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.

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.’ 

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‘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. Arika 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 Arika 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 Arika’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. 

Arika’s wilful and selfish decisions to ensure her seat in the senate drive this book well, to the point of alienating the reader. Arika 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. Arika’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 Arika 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 Arika’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 Arika’s actions. Arika’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.