The Silver Wind by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Dan Hartland. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Nina Allan’s novels, characters are orthogonal to each other, constantly missing out on connection. In 2017’s The Rift, for example, the narrator’s long-lost sister – feared for years to have been murdered as a girl – returns from what she insists has been exile on another planet. Her identity is never clear, least of all to her. In 2014’s The Race, the narrators of its successive parts all seem to be reiterated versions of each other, but in what sequence or by what logic is obscure, perhaps irrelevant.

In this elusive and allusive approach, Allan recalls M John Harrison or Gwyneth Jones, writers who were championed during the British Boom of the early 2000s but whose career long pre-dated it. For her part, Allan first appeared towards the end of the Boom, and has since matured into perhaps the most interesting writer it left to us.

The writings that comprise The Silver Wind in large part predate those later novels. Reissued now by Titan Books, it was published in an earlier form by Eibonvale Press in 2011. “These are stories of a time in my life as a writer,” Allan writes in a foreword; the book even includes an “out-take” a story written more than ten years ago, 2008’s “Darkroom”, which in its reliance on dialogue and rather choppy structure demonstrates just how far Allan’s lyrical, resonant and complex writing has come in the intervening years.

None of this is to say that The Silver Wind is juvenilia. Its selection of stories – which, while separate standalone pieces, also, in the manner of the sequential narratives of The Race, collate and collide into a much richer narrative – include arresting and affecting writing, vivid imagery and haunting ideas. For example, the progress through a barren, mutated heath of Martin Newland, the sequence’s protagonist (if not its hero), takes place in a particularly weirded landscape and sticks especially in the memory:

I saw she was disfigured, quite literally de-formed, squeezed apart and then rammed back together again in a careless and hideous arrangement that bore as little resemblance to an ordinary human face as the face of a corpse in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The Silver Wind, p. 199

There is an air of H.G. Wells and Dr Moreau in that passage, and this is no coincidence: The Silver Wind is a novel about a very particular kind of time travel, and Wells is its leitmotif; unusually for Allan, her readers here must have a taste for pastiche. There is some steampunk and some horror, a sprinkling of DH Lawrence and a soupçon of Proust. Stylistically, it is a gumbo of fin de siècle effects.

Narratively, it is a palimpsest. It begins with Owen Andrews, an ambitious watchmaker apprenticing with a legendary horologist in London. Andrews becomes obsessed with building a tourbillon, a form of watch escapement invented by Louis Breguet to reduce the impact of gravity on the mechanism – and which may, on a grander scale, also allow human beings to exist, and move, at the centre of a similar bubble.

Owen is in love with a woman from his village, Dora Newland, who opts instead to marry a local war hero. The next story in the sequence switches perspective, and seemingly reality, to a brother of Dorothy who in the previous story seemed not to exist: Martin, he of the heath-based exploration. From there, each story shifts through various versions of Newland’s life – lives? – until he comes close to understanding the strange effect of time on a person’s experience of reality … and of other people. “[Time] is like water pouring out of a tap […] once it’s been spilled there’s no calling it back again” [p. 168].

Allan’s shifts of reality are indicated obliquely: it is 1920, but Paris is connected to London by rail; it is 1940, but the British government seems to have a rather different make-up. “I felt dazed not so much by the scale of the changes as by their subtlety,” writes one time traveller. The reader’s disorientation is part of the novel’s effect: it isn’t designed quite to align, like a watch mechanism too long tinkered with. 

This sort of effect is extremely difficult to achieve in a manner that satisfies; perhaps The Silver Wind isn’t quite as convincing in achieving this balance as Allan’s later works. But it is nevertheless sinuous, sly and affecting; and in this offers a sure sign that Allan is in the very first rank of contemporary SF.

Copyright Dan Hartland. All rights reserved.

War of the Maps by Paul McAuley

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

On one level, War of the Maps is a really well-told, slightly old-fashioned science-fiction adventure novel, which is accurately summarised by the front-cover tagline: ‘Across a giant artificial world in space, the lucidor hunts his man’. As McAuley notes in his ‘Acknowledgments’, the inspiration for the world depicted is an article by Ibrahim Semiz and Selim Oğur, ‘Dyson Spheres around White Dwarfs’. However, as he has pointed out on his blog, the story grew from ‘a character and a situation’ and an idea for the ending. Once he had the character’s voice right, the novel flowed because ‘the protagonist’s path through the world was mapped by his needs, desires and beliefs, and his interactions with other characters’. I quote at length both because this seems like useful advice for anyone wanting to write this kind of novel but also because I think this accounts for how convincing and satisfying this novel is to read; there are no false notes. 

War of the Maps

Lucidors are law-keepers in the Free State. While there are more than one in the novel, the protagonist is referred to throughout as the lucidor. Although he is retired, he is on one last mission to bring back to justice the villainous Remfrey He, who he had previously tracked down and captured at great cost but who has now been released by a political faction to go and help the war effort in neighbouring Patua against ‘the invasion’. This set-up is reminiscent of a classic Western and indeed the opening finds the lucidor on horseback fleeing bandits in a beautifully written sequence which recalls the spare poetic tone of Cormac McCarthy. While this genre setting changes – at one point later in the novel the action switches into a Hornblower-style naval voyage – the lucidor retains the moral and narrative integrity of the sheriff pursuing justice. I imagined him as like Gary Cooper or James Stewart or possibly even Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country.

The novel turns on two linked questions: is the lucidor’s single-minded hunt for Remfrey He correct, and what the right values to live by are. There is an ongoing disparity between the plain egalitarianism of the Free State and the aristocratic hierarchy of Patua. This latter contrast forms part of the war (although to be clear the two countries are ostensibly allies) mentioned in the novel’s title. The term ‘map’ refers equally to land masses, countries, societies and the genetic make-ups of organisms and thus indicates some sort of scaled fractal relationship between the particular and the universal. ‘The invasion’ is a creeping wave of mutation producing a new biology, including the ant-like ‘alter women’ whose nests are gradually overtaking the north of Padua despite the best efforts of the army. 

We see what is at stake in all of these struggles through the lucidor’s various encounters with others: often women who, as the lucidor observes ‘don’t have the same obsession with hierarchy as men’. This is a point of superficial similarity between the lucidor and Remfrey He, who extols the alter-women colonies as utopias in which everyone works peacefully for the common good, even as he manipulates them for his own ends. Gary Wolfe likens Remfrey He to a Bond villain in his review of the novel for Locus and suggests that the archetypal confrontation between the two men is a little too clichéd. But I wondered if that was the point. The lucidor’s most important relationships are actually with his dead wife (in memory) and with the novel’s other main protagonists, the ‘map-reader’ Orjen Starbreaker and her steward Lyra. The standoff with Remfrey He seems more like a commentary on such male rivalries rather than the key point of the plot. Indeed, War of the Maps, with its intertextual allusions to ‘new flesh’, ‘dire wolves’ and Pratchett, may be read as a metatext subtly commenting on the traditional form of the genre and thereby opening the way to representing social change. Perhaps the novel is not so old-fashioned after all. It is certainly one that I recommend reading and which I will myself reread.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, ed. by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel

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

History is, as the word tells us, a story. It is the narrative of the events that created our present compiled from whatever accounts, records and other documents may be available, and that are, inevitably, partial, generally incomplete, and often unreliable. History is not a science, since it is not open to empirical examination and cannot be repeated, and as any criminal lawyer will tell you, no two witnesses of the same event will agree on every detail. The relationship between history and fiction, therefore, is intimate and inescapable. The best historical fictions will attempt to use psychological insight and imagination to fill in the gaps in any historical record (for example, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel); or to tell a story about those people who are largely absent from the historical record (for the same historical period we might consider, for example, the Shardlake novels of C.J. Sansom).

Sideways in Time

The relationship between history and the literature of the fantastic (in which we might include fantasy, horror and science fiction) is perhaps rather less obvious, but it is there nonetheless. For the sake of this discussion we will exclude time travel stories, which might be considered a special case of the historical fiction already discussed (although time travel can often play a key role in alternate histories, as for instance in Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore or The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove). Even so, there are several different ways in which history plays a part in the fantastic. I use the following terms simply to help me distinguish one form from another: there are apocryphal histories, in which legends and stories from the past are assumed to be true accounts; secret histories, in which major events are said to have been deliberately or inadvertently expunged from the historical record; revisionist histories, in which shameful or unfortunate events are recast in a more positive light; literary histories, in which characters from fiction are presented as being real historical figures (Sherlock Holmes being probably the most popular); and alternate histories, in which the consequences of one historical change are played out. For the record, the term “counterfactual” is often used as a synonym for alternate history, though I tend to see counterfactuals as dealing with the moment of change while alternate histories deal with the future consequences of that change. None of these divisions is hermetically sealed, the borders between them are inevitably porous, but these are, in broad terms, the most familiar ways in which science fiction imaginatively engages with history.

These ways of playing with history vary from thought experiments that are perhaps as close as we might come to scientific testing of history, to linking history to the more fantastic reaches of the human imagination. All have played their part in science fiction pretty well for as long as we have had science fiction, though, apart from periodic upsurges in time travel stories, they have never really been the most fashionable form of the literature. The occasional classics – Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, The Sound of His Horn by Sarban, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Pavane by Keith Roberts – always seem detached from what else is happening in science fiction at the time, and rarely if ever generate anything that might pass for a movement. There are repeated tropes – the South wins the American Civil War, Hitler wins the Second World War – but really any study of alternate histories is going to look at a series of disconnected moments, of individual exemplars, rather than anything more coherent or overarching. (On a philosophical level, trends in alternate histories and secret histories and revisionist histories might reveal something interesting about the way any particular present regards the past and its study, but that is not an approach I have so far encountered in science fiction scholarship.)

The disjointedness of these engagements with history suggest that a collection of essays, such as the volume in front of us today, is perhaps the best way of approaching the topic. Except that this volume suggests there is a disjointedness also in the approach. Although the subtitle tells us firmly that these are “Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction” (and I am uncomfortable with the need for that final word, since it implies there might be such a thing as alternate history fact), that is not necessarily what we get. Using the terms I have laid out already, there are essays on revisionist history (“Forever Being Yamato: Alternate Pacific War Histories in Japanese Film and Anime” by Jonathan Rayner, which looks at the way recent fictions have revisited the story of the battleship Yamato in order to present the defeat in a more noble and positive light; though Rayner doesn’t really question how much this revisionism chimes with Japan’s pre-War militaristic mythology); literary history (“Weird History/Weird Knowledge: H.P. Lovecraft versus Sherlock Holmes in Shadows Over Baker Street” by Chloé Germaine Buckley, one of the weaker essays which looks at a literary mash-up that hardly seems to warrant the word history); and apocryphal or perhaps secret history (“Between the Alternate and the Apocryphal: Religion and Historic Place in Aguilera’s La locura de Dios” by Derek J. Thiess, one of the better essays in the collection about a novel involving the legend of Prester John). That’s three out of the ten essays that, to me, seem to have nothing to do with the implied subject of alternate history.

And of those that do deal directly with alternate histories there seems to be little agreement on the characteristics of their subject. Take, for example, two of the best essays in the collection: Anna McFarlane, in “Time and Affect After 9/11: Lavie Tidhar’s Osama: A Novel”, presents alternate history as a form of stasis, an inability to deal with the trauma of the present; while Chris Pak, in “‘It Is One Story’: Writing a Global Alternate History in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt”, makes it dynamic, a consistency of development and growth whatever the present may throw at us. What this tells us, of course, is that alternate history is not one thing but rather a concatenation of ways in which we might confront the hopes and terrors of the present.

In their “Introduction” and “Afterword”, the editors attempt, not altogether successfully, to tie all of these different essays into a coherent whole, whereas in many ways it is their very incoherence that is most interesting about them. Here we see alternate histories being used to undermine the “great man” theory of history (Molly Cobb’s account of a couple of Alfred Bester’s short stories in “The Subjective Nature of Time and the Individual’s (in)Ability to Inflict Social Change”) or to extol the “great man” theory (Adam Roberts on what is probably the earliest alternate history in “Napoleon as Dynamite: Geoffroy’s Napoléon Apocryphe and Science Fiction as Alternate History”); to challenge gender assumptions in science fiction (“‘Her Dreams Receding’: Gender, Astronauts, and Alternate Space Ages in Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet” by Brian Baker) or to play out a slight variation on a conventional Hollywood romance (Andrew M. Butler considering the film version of a John Wyndham story in “Quest for Love: A Cosy Uchronia?”). Leaving aside the revisionist or literary histories, which seem to me more consolatory than disruptive, and therefore do not appear to belong in this volume, alternate histories represent a deliberate disordering of what we understand as the past, and therefore of the present. Since such disordering can take many forms, and play out in so many ways, it is inevitable that a collection such as this can do no more than start to feel out some of the nuances of alternate history. At its best, notably the essays by Roberts, Pak, McFarlane, and Karen Helleckson’s take on the way alternate history is used on television, this volume does the job well and interestingly. Though other essays, including a slick but superficial survey of the field in Stephen Baxter’s “Foreword”, tend to slide past the subject without ever fully engaging. It is, in the main, an interesting book, but we do need many more of them to even hope to cover the field adequately.

Copyright Paul Kincaid. All rights reserved.

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.

The Breach by M.T. Hill

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

Reading this book about an infection changing us in the middle of a ‘lockdown’ in which an infection is changing us turned out to be a strangely calming experience. The topic of invasive biological agents is a not a new one, but even so it has reached an intensity in recent years in works as varied as Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy and, most recently, Paul McAuley’s War of the Maps. Following these exotic species of fantastika, The Breach’s cold, sharp bite of Northern realism is a welcome anaesthetic that numbs the pain once the shock has worn off. Whether the invasive force are fairies, insect lifeforms, parasites or a type of virus is never made clear and doesn’t really matter to Shep, the trainee steeplejack, who only comes alive when climbing or urban exploring. As he says, with shrugging acceptance, ‘I think they turned up here, and now they just are.’ 

Image

‘Here’, at least in the opening two thirds of the novel, is the North sometime in an all-too-foreseeable post-Brexit future when even the promise of ‘ENGLAND’S YEAR OF REGROWTH’ is only a faded slogan on one of Freya Medlock’s retired father’s old corporate planners. Freya is living in the box room of her over-fussy parents’ bungalow following the breakup of her relationship and barely going through the motions of her job as a reporter on a dying local paper. An assignment to cover the death of a local climber leads her to the night-time world of ‘urbex’ and Shep. Shep is basically a dangerous chancer and something of a cowboy but he has a redeeming innocence. His only mode of expressing agency is through the equivalent of enacting slapstick pratfalls, rather like Buster Keaton performing his own stunts. The first three meetings between Freya and Shep are by turns charming, funny, and like something from a found-footage horror film. Rationally there is no reason why Freya should feel responsibility for Shep after this but emotionally it makes perfect sense.

In the England Hill depicts, everyday life is attenuated to the extent that all meaning seems to have been leached out of the blighted, post-industrial landscape. This present haunted by the ghosts of a future that never came is not so much tragic as farcical. A trip to the (gene) splicer’s market is neither the utopian or dystopian marker it might once have been but simply an excuse for a coffee in the garden centre on a Sunday morning. Yet while Freya has the skills to head to the place in England which has drained all the rest, London, she never really contemplates this possibility. She is still looking for something else even though there is nothing indigenous left.

The existence within this world of the attempt of an English corporation to build a version of the space elevator from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise is not just incongruous but in itself a form of extraterrestrial intervention. On the one hand, this is a parody of past dreams of the future in which the once industrious engineers who peopled the golden age are replaced by no-nonsense Northern steeplejacks and riggers like Shep. On the other hand, Clarke would probably enjoy the black humour of Hill’s novel, with its twisted take on Childhood’s End. Indeed, in some ways The Breach is the most optimistic novel I’ve read for some time. Let’s face it, the best hope for a future in most parts of England is probably alien invasion. As the cryptic text Freya reads on an urbex forum thread proclaims, ‘The path for its replicants is decided, for the extremities of worlds are essential’. Even as experience recedes further into memory, The Breach imparts a visceral sensation and promises an awakening. And while this might be like Shep’s at the beginning of the novel, in the back of his van, face pressed numb into the cabin bulkhead and with a tin of cheap lager spilled inside his sleeping bag, it’s still a new day with the promise of something actually happening.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

The Record Keepers by Agnes Gomillion

Reviewed by Shellie Horst. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In the acknowledgements, Agnes Gomillion gives credit to Paul Stevens ‘for finding value where others did not.’ I for one am thankful that someone did see a future for The Record Keepers. My only disappointment is that it’s taken me so long to discover it. She also acknowledges Mr Frederick Douglass, from this you can be reassured that The Record Keepers has intensely strong foundations.  

The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion

The powerful blend of African culture with western consumption set up in a world supposedly devoid of technology makes The Record Keepers a provocative, satisfying read and everything I have come to expect from a work published by Titan Books.

After World War III, Earth is in ruins, and the final armies have come to a reluctant truce. Everyone must obey the law—in every way—or risk shattering the fragile peace and endangering the entire human race.

Arika Cobane is on the threshold of taking her place of privilege as a member of the Kongo elite after ten gruelling years of training. But everything changes when a new student arrives speaking dangerous words of treason: ‘What does peace matter if innocent lives are lost to maintain it?’ As Arika is exposed to new beliefs, she realizes that the laws she has dedicated herself to uphold are the root of her people’s misery. If Arika is to liberate her people, she must unearth her fierce heart and discover the true meaning of freedom: finding the courage to live—or die—without fear.

In this post war world, everybody has their place in the new order. The few who question it are reminded that their sacrifice is for the good of the people. Akira is plucked from her crib, and by comparison to those in the surrounding village, enjoys an easier lifestyle. However, she’s not protected from cruelty. Safety is found by giving practised answers – staying in your lane if you will. Stepping out of line results in violent punishment.

Gomillion recognises that her readers need to understand the powers at play. Because of this, you realise The Record Keepers isn’t a stand-alone novel. It’s an epic stuffed with potential – much like Akira herself. This all makes for an addictively quiet yet tangible build throughout the first half of the book. 

The premise of an African territory set in America is unfamiliar, also a worryingly accepted lead into Akira’s world. The challenge the author offers is intelligently crafted, neatly questioning the certainties of life, the roots of colonialism, and the roles we choose around it. 

Akira’s wilful and selfish decisions to ensure her seat in the senate drive this book well, to the point of alienating the reader. Akira throws herself into her education, keeping herself away from trouble and the usual playground social battles. She has a single understandable and far-reaching goal, and when she learns of The New Seed she doesn’t sway from it.

Just when you think you know where Gomillion is going, she switches pace, and what could have passed as a fantasy novel reveals itself as complex science fiction. Akira’s character is the strength which radiates throughout the novel. William provides a counterbalance in his steadfast passion to his duty. 

Rebellious factions are a threat to the scholarly ways Akira considers normal, but her intellect and fierce desire to do the right thing (even when it’s wrong) leads her through love interests, betrayal, her past coming back to her and attacks. Both despite Akira’s choices and because of them, I found myself hooked.  

The Record Keepers is a story of balance, and there’s a great deal of life hanging on Akira’s actions. Akira’s growth throughout the book suits the Young Adult, every chapter subtly complex giving you much to contemplate. There is so much here for the Adult shelf too, ‘grown-ups’ will be missing out.

It’s refreshing to find a book that adheres to its premise, The Record Keepers is outstanding, I don’t doubt the adaptation to the screen will be powerful and the series will be up for awards. Highly recommended.

Copyright Shellie Horst. All rights reserved.

The Man With Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

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

Muriel Jaeger, known to her friends as ‘Jim’, was a member of the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, a writing group formed by half a dozen young women at Somerville College, Oxford in 1912, including Dorothy L. Sayers. Jaeger’s own career as a writer, however, was rather less successful; her novels did not, for whatever reason, capture the public fancy, while, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Jaeger ‘had an extremely combative response to criticism’. And yet, if the British Library reissues of her first two novels are anything to go by, Jaeger’s writing shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, even if it wasn’t actually great science fiction.

Her first novel, The Question Mark (1926), a response to the utopian fiction of an earlier generation, showed a world divided between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘normals’, exploring the potential consequences of such a division. Like many utopian fictions, it lacked much in the way of a plot, but Jaeger’s prose was clean and vigorous, and she was clearly sympathetic to the predicament of women in such a setting.

The Man With Six Senses (1927) is a rather more accomplished work, though it would be stretching things to say it’s truly science fiction. The plot ostensibly focuses on Michael Bristowe, a young man with an extraordinarily well-developed skill as a dowser. Or, rather, he experiences everything around him in a completely different way to the rest of us: the sixth sense of the title. Socially awkward, sickly, with only this ill-defined skill to his name, Bristowe has no idea what to do with himself in a post-war society that valorises soldiers returning from France. 

Aware of this, Hilda Torrington, a well-educated young woman, determines to help him, for the simple reason that she believes in his ability, and thinks it may prove of value to society in the future. So far, so good, but Jaeger actually tells the story from the point of view of Ralph Standring, the antithesis of Michael, self-assured, successful, and intent on marrying Hilda, not because he loves her, but because it has always assumed by both his family and hers that they would inevitably do so. But Ralph is disturbed at the changes that university seems to have wrought in Hilda. She treats him as an equal, has views of her own, and wants to discuss his writing with him critically rather than admiringly. She has a flat of her own, a job she likes, working as a secretary for a Mrs Hastings, ‘one of the political women who hoped to be in the next Parliament’ (p. 22), and no inclination to abandon any of this for marriage to Ralph. 

Indeed, when Hilda does eventually marry, she chooses Michael, because she believes she should have his child and carry his unusual skills forward into a new generation. It is a calculated decision on her part, rationally considered, a very modern moment. And that, I think, is the key to the novel. While Jaeger may genuinely be interested in exploring the idea of extra-sensory perception and the possibility of a better future for humanity, somehow this recedes into the background as the novel unfolds, even despite Hilda’s devotion to promoting Michael’s abilities. Instead, the reader is treated to the full horror of Ralph’s assumptions about an educated woman’s role in society, as a suitable companion for an educated man, to be interested in his work and not her own. There is something almost comical in his nonplussed response when Hilda finally turns him down, even though it’s perfectly clear all along that Hilda knows precisely what she wants from life. 

And that is what makes this novel so fascinating: the crisp, sympathetic and utterly uncompromising portrayal of a young woman determinedly making her own decisions about her life, not as an act of defiance but because she does know what she wants.

Copyright Maureen Kincaid Speller. All rights reserved.

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

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

We all know the riff – y’know, science fiction is “about” the time in which it is written, rather than the time in which it is ostensibly set? Like most truisms, it’s not really true – or rather it’s not true of most science fiction, but it’s nonetheless true of enough science fiction that the truism persists. It’s only when one encounters a fiction that really does nail its Zeitgeist to the page that one realises how rare such stories are. Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, of which Europe in Winter is the third instalment, is just such a fiction.

Perhaps that seems tautologous: other readers and reviewers much faster to the mark than myself have noted the manner in which Brexit has made Hutchinson look a little like a prophet. But Brexit is merely a symptom of Fractured Europe’s true theme, which we might instead name as neoliberalism, so long as we’re willing to put up with the eye-rolling… but that’s still too narrow. We could say it’s about the collapse of the Westphalian consensus (which would at least allow us to coin the term “Westphaliure”), or the backwash of empire; less grandly, it’s about the exploitation of zero-hours workers under globalisation, or the grimy underside of the global construction industry. But really, it’s about all of these things, and more besides.

Europe in Winter (The Fractured Europe Sequence Book 3) by [Dave Hutchinson]

That said, Fractured Europe is not without literary precedent. The old po-mo saw about the map not being the territory definitely applies, letting us draw a line from Hutchinson back to Borges. Such a line might claim to sketch out a slim tradition of European magical realism more concerned with a Borgesian urban than with the ruptured rural dreamtimes of Garcia Marquez et al; Jan Morris’s Hav could be a point on that plot, as could Mieville’s The City & The City. I’d also make the case for Jeff Noon’s early books, in particular Pollen, which concretised the old map/territory riff so successfully that it became pure plot. Pollen is also, at least in part, about the relationship between society and its infrastructures, between people and systems – and that’s part of the game being played in Fractured Europe.

I’m just going to come on out and call that game psychogeography – not because it obeys Situationist methodology (such as it ever was), but because the Situationists were responding to the plasticity and fungibility of place, to the churning subjectivities of geography. In response to capital’s rewriting of the city in its own image, they attempted to disrupt that narrative through the creation of counter-stories: narratives assembled from play and randomness; directionless drifts from bar to bar, granted a rationale only in hindsight; theories that contradicted or abnegated themselves (and their creators).

Hutchinson’s Courers live rather like leaderless Situationists avant la lettre, drifting across the patchwork palimpsest of Europe, haunting its liminal spaces and infrastructural interstices, grudgingly resigned to a peripatetic existence playing out on a landscape where money has dissolved all certainties other than itself, where every map is a fiction and every story is a map. But Debord’s motley crew drifted through Paris in the hope of combatting, or perhaps outrunning, the looming hegemony; by the end of Europe in Winter, Rudy and friends are long past such naivete. They drift because drifting is the doom of the marginal, and they understand that understanding is not on the menu – though scraps do fall from taller tables, if you’re fast.

This may explain complaints about the “difficulty” of Fractured Europe, and its parsimony with regard to explanations and denouements: the reader’s experience reflects that of the characters, which is to say that individual agency is constrained, most knowledge is suspect, and the rules have a tendency to changing suddenly on the whim of distant, inscrutable powers. Fractured Europe is not so much difficult as it is perhaps too mimetic for the escapist reader’s taste: the challenge lies not in parsing its world, but in being forced to recognise it as a strip-lit fun-house reflection of the world in which you already live.

How ironic that only science fiction, the genre that helped invent The Future, is capable of documenting The Future’s foreclosure.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

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

It is now coming up for fourteen years since the one and only series of Joss Whedon’s Firefly first aired but we still want more. If anything the basic premise of a likeable bunch of losers – literally so in the case of Mal and Zoe, veterans of the defeated ‘Browncoat’ side in the recent Unification War – scraping an often less-than-legal living at the edge of the star system speaks more to the present than the early pre-crash years of the century. Forget the brief flurry of hot takes a few years ago that the crew were really the bad guys, camaraderie in resistance is increasingly the only option for many, rather than simply a choice over the corporate progressivism of the Blair and Clinton years made in the name of ‘freedom’.

Firefly - The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

The Ghost Machine is the third in Titan’s series of Firefly tie-in novels, all of which have so far been written by Lovegrove (and he has another one due to come out next year). An ‘Author’s Note’ informs us that the action is set between the Firefly TV series and the movie Serenity. In an interview with sci_fidelity.co.uk, Lovegrove points out that ‘essentially what I’m doing is fan fiction but by a professional writer’. His love for the characters certainly comes across and the obvious fun he had writing them makes this an entertaining read. I hadn’t seen any of these before and so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was immediately convinced by the opening scene, in which an exchange of dodgy merchandise in the remote outback of an obscure planet rapidly goes pear-shaped. The voices and characterisation are spot on and I sat back to enjoy the ride but, as with the high points of the series, I also found that the story ended up making me think about some of those fundamental questions, which genre fiction can be better at highlighting than more self-consciously literary work. As Lovegrove says in the interview, if we think of these novels as a mini season two then ‘The Ghost Machine is the season’s “high concept” episode’.

The dodgy merchandise in question turns out to be a bit of black tech developed by the Blue Sun Corporation in an illegal lab for the purposes of social control. Within hours of taking off from the planet where the novel begins, all of the crew except River are hopelessly ensnared in wish-fulfilment fantasies oblivious to the fact that their ship is heading full speed for a direct collision with the nearest moon. As the story progresses, these fantasies break down into overt horror but perhaps the most horrible thing about it all is just how conventional and capitalist the fantasies are in the first place. Mal imagines himself in domestic bliss, married to Inara with two kids; Wash dreams of being the wealthy head of an interplanetary freight corporation, the subject of puff pieces in society magazines; Simon wishes himself back as the privileged son of his wealthy family. Success breeds fear of betrayal as shown by the disintegration in Wash’s fantasy of his marriage with Zoe; while Zoe’s own fantasy of the Browncoats having won the war is to the detriment of her friendship with Mal. Tellingly, Zoe suspects Mal would have been happier if the war had been lost: ‘He defined himself by what he resisted, and therefore without anything to oppose he was nothing’. However, the novel is not critiquing the series for endorsing a loser mentality. Rather, it is reaffirming that oppositional mentality against the truly obscene consequences of adopting a winning mentality in what we might think of as ‘capitalist realism’. In particular, the sequence featuring Simon reveals the sheer violence underpinning patriarchal systems. Fortunately, resistance turns out to be too ingrained in some of the crew members for them to succumb completely. In its own way therefore, Firefly: The Ghost Machine has a very strong moral message: it has certainly put me on my guard against idly indulging in wish-fulfilment daydreams of conventional success.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

Let me lay my lotería cards on the table: I read little horror, if any. I picked out Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel because I bought and published some of her earliest stories, back when Futurismic was still a going concern, and I was curious to see what she was capable of with a decade more experience under her belt; suffice to say it’s very clear to see why she’s lasted the course. The novel’s title makes it plain, even to a dilettante interloper, that there’s a direct connection to the earliest manifestations of the horror tradition—but I can’t tell you to what extent Mexican Gothic might be in dialogue with its generic predecessors, because I don’t have the necessary knowledge. As such, I will limit myself to a discussion of the book’s technique, affect and plot.

Let’s start with the latter: Noemí Taboada is a socialite in 1950s Mexico City, and her life of glamorous parties (and carefully distant dalliances with handsome but stupid young men) is interrupted by her father’s receipt of a letter from her cousin; Catalina recently married (unexpectedly, and against the family’s wishes and better judgement) and shipped out to El Triunfo, a faded former silvertown in the eastern state of Hidalgo, and has hardly been heard from since. The letter, full of high-gothic histrionics—cruelty, decay, poison, whispering voices in the night, the full works—suggests to Noemí’s father, already predisposed to disapproval of Catalina’s unsuitable husband Virgil Doyle, that she needs rescuing from her situation, or psychiatric attention, or some combination of the two: Catalina had a traumatic youth before coming to live with Noemí’s side of the family, after all, and has always been a bit flighty, her nose buried in literary Victoriana, a romantic in both the capitalised and lower-case senses of the term. Despite the horrors to come later in the novel, Noemí’s being dispatched on this mission by her stern yet doting father is perhaps the hardest event to swallow in terms of plausibility—but it’s done quickly, and no more than ten pages have passed before Noemí is en route to El Triunfo by train, with instructions to scope out the situation, and (if required) to persuade Virgil that he must either let Catalina see a shrink, or let her go entirely.

The Doyle family pile is the plainly-named High House, some way outside of El Triunfo proper, halfway up the mountain containing the mine that made the town’s (and the Doyles’s) much-diminished fortunes. High House and its cast of residents are as gothic as the title suggests they should be: this lot are, for the most part, monstrous and unpleasant from the get-go. Noemí, who starts confidently—as is her way—with the assumption that she’ll soon have her cousin out of there and onto a train back to the capital, discovers that things are (of course!) rather more complicated than the simple abusive-gold-digger-husband set-up that she and her father had assumed (though that is very much a part of the problem) and is soon entrapped in High House herself.

Now, I’ve never been much of one for deferring to the Spoiler Police, but I will in this case refrain from going deep into the spooky mechanics of the plot, which leavens its classic gothic hauntings and horrors with some scientific speculation and an (un)healthy dose of social psychology. I will say that it’s not a very violent or gory book, which I appreciated, and is perhaps all the more horrific (rather than thrilling or chilling) for that… and I will also note that the horror elements are used to explore, with no small degree of subtlety, the more mundane horrors of racism, colonialism and patriarchy. Mexican Gothic treats these themes with a sort of unflinching care, tracing the toxins without collapsing the veins of the plot. High House may be mostly lit by candles and oil lamps, but there’s a fair amount of gaslight in play, if you catch my drift; the entitled and not-always-passive aggressions of toxic masculinity, and the ways in which it warps and damages its protagonists as well as its victims, is poignantly portrayed, to the point that what might have been a far-too-fairytale ending instead feels both earned and redemptive.

It is telling, perhaps, that Moreno-Garcia chose the era of the post-war “economic miracle” as the temporal setting for the story—a period in which Mexico, like much of the rest of the world, was generally on the up in terms of social progress, particularly for women and those with indigenous (rather than Spanish) roots. Noemí fits both of those categories, and her privilege is contextualised with an appreciation of how much has changed, and how much is still to be done. As such, her distaste both for the obsolete patriarchal mores of the Doyles, and their interest in eugenic “science”, is informed by intellect and experience alike. (The redoubtable Clute would perhaps add something here about the ways in which the Doyles are Bound to the earth and their adopted home, both literally and figuratively, but I’ll leave that sort of theory to the experts.)

In terms of technique, while the gothic informs the imagery, atmosphere and plot, Moreno-Garcia mostly leaves the overwrought prose stylings out of it, writing instead from Noemí’s whipsmart sceptical POV as she figures out the form of the trap she’s wandered into. Furthermore, the way in which Moreno-Garcia displaces the classic gothic tropes to Central America, so as to expand and illuminate both the source genre and its idiosyncratic setting, is handled with deft and understated craft. Is it good horror? I’m really not the man to ask—but it’s a bloody good novel, that’s for sure.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.