chanur saga – the actual final book, Chanur’s Legacy, didn’t appear until 1992. I read this for SF Mistressworks. A review will appear there in a week or two.


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The Bridge, Pamela Frankau

All too often, male authors are praised for their depiction of female characters, even though female writers often write male characters – especially in science fiction, in which it seems nearly 80% of protagonists are men. (And there are women sf authors whose most famous creations are male characters.) Yet no one praises female writers for their depiction of men. So let’s get that out of the way first – Pamela Frankau’s The Bridge (1957) is about a man called David Nielson, and he is drawn sensitively and plausibly.

thebridge

Pamela Frankau was published between 1927 and 1968. Her first novel, Marriage of Harlequin, saw print when she was only nineteen. She also seems to have led a somewhat… complicated life. She apparently had a long, and I’m assuming, public affair with a married man, the poet Humbert Wolfe, which ended with his death in 1940. She served in the ATS during World War II, where she had a lesbian affair with a fellow officer. After the war, she married an American Navy officer and decamped with him to the US. They divorced in 1951, and she returned to the UK and picked up her writing career, and proved even more successful than before. During the mid-1950s, she entered in a long relationship with theatre director Margaret Webster. Frankau died of cancer in 1967. Wikipedia lists 37 books by her, including three collections, an autobiography, and several works that appear to be non-fiction. Her best known novel is A Wreath For The Enemy (1954), which is still in print – it, The Winged Horse (1953) and The Willow Cabin (1949) are still available in Virago Modern Classics editions.

The novel opens with a man on a bridge. He doesn’t know where the bridge is, how he got there, what he’s doing there, or even who he is. It’s explained to him that he will witness a series of events, because there is something he must either learn or decide. The first such event takes place in 1913. A young boy in Cornwall is friends with the sons of a holidaying family. But when one of the sons decides the two of them should go swimming on their own – to prove they have courage after the holidaying father mocked them for not going into a rough seas- one of the boys slips on the rocks and is injured. The other boy, the one who lives in Cornwall, with his mother, Aunt Rachel, is David. And though he heard his friend scream as he fell, he ignored it.

In 1929, David is now living in London. He meets a young America woman, Linda, and invites her back to his digs. Aunt Rachel, who also lives in London, comes calling while David is trying to charm Linda. So he pretends to be out. The story skips ahead to 1939. David and Linda are now married, and live on a farm with Ricky and Madeleine. David is a reasonably successful writer and playwright (as is Ricky). After a trip into London, David stops off in the local pub to unwind, and gets into an argument with the racist barman. Then, after the war, in 1950, David and Linda, and their teenage daughter Anne, are living in southern France, in a cottage they owned before WWII. One night David wins big at roulette. A couple of days later, Anne is killed in a car crash. David and Linda move to California, where, in 1955, both teach at university. But Linda is cold and distant with David, and he has not written anything since Anne died. Linda walks out on him, and he runs away to rural New England, and begins writing again. Linda finds herself in New York, is “cured” by some sort of self-help guru and goes to work with him. She is supported by Ricky, who has divorced Madeleine, and is now a very rich and successful author.  In 1956, David and Linda begin to circle back toward each other… but it does not end well.

Interspersed between these various excerpts from David’s life (some are written from Linda’s point of view, but the story is mostly David’s) are more scenes set on the bridge. It quickly becomes clear it is a sort of limbo, and that David must do something if he is to “move on”. Although these scenes provide the novel’s title, and a framework of sorts, they actually get in the way of what is a readable, engaging and well-written story about David Nielson, his life, marriage and career. There’s some very nice writing in the book, and although a little slow to start, the story does draw the reader in. One of the novel’s strengths is that it’s never quite clear where it’s going, or what it’s actually about. If anything, the scenes on the bridge tend to obscure this aspect of the story, hinting either that some moral is waiting to be revealed or that the whole thing is just one long shaggy allegory. In point of fact, it’s neither, and the bridge scenes serve only to underscore one particular element of the story before and after – when there’s actually lots more worth noting in those sections.

Prior to embarking on this “project”, I’d never heard of Pamela Frankau. These days, she’s all but forgotten, despite having three books still in print (they’re dated 2008, so you’re unlikely to find them in your local Waterstone’s, however). But then I did embark on this project to find writers new to me. When I started The Bridge, I didn’t find it all that impressive, but it slowly won me over. David and Linda Nielson are both well-drawn characters, and if some of the details ring a little false (that self-help guru, for example), there’s still much to like in the book. I’m glad I read it and, yes, I think I’ll track down something else by Frankau to read.


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Starship Seasons, Eric Brown

starship-seasonsThe four novellas which make up Starship Seasons, titled ‘Starship Summer’, ‘Starship Fall’, ‘Starship Winter’ and ‘Starship Spring’, were originally published individually by PS Publishing (of which Drugstore Indian Press is an imprint) and NewCon Press between 2007 and 2012. All four are set on Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis IV, in a future in which starship travel has been superseded by Telemass, interstellar teleportation. The novellas feature David Conway and the circle of close friends he makes when he moves to Magenta Bay on Chalcedony. While the stories share locale and cast, and each novella references events in the preceding stories, they can be read as standalones.

Conway has retired to Chalcedony, a move partly driven by the death of his daughter and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. While hunting for a suitable property on the shore of the idyllic Magenta Bay, he stumbles across a junkyard of starships, run by an ex-pilot called Hawk. Conway decides to use an old ship as a home, but the one he chooses is of mysterious provenance. He settles into a life of indolence – with a great deal of drinking – and makes friends with several of the locals, including Hawk, famous artist Matt, telempath Maddie, and Hawk’s alien lover, Kee (a native of Chalcedony). Conway soon discovers his starship home is “haunted”… by an avatar of the Yall, an advanced alien race who have long since vanished. The Yall admits his race built Chalcedony’s great marvel, the Golden Column, an impenetrable pillar one kilometre in diameter and thirty kilometres high, and of unknown purpose. Conway and his friends, with the help of the Yall ghost, make Conway’s starship operable and fly to the Column… and so discover the mysterious object’s true purpose.

‘Starship Fall’ is set five years later. The fuss over Conway’s discovery of the Golden Column’s purpose – it is, in fact, part of an instantaneous interstellar transport network – has died down. The appearance in Magenta Bay of holo superstar Carlotta Chakravorti-Luna, however, threatens to upset Conway’s life of indolence and drinking. And then Hawk’s alien companion, Kee, vanishes into the jungle to “smoke the bones”, an alien ritual which allows the smoker to snatch glimpses of the future but has a seventy percent fatality rate. Conway, Maddie and Hawk head off into the interior to “rescue” Kee, but unfortunately are too late to prevent her undergoing the ritual. What Kee sees of the future involves Chakravorti-Luna and also Hawk’s possible death. The holo superstar admits she is on Chalcedony to find an ex-husband who crashed on the planet decades before, and this has something to do with the smoking the bones ritual.

The plot of ‘Starship Winter’ is driven by Matt, the artist, who puts on an exhibition of works which use “empathy stones” from the world of Acrab IV. Visiting Magenta Bay is Darius Dortmund, an empath, who is not only unduly interested in Matt’s showing, but is also accompanied by an alien from Acrab IV. Dortmund is arrogant, secretive and a nasty sort. He annoys and upsets Conway and his friends, spoils the grand opening of Matt’s art show, but at a big party in his rented property later is found murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on Conway and his circle, who had stayed over at Dortmund’s house for the night. In this novella, Conway’s circle expands by one: Lieutenant Hannah van Harben of the local police, who becomes Conway’s love-interest.

The final book of the quartet is ‘Starship Spring’. It is six years later. Conway and van Harben are now living together in and have a young daughter, Ella. Their friends are busy off-planet – Matt and Maddie touring Matt’s latest art show, and Hawk and Kee flying rich tourists to some galactic wonder. But soon they will be returning, so all six arrange for a fortnight away at an expensive Chalcedony holiday spot called Tamara Falls. Part of the charm of the place is that it’s apparently haunted… and the ghost makes a number of appearances in front of the six friends and Ella. It also seems to be trying to tell them something. Matt admits that the holiday is being paid for by Dr Petronius, a famous art patron, who insisted on it as a condition of his offer to tour Matt’s art show. Millennia ago, the Yall fought and defeated an evil alien race, the Skeath, who managed to hide a vast army beneath Tamara Falls, ready to be awoken one day to conquer the galaxy. Petronius wants this to happen, and needs Conway and friends and family to be on-hand to trigger it…

There’s something very… comfortable about the stories in Starship Seasons. There’s nothing edgy or outrageous about the world described, nor about the concepts deployed in the stories. That the characters are well-drawn is a given – Brown has been writing sf since the mid-1980s, and he’s very good at it. But each of the central quintet has a secret, and that five damaged people should become such close friends occasionally feels somewhat banal. Except that feels like too harsh a judgement – these are four polished novellas, firmly located in genre heartland, thoughtful and considered in tone, and very much character-centred. They will not disappoint a dedicated science fiction reader even if, in these days of immersion and jump-cuts and “blowing shit up”, these four novellas do feel a little old-fashioned in affect. Entertaining, thoughtful and put-together well, certainly, but… The fate of the galaxy is several times put at risk, the lives of the central and supporting cast are frequently in danger; and yet once the dust has settled, Conway’s life returns to normal. There is progression – the Golden Column supersedes Telemass, Conway and Hannah have a child, the characters grow and heal over the years – yet the victories won in each of the novellas still feel small scale and personal. Sometimes, that’s all science fiction needs.

Starship Seasons, Eric Brown (2013, Drugstore Indian Press, £7.99, 978-1-848636-02-6)

This review originally appeared in Vector, No. 274, Winter 2013/2014.


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Reading diary, #3

It’s been a bit of an odd month, reading-wise. Mostly science fiction, both new and old – three for review, one for Vector and two for SF Mistressworks.

MegalexCoverMegalex, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Fred Beltran (2014). I picked up a copy of the first volume of this several years ago, but parts two and three never seem to have appeared in English. I thought about getting the original French editions – and might well have done so, had this omnibus edition not been published last year. The original bandes dessinées – L’anomalie, L’ange Bossu and Le cœur de Kavatah – appeared in 1999, 2002 and 2008, respectively. Beltran’s art apparently tends to the pneumatic, and two of the lead female characters are implausibly buxom. The plot borrows a number of devices Jodorowsky has used before – in fact, even the setting feels a little second-hand too. A world has been turned into one giant city, except for a small area of forest. A glitch in the clone factory results in a dimwitted giant of a clone, who manages to escape and join the rebels living underground, who are led by a hunchback. The king’s daughter is searching for love, but her touch kills. The rebels attack the palace and kidnap the princess – but the hunchback is not killed by her touch. And his hunch turns out to conceal a pair of wings. The princess and winged man conjoin and become a winged hermaphrodite, which leads the rebels to victory over the evil king and queen. It’s not Jodorowsky’s best work by any means. It all feels a bit recycled, and though Beltran’s art is gorgeous, it’s a far too much objectifying. Despite a career in bandes desinées stretching back to 1966, Jodorowsky hasn’t really done anything science-fictional that beats The Incal.

shortnovels2The Virgin and The Gipsy, DH Lawrence (1930). I decided to read this “short novel” before watching the 1970 film adaptation sent to me by Amazon rental. It was apparently written around 1926, but discovered among DH Lawrence’s papers after his death in 1930 (the novel, that is, not the film adaptation), and published later that same year. It… actually reads like a parody. Flighty virginal young woman is attracted by animal charm of handsome gipsy, but then a local dam bursts and floods the area and the gipsy saves the young woman from the waters. So that’s 1930’s prize for Most Obvious Sexual Metaphor Ever to David Herbert, and this is a man who never let a metaphor for sex or sexuality go unmolested. There’s also some anti-semitism on display – the virgin makes friends with a Jewish divorcee (who is not actually divorced) and her laid-back boyfriend, and there are over-frequent references to the woman’s ethnicity. Lawrence was always very good about writing about landscape, although that’s not so much in evidence in this short novel. But he was also really good at interiority and there’s plenty of that on display here. It’s not Lawrence’s best work of those I’ve read – although it seems to have been critically well-received.

The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985). I reviewed this on SF Mistressworks here.

The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from Jones. W00t. It’s a YA novel set in the world of the Bold as Love series. I reviewed it for Vector.

ultimaUltima, Stephen Baxter (2014). The sequel to Proxima – did you see what he did there? Proxima: nearest; Ultima: furthest. Where the first was near-future sf, this one drags in Baxter’s other great interest, alternate history. It seems that the Hatches which allow for easy travel over interstellar distances (instantaneous for the traveller, but light-speed is not violated), also trigger “resets” of history – or shift the protagonists into alternate histories. In the first, the Roman Empire makes it into space but despite making use of “kernels” (magic energy wormhole-y type things) as a power source, it doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond the first century CE. And then it’s an interstellar Aztec Empire, which also uses kernels and has built a giant fuck-off O’Neill cylinder but still runs pretty much along the same lines as it did when Cortés stumbled across Tenochtitlan. It’s quite an impressive sustained act of imagination, but not in the least bit plausible. The book also suffers from juvenile characterisation – a running joke involving a lead character, a grizzled Roman legionary – wears thin soon after the third mention but Baxter keeps it going right to the bitter end. There’s lots of clumsy exposition, and a central premise that doesn’t really convince. Baxter has done much better than this, and it all feels a bit by-the-numbers and banged out over a quick weekend. Disappointing.

credit_titleCredit Title, GB Stern (1961). GB Stern is Gladys Bronwen Stern, a British writer who published some forty novels between 1914 and 1964. I should have guessed from the cover art, but I didn’t realise Credit Title was a “junior novel” when I bought it on eBay. Oh well. It’s set in 1933. Sharon’s father is a director in Hollywood, but they move back to England when he marries Meryll Armstrong, who already has six children. Sharon has been dreaming of being part of a large family – inspired by a series of books about the “Rectory Family” – but the reality proves disappointing. They expect her to be stuck-up because she’s lived in Hollywood, and this colours the way they treat her. It’s all very terribly-terribly and breathless and patronising, a bit like the Narnia books – and I should have picked another Stern book to see what she’s like.

The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton (1985). Review to appear on SF Mistressworks soon.

murder-at-the-chase-2Murder at the Chase, Eric Brown (2014). This is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set murder mysteries featuring thriller writer Donald Langham and his fiancée literary agent Maria Dupré. In this book, they’re invited to unravel a locked-room disappearance of another mystery writer, and it turns out it’s all to do with a satanist who may or may not have been born over one hundred years earlier. Brown evokes his period well, and his two protagonists are eminently likeable. He even manages a nicely liberal view of humanity that wasn’t common in 1955 – two of the secondary characters are gay, and despite it being illegal at the time, pretty much everyone seems surprisingly tolerant when confronted with it. The locked-room puzzle is disposed of disappointingly quickly, but then there’s a murder and what looks like a suicide… And it all gets wrapped a little quickly and tidily for comfort. I suspect these are not written to be cosy mysteries, but they’re beginning to resemble them. They need to be a bit edgier – Brown is capable of it, he handles his period with aplomb and his characters with assuredness. But the plot is all a bit rushed, and the ending is far too tidy.

hook3Hook 3: Star City, Tully Zetford (1974). This is the third book in the quartet featuring Hook of the funny eyebrows. Zetford was a pseudonym of Ken Bulmer, and it’s even more hacky than the stuff he put out under his own name. In this one Hook has teamed up with four others to steal a collection of cultural artefacts (weighing 50 kg), but the other four intend to cut him out of the deal. But Hook turns the tables on them, loses his payment for the haul at the titular star city, and then loses the money he steals to make good on his losses… before he ends up saving the unsophisticated natives of the planet the star city orbits who are being hunted for sport. This is disposable stuff, a couple of hours’ reading you’ve forgotten ten minutes after chucking the book onto the pile of books that are going to the charity shop. Best forgotten, and I suspect the author felt that way too.


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Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle

seoul_survivorsSome time in the near-future, an asteroid is detected on a collision course with Earth. Its existence is denied by media and governments, but hackers find evidence of the “truth” in military and governmental computer systems. Damien is a slacker who believes in the asteroid. His plan is to find the safest place on the planet and then move there, but to do that he needs money. So he agrees to smuggle drugs into Korea for a friend; and then he stays on in Seoul to earn more cash by illegally teaching English to the kids of rich Koreans.

Sydney is a Canadian prostitute who has been taken to Korea by her boyfriend, Johnny Sandman, and is now working as a model. Johnny, an ex-gangbanger, works for ConGlam, which is some sort of shadowy transnational. One of the projects he is overseeing in Korea is VirtuWorld. This is the brainchild of genetics genius, Dr Kim Da Mi, who also plans to build a faux-European mediaeval theme-park village in the mountains north of Seoul, where her genetically-engineered “children” will survive the impending catastrophe.

Lee Mee Hee is a North Korean villager who has had herself smuggled out of the country. By ConGlam. She is taken to China, where she meets a number of other women from North Korea. After they have recovered from their ordeal, they are taken to the purpose-built village in South Korea, where they are to become surrogate mothers for Da Mi’s “children”. Sydney will be the egg donor and Johnny the father. But Johnny proves to have some genetic abnormalities which rule him out. Damien, who resembles Hugh Grant, is a much better candidate. When he learns of this, Johnny is not happy; he’s also losing Sydney, first to a Korean artist and then to Damien, and he’s not happy about that either.

Seoul Survivors is a readable pacey near-future thriller but it seems a little confused as to what it is actually about. Mee Hee’s narrative is wholly about the village of soon-to-be genetically-engineered children, but Sydney’s story chiefly concerns her love-life. Damien is living the life of an illegal immigrant, saving up for a false passport and an airline ticket to Canada. When Da Mi recruits Sydney to the VirtuWorld project and Sydney persuades Damien to donate sperm, he’s not told the true reason. And the objective of the Virtuworld technology is initially presented as the ProxyBod – real-life avatars put together from corpses and various electronic systems. (Only one ProxyBod appears in Seoul Survivors, and it is used by Da Mi.)

Despite having been published by a genre imprint, Seoul Survivors doesn’t read much like science fiction. The near-future it describes so closely resembles the present, it’s hard to determine exactly what are meant to be genre tropes and what are simply setting. There is a vague move in the direction of one or two science fiction ideas – Da Mi introduces Sydney to a therapeutic VR tool; there’s the ProxyBod; and then there’s the asteroid itself lurking somewhere in the background (or not). The world-building is almost wholly reliant on depictions of present-day Seoul, although there are one or two mentions of climate-crash elsewhere and there’s a terrorist attack offstage in London two-thirds of the way through the story.

Foyle has chosen to present many of her Korean characters as speaking pidgin English throughout – in fact, the first line of the novel is: “‘Ni-suh, Sy-duh-nee – Omhada – look at camera – thank you – better – pro-fesh-ional – Now, play with Hot-Cold, plea-suh!” Though this may give the narrative some verisimilitude, these days it’s a difficult trick to pull off without causing offence. And, annoyingly, Foyle refers to the mobile phone throughout as a MoPho rather than mobile or cell or the actual term the Koreans use (which translates “handy phone”, apparently).

None of this, in and of itself, prevents the book from being readable and entertaining, but the cast are something of an obstacle. Sandman is racist, sexist and violent, thoroughly unpleasant, and responsible for several incidents of sexual violence which leave a sour taste. Damien is passive and not very interesting. Sydney is none too bright, while Mee Hee Lee is unworldly and naive. Even Da Mi is self-centred and arrogant and far from likeable. It’s not a particularly edifying group of characters on which to hang a story.

There’s a feeling throughout Seoul Survivors that it’s a book whose whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. While there are some well-handled set-pieces, the story-arc is sign-posted far too blatantly, and the violent climax comes across as somewhat cartoonish because it tries to resolve all of the narratives at once. The advance publicity calls Seoul Survivors a “cyber thriller”, and it certainly feels more like a thriller than science fiction. Whether this is a strength or a weakness… is hard to say.

Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle (2013, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, 978-1780875989)

This review originally appeared in Interzone #247, July-August 2013.


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Machine by Jennifer Pelland

machinecover3_largeCelia Krajewski has a fatal genetic condition. Since it’s unique to her it will take some ten years before a cure is possible. Unfortunately, by that point she will have suffered irreparable brain damage. Happily, in the USA of the late twenty-first century, it’s possible to put Celia’s body into stasis until the cure is ready. And so that she does not miss out on her life during that period, her mind can be uploaded into a bioandroid body which mimics her appearance in all particulars.

This decision has unintended consequences: Celia’s wife leaves her, convinced that the bioandroid Celia is not the real Celia. There is a great deal of popular support for this position – so much so, in fact, that those in the bioandroid programme must keep their participation secret or they might be subjected to violence.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Celia begins to doubt her own humanity. She cuts herself, but beneath the skin is some sort of ceramic surface. Unwilling to accept that her identity is unchanged, Celia feels a need to explore her machine self. She visits online clubs where “bot freaks” hang out, and through one meets the Mechanic, a hacker who can give her what she wants. Through him, she meets a group of “mechanicals” who have altered their bioandroid bodies such they they no longer resemble or work like their biological originals. One in particular, called 1101, especially attracts Celia. 1101 has changed its bioandroid body to resemble an artist’s dummy. It recognises no gender, nor its previous humanity. Another, Gyne, has a body that can morph between male and female.

It is the fetishistic side of Celia’s situation which occupies much of the story of Machine. At one point, for example, she accompanies two of the mechanicals as they act as “love doll” prostitutes; and later plays the part of a love doll herself. Machine is at its best when it’s exploring this response to Celia’s machine identity. The exposition explaining the origin of the bioandroid programme is inelegant and unnecessary; and the popular reaction to bioandroids is clearly based on the US’s anti-abortion movement, but still feels a little too arbitrary to convince. In fact, the world-building throughout mostly feels a little too light to really convince. But these are minor quibbles.

There’s a disturbing prurience to the mechanicals and the changes they’ve made of, and the uses to which they put, their new bodies. Rather than explore how her new body makes her stronger, hardier, or no longer requiring food or oxygen, Celia chooses not to make herself more than human, but instead less than human. That she does so by changing her appearance to look less human, and through participation in the sex trade, seems only fitting. In Machine, Pelland has chosen an odd way to explore her theme, and though it’s skillfully done, it’s not an approach that will appeal to everyone.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012, Apex Publications, $14.95, 978-1937009137)

This review originally appeared in Vector 271, Winter 2012.

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