My life in outer space

British

The Promise of The Child – Tom Toner (2015)

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)
So, I had this e-mail from Tom Toner in January 2017 asking me if I wouldn’t mind reviewing this, ‘The Promise of The Child’. I was in two minds about this as, being a generally kind sort of person, I was worried that, if I hated the novel, I would have to post a negative review. This has happened before, and I’m sure that I feel far worse about it than the authors involved who no doubt take bad reviews as part of the job and aren’t likely to track me down and give me a good kicking. They haven’t as yet, but I guess there’s still time.
My fears, it transpires, were groundless, as this is probably one of the best debut novels I have encountered since Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space‘, which it resembles in some senses. Others have compared it to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ , Jack Vance, Moorcock, M John Harrison and various others who have pursued a somewhat baroque exploration of SF. The style has a fascinating history which extends back beyond Moorcock to Vance, Charles L Harness, Leigh Brackett, and beyond there to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. One is impressed to see it so freshly reinvented.
Some twelve and a half thousand years from now, Humanity has spread out into the galaxy, finding no other life (barring the one glaring discovery of two incredibly ancient corpses of what appear to be sentient dinosaurs preserved in the icy cold of the outer Solar System.).
All life outside of Earth is descended from that of Earth, and Humanity itself has splintered into various species which exist in a complex hierarchical system, at the pinnacle of which are the immortal Amaranthine.
The narrative follows several key figures. Lycaste is a Melius, a larger human form that can change the colour of its skin. Lycaste lives in what we presume to be a far future Cyprus, and is famous for being – at least in Melius terms – beautiful. Lycaste is a sensitive individual, deeply in love with Pentas, although the love is unreturned. His life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a Plenipotentiary, Callisthemon, a noble of a higher caste who is, he claims, carrying out a census. Pentas’ attraction to Callisthemon leads inexorably to an event which causes Lycaste to flee on a journey across the Old World.
Sotiris, originally himself from Greece, is one of the most ancient Amaranthine and suffering from a condition to which the older immortals are prone; a succumbing to delusions. There is strife among the Amaranthine. Traditionally their leader is the oldest of them, and a Pretender, Aaron, has arisen who claims to be older than any living immortal.
War is spreading across the Old World, a war in which Sotiris is a principle manipulator, and in which Lycaste gets unwilling involved.
Meanwhile, a machine which could potentially threaten the balance of power across the galaxy has been stolen and, along with its kidnapped creator, is being shipped between the stars through hostile territory.
This is, it has to be said, a work which demands concentration. Much like Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’, there are some elements only partly explained, at least at first, which the general reader will either recognise or hopefully pick up on later, such as the vaulted worlds. These are essentially planet-sized Dyson spheres, hollowed out worlds with an artificial sun at the centre. One also has to contend with the various branched off species of Humanity, the baroque and complex societies and their equally complex political and social dynamics. It does however reward careful reading.
There are some devices which are hard to justify under rational science, such as the Amaranthine’s ability to bilocate using a planet’s magnetic field, apparently because of the build up of iron in an ancient body. The Shell, or The Soul Machine, has an even flimsier rationale for its operation, although these are minor quibbles.
One would have expected the presence of some form of Artificial Intelligence but, as with Dune (another baroque series infested with aristocratic class levels) there is a prohibition against creating such things although this becomes an important issue much later and explains some aspects of the earlier narrative.
Toner manages to convey a sense of languid and wistful decadence which pervades the novel, reminiscent of that of Vance’s ‘Dying Earth‘ and Harrison’s ‘Viriconium‘ sequence. The Old World is divided into rigid divisions of class and race, where everyone it seems has learned to know their place. One can also see a sense of Moorcockian entropy in this ancient society with its arcane rules and casual cruelty.
There is a very interesting scene where Callisthemon, the higher level Plenipotentiary visiting Lycaste’s region. discovers that one of Lycaste’s friends and neighbours is gay, although the term is never employed. Pentas enquires of him whether men can love each other in Callisthemon’s region. Callisthemon appears both amused and horrified by the idea, implying that it would never happen, and insists on changing the subject when he is pressed for an answer. It’s a very subtle moment, but it neatlly clarifies for the reader what form of society Callisthemon represents, as is indeed shown in later events.
Lycaste and Sotiris, despite some excursions to follow events and characters elsewhere, are the central two characters, and one could possibly argue that this is to the detriment of the other players. Some, without giving too much away, are unexpectedly despatched.just as one thought they were going to play a major role in the story.
It’s a tad vexing that other reviews I have seen posted have noted that they read (whatever) percent of the book and gave up. If this is the case, why post a review? It helps nobody, and one can’t be expected to provide a valid judgment having only read a tenth or a fifth of someone’s work. I would suggest that the author cannot be held responsible for other people’s laziness, although that may well be an oversimplification of the situation. There will always be occasions when one starts a book and realises that one is never going to finish it. One really has to ask the question, is it the book’s fault?
In this case, I don’t think it is. As a society we have learned to be spoonfed and we tend to shy away from entertainment (particularly books) that might be slightly challenging. This is challenging, but that’s not the book’s fault. If you can’t get into it, don’t blame the book. Move on. Find something you like.

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Interzone #251 – Andy Cox (Ed) (2014)

Interzone #251 Mar: Apr 2014

This is another cracking issue of Interzone featuring themes of relationship and identity. Loss seems to run through them also. It’s also interesting to see the structure of the modern short story evolving, although not as radically as one might have imagined back in the 20th Century. Stories seem more impressionistic, leaving much unexplained and to be determined by the reader. Highlights are ‘Old Bones’ and ‘A Doll is Not a Dumpling’.

Ghost Story by John Grant
Ashes by Karl Bunker
Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa
Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer
A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser
This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell

Ghost Story by John Grant

A young married man gets a call from a childhood sweetheart who tells him she is pregnant and that he is the father, something that is clearly impossible since he has never slept with her and they have not been in touch for some time. It’s a story that develops well into a tale of fractured reality.

Ashes by Karl Bunker

Very reminiscent of Michael Swanwick, not least because an AI manages to host itself within a cat, this is a compelling read. AIs and transhumans can not go beyond a certain level of intelligence without ‘winking out’ and vanishing. The protagonist’s dead girlfriend had become obsessed with the projects that these transcendent entities had left unfinished, hoping to find some workable technology. The Cat/AI has identified another project site where he thinks it may be fitting to scatter her ashes.
A very stylish piece which leaves one wanting more.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa

Kurzawa, a regular feature of Interzone, is beginning to fascinate me. I can’t honestly explain what this story is about, but maybe that’s the point. It certainly leaves one with more questions than answers. A man is living alone in the city, hiding from the robed ‘Mummers’ who roam the deserted streets.
One day a man knocks on his door, claiming to be a Doctor who can help him escape the city, but first he must perform a surgical procedure. It’s a poetic and surreal piece which stays in the mind despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of resolution or explanation.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer

Dark and not a little topical, this tells of Fari who was taken forcefully from her mother as a child as payment for a trespass fine and forced into work on an asteroid mine. A tale of love, repression, sacrifice and vengeance. Quite excellent.

A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser

An original tale featuring exquisitely drafted characters. I so wish more people could breathe such life into the small population of a short story. It’s a brief, beautiful, bittersweet and colourful tragedy featuring a young girl, an augmented dog and a sentient mobile dumpling machine. My favourite story of late.

This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell

A fairly standard post-apocalypse tale of a young man’s life in London following the effects of a fatal pandemic virus. It’s well done, but brings little new to the table.


Deadspeak (Necroscope IV) – Brian Lumley (1990)

Necroscope IV: Deadspeak (Necroscope, #4)

Harry Keogh has returned from the parallel world of the Wamphyri with his Necroscope powers hypnotically removed by his vampire son, Harry Jr. He can no longer speak to the dead or go teleporting through time and space via the Mobius continuum.
If this wasn’t bad enough his new boss is trying to murder him, he is being stalked by a Soviet assassin, and the dead are rising from their graves to leave him messages on his lawn, arranged in pieces of dry stone walling.
Meanwhile, in Romania, a group of American students have hired a guide to take them to a ruined castle, rumoured to have been the home of an ancient vampire. The consequence of this will come as no surprise.
It doesn’t take Harry long to realise that the disappearance of two E-branch agents in Greece is the work of resurrected vampire Janos Ferenczy, a nasty piece of work even by vampire standards.
Harry must regain his powers in order to battle Janos, but how?
Put so baldly it seems like a terrible plot when in actuality, like the rest of the Necroscope books, it’s a glorious slice of late British pulp fiction; highly entertaining, compelling, and very readable.
Lumley’s kept the human and vampire sex scenes to a bare minimum here, for which I am thankful. Like Guy N Smith, Lumley no doubt considered gratuitous rumpy pumpy to be an additional salacious treat for his readers. Maybe it was at the time, but these days they read as a little awkward and dated.
It’s always a problem to properly categorise this series since the vampires themselves have an interesting and scientifically rational premise for their existence, as does the Mobius Continuum. It’s difficult to balance that with the premise of ‘souls’ hanging about in limbo, however. This was not so much of a problem in previous volumes but Lumley muddies the waters here by introducing further supernatural elements. Janos, it seems, has learned to raise the dead – not via some innate genetic talent – but through magic spells and incantations. This pushes the internal balance between the rational and the supernatural a little too far and seems like a device introduced to assist with what is a rushed denouement.
Nevertheless, Lumley is under-recognised for his very original take on the vampire life-cycle and his contribution to the sub-genre.


Interzone #250 – Andy Cox (Ed) (2014)

Interzone #250 Jan: Feb 2014

Another fascinating bunch of tales from authors in the main unknown to me.
Interzone certainly pushes the boundaries with style and is possibly redefining the structure and style of the short story. Some of the authors here do not make it easy for the reader, which is perhaps as it should be, although there’s always the risk of leaving too much unexplained.
Relationships feature heavily throughout either overtly or obliquely, and the quality of work is on the whole, very high, as one should expect in this 250th issue.

The Damaged – Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

A wonderfully compelling tale about artificial humans and how we might treat them should such a thing become a reality. Told from an odd viewpoint.

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place – David Tallerman

This is an odd but well-done rural post-Dickian tale. How would one react should one discover that one was living in a back-up of the real world, if indeed the world is real in the first place? An excellent piece set in an entropic US midwest.

The Labyrinth of Thorns – C. Allegra Hawksmoor

There are echoes of Jeff Noon in this, but ultimately there is something lacking. An agent for ‘The Company’ (which has been a cliche for so long it becomes almost parody when employed seriously) has had memories downloaded into his head which alternate with his mission in ‘The City’. All very poetic but a tad indecipherable. Not really up to the level of quality one would expect from Interzone.

Beneath the Willow Branches, Beyond the Reach of Time – Caroline M. Yoachim

This is lovely. A scientist enters his wife’s stored memories – where she is trapped in a timeloop – in an apparently hopeless attempt to break the cycle and save her, echoed by her childhood tale of the Green Willow.

Predvestniki – Greg Kurzawa

A man accompanies his wife to Moscow on a business trip and, unable to interest her in the sights or the food, becomes obsessed with what he sees atop a domed tower. A great story which walks that difficult line between revealing too much and too little and is at the same time a deftly sketched portrait of an ill-matched relationship.

Lilacs and Daffodils – Rebecca Campbell

This is a lovely little puzzle of a story told by an AI with a convincing realism (if such a word can be meaningfully employed here).

Wake Up, Phil – Georgina Bruce

‘The Company’ in this tale is Serberus, although it could also be Callitrix, for whom Laura works. Unhappy with Laura’s weight problem Throom, the company doctor, prescribes her a course of Serberitum, an amphetamine and hallucinogen. Her life takes on another reality in which her neighbour, ‘Phil the Sci Fi man’, has two separate bodies, one of which will not wake up.
It’s interesting that Philip K Dick, some thirty-odd years after his death is still manifesting as a presence. I can think of two other works at least in which he has appeared as a character. There’s also an echo of Orwell here. A haunting story, one that clings in the head.


Vurt – Jeff Noon (1993)

Vurt (Vurt #1)

‘ Science Fiction is as much a victim to fashion as any art form, no matter how much it tries to look to the future.’ – Jeff Noon

What can one say about ‘Vurt’? I first read this on its first release and still have my treasured Ringpull paperback edition. It was a modest publication from a small publisher which went viral and ended up winning the Arthur C Clarke award.
In retrospect, this was no surprise. Back then, it was a revelation. Many readers have expressed the sentiment in various ways that ‘it was like nothing I’d ever read before,’ and indeed that was my feeling back in the Nineties and still now, having returned to it twenty years on.
There have been comparisons with Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in that this book pushed the boundaries of the genre into new and exciting areas. It is certainly a brilliant and original piece of work, reflecting, to a certain extent, the club and drug culture of Manchester in the Nineteen Nineties, although its influences include Lewis Carroll, often overtly, and a host of other influences more subtly. Orpheus and Eurydice play their part also, for instance.
Scribble, our hero, is one of The Stashriders, a gang of young people who spend their days acquiring feathers, feathers laced with substances which not only alter their perceptions, but the nature of reality itself and, it would appear, genetic integrity. There are various variations of humanity roaming the streets of the city, mixtures of dog, shadow, robot and human to various degrees. No doubt some will interpret these as metaphors for the mixed race residents of various Manchester communities, but I’m not sure that was ever Noon’s intention.
When one shares a feather by tickling the back of the throat with its fronds, one is transported into the world of the Vurt; the experience received dependent on the colour of the feather and the strength of its effects.
Scribble, along with the rest of the gang, Beetle, Mandy, Bridget and The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, is attempting to find a way to rescue Scribble’s sister Desdemona, who is lost in the world of Vurt. Occasionally the Vurt will take someone and replace them with something from the Vurt world, in this case, The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, a small tentacled entity whose flesh has hallucinogenic properties. Scribble believes that if he can find the right feather he can swap his sister back for The Thing.
The perennial question for me is whether this is Science Fiction at all. There seems to be no real explanation for the effects of the Vurt feathers, and the final scenes raise some questions about the reality of the entire story. Science Fiction, however, like the people of Noon’s alternate Manchester, is a morphable beast and occasionally throws out new and wonderful mutations. I for one am happy to accept this as one such.
What makes this novel so compelling is Noon’s style; fast, fresh and packed with puns and wordplay. Action kicks in from the first page when the Stashriders, having acquired a new feather, are chased by a Shadowcop and engage in a rollercoaster chase through the streets of Noon’s bizarre and colourful Manchester.
In his quest to find the means to rescue his beloved sister (far more beloved than society’s norms would usually allow) Scribble encounters a whole host of bizarre characters, chimeras and grotesques, such as Justin and his lover, whose mutual dreadlocks are so matted together that they can never be parted, or The Game Cat, a creature once human who has become part of the Vurt and can seemingly come and go at will between Scribble’s world and the world of the Vurt. There are robodogs, dog human hybrids and brightly coloured snakes which have escaped the game platforms of the Vurt and infest housing estates.
It’s a fast paced no-let-up novel which contains surprises and wonder on every page.
There are, in the history of SF, novels which seem to have been written in an SF vacuum and appear to owe no allegiance to any major influence or current fashion or style of SF literature. I count among these ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Riddley Walker’, and would have to include ‘Vurt’.
The Kindle Twentieth anniversary issue contains three new stories set in the world of the Vurt, but whose style and tone is, perhaps understandably given the twenty year gap, far different from that of Vurt. These are more mature works and although they lack the fire and verve of Noon’s original novel, have a greater depth and sureness of touch.

Additional stories

Speaker Bug

A young girl becomes convinced that something from the Vurt is living in her flat, and consequently the Vurt may have taken something from her, although it takes a while for her to discover that what the Vurt takes is not always physical.
What is interesting about this is when she leaves the flat she passes a couple coming up the stairs, carrying something alive in a tartan rug, which is how Scribble and Mandy used to carry The-Thing-From-Outer-Space around in ‘Vurt’.

Cloudriver

A young woman is harassed by three dogboys and rescues the entity they were searching for, a young female bird/human hybrid from the Vurt. This again examines the concept of Vurt artefacts being swapped for memories.

Slow-motion renegades

A beautifully written and constructed tale which plays with our sense of reality. A young couple become attached to their lodger, Milo, a man – unable to access the Vurt – whose behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre as he seeks to find a way to ‘dream’.
Again, like the other pieces, there is an oblique relationship to the parent novel.


Halcyon Drift (Hooded Swan #01) – Brian Stableford (1972)

Halcyon Drift (Hooded Swan, #1)

Grainger – he has no first name – was half of a two man trading team who bought and sold goods through the human settled and alien worlds of the galaxy.
Encountering problems in the Halcyon Drift – a nebula where gravitational forces distort the laws of physics – Grainger crashlands on an unknown planet, killing his partner, Lapthorn and wrecking the ship, ‘The Javelin’.
He is eventually rescued but not before his body is invaded by a sentient alien parasite. His rescuer, Axel Cyran of the Cradoc Company, having been pulled away from his mission of finding a legendary lost ship for the rescue, lands Grainger with costs of twenty thousand. Twenty thousand what is never made clear.
The lost ship ‘The Lost Star’ is the Maguffin in this novel, a semi mythical wreck believed to be carrying priceless cargo.
Grainger then gets an offer by which the company who wish to hire him will clear his debts if he agrees to pilot an experimental ship for two years.
The ship is a hybrid of alien and human technology, an odd reflection of Grainger and his alien mindrider now fused into one body. The ship is called ‘The Hooded Swan’.
Its test, and its first mission, is to beat Cyran to ‘The Lost Star’ and claim the cargo.
From this summary one would assume a fairly standard bit of space opera of the time, but it is far more than that.
The setting is an interplanetary culture, bound by the Laws of New Rome, where Earth is becoming a backwater as other worlds become the centres of trading and industry, carrying out business with at least two other alien cultures. Stableford’s aliens, if humanoid-ish in physiology, are suitably alien in other senses, although the crew of the Hooded Swan do encounter truly alien life during their search for ‘The Lost Star’.
Grainger himself is a fascinating psychological study. There’s possibly a little of the sociopath about him since his frequent memories of his dead partner, with whom he spent fifteen years in close quarters, are resisting any emotion, any grief.
He has an awkward meeting with his partner’s parents who tell Grainger – to his surprise – that their son worshipped him.
Indeed, it is the alien presence in Grainger’s mind, from which no secrets can be hidden, who forces Grainger to face some of his self-deception issues.
There is a solid reality with Grainger that one seldom finds in genre novels of the period and particularly within Space Opera.
Stableford, a very important figure within the SF world, is paradoxically very under-recognised by SF readers in general in my view which is a terrible injustice.
If you have never read Stableford, give this series a go.


The Space Time Juggler – John Brunner (1963)

The Space-Time Juggler

‘DUEL IN THE ARENA OF THE STARS

Andalvar of the planet Argus, king of an interstellar empire, was dead and fear ruled in his absence. The dread of a power struggle between the treacherous Andra, and “Black Witch,” and the beautiful Princess Sharla showered panic upon the people and threatened to crumble the starry realm to dust. But their powers were restricted to the present, and before either could sit on the throne, they would have to come to grips with the man from the future who held the destiny of the universe in his hand. His name: Kelab the Conjurer – THE SPACE-TIME JUGGLER’

Blurb from the 1963 F-227 Ace Double Paperback Edition

Set in the same universe as The Altar on Asconel this inhabits that uneasy space between SF and Fantasy.
Following the death of the King of Argus, Andra, ‘The Black Witch’ has become regent on this colony world which has in the main reverted to feudalism. Her older sister Sharla – missing for seven years and presumed dead – suddenly reappears to claim her place accompanied by Landor and the swordsman Ordovic.
Another stranger also arrives, Kelab the Conjuror, a man who appears to command magic and, it seems, is interfering in court business.
It would be giving the plot away to explain anything further as it’s a brief read which is well-written but suffers from a lack of cohesion between the slave-owning and sword-wielding society and the hi-tech elements.
There is no individuality to this society. It is set in the mould of every other far future feudal planet favoured by the likes of Lin Carter and his contemporaries, which somehow always has to include some monarchist system. The characters are stock stereotypes with little light and shade. There is a decent enough surprise and plot twist bit one feels this could have been a far better novel given some thought to the world building and some space to develop characters.


Martin Magnus on Mars – William F Temple (1956)

Martin Magnus on Mars

In the conclusion to Martin Magnus’ adventures Magnus and his young cohort Cliff Page find their helicopter drawn off course by a rogue Venusian homing beacon, set into the rocks at the edge of the Venusian lake where the amoeboid Venusians dwell.
Magnus senses a mystery since the signal was not sent on a wavelength that humans would use and therefore was not intended as a lure.
Magnus has no time to investigate however as his superior, Old Baldy, is sending them to Mars in a prototype ion ship since something has been discovered at the polar ice cap. As the ice has melted, a white patch has been revealed, a perfect white circle, not constructed of ice.
The Martian settlers in that area have taken it upon themselves to investigate and have found a huge circular ‘pill box’ constructed of an impervious white substance. The leader of the Martian base in the area is determined to open the structure before an Earth team arrives. Things are made complicated by the fact that the hot-headed Martian leader is Phil Bruce, Old Baldy’s nephew.
It’s up to Magnus to stop Phil from destroying what could be the only relic of an extinct Martian race.
One has to admit to being very sad that this was the last of the Martin Magnus books. Despite the fact that they were aimed at what we would term today ‘a young adult audience’ one never gets the impression that this was the case. No one gets killed or badly hurt, it has to be said, and there’s a good dose of humour sloshed in here and there, but one does not feel it is dumbed down or patronising, which was a feature of some ‘juvenile’ literature of the day.
I can not conclude this review without pointing out that fans of this series owe Simon Haynes an enormous amount of thanks for going to extreme lengths to ensure that these novels are available for download, rather than languishing in Space Opera oblivion.
His memories of Martin Magnus and how the novels came to be re-released can be found at his blog.

Thank you Simon. I have thoroughly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with Magnus.


Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

Nineteen Eighty-Four

There isn’t a lot I can add to the no doubt inexhaustible amount of analysis and dissection that this novel has engendered since its first publication.
Quite rightly considered one of the best Dystopian novels of the Twentieth Century, Orwell’s chilling vision of Britain under a totalitarian regime has become one of those odd iconic social phenomena which has lodged itself within the public consciousness. There is apparently a sizeable percentage of the population who claim, or even believe, that they have read the book without actually having done so, and there are many more who are familiar with the name Winston Smith and the phrases ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ both of which became the titles of successful TV programmes, although only bearing a very loose connection to the original work.
I have not read this since 1976 when, as I recall, it was recommended reading in my O Level English class. Apart from the 1984 film starring John Hurt as Winston Smith which I saw on its release, I have had no experience of the narrative since. However, the novel seems to seep into us all as if by osmosis via public media and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that so many believe erroneously that they have actually read it.
For a novel of the late Nineteen Forties it has dated very little and is a tribute to Orwell’s writing and his characterisation. Whether the author planned it or not, the fact that the Powers That Be seek to halt social change and development gives contemporary readers an odd view of what life may have been like if a socialist revolution had occurred in the Nineteen Fifties and social development halted. It still reads as fresh and as powerful as when it was first published and is undeniably a brilliantly observed textbook of political control.
Having said that, although ‘Animal Farm’ was a direct analogy of the Soviet Revolution and its consequences, Nineteen Eighty Four is a far vaguer concept and looks to the future of what an authoritarian regime may eventually become. What is slightly chilling about this is how much our so called democratic governments are employing the techniques that Orwell so concisely explains. A ruling body does not have to be a left wing socialist dictatorship to seek to control the population through a reduction in levels of education and control of the media.
That’s been standard practice in the UK for at least the last twenty years, and one can see from looking at the actions of individuals such as Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch how adept the PTB have become in controlling what information is disseminated to the ‘proles’ and in what form.
Others have pointed out that if the society of Nineteen Eighty-Four exists anywhere, it is within the intolerant theocracies and religious dictatorships of the Middle East where victimless crimes such as Atheism or Blasphemy will have you up before the thought police before you know it, excommunicated from your family and very likely executed. Indeed, Winston’s society tends toward the religious model with Big Brother as its eternal Messiah. Like most fundamentalist sects for instance, The Party is against sex, and not content with merely restricting copulation for reproductive purposes, seek ultimately to eradicate the practice altogether and have the process automated by machines.
One wonders if Orwell considered that what he was writing was actually Science Fiction, or indeed if he cared. It’s an extraordinary work made more so by its lack of comparison to other genre works of the time. It’s hard to say however without further research what subsequent level of influence Nineteen Eighty Four had on the genre as a whole. Certainly it is fascinating to see so many ideas that we may refer to today as Dickian, such as the majority of the population of the world being unaware of the true nature of things (as in ‘The Penultimate Truth’) or the delightful and very Dickian concepts of machines that construct novels or pornography, or the versificator, which composes popular songs. ‘Thoughtcrime’ however, is the most Dickian idea here, and indeed, Dick did explore the idea of police who arrest people for crimes they have not yet committed.
Wingrove’s ‘Chung Kuo’ also owes a lot to Orwell, particularly in the ruling oligarchy’s policy to halt the ‘Wheel of Change’ and their rewriting of World History.
What most struck me about this book however, coming to it relatively afresh after forty years, was that it was not what I had expected. There are elements of the surreal and the absurd, such as the Party manufacturing pornography to be illegally sold on the black market. There are complex characters such as Julia, whose inexplicable declaration of love for Winston immediately raises suspicions, but which, given her later conversations with him, seems logical given their twisted emotional development under this repressive regime. Winston himself, is an extraordinarily complex character with very few redeeming features and not at all likeable to any degree, but yet is a far more real human being than any of the numberless fearless heroes that have infested our bookshelves since.
I can’t say I was that impressed back in 1976, but then, I did not know a great deal about the world. Now, I see it as a dark twisted mirror of our political world. It speaks to me all too clearly with a wonderful clarity.
If you haven’t read it, read it. Be enlightened.


Interzone #248 – Andy Cox (Ed.) (2013)

Interzone 248

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone
The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt
Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa
Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef
Technarion – Sean McMullen

A very interesting collection of tales in this issue which push the boundaries of what the average reader would consider to be SF. I have always avoided trying to establish a definition, and although established names within the genre have put forward definitions in the past, there always seem to be works which fall outside the parameters.
I’m happy to consider it as a broad church with a fluid remit. It’s a lot easier to say what isn’t SF, and I have labelled some works as such in the past.
Luckily I have no such problems here. Interzone continues to publish excellent work from new – and not so new – writers which are engrossing and thought provoking.
A few of these stories have ambiguous and unresolved endings, something I find refreshing. There’s also a strong poetic element to some of them, such as the pieces by Van Pelt and Altabef which take us into the realm of the surreal and inexplicable.
The magazine also features an interview with Christopher Priest as part of Interzone’s review of ‘The Adjacent’.

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone

In a future where space flights are sponsored by media companies and reality stars, a married couple are sent on a mission beyond Pluto. This is a first person narrative told by the wife whose mental integrity is slowly crumbling.

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt

An American School built in the mid Twentieth Century acquires so many various extensions, annexes, basements and sub basements that it grows into a Gormenghast-esque world of its own in which reality becomes somewhat fluid. Beautifully written. Quite fascinating.

Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa

A man buys a house after the previous owner, an unsuccessful magician, disappeared. The house contains all his equipment and some notebooks and videotapes. In the basement he discovers something that looks like a submarine hatch which leads to a dark waterworld filled with houses and their eerie mannequin occupants.
A very compelling story, haunting and disturbing.

Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef

A very short piece set in a dystopian future which begins with an old man – sitting in a condemned opera house – recreating a lost opera and the opera house by means of some ingenious opera glasses. Poetic, atmospheric and evocative.

Technarion – Sean McMullen

An interesting steampunk piece from McMullen about the development of a computer in 1875, the consequences of which are far reaching.