Radio Life by Derek B. Miller

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

Our world collapsed in chaos and war at the end of the 21st century after a solar flare disrupted information networks. Now, the Commonwealth, devoted to rescuing knowledge from the Gone World, is sending out expeditions and creating an Archive. Fifty years ago, Lilly’s discovery of the “Harrington Box” inspired a renaissance based upon the collection of books and the “Trivial Pursuits” set it contained. Lilly is now Chief Engineer of the Commonwealth, whose headquarters is a sports centre built for the Olympics. One of her projects is rebuilding technologies including a radio, on which voices from elsewhere were heard until it ceased to work. A new fuse has been found by a pair of scavengers and given to Lilly. But a tribe known as the Keepers are threatening the networks of Raiders and Explorers and Runners, and the Commonwealth itself. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Elimisha, an Archive Runner, is pursued into a building which collapses, leaving her injured and unable to escape – but in a room containing an “artificial intelligence entity” which identifies itself as a Librarian . . . and a radio.

When Elimisha’s voice is received by Lilly’s radio, another Runner, Allesandra, is sent to rescue her. Her mission is critical, because it is suspected that Elimisha has found the secret of the Ancients’ success – the Internet.

Radio Life

The joke here – it rapidly becomes clear that Lilly etc. don’t actually know what the Internet is – is certainly one of the reasons to read the book: running through it is a vein of humour which counterpoints the bleak post-apocalypse scenario without undermining a serious core: an examination of the nature and purpose of knowledge. Miller has acknowledged the influence of Walter M. Miller’s (no relation) A Canticle for Leibowitz in Radio Life. In some ways he has written a parallel to – or even a parody of – the earlier classic. (There is even a religious community, in which the telling of another joke, an old and hoary music-hall item, somehow underlines the story’s essence.) Like Leibowitz, which itself reveals a dark, even despairing joke at its core, Radio Life is about regaining knowledge, even at the cost of not fully understanding the extent and implications of that knowledge. Derek Miller distributes the hazy search for uncovering the history of this precarious society among a number of interestingly-imagined characters: Lilly, Allesandra and Elimisha, but also Henry (Henrietta) and Graham, (Allesandra’s parents), and Birch, the “Master of the Order of Silence” (one of the interesting things about the Commonwealth is the complicated web of organisations, networks and rivalries within it).

For a while, this is a standard if well-imagined and told tale of post-Apocalypse recovery. But as the complexities within the Commonwealth and its immediate history become apparent, things get deeper. A confrontation between Graham, captured by the Keepers, and the Keeper leader makes us face the question begged by too many of these fictions: are they right to want to regain the knowledge of the past? During their conversation we learn why the Keepers are called the Keepers, and what they want to keep. This is not necessarily a debate between right and wrong. The Ancients had wonderful technology. (The generic term for material scavenged and brought back is telling: “shinies”). One of the delightful “histories” of the pre-catastrophe decades uncovered by Elimisha and Allesandra is the up-until-then undiscovered treasure trove of recorded music. But the legacy of previous days also includes war, genocide, slavery, racism: “So many categories of people, all attacking other categories”. The Ancients did “awful things to each other”. Should those memories be brought back, risking shame and anger and revenge?

Or could the world be rebuilt, better? Walter M. Miller’s theology seemed to suggest not. His namesake, possibly more secular, seems to prefer otherwise. Radio Life rather slips, at the end, into hand-waving improvement, but the arguments are worth confronting.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

AfroSF Vol 3 edited by Ivor W. Hartmann

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

Bookended by two very strong stories which show just what can be done with the “standard” sf theme, AfroSF returns with a third volume which takes a specific theme (“space”) and explores what it means, from out-and-out epic to stories of simple poignant humanity.

“Njuzu” (T. L. Huchu) combines sf and traditional story in a way which succeeds in bringing out vivid imagery and emotional strength. Following an accident on Ceres, the narrator takes part in traditional rites to appease the spirit-being who has “taken’” her son. There’s a lot in this story, which hinges on her being “forbidden” to cry, as this will ensure the entrapment of the lost boy. There is also the element of mutual resentment with her partner. As I read it, the ending of the story is an acceptance of the necessity of giving up comforting myths of hope, in order to keep hold of memory and love. Not all the stories that follow have the same sense of really experimenting with different interpretations of the fantastic, with sentences and half-descriptions suddenly causing you to think about what is being said, but Huchu is a strong writer to begin with.

“Home is Waiting for You” — The Space-faring Futures of AfroSFv3 | Tor.com

In Cristy Zinn’s “The Girl Who Stared at Mars”, the narrator, on an expedition to Mars, takes refuge in simulations, encountering the memory of a family tragedy. A crew member, trapped by his own inability to convince himself that their experience is “real”, makes things worse, but Amahle successfully confronts her own hesitations. Humanity is not lost simply because we are not on Earth: instead, Amahle is moving from one state to another (evoking, in a political sense, diaspora rather than colonisation?) yet keeping her sense of belonging.

“The EMO Hunter” by Mandisi Nkomo is ambitious but hazy; involving a post-Earth scenario and an “Earth Mother” religion. It’s not entirely clear whether the “Earth Mother Knights” (of which Joshua is one) are the good guys or whether Joshua’s wife Miku, who activates a clone to destroy him, is combating tyranny or trying to deal with her failing marriage. In contrast, “The Luminal Frontier” (Biriam Mboob) takes the flavour of space opera, which infuses several of the stories (not always to their advantage) and applies it to something larger. A ship in Luminal Space is messaged by the police. The crew are clearly involved in something illegal, and this means having to dump their cargo: something that, according to the religious ideas that infuse their views of the Nothing around them, is sacrilegious. And the cargo, we soon find out, is slaves. Later parts take place within a kind of dreamworld, following a time-paradox. The final part of the story is miles away from the beginning, and Mboob is clearly a writer who has a firm grip upon what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. 

This strange story, effectively mingling the science and spiritual aspects of the scenario, is followed by Gabriella Muwanga’s “The Far Side”. A spaceship captain smuggles his five-year-old daughter onto his ship despite a ruling that her asthma means he has to leave her behind. It’s story that features simple human relations: perhaps over-sentimental but calming the more experimental aspects of the collection. Wole Talabi’s “Drift-flux” is in many ways, a standard “Federation/Confederacy” trope of the type that space-opera writers are too fond of and, at times, marred by excessive infodumping. The Igodo witnesses the explosion of another ship, the Freedom Queen.  Orshio and Lien-Adel are “arrested” on suspicion of the bombing, but it soon becomes clear that there is an ulterior motive. “Drift-flux” would probably make a better tv episode than a short story, though that is not so much a criticism as an acknowledgement of way the strengths of its pace, action, and well-imagined scenario overcome its faults.

Possibly the most effectively-written story is “Journal of a DNA Pirate” (Stephen Embleton). The narrator is part of an experiment in human transformation, an experiment which is actually a terrorist enterprise. With its fusion of discontent, anger, and fleeting human contact, this, along with “Njuzu” and Mame Bougouma Diene’s closing story, best gives what transforms entertaining fiction into something memorable: a genuine sense of difference in worlds carefully and coherently imagined. For “formal” rather than “aesthetic” reasons several of the following stories don’t work like this. “The Interplanetary Water Company” (Masimba Musodza), in which the secret of a super-technology is hidden on a planet dislodged from its orbit, reads like the first chapter of a longer work. Dilman Dila’s “Safari Nyota: A Prologue” certainly is such. It is the space-opera beginning of a multimedia project with great potential; one that intrigues and invites you to follow it up, but about which snap judgement is unwise. “Parental Control” (Mazi Nwonwu) and “Inhabitable” (Andrew Dakalira) are competent but flawed. In “Parental Control”, the son of a human father and an android mother suffers taunts and prejudice until taken up again by his father. The father-son relationship works effectively. The “revelation” at the end doesn’t, though the story remains an effective use of science fiction to talk about painful aspects of everyday humanity. In “Inhabitable”, explorers find aliens needing their help, which they give. The action leads, however, to an unsettling end. Basically, competent traditional sf, the story needs room to breathe to become more.

Mame Bougouma Diene’s “Ogotemmeli’s Song” is the closing “bookend” strong story of the anthology. Though partly another space opera with Trekkish overtones, it soon moves to another plane entirely to features alien conversations and cultural conflicts on an epic scale with occasional flurries of topical locations and references and memorable images like “Ogotemmeli paddled his fishing boat of space dust along the solar winds”.

On this basis, AfroSF still has much to look forward to. This third volume’s thematic approach perhaps constrains as much as it liberates, but the best stories are those which pick up the theme and wrestle with it. To use a clichéd expression that I dislike intensely but which seems appropriate, there is a strong sense that the best writers here are taking up science fiction and owning it. Another successful snapshot of the talent to be found in Africa and the African diaspora.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. 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.

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Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction by Nathaniel Isaacson

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

A few years ago, when I wanted some examples of new Chinese science fiction, I had to ask a contact in China to send me some and I was reliant on various websites for summaries. Now, Liu Cixin (one of the writers I was pointed to) has won a Hugo. While for the general reader it has some of the drawbacks of being a revision for book publication of his phd thesis, and it only covers the beginnings of modern Chinese sf, it’s essential reading for anyone curious about the cultural background to the current scene.

The first chapter deals with definition and context, especially sf’s relationship with imperialism. This is discussed frequently throughout, but it’s something that cannot be left out of the relationship between China (and Japan, which nation seems to have served as a kind of mid-point in some of the developments here) and the West, especially Britain. As such, it’s occasionally dense, but frequently rewarding. China’s vast store of marvel-tales and utopias is rather skimmed over here because the focus is upon how a modern sf tradition grew out of Chinese intellectuals’ and writers’ engagements with clashes of culture. It’s interesting that science fiction (kexue xiaoshuo) was used as a term in China earlier than in the West (p. 7), and “science” is linked here with the question of modernisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We are told that Chinese sf can deal as much with the question of the country’s own indigenous traditions as it does with confronting foreign powers or alien invasions, but that often “[t]he alien other than Chinese sf confronts is China itself” (p.45).

Lu Xun was one of the most significant Chinese writers of the 20th  century, who translated Jules Verne into Chinese in 1903. In chapter 2, Isaacson discusses the debates about science in Lu Xun’s essays and his adaptation and reinterpretation of From The Earth to the Moon. Two more chapters look at two early Chinese sf works. The first is the utopian New Story of the Stone (1905) by Wu Jianren, a “sequel” to a classic novel which, in this version, takes its hero into a technologically “advanced” future inhabited by mythical creatures. The next is the first work actually labelled as science fiction in China, Huangjiang Diaosou’s Tales of the Moon Colony, serialised (though never completed) 1904-5. Both works can be seen as exploring Chinese anxieties over whether, and how far, it is possible to emulate the technologies and internationalism (read “colonial aspirations”) of the West and what can be gained and lost by this. (The latter, which largely takes place outside China, seems particularly interesting.)

 “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio”, a kind of sequel to a Japanese story which, it has been suggested was a loose translation of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Baron Munchausen, is the focus of chapter 5. The next chapter describes Cat Country serialized 1932-1933 by Lao She, one of the great figures of modern Chinese literature, and, like Lu Xun a fierce critic of Chinese culture. Partly inspired by World’s First Men in the Moon, Cat Country is a dystopia on Mars which the narrator quickly realises is doomed to collapse. The description is enhanced by translated extracts. The satirical flavour is given by a piece that tells how Martian “concubines” are titillated by the idea of foot-binding (which the narrator explains has been abolished though replaced by the wearing of high-heeled shoes which has equally grotesque effects). Other descriptions uncannily foreshadow the ideological battles of the Cultural revolution, during which the author was driven to suicide. The final chapter is a general exploration of how other forms such as the pictorial newspaper supplement and the science essay tackled the themes and anxieties that were highlighted in science fiction. 

As a phd thesis, Celestial Empire is a genuine and welcome contribution to scholarship but written with a specific need to look to current scholarship, and in the first instance for those with some sense of the historical context. For instance, Isaacson draws upon recent work on sf and “Empire” by John Rieder and on locating sf in a world context by Andrew Milner. While it is eventually clear what the issues of the New Culture Movement and its “political” version the May Fourth movement were, Isaacson doesn’t hold our hands by starting with a reader-friendly summary. A “Glossary of Chinese terms” is concerned with presenting the Chinese characters rather than explaining their meaning. The ignorant reader (myself) who wants to know more about the literary conventions and context may struggle. Part of the problem of these early forays into thinking anew about the world, we’re told, is how to express it and what kind of literary Chinese is suitable for these speculations.  Some of the discussion, such as that on the complex (in genre terms) “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio” focuses upon the vocabulary, diction, syntax and other literary features of the text in terms which see them as deliberately blurring a number of lines between aspects of Chinese culture and  also between Chinese and Western culture. 

Do we then get a full understanding of how writers like Liu Cixin are now part of the sf mainstream? Because Isaacson is focussed on the period up to around 1934, by which time there was a “long draught “ during which “very few works of original SF were published in China, and publication remained anemic after 1949” (179), the answer has to be no. Still, anyone interested in the background to the recent successes of Chinese sf will find it extremely helpful.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

Vector #289

Cover art by Ronnie McGrath

Vector #289 (August 2019) is a special issue on African and Afrodiasporic SF, guest edited by Michelle Louise Clarke. It includes articles by Michelle Louise Clarke, Anwuli Okeke, and Chinelo Onwualu on the state of contemporary SFF across Africa and the African diaspora; Jonathan Hay on clipping.’s Splendor & Misery; Kate Harlin on Afrofuturism and Afro-Pessimism in Black Panther and the short fiction of T.J. Benson; Päivi Väätänen on Nnedi Okorafor’s short fiction; Lidia Kniaź on African SFF cinema by Miguel Llansó and Wanuri Kahiu; Andy Sawyer on AfroSF Vol. 3 ed. Ivor W. Hartmann; Gemma Field on Nnedi Okorafor and ecological crisis, Nick Wood on South African comics; Masimba Musodza on the experience of writing SFF in ChiShona; plus Polina Levontin interviewing Dilman Dila, Louisa Egbunike interviewing Wole Talabi, and Joan Grandjean interviewing Mounir Ayache.

Cover: Ronnie McGrath

Vector #288

Vector #288 contains Andy Sawyer’s final Foundation Favourites column, as well as our regular columns from Stephen Baxter and Paul Kincaid, plus the BSFA’s Claire Boothby on changes to the BSFA Award.

This issue’s theme is future economics: we’ve got Kirsten Bussière on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway; Benjamin Franz on the movie Moon, Madeleine Chalmers on Economic Science Fictions ed. Will Davies, ‘Rapparitions,’ part-essay, part-speculative future, by AUDINT; Erin Horáková on Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City; Josephine Wideman on Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Esko Suoranta on Malka Older’s Infomocracy; and Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien on recent near future short fiction.

Lots of extras: a quiz about marvellous money and fantastic finance, economic SF writing prompts, the speculative economist’s scrapbook, recommendations from The BSFA Review, an exploration of Universal Basic Income (expanded version here), snippets from interviews with Dave Hutchinson, Laurie Penny, and Florence Okoye. It’s another bumper issue at 76 pages.