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.

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling and Normal by Warren Ellis

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

If you ever publicly identify as a futurist, you will eventually be asked what contemporary futurism – an admittedly vague term which somehow covers everyone from tech-centric venture capital strategists and Pentagon policy wonks to Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil and the snake-oil Barnums of Silicon Valley – has to do with the proto-fascist 1920s Italian art movement of the same name. Bruce Sterling’s latest novella, Pirate Utopia, is (in part) an attempt to answer that question.

Written in the bombastic style that animates much of Sterling’s more recent short fiction, Pirate Utopia is populated by characters whose larger-than-lifeness is predominantly a function of their unfettered will-to-power (but also cocaine). In this alternate Adriatic, minor historical figures and allegorical types rub shoulders in Fiume, the little city at the heart of the breakaway microstate known as the Republic of Carnaro, where Futurist poets and artists work side by side with rogue military leaders and mercenary engineers to establish a proto-fascist entrepôt with its own hi-tech missile factory.

Identified by glamorous (and thus ridiculous) nicknames – “the Poet”, “the Ace of Hearts”, “the Art Witch” – the heroes of capital-F Futurism unwittingly slip into the narrative space occupied, in our own timeline, by the more fully developed European fascisms of the early 20th Century: Mussolini, a magazine editor, is emasculated in his office chair by Syndicalist women with single-shot handguns, while a former Austrian art student takes someone else’s bullet during a failed putsch in a Bavarian beer-hall. But Carnaro is doomed not to last – for as Peter Lamborn Wilson has observed, the pirate utopia is always-already temporary and contingent; the polder cannot hold.

The arrival of “the Magician” – one Harry Houdini, squired by two USian pulp fiction  pioneers – and his inviting of Lorenzo Secondari the Pirate Engineer to the States completes the story of Futurism and futurism. Both are essentially poetic movements fuelled by utopian genres of writing and the creative arts, and powered by the modernist legacy of a lust for power, velocity and creative destruction. Which is not to claim that small-f futurism is necessarily fascist, of course – but the same desires and fetishes can be found the manifestos of both, and today’s self-styled “neoreactionaries” (a small but scary intellectual splinter of the soi disant “alt-right”, fond of cool tech, racist pseudoscience and the presumed meritocracy of enlightened dictatorship) mark the ideological space where futurisms past and present overlap. Both futurism and Futurism are far less about the future than they are about a present in the perpetual process of radical sociotechnical reconfiguration, and the possibilities of power in times of flux.

Warren Ellis’s Normal begins with an ageing academic demanding cat gifs with menaces (assuming “menaces” can stretch to include a shank whittled from the handle of a ten-buck toothbrush), and the story only gets darker and weirder, unfolding around a plot featuring “a missing guy, a locked-room mystery out of Agatha Christie, and a pile of insects.” Normal Head is a retreat facility for burned out futurists – not the “woo, flying cars!!” sort of futurist, but the strategists and forecasters who have learned the truth of Nietzsche’s old aphorism about gazing into the abyss, and learned it the hard way. The abyss in question is the light-cone of increasingly plausible and probable end-games facing a civilisation whose ability to generate interesting new technologies has far outpaced their ability to plan, predict or control the consequences – and speaking from beneath my own futurist’s hat, I assure you it can best a basilisk when it comes to lookin’ back atcha.

In contrast to the pulpy swaggerdocio of Sterling’s story, Normal has a stark style and shape, tracing a bleakly Ballardian arc which, plotted on paper, would resemble a stock-market chart during a bank run: a justifiably and self-consciously doomed male Western professional attempts a heroic final act of self-abnegating redemption, only to reveal in doing so the even more comprehensive fuckedupness of, well, pretty much everything. Mercifully, Ellis leavens his grim prognosis with gallows humour, and with his well-tuned ear for the contemporary vernacular: you may be headed for a boot-on-a-human-face-forever sort of an ending, but you’ll find yourself smiling as an academic from a rival discipline describes economics as “a speeding death kaleidoscope made of tits” – particularly if you know anything about economics. (Or about academics, for that matter.)

Taken together, these two books shine a light on the intimate but often occluded kinship between science fiction and futurism, rooted in a shared ideology and teleology. I am reminded of a recent Clute riff, in which he observes – and I paraphrase – that in “the old sf” (which is to say, roughly speaking, 20th century sf) the reward for saying ‘yes!’ was the future, while in “new” sf, the reward for saying ‘yes!’ is death; this reflects and reproduces a recent tectonic slippage in our attitude to change, and to technological change in particular. The Republic of Carnaro may be doomed in Sterling’s story, but as Houdini and friends say ‘yes!’ to Futurism and smuggle its Promethean flame back to their homeland, they mark the beginning of a hegemonic American century – albeit one which seems to be drawing to a shuddering halt even as I type. But Adam Dearden and the other inmates of Normal Head, after long careers of saying ‘yes, but…’ to the future, suddenly find that it’s too late for questions and analysis, let alone for saying ‘no’. 

Things being what they are, I think we’re all victims of #abyssgaze to some extent … and yet the dream of Carnaro lives on in the tax-exempt sea-steading fantasies and vaporware Martian colonies of libertarian millionaires. Perhaps, then, we could say that Futurism’s greatest trick was – and still is – making the capital disappear.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved.

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.