BSFA Book Club: Winter Song by Colin Harvey

Earlier in the year, Angry Robot very kindly sent a copy of Winter Song to all members of the BSFA. Ah ha, I thought, this represents an opportunity. (I’m not Niall, by the way; I’m Martin Lewis, the new reviews editor for Vector.)

I imagine most people reading this like to talk about books and talking is best when it is a conversation, as was proved by the success of last year’s Torque Control short story club. However, one of the things most reviewers like to see (but rarely get) is engagement with their reviews. The problem is that there are a lot of books out there which means that – unless a book has a real buzz about it – it is unlikely that a lot of people will be reading a particular novel at the same time. Regardless of how you feel about the Harry Potter series, there was something quite exciting about the sheer density of debate every time the latest book came out.

So I thought I would try and take advantage of the unusual situation of a large group of SF fans all having the same book at the same time to try and recreate that sort of debate.

Winter Song is Colin Harvey’s fifth novel – his sixth, Damage Time is out at the end of the month – and Angry Robot have given it an uncompromising tagline: “Rock-hard SF adventure. No one here gets out alive.” They further suggested you file it under [Starship Crash / Abandoned Colonists / Alien Slaughter / Hell Planet] hammering home the impression that this is going to be a very grim story. So what did the reviewers think?

Mark Chitty at Walker Of Worlds:

Winter Song is another title in the strong list Angry Robot Books has released since it’s inception earlier this year. The new imprint has had good reviews for its titles and when I saw this one coming up for an October release I was very interested – any sci-fi set in a future where humanity has expanded across the galaxy is something I want to hear more about. Winter Song was not quite what I expected, but it delivered an entertaining read in an unforgiving environment. Following Karl Allman as he crash lands on a forgotten and primitive colony world where the terraforming looks like it’s going backwards, Winter Song is a novel that has more than a few surprises up its sleeve. I was expecting to walk into this with a more typical human vs alien world theme where there were many strange and wonderful creatures. What I got was a story focused on human characters that developed and grew with each situation they face.

Jared at Pornokitsch

Although Winter Song still isn’t the cutting-edge science fiction that the imprint promises, it is a genuinely solid effort that made my morning commute a lot shorter. Literature, it ain’t – but Winter Song combines good storytelling and strong (but not overwhelming) world-building to make for an entertaining read. It doesn’t push any boundaries – if anything, this is a throwback to the Ace or DAW era. But that’s no bad thing… For a small paperback, this is a book with some big topics. Between the front and the back covers, Karl stumbles across a second tribe of lost colonists, conducts a detailed exploration of space-Viking culture, gets mauled by a wild bestiary of alien critters, hikes across a frozen wilderness and saves the world from magnetic mangling. Makes for a long day. And, in the breaks, Karl explains the rest of the universe to his Girl Friday.

Anthony G Williams on the BSFA Forum:

The first three-quarters of the story is unremittingly grim as Allman first struggles to resolve his inner conflict while working with the settlers and then tracks across a bleak wilderness, at risk from wild animals and trolls and pursued by a posse led by an angry head man. Although the SF background is always there, this part of the story has more of the flavour of a fantasy. The pace and mood change when he arrives at the beacon and discovers what it is, and the tale then becomes a tense SF drama with a spectacular, if open-ended, conclusion. The story is well-enough written, and the complex relationships between Allman, Loki and the settlers sufficiently intriguing, to carry me through a grimness which could otherwise have become tiresome.

James Maxey at Intergalactic Medicine Show:

First, let me get my big gripe out of my system. Winter Song by Colin Harvey has one of the least inviting opening chapters to a novel that I’ve ever encountered… It’s a very busy chapter, tossing out a lot of information about the ship, about Karl’s biological and technological enhancements that make his survival likely, and a brief data dump on the solar system he’s in and the planet he’s going to try to reach. The one thing it utterly lacks is anything more than a hint of who Karl is or any reason anyone should care that any of this is happening to him. I was pretty much ready to give up and move on to the next novel in my stack, but I happened to read on a few pages into the second chapter, and, lo, I was interested… On the whole, a fun read, if you make it past the clunky first chapter.

Shivari on Amazon:

I felt that the early stages where Karl is struggling with psychosis simply weren’t very convincing. It was all rather simplistic, mostly repetitions of references to Oedipus; the sex & mothering theme was a bit too obvious and heavy-handed. I started to get rather irritated by it, and was very happy when Karl reached some kind of stability. The book then presents with another issue of identity, before turning into a rather cliched space-opera. I think it was basically a good idea, but I don’t think that the author quite had the skill to pull it off. He wanted to pack too much in, perhaps?

Keith Harvey at Red Rook Review:

In conclusion, I was duly impressed with Winter Song. The prose is direct, strong, and serviceable; the characters are clearly drawn, the world of Isheimur completely realized, and the narrative convincing and satisfying. Ultimately, I was struck by the complexity of the novel. Its complexity, however, does not arise from the plot; it is rather simple. Instead, it is the magnitude of detail that supports the world-building. Harvey has succeeded in creating a fascinating planet with a unique environment, exotic fauna and flora, a medieval culture with its social constructs, traditions, and structures, and three humanoid species, not to mention several off-world cultures.

Now it’s over to you. If you aren’t a BSFA member but have read the novel please come and join in. If you aren’t a BSFA member, haven’t read it but want to get an idea about the book, Angry Robot have made a series of extracts available on blogs like Grasping For The Wind.

16 thoughts on “BSFA Book Club: Winter Song by Colin Harvey

  1. My initial thought after finishing it was “If you liked this book, you may also like: Consorts of Heaven by Jaine Fenn”. Both came out in the middle of last year.

    Their core plots bear so much in common.
    They both feature a man from space who has crashed landed with no supplies on the outer edge of planet from which there appears to be no route back to space. He is looked after by an outsider single mother. They then spend three quarters of the book trekking across the planet, in what many reviews have said feels more like a fantasy novel.

    That said they are different novels in interesting ways too.

  2. I too was impressed by the psychological scope and depth of “Winter Song.” The world building mentioned above acquires another meaning for me, i.e. a high density of mental detail. The beginning and end might be standard SF fare, but such mind-building is more satisfying than usual. The planet with its degraded environment and technology is quite well-described. If one reads the Icelandic “Egil’s Saga,” one will see how well Mr Harvey has captured the right aspects of Pre-Christian Iceland to fit into the givens of his world.

    I have one concern about Ragnar. Towards the beginning of the book he seems to know a lot about the planet, its history, and its oldish technology. Just what does he know, and how does he know this? I cannot decide if his knowledge base is typical for the population, if his position of leadership has something to do with this, or if he’s simply a local whose voice we hear so often. It might have something to do with access to the Oracle. But no work of literature (for that’s what the book is) should be expected to explain everything. Still, I would have liked to know more about Isheimur’s partial transformation.

  3. If one reads the Icelandic “Egil’s Saga,” one will see how well Mr Harvey has captured the right aspects of Pre-Christian Iceland to fit into the givens of his world.

    Harvey has a long and interesting piece on the influences on the novel and the fact that both ancient and modern Icelandic texts inspired him:

    I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that Winter Song was inspired by the Icelandic Sagas, but that the highly specialized and archaic structure of the Sagas renders them impossible to turn into an SF novel. But modern Icelandic fiction has that same very stark, unadorned narrative that characterizes the Sagas, typified by the fiction of Arnaldur Indridasson, who was awarded the Crime Writers Association’s Gold Dagger Award for Silence of the Grave in 2005. It’s a bleak but moving narrative in which a detective is haunted by the childhood loss of his father who walked to get help from an accident in a blizzard and never returned. It captures perfectly the harshness of a beautiful but murderous landscape which kills on average one tourist a year, and an unknown number of locals, caught in snap-blizzards and avalanches.

  4. cDave: That said they are different novels in interesting ways too.

    Do you want to say a bit more about these differences?

    It is strange coincidence because this structure and framing – both were presented as space operas but soon reveal themselves to be planetary romances – strikes me as quite unfashionable. Although thinking about it, it is something we have seen from other writers recently; for example, Matter by Iain Banks. Has the New Space Opera run its course? Is the current wave of British epic fantasy influencing science fiction writers?

  5. Angry Robot have given it an uncompromising tagline: “Rock-hard SF adventure. No one here gets out alive.” They further suggested you file it under [Starship Crash / Abandoned Colonists / Alien Slaughter / Hell Planet]

    As Martin notes, this isn’t exactly what you get, is it? The science is not particularly hard, characters do get out of here alive, and “alien slaughter” and “hell planet” make Winter Song sound much more mindless than it is, not to mention less space-opera-y. I’m actually fine with this: I don’t think New Space Opera should die, particularly, but I’ve been pining for more planetary romances — that is, science fictionally thought out alternative societies and settings — for a while. And so I preferred the first half of the novel, when the focus is more on the society than on the adventure. George, I wasn’t sure whether Ragnar’s knowledge was typical either; I’m inclined to believe that most of the settlers are comfortable with the idea that their world is not the only world, but that Ragnar knows a bit more about the galactic political situation thanks, as you say, to the Oracle.

    That said, I lean towards Shivari’s view that the book’s ambition outstrips its achievement. In principle, for instance, I very much like the approach outlined in the essay Martin links above, about keeping most of the universe off-stage; in practice, the glimpses we got didn’t feel distinctive enough, I started to find the backdrop very stagey, less of a fully realised setting. Similarly, I’m glad Harvey took the risk of using second person for Loki’s sections, and occasionally I think it’s quite effective; but as the novel progresses, I’m not sure I’m convinced by the way Loki’s voice becomes integrated into the main narrative. Agree/disagree, anyone?

  6. Another way of saying that ambition outstrips achievement is that there was always plenty to think about even in the passages where the exposition was a bit more limited.

    I read this when it arrived (in early january) and don’t have access to my copy at moment but I did enjoy it as a solid genre tale with extra-added thought. he could have made more of it but it did well enough for the read through and i can still remmember quite a lot. So good as far as it went and I think he may well go on to write bigger better books.

    I was intrigued/amused by the sexuality angles of Allman’s previous offworld life. I’d love a bit more information on why foursomes are more stable than threesomes, for instance (it doesn’t necessarily follow) and I particularly loved the bit about how J (can’t remmember the name – but he is the other male in the foursome) was good-looking enough to overcome Karl’s otherwise strongly hetero leanings!! Wonderful! I would suggest that in a society which routinely accommodated threesomes, foursomes, same-sex combinations etc, that heteronormativity would have long subsided. But perhaps we should read it as an explanation for the reader. However, I don’t want to sound as though I’m carping: i think the book should be applauded for having this background and there is something appropriate about calling a character ‘Allman’ and having him undergo a kind of bipolar breakdown and also making it clear that he is bisexual. There is a kind of realism about masculinity which is now pervading stock genre titles. The fact that books like this and Retribution Falls are developing a self-awareness is a positive and exciting development even if there is still a long way to go.

  7. @Niall I might not fully agree with you about Loki’s integration into the main narrative. I am not always a careful reader and have a bad memory for plots to boot. The duality Allman-Loki confused me at first, but the distinction became easier to grasp as the book progressed. It worked for me precisely because of the consistency with which “you” is employed. As soon as I noticed this I had less trouble and could usually feel the differences in the two minds. But I agree that the integration isn’t perfect.

  8. Nick:

    Another way of saying that ambition outstrips achievement is that there was always plenty to think about even in the passages where the exposition was a bit more limited.

    And yet another way, a perhaps slightly less generous way, is to say that the book’s heart is in the right place but the execution didn’t always measure up. As you say, the book should be applauded for its approach to sexuality, but it does only go so far … similarly, it’s nice that Allman (and yes, I love the name as well) is a Hindu, but the depiction doesn’t go much beyond occasional invocations of Vishnu, Shiva etc.

    What do we make of the relationship between Allman and Bera, and the cultural conflict the two represent in general? Again, in principle, and fairly often in practice, I like Bera’s characterisation, which gives her her own identity and goals:

    Karl had an image of her poring over the maps by the light of a candle […] “Didn’t they miss the paper?” Karl smiled to make the question a joke. “I thought that everything was in short supply?”

    He may have been joking, but Bera took it seriously. “It’s moss-paper, recycled to the point where it’s all but unusable. And I made sure that I took the very worst pieces over the years,” she said. “And I limited myself to one piece a week.” She stared at him levelly. “Do you think that I’ve only recently become unhappy? You’re the excuse I’ve waited years for, to actually give me the nerve to walk away from Skorradular.” (206)

    On the other hand, I don’t think this exchange, after he rescues her from drowning, and she’s reacted strongly against his attempted mouth to mouth when she regains consciousness, works at all:

    “What else can I say? I’m fine.”

    That in itself worried Karl slightly. Sometimes happiness — or at least quasi-drunken high spirits — and light-headedness were symptoms of hypoxia. And he had no idea of the effects of the gases. Inhalation was a frustratingly inexact science. A dose that could leave one person unscathed could flatten another.

    But Bera was adamant that she was OK, and Karl couldn’t really argue. He mentally shrugged, and reclaimed the horses, trying not to feel hurt at the violence of Bera’s reaction to the mouth-to-mouth.

    He led Grainur back to her, and offered the reins.

    She didn’t look at him but mumbled, “Thanks.”

    Karl sighed. “I’m guessing that you were raped, Bera. And I am truly, truly sorry for whatever happened.”

    “I don’t want to talk about it.”

    “But,” Karl said, holding up a finger to interrupt, “I can’t spend the whole journey guessing what may or may not offend you, Bera. You needed resuscitating.”

    “You could have leaned on my chest–”

    “And you’d have accused me of feeling your tits!”

    Still not looking at him, Bera opened her mouth, then closed it again. (211)

    I think this is the book at its worst. It’s needlessly informative on hypoxia, repetitive when it doesn’t need to be about Bera’s reaction, and for me at least misjudges both what Karl can reasonably conclude from the situation, and Bera’s reaction to his conclusion (not to mention the register of the dialogue: tits just doesn’t feel like the word Bera would use). It’s the gap between how I think this scene is meant to be received and how I perceived it that hurts.

    George: I think it’s partly that second person is tricky to manage, and the tenses doesn’t always shift as completely as it should.

  9. in practice, the glimpses we got didn’t feel distinctive enough, I started to find the backdrop very stagey, less of a fully realised setting.

    Unfortunately, I agree. To a large extent, the framing universe is made up of placeholders. For example, Bruce Sterling seems to have completely embedded a split future for humanity in New Space Opera with his Shaper/Mechanist universe. However, the Traditional and Radicals of Harvey are a much weaker take on this than, say, the Demarcists and Conjoiners of Alastair Reynolds (right down to the names).

    This chimes in again with what you and Nick were saying about sexuality and religion. It is great that the default future is no longer White, straight and Christian but at the same time how much different is the depiction of Allman than if he had been?

    there is something appropriate about calling a character ‘Allman’ and having him undergo a kind of bipolar breakdown and also making it clear that he is bisexual.

    Though there was perhaps one too many references to the size of his cock…

  10. Niall: yes, i’ve obviously forgotten all the wince-laden passages and just remembered the better bits. But, in response to both you and Martin (point taken!), i think the thing to remember is that although there is a long way to go, the point is that the trail has to be blazed. I don’t think there is an off-the-peg model for this kind of mass male self-awareness as written by men. The road is going to be hard and littered with comic hostages to fortune. What I think Harvey is trying to do is marry a blokeish pub sensibility with something more open and it is quite difficult to do (maybe impossible). Steph Swainston does something similar by having very modern louche-ness (?) in her jeans-wearing eye-linered fantasy heroes but that is far more explicitly camp than blokeish and she is also a fantastic writer. So, yes, Harvey could do better but I’m inclined not to be too harsh under circumstances.

  11. @Niall About our agreement concerning Ragnar’s knowledge. If I remember correctly–I can’t find the quote–Coeo says that he wants to learn more in order to help his people. That’s admirable and it is quite possible that the author intends this attitude to contrast with one of Ragnar’s that is (I think) never expressed. Ragnar does nothing with whatever extra knowledge he has. Nor does it occur to him to attempt to use it. The references to the Oracle aren’t followed up. Ragnar’s ideas come from his group’s past and its conceptions of Icelandic tradition. Coeo becomes future-oriented very quickly, whereas Ragnar has difficulty believing that Coeo is sentient! There might be a subtextual message here about racism and other forms of prejudice, one that shows the dangers and wrongness of being even partially blinkered.

  12. Martin: you’re dead right about the “split future” meme becoming embedded in recent space opera. I’m not sure if Sterling was necessarily there first but he certainly made really effective and powerful use of the idea, one that seemed perfectly plausible when those stories came out, given the Russian/American geopolitics of the time. That said, I hope I’ve been up front about my indebtedness to Sterling, and to the Shaper/Mech sequence in particular.

  13. Representative of technologically advanced space-faring culture gets stranded on planet with less advanced technology but complex social structure (including unconventional mating arrangements). Representative connects with outcast of native society and together they trek across dangerous frozen waste to find a way to effect rescue.

    Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969. Still sounds like the best in this category.

  14. Postscript: I went over to the publisher’s site and read all the excerpts of Winter Song, which correspond to the first two and a half chapters. For my taste, the exposition is clunky, the dialogue cringe-worthy and the setting generic.

    Incidentally, if anyone wants to see well-thought out, interesting, stable foursomes, read the stories of sedoretu — again by Le Guin: A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Mountain Ways, Unchosen Love (the last two in Birthday of the World).

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