Unnatural Creatures edited by Neil Gaiman & Maria Dahvana Headley

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Image credits: Decorative phoenix by Tanantachai Sirival from 123RF.com; banner by imyril of onemore.org

Yet again I haven’t quite read what I planned during Wyrd and Wonder month. In part, this is down to these being extraordinary times and my reading moods not being as predictable as they would normally be. Still, we roll with the punches, eh?

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An interesting volume of sixteen short stories, the earliest first published back in 1885 and the most recent in 2013, Unnatural Creatures has been lurking next to the bed for the last two months as my antidote to not being able to get to sleep. Every time I’ve found myself unable to get comfortable or my head’s been buzzing with worry, I’ve grabbed it and been introduced to another strange creature that has given me something else to think about.

While there’s not one story here that I’d say was bad, there were a couple I found disappointing, mostly because of my expectations of the author. Every story that wasn’t Disappointing went into the Good pile or the Best pile. (It’s been on my mind recently that I am not discerning enough as a reader. I love so much of what I read, but I am not great at defining what I love about it, which makes for rather vague, rose-tinted posts that don’t tell anyone much. And when I don’t enjoy what I read, but still manage to finish it and write something about my feelings, I get … spitty – see my thoughts on To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer for an example. I’m not one of those fabulous people who can become eloquently vitriolic, although I aspire to be. I wonder if I’m not taking the right kind of notes?).

 

Anyway, let’s start with the Good, shall we?

I was pleased to see Nnedi Okorafor in here because I like the way she writes even when I struggle to parse what she’s saying. Her contribution to Unnatural Creatures is a story called “Ozioma the Wicked” that tells of young Ozioma’s ability to speak to snakes and how she is treated in her village because of it, until a snake deity comes to town. It’s a story told in quick, sure strokes and concentrated language, and Ozioma feels so quickly like a living, breathing character that I didn’t want this one to end. It’s a good ending though.

“The Cockatoucan; or Great-Aunt Willoughby” by E Nesbit is a tale from a completely different school of storytelling. It made me think of Carroll and Lear and their sort of madness. I loved the arch tone of this one and I loved Matilda, reluctantly clean and neat ready for her visit to Great-Aunt Willoughby, imagining what would happen if she were to speak to her aunt the way her aunt speaks to her. That she gets to go on an adventure to the Green Land instead, and that her cross nursemaid Pridmore saves the day has the same feeling as Alice in Wonderland – it might have really happened, or it might all have been a dream.

Larry Niven’s “The Flight of the Horse” and “The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher are also fun, funny and a little madcap (if not quite on Nesbit’s scale). Niven’s story sends poor Hanville Svetz back in time to find a horse, with only a children’s picture book image for reference and no idea what he might be up against. The humour is all in the reader knowing what Svetz doesn’t and the ending is punchline funny. Boucher’s 1942 story is a different kind of romp again, involving a werewolf, some spies, a Hollywood star, a magician and a couple of German professors. It reads like an adventure story after the slow-ish set up, complete with a daring chase, a double-cross and a desperate showdown. I was reluctantly drawn in (Professor Wolf is a grumpy sod at the beginning), but ended up enjoying myself thoroughly.

And the last of the Good ones is Peter S Beagle’s “Come Lady Death”. I’ve only read two novels by Beagle: A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn, both of which I enjoyed, but didn’t love. And it was the same here. “Come Lady Death” is a good story, I was interested from beginning to end, but I didn’t love it either. Something about the shape of the story didn’t work for me. I did like, however, that it felt like a fantasy version of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

 

In the Disappointing pile we have: the oldest story in the bunch, Frank R Stockton’s “The Griffin and the Minor Canon”, which just didn’t grab me in any way; Gaiman’s own “Sunbird” which I found a mite predictable; and “Gabriel-Ernest” by Saki (H H Munro) whose short stories I am a big fan of, except this one. Also, “Prismatica” by Samuel R Delany, which I was really looking forward to reading after loving Driftglass back in January, but found fairly bland compared to his scifi; and “The Manticore, the Mermaid and Me” by Megan Kurashige, which I thought was … muddled. Although I really liked the manticore.

 

Finally, the absolutely Best ones. The opening story of the collection has a title, but I can’t reproduce it here. It looks like an audio-visual line with a small ink blot in the middle – that’s the best I can do. I dubbed the story “Unpronounceable”, but apparently its official-unofficial title is “Inksplot” and it’s by Gahan Wilson, a writer-illustrator-cartoonist with a creepy cast to his imagination. “Inksplot” was written in 1972 and tells its story through both words and illustrations. It is, in a word, delightful. Reginald Archer appreciates a clean and well-run household and is distressed to find a small black spot on his white tablecloth at breakfast. He summons his butler Faulks who doesn’t know how the spot came to be there and apologises profusely. Reginald retires to his study for the morning. The spot follows him there. It never moves whilst being watched, but the moment they look away … Find it and read it for yourself to discover what happens. I love this sort of odd tale and Wilson himself sounds like a fascinating chap from what I’ve read about him so far. I’ve already added a volume of his short stories to my wish list, and I can’t wait to read more. His cartoons are pretty cool too – they make me think of Gary Larson:

Eye Doctor by Gahan Wilson

Next up is E Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees”, another story that sent me off to hunt for more information about the author. Yu has a novel coming out in Autumn this year called On Fragile Waves and on the strength of her writing in this one short story I am very keen to get my hands on a copy. “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” tells the tale of the inter-relations between a human village, a colony of wasps and a hive of bees. It makes the real phenomenon of anarchism in bees a part of its plot and looks at social harmony and disruption, violence and the nature of authority. The story is available online here at Clarkesworld Magazine if you’re curious.

“The Sage of Theare” by Diana Wynne Jones is a Chrestomanci story and if I’d read nothing else in Gaiman’s selection I’d have read this because everything Jones has written is pure gold. And while her writing is a reward in and of itself, it didn’t hurt that this story features an invisible water dragon. A story with a very different mood “Moveable Beast” by Maria Dahvana Headley is another ‘odd’ one that gave me vaguely Welcome to Night Vale vibes. Angela, who works at Bastardville Dreamy Creamy (runner-up names for her hometown were Awfulton and Suck) tells the story of the town’s Beast and of Billy Beecham the Beast collector. Her tone is snarky and funny throughout and the ending was dust-your-hands-off satisfying. Again, I was happy to find that there’s more to read from Headley, who has written four books so far and has her latest, Beowulf: A New Translation, coming out in August this year. At this rate we’ll have to sell the car to pay for all the books I’ve now got to buy.

The last two stories on the Best stack are “The Smile on the Face” by Nalo Hopkinson and “Or All the Seas With Oysters” by Avram Davidson. I recently enjoyed Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms for its well-drawn characters and beautiful hints of magic and “The Smile on the Face” delivers the same again. Gilla is such an appealing heroine that I’d really like to read more than just this one short story about her, her Mom and her best friends Kashy and Foster. The story captured all the awkward self-consciousness of being a teenager beautifully, and I will always be here for writers who feel no need to over-explain the magic in their worlds.

Oscar in “Or All the Seas With Oysters” wasn’t half as likeable as Gilla and I wasn’t sure at first where this story was going. Meeting Ferd improved things, but it wasn’t until he started putting together his theory about safety pins, coat hangers and bicycles that I really got interested. Poor Ferd. It’s a more dangerous world than any of us realise. In looking up Avram Davidson I found that one of his books has been published by Gollancz in their Fantasy Masterwork series. The Phoenix and the Mirror is about the poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid and powerful necromancer … so, you know, I have to read it now, (tell me you don’t want to read something with that for a blurb!).

 

Anyhow, I’ve prattled on far too long. This is a strong collection that I’ll go back to. I enjoy the dip-your-toe-in nature of short stories and how they can give you a glimpse into the wonderful, myriad brains of authors. Right now I’ve enjoyed it more than usual, finding that reading this collection has jump-started my enthusiasm again, which was definitely suffering under the unpredictable nature of the world at the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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“I want to meet you in every place I ever loved.”

 

How much did I love this book? Let me count the ways:

I loved it for all it’s playful revelling in language, celebrating words, communication, letters (in all their forms). And, as Red and Blue’s relationship developed over the course of their correspondence, I loved that they developed something of a common language, echoing each other.

 

I loved the two far far futures that Red and Blue represent, and the very paradox of their romance. As they both work for their own future’s success, they do so knowing that it will preclude the other’s existence. I was fascinated by all the hints and glimpses of Red’s technological world, in which a body is heavily augmented, minds ‘decant’ into bodies for sport and food is obsolete. Equally, I enjoyed exploring Blue’s super-biological future with its ‘neural pollen’ and ‘honey libraries’. The sheer alien-ness of these two futures is so frigging cool. Even more so the similarities between them.

 

I loved the humour. Most notable at the beginning as Red and Blue first start to work out a neutral space within the letters in which they can tease one another without teeth. I particularly enjoyed their references to Mrs Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence as they played with modes of address and postscripts. And Red’s response to Blue’s invitation to try out “scented inks and seals” had me howling with laughter, (I didn’t see it coming).

 

I loved, too, the ways in which the letters were transmitted. These are not letters as we think of them, written on paper, sealed and sent. They can’t be that. Instead they are mostly unkeepable, momentary, hidden within something else: in the growth rings of a tree or within a lava flow, in the swirl of loose tea leaves in tea or in the warp and weft of a cloth. It perfectly captures the hope and faith that letters require – writing from and in a particular moment in time, then sending your letter out into the world to find its intended recipient. Red and Blue’s letters feel even more like acts of faith – placed to be found as if by chance, potentially easily overlooked if the other wasn’t paying attention. (Steganography is a beautiful word – say it out loud, doesn’t it feel lovely? – that I’d never come across before reading this book, and that I now absolutely need to find out more about).
I loved the thousand sensory details that made the story real, when it could have been aloof in its very far-future-ness. Even the description of time as a braid, made up of strands, woven and re-woven by Red and Blue and other operatives of their kind, feels present and understandable.

 

I loved how, in such a short space of pages, the story built up from playful to intense as the stakes increased. The two come to face the possibility that they have been found out, and that they may lose one another. The Seeker’s ghostly presence seems ominous, although I have to say that I figured out pretty quickly who the Seeker actually was, if not why, but still the question hangs in the air: Is this whole thing a long-con after all? The book begins with Red taking a chance on a letter that could be a trap and ends with Blue having to make that very same decision. Faith is required in love as well as in letters. In books too.

 

And I loved that the novel reads like a sonnet almost, El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s writing being inherently poetic, the structure of the story following a strict pattern, and the conclusion making the required turn, or volta. It’s a stunningly beautiful book, and one that I am looking forward to reading again and again, so that I can re-appreciate sentences such as:

“Summer settles like a bee on clover – golden, busy, here then gone.”

And:

“There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? … You could leave me for five years, you could return never – and I have to write the rest of this not knowing.”

And most especially, this:

“I love you. I love you. I love you. I’ll write it in waves. In skies. In my heart. You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.”

 

And you know how I hate romance!

 

 

 

 

 

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

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This cover, man! Joey Hi-Fi is responsible for this beautiful slice of loveliness.

I remember being so excited when I first heard about Lagoon five years ago. I’d recently been reading about how skewed the Mercator world map is, so hearing about a book in which First Contact occurred in Lagos, Nigeria instead of London or New York was perfectly timed. And sure, it’s taken me five years to actually get around to it, but having read and loved Okorafor’s Binti novellas in the meantime, none of that excitement had dissipated when I finally started reading earlier this week.

“They were confused, afraid and eager to see what would happen next.

How would you have felt?”

 

And it is an incredible read. It’s energetic and chaotic; sometimes confusing, but always teeming with life and action, and it’s going to take me a while to really let what I’ve read sink in. But I’m left with reservations as well. I’m not sure I enjoyed reading this book.

 

Some of that is no doubt because it has forced me to confront my own ignorance. I know very little about Nigeria. I had to look it up on the map because I had no idea where in Africa it was, let alone that it actually has a lagoon. I did not know that electricity outages are a common occurrence there. I had to Google gated communities and Victoria Island. I did not and still do not know what a day in the life of a Nigerian citizen might look like. Not knowing these things bothers me a lot – I am aware that I live in a privileged bubble, but that awareness obviously doesn’t stretch very far and that’s not a good thing to know about yourself.

 

 

This is one of those books that has left me with lots of impressions, some quite sketchy and mostly disjointed. While it starts out fairly straightforward with three unconnected people being drawn to Lagos’ Bar Beach where they meet the ambassador for an alien race, it soon unravels as violence takes over the city and characters from folklore step into the real world. The story unfolds in the way that dreams often do, following its own internal logic, and the reader is just along for the ride.

 

There are a ton of characters, none of whom we spend a lot of time with, and yet Okorafor gives enough detail that we are able to care about most of them to a degree. The effect that this has is to breathe life into Lagos itself, so that you feel the city is the character and all the various points of view you are experiencing are aspects of that one larger personality. (That said, I hated Father Oke. By the final act I was happy to have forgotten all about him, happy to accept that he was just another small part of the beautiful-dreadful, multifaceted city of Lagos, but when I first encountered him I very nearly put the book down. If he was there to say anything meaningful about how the Christian faith has blended with local West African beliefs or how Christianity is altered by the personality of the country it finds itself in, I’m afraid I missed it all because I just hated him. And his ending wasn’t painful enough).

 

On the other hand, I loved that this story upends so many First Contact tropes. Not only do the aliens choose Africa – and Ayodele makes it clear that they really do choose, that they want to become citizens of Lagos, nowhere else – but their very first contact is with the people of the sea. I mean, we’re a planet two-thirds of which is covered in water, in which the most incredible diversity of species live out their lives, why wouldn’t aliens land there? Ayodele’s people land in the waters off the coast of Nigeria, communicate with the many varieties of marine life and give each what they most want, before coming ashore to chat with the humans. And what do the peoples of the sea want most? For humans to get out the water. So now the oceans are teeming with bigger and badder versions of everything we think we know, ready to kick human arse should we trouble them again.

 

And then there’s the wonderful bit where the President of Nigeria finally shows up and says to Ayodele: “Take me to your leader”.

 

 

The violence that follows Ayodele’s arrival was another aspect of the story I found difficult. It was accurate, sure. We are an angry, violent race. We do unspeakable things. And Okorafor doesn’t flinch away from that. She makes it very clear that aliens are not the problem, it is only our inability to handle change that stands in the way.

 

 

At the same time, she speaks of our interconnected nature. Even as we meet more and yet more characters we discover that they are all linked to one another, that the circles in which they all move are over-lapping constantly. The girl that Benson raped is a cousin of Troy’s, who is part of Moziz’s group of friends. Jacobs, another of this group, has a sister, Fisayo, who witnessed Ayodele coming ashore. Philomena, Moziz’s girlfriend, is Adaora’s house girl and it is her footage of Ayodele that inspires Moziz’s kidnapping scheme. There’s no more than six degrees of separation between any of the characters.

 

By the time the Bone Collector, Legba, Ijele, Mami Wata and Spider the Artist make their appearances it makes complete sense that these alien visitors, bringers of change, would awaken the gods and mythical creatures of Nigeria. We have already witnessed humans with superpowers, and have shared the points of view of swordfish, bats and a seven-legged spider. A country is defined by its beliefs, its history, its citizens (human and otherwise) and its folklore.

 

And ultimately it feels like this story is about how we are never of one mind. Any place is made up of the people that live there, of so many conflicting needs and desires that it can never speak with one voice. We are a fractious and divided people. And somehow Okorafor manages to leave the story (the ending isn’t really an ending, just another beginning. It’s all arbitrary at the end of the day), on a hopeful note. Nigeria will become something different. It won’t be all good. It won’t be all bad either. But it will be vibrant and strong and entirely itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Trader to the Stars by Poul Anderson

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Nicholas van Rijn is the trader of the title in this book, which is actually comprised of three longish short stories: “Hiding Place”, “Territory” and “The Master Key” in which van Rijn is the only constant character. He is either a dude or an arsehole, depending on how you look at things, but either way he’s a big one. Large of stature and of girth, van Rijn makes me think of nothing so much as an older Henry VIII, but with a better sense of humour and a bigger nose.

This one definitely wins top prize for the WORST cover ever

All three stories first appeared in Astounding/ Analog Science Fiction magazine in the early sixties. Each one presents a puzzling situation involving both humans and various alien species (to give lots of room for cultural misunderstandings and the like) that leaves the humans stumped until van Rijn steps in and explains it all. The conundrums themselves are Agatha-Christie-worthy and really quite interesting – the blurb on the back of the book sets the scene for the first story “Hiding Place” and was the reason I decided to read this in the first place – and Anderson is great at bringing a world to life and keeping his readers gripped. He doesn’t get swept up in his own cleverness or so absorbed in the science of his worlds that he forgets to be entertaining.

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Also, there are a lot of scientists and soldiers in science fiction, so it’s pretty refreshing to see the galaxy from a mercantile point of view. And Anderson suggests in these stories that trade is a universal language when cultures meet and mingle. I’m not sure how I feel about this – because, hello? Haven’t you heard of the Prime Directive?! These are primitive cultures you’re exploiting for your character’s own greedy ends in an entirely fictional scenario, Mr Anderson – but history does back him up: we human beings are all about the pretty shiny things that someone else has got. Although we are also very keen on attacking and subjugating those who have the pretty shiny things if we think they’re weaker than we are. (Weird thing that just happened: In one of those glorious moments of alignment as I was typing the words Prime Directive the theme tune for Star Trek: Next Generation just started playing through the wall we share with our deaf next-door neighbour – timing or what?).

 

In “Hiding Place” Captain Bahadur Torrance and van Rijn are aboard the Hebe G.B. (love the name!) and trying to stay ahead of space pirates about whom they have some important information. With the Hebe G.B. damaged, they pull up alongside an alien vessel planning to ask for help, but when they board they can find no crew, only cages and containers full of various alien species.

I liked the set up best here, but found two of the story’s developments kind of irritating. First, I didn’t like that the token female character was van Rijn’s bit of stuff. I just would have liked her to be anything other than that. And I didn’t like that she was the cause of brief tension between the Captain and van Rijn. Again, anything else would have been great. I know I’m incredibly privileged to be a white Western woman who has been exposed, during her adult life, to the narrative that a woman can do and be anything. A result of this privilege is that I want the science fiction I read to imagine a future in which women are more. And so I was disappointed to see the only female character in a very typical role, albeit not through coercion or obligation – she’s chosen to be there – but still I’d rather there had been no women in the story.

Second, I was annoyed by van Rijn’s quite quickly solving the puzzle of which of the species were actually the crew of the alien ship, but this was more because I hadn’t yet realised the book was three separate stories and had been expecting to get to work it out for myself. (Although I’m quite smug that I’d already worked out one part of the puzzle before van Rijn mansplained it to Captain Torrance). I can’t deny that his tone had a lot to do with my annoyance too, however. Smart arse.

 

In “Territory” biologist Joyce Davisson and van Rijn are rudely awoken when the human area of t’Kela is attacked. Marooned on the planet by their escaping fellow humans, they flee to a place of temporary safety along with one remaining friendly t’Kelan called Uulobu, and try to work out why the t’Kelans went so suddenly from friend to enemy.

I really enjoyed the cultural misunderstanding at the heart of this story and (further mansplaining aside) I also liked van Rijn’s solution to the problem. I was less keen on his stinky attitude towards Joyce: “you only got to cook and look beautiful”, and was livid that she softened up to him towards the end, but I guess she’s as free to be an idiot as she is to be a scientist.

 

And finally, in “The Master Key” a group of friends and associates meet at van Rijn’s apartment to talk about their youngest member’s recent adventures on the planet Cain. This last story is told from the point of view of one of the party members, who is addressed as Captain, but whose name we never discover. The group is comprised of van Rijn, the Captain, his friend Harry, Harry’s son Per (who is recuperating after being badly injured on his adventure) and Manuel, Per’s ensign.

This one was the best of the bunch for me. I liked how the story was told, with the Captain opening up, then Per and Manuel relating what had happened to them, and van Rijn only getting to chip in at the end, with his inevitable explanation. I enjoyed everything about the planet Cain and its two sentient species the Yildivans and the Lugals. The story is similar to “Territory” in that there is a sudden turnaround in human-alien relations, but the reasons for it were more interesting this time round, I thought.

 

So yeah. All in all a pretty good threesome. Despite minor annoyances I really like the way Anderson writes and I love his aliens. I can’t say I’m a big fan of van Rijn, he’s too much a caricature and his habit of explaining to everyone where they’ve gone wrong isn’t a particularly prepossessing trait. That said, he has an amusing manner of speech that goes a long way to making him more palatable. I can imagine him being voiced by Brian Blessed, booming: “Pox and pestilence, but the first beer of the day is good!” and “What is this poppies with cocking? When I say frog, by billy damn, you jump!” and “Thunder and thighbones, what is this farce?” There’s a lot to be said for creative expletives.

“Beelzebub and botulism!”

 

 

 

 

 

The Airs of Earth by Brian Aldiss

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I am getting a bit of a kick out of reading short stories right now, so here’s another collection I explored for Vintage SciFi Month. I’ve found that reading a selection of stories by one author gives me a nice dip-in introduction to their style and range. As a result of reading Delany’s Driftglass a couple of weeks ago I now want to read everything else he’s written (I’m going to qualify that, being as I’ve been reading up on him: everything else he’s written within the SFF genre; not sure I’d care too much for the erotic stuff he went on to write later). And this eight story Aldiss taster hasn’t put me off reading any more of his work. Maybe I’m not quite as in love with his writing style as I am with Delany’s, but I like his ideas.

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Only two out of these eight stories left me cold, which were the first two in the collection: “A Kind of Artistry” didn’t spend enough time with all the fascinating bits – parthenogenic slaves, furry people and antlered people, the entity known as the Cliff – instead focusing on a toxic relationship that I didn’t care for. And “How To Be a Soldier” just didn’t have enough meat on its bones, although I’m usually interested in stories about what we’ll do to make a soldiers bigger, faster, stronger.

 

Then again, I’m not normally too fond of political narratives, but “Basis for Negotiation” had me hooked. Set in 1971 at the outbreak of World War 3, this was a tense, engaging look at the dynamics of power when played out big. And sooo British. Later in the collection “The International Smile” toys with some of the same ideas, only Aldiss plays it for laughs and it reads for all the world like an episode of Yes, Minister and had me howling.

 

“Shards” took two read-throughs to appreciate fully. The first time to get what’s happening to Double-A and Garm, and the second time to really enjoy all the wordplay used to lead us through their metamorphosis. If any story in The Airs of Earth captures the spirit of the collection it’s this one – Aldiss, in all of these stories, is having fun, throwing ideas around like confetti.

 

My favourite story however, is “The Game of God”. It’s probably the most typical piece of science fiction here, but I like what I like. An ecological survey team arrives on the as yet unexplored Kakakakaxo to check its suitability for colonization. All they know about the planet is that nineteen years earlier a man known as Daddy Dangerfield crash landed on it and became a god to the indigenous reptilian pygmies. The team hopes to find Dangerfield because his knowledge of the planet and inhabitants will make their job a lot easier. And they do find him, an old, sick man, still apparently worshipped by the “cayman-heads”, but he doesn’t prove all that helpful. I love stories that drop in on alien worlds and I love to piece together information about the planet or an alien race to work out what’s going on, so that’s the main reason why I enjoyed this one so much, I think. Certainly the conclusion is a little bit obvious, but the getting there was so much fun and Barney, Craig and Tim were good company.

 

“O, Moon of My Delight” (the story depicted by Bruce Pennington’s cover art) is both interesting and odd. Tandy-Two is a planet used as both a sheep-farming paradise and a kind of landing strip for FTL ships. As a result of its landing strip duties, the planet gets wobbled regularly, so time is always changing; an FTL ship may come in of an afternoon, but as a result of this arrival Tandy-Two has been pushed into an early night-time. This whole idea had me very interested, but the story is then a disappointingly human one about a sheep-farming family soon to leave the planet and return to Earth and a tragic occurrence. I wouldn’t have minded so much if more of the characters had been likable, but six-year-old Fay is the only one worth mentioning.

 

Finally, “Old Hundredth” tells of a far, far future Earth now orbited by Venus and sparsely populated only by the giant animal-people created on Venus and known as the Impure. Dandi is one such creature, a sort of sloth, who rides a sort of rhino called Lass. She has a telepathic link to her blind dolphin Mentor and studies musicolumns. She meets a knife-wielding bear on her travels. At the end of the story she transubstantiates herself into a song. Make of that what you will, it all made perfect sense while I was reading it.

 

If anything links these stories together it’s the sense of fun that runs through the collection. I’d say Aldiss enjoyed himself immensely writing these and they are entertaining to read. And no matter how far flung the location or the time, Earth is always in the background as the starting point from which travellers have travelled, races have evolved, time has unspooled.

 

That is to say, I am left with a desire to read something more by Aldiss, but no idea of where to start. These stories are so various – what kind of novels did he write? So tell me, has anyone read any Aldiss? And if so, can you recommend anything?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Drowned World by J G Ballard

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My next Vintage SciFi Month offering was … interesting. Up until now I have loved the nature-takes-back-the-world trope in all its guises, so I was looking forward to reading The Drowned World, but while I enjoyed aspects of this novel, I found both the lack of plot and the lack of characterization difficult.

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Both lacks seem intentional, however. After a “succession of gigantic geophysical upheavals which had transformed the Earth’s climate” the world is now a waterlogged hothouse and London, where Ballard centres his novel, is a sweltering maze of tropical lagoons predominantly occupied by giant mosquitoes, iguanas and water snakes, and incredible prehistoric plant-life. In an environment becoming less and less human-friendly, naturally such things as plot fall by the wayside. The main drive of the story seems to be simply that Robert Kerans, over whose shoulder we view this new world, accept the inevitable regression that is occurring both around and within him.

Which I guess is why the lack of characterization is equally appropriate. While we meet a handful of characters within these pages – most notably Beatrice, Doctor Bodkin, Hardman, Strangman and Colonel Riggs – they aren’t people we get to know well. When the world has literally gone to hell in a handcart and it’s so hot that just putting on a shirt is exhausting, getting to know someone hardly seems worth it, perhaps. Certainly, when life is stripped back to survival, individuality seems less important.

“However, I am convinced that as we move back through geophysical time so we re-enter the amnionic corridor and move back through spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch, each with a distinct geological terrain, its own unique flora and fauna, as recognisable to anyone else as they would be to a traveller in a Wellsian time machine.”

De-evolution and regression are the name of the game. As the world around them returns to a Triassic configuration, Doctor Bodkin theorizes that people will travel back down their genetic memories. Humanity’s recently learned social and domestic behaviours, relationships and ambitions will fall away and there will be “a total reorientation of the personality”. About half of the soldiers attached to the testing station in which biologists Kerans and Bodkin work are experiencing identical dreams – a dream we don’t get to ‘see’ until Kerans also experiences it – in which a giant sun pulses like a heartbeat above a nightmare lagoon writhing with life. The primordial soup, perhaps, with everything that makes us what we are broken back down into basic building blocks. The end, in effect.

So, what use is a plot, and what use individuals to identify with, when the world is coming to an end? The only real attempt Ballard makes at plot is to float out the freebooter Strangman and his crew (and two thousand attendant alligators?! Show-off!), but even this violent, crazed group don’t pose any real threat to our listless main characters. If anything, they seem to be there only to demonstrate the other option: let the veneer of civilization slip from your shoulders and go out bloodied.

 

Perhaps you’re now wondering why you should bother reading The Drowned World if it’s such a downer? Because, for all that the message is bleak, the writing, the imagery, is beautiful. Ballard was inspired by his childhood experiences in an internment camp in Shanghai when he imagined his flooded future world and perhaps that personal experience is what makes this setting so vividly realized. All I can say is that I loved it. The sun is dazzlingly, menacingly beautiful throughout; the buildings that still rise out of the lagoons swathed in creepers, moss and mould have the appeal of ancient ruins; and the gymnosperms and calamites that tower over everywhere else are otherworldly. Ballard’s future is alive with life, but near alien. A future that cannot be controlled or contained, only submitted to.

There is also a kind of mythic quality to this book that I can’t quite think how to explain. Ballard references Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, and Neptune and Minerva overtly, but that’s not what I mean. It’s more that some of the images feel familiar: Hardman’s leave-taking, seemingly walking directly into the sun; Kerans being crowned and tied to a throne by Strangman and his men; Strangman himself, weirdly pale when the sun has burnt everyone brown; Kerans finding Hardman again at the temple; they all feel like afterimages somewhere in the back of my brain. Or echoes, maybe.

 

To conclude: don’t read this if you’re looking for an exciting, pacey adventure or big, fleshed-out characters. Do read it if you’re interested in taking an odd, meditative journey South; if you enjoy immersive, descriptive language; or if you understand the need to step back from the world in order to figure out how you feel about a thing.

Extroverts need not apply.

 

 

 

 

 

Driftglass by Samuel R Delany

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It’s that time of year again … it’s Vintage SciFi Month! (And a Happy New Year to you all, of course!) The brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer, Andrea, you can find out more about this not-a-challenge here, but in brief, January is the month to read any scifi written before you were born. And I’m kicking off with Delany.

 

I’ve been meaning to read Delany for about ten years now. He’s one of those names that crops up again and again when people are discussing the early really great scifi on which our current really great scifi is built. So I felt pretty lucky when this copy of Driftglass was donated (along with a whole bunch of vintage scifi) to the library. Too old to go on the shelves (the binding split in my hands when I opened it up), we put it into the booksale, from which I bought it.

And yeah, the talk is justified. Driftglass is a collection of ten short stories, (full disclosure: I am dragging myself out of a reading slump by degrees and short stories were all I could face this week), all written in the mid-to-late sixties, including the Hugo and Nebula Award winning “Time considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones”. They are various – moving from the edge of the galaxy to a small Greek island to Mars to Brazil to Canada to some sort of dream world – beautifully  written, and absolutely jam-packed with ideas.

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The awesome cover art is by Chris Foss

As with any collection of stories by a single author, there is some repetition of ideas and images, but not much. Twice Delany talks about halving holograms, and twice about telepaths, in four of his stories he describes friendships between adults and prepubescent children or teenagers, and he seems to have a fascination with people’s hands – which he describes more often than any other aspect of his characters’ appearances. This last seemed appropriate to the stories he tells however, because Delany writes about the ordinary working people of the future: the mechanics, the people laying power cables, the spaceport workers, the people using their hands.

Of the ten stories I have four firm favourites: “The Star-Pit”, “Corona”, “Driftglass” and “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” (say that ten times fast). The first story in the book, “The Star-Pit” opened with some serious VanderMeer vibes. The main character, Vyme, describes an “ecologarium” (a self-contained ecosystem) set up on a beach for the education of the children in his procreation group. Inside this enclosed space are crystalline plants, small sloth-like creatures with suction-cup appendages and flying lizards that start out as larvae. And while we don’t stay with this opening image for very long, it informs the rest of the story. In the present Vyme is a mechanic who fixes and maintains starships at the edge of the galaxy. To be able to travel any further than that edge, one has to be a “golden”, a person who is psychologically different in a specific way that enables them to cope with extensive space travel. Vyme is friends with thirteen-year-old Ratlit, also a mechanic at the neighbouring Poloscki’s, and the story concerns itself with these two, Vyme’s employee Sandy, the wonderful projective telepath Alegra and the feelings of enclosure that all people seem to feel, irrespective of how far out in to space they are able to travel.

In “Corona” we meet ex-con now spaceport worker Buddy and nine-year-old super-telepath Lee who meet and bond briefly over the latest hot musical sensation from Ganymede, Bryan Faust, and his new hit song ‘Corona’. I’m not giving anything else away about this one, but it was the most touching story in the collection for me (not least because Lee’s experience hits pretty close to home). Closely followed, in terms of emotional impact, by “Driftglass” in which we meet Cal Svenson, a genetically modified amphiman (able to live underwater as easily as on land) who lives alone on the edge of the sea in Brazil after having suffered a terrible accident that has left him badly mutilated. Delany is brilliant at conjuring up a sense of place in all of the stories in Driftglass and I loved his evocation of this Brazilian fishing port so accustomed to the amphimen working offshore, and sending it’s sons and daughters away to become the next generation of amphimen.

The descriptions in “Driftglass” are possibly the most beautiful too. We start the story hunting for sea glass on the beach with Cal: “It was foggy that morning, and the sun across the water moiled the mists like a brass ladle”. We learn how he became friends with fisherman Juao in just a few elegant vignettes, before being treated to both an evening beach party and night fishing expedition made up of amphimen and local fishermen. I remember reading once, somewhere, that every word needs to count in a short story because of its concentrated form, and I think this story is as near a perfect example of that as I’ve ever seen. Delany’s prose isn’t pared back or simple, but every description is beautiful and he has a knack for describing things in unusual ways. In “Driftglass” this might be someone tapping on the window, or the view of the moon from beneath the water; in “The Star-Pit” it’s the “illuminated dragon” of Manhattan Bridge; in “Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo” it’s a woman standing at the edge of a puddle appearing to leap up in her reflection as she falls down.

“We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” is a different beast. Dedicated to Roger Zelazny, this tells the story of Global Power Commission employees Mabel, Blacky, Scott and Susan (known as demons and devils depending on rank). The live and work in their Gila Monster vehicle, and have come to a remote part of Canada to lay the cable that connects most of the world (this was written before the internet). However, there is resistance from the residents of the derelict house High Haven – where a group of futuristic Hells Angels who ride flying bikes known as pteracycles and are led by the one-shoe-only Roger (a further nod to Zelazny?) – have made their home. The story deals with power and permission on both a small scale and a large without dumbing that discussion down. There is no exclusively right or wrong way to do things. Yes, people have a right to choose how they live, even if it appears barbaric or backwards. However, some of the people within a group may not have had the choice, may simply not have the power to remove themselves from the situation. If you don’t have power, are you able to deny permission? And how to get and hold onto power?

If there’s anything that unites all the stories here, it is the humanity in them. No matter how far out into space and the future he goes, Delany is still writing stories about all the griefs and joys and small dramas that we experience in the course of a lifetime. As a result, I really like Delany protagonists. For the most part they are, if not exactly aimless, then uncertain about their life’s trajectory. They have no grand plan, aren’t special in any way (i.e. not super-smart or possessing incredible charisma), and often have a past of petty crime, loss or mistake. And they are the workers of the world, as I’ve said before. Not the scientists, artists or politicians (although they are not excluded from the mix), but the blue-collar workers. Which still seems pretty unusual in science fiction even now, and keeps these stories surprisingly relevant even fifty years later.

 

“You have to grow all the time,” I said. “Not necessarily get bigger. But inside your head you have to grow, kid-boy. For us human-type people that’s what’s important. And that kind of growing never stops. At least it shouldn’t. You can grow, kid-boy, or you can die. That’s the choice you’ve got, and it goes on all your life.”

From: “The Star-Pit”