Technological responses to Climate Change (number 352 in a series)

22 01 2017

‘Heatwave-friendly’ Theremin gearstick and steering for cars parked outside.





Review: Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 2016

22 01 2017

I’ve had some recent issues of Asimov’s sitting in my TBR pile for awhile now; the announcement that Hugo nominations have opened has spurred me to make a start on working through them.

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The July issue contains four novelettes and four short stories (as well as poetry and nonfic, which I won’t review here):

In Suzanne Palmer’s novelette ‘Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man’, poet Davin Gordon-Fauci takes a sabbatical as the sole human inhabitant/observer on Ekye, a technology-bereft world home to a rich and mysterious ecosystem. Working with an Underwood manual typewriter and sustained only by occasional drops of supplies from orbit, Davin struggles to find both his muse and an understanding of Ekye’s biota, particularly its ‘mossums’: moss-encrusted rocks that seem, when no-one is watching, to shift position against the landscape. Though some of Davin’s poems seem, to put it mildly, a bit naff, this is a gentle, strong story that moves to a rewarding close.

If the first story has a kind of neo-pastoral tone with a deliberate paucity of technology, the next three are very much focussed on technological invasiveness in imagined near-future societies:

‘Filtered’, by Leah Cypess, concerns the battle of wills between Steve, a columnist for an online news / commentary site, and Margie, his partner / editor, over Steve’s crusade to find a trick to subvert the omnipresent filters that keep people reading only those snippets of text they won’t find confronting. This is a depressingly plausible story, handled well.

In Rich Larson’s ‘Masked’, Bessandra and Aline arrange to catch up with Vera, who for the past month or so has been bereft of her Face, the artfully narcissistic augmented-reality visage which everyone sports as, well, a mask. Larson (whose story ‘Seachange’ I edited for ASIM 61) has an enviable skill for evoking the hyperreal, cluttered vapidity of futuristic youth culture, though this one (perhaps intentionally?) left me a little cold.

I’m not sure why Dominica Phetteplace’s novelette is titled ‘Project Entropy’: if that’s a reference to anything within the story, it quite passed me by. Angelica is a paid servant / companion in a future San Francisco in which everything, including friendship, is up for sale if one has the collateral. This story felt a little more like allegory than a genuine extrapolation of societal trends, but Angelica is a very relatable protagonist with an interesting perspective on life.

‘The Savior Virus’, by Jack Skillingstead, opens in a bar, with bioweapons developer / widower John Crawford promising to his prospective son-in-law Brian that he will develop a biological tool to obviate the instinct for war. There’s a ‘Golden Age’ oldfashionedness to this story, echoing elements of Asimov’s ‘Darwinian Pool Room’ and Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Piece of Wood’, but it didn’t really strike a chord with me.

In ‘Nobody Like Josh’, a novelette by Robert Thurston, a retired school principal reminisces about his former school’s (and town’s) resident ET, who is by all accounts ‘the strong silent type’. This is an engaging enough tale (and again somewhat ‘old school’), if somewhat meandering.

‘Webs’, by Mary Anne Mohanrai, is a short and brutally sharp sketch of xenophobia, difference, and the lengths to which people will go when pushed. This is definitely one of the issue’s highlights.

In the issue’s headline story, Will McIntosh’s novelette, ‘Lost: Mind’, Mimi, the wife of retired colonel Walter, submits to a radical, corporeally terminal, and illegal surgical procedure which sees the components of her mind subdivided into thirty-two pieces. It’s Walter’s job to smuggle these pieces back into the US so Mimi’s mind can be reassembled, but a baggage handling error throws a spanner in the works, leaving Walter with a deadline to find all the pieces of Mimi’s mind. The tension in this one is front-loaded from the start, and the characterisation of Mimi is well-handled and poignant.

SF magazine issues are always a mixed bag, and what works for one reader might totally fail to spark someone else. My overall assessment? The issue’s two strongest stories are the Mohanrai and McIntosh offerings, though the stories by Cypess and Palmer are also impressive.





Book review: The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn

18 01 2017

Agnes Ravatn is a prize-winning Norwegian journalist, columnist, and author. She’s published several non-fiction titles, including three collections of essays, and two novels.

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The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet, 2013, translated by Rosie Hedger) is Ravatn’s second short novel. So far as I can establish, it’s the first of Ravatn’s work to have seen English translation, in which form it has gained an English PEN Award; in its native Norwegian, it has received the NRK P2 Listener’s Novel Prize and the Youth Critic’s Award; it’s also seen adaptation as a stage play and appears to be in film production.

Allis Hagtorn, a woman wracked by self-doubt, has fled her partner and her public career under a substantial cloud. She winds up as housekeeper and gardener for Sigurd Bagge, a taciturn and almost irredemiably difficult man twelve years her senior, who lives alone, awaiting his wife’s return, in an isolated house at the tip of fjord. The interaction between the two starts as something purely hierarchical—he is her employer, almost her owner—but subtly shifts with time as details of the pair’s pasts awkwardly emerge from their shared silence. The book is built on undercurrents, and there’s an ever-present sense of cloaked menace beneath the mostly-unexceptional, closely-observed pattern of their days, with Bagge’s wife Nor a continually present absence in their midst. It’s a deft, remarkably quiet book, and distinctly unsettling.

With such a sparse palette—Allis with her neuroses and her deep-ingrained guilt, Bagge with his fiery, sullen, unexplained rigidity, interacting within the confines of the house, the garden, or down at the jetty—it would be easy for the story to lose its hold on the reader. But Ravatn maintains the tension, all the while describing some minutely distinct seasonal shift, or reporting some on-the-face-of-it bland and unexceptional dialogue. The writing is lyrical, wonderful, precisely chiselled. But it’s what is not said (until the end, so well set up) that underpins this deeply impressive story.





Book review: Strange Bird, by Anna Jansson

15 01 2017

Anna Jansson is a Swedish crime writer (and lung clinic nurse) who has written over twenty novels featuring Detective Inspector Maria Wern. The series—originally set on the Swedish mainland, but subsequently relocated to the island of Gotland (where Jansson was born)—appears to be well-regarded in Sweden, and has seen a spin-off TV series as well as movie adaptations of several of the novels; while several of the books have been translated into German, Polish, Dutch, French, and Italian, only two have yet seen English translation.

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Strange Bird (Främmande fågel, 2006, translated by Paul Norlén) is Jansson’s eighth book in the Maria Wern series, though the first to have been translated into English. It opens on an idyllic summer evening, with pigeon-fancier Ruben Nilsson reminiscing about his distant past while he waits for his pigeons to return to their rooftop cote. They bring a friend: a bird from Belarus (according to its leg-ring) that appears to have been exhausted by its flight. Ruben takes the new bird under his wing (so to speak) until it’s nursed back to health. But the bird deteriorates, and Ruben starts feeling under the weather, to the concern of his busybody neighbour, Berit Hoas, who brings care packages for the ailing Ruben and who agrees also to check on his birds for him.

Readers are advised not to grow too attached to Ruben, nor to Berit, nor, indeed, to the bird from Belarus.

As the Gotland authorities grow aware of the H5N1 bird flu epidemic unfolding in their midst, panic sets in among the island’s inhabitants. Wern is personally involved in the crisis: her 11-year-old son Emil is one of eighty children at a soccer camp, all of whom are quarantined as a precaution when Berit Hoas (who has been assisting with their lunches) falls ill. Maria is caught between concern at her son’s predicament and her police duties, which involve investigating the circumstances of an unregistered migrant’s murder. The investigation takes the back seat to the escalating medical crisis, until questions start to surface regarding how the bird flu outbreak erupted …

The book is carefully plotted, the (substantial) medical detail seems authentic—which is not, I suppose, surprising given Jansson’s considerable nursing experience—as does the pigeon-racing content. The characters, too, are well drawn: Maria is a likeable blend of impulse and duty, other characters cover a reasonable range of traits, although I did have a little difficulty keeping two or three of the ‘persons of interest’ entirely distinct from each other. I also felt, in a couple of passages within the book, as though I was being infodumped on: there are a few conversations where the purpose seems too obviously to convey information for the benefit of the reader. The prose, also, is sometimes lacking in fluidity. But the story is an intriguing one, and clever, and plausible, and disconcerting. (If you believe yourself to have hypochondriac tendencies, you might find the book triggering.) As it was, I often found myself washing my hands after having read a chapter or two: the book’s subject matter can have that sort of effect on one.

The book (and, by extension, Jansson’s entire Maria Wern series) almost inevitably invites comparison with Mari Jungstedt’s ‘Inspector Knutas‘ series that is similarly set on Gotland. I’ll shy such comparison, because I think Jansson and Jungstedt are rather different kinds of authors (and, in any case, Gotland appears comfortably large enough, at a shade over three thousand square kilometres, to sustain the fictional-murder rate required for both series). I think a more natural similarity with Jansson’s style, based on what I’ve read so far, can be found in the work of Helene Tursten, or perhaps Finland’s Leena Lehtolainen.

While it is probably too much to hope that the entire Maria Wern backlist might find its way into English translation in the near future—my spidey-sense tells me that the international market for English-language translation of Scandinavian crime fiction is possibly starting to taper—it would nonetheless be good to see a few more of Jansson’s titles available in English. (Currently the only other one available is Killer’s Island.)





Book review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

14 01 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan saga most often centres on the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan, the onetime spy, spacefleet admiral, hyperactive strategist, trouble magnet, and most recently Count of one of planet Barrayar’s most noteworthy noble families, although the saga is significantly bigger than any of its protagonists. The Vorkosigan books should be required reading for any student of space opera, since they range from epic improvised interplanetary gallantry to closely-observed comedies of manners, with well-nigh every conceivable intervening shade represented somewhere within their pages.

Oh, and they’re great fun.

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Bujold’s umpteenth (and most recent) book in the sequence, does indeed feature the irrepressible Miles, but the principal characters in this one are his recently-widowed mother Cordelia, currently vicereine of the Barrayaran colony planet Sergyar, and Admiral Oliver Jole, Sergyar’s military commander. There’s a long (and mainly previously untold) history between these two: Jole served as both aide-de-camp and love interest for Vicereine Vorkosigan’s late husband Aral. Yet their history is not as rivals for Aral’s affection, but as co-conspirators who were primarily motivated by a desire to moderate Aral’s most risk-attracting excesses.

If your preference among the Vorkosigan books is for the taut-plotted mayhem of the early adventures of Miles’ mercenary fleet, such as The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game, you might find GJ&tRQ a little on the slow side. But there’s a wealth of character-driven observation here, alongside Bujold’s evident affection for the series’ ever-expanding list of participants. One of the highlights of this book is the opportunity to view the series’ lynchpin, Miles through his mother’s eyes, a deft reversal of the saga’s more usual perspective. (Indeed, Miles in this book is treated almost as an adversary, and certainly at least an obstacle to the ambitions of the two main protagonists: this, I would suggest, is the kind of play which just would not work were the series not focussed as much on breadth of character as on depth.) And the scene where Cordelia explains to Miles her relationship with Jole is a classic, a note-perfect exercise in choreographed discomfiture.

Jole, the junior partner in at least three senses, is arguably a less-fully-realised character than Cordelia, but that’s likely because the Vorkosigan matriarch already has several thousand pages of backstory under her belt at the book’s outset, whereas Jole, if he’s mentioned at all in the earlier canon (and I’ve no recollection of it, but it’s a couple of decades since I read some of those books) must pop up only fleetingly, and never has a pivotal role before this one. He’s an intriguing enough character, but it’s arguably the minor characters that add the story’s main zest—Lieutenant Kaya Vorinnis, Admiral Jole’s politically-innocent new aide, and her attempts to combine romance with intelligence-gathering through a dalliance with a junior member of the Cetagandan consular staff; Cordelia’s bodyguard / chauffeur Armsman Rykov, whose powers of discretion get a fairly substantial workout in these pages; Cordelia’s office staff Ivy and Blaise, one an old hand, the other on training wheels—as events play out. It is, as I’ve noted, a little on the uneventful side, uncharacteristically so for something that Miles has even the smallest hand in. But I don’t see that as a negative: Bujold’s narrative, here, requires the space to move freely, so as to give effective play to the characters of Cordelia and Oliver; too much plot would simply get in the way.

And besides, how can I possibly cavil against an author who closes one chapter with the sentence “And then his world turned into a pelting rain of burning snot,” thereby provoking a reaction from the reader, not of the puerile sniggering one might expect, but of genuine, informed concern for an important character?

Bujold can wring pathos from the most unlikely places, and it’s always rewarding to see how she does it.





Book review: The Dinosaur Feather, by Sissel-Jo Gazan

5 01 2017

Sissel-Jo Gazan is a Danish biologist and author, now living in Berlin. Her work has won several awards.

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The Dinosaur Feather (Dinosaurens fjer, 2008, translated by Charlotte Barslund) has been judged ‘Danish Crime Novel of the Decade’. It’s Gazan’s first crime novel and, so far as I know, the first of her books available in English translation, though several earlier works are listed on her (Danish language) Wikipedia page.

Anna Bella Nor has just completed her MSc thesis on the still-contentious issue of the evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs. (Anna Bella’s research supports the majority view that modern birds are the direct descendants of extinct dinosaurs, rather than the still-resilient but struggling hypothesis that birds and dinosaurs instead arose separately from a common archosaur ancestor.) But the thesis is still sitting, unread, on the desk of her supervisor Lars Helland when an agitated fellow research student, Johannes, finds Prof Helland dying at his desk, slouched, bloodstained, and with his severed tongue resting on his chest. Medics are unable to revive the Professor; Anna Bella’s department becomes a crime scene, and the police investigation is headed up by Superintendent Søren Marhauge. It becomes apparent that there are academics who for a long time have vehemently disagreed with Helland’s published research (most notably the renowned Canadian bird-physiology expert Clive Freeman, who is scheduled to visit the University of Copenhagen for a conference in the weeks ahead), but who would stoop to murder over such things?

The Dinosaur Feather is very well-constructed. I suspect its palaeobiological background (which forms an important and fascinating component of the story) is spot-on: Gazan writes with the assurance of one who knows of such matters, and given her background this would seem highly credible. (I did note, just to be persnickerty, that there are a couple of references to ‘Archaeopteryx Lithographica‘ in the opening chapter, where the orthodox nomenclature would feature a lower-case ‘l’ rather than a capital, but I suspect this could be the sort of error that sneaks in during translation; and my recollection is that the subsequent instances of taxonomic nomenclature are not inappropriately capitalised.) The other structural aspects of the book, too, are sound, and the characters are solid, to the point that there ultimately seems to be a skeleton within every closet. Much of this character complexity gets revealed (to the characters themselves, or their close colleagues) within the course of the investigation, sometimes threatening to overload the narrative. If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that it does at times seem verbose: there are some very long monologues within the book’s five-hundred-plus pages, and I did find myself thinking that various important sequences could have been conveyed considerably more succinctly, in language more finely crafted. The prose doesn’t really sing; it’s the story that carries the tune. But it is, nonetheless, a compelling read, and the ending is well accomplished.

I’ll be interested to see how Gazan’s follow-up, The Arc of the Swallow (another ornithologically-informed mystery, again featuring Supt. Marhauge), measures up against her crime debut.





Book review: Sculptor’s Daughter, by Tove Jansson

4 01 2017

Sculptor’s Daughter (Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968, translated by Kingsley Hart) was Tove Jansson’s first post-Moomin book, published two years after Moominpappa at Sea and several years before Moominvalley in November. It’s described as ‘A Childhood Memoir’, which it clearly is; and yet it’s written in a deliberately fictionalised voice, and is set out as stories or episodes rather than attempting to link the whole into a clearly coherent narrative. In this respect it shares common ground with Jansson’s other coldly intimate (yet less self-focussed) family-drawn work, The Summer Book, and indeed with much of the Moomin canon, which taken as a whole all provide a kind of fragmented, kaleidoscopic image of the family life with which Jansson was familiar.

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The original Swedish title Bildhuggarens dotter can indeed be reasonably approximated as Sculptor’s Daughter, since bildhuggeri is indeed one of the Swedish words for ‘sculpture’ (the more obvious term, though, is skulptur), but a more literal translation would be The Picture-Hewer’s Daughter … though that, I suppose, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, even if it does evoke a greater degree of thematic connection between artist and word-painter Tove and her father.

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As detailed in Boel Westin’s compendious Jansson-biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, the roots of Sculptor’s Daughter can be traced back to at least 1959, the year after Jansson’s sculptor-father Viktor’s death, when she wrote some short autobiographical pieces. I’ve no idea whether these vignettes ever saw official publication, or were perhaps only entries in her own diary, but the extract presented in Westin’s biography is fascinating and insightful. A further precursor to the book was the publication, in December 1965, of an autobiographical family-customs story ‘Our Magic Christmas’, in Vi magazine; this, again, is information drawn from Westin’s biography.

I think I still have, somewhere, an illegally-photocopied version of Sculptor’s Daughter, dating back to my first encounter with the book back in 1981, when it was already out of print in English (back then, it didn’t have the staying power of The Summer Book, which stayed in print for many more years). My photocopy was a bootleg of the Christchurch Public Library’s copy of the book; I had to wait over three decades (and more than a decade after Jansson’s death in 2001) until Sculptor’s Daughter was back in print and I was able to buy a legitimate English edition.

On the evidence of Sculptor’s Daughter, Jansson must have been a fearsome small child, not so much precocious as fierce, unyielding, imaginative, and resolutely sure of herself. That imaginativity and self-assuredness come across in the crystal-clear confidence of the language employed here, which conveys the child’s mindset (with all the characteristic limitations and strengths of the young mind) with what feels like complete fidelity. The voice is breathtaking, and the best of the episodes (including ‘Parties’, ‘The Iceberg’, and ‘Jeremiah’) rank with anything Jansson has written; one can feel, here, probably more strongly than anywhere else in her writing, the strands that connect her Moomin fiction to her writing for adults. There are several pieces in Sculptor’s Daughter, indeed, that read almost like impressionless, elusive, moominless studies for the more naturalist world of the Moomin books. The landscape in Sculptor’s Daughter is at least as much (and probably more) a landscape of freewheeling and internally-logical imagination as it is a landscape of geography. This can, in a sense, be frustrating: it’s impossible to know how much of the book’s content is truthful narrative and how much is audacious confection. But perhaps it does not really matter.

It is very probably wrong of me, but on re-reading Sculptor’s Daughter, there is a part of me which wishes that it was a different book, that it took a different, and probably more literal, direction. There’s the sense in which it defines itself not so much by what it is, but by what it is not. Not a Moomin book. Not, in truth, a memoir. Not a novel drawn from close observation of family life (as was The Summer Book). Not a straightforward collection of short stories (as was her second book for grown-ups, The Listener). Not entirely fact; not completely fiction. It sits somewhere in the space between all of those shapes, and thereby defies easy definition. There are sections of the book which are utterly fascinating: Jansson, as one might expect, has her child-self down cold, and the almost confessionally personal vantage we’re offered, into the child’s thoughts, is at times dizzying. But it’s nowhere near as straightforward a book as at first blush it appears, and I’m not sure that it always succeeds: there are episodes within it which feel opaque, misplaced, unfinished. It’s probably not the book with which to start an exploration of her adult fiction: for that I’d recommend The Listener, or The Summer Book, or The True Deceiver, or Art in Nature, or …

Jansson once said—in point of fact, she very probably said it more than once, because it is a saying now deeply entwined with her memory—that there should be, in every story, one thing shown which is never explained further, but is left to the reader’s imagination to puzzle out. The difficulty with Sculptor’s Daughter, I think, is that there are so many such things within its pages. So we never truly know, for example, what is the mysterious silver stone which the young child so laboriously rolls home from the shoreline, and then inadvertently destroys, nor why it is, in ‘Snow’, that mother and young daughter have gone to stay in an empty house some distance from their home. It’s possible that the book’s magic would be diminished were these things, and others, explained, but this lack of contextual detail is what, I think, I find a bit distancing about Sculptor’s Daughter, and why it’s never won me over as wholeheartedly as has, say, The Summer Book.