Notes From Elsewhere

I’ve not posted much here recently, most of my blogging has been specific to my column at SF Gateway.  A couple of people (Hi Leigh!) asked about links there though, so I thought a post tying things up might be useful.

The column, for those who have not yet seen it, focusses on SFF by wiomen, particularly those who have been neglected by history and critics.  Called From The Attic it runs approximately monthly.  The first edition set out my stall, and highlighted some of the issues surrounding women’s unduly low profile in genre.

After that I began with a couple of authors already part of the SF Gateway stable, one a particular favourite of mine the brilliant Pat Murphy, the other the hugely successful but rarely analysed Connie Willis.  Shortly after the Murphy piece, which I think of as my best so far, I found that she had a new collection out, Women Up To No Good.  Come on, how can you resist that title?

Next up was a look at a hugely underrated novel Michaela Roessner’s superb and unique post-apocalypse tale Vanishing point  before I ran a piece picking out Seven titles I felt needed a UK edition.  Two days later Gollancz announced a deal with one, Elizabeth Bear, and a couple of weeks later another, Judith Moffett.  I’m delighted to note that my comments prompted several long, warm and interesting emails from Moffett.  

This year’s Nebula Awards had a pretty good mix of genders, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, so having already read a couple of them, I took a look at the women on the Best Novel Shortlist  I picked the wrong winner, as you probably know Ann Leckie is winning everything going for her Ancillary Justice, whereas my strong preferences was for the gorgeous prose of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger In Olondria.

One past Nebula & Hugo Winner who gets forgotten is Vonda N McIntyre so hopefully the column on her work will draw attention.  Twitter comments already point out great looking series by McIntyre that I have so far missed.

That, for me, is a large part of what it’s about.  Spreading the word, getting feedback, new ideas, new authors, and growing further.

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Mary Diana Dods

Mary Diana Dods was a footnote in the story of Mary Shelley until Betty T Bennett started investigating.  The story she unveiled is a remarkable one.
Seeking to fully annotate her edition of Shelley’s correspondence Bennett became, in her words, irked that she could find no details on three figures. The writer David Lyndsay, the mysterious Walter Sholto Douglas and Miss Mary Dods.  So she dug deeper.
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This book Mary Diana Dods, A Gentleman and a Scholar skillfully reveals the true story entwined with a surprisingly gripping description of how Bennett undertook her research.  Original letters were compared, sources cross-referenced and intuitive leaps led eventually to the realisation that Dods was responsible for the works published as by Lyndsay.  Not an unusual 19th century scenario but still a secret for 150 years. 

Meanwhile Mary Shelley had made friends with a young woman, Isabella Robinson.  History records that Robinson married Walter Sholto Douglas and lived in Paris where he held diplomatic roles, and the couple mingled, via Shelley’s introductions, with Merimée and Stendhal. 
The shock came, for Bennett and for us, with the researcher’s discovery that Douglas and Lyndsay were the same person. And with that the realisation that Isabella Robinson was ‘married’ to Mary Dods. 

Gradually Bennett pieces together how these two women became involved. Dods was in her forties, Robinson 20 or so at the time.  They met, probably, at a party but what developed was clearly less public.  Eventually they needed help, which is where Mary Shelley comes in.  A plan is hatched, Dods has already had a career as a male writer, and descriptions of her as looking misshapen particularly alongside the beautiful Robinson suggest disguise wasn’t difficult.  With references from Mary Shelley a passport and other documents are produced for Walter Sholto Douglas. 

Suddenly this mere footnote becomes an intriguing figure in Mary Shelley’s post-Percy life. A period often glossed over as less interesting has it’s own secret drama.  The conventional wisdom of a more conservative Shelley after her radical husband’s death is questioned.  Bennett casts light on a secret life, but also on the subtle ways in which social constructs allowed it to remain a secret. So secret that it took 12 years research to uncover it.
From there the story follows the Douglases in Paris going forward, but also back through Lyndsay’s career. Letters to the publisher Blackwood hint at a secret. One reveals that Lyndsay was known to Charles Lamb (but who wasn’t?) “under a different name.” The mature ambiguous Dods was the insecure one, sharp, young Robinson against stereotype the conspirator.

Betty T Bennett has written a detailed
account of academic historical research, a haunting Romantic mystery and a revealing addition to the life of a major literary figure in one deeply absorbing volume. 

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A Sense Of Shadow — Kate Wilhelm

Frequently in Kate Wilhelm’s best fiction memories and dreams become entwined with and are influenced beyond the norm by the protagonist’s social environment. The reader familiar with these stories will recognise much in A Sense Of Shadow (1981) that was previously seen in ‘Somerset Dreams’ for instance. At the same time as Wilhelm’s story is familiar her development of tension makes A Sense of Shadow an effective psychological mystery.

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When the dying patriarch John Daniel Culbertson summons his estranged children to his wealthy and sprawling Oregon ranch it is to inform them of his will and condemn them to his final psychological torture. Each child must undergo EEG recordings, then on Culbertson’s death they must remain in the house for seven nights before further EEG recordings are to be compared. One will ‘pass’ the test and inherit all, or none will and the ranch will go to the university. Almost immediately after this Culbertson does die.

 

The four children, all full grown (if not exactly mature in some cases) are joined by the youngest son Lucas’s wife Ginny and research psychologist Hugh Froelich. Culbertson has become intrigued by a paper Froelich wrote about brain waves and has taken these ideas a grand and despotic further step. For the next week they are effectively trapped in the house by the ruling of a crazy old man and their own issues.

 

The gothic haunted house aspect of this short novel is it’s initial strength, as Wilhelm delicately hints at doors mysteriously closing, lights being turned on and so on, without explicit supernatural involvement. Without overdoing descriptive passages she creates a brooding environment in which her story plays out. In contrast the deaths of each of Culbertson’s three previous wives in manners that seem to point suspicion back at him seem slightly contrived. That each death was witnessed by one or more of the children, but never clearly, may account for some of their individual and collective psychological damage and their feeling haunted in the old house, but it also raises questions of what is really happening now by querying what previously happened.

 

Froelich’s theories are the SF element here, there is brief discussion of chemical process and electrical impulse in axons causing synapses to fire, leading to his repeated assertion that there is ‘no mechanism for possession’ that true metempsychosis is scientifically impossible. However he also observes later:

 

Bluebeard’s sons, he thought with a shudder. They were all in a state of heightened suggestibility. Not hypnotized, but so suggestible that any stimulus, even self-induced, made them react. And their reactions were not their usual ones, but what they believed his would have been. (p126)

 

As the novel reaches its inevitable climax the characters are rapidly overwhelmed by their fears and apparent memories. The penultimate chapter flashes through an explosion of multiple distorted viewpoints as Culbertson’s influence seems to peak with potentially tragic consequences.

 

A Sense of Shadow is both evocative in its physical descriptions and intensely creepy in its playing reality and imagination against each other. Whilst the differences between the characters can be hard to see, particularly older brothers Conrad and Mallory, there’s a growing realisation that maybe Wilhelm intended that. The daughter Janet is similarly indistinguishable, although self-defined by her body image perhaps, and even outsider Ginny increasingly is absorbed into the coalescent group. The power of the patriarch to discomfort, to influence and to enforce conformity are the heart of a disturbing feminist short novel on the fringes of SF, Horror (in this case more accurately, Terror) and the literary mainstream.

 

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The Silver Wind – Nina Allan

Nina Allan, The Silver Wind. Eibonvale Press, 2011. Pp. 154. ISBN 978-1908125057. £6.99

Originally published on The Future Fire http://reviews.futurefire.net/2012/02/allan-silver-wind-2011.html
Clocks, I venture to suggest, are the most unadorned form of story. Their inherent conflict between the precision rhythm of mechanism and the seemingly inevitable friction drag of entropy drives the plot of time. Listen carefully, however, for true clocks are not unadorned, within that remorseless tick tick tick tick tick are patterns and digressions.

Nina Allan’s The Silver Windadopts clocks (not time) as central device. The broken clock, the altered clock, the stolen clock each take a measure of time and recast it in review, rewind, in repeat. The four stories here (along with an afterword I am tempted to disregard as unnecessary and unhelpful) share the repetitive pattern of a clock. Each involves some of whom may be, or appear to be iterations of the same people, yet there are differences, subtle and obvious, in each instance. The narrator Martin’s living sister becomes a dead brother, a lost wife, an alternate. Read collectively therefore, there are patterns and deviations. The recurring character Andrew Owen becomes Owen Andrews, tick tock tock tick.

In the second story Allen introduces the horological concept of the complication, in this and subsequent instances the tourbillon, a device to simulate freefall, removing gravity from the watches mechanism, its wind, to limit running down. Having done so, she continues to describe people and places in a deadpan, precise, taut prose reminiscent at her best of the quiet, bare short fiction of M John Harrison. If Allan, or her characters are not as overtly misanthropic as Harrison’s, she shares his acute observation of the grotesque within people and a directness of approach to this.

Flannery O’Connor insisted that the writer of the fantastic needs to ensure a more intense level of reality, and Allen achieves this to a point. In The Silver Wind clocks ensure grounding in the mundane even as time appears to warp all. Opener ‘Time’s Chariot’ is a literary family set-piece which shows no sign of the fantastic in isolation, but when ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ reworks this with a possible ghost we see what Tricia Sullivan means when she writes in her introduction that the stories ‘haunt one another’.

Only with the title story itself are we explicitly in fantastika, a dystopian near future under a racist government and military control exemplifying entropy in society’s structures. This time our narrator risks entering a restricted area to meet a mysterious dwarf (a significant character with avatars in the earlier stories) who he hopes can reset time to bring his ex-wife back to life. This, it appears, is impossible but the fallout from the attempt reveals variant universes, suggesting a link to the earlier stories. It is at this point however, when Allan abandons her realist mode for a dark mysterious surrealism, that decay enters the system and her carefully constructed mechanisms show signs of breaking and running down. The little detailed exposition of this is more than in other stories where scenes are set in fragments of street names and one-line leftfield impressions. ‘The Silver Wind’ therefore stands out from the other stories, is almost in opposition to them, but binds them as a whole. Where reality was confronted head-on and fantastic obliquely, the fantastic is made explicit and reality disappears. Tick Tock Tock Tick.

There is a brooding awkwardness in every relationship here, a function of characters changing identities between stories, but also Allan’s characters are uniformly cold, artificial and given to false notes like this:

‘He pointed to one of the entries, Juliet Caseby, with the surname in brackets, 24 Silcox Square, Hastings. The postcode began with TN, which Martin knew was for the main sorting office in Tonbridge.’

People just do not think like that, and that last sentence is both jarring and unnecessary. That it works at all is down to the quiet prose breaking down at mostly the right points. That it almost fails is that there are no real characters in most of The Silver Wind, there is a literary artificiality consistent with her use of the measuring device, the clock, ahead of the natural phenomenon, time, that will not be to some readers’ taste. The title itself, The Silver Wind, might be Wind as in breeze (a natural variable phenomenon) but in my mind it might more likely refer to the mechanism of the clock, the Wind, a tense construct.

Ultimately I finished The Silver Wind unsure of what I had actually read and not a little puzzled by how it meshed together. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable book where execution almost matches conception, and one that I will be drawn back to. In time.

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The Quarry – Iain Banks

It’s impossible for me to be truly objective with this one.  The death of Iain Banks hit many of us hard, and this final novel touches on so many memories too.  I met and spent significant time with Iain on several occasions over the 26 years I knew him.  There is much in The Quarry to recognise from the man himself as well as earlier works. 
In that light then, it is difficult not to read falsely here, to interpret some kind of final summary statement that isn’t actually there.  The presence of a major character dying of cancer adds to that, of course, despite knowing that the book was almost completed when Iain was diagnosed. 
It is also a novel that circumstances have led to be previewed in a couple of high profile interviews this week.  Expectations inevitably arise from these that also colour judgement on the text as it is.
But enough caveat, The Quarry is, like most of Iain Banks’ novels, a variation on the family saga, a twist on the gothic castle.  Six university friends gather twenty years on at the home of one, Guy, who is dying of cancer.  Guy’s awkward, geekish, loner 18 year old son Kit is the narrator, one more variant on two of Banks’ most memorable protagonists, Frank Cauldhame and Prentice McHoan.  Kit is not the unreliable narrator that Frank is, but he shares with both Frank and Prentice a state of being wilfully misinformed that has a similar effect on the reader.  
Over the course of a long Pinteresque weekend the assembled cast search Guy’s home for a missing video that will, it seems, embarrass them all.  The home sits on the edge of an expanding rock quarry, but I am tempted to suggest here that the quarry of the title is in fact the hunted tape.  That would fit the game playing humour of this novel and Banks’ past work.
Right from the start Iain Banks writing has been full of little jokes, sharp jabbing rants, and indulgences that frequently look unnecessary yet accumulate as a part of character and mood.  The Quarry arguably takes this further and more bluntly than previously.  (At this point it does occur that, given time, some of these might have been edited out or revised.  Or would they?)  Early on Kit tells us how he has been taught to make small talk, discouraged from expressing his autism-like obsessiveness too deeply.  This becomes a refrain throughout and distinguishes Kit from the less self-aware guests as they rant, squabble and display petty jealousies.  Thus the selfish, arrogant, thoughtless conversations come over as broad satire of corporate speak, of the vapid opinions of the media classes.  It is hard not to read Banks own, publicly stated, politics in rants about a minor character’s change of newspaper, for example, or his mockery of jargon when a character states “I solutionise outcomes” without irony.  Through Guy, in particular, Banks rails at much of commercial, conservative society in the same way that his shock jock Ken Nott does in Dead Air. 
So The Quarry echoes scenes or aspects of Banks older work, from Kit’s obsession with measurement to his close bond with Holly, his dad’s former lover to his escape into an online game.  Guy’s cancer is less central than you might have been led to expect.  With a couple of exceptions it is mostly a device to allow Guy his raging and rants.  And the big secret?  Paul Kincaid observed many years ago that with Banks the bad guy, the cause of trouble, is always within the (pseudo-) family.  The Quarry plays on this again but its turnings are different. No spoilers.
Time will tell if we can consider The Quarry as good as Banks best novels The Crow Road, The Wasp Factory, even Whit, but for now, it’s proved a passionate, enjoyable, and suitably cathartic (for his fans) read.  It feels and reads like a typical Iain Banks novel, in that clear voice that was all his own.

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The Flight of Michael McBride

On her death bed Eileen McBride anoints her son Michael’s left eye with a curious chrism.  His father says nothing but lays down an iron railroad spike that Michael puts in his pocket.  Afterwards he finds himself attacked and pursued by a mysterious figure in a red cap and other figures like nothing he has ever seen before.  Only the abrupt inspiration of the Irish faerie stories his mother told him reminds Michael that iron will repulse these attackers and he flees to the rail station and ultimately out west.  The year is 1876.

A seemingly chance encounter with a woman called Poker Alice on the train leads Michael to a cattle ranch in Texas where he immediately demonstrates skills in taming a wild stallion using his mother’s old Irish lore and is employed on a cattle drive.

Both SF and Fantasy have frequently overlapped with Crime, Thriller and Romance genres but the true Fantasy Western is scarce.  The Flight Of Michael McBride takes Michael out onto theTexas plains on a round-up and Midori Snyder sets the scene with detail.  The cowboy banter, jokes at city boy Michael’s expense, and the dirt and tiredness of trail riding draw the story along until the camp is attacked.

Although Michael can see the fantastical creatures attacking his new friends, to them it is a panther, then a water snake.  Nevertheless they begin to fear whatever it is that haunts him, and fuelled further by tales of Coyote and the mysterious Night Hatchet, they banish him from their party and he goes off on his own into the Texan wilderness.

Up to this point, two-thirds of the way in, The Flight Of Michael McBride has been an above average fantasy of faerie intrusion, made interesting by an uncommon setting and evocative writing.  Michael’s transition from soft-handed, rich city boy to horse charmer and ‘one of the boys’ is too easily facilitated as in many similar fantasies but Snyder tells her story deftly and at a confident pace.  The recognition of the role of place in faerie adds focus and by linking Mexican and Native American myths in Snyder goes new places.

Then there is a significant, abrupt dislocation as Michel’s viewpoint is left aside with the human world and we are thrust into the ongoing feud between the Morrigu and Red Cap Finnvarr, with the vicious Night Hatchet a further threat.  Michael, fleeing and aided by coyote, is transformed into a crow and must battle.  Disorienting scenes of flight, fall, shifting awareness increase the dramatic tension and then he is rescued by tough, bow-wielding, fast-talking frontierswoman Annie Mae.

The inevitable climax pits Michael against Red Cap to rescue Annie, reveals his true ancestry, and of course, ties things up neatly.

Michael’s flight is literal and metaphorical, motivated by multiple emotions, fear, love, guilt, hate, and resentment and although much of the plot is standard, Snyder’s unique touches and balance of myth and reality raise her novel well above the routine.  It’s not without faults, of course.  The role of Poker Alice is not explained sufficiently, and I’d have liked more of Annie Mae’s robust and earthy character.  The crow scene is striking and evocative, but tonally at odds with the rest, and a crow’s cry of alarm transliterated as ‘Kwak!’ was a wrong note.  Nevertheless Midori Snyder is an intelligent, original, and confident fantasist and The Flight Of Michael McBride a very worthy and memorable fantasy novel.

 

 

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Sibyl Sue Blue

Amongst the ranks of near-forgotten women SF writers Rosel George Brown is one of the least remembered.  Prior to her untimely death aged 41 in 1967 she published one collection of interesting if unspectacular short stories and this novel.  A posthumous sequel and a collaborative novel with Keith Laumer complete her scant bibliography.

Sibyl Sue Blue is, however, a character of note for her time and possibly now.  She is 40 years old, a widow with a 16 year old daughter Missy, a homicide police sergeant and a student of classical Greek.  This last is both a direct reflection of Brown’s own academic background and an opportunity for at least one aside on the way female academic progress is hindered by domesticity.
Indeed issues of domesticity and feminine roles recur throughout Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue with Sibyl herself remaining not ambiguous exactly but inconsistent in her characterisation.  She is independent, a working mum, tough in handling physical assaults right from the first sentence, and able to respond verbally to blatant sexism.  She also worries about her dress, gets flustered by the handsome villain, flirts and expresses her need for a man rather often.

I’m lucky. I’ve got a beautiful daughter and a good figure no matter how much I eat, and naturally curly hair…
The only thing I don’t have is a man. At the moment.

If that makes the 21st century reader cringe it is tempered within a page as Sibyl ponders reading Thucydides and writing about Plataea.  The ‘mad, mod heroine of the future,’ to quote the Berkeley edition front cover copy, may define herself by her relationships with men, but it is no longer the only thing she references.  Sibyl eventually falls into the handsome, villainous arms of Stuart Grant, but only when she chooses to do so.

The plot of Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, such as it is, begins as a quirky policier.  There have been several mysterious murders possibly linked to the benzale cigarettes illicitly imported from Centaurus.  Meanwhile Sibyl is attacked (and defends herself efficiently) by normally peaceable Centaurans, ones with an odd green tinge.  Issues of inter-species prejudice and fetishization are dropped in and skim by.  Sibyl’s boss is not quite in the Gene Hunt mould, but he is of his time.
It all changes when Sibyl smokes a dodgy benzale and receives a dream communication from her late husband lost a decade before on a mission to the planet Radix.  Something links Radix, Centaurus and the murders, and Stuart Grant whose ships have the space trade monopoly, knows more than he admits. From here the rapid action leads to kidnap, escape, a mission to Radix, mutiny, and a wild plot flourish to match Philip K Dick’s minor novels at least.  Radix is a planet covered in one single sentient plant lifeform, and Stuart thinks he can use it to rule over Earth and Centaurus by assimilation.  Only Sibyl and the creepy Dr Beadle, Stuart’s erstwhile ally, can save the day.

Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is mainly a superior 1960s SF romp with a hint of domestic romance, but Rosel George Brown mixes it up just enough to offer a subversive note.  In Sibyl she tweaks gently at the aspirations of the working mother and simultaneously the systems that deny those aspirations.  Sibyl’s concerns are her daughter and a man, yet she repeatedly and easily defeats male assailants.  She is affected by emotions but sees beyond them when necessary.

Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is a slight novel, 158 pages, of rapid pulp action and wild ideas, full of the gender political self-contradictions of its era.  Brown tells her story with verve and wit however, and it is a fun novel, if not a classic, neither is it one to languish in total obscurity.

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