Saturday 29 May 2021

Another Time, Another Place, by Jodi Taylor


Another Time, Another Place is the twelfth and latest volume of The Chronicles of St Mary's by Jodi Taylor. Those of you who are familiar with Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog will feel right at home, as the basic setting is similar. St Mary's is an offshoot of a British university sometime around the middle of this century, a separate department dealing solely with time travel which takes place by means of disguised transport pods which can be set to travel to a specific time and place. The sub-sub genre which this occupies could be summarised as a time-travelling comedy thriller, with the emphasis very much on the laughs. The story focuses on Max, the (female) Head of History at St Mary’s, who has overall responsibility for ensuring that information, and sometimes artefacts about to be destroyed, can be retrieved from the past without changing history (or more to the point, the future) as a result. Meanwhile, the dead hand of bureaucracy has Max's outfit in its sights, so she has both past and present crises to battle with. 

You might wonder why I started with the latest volume (I am normally a bit retentive about reading a series in the right order); the explanation is simply that I was offered a copy to review. I don't recommend tackling the series in this way, as there are lots of unexplained references to events which were evidently covered in previous volumes. The cast (regular and passing) is quite large so I was pleased to find a list of the characters at the front - and less pleased to find out very quickly that the list is not entirely helpful. The worst case was someone called Leon, who from the start was obviously on very good terms with Max, but surfaces only occasionally and does not appear on the list. It wasn't until half-way through the book that I realised that Leon is actually Max's husband, and he appears in the list only under his surname. This kind of glitch would not of course bother anyone who had got to know the characters by working through the series, but it did mean that my grasp of the finer points of the plot was somewhat shaky.

So, is it worth reading? I wasn't too sure to start with, partly because of the lack of explanations for what was happening and why, and also because the humour is piled on rather heavily whereas I generally prefer a lighter touch (although to be fair, the same applies to the Willis book). However, the story and characters gradually got their hooks into me and by the end I was reluctant to put the book down.  The quality of the descriptive writing about the past cultures that the characters visit is particularly impressive: I obviously don’t know if ancient Babylon was really like that, but the author makes a convincing case, creating images in my mind which will last for a long while. I am happy to recommend this series, but just make sure that you read them in publication order.

I noticed that the first ten volumes in this series are (at the time of writing) available on special offer from amazon for a price of £25. That's a lot of entertainment for the money, so my order for the first eleven volumes has already been fulfilled!

Saturday 8 May 2021

Heavy Weather: Tempestuous Tales of Stranger Climes, edited by Kevan Manwaring


The British Library’s series of classic SF anthologies continues to expand and has spun-off a related series, Tales of the Weird. Heavy Weather is one of these, recently sent to me to review. The editor’s introduction provides a brief history of well-known examples of extreme weather in literature, going back to the various tales of a great flood in the Middle East. In this collection, the editor has focused on stories in which the weather has “an exceptional, supernatural or other-worldly quality” to it. The result is an assortment of tales contrasting greatly in content and style.

History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (extract) by Mary Shelley. The Frankenstein author here describes some extreme weather she encounters on a trip to Switzerland - a story with a basis in fact as the explosion of Mount Tabora in 1815 led to the “year without a summer” in 1816, when Shelley’s journey took place.

The Lightning Rod Man by Herman Melville. A short and rather sardonic fantasy of an encounter between a man who attracts the lightning, and the sceptical narrator.

A Descent into the Maelström by Edgar Allan Poe. The second most memorable story in this collection, this consists of a tale told to a visitor to a dramatic part of the coast of Norway, where the seabed configuration causes the formation of a huge whirlpool at certain points of the tidal flow. Anything which falls into that is lost, but the story-teller claims to have survived.

The Great Snow by Richard Jeffries. A winter of such severity that movement is prevented by massive snow banks, and people begin to starve.

The Horror-Horn by E. F. Benson. A couple of Alpine climbers are trapped in their hotel by extreme weather conditions and pass the time by exchanging stories of their adventures. They are staying close to the “Horror-Horn”, their nickname for a forbidding peak which legend has it is inhabited by primitive humanoids. Which is, of course, nonsense…

May Day Eve by Algernon Blackwood. A fantasy more traditional than most, as a man visiting his friend has some strange encounters with supernatural beings as he crosses the wild countryside.

August Heat by W. F. Harvey. On an intensely hot day, an artist finds himself drawing a compelling figure - a man in a courtroom, a picture of despair. By chance he sees the man later that day, and discovers that he is a stone mason who makes headstones for cemeteries. There is one new headstone which catches the artist’s eye…

A Mild Attack of Locusts by Doris Lessing. A plague of locusts hits an African farm; a different kind of “weather”!

Through the Vortex of a Cyclone by William Hope Hodgson. A sustained passage of dramatic writing describing the battle for survival of the crew of a sailing ship which sails right through a powerful cyclone. Rather exhausting to read…

The Wind-Gnome by Jonas Lie. The story of a man who wins the protection of a wind-gnome who uses her control of the weather to ensure he always succeeds in his endeavours while his rivals founder.

Summer Snow Storm by Adam Chase. A weather man accidentally forecasts snow in the middle of a heat-wave, only to find that his forecast comes true. In fact, it becomes apparent that whatever he forecasts always comes true. The opportunities for financial gain become obvious to his friends.

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes by Margaret St. Clair. Something of a follow-on from the previous story - a young boy makes a couple of predictions a day concerning events within the next 48 hours, and they always come true. But one day, he is strangely reluctant to speak…

Monsoons of Death by Gerald Vance. A one-man scientific research base on Mars has ceased sending vital meteorological data, so an officer is sent to investigate. What he finds is not just extreme weather, but something more.

The Purple Cloud (extract) by M. P. Shiel. This is taken from a 1901 novel about an expedition to reach the North Pole. The narrator is one of the explorers who is determined to be the first to reach the Pole, and is ruthless in ensuring that he is. But it is not just extreme weather he has to deal with; he sees purple clouds in the distance and when he arrives at their locations he finds nothing living.

The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. This is the 1952 story which prompted the famous 1963 Hitchcock movie, although the plot was considerably changed. I hadn’t read it before (or seen the movie), and was impressed; this is the standout story of this collection, the only one to stick firmly in my mind as if superglued. It is a genuine horror story, made even more so by the undramatic matter-of-fact writing style. The focus is on Nat, a Cornish farm labourer, who finds himself fighting for survival when all the birds suddenly start lethally attacking people, hurling themselves en masse at every person or inhabited building. Nat is smart enough to react quickly in protecting his family by securing his isolated home but, within a few hours, the devastating slaughter causes societal collapse. We feel for Nat as he does everything he can to keep his family safe, collecting food and drink from the nearest farm during the occasional “quiet” periods when the birds are inactive. [spoiler warning!] 

Despite these efforts the story is a much darker one than in the movie (judging by the Wiki movie summary).  It is obvious that the attacks are happening everywhere with few if any other survivors and, however hard Nat tries, his limited resources will soon run out with no chance of rescue. 

I will conclude by noting that although the format of these British Library anthologies remains the same, with a general introduction plus editorial notes about the author with each story, there are variations in style and content of these notes. One of the things I like about Mike Ashley’s Classic SF series notes is that he always includes not just the first date of publication of each story but also the dates of the author’s birth and death. I find this very helpful in putting the stories, and the author’s contribution to the field, into context. Other editors please note!