Fearless by Allen Stroud

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Allen Stroud’s name will be well known to readers in this parish. He is currently BSFA Chair and has long been prominent in genre circles. His latest novel has been positively reviewed, including in Amazing Stories, where Ernest Lilley recommended Fearless and observed that Stroud brings “a Clarkian feel that grounds the story in the best tradition of science fiction.”

Fearless is, by flavour, not only science fiction, but specifically, space opera. Space opera, as a subgenre, has arguably two sets of defining characteristics. There is its iconography of spaceships, colony worlds, disasters, piracy and spaceship battles. However, equally important are its tonal choices of larger-than-life characters, intrigue, extravagant settings and fast-paced plotting.  Which Brian Aldiss neatly captured in his term “widescreen baroque.”

While it is fallacious to say that space opera is enjoying a renaissance (as it never went away) it is true to say that prominent names, including James S.A. Corey, Charles Stross and Ann Leckie, have boosted space opera and broadened its appeal. They built on the founding ideas of the original space opera and the popularity of the New Space Opera that came after it.  This number of books has inevitably crowded the field and the challenge for any writer is how to make their space opera stand out. 

Allen Stroud throws us into his version of the “widescreen baroque.” The novel is set in AD 2118 with habitats across the solar system (where humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars, Ceres and Europa). Fearless feels confidently New Space Opera, as it melds pyrotechnic action with ethical dilemmas and strong characterisation. This is particularly evident where Stroud challenges the male-dominated narratives of the past, to put a woman, Captain Ellisa Shann, in command of the space going vessel Khidr. Shann is one of the novel’s three first person protagonists (which also include two junior crew members, Johannson and Sellis). Shann is the most distinct of the narrators, in part because she was born without legs. Ordinarily, her story, or backstory, would include how she overcame this disability, or is defined by it.  However, Stroud has said that he “wanted to portray a disabled character in space who was not attempting to overcome her disability.” Shann’s disability is a part of her, rather than all of her.

Khidr is a rescue ship and this feels like a distinct social point that Stroud makes. He is writing space opera, and enthusiastically opening its toybox for the reader. But he is not revelling in the violence of a warship. Khidr has been described by other reviewers as analogous to the coast guard or an emergency service and its purpose ordinarily, is to assist other vessels, rather than fight. New Space Opera is able to widen the narrative to include people like Shann, physically disabled but still capable, who are in space with altruistic intentions––rather than opportunistic ones.

The Khidr’s role also allows Fearless to explore similar motivations to the work of writers like Frederick Pohl and Alistair Reynolds, who have looked at blue collar workers living in space and looking to make a living rather than warriors and world-beaters. These are the people who do the unglamourous and necessary work that often gets overlooked in the widescreen baroque.

Fearless begins with a routine emergency when Shann receives a call for help from the spaceship The Hercules. They expect to offer routine assistance, but this soon leads the crew into an attempted mutiny and Shann into a political drama that spans the colony worlds. Stroud’s use of three revolving viewpoints offers differing perspectives on the mounting crises both on and off the ship.

Space opera is well known for the speed at which tension mounts and the range of the catastrophes that its characters face. In Fearless, the plot develops fast, with all the narrative acceleration and pyrotechnic action that we might expect. The Khidr deals with an onboard murder, external attack by an unidentified spaceship, and intrigue and battles across the solar system. 

This setup gives Stroud an opportunity to turn a fresh authorial eye to a number of familiar tropes. Cliques in the space-going Fleet, hidden colony worlds and a tantalising alien manifestation dating back to Apollo 10 all appear. This makes for a story that is both a high-octane adventure and a character study for each of the three viewpoint characters.

In terms of plotting, Stroud walks the tightrope of completing the arc of his characters’ story by the final page and also setting up a sequel. He puts in motion a number of threads (starting with that alien manifestation that Apollo 10 encountered in real life) and it would have been unwise to try to neatly tie off all of these strands (and dissatisfying to the reader). By the end of the novel, the Khidr has discovered and abandoned artifacts and several political players remain unmasked and still working against the Fleet. At the same time, Stroud brings his novel to a satisfying dramatic crescendo.

Lastly, a mention for a stylistic decision that Stroud made. This is his use of present tense.  Stroud has said that this was a deliberate choice, having experimented with the form at shorter length. Ultimately, he found that present tense added more immediacy and tension to his writing. While it can be off-putting to read a long work in present tense, Fearless may just be the right place for readers to start.

And if you like Fearless, more is on its way as Stroud is currently at work on a sequel.

Copyright Dev Agarwal.

A Diary in the Age of Water by Nina Munteanu

Reviewed by Paul Kincaid. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, drowns us all. Not quite what Brutus was trying to say, but a sentiment much closer to the common impulse of humankind. We are drawn to disasters and catastrophes, to worst-case scenarios and conspiracy theories. Even if the thing we dread the most is no more likely to occur than the thing we hope for most fervently, still it is the dread that seems to prevail. And so we tell ourselves tales of the end of the world and the hopelessness of existence, perhaps secretly believing that the more we detail the worst the less chance there is of the worst occurring.

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A sense of collective guilt runs through our fictions of a dying earth. At one point it might be nature, or perhaps more commonly god, reacting against the hubris of humanity. In time that became a common dread of the finger poised above the nuclear button. Nowadays, our visions of finality seem to fall into one of two variants. Either we dread the failure of the technology we have become so reliant on, as in Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (2018) or The Silence by Don DeLillo (2020); or we dread the failure of our ecology. Since the natural disaster that is climate change is most commonly caused by human technology, these two variants are perhaps not that far apart.

A Diary in the Age of Water by the Canadian author and environmental activist, Nina Munteanu, clearly belongs in the second camp. It is a step-by-step guide to the way that human malfeasance, greed, and ignorance exhaust the water that we all rely upon for our very existence. One of Munteanu’s recent works, Water Is … (2016), is a non-fiction account of the role that water plays in every aspect of our lives. The influence of that earlier work in shaping Munteanu’s new novel is illustrated by the frequency with which the phrase “water is …” is repeated throughout the work.

Except I hesitate over the word “novel”. I’m not exactly sure what this book is, but it has few of the novelistic virtues – well-drawn characters, story, sense of place – that we might normally expect to find. Apart from relatively brief opening and closing scenes set in an undefined but relatively distant future, the bulk of the book is made up of extracts from a diary written over a period of some 20 years starting in 2045. The author of the diary, Lynna, (like the author of the book) is a limnologist, someone who studies the relationship between lakes and rivers and their ecological context. As the diary opens, she is an academic at the University of Toronto whose work is sponsored and controlled by an outfit called CanadaCorp. CanadaCorp, it turns out, is really an American company owned by China, and it is concerned with channelling Canadian water to the drought-stricken USA, leaving Canada itself subject to severe water rationing. Despite Lynna’s tendency towards self-deception (during the course of the book she is apparently responsible for the firing of one colleague and indirectly for at least one murder) her doubts about her political masters grow until she is forced out of her job, only to watch as her daughter, Hilde, takes to dangerous but only vaguely described activism.

Outlined like this, the book might seem dramatic enough, but none of this is centre stage. There is nothing that might be considered dramatic that does not occur off-stage; and even the overall story I’ve imputed to the book is mostly drawn from reading between the lines. The entries in the so-called diary are not accounts of the events of the day, but are rather meditations on the behaviour of rivers and lakes and their impact on the surrounding environment. These are almost invariably couched in technical language that is not, for the most part, interpreted for a non-technical reader. Sometimes, particularly when they are given over to ferocious (and well-deserved) denunciations of the ecological policies of the Trump regime, these entries rise to the level of polemic. For the most part, however, they read like lectures aimed at undergraduates, particularly given their frequent and extensive quotes from academic texts on the subject, most consistently Limnology by Robert G, Wetzel (2001).

Typically, as we begin to suspect that Hilde’s actions might be giving the book a belated plot, the diary comes to an abrupt end and the scene jumps forwards decades to when a blue-skinned, four-armed girl who may be Hilde’s descendant is reading the diary. What happened in the interim, and how a blue-skinned, four-armed girl modelled on a Hindu deity is supposed to be the answer to surviving the environmental collapse caused by the loss of water is never made clear.

Ursula Le Guin talked about the lure of the pulpit, the writers who were more interested in expounding their ideas than in exploring them. Munteanu has succumbed to the lure of the lectern. She is so intent on layout out her scientific ideas about water that these ideas never acquire the novelistic weight of metaphor. They seem, therefore, divorced from the polemical aspects of the book. While the polemic, focused as it is upon the Trump presidency, a quarter of a century or more before the setting of the book, is similarly divorced from what passes for story here. There are interesting and important ideas underpinning the book, something that we should be paying urgent attention to. But the structure, a series of technical lectures pretending to be a polemic disguised as a novel, is not the best way to convey these ideas.

Copyright Paul Kincaid. All rights reserved.

From Our Archive: Meetings With Remarkable Men By Christopher Priest

This talk was first delivered at Novacon 9, in November 1979, and is reprinted from Vector 98, June 1980.

I have borrowed the title of my talk today from the Armenian mystic Gurdjieff, who wrote a semi-autobiographical account of his quest for knowledge and understanding. He sought out a number of philosophers and mystics, became their disciple, and absorbed their wisdom. I’m telling you this in the hope that it will set a high intellectual tone to this convention. In fact, it sets the intellectual tone of this talk exactly … because I’m bluffing. Not only have I not read Gurdjieff, but I haven’t even seen the film. However, it’s a good title, and it’s somewhere to begin.

When I first started to go to science fiction conventions I did so for very simple motives. I was a fan of science fiction. Or, to put it more accurately, I was a fan of certain writers who had published science fiction. When I went to Peterborough in 1964 I did so in the hope of meeting John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, J G Ballard, Robert Sheckley, Brian Aldiss … even, if I was very lucky, H G Wells. I wanted to be a science fiction writer, and I hoped that by rubbing shoulders with people like this that some of their talent might rub off on me. I soon discovered that if you rub shoulders with science fiction writers the only thing that’s likely to rub off on you is dandruff.

When I first thought about what I should say to you today I felt a slight sense of panic. It might come as something of a surprise to some of you, but this is the first time that I have ever given a talk at a convention. I’ve often taken part in panels — usually the sort where we set out to talk about literature and end up arguing about money — but never before have I been given a whole hour of the convention’s time.

I started to go to sf conventions because I was a fan, and to a large extent I continue to come to cons for fannish reasons. They are above all fannish events, and any writer who comes along has to do so more or less on fannish terms. I’m proud of the fact that I have maintained fannish links for more than fifteen years, and it was this that gave me a clue as to what I might be able to talk about today. I saw myself as a sort of latter-day Gurdjieff, passing through the sf world for fifteen years, in contact with the great minds. Perhaps, I thought, I could give you a series of anecdotes about the remarkable men I have met over the years, passing on to you what grains of wisdom, or dandruff, I have picked up. So, with this in mind, I started making a list. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Wyndham, John W Campbell, Frederick Pohl, Rob Holdstock … all these I have met. And, because in these liberated times remarkable men should really be called remarkable people, Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Leigh Brackett, Anne McCaffrey, Judith Merrill. The list extended indefinitely, easily filling an hour of your time.

But then, the more I thought about it, none of my meetings with remarkable men were all that remarkable. I could have told you about how my father-figure, Harry Harrison, cuffed me about the ear and said, “Get out of the way, you fucking fan.” Or how the very first words ever spoken to me by Arthur C Clarke were, “What about the variable albedo?” … something which to this day is worrying me. I could tell you how I stood next to Harlan Ellison, and loomed over him. Come to that, I could tell you how Douglas Adams stood next to me, and loomed over us both.

A reader’s experience of science fiction is, in a sense, a meeting with remarkable minds. It was this that first surprised me when I encountered sf. Through their work, I met, for the first time, writers who could show me a different way of seeing things, who were way above the mundane things in life and were getting on with a kind of fiction that made me think for myself. Years later, I came across a passage in an essay by George Orwell, which describes this feeling exactly. Orwell was describing the effect on him of reading H G Wells as a boy:

It was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H G Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to “get on or get out”, your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.

Orwell always has the ability to pinpoint a feeling exactly, and this describes the effect science fiction as a whole can have on people who come to it with open minds. I myself came to it with the open mind of adolescence, as many of us do. The ideas of science fiction work on two levels. Firstly, there is the element of surprise or novelty, and secondly there is the less specific quality of making us think for ourselves, of applying a freshness of approach to our own lives.

Continue reading “From Our Archive: Meetings With Remarkable Men By Christopher Priest”

Railhead by Philip Reeve

Review by Christopher Owen. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Nominated for the Carnegie Medal and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, Railhead and its sequel, Black Light Express, are set in a future where sentient trains travel the galaxy. The Great Network is an intergalactic railroad that connects planets across the universe through mysterious portals. It is controlled by the rich, and obsessed over by railheads, riders who travel for no reason other than to see strange and distant planets. Zen Starling is a railhead.  

Zen Starling is a thief. With a sick mother and an overworked sister, Zen steals so they can afford to survive. But he also does it for the adventure, hopping trains to escape the law and travel the universe in the process. When a mysterious stranger named Raven approaches Zen and offers to pay him a fortune to steal a mysterious box from the Emperor, Zen agrees to pose as a distant relative of the Emperor’s large family and board the Emperor’s train. He is accompanied by a motorik, a humanoid robot, named Nova, and on the train he befriends the Emperor’s daughter, Threnody Noon. After a series of mistakes, Zen and Nova are forced to destroy the Emperor’s train, killing many (including the Emperor himself) and fleeing as terrorist outlaws.

Railhead by [Philip Reeve]

Their adventures lead them to the answers of the secret history of the K-gates, the portals that allow the trains to travel across the universe. It is a widely held belief that the K-gates were built by the Guardians, Artificial Intelligence so powerful that they became like gods, worshipped by humanity through digital prayers. But the Guardians are hiding the true origins of the K-gates, and Raven knows that the answer lies with the mysterious box Zen has stolen for him. 

Meanwhile, Rail Marshal Lyssa Delius has decided that Threnody Noon will be the next Empress. But Lyssa Delius fully intends to control Threnody, and in turn the Great Network. This sets off a civil war, causing Threnody and her criminal servant Chandni Hansa to flee into hiding and inadvertently join Zen and Nova on their adventures to learn the truth about the origins of their intergalactic society. 

The two novels feature imaginative world building with fascinating societies, complex systems of power and intriguing characters. The majority of characters are people of colour, and several protagonists are queer, including a gender non-conforming robot, a gay soldier and an asexual criminal. The borders between who is a human, who is a machine and who is a god are played with in a society that is as diverse as it is oppressive. 

The first novel, Railhead, is set in a universe in which a complex and unfair system of power pervades in the background of a thrilling adventure set on several different planets. The characters are well developed and interesting, and the story takes many surprising twists and turns. While it is unfortunate the book features the tired trope of a human boy falling in love with a robot girl, the book otherwise features some really unique and interesting characteristics in a richly imagined universe. 

Unfortunately, the sequel, Black Light Express, falls off the rails. This book really wants to be two books. The plot is unfocussed with a disconnecting structure. The ending feels incredibly rushed, and instead of tackling the system of power in a nuanced way, the story takes an easy and violent out that leaves several social issues unresolved. 

Railhead deserves all of its praise and award nominations, but its sequel, Black Light Express, is rather disappointing. Yet both books feature diverse characters, exciting adventures, and strange new worlds, demonstrating Philip Reeve’s famous imagination. 

Copyright Christopher Owen. All rights reserved