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.

vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.