Lost Gods by Micha Yongo

Reviewed by David Lascelles. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

It is sometimes weird how coincidence works. I went to the launch of Lost Gods in Manchester, Micah’s home city, on a mission to take some photos of the event and decided on the strength of the reading to buy a copy and get the man himself to scribble in it. The next morning, I get the list of BSFA books to review and prominent on that list was Lost Gods.

Naturally, I leapt on the chance to review it. After all, I’d already read the first chapter so I was already ahead of the game.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

Lost Gods is set in a fantasy realm that is based on stories that Micah loved as a child. This means a mix of Middle Eastern and East African mythology mixed in with a number of typical fantasy ideas. The novel introduces us to a ‘Sovereignty’ of different countries. Each of them, apart from one, conquered and brought under the aegis of one Sharif or Sovereign hundreds of years ago. The exception, Dumea, maintains an uneasy independence thanks mostly to it being the location of a famous library and the clever diplomacy of a succession of Stewards. There is no religion in the Sovereignty. The first Sharif banned worship of the gods and killed all the priests.

Our story follows Neythan, a teenage assassin. He is a member of a secret order of assassins based vaguely on the real world Hashashin, called the Shedaim. This brotherhood has been used by the Sovereign for centuries to prevent rebellion and unrest and to basically keep the Sovereignty together. We join Neythan as he completes his training and is about to embark on his first ‘decree’ (assassination) along with his fellow recent trainees – Arianna, Yannick, Josef and Daneel. However, things do not go exactly as planned and Neythan ends up on the run, accused of murdering one of his friends.

What follows is a richly written political thriller set in a fantasy kingdom. Imagine the Bourne films only set in a fantasy Persia rather than modern day Europe and with Bourne replaced by a teenage boy looking for the answers to why people are trying to kill him. Initially, I found some of the political sections a little tedious as they seemed to bear no real relevance to Neythan’s plight, which is the exciting central plot and I was keen to see how that progressed. However, as the layers of the deeper background built and the relevance of those scenes began to emerge, you start to see the full story develop. Some of this I was able to predict. However, there were still surprises and twists to be seen. 

Neythan himself is a relatable character. Far more mature and competent than many teenagers put in similar situations but that is testament to the training he has endured, which has turned him into an independent person. This isn’t Hogworts for assassins, no trustworthy tutors to help out, just Neythan and some people he meets and never fully trusts. He still manages to have some naivete. In fact, you see him develop through the story from loyal assassin to rogue operative reacting to what others are doing to him but not really knowing what is going on and finally to a character who takes control of their own fate. The other characters are also well written and have solid personalities and backgrounds.

Overall, this is an entertaining debut novel and shows much promise for the sequels and is part of an exciting and long overdue recent trend for the stories of Africa and the Middle East in fantasy.

Copyright David Lascelles. All rights reserved

Zero Bomb by M T Hill

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

You wait years for a horribly plausible novel about imminent civilisational collapse, and then two come along at once. In terms of topicality, M T Hill’s Zero Bomb can – and should – be read as a companion piece alongside Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail, dealing as it does with an end-of-the-world inflicted by misguided infrastructural terrorism. But these are wildly different books in almost every other way: Zero Bomb is more focussed on the sociological dimension, more concerned with character and the role of alienation and bad-news anomie in producing would-be world-enders; it’s also structurally stranger, comprising three distinct elements which might easily have been bulked out into separate novels in their own right. (Indeed, one section *is* a novel in its own right, albeit one reduced to a synoptic summary of itself by the secret resistance network for whom it is both gospel and recruitment tool.) But don’t expect a fat tome; Zero Bomb is surprisingly short, refreshingly so in an age of wrist-snapping epics – the sort of length that you could realistically scarf down in an afternoon.

First we follow the fall from grace (and sanity) of Remi, a naturalised European immigrant in the north of a bleak and brutal post-Brexit Britain, as he quite literally runs away from his life and seeks out a new career in a new town, riding courier bikes and delivering clandestine dead-tree manuscripts across a near-future London that reads like Jeff Noon remixing Jeff Bezos, a glitchy bit-rotted prospectus for the “smart city” that we’re constantly told is coming to solve all our problems. Remi’s recruitment into what he sees as a resistance movement is achieved in a manner which leaves the reader sympathetic to both him and it, before the novel hinges on the heavily excerpted (and convincingly anachronistic) novel of robot uprising already mentioned. 

The second half of the book switches characters and locations to follow the life of Remi’s estranged daughter, whiling away her late teens on an allotment of refuseniks, harvesting biotechnological replacement limbs for an all-but-vestigial National Health Service. Here, in a small northern town far from the political or technological centre of anything, as sympathies become harder to sustain, the threads draw themselves into a terrifying tangle as the book (and its world) take a definite turn for the terminal… or maybe not? As in Infinite Detail, there’s some shafts of hope at the close of Zero Bomb, but they pierce a dark and gloomy future that could realistically result from our increasing over-reliance upon the technologies of automation and algorithmic analysis, and from the solipsistic alienation that is their seemingly inevitable consequence.

Hill’s obvious authorial affinity for the hinterlands combines with his concerns for the intimate human cost of surveillance capitalism (and the ease with which it enables the scared and the angry to manipulate others, as well as themselves) to mark out Zero Bomb as something quite special and (dare I say it?) distinctly British, as well as more knowingly of-its-time than science fiction usually dares to be. The end of the world is always a local and personal experience, taking different forms depending on who it’s happening to, and the technological apocalypse of Zero Bomb feels significantly secondary to the very personal tragedies of its three focal figures, even as it offers a caution to a nation on the brink of a socio-political breach of unprecedented scale and depth: decisions made now in haste and frustration may never be undone, and indeed might be the undoing of everything they were meant to protect.

It’s not a happy book – though perhaps the epilogue will sweeten the last few sips? – but it’s a thrilling, twisted trip across this septic isle, and an exemplar of a sort of science fiction which, at times, has seemed all but extinct. Do yourself a favour and get a copy right away, while there’s still light by which to read it.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

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

You might know Tim Maughan for his BSFA Award-nominated story “Havana Augmented”, or for his lengthening list of by-lines on articles about the imminent future. (Or perhaps for his caustic yet compassionate presence on the birdsite.) But from now on, you should know him for his debut novel Infinite Detail, a tapestry of near-term prognostication that stuns you with its contextual implications, while its streetwise prose gets to work on picking your emotional pockets. 

“You would say that, Paul,” I hear you mutter, “he’s a friend of yours.” Well, that’s true – but you should see the thousands of words of seething envy I discarded in the process of drafting this review, and read some of the blurbs from writers far better known than me. I say it because I believe it; if I didn’t, I’d say nothing. It’s a question of trust: do you consider me honest, or am I just another algorithm in the surveillance-consumerism panopticon? (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Infinite Detail

This is a central issue in Infinite Detail, which is – at least in part – about the mediation of social relations by global infrastructural networks of inscrutable complexity. It’s not just about who (or rather what) you trust to recommend things, but who you trust to keep you safe, to keep the lights on and the shops stocked. In a very-near-future Bristol, a gang of smart young techies and artists have reached such a point of distrust that they start trying to build an alternative system… and in the same world, a handful of years later, everyone is dealing with the consequences of another group of smart young techies having decided that the best solution was to throw a global kill-switch and hope it all comes out in the wash. (Spoilers: it doesn’t all come out in the wash.)

Infinite Detail is an angry, tragic plea for a more intimate and local sort of connection than we’ve become accustomed to. It’s perhaps also nostalgic for a lost past in a way that might seem unimaginable coming from a relatively young writer… until you think back to the 1990s (if you can remember them) and recall, with a sharp lurch of anxiety and confusion, how different the world now seems. But that’s actually an illusion, and Maughan and I (and others of our generation) are just now getting our own serving of the futureshock that so animated middle-aged people in the 1970s, the golden age of the critical utopia in sf. That movement was a bitter yet hopeful flinch from a transformation which must have felt sudden and totalising, but was really just the first flourish of a long, slow three-card trick: ARPANET, microprocessors, containerised logistics. Infinite Detail is about the end of that game, which not even the house can win in the long run.

It’s not unremittingly dark; there’s as much hope here as in Gibson’s The Peripheral, if not more. But in both cases, it’s a hope that emerges from Pandora’s box, among a flood of horrors which cannot be re-contained. The ghost at the feast is climate change, of course – but it’s in no way a work of denial. Instead of using the warming world as his backdrop, Maughan has foregrounded the global machine whose consequences are climate change: the optical fibres and sub-arctic server farms, yes, but also the mines and power stations, the retail palaces and container ports, the logistical systems which create and distribute the disposable crap that arrives to fill our jam-packed lives before we know we want it. 

It’s a novel of failed utopias, then: the technological utopia of Silicon Valley, whose gloss is turning to tarnish, but also the counter-utopia which is its negation. Maughan locates this latter in Stokes Croft, the gentrified but defiantly countercultural zone of Bristol which is his personal Mecca: a vibrant strip of street art, galleries and hipster hangouts whose cool is nonetheless parasitic upon the overlooked poverty of the city’s underclass, from whom much of its now-mainstream cultural cachet – hip-hop, drum’n’bass, grime, graffiti – was originally appropriated long ago. 

It’s about the failure of utopias, but it’s also about why utopias fail: about the cruel efficiency of networks, and the role of power and significance therein, but also about the cruelty of removing them suddenly without an adequate plan for their replacement. It’s billed as a novel of “the end of the internet”, but it’s important to understand that “the internet”, despite the reductive way we talk about it, isn’t just Twitter and Snapchat and smartphones but, well, everything – the systems that feed us, light us, keep us warm and connected, keep us from a life of clothes patched and re-patched over decades, from jerk-seasoned seagull roasted over an oil-drum barbecue. And it’s scary, because it’s true… though I wonder if it reads as far-fetched to anyone who hasn’t spent the last decade learning how this stuff all fits together.

But therein lies the redemption of the bits of the book that can feel a little like lectures on the fragility of our hypermediated just-in-time-and-always-on society: in a sense, this is the hardest of hard science fiction. There’s nothing in Infinite Detail which isn’t plausible as well as possible; Maughan knows networks and supply chains inside out, and that knowledge is reflected in the Janus faces of awe and horror with which the novel considers the crystallisation of a world which we don’t yet quite inhabit, but are nonetheless rushing toward with arms open and eyes closed. So read it as a cautionary tale – but read it also as a searing debut novel from a writer who couldn’t be more relevant to these troubled and troubling times. You can trust me on that.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

There’s something fascinating about the “Time War” scenario which we find in, for instance, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and the stories from the 50s and 60s published as The Change War, or Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time. In El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s short but emotionally-packed novel we get something similar to Leiber, in which the Change War is fought by two forces, the “Spiders” and the “Snakes” who never quite reach the dynamic of “good guys” versus “bad guys”. Here, we have two agents in a battle fought throughout tangled braids of human alternate-history/parallel-worlds between the Agency and the Garden: whose characteristics—material, technological, militaristic versus organic, insidious, ruthless—become part of the conflict. Following a cataclysmic battle, the Agency operative, Red, savours her victory, and finds ambiguity in it. She picks up a letter from her Garden adversary Blue; a mocking taunt to an opponent, to which, in a sense that this is a tournament and a tease, she replies in the same vein.

This Is How You Lose the Time War

And thus begins another always-fascinating scenario, the battle between two opponents in a war who come to find a kindred-spirit in the enemy: the secret-agents who find in the to-and-fro of the “game” a personal satisfaction more attractive than ideological commitment. Already there is much to like in the novel, and as Red and Blue exchange ever more ingenious letters and self-revelations after each of their confrontations, this becomes a love story playfully referencing Ghengis Khan, Atlantis, Romeo and Juliet, the poet Thomas Chatterton, Wordsworth’s “Marvellous Boy”, and the Russian Front during World War Two (or at least, versions of all these, and more.) From mocking adversaries, Red and Blue become passionate if distanced lovers. At one point, Red writes “I veer rhapsodic: my prose purples”, and there are certainly times when playfulness hovers over whimsey without (for this reader at least), ever tipping in the wrong direction. There are enough asides, mini-digressions (Naomi Mitchison’s novel Travel Light at one point becomes part of the conversation) and sharply-if-briefly imagined alternative “strands” to make up a dozen novels in the Leiber/Anderson tradition, but the focus is upon the tension and teasing which never stops until it becomes clear that their superiors suspect that something is going on between their top agents, and something drastic is going to have to happen. 

We know from our extra-generic reading that secret agents groom and attempt to “turn” each other. This is a novel of traps and tangles, duels and seduction, as if a writer of eighteenth-century epistolary romances had suddenly discovered Golden Age science fiction, though it is considerably sharper and more snapshot than the one and much, much more lyrical than the other. The methods with which the “letters” are written and exchanged are themselves beautifully and baroquely imagined, and worth the price of admission. But as we progress towards the inevitable denouement, there are scenes and evocations that are the distinct opposite from the cuteness and sentimentality that a brief summary of the plot might suggest. You suddenly find yourself seeing “Red” and “Blue” as characters rather than symbols in a highly literary confection, and actively want to see how this will work out. At this point, the authors deliver, and we find that we have been reading not a series of highly-wrought vignettes, but a carefully plotted novel. I would not be surprised to see it among the competitors for at least one major award; nor would I be particularly surprised to see it waved aside as “too clever for its own good”. So I shall come down with an opinion: this is almost certainly the best book I have read this year and one that I intend to re-read for the third time. Behind the playfulness, there’s a dark humour, an aspiration for passion, and, yes, a science-fictional inventiveness that comes along too rarely.

(c) Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

See also:

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Q: Spot the year of first publication (+ or – 20 years):

“Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”

A: It comes from an essay, ‘Darwin Among the Machines’, published in the June 1863 issue of a New Zealand magazine called The Press. Ascribed to ‘Cellarius’ but actually written by Samuel (Erewhon) Butler. Change ‘mechanical’ to ‘electronic’ and ‘machines’ to ‘computers’ and only the slightly archaic style would give the game away. Mike Ashley’s Introduction – nay, scholarly monograph – is full of half-forgotten facts like that. I enjoyed it even more than some of the stories, which were a tad over-familiar to an old-timer like me: ‘The Machine Stops’ (Forster); ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (Asimov); ‘Two-Handed Engine’ (Moore & Kuttner). Still good stuff, though.

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (British Library Science Fiction Classics) by [Mike Ashley]

The earliest anthology I know of SF stories about artificial intelligence in general as opposed to humanoid robots in particular is Science Fiction Thinking Machines (1954), edited by Groff Conklin. None of those stories appear in Ashley’s book, which makes it an interesting thematic companion piece.

Ashley takes a more chronological approach than Conklin, with Adeline Knapp’s ‘The Discontented Machine’ (1894) – about a machine that calls its own wildcat strike – being the earliest (and also one of the best). Along the way, we are treated to such reclaimed treasures as ‘Automata’ (S. Fowler Wright: 1929) and ‘Rex’ (Harl Vincent: 1934). J. J. Connington’s ‘Danger in the Dark Cave’ (1938) fuses Golden Age detective fiction with what would now be called AI: “My view is that once you give an organism – be it machine or anything else – the power of appreciating stimuli and coping with them, you produce something akin to intelligent life.” With the instinct of self-preservation, and the means to fight back. ‘Efficiency’ (Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H. Davis: 1917) is a quirky little one-act play.

For what it’s worth, my favourite selection is ‘But Who Can Replace a Man’ (1958), by the late and always to be lamented Brian W. Aldiss. I’ll leave you to decide where ‘menace’ comes into it. The most recent – comparatively speaking – story, Arthur C. Clarke’s fiendish ‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ (1964), was read and well-remembered by the young Tim (www) Berners-Lee. But the most precociously prophetic story is ‘A Logic Named Joe’ (1946) which deals with ‘logics’ (i.e. personal computers) and something called the ‘tank’ (i.e. the Internet). If you’ll pardon the slightly archaic style:

“Does it occur to you, fella, that the tank has been doin’ all the computin’ for every business office for years? It’s been handlin’ the distribution of ninety-four per cent of all telecast programs, has given out all information on weather, plane schedules; special sales, employment opportunities and news; has handled all person-to-person contacts over wires and recorded every business conversation and agreement – Listen, fella! Logics changed civilization. Logics are civilization! If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run! I’m getting hysterical myself and that’s why I’m talkin’ like this! [SEXISM ALERT.] If my wife finds out my paycheck is thirty credits a week more than I told her and starts hunting for that redhead – “

But it’s all extravagant fiction – right, fella? It couldn’t possibly become cold fact tomorrow! Excuse me, fella. My logic is calling me…

(c) Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger and Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson

Review by L.J. Hurst. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The British Library Classics series began with detective fiction and has extended to Science Fiction. As with the detective stories it has two strands: firstly, collections of golden age short stories (Mike Ashley edits the sf series), and secondly, re-discovered novels. The sf novel series is developing at a slower rate than its crime equivalent, this time we have two novelists and two novels from different decades.

Muriel Jaeger’s The Question Mark was published in 1926. It is the better known of these two classics, as Jaeger is discussed in depth in Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (over thirty years old but still the best reference work on this subject). Apart from the attractive cover it comes with a facsimile of the acceptance letter from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and an “Introduction” by Dr Mo Moulton, as well as Muriel Jaeger’s “Author’s Introduction”, in which she says her purpose is to “accept the Bellamy-Morris-Wells world in all essentials – with one exception; I do not and cannot accept its inhabitants”. (Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward has been in the air this year as it is discussed in Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry Of Truth, as one of the utopias to which Nineteen Eighty-Four is a response). The Question Mark is known as a precursor to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as it features an outsider discovering the flaws in a world in which there is no physical want, but in which individual psychological need cannot be satisfied, and in which some atavistic tendencies remain (murderous crimes of passion lead to the palace of euthanasia). More striking is Jaeger’s recognition of different classes based on different abilities, though instead of Huxley’s five (alpha to epsilon) she has only two, “Normals” and “Intellectuals”.

The Question Mark Paperback British Library Science Fiction

The story is simple: Guy Martin, a bank clerk from the early twentieth century awakens to discover that he is in the future, fortunately in the house of a great scientist (one of the Intellectuals) which is shared by members of his extended family. Class is not inherited in this world and neither is intellectual ability. Guy is taken out by some of the normal members of the family to explore the new world, where nearly everyone has a power-box which can heat their home or drive their aerocycle. Guy, whose poverty in his old life made relations with women difficult, should be happy that one of his guides is Ena, who likes him tremendously. There is, though, unlike Brave New World, little sexual activity and it becomes clear that Ena is unhappy because there is too much love making and not enough of being “pals” (slang like this is important to the normals). As Guy has difficulty adjusting to his revival, he keeps his distance and Ena thinks this is him being a pal, though not as much of one as she would wish. Brave New World takes this to a tragic end, but The Question Mark ends with a realistic review of Guy’s old life. Who knows what he could make of the new?

Wild Harbour is a very different work: a tale of a future war and a survivor’s narrative. It is also a detailed account of how to hunt, butcher and hang wild deer. Published in 1936, it is written as a broken diary of the months between May and October 1944, as a couple living in the Highlands, who refuse to be part of an unidentified war that has broken out unexpectedly, take to a cave in the Grampians. 

Wild Harbour British Library Paperback Science Fiction

Wild Harbour comes with even more editorial apparatus than The Question Mark including an “Introduction” by Timothy C Baker, original frontispiece, a large map of the area, and finally a magazine article from September 1940 by Macpherson on how he was running his farm after a year of real war (he makes no mention of his novel). The map is useful in following the activities of the couple, along with the railway line running north to south carrying increasing amounts of traffic to who-knows-where. Hugh and his wife Terry stay within a very small area – its smallness indicated by labels on the map such as “berries” and “Hugh stole turnips”. Contrarily, there are other labels, “battle fought here” and “men fought here”, which reveal that within mere months civilisation has broken down so much that small groups are hunting and killing rivals, with never an appearance of a foreign army let alone aircraft.

Given the limited dramatis personae of Wild Harbour, though, there is another reading possible, and that is satire on ‘crisis scuttlers’ (George Orwell’s phrase). The couple’s cave is unready, their tinned and dried foods run out quickly, and generally their new life is nasty and brutish. Macpherson died in 1944 and this is often described as his last novel, but he was not always dour and downbeat, for example co-writing Letters from a Highland Township in 1939 with his wife Elizabeth, a comedy about local government set in the same area as Wild Harbour

There is more to The Question Mark, too. Mo Moulton’s introduction looks forward from Jaeger and Huxley to Margaret Atwood, picking up Jaeger’s own references to utopias. Guy Martin cannot time travel back to 1926, however, because of the understated but explicit Frankenstein means of his arrival. What if he is only the first?

Copyright Ian MacPherson. All rights reserved.

The End of the World and Other Catastrophes, edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Donald A. Wollheim once edited an Ace Books anthology entitled The End of the World, in 1955. But he stuck close to genre home with such then modern-day stories as ‘Rescue Party’ (Clarke: 1946), The Year of the Jackpot’ (Heinlein: 1952), and ‘Impostor’ (Dick: 1953). But Mike Ashley has taken a much more wide-ranging and historical approach to the subject here. In his Introduction, he quotes these opening lines from ‘Darkness’, an apocalyptic poem by Lord Byron (first published in 1816): 

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.”

First up is ‘The End of the World’ (1930), by Helen Sutherland, which “gets us off to a rousing start by covering just about every catastrophe that can afflict mankind in a little over fifteen hundred words.” Ashley speculates that it might have been written by Helen Christian Sutherland (1881-1965), a patron of the arts who has been credited with discovering Pieter Cornelis Mondrian. Another story entitled ‘The End of the World’ (1903), by the astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), is an anticipation of When Worlds Collide

The End of the World and Other Catastrophes Paperback British Library Science Fiction

After that comes a sort-of-trilogy headed THREE DOOMS OF LONDON. ‘London’s Danger’ (1896), by C. J. Cutliffe Hyne, is an early climate-change story. ‘The Freezing of London’ (1908), by Herbert C. Ridout, is – well – self-explanatory. The same thing goes for ‘Days of Darkness’ (1927), by Owen Oliver (i.e. Sir Joshua Albert Flynn). Robert Barr’s ‘Within an Ace of the End of the World’ (1900) is another trenchant climate-change story. What happens when agricultural over-production threatens to strip the world’s atmosphere of nitrogen?

‘The Last American’, by John Ames Mitchell, provides some welcome light relief, using “humour and parody to satirize the American way of life through the viewpoint of a Persian expedition discovering a ruined and desolate United States years after its collapse. The first edition [1889] included many illustrations by the author [several included here].”

As Ashley explains, George Griffiths (1857-1906) was the most prolific and bestselling writer of ‘scientific romances’ in Britain until H. G. Wells came along to steal his literary thunder. He had gained wide popularity with The Angel of the Revolution (1893), in which a new form of flying machine enabled anarchists to take over the United Kingdom, thus pre-empting H. G. Wells himself: When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and The War in the Air (1908). ‘The Great Grenelin Comet’ (1897) shows how the people of Terra – perhaps the first use of that word in science fiction to mean the Earth – deal with the onset of a destructive comet.

Other ‘vintage’ stories are ‘Finis’ (1906), by Frank Lillie Pollock, and ‘The Madness of Professor Pye’ (1934), by Warwick Deeping. Ashley also includes three comparatively recent stories: ‘Two by Two’ (1956: retitled ‘The Windows of Heaven’ in 1965), by John Brunner; ‘Created He Them’ (1955), by Alice Eleanor Jones; ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ (1950), by Ray Bradbury (which became part of The Martian Chronicles/The Silver Locusts).

For me, it seems appropriate to round off this review with the final lines from Byron’s ‘Darkness’:

“The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expired before;

The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them – She was the Universe.”

(The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I wonder . . .)

N.B. Companion volumes from the British Library Science Fiction Classics program, so far: Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures (2018); Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet (2018); Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (2019). I wish even more power to your editorial elbow, Mr. Ashley. 

Copyright Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmondson

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

Winter is a time for ghost stories, Christmas in particular. M.R. James, the doyen of the English ghost story, traditionally read a new story by candlelight to friends who eagerly gathered in his study on Christmas Eve. But James wasn’t the only one writing ghost stories. During the period covered by this book, there were many women publishing ghost stories that equalled if not surpassed those of James and his male contemporaries. As long as publishers have been producing anthologies of ghost stories, women writers have featured in them: during the 1980s, Virago produced several excellent anthologies of ghost stories by women writers. This latest collection, edited by Melissa Edmundson, is a welcome addition to the shelf. 

Book Cover: Women’s Weird. Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmundson

I’m sidestepping the ‘Women’s Weird’ of the title for now, for reasons I’ll come back to later in this review. Instead, I turn to the first story, Louisa Baldwin’s ‘The Weird of the Walfords’. It is a conventional example of period ghost story writing – the narrator believes that his family is blighted by a curse attached to an ancestral family bed and destroys it despite being warned not to. It gives away nothing to say that the curse will strike again. What is notable, however, is that the story is narrated by the Squire himself. And this is not the only story with a first-person male narrator: of the thirteen stories, only two first-person narrators are identifiably female, while most of the third-person narratives also use a male viewpoint figure. 

There are many reasons why women might write from a male viewpoint, but it is not difficult to imagine that in some cases it reflects the fact that men often had greater access to the world and its contents, whereas women could follow only in the imagination. In Baldwin’s case, I wonder too if she has not used it as a sly way to comment on how men infantilise women: the narrator refers more than once to his ‘little wife’, as well as blaming her for the death of their son because he acquiesced to her request to turn the room that once held the cursed bed into a nursery.

There are stories here of a woman whose freedom is circumscribed by her husband’s jealousy (Edith Wharton’s ‘Kerfol’), a woman who is drawn into an inexplicable haunting while loyally taking care of a friend’s daughter (E. Nesbit’s ‘The Shadow’), and a more traditional story of a wrong righted when a lost child’s body is finally discovered (‘The Giant Wistaria’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Other stories are more formally experimental, such as May Sinclair’s ‘Where Their Fire is Not Quenched’, where the haunting persists beyond the mortal plane. 

Continue reading Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmondson”

What Not: A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Originally published in 1918, Rose Macaulay’s speculative satire, What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, extrapolates from the wartime state’s unprecedented intrusion into private life – conscription, censorship, food rationing – to imagine a Ministry of Brains committed to raising public intelligence through various measures such as the ‘Mental Progress Act’, the introduction of a ‘Mind Training Course’ and, more sinisterly, stipulating who may marry who according to an A-C intelligence classification. Babies born according to the regulations gain their parents financial bonuses, but unregulated infants are taxed on a sliding scale ‘so that the offspring of parents of very low mental calibre brought with them financial ruin’. 

A Handheld Press Publication: What Not, A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

As Sarah Lonsdale points out in her helpful introduction to the novel, there are clear points of comparison with better known works of utopia and dystopia. Like William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), What Not begins in a carriage on the London underground. More significantly, Macaulay moved in the same circles as Aldous Huxley and it is difficult to imagine that her work was not in some way an influence on Brave New World (1932), which might be seen in Lonsdale’s words ‘as the world of What Not some few decades into the future’. Finally, the novel also anticipates George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), in its story of one clerk’s revolt against the system in the name of love. 

Macaulay’s protagonist is Kitty Grammont, introduced to us as a woman who takes both the New Statesman and the Tatler: ‘She was partial to both, which was characteristic of her attitude towards life’. This attitude of seeking to have her cake and eat it corresponds to the general sense conveyed by the novel – people’s experience of the war having overturned all sorts of time-honoured and apparently stable social norms – of nervous, reckless times in which people are determined to make the best of whatever they can get and live life to the full. However, what makes Kitty stand out from the crowd of female clerks, whose culture is nicely evoked, is her determination ‘to defeat a foolish universe with its own weapons’. Her romance and secret marriage to Nicholas Chester, the Minister of Brains – who is forbidden to marry by his own laws due to the mental deficiency of his siblings – is played out as a scathing comedy rather than the tragedy it might be in a lesser work.

The relentless cynical wit means that the novel remains, as Lonsdale suggests, an ambiguous and ‘sometimes slippery book to grasp hold of’. On the one hand, Macaulay clearly does not endorse the eugenics programme of the Ministry, which unsurprisingly leads to many abandoned babies turning up on doorsteps around the country. On the other hand, What Not is not a straightforward dystopian warning or ‘protest against social engineering’ as the back-cover blurb suggests. One of the most heart-felt passages in the novel is Chester’s bitter complaint at the stupidity of a society that fails to educate people and provide effective medical care. Equally in favour of social reform is this pointed narrative gloss on male audience responses to Kitty publicly talking on behalf of the Ministry: ‘Rural England [. . .] was still regrettably eastern, or German, in its feminist views, even now that, since the war, so many more thousands of women were perforce independent wage-earners, and even now that they had the same political rights as men.’

Therefore, it probably makes sense to see What Not as a comically-resigned lament for the impossibility of evading the cruel stupidity of life without imposing a system that is even crueller and more stupid. However, there is also just the faintest suggestion in Kitty’s momentary out-of-body experience, in which she realises the entire society depicted in What Not is no more than a ‘queer little excited corner of the universe’, that other worlds are possible. Overall, the novel should be recommended as more than a historical curiosity.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.