Those of you who haven’t been reading my blog will have missed some discussion of the role of news in Emerald City. I was somewhat concerned to see that I have five pages of news in the last issue. It doesn’t seem smart to me for a monthly magazine to be carrying that sort of material. News is much better off in a more regularly updated format such as a blog: either my personal blog, Cheryl’s Mewsings, or a specific SF-news blog on Emerald City. Currently I have had very little feedback on this issue, so if you have time to drop me a line saying whether or not you want news to remain in the magazine I would be very grateful.
In this issue
Crabs with Clause – Fantasy Literature’s annual get-together in Florida
The War Against the Insects – Steph Swainston bursts onto the UK scene
Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau - Guy Gavriel Kay on Celts and Vikings
Comic Opera – Ken MacLeod shows his funny side
My Kingdom for a Nail – Wil McCarthy finds scarcity even in the most affluent of futures
Sand and Sorcery – Chaz Brenchley heads for the dunes
Learning from History – R. Scott Bakker does some impressive world building
Universal Balance – Jane Jensen weds the Kabbalah and theoretical physics
Genetic Warfare – Ann Tonsor Zeddies designs a replacement for mankind
Hidden Hills – Marly Youmans finds magic in America’s south
Interview – Ben Jeapes tells the sad story of the Big Engine that couldn’t
Found in Translation – Zoran Živković’s The Fourth Circle
Crichton Heavy – Paul McAuley shows how the techno-thriller should be done
Short Stuff - short fiction from Mary Gentle, Jay Lake and Jeff Vandermeer
Miscellany – the news section
Footnote – the end
Crabs with Clause
Being a report on the 25th annual occurrence of the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Now here is a rarity. I am actually starting writing a con report while I am still at the convention. ICFA has a few more hours to run yet. Right now most people are in the official con banquet, but I’ve eaten quite well enough today as it is, thank you, and in any case hotel food is hotel food. It seems a shame to spoil the fabulous Florida dining experience now. So I’m up in my room writing the con report instead.
Backtrack now to Wednesday evening. I have just come off a long flight from San José via Chicago and am hauling my bags towards my room. Lo, who is this I see? Is it not Charles Brown of Locus? So it is. "Is everyone down by the pool?" I ask him. "No, there’s a party over the road." And so there was. Much to my astonishment I received a warmer welcome here than at any other convention I can remember. Than you folks, it was really nice to feel so welcome at a con.
Of Finns, Cowboys, Cubans and Critics
I am rooming with Irma Hirsjarvi from Finland. She’s an academic who is writing a PhD on Finnish fandom, but she’s also a leading light of that community (quite a trick to balance those two) and very highly spoken of by my other Scandinavian fannish friends. But Irma has come in from Europe and is at least 6 hours behind Florida time. I’m 3 hours ahead of it. For a while it, looks like our body clocks are not going to synchronize. She’s exhausted early in the evening, and I keep running into the small hours.
This was not a good thing for me, because the one paper I really wanted to see was on at 8:30 on Thursday morning. Yes, really. They do start programming at 8:30 here. But it is a relaxed program. The panel sessions are 90 minutes long and there are only 4 per day, so I’ll forgive the convention for the early start. Anyway, there was a panel on Cowboy Bebop and, hopeless fan girl that I am, I just had to go to it. Actually it was very good — a lot of stuff on Freudian analysis of Spike and how Fay, Ed and Ein represent various aspects of his psyche. It would not please those people who hate any sort of interpretation of a work, but it seemed to have some validity to it.
The post-lunch speech was given by the convention’s main Guest of Honor, Daína Chaviano. She’s a Cuban writer now resident in Miami. Her speech was a fascinating tale about the difficulties of writing speculative fiction (especially subversive speculative fiction) under an oppressive regime. We were all fascinated to learn that there is now an underground resistance movement in Cuba that takes its name from one of Chaviano’s novels. Maybe SF can change the world.
Thursday afternoon saw the annual "state of speculative fiction" panel, in which some of the best minds in SF reviewing (including but not limited to John Clute and Gary K Wolfe, plus writer GoH Liz Hand) discuss what they think were the best books of the past year. Naturally they got this pretty much right. I only had to remind them of three works (she says, cheekily). Of course to keep them on the right track I would give the panel an enthusiastic thumbs up when they mentioned something really good like 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, Natural History or The Etched City. David Hartwell added to the entertainment by countering me with a firm thumbs down on one occasion. Doubtless he was doing this for effect. I’m sure he doesn’t really dislike Justina Robson’s book. He has much better taste than that.
Talking of the Family Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer and the kids were here too. Kathryn is, as far as I know, the only person who was updating a blog at the convention. She was also responsible for a very excellent dinner on Thursday night thanks to pointing a group of us in the direction of a fine Indian restaurant. As resident Brits, Andrew M Butler and I gave it the official curry house seal of approval. We were particularly pleased that the food had serious heat if you asked for it, which of course we did. Even some of our colleagues went for the spicy stuff. Doubtless Javier Martinez is used to chili from Tex-Mex food, but I immediately recognized Sherryl Vent as a kindred spirit when she asked for her meal extra hot and ate it with no trouble. (I was going to say that this was very impressive for a Canadian, but that would just get Guy Gavriel Kay throwing things as me and I shouldn’t tease him like that.)
The rest of the evening was notable for Andrew’s bottle of cask strength Laphroaig, which was utterly delicious.
Busy, busy Friday
Friday was hard work. I spent much of the morning answering email and writing blogs, and the afternoon saw two critical theory round table panels back to back. This is good way to burn out people’s brains. It didn’t help that the first paper, that for the fantasy round table, was very academic and discussion quickly moved into a realm of jargon in which I knew the original meanings of all of the words used but understood their meaning in lit crit jargon only about one time in five. The paper was by Mark Bould, whose work I normally like, but this one simply wasn’t appropriate for the task in hand. It was an attempt to justify the study of fantasy literature to a Marxist audience, which is a) a very difficult sell, and b) not the type of argument that a bunch of literary critics will want to take up and run with (it being just a variation on the usual "selling fantasy to mundanes" riff). I’m thinking of talking in more detail about this one next month, but for now all I want to say is that it didn’t work in the setting in which it found itself.
At first sight the SF round table seemed even less promising. We were provided with a paper that did not mention science fiction or literary theory at all. It was a short essay on the difficulties of growing up in a Mexican family inside the USA. Gloria Anzaldúa is a Chicana academic who specializes in literature that exists in the borderlands between Anglo-American and Mexican culture. Years ago people like her were caught between two societies, belonging to neither. These days there is a whole Chicano/a culture entirely separate from both of its parents. Studying this phenomenon is science-fictional in two ways: firstly it allows us to consider issues of alienation, and secondly we can see a new culture in formation.
This was a very different sort of round table than last year’s, at which Gary K Wolfe talked about the meaning of genre. Nevertheless I could easily see how such thinking would be very useful in the teaching of literature. We all chipped in enthusiastically with suggestions of authors whose work addressed similar issues. Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy, and the work of Chip Delaney and Maureen McHugh all came up.
I didn’t manage to get to destroy any crabs this year, but I did get a lobster instead which more than made up for it. Friday saw a bunch of us head out to the beach where the strangely unsettled Florida weather made the place look and feel like Blackpool with palm trees. Needing somewhere to shelter from the driving rain, we ended up in a Caribbean restaurant. Yum.
The Friday evening entertainment saw Ellen Kushner and Ellen Klages fronting a cabaret of performances by the more musically talented members of the convention. Joe Haldeman, Russell Letson and Sean McMullen were among those who demonstrated that their skills stretched well beyond words on paper.
Loafing by the pool
Having worked so hard on Friday I decided that I deserved Saturday off. Besides which the weather was almost tolerable for once. Having listened to Wales thrash Italy at rugby, courtesy of the BBC web site, I headed off to the pool bar where I found Guy Gavriel Kay taking a break from a family seaside holiday. Charles Brown turned up with a proof copy of the new Locus, which features an interview with Kay. John Clute, Peter Straub, Ellen Kushner, Steven Erickson and Graham Sleight, to name but a few, dropped by the table at various times during the day. If this sounds like shameless name-dropping, well it is. But there isn’t much else to do at ICFA except listen to academics read their papers or sit by the pool and drink. The academics tend to do the former; the writers and critics do the latter. The kicker is that you have to be able to talk in an interesting way about speculative fiction or you are liable to end up at a table by yourself. I’ve not heard anyone say, "where do you get your ideas from", but I suspect that if someone did they might end up in the pool.
Having soaked up enough sun for one day I headed back to my room to laugh at the English rugby team getting their butts kicked in Paris. It was turning out to be a very good day, and it got better in the evening when the very excellent KJ Bishop won the Crawford Award for the best first fantasy novel of 2003. This was thoroughly well deserved. The Etched City is a wonderful book and I was delighted for Bishop. Indeed I was so delighted that I made somewhat of a spectacle of myself, allowing the award presenter, Gary K Wolfe, to make Cheryl jokes from the head table. I would blame Irma’s fine Finnish vodka except that we hadn’t started drinking it at that point.
ICFA is a convention that is currently in a pretty much ideal state. Those who attend love it, and it fits the facilities very well. But, conventions being what they are, it will change. At the moment it is growing, and also the people who have been running for years are getting older and perhaps less keen on all of the effort. It is not a convention I would recommend to most fans, because unless you are a lit crit geek like me there is almost nothing to do at the con. Kevin, for example, would be bored stupid there, and would probably spend his days riding the train back and fore to Miami. But then the last time I went to SMOFcon with him I spent most of my time hitting the tourist traps in San Diego.
The expansion at ICFA seems to be coming mainly through there being more and more students studying SF at college. This may also provide challenges. For example, too many papers by inexperienced grad students might dilute the quality of the program. And the students tend to be a generation younger than the rest of the attendees and therefore form their own, distinct social group.
Another tendency that I have noticed is that there are more and more papers on fandom (by which academics mainly mean media fandom) and fan fiction (which almost always means Slash). These are, of course, legitimate areas for study, but they are not an area that holds much interest for critics and writers. It will be interesting to see how ICFA develops over the years, and I will see it because it is currently my favorite convention and I intend to be back as often as possible.
There is similar but different reportage of the convention on the Emerald City weblog. I think I have covered all of the main points but you might want to check what I wrote when somewhat the worse for wear on lack of sleep and excess of alcohol.
There are pictures too. Unfortunately my camera batteries died half-way through the pre-banquet reception. Kevin has the van so I can’t rush out to Radio Shack to get replacements so that I can download the pictures. I’ll process them later. They should be on the web site before next issue.
The War Against the Insects
Every so often in publishing a buzz develops about a book. It is the thing everyone is talking about. In the wider UK publishing world that buzz belongs to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (which Neil Gaiman recently described as the best British fantasy novel written in the last 70 years). I’ll doubtless be talking about that more in a later issue (it isn’t due out until October). But in the genre field the current buzz is most definitely the property of Steph Swainston and her stunning debut novel, The Year of our War.
The book is a fantasy novel, but it is quite unlike any fantasy you will have read before. To start with, it is a single volume (hooray!). In addition it bears no relation to the mounds of tiresome Tolclone fiction we see so much of. If it has antecedents then they are Angela Carter, Roger Zelazny, M. John Harrison and China Miéville, to name but a few. But while drawing on such illustrious forebears, it is by no means derivative. It is very much its own thing.
The world of The Fourlands is in some ways a classic mediaeval setting. It has lords, it has manors, it has swords and bows and horses. But by choosing to date the story (in the Fourlands calendar) with year numbers similar to our modern times, and using the occasional term such as "press conference", Swainston subtly suggests that her world has been somehow frozen in its current state for some centuries. There are good reasons for this.
The most obvious reason is that it is a world at war. Several hundred years ago a species of giant insects appeared in the Fourlands. No one knows where they came from, but they quickly took over part of the world and began building their strange Insect cities. Then they began to expand. War between the Fourlands races (of which there are several – more later) and the Insects is constant. The indigenous peoples of the Fourlands try to keep the Insects at bay, and the Insects try to eat them. Separating the Fourlands army from the ever-hungry Insect hordes is the Wall.
Hardened Insect spit held it together. It was smooth like ceramic, and sometimes with froth set hard as stone. Inside were chewed tree branches, furniture from ruined villages, armour from old battles. There were also the shells of dead Insects, pieces of tents and weaponry, and children who disappeared many years ago. Here and there a rotting arm or a horse’s backbone protruded out, faces could be seen within it, unevenly preserved when the milky saliva set hard.
See, no cute elves and fluffy bunnies in this fantasy novel.
The other thing that might perhaps help keep Fourlands society stagnant is that there are immortals. In particular there is the Emperor San, who was made immortal by god shortly before it left the world for an extended holiday. The Emperor in turn has created the Circle, a group of 50 immortal heroes, each of whom is the best at his chosen skill. There is a Warrior, an Archer, a Sailor, a Surgeon and so on. Entry into the Circle is by contest. If you can defeat a champion in his chosen skill then you replace him. If a member of the Circle meets with an accident (immortal here does not mean incapable of death) then an open contest is held for a replacement.
Wisely the Emperor does not allow his heroes to rule mortals. That is left to mortal societies to sort out amongst themselves. Instead he uses the Circle as war leaders in the ongoing battle against the Insects.
As I said, there are several races in the Fourlands. Indeed, it may not surprise you to learn that they number four. There are humans, who are much like us; there are Awians, who have wings but cannot fly; there are the Rhydanne, who are lithe and cat-like; and there are the Morenzians, who feature little in the book. Our hero, Jant Shira, also known as Comet, is the Emperor’s Messenger. He is uniquely suited to this task, being half-Awian, half-Rhydanne. Because of his lithe and athletic Rhydanne body, Jant is light and fit enough to be able to use his Awian wings to fly.
Of course, being a half-breed isn’t easy. Jant has particular trouble with his Rhydanne relatives who are a violent and anti-social lot. As he says of their speech:
Never trust a language that has no future tense and twenty words for ‘drunk’.
Which might just get you thinking that Swainston has a nice sense of humor. And you would be right. You see there is another world in The Year of Our War. It is called The Shift. Comet knows about it, but no one else does. It is full of the most bizarre creatures: the rare impossum whose invisible pelt is much in demand by furriers; the bizarre problemmings who are lighter than air and spend their time jumping off cliffs and floating upwards; the giraffiti; and the jeopards.
Jeopards – leopards with square spots – purred on the City Hall steps or sat hunched beneath stalls waiting for tit-bits. Jeopards ran sleek and fast, but only in straight lines, as they couldn’t see curves, which meant that Epsilon citizens had to spend a fair amount of time rescuing them from the fountain.
The book, then, has a rare combination of the grim, the bizarre and the hilarious. And somehow it all works. The end result is a book about heroism. Jant himself does not exactly behave like a fantasy hero. He is a drug addict (indeed it is by taking the drug, Scolopendium, that he is able to reach The Shift, which suggests that it is perhaps only an hallucination. His best friend is an outrageously camp gay transvestite called Felicitia. And he doesn’t get to do a lot of fighting because he is too busy flying back and fore with messages.
Then again, what use are heroes? The Awian king, Dunlin Rachiswater, is most certainly a hero. He thinks that heroics in the war can win him a place in the Circle. Which is how come he ends up getting killed in the first few chapters. This is a disaster, because the king’s brother and heir, Staniel, is a self-confessed coward. So frightened is he of the Insects that he withdraws to his castle, taking all of his troops with him. He just wants to be "safe" (where have we heard that before?).
This, of course, means major political trouble. If Staniel won’t commit troops to the war, the other nobles say, why should we? After all, he may be planning to invade our lands while we are busy elsewhere. In no time the whole of the Fourlands is plunged into internal dispute. Nor is the Circle immune. After all, one doesn’t get to be a member without being outrageously ambitious, and when the cracks start to show in Fourlands society ambition soon takes over. Only one man is still dedicated to the war against the Insects, and he spends much of his time in a drug-induced stupor.
I didn’t have anything to put in a will. Wrought manor belongs to Tern. Rayne could have my books, and Lascanne would keep the Filigree Spider. Goodbye, Tern. I began with nothing, and soon I will be nothing again, but now as the Emperor’s Messenger, my highest achievement, I know it’s worth the risk for the Fourlands’ sake.
So, does Comet manage to save the world? Is it worth saving? And what exactly does The Shift have to do with all this? You are going to have to read The Year of our War to find out. And I think you are going to enjoy the process.
The Year of Our War - Steph Swainston – Gollancz – publisher’s proof
Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau
The question I was most often asked by people who knew I had a review copy of the new Guy Gavriel Kay novel, The Last Light of the Sun, was how the book related to Kay’s other work. Was it a sequel to any previous book? Was it a standalone or the first part of a new series? I am happy to say that it is a standalone book: there will be no anxious waiting for a resolution. (Which does not, of course, rule out sequels, but you won’t feel an obvious need for them beyond just wanting to meet the characters again.) As to the other matter, it is indeed set in Kay’s usual alternate history world. Early on we meet a character from Al-Rassan, and there is frequent mention of the Sarantine Empire, but all of the action takes place well away from these regions. Said action is set in the far North-West in the lands of the Erlings, the Anglcyn and the Cyngael.
What does that translate to in our world? The Erlings are composite Scandinavians. I’ll leave it to my readers from those parts to tell me what they think of the portrayal but, as you might guess, they are a violent lot, prone to drinking, raping and spreading their enemies’ lungs over their backs in ceremonial salute to their dark, one-eyed raven-god. The Anglcyn are related barbarians who are taking a stab at being civilized under the leadership of their brilliant and intellectual king, Aeldred (who can do most things but is hopeless with cakes). And the Cyngael, well, Kay tells me that he was aiming for a pan-Celtic feel. So they have the name "gael", but their names are Cymric and their passion for poetry (unfortunately often at the expense of military training) marks them out. A country with three feuding provinces? The Cyngael are Welsh.
I am too old, Ceinon thought again. He was remembering – so vividly – the father as a young man, equally reckless, even more impulsive. And now that man was an aging prince, and his son was about to find his own end trying to go through the untracked woods carrying a warning all the long way home. A desperate, glorious folly. The way of the Cyngael.
Fortunately rugby has not yet been invented (the national sport is still cattle-rustling, or where cattle can’t be had sheep-rustling) so the bloody Anglcyn can’t beat us at it. But, because they spend way too much time writing poetry, playing word games and strumming their harps, the Cyngael tend to get beaten up on by all of the other barbarians around. Yet, in true Welsh rugby tradition, there was one glorious moment, one great triumph, the day when Brynn ap Hywll killed the great Erling champion, Siggur Volganson, and took his famous sword.
That, of course, was many years ago. Brynn is now an old man, and young blades such as Dai and Alun ab Owyn seek to taunt him by stealing his cattle. But Volganson’s descendants have not forgotten. Blood feud is by no means a solely Celtic practice. Only one man from Volganson’s personal war band is still active, but Red Thorkell is missing, exiled from his home for a drunken killing. His son, Bern, is now a pauper and his only chance at a successful life is to sign on with the famous dragon-prowed ships and go a-raiding. For these men, and some of their women too, life is about to get busy.
The doorways of our lives take many shapes, and arrivals that change us are not always announced by thunderous pounding or horns at the gates. We may be walking a known laneway, at prayer in a familiar chapel, entering a new one and simply looking up, or we may be deep in quiet talk late of a summer’s night, and a door will open behind us.
There are a few strange things about the book. Perhaps the oddest is the newspaper review whose author mis-read "dragon-prowed" as "dragon-powered". Kay noted this in his signing tour journal and is dining out on amusing stories of fire-breathing propulsion methods. I intend to do the same if I can find an audience that Kay hasn’t got to first.
More relevantly, the main villain of the book, a descendant of Volganson called Ivarr Ragnarson, is an albino. For most fantasy readers (and writers) the thought of an albino Viking nobleman immediately brings to mind the Prince of Melnibone. Kay was bemused when I asked him about this. He ruefully accepted my suggestion that he might be the only fantasy writer around who hasn’t actually read any Elric stories. Ah well, you can’t read everything. And it doesn’t seem to have done Kay any harm because the rest of what is strange about the book is in the "wonderfully strange" category.
Then, as the music grew louder, approaching, Alun ab Owyn saw what was passing by him, walking and riding on the surface of the water, in bright procession, the light a shimmering, around them and in them. And everything about that night and the world changed then, was silvered, because they were fairies, and he could see them.
Kay doesn’t do a lot of magic in his more recent books, but when he does do it he always does it well. He comes very close to Rob Holdstock in capturing the spirit of Celtic magic. That’s pretty darn special for a Canadian.
However, it would be a mistake to think that The Last Light of the Sun is a high fantasy novel. It is certainly a fairy story, in fine Celtic tradition, it even has a magic sword, but it is not mythic fantasy. Like Kay’s other work, it is historical fiction in an alternate world with a little magic in it. The bulk of the book is about people (Kay’s characters are wonderful) and about a developing society. Ostensibly the book’s title refers to the fact that the sun sets upon the lands of the Cyngael, but it also refers to the sun setting on a whole lifestyle. The Anglcyn are already changing under the wise leadership of Aeldred. For Thorkell and Bern, their raiding lifestyle is gradually being replaced by settlement and farming. Dai and Alun might be young and foolish, but Ceinon, the Cyngael chief cleric, knows only too well that a society that remains obsessed with feuding and cattle raiding will soon fall victim to the imperial ambitions of their Anglcyn neighbors.
That time, however, is yet to come. The time of the book is sunset. And as the last light of the sun falls upon Cyngael, Anglcyn and Erling alike there is yet magic in the world, and it still has power to affect the affairs of men. That power is strongest in the green hills and vales where the fair folk still make their home. The land of their own chosen people.
He thought about this, didn’t even want to guess how old she was. She spoke Cyngael the way his grandfather had.
He said it: "You speak my language so beautifully. What does your own sound like?"
She looked surprised for a moment, then amused, the hair flashing it. "But this is my own tongue. How do you think your people learned it?"
The language of the fairies should, of necessity, be a language of poetry and song. Naturally it lives on in its homeland, but with this book Guy Gavriel Kay has shown that the spirit of that language has permeated even the rough Anglcyn tongue, and geographically as far as Canada. The Last Light of the Sun is a book that any Welsh bard would be proud to have written. Indeed, it is a book that anyone would be proud to have written.
Os treisiodd y gelyn fy ngwlad tan ei droed,
Welsh National Anthem (verse 3)
The Last Light of the Sun – Guy Gavriel Kay – Simon & Schuster – publisher’s proof
One of the great controversies surrounding Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series is the genocide of the Fast Folk in The Cassini Division. MacLeod (at least last time I checked with him) maintains that it was necessary; that we had to destroy them before they destroyed us. But genocide is genocide and there is still the concern that the decision to fire was made by the Cassini Division troops themselves, a bunch of xenophobic militarists who were just itching to get to use their guns after years of being on picket duty. There’s a reason why the decision to launch a nuclear strike has to be taken by the White House, not by the Pentagon.
In his new novel, Newton’s Wake, MacLeod returns to the question of self-aware AIs and uploaded minds (if indeed any distinction can be made between them). As we have come to expect, he doesn’t argue a case, he just points out some of the difficulties that us fleshy beings would have trying to coexist in a world filled with super-intelligent machines and expects us to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. The background is something like this:
‘It was a pre-emptive strike, everybody knew it was us or them. They were the ones going for one world empire. […] We felt we were standing up for humanity, for Earth, against a fucking inhuman machine, and in the end that was what the USA literally became.’
Well, of course the opinions of the survivors of wars are often tainted by experience. What seems to have been true is that tensions between Europe and the USA had increased to breaking point and that all out war was initiated. It is also true that shortly into that combat the American military AIs took control of their side’s activities. And shortly after that they achieved transcendence: they and their operators uploaded. The Rapture of the Nerds had taken place.
‘There are infinitely many modes of existence of which we can’t conceive: not space-time, not thought, not mind or matter. They began to conceive them before they left. They went below the Planck length, and away. Into the fine grain of the world. And there they still are, and far beyond it. The whole of space-time is now riddled with their minds. […]’
Carlyle had heard such conjectures before. ‘You know all this?’
Higgins laboriously stood up. ‘I know. I’ve seen it. Seen them. The quantum angels.’
After that it was something of a mess. Remnants of humanity fled Earth and slowly but surely civilization was re-established in the vast deepnesses of space.
Fast forward now for several millennia. There are three major powers in the human polity. As we might expect from MacLeod, they are all politically intriguing. The Knights of Enlightenment is a society made up of people from places such as Japan and India. They are technophilic but with a strong mystical bent. The DK are a bunch of old-fashioned South-East Asian commies. They are isolationist and heavily into self-reliance. That is, they don’t mind technology as long as they have made it themselves, no matter how clunky the end product. Finally there is America Offline, a deep space version of the Amish who have frozen their technology as of a few millennia ago and spend their time terraforming planets so that they can grow crops and praise God for his bounty.
Then of course there are the Carlyles. They are not a civilization as such, although they do control their own planets. They are more a jumped up version of a Glasgow street gang crossed with rag-and-bone merchants. Somehow they have gained control of the network of wormhole gates that permeates the galaxy, and they hop from planet to planet looking for trading opportunities. Where no one appears to own something interesting that they find, or at least appears incapable of defending it, they tend to indulge in what they call "combat archaeology" and what others might call "breaking, entering and stealing".
Thus it is that Lucinda Carlyle, a minor member of that great Family, finds herself and her team on a previously undiscovered planet. Radio transmissions suggest that it is inhabited by humans, but Lucinda and her team step out of the stargate right next to a giant diamond monolith that looks suspiciously artificial. It is way too much of a temptation to resist.
Not much later Lucinda finds herself a prisoner of the local authorities, having been caught just before she was able to follow her team home. The locals are most upset because the Carlyle raiders appear to have awoken a bunch of ancient war machines. Archaeology (real archaeology) suggests that these things are way older than human habitation of the planet, which the settlers called Eurydice. It looks like they are the remains of an alien civilization that was wiped out by its own robot troops.
Naturally the people of Eurydice don’t want to go the same way. They have been very successful, despite their lack of contact with the rest of humanity (which they thought had perished). This gives MacLeod the opportunity to speculate on another form of society, something his friend Iain Banks has written a lot about.
Cornucopian capitalism ran on something even more abstract than money, a calculus of reputation and reward that tweaked the material balances and made or broke the fortunes of promoters and projectors, physical accountants and venture planners. Loafing and lotus-eating earned contempt; providing goods and services that couldn’t be churned out on a drexler brought respect. Art and design were big, as were entrepreneurship, and advice – existential consultancy, philosophical mentoring, physical training, erotic education; and a surprising amount of manual labour, practical skill, and personal service all paid big dividends in credit and interest.
MacLeod makes this sound a lot more sensible and believable than Cory Doctorow’s Whuffie society, although he mostly shies away from addressing the social issues arising from an emortal population raised by the likes of Brian Stableford and Wil McCarthy.
Anyway, you can’t keep a good Glasgow girl down so it is not long before Lucinda is escaping and heading home to try to restore any damage to her reputation within the Family that her bungled raid and capture might have caused. Unfortunately she finds herself having to go the long way through the wormhole system.
The moment of transition, when what she saw and the gravity she felt and the readings in her heads-up all changed at once, was as disconcerting and disorienting as ever. All the more so as she was stepping on empty space and falling forward.
She fell half a metre on to sand, and found herself kneeling on a sun-drenched beach, and looking upon the stony face of Marx.
Oh, did I forget to mention that the book is full of the most wonderful pieces of humor? For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t see Planet of the Apes, that was one of them.
Perhaps the best comedy sections come from Eurydice’s famous playwright, Benjamin Ben-Ami (or was that Ben-Elton?). Mr. Ben-Ami is famous for a range of popular entertainments. For example there is the hilarious farce set in the time of the American Empire called The Madness of George II. But perhaps his most famous work is the Shakespearean pastiche, The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy, in which the leaders of Soviet Russia are portrayed as a squabbling gang of feudal barons.
Then again there is the famous Scottish singing duo whose "act" appears to be to stand up on stage side-by-side, play their guitars, and rant. I can’t imagine where Ken got that idea…
Of course there is a serious story to be told here. Eurydice is still in danger. Away in space an asteroid miner called Cyrus Lamont is in trouble. What he thought was simply an iron rich rock has turned out be inhabited by things. Metal things with spiky armor, a talent for hacking into and taking over spacecraft AIs, and an insatiable urge to build more of themselves. But I suspect it is for the jokes that Newton’s Wake will be most acclaimed. And one day perhaps Ken will write the rest of Brezhnev to go with the tantalizing glimpses he has given us of the script.
Later. A forest
Enter two conspirators.
SCHEVARDNADZE: While Brezhnev tarries nothing can be changed.
GORBACHEV(aside): His passing? That can be arranged.
Exeunt, pursued by a bear.
Someone told me that Ian Sorensen was going to be staging a play at Interaction. I wonder if he could be persuaded to try a new script…
Newton’s Wake – Ken MacLeod – Orbit - hardcover
My Kingdom for a Nail
Wil McCarthy’s Queendom of Sol series is showing a fascinating progression from hard physics into sociology and economics. As you may recall, the first volume, The Collapsium, is a set of fiendishly bleeding edge lectures in quantum physics disguised as comedy novelettes. Volume #2, The Wellstone, still has some interesting physical speculation, but also introduces us to the concept that the next generation of a society that has just invented immortality is going to have all sorts of interesting issues with their parents. The new book, Lost in Transmission, continues the move into the social sciences with a look at the economics of plenty.
As you may remember, Prince Bascal and his rascally gang of teenage rebels have been exiled from the Queendom. Given their own spacecraft and a few fax machines, they have been told to take themselves off the Barnard’s Star, where the nearest probably inhabitable planetary system can be found, and set up their own society. That might teach them a little bit of responsibility. It seems likely that Conrad Mursk and Xmary Li Weng will be hard pressed to knock some common sense into Bascal and his piratical crew.
Or not, as the case may be. There is always the journey to reckon with first. Bascal elects to stay awake much of the time, and is consequently a stately 145 or so by the time they arrive, even if he still looks and acts like a teenager. He has acquired a lot of knowledge in that time, but seemingly rather less wisdom. Other members of the crew have also aged significantly, creating an immediate tension between the still genuinely teenager passengers and their suddenly more mature comrades.
Then there is that annoying old chestnut called "reality". The Barnard’s Star system is indeed more or less inhabitable, especially after the new arrivals work out that it is easier to modify themselves to the environment than to try to terraform the planet. However, they soon discover that an economic system cannot live by technology alone. They might have the ability to make almost anything cheaply and easily, but without the right sort of raw materials this skill is particularly useless.
That in itself wouldn’t be so bad for ordinary humans. But Bascal and his colleagues need not die. Their fax machines can fix anything that is wrong with their bodies and make them as good as new: teenage kids forever. (I so much prefer Brian Stableford’s term, "emortal" to McCarthy’s "immorbid", but so it goes.) Economic down-cycles are annoying for us, but eventually we will die and the next generation may have things better. What happens, however, if people are faced with hard times that may last centuries and that they will live completely through? Or what if the one thing that society finds it cannot provide due to economic scarcity is the one thing that really matters: eternal life.
Of particular interest to me is that McCarthy provides a justification for the system of benevolent monarchy that his societies use. It is, in fact, an extended version of the Five Year Plan. With access to top quality computing resources, McCarthy claims, a benevolent monarch can plan an economy perfectly and achieve up to 30% more efficiency than a free market. All that is required is the authority that monarchy brings with it to ensure that the Royal Plan is followed. I can see Tony Blair loving this. But, as Bascal finds out, it isn’t always that easy.
Because McCarthy’s books are so full of humor it also isn’t always easy to work out where he is making a serious political point, where he is playing with satire, and where he is just joking. Nevertheless he certainly succeeds in asking a lot of very interesting questions, and that is just what I like my SF to do.
By the way, those who like their SF full of hard-boiled numbers and equations will not be disappointed with Lost in Transmission. Although much of McCarthy’s arguments are about politics and economics, he still fills the book with enough material about trajectories and burns and inventive methods of space combat to keep most hard SF fans happy. I, however, am looking forward to the next book, in which McCarthy is probably going to explain how the Queendom itself suffered economic collapse. We know it has, because the framing story for The Wellstone and Lost in Transmission tells us as much. But we don’t know why, or what Conrad and King Bruno can do about it. I’m looking forward to finding out.
Lost in Transmission – Wil McCarthy – Bantam - paperback
Sand and Sorcery
The middle part of a trilogy is nearly always a time for moving the plot gently along and character development. The initial mystery is somewhat dispelled and the dramatic conclusion is still a long way off. In a quest fantasy it almost always involves a long journey. It can be hard to sustain interest. With book 3 of a 6-part series (that might also be part 2a of a trilogy) the structural problems get even more complicated. Nevertheless, in A Dark Way to Glory, Chaz Brenchley manages to get the job done rather well. Indeed, the story is developing so nicely that I rather wished I had time to dive into the next volume straight away. Sadly the crowded nature of this issue made that impossible; so let’s see what we have in this one volume.
The first thing that you can do in a middle book is a bit of world-building. A Dark Way to Glory is a travel section of the series, necessary to get the characters from the Roq where they started out to the Sharai capital of Rhabat (which I see from the cover of book #4 is based on Petra). The story gets to be interesting because it is entirely across the desert, a part of Outremer that we have not yet really experienced. I’ve never done any significant desert travel, but Brenchley had me well convinced about the unbearable heat, the fiendishly uncomfortable sand, and the incomparable obstinacy of camels. There was room too for some standard desert tribe culture, and a passing nod to Frank Herbert.
In the previous two books we got a lot of exposure to the religious fanaticism of the Knights Ransomer. In this book Brenchley introduces the other side of the coin, the Sharai warrior cult known as the Sand Dancers. Our heroes are now traveling in the company of the fabled Ghost Walker. According to their religion, the Sand Dancers live only to serve the Ghost Walker and aid his mission to drive the unbelieving foreigners from their land. They are thus rather put out to find their magical talisman traveling in the very company of a bunch of said unbelieving foreigners, and are not quite sure whether to worship our heroes or kill them. Inevitably they end up trying both.
Brenchley also gets a chance to bring a little more magic into his world, and here he provides an object lesson for any aspiring fantasy writer: if you are going to do something magical, make it utterly awesome and a complete surprise. I can’t tell you much more than that without generating spoilers, but really the Pillar of Lives was seriously neat and I have no idea why it didn’t get to provide the title of the book.
It was Elisande’s profound conviction, based on a lifetime of observation, that men were by nature perverse. The only exceptions she allowed were Redmond and her grandfather, who were both of them kind, sensible and wise. Her father was a prime exemplar of her belief: leave [him] to make a decision, any decision that mattered, and he would be sure to choose wrongly.
Something else that you can usefully do on a long journey is a bit of character development, and Brenchley has left plenty of room for that. After all, his party is currently composed of two pretty teenage girls (one running away from her husband), two gay teenage boys (one running away from his older lover), one middle-aged spy, and an aged magician recovering from the effects of prolonged torture. That leaves plenty of room for maneuver.
If anything, boys could be worse than men; after a few short weeks of knowing him, she thought that Marron was worse than any boy she’d met. Give him the chance and he’d not only do the wrong thing, he’d do the stupid thing. The most stupid thing that it was in his power to do…
Eventually, of course, after arduous journey and various life-threatening encounters, our heroes make it to the shores of the Dead Waters, the vast inland sea that lies to the north of Rhabat. There they finally catch up with the famous Sharai war leader, Hassan, and this allows Brenchley to drop another small cluster bomb onto the frayed and tattered mess that is Julianne’s love life. Goodness only knows what her father is going to make of all this when she finally meets up with him in Rhabat. Knowing him, a new political alliance. It is a tough life being the vehicle of a Djinni’s prophecy.
And onwards! Next month: volume #4.
A Dark Way to Glory – Chaz Brenchley – Ace - softcover
Learning from History
It takes quite a lot of persuasion to get me to look at a 600-page fantasy novel these days, especially when it claims to be the first volume in a series of uncertain length. R. Scott Bakker, however, had some powerful allies on his side: some well chosen words by Simon & Schuster’s PR people, encouragement from many of his fellow Canadians amongst my readers, and a place on the Locus Best First Novels list. Messages that strong tend to get through even my natural reluctance. They also tend to be right. The Darkness That Comes Before is a very interesting book.
The boy clutched his father’s sword, crying, "So long as men live, there are crimes!"
The man’s eyes filled with wonder. "No child," he said. "Only so long as men are deceived."
Men are, of course, often deceived. All you have to do to create that result is to create a complex but all too realistic web of politics and religion. Bakker’s world-building does this with some style. Here is a little background.
In the city of Sumna a new Shriah has risen to the leadership of the Thousand Temples. This Maithanet is an intelligent, capable and well-loved man. The Inrithi faithful are sure that it will not be long before he decides to call them to a Holy War. There are, after all, some deserving targets. Firstly there are the heathen Fanim, whose continuing occupation of the holy city of Shimeh is an outrageous stain upon the faith of the people. And of course there are always the blaspheming sorcerers who continue to practice their evil arts in the courts of kings despite having been declared anathema.
Not far away, along the coast of the Meneanor Sea, in once-mighty Momemn, Ikurei Xerius III, Emperor of Nansur, regards the burgeoning war fever with an avaricious eye. The cursed Fanim have made many inroads into the Empire in the time of his forbears. A war against them might provide a suitable excuse to take some of them back, and thereby ensure the everlasting glory of the Emperor responsible for such a feat. Xerius has a mighty weapon in the form of his nephew, Conphas, a man widely regarded as the best general in the Three Seas. But first Nansur has to be secured against the continual threat of the ferocious Scylvendi tribesmen of the Jiünati Steppes. And that has to be done in such a way that the growing reputation of Conphas does not lead him to believe that he can challenge for the throne.
What comes before determines what comes after. Dûnyain monks spent their lives immersed in the study of this principle, illuminating the intangible mesh of cause and effect that determines every happenstance, and minimizing all that was wild and unpredictable.
Wrapped in their studies, the Dûnyain have little time for the worlds of men. They stay in their far, northern city of Atrithau, isolated by the lands laid waste by the First Apocalypse and by wandering bands of the inhuman Sranc. Their primary task is to breed the line of Anasûrimbor princes for perfection in both body and mind. Yet their last charge, Moënghus, betrayed them, fleeing south where, it is believed, he is teaching Dûnyain secrets to Inrithi or Fanim princes. Fortunately he left his son behind, and when Moënghus sends the boy dreams begging him to come south to join him the monks sense an opportunity. Young Kellhus is indeed sent south, but with orders to find his father and kill him. It is a tall order, but along the way Kellhus falls in with Cnaiür urs Skiötha, breaker of horses and men, chief of the feared Utemot Scylvendi, known as the most violent man in the world, but surprisingly intelligent for all that.
The name Anasûrimbor means little around the Three Seas, save to one small and derided school of sorcerers, the Mandate School. They claim both lineage and knowledge over 2,000 years from the time of the First Apocalypse, and only they heed the terrible prophecy that the No-God, Mog-Pharau, will come again. Indeed, the price of their Gnosis is that all Mandate adepts dream nightly of the death of the last Anasûrimbor king. No trace of the No-God or his terrifying agents, The Consult, has been seen for over 300 years, so few men take the Mandate Schoolmen’s warnings seriously any more. They, however, know that the No-God plots ceaselessly, and it will take little prompting on his behalf to fulfill the prophecy and bring ruin upon mankind. Men are quite good enough at doing that for themselves. And the prophecy says that one of the signs of the Second Apocalypse is the re-appearance of the Anasûrimbor.
Great catastrophes were often wrought by such small things. The intolerance of a prince and the stupidity of an arrogant lord.
As you can see, Bakker has produced a politically complex world full of intrigue and treachery as well as the usual fantasy fare of prophecy and magic. He has a cast of interesting characters, although rather less of the soap opera style that has made George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire such a huge success. As is the way of such books, I suspect that the story would be none the worse for being 150 pages or so shorter, but Bakker is selling to a market that seems to judge books by their weight so I can hardly blame him.
The set-up of The Darkness That Comes Before is quite impressive. There are all sorts of possibilities for conflicts and alliances, and if I have been less than explicit in my summary above it is because I’m trying to avoid spoilers. Even after 600 pages were are not really sure whose side everyone is on (except perhaps that Xerius will betray anyone at anytime if he can see an advantage in it). But it is a neat trick to have the book’s lead character, the Mandate spy Drusas Achamain, be the only person other than the reader who takes the rumors of Consult involvement in the political developments seriously.
On the world-building front I particularly like the way that Bakker uses words like "prophet" and "Shrial" to give the Inrithi the feel of Islam but makes it clear from the nature of the Fanim faith and the conduct of Maithanet’s holy war that they are more closely analogous to the Christians of our world. I’m less happy with the way that Bakker seems to mix up elements from all over our history. The Nansur Empire, for example, has elements of Egypt, Rome and Byzantium. And unlike Tolkien Bakker does not seem to be a master linguist. (Or at least if he is then he hasn’t managed to convince me that his names and languages are all derived from some well-worked scheme.)
But it is perhaps for the underlying philosophy of the books that Bakker will become best known. On the surface his ideas seem depressingly nihilistic. It would seem like the triumph of the No-God is pretty much assured, or that at least if he fails he will do so amidst a frenzy of blood-letting such has not been seen since the First Apocalypse.
"You know nothing of war. War is dark. Black as pitch. It is not a God. It does not laugh or weep. It rewards neither skill nor daring. It is not a trial of souls, nor the measure of wills. Even less is it a tool, a means to some womanish end. It is merely the place where the iron bones of the earth meet the hollow bones of men and break them."
Then again, much of the import of the Dûnyain philosophy can be boiled down to the simple maxim that those who fail to learn from history will be doomed to repeat it. That at least we know is true. Who needs 2,000 years to bring that message home? How much have we forgotten since 1945?
The Darkness That Comes Before – R. Scott Bakker – Simon & Schuster - softcover
Sometimes a book has such twists in it that you just can’t review it without introducing spoilers. Heck, in the case of Jane Jensen’s Dante’s Equation even the back cover blurb gives away the major plot twist that happens half way through the novel. I’m taking that as my excuse. Those of you who seriously hate spoilers stop reading now.
In The Rise of Endymion Dan Simmons postulated a universe held together by a binding principle of Love. His mysterious The Void That Binds, which fueled much of the esoteric physics of the Hyperion series, turned out to be nothing more, and nothing less, than simple love. It was a lovely idea, but it always seemed a bit New Age to me. All crystals and auras. The real world just isn’t like that. Jane Jensen seems to agree with me, and to back up her theory she brings in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
But wait, I am getting ahead of myself, because things shouldn’t be getting mystical quite yet. When it starts out, Dante’s Equation is just a simple, traditional conspiracy theory thriller written by someone who actually knows a little bit of science. It has the Bermuda Triangle, it has mysterious messages hidden in the (Hebrew) text of the Bible (Torah code for those of you into such things), and it has Nazis and Auschwitz and evil government agents. It is headed fair and square into DaVinci Code territory. But that is before the change.
While several of the characters in the book are chasing round after ancient wisdom supposedly unearthed by a Kabbalist scholar, Yosef Kobinski, who supposedly magicked himself out of Auschwitz, two others are doing serious theoretical physics about the nature of the universe. Dr. Jill Talcott and her research assistant, Nate Andros, are working on the basic structure of the universe. They are investigating whether space-time itself has its own wave equation. Much to their delight, they discover that it does. It is an unusual wave, stepped rather than curved, and it has even more unusual properties. Distort the curve one way and life seems to get better: people in the region of the distortion get healthier, luckier and more interested in sex. Distort it the other way and they become depressed, lethargic and sick.
Kobinski, who turns out to have been a genius physicist as well as a Kabbalist, marries his two hobbies together, using the Tree of Life as a model. Of course the physics makes little sense to Denton Wyle, the playboy whose hobby is investigating mysterious happenings, or to Aharon Handalman, the deeply orthodox Jewish scholar who finds Kobinski’s name turning up all through his Torah Code. Both of them are expecting something deeply mystical. But Caldar Ferris, at the US Department of Defense, and Shimon Horowitz, his counterpart at Mossad, both suspect that Kobinski made some fabulous breakthrough in theoretical physics that could lead to amazing new weapons technology. When it appears that Talcott and Andros have proved Kobinski’s theories experimentally (albeit in ignorance of his work) it is time to reel them in.
By this time the reader may well be getting heartily sick of Jensen’s viewpoint characters. They are an unpleasant bunch. "Chill Jill", as she is known at her university, has no time for anything except her work and is ruthlessly ambitious. If Ferris wants to employ her to make weapons, that’s fine, as long as she gets financial backing and credit for her discoveries. Ferris himself is the sort of guy who loves to get up close to Commie Pinko Liberal Faggots and beat them black and blue; all in the interests of National Security, of course. Handalman is a religious fanatic of a deeply conservative stripe, and Wyle is a spoilt and selfish rich kid out to enjoy himself regardless of the cost to others.
None of this makes sense unless you have studied the diagrams at the front of the book. One of them is the classic Tree of Life image, but the other is something called Dante’s Wheel, which is apparently derived from study of Kabbalistic symbolism within the Divine Comedy. The wheel is divided into four quarters, each of which denotes a personality type dominated by three out of the ten Sefirot. These personalities can be described as The Scientist, The Hellfire Preacher, The Establishment and The Hedonist. You see where this is going now? (Good, because I have already read one review that missed it entirely.)
And just when you think you’ve got a grasp on what Jensen is up to, everything changes. With a little convenient manipulation all of the major characters end up at Auschwitz. And from there they go somewhere else entirely.
So much for the conspiracy theory thriller. Now Dante’s Equation becomes more like mythic fantasy cut with a Sheri Tepper novel. Our four archetypes each find themselves cast into the void and ending up in a different universe in which the balance of the universal wave function is different, and happens to match their personality type. It is all very disconcerting for the reader, but Jensen is a good SF writer and slowly but surely she manages to make each of these worlds believable (in a Tepperish sort of way – they are archetypes too, after all). And then her heroes can grow and blossom and the plot can be drawn to a conclusion.
The first thing that strikes me about this book is that it is straddling two horses running in opposite directions and there will be few riders (well, readers) capable of handling this with equanimity. Those people who are happy with the conspiracy theory stuff won’t want any real mysticism (or any real physics for that matter), whereas those who do like such things may not get past the first few chapters. On the other hand, Jensen has attempted something very brave and very thoughtful and she deserves applause for that. It almost works. And indeed it might have done if I truly believed that it was possible to bury dangerous scientific discoveries. But there I am afraid we are back in the world of conspiracy theory again.
I bought Dante’s Equation because it was one of the six nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. Having read the book I suspect that it might well be a contender, alongside Spin State and Altered Carbon. It doesn’t work as well as either of them, but it is very ambitious and very brave. Not that the other nominees — Clade, Steel Helix and Hyperthought are bad books either. They all have a lot to recommend them. I can see the award judges having a very difficult time this year.
Dante’s Equation – Jane Jensen – Del Rey - softcover
When I first picked up this Philip K. Dick Award nominee my reaction was that the judges had probably dropped the ball here. Steel Helix by Ann Tonsor Zeddies has all the appearance of a standard military SF potboiler. I mean, what do you say about a book whose cover proclaims, "They destroyed his world and stole his freedom. But they could not break his spirit." And when the novel began with a terrorist atrocity my heart sank. However, I persevered, and my patience was duly rewarded. If you are going to read this book, promise me that you will stick with it at least as far as chapter 10, because it is a lot more intelligent than it first sounds.
Piers Rameau is a brilliant geneticist who has a talent for developing variants on the human species. He is approached by Kuno Gunnarsson, a fanatic who wants to develop a perfect successor to the human race. Rameau turns him down, and instead takes a job creating "entertainers" for Varuna, an orbital resort/casino. His creations include the fragile and exotic low-g dancer, Dakini, with whom he falls in love. Gunnarsson, who is no mean geneticist himself, goes on to create Omo Originale, Original Man, a race of physically perfect and deeply unimaginative clone soldiers who quickly become a threat to the galactic civilization.
As Steel Helix opens, Original Man launches an attack on Varuna station. Everyone is killed except Rameau. Even the station’s homeworld of Garuda is rendered uninhabitable, seeded with the terrible plague-carrying human-variant bio-weapon known as the death child. Solely it dawns upon Rameau that the sole purpose of this brutal raid was to capture him. Kuno Gunnarsson is dead, and Original Man needs a new genetics expert to continue its evolution.
There are several interesting aspects to this book. The first is Original Man themselves. The clone creatures refer to themselves always in the singular because they are all clones: one person. They never use pronouns, referring to themselves as "this cohort" and to others as "that cohort" or by "persig". Zeddies maintains their argot very well, and then subtly lets parts of it slide as emotional stress and Rameau’s efforts at education cause their basic humanity to re-assert itself.
Education is indeed at the heart of the story. Monster creation stories generally portray the monsters as "children" of the mad scientist creators, but in Steel Helix this is literally the case. Not only did Gunnarsson use his own genes in creating Original Man, but the clones are force-reared to be ready for service quickly. The fearsome soldiers may look like a gang of South African mercenaries, but temporally and mentally they are about 10 years old. Rameau ends up telling them fairy tales (beautifully adapted by Zeddies for her far-future milieu and post-human audience) as a way of giving them some awareness of possibilities outside blind obedience to their officers.
Another neat and rather subtly deployed feature of the book is that the future world Zeddies portrays is apparently populated mainly by people from South-East Asia and Scandinavia. If there is anything close to SF’s traditional Americans in Space view of the future it is Original Man.
I don’t think this book is going to win the award. It has a lot of really good ideas, but at the same time much of it still reads like a traditional SF novel. Rameau sounds way too much like Dr. McCoy at times and I got fed up of him doing the, "I don’t care about what is happening with the ship, I’m a doctor and my priority is my patients" thing. There was also way too much of Zeddies’ subjecting us to Rameau’s self-doubts and emotional wrangling. But I am now happy that it is well worth its place on the short list and I will be keen to see what Zeddies does next.
Steel Helix – Ann Tonsor Zeddies – Del Rey - paperback
I don’t often review YA books in Emerald City because they generally don’t have the depth that adult novels have. However, when someone comes to me and claims to have done something genuinely new in the increasingly moribund field of fantasy I’m happy to take a look.
Marly Youmans is best known for The Wolf Pit, her award-winning novel of the American Civil War. Her latest work, The Curse of the Raven Mocker, is something quite different. Set in a remote, mountainous region of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, it features a unique society that preserves ancient and magical ways thanks to its isolation from mainstream America. Adantis, as Youmans calls this region, is populated by a people descended from white settlers, primarily Celts, who have intermarried with the local Cherokee. The story is set after the Trail of Tears, so the pure-blood Cherokee have largely been driven out of the region by Federal troops. Those who could pass for white, however, were allowed to stay, and some of those have fled into the hills and founded Adantis.
The plot is a fairly straightforward quest fantasy. The book opens with the teenage heroine losing her parents to the evil machinations of a "raven mocker", a shape-shifting evil sorcerer. At this point the girl, named Adanta by her father, knows nothing of her heritage or the hidden country in the hills. As she journeys in search of her parents she discovers the secrets of her father’s ancestry and why her mother (an archetypal "I just want to be safe" American housewife) wanted nothing to do with her in-laws. Along the way Adanta gets help from friendly forces, primarily her mysterious grandmother and the dashing young lad, Tassel. The ending, I am pleased to say, is not in the least bit sugary.
I would not recommend The Curse of the Raven Mocker as a book to get your teeth into. It is 270 pages of fairly light reading that I got through easily in a day. For the most part it is also fairly predictable. But most of this is because it is well tailored to its intended audience. There are one or two aspects of Adantan society that will raise eyebrows. The custom of abducting brides is somewhat dubious, but seems to be done with a fair amount of pre-planning on both sides. I’m also not sure I would want to live in a society where I am not allowed to wear jeans because trousers are only for men. That sort of thing bespeaks an ingrained cultural sexism that is likely to express itself in other, much nastier, ways. But Youmans has done a great job of creating a fantasy world that marries Celtic and Cherokee myth to create something new, different and entirely her own. This sort of invention in fantasy should be encouraged. If the book also leads young people to learn more about the Cherokee, and thereby discover some of the nastier actions of the US government against native peoples, that too is a good thing.
The Curse of the Raven Mocker – Marly Youmans – Farrar Straus Giroux - hardcover
Interview: Ben Jeapes of Big Engine
While some small presses have been very successful, others have floundered. Ben Jeapes’ Big Engine was for some time the great hope of British small press publishing. It produced an intriguing range of classic reprints (including Dave Langford’s hilarious The Leaky Establishment) and new fiction. But last year it died. I talked to Ben to see if there was anything that other small presses could learn from his experience.
CMM: Why did you decide to start Big Engine?
BJ: Right time, right place, though totally unexpected.
BJ: I’d always suspected that one day I would run my own firm. I’ve always worked in publishing, and I much prefer the atmosphere of small companies, but the problem is there tends to be only so far you can rise before you hit the ceiling. Usually because the company is privately owned, and the guy with the job you want is the owner, so won’t be moving on any time soon. The only way up is out, and that would lead logically to starting a company of your own.
BJ: But, I’d always expected that this hypothetical company would find a niche in some professional, non-fiction field, and I’d always expected that I’d have at least one partner in the venture. As it was, I lost my job in medical publishing in the first week of 2000 and found myself stuck with the opportunity ahead of schedule. No colleagues, no contacts in any particular professional fields... so I went with what I knew best, which was science fiction.
BJ: But having said that, the idea of a reprints publishing house had been with me for a long time. I think it began to coalesce as I was searching the secondhand bookshops for the Hooded Swan series — which Big Engine eventually published as a collected volume.
CMM: Was there a specific plan for the imprint such as doing new writers or experimental work or reprints?
BJ: "Experimental" is such a loaded word… hmm, no, no experimental stuff. I’m quite happy to let others experiment, then pick up the successful results. But reprints — yes, definitely, see above. And new writers, because I’ve been there myself and I knew other people in a similar position. I wasn’t expecting to make anyone rich, but I thought I could help break the vicious cycle of you can’t be published because you’re an unknown because you’ve not been published... I could at least get books reviewed and noticed, and help the writer move on to someone bigger and better.
BJ: And here’s where I’m going to brag, because in April Gollancz is publishing a debut novel called The Year of Our War by a woman called Steph Swainston. Jo Fletcher is touting her as the next sliced bread, M. John Harrison raves about her... and she came to me first, yay! No idea where she heard about me from, but she sent me the first draft and I was captivated. I did make some comments on it, which I thought would tighten it up still further, so she incorporated them... and sold it on to Gollancz. Which is excellent, because even if Big Engine was still around, Gollancz can do much more for her than I could, and she deserves the best.
CMM: You published a lot of books. I take it that there was no shortage of quality material.
BJ: None at all. The difficulty is finding it. If you’re taking on new writers, then for every Steph Swainston there are 99 can’t-make-it-and-never-wills. And plenty more in between, who could make it with the right breaks. The good writers nestle like minute nuggets of gold in the slush pile, which for me was actually a slush line as I kept submissions in a line along the floor, so I could at least try and read them democratically in the order that they came in. But you come away with the distinct feeling that some people should only be licensed to write. (May I take this opportunity to guide readers to a page on my own web site, which chronicles an exchange with an author whose ideas of his own worth tended towards the over-inflated.)
BJ: But then, I was expecting vast amounts like that, because I’d heard all the horror stories from other editors. What I wasn’t expecting was how bad some people are at the simple act of writing, never mind the story. They just don’t know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation that I learned at the age of 10. And you can’t blame the decline of the educational system because many of them were about the same age as me, or older.
BJ: I was also astonished at quite how bad some established authors could be. They would hopefully send me a beloved but unpublished opus, and I could see exactly why it was unpublished.
BJ: There again, Tom Arden sent me Shadow Black, the novel that got him noticed by agents and publishers and enabled him to sell his Orokon series, but which itself had never been able to get into print. And it was excellent, and I published it, so there were exceptions.
BJ: Come to think of it, Shadow Black was also an exception to the rule about no experimental stuff. But hey, it’s Tom Arden.
CMM: Which were the most successful books that you published?
BJ: "Successful" — another of those loaded words.
BJ: The Hooded Swan collection made the most per unit, because I was charging twice for it what I charged for other books and because I sold an edition to a North American book club. (Though sadly that was towards the end and the liquidator was the one to reap the benefit.) Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek was the first conventionally-printed title that completely sold out its first run, and I was going to do a print-on-demand edition before… um. But easily the biggest seller in terms of numbers — it was print-on-demand and oft demanded — was Dave Langford’s The Leaky Establishment. This despite — hah! — the gloomy prognostications of certain veteran booksellers, Brummie and otherwise, who still had stock of the original hardback. Leaky even made the Amazon best-selling SF list.
["Brummie" is an affectionate term for people from Birmingham – Ed.]
CMM: Ah, Amazon, I seem to recall you venting about them once or twice. What industry-related issues caused most problems: printing, distribution, publicity?
BJ: Bloody Amazon. I was going to rant about this somewhere, so here’s as good a place as any.
BJ: Amazon gets its book information and stock from Bertrams, one of the big UK wholesalers. (Ingrams in the US, I believe.) The publisher therefore sells copies to Bertrams at whatever wholesale discount is mutually arranged — in the region of 40% — and that’s that. How the book reaches Amazon, and on what terms, is Amazon’s problem.
BJ: On the day that Molly Brown’s Bad Timing was published, Amazon sent an email to everyone who had ordered a copy to say that they had checked with the publisher and it had been cancelled: they were therefore canceling all the orders. It took about a week of sitting on the phone and leaving voicemails to sort that one out.
BJ: "Checked with the publisher" turned out to mean, "heard a vague rumor from the wholesaler" (even though the wholesaler gets its information from BookData, and BookData said the book was in print). They were very apologetic, but because they rely purely on the wholesaler (and the occasional throw of a dice or tarot reading) for book details, they just went with what they thought they knew. But! they asked, have you considered our amusingly-named Advantage program? Books in the Advantage program are supplied directly by the publisher, and the publisher’s information is the only information Amazon uses. Therefore the publisher can keep a much tighter grip on what is going on. Oh, and for this privilege, Amazon require a 60% discount on Advantage books. If enough sell, it’s knocked down to 50%.
BJ: So, we have Amazon effectively blackmailing small publishers like Big Engine into giving ruinous discounts, or letting them go through the wholesalers at friendlier rates but running the risk of their book being unilaterally declared out of print or otherwise hideously mishandled. And that is why Leaky sold so well but only made me pennies.
BJ: You can edit that for possible libel, if you like.
CMM: Well, you know "blackmail" is a little tough. I tend to assume incompetence before malfeasance. But certainly it would appear that if, as a publisher, you want competent service out of Amazon you have to pay heavily for it. Sadly the big guys can afford to do so and the little guys who need the help can’t.
BJ: What else…
BJ: Ah yes. The very first time I met you, I think, was at a con in Oxford where I was on a panel and waxing evangelical about POD. You can print books one at a time if needed, you don’t need to spend money on warehouse charges… Well, it has many uses, but it’s not perfect.
BJ: For starters Lightning Source, the company I used for printing, seemed unable to print the books the right size. First they printed Leaky a size too small, so that everything was off-center and all you could see of the Big Engine logo on the front cover was the wheels of the steam train. (Dave Langford kindly announced that he would not refer to the company as Big Bogies.)
["Bogie" is a term for the wheel housing underneath a railroad car that swivels to allow long cars to negotiate bends. It is also a British slang term for a large lump of snot. – Ed.]
BJ: They did the same for Bad Timing. For my grand launch at Eastercon 2001, I therefore had oodles of correctly sized Leakys, one badly sized copy of Bad Timing to show that it did at least exist in some form, and laser proofs of the Interzone collection, The Ant-Men of Tibet. I had been hoping for all three in sellable form...
BJ: Okay, Lightning Source promptly reprinted both Leaky and Bad Timing at the right size at no further cost to me, but I felt like I was pulling teeth every time I went about the very simple process of getting a book published.
BJ: Fortunately that was just an operational hiccup, and once Lightning Source’s UK operation was running, there were no further problems there. But inherent problems remain. With POD, you can print books one-by-one if you like... but the unit cost is still much higher than with conventional printing. Which is fine if you’re selling expensive books. I was trying to be reader-friendly and selling paperbacks as cheaply as I could get away with. Even then you wouldn't get much change out of a tenner.
BJ: POD has no economies of scale. Unit costs are pretty similar whether you print one book or 1000. For publicity purposes, you need copies of books that you can just give away, and you would normally do that by having a run of books sufficiently large that the unit costs are negligible. The sales that you manage should pay for the run. With POD, every free publicity copy is a loss, because every copy is paid for in the same way. So, although POD enabled me to get started with Big Engine, I was soon printing books conventionally with short print runs (typically 200-400). The idea being that with the initial publicity and sales drive out of the way, I would shunt the book over to POD for further sales.
BJ: Of course, POD could employ economies of scale, simply by someone sitting down and revising their prices. The actual technologies of print-on-demand or conventional digital short-run printing are virtually identical. The POD companies could change the economies of scale situation if they wanted with the stroke of a pen, and for all I know, some of them might have done so. My most recent knowledge of the industry is nearly a year old now.
[According to a recent and very informative article by Sean Wallace of Prime Books on Locus Online the situation hasn’t changed. – Ed]
BJ: And there were some incredible hang-ups about the whole POD thing, which made the authors nervous. The urban myths are maintained with a near-superstitious dread. "POD books come apart in the sunlight" — um, no. "Amazon won’t stock POD" — well, they have their faults, but that isn’t one of them. And so on. I lost a pretty big name author who was torn between offers from me and from Golden Gryphon, and went for the latter "because I will get a print run." Which he would have got if he’d chosen me, too.
BJ: None of the major distributors would touch a small start-up company. There had been some notable insolvencies and they were all feeling skittish. Fortunately I learnt about Chris Reed of BBR, who specializes in distributing small presses, and we got on very well. However, this led to further drawbacks in that Waterstones and a certain famous Midlands SF bookshop wouldn’t deal with BBR, due to Chris’s strange habit of requiring payment up-front. This is a real problem. The book trade is notoriously late in paying its bills and while the famous Midlands SF bookshop might pay up pretty promptly there’s no chance that Waterstones will. Fine if you’re running your business as a charity but not as... well, a business.
CMM: Were you able to get access to the much larger US market, or were you effectively only selling in the UK?
BJ: Effectively the UK, with a few loyal US readers. No, I’d say a very big reason for Big Engine’s demise was that my US presence was virtually negligible. (No offence to those lovely Americans and Canadians who did subscribe — you’re not negligible at all, folks.) It really wasn’t very long before everyone who was likely to hear of Big Engine had heard of it, and not all of them were going to buy something.
BJ: My very first US Worldcon was ConJosé in 2002, five months before it all went belly-up anyway. Roger Macbride Allen also runs a small press, Foxacre, and he kindly let me share his stall there, so I carefully selected some key titles — Sladek, the Hooded Swan collection and a few others -- that would show me at my best and wave the flag. But Roger’s stock didn’t turn up at all apart from what he brought with him in his case, so my end of the table was packed with a handful of quality literature while the rest of the stall had a very poor comb-over of leaflets and pamphlets. Had I but known I’d have brought a lot more...
BJ: Incidentally, you really have not known what a homicidal impulse is until a major New York editor stops by your stall, making the back of your mind scream "RIGHTS SALE!", and he fingers your stock, looks approvingly at the covers, even laughs at one of the jokes, then compliments you on the little cardboard stands holding the books up, and walks away.
CMM: Did your own writing career interfere with running Big Engine, or vice versa?
BJ: Yeah, a bit of both. Whenever I was writing I would think wistfully of what I should be doing for Big Engine, and vice versa. Though more often the former, because the writing was always more enjoyable and Random House could pay me much more than I could pay myself. And then, to really pile the pressure on, I had to get a part-time job just to pay the bills. My days roughly broke down into Big Engine in the mornings; part-time job in the afternoons; writing in the evenings. But for a long time I wasn’t doing enough of anything, which doubtless contributed to the fall.
CMM: A few months before the end you launched a short fiction magazine. What was the reasoning behind that?
BJ: Well, the market needed a new magazine and I was to be the great savior of short fiction… But there were also sound business reasons, which paradoxically worked while at the same time delivering the coup de grace to the company. Periodicals are great for smoothing out the income because you get a constant, steady stream — or at least a trickle — of cash in the form of subscriptions. Whereas if you just publish books, all your income clusters around the publication dates. So, I decided I needed a magazine.
BJ: Problem is, periodicals also mean a regular outflow — though here "hemorrhage" would be a better word -- of cash in the form of typesetting and printers’ bills and author payments… Which isn’t a problem if you have enough subscribers. We never did. So, launching 3SF was a simple, elegant scheme to get a bit more money coming in, and it only needed another 700 subscribers to work. Hah.
BJ: But it did smooth out the income!
CMM: What finally convinced you that you had to fold the company?
BJ: Looking at the spreadsheets, seeing the bills that were falling due within the next couple of months, and then balancing that against projected sales, the amount of money presently available, and the maximum credit that I could squeeze out of every available resource, up to and including my own credit card. And it just didn’t work out.
BJ: There was another choice, because by now I was getting the hang of running the company. I’d made all my youthful mistakes, I knew what I was doing, and I could have gone the path of finding some secure backing and really, really committing to the company for the next... oh, five years minimum. But by then, to be honest, I’d had enough, and I didn’t think I had five years’ worth of belt-tightening and poverty in me.
BJ: I also looked at all the writing I could be doing instead, and that was already paying dividends. So I took the voluntary liquidation course, which is so much more gentlemanly than compulsory receivership.
BJ: I felt absolutely terrible about telling Liz Holliday, 3SF’s editor, because it made 3SF the second magazine to be shot from underneath her by a publisher through no fault of her own (the first was Odyssey) and she deserved so much better. But otherwise, I’m very pleased to say that no one really lost out. The contributors to 3SF #3 didn't get paid: otherwise, a subscription to 3SF is the most that anyone lost out on. It’s far from ideal but it won’t break anyone’s bank. I emphatically didn’t blaze a trail of red ink across the ledgers of half the publishing industry, and I’m very pleased about that.
CMM: If someone else were thinking of setting up a similar company in the UK, what advice would you give them?
BJ: Heartbreaking though it is to say this, don’t have a slush pile. At least, not one that’s open to general submission. Solicit your manuscripts through personal contacts and recommendations. The alternative is to be deluged with manuscripts that you will never find the time to get through, and most of which aren’t worth it anyway. At least two slush pile authors actually died on me... I wasn’t quite in the Last Dangerous Visions league, by a factor of a couple of decades, but there were times I felt like I was.
BJ: (I should add that I didn’t ask for whole manuscripts — I asked for sample chapters, and if I liked them, I would ask to see the rest. But it still led to a slush line of manuscripts I had liked the first chapters of, stretching around the room.)
CMM: Anything else?
BJ: Have a partner(s). I had plenty of offers to help with the slush pile, but oddly enough that was the one thing I felt I couldn’t delegate. For a company to be true to my editorial vision, I had to make the editorial judgment calls. But if there had been someone else to do the production, the marketing, the accounting... well, it would have been a different story. (I had an accountant, but there’s still admin to do at the office end too.) There are such people who actually enjoy these things as much as I enjoy being an editor — strange, but true — but none were available at the time.
BJ: And be realistic in your plans. If you want to start a company that will do something no one else is doing... well, ask yourself why no one else is doing it. And yes, it might be because it hasn’t occurred to anyone. It could equally be because it can’t be done. You want to publish cheap, reader-friendly paperbacks? Well, that’s nice, but you just might have to publish expensive hardbacks and live with it.
CMM: What has happened to the Big Engine titles? Have they just gone back to the authors or is there a possibility of someone else picking some of them up?
BJ: All the authors had the right to take their books back if the company folded, and most exercised that right straight off, which of course diminished the company’s resale value at a stroke. (The more traditional course taken by insolvent publishers is to sell the company and then let the authors know about it, which gets round that problem, but I didn’t want to treat the authors like that.) A loyal remnant hung on in case a buyer could be found, but none could, so all rights have now reverted.
BJ: Most of the printed stock is also back with its authors, but I have a little remnant stock from those authors who didn’t want to buy their copies back. If anyone is interested in a Big Engine title, drop me a line and I’ll tell you who has the copies now.
[You can contact Ben through Emerald City if you are interested – Ed.]
BJ: And some books are already in print with another publisher. The ones I know of are as follows: both of Dave Langford’s opuses, The Leaky Establishment and Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek are with Cosmos. Charles Stross’s forthcoming Festival of Fools is already out in the US as Singularity Sky from Ace, and I think a UK edition is forthcoming, but I could be wrong. Chris Beckett’s forthcoming The Holy Machine and Mattie Brahen’s Claiming Her are now with Wildside. I think that’s it — apologies to anyone I’ve left out.
CMM: And the magazine?
BJ: Dead, gone, buried... Rights to the title are available if anyone wants to do a re-launch, though. And if anyone wants to buy rights to the Big Engine domain -- well, it expires round about the time you’re reading this, so make an offer quick.
CMM: Any regrets?
BJ: None at all. It was a great couple of years; it meant I could have my fun while I was still young, free and single, with no one to hurt but myself; it opened doors and helped me make new contacts and friends that I value; and it means I will never be haunted by the question of "what if I ran a company?" ‘cos I know the answer.
CMM: Ben Jeapes, thank you for talking to Emerald City.
Found in Translation
This month’s translated work comes into English from Serbian, which as regular readers will know means the very excellent Zoran Živković. The Fourth Circle is actually Živković’s first piece of fiction and, as he explains in a postscript, it has had a long journey from winning a prestigious Serbian literary prize, the Miloš Crnjanski, in 1993 to final English publication in 2004. That journey included an idiot literary agent who wanted Živković to change his name to Donald Livingstone in order to be more acceptable to an American audience. <sigh>.
Anyway, the book is now available from the ever so wonderful Ministry of Whimsy Press so we can enjoy it. I guess the first thing I should say is that it will not be to everyone’s taste. As with many winners of big literary prizes, the plot is a little nebulous. Also, while the book is SF, it isn’t exactly full of scientific exposition. Indeed, Živković has one of his characters (actually Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or rather a parallel world cognate of him) continually claim to be not very well versed in physics so as to avoid having to explain spin entanglement. Nevertheless, the book is fascinating and those of you who can tolerate a little strangeness will find it well worthwhile.
Structurally The Fourth Circle follows a number of different and apparently separate plotlines. There is a mediaeval painter who outrages the religious authorities by covering a church ceiling, not with morally uplifting scenes of God, but with horrific scenes of Hell. Then there is the AI who has clearly read way too many third-rate feminist romance novels and has contracted a serious case of blondeness. There are appearances by the Buddha, by Archimedes, by Stephen Hawking and by Holmes and Watson, amongst others. And there is a race of spherical beings with very acute senses of smell and terrible taste in odors.
Slowly but surely it becomes clear that these threads will all pull together at some point. They are all connected by symbols of circles. At some point the characters may all end up on a mysterious planet with no atmosphere and three moons (or perhaps three suns). There is a strong element of mysticism running through the book, albeit mysticism with an apparent grounding in quantum physics.
The translation, performed by Mary Popović, is an impressive feat. Inevitably with such a complex literary work there will be subtleties that have been lost. Nevertheless the book is still far richer than most contemporary SF novels by native English speakers. In particular the various viewpoint characters all have very distinct modes of speech, from the religious paranoia of the painter’s servant to the soap-opera obsessions of Rama the AI, and Dr. Watson’s bemused and gentlemanly admiration of Holmes at work on a case. Živković even manages to provide a convincing portrait of a gossipy old woman who believes everything she reads in the Daily Express (or whatever stood in for it in Holmes’ day).
Having read some of Živković’s more recent works, such as the World Fantasy Award winning "The Library", I think I have to say that his writing has progressed somewhat since 1993. The Fourth Circle is perhaps a little too ambitious, and a little too full of literary tricks. Nevertheless it is a fascinating book and yet further evidence that most of the best genre fiction these days comes from small presses.
The Fourth Circle – Zoran Živković – Ministry of Whimsy – publisher’s proof
If you’ve ever read a Michael Crichton novel you’ll know that he tends to do science fiction light. There will be one simple SF idea that doesn’t take us too far from the fields we know. There will be a little action. Some bad guys will get killed. And at the end of the day the scary stuff will have been defeated and everything will be back to normal. Ordinary people will once more be safe from terror and can go back to watching Disney movies. In addition Crichton is always writing with one eye on the screenplay so the story is kept very simple indeed, meaning that there is less to take out.
The Crichton-style techno-thriller is a fairly successful type of novel and so various SF writers have been trying to cash in on the idea. Some of these attempts have been more successful than others, but finally Paul McAuley seems to have got it right. He has written a book that is firmly in Crichton territory, but which has a lot more science (probably much better science too) and which treats the issues seriously.
Kudos here to Simon & Schuster. They took a lot of flak when they folded Earthlight and said all of their SF would be run through their mainstream lines. I don’t know how well it is working for other authors, but McAuley at least seems to be getting well promoted. Because his book is aimed more at the mainstream market, it is relatively easy for them, but they are working hard on it. The book has a gorgeous cover (in the UK: the US cover is, as usual, terrible), and it is on sale at the sort of price that suggests that the publishers expect to shift huge quantities. Here’s hoping that the general public likes it.
As she follows Dieudonné and Teddy through this exotic crowd, Elspeth sees lizard eyes, cat eyes, goat eyes, eyes like crushed jewels. One person of indeterminate sex has the large black eyes and polished ashen skin of an alien grey. There are people with crests of brightly coloured feathers on top of their heads, people with bands of glimmering scales on cheeks and foreheads, people with animated tattoos rippling with busy, colourful detail across their chests and backs. Elspeth thinks the whole bunch looks like a crowd of extras from some cheap science-fiction movie.
Ah, but will we like it? It is, after all, filling the mainstream novel slot in this issue of Emerald City. Just how Crichton-like is it? Initial impressions suggest that it is very much so. The book is called White Devils, and almost immediately we are introduced to these creatures. The action is set in the Congo shortly after major environmental disasters. Africa is now home to many US biotech companies, mainly because the research they are doing is illegal back home (although the resulting products often are not). Our hero, Nicholas Hyde, works for an international human rights organization that is investigating atrocities in the Congo’s latest piece of military nastiness. Flown to the site of a fresh massacre, Nick and his colleagues discover that the perpetrators have not fled. They look like apes, with white fur and a collection of very sharp carnivore teeth. They are very fast, and very sharp. They have captured a few rifles, and know how to use them. Not that they need them to kill. Claws, teeth and blinding speed are quite enough to deal with human soldiers.
It is clear that these creatures are not natural inhabitants of Africa. There is no question of their being aliens (this is only a techno-thriller, not pure SF), so they must have been made. Suspicion falls immediately on something that, with tongue firmly in cheek, McAuley has named Pleistocene Park. This was a biotech start-up that planned to genetically engineer ancient creatures. Could the scientists at the park have been meddling with ape genes, or even humans?
‘It says in Ecclesiastes, chapter one, verse eighteen, "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." I’m here to do some diminishing in that respect.’
Suspicion falls upon the three leading lights of the Pleistocene Park project. Teryl Meade has since forsworn genetic engineering and now works for the eco-friendly biotech company, Obligate. Her ex-husband, Matthew Faber, and their partner, Daniel Lovegrave, are missing, presumed dead in the Black Flu that swept out of Africa to engulf the world.
Alert readers might spot that there is a certain amount of significant naming here. Teryl Meade is the terrible witch, Meada, who killed her husband’s children. Faber is presumably a maker of some sort. As for Lovegrave, well that should be obvious. And if that leads you to suspect that Nick Hyde himself might be some sort of Satanic monster, well who am I to give out spoilers? (Not that it matters much, the book being a techno-thriller and therefore short on complex plotting.)
Readers may also note a certain amount of overlap of themes between White Devils and Oryx and Crake. It is quite likely, given the time needed to write novels, that this is accidental, but it is nevertheless interesting to see how a modern SF writer handles the subject matter, as opposed to the 1970’s eco-doom novel approach taken by Margaret Atwood. I found McAuley’s approach much more plausible than the supposedly non-SF of Atwood.
Naturally our hero wants the world to know that something terrible is going on in the heart of darkness that is the Congo. But very quickly he finds himself balked by the Congolese government. The creatures, he is told, are not apes, but simply child soldiers on drugs with their faces painted and their teeth filed. The Congolese government is, it turns out, pretty much owned by Obligate, and the corpse of a white devil that Nick brought back with him disappears into Teryl Meade’s laboratory, never to be seen again.
The flight from the timber mill to Liranga costs Nick five hundred American dollars. When the Beechcraft gains altitude, he sees threads of smoke from dozens of pyres rising into the sky, blurring into a general haze that spreads from horizon to horizon. All because, Harmony says, of a few changes made in the genomes of the trees. ‘It’s exactly like burning books,’ he says, ‘because they contain an idea you don’t like.’
The one obvious missing element of the story so far is The Girl. You can’t write a techno-thriller without one of these handy creatures, so convenient for the creation of the obligatory sex scenes. In White Devils the role is filled by Elspeth Faber, the daughter of the missing geneticist, eager to both clean up the mess, clear Daddy’s name and get one over on her evil step-Mom. It is also fairly obligatory that there should be The Heavy. That role is filled by Cody Corbin, a gun-toting Texan preacher and environmental terrorist. You should now have everything you need to plot the book yourselves. The detail may vary a little, but the basic outline will be the same.
So what is different here? What makes McAuley’s book more than just another Michael Crichton wannabe? Firstly, unlike a Crichton novel, McAuley’s book is anything but safe. It begins with a world shot to hell by the Black Flu and the "plastic disease", which causes organic matter to rot into gray goo. And things don’t get better. Far from destroying the white devils at the end, McAuley makes it plain that they are amongst the most innocent victims of the whole story. Secondly McAuley is well aware of his place in literature. At times it seems that he has read everything on making monsters from Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau and beyond; that he has read every thriller writer from Crichton to King; and that he has read every "mysterious Africa" book from Joseph Conrad to Jules Verne.
In addition, McAuley seems to have managed to write a book about Africa without being condescending. Nick Hyde is English, but then he’s a monster. Cody Corbin is white and probably a racist, but then he’s The Heavy. Elspeth is at least half-black, and was born in Kenya. I don’t remember Faber or Meade being described, but my instinctive reaction is that anyone called Teryl is probably Afro-American. Danny Lovegrave is probably white, but most of the rest of the characters are African and of various shades of goodness and badness. I’m prepared to suspend judgment here until I get feedback from one of my black friends, but my impression was that McAuley has done an excellent job.
Elspeth has seen hundreds of pictures of the vast and famous desolation – pictures as iconic as the napalm-blasted landscapes of the Vietnam War, Hiroshima after the Bomb, the cratered landscape of Flanders in the First World War. But nothing has prepared her for the sheer scale of the Dead Zone, the chains of glassy lakes that simmer between crests and pinnacles of naked rock, the ranges of deeply gullied hills spiked with thousands of dead, half-melted trees: a post-apocalyptic wasteland that, with the sun setting through blood-red layers of cloud beyond it, looks like a slice of Hell risen to the surface of the world.
In his review in Locus Gary K. Wolfe amusingly highlights the escalating scale of atrocity and body count as the book races towards its conclusion. I loved the review, but I have to point out that the body count in White Devils is nowhere near that in early Jon Courtenay Grimwood novels. And in fact if you take out the biotech then the level of atrocity is nowhere near that which has been experienced in the Congo over the past ten years. I’m sure that McAuley knows that and deliberately chose his setting to highlight that fact.
What I love about White Devils is that it manages to be a breathless, bloodthirsty techno-thriller without ever once losing sight of its SF roots or sacrificing its intellectual and moral position. It gives the thriller reader what he wants (and I did specifically say "he" there), and rubs his nose in reality at the same time. Wolfe conjectures that White Devils might just be the book to breach the divide between SF and mass-market thrillers. Simon & Schuster’s marketing tactics suggest that they believe it will do so. I can’t make any promises on sales, but I can say that if we are going to breach that divide then this is exactly the way I want to see it done.
White Devils – Paul McAuley – Simon & Schuster - hardcover
Maps of a War Zone
The new book from Mary Gentle, Cartomancy, is a collection of short stories. About 30% of it is taken up with "The Logistics of Carthage", the excellent novella length Ash prequel. This will be a boon for British readers because the book in which it originally appeared, Worlds that Weren’t, has not yet got UK publication. The rest of the book is made up of various stories dating back to 1983. There is also a short framing story about magical maps that features a short but buxom, red-haired female barbarian whose secret identity one cannot help but guess at.
In some ways the collection is quite predictable. Gentle very much enjoys writing about soldiers. Female soldiers for preference. There is a suspicion that, left to her own devices, all of her fiction would be about lesbian female soldiers. But not all of the stories are like that, and they are also very different from each other in two important ways.
As in all of the best collections, Gentle provides notes for each story explaining some of the background to it. In her case the creative process seems to vary wildly. One story came to her entirely in images, another is structured like a play, and a third began life as a graphic novel. There is, to put it simply, a lot of variation in technique.
In addition Gentle is an inveterate world-builder. Almost every story in the book is set in a different world, and each one has strong hints about its history and sociology. There are alien planets, there are fantasy worlds, there’s an alternate history story in which the Knights Templar are still active in the 20th Century. You almost get the impression that if you asked Gentle where she got her ideas from she would reply, "oh, there’s a skip [dumpster] full of them out back. It is overflowing these days, would you like a few?"
The story that will catch most people’s eyes is "Orc’s Drift", a hilarious tale of a fort full of orcs surrounded by a very dangerous adversary. It is co-written with Dean Wayland and Gentle admits that the pair of them can’t believe that they got paid for writing something that is so silly and so much fun. But then again, I got a BSFA nomination for writing a review of the Lambshead Guide. Sometimes life is good.
Of the others, I particularly liked the imagery of "Tarot Dice" (perhaps because it reminded me of Viriconium, though touched with a Ken MacLeod sensibility regarding revolution). "The Logistics of Carthage" was a favorite of mine when it first came out. And the final story, "Human Waste", is deliciously gruesome and apt.
In one of her story notes, Gentle comments that learning to write novels by practicing on short stories is like learning to scale mountains by practicing ski jumps. Gentle is a natural novelist. I’ve loved just about every full-length book she has written, and it is no accident that my favorite story from this collection is also the longest. The trouble with Cartomancy is not that the stories are not good – most of them are very well done – but that with lots of them your first thought on finishing it is, "when is Gentle going to write a novel set in that world?"
Cartomancy – Mary Gentle – Gollancz - softcover
The Lake of Questions
Jay Lake is a writer of short stories. People who concentrate on that sort of thing, as opposed to rushing into the more lucrative and glamorous novel market, are generally very good at it. Lake’s first collection, Greetings from Lake Wu, proves that Lake is no exception.
In his introduction to the collection, Andy Duncan goes off at a tangent to talk about an idea that some folks in North Carolina had about establishing an award to recognize top quality speculative fiction about religion. The award would, of course, be called the Liebowitz, and Jay Lake would be a hot favorite to be the first winner. Duncan is quick to point out that he’s not talking about religious propaganda, he is talking about works that ask big questions and manage to answer them in interesting ways. I think it is an excellent idea for an award, and he’s dead right about Lake being a contender.
Not all of the stories in Greetings from Lake Wu are about religion, but many of them are, including two of my favorites. "The Goat Cutter" is a fabulous little tale about two poor kids from Texas who discover that the Devil lives in an old, abandoned school bus near their homes. "Jack’s House" is a wonderful allegory in which nations of animals fight each other for supremacy in the big, old house where The Master (Jack) once lived.
There is more traditional fantasy and SF as well. "Glass: A Love Story" is a fascinating take on Cinderella (with a bunch of Greek myth thrown in) in which a boy from the slums goes in search of a princess made of glass, carrying with him the covering from her foot that is all that remains of the skin she was wearing when they met. "The Scent of Rotting Roses" is a scary tale about envoys from a post-collapse human civilization seeking desperately amongst the stars for the lost DNA of roses. Lake has some wonderful ideas.
But wait, there’s more, as the book’s title should have told you. There are two words to it, and the second refers of course to the very talented artist, Frank Wu. He has contributed not only the cover, but also an individual frontispiece for each story. Sadly these are not shown to best advantage. The book is published by Wheatland Press (yes, yet another good book from a small press). While I fully applaud their bravery in taking on a fine collection from a lesser-known author I am very disappointed (if unsurprised) that they could not afford to print Wu’s art in color. His use of exceptionally vibrant color is one of the outstanding features of Wu’s art and it really deserves to be shown off better than it is here. I’m hoping that one of the bigger publishing houses will pick up the book and be able to give the art the treatment it deserves. In the meantime you can see some of the pictures from the book on Wu’s web site.
Talking of web sites, a couple of the stories from the collection first appeared on Strange Horizons. So you can go and read "Jack’s House" and "The Scent of Rotting Roses" for free. Hopefully that will inspire you to go and buy the book.
Greetings from Lake Wu – Jay Lake and Frank Wu – Wheatland Press - softcover
Of Squid and Men
I don’t often review a book twice within these pages. I will, I know, do this once again this year, because one of my all time favorite novels is being re-issued. However, in this particular case I have the excuse that the volume in question has new material added to it. To whit, there are two additional short stories. I am talking about the UK release of Jeff Vandemeer’s classic exercise in eloquent craziness, City of Saints and Madmen.
The first of the new stories, "The Exchange", shows Vandermeer at his very best, writing on many different levels at once. The core story is a simple tale of an old couple who have perhaps been married too long sharing a meal and exchanging gifts on the night of the Festival of the Freshwater Squid. However, the story is not printed as plain text. Rather the book, as is the case with several other entries in City of Saints and Madmen, reproduces a facsimile of an actual published Ambergris pamphlet (from Hogebotton & Sons, of course). The reproduction includes not only all of the original illustrations, but also the advertisements at the end of the pamphlet, which, as you might guess, have some bearing on the nature of the story.
In addition, each page of the reproduction comes with a paragraph or two of type-written commentary by an unknown critic. This fills the reader in on important background detail such as the relationship of the pamphlet’s author, Nicholas Sporlender, and its illustrator, Louis Verden. Our commentator relates how the story may reflect the famous falling out of the famous collaborators and their disappearance, also on the night of the Festival. Like the characters in the story, Sporlender and Verden may have spent too long in each other’s company, or they may have eventually been thrust apart by their respective enthusiasms for two competing philosophical cults.
And yet, and yet… Something nags in the back of my mind. The commentator makes frequent reference to information supplied to him by his friend, the eminent squidologist, Frederick Madnok…
I laughed myself silly. I suspect that this one will find its way onto my Hugo list next year.
The other story, "Learning to Leave the Flesh", is much more serious. It is set in close to present day Ambergris and is a meditation on the unhappiness of lives touched by deep misfortune. I want to tell you why it is so good, but I can’t think of any way to do so without giving away something important.
Perhaps what struck me most about these two stories is that they are brilliant in entirely different ways. "The Exchange" is clever, creepy and funny. "Learning to Leave the Flesh" is deeply moving. It takes a particular talent to be able to do both of those things really well.
Anyway, City of Saints and Madmen is a brilliant book and, in my opinion, rather better suited to the British sense of humor than that of Americans. It is also a truly beautiful physical object. The one failing of the original Prime edition was poor reproduction on many of the illustrations. Tor UK has got this right, resulting in an even more beautiful book. If you are reading this review at Eastercon, get into the Dealers’ Room now and buy a copy.
City of Saints & Madmen – Jeff Vandermeer – Tor UK - hardcover
Robots Are Us!
One of the things I have been doing with the Speculative Literature Foundation is help organize some fund-raising events in San Francisco. The first of these is now firm and will take place in April. Here are the details:
When: Friday, April 23 at 7:30 PM.
Where: Omnicircus, located at 550 Natoma Street in South of Market, San Francisco.
Featuring: Pat Murphy, Rudy Rucker, Ken Wharton and Terry Bisson. MC’d by Charlie Anders of other magazine. And finally: Omnicircus: an experimental, surreal-psychedelic musical-cabaret group led by artist Frank Garvey.
Cost: $10-20, sliding scale. All proceeds go directly to the Foundation’s Fountain Award. Doors open at 7 PM, with complimentary drinks. A free reception will follow.
Sponsored by the Speculative Literature Foundation, with Strange Horizons, other magazine, Emerald City, and NFG Magazine.
Ask me if you want further information.
The nomination lists for Australia’s fan-voted awards are as follows:
Novel: The Etched City, K J Bishop, Prime Books; The High Lord, Trudi Canavan, Harper Collins; Abhorsen, Garth Nix, Allen & Unwin; Fallen Gods, Jonathon Blum & Kate Orman, Telos; Orphans of Earth, Sean Williams & Shane Dix, Harper Collins
Novella or Novelette: "Alien Space Nazis Must Die", Chuck McKenzie (Elsewhere); "Sigmund Freud & the Feral Freeway", Martin Livings, Agog!; "Louder Echo", Brendan Duffy, Agog!; "Uncharted", Leigh Blackmore, Agog!; "Rynemonn", Terry Dowling, Forever Shores; "La Sentinelle", Lucy Sussex, Southern Blood
Short Story: "The Mark of His Hands", Chuck McKenzie, Orb 5 April; "The Singular Life of Eddie Dovewater", Deborah Biancotti, Agog!; "Kijin Tea", Kyla Ward, Agog!; "Room for Improvement", Trudi Canavan, Forever Shores; "The Truth About Pug Roberts", Kirstyn McDermott, Southern Blood; "Frozen Charlottes", Lucy Sussex, Forever Shores
Collected Work: Agog! Terrific Tales, Cat Sparks, Agog! Press; Elsewhere, Michael Barry, CSFG Publishing; Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Nigel Read, ASIM Publishing Cooperative; Southern Blood, Bill Congreve, Sandglass Enterprises; Forever Shores, Peter McNamara & Margaret Winch, Wakefield Press
Best Artwork: Axis Trilogy cover by Greg Bridges (written by Sara Douglass); Elsewhere cover by Les Petersen (edited by Michael Barry); Agog! Terrific Tales cover by Cat Sparks (edited by Cat Sparks); The High Lord cover by Les Petersen (written by Trudi Canavan); Fables & Reflections 5 cover by Trudi Canavan (edited by Lily Chrywenstrom)
Fan Writer: Bruce Gillespie; Edwina Harvey; Danny Oz (nee Heap); Grant Watson; Paul Ewins
Fan Artist: Les Petersen, Battle Elf (Conflux) poster; Dick Jenssen, Extensive body of work; Phil Wlodarczyk, Cartoons in Ethel the Aardvark; Miriam English, Diverse Universe & Solar Spectrum 3
Fan Production: Swancon 2003 Opening Ceremony & Video, Swancon 2003 Committee; Spaced Out website, Geoff Allshorn & Miriam English; Elsewhere Book Launch, CSFG; The Mega Panel, Aaron Jacks & Mitch (Continuum 2003); Monday's Perfect Match, Ian Mond (Continuum 2003)
Fanzine: The Australian SF Bullsheet, Edwina Harvey & Edwin Scribner; Three-Eyed Frog, Paul Ewins & Sue Ann Barber; Fables & Reflections, Lily Chrywenstrom; Dark Animus, James Cain; No Award, Russell B Farr; Fandom is my life, Danny Oz (nee Heap)
The William Atheling Jr. Award (for SF criticism): Bruce Gillespie; Jonathan Strahan; Lee Battersby; Jason Nahrung; Grant Watson
Best New Talent: K J Bishop; Ben Peek; Brendan Duffy; Glenda Larke; Anna Tambour; Monica Carroll
Voting is open only to members of the 2004 Australian NatCon, Conflux, to be held in Canberra at the end of April. Good luck to all involved, especially the very wonderful KJ Bishop.
The British Science Fiction Society’s review magazine, Vector, publishes an annual review of the year in which they poll all of their reviewers asking for their top 5 books of the year. In many ways this is like the Locus Best of the Year issue, except that Locus only has a dozen or so people it talks to whereas this year Vector polled 36 people. Also the reviews in Locus tend to be rather better on average. Vector has some very good reviewers, but also some who write the sort of stuff you expect to find in club fanzines. (Or indeed the sort of person who will give a bad review to Elizabeth Hand, I suspect because her stories don’t have obvious plots with clearly defined endings.) As a result, of course, the poll tends to reflect a wide range of opinion and is perhaps a good indicator of the outcome of the BSFA Award for Best Novel. On that basis, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Felaheen is now the clear favorite for the BSFA. And if he does win that will go half way towards fulfilling my prediction that the BSFA and Clarke will be won by books that are not on each other’s short lists.
Steph Swainston writes to let me know that The Year of Our War has been sold to publishers in the US (Harper/EOS), France (Bragelonne), Spain (Bibliopolis) and Sweden (Natur och Kultur). The US edition won’t be published until next year, but at least it is coming. Then again, if you want to know what all of the buzz is about you should order a UK edition now.
Mark Olson writes to announce that NESFA Press is issuing a new edition of Silverlock by John Myers Myers, bringing the book back into publication for the first time in 25 years. I guess a lot of you will be too young to remember this, but Silverlock, aside from being a fairly standard fantasy story, is the most awesome exercise in name-dropping ever attempted in genre literature. The NESFA edition will include The Silverlock Companion, a book that explains, for those of us with less than encyclopedic knowledge of literature and myth, just who all of the characters are. There are also a bunch of articles and critical essays, including entirely new material from Darrell Schweitzer, Karen Anderson and the author’s daughter, Celia. Congratulations to NESFA for making this genre classic available once more.
And a whole bunch of people wrote to tell me that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain will be published by Bantam in June. Amazon currently has it listed under the title, The Capital Code, but according to Locus Online this is an old title and the US publication will have the same title as the UK and Australian versions.
Next month: Eastercon. Also some catching up on the remaining Clarke Award nominees, new novels from Laurie Marks and Sean McMullen, short fiction from Howard Waldrop and South America, an interview with NESFA Press and, if I can get a copy in time, the new Neal Stephenson.
Love ‘n’ hugs,