Sunday 26 October 2014

The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin

As regular followers of this blog (yes, both of you!) will know, I have a soft spot for books which feature alternative histories and particularly a magical version of London. I can't recall what caused me to buy The Witches of Chiswick, probably I thought this was a member of this sub-sub-genre but, in fact, it is rather different – very different.

The complicated plot starts in the 23rd century, a grossly overcrowded and dystopian London in which the hero, one Will Starling, a young man obsessed with the Victorian age, is at work in a museum cataloguing paintings of that era when he discovers a jarring little detail in a portrait – the subject is wearing a digital watch. The authorities seem very keen to destroy the painting but Will hides it, only to discover that he is being hunted as a result. After a chain of improbable circumstances Will finds himself transported by a time machine back to the Victorian era – but one which is very different from that portrayed in the history books, with a far higher level of technology.

I can't say much more without spoilers, but Will's adventures in this strange version of Victorian London are often hilarious (the author has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and the book is full of jokes), sometimes grim as he eventually comes up against the deadly Witches of Chiswick who are behind all of the changes.

This is a decidedly zany story with a writing style to match (the author sometimes addresses the reader directly via footnotes – including an apology for a really bad joke) and at first I thought I wasn't going to like it, but I found it increasingly difficult to put down. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste but it's worth trying for a decidedly different reading experience.

Sadly, I could not say the same of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, which is Book 1 of the Clockwork Century series of four novels (to date). This "steampunk" alternative history story was highly praised when it emerged in 2009, winning the Locus Award for best SF novel. I've quite enjoyed most steampunk stories I've read so far, usually finding them light and amusing entertainment but, like The Witches of Chiswick, this one was not what I expected. It is set in a rather different late-nineteenth century Seattle which had suffered a disaster some years previously when an automated tunnelling machine had run wild, collapsing the foundations of the central buldings and releasing a deadly gas which was contained only by constructing enormous walls around the centre of the city. The main characters are the widow and teenage son of the inventor of the machine who live grim and unhappy lives, still suffering the consequences of the inventor's act. The son decides to try to clear his father's name so determines to enter the closed city centre, looking for evidence.

That's as far as I got, somewhere past page 70. This is a very well-written book and I can understand the praise it received, but I just found it too slow and depressing. I became more and more reluctant to pick it up and continue reading, so decided to cut my losses and read something else instead.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Film: Noah (2014)

It's rather difficult to know where to begin with this one. Noah is of course a retelling of the Biblical story (which is actually much older, featuring in the myths of earlier civilisations than the Israelites). It is a very long time since I read the Old Testament story so my memory is a little hazy in places, but I must admit I can't recall anything about fallen angels, turned into rock giants for their sins, doing the heavy lifting involved in building the ark and then defending it against all comers. Oh well, accuracy is not a particularly valued commodity in Hollywood – drama wins out every time!

The result seems likely to polarise opinion. If you like this kind of mythological religious epic, then you'll probably enjoy Noah as it's a grand spectacular with lots of CGI. If you don't, then it's more than two hours of grim and rather tedious emoting and declaiming, interspersed with scenes of noisy violence, without a smile to be had. My sympathies lie in the latter camp.

To move on from the film: why was the story of a great flood so common in various civilisations in the Middle East? It seems reasonable to suppose that there was some cataclysmic event that so imprinted itself on the memories of those who experienced it that it became part of the folklore of their tribes, but what could it reasonably be? Some have suggested a major flood involving the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the "cradle of civilisation". But there is another candidate, potentially much more devastating in its effects: the joining of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. It is known that for some time after the end of the last Ice Age (during the period when the first towns and civilisations were becoming established) the two seas were separated by a land bridge connecting Europe and Asia, where Istanbul is now sited. Some researchers argue that the water level in the Black Sea was much lower at that time, and that when the Mediterranean eventually broke through (they estimate about 7,500 years ago), the level of the Black Sea was raised considerably over quite a short period of time – about a year. There is reportedly evidence of settlements at some depth in the Black Sea, where the old coastline might have been.

It is easy to see how such an event could account for the Noah myth. The relentless rise in sea level would have flooded coastal settlements, forcing a mass migration. Some parts of the coast would initially have been cut off by the rising water level, becoming temporary islands, some of which might have been settled. As these islands steadily shrank, so the people on them would have faced the need to get to the mainland. It is easy to imagine makeshift rafts being made on which all of the people's possessions, including domesticated animals, were piled. The tendency in oral traditions for stories to grow in the telling would have accounted for the rest of the myth. However, this theory has been challenged by other scientists, so perhaps some other natural catastrophe was the origin of the story.

Saturday 11 October 2014

Witch World by Andre Norton

I was aware of Andre Norton when devouring SFF at a high rate in the 1960s and 1970s, but for
some reason read hardly any of her work except for the two Janus stories.  In particular, I was
familiar with the Witch World title so when this 1963 novel was suggested as one of the
monthly reads of the Classic SF discussion forum I decided it was time to catch up.

Simon Tregarth, an ex-soldier living on the fringes of the underworld and with a price on his
head, is offered a chance to escape through a gate connecting this world with another better
suited to him – which turns out to be the Witch World. This world has a fundamentally medieval
society (what is it about medieval societies which makes them so common on other worlds?)
with a few additions of strangely advanced technology. There is also socery, wielded by women
in just one place, the land of Estcarp. Tregarth finds himself involved with Estcarp – and one of
the witches in particular – in their struggle for survival against an inhuman enemy.

There is of course a long tradition of "lone man from the present day finds himself magically
transported to a strange world" stories in fantasy. Burroughs' Barsoom series is an early example
and there are countless others (probably dozens on my bookshelves alone). One of the best-
known of recent decades is Zelazny's Amber series (with the added twist that the hero wasn't
really a stranger, he had just forgotten that he was a prince in that realm – as one does), another
classic favourite being the comic take on this sub-genre in L Sprague de Camp's Enchanter
series. Why is this theme so popular? Possibly because it is ideally suited to escapist wish-fulfilment fantasies; how many people would not gladly leave behind their present lives to start
afresh in a new world, one in which they have some unique talents or high status?

So how does Witch World compare with the rest of the sub-genre? Rather well, actually,
especially since it was a relatively early example. I read the 220-page book in three sessions on
consecutive evenings, and after the first I found myself really looking forward to picking up the
book again to continue the story – a feeling I rarely get these days. Tregarth is an admirable
character despite his dark history, and I liked the fact that he isn't the usual skilled fighter in such
stories; while an excellent shot, he is hopeless with a sword – which is what you would expect
from someone who's never used one before.

I definitely want to read more of these stories and will be hunting down the next few novels in
the series. I was however somewhat daunted to discover that the itch orld series is huge, with
novels published over four decades (some of the later ones with other writers involved). I think
I'll just stick to the ones with the original characters to start with!

Saturday 4 October 2014

Interzone 254

No fewer than sixteen books reviewed this time, including collections and some non-fiction works about the genre. None jumped out at me as must-reads, although The Race by Nina Allan (who also contributes a column and a short story to this issue) sounds very intriguing. Not a lot for me in the film reviews either, although Guardians of the Galaxy at least sounds amusing and entertaining. On to the short stories.

Marielena by Nina Allan, illustrated by Tara Bush. A refugee from political persecution in a hostile world (which we gradually learn is present-day England), mourning for the woman he left behind. But was she real, or some sort of demon? And the bag lady he meets with items from the future – what does her cryptic warning mean? Intriguing ideas, but frustratingly undeveloped.

A Minute and a Half by Jay O'Connell, illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey. A man goes on the run with a former girlfriend, but taking a pill changes him radically. Again, the concept of metaprogramming pills to provide cognitive enhancement is interesting but the possibilities are left unexplored in favour of the human drama.

Bone Deep by S.L. Nickerson. A woman funds her medical needs by selling space on her body for commercial tattoos, but there is a catch.

Dark on a Darkling Earth a novellette by T.R. Napper, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A future China, in a world in which people have gradually lost their memories; except for the Omissioners, one of whom is trying to make his way home across a lawless landscape.

The Faces Between Us by Julie C. Day, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A young couple constantly hunting for new recreational drugs discover the ultimate hit.

Songs Like Freight Trains by Sam J Miller, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Particular songs may spark memories of the time when they were first heard; what if this could be reinforced so strongly that hearing them took you mentally back in time? The consequences of this are revealed in the relationship between a couple.

Nina Allan's story is the most memorable simply because she is a superb writer, but it is too downbeat to be enjoyable. In fact, there is a distinct lack of optimism or humour in these stories. Does modern SFF have to be so relentlessly dark and depressing? Why should it be so?