It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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What is it about space opera?

It often seems to me that space opera has within itself to be all things that are science fiction. Most writers, however, treat it as little more than action-adventure in space, or the fall of some historical empire transplanted to an interstellar canvas (with added cool techno-gizmos). Given the size of that canvas – there are literally no limits – there’s more than ample opportunity to ask relevant questions and play through the various answers. Some space opera authors have indeed done so – Iain Banks springs to mind: in his Culture novels he often examined the morality of intervention in other sovereign states’ internal affairs. Sadly he’s an exception, rather than the rule.

So why is it so few space operas do little more than pit one group against another, usually differentiated by either race, class or politics? Or show an interstellar polity torn apart from within or without? And the science fiction, well, that’s embodied in the background or some maguffin around which the plot revolves.

valerian

One of the chief elements of a space opera which the subgenre rarely seems to interrogate is the whole idea of an autocratic or feudal interstellar polity, in which custom and tradition has embedded an oligarchy so deeply in place it can only be dislodged by actually razing the polity to the ground. Historically (real history, that is), rulers claimed divine descent and so justified their exalted position – this was probably the second biggest con ever perpetrated on humanity, after the concept of an afterlife (capitalism comes a close third) – but any such claims of godly DNA are risible at best, deluded at worst. And if those rulers didn’t actually claim divine descent, they certainly claimed divine right – ie, they ruled in the name of the gods, with the gods’ permission and blessing. Quite how you prove that is beyond me, but it certainly happened – and there are probably a few royals out there who are so stupid or inbred they still believe it.

But let’s assume a space opera empire is ruled by a particular dynasty for the same reasons that such dynasties ruled in real history, ie, canny politics and/or historical accident, and park that for a moment. What about the actual society, its various levels and the lack of social mobility? What Herbert called “fraufreluches” in Dune. I can understand the need for a tightly-controlled society in an artificial environment such as a space station – everybody’s lives depend on people not breaking things – but space operas in the main presuppose a galaxy of earth-like planets ready to be colonised by land- and resource-hungry humanity… Except, wait, they can’t be all that land-hungry because a lot of space operas feature worlds that are either populated to a ridiculously dense degree, or almostly entirely empty. And those densely-populated worlds… A world like Trantor or Coruscant, it would be impossible to feed the population of such a world, it’s just not physically possible to ship in the foodstuffs required to support a population of a trillion or more (Wikipedia gives Corsuscant’s population as “Approx. 1 trillion”, although the Wookiepedia claims three times that; isn’t the internet wonderful?). Assuming an average of 2,500 calories per person per day, for the entire population that’s equivalent to about 5 billion (or 15 billion) cows a day.

For a highly technological (ie, “magical” per Clarke’s dictum) space opera, most problems, not just food, would be magically solved by magical science and magical engineering – replicators, or something like that. If there’s no scarcity, you’d expect the society to be relatively flat, and any social classes that have shaken out have done so depending on whether the empire follows an egalitarian socialist model or a more restrictive model based on, well, any variety of right-wing ideologies. I’ve said in the past that science fiction – and especially space opera – is an inherently right-wing mode of fiction, irrespective of the politics of its writers. Just look at the various societies depicted in science fiction texts, look at the solutions proposed to the problems presented by science fiction texts. It’s said that editor Donald A Wollheim once ran a straw poll among sf fans on the best form of government and “benevolent dictatorship” proved most popular. Even back in the 1960s and earlier, when science fiction traded on the assumption its fans were “better” than readers of other modes of fiction (“fans are slans”), that’s still a horribly juvenile result. But then look at genre’s various role models, and then count all those Marxist space operas…

The idea of science fiction, or indeed any mode of fiction, as primarily a form of “entertainment” has often been used to poison the debate regarding the genre’s uses. Some people – often stupid ones – will champion fiction as a literature of ideas, a vehicle for thought experiments, and then pooh-pooh concepts or approaches they don’t like as “message fiction”. All fiction is message fiction. It’s only the content of the message, and the power of its vector, which differs. And, of course, the ability of the reader to pick up the message.

But space opera… Most space operas require huge, often cumbersome, authoritarian political structures in place at the start. And there’s usually an associated fascination with all the pomp and circumstance and cool uniforms that go with such structures – er, Star Wars anyone? (And now we have Imperial Stormtroopers appearing at conventions and such… Er, they were the bad guys, you know.) Of course, the better entrenched the power structures, the greater the equity gap, the more melodrama there is when the empire burns. But where space operas so often fail is in showing the consequences for everyone. Heroes must by definition have sufficient agency to either destroy or save the empire, but those embedded in the power structures are far from the only victims. As the title of Robert Sheckley’s 1972 story has it, ‘Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead’ – palaces are, after all, home to more than just empresses and emperors. In CL Moore’s excellent Judgment Night, the two protagonists, Princess Juille and Egide, prince of the H’vani, actually meet at a “pleasure moon” which is, naturally, purely for the use of the upper classes and, as in other space operas, the only non-aristocrats mentioned are servants or soldiers.

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I freely admit that when I started writing my space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, I chose to base the plot on a well-established story template from consolatory fantasy: someone is trying to unseat the emperor, for reasons not clear when the story opens. Toppling the throne, of course, does not necessarily entail a complete destruction of the empire, it might just be a dynastic struggle. But this is a consolatory fantasy, which sort of presupposes an elemental battle between good and evil – and a dark lord makes a better villain than an ambitious cousin. I had no intention of using a moral landscape painted in such primary colours in my trilogy, and it was while considering the alternatives that it occurred to me I should present the irruption caused by the plot across all levels of imperial society. To some extent, I had to consider this: the main protagonist, the “peasant hero” was by definition a member of the lowest sector of society.

But there’s a paradox there. While the fight may affect, or indeed include, all levels of society, the conditions which define defeat or victory exist only in the uppermost levels. So I had no choice but to elevate my peasant hero if he was to play any sort of useful role in the struggle – and this in a society in which social mobility is near-impossible. I could show how the consequences applied to all social levels, and I felt I needed to show that – so  I had to make a discussion on the society of my interstellar empire an important element of the plot. Which I did. A Prospect of War opens with three main narrative threads – one features serfs (I call them proletarians), another has a pair of middle-class (ie, yeoman) characters pretending to be proletarian, and the final one is firmly yeoman (but also features aristocrats). There’s no getting away from involving the upper sectors of society if the stakes are empire-wide, so I had to introduced them – but by making one of the protagonists a peasant hero, I could use the mechanism of his elevation to the position required to lead the fight as commentary.

I based the empire of A Prospect of War on an historical model and I built a fictitious history for my empire which justified its various institutions. (Chiefly, I admit, by limiting the technology of my empire such that Age of Reason technology was more than sufficient to maintain society.) I also went for pomp and circumstance. I gave everyone uniforms, and then I described them (I even worked out a colour scheme for the uniforms of army regiments). I described the architecture because that’s another good signifier of monolithic social structures and embedded power groups. I used the sword – the carrying of it, the legal right to use it – as an indicator of social class. In other words, I made it as plain as I could that here was a society that had not, and could not, change or progress. Except by violent upheaval. Which I even signposted – the empire of A Prospect of War is around 1300 years old, and came into being when a powerful admiral used his fleet to seize the throne of the preceding empire.

The term “space opera” was coined as a pejorative, a reference to “horse opera”, which were bad Western stories. In the decades since the term first appeared, its meaning has changed, and those works boasting the label have gained a measure of respect that now puts them on a par with other types of science fiction. Moore’s Judgment Night, mentioned earlier, was first published as a magazine serial in 1943. Wilson Tucker coined the term “space opera” in 1941. I’ve no idea how Judgment Night was originally received by its readers – perhaps at that time it had not even been identified as space opera. It’s certainly a classic of the subgenre now. But like early classics in any genre or subgenre, it deals chiefly with archetypes and its tropes have long since become clichés (sadly, in Judgment Night‘s case, several elements of its plot seem to have been forgotten by science fiction for several decades, such as a princess leading the defence of the empire). For me, A Prospect of War had to function not just as an entertaining space opera, but also as a commentary on space opera – and, to some extent, consolatory fantasy. I’d like to think I managed to do so, but that’s for the book’s readers to say.


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The Great Big Apollo Giveaway

Well, okay, perhaps “great big” is something of an exaggeration. But the giveaway bit isn’t! Anyway, because the Apollo Quartet is at last completed, I have decided to give away five copies of the entire quartet in either mobi or epub ebook format. That’s Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows.

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For those of you now going: Apollo, eh? Quartet, eh? What’s that, then? The three novellas and short novel are as follows:

AQ1_2nd_edn_coverAdrift on the Sea of Rains
In an alternate 1980s in which the Apollo programme was taken over by the military, a group of astronauts are left stranded at the USA’s only moon base when nuclear war destroys the earth. However, they have with them a Nazi Wunderwaffe, the Bell, which might help them find a home before the supplies run out. Winner of the British Science Fiction Award in 2013. Available for purchase in paperback and on Kindle (UK | US).

AQ2_2nd_edn_coverThe Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself
The US has had a research station on an exoplanet since the mid-1990s, but at the turn of the millennium it mysteriously vanishes. Bradley Elliott, the first – and only – man to walk on the surface of Mars is sent to find out what happened… because the solution to the mystery may be linked to what he found at Cydonia back in the 1980. Available for purchase in limited hardback, paperback and on Kindle (UK | US).

AQ3_2nd_edn_coverThen Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above
The Korean War has heated up and the US needs all its soldiers and pilots to fight the Sino-Soviet forces. So NASA decides to use the Mercury 13, a group of women pilots who passed the same medical tests as the Mercury 7, for their space programme. Meanwhile, the bathyscaphe Trieste II must descend 20,000 feet into the Puerto Rico Trench to recover a spy satellite film canister that went off-course. The crew find something a good deal stranger down there. Available for purchase in limited hardback, paperback and on Kindle (UK | US).

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.46.35 PMAll That Outer Space Allows
A science fiction writer’s husband is selected by NASA for the Apollo programme, and she finds herself on the periphery of the most science-fictional endeavour of the twentieth century. But is she a science fiction writer first, or an astronaut’s wife? Because her husband’s career depends on her being the latter – even though she is determined to use her access to the Apollo programme as inspiration for her stories. Available for purchase in limited hardback, paperback and on Kindle (UK | US).

How to win a copy of this amazing quartet? Easy. Just send an email to editor (at) whippleshieldbooks (dot) com, with the subject line APOLLO GIVEAWAY. Closing date is noon GMT on 11 June 2015. I’ll then do some randomising magic and pick five lucky winners. Please specify in your email whether you’d prefer epub or mobi format.


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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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All That Outer Space Allows teaser

Back on the 1 March, I read out a piece of Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows at the second SFSF Social. It seemed to go down quite well. And since the release of the book has been a little bit, er, delayed, I thought I’d post the text from my reading as a taster. So here you are. It’s from chapter two. Enjoy.

Walden says nothing about the physical at Brooks AFB or, months later, the interviews at the Rice Hotel in Houston; but for a week after his last trip to Texas he swaggers more than usual. Ginny knows this unshakeable confidence is as much a coping mechanism as will be, should he fail, his subsequent realisation he doesn’t really want it anyway. But she hopes he succeeds, she wishes she could go into space herself. But she knows that, at this time, it’s an occupation reserved for men— no, more than that: reserved for men of Walden’s particular stripe, jet fighter pilots and test pilots. She calls him “my spaceman” one night, it just slips out she is reading the latest issue of If, there’s a good novella in it by Miriam Allen deFord, and Ginny’s head is full of spaceships and spaceship captains; but Walden turns suddenly cold and gives her his thousand-yard stare. He starts to explain the competition is fierce, he won’t know how he’s done until he hears from NASA… but he breaks off, scrambles out of bed and stalks from the room.

Ginny puts the magazine on the bedside table, but her hand is shaking. She sits silently, her hands in her lap, and waits. He does not return. Fifteen minutes later and he’s still not back, so she rearranges her pillows, makes herself comfortable beneath the sheets, and reaches out and turns off the bedside lamp. She has no idea what time it is when he eventually slides into bed beside her, waking her, and whispers, Sorry, hon. She rolls over, closes her eyes and tries to re-enter the vale of sleep, where marriages are blissful, life itself is blissful, and she is as famous as Catherine Moore or Leigh Brackett.

They wake at 0430, the shrill ring of the alarm dragging them both from sleep. While Walden goes for a shower, she wraps herself in a housecoat and heads for the kitchen. There is breakfast to prepare—coffee to roast, bread to toast, eggs to fry, bacon, beans and hash browns. She does this every day, sees off her man with a full stomach and a steady heart. Here he is now, crisp and freshly-laundered in his tan uniform, hungry for the day ahead. He takes his seat, she pours him juice and coffee, slides his plate before him, and then sits across the table and watches him eat as she sips from a cup of coffee. She should be getting up before him, making herself ready, dressed and made up, to greet him when he awakes—but countless past arguments have won her the right to make his breakfast and see him off to work without having to do so. The housecoat is enough.

They kiss goodbye at the door, and he strides off to the Chevrolet Impala Coupe in the carport. Though she wants to go back to bed, there is too much to do, there is always too much to do.

After clearing up the breakfast things, she makes herself another coffee and settles down to catch up with her magazines, she is a couple of issues behind with Fantastic, and this issue, the last of 1965, features a novella by Zenna Henderson and stories by Doris Pitkin Buck, Kate Wilhelm and Josephine Saxton.

Later, she will get dressed—and she will dress for comfort, not for appearance’s sake—and she will get out the Hermes Baby and she will work on her latest story. She made the decision years before to incorporate elements of her own life—and, suitably disguised, Walden’s—into her science fiction, so she feels no need to visit libraries or book stores for research. She has a stack of issues of Fantastic Universe, If, Amazing Stories, Galaxy, World of Tomorrow in a closet—they are all the research material she needs. Galaxy, for example, runs a science column by astronomer Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin; Amazing Stories has featured science columns by June Lurie and Faye Beslow since the 1940s. Walden, of course, has a library of aeronautics and engineering texts in the bedroom he uses as a den, and Ginny has on occasion paged through them—not that Walden knows: his den is for him alone and she allows him the illusion of its sanctity; naturally, it never occurs to him to wonder how the room remains clean.

Ginny is feeling lazy today. She likes to think she has an excellent work ethic when it comes to her writing, but some days she finds it hard to muster the enthusiasm to bang on the keys of her typewriter. Especially when she has just read something she thinks she can never approach in quality—and that, she sadly realises, is true of the Saxton story in the magazine she is holding. Josephine Saxton is a new writer, from England, and this is her debut in print. Ginny only wishes her first published story, just four years ago in Fantastic, had been as good.

The blow to her confidence decides her: she will leave her current work in progress until tomorrow; today she will catch up on her correspondence, she owes letters to Ursula, Judith and Doris, and she really ought to fire off a missive to Cele with her thoughts on the issue she has just read…

After she has showered and dressed in slacks and shirt, she finds herself outside on the patio, gazing east across the roofs of Wherry Housing toward the Air Force Base and Rogers Dry Lake, and beyond it the high desert stretching to the horizon, where the Calico Mountains dance in the pastel haze of distance. As she watches, a jet fighter powers up from one of the runways and though it is more than a mile and a half from her, she can tell from its delta wing it is a F-102 or F-106. Its throaty roar crowds the cloisonné sky, there’s a quick flash of mirror-bright aluminum as the aircraft banks, and then the fighter seems to fade from view as it flies away from her. She wonders if it is Walden in the cockpit, she has no idea what he does from day to day once he enters the base; officially, he is a research test pilot in the Fighter Test Group, but she does not know what he researches, which fighters he test pilots. Not the North American X-15, she knows that much, an aircraft which intrigues her because it is also a spaceship—it has flown more than fifty miles above the Earth, right at the edge of space, at over 4,000 miles per hour. And it even looks like a spaceship, like a rocket, as much at home in vacuum as it is in atmosphere. She would like to know more about the X-15 but it’s a sensitive subject in the house. Walden has tried to get on the program but has been refused, and he wears the refusal badly. Perhaps that’s why he was so keen to apply to become an astronaut.

Ginny is a California girl, a real one, born and bred in San Diego in Southern California, not one of those “dolls by a palm tree in the sand” from that song on the radio. She has history in this landscape of deserts and canyons and mesas, though she grew up beside the limitless plain of the Pacific. Here in the Mojave she is hemmed in by mountains, they encircle her world, her flat and arid world, where the small towns are so far apart they might as well belong to their own individual Earths. Standing here, gazing in the direction of Arizona, she finds it easy to believe Edwards is the only human place in the world, a lonely oasis of civilisation—and she knows her husband thinks of it as a technological haven in a world held back from the best science and engineering can offer by the short-sightedness of others. To some degree, she thinks he may be right. But she is also a housewife, and she lives in a world in which bed linen must be changed, clothes laundered, meals cooked and checkbooks balanced. She envies Walden his freedom to ignore all that—he can have his “life in the woods”, but only because she manages his world.

And now she really must get on with her letter-writing… although the lawn looks like it needs mowing and the end of the yard is beginning to look a little untidy…

And here’s the cover art…

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.46.35 PM


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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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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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Postscripts Far Voyager

My contributor copy of Postscripts 32/33 Far Voyager landed with a thud on my mat this weekend. I’m especially pleased about this one, because my story provided the anthology’s title. (I didn’t get named on the cover, though.) ‘Far Voyager’ is another of my alt space stories, based around the premise that one of the Voyager probes was manned. There are a few clues to the identity of the astronaut, although he’s not actually named.

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Also in the anthology are many excellent writers, including Paul Park, Ian Watson, Michael Swanwick, Alison Littlewood, Richard Calder and Angela Slatter.

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