Book review: Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

28 01 2017

The series of ten ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals written, in the sixties and seventies, by Swedish duo Sjöwall and (the late) Wahlöö is their most widely-known and influential creation; these works have a reputation as the wellspring from which every subsequent Scandinavian crime novel (and many a non-Scandinavian one also) has either directly or indirectly drawn inspiration. They’ve also given rise to an enviable total of 46 movies, with the role of Beck taken by actors including Derek Jacobi and Walter Matthau.

The books are known for their careful construction, for their deliberate social realism, and for the quantity of preparation with which the series was planned: published one per year from 1965, each novel progresses the circumstances of Beck and those around him by one year, so the series maps out—in background—a decade of social development in Sweden.

Both Sjöwall and Wahlöö also wrote separately (indeed, I think Sjöwall is still active as a writer, as well as a translator), though little of their individual output has seen English translation. There are a few Wahlöö titles in English (I’ve reviewed Murder on the Thirty-First Floor here), but I’m not aware of any of Sjöwall’s work (including Danish Incident, coauthored with Bjarne Nielsen, and The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo, coauthored with Tomas Ross) that has yet appeared in English.

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Roseanna (Roseanna, 1965, translated by Lois Roth) is the first book in the Martin Beck series. It opens with the discovery, during dredging of the Göta Canal at Borenshult in the summer of 1964, of the waterlogged, unclothed body of a young woman, dead some two or three days. The local police in Motala open an investigation into the woman’s death, but after two weeks no headway has been made by Gunnar Ahlberg and his associates, and the assistance of the Stockholm homicide bureau is sought. When Detective Inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues Kollberg and Mellander arrive on the scene, the woman’s identity remains unknown; there are no suspects; there are no clues as to any motive for her death; all that is known, beyond the contents of her last meal and the approximate time of death, is that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. The practical, dyspeptic Beck sets about attempting to elucidate further information about a murder for which, it seems, no clues exist. Very gradually, during the next half year, the crime emerges from a fog of near-total uncertainty.

The pacing of this crime novel is, by more modern standards, somewhat slow, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative: it allows space for the calm, undemonstrative characterisation to take hold as the story unfolds. And though the novel does not conceal the sense of often-directionless ennui that must accompany a six-month-long investigation, it also provides definite flashes of humour and of heightening tension along the way. The prose has the same sense of quietly ironic detachment as is a feature of Wahlöö’s Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, though Roseanna feels richer, busier, more sharply defined by place (because it is, after all, a novel inhabiting a specified and recognisable set of localities within Sweden rather than within an effectively-allegorical futuristic mid-European state). And the pacing and plotting also make plain, by comparison with a society now half a century newer, just how much difference is made by the technological furniture of the time. This is an investigation conducted by typewriter and mail delivery, at a time before the fax machine, a time when telephones were inevitably-deskbound devices for the sole purpose of verbal communication. (The past is a different country, etc.)

This is an effective, ingenious, and detailed novel; it’ll be interesting to see how its nine successors compare with it.





Review: Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, August 2016

25 01 2017

The August issue has three novelettes and four short stories. (Plus, of course, poetry and nonfic, which I’ll exclude from review.)

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Sean Monaghan’s story ‘Wakers’ takes place on a shipful of sleeping colonists on a hundred-and-fifty year voyage to the planet Eden. But a problem damages the ship’s systems, throwing it off course and forcing the ship’s AI to rouse some of the sleepers so as to maintain life support and other essentials: bound for a much more distant star as the resources dwindle, it becomes, in effect, an accidental generation ship. The most recent generation has been the lonely and aging Grayson. When it comes time to waken his replacement, he’s faced with a choice: should he revive someone with the ideal technical skills to handle the situation, or should he waken his beloved Patty, now forty years his junior after that much more coldsleep? I liked the setup in this one, and I’m a fan of Monaghan’s writing—I chose his novelette ‘Double Team’ for ASIM 61—but I wasn’t ultimately convinced by the denouement, for which I felt the case hadn’t properly been made.

‘Toppers’, a novelette by Jason Sanford, plays out in a New York City rendered almost unrecognisable by urban decay and the pall of soul-stealing mist that hugs the ground. Hanger is a scout, willing to brave the mists to journey between the skyscrapers that are now the city’s sole refuges, but wherever she goes she hears the words of her dead mother calling from the mist. This is an imaginative piece, with plausible characterisation, but I just wasn’t able to buy into its underlying pretext.

James Alan Gardner’s ‘The Mutants Men Don’t See’ is a delightful riff on the genesis of superheroes, as concerned mother Ellie Lee tries to save her teenage son Liam from the recklessness he believes will trigger the dormant superpowers that he’s convinced he possesses. This is the second time I’ve encountered Gardner in the pages of an Asimov’s issue; the other occasion, his Feb. 2008 story ‘The Ray-Gun: A Love Story’, was also a highlight of its issue.

‘Kit: Some Assembly Required’, by Kathe Koja and Carter Sholz, is a dense and descriptive story in which Christopher Marlowe—or an AI believing itself to be he—awakens within the confines of a powerful computer. The evocation of the machine intellect is effective, as is the channelling of Marlowe, but it didn’t strike that much of a chord with me.

Matthew Claxton’s novelette ‘Patience Lake’ follows cyborg ex-soldier Casey as he seeks to find a way north through unfriendly countryside to the comparative safety of Saskatoon. He’s helped by widow Sandra, who gives him shelter on her farm for a few days while he repairs himself from injury, but not all of the locals are so accommodating. This is a well-told story of optimism in the most difficult circumstances.

In ‘Kairos’, by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst, the protagonist finds herself caught between history and science, as she strives to reconcile her former husband’s appreciation of Charlemagne’s relics with her present husband’s endeavours to foster indefinite life extension. This is a thoughtful riff on one of SF’s archetropes, all the more impressive since it’s apparently Ernst’s first published story.

Sandra McDonald’s intriguingly-titled novelette, ‘President John F Kennedy, Astronaut’, does what it says on the tin. This alternate future history (or should that be future alternate history?) doesn’t take itself too seriously, but manages at the appropriate times to be busy, and funny, and poignant.

The standout, for me, in this issue is Gardner’s story, though I enjoyed most of the rest as well.





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. (I’ll admit I did find myself thrown by a simple numerical error in the first half, where ‘seven’ is inappropriately equated with ‘eight’, but that’s nitpickery on my part, and shouldn’t really detract from enjoyment of the story.)

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.