Reviews of BSFA Nominees

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British SF Association Nominees 2005

NOVEL

  • Century Rain, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz SF)
    After several successive largish volumes of baroque dystopian space opera with a hard astrophysics slant, Reynolds tries something marginally different by combining a similar baroque dystopian background with a 50's noir crime story set in Paris. Floyd is the hard-boiled protagonist detective, hired to investigate the apparently accidental death of a young woman by her landlord, who is the first of many characters with motives which are somewhat hyperbolic in order to keep the plot moving. But while this is all going on, a couple of hundred years in the future Earth is in ruins and the remaining humans have divided themselves into Slashers and Threshers, based on their feelings towards nanotech, which is basically how the Earth got the way it is now. Auger is an archeologist of sorts who gets roped into a dicey project to retrieve the documents left behind by Floyd's investigatee. Because while the two stories are told in parallel they are in fact happening at the same time, Auger's on the real Earth or what's left of it, and Floyd's in a simulation contained within what sounds like a Dyson sphere, where time stood still for a bunch of years until a portal between the worlds was opened, and some genetic mutants known as "war babies" have infiltrated and changed history to keep this contained Earth from developing space travel, so that they have enough time to muster their forces and destroy the entire planet. For some reason.

    Reynolds is full of big ideas and he presents them with such conviction that it really doesn't matter whether they hold up or not, the important thing is that he believes they do, and he's smarter than me, so I'm more than happy to just go along for the ride. If anything this book is a little simpler than his "Revelation Space" type novels, it helps to have much of the story grounded in Earth's alternate past, and while there's still plenty of backstabbing future-politics raging between various factions which drives most of the characters' actions and interactions, it's not nearly as hard to follow as I've seen in his previous books. Once they meet and team up, Auger and Floyd of course have to fall in love, and during the course of the novel Reynolds throws them into one impossible no-win situation after another, such that they collectively use up more lives than a houseful of cats. In some respects it diminishes the excitement, because with only the two of them facing most of the action you know they're going to make it through, Reynolds might have been better served by adding a couple more main characters to the story. Most of the supporting cast are interesting enough, but again their motiviations seem circumspect, and in the case of Floyd's detective partner Custine I still can't figure out why there's a whole sub-plot about him being on the run from the authorities. And for all Floyd's likability, he takes the future shock of exposure to Auger's reality pretty easily, and it seems a little farfetched that he could infer from an intangible flatness to the sound of some jazz records that they contain coded digital messages.

    I don't read much crime fiction so maybe this is a trope, but one could argue that Reynolds is purposefully introducing red herrings and diverging stories that don't go anywhere to keep you guessing as to what's really going to happen, and for that matter to more closely mirror what real life is like. But unlike Dickens at least, he doesn't tie up most of those loose ends, unless there's a sequel still cooking somewhere, which there certainly could be. And unlike Stross, the nano-techno stuff isn't the main focus of the narrative. Reynolds has a great way with metaphors, and his big science ideas are often so big that they've gone past you in favor of the next big idea before you've completely figured out the implications of it all. While he's all about sense of wonder, it's sense of wonder in a hurry, which I suppose is probably how Floyd is experiencing it, too much to take in as it happens, just keep going and file it away for later. The colorful similes and strong, wise-cracking, foul-mouthed female characters are just a couple of the more obvious ways Reynolds moves the plot along, the details of making people's actions seem logical or natural sometimes get short shrift. From most other writers I would find this irritating, but with this one I'll cut him some slack. Reynolds puts together an audacious set of ideas on a huge canvas, and ironically in this book at least he's holding back, focusing his story enough so you can at least have a chance of keeping up. It makes me want to read more of his books, both the ones he's written since and the ones I've already read, so you have to consider it a resounding success on that point alone.

  • Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
    The Harry Potter surrogate entry for the year is actually pretty good, although, like HP, it goes on longer than it really needs to. Clarke's first novel is a meticulous accounting of the eponymous English gentlement and their effort to restore the practice of magic in the early 19th century. Norrell is the scholarly one, the first to make some sense out of the various ancient texts left by his predecessors, where Strange starts out as his apprentice but quickly displays more natural talent that allows him to quickly eclipse his mentor in the scope of the magic he attempts. While Norrell is reasonably content to work for the British government holding back floods and controlling the weather, Strange is sent off to the European front to do the bidding of Lord Wellington in his various campaigns on the continent. Throughout the book, magic is treated as a somewhat obscure but totally ascertainable enterprise for those with the knowledge and the perserverance (Norrell tends to make it harder for other would-be magicians by hording all the old books he can find on the subject). Things start to go awry when Norrell reluctantly brings back a popular society woman from the dead, and starts a chain of events that leads to magic coming back to England to a greater degree than he had bargained for. Clarke deftly handles the gradual loss of control of the protagonists with the things they've set in motion, but I don't think there's much in the way of subtext in there, other than poking fun at the general arrogance of the average English aristocrat. Even the church is swept up by the advent of magic, where you would tend to think they would put up more of a fuss. Perfectly suitable for younger readers, too, it never gets too graphic or too creepy. It basically is one long story, and although it's broken up into three parts, I don't think they would've help up independently. A significant time investment, but in the end a memorable and offbeat story wins you over.
  • Newton's Wake, Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (Simon and Schuster)
  • Stamping Butterflies, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Gollancz SF)
  • SHORT FICTION

    'Delhi' Vandana Singh (in So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Visions of the Future, ed. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan)
    'Mayflower II' Stephen Baxter (PS Publishing)
    'Point of No Return' Jon Courtenay Grimwood (New Scientist, Christmas/New Year)
    'The Faery Handbag' Kelly Link (The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling)
    Reviewed September 2007: There would seem to be no such thing as a bad Kelly Link story, and her usual choice of the fantasy-laced fable isn't something I would normally even want to read, so that's saying a lot. This one mixes the fable and legend of the past with a fantasy story told in the present, about a young girl whose eccentric grandmother, Zofia, tells a lot of outrageous stories surrounding her eponymous handbag, which serves as some sort of portal to another world where time passes at a different rate. Her own husband lives in there and only comes out once every 20 years for a day or so. No one believes a word of any of this, but things do keep disappearing, from library books to people, mostly never to be seen again. Worst of all is when the narrator's sweetheart Jake, an exceptionally bright boy who keeps getting into trouble, disappears into the bag after wresting it away from Zofia. All this is in told in the past, including stories from her grandmother which are from even further in the past, surrounding the possibly made-up country of Baldeziwurlekistan where she was born. Pop culture references intrude a couple of times, there is one 4-letter word that seems to be there only to prevent the story from being construed as just for children. But in the end, Link does a masterful job of mixing the shifts in time, and comes up with simple yet original tall tales to enliven the story, taking what could be a fairly ordinary fantasy and making it something memorable.
    'The Wolf-Man of Alcatraz' Howard Waldrop (Scifiction, 22 September)