Saltation by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

I  found Saltation a very relaxing and engaging read.  I liked being able to read the novel as an entity even though there was reference to an earlier novel, Fledgling, and the end of the novel clearly signalled another in the offing. The sense of completion within the novel resides in the character of Theo whose development is augmented and hampered by interaction with her peers, by her uneven knowledge, by her mixed race and culture so she swings between aggression and subtlety, and her driving ambition to become a pilot; and not one restricted to flying atmosphere.

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I liked the mixture of the prosaic and the fantastic.  Theo oscillates between bunk beds, food, negotiating with room mates and their habits, struggling to overcome the brick bats and sweeteners her abilities and blind spots induce in the other students and the technical knowledge and fitness which she obsessively seeks to master.  Lee and Miller prevent this from being a twee take on college experience by exploring the tension between species, specialist immersion in flying tech, finger talk, bowli games, nerve implants, gravity theories, pilot hierarchy and favours.

Saltation is a blessed antidote to the high angst of so much sci-fi where whole worlds or fleets of ships are slaughtered and the high stepping hero with various genetic and tech additions saves the day.  Theo is totally credible and operates in the world Lee and Miller have created plausibly.  She becomes the touchpaper which ignites brooding grievances between Terrans and others and is accelerated into responsibilities and leadership she struggles to absorb. I shall seek out the next in the series, though given the disappointment I have felt with several trilogies I have recently read, I am almost reluctant to spoil the glow.

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One part Science fiction and two parts Fantasy

I have finally hit a purple patch in my science fiction reading and here are the first three which have appealed to me.

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro I regard as science fiction though the people and culture is so strongly linked to the twentieth century it feels like I am reading a future ‘altered by the butterfly wing’.  The story is told by Kathy, a carer who has served for almost twelve of her fourteen years.  Ostensibly the the story is about the love and hopes Kathy and her fellows enjoy furtively, despite being in a establishment in a rural and isolated environment.  She remembers painfully and in great detail how, within a closely monitored and restrictive life (comparatively privileged), she and her fellow students struggled to go beyond their place in their world.

Kathy’s upbringing is different to that of people who live outside of her enclosed society and Ishiguro has underlined this difference by imbuing Kathy’s voice with a fatalistic, eerie and alien tone.  Moreover, Kathy focuses on the immediate; on her relationships, and is resigned to her role. Tommy and Ruth are not so compliant and their imagination and individuality scratch at their limitations. The most potent part of the novel is the way Ishiguro plays with the focus: the words donor and carer are used from the beginning but the reason for, significance of and the societal attitude to caring and donating takes a time to register. The novel makes a critique of the implications of teaching and conditioning, such as is experienced by Kathy’s cohort, which is as profound as it was in Brave New World. 

This is a disturbing book which holds a magnifying glass to inequality and exploitation.  It has a resonance which I experienced when I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road.  It is a dystopian fable and, though told very quietly, the impact is huge.  I know, when I am stronger, I will read Never Let Me Go again.

I had read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner several years ago and found it an excellent if very painful novel about compulsion. lies and exploitation which won the CILIP Carnegie Medal and Costa Children’s Book Prize in 2013.  The Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner is a much more humorous story though the protagonist, AJ, and his friends, Leon and Slim struggle to find a way around neglect, violence, lack of opportunity, deprivation and betrayal which blights their lives and their potential.  The key to new opportunities is AJ’s inheritance which is actually a rusty iron key which opens a door to another time.  The humour surfaces in the quick witted and honest conversation of the boys, the element of caricature in the villainous characters and the sheer exuberance of the time travelling tale.

The door leads AJ into a time before 1800 where ‘low-born’, resourceful, energetic boys can find purpose and be valued.  It leads to AJ uncovering the mysteries behind his father’s disappearance, the new/old snuff boxes and the truth about who is the poisoning people on both sides of the door.  The Door That Led To Where is a fast and clever book which challenges modern assumptions of advancement and underlines the doleful effect of lack of options.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick is a much more conventional fantasy: potions that enhance talent or suppress it; objects which blight the wearer; benevolent visitors from another world; peoples violently divided by culture, prejudice and appearance; empire building, spies, bullies, traitors and the ‘why isn’t he dead’ mad magician. Hey, just how unreal are these scenarios in today’s political scene!  The real fantasy arises as the heroes and villains battle aboard a giant ship over control of a bloody emperor and the Nilstone.  I enjoyed this novel as it is well written and the array of characters have some substance to them and act within their ability.  I liked the ship environment which is Redick describes in effective detail.  It ended on cliff-hanger and I was informed there are two more books.  I have not been impressed by the next parts of the trilogy – too long, unwieldy, too extreme and the characters become thin – all talent and no personality, the mad magician makes too many escapes and the ‘victory’ can only be categorised as Pyrrhic.  I recommend a reader just stop with book One and savour a story well told, a battle well fought and ‘mostly’ won.

 

60 Degrees North by Malachy Tallack

60 Degrees North is beautifully written.  It is a travel book; the author begins from his home in Shetland, bisected by the sixtieth parallel, and explores the lands and peoples whose homes are also on this line.  Yet, it is so much more than a travel book.

Malachy Tallack is also on a journey to find a home, a sense of belonging and place, which was disrupted and lost with the sudden death of his father when he was seventeen.  The idea of travelling the sixtieth parallel was an idea he shared with his father and one which anchored him in dark days though the actual journey takes place over a decade later.

It is an honest and beautiful journey.  Tallack has a an eye for detail and the environments of nine nations which also share the same position on the globe as Shetland are described evocatively: of Alaska, ‘The landscape was always astonishing. Sometimes it was hard to concentrate on the road so beautiful was the world beyond the bitumen.  Blue glacial rivers spilled through stony valleys, with white-capped peaks all around.  Silvery lakes appeared, then were gone – rumours among the trees.’

He braids history and interactions with local people together in vivid description. He has the grace to give them a voice. When visiting the Aland Emigrants Institute Tallack meets the director and a researcher: ‘They brought out files, lists of names and family trees.  According to Maria, as many as a third of ‘Russians in Alaska were not Russian at all; they were Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Danes and Poles.  There was a deliberate attempt to minimise and very deny this fact …’ They believe their role is to bring the past to people; to show where they had gone and how they had lived.

The other strand in 60 Degrees North is the journey of Tallack’s discovery about what home means and how is it secured and maintained.  He is exploring not only new lands but how his journey informs his understanding of his own place in Shetland.  And I have found his exploration informs the meaning of my own travels, the big and the small, and gives me scope to reconsider my understanding of them.

Imperium by Robert Harris

Imperium by Robert Harris catches hold of the reader and does not let go, for which I was incredibly grateful.

It has taken me a month or more to find some books I wish to review: many of the thirty odd books I have read recently I did not finish.  I am prepared to give a book a fair go but some have faults which are so glaring I refuse to continue.  Fiction asks the reader to suspend belief to enter into a world fashioned by the writer but limp plots, unconvincing characters, lashing a short story into a behemoth, sagging middles and unlikely ends, micro-managing the reader so there is no room for relaxation or imagination, clunky prose and weary ‘play it again, Sam’ writing from established authors are discouraging and then simply not worth the time.

Imperium by Robert Harris Very good condition.

    Imperium is none of the above but a gripping and powerful novel; I was surprised by how enthralled I became by Marcus Cicero’s struggle to obtain power by manipulating, out-manoeuvring and defying the strangle-hold on governance held by the the elite families of Rome.  The story begins slowly and deliberately, in keeping with the age of Tiro who used to be Cicero’s slave and secretary, but picks up pace as Tiro strives to finish before he dies.

Tiro shows us how Cicero, hugely ambitious, is altered by instruction in philosophy and oratory from a weedy, clever young man with ideas to better his station to a physically imposing man of power and persuasion.  He marries money and status sufficient to support his practice as a man of law in Rome and lays down the bedrock of his reputation in Rome: he doesn’t forget favours or faces, he does his homework, works extra-ordinarily hard and he has a grasp of the big picture in Roman power play – ‘the incessant political labourings of Cicero’. Tiro is an invaluable asset to this man as he has been educated with Cicero and then invented a shorthand writing system which enables him to record Cicero’s speeches as talking speed.

I am not sure how Robert Harris manages to make the story of Cicero’s legal prosecution of a corrupt Governor in Sicily which last for years fascinating but he does.  Partly, I think, because he brilliant at cameo appearances which break up the collection and collation of evidence; the characters of Sthenius and Lucius humanise the legal struggle.  And his villains are so villainous: Verres, Crassus, Catilina are dreadful men protected by their status.  I had to take several breaks when I was reading about Crassus’ crucifixion of six thousand slaves over three hundred and fifty miles with one hundred and seventeen paces between the crosses.’

Cicero adopts expedient positions to better his position, his charisma and promises are tarnished by his betrayals.  Perhaps Tiro endures the biggest betrayal of all.  His a clever and able man but he is a slave.  Harris description of slavery is masterful; the slaves in this pre-Christian Roman world have no value beside their service.  Their use is the prerogative of a Roman citizen and the degree of violence is only tempered by distaste for violence or waste, Cicero’s position, or as a measure of sophisticate.  Cruelty to slaves is not punished, exploitation of defeated tribes and nations is to be expected, however, cruelty and misuse of a Roman citizen is a great crime, especially if that Roman is wealthy or respected, and withholding a tax share of the exploitation from Rome’s coffers is also criminal.  It is in prosecuting such wickedness Cicero enthralls the Roman centuries and ensures his election as consul.

Robert Harris is also delivering the story of how Cicero’s ambitions contributed to the undermining of the Republic he so desired to be significant within and weakening the political power of the patrician class he wanted to join.   Imperium is brilliant.

Meeting of the Sci-fi Book Group – May

Those present  had disparate views on the books we read.
The Glamour by Christopher Priest was only science fiction if you shut one eye and stood on a toe – to whit the psychological art of disappearing – which R found very annoying as well as finding the writing turgid/old fashioned and the ending a damp squib ir.  a dream.  H disliked some of the the gratuitous violent scenes in the book for not being credible whereon W warned him not to read The Extremes by Priest.  W and D enjoyed the book and thought the ‘invisible quality’ really very poignant and well ahead of its time, it was written in 1984 …. ohhhh was there significance in the the ‘big brother date’ ….. especially as it was about coercion, stalking, defeat and loss.  W maintains we picked Priest’s least sci-fi novel with a pin and The Islanders is still very very good.  W will try a more recent novel by Priest and report to the group
The panel was equally divided on Noumenon Infinity by Marina Lostetter  – we revisited the name and wondered if once a human had commented upon an unknown whether it could still be a noumenon.  All of us liked some parts of the novel.  R was the most enthusiastic because it was inventive, complex and commented intelligently on concepts such as the effect of eons of distance and time on genetic and social development; certainly the ‘people’ on the ships, and they multiplied as did the ships – well broke up into separate missions, during the course of the novel, were increasingly weird and alien, especially the baby and the woman living in a sort of half-life as they flicked between time zones.  All of us regretted the subsidence of the character of the computer in the second novel in the series, it was sidelined by the author as well as by the crew.  W observed the computer hid an error; malfunction, emotional problems? There was the moan about the length of the novel and the inordinate amount of time spent spent on discussion by significant members of the crew on possible actions which could have been compressed into a couple of pages. H says at times he found it very difficult to stay with events in the novel and his mind tended to wander – like the baby?  D was totally unconvinced by the clone visitations.  H and R both hooted about the car wash simile.  W thought the end of the novel pushed her preparedness to go along – time loops and god machines came along too conveniently. All of us thought we would like to read more by Marina Lostetter as she writes very well.
The last book was the novella by Suzanne Palmer, The Secret Life of Bots. Again the reaction of the members of the group was mixed.  W, H and R liked it but D, though he thought it entertaining, felt it was neither tough enough nor funny enough. One review we had read said it was ‘cute’ and we felt that was the flaw. W liked being caught out by the size of Bot 9 – amusing but it also made her feel wrong-footed by her assumptions re size and intelligence.  The human characters were not very engaging or rounded; they and the ship were ‘burnt out’.  Bot 9 type, had been discontinued due to dangerous tendencies, which was making evaluations and decisions without reference to authority; so, although our bot 9 chirpy chappy made a good call and stopped the attack of the hostile force, like many heroes it was then perceived as the threat.  We could see why Palmer won the Hugo award… sort of.  The best thing about reading this novella was being made more actively aware of Clakesworld Magazine; we were entertained and in full agreement with the list of creative inclusions which would lead the editors of Clarkesworld Magazine to be very dubious about stories submitted for the magazine.

The Islanders by Christopher Priest

I have been repeatedly recommending The Islanders by christopher Priest to my reading group but as soon as I use the designation ‘Science fiction’ about  a book it never seems to be selected from the pile of possible books to read by the other members of the group.  It is partly in response to this closed-minded approach to reading I joined with others in forming a book group which was all about Science Fiction.  We are in our third year and going strong; I still belong to the other book groups and read the mainstream selections as well but I am increasingly convinced Science Fiction is a much more gritty, flexible and challenging genre especially when it encompasses writers like Christopher Priest.

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Reading The Islanders is like following trail which winds and loops not only around the Islands but around individual Islanders whose stories flesh out the way in which the Islands function geographically, socially and politically.  The tentativeness of the trail is exacerbated by the deprecation of the ‘famous’ author designated, commissioned, to write about the various islands which comprise the Dream Archipelago and by the manner in which he uses the voices of character, history, legend and anecdote to reveal the islands.

The central theme of the novel is neutrality which is achieved through the capacity for hostile action and the lack of definition; the latter obsesses its inhabitants but ultimately all endorse it.  This is a quiet, captivating and clever novel; the science fiction elements lie in the way Priest seems to have extrapolated a ‘Switzerland’ perspective, the significance of the deterrents and some weird shenanigans with maps.  His primary concern in the novel is in the effect extended and embedded neutrality has on the psyche.

I have also read Glamour and The Extremes by Christopher Priest both of which were good, in both he creates volatile environments and explores how character is distorted by exposure,  but The Islanders is superb.

 

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

The Quantum Magician has the approval of all the members of my Science Fiction Book Group – a rare occurrence I might add.  The tick list is long and enthusiastic: an assumption of space empires; crunchy, engaging futuristic physics and biology; a spread of interesting and genetically weird characters; but most powerful is the twisting complex plot generated by whiz-person, Belisarius, as he endeavours to enable a ‘lost legion’ to get across hostile space to a position of strength through misdirecting the empires in the way.

 

Of course, like the characters in the novel headed by Belisarius, the maverick Homo quantus whose species huddle on the Garret looking at the cosmos, we are awfully fascinated by The Puppets, controllers of a pinch point between conflicting space empires.  The Puppets are a species who have Uriah Heap traits in spades; they are slaves to a pheromone which makes them aggressively seek and envelope, to the point of digesting, the desired one – they imprison their gods. Their ingratiating and cruel use of pheromone-charged William, whom Bel sends to their planet as part of the distraction, is like a cross between a fan groping a charismatic performer and the inquisition.

Yet the other characters in The Quantum Magician are also fascinating. Bel spends a good third of the book assembling his assistants which is reminiscent of Yul Brynner in the Magnificent Seven. I particularly liked Stills and his relationship with the high octane Marie, which generates some wit and extreme action and saves the novel from being too heavy, though I found Stills’ agreement to long sojourns in the pressurised fish tank unfathomable.  Belisarius achieves more than his employers wanted or anticipated; he gives purpose to his species; he delivers for his partners in deception; and, as an added bonus he has some personal good news.

I will reread The Quantum Magician because, for the sake of getting on with the story, I did not dwell with the author on some of the futuristic inventions, genetic manipulations and mathematics.  Belisarius makes a lot of philosophical and social points for the author and is a bit too clever to be true but then that is how an magician operates!